Mad Hot Ballroom, rated PG for thematic elements. 105 minutes
War of the Worlds, rated PG-13 for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images. 116 minutes
From the heights to the depths in Summer 2005.
Twas the best of times: When I talk about the defining characteristics of Spiritual Cinema, the keystone is always the quality of helping us feel better about being human. It’s such a simple concept, isn’t it? Unfortunately, so few films coming out of Hollywood today actually meet that standard. Have you seen ANY studio films this summer that fit that bill? I haven’t. However, there is at least one reason to stand up and cheer: a small, independent film called Mad Hot Ballroom.
Ballroom is the most recent example of the evolution of the entertainment potential of documentaries. Filmmakers who before might have focused their prodigious storytelling talents on feature films are now telling compelling and inspiring stories in documentary form – and we, the audience, are being treated to some new and wonderful visions of who we can be as a humanity when we operate at our very best.
The story of Ballroom centers on a program for fifth graders in New York schools that requires the kids to participate in a ballroom dancing program. Those who excel become part of the school team that competes in an area-wide competition, leading to the ultimate crowning of a championship team. The film follows several teams of 10 year olds as they begin their tentative "steps" in dances, such as the swing and the rumba. More importantly, it illustrates how the program itself elevates the awareness of the young people to teamwork, etiquette, peer respect and discipline.
The film is also a beautiful and inspiring portrait of the unsung, underpaid and under-appreciated teachers who every day lead our children into their futures. The teachers in Mad Hot Ballroom seem acutely aware of the positive potential of their young students, and every frame of the film is a fitting tribute to those teachers who care so deeply for and believe so completely in the young people whose lives they help mold every day.
I smiled and cried and laughed all the way through Mad Hot Ballroom and, as far as I am concerned, it is THE film of the summer that no one should miss.
On the other hand, twas also the worst of times.
Hollywood is in the midst of the worst box office nosedive in its history. If things don’t dramatically improve (and there is nothing on the horizon to make us believe that they will), Hollywood may sell 200 million less tickets in 2005 than it did in 2004, when it sold 100 million less tickets than it did in 2003, when it sold 100 million less tickets than it did in 2002! Audiences seem finally to have discovered that the emperor simply does have no clothes and nowhere is that metaphor more appropriate than as it relates to Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, the supposed centerpiece of Hollywood’s "blockbuster summer."
Mr. Spielberg is the most powerful and commercially successful filmmaker in the history of Hollywood. He can make and finance (through his own studio) any film he chooses to do. Why then he would choose to spend $150 million on a vile, violent, depressing and nihilistic movie is truly beyond my comprehension. Even more troubling is the realization that the man who thrilled us with E.T. and Close Encounters has become so detached from his audience that he has chosen in recent years to make two human "snuff" films about our annihilation as a species: first, the ill-conceived A.I. a few years ago and, now, a particularly ugly remake (we SURE needed another one of THOSE, didn’t we?) of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. That somehow the film also emerged with a PG-13 rating is a testament both to Mr. Spielberg’s callous disregard for the well-being of children in the audience and also his ability to intimidate the pathetically weak Ratings Board of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Mr. Spielberg indeed has become so cynical that he has actually exploited the popularity of two wonderful child actors (Haley Joel Osment in A.I. and now the delightful Dakota Channing in War of the Worlds) by putting them in dark, depressing visions of our future and promoting the films as family entertainment. The mere fact that Mr. Spielberg’s own studio released this film as PG-13 is another perfect illustration of the incredible callousness that Hollywood has developed around the issue of violence. When the film comes out on video, please use extreme caution in being fooled into renting it for your kids. Near the end of the film, Ms. Channing’s exposure to the vile cruelty around her causes her to slip into a near-catatonic state and your own children could have nightmares for months.
So, in these two films, we find a fascinating dichotomy between a young filmmaker who has made a film from the depth of her heart and an older filmmaker who seems to have lost touch with his. Most importantly, we have the real children of our beautiful world, and their dedicated and inspiring teachers, as depicted in Mad Hot Ballroom, to inspire us to see the beauty and potential of our humanity. As long as there are people such as these who devote their lives to teaching and leading our children – and as long as there are young people who strive to be the best that they can be – we will continue to evolve into the exalted state of our humanity of which we have always dreamed.