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

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