Friday, October 31, 2008

Junebug -- Individuals and Families

Director: Phil Morrison, 2005.

Sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees. It's like that in Junebug, a film that contrasts two cultures, big city and small town. Embeth Davidtz plays Madeleine, a Chicago art-gallery owner who meets George (Alessandro Nivola), a North Carolina native, at an art auction and marries him within a week. When she hears of an unknown southern artist in North Carolina near George's home, they take a road-trip to try to sign him to a deal. At the same time, they plan to stay at George's parents so she can meet her new family.

When she meets his family, it is clear they are dysfunctional. Mom Peg (Celia Weston) rules the roost, while Dad Eugene (Scott Wilson) is taciturn and disappears into his shop to his woodworking hobby. Meanwhile younger brother Johnny (Ben McKenzie) has withdrawn inside himself avoiding the imminent fatherhood he faces with his young wife Ashley (Amy Adams). This is a family that is dealing with unspoken pain. But they are dealing with it alone, apart from one another. is the vocal one in the family, gushing forth whatever springs to her lips. Pregnant and ready to pop, she is so lonely you can feel it. And she compensates with verbal commentary, trying way too hard to be friends with everyone, especially Johnny, whose silence is her Berlin wall. When Madeleine arrives, she fawns all over her, treating her like a queen from a distant land.

Madeleine represents all that is good and bad about big cities. Fast-paced, always seeking new and novel, she is thin and beautiful, focused on her career, her art gallery. She marries George without really knowing him, merely appreciating the passion she feels with him. Ashley, on the other hand, represents small-town communities. She is focused on her baby, nick-named Junebug though its sex is unknown, and on her family. She has known Johnny much of her life, being his high-school sweetheart, but that knowledge has not equated itself to ongoing passion. She knows the people in her community, mostly friends from high school and wants no more than to be happy with this.

Like Lars and the Real Girl, church plays an important role in this small town. Here there is community, casseroles and acapella singing. The pastor knows his little flock by name, even remembering George and his singing talents. This is so much like village churches. Anyone that is been a member of such a church can recall dear old Betty's famous casserole, the one to be avoided at all costs! And the tie-wearing, hymn-singing services, where the music does not change across centuries. But at least in this church there is family and acceptance. is the film that pushed Amy Adams into stardom. With her supporting role as Ashley, the red-headed Adams gave a sterling performance and received an Oscar nomination. She captures the neediness in the soul of this woman, hoping that the child she bears will rekindle the affections she once received from her immature husband. She cries out at one point, "All I really want is for Johnny to love me like he did in high school." How often has a pregnant woman hoped beyond hope that her child will reunite her with her man.

When Ashley goes into labor, George is away from the house. The family of four refuse to take Madeleine with them to the hospital, instead leaving her standing alone on the front lawn to wait for her husband. And then she has a choice to make: to go with George to the hospital or to go to the artist's home to salvage her deal. Family or career? the end, it is a family tragedy that reunites George's family. Whereas earlier, they were living like isolated individuals merely sharing the same house, they are forced to reexamine themselves.

The opening scene is of a collection of trees in a forest, and this same scene is repeated toward the end. In between, there are numerous cinematic shots of trees, all different, all alone. It's as if the director is telling us that if we look at the trees we will not see the forest, but each tree is separate and different. When the family members finally pull back, forced to by the circumstances of life, they can once more see that they form a forest, a family.

Junebug reminds us that we are all members of one or more families. We were born into a family. We may have moved on away from our parents and created our own family, with a spouse and even children. Within each there are a web of relationships that pull us in different directions. We may look at each family member and see a different person, but they are still our flesh-and-blood. We belong together and should pull together to help each other.

Further, if we are following Jesus, we are a member of the broader family, the family of God known as the church. As a member of the church, we are related to the other members as brothers and sisters, just as Junebug pictures in the church scenes. We have been given different gifts to use within the church to make it function effectively and completely. We need to recognize this and use these gifts appropriately.

Let's not wait for tragedy to strike before we embrace the members of our families!

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Wolves in the Snow (Des Chiens dans La Neige) -- Spiral of Lies,0.jpg

Director: Michel Welterlin, 2002.

Wolves in the Snow is the story of innocence lost. A French crime noir set in Montreal, it tells the story of Lucie a naive innocent wife who quickly and easily becomes a killer and deceiver.

The movie opens in Lucie's home with a tight, tense scene that predicts the mood of the rest of the film. Lucie (Marie-Josée Croze) confronts her husband Antoine who has just returned home. As their voices rise, he cruelly tells her the truth of their relationship: he has been unfaithful to her for years while she has been engrossed in her scuba diving. With this revelation of truth, the argument explodes into violence and she kills him. This truth propels her into a dark descent into the seemier side of Montreal. she decides to flee, Ruben (Jean-Philippe Écoffey), a business associate of Antoine's, catches her at the airport. But Ruben is no business man; he is a gangster, a thug. When he takes her passport and baggage, she has no way out. She cannot run. She has to rely on his help to dispose of the body.

Before she knows it, Marco (Romano Orzari, pictured below), Ruben's boss, is involved, and there is a matter of missing money. Although Lucie really is not involved, the gangsters cannot believe that she knew nothing of her husband's doings. As she lies to survive, she finds herself caught up in an ever-tightening web of deceit.
The corrupted innocence of Croze's Lucie, whose eyes are opened to the darkness and depravity of humanity, is complemented by the cynical world-weariness of Écoffey's Ruben, who has seen too much and wants out of the business. Together they make an unlikely pair, but it is this juxtaposition that keeps Wolves moving forward towards its violent conclusion. Croze and Écoffey have since appeared in the same film: she was the rehab nurse in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly while he was one of the doctors. But here their screen time is equal and mostly together. in the Snow also is reminiscent of last year's violent Russian gangster movie, Eastern Promises. Both films focus on an innocent woman drawn into an underworld of gangsters and criminals. Both highlight the marks and effects of sin, with dead bodies abounding. But whereas Eastern Promises goes overboard with the violence (seemingly violent for violence sake), Wolves uses it more sparingly and is, as a result, a more viewable and absorbing film, an interesting and atmospheric indie thriller.

With the descent into deception, Lucie illustrates the depravity that is so close to each of us, even inside the human heart. As Jeremiah says in his prophetic book, "the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure" (Jer. 17:9). Her depravity, dormant as it was, sprung to life with her crime of passion.

Moreover, Wolves raises the question, can survival be based on lies? Lucie's life has been sheltered, and she has had no knowledge of the truths of Antoine's life and business. But with each lie she tells she pushes herself further down the path to destruction. Though she appears to be surviving, others are dying. True survival cannot be based on lies. Such survival is transitory, and will likely end unexpectedly, as Wolves does.

Whereas the truth from Antoine's lips pushed Lucie toward the confining darkness of deceit, the truth from Jesus will set us free from the confines of sin (John 8:32). Lying leads to a short-lived survival; living in the light of the truth leads to eternal life.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Rage in Placid Lake -- Weird and Normal

Director: Tony McNamara, 2003.

They say there are two things you can't avoid in this life -- death and taxes. In the US, there are often two other accepted, even expected, personal chapters in life's journey from birth to death: teenage rebellion and mid-life crisis. The Rage in Placid Lake deals with teenage rebellion, but with an unusual slant. What if the rebellion was against weird, and toward normal?
Rage is an award-winning Australian film cast largely with unknown actors (outside of Australia). One exception is Miranda Richardson, who plays Sylvia Lake, Placid's mom. It is a funny but crass satire about conformity, weirdness and being who you are.

The opening scene sets the tone. As Placid (Ben Lee) speaks voice over, "I try to find the positives in my experiences," we see young Placid's first day in school. When Sylvia brings him to the school-yard, while other kids are dressed in drab school uniform Placid is dessed in a white frilly frock! "Darling, just remember you're challenging their pre-conceived notions of sexuality," says Sylvia. As the playground bullies immediately pick up on this and give him the first of the daily beatings he comes to expect, we get a sense of where some of Placid's rage comes from. Gemma (Rose Byrne) puts down her snack of crayons to step in and they become instant best friends.

Even his name is non-conformist. Who would give a kid the name Placid? It's an unusual name and one bound to attract the wrong kind of attention in school. Yet, names sometimes give clues to character (as Yahweh does in the Old Testament). Placid means calm and peaceful, tranquil. And this is who he is, even when picked upon. He lives up to his moniker.

Placid does have inner rage despite his name and manner. His parents have their own suppressed rage, too. In their societal rebellion there is the expression of this rage. How much inner rage do we carry that comes from our childhood? How much of this is suppressed so much that we barely recognize its roots, instead experiencing it as a general sense of angst or dissatisfaction? Rage and anger, regardless of their source, will cause emotional issues if left unresolved.

As Ben and Gemma grow to their senior year in high school, they are different from the rest. She is a scientific genius, a crayon-munching brainiac, while he is simply counter-cultural. They are outsiders in this school community. Both embrace their own strangeness, while shunning the normalcy expected of them. Neither wish to conform.

Gemma's single-dad has plans for her, to go to "uni" (university). He is commited to her but does not see her. He only sees his vision of her future. Ben's parents, on the other hand, are even weirder. Dad Doug (Garry McDonald) is a DJ on "Care Radio." Sylvia is an explorer in all senses of the word: geographic, artistic, sexual. They are new-age hippies, and they are apathetic and absent. Ben and Gemma have only themselves and their platonic friendship to hold on to.

When Ben makes a short film and wins a significant award, enough to do what he wants, he goes too far in the award ceremony. Flipping out, he finds himself in the hospital, his body broken. As he mends, he decides he has had enough of weirdness and non-conformance. He fills his head with self-help mumbo-jumbo, gets a taming haircut and buys a cheap suit. He attempts to become normal, even getting a job as an accountant.

