Archives For Movies

One of the ways to analyze culture is to look at film. This year’s Oscar nominations for best picture are quite impressive. Unlike previous collections, this batch of movies are thoughtful and possess unique cohesive themes. While summer blockbusters are usually an inch deep and a trillion dollars wide, this year’s Oscars are an impressive canon—instructing, initiating, and instilling a larger cultural conversation.

While it would be silly to argue they each have the same message, viewing them canonically unearths some interesting insights. Each of the Oscar nominations for best picture have some reflection on time. Some reach back in time, others skip through time, and a few are centered on the relationship of the past to the present.

Moonlight quickly moves through stages of Chiron’s life. Lion likewise jumps ahead in Saroo’s life from a young child to a college student. Saroo can’t move forward without first going back in time. La La Land is a throwback to old musicals and has a key scene at the end where Emma Stone reflects on how a different choice could have altered her life. Arrival is about the gift of language to humans which allows them to transcend time. Fences reaches back in time and centers of Troy Maxson and his wrestling with the past and present. Hidden Figures retells a familiar story and discloses strands of this story that were neglected. Manchester By the Sea brings the past into the present in the tragedy of a young family. Hacksaw Ridge tells an unlikely heroic narrative of the past and Hell or High Water is framed around the ethics of the past bank crisis.

Whether it be the intersection of the past and the present or the possibility of the future, each movie educates about life in the present and gives us quite a bit to digest in our current cultural moment. Four lessons come to the surface: (1) the past always extends into the present, (2) beware of nostalgia (3) don’t let the past derail the present, and (4) the future can be hopeful.

The Past Always Extends Into the Present

Although we tend to think of the past as locked away, its fingers find their way into the present almost like sugar ants inevitably find their way into a house. One of the most powerful portrayals of this comes in Manchester by the Sea. Lee Chandler is a sullen man who is asked to take care of his nephew when Lee’s older brother dies. What viewers find out part way through the movie is that Lee had a previous life. In this life he was happily married with three kids but a tragic mistake takes the life of his three children. Lee’s marriage unravels, and he now has to face his past in the city where his life was torn to shreds. In one telling scene he bumps into his remarried ex-wife and her newborn baby. She expresses remorse about how she treated him and asks to reconnect but Lee says, “There’s nothing there.”

Although the entirety of La La Land does not reflect on the intersection of the past and the present, the last scene reveals that if Mia and Sebastian had made a different choice their present would look different. The past decision of Mia going to Paris radically altered her life. Moonlight gives time montages of Chiron building the background of the story of a young black man and his struggles with identity and sexuality. The director Jenkins jumps through time to show the struggles Chiron has a kid are never really resolved although he matures.

The point is that in each of these films the past plays a major role in the development of the story, if not the most critical one. The movies teach us that we can’t siphon off the past as if it never happened and simply “move on” with our lives. Rather, the past always haunts us and causes us to reflect and ask different questions for the present and the future.

I believe this directly speaks into the racial discussion our country is having. I see pictures of white men holding up signs about how they never enslaved anyone, and hear those claiming the past is not their fault. But maybe Oscars help us see that this is stunted view of reality. We can’t siphon off the past and think that because it was in the past it does not have some effect in the present and the future. The past molds and shapes the present in ways that we can’t see unless a director fast-forwards through time. The past bumps into the present and reaches into the future. Acting like the past doesn’t play into the present and future is a very godless and deistic way to think of time. Time is a progression, but it is also unified.

Beware of Nostalgia 

A few of this year’s Oscar’s warn also of nostalgia of the past. La La Land is the most explicit with this theme. La La Land leads viewers through the motions of an old musical only to break their hearts at the end. The director Chazelle purposively lulled his viewers into sleep only to upset their expectations in the last few scenes. Chazelle warns his viewers to not escape into nostalgia. Not everything in the past is as it seems, so don’t get lost in the past.

Yuval Levin argues similarly in his book The Fractured Republic. Both liberal and conservative American’s nostalgia for the past has led to today’s polarized national life. Liberals to miss the economic arrangements of social liberalization in the 1960s while conservatives miss the 1980s. But today our society is more fragmented and fractured than either of those eras so we need different solutions to some of the same problems.

The films also in a similar way urge us to widen our perspective of the past. It is not just that the past reaches into the present, but that we have a rather limited view on what happened in the past. History is complex—thousands of threads combine to tell a story and not all those stories have the same point. Hidden Figures recounts a well-known space race story from the 1960’s but urges us to look deeper at some of the players that did not receive the credit they deserved. While we might think we know our history or the history of the nation, our perspective on the past is always at best incomplete. Our view of the golden age may have not been golden for others.

Hacksaw Ridge in a similar way told a WWII story but from the perspective of hero we may have never heard of and may not agree with ideologically. Hacksaw displays that those not like us, those who we might fiercely disagree with, are not necessarily bad people just because they have different perspectives. They are not cowards for not fitting into the current ideology. It takes more strength to take a step to a different tune. Sometimes those who are most unlike their generation are the trailblazers for the next generation.

Don’t Let the Past Derail the Opportunity of the Present

While the movies portray the importance of the past for understanding the present, they also warn that the past can derail the present. In Fences Tory Maxson is so wrapped up in the glory and tragedy of his past that he can’t seem to move his family into the good of the present. This is most evident with his interactions with their son Cory. Cory is a promising young football player but Troy refuses to let him pursue this dream because he thinks the white man will never let him succeed. Ultimately, Troy looks for happiness outside of his family which destroys the family. Toward the end of the movie Cory is tempted to also let bitterness define his identity by not going to his father’s funeral. But Rose (his mother) is a voice of reason. She tells him that she loved Troy, despite his weaknesses and that part of Troy still lives in him and he needs to conquer where Troy failed.

Hidden Figures in the same way tells of the story of four black women at NASA in 1961 who were instrumental in the space race with Russia. Rather than letting the past define these women’s roles they all push forward to become more than what the current culture would normally allow. They do this by being excellent at their trade and having a never-give-up attitude.

In one way, this point challenges those who would give a hearty “amen” to my first point. While a few of the movies show that the past can never fully be discounted, a few others caution against letting the past define the present. Don’t just blame the past and get stuck in protest and forget to see the opportunities right in front of you. If the first point challenged those acting like they are innocent in the racial tension, this point dares to address those so preoccupied with the past that the discourse has been poisoned before it started. It warns through the image of Troy and emboldens through the images of the three black women working at NASA.

The Future Can Be Hopeful

Finally, this year’s Oscars direct our eyes to a hopeful future. This comes in spite of a checkered past, and the danger of the past derailing the present. Arrival tells the story of linguist Louise Banks who is asked to decipher the language of aliens who have landed on earth in twelve spacecraft’s. When Louise learns they want to offer a weapon, fear takes over the globe. But Louise argues the symbol can be interpreted as a “tool” or “technology.” Louise then learns that this weapon is language that changes their perception of time. Viewers realize that Louise’s flashbacks are really flash-forwards. Louise foresees that Ian will father her daughter Hannah, but will leave discovering that their daughter will die of a rare disease. Nevertheless, Louise agrees that she wants to have a baby.

Arrival argues the solution to fear is a shared language. A hopeful future arrives by transcending the current nature of our discourse. We need a reversal of Babel where fear is not the controlling factor—rather hope is. Love hopes the best. The present danger is that we won’t learn from our past, we will neglect the reality our past, or we will let the past derail the present, but hope is found in communication, honesty, and transparency.

 

 

 

 

Unbroken

December 27, 2014 — 28 Comments

Unbroken-2014

I remember lying on the sand sprinkled couch with a book held above my face, turning page after page. The pearly sands of the North Carolina beach were calling me, but the white pages seemed more important at the time. Someone had brought the book on vacation, and I grabbed it, possibly out of lack of preparation on my part for an effective time consumer.

Although our small beach house was full with people, the noise didn’t seem to bother me, a trait I must have picked up from my father. I was in my last year of high-school and this could be our final family vacation all-together (as my father continually promised and is still promising). But I could not pull myself away from the book, and every chance I got, I would jump onto the couch and continue the story of this incredible horse.

image.axdThe book I could not put down was Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand.

Neither horses or her name were familiar to me. Although I was currently living in Kentucky, we had transplanted there, so the “horse thing” was not really a part of our family as much as the “book thing.” Laura Hillenbrand was not yet a household name either, although her book had been out a little over a year. The book must have been recommended by someone else to end up in our family’s possession.

Although my memory is notoriously poor, I do remember the book being unique because of the writing of Hillenbrand.

Her story was her story, and she dissolved into the background. The writing was as smooth as a stream of butter, with no rocks or jolts that made me spring out of the narrative. The book’s reputation was unfortunately tainted by the 2003 movie starring Tobey Maguire which did not receive high ratings.

Another American Legend

Unbroken is the second book of Hillenbrand, published in 2010. After the incredible journey Hillenbrand took me on with Seabiscuit, I immediately picked up Unbroken when it was published.

Although this time I was not on the beach of North Carolina, it had the same effect on me, but this was even a greater story.

Last night, I went to see the movie, based on the book made by Angelina Jolie. I followed a lot of the rumors and news about the movie, so when I walked in I knew what I was getting myself into. I also knew that it was going to be impossible for this movie to live up to the book. My expectations were tempered, but I still wanted to see the film.

And what Jolie made was not all bad, although it was not all that good either. That is what will be the problem for those who read the book, they really want this movie to be exceptional, and it is not.

The Flaws

So what is wrong with the movie? Is there something wrong with the movie? Would the movie have been fixed if she included Zamperini’s conversion at the end? Would it have been that much of a better movie? Would it have made it an excellent film?

These are all distinct questions, but I would like to try to answer them.

Two major flaws stick out to me, one more prominent than the other.

First, “The Bird,” as one NPR analyst said, just doesn’t work. And Jolie really needs “the bird” to work in a full sense to capture the heart of this book. Jolie appropriated the eccentric nature of this man, but the strange (for lack of a better term) metro-sexual aura seemed out of place. Do I know what “The Bird” was like? No, not exactly, but when I read the book there was this conglomeration of feelings toward this man: hate, confusion, fear, rage, disorientation, and fury. Jolie’s character only communicated disorientation and stunted an essential part of the book.

Second, and probably more confusing for most of the readers of this blog, my main complaint with the movie was that it was too preachy. That is probably the last thing Jolie expected from an evangelical Christian.

Seabiscuit and Unbroken were both great stories. But as I mentioned above, Hillenbrand’s greatest strength is that she dwindles in the background. And if one hears this as me saying she is not a great writer, I am affirming the opposite. The hardest thing to do as a writer is to disappear, and let the story work its way into the marrow of the reader. She works really hard to get out of the way, and she does.

Zamperini’s story was so incredible, it did not need a “message” supporting it.

The movie doesn’t let the narrative tell the story, or at least not enough. Very early on in the movie the viewer keeps getting hit (literally) in the face with the theme of endurance and stamina. It is as if Jolie thinks her viewers won’t get it unless we see it a million times.

Zamperini gets in a fight as a kid and stands up against four. He has a few heart to hearts with his brother where his brother says “If you can take it, you can make it,” which is repeated throughout the film. Then one sees him endure in multiple races and everyone knows what is coming.

08well_book-articleInlineI don’t recall Hillenbrand doing something like this, at least as explicitly. Certainly, there was a streak in Zamperini, even early in his life, that he had endurance and grit. But the great thing about Hillenbrand is that she let you figure that out through the narrative without shouting it in your ear over and over again. The story did all the hard work.

Many times the most effective messages are the understated ones, and this one becomes too preachy. Countless messages were contained within the book, and each reader was hit with different aspects of it. It was a one-note film, but a multifaceted book.

With these flaws, I am not sure the story would have been “fixed” with the ending that was in the book. For this would have come off as too preachy too. Having said that, the movie would have included more variety and really fit the narrative arc of the book if it portrayed the way forgiveness found Louie. The movie comes across as one big torture scene and some viewers might walk out feeling “If I can take it, I can make it to the end.”

Of course, Hillenbrand’s book is excruciating to read in many places, and a large portion of it concerns Zamperini’s POW experience. Yet the bookends to the narrative do something special which I can’t quite put my finger on.

If I had to guess, it lets us know more of the man than simply his “unbrokenness.” It lets us see his flaws, his humanity, and in this way we begin to relate to him. He does not just have a jar full of will-power, but he has flaws and scars that show up even after he is gone from the hell of war.

Average Movie, Unforgettable Book

Like I said, the movie is not terrible, but it is forgettable.

The book is unforgettable.

So for those who read it, they will come out disappointed. Others will think it was okay, but the readers of the book will not be satisfied with an “it was okay.”

Possibly it will make a few more people want to read the book and start some conversations about the differences between Hillenbrand’s and Jolie’s portrayal of Louie Zamperini.

 

full_unbroken-uncut

 

 

 

Interstellar and Love

November 28, 2014 — 1 Comment

 

The-Answer

Over at Western Seminary’s blog (Trans.formed), I did a short piece on the movie Interstellar. I note the search for transendence, but also point out the theme of love.

What I don’t mention in the review is that Interstellar does touch upon sacrificial love. McConaughey goes into space to save his children, to save the world. Nolan portrays this nearly perfectly in two scenes. The first is when McConaughey is driving away from the farm and tears fill his eyes knowing he may never see his children again. The second comes when McConaughey is in space and viewing the messages from his children. These scenes are emotionally charged because people know Nolan is reaching the deepest part of the human soul.

See the rest of my review here.

 

MV5BMjAzMzg0MDA3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTMzOTYwMTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_David Instone-Brewer reviews ‘Noah’ below.

 

For once it is no hype to say this film has a canvas of Biblical proportions.

Though in today’s language you might compare it more accurately with Lord of the Rings. Look out for images akin to Isengard, fighting as impressive as Aragorn’s and creatures suspiciously similar to the Ents.

If you are wondering where all this fits into Genesis, be prepared to let your imagination soar. Storylines from the Book of Enoch, other Jewish myths and the director’s imagination supplement the Bible text. Together they create a compelling story and a surprise ending.

Charlton Heston famously defined an epic as a film that he starred in. He was wonderful at portraying strength with a smouldering anger. Russell Crowe is starting to fill his shoes, and is very suitable as Noah, because he can show the same strength though with an underlying sadness. In this film he also adds a convincing hint of madness, but I mustn’t give too much away.

It is unfair to ask “Is it accurate?” If it were, there would be only ten minutes of story plus lots more special effects. Actually, “special effects” is an understatement. Throughout the film everything is so real that I was glad it wasn’t in 3D.

The really 3D aspect of this film is in the characterisation. Noah and his sons are totally believable and the tensions with Ham flesh out the Biblical narrative convincingly. But the female roles carry the dramatic turning points, conveyed with Oscar-quality acting. They also get the best lines and appear to speak the director’s message.

Although the film takes liberties with the story of Noah, the essential message of Genesis is conveyed clearly and accurately. The story of Eden, the snake, temptation, the murder of Abel and subsequent decline of humanity is referred to frequently. The bigger picture of God’s plan to undo this damage is hinted at, but it would not be true to Genesis to state this clearly.

“How do we know God’s will?” is the unspoken question addressed by various characters throughout the film. How can Noah know what to do, and does he really understand God’s plan accurately? His dream informs him but also misleads him. His wife (who, as in the Bible, is nameless), says the goodness in our character comes from God so we should listen to it. Tubal-Cain, the violent self-appointed king, says God has left us to do whatever we want.

This film shouldn’t be seen as an accurate portrayal of the Bible, but can be treated as a thought-provoking way to explore the message of Genesis.

I grew up reading this book. Who knows if Hollywood will mess it up and do it justice.

Stories We Tell

February 24, 2014 — 3 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I watched the highly acclaimed documentary Stories We Tell.

It is directed by Sarah Polley and tells the story of her family, asking the question of what Sarah’s mom was really like and who Sarah’s biological dad is.

What is interesting about the documentary is that it ties nicely into trends of memory studies in gospels scholarship.

The storyline of the documentary is simple, but as the title suggests, it is about memory, and the way we tell stories about our life. Polley says at one point about the documentary:

One of the main focuses is the discrepancies in the story. All of us, have similar stories with large and small details that vary. I am interested in the way we tell stories about our lives, about how the fact that the truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down.

It is through the multiple interviews that the mystery of memory and story-telling is unfolded before the viewers eyes. Not all of the children or family friends remember everything the same ways, sometimes the account of the same event is told in radically different ways. It is magical to see the different ways these memories are told and re-told from different perspectives.

Polley says that “everyone’s point of view, no matter how contradictory, must be considered.”

But this does not sit well with everyone in the documentary. Polley asks Harry at one point, “What do you think of the concept of me making this documentary and giving equal weight to everyone version of the story?”

Harry responds:

I don’t like it, I think that it takes us into very…like you can’t ever touch bottom with anything then. We are all over the place. I think they can all be heard, but it is giving them equal weight, particularly those who are not players.

First of all, there are the parties of the incident, those who are there and are directly effected by it. Then there is a circle around that, of people who are effected tangentially because of their relationship to the principle parties. Then there is another concentric further out there which is basically has heard or been told from one of the principles players about it. Alll of these may have different narratives. These narratives are shaped in part by their relationship to the person who told it to them and by the events. One does not get the truth simply by hearing what their reactions are….The same set of circumstances effect different people in different ways, not that they are different truths, they are different reactions to particular events.

The crucial function of art is to tell the truth.

Can one get at the truth? I guess one can get very close to it. But you have to limit it to the ones who are involved in the events. The reality is essentially that the story of Diane is only mine to tell. I think that is a fact. My recollections may be faulty at times, but I am not going to lie.

Sarah’s sister reflects that you can never really know what happened. I don’t think she means that she does not know who her “mum” is, but rather that to know exactly what happened is not feasible, for everything is interpreted.

There are a lot of questions about who was she, and there is a lot of disagreement about what kind of a person she was. There is this misconception that she was something, but I think this is another misconception, that there is a state of affairs, or things that actually happened, and we have to kind of reconstruct exactly what happened in the past.

And I don’t think there was a “what actually happened,” I think there was lots of perspectives from the very beginning. You don’t ever get to an answer, you don’t ever get to “okay now we have figured it out, we know exactly what happened, we know exactly what kind of person she was.” I think those kind of things are illusory.

Gospels Scholarship

I point out this documentary partially because it is just a good documentary, but also because it ties quite nicely to some of the more recent developments in gospels scholarship.

The nature of historical Jesus research is taking a turn and scholars are beginning to reflect more deeply on what happened between the “event” of Jesus, and the “writing” of the gospels. There was a gap between the two and we don’t know exactly how this tradition was conveyed or passed down. Scholars are investigating the intersection of orality studies, social memory theories, and the way we tell stories.

Memory studies show that memory is not a photographic record of what actually took place, but a construction based on the original encoding of experience, the relating of that experience to oneself and others according to narrative frameworks and conventions supplied by one’s cultural context, and the need to make sense of the past in light of the present, and the present in light of the past.

This does not mean memory is unreliable but that what is remembered cannot be straightforwardly be equated with what actually happened.

The nature of memory is supported by everyday experiences of telling stories where a story will hold onto basic elements of what happened, but begin to develop over time into exaggerations, dichotomies, and dramatization that was not originally present in order to make the retelling of the story interesting and memorable.

This does not mean historical Jesus research is forever lost, but that the only viewpoint we get of him is through a lens. The project of trying to separate authentic from inauthentic material is fundamentally misconceived. A neat separation is not possible.

In Stories We Tell there is this same quest to find out who “mum” really was, but Polley realizes in the process that the truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down.

This does not mean the reconstructions are not helpful, or that they are not true. What it does mean is history is always mediated through the memories of people with different perspectives.