Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Trainspotting -- lifestyle choices

Director: Danny Boyle, 1996.

When I was in college I had a friend who knew all the train engines of Great Britain, such as the 1010 Western Campaigner. His pastime was trainspotting. But the trainspotting of this movie has nothing to do with that harmless hobby. The title actually refers to a scene in the book by Irvine Welsh that does not appear in the film. However, the term also refers to the shooting up of heroin, and is so called because of the "train-track-like" marks in the veins and also the locomotive-like hit of the heroin as it enters the blood-stream.

Boyle set his second film in the underbelly of working-class Edinburgh and gives this a distinctively British feel. Harrowing at times, hilarious at others, this is a film lauded as one of the all-time best British films; yet it requires an iron stomach since it is tough to watch.

Reunited with Ewan McGregor, Boyle builds Trainspotting around McGregor's character of Renton, the antihero. With strong Scottish brogues throughout it is often hard to decipher what is being said . . . except for the cussing, which is ubiquitous. Although it captures the essence of the subculture, it is grinding, as is the graphic portrayal of drug-use. some movies gloss over the impact of drug use and abuse, focusing on the seductive appeal to users, Trainspotting brings a gritty realistic treatment to this topic. Renton and his friends, Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), are hard-core heroin addicts who cannot hold down jobs. They are joined by Tommy (Kevin McKidd), a fitness freak who avoids drugs and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a hard-man who does people not drugs, fighting and stabbing for fun in pubs. Living in poverty and squalor, this is the story of the degeneration of these relationships; it is the story of friendships destroyed by drugs.

As it starts, Renton gives an extended voice-over narration (minus the swearing):

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. . . . Choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?
So, at the very outset, the setup is clear. There are two choices in life: Life and Heroin. Life, here, stands for the ordinary life of boredom and routine. It is the establishment. It is mind-numbing and spirit-crushing. To choose life is to give in to the man, to be like one of the humans in The Matrix, crushed and living aimless and inevitable lives; it is to be like cows destined for the slaughterhouse. On the other hand, Heroin stands for a life of excitement and ecstasy. It is anti-establishment. It is subversive and counter-cultural. It is authentic and individual. To choose heroin is to be yourself, living how you want, not accepting the destiny defined by society but paving your own way. It is mind-expanding and spirit-lifting . . . at least while the drug rushes through the veins. Once it is done, it is a different matter. has made his choice. His lifestyle is care-free, one of drugs, casual sex, drinking, raves, and he has no responsibilities. With no job, he and his friends steal, lie, cheat or do anything to get the money to buy more drugs for their next fix and the ensuing high. All is going "well" until during one of their extended highs the baby of one of the girlfriends dies in his crib. They arouse from their drug-induced stupor to this dreadful discovery. And their reaction: cook up another shot to take away the pain.

When Renton's parents intervene to help him come off heroin cold turkey, locking him in his room, Boyle gives a painfully clear picture of withdrawal. With surreal visions of friends giving counsel and a baby crawling across the screen, Renton's room feels like a cell in a psychiatric ward. But he somehow comes clean. And decides to move to London, away from his no-good friends.

You can run, but you can't hide, as they say. And first Begbie, a fugutive needing a hiding place, finds him and moves in. Then Sick Boy comes south with a plan for a drug scam. Finally, Spud joins them all. Of course, Renton gets caught up, once again, in the heroin lifestyle, and falls of the wagon. balances the depressing picture of this empty life with surreal humor. This humor is simultaneously both disgusting and funny. It is literally toilet humor.

One of the underlying themes of Trainspotting is the poverty that is endemic in urban centers like Edinburgh. And with such poverty comes a sense of hopelessness. It is tough for those caught in this trap to see a way out. And without hope, some gravitate to the easy way out, a false hope from pharmaceuticals. But there is hope, even for the most hopeless in the worst situations. That hope is found in Jesus (Col. 1:27). He can offer life and hope to those who will come to him and cling to him. He does not promise to magically make everything right in this life, though he will one day. He does promise to make it easier to live in the here and now while waiting for the future hope.

Trainspotting shows how the drug-using lifestyle leads not to hope and a beautiful future, but to death and a dead-end future. As Renton lies to those around him, to his friends, to his parents, and even to himself, he still thinks he is in control of his habit. He still thinks he can do just one more fix with no ill effect. But his choice of Heroin has enormous impact on those around him. It leads to prison for one friend, to addiction and death for another, to death of a baby for a third. Here is not life; here is deceit, decay, disintegration and death.

Yet, Trainspotting ends with a ray of hope, an ambiguous vision of what might be. It raises a question of whether rehabilitation is possible for the deeply addicted user. Though it appears that recidivism is almost certain, there is a chance that reform may remain. After the drug deal, where Hugo from Shallow Grave shows up, Renton walks away with a bag-load of money. Then, narrating the last lines, he returns to the themes of the prolog, the theme of "choice." Repeating the monolog, almost word for word, he ends with, "The truth is that I'm a bad person. But, that's gonna change -- I'm going to change. This is the last of that sort of thing. Now I'm cleaning up and I'm moving on, going straight and choosing life. I'm looking forward to it already. I'm going to be just like you." He has it right, that he is a bad person. That's true from the movie and ethically. Will he change? The cynic would answer no, he has tried and failed before; he will fail again. The optimist would answer yes, he is away from his friends who would suck him back into the life he is leaving; with these influences removed he will be able to suceed this time. The realist recognizes that life is ambiguous. There is always hope. There is always a second chance.

Although it may seem strange, Renton is in some ways like Jesus. Renton was railing against the authorities, seeking an alternative way to live. But the dichotomy he proposes is a false dichotomy. The choice we face is not between Life as defined in Trainspotting and Heroin. It is not between conventional routine and boredom or anti-establishment self-centered indulgence, whether in drugs or other forms of escapism. No, there is a third choice. Jesus gives us this option. Jesus was a counter-cultural revolutionary himself. He preached a subversive message, and its core content is found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). His offer is one that is anti-establishment but it is focused on selfless giving. We don't have to settle for the consumeristic choice of the TV, the large house, the cars, the toys, the things. He offers a life that transcends this by looking outward and upward rather than inward.

Where Shallow Grave was a superficial black comedy-thriller about degeneration of relationships centered on stolen money, Trainspotting is a deeper black comedy about the degeneration of relationships centered on the deadly destructiveness of drug use. It is a hard pill to swallow, but it offers some insight into the heroin lifestyle and a hope of a redemptive journey. We can and must choose life. But what kind of "life" will you choose?

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Monday, December 29, 2008

Choking Man -- plans and purpose

Director: Steve Barron, 2006.

Choking Man is a picture of the alienation and disorientation felt by immigrants to the USA. It is set in Jamaica, a suburb of Queens New York, purportedly the most culturally diverse area in the world.

The protagonist, Jorge (Octavio Gomez Berrios), is a dishwasher in a shabby Greek diner. Ecuadorian, his English is barely passable and he is desperately shy. His shyness is a cloak that is slowly suffocating him.

Choking Man draws some comparison to Bella, since it, too, is set in a kitchen. Unlike the kitchen in Bella, which was lively and colorful, full of positive energy (apart from the owner), this kitchen is dull and grey, lacking energy. And Jorge finds himself friendless. Owner Rick (Mandy Patinkin, famous as Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride) ignores him. Jorge doesn't even join the other workers at staff meetings. Only Amy (Eugenia Yuan), the new Chinese waitress, and Jerry (Aaron Paul) notice him . . . but for different reasons. Jerry is an Irish extrovert bully who keeps provoking Jorge, while Jorge retreats even further within himself. Meanwhile, Amy feels compassion for Jorge and perhaps a sense of immigrant-kinship with him. She stands up for him against Jerry, which only causes Jerry to notice her and her prettiness.

Bullying is one of the underlying themes of Choking Man. Not only is Jorge browbeaten at work, but his room-mate is domineering, telling him what to do. When he realizes Jorge has some affection for Amy, he tells him to choke Jerry and kill him. Like Ben-X, Choking Man pictures the pain and frustration felt by the victims of intimidation. Clearly, bullying is ethically wrong. No one deserves to be on the brunt of this kind of psychological torment.

Writer-director Barron uses, even over-uses, excessively tight camera-work to give a sense of claustrophobia. Zooming close in to Jorge's face, many scenes are dominated by just his face. And even his face is hidden by his hoodie and hat. This succeeds in communicating the stress and inner demons Jorge is experiencing. And he juxtaposes real life with short animated segments to communicate even more clearly what is going on in Jorge's head.

One scene stands out. In trying to reciprocate and perhaps reach out with a shy, romantic love, he wants to give Amy a gift. He sees a red Chinese dragon in a pawnshop window. Summoning up the courage to enter, itself a victory, he asks about the toy in the window. The owner brings an Elmo doll, and Jorge is unable to communicate what he wants. You can feel the frustration at lack of communication and at his sense of being a stranger in a strange land.

Overshadowing the many kitchen scenes is a poster showing a choking man highlighting the Heimlich maneuver. Jorge works under this poster and spends much of his time looking at it. This poster is a metaphor for Jorge's feelings of frustration and loneliness and the almost literal asphyxiation he is experiencing. Only in physical expulsion is there any chance of recovery. With the Heimlich there is hope, hope of clearing the blockage and regaining the breath of life. And the movie ends on a note of hope, with the Heimlich maneuver causing Jorge to finally confront his demons and subjugate his suffocation.

At one point in Choking Man, Jorge sits in the local Catholic church listening to the priest (Jaime Tirelli, who was the father in Bella). The priest looks directly at Jorge and preaches on God's plans. It is almost as if he is telling him that God has plans that will rise above the suffocating situation he finds himself in, if he will only trust the Lord. He has a raison d'etre, despite the seeming monotony and aimlessness of his life. Even though a struggling immigrant, there is ultimately a plan and a purpose for him. And that is true even for us, who follow Jesus. God has plans for us. He knows them (Jer. 29:11). They are plans that include hope and a future. There is a purpose for us in this life. But we must cling to him and to this hope through faith whatever the circumstances might be. We can trust in Him and these plans.

Further, a nameless black man appears in one scene. He walks up to Jorge in the subway station crying out Psalm 23:4: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for your rod and your staff they comfort me." And then he gives him a gift. This is an act of sheer grace. It tells Jorge that even when things look bleakest, his God will be with him. And it reminds us that God will be with us in our darkest moments. His grace is all we need. He will comfort us, if we let him.

So, introvert or extravert, how do we respond to the times when we feel like we are choking, dying, and cannot take even a single breath? Do we struggle against this feeling, hopeless ready to give up? Or do we look to the God who gives hope and can make a choking man breathe once again?

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets -- fearing a name

Director: Chris Columbus, 2002.

This is the second installment of the Harry Potter series, and is both longer and darker than Sorcerer's Stone. All the main players are back, and some new ones are introduced. We meet Lucious Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) for the first time. And sadly Richard Harris returns for the last time as Professor Dumbledore. Just weeks after the release of this film he died, and his role was taken over by Michael Gambon for subsequent films.

With less need for establishing context and characters, it starts with a shorter introduction and gets to the story-line much sooner. Harry has his own bedroom in the Dursley home now, no longer sleeping under the stairs. Dobby, a house-elf, suddenly appears at the most misopportune moment, and warns Harry not to return to Hogwarts because someone wants to kill him. Causing chaos in the house, Dobby disappears leaving Harry literally imprisoned in his room. Only with the help of Ron Weasly and a flying Ford Anglia does he escape and eventually arrive at Hogwarts.

Even at Hogwarts new surprises emerge, such as wizard duels. It is during one of these that Harry learns that he is a parselmouth, a talent usually limited to Slytherins: he can speak to snakes. Then
Harry starts hearing mysterious voices that no one else can hear. When bloody messages appear on the walls, things get darker and a sense of dread descends on the school. Someone has opened the chamber of secrets.

As the plot develops, mudbloods, muggle-born wizards and witches, begin to be attacked and become petrified literally . When it is clear that only the heir of Slytherin can open this chamber, suspicion falls on Harry the parselmouth. So, it becomes the job of Harry, Ron and Hermione to get to the truth before anything more serious befalls the students and the school.

When Hermione herself gets attacked, Harry bewails his need for her mental acuities. She is the smart one, after all. But it is Dumbledore who comforts him: "It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices." So, once again, choice is a key issue in a Harry Potter film. But while it was mostly passive choice in the fist film, here it is active choice. And through those choices comes evidence of character. Harry (and Ron) choose to follow the paths of goodness, even when this leads them into danger. Facing their fears, their choices take them into the lair of monsters. Choice indeed reveals character. Jesus said it in his sermon on the mount: "By their fruit you will recognize them" (Matt. 7:20). The fruit of our lives is the result of our choices and displays who we really are.

Although Chamber of Secrets is more fun to watch than Sorcerer's Stone, it is still like the Ford Anglia, not firing on all cylinders. Watson overacts as Hermione. This could be overlooked in Sorcerer's Stone with so much novelty. But here it is distracting. And her best scene is when she is frozen in bed. Further, the dialog that the actors have to work with is too often cheesy. And then there is the poor quality of cgi rendering Dobby. He just does not look real. Unlike Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, Dobby is not a believable creature.

A key issue raised in Chamber of Secrets is the value of a name. When Harry first meets the menacing Malfoy senior, Lucius says, peering at his famous scar, "Forgive me, your scar is legend. As, of course, is the wizard who gave it to you." Harry mentioning the name that remains nameless, responds, "Voldemort killed my parents." When Malfoy retorts, "You must be very brave to mention his name. Or very foolish," Hermione jumps in, "Fear of a name only increases the fear of the thing itself." Most wizards except Harry would not mention Voldemort's name. They lived in fear of the name and of the wizard that the name represented. The Israelites in the Old Testament also refused to mention the name of the LORD, Yahweh. Even when writing his name in the Torah, they dropped the vowels and used only the four consonants "YHWH," which is often referred to as the tetragrammaton.

God's name, as most biblical names, bears a meaning. It symbolizes all that the person is and was. Yahweh means "I am who I am" (Exod. 3:14). This name indicates his pre-existence, before all things. There are other names (and titles) for God scattered throughout the Old and New Testaments, and they illustrate different facets of his character.

Fear of Voldemort is one thing; fear of the Lord is another. Proverbs 1:7 says "the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge." Later, it is said to be the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). This is a healthy fear, a respectful fear. It is right to fear God. However, it is not the kind of fear that drives us away from him in hiding. Rather, it is the kind of fear that forces us to take care in our choices so that we might live to glorify God. This fear is a form of awe, as we realize who God is: the holy one (1 Pet. 1:16), the one who created all (Heb. 11:3), the one who will judge all (2 Tim. 4:1). Contrasting the fear of Satan and his accomplices with the fear of God, Jesus tells his disciples, and by extension his followers today, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt. 10:28). Like Harry, we need to not be afraid of the Voldemorts in our lives. Instead, we must fear the name of the Lord.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Friday, December 26, 2008

Valkyrie -- Courage and Cowardice

Director: Bryan Singer, 2008.

When the plot is about an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the middle of World War 2, all but the most uninformed will realize that this was unsuccessful and can only end in tragedy. Here Singer (X-Men, X-Men 2, Usual Suspects) reunites with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (Oscar winner for Usual Suspects) to deliver a compelling story which is based on actual events. And to his credit he maintains the intensity and suspense throughout despite the inevitable conclusion. The question the viewer engages with is how will this conspiracy develop, rather than how will it end.

Valkyrie opens with the words of the German soldier's oath set against red swastika flags, and soldiers shouting these words. They are prepared to die for their country and their Führer.

ValkyrieCut to North Africa, where Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) is writing treasonous thoughts in his journal. Clearly, he is no Nazi. He has come to a conclusion: "I'm a soldier, but in serving my country, I have betrayed my conscience." He has faced the truth and it is not pretty. At that very moment, incoming allied fighter planes swoop down to strafe his men and tanks, and he is severely wounded. The next time we see him, he is missing his right hand, two fingers of his left hand and one eye.

In Munich, General Olbricht (Bill Nighy) is looking to recruit an officer to plan and lead the assassination attempt. Stauffenberg is his man. Stauffenberg eventually joins Olbricht and fellow conspirators Major-General Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), Colonel von Quirnheim (Christian Berkel), and General Beck (Terence Stamp). They have a plan for killing Hitler with two small bombs, but no way of seizing control of the government.

The first part of the film focuses on Stauffenberg the man. He is a husband and a father. He shares his participation in the conspiracy with his wife Nina (Carice van Houten, from the recent Dutch WW2 film, Black Book), since she stands to lose her life if he is caught.

It is during one of these family scenes that Stauffenberg has an epiphany as the record player plays Wagner's opera Die Walküre (The Valkyrie). Valkyrie is the Old Norse term for the "chooser of the slain in battle," and is immortalized in Wagner's famous composition from this opera "The Ride of the Valkyries" (used in the helicopter napalm scene in Apocalypse Now). Valkyrie was also the code-name for Hitler's emergency defense plan for mobilizing the reserve troops. Stauffenberg realized that if modified it might solve his dilemma.

The second half of the film moves into the execution of the plan. On July 20, 1944, Hitler convened a war council at the heavily guarded "Wolf's Lair." Stauffenberg takes the bombs with him. Then, relying on support from General Olbricht back in Berlin, Stauffenberg expects him to force General Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), the commander of the reserve army, to execute their plans. But Fromm is hedging his bets and comes down with Hitler. Olbricht, on the other hand, has lost his nerve. Stauffenberg is on his own. And the closing act shows Stauffenberg as a natural leader who takes all decisions upon himself.

As a conspiracy, Valkyrie presents a tight narrative. With minimal action, it's carried by its suspense. Despite the cream of the acting crop on display, the performances are mostly workman-like. Cruise gets little opportunity to dazzle with his 20 megawatt smile, and his acting is stiff as a result. He seems one-dimensional. Apparently he was cast (or perhaps miscast) due to the similarity of his profile with Stauffenberg's. His is the only American accent throughout, while the majority are British. Bill Nighy is solid but a little unconvincing as a senior officer. Better is Ken Branagh as a fellow general. But David Bamber steals his scenes as a menacing but almost mute Hitler, carrying himself with the air of an emperor that brings dire dread to those around him.

At the start of Valkyrie Stauffenberg declares to a fellow soldier that it is time to face the truth. There is a truth. Truth is not relative. Truth cannot be hidden. Though deceit and lies may abound, though politicians and leaders like Hitler may spin the truth or even distort it, the truth will and must shine forth. Jesus said that he is the truth (Jn. 14:6) and the truth would set people free (Jn. 8:32). As followers of Jesus, we must face the truth as Stauffenberg did and share that freeing truth with others, despite the consequences.

Further, Stauffenberg realizes that his humanity and conscience transcend his nationality. Though a German, he must be true to his conscience and fight against the German Führer, though this is an act of treason. As followers of Jesus, we are first and foremost citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). Whatever nationality our passports migh say, our allegiance belongs to God. If our country asks us to do something that is contrary to our conscience or God's commands, we are morally obligated to refuse, even if this means arrest and imprisonment. Stauffenberg gave his life for his beliefs; he chose conscience over country. Are we prepared to do likewise? Jesus does indeed command us to pick up our cross and follow him, meaning to be ready to lay down our lives for him (Mark 8:34).

Finally, Valkyrie offers a striking contrast between courage and cowardice. Stauffenberg stands as a symbol of courage. He was willing to risk all, even the lives of his family. He was a man of principle, who once committed followed the road to the bitter end. Olbricht, on the other hand, had committed but buckled at the eleventh hour. Faced with the momentous decision of giving an order not his, he wavered. He would not do it. He let his team and his troops down. Worse yet, Fromm was a selfish coward who sat on the fence unwilling to commit. He wanted to see certain victory before jumping on to a band wagon. Who are we more like: Stauffenberg, Olbricht or Fromm? In our Christian life, we face a real war, albeit a spiritual one. The apostle Paul tells us we face the forces of darkness and must be armed for this (Eph. 6:10-18). We are indeed Christian soldiers. So, are we courageously going all out for Jesus regardless of opposition, even persecution? Or do we find ourselves sitting on the fence, cowardly refusing to stand for the side we have chosen? The words Stauffenberg says prophetically apply to us too, "Only God can judge us now."

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Thursday, December 25, 2008

White Christmas -- working the angles

Director: Michael Curtiz, 1954

What's a Christmas movie without Christ? Answer: MAS -- Mostly About Santa. And there are a lot of Christmas movies focused on the big guy in the red suit, such as The Polar Express or The Santa Clause. But when Santa is not the focus either, what is left for a Christmas movie? Not much, unless it's a warm-hearted musical like White Christmas.

White Christmas was famous for two things: being filmed in VistaVision, a wide-angle filming process and the Irving Berlin title song. But "White Christmas" was first used in the 1942 Holiday Inn, for which it garnered the Oscar for original song. That film starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, but Astaire turned down the co-starring role here due to the script.

The film opens on Christmas Eve 1944, where an impromptu musical entertainment show is in process among the US troops in occupied Europe. Set against the backdrop of bombs and artillery, Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) sings the famous "White Christmas" while performing with Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye). This is the last night under the command of popular General Tom Waverley (Dean Jagger). After they close their act, they come under shelling and Davis saves Wallace's life at the cost of an injured arm. And he will use this injury as "his angle" on a career. When Wallace comes to visit him in the medical and offers him any help, Davis asks him to let them sing his original composition when the war is over. Using his "angle" to guilt-trip Wallace, he gets his wish. And the two never look back. From cabaret to Broadway, they become popular performers. From singing to composing to producing, they become the Rogers and Hammerstein of their day, famous everywhere they go.'s now 1954 and a week before Christmas. Their show is winding up for a Christmas break in Florida. They are like an old married couple, arguing and fighting but still loving each other. Wallace is a workaholic, wheeling and dealing and working the angles. Davis is a commitmentless womanizer who wants a little more spare-time. At a request from an old army buddy, they agree to listen to a sister act, Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) and Betty Haynes (Rosemary Clooney), before taking the train to New York. As they sing their song, "Sisters," these sisters win over the men.

When Phil and Judy go into a musical song and dance, and this usually happens in old musicals, Bob discusses business with Betty. It is in this conversation that one of the themes of the movie emerges. She wants to know what his angle is, and he admits everyone has an angle. In today's lingo, we would say "there's no such thing as a free lunch." the police looking for the sisters to arrest them, they need an angle and a friend. Through some contrivances, the sisters get the men's tickets to Vermont, and the men agree to go there with them to enjoy the snow. Coincidence abounds when the owner of the sun-soaked and snow-challenged resort turns out to be Gen. Waverley, retired and almost bankrupt. So, Davis and Wallace decide to bring their production to his hotel as away to attract an audience. A further idea is to reunite all the men from the division for their 10th anniversary on Christmas Eve. The narrative plot is defined. Can the two soldier-performers help save their popular general? Can Bob and Betty hit it off? And will there be snow on Christmas Eve? These three plot-lines weave together to arrive at a well-known and predictable climax.

As preachers and parents know, repetition is powerful. And this is used here in the same way. The two best songs, "White Christmas" and "Sisters" are repeated. Indeed, "White Christmas" bookends the movie. Along the way, there are some other strong songs, including "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," which was nominated for an Oscar, and "Choreography," which showcased the dancing skills of Danny Kaye. Clooney performs her songs well, but the anorexically-thin Vera-Ellen does no actual singing, just energetic dancing. Christmas has a corny script, that's true. Astaire recognized this, but it still was the highest grossing film of 1954. It had cheesy dialog. There is even a cheese scene where Bob is discussing the different types of dairy-inspired dreams. Despite these deficiencies, White Christmas is like a grilled cheese sandwich: not a gastronomic delicacy, but easy to watch, easy to digest, easy to enjoy.

There are three ethical issues that White Christmas raises: motivation, gossip and generosity. The issue of motivation appears early when Bob tells Betty everyone has an angle. Everyone has an angle, a motivation. Motivation is the hidden reason why we do things. It can be positive or negative. It makes the difference between whether something good is done for the benefit of others or the benefit of self. In this regard, we cannot really judge another's motives. We can only look at our own motives, knowing that though we may deceive the world we cannot deceive God. He knows our inner motives; he knows why we do what we do (Heb. 4:13).

Gossip is a second issue. In the middle of the movie, the housekeeper deliberately listens in on a conversation between Bob and Ed Harrison, the TV Show host. But she only hears a part of the conversation. She misconstrues what she hears. This would have been bad enough on its own, since it changes her approach to Bob. But the busybody becomes a gossip and tells Betty, thereby passing on her error, a falsehood. This is a plot device to cause the film narrative to add tension allowing for a captivating climax. But in real life this can cause catastrophe. Biblically, we are commanded not to gossip (Prov. 11:13, 2 Cor. 12:20), to keep to our own affairs (1 Tim. 5:13). Being a busybody, nosing into the affairs of others, usually does not lead to positive outcomes. Indeed, the only person who profits is the busybody, who becomes the knowledge broker and center of attention. It is a form of self-centeredness.

Finally, White Christmas leaves us with the spotlight on generosity. Although misunderstood, Bob and Phil were doing their production for free, out of a love for their general. They showed the true spirit of Christmas, giving generously to help a friend in need. This was a gift that was priceless. But it reminds us that Christmas is about giving generously to those we love without expecting anything in return. And it reminds us that Christmas does include the Christ. Without the birth of Jesus, Christmas would really have no meaning. Jesus the Christ was born as a gift from God to all of humanity (Luke 2:10-12). This Christmas day, it is worth reflecting on this gift that lay in the manger and now lays beneath your Christmas tree. Have you received the gift of Jesus yet? If so, your sins are washed clean, and it surely will be a pure white Christmas!

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Polar Express -- Believe
by Ryan Blue (INCLUDES SPOILERS) Robert Zemeckis, 2004.

Every so often a Christmas movie is released that instantly catapults to the status of “classic.” One of my favorites in recent years is The Polar Express. Christmas classics project a common theme. They remind us again of the true meaning of the holiday season, typically a main character highlighting how friends and family are more important than status and stuff. Whether it is A Christmas Carol, Christmas with the Kranks, or Christmas Vacation, these movies send the message that people are what matter most. Giving is more important than getting. Beyond just emphasizing the true meaning of the season, The Polar Express explores what we should truly believe in.

The Polar Express opens with a boy lying in bed wrestling with the question of whether Santa is real. He wants to believe but it seems that the evidence points against it. He wants to hear the bells of Santa’s sleigh, but he’s afraid he won’t hear them. He starts to think that maybe there is no Santa. He reaches for a magazine cover revealing a boy who has learned that Santa is not real; the disappointment on the boy's face is unmistakable. He consults his encyclopedia to discover that the North Pole is devoid of life. He overhears his parents’ whisper that these days are almost over and that will be the end of the magic. The evidence mounts against belief.

But then he is given a unique opportunity to find out for certain whether Santa Claus is real. A large locomotive train appears in front of his house offering to take him to the North Pole to meet Claus himself. The conductor of the train notes that the boy didn’t have his picture taken with Santa that year and it was his sister, not him, who set out the milk and cookies. The conductor then tells the boy that this is his “crucial year.” His need to know overcomes his hesitations and he boards the train. on the train the conductor gives the boy a ticket with the letters B and E punched out. On the ride he encounters a hobo. They begin to discuss the existence of Santa. The boy states that he wants to believe but, as the hobo points out, is afraid he might be wrong; the truth may be that Santa is not real and what would Christmas be without Santa? The hobo sympathizes with the boy’s dilemma and says to him, “Seeing is believing, am I right?” If he sees then he will believe. the train ride the boy speaks with the conductor who tells a story of being rescued from falling off the train by someone or “something” unseen. In contrast to the hobo, the conductor points out that sometimes “the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.” For our hero, the dilemma is clearly presented: will he believe even if he can’t see?

Next, the boy finds himself in the car of the train. The hobo controls a puppet who says to the boy, “you are just like me” in that “you are a doubter; you don’t believe.” The puppet serves as a mirror for the boy to show him his true self in hopes that he won’t like what he sees. Stated in terms of the moral premise, doubting leads to missing the true joy but believing leads to experiencing this joy., arriving at the North Pole, the children get to join the elves in witnessing Santa emerge and begin his delivery of presents. First the reindeer are brought out with sleigh bells attached. However, our hero can’t hear the bells or see Santa. Then one bell flies through the air and falls silently before him. He picks it up and stares at it. After a long pause he confesses, “I believe,” and shaking the bell he hears it ring. He then hears the reindeers' sleigh bells. His hope has finally come true. makes sense that the boy would want one of the bells for a Christmas present to remind him that Santa was real. Giving him the bell, Santa explains that he and the bell are simply symbols of the spirit of Christmas. The true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart. When the boy returns to the train the conductor completes punching the letters on his ticket to spell: BELIEVE.

On a child’s level, The Polar Express is about the journey to discover whether Santa is real. On an adult level, it is about knowing if the spirit of Christmas (which Santa represents) is real. The answer is the same for both: sometimes “seeing is believing” and “sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.” In short: you just have to BELIEVE.

Of course, the message of The Polar Express is not new by any means. When people began to exclaim that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, one of Jesus’ disciples simply refused to believe. In fact, he said that unless he could see Jesus he would not believe. One day, Jesus appeared to him so that he could see and immediately the disciple believed. Jesus went on to tell him that he believed because he has seen but “even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.” (John 20:29 The Message) Also, years later, the Apostle Peter wrote to fellow believers, “though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” (1 Peter 1:8)
Copyright ©2008, Ryan Blue

Monday, December 22, 2008

Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone -- good, evil and power

Director: Chris Columbus, 2001.

This is the first of the Harry Potter films from the J.K. Rowling book of the same name. When Rowling penned this first book in 1997 she was a poor single mother. Seven books and five films later, she is a multimillionaire having sold more than 400 million copies. But while the first book was the shortest, this film is longer than two later ones. And this is its shortcoming. It tries too hard to be like the book and feels pedestrian and overly long. Although it is obviously establishing a first chapter in a series, it spends far too much time doing so before getting to the main story of Harry's year one at Hogwart's School for Witchcraft.

Where the books gave us new names like Dumbledore and Voldemort, Hagrid and Snape, the movie gives us faces for these names. Who can now picture Rubeus Hagrid without seeing the towering Robbie Coltrane or Severus Snape without the Alan Rickman. It also gave us a memorable John Williams score, to go alongside his other famous film compositions of the last 20 years (e.g., Star Wars, Jaws, ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and so many more).

By now most people know the story-line of the Harry Potter series. It is a classic good versus evil plot set among the wizards of England. Harry is the son of James and Lily Potter, who died at the hand of Lord Voldemort (He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named). But instead of killing the baby Harry, Voldemort's curse somehow backfired, leaving Harry alive with a pronounced lightning bolt scar on his forehead. To protect him, Professor Dumbledore takes him to his relatives, the dastardly Dursleys, who despise him and treat him worse than a servant. But on his 11th birthday, everything changes. He is old enough to be invited to attend Hogwarts and learn the skills of wizarding.

Harry's life as a second-class citizen with the Dursleys is juxtaposed with his new-found freedom as a famous wizard offspring. And many wizards see him as a symbol of hope, a young savior who will somehow and someday bring them their salvation. As Jesus was recognized as a young baby (Lk. 2:16-38) and again caused a stir in adolescence in the temple (Lk. 2:41-50), so Harry's presence in Diagon Alley and again at Hogwarts brings comparison to our Lord.

This comparison also brings up a controversy that has surrounded the books and films since their release. Harry Potter has caused division in Christian circles. Some have openly opposed them, saying they glorify witchcraft and the occult; such Christians have refused to allow their children to spend time with this entertainment citing scriptural injunction against sorcery (Lev. 19:26). Others see the books and films as escapist fantasy, in the vein of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, or even J.R.R. Tolkien's classic "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Although the Harry Potter books are not in the same class as those, they are still simple fantasy with no proselytizing agenda; and they are fun to read or watch. I personally feel that the books are imaginative and do not confuse the intended audience. They depict good and evil and convey a moral message, as well as themes that are supportable biblically, as we will explore below (and in later reviews of the subsequent films). Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) befriends loyal Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and studious Hermione Grainger (Emma Watson), he sets the stage for this movie and those to come. This is a trio that will stick together like glue. At the end of the film when Harry compares himself and his cleverness to Hermione's, she responds, "There are more important things: friendship and bravery." These are the themes of this first film, and they will reappear throughout the long series. Much could be said of these themes. They resonate with the human heart. They fill the works of great literature. They show up in the bible. They are true to life, because they are at the heart of life.

A key plot-point at the heart of Sorcerer's Stone is that of choice, which shows up in three key scenes. Passively, choice is imposed on Harry twice. First, in Diagon Alley: "The wand chooses the wizard." Harry must accept the wand that chooses him. Second, in the Hogwart's dining room, the Sorting Hat chooses which school house to put him in. Despite the promise of greatness if placed in Slytherin, Harry wants anything but this. He would choose goodness over greatness. These passive choices are much like God's sovereign rule over life. We live in the decrees and plans of God, and like Harry must humbly accept what God brings into our lives. Yet, Harry had also had active choice. He made a clear choice when confronted with a decision on whom to befriend. When Draco Malfoy, arrogant and destined for Slytherin, holds out his hand of friendship to Harry, having just demeaned Ron and Hermione, Harry says "I think I can choose the wrong sort for myself." He again chooses goodness. Poor choices in friends leads to deterioration of character. (This was displayed clearly in Son of Rambow.) God has graced us with free will, and we must choose carefully how we exercise this. sub-plot centers around the hidden Mirror of Erised. This is no ordinary mirror. A magical mirror, it reflects the desires of the heart not the visage of the viewer. When Harry stumbles upon it, it shows him his dead parents. This ensnares him and captivates his time and attention. Going back time after time, Dumbledore finally catches him and warns him, "It does not do to dwell on dreams, Harry, and forget to live." This is excellent advice. There is a place for dreams, if they inspire us and motivate us for the better. But if we get so wrapped up in the dream, as Harry did, then we stop enjoying the present. We forget to live in the here and now. Dreams are supposed to help, not hinder, our pursuit of life.

After much time spent introducing the school, its features like moving staircases and moving artwork, its professors and staff, the film moves to its main plot. This involves the sorcerer's stone (called the philosopher's stone everywhere except in the US), which is a magical stone that can imbue immortality. Protected by Fluffy, the giant three-headed dog, the fearsome threesome pursue this before it falls into the wrong hands. On the way, there is the most lively chess game on film, wizard's chess. Sorcerer's Stone draws to its climax, Harry faces his foe, and is told: "There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it." Here is the philosophy of "might makes right." It is the immorality of power, and it is a lie, both in the movie as well as in the Bible. As Satan lied to Adam and Eve in the garden (Gen. 3:1-5), so he continues to lie today (Jn. 8:44). There absolutely is good and evil. The first act of the Bible is the story of a good creation that is marred and twisted by evil; the rest of the story is that of the ultimate redemption and restoration of this creation by a good God and his ultimate triumph of good over evil. Yet, even today we live in the midst of this story, seeing the impact of evil on our world, even on our own lives and in our own characters. Yet we see glimmers of the goodness of God in acts of grace and mercy, in lives touched by his hand. So, we know innately that there is good and there is evil. Having power does not negate good and evil. Power itself is amoral, but when combined with the innate sinfulness of humanity it works its "magic." As Baron Act famously said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Yet, Jesus had absolute power. He humbled himself to take on frail flesh (Phil. 2:6-8), and today his power is made perfect in his followers in their weakness, not their strength (2 Cor. 12:9). There is good and evil and only in weakness will Jesus-followers find power.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, December 20, 2008

It's A Wonderful Life -- touching lives

Director: Frank Capra, 1946.

Voted second in a recent poll of best movies never to have won an Oscar (Shawshank Redemption came in first), It's A Wonderful Life is a classic Christmas film, a feel-good fairy story. An independent film that flopped at the box office, it has been picked up by the networks and is the one Christmas tradition, it seems, that continues through good times and bad. You can count on Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey to pick up your spirits. If you haven't seen this movie, where have you been! It's a must see movie. But keep the tissues handy. I cry through many of the scenes, though I've seen it times over. Be warned, those of you who have not seen it yet: this review might give away some spoilers.

The film opens with a view of the heavens. One "star/angel" is talking to another about the happenings on earth. A man, George Bailey, is about to make a calamitous decision to end his life. To intervene, Joseph commissions angel second class Clarence Oddbody to save George's life and thereby earn his wings. He gives Clarence a retrospective view of George's life to help him in this mission. And this review takes us through the first two acts of the film.

George grew up in Bedford Falls, New York, with grandiose plans -- to travel and explore the world, then go to college, before spending his life and career building towers and bridges. He knew what he was going to do. He had the ambitions and plans of youth. But the very day he is leaving town, after working for years in his father's small building and loan firm, his father dies. George defers his trip. When the firm is about to be forced to close by Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the cold-blooded miser who owns almost all of the town and wants more, there is only one hope. Only if George stays to run the company will it survive. So loyal George puts his town, his community and his friends before himself. He sacrifices his plans on the altar of community need. Later, when younger brother Harry returns from college and is expected to take over so George can himself go to school, George puts Harry's career ahead of his own, and commits to staying at the helm of the firm. He sacrifices his dreams on the altar of sibling need., to add insult to injury, on the day of his wedding to Mary (Donna Reed in her first starring role), when they are about to leave on their honeymoon, George sees something happening at the bank. Economic depression has hit home and hit hard. There is a run on the bank and then on his savings and loan. Fear causes his mom and pop investors to demand their money. Of course, the money isn't available. So, George, at the prompting of understanding and generous Mary, gives away their honeymoon-travel money to save his firm and his friends. Now he has sacrificed his savings.

This extended prolog builds up George's character and sets the scene for the final act. After the war, George and Mary now have 4 children and have helped many in the town to move out of Potter's slums into their own homes. They have little to show for it, except for an old house that is being transformed into a home by Mary's renovation skills. But when Uncle Billy loses $8000 (a fortune in those days) in Potter's bank things become very bleak. Potter finds the money and realizes he can keep it and bankrupt Bailey. George finds this out on Christmas Eve, with a hawkish bank auditor in his office. Realizing he is ruined without the money, he goes to Potter begging for help. Seeing his main asset, a life insurance policy, Potter tells him: "You are worth more dead than alive!" And finally George is en route for a jump from a bridge. Jimmy Stewart communicates so well with his facial expressions and mannerisms a man with no hope, whose life has hit a dead end, aman whose dreams have evaporated and who finds himself in a nightmare.

George's focus on his circumstances causes him to unravel psychologically. So much so that he becomes angry and abusive with Uncle Billy. He returns home frustrated and fretful. To Mary, decorating the home for Christmas, he shouts, "You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?" I have been there, so frustrated that I have verbalized these sentiments. Though not genuine, in the heat of the moment and when losing sight of the big picture, it is easy to feel powerless and defeated.

George's impotence and despair leads to thoughts of suicide. However, unlike Roy in The Fall, who wants to take his own life because he has lost what he thought was the center of his world, George wants to commit suicide to help his family through his life insurance. A desperate act to solve a desperate problem. But regardless of the motive, suicide is a sin, as discussed in my review of The Fall. Suicide is not a solution to a problem, even a problem like George's. Suicide is a selfish way out, an escape from the problem. It leaves the survivors, like Mary and her children, to face a lifetime of soul-searching questions, berating themselves with feelings of guilt over what they could have done to notice and prevent the act. three. Step in gentle Clarence. He comes down to earth on what seems an easy mission. But it is more difficult than it appears. The opening he needs appears when George wishes verbally that he had never been born. Clarence grants him his wish: "You've been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would be like without you." And, in a twinkle, the world of Bedford Falls no longer exists; it is now the world of Pottersville. George's friends are now lonely, living sad, even sinful lives, having never known him. Worse, Harry is not a war hero. Harry is dead, since George was not there to save him. As Clarence tells him, "Strange isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

Touching lives is the main theme of the film. George has touched almost all of the people in Bedford Falls through his savings and loan business. And he has unknowingly touched others across the country through the lives of those he himself has touched, such as Harry. Like George, our lives touch many people. Obviously, we touch the lives of our spouse, our children, our parents, our siblings. But there are also the people we work with, and the people we don't know but interact with during the course of our days. And then there are the people all these touch. It can explode exponentially! So, what kind of touch are we giving? What kind of legacy are we leaving? Is it positive, pointing to Jesus? Or is it negative, turning people away, even hurting them? Even more important perhaps, are we intentionally thinking about this, about how we can have a positive impact for Christ? We are called to be missional in our thinking and living, taking the gospel of Jesus to those around us, and being ready to give a defense for our faith (1 Pet. 3:15). Are we living in that state of readiness, expecting to be able to touch a soul in need, even today?

There is some bad theology in the film. Clarence, a dead human, has become an angel. Biblically, angels are distinct from humanity (Heb. 2:6-8). They are not a development of humankind at death. God created angels, and they don't marry or reproduce (Matt. 22:30). They have a set number. And they fell before mankind, under the rebellious leadership of Satan (Rev. 12:9). They don't earn their wings, either. Some angels have wings (Isa. 6:2). Those that do, have them as part of their make-up. And finally, though the idea of guardian angels is found in some biblical verses (Acts 12:7-11, Dan. 12:1), it is not clear how prevalent they are.

It's A Wonderful Life may have some bad theology, but it has some good and very relevant lessons for today, even 60 years after its first release. Indeed, we find ourselves in an economic recession that is leaving many people depressed and desperate just like George. We can learn from George, especially as he is contrasted with Potter. George was at heart a man of character. Like his father, he was a generous selfless man, giving to those in need. In contrast, Potter was a selfish, greedy, money-grabbing man with no heart. He cared for no one but himself. For him, life was simply a series of business transactions. Potter wanted to win, to have everything he could and more. But Bailey senior died a richer man than him. Biblically, our money and possessions are not really ours. They are God's and we are merely his stewards. We are called to be generous and cheerful givers (1 Tim. 6:18, 2 Cor. 9:7), like George, helping the poor. Too often, this world (and America in particular) feeds our consumerism and constrains us into the mold of Potter, wanting more and more, hoarding what have ever more tightly. We need to be transformed into the mold of George Bailey. It's A Wonderful Life deals with life, and how wonderful it is. George's "ordinary" life had touched so many. As the wise Clarence said to George, "no man is a failure who has friends." Life is not all about money, things, achievements. It is about relationships, friends, loved ones. George was a rich man indeed. He had a beautiful wife, four healthy and cute children, and many friends. Only in his time of trial, his moment of need, do these friends come out of the woodwork and show their true colors. But they do. They know George was in need and he never asked for anything for himself. Almost everybody in Bedford Falls prays for George; almost everybody in Bedford Falls gives to George. How much more can a man want than this: family and friends who will pray and give, love and care. As Clarence says to George at the end, "You see, George, you've really had a wonderful life." When we get down and depressed, it is worth remembering this advice from Clarence. Our lives, just like George's, are too precious to throw away.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate) -- living with decisions and passion!

Director: Alfonso Arau, 1992.

It was the Bard who said, "If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it." In this Mexican classic, Shakespeare's saying could be rewritten to become, "If food be the food of love, cook on." For food and cooking are central to the plot, being metaphors for life and expressions of passionate emotion.

In the film's opening, Elena (Regina Torné) is giving birth to her third-born, Tita (Lumi Cavazos), on the large wooden kitchen table. It is late 19th century. When her husband is told that one of his other daughters is not his it is too much for him. He has a heart attack and dies. The secret passion of his wife with another man that spawned Gertrudis (Claudette Maillé) has now left her a widow with three girls, one a baby.

Elena's adultery not only led to her husband's death, it also bore the fruit of bitterness in her heart. Living a morally hypocritical life, she would later banish the memories of Gertrudis and chastise Tita for secret passions. Sins of the parents often get passed down to the children, either genetically or by imitation. It is pure hypocrisy to keep our own sins secret while holding others, even our children, accountable to their same sins.

As baby Tita is cared for in the kitchen by the nanny/cook Nacha (Ada Carrasco), Nacha says, "You will be so beautiful that the first boy who sees you will want to marry you." To which Mamá Elena replies, "Nacha! Don't say that. As my youngest daughter, Tita will care for me until the day I die. She won't marry." This Mexican family tradition will set the tone for Tita's whole life. Born in the kitchen, she is destined to live in the kitchen using the magical amorous powers she is gifted with. she is a young woman she spots Pedro (Marco Leonardi), a handsome young Mexican who immediately declares his love for her. It is true love at first sight. Determined to marry her, he comes to her home to seek her mother's blessing. Taking tea with Elena, he is told this is impossible. Instead, Elena offers him her first-born, Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi). Unlike Arranged, which portrays arranged marriages in present-day New York, this is an arranged un-marriage in early 20th century Mexico. Pedro accepts, but only so he can live in the same house as Tita, the woman he loves. Though to do so he must share his bed with a wife he does not love.

To make matters worse, Tita is commanded by Mama Elena to prepare the wedding banquet. Tita has a magical effect with food. Her tears added to the cake batter, cause the cake to have an emetic effect. Without exception all who eat it become overcome with sadness, crying and vomiting. . life progresses, Tita takes over the kitchen and expresses her passion for Pedro through the dishes she prepares. Her love for cooking is surpassed only by her love for him. These delicacies are sensual indulgences that those who partake experience as never before. Much like Babette in the Danish film Babette's Feast, this is her gift to Pedro and her family.

When Pedro, Rosaura and their baby boy are forced to move to Texas by Mama Elena to curb Tita's passion, it leads to tragedy and Tita finally stands up to Mama. But free at last she is determined to live in silence. Even her doctor John (Mario Iván Martínez), who has been trying to woo her, cannot get through to her. Eventually, it is food, a simple bowl of broth, that brings her back to her senses. Water for Chocolate is a feast for the senses. It is a slow but engaging love story. Filled with warm colors, lots of oranges and reds, it conveys their passion visually even as Tita's concoctions convey her passions gastronomically. With magical realism, ghosts appear to give counsel or criticism to Tita. But it ends leaving the viewer with two narrative questions: did Tita marry John, and did Pedro make the right decision?

Living with decisions is one of the issues raised in this movie. Pedro is in some ways like the patriarch Jacob. Jacob fell in love with Rachel and wanted to marry her, but had to marry her sister Leah first. He had to wait 7 years only to be duped by her father Laban. He had to work another 7 years for Rachel's hand (Genesis 29). Jacob lived with his decision because he was in love with Rachel. But he eventually married her. Pedro, on the other hand, had to live with his decision to be near, but not have as wife, his true love. How long will we wait for someone we love? Are we willing to simply be near, to look on while someone else has the prize? This is difficult to do.

If Pedro offers one insight into life, Tita offers another. She shows how to approach life: with passion and zest. Given a lemon of a life, she made lemonade out of it. She discovered her gift in creating epicurial art, to be made then eaten, and used it to give joy and pleasure to others. What others would consider a chore, constantly cooking for the entire family, Tita considered an act of service and blessing. This is consistent with Paul's command, "whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). We must live with passion, enjoying life, discovering and using our gifts to bless others, doing whatever comes our way for God's glory.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Shallow Grave -- degenerating relationships

Director: Danny Boyle, 1995.

Shallow Grave is a shallow film that moves from comedy to thriller midway through. Noteworthy as the feature debut of director Danny Boyle as well as first starring role for Ewan McGregor, McGregor holds this movie together.

McGregor stars as Alex, a cynical journalist and leader. He shares a Glasgow apartment (flat) with two friends, David (Christopher Eccleston), a boring accountant, and Juliet (Kerry Fox) a doctor. This jocular trio is full of fun and enjoying their friendship. David's opening monologue highlights the main themes of the film: "I am not ashamed to declare my feelings; take trust for instance, or friendship. These are the important things in life. These are the things that matter, that help you on your way. If you can't trust your friends, well, what then... What then?" Trust and friendship.

As the film starts they are seeking a fourth-flatmate. All prospective applicants have to undergo a cruel but comical interrogation, being peppered with questions as random as, "Now when you sacrifice a goat and you rip its heart out with your bare hands, do you then summon hellfire? Or do you just send out for a pizza?" Or, "how would you react, then, if I told you I was the Antichrist? . . . . When was the last time you heard these exact words: 'You are the sunshine of my life'?" Not surprisingly, none pass this Scottish Inquisition.

But Hugo manages to win Juliet's attention and she persuades her fellow flat mates to let him become the fourth. No sooner is he in, than he is not seen for days, locked behind his bedroom door. When they finally kick in his door, they find him flat on his back, naked and dead on his bed. And under the bed is a suitcase of money. What to do? Juliet and David want to call the police; Alex has grander and greedier plans. He wants to keep the money and dispose of the body in the titular shallow grave. His influence wins. But David draws the short straw for the grisly job of removing all forms of identification from the body. This is the turning point in the film.

Money does not always solve problems. Often it brings with it more and worse problems. In the second half, thugs come looking for the loot. But this is the least of their problems. David, like Lady MacBeth a fellow Scot, cannot see his hands without seeing the blood that they shed. He becomes delusional, taking to living in the attic with the hidden money. No longer trusting his friends, he drills holes everywhere so he can spy on them. Little by little the happy threesome degenerates into a set of deeply suspicious singles. By the end these three are at each others' throats.

Boyle uses money here as he does in many of his movies, as a vehicle to explore humanity. In Millions he focused on the dilemma of a schoolboy finding a bag with millions. But where Millions was upbeat and light, this is decidedly dark.

Shallow Grave has a similar plot to Sam Raimi's later movie, A Simple Plan. Both focus on the effects of greed on friendships. Will money make you happy? Will it cement relationships? Not necessarily. Ethically, it is the underlying heart attitude that is all-important. Jesus tells us we cannot serve both God and money (Matt. 6:24). Money is amoral, but will underscore what is important to a person. It reveals the state of a person's heart. For Alex and friends, it revealed their self-centeredness and greed. What would a million dollars sitting on your kitchen table reveal about you?

For David, the money causes self-disintegration. Descending from dull to delusional to dangerous, Boyle highlights David's transformation and derangement in the second and third acts. It is not really money that is the cause. It is the sin that is inherent in him, and all of us, that rises with the temptation of the money.

Shallow Grave paints a picture of the relational destructiveness of sin. Sin always causes separation. As original sin separated Adam from Eve, and Adam from God, so sin separates friends and brings on distrust. It is a high cost for a shallow gain. Is it worth it? Count the cost and you'll see it is not. Friendship and trust . . . priceless.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs