Sunday, May 31, 2009

Last Chance Harvey -- awkwardly dealing with disappointment

Director: Joel Hopkins; 2008.

Viewers be warned: dealing with disappointment is a major theme of this film. And it should be highlighted on the movie poster since the film itself is a major disappointment. Director Joe Hopkins wrote the screenplay and after this he should be Last Chance Hopkins.

Last Chance Harvey feels like a rom-com for middle-aged movie-goers. Considering that Dustin Hoffman is 71 and Emma Thompson is 50, this is no Sleepless in Seattle, or even lovesick in London. This is a rom-com minus the romance and the comedy. So, what's left? Nothing much. And nothing much really happens. Not as though the audience really cares, since neither of the main characters is empathetically engaging.

New Yorker Harvey Shine (Hoffman) finds himself in London for the weekend to attend his daughter's wedding. But all the while, he is focused on his job as a jingle-writer. His boss is in New York pitching to a client, and Harvey wants to keep the client; but his boss is thinking younger talent.

At the wedding rehearsal dinner, Harvey sees his ex-wife and is immediately cut down by her acid tongue. Seeing his daughter Susan again, they do not even hug. This is indicative of Harvey's life. No love. No relationships. Indeed, Susan takes this precious moment to tell him that she wants her stepfather to give her away. Strike one. His attention is obvious when he skips out on the wedding dinner to get to Heathrow. But he misses the plane, and then is told by his boss he is not needed in New York. Strike two.

In a parallel set of scenes, we meet Kate (Thompson), a questionnaire-giver at Heathrow who is single. With no man in her life, she only has her mom, whose marriage is over and who constantly pries into her daughter's life. Her friends set her up on blind dates, and leave her awkwardly alone with strangers.

Given this plot, it is not surprising that Harvey runs into Susan in a bar at Heathrow drowning his sorrows. When he tries to talk to her and buy her lunch, she refuses. Strike three. But unlike baseball, Harvey is not out. A merciful end to the movie could have occurred, but instead Harvey acts like a stalker and pursues her for some unexplained reason. And what makes no real sense is why she allows him to go for a long walk with her in the heart of London.

Casting two Oscar-winning actors in Hoffman (Kramer vs Kramer, Rainman) and Thompson (Howard's End) must have seemed like a perfect match. Unfortunately, they have absolutely no chemistry and it is a wonder that Thompson's character spends any time at all with Harvey. They have an awkward time together throughout the film.

When Kate convinces Harvey that he must go back to his daughter's wedding dinner, the contrived sentimentality kicks in. When the toasts start happening it is inevitable that Harvey will want part of the action. And like Kym's impromptu speech at Rachel's pre-wedding dinner (Rachel Getting Married), Harvey's speech is awkward and embarassing, yet a little tender too.

The issue of disappointment arises when Harvey looks to Kate as something more than a walking-buddy. Kate says, "I'm not gonna do it, because it'll hurt! Sometime or other there'll be, you know "It's not working." or "I need my space." or whatever it is and it will end and it will hurt, and I won't do it." She has been hurt before, and she does not want to face that pain and disappointment again. Emotionally insecure, she is willing to give up on relationships and live a life of loneliness to avoid possible pain. She prefers the known flat-line than face the peaks and possible troughs of love.

Do we ever run from relationships because of such a fear of disappointment? Have we ever played it safe, sitting alone with our hobbies, our songs, our poetry to protect us? God has said "it is not good for the man [person] to be alone" (Gen .2:18). We were made for community and we cannot live a loveless life. That is a dull and daily death. We were made for life and love and other mysteries.

How does fear of disappointment translate into our relationship with God? Are we ever afraid of being disappointed by him? Our earthly fathers have let us down, sometimes way too frequently. Are we scared our heavenly father will let us down, too? Are our expectations of him too high? Or perhaps too low? Do we even care to know about God? Whatever we say or think, one thing is clear. God, our heavenly father, will never disappoint us. Others may, indeed will. But he won't. Don't hide from him like Kate hid from life. Like Harvey, there is still a chance for you to find satisfaction with God.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, May 29, 2009

I've Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime) -- murder and mercy

Director: Philippe Claudel, 2008.

I've Loved You so Long is writer-director Claudel's debut film and a fine French film it is. It is slow but filled with a storyline that develops at a perfect pace, giving out information little by little until it drops a bombshell at the end. It is a drama that is full of pathos and charm.

Kristin Scott Thomas gives a marvellous performance as Juliette Fontaine, a woman just released from prison and coming to stay with her younger sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein). We know that Juliette was incarcerated for murder and spent 15 years in jail, but other characters don't know this.

Throughout her years in prison, Juliette remained alone and aloof. She received no letters, had no visitors. She was forgotten by her friends, written off by her sister, expunged by her parents. Those she needed the most turned away from her. Only at the end did her sister come to visit and agree to take her into her home.

Léa's husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), is not thrilled. Having a murderer for a sister-in-law is one thing. Having her share your roof, knowing your two young children could be in danger, is another matter. He is fine with his stroke-muted father Papa Paul (Jean-Claude Arnaud) being an awkward house-dweller, but Juliette is a convicted criminal.

Claude's drama lets us experience the prejudices that surely a released convict must encounter. When Juliette looks for work, she cannot hide her background nor escape its consequence. People fear killers. Yet having paid the price demanded by society, justice has been fulfilled. She is still a human being. She still retains some dignity. All of us have gone astray in some way; all of us have sinned. None is left innocent. Paul makes this clear in his scathing indictment of humanity in Romans 3:1-21. God could treat us all in the same manner that Juliette is treated by her would-be employers. Yet he doesn't. Instead, God provides a way for us to be judged not-guilty. He provides Jesus as our penalty-bearer. He takes our place, and we can take his rightness (2 Cor. 5:21).

In a role distinctly unpretty, Thomas still evokes the fragility and neediness of a soul unknowingly desperate for contact. But contact is something Juliette avoids, both physically and emotionally. She is cold and distant, silent and withdrawn. She spends hours simply sitting, smoking and staring out of windows. We get a glimpse into the toll of 15 years behind bars, staring out of a cell window. Her bitterness at the abandonment by her family causes her to shield herself from further disappointment.

Claude's drama also highlights the complexity of family dynamics. Whn Juliette joins this family, she finds the air filled with tension. Only in the presence of Papa Paul, another social outcast (due to his inability to speak), does she let down and feel some acceptance. Misfits tend to embrace misfits. Perhaps they understand the difficulty of acceptance. Yet, how much better to realize that we are misfits in one way or another, and show acceptance to those around us. This is what Jesus did for the lepers and the lame, the blind and the beggars. We should do likewise.

As the movie progresses, Juliette's protective shell begins to melt and very carefully she opens up to those around her. Part of this is the presence of the two nieces. Children are so precious in this way. We can hardly help but love these little ones. Only the hardest heart would remain stony cold in the presence of loving and accepting kids. Juliette is no exception.

Léa's act of mercy allowing Juliette to come back to her home gives Juliette a second chance at family, reuniting two sisters who had been close friends as children. As Juliette seizes this second chance some truths of her past and her crime surface. When they do, we wonder what the true cost of mercy is.

When the film concludes, we see Juliette for who she really is. The shocking truth paints a far different picture than we have been led to believe. It leaves us thinking about sin and grace and mercy. We are all capable of despicable acts. Indeed, we may all be capable of murder in our most furious rages. But oh what great mercy beckons us from our Lord Jesus Christ. What grace he offers before we descend this pit of hell. In the words of John Bradford, "There but for the grace of God, go I."

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The African Queen -- dependence and inter-dependence

Director: John Huston, 1951.

The African Queen is widely regarded as an American classic. Certainly it will be remembered as the movie for which Humphrey Bogart won his only Oscar. Personally, I thought he was better as Rick in Casablanca, for which he got a nomination. Perhaps the Academy realized their mistake and made recompense here. He stars against Katherine Hepburn, who herself was nominated for her role in this film but did not win.

The film is essentially a road trip movie set on an African river. It combines adventure in the beautiful African wilderness, with character development, romance and love between two characters of polar extremes. For most of the movie, we see only Bogart and Hepburn. Robert Morley shows up at the start as Rev. Samuel Sayer, and a few other characters appear at the climax. But this is a vehicle for Bogey and Hepburn, and they work well together.

As the movie begins, it is September 1914 and World War I has just begun. But the news of this has not reached Rev. Sayer, a missionary in German East Africa with his sister Rose (Hepburn). While their church service is underway, Canadian Charlie Allnut (Bogart) shows up in his small, slow steamboat, The African Queen, bringing supplies and mail, and news of this new war. Invited to stay for tea and refreshments, the initial scene paints the contrast between Charlie and Rose. He is easy-going, a loose libertine, while she is prim and proper, devoutly religious. They are chalk and cheese, diametrical opposites.

For a Hollywood film, there is an unexpected emphasis on church and faith throughout. At the start, with the probability of the Germans coming to the village, Charlie comments, "I don't know why the Germans would want this God-forsaken place." Rose responds, "God has not forsaken this place, Mr. Allnut, as my brother's presence here bears witness." Rose speaks biblical truth. There is nowhere on earth that God is not present. Theologically, this is called God's omnipresence. To speak of a place being God-forsaken is to misunderstand God. King David said it more poetically in one of the songs, or psalms, he composed (Psa. 139:7-12):
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,"
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

After Charlie leaves, the Germans come and burn down the entire village. This act of wanton violence leaves Rev. Sayer mentally crushed and dying, and the village emptied of his parishioners. When Charlie returns on his way down river, the reverend is dead and the Germans are likely to return. Charlie convinces Rose to come along with him on his steamboat to escape the enemy.

At first their goals are as different as their personalities. Pragmatic Charlie simply wants to find a cosy cove to hide his steamboat and wait out the war; he has supplies aplenty, especially of gin. Rose, however, is a principled woman who wants to fight back against the Germans. She wants to blow up the warship Louisa that patrols the lake the British must enter to fight in this region. And she wears Charlie down until he agrees to her adventure, never mind the risks and dangers inherent in this enterprise.

As their mission marches onward, they face German foes in a fort guarding the river, white-water rapids that could make matchwood of their boat, and wild animals all around. Adversity becomes their constant companion. Yet, adversity causes each to change, and they move toward one another. With Rose's assistance Charlie cleans up. With Charlie's help Rose loosens up. Indeed, after one frightening and near-death rapid-run, Rose says, "I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!" Where others might find this to be nerve-wracking, she found it exhilarating. She is coming alive to life.

Also, there is a character growth in their relative areas of dependence. Gin-swilling Charlie gives up his dependence on alcohol, with some unexpected help from Rose. He must face life and the river without his beloved gin. And Charlie the loner must become Charlie in community, even if a community of two. There is a lesson in inter-dependence. Together, Charlie and Rose can accomplish more than they could alone or apart. Rose, on the other hand, grows in her dependence on God, her own beloved.

Toward the end, their mission faces impossible odds and losing heart, Rose prays to God. And God hears! More than this, God answers. Her prayers proved powerful. While the two sleep in an exhausted sleep with all hope gone, God delivers them, as he has done time and time again for his children. In this one scene, answered prayer is illustrated clearly. Throughout the Bible there are numerous examples of God's people praying in times of need and God answering. The nation of Israel prayed while in captivity in Egypt and God provided a redeemer, Moses (Exod. 2:23). The church prayed for Peter when he was thrown in jail, and angels came and rescued him (Acts 11:1-18). Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane and God heard and answered (Matt. 26:42), though not via an act of deliverance for Jesus but via the cross which was the act of deliverance for us!

Rose's prayer is interesting in its theological insight: "Dear Lord, We've come to the end of our journey, and in a little while we'll stand before you. I pray for you to be merciful. Judge us not for our weaknesses, but for our love and open the doors of heaven for Charlie and me." She knows all people will stand before God who will judge everyone (Heb. 9:27; Rev. 20:12). She also knows God as a merciful God. He is merciful (Deut. 4:31), and this is a characteristic of God that we can appeal to. She also realizes that we all have our weaknesses. But rather than focus on them, she focuses on God and his love and mercy. His love has provided the way for us to stand before him and find the doors to heaven thrown open: Jesus Christ. At the cross, Jesus paid the price for our weaknesses and sins. His righteousness becomes ours when we whole-heartedly choose to follow him. Let us pray, like Rose, that at the end of our journey we might find the doors of heaven open to us. And then follow Jesus and ensure those doors will be open!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Delicatessen -- surviving in scarcity

Directors: Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1991.

Before Amelie came Delicatessen. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, best known for his quirky Amelie and its dimunitive and perky star Audrey Toutou, got his full-length feature film debut with the French black-comedy Delicatessen. And you can definitely see the lineage.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic French society, where food is rare and money is useless. Instead, food is its own currency. With moody atmosphere that is dark and foreboding, even eerily foggy at times, the film is focused on one delicatessen. At the ground floor of a run-down building, the owner is butcher and landlord all rolled into one.

In the opening sequence, we are introduced to the theme of the movie -- survival. While Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), the butcher, sharpens his tools in the delicatessen, a renter is papering himself and listening in on the goings on. When he is satisfied that his disguise is complete and he is brown-papered head-to-toe, he creeps down the stairs and crawls into a garbage can. He is trying to escape. Alas, he is unsuccessful. Instead, when discovered he becomes the butcher's next cuts of meat. Fresh meat on his counter, the rest of the renters flock to the store for their meat. Cannibalism front and center stage.

Enter Louison (Dominique Pinon, Amelie), a former clown now looking for work. He responds to the ad Clapet places in "Hard Times" magazine for a handyman. But he is skinny, lacking much "flesh" and muscle. Nevertheless, a man is a man, and Clapet hires him, intent on letting him paint the ceilings before sealing his fate.

When Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), Clapet's short-sighted but beautiful daughter, falls for Louison, Clapet's plans start to unravel. Julie knows what is going on and will not let Louison become his next victim. Instead, she seeks out the help of the underground (literally) Troglodytes, a renegade grain-eating subculture of society.

