Thursday, January 31, 2008

Use of Image: Light as Metaphor in K-PAX

Novels tell stories with words and prose. Movies tell stories with images and action. Movies engage emotions in ways that books cannot. In many movies the image is used as a metaphor; K-PAX, starring Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, is one where light is a primary image and metaphor. To quote Robert Johnston (Reel Spirituality):

In K-PAX (2001), light is used, rather than special effects or computer-generated images, to suggest an alien world. A small kick of light inserted from somewhere offscreen suggests something more, and prismatic light flashes across the face. The idea is to capture the eye of viewers for a brief moment and make them wonder what is happening. The flickering light is a subtle suggestion that something out of the ordinary might be going on. (p.168)

Johnston is undoubtedly correct; and I think there is more going on. Much of the movie has camera angles pointed skyward, inviting the viewer to look upwards -- pointing to the distant planet that the main character, prot, is from. And light flashes everywhere in the movie, from the prism on Dr Powell's desk, to the train tracks at night, to the emergency vehicles. Further, light is prot's mode of transportation. We see this strange effect at the start in the train station and we see it at the end when he departs. Light is a metaphor for transportation, both physical and mental: it transports us throughout the film to thoughts of an alien planet. And it is consistent with the tag line: "change the way you look at the world." The director wants us to look up, to look within, to look at light differently.

The key question in the movie is, "Is prot a delusional human or something more?" As the movie unfolds, signs point in both directions. The message of the movie appears to be that there is more to people than meets the eye. As he interacts with fellow patients in the mental institution he helps each of them to see things differently and in this way he helps them to become cured. He would say, he helps them to "cure themselves" since every creature has within it the means to cure itself. In one scene, prot looks at a photo of Dr Powell's son, and discovers they are estranged. Later he points out that there is more to life, and so little time that we must not remain estranged. In this way, he "cures" his psychiatrist.

Ethically, the movie portrays K-PAX as a planet with no laws, no family structure and no meat-eating. The children are brought up by everyone, and there is no crime and hence no need for law or police. "We all know right from wrong" says prot so why need law? This is a form of utopia that does not exist on earth.

Further, it portrays creatures, even humans as morally knowledgable and "self-help capable." Biblically, we could agree with the former, since we all have an understanding of right and wrong, though we all tend to sin, but disagree with the latter. If we can cure ourselves why do we need Jesus? We could accomplish self-salvation, and many try to do this.Whereas some of the ethical points are humanistic, the movie challenges us to look at the world differently. Is there something we are missing when we see people, friends, neighbors, strangers? Is there something within them we do not see? How many are trapped in a "self-created institution" waiting for someone to show them a cure? And can we, like prot, be a means to help them discover the true "cure" they need? This is not to say we point them within, but we point them to Jesus.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Fight Club

This movie was one of the critically acclaimed films of 1999. That is an important contextual point, as there were a number of distinctly postmodern and deconstructist movies released that year. It is a powerful film that challenges social and societal conventions and forces deep personal reflection regardless of our worldview (the movie's worldview is antithetical to the biblical worldview).

It opens in a comedic fashion, highlighting the monotonous life of Edward Norton (the unnamed narrator), a single twenty-something accident assessor. He cannot sleep, he has no social life, and spends his evenings as a "support group junkie." Only in these meetings can he cry and get in touch with his emotions. Then on a plane he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a quirky, charismatic soap-maker and his life changes for the "better". Durden causes Norton to realize that life is to be experienced. We are what we feel, not what we own. And this seems to be one of the main messages of the movie. In the beginnings of their relationship, after drinking at a bar, Durden asks Norton to punch him and he does. Why? To experience this pain as pleasure. Durden reciprocates, a group of men see this and a "Fight Club" is born. The movie moves on from here to become a dark psychological social commentary and an ultra-violent portrayal of bare-handed fighting and wrestling, and then onto organized vandalism and finally to economic terrorism.

As the movie progresses towards its conclusion, Norton's character deconstructs from an apparently successful and well-dressed businessman living in an iKea-furnished apartment, to a scruffy and scrappy unkempt fighter/leader who lives in a run-down, poorly furnished house. This journey of enlightenment is a descent rather than the normal ascent. When he has lost all his social inhibitions he is ready to be a savior for a consumeristically-imprisoned city.