When Ben's parents find him in a closet with a suit putting on a tie, they are beside themselves. How could this have happened! They would rather he were drinking coffee, discussing philosophy or even doing drugs. He has sold out. He has joined the masses. He is no longer a uniquely creative counter-cultural individual, thinking for himself. He is now a minion, a thoughtless drone whose future is clear: wife, career, family, retirement, death.

Rage poses the question, is it worth giving up individuality and uniqueness, even weirdness, to become accepted if it leads to boredom and banality? In the accounting firm, there is no place for creativity, or self-expression. What are the positives in this? If we have to subvert who we are to "get ahead" or even just to live "normally" is this a fair trade? God has made us to be ourselves. If we try to be different, even if different is more "normal," we will be fighting against our own inner grain. This can only lead to dissatisfaction with life, even while others might see success. If nothing else, Rage reminds us that we need to find out who we really are, not who society thinks we should be. As we strive to discover our own identity, how God chose to make us unique, we will find contentment and joy. It's not what others say or think; it's what God says and thinks that counts.

The counter-cultural revolution that the entire Lake family was living also reminds us that Jesus preached a message that was radically counter-cultural in his day, and still is even in our day. His sermon on the mount, found in Matthew 5-7, is a strong message of how a citizen of the kingdom of God should live while alive in the kingdoms of man. The Jewish peasants in the Roman empire, or the American cube-dwellers in the 21st century, are challenged to be perfect, to have a singular focus and devotion on God (and not money), to deal with our own faults before finding fault with others. To be a follower of Jesus is to be a counter-cultural revolutionary. We may not look or act like Placid, but like him we need to go against the grain of societal mores and pressures.

Finally, Placid Lake shows us that attitude is important, even key. He looks for the positive in his experiences. Even his beatings teach him something. Where he could have easily turned bitter, even murderous, he allowed life's harshness to refine him. Peter tells us to let our faith be refined (1 Pet. 1:7). As we take on the attitude of Christ (Phil. 2:5), we can look for God's hand at work in the movement, macro and micro, of our lives. We can and should look for the positives in our experiences.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Days and Clouds -- appearance or reality?

Director: Silvio Soldini, 2007.

In this period of economic uncertainty, with bank crises drowning all other news, many jobs are disappearing. So, if your job was cut and you were forced out of work, how would your life change? What would you tell your spouse?

In the Italian Days and Clouds, Soldini's protagonist Michele (Antonio Albanese) loses his job in the company he co-founded. But he does not tell his wife, Elsa (Margherita Buy). She is preparing to defend her thesis for a university degree in art history, and he does not want to distract her. So, he goes about life as if he had a job, leaving for work every day and not curtailing his spending habits.

Only, after she has her degree and has enjoyed the surprise party he throws her in their fine apartment, does he tell her. Even after this shock has subsided, he continues to keep up the pretence of their lives. When they go out to dinner with friends, he picks up the tab. He does not even tell their 20 year-old daughter Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) the truth.

Days and Clouds is a study of middle-age relationships. Where they seem to have a rock-solid marriage, there are cracks. Michele's job-loss forces them both to face themselves and their perceptions of life. Michele wants to appear to be successful, a manager who can afford his affluent life, supporting his wife at home and his elderly father in a nursing home. Elsa, on the other hand, wants to continue her volunteer work restoring a fresca in an old building's ceiling. But it is Elsa who sees the need to face up to the reality of the situation.

As Michele looks for a job it is clear that there are few around, and his chances of landing one matching his experience and expectations are low to zero. With this revelation, he sinks into depression and apathy, while Elsa rises above her hobbies to land first a part-time job, then a second job. But like Michele, she is too proud to call out for help from friends.

Soldini pulls fine performances out of his two leads. Margherita Buy reminds us of Diane Lane. Her character is attractive, but not beautiful. But her husband, caught up in his secret problems, does not see her. He sees only his crisis.

As the crisis moves forward, Michele and Elsa find themselves growing further and further apart. Instead of love and kindness, their relationship becomes curt and brittle, ready to fracture and splinter into a thousand shards, like the one that cuts Elsa's foot early in the film. The "strong marriage" we see at the start has crumbled to breaking point.

Yet, Michele has been humbled. He has been forced to accept the hospitality of his daughter's boyfriend. Rikki, whom he disliked earlier, is now the one who helps him in his time of need. Whereas Michele had judged him, mostly by appearances, in his hour of need he sees Rikki at a deeper level. And he sees Alice at a deeper level, too. It is almost as if he is emerging from a coma. He sees her beauty and he sees her for who she really is. No more is she the one-dimensional rebellious daughter, with whom he constantly fights. Now she is a real person, multi-dimensional, one who helps and needs help.

As Days and Clouds reaches its climax, Michele has faced some of his inner demons. He has emerged stronger in some areas and weaker in others, just like we might. Soldini presents a realistic picture of hope. Despite the uncertainty of what lies ahead, Michele and Elsa come to see what is real and true. No longer worried about appearance, but now seeing the truth, they realize that they do love each other. Their most prized possession is not their apartment, nor their boat, nor their art-work; it is their relationship. This is what counts. This is what cannot be taken from them. It is their love that binds them together.