Jeunet's film is dark yet visuallly sublime and funny. Caro had control of the production design, and created a surrealist fantasy with rooms of uniquely different colors filled with strange complementary characters. The green room is filled with frogs and snails and fetid water. Julie's room is red, the color of romance. The characters themselves give the world of Delicatessen its soul, each fulfilling their role and purpose, and driving the film to its climax.

The premise of the film questions what we would do for food if food were a scarce commodity. It offers three answers and a comment on society. The first, and main, approach is cannibalism. The renters and Clapet all know they are eating human flesh. Yet their hunger forces them to make this choice knowingly. Cannibalism occurred in Old Testament times, when Jerusalem was besieged (2 Kings 6:29). Mothers ate their children, their own offspring, to survive. Those who were helpless were made food for their families. Yet, this is seen in the Bible as the consequence of turning away from the Lord and as a dire punishment for abandoning the precepts of the law (Deut. 28:53-57). In almost all human society, cannibalism is viewed with horror.

If cannibalism is one choice, another choice is theft. The trogs will resort to stealing to feed themselves and survive. Stealing is itself a sin, one of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:15). But is it better to steal than to kill and eat another human?

If cannibalism and stealing are dismissed, a third option is to commit suicide. One of the tenants, goes to elaborate lengths to kill herself, but in ways that leave it to others to pull the trigger. She is almost tempting fate to take her life. Yet, time and time again, fate intervenes to save her from self-destruction. Suicide is a poor choice, since it is permanent and hopeless. It is a giving in to despair. The Bible offers hope even in times of despair. Jesus wants us to turn to him in such times.

And this brings us to the option that is never mentioned: prayer. Jesus tells us God will care for us better than he cares for the sparrows (Matt. 10:29-31). In fact, he tells us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread" and the Father in heaven will hear and reply (Matt. 6:11). Paul, in his letter to the Philippian church, reminds us that Jesus will meet our deepest needs, and food and sustenance would count here (Phil. 4:19). Prayer may seem trite, but remains true.

Commenting on the sad state of affairs when he discovers the truth about the delicatessen, Louison says, "Nobody is entirely evil; it's the circumstances that make them evil or they don't know they are doing evil." This is Jeunet's commentary on society and it is one that continues to resound today. We can blame evil on ignorance or circumstances. Change the conditions or provide education and people will become better. The butcher and the tenants in Delicatessen were certainly not ignorant. They all knew what they were doing. Circumstances may have pushed them into a corner, but other options were available; they just did not pursue them.

No, it is a cop out to place blame on circumstances. We can all point to dismal or dire circumstances, but that does not get us off the butcher's hook. Louison is correct to say no one is entirely evil. God created humankind and saw his creation was very good (Gen. 1:31). Yet, our good ancestors rebelled against this good God and in so doing brought sin into the world (Gen. 3). Ever since that time, humanity has become corrupted. Our nature is tainted with this original sin, and our tendency is to turn ourselves away from the good and from God. It is not the circumstances that make us evil. The perfect garden of Eden proved that. The circumstances give us opportunity to display some of the evil that we carry around inside of us. Our only hope, as it is for surviving this cannibalistic delicatessen, is to look to Jesus to cleanse us from within. He will do this if we ask. Then dire circumstances will give us the opportunity to display the good that comes from Him.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Terminator Salvation -- friends and enemies, and saviors

Terminator Salvation Publicity Still

Director: McG, 2009.

"I'll be back." Arnold Schwarzenegger immortalized this in the original Terminator movie. In this "final" film it is repeated, this time by hero John Connor (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight). Ironically, the conclusion leaves the franchise open to be back again.

This particular installment is the archetypical summer blockbuster: full of action but lacking in character and plot. It's a fun ride, but not memorable.

It might be argued that character development is unnecessary in such a film because the action drives the story. But characters carry a story and they need to be more than two-dimensional to make the audience like them and want them to succeed. It might further be argued that the characters have been introduced in earlier installments. For Connor, that is true. But the others are ciphers, apart from Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), Connor's teen-aged father thanks to the paradoxes of time-travel. The story itself is full of holes that we quickly forget thanks to the pacing of the action. And this is an action film, first and foremost.

The movie opens before "Judgment Day." Earth is not yet devastated by the Skynet-initiated nuclear armageddon. Convicted killer Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) is about to executed. He is a bad man. Just before this happens he signs his body over to Dr. Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) of Cybernetics. We can imagine what will come of this.

Cut ahead to 2018. The apocalypse has occurred. Earth lies ruined, a barren wasteland of destruction caused by the machines. Man is on the run. John Connor is one of the leaders of the resistance; to many he is the prophetic voice of human salvation as he "preaches" his gospel over the radio waves.

Terminator Salvation Publicity StillWhen Marcus mysteriously appears on the wasteland scene, he is a man unsure of who he is or what he is doing. Through sheer luck, or fate, he meets Reese in what is left of Los Angeles, and immediately and inadvertently draws the machines, Terminators and more, to their hideaway. Searching for a purpose, he hears Connor and his mission is set. Reese, Marcus and a mute child set out in a jeep on a "Mad Max"-like journey.

One of the best action sequences is a chase by two cyborg-motorcycles, culminating in a harrowing crash on a ravine-topping bridge. Reminscent of the crane-truck's block-demolishing chase by the Terminatrix in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, it leads to their separation and ultimately brings Marcus to meet one of Connor's lieutenants, Blair (Blood Moongood).

When Marcus saves Blair from some would-be rapists, she sees him as her immediate savior, one of the good guys. But he tells her,"I'm not a good guy." Instead, she tells him he just doesn't know he is good and that we all deserve a second chance.

Is Blair right? Are we all good, even if we don't feel it or know it? Are we just ignorant to our innate goodness? Clearly not all are good. She would not have said that of her assailants. Knowledge is not what we, or Marcus, need. Biblically, we are all tainted by sin (Rom. 3:23). Marcus is right: we are not the good guys we, or others, might think. But God created us with an original intention to be good guys (Gen. 1:31). We need the intervention of a Savior to make us good. Jesus is that Savior. With his help, indeed through his blood, we can be made right with God and re-created as good (2 Cor. 5:21). Through Jesus we can get that second chance.

Terminator Salvation Publicity StillWhen Marcus and Blair make it to Connor's base-camp, Marcus' secret emerges. He is a new form of cyborg -- part man, part machine. For Connor, Marcus is the enemy. He is trained to trust humans, fight machines. He is faced with the dilemma: is Marcus his enemy or his ally? Sometimes we face a similar question. Who is our enemy? Who is our friend? Jesus himself surrounded himself with 12 close friends, his disciples (Lk. 6:13). Yet one of these close friends was his betrayer (Lk. 22:47-48). Judas was no true friend; he became his enemy.

At the heart of the dilemma is a heart. Marcus has a human heart and a human brain. He actually thinks he is human. So is Marcus man or machine? Connor comments that it is the heart that distinguishes a man from a machine. The organ that beats rhythmically and punps life-giving blood through the body makes the being a man.