The movie's message raises key questions. As humans, are we more alive as we experience pain? Is our journey of (spiritual) enlightenment one of ascent or descent? Biblically, life is the experience of relationships, not simply experiences. A solitary life, apart from all relationships is a shallow life, regardless of the number of experiences captured. In fact, Jesus says eternal life is to know (and by intention experience) God the Father and His Son (Jn 17:2-3). Pain is part of this present life, but God promises to wipe away every tear when we finally get to see Him in heaven. Certainly, we can grow and even mature as we gather more experiences in this life, but true Christian growth is through experience of God. Fight Club is cynical and amoral, and offers no real solution for pain. At one point Pitt kisses Norton's hand and then pours lye (the most reactive alkali) causing an agonizing burn and forces him to endure the pain until he understands the "beauty" of it; of course, it leaves an ugly and permanent scar. This is not an act of love. This is not an act of worthwhile experience. This is an act of sheer stupidity. God did not make us to purposefully harm ourselves. Ethically, we are all either temples of God or potential temples of God, and in both cases we are called to take care of this temple we call our body. Further, though we may disagree with the social injustices we see around us, we are not called to vandalize the property of others.

Our journey through life, biblically, is one of ascent not descent. Theologically, we all start out depraved. That is, we are impacted in every area of our person by sin. We start out not neutral but opposed to God and His gospel. Only as we are enlightened by God can we see what He has done, can we accept what He has done, can we become what He meant us to be. We ascend by accepting Jesus, and from that point we grow in the likeness of Christ. We will never attain perfection or true likeness to Jesus on this earth, but when we eventually see Him we will be like Him. That is our destiny as followers of Jesus, and that is constructive not deconstructive. That is an upwards journey, a positive journey.

Though I found the premise of this movie interesting, the acting stellar, the story intriguing with some major twists that I won't reveal, ultimately I found it somewhat implausible. The movie left me thinking about how things worked out and in retrospect I had difficulty in accepting that they could have worked out as they did. However, there are some serious ethical issues raised and these can and should be reflected upon from a theological perspective.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Use of Foils in A Few Good Men
by Ryan Blue

A Few Good Men is a great example of the use of foils. A foil is a minor character that is used to highlight certain traits in a main character. A foil’s character traits can either be the same as or opposite to those of a main character. The protagonist and the antagonist in A Few Good Men each have two characters that serve as foils.

Lt. Kaffee (the hero, aka protagonist), not so ironically, is assigned two attorneys to assist him on the case. One attorney is Lt. Weinburg, who doesn’t wish to get too involved in the case. In fact, he describes his role in the case as having no responsibility whatsoever. He has predetermined their guilt and wishes to simply plea it out. He highlights the Daniel Kaffee we are introduced to at the beginning of the movie, a Kaffee that has already decided that the case will result in a plea deal without ever speaking to his clients.

The other attorney assigned to assist Kaffee is Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway. Galloway is determined not to see this case get pushed under the rug and constantly pushes Kaffee to look deeper. In fact, she tells Kaffee that her job is to make sure that he does his job. She adds that she wouldn’t be doing her job if she let Kaffee get away with treating this case like he does all of his others. Thus, she represents the Kaffee we want to see, a Kaffee that pursues the truth no matter where it leads. The audience is given just enough information to know that there is more to the story and so these two foils are used to personify Kaffee’s dilemma: will he have the courage to pursue the truth or not?

Lt. Col. Jessup (the adversary, aka antagonist) is also flanked by two foils, Lt. Col. Matthew Markinson and Lt. Jonathan Kendrick. Kendrick believes, like Jessup, in following orders no matter what. Jessup tells Markinson that he and Kendrick see eye to eye on how to run a Marine Corp unit. But Markinson, on the other hand, believes in following orders up to a point. Markinson believes there is some room for independent evaluation of orders, especially if they are illegal orders. After Jessup orders that Santiago stay in Cuba in order to be “trained,” Markinson expresses his disagreement. Jessup responds rather pointedly that Markinson was never to question his orders. As it turns out, Markinson felt partly responsible for Santiago’s death because he went along with Jessup’s philosophy of following orders no matter what. In his suicide note, Markinson states that he did what he could to bring the truth to light and that Santiago is dead because he didn’t have the strength to stop it. In other words, he lacked the courage to do what was right (theme). His fear of Jessup overcame his courage to reveal the truth. In this sense, he also serves as a foil to Kaffee, who also must overcome his fear of Jessup and find the courage to expose the truth. Thus, Kaffee has the opportunity to succeed where Markinson failed.

So next time you watch a movie be on the lookout for foils. See if you can identify the other characters in the story who are either the same as or opposite a main character in a certain way in order to highlight a specific trait in the main character. Share with us what you find. Post a comment and tell us the name of the movie and how the foils were used in the film.

Copyright 2008, Ryan Blue

Monday, January 21, 2008

Comments on The Kingdom
by Mike Todd

I was very moved by the new Jamie Foxx movie, The Kingdom. In some ways it reminded me of Casablanca - which I recently saw for the first time with Mosaic's movie connect group. Both movies speak to the powerful political issues of our times - one in the 1940's over WW II and the other over Muslim terrorist bombings of our current day. "The Kingdom" is what Saudi Arabia is referred to as the biggest oil-producing country in the world - which sells to the U.S. (the largest oil-consuming country in the world). The movie painted a very clear picture of each side's values of life and their dedication to God or Allah. "Does God/Allah love your wife more than mine?" is a powerful quote from the movie.