The fresca is itself a metaphor for their marriage. After 20 years there were too many secrets. The relationship was covered in a veneer of whitewash. But as they worked at cleaning away the surface coat of paint, opening up to one another, glimpses of color appeared. Only through painstaking detailed work, taking commitment and time, did the beauty of the original artwork appear, like magic. When it was finally completed, an ancient masterpiece was uncovered to be enjoyed once again. Michele's and Elsa's marriage needed that work and determined commitment to once more be recovered, showing the love that was still there, but hidden and almost lost forever.

Ultimately, Days and Clouds is a slow, realistic portrayal of middle-age marriage and mid-life crisis. What could happen to anyone, is exaggerated in the passion-laden sphere of Italy. But it reminds us that appearances are superficial and illusary. What counts is what is real. We can pretend all we want, but that does not solve problems, it merely pushes them out, delaying the inevitable. When problems arise, when tests or trials come, as they will (Jas 1:2), we must be ready to face them. They will not be pretty. They may not be easy. But they have a tendency to strip away the facade. They show us who we are and who our friends are.

In Days and Clouds, both Michele and Elsa were ashamed to tell the truth to their friends, afraid of what they might think. But true friends will be there to help us in our time of need, to show us their love clothed in shoe-leather (Prov. 17:17). We can let trials separate us from our loved-ones and friends, or we can let them refine us, like gold in the furnace, drawing us closer together. We can settle for appearance or we can rest in reality? Which will it be?

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Lars and the 29-Year Old Real Girl

We had a good turn-out for Lars and the Real Girl last night. Not only did we watch the film, a genuinely tender and compassionate movie about community love and acceptance, but we also accepted and lovingly celebrated in community the birthday of co-leader Sharon, princess for the night. Real girl Sharon was 29 . . . again! (Oh, the movie was also about growing up.)

Co-conspirator Andrea provided the crown and candle, while Hannah baked all 50 birthday cupcakes -- way to go cupcake! If you missed it, you missed a great evening. To paraphrase Arnie's terminating words, "We'll be back!" Catch us in November for gritty crime drama, Gone Baby Gone.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Notebook -- What do you want?

Director: Nick Cassavetes, 2004.

What do you want? That is the question that runs through The Notebook weaving the plotlines of a story within a story together. How the main character Allie (Rachel MacAdams) answers the question will determine the course of her life and the satisfactory resolution of the film.

As the movie opens an old man, Duke (James Garner), is telling a story to an old woman (Gina Rowlands, the director's real-life mother). The woman is suffering from memory loss, dementia perhaps or Altzheimer's. Aging and degeneration has been the main theme of several films recently, including Away from Her, but these were dramas interested in exploring the effects on relationships at the end of life. Here, the focus is on the story being told, which is one of love, young love between two teenagers in 1940.

The idea of a story-teller telling a tale about another time is not new. It was done in The Princess Bride . But there Peter Falk, the narrator, and his grandson were ancillary to the main story. It was just a plot device. Here, there is more. What is unstated at the start becomes readily apparent midway through the movie, causing the last third to be more sentimental than dramatic.

In the tale Noah (Ryan Gosling) is a lumber-mill worker. A young man from a blue-collar home, he has little money, but he has a passion for life. He has a heart full of romance kindled by a love of poetry nurtured by his single-parent father. Allie, on the other hand, is a rich-girl, vacationing with her family in their southern summer home. When they meet at a carnival, he sees in her what he likes, and "When I see something I like, I gotta... I love it." With that kind of determination, the inevitable occurs -- they fall in love, summer love.

When Noah takes her one night to an abandoned and decrepit 200 year-old southern homestead, they dream together and make promises before suddenly being confronted by her parents. In their eyes, Noah is simply "trash". They want something better for Allie. They want a college education and marriage to an eligible (that is, wealthy) bachelor.

She goes off to school. He goes off to war. Both mature. She meets a wounded officer (James Marsden), and he falls for her. He is everything her parents want for her. He is from old money. He is an officer (Noah was a grunt private). So, of course they get engaged.

Meanwhile, Noah gets to buy the decrepit house, and begins the arduous task of restoring it, to fulfill the "promise" he made to Allie. When it is done, 7 years have passed, but it is enough of an accomplishment to make the newspaper, which coincidentally she sees. Drawn back to him like a moth to a flame, their love is reignited. But she is a woman about to marry. When her mother tracks her down, Allie must face the toughest decision of her life: which man will she choose? What does she want?

Ryan Gosling is a wonderful actor. Here he plays a dewy-eyed romantic dreamer. His performance is nothing special but it garnered him attention, and he has gone on to show how good he is in such films as Half Nelson and Lars and the Real Girl. The former role earned him an Oscar-nomination while the latter film showed how subtle and nuanced his acting really is. He is one of the best young actors of this current generation. Rachel MacAdams, on the other hand, is good but not great, another pretty-faced actress.

