Inventing New Gods and Old

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on September 22]

It will always be my favorite example of Hollywood missing the point entirely: the 1999 remake/reimagining of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair. The End of the Affair was one of my favorite novels that I read while I was in college. So when I first heard that the movie had come out with Julianne Moore, Ralph Fiennes, and Stephen Rea, I was excited to see how Greene’s vision translated to film.

I have no illusions about the difference between books and movies. I prefer, as often as possible, to read the book before I watch the film. But they are not the same sort of thing. Books can do things that films can’t, and vice-versa. But if the film misunderstands or completely misses the central theme of the book—especially if it’s one of my favorites!—it takes all enjoyment out of the experience of interacting with those two visions.

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An Island of Guilt

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on September 15]

One of my favorite lines from any song is “Every moment is a red light/a red light you just run” (“Puttin’ Out Fires,” Bill Mallonee [Vigilantes of Love]). It highlights the futility of trying to undo something that is in the past. As we feel the burden or the guilt of some action in the past, especially actions that we cannot undo, we constantly seek to atone for the action and justify ourselves. It’s a natural reaction on our part to want to make right what we’ve done wrong. But how can those wrongs in the past ever be made right? They’re over and done with, and yet we’re not free of them.

And so it is for Anatoly in The Island (Ostrov), a 2006 Russian-language film set primarily on a remote island in Northern Russia. And even though the film begins in the water around the island, the story begins on a Russian tugboat in 1942, which is then boarded by Nazis for no apparent reason other than sadism. They tell Anatoly that if he wants to live, he must shoot the captain of the tugboat, Tikhon. Explosives set by the Nazis quickly reveal that they had no intention of letting Anatoly or the boat survive.

Orthodox monks find Anatoly washed up on the shore. The next we see of him, thirty-plus years have passed and he lives in a furnace room, where he does exactly the same job he had on the tugboat, collecting and shoveling coal into a furnace. It appears, in fact, that Anatoly is engaged in the Sisyphean task of reliving his time on the tugboat by doing that work multiple time each day. He pushes his wheelbarrow the length of an uneven bridge out to what remains of the tugboat, collects coal, pushes the wheelbarrow back, and then he does it again.

Day after day, he does this, and somehow, in the thirty years since he arrived, the people who live in the area have come to think of him as a holy man who does everything from giving good advice to healing the sick and casting out demons.

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The Comedian of the Old Adam

[This appeared at The Jagged Word on September 8]

I know this one isn’t going to go over well. And, of course, I always say everything so that no one will be mad at me (/sarcasm). But sometimes offensive things are excellent illustrations of the O’Connor Principle:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures (Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” Mystery and Manners).

I think this can even happen when the “novelist,” or, in this case, the comedian, doesn’t appear to have any “Christian concerns” at all.

Louis C.K. is probably the only comedian in the entire world who can start a show with, “Hello. Thank you. Thank you very much. So, you know, I think abortion…” No matter who you’re talking to, abortion is about on the level of child abuse as far as humor goes. (Of course, that didn’t stop Louis C.K. from using child molesters as the basis for his infamous Saturday Night Live monologue in 2015.)

First of all (and I say this to unsuccessfully head off all the “but Christians shouldn’t do this or that” comments) I’m not endorsing Louis C.K., or his vulgarity, or his singularly crude and offensive brand of humor. I’m not encouraging you to watch, or even suggesting that you watch, his 2017 show on Netflix. Of course Louis C.K. is offensive. Of course he is. But maybe…

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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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