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.

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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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