Terminator Salvation Publicity StillConnor's philosophically-charged statement raises the question of what constitutes humanity. It is more than simply a heart, although the Old Testament places great emphasis on the blood as representing life (Lev. 17:11). This life, however, can be animal or human, not cyborg. Humanity comprises more than just a heart, more too than a brain. There is soul and spirit (Heb. 4:12). We are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). This evokes memories of the sci-fi classic, Blade Runner, that offered a commentatry on the constitution of man. The similarity ro Blade Runner is apparent in this film. Its dark, moody cinematography, the bleakness of the landscape, the frequent stormy rain pay homage to that masterpiece of modern cinema.

Ultimately Terminator Salvation points to salvation and a savior. Marcus is part Judas, part Jesus. Raised from the dead, he comes to an earth he does not know with a mission, a purpose he slowly discovers. Like Jesus, he grows in knowledge and wisdom (Lk. 2:40) until in the heart of Skynet he becomes all-knowing.

Terminator Salvation Publicity StillBut whereas Connor faced a war with the machines, we face a different war. Our battle is with a darker more insidious enemy -- sin. We have seen the enemy and it is us, within us. As Connor could not conquer the Terminators on his own, we cannot conquer sin without external help. We need a savior. And we have that savior in Jesus. He has faced sin and death and defeated both (1 Cor. 15:54-57). In him we can obtain forgiveness and life. He is our terminator salvation!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Wrestler -- second-chances squandered

The Wrestler Artwork

Director: Darren Aronofsky, 2008.

"When you live hard and play hard and burn the candle at both ends . . . in this life, you can lose everything you love, everything that loves you." This summarizes Randy "The Ram" Robinson's life.

The Wrestler centers on The Ram (Mickey Rourke), an aging and almost washed-up professional wrestler. Living alone in a single-wide trailer, he lives off his reputation from 20 years earlier while getting by working small-time wrestling gigs in VFW halls and as a part-time grocery store loader. He bears the scars on his body but the deeper scars are in his psyche, emotional scars that are too painful to reflect on.

Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) is the female counterpart and foil to The Ram. She is a stripper working in the club Ram frequents, and is his closest friend. But this is not saying much as he has few friends. Like Ram, her "scars" are her tattoos over much of her body. Like Ram she paints a smile on her face as she faces her "fans", but she too bears emotional scars she won't reveal.

The Wrestler VariousBoth Rourke and Tomei bring their A-games to these roles. They descend into their characters and embue them with a sense of realism that makes them totally believable. By surrounding Rourke with actual wrestlers and improvising many of the locker-room scenes, director Aronofosky makes us forget this is a movie. Even Rourke's cutting of his forehead while on the mat is real and true-to-life. Both actors deservedly got Oscar nominations.

Aronofsky's latest film is about as far as you can get from his last. The Fountain was a visually stunning fantasy that interweaved three connected stories from three different eras and left the audience puzzled or satisfied, or maybe both. It was romantic and heroic, with conquistadors and research scientists. The Wrestler, on the other hand, is a gritty character study focusing its hand-held camera on the underbelly of society. Wrestlers and strippers, both actors on a stage that middle-class America avoids. This is not romantic or beautiful; it is tough-as-nails and it's hard to watch.

The Wrestler VariousThe Ram is still playing the game although his best years are behind him. Aronofsky shows wrestling for the game it is. When the fighters mingle in the dressing room/locker room before the event, they go over the moves and falls they are going to do. It is all an act, a sham for the benefit of the audience. Likewise, the come-ons that Cassidy and the other strippers make to their audience is all an act. Cassidy, like Ram, is over-the-hill, a 40-something mother whose looks evaporate in the bright light of daytime.

When Ram collapses after one match he is rushed to the hospital to undergo emergency surgery. His life is saved and he is given a second-chance. But what will he do with it? As he recounts this to Cassidy, she counsels him to make amends with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood, Across the Universe). Ram attempts to hold down a steady job as a deli-counter worker, but he has the patience of a gnat and a desire to be back in the spotlight.

As The Wrestler progresses, the Ram gets his second chances at fatherhood, wrestling and love. Reconnecting with Stephanie, Ram confesses his failings to her in a poignant scene: "You're my girl. You're my little girl. And now, I'm an old broken down piece of meat . . . and I'm alone. And I deserve to be all alone. I just don't want you to hate me." He does not want to be hated. But forgiveness is not easy for those who have been deeply hurt. Ram's deep wounds were self-inflicted. Stephanie's were caused by him. Forgiveness may be a deeply biblical concept but it is tremendously hard in practice. Some second chances cannot be easily sustained. It takes a renewed heart, one that has experienced the personal forgiveness offered by Jesus, to forgive another.

When ordinary life becomes too difficult Ram returns to the only real life he has known -- professional wrestling. The rematch with his nemesis from the 80s offers him another second chance. But he is not the same man he was. We often want to go back to our youth or a period of personal success. But time marches ever onward. We cannot stop it, let alone turn it backwards. We can only live in the present, anticipating the future, learning from the past. With each day's birth we change, ever so slightly, so we are not the same people we were yesterday. We grow. We mature. We slowly die. Only Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8).

When Cassidy realizes the depth and reality of Ram's feelings for her, she gives him a second chance at love. But he has a choice to make. He cannot live the life of a husband and a wrestler. These lives do not easily intermix. He tells the audience that is roaring his name, "You people here . . you people here. You're my family." Ram lives for the applause. Affirmation by the fans is his drug of choice. He will do anything, sacrifice everything for this fix, this high. He cannot see that they are not his real family. Those who love him, or once did, are sacrificed on the altar of the wrestler's mat.

How are we treating those who love us? Are we relishing that love and reciprocating with a love of our own? Or have we focused on our own success, our own business careers, at the expense of our families, who are left on the sidelines forgotten and alone? The Wrestler reminds us that ordinary life may seem dull but often carries its own rewards in family love.

Second chances do come in life, as they did for Randy The Ram Robinson. But how we respond to them will decide if they make a difference. We cannot count on third-chances.

The tag-line for The Wrestler was "Love. Pain. Glory." It causes us to stop and ponder: what do we really want out of life? For The Ram, it was glory and love, at the cost of huge personal pain. What about us? What will we pay? Where will we look for love? Will we look to Jesus?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Bedtime Stories -- heroes and happy endings

Bedtime Stories Box Art

Director: Adam Shankman, 2008.

We have probably all had our parents tell us bedtime stories. And we have no doubt all told our kids such tales. But what if these stories we told came to life? That is the premise of this Adam Sandler vehicle. And, surprisingly for a Sandler movie, it is quite good fun.

Sandler plays Skeeter Bronson, a janitor and general handyman in a California hotel owned by Barry Nottingham (Richard Griffiths, Uncle Vernon from the Harry Potter films). As a kid, Skeeter's dad owned a family motel but had to sell the property to Nottingham since his business was heading to bankruptcy. One of the "conditions" was that when Skeeter grew up, he would become the manager of the new hotel that would be built. That did not happen. But Skeeter's dreams did not die.

When Skeeter's sister Wendy (Courteney Cox), a principal at a local elementary school gets laid off because the school is being demolished, she asks him to watch her two kids while she goes to Arizona for job interviews. He does not have to pull the whole babysitting job. He simply gets the night shift, while her responsible friend Jill (Keri Russell) takes the kids to and from school during the day.

Bedtime Stories Publicity StillSkeeter's character is summed up in his response to the babysitting request: "Okay, I'll do it. But you gotta say 'Skeeter's the coolest, I'm the nerd.' " Childish, certainly! But it is all he wants, before accepting the job.

This is a typical Adam Sandler role. Skeeter is simply a child in an adult's body. He is goofy, awkward, socially inept, and enjoys potty humor and practical jokes. He is unsubtle, telling people what he thinks. He is not politically correct in any way, shape or form.

When Skeeter tells his niece and nephew a story the first night, he makes it up since the books that Wendy has are too eco-friendly. When the kids join in and help make the ending memorable, Skeeter thinks nothing of it. That is, until the strange events described actually take place in real life for him the next day. Realizing there is some connection between the story and reality, Skeeter thinks he has stumbled on his own personal golden goose. He foresees great possibilities.

Bedtime Stories Movie StillWith more bedtime stories coming, Skeeter tells tales of a Western cowboy hero, a Roman Evel Knievel, a gallant knight, and a Star Wars figure. The plot includes an evil hotel manager, Kendall (Guy Pierce) who is after Nottingham's daughter as well as his executive position, a fair maiden "in distress" and a duel to determine the true champion. It all makes for lightweight entertainment, especially for kids. The ending becomes contrived, bringing together the hotel and school plotlines, before Skeeter brings it to a resolution.

Bedtime Stories does contain a few nuggets worth reflecting on. After telling the first bedtime story, Skeeter ends it on a sad note. When the kids complain, he bursts their bubble by telling them that there are no happy endings in real life. He is living witness to this. This is a "truth" that will come back to bite him in the movie. But is it true? There are some happy endings, but most people can point to their own personal dreams that lie shattered and forgotten. Despite Hollywood's desire to close most movies with an upbeat, happy ending, Skeeter is right; life is not always like that.

But if we look from a Christian perspective, focusing on the big picture, we see that this life is just the beginning of our journey. We can look at Jesus. He died a painful death on the cross, yet he rose from the grave victorious over death (1 Cor. 15:54). There was a happy ending when seen from sunny Sunday, not from black ("good") Friday. Jesus is the archetype of renewed humanity. Jesus-followers will live with him and reign with him in the life eternal. That is a truly happy ending!

Bedtime Stories Movie StillAnother point of interest is the difference between the kids and the adults. When there is nothing on the line but the story, the bedtime story is fun. In this case there is no agenda. But as soon as Skeeter sees the potential to use the stories for his own benefit, he begins to manipulate them, molding them with his personal agenda. When that happens, the fun disappears. And the kids notice. The stories have no purpose except to get to Skeeter's goal. There is no plot, no arc. The children recognize innately that a story needs an arc, some obstacles preventing the hero from accomplishing a goal, and that along his journey he will change for the better. Without these, the story is banal, boring. With them, the story is beautiful, engaging. These kids are story critics without knowing it.

When the movie appears to grind to a close, Skeeter's stories having dissipated, his nephew says to him, "I thought you were supposed to be the good guy." Heroes are supposed to be the good guys. And as Skeeter sits on his bed alone, pondering what went wrong, the voice of his father magically calls out to him telling him that a hero would do something "courageous and unexpected." As Jesus heard the voice of his Father tell him and the crowd at his baptism, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matt. 3: 17), Skeeter hears his father call him to action.

Bedtime Stories gives us a laudable working definition of a hero: a good guy, who acts courageously and unexpectedly. Heroes earn their title through their acts of bravery and courage. Heroes don't have to be famous, larger than life. They can be like Skeeter, the lowly janitor who rises to the occasion. Selflessness is characteristic of the hero. Putting others first, heroes do what others refuse to do. We can all be Skeeters, heroes, if we are willing to wear these characteristics and do the courageous and unexpected, with no personal agenda and without manipulation. So, with Wendy, say, "Skeeter's the coolest. I'm ready to be a hero!"

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Thursday, May 14, 2009

All About Eve -- consequences of insatiable ambition

Director: Joseph Mankiewicz, 1951.

Time for a pop quiz. Question: what movie garnered the most Oscar nominations ever (14)? Answer: that historical disaster movie with Leo and Kate . . . Titanic. True enough. Question: which movie got 14 nominations years before DiCaprio was even born? Answer: All About Eve. In fact four of the female actors were nominated, also a record. However, Titanic won 11 Oscars, the most ever (tied with Ben Hur and Return of the King); All About Eve won only 6. One of these was Best Picture. Two went to Mankiewicz for Best Director and Best Screenplay. Interestingly, his brother Herman Mankiewicz won the screenplay Oscar seven years earlier for Citizen Kane.

The film opens at an awards ceremony where theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders winning an Oscar) gives voice-over narration to set the stage. As the camera pans we see the main characters in the film all looking decidedly gloomy. Then when Eve Harrington gets up to accept the award, the film moves back a year to recount all about Eve getting there.

Eve (Anne Baxter) is a young devoted fan of aging stage legend Margo Channing (Bette Davis with those big eyes). Every day she waits by the stagedoor to catch a glimpse of her idol and attends every single show of Margo's Broadway play. One day she meets Margo's best friend Karen (Celeste Holm), who is won over by this humble and naive woman from the sticks. Karen brings her backstage to meet Margo and in the dressing room Eve meets all the other main characters: Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), Karen's husband and writer of the play; Birdie (Thelma Ritter), the cynical dresser and friend for Margo; and Bill (Gary Merrill), director and long-time boyfriend of Margo. (In fact, during the filming Davis fell in love with Merrill and afterwards became her fourth and last husband.)

In this first meeting, Eve's gushing sob story of her life impacts the cynicism of Margo and her friends and wins Eve the beginnings of friendship. She moves into Margo's guestroom and becomes her secretary-aide, organizing her affairs. Little by little this petite charmer ingratiates herself fully into Margo's inner circle.

Eve reminds me of David's son Absalom. When he returned to Jerusalem after being exiled for killing his brother Amnon (2 Sam. 13-14), he wanted the kingship in place of his father. To ingratiate himself with the people of Israel, he would stand by the road leading to the city gate and meet all those who had complaints. Listening to them, he would tell them, " 'Look, your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you. . . . . If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that he gets justice.' " (2 Sam. 15:3-4) In this way, he won over the people to his position though he never actually delivered on his promises. He was driven by ruthless ambition and needed the people to be behind him.

Eve, too, was driven. She was not the simple-minded girl she appeared. Instead, she was a cold-hearted snake driven by an insatiable ambition. She knew exactly what she was doing. She knew what she wanted and what she was prepared to do to get it. And like a snake ready to strike, Eve knows exactly when to dig in her fangs.

At one of the parties that she herself organized she makes a move. It is at this party that the angry Margo speaks the famous line, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!" And bumpy it is. All About Eve is filled with sparkling dialog, witty and cynical, a scathing commentary on the goings on behind the scenes of Broadway productions.

Eve is enchanted by adulation. As she comments on the theater she says, "If there's nothing else, there's applause . . . like waves of love pouring over the footlights." But this is not real love. She is seeking the approval and applause of men. Man's approval is fickle. It comes, flares brightly, and fades quickly. Paul warns us against such approval: "On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts" (1 Thess 2:4). Paul realized that pleasing God was more important and valuable than pleasing men. Being lauded by men pales compared to being lauded by God with the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant!" (Matt. 25:23) When the lights fade, when the wrinkles merge, the audience will be gone, but God will still be there.

Eve's lust for the limelight drove her to sin and crime. From the act of lying to deeper manipulation and more, Eve counted the cost of ambition but was willing to pay the price. With deception comes division. And her friends became enemies. Likewise, as Absalom made his push to be king, he lost the friendship of his siblings and his father. Eventually he lost his life in an ill-fated civil war (2 Sam. 18:9-15).

Ambition itself is amoral. It creates a drive to accomplish, to excel. In the early days of the church, the apostle Paul had an "ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known" (Rom. 15:20). This was a positive ambition that led to the sharing of the gospel and the foundation of churches across southern Europe. But Paul also warned, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit" (Phil. 2:3). Whereas Paul's ambition was selfless, Eve's was rooted in selfishness and prideful vanity.

Alongside Eve, DeWitt is a formidable partner and mentor of sorts. He says, in his voice-over at the start, "My name is Addison DeWitt. My native habitat is the theater. In it I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theater." He produces his column, filling it with caustic and cynical criticism of those who actually work in the theater, all the while soaking in his own self-importance.

This raises the question of the role of the critic. Is the critic really essential to the theater? Is the critic adding value in a positive sense to the performance? In All About Eve, DeWitt is a political player, contriving and conniving behind the scenes and through the formulation of public opinion. But he is really not essential. He acts as a negative force more than a positive contributor.

But what of film critics? I write here as one trying to make a difference. Is criticism art? No, the art is in the performance, in the film itself. But is there value in the writing of personal opinion? If it helps others to see the art better, to connect with the film-maker's message, then I believe there is value. In my case, if I can help make a connection to the divine somehow, pointing out how I see the relevance to a biblical worldview, then perhaps I have made a contribution to the enjoyment and valuing of the film. You be the judge.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rachel Getting Married -- love and self-forgiveness

Director: Jonathan Demme, 2008.

Rachel Getting Married is really about Kym (Anne Hathaway). Kym is a substance-abusing junkie who has been in and out of rehab for years. Now, nine months into her latest stint, she is allowed a weekend of freedom so she can return to her father's Connecticut home for the wedding of her sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt).

Hathway, in this central role, comes of age aas an actress. Gone is the likeable but banal princess (The Princess Diaries). Instead, Hathaway submerges herself in the skin of an addict, and we forget the actress and see a person who is both desperately needy and filled with self-loathing. She is a loose cannon who cannot be controlled. Her nomination for an Oscar for this performance was indeed well deserved.

Rachel is getting married to Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe, a real-life singer), a black musician, in a traditional Indian ceremony in the family home. Filled with friends who are musicians, there is constant music in the background and a free-flowing sense of peace and joy. Into this dynamic comes Kym and immediately there is tension in the air, tension due to long-simmering issues that lie unresolved and unspoken. As these rise to the surface in unexpected ways, we find ourselves laughing at one moment and crying at the next. It is a bittersweet wedding movie, both hilarious and heartbreaking.

Demme (The Manchurian Candidate, Silence of the Lambs) has surrounded Hathaway with some veteran actors and some unknowns. Bill Irwin is Paul, Kym's remarried father, and Debra Winger is her remarried mother. Demme also chose to give the cast a lot of freedom and shot much of the movie in single takes, simply following them around with cameras. In this way he gives the film an intimate film; it is as if we are actually present in this house sharing in this very personal wedding. Since one of the characters has an ever-present camcorder and Kym often talks into this camera, the film at times feels like a home-movie.

Weddings, like anniversaries and reunions, bring out the best and worst of families. This one is no different, except that there are more skeletons in the closet. In the rehearsal dinner we see the best. Rachel's white upper-middle class family mix and mingle with fiance Sidney's large black family. The room is filled with laughter. Various ethnicities blend together, food and wine is enjoyed, toasts are made, memories savored. One critic has called this a picture of heaven. Certainly, in heaven people of all colors and nations will come together as one in the body of Christ. We will enjoy being part of one family worshipping one God. The Bible even portrays our relationship to Jesus as a marriage (Eph. 5:25-32; Rev. 19:7), and the marriage feast will be one to behold and be enjoyed in heaven (Rev. 19:9). The grace, acceptance and love present there is illustrated in this rehearsal dinner . . . at least until sourpuss Kym gets up to make her speech.

Rachel Getting Married Publicity StillThe screenplay by Jenny Lumet, daughter of film director Sidney Lumet, is her first to be filmed, but it is sharp as a tack, bringing a brutal honesty to a dysfunctional family's dynamics. One scene highlights male competetiveness as a means to bonding and is based on an actual event involving her father and actor Bob Fosse. Rachel's husband-to-be Sidney looks in the dishwasher and sees it is poorly loaded, overflowing but with the potential for room if re-loaded. He claims he can load it better than Paul, his soon-t0-be father-in-law. That is a challenge any self-respecting man will not refuse. So, the stakes are set: to load the dishwasher inside two minutes. Sidney does his bit amidst spectator cheering. But Paul is the master-loader, and when it is his turn he not only fills it but there is room to spare. Indeed, there is a right and best way to load a dishwasher . . . as I often tell and show my family. (Is it a male thing about loading the dishwasher?) And Sidney and Paul somehow mystically become closer as a result of this competition.

At the end of the competition, though, Kym, in trying to help brings to the forefront one of the family skeletons. In less than a nanosecond the mood of magic turns melancholic. Family dynamics can be so fragile. A silent look, a whispered word, an innate object, such things can trigger bitter recollections that can ruin the moment, with others outside the family circle not comprehending what has taken place. Such are families.

One of the unspoken issues in this family is favoritism. Paul clearly dotes on Kym at the expense of Rachel. And it has its negative effects. For Kym, it feels like overcontrol and over-protection. To some degree she is running from this seeking her own personal space and freedom. To Rachel it feels like a love that has been stolen from her. Paul, as the father, is blinded to the consequences of his actions and sees none of this. At least until it is bluntly and rudely brought to his attention.

Favoritism can raise its ugly head in the most normal of families as here. In the Old Testament the story of Joseph and his multicolored coat is a story of favoritism and jealousy (Gen. 37-50). Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons and gave him this prize cloak. But the bitter siblings chose to sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt, an act that was planned and used by God for the good of the nation (Gen. 50:20), but which caused pain and suffering to Jacob for years. When we commit favoritism as parents we are planting seeds of sibling strife that may be invisible to us but will likely germinate into bitter fruit in later years.

Such bitter fruit needs to be dealt with. Forgiveness is the answer. Though she attempts a generic repentance to her family, Kym cannot so easily make amends and receive forgiveness. And with forgiveness, there are three parties involved: the victim, the culprit and God. Kym struggles with all three.