In the climactic scene, Noah tells Allie, "Would you stop thinking about what everyone wants? Stop thinking about what I want, what he wants, what your parents want. What do YOU want? What do you WANT?" At the start of the film, when they first meet, when he asks her what she does, she reels off all her activities. These are all things she does because her parents want her to. The only thing she does for herself is paint. She has lived her life doing what others want. She is like a caged bird, beautifully living a life "controlled" by others, never finding the freedom to do what she wants for herself.

In The Notebook the love of Noah awakens Allie's soul allowing her to see her life as her own. How often have we lived our life for another person, a spouse or parent? How often have we subjugated our own desires, our own wants, to satisfy another's desires or demands? In doing so, we lose something of ourselves, our own identity.

We have each been made unique, with a personality of our own. We must strive to become the person we were made to be. But there is one whose desires we should seek, whose goals we should understand. The Creator, Yahweh, has made us in his image and has a passion for us like Noah's passion for Allie. When we come to see this, when we come to embrace Jesus as the one worth loving with our all our heart, our spirit will be awakened to life, real life. Then, we will see that our life really belongs to the one who has bought us with his own death, Jesus. And we will find that Jesus gently molds our desires to match his, so that we want to pursue him and his goals with a passion unknown to us before. Only in doing this, can we attain true happiness.

So, what do you want? How do you answer this question?

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Island (Ostrov) -- Guilt and Forgiveness

Director: Pavel Lungin, 2006.

The Island opens with a scene of an old man rowing a boat to a lonely island in a bleak and barren winterscape in the late 70s. This wizened man carries a secret that haunts him and plagues him with guilt. A secret that has defined his life.

Flashback to 1942 and the man is young and shovelling coal into a furnace on a Russian barge laden with coal. When a Nazi gunboat bears down on them, the man and the captain hide in the mountains of coal. But his cough gives him away. He is caught and then forced to betray his captain's hiding place. When the Germans line the two up, a shot rings out, and subsequently the barge is blown up. The man winds up floating ashore, weak and wounded, on the island and is found and tended to by monks from the Russian orthodox monastery. He never leaves. breathtaking cinematography showing the cool blues and whites of the Northern Russian landscape, this Russian award-winning movie is a story of redemption: the redemption of the man, and the redemption of those who visit this man. He is now Father Anatoli (Pyotr Mamonov), one of the monks. But he lives in the boiler-room, stoking the fire, sleeping on the mounds of coal in this shack, while the other monks have more "luxurious" cells for their accomodation.

Anatoli lives an austere life. He gathers coal for their fire. He plays jokes and pranks on his fellow monks. And he is totally committed to God. He wanders the island praying aloud, reciting Scripture from the Psalms and the Gospels. His lonely life is focused on God. Even his fellow monks consider him odd and generally unlikeable. people, however, consider him something of a miracle worker, a modern-day prophet, who can perform miracles and exorcise demons. They come to this island seeking out this "holy man." This, in itself, is one of the reasons why he is disliked. Though he does not seek out this "fame," he treats these visitors with a severe compassion, one part gracious and merciful the other part brusque and harsh. He does not want them to know him, so plays little games to make them think he is merely a lowly servant. Yet, he helps them, he heals them, he casts out their demons.

Anatoli has a genuine connection with his God. Yet, he constantly prays for forgiveness for the sinner that he is. He is in no doubt about his condition. His past has burdened him. He cannot run from it. He experiences the joy in the simple act of walking in the snow, yet he feels a desperate need to be released from guilt. His spirituality is schizophrenic in this regard: joy and guilt married together in the same head.

The Island is a superb film of faith lived out. He illustrates a number of gospel stories, and gives a picture of what a prophet of God could have looked (and lived) like. In one unforgettable scene, the prayer of Anatoli is juxtaposed and contrasted with the prayers of the other monks. While they offer "normal" prayers, Anatoli cries out in desperation to God for forgiveness as a sinner. It is reminiscent of the parable of the tax collector and Pharisee who went to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). Indeed, many of the monks are like the Pharisees, living out lives of outward religion not inward relationship. (How often do we who claim to be followers of Jesus actually live more like Pharisees?) a prophet, he acts as a mirror to the monks. In his actions, subtle and obvious, he helps them to see that they are still clutching to the trappings of this world. For the Father Superior, Anatoli's superior, it is only when a circumstance places him in intimate contact with Anatoli that his attachment to possessions is made evident to him.

Yet, as Anatoli brings social justice to his monkish community and they seek forgiveness from God and him, it is not until a surprising circumstance near the end brings felt forgiveness to Anatoli himself. In this respect, The Island points out that often it is harder to forgive ourselves than it is for God or others to forgive us. Even in repentance, we can carry unnecessary guilt if we do not let it go. When the Lord forgives us, based on the finished work of Jesus on the cross, we should forgive ourselves too. He has forgiven us all our sins, little or big. They are all paid for (Col. 2:13-14). Let's not be like Anatoli who punishes himself day after day for a sin that he committed yet has been forgiven.
On the other hand, let's learn to be like Anatoli in having a real and honest relationship with God. We can take to heart the model of a genuinely humble man who talked to God, often in Scripture, throughout the day, and was content with little, not striving to accumulate more than he needed. Truly, The Island offers a portrait of a man of faith.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, October 11, 2008

WALL-E -- pure love, robot-style

Director Andrew Stanton, 2008.

With WALL-E Pixar has, if possible, surpassed itself. It set the bar high with earlier movies like Ratatouille and The Incredibles that had wonderful stories and superb animation. But here the animation is simply stunning. Especially in the first half where the movie is set on a desolate and empty earth, it appears so realistic it is at times easy to forget this is an animated movie. Further, the story is simple yet profound, a pure love story between two robots. Moreover, for the first 40 minutes there is no human dialogue. This is as close as it comes to a silent film in the present age. And it works so well. The visual imagery and absolutely spot-on soundtrack makes this a pleasure to watch and enjoy.

At the start of the film, the earth is a wasteland. It is a void, not formless and void as in Genesis, but ruined and left destitute by the trash discarded by its ex-inhabitants. All humans have left, more than 700 years earlier. The mega-multinational company Buy-N-Large (BnL: play on words -- you buy and you become large) has enabled so much senseless consumerism that the earth is one giant land-fill. All that is left is a robot named WALL-E, who goes around compacting the trash in an effort to clean things up.

This WALL-E is unlike other models or versions. Over time, he has become a collector, a pack-rat of sorts. As he sifts through the garbage, he saves small treasures, such as a Rubik's cube, plastic cutlery, and the video game "pong". But his pride and joy is a videotape of "Hello Dolly" which he watches on an old iPod. Somehow, he has developed a personality with emotions. Indeed, he has a pet cockroach that he cares for and takes with him on his journeys.

When a spaceship deposits another robot on earth, WALL-E's life is irreversibly changed. One look at EVE, with her shiny white egg-like shape (any coincidence that the female robot looks like an egg?), and he is smitten. This is love at first-sight. Whereas Love in the Time of Cholera gave a human picture of this kind of love but in an over-sexualized manner, WALL-E presents it in a pure and unadulterated way. Without words, it is a beautiful picture. WALL-E is naive but a romantic at heart, having learned of love from "Hello Dolly," and acts like a coy teenager trying to win EVE over.

After WALL-E shows EVE the solitary green plant he has discovered, EVE takes it and stores it in her shell and shuts down. As a probe, her mission has been to search for evidence of life on earth, and here she has found it. In a selfless act of protection (and love), WALL-E shields her from the elements while waiting for her to reboot. But when her spaceship returns to take her away, WALL-E hangs on to the outside and hitch-hikes across the galaxy while the ship takes them both to Axiom.

Axiom, the jewel of the BnL fleet, is the spaceship that set out on a 5 year voyage and has been travelling for 700 years, filled with the remainder of humankind. But time has not been kind to them. Because they have been "maided on 24 hours a day" by the fully automated crew and thus "enjoying" non-stop entertainment, fine dining, and constant hover-chairs, they no longer needed to walk. In fact, they do not know how to walk. Nor do they know what real life is all about. Spending their days on these chairs, lazy and obese, they interact with one another via virtual screens in front of them. Though a person may be next to them, they speak to the electronic image in front of them. They do not know the pleasures of real relationship. They had never enjoyed the simple touch of another's hand.

As WALL-E plays out its second half, WALL-E tracks EVE down and saves her from the reprogramming center. While her mission is to take the plant to the captain, WALL-E's self-defined mission is to win her heart and hold her hand. When the bloated captain sees the plant, he realizes he now has a new mission: "Out there is our home - Home, AUTO! - and it's in trouble. I can't just sit here and do nothing. That's all I've ever done! That's all anyone has ever done on this blasted ship - nothing!" When the auto-pilot, AUTO, disagrees saying, "In space we will survive" the captain retorts, "I don't want to survive, I want to live!" But AUTO rebels and takes control, leaving the humans to finally rise up, literally, to save the plant, the symbol of hope and the future.

Much has been said of the ecological references. We know the earth must be stewarded; that is a clear biblical mandate from Genesis 1:26-31 and 2:15. We sow pollution and waste and harvest devastation and despoilment. Much has been said, too, of the searing judgment of rampant consumerism in WALL-E. In America, consumerism is a religion; it is for the 21st century western peoples the opiate of the masses.

More interesting is the issue of living versus surviving. The consumer-travellers on the "utopia"-like Axiom take it as axiomatic that life is for fun and entertainment. Through constant recline their bodies have grown fat and unusable. They "enjoy" life via virtual reality. Ironically, this animated movie is lampooning the virtual electronic lifestyle. But these people are not living, they are merely surviving. They are not enjoying life as it was meant to be. They are enjoying a false imitation. Only when the captain sees fresh new life, does he realize he is not living. He has been going nowhere, doing nothing, merely spinning his wheels. He has been wasting his life. John Piper, in his book "Don't Waste Your Life," points out the need to live our lives missionally and intentionally. We only enjoy life as we truly have life, life in Jesus (John 10:10). And we only enjoy life as we glorify God and live to make his name known. Are we living for the goal of a trouble-free retirement so we can be entertained in our favorite ways?

Fundamental to WALL-E, though, is the picture of love. This is a love story through and through. Since the language skills of the robots, and WALL-E in particular, are limited, Director Stanton decided to use the scene of hand-holding in "Hello Dolly" as the metaphor for love. This is how WALL-E has learned to say "I love you." So, throughout the film he yearns to hold hands with EVE and is kept from doing so. Eventually, after his love has caused him to protect EVE and to follow her to infinity and beyond, this self-sacrificing love is repaid. He gets to hold her hand. Then when he is kissed by her, he literally does cart-wheels. On his space-walk with her, he is shown to be head-over-heels in love. What a beautiful way to show love. Indeed, after this robot pair experience the pleasure of hand-holding, two humans inadvertently touch hands and find a similar joy in simple touch. Humanity imitating technology!

WALL-E reminds us of love and the pleasures of touch. Life is for living and for loving. As WALL-E gave himself away for EVE, so Jesus gave himself away for us. Are we doing likewise? How well are we loving? How far will we go to show this love to our spouse? WALL-E is an animated parable that love does indeed conquer all.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Coming to Mosaic Church on Sat 10/18/08 --
Lars and The Real Girl

Come join us for the movie showing and discussion afterwards. They'll be refreshments before discussion. Feel free to invite a friend.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Adam's Apples -- a modern-day Job

Director: Anders Thomas Jensen, 2005.

Adam's Apples is an odd, black comedy with a "good versus evil" plot that is off-the-beaten path. With five quirky main characters, this Danish film is hilarious at times but is overly violent and the sub-titles are poorly translated, giving some of the curses a strange and comical reading. Though it won numerous awards at film festivals, ultimately its comedy is too sporadic to be counted as a hit.

When ex-con skinhead Adam (Ulrich Thomsen) steps off the bus at the start of the film, we see his iron cross tattoo. As the bus leaves, he pulls out a knife and draws a deep scratch on the rear quarter-panel. He is clearly a tough nut. But Pastor Ivan (Mads Mikkelsen), who picks him up, is a nut himself, a tender nut. With the lack of conversation and obvious body language, the challenge is clear from the very first scene: the evil neo-Nazi vs the good minister, a battle of wits for the faith of the winner.

Ivan takes in ex-prisoners to his remote rural church, and indeed they seem to be his only parishioners. He believes they are healing and he is helping them. But he is seeing life through rose-colored glasses. He is a polyanna preacher: he thinks he is buying cough medicine for the ex-alcoholic but this cough medicine is hard liquor. He listens to syrupy sweet pop songs from the Bee Gees; this in itself gives insight into his mental condition.

In some ways, Adam's Apples is a version of the book of Job. This is evident in the fact that Adam's Bible (given to him by Ivan) always falls open at the start of that book. Ivan, we discover, has been through a number of Job-like experiences. But unlike Job, who sees things as they are, Ivan cannot accept the truth and makes up his own explanations, creates his own reality. He has deluded himself. Further, just as Job was a battle between good and evil played out in the life of God's faithful servant, so too here is a battle between godless Ivan, determined to break Ivan's faith, and Ivan, a man of faith.

At the heart of the movie is an apple tree. This tree is a metaphor for Ivan's faith. When Adam arrives, Ivan asks him to set his own goal or task. Sarcastically, he says he will bake a pie, an apple pie with apples from the tree (the only one in the area) and Ivan takes this at face value.

At first, the tree is full of fruit, pointing to Ivan's strong, though partially deceived, faith. As Adam challenges Ivan and the others, and even brutally beats them, Ivan's faith starts to crack -- crows start to nest in the tree. As this continues, worms eat at the apples, and faith is faltering. Finally, Adam confronts Ivan and cruelly makes him face the harsh reality of his Job-like existence, telling him "God hates you." Faith is broken, and in a storm, the tree is toppled. Ivan is spiritually crushed and can no longer go on. The community is destroyed. In one last blow, the few good apples picked by Adam for his pie are eaten before he can bake his pie. This is the final straw and the harshest blow.

Adam's Apples puts us in the position of Job and asks if a loving God would make us experience suffering we cannot imagine. If he did, would our faith prove strong enough for us to cope and survive? Or would our faith be crushed? Would we, like Job's wife, seek to curse God and die? Adam points out that Ivan's faith is not strong enough, his polyanna version is a facade. Is ours any better? Is our faith based on truth, and a true understanding and view of God? Or is it a fictitious version, a god made more in our image? Can we handle the truth?

In a turn of events towards the end, there is a twist that allows Ivan to reclaim his faith. He leaves the movie with a strengthened faith. God works in mysterious ways to provide miracles, as he did in the latter part of Job's life. A test of faith, even one that appears to cause faith to fail, can sometimes be the spark that ignites a burning faith. And this burning faith can burn away the chaff that may be clouding or distorting our reality. As Job portrays and Ivan illustrates in Adam's Apples, sometimes the tests are the best things that come our way!

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Friday, October 3, 2008

Arranged -- Friendship and religion

Directors: Diane Crespo, Stefan Schaefer, 2007.

What would you do if your parents were to arrange your marriage? How would you feel if your traditions and upbringing mandated that they took the leadership in finding you your spouse? This flies in the face of the individualism prevalent in Western culture.

This is the premise of the storyline for Arranged, an independent movie that grossed a mere $20K at the box office but pulled in 6 awards in international film festivals. But it is more than this. It is the emotionally moving story of a friendship that crosses religious boundaries.

At the beginning we see Rachel (Zoe Lister Jones) and Nasira (Francis Benhamou) in a lunch-room overhearing a fellow teacher share how she "found" the engagement ring in her fiance's bedroom. She is clearly awaiting her rock from her beau. But the two protagonists, like a pair of fish out of water, look at each other with sadness and resignation. The contrast between the world of this woman and their worlds could not have been any greater. And it is due to their religions: Rachel is an orthodox Jew and Nasira is a Muslim.

Rachel and Nasira are two brand new grade-school teachers in New York City. The key question in the movie is posited by the kids early, when they ask the two teachers if they hate each other. The kids have learned that Muslims hate Jews and vice versa, and so expect this position to play out in front of their very eyes. The question, more broadly, is: can a person be friends with someone of another religion, particularly if there is hositlity between their two faiths?

Rachel and Nasira are outsiders, through their dress (in traditional garb), through their faith, through their commitment to traditions. This is a challenge to the principal, who ignorantly insults them. But this insult, together with the kids' question, is the catalyst that throws them together and sparks a genuine friendship.

Jones has the tougher acting role. She has to communicate fear and uncertainty at the beginning, knowing little about the Jewish method of shadchan that she is to be a participant in. Then after going out with several of the men that the "matchmaker" thinks will work for her, she has to stand up to her parents and relatives, all of whom are trying to help her. Finally, she has to communicate her inner battle as she decides if she will pull away from her roots and traditions, potentially separating herself from her family, to find a partner herself.

Although Arranged is not a comedy, there is a hilarious scene where four or five of these dates are put together into one montage. It is clear that none of these Jewish bachelors is right for her.

Arranged gives a glimpse into the orthodox Jewish home as well as into the Muslim home. We see the faith of these two religions evident in the lives of their followers, ordinary people. Indeed, it is refreshing to see a film where a Muslim is not portrayed as a fanatic or terrorist. Here Nasiri and her family are living oridinary lives like many others in New York or America. There is nothing hostile about them.

In contrast, when Rachel brings Nasiri to her home to do some school prep it is a challenge to her orthodox Jewish family. Her mother cannot accept a Muslim in her home without her husband's approval. But this is not so much out of hatred, as out of fear that it will be noticed by her neighbors. This could be a problem for them and for Rachel in her "matchmaking" process. It is clear that friendships across religious lines is an issue for her.

Arranged also gives us a glimpse into the practice of arranged marriages. The fathers describe it well when they tell their daughters that they want what is best for their children. Knowing them since birth, and knowing their characters and personalities, they believe they can best pick a future life-partner for them. This is almost anathema to American culture, where individual control is championed. Biblically, arranged marriages occurred in the Old Testament, such as for Abraham's son Isaac (Gen. 24).

Further, arranged marriages may help to protect the faith of those entering marriage because the parents can ensure that they match with someone of like faith. Paul tells us "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers" (2 Cor. 6:14), since marriage of a Jesus follower to an unbeliever has the potential to undermine the faith of the former.

There is nothing ethically wrong with arranged marriages. Indeed, in a society where statistically one in two marriages ends in divorce, is the western way any better? Might it be more effective when dating to simply flip a coin and save years of heartache? I say this flippantly, having experienced (and continuing to experience) the joy of a long successful marriage entered into the American way, that is to say unarranged. But the truth is that many marriages don't survive, but end in divorce.

The beauty of the movie, though, is in the friendship that develops between Rachel and Nasira. The two women rise to the initial challenge and find themselves more similar than dissimilar through their betrothal arrangement procedures. They prove their principal and their students wrong. Not only can they live out their traditions in the 21st century, but they also can have a friendship that crosses religious lines. They do not focus on their religious differences. Their faiths do not separate them. Their common humanity draws them together. As they rely on each other, they are able to handle the religious pressures each face at home and the societal pressures they face at school. Their friendship even allows them to take some level of control without rejecting their traditional values. They emerge stronger women, happier women, more understanding women because of this friendship, without sacrificing or compromising their individual faith convictions.

Arranged made me reflect on my friendships. Do I have friends from other religions? Am I willing to develop relationships with people of other faiths with no agenda other than to enjoy them? How often do Christians seek to befriend people simply to evangelize them, to proselytize? And if they reject the gospel, are they, in turn, rejected and discarded as friends? In pluralistic America, the melting pot of so many nationalities and religions, can we afford not to take the message of Arranged to heart?

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs