As usual, the political divisions over various issues do not match the division between a Scriptural understanding and an idolatrous one. In this case, it’s the division between “conservatives” and “liberals”–or, better, between the rabid Republican and the rabid Democrat–on climate change (what an anodyne, meaningless phrase) and other, related environmental issues. You know it’s a disease because any response is immediately knee-jerking, fist-pumping, and unthinking.
But Christians ought not to be caught up in the extreme partisanship of what seem to be America’s twilight years. There is enough foolishness on either side to make any so-called “discussion” an exercise in engaging a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4, not 26:5). When it comes to human responsibility for the volatility of the climate (and similar issues), too many Christians have been sucked into either viewing extreme weather as the moral challenge of our time, an issue of Biblical proportions; or into an involuntary muscle spasm of mockery and denial.
[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on November 2.]
Coraline (2008, streaming on Amazon Prime) might be the perfect movie for All Saints or All Souls (not that I’m praying for the dead in Purgatory, understand). What a great, semi-frightening children’s movie that gets to the heart of what matters in a family. I don’t know how closely it follows the story by Neil Gaiman, but the film is profound in ways I didn’t expect.
Coraline moves to a new place in Oregon, brown and barren, far away from her friends, with parents who seem to ignore her or want her to go somewhere else and leave them alone. They’re in the middle of their work, and since it’s raining, Coraline is forced to explore the old house in which they live. She discovers a pathway to an alternate world, where her Other Mother and Other Father are everything that she wants from her own parents. But be careful what you long for. You might get it.
[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 19.]
After I watched Troubled Water last week, one of Amazon’s recommendations was Adam’s Apples (2005, streaming on Amazon Prime), about a naive pastor in Denmark, Ivan (Mads Mikkelsen), who welcomes in a neo-Nazi in hopes of (I think) rehabilitating him. Add that neo-Nazi to a Saudi immigrant who robs gas stations and an alcoholic Dane, and it’s a weirdly religious, absurd black comedy.
In spite of the weird aspect ratio thing that Amazon was doing, I was slowly drawn into the story. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but funny in its absurdity. The pastor is not only naive, but indefensibly and, apparently, invincibly so. Nothing that Adam does can shake Ivan’s optimism and “faith,” including a picture of Hitler on the wall and beating him viciously. Ivan says that Gunnar’s alcoholism is cured, though he doesn’t hide the many bottles and Ivan even offers to pick up some “medicine” for him when he goes out. And Ivan is convinced Khalid is done with robbery, though there is a balaclava and a large wad of cash in his jacket, not to mention the gun he easily produces to get rid of the crows in the apple tree.
Further, Ivan refuses to admit that his son is completely disabled and that his wife committed suicide. He views it all as an attack from Satan that he is to withstand. All of it: the crime, the alcoholism, his wife’s death, a neo-Nazi beating him up, the crows and worms in the apple tree. It is all a Satanic attack, and Ivan believes that he is simply called to bear up under it with an undying optimism.
[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 12.]
Troubled Water (2008, streaming on Amazon Prime) is really a brilliantly made film. You know the whole thing is going to collapse and fall apart between Thomas and Agnes, but you don’t know when. That tension builds and builds, even when there is nothing tense happening in a given moment. And the way the story is put together brings even seemingly unimportant events to their true significance.
It’s not that the shift in perspective in the middle of the film is unique, but perhaps it surprised me because (not having heard of the movie before) I simply didn’t expect it. Even though it’s over two hours, the two couples are so entwined and paralleled, focused on Thomas and Agnes, that I never felt the length. One has seemingly overcome her grief; one has seemingly overcome his guilt; but both have been deprived (or deprived themselves) of the opportunity to face head-on the event that connects them.
Until that happens, you can feel the troubled waters begin to stir beneath the surface. The central moment is highlighted by the caretaker asking Thomas to play “some real church music” for children on a field trip—led by Agnes—and he plays “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (!).
[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on September 28.]
So I watched Pale Rider for the first time. Clint Eastwood is great, as always. The Eastwood squint/glare is in full effect. He has no actual name in the film, but simply goes by “Preacher.” And he comes as an apparent answer to Megan Wheeler’s prayer over her dog’s grave, interspersed with Psalm 23. In fact, this is a religiously infused movie, down to the coincidence of Megan reading Revelation 6:8 when the preacher first rides into the small mining town.
The people in the mining town (the “tin pans,” as Coy LaHood calls them) respect him because he’s a preacher, and the LaHoods fear him for the same reason. Preachers are dangerous, according to LaHood, because he might give the people faith, and then the LaHoods will have no chance of running them off their mining claims.
[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on September 21.]
This isn’t a great documentary. In some ways (down to the design of the credits and titles) it is simply playing on the success and popularity of The Exorcist—though there’s no pea soup, no unnaturally turning heads, and no priests die. (And my wife thinks William Friedkin sounds like Donald Trump. Narrator: he does.)
So while there are a few and minor interesting things in this film, the questions it raises are more interesting to me. What is it that continues to fascinate about exorcism? Why do people continue to make movies dealing with exorcism? I count at least 25 films focusing on possession or exorcism since 2000 (most of which—to placate my critics—I have never seen). Why so many, and why is this a recurring theme?
[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on September 7.]
Memory is a strange thing. Last week I wrote that I had seen The Machinist during my second summer at college, the first that I did not return home between classes. In one of my periods of sleeplessness last night, I realized that couldn’t be true. As clearly as I seemed to remember picking up that movie at a video place and watching it then, it couldn’t have happened then because I was in college from 1998-2002. The Machinist came out in 2004, which means that if I saw it soon after it came out, I couldn’t have seen it before my third year at the seminary (my vicarage, or internship).
Huh. Who knows when I actually watched it? Who knows where I got it from? Maybe the little video rental place in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas during my vicarage. Maybe the Blockbuster in Grand Forks, North Dakota after I had already become a pastor in Northern Minnesota. Once I realized that my original thought was clearly wrong, I couldn’t place the memory in a particular place or time.
And I’ve had this experience more than once, where I think I remember something and there is irrefutable evidence that I’m remembering incorrectly. Memory is a slippery thing. One of my favorite films ever, Memento—not to mention one of the most original films I’ve ever seen—completely messes with the idea of what memory is and what it does.
[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on August 31.]
If Hitchcock remade Fight Club, it would probably look a lot like The Machinist (2004). If you haven’t seen it, but you’ve seen Fight Club, then I probably gave away the major plot twist. But even if you know the major twist, this is a devastating film about the destructive power of buried guilt. I had seen The Machinist before, but I honestly didn’t remember much except that he works in a machine shop and is struggling with something. I probably watched it on a VHS rented from a Blockbuster (RIP) in Washougal, Washington during a summer when I worked the night shift at a Safeway and then in a hot, dusty, stifling concrete plant in Portland. Not much else to do during my first summer not returning home from college.
[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 29.]
I knew this was going to happen. I knew that if a movie was hyped over and over, time and again, as being an incredible, profound meditation on faith and doubt, that it was unlikely to be anything of the sort. If someone has left or been scarred by Christianity, or an American Fundamentalist version of it; if someone is quick to say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”; or if someone is fully convinced that what the Church should do is take up the apocalyptic cause du jour, then that person is the perfect candidate to be over-impressed with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed.
I don’t mean that those aren’t authentic responses to a real emotional and intellectual experience of viewing this film. But if you don’t find yourself resonating with one or more of those categories, you might well wonder if you’ve completely missed the point of the film. Is there an additional scene after the credits? Did I miss the profundity? Am I too stupid to understand the basic elements of serious film and thereby misunderstand Schrader’s intentions? The last two might, of course, be true. But the simpler answer is probably more accurate: It’s an attempt to be profound about religion, faith, and doubt, without actually achieving it.
[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 8.]
On the one hand, Wild Wild Country (six parts, on Netflix) is about as strange a religious story as there is in the United States. On the other hand, it’s not very strange at all. The divisive nature of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (a name I would be okay never hearing again), the completely opposite stories told by the Rajneeshees and everyone else, and the weird, magnetic pull of the Bhagwan’s personality make this a compelling story. It’s salacious, with the (accurate) rumors of a sort of sex cult, but it doesn’t seem that the Bhagwan was all that involved in the sexual aspect of his commune, as you might expect a sex cult leader to be!
But even though the free-love aspect of the Rajneeshees seems to attract the attention, that’s only a side story to this documentary. The people interviewed are limited to four major people on either side of the controversy in Antelope, Oregon, in addition to law enforcement and legal participants. While normally I might want more breadth and more input from various people, the limited number of main players actually works well in a six-part series. You actually begin to get a pretty good feel for where they’re coming from and their individual personalities.