Home > Film, Movie Project, Movie Reviews > How Paul Simon Changes Lives On An Organ

How Paul Simon Changes Lives On An Organ

There are several accepted facts in my family.  Things that we all know, unquestionably, and are weaved into the family fabric.  A lot of these have to do with Star Trek, the unspoken show rankings, and that any TV show viewing can be pre-empted by a Star Trek episode of any series at any time (minus pre-beard Riker).  Two of these are less well known, but equally important in the collective consciousness: (1) Simon and Garfunkel is beloved by all and acceptable at any family function; (2) We know good organ music.  (2) is slightly tricky, none of us really know how to play the organ, or the mechanics of what makes a good organ player.  Intern/Music major Jordan has a better knowledge than most of us, but his specialty is the cello and properly bowing to an audience (see his twitter feed for critiques on the musicians bows at Traverse City Film Festival).  Nevertheless, we were exposed to good organ music early, the organist at our church played phenomenally as did the Musical Director.  After that, we instinctively knew what good organ playing should sound like, and that most churches don’t have it.  It’s an odd sixth sense, but once you know good organ music, you don’t settle for less.

Troubled Water combines the two accepted facts into one: an organ version of Bridge Over Troubled Waters.  And not a haphazardly arranged, slapped together version, but one perfectly designed for the strengths of the organ.  When Jan Thomas, the organist, plays Bridge for a group of touring school children in the church, the dynamics of the arrangements stunned me – I didn’t even know the organ could sound like that, and my unspoken rules knows what the organ should sound like.  The outstanding organ music didn’t stop (or even start) there, and neither did the stunned feeling.

When dealing with a foreign film, in a language you’ve only heard in Bond films or Winter Olympics coverage, the usually for granted elements of film come into play: the editing, the nonverbal cues from the actors, the cinematography, the soundtrack, and all the awards you usually skip at the Oscars are heightened.  It’s how you can tell a good film from a great film, and my other unspoken rule applies: when a subtitled film has you on the edge of your seat, trembling in fear, or near tears it’s a great film.  Erik Poppe used every element in the filmmaking toolbox to draw us in.  From the way the shots are framed, to the match-cuts drawing parallels to past events, and the narrative structure.  Everything works to draw you into the story and you forget you’re reading subtitle.  At times you don’t need to read them – the visuals and acting keep fully informed on the necessary story information to stay enthralled.

The basic story of the film centers on recently released ex-con Jan Thomas, who was convicted of murdering a young child.  Thomas (going by his middle name so no one will recognize him) still holds that the death was a horrible accident in a robbery gone wrong.  Thomas honed his skills as an organist at the prison church services, and upon his release finds a job as an organist at a church.  He befriends a female priest and her son, first keep his distance from the child, but later begins to befriend the child.  The mother of the murdered child discovers Thomas’s new job and goes on a one women crusade to inform everyone of his past.  Poppe keeps the film away from horribly contrived territory by focusing on the two characters and their struggles through the post-release stress.  The first half of the film follows Thomas and his adjustments to living his new life, and at the climatic moment of the film Poppe takes a step back and shows the whole story from the mother’s point-of-view.  The film works its way back to the climatic moment – functionally serving as the plot point into the third act for both stories – and the timelines merge and the story continues, perfectly answering all the questions that have been raised.  The structure doesn’t detract from the viewing experience but heightens the last act.  You see, uninterrupted, the thought process and perspective of each character. How the events have shaped them and brought them to this point.  You empathize with both becoming pissed at the mom for ruining Thomas’s new found life, and at Thomas for making these foolish decisions and not coming to terms with them.

The film deals with heady emotional territory, forgiveness and atonement.  Most films of this nature focus on the need to forgive people to help the grieving process and to move on. Troubled Waters examines the other side, having to accept the forgiveness and the opportunity to have a second chance to move on.  Nothing comes easy in this film, nobody wants to forgive or accept responsibility.  Thomas vehemently denies he murdered the child, and still claims it was a tragic accident.  The mother refuses to forgive until she knows why the child was murdered.  Both characters deny each other a chance to move on, or the second chance they both need.  The parish priest responds to the mother’s question on why Thomas has a job at a church: “If he can’t get a second chance here, then where can go?”  But he also reminds Thomas that he needs to atone for his sins to fully move on.

Poppe balances everything needed for a great film in Troubled Waters.  From outstanding visuals and editing – the match cuts from Thomas being submerged underwater to the drowning of the child flow seamlessly and play with your psyche more than any direct flashback ever could.  To the production design and musical score.  At the end, you don’t need the dialogue (as smartly written as it is) because what is on the screen tells the story just as well – if not better – than the dialogue.  Troubled Waters gets you on the edge of your seat, gasping for breath, and eyes tearing up before you look at the subtitles.  Not many English-speaking films can do that, let alone foreign language films, but when the right elements are hit it’s hard not to be impressed by the craft and the art of filmmaking.

  1. Stacy
    August 4, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    I think I have an ‘unspoken rule’–to go see movies when a reviewer I trust convinces me of its worth. Beautifully written review! Where can I go see it?

  2. August 4, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    I don’t think it has found an US distribution deal yet. Hence the festival circuit, but I’ll keep an eye out to see if any of that changes (or it comes to a nearby festival). Hopefully, at the worst, around Oscar time this will garner a nomination and we’ll see a DVD release. However, here is the official English language page by the Norwegian Film Institute including a trailer.


  3. August 5, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    “Most films of this nature focus on the need to forgive people to help the grieving process and to move on. Troubled Waters examines the other side, having to accept the forgiveness and the opportunity to have a second chance to move on.”

    That’s what I really like in films; those few movies that take the opportunity to show you a perspective from someone on the other side that you may not think you would ever understand.

    That is a huge part of why I love Rachel Getting Married. (As we talked about the other night…) One of the crucial messages is that situations are never flat or one-sided. There is always another way to see it.

    Let me know if there’s another chance to see it.

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