A team of FBI investigators travel to Saudi Arabia to investigate a bombing of a compound where Americans live. In addition to the controversy between the FBI director and the Attorney General over sending the team to investigate, there is tension between the Saudi government, state police and military. The Kingdom was very realistic, well written, and superbly acted. It stars Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman as the FBI investigative team.

As the movie begins, it's easy to take the American side and believe that we are right/good and they are bad/evil. However, as the movie progresses, the Saudi in charge of the state police moves from being an apparent hindrance to a trusted ally and friend. By the end of the movie, I was left with many tears and much sadness over what a broken world this really is and that everyone is created by the same God to live a life filled with love and joy . . . to have family and friends. It's so easy to see only one side or the other - it takes humility, subjectivity, and spiritual maturity to see it from both sides and not point the finger at either. The Kingdom is very highly recommended.

Copyright 2008, Mike Todd

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Movie Group Kicks off with Casablanca

The Mosaic Movie Connect Group has officially started, with our first movie, Casablanca, shown last Saturday. We had a small gathering for the movie showing, and a few more showed up for the discussion afterwards.
Ryan Blue led us through a careful analysis of the elements of the story using the method he taught in our fall "Film and Faith: class. In particular, he highlighted how the key message of the movie (give up your own interests for the good of others) had political overtones.
Many think of Casablanca as a simple Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman love story, but it is much more than this. When the movie was released in 1942, America's foreign policy of isolationism was costing Europe dearly as France and other countries were occupied by the invading German forces. Just as Casablanca's Rick Blaine faced the challenge of whether to remain neutral and isolated, cynical and closed to the needs of others, or to become once more sentimental and engaged, getting back into the fight, so too America had to choose whether to remain on the sidelines of the European conflict or get involved in the fight. Movies almost always reflect the values and concerns of their times, even if we do not always spot them.

After Ryan's segment, I led a discussion on the ethical and theological aspects of the movie. Ethics is how we live. And a movie that challenges us ethically should make us reflect on how we live. There are a number of key ethical issues raised in Casablanca (such as neutrality/isolation in our own community and contexts, bribery/corruption and black-marketeering, and relationships in light of Rick/Ilsa and Viktor/Ilsa).
Though we can look at the movie and focus on its challenge to isolationism at a macro level, thinking about the present context of the US foreign policy (for example, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran), we can and should also bring the ethical message closer to home. How are we as followers of Jesus isolating ourselves from the hurting world or our neighbors, our co-workers and others we intersect with on a day-to-day basis? (I must confess, when I am angry or hurt, I tend to withdraw from friends and family members and isolate myself.) What do we do when faced with the panhandlers on the freeway on-ramp asking for pennies? Do we isolate ourselves and remain neutral? Furthermore, on the issue of relationships, Rick comes to the conclusion that he will sacrifice his desires for the greater good of Ilsa, the person he loves, and the greater good of the world ("the greater good, the greater good" -- reference to Hot Fuzz). What would you do for the greater good of the one you love? What would you sacrifice? What does that look like in he trenches of our home-life or our work? And who do you love most? If this is Jesus, what does He ask you to sacrifice today? All this from an Oscar-winning love story!

As a reminder, the Mosaic Movie Connect Group will meet on the second Saturday of the month in the lower level of Mosaic church, located at the intersection of NE 39th and Hancock in NE Portland. We plan to gather around 4:30pm so we can show the movie in its entirety yet enabling us to finish watching around 7:00pm or a little before. We will take a short break, to catch some coffee and refreshments and connecting with other attendees, then we will reconvene to discuss the movie together, focusing on the movie's artistic merits and its ethical and theological challenges. Ryan and I will co-lead the discussion, like we did in the fall Film and Faith class and as we did for Casablanca. This group is an open group, for Mosaic members and friends, for followers of Jesus and those who have not yet chosen to follow Jesus. If you cannot make the viewing portion, you can always watch the movie on your own at home, and simply come for the discussion. (That is why we are structuring the group this way.) We will provide childcare throughout both segments of the group, and Becca Baggs will be caring for any children.

Finally, as we are only meeting once per month, this blog will provide another avenue for sharing on other movies we are watching. Ryan and I will share thoughts and reflections on movies, even some reviews of movies we are watching at home. We will also facilitate sharing your movie reviews on this blog, if you want to email them to us.

We want to embark on this journey of film and faith together.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs