The Stories We Tell Ourselves

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on September 1]

What if you could stand outside your life and look at it from a distance? That’s the premise of Wakefield, the recently released film starring Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner. A power outage and a raccoon bring Harold (Cranston) to the space above his garage, from where he can see his wife and two daughters preparing supper.

Of course, he’s not really looking at his life, but at the part of it that goes on without him. And from that point of observation, he sees things he couldn’t see while he was actually living in the middle of it. He sees his twin, teenage daughters, who suddenly (to him, at least) have become distant and treat him like an obstacle to be avoided. From the attic over the garage, he believes he can see them more truly as they are.

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Modern Prodigals

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on August 25]

This contains spoilers (of a 2005 film) so you may want to watch first and read after.

I had to wait until the end to see if it was worth it, but the answer is an unequivocal yes to L’Enfant (The Child).

I found it on Image Journal‘s “The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films,” which also brought to my attention Ordet. This is the first film by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne I’ve watched, but the others are now on my list.

It’s one of those films where you simply don’t know if it’s going to pay off, but because it only runs 90 minutes, you’re willing to take the risk (or, at least, I was). You know things are not going to go well when the first scene shows a teenage mother, just released from the maternity ward, searching for the father of her child. She finds him involved in some sort of scheme, far more interested in a man coming out of a pub than in his newborn son.

Sonia (Déborah François) naively assumes that Bruno (Jérémie Renier—who, I assume, is the French counterpart to Jeremy Renner) will demonstrate some kind of paternal concern, but the viewer can see more clearly that he is only interested in using anything and anyone to make a little cash. You know from the synopsis and from the foreshadowing comments of his buyer that he’s going to try to sell the child, but his apparently total lack of care for the child is shocking, even in our anti-child culture. Regret comes only when he’s surprised(!) that Sonia isn’t happy at how much money he’s made from having the child “adopted.” And then Bruno assumes that when he gets the child back, Sonia will be pleased and automatically forgiving.

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The Apostle E.F. and God in Spite of Us

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on August 18]

If The Godfather did not exist, my list of favorite movies would probably begin with The Apostle. It’s certainly the movie I have watched most. Robert Duvall is brilliant and complicated. For a long time after, I couldn’t watch him in any other role without thinking of the Apostle E.F., because he embodies the character so fully. Farrah Fawcett as Jessie and June Carter Cash as Mrs. Dewey are perfect as Sonny’s estranged wife and mother, respectively. Even minor roles are nicely cast, with Billy Bob Thornton and Walton Goggins, as well as John Beasley (who happens to be a Lutheran).

Perhaps one of the things that appeals to me most about the film (besides the religious aspects) is that there is nothing flat about Duvall’s writing, directing, or acting. As I said, he becomes Sonny so completely that, other than Tom Hagen in The Godfather, this is the role that, for me, bleeds into every other film I’ve seen of his.

Incidentally, this is a film about celebrity pastors who build empires to their own names. Sonny finds himself suddenly expelled not only from his church but from his marriage. This leads to one of my favorite scenes, where Sonny is praying loudly enough for the neighbors to hear. His mother gets a phone call asking her to tell him to be quiet, but she says, “Sometimes he talks to the Lord and sometimes he yells at the Lord. Tonight, he’s yelling at Him.”

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The Cost of Changing a Mind

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on August 11]

How do minds change? We tend to assume that if only we can present our opinions in the right way, and if the other person would simply be reasonable, then our rational opinions would surely change their rational minds. Those assumptions lead us to the conclusion that if I present my opinion and the other person doesn’t change his or her mind, then that person must be unreasonable or something worse. Who wouldn’t be willing to change his or her mind when confronted with the excellent and reasonable arguments I present, about which I am already convinced? So disagreement has become not a sign of a rational, contingent opinion held in good faith, but a sign of a disease or poison that must be eradicated in order for reason and justice to prevail. That’s not a good recipe for civil discussion.

On the other hand, maybe changing one’s mind—about anything—is more of a miracle than we usually take it to be. Think about it: you see some particular issue one way. The way you see that issue, with your assumptions and conclusions, determines not only how you see but what you see. What do you count as evidence for your way of thinking? You count certain things as evidence because of the way you see while, at the same time, you see things in that way because of what you consider evidence for your point of view. In a place and time where very little is shared in the way of bedrock assumptions, we should be clear just how little is simply “there” for “rational people” to see and understand.

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Magnolia’s Existential Coincidences

[This first appeared on The Jagged Word on July 28]

Magnolia was the first movie I watched that opened up for me how films could tell stories of sin and redemption without explicitly proceeding from a Christian worldview. Admittedly, Magnolia is more on the sin than the redemption side. And yet, the raw emotion on display is what makes each character so compelling.

The opening collage of coincidences too striking to be coincidences informs the interwoven stories of the characters in the film. How much coincidence is enough to push someone over the edge into believing that something greater is at work? Is it fate or something stranger?

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In Praise of Escapism

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 14.]

It is endlessly tiresome to consider all the Christian think-pieces that come out after any significant secular film, trying to find a metaphor or an allegory under every narrative. There are certainly films outside of “Christian movies” that contain Christian themes and tell stories that intersect or are parallel to the Story. But we can try too hard. Consider all the nonsense straining to connect the Force to a possible conception of the Christian God. Or as The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions proved, whatever intimations of Christianity the first film might have had, it was really just a gumbo of spiritual eclecticism. Sometimes a film is just a film.

And I think that might be okay. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with entertainment for entertainment’s sake. The problem comes not when entertainment is not taken seriously enough but when it’s taken too seriously. In our culture, entertainment, politics, sports (and everything else) are elevated to pedestals far too high for them to remain without tottering and falling. They are our cultural idols which have their own temples, rituals, iconography, and gnostic lingo. People who do not worship God in Christ do not worship nothing. Rather, since creatures must worship, they will worship anything and everything. And personal gods are always jealous gods, before whom their adherents will force everything else to bow—like a college student taking a single class in cultural criticism and being unable to think in any other terms. To someone whose only tool is a hammer, everything is a nail.

To 21st century North Americans, with our particular modern hammers, everything is Political. Everything is a Game. Everything is (or must be translated into) Entertainment (cf. Neil Postman). That’s too much weight for any of those things to bear. We must not take them so seriously. When it happens in cinema, every film, actor, and director has to “make a statement.” But in my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, it’s when a film tries to “say something” that it fails, both commercially and as good film. People know when they’re being propagandized, and unless they’re totally on board already, they don’t like it—not to mention that it usually creates bad art.

So, instead of being “meaningful” and “profound,” just give me a good story. Interestingly, good stories are usually meaningful, even profound. But even if they’re not—even if they’re just fun—that’s good enough. For example, Baby Driver is a fun little flick that flirts with delving into deep, childhood grief. It’s a romance and a comedy and an action movie. But it doesn’t try to be too much, and I’m okay with that. It shifts effortlessly (pun semi-intended) between serious crime-and-car-chase and witty dialogue and humor (“he puts the Asian in home invasion” or Mike Myers/Austin Powers Halloween masks instead of Michael Myers Halloween masks). There are a lot of heist movie character clichés, but Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey, and Jamie Foxx are good enough actors to play those clichés as they should be played: all the way to 11.

I’ve also been enjoying the Department Q films on Netflix. Based on books by Jussi Adler-Olsen, these Danish films are excellent detective/crime movies. They are, like Bosch and True Detective (Season One, at least; I didn’t hear good words about Season Two), more character studies of the detectives than they are narrative-focused (although the stories keep moving).

The most recent one, Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith, does have an underlying discussion about what any kind of religious faith is for, since one of the detectives, Assad, is a Muslim, and they are investigating a small religious cult’s connections to the abductions and murders of children. The final scene in particular surprised me as I was moved emotionally more than I expected to be.

But finally, they’re simply good stories. And a little entertainment and distraction and escapism is all the more needed when everything is being co-opted politically and culturally. If it’s good, it’s good, even if it doesn’t check all the right political and social boxes. Yes, a fictional world that is constructed to tell a good story can turn our eyes more critically back on the real world. Yes, films and other entertainment can help us see things more clearly. But that’s not their primary purpose (or it shouldn’t be).

For example, Get Out is a pretty good picture of a horrifying alternate reality. But people want it to say too much. And I suspect it’s a much better description of the sorts of people who take every opportunity to prove they’re “woke” than of the veiled racism that may or may not exist in every social interaction. I think both the people who see it, on the one hand. as a necessary and fundamentally important exploration of racist social structures or, on the other hand, as a shallow, typical, and unreal progressive social statement are missing the point that it’s a tense and fun ride while it lasts.

Simply stated, let me have my escapism. When politics is taken too seriously, the president is either destroying everything or saving everything, and this is the Most Important Election in our lifetime. When sports are taken too seriously, people get far too angry and bitter about wins and losses and teams and rivals. When films are taken too seriously, we have to find profundity in everything, even if it’s not there. Not everything affects everyone. Not everything is political. Not everything is a game. Not everything is entertainment.

But such things can be ordered correctly only if one has the true God. Idolatry inverts the right order of everything. Only when the crucified and resurrected Jesus has made His Father our true God again by faith is everything put back into its proper place. The true God, the Creator, subverts all our attempts to make created things bear too much weight. The true God subordinates truly subordinate things. Then we can actually worship the only One who should be worshiped, while the penultimate things remain penultimate; politics becomes a way of ordering our civil life together in this creation, sport remains play, and entertainment remains escapism that is freed to hint at the true Story of things by its narrower sub-reality. And that is as it should be.

In the new creation, there will be no politics (as we commonly understand it) because its full and only polis will be the eternal, visible reign of God. There will be then no entertainment that subverts the good, true, and beautiful, nor will there be entertainment that points us beyond that eternal moment. And while there may be play in its truest sense, it will never be subjected to our corrupted hero-worship and tendency to make created things the measure of reality. So, for now, while we wait in this distorted and corrupted creation for that new and restored creation, a place for everything, and everything in its place—even movies.

Longing for Happiness

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 7.]

Sometimes you watch a bunch of movies in a row and the same actor appears in all of them (like that time I watched probably five movies in a row with Benicio del Toro (or the Puerto Rican Brad Pitt, as I like to think of him—or maybe Brad Pitt is the North American Benicio del Toro. Anyway.)

Other times, it’s not actors but themes that start to appear and coalesce from more than one movie. So I watched two movies in consecutive nights that deal with the relationships between parents and children. The first, with a father and a daughter, was Toni Erdmann, a nearly three-hour German comedy (yes, really, a funny German film). The second, with a mother and son, was 20th Century Women, a sort of inverted coming-of-age film that takes place in Southern California in 1979 (based semi-autobiographically on writer/director Mike Mills’ own childhood). If I were going to pick a favorite, it would be 20th Century Women, simply for the brilliance of Annette Bening—maybe just for the brilliance of her facial expression throughout the film.

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Longing for Life

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 30.]

Here’s one for a long and ongoing conversation. Ordet is a 1955 Danish film (and 1956 Golden Globe award winner for Best Foreign Language Film) about a family living in a small town in Jutland, where the division between the organized state church and a conversionist sect becomes the catalyst for everyone’s crisis of faith. This is a hard film to watch for people (like me) who have been inoculated to older (purer?) cinema by technological advances, high production values, fast pacing, and color.

Even so, it is clear that there is nothing unnecessary in this film. Every piece of the set was specifically put in place by director Carl Theodor Dreyer (even to the point of Dreyer going shopping for wardrobe pieces with his actors and actresses), and every shot is exactly the minimum. Many of the scenes are, in fact, a single shot, which sets it apart even further from modern, continuously changing scenes. Dreyer has minutes, not seconds, per shot. In the end, the set is so sparsely decorated that the viewer’s focus is forced toward what Dreyer views as essential.

Adding to the force of the film (at least for a Lutheran pastor) is that the writer of the play on which the film is based, Kaj Munk, was a Danish Lutheran pastor who preached against the Nazi occupation of Denmark and was murdered by the Gestapo in 1944 for his opposition. The stone cross erected where Munk’s body was found appears twice in the film.

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Indie Cliches

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on June 23.]

On my last post, John Joseph Flanagan (who must have been a 19th century Irish priest in a former life—no, I do not really believe in reincarnation) commented,

I think you should consider filling your mind and exposing your eyes to more uplifting entertainment than horror movies and stories about zombies. After awhile in the cesspool of life, one can become really quite soiled you know. And if you just happen to be a Christian or at least profess to follow Jesus, you might consider the choices you make as indicative of your character and the virtues you embrace. “Guard your heart, ” the Bible tells us. Even Christian liberty can be abused, and to open yourself to the garbage you write about will surely lead to a dark path indeed, and away from the faith and far away from your Lord.

The fact is, he’s right, for the most part (despite the high school condescension). Which is what I tried to say about mere slasher films. The point is not that horror is, in general, a particularly great film genre. The point is that some horror films contain themes that a more straightforward narrative genre may not be able to approach. And, of course, this is true of any genre. Comedy? It’s incredibly difficult to find a comedy that’s actually funny, let alone one that says something good or true. Most of it consists of vulgarities and sexually explicit “jokes.” And it’s not only that such things are usually unfunny; they’re simply tiresome. It’s rare to find a film that approaches things from a unique perspective—which, considering the fact that nearly everything’s been done before, would have to be the goal. What is new is generally not new; it’s simply looking at old things from a different angle.

That said, what could be more “uplifting” and “indicative of [my] character and the virtues [I hope to] embrace” than a father who exhibits a pretty darn good likeness of repentance and self-giving sacrifice? Besides that, if you want something really edifying and uplifting, I’d suggest Genesis 9; Genesis 29-30; Ezekiel 23; and the Book of Judges.

On with the trivialities.

Indie films of which I’ve never heard are, by definition, a mixed bag. Who knows whether something’s going to be good or not—although I am usually hesitant to watch something that no one has ever recommended to me. So it was with trepidation that I pressed play on Little Sister. What to expect of a movie whose cover has a cartoon version of a pink-haired girl praying and a gothic-lettered title? What to make of a film that begins with a Marilyn Manson quote and then a pot-smoking Ally Sheedy? Whatever else it is, it’s not a purely conventional movie.

And because it’s not conventional, it is exceedingly human. These aren’t stock characters and their responses are unexpected because of it. Colleen, played by relative unknown (at least to me) Addison Timlin, is in the novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy in Brooklyn (which convent, incidentally, was closed in 2008, and which is also the name of a UK goth-rock band). At a ridiculous performance “art” representation of the 9-11 attacks (including, naturally, the over-serious Brooklynite hipsters and two women with planes on their heads dancing around a building that becomes a third, burqa-covered dancer), she is mockingly asked whether she’s really a nun. Only moderately uncomfortable, she says yes.

This is the first indication that she is not, predictably, suffering anything like a crisis in her decision to become a nun. No wonder it’s an indie! This is not to say she doesn’t feel the friction between her old life of black clothing, goth makeup, and punk and shock-rock and her new life of prayer and service. In her old room, painted black, she turns right-side up her white crucifix. And her nunnish cardigans don’t quite work with her Misfits t-shirts. And yet, there’s continuity: when asked if her not drinking is a “nun thing,” she says, “No, it’s a Colleen thing.”

She decides to return home when she hears that her brother, a Marine, has come back, scarred literally and figuratively from war. He hides out in a dark little house on her parents’ property, behind hooded sweatshirts and black sunglasses, playing his drum set. The narrative turns on her relationship with her brother, so close when they were young, but now strained by time and experience; her relationship with her mother, who at some point tried to commit suicide (and is now self-medicating on top of her prescriptions); and her relationships with her brother’s fiancee and her best friend from high school. All of these relationships are far more complicated than in most indie comedies, and that is what makes it appealing. None of the characters does precisely what you expect them to do at the times when you expect them to do it—a credit to the writer/director, Zach Clark (whose work is, again, unknown to me).

Finally, this is a film that should be much more widely known, if for nothing else than its ability to walk right up to clichés before inverting them into something recognizable as simple human complexity (with oxymoron intact). The clichés that minor characters utter are viewed with disdain by both Colleen and her brother, Jacob. This is as it should be in life generally—perhaps especially when it comes to Christianity. Clichés kill what is good or true by repetition into oblivion. War, religion, depression, tragedy, politics; Little Sister shows that all of them are minimized, even neutralized, when they become clichés. Once in a while, an unknown indie comedy pays off.

Fatherhood on the Train to Busan

[This first appeared on The Jagged Word on June 16.]

I search out movies the way I search out music: not according to genre, but according to what strikes a human chord. I like music that says something, not music that fits a commercial niche. I don’t want to be sold something; I want to be told something.

So when it comes to horror movies (in which there are, of course, many sub-genres), I need something beyond making me jump. That can be fun for a little while, because the scare is not real. Perhaps we like those films because it’s a way for us to release the stress of real-life fears and we can still turn off the tv at the end. I recently saw Lake Bodom, a Finnish-Estonian horror based around an unsolved murder of four teenagers in 1960. It’s well done and the tension is stretched taught. But, in the end, it’s not much more than a Scandinavian slasher film. If that’s your thing, I’d recommend it. But I can do without the mere spreading of blood and gore across a forest.

On the other hand, there are horrors that touch something far deeper than our fright reflex. Recently, I’ve been impressed by It Follows, The Babadook, and The Taking of Deborah Logan, films that deal with STDs, the death of a father and husband, and dementia, respectively.

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