At a 12-step program meeting we see Kym admit to her addictions and give a moving personal testimony:
And I struggle with God so much, because I can't forgive myself. And I don't really want to right now. I can live with it, but I can't forgive myself. And sometimes I don't want to believe in a God that could forgive me.
Sometimes it is easier to forgive another person than it is to forgive ourself. Then while we remain in a state of self-unforgiveness we find it hard to accept that God could forgive us. After all, if we won't forgive ourself, why should God? But in doing this, Kym is actually putting herself above God. If God says he forgives us we need to accept this and also forgive ourselves. By supplanting God, Kym is playing the part of the martyr, the person whose sins and crimes are so terrible that she cannot accept forgiveness. She has got her logic twisted. She can't forgive herself because she cannot accept God. If she did the latter, she would find the freedom to do the former. How many of us are also in this position, like Kym holding onto self-loathing and pushing God away? Maybe it is time to move to God first.

As much as Rachel Getting Married is a picture of family dysfunction, it is still a celebration of love and hope in the form of Rachel's marriage. Surrounded by musicians, Sidney breaks into acapella song to Rachel as part of his wedding vows. A beautfiul moment, it reflects the magical wonder of a wedding. Two people joining themselves together to form a new union with the hope of a lifetime of love. Cue the tissues.

Indeed, the film leaves us thinking about love. Kym, in another emotional outburst, pours out the question that has been burning a hole in her heart: "Did I sacrifice every bit of love I'm allowed for this life because" of the incident in her troubled teens. She is crying out for love. Her neediness is like a choker slowly strangling the life and hope out of her. She wants to be accepted by her sister and mother, she wants to be loved by her family.

We all want to be loved. Weddings remind of us our own families and marriages, whether loveless or loving. We all need this unconditional acceptance. We can get this from Jesus. He loves us and accepts us, even when we won't accept ourselves. Will we let him? Will we embrace this love and be part of his bride?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Citizen Kane -- understanding "Rosebud"

Director: Orson Welles, 1941.

Almost 70 years-old, Citizen Kane remains a classic, a masterpiece of cinema. This is surprising considering it was the directorial debut for Welles, who was only 24 years-old at the time and a Broadway producer and radio personality in New York. It was a box-office flop due to a massive anti-Kane newspaper compaign. Still, it garnered nine Academy Award nominations, winning one Best Original Screenplay (Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles). Later, in 2007 it was ranked as the #1 Greatest Movie of all Time by the American Film Institute. What is it about this old black and white film that draws so much attention and keeps people viewing it time and time again? Why is it considered such a marvelous movie?

Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a multimillionaire newspaper tycoon and larger than life character, is lagrely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst. So clear was this that Hearst attempted to buy all the negatives to destroy them and prevent the film from being shown. The film caused a private battle between Hearst and his empire and Welles and RKO, the film company. Hearst is quoted as saying, "You can crush a man with journalism," and that is exactly what he tried to do to Welles.

As the film opens, Kane dies in his exotic and expansive Florida mansion, Xanadu. With his dying breath, he whispers the solitary word "Rosebud" and drops a snow globe to the floor. Newsreel footage reports his death and traces through his rise to power and influence. Some called him a communist, others a fascist, yet Citizen Kane remained a mystery to most.

Bookending Citizen Kane the opening and closing scenes are identical. Both show the sign on Xanadu's closed gates: "No Trespassing." This jarring image gives us a clue to interpreting the movie and the man. Kane emphasized his privacy. He did not want to let visitors into his castle, and he did not let people into his protective shell. He was an enigma. How sad for a person to feel the need for that level of personal seclusion. Kane dies virtually friendless and alone. His is an example of a life lived with too much privacy.

We need to live in relation to others. God made humanity to be in community. Such social living requires that we disclose something of who we are. Unlike Moses (Ex. 34:33), we have to lift our veil, to open our kimonos and let others in. Such vulnerability may be frightening, but it is the only way to initiate friendship and cultivate the relationships that will remain to our death beds.

As the reporters review the news footage of Kane's life, they realize these images show his deeds not his person or character. As one says, "It isn't enough to tell us what a man did. You've got tell us who he was." There is the human interest story we have come to expect in our TV viewing. To accomplish this they set about figuring out the mysterious Rosebud. What does this word mean? Is it a person? Is it a thing? Thus the premise of the movie is deciphering the code of rosebud.

Yet at the conclusion of the movie, after interviewing Kane's former friends and acquaintances, one reporters states, "I don't think any word can explain a man's life." The quest to answer the question of "rosebud" is left hanging. Can a single word define a person? Clearly not. Yet, sometimes we try to do this for God, who is infinitely greater than man. People define God as love. And it is true, God is love (1 Jn. 5:16). But He is not only love. He is so much more. We may simplistically describe one facet of God with one word, but He is the supremely multifaceted being. Even a systematic theology that focuses on various attributes of God, describing him as holy, sovereign, merciful, transcendent, immanent, cannot do justice to an indescribable person.

Though the reporters struggle with the mystery of rosebud, their investigations do uncover something of the person of Charles Kane, the twice-married governor-candidate. He was driven by an inner desire: "He was always trying to prove something." Taken as a kid from his mother's boarding home, he is raised under the guardianship of a cold-hearted banker. The lack of parents in his formative years caused a deep wound. Without their influence and in his guardian's unloving atmosphere, he probably received little acceptance and approval. When a child misses out on these, he will often resort to proving himself as an adult to gain acceptance from others. This seems to be Kane's story. As parents, this is a danger we must protect against. We must lovingly raise our children to be self-accepting.

Kane, on the other hand, was self-absorbed. He cared little for others. His power combined with his emotional immaturity to mold a personality that was inwardly focused. Those around him acted as sycophants or got fired. In fact, only his wives stood against him. In particular, his second wife Susan did what no one else would do . . . walk out on him. So shocked was Kane, that he blustered, "You mustn't go. You can't do this to me." You can sense his belief in his own importance, his imperial manner. This perspective is counter to a Christian approach to life. We are not innately or essentially superior to others. Where a follower of Jesus should be humble, realizing his dependence on God, Kane was proud and haughty.

Indeed, Kane's sense of self was elevated almost to the point of self-deity. This is clear in his conversations and his acquisitions. As God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps. 50:10), so Kane owned the newspapers on a thousand streets. His riches and infamy made him the most-well known man in America. His former best-friend Jedidiah Leland commented on Kane, "He was disappointed with the world, so he built one of his own." His palace at Xanadu was rich beyond measure. Like God placing animals two-by-two on Noah's ark, Kane had animals brought in pairs to his private zoo at Xanadu. (This was just like Hearst, whose private zoo at his enormous San Simeon estate was the largest in the world.) And as God is sovereign over his creation (Dan. 4:25), Kane wanted total control: "There's only one person in the world who's going to decide what I'm going to do and that's me." Citizen Kane has become Sovereign Kane.

Further, as God is often described by love, Kane was defined by love. This basic need of humanity and basic essence of God was for Kane "all he ever wanted out of life, it was love. . . . That's the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane. You see, he just didn't have any to give. Oh, he loved Charlie Kane, of course, very dearly!" Kane himself knew this. When making a toast with Leland, Kane drank "to love on my own terms." Where God is defined by self-giving love, a love that gave his only Son in sacrifice for sinful humanity (Jn. 3:16), Kane is defined by self-love, a love that cannot give but only takes. True love is about giving. To find love one must be ready to give love. That is the paradox of love.

Kane even seems to realize his own depravity. Talking to his general manager he says, "You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man." His riches and power have corrupted what greatness and goodness he once had. They had inflated his ego and caused him to be great in the eyes of the world, but not in his own eyes or those of God. This raises the question, does being rich disqualify a person from being truly great? No, it is not neccessarily so. There have been, and will be, some truly great Christian philanthropists. However, it is hard for the rich to be truly great. In regards to salvation, Jesus said, "It is hard for a rich man to be saved. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle" (Matt. 19:24). Such is the allure and attraction of riches.

As Kane aged we see his youthful idealism dissolve into cynicism and self-obsession. We see his desire to serve the working people disintegrate into the desire to serve himself. But instead of happiness, his money brought him loneliness as he isolated himself from others. Even his friends were rebuffed and pushed away. He is a sad picture of the man who gained the world but lost his soul in the process (Matt. 16:26). What a tragic cost of wealth.

So what did Rosebud mean? Without giving away too much, rosebud represents all that Charles Foster Kane lost. His young life was cruelly taken, and the love that he left behind was replaced with loot. But, as the Beatles sang in the 1960's, "Money can't buy you love." You cannot purchase true love, and you cannot easily replace parental affirmation and acceptance. Kane spent his whole life trying to do these two things, unsuccessfully. In the end, his rosebud was his tragic realization of a life lost. Oh that we have no "rosebuds" like this in our lives!

So, is it a masterpiece? Well, this is not my favorite movie but it ranks up there in my top echelon of films. The use of nonlinear and overlapping flashbacks makes for an interesting story centered on a compelling character. Leaving the conclusion somewhat open allows the viewer to interact and interpret in different ways. Certainly, it is worth viewing even in the 21st century of fast and furious movies!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Donnie Darko -- anxiety about the future

Director: Richard Kelley, 2001.

Donnie Darko is a weird, complex and confusing film. Writer-director Kelley's debut movie opened in only 58 theaters, incredible in retrospect as this film has become a cult classic since then.

One problem with the film is it is hard to classify. It blends and bends genres. It is a horror, teen film, psychological drama, a sci fi flick, a fantasy movie, and mystery while at the same time including time travel. Wow, what is it? All of the above and more.

Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled teenager in a dysfunctional family during the presidential election of 1988. Verbally sparring with and swearing at, his sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal), he is a loner, an anti-social kid with paranoid schizophrenic tendencies. One of his delusions is his recurrent visions of Frank, a demonic-looking giant rabbit.

When Donnie sleepwalks out to the local golf course and meets Frank at the beginning of the film, Frank tells him, "28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. That is when the world will end." Donnie wakes with these numbers written on his arms, a form of tattoo. This is the mystery that propels Donnie to strive to save the world.

One of the tag-lines for Donnie Darko was "what would you do if you knew the future?" This is somewhat akin to the recent supernatural mystery Knowing, where astrophysicist John Koestler deciphers numbers predicting upcoming natural disasters. However, Donnie doesn't really know what is happening. The world may end but how? And how big is the scope of this disaster? In both films the protagonists seek to solve the mysteries to allow them to make conscious choices about this future. Without knowing, apart from facts, it is difficult to make rational decisions.

Rational and supernatural are distinct. When Donnie returns home from his somnambulistic adventure, he finds his home and his room damaged. A jet airplane engine had fallen from the sky straight into his bedroom. The schizophrenic or supernatural episode that led him to the links saved his life.

Professor Barry Taylor, in his recent book "Entertainment Theology," comments:
The film is a critique of 1980s American culture with its committment to overmedication and therapy as a means of shutting out anxiety about the future. But Darko would rather not be medicated, or undergo therapy, or listen to his high-school motivational speaker, who spews litanies of trite, neatly packaged self-empowerment messages to a largely uninterested and blank-faced audience of teens.
Donnie stops taking his medicine and begins to be caught up in the bizarre visions of Frank and the messages he receives. In contrast to the masses around him, including his family, he alone is anxious about the future; he alone knows something is cataclysmically amiss.

In addition to his dysfunctional middle-class family, Kelley throws in class bullies, a new girlfriend (Gretchen), the therapist (Dr. Lilian Thurman), a smarmy health teacher, a child pornographer, and a senile old woman (Grandma Death). Patrick Swayze steals several scenes as Jim Cunningham, the motivational speaker and town hero. Together, these various characters intersect to lead Donnie to the truth.

One of the paradoxes of Donnie Darko is its approach to faith. Craig Detweiler ("Into the Dark") sees the apocalyptic messages Donnie receives as instances of prophetic divine intervention. Is the voice he hears the voice of God, or some other prophet? Things are unclear; they are certainly not what they seem. Paradoxically, the demonic is godly, while the godly is evil and demonic. Detweiler states, "it is one of the most robust, poetic, and faith-affirming films of all time -- a dark but divine comedy." I would not go that far, but these paradoxes are worth considering in a thoughtful viewing of the film.

The therapy sessions that Donnie is forced to endure address faith directly. In one session, Donnie recounts a whispered message he received from Grandma Death, Roberta Sparrow: "She said, 'Every living creature on earth dies alone.' " This sparks an interchange between Donnie and Dr. Thurman, who questions: "The search for God is absurd?" and Donnie replies, "It is if everyone dies alone." Donnie is living his life alone, isolating himself from those around. He is comfortable with that. But dying alone is something else. It is frightening. It makes him question the very reality of God and of faith.

Dr Thurman goes on, "If this world were to end, there would only be you . . . and him . . . and no one else." Here is a biblical truism. Our individual worlds will one day end and we will all, without exception, come face to face with this one God: "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment." (Heb. 9:27) We are called to live in community but die alone. But this death, for Jesus-followers, is a gateway to life. It is not something to be truly feared, but something that can be embraced as a now necessary part of the journey into the future life beyond death.

When Donnie is given a book on time-travel written by Grandma Death, the scenes become visually twisted. But this gives Gretchen occasion to ask a key and pertinent question to Donnie: "What if you could go back in time, and take all those hours of pain and darkness and replace them with something better?" As Donnie reflects on this question, so can we. The simplistic answer is probably we would. But is there some purpose, some intentionality and value in pain and suffering? Many who have endured tremendous suffering say that it is in those darkest hours of suffering that they have grown the most. Given the chance to remove the suffering and its concomitant lessons, many who have endured this dark valley would reject the offer.

The Bible has much to say on suffering, but I will skim the surface. The apostle Peter addresses Christians who "have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." (1 Pet. 1:6-7) Here suffering strengthens our faith, if approached with the correct attitude. Paul, too, points out the value of some suffering as we can comfort others later in their own sufferings: "For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer." (2 Cor. 1:5-6)

Detweiler summarizes his analysis of the film: "Donnie Darko presents a dark, twisted, but redemptive version of the cost of discipleship." Donnie becomes a follower of Frank the 6-foot bunny. His discipleship is evident in his willingness to do what Frank says, even when it is questionable. His final act of discipleship is one of great sacrifice. As followers of Jesus, we are called to obedience regardless of the cost of this discipleship. Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross for us. We can do no less than be willing disciples, doing what Jesus commands even when it is confusing or questionable.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs