Sunday, August 30, 2009

17 Again -- abstinence and self-respect

Director: Burr Steers, 2009.

How many of us haven't wished we could go back and have a mulligan at life? That is the premise of 17 Again.

When we first see Mike O'Donnell (Zac Efron), he is 17 and on the top of the world. He is a senior in high school (not High School Musical, though the first scene makes it appear this will be revisited). He has a cute girlfriend, Scarlett. He is the point guard star of the basketball team. All he has to do is play up to a portion of his potential and the full-ride college scholarship is his. But when his girlfriend whispers something in his ear just before the game starts, his world is turned upside down. She is pregnant. In an act of noble chivalry some would call foolhardiness, he walks off the court to be with her, throwing his college career and dream future away like a deflated basketball.
Cut ahead 17 years and Mike (now Matthew Perry) is living with his best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon), the nerd from high school, now a rich and successful software dweeb. Mike has lost his job; he is losing his wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann) to a divorce; and his two children won't give him the time of day. Depression defined. He has sunk into the pit of despair, living in his lonely world of what could have been.

When he returns to the site of his greatest success, his high school, he runs into a mysterious janitor, who pegs him cold: "High school star, never quite lived up to your potential. Sooner or later you all come back to your old school, stand there and look at the picture of the glory days wondering 'What might have been.' Seems to me you guys are living in the past." Mike replies, "Well, of course I wanna live in the past. It was better there." The janitor tantalizingly offers him a lifeline, "I bet you wish you could do it all over again?" And later when Mike sees him again he is standing on a bridge and jumps off. Shades of Clarence from It's A Wonderful Life, the angel who wants to earn his wings. When he goes to rescue him, Mike falls into a vortex that magically makes him 17 again, but now not then. Like Aladdin's genie it gives him his wish.

Sometimes life feels hard. We look back on what was and wish for yesterday once more. Regrets overflow our souls until we wish we could change the past. We tell ourselves, if only we could do it over we would not make the same mistakes. Everything would work out right this time.

Life is not like that. We don't get any do-overs. We may get second chances where we are at, but we cannot second-guess choices and decisions made a year, a decade or a lifetime ago. History is made with every tick of the clock, and history cannot be unmade. But that is not a bad thing. We can learn from our mistakes. And many "mistakes" are actually blessings when viewed through the eyes of experience. True mistakes and failures are forgivable. God is always ready to forgive us our sins if we repentantly come to him through Jesus (1 Jn. 1:9), and then he forgets them so they are never brought before us in accusation again (Psa. 103:12).

Life as a 30 something in a 17 again body is not the same as being 17 the first time, as Mike promptly finds out. He brings to his re-senior year, a level of wisdom missing in these teenagers. It is a wisdom that comes from experience. And as the narrative moves forward, much of the humor comes from this.

Mike has the chops to stand up to the school bully and beat him with words, not fists. Meeting his own kids at their age, he cannot parent them. He can only try to befriend them, gain their confidence and offer advice. With his wife, he can only be a buddy to her son, though he tries to win her back to his older self (wherever that might be). These scenes when they are together are awkward, if somewhat comic. And Ned discovers love in a like-minded principal, who steadfastly refuses his peacocking and ebulient shows of interest.

One of themes of 17 Again is abstinence, which is strange but welcome in a Hollywood teen movie. In the health class discussion of abstinence, the official school policy, the teacher cynically refutes this policy. But Mike has seen the error of his ways, and stands up against the tide: "Now that is very sensible! I'm glad someone here has their head screwed on straight! I think all of us should make a pact to abstain from sex!" Of couse he is rudely mocked by all. Yet, when he goes on to speak emotionally from the heart of the consequences of sex, he wins over the girls, though not the boys.

Mike's speech is preachy and unbelievable. Yet it delivers a strong message on a biblical issue. Sex is a beautiful thing in its intended place (Heb. 13:4). That place is the marriage relationship between a man and wife (Gen. 2:24). It brings pleasure; it also brings babies. Outside of marriage, it is a sin that harms all involved (Lev. 20:10). Pain, guilt and even grief often result. Yet, this delayed gratification message is not popular today, as Mike was not popular in voicing it. Our present culture has dismissed or redefined marriage from its original meaning and undermines abstinence as an option, just as the teacher did in this film. Thank goodness for the wisdom of an older Mike.

Along these same lines, a little later the now studly senior is at a bowling alley party and is accosted by three hot babes, each of which is more than ready to throw herself at him. Again he walks his talk and says to them, "Listen, girls. If you don't respect yourself, how do you expect others to respect you?" Words of wisdom, but not quite the teen talk they wanted. This is played for laughs in the film, but it is a truth that we need to hear long after we finish laughing.

Self-respect comes from living true to our beliefs. These girls wanted sex with Mike as a form of acceptance and an affirmation of self-worth. But self-worth and dignity are inherent in the human make-up. It comes from our being created by a wondrous God in his image (Gen. 1:26). We need not throw away our purity for a man's (or a woman's) approval. Rather, we need to respect and accept ourselves more than that. We need to look for love and partnership with someone who will respect us for who we are, and will appreciate that purity that we can bring to the relationship. This may sound prudish and puritanical, but it is actually positive and leads to prosperous and healthy relationships.

So, would you go back to high school and be 17 again? Ned sums it up for me: "No. I'm rich and no one has shoved my head in a toilet today!"

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Untouchables -- how far will you go?

Director: Brian De Palma, 1987.

As with most De Palma films (Scarface, Mission Impossible), The Untouchables is filled with action, blood and violence. It also includes a pretty good "based-on-true-life" story, some decent acting, and it still looks good after 20 years. And it raises the question, what are you prepared to do?

Set in the 1920s prohibition-era Chicago, corruption is ubiquitous. With cops and judges on the take, Al Capone (Robert De Niro) runs the town. He is a larger than life character who is egocentric. He wants to live the good life, of manicures, cigars and operas. But his suavity is superficial and beneath his comic charisma and bluster is a killer's heart: "You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word." No one will take on Capone because to do so is to receive the gun, or a bomb, not the kind word.

Enter Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner). He comes to Chicago with his wife (Patricia Clarkson) and child as a man on a mission. He is a fed not a cop. When his first raid, with dozens of cops, on a warehouse supposedly filled with illicit booze, fails, he realizes he cannot succeed within the bounds of the police system. Corruption is simply too rampant.

When Ness meets Malone (Sean Connery), a jaded but sage seen-it-all cop on the beat, he knows he has met an honest cop. As he seeks to persuade Malone to join him, Malone takes him to a church, where the walls don't have ears. "You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I'm saying is, what are you prepared to do?" he asks Ness. "Anything within the law," replies the upright federal agent. "And then what are you prepared to do?" Working within the boundaries of the law is Ness' commitment, but this early in the film he is naive and honest.

As Ness sees the extent of Capone's control and the depths to which he will reach to protect his illegal empire, he changes. He realizes he cannot take Capone down if he keeps the law. Later he admits, "I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold. I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right!" This begs the question of the morality of breaking the law to keep the law. Just as Batman did in The Dark Knight, Ness becomes more like Capone than the civilians he is protecting. But is he right in doing this, despite his impassioned self-righteous defensive appeal? How would Jesus look at this?

God sees all sin, and breaking the law as Ness did is sin. Indeed, Ness does not just break some minor laws, he violates at least one of the Ten Commandments, "You shall not murder" (Ex. 20:13). When he acts as judge, jury and executioner is he fulfulling the law, or simply seeking vengeance in sinful anger? It seems Ness gives into his anger, and though the ends are right they surely do not justify the means.

To combat Capone, Ness assembles a small hand-picked team. Alongside Malone, he grabs George Stone (Andy Garcia) from police academy. And he is assigned Agent Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), a short unassuming accountant. For someone who seems to be more at home with books and figures, Wallace packs a punch with a self-loading shotgun!

This quiet quartet takes on the might of Capone's army. They are dubbed the untouchables, since the bribery rampant in the rest of the police cannot touch them. When a commissioner attempts to bribe Ness, he is sent packing. These four will remain pure, at least in terms of corruption.

Corruption is nothing new. It was all over Chicago. But it was present in biblical times. The writers of the Old Testament, especially the prophets, address the sins of bribery and corruption in most of their books. At the start of his book, Isaiah said, "Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption!" (Isa. 1:4). The nation chosen by God to be his people among whom he would live had as a whole become corrupt. Hosea echoed that sentiment: "They have sunk deep into corruption" (Hos. 9:9). And bribery is addressed even in the Pentateuch: "Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous." (Exod. 23:8). In a warning that could have been repeated in Capone's day, Amos declared, "You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts." (Amos 5:12) Bribery will not go away while sin remains present, but followers of Christ are to avoid giving or receiving bribes. We are to remain pure and blameless (Phil. 1:10) just as Jesus was our pure high priest (Heb. 7:26).

De Palma pulls some good performances out of some of his actors. Connery is excellent as the wise and honest father-figure. He won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for this role, the only Oscar of his long career. De Niro steals the scenes he is in. Though they are not many, he fills the screen with his bombast. Costner, on the other hand, is stiff throughout. And Garcia doesn't have too much to do.

There are two terrific set-pieces in The Untouchables. The first is where Ness' gang work with the Mounties to interecpt a caravan of liquor coming across the Canadian border. Cars, vans, horses and guns create a battle leading to an interrogation famous for Malone's bloody action. Then there is the famous Chicago train station scene that comes towards the climax. De Palma took the idea from the 1925 Russian film, The Battleship Potemkin. With Ness waiting for a key witness who is fleeing, his attention is diverted by a crying child in a baby stroller. When the man arrives, the stroller is released to slowly roll down the stairs amidst a bloody gunfight. This is an acclaimed highlight of the film.

As the movie closes, we are left pondering Ness and how far he was prepared to go to achieve his mission. He accomplished his purpose but at what cost? So, what is our life goal or mission? It might be unique to you, although it could include elements of the gospel mission if you are a Christian. What are you prepared to do? How far will you go to make it happen, to be successful? What are you willing to give up, what are you willing to become, to prevail? Is it within the law or will you break or bend the rules to flourish? Is it worth it? These are the questions that Ness faced; these are the questions that each one of us must face and answer for ourselves.

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Four Weddings and a Funeral -- "true love" without commitment

Director: Mike Newell, 1994.

Newell has directed a lot of movies, including most recently Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Love in the Time of Cholera. But perhaps his most successful film, in terms of critical reception and awards nominations, was this romantic comedy. Nominated for Best Picture Oscar, it won the British equivalent (BAFTA) Shot in Britain, it is a splendid comedy, with spot-on British manners and characters, right down to the awful hats worn by women at British weddings.

The film revolves around a group of 30-something long-time friends who are constantly attending weddings of mutual friends. Though they are all single, with each wedding another of these friends gets paired off, leading to another wedding. With four weddings, and a funeral thrown in, this forms the backdrop and context for the whole of the film. We hardly see any of the characters outside of these ceremonies. We wonder, even, what they do for a living, apart from these weddings.

In many ways, this is a lot like my life before I came to the States. I hung with a number of friends, who one by one found a partner, leading to engagement and marriage. Eventually, the numbers dwindled and the prospects dimmed, until the open range of the American West offered promise of hope. (Of course, I found hope in Jesus and marriage with Sharon.)

Charles (Hugh Grant) is the center of this group of friends. He is the archetypical bachelor. With a string of girlfriends in his past, he is afraid of commitment. His habit of being late to every wedding is perhaps a subconscious avoidance of the institution of marriage. In one wedding from hell, Charles finds himself at a table surrounded by girlfriends past. One of them tells him, "You're turning into a kind of serial monogamist. One girlfriend after another, yet you never really let anyone near you."

It is relatively easy to begin a relationship. Everything is new. There is much to discover in the person of the opposite sex sitting opposite at the restaurant table. But sustaining a relationship is another matter. It requires commitment and intimacy. It demands that we open ourselves up, letting the other person see who we really are. It means being open and honest, warts and all. This is fundamental to relationship. It is crucial to marriage. Charles is not ready for this.

Yet, when he sees Carrie (Andie MacDowell) at the first wedding he is smitten. It is love at first sight (even though she is American, of all things!). But this is a love that will not come easily. Indeed, it is a love that cannot be. Circumstances conspire to prevent this "perfect couple." And as with all good rom-coms, the rest of the film works to bring them together.

Hugh Grant is at his wimpy, eyelash fluttering, self-deprecating, annoyingly apologetic, cannot-finish-his-sentence best: "Ehm, look. Sorry, sorry. I just, ehm, well, this is a very stupid question and... , particularly in view of our recent shopping excursion, but I just wondered, by any chance, ehm, eh, . . . , but-but I-I just wondered. . . " It is a wonder he gets anywhere with women, but the British accent works and he has that subtle boyish charm. Andie MacDowell, on the other hand, looks sweet but acts like Pinochio.

Four Weddings has some very funny scenes. Rowan Atkinson (of Mr. Bean fame) has a small part as a student vicar at one wedding who performs his first marriage at another. He is riotous, as he tries so hard to get it right but makes a fool of himself and the happy couple. Another scene of the best-man's speech, given typically after the wedding dinner at British weddings, is so English down to the awkward humor and sarcastic put-downs of the groom. The only more biting wedding speech in cinematic history came from Kym (Anne Hathaway) in Rachel Getting Married, and there it was not said in mock humor.

If Charles is the hub of the group, Gareth (Simon Callow) is its conscience. Exuberant, dressed in outrageously bright wasitcoats, he gives balance and perspective to the group and even to the film. He is the one who declares at one wedding, "A toast before we go into battle. True love. In whatever shape or form it may come. May we all in our dotage be proud to say, 'I was adored once too.' " It is through Gareth that the key questions of the film come: is there a miss (or mister) right waiting for us? Can we find true love in this life? And what is the value of marriage?

One of the downsides of the film is its open advocation of promiscuity and sex before marriage. One unneccessary scene, which is as awkward for the viewer as for Charles, has Carrie reviewing all former sexual encounters. When it gets into double digits we realize that she missed the message on abstinence. Even Charles' lack of commitment preys on sex without accountability.

This issue notwithstanding, the film's questions deserve reflection. Is there true love awaiting each of us (or "Twue wuv" as Peter Cook said it in another famous wedding in The Princess Bride). Certainly, marriage is not something that should be entered as an ice-breaker or conversation starter (or even keeper). Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus telling husbands to love their wives "just as Christ loved the church" (Eph. 5:25). How did Jesus love the church? Sacrificially, unconditionally, and completely. His was a true love. So, unlike Tom, another of Charles' friends, who thought love was immaterial for marriage, the Bible places marriage on the solid rock foundation of love.

Is there a true love waiting out there for each one of us, as it was for Charles in the form of Carrie? Not necessarily. Some of us are fortunate indeed to find a soul-mate for a marriage partner. Yet, Paul tells another church that not everyone will marry (1 Cor. 7:37). Some will be better off not marrying, and some will remain single. Presumably, there was no true love waiting for them. Some of us may find ourselves in that position. Some of my friends are long-time single people, and they live lives that are full and complete without a marriage partner. Singleness is not an inferior way of life.

Then if we do find Miss Right, can we choose to avoid marriage? Must we enter in what seems like an archaic tradition? To put it differently, what is the point or purpose of marriage? Marriage is a God-initiated and God-sanctioned institution (Matt. 19:6), so there must be some point and purpose. For one thing, it implies a commitment that is not transitory. When God made Adam and Eve back in the Garden, he said that a man would leave his parents and be united to his wife (Gen. 2:24). Some versions use the word cleave. Such cleaving is a sticking together in a way that should not be undone. Indeed, in some wedding ceremonies, the clergyman declares, "What God has joined together let no man tear asunder." This is a super-glue bonding. Charles was not ready for this.

Another purpose is for forming a family. The husband and wife are a new unit. In all societies, a newly married couple are different from their unmarried selves. Over time, a married couple will become more and more alike. And in forming a family, this may involve children. Children are intended to be created and raised in a nuclear unit comprised of a married couple (Gen. 1:28). That was God's original intention and it remains so. Nothing has changed, despite the redefining forces seeking to change what marriage means.

Perhaps the greater purpose of marriage is to illustrate in the flesh the connection between Christ and his church (back to Ephesians 5). As we love our spouses and remain faithful to them, we are portraying how Jesus loves his people. Through good times and bad, our commitment is to that person we took vowed to love. Avoiding marriage is a cheap way to experience relationship without the costly commitment that pays dividends over the long haul.

Is marriage worth it? Charles didn't think so. I disagree with him and the subtle message of this film. It is of utmost value. As I approach a silver wedding anniversary in the not too distant future, I can reflect on the enormity of blessings that have come to me from my wife and my children. I hope you can too.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, August 21, 2009

Chinatown -- greed, depravity and psalm noir

Director: Roman Polanski, 1974.

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown," Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson in his only role as a detective) is told. What did the speaker mean? Why is the film called Chinatown since so little of the story takes place there? This slowly becomes clear as the film develops.

The film opens with Gittes, a small-time private eye, reviewing some black and white photos with Curly, a client in his Los Angeles office. It is the mid-1930s and the photos show Curly's wife in an embarrassing situation with another man. Incriminating photos highlight Gittes' typical case: marital infidelity. He's good at this. So when a rich woman walks into his office and asks him to investigate her husband, Mr. Mulwray, it fits Gittes to a tee. It helps that she is rich and counts expense as no issue.

When Gittes photographs Mulwray with a young woman, the case is over, or so it seems. Somehow the photos make it into the press. But when a different woman shows up in his office claiming to be the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), and lays a lawsuit on his desk, it is clear that he has been taken for a ride. His pride bruised and his pocketbook threatened, Gittes decides to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Chinatown is a terrific example of film noir, or perhaps neo noir. Its plot is complex with multiple layers, it has a classic femme fatale, and the various characters are cynical and jaded. Although it does not include any voice-over narration (pulled by Polanski from the original script) Gittes is in every scene as Polanski shoots the whole film from the viewpoint of the protagonist.

Testimony to the greatness of the film, it was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, best actor and actress. Yet, it only picked up one Oscar, for original screenplay (Robert Towne). This is probably due to the depth of competition that year. The Godfather Part II, itself a marvelous movie, picked up multiple Oscars denying Chinatown of deserving awards.

As Gittes pursues his investigations, Evelyn repeatedly lies to him, hiding something. Bodies show up with strange causes of death. Gittes comes face-to-face with a short thug (Polanski in a cameo) who quips, "You're a very nosy fellow" and slices his nose, giving him the bandaged face characteristic of this movie. And Noah Cross (the great John Huston) comes into the cross-hairs of Gittes' vision.

In a sumptuous lunch meeting at Cross' luxurious home, it becomes clear that Cross, too, is hiding something. Further, Cross is rich and powerful and greedy, and up to something. When he admits he is worth over $10M (a lot of money in the 30s), Gittes asks him, "Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can't already afford?" To this Cross responds, "The future, Mr. Gittes, the future." Here raw power and rapacious greed combine to corrupt completely.

Greed is an attitude of mind that wants more and more. Although it can affect anyone from the poorest to the richest (Jer. 6:13), it is often those with the most that are most impacted. In Cross the desire for money morphed into the desire for power, which is ultimately the desire for control. The Bible has plenty of warnings against greed (Matt. 23:25, Lk. 12:15, Rom. 1:29), and its antidote is contentment (Phil. 4:11, 1 Tim. 6:6). Control is an illusion, as God is sovereign (Dan. 5:21). Seeking possession of, and hence control of, the future is simply usurping God's rightful position. It won't happen. He will, and does, demand an accounting at a time of his choosing (Lk. 12:14-21).

When Cross tells Gittes, "You either bring the water to LA or you bring LA to the water," the keys to unlocking the mystery are in view. The web of deceit grows into a conspiracy involving corruption at various levels via an intricate scam. Interestingly enough, Hollis Mulwray is based on William Mullholland (1855-1935), who was the actual chief engineer for the LA Department of Water and Power in the 20s and 30s, and elements of the story are mirrored in real-life events of the pre-war era.

Within the emerging corruption, all the chief characters come across as tainted. Even Gittes is self-centered. Cross, outwardly suave and sophisticated, has a malevolence of character that his charm cannot mask completely. He tells Gittes, "Mr Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and right place, they're capable of . . . anything!" As with most film noir, the depravity of humanity is center stage. This rings true. Mankind is fallen, broken. We are not the creatures God intended. Sin has had its way. "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:10). This is why in love God sent Jesus to be our savior (Jn. 3:16).

The Polish-French director himself is an example of depravity and its impacts. His pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson in LA, and Polanski had avoided LA as a movie location until this one. But he himself committed a crime, having sex with a 13 year-old girl, and then fled the US to avoid imprisonment. Chinatown was Polanski's last movie made in America. He now lives in France. As a fugitive from justice in the States, when he won the Oscar for Best Director in 2002 (for The Pianist) he could not be present to receive it.

Film noir movies tend to end in tragdey or injustice. Chinatown is no exception. It reminds us of a psalm noir, Psalm 73 (v. 3, 5-8, 12):

For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. . . .

They are free from the burdens common to man;
they are not plagued by human ills.

Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.

From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
the evil conceits of their minds know no limits.

They scoff, and speak with malice;
in their arrogance they threaten oppression. . . .

This is what the wicked are like—
always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Asaph, the psalmist, sees the prosperity of the wicked, like Cross, and almost gives up in his despair: "When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me" (v.16). But the turning point in this psalm, that which makes it a psalm blanc, is verse 17: "till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny." Justice in this world may be illusory, but God's justice will prevail, even if it only occurs in the hereafter. Asaph concludes, telling God, "Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds." (v.27-28). Moral fariness may elude us, life may even deal us a shabby hand, but we can be confident that God will weigh the scales of justice; we can find our refuge in Him.

So, what is the meaning of the title? Cross says, "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but, believe me, you don't." Gittes replies, "That's what the District Attorney used to tell me in Chinatown." The advice for the police working Chinatown was to do "as little as possible." Because of the various gangs and array of dialects, any intervention by the police into events in Chinatown was ambiguous and confusing. They could not know if they were helpng the victims or the criminals. So, they decided to leave things alone and do as little as possible. This was the metaphor for Jake Gittes' case. Did he help or did he hinder? Did he really know what he was dealing with? Life can sometimes be like that, as confusing as Chinatown. Fortunately, we have a God who sees what is going on and works towards his sovereign ends and ultimate justice.

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Lion King -- the gospel story in Africa

Directors: Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff, 1994.

Although less than two decades old, The Lion King is a Disney classic. It has spawned a Broadway smash hit. And it sold more videos than any other Disney film; indeed, at 55 million copies sold, it is the best-selling movie of all time. That says a lot. It might be the best Disney movie ever. Although the animation is flat compared to the recent cgi animated movies like Disney's Bolt or Pixar's Wall-E, it is the story itself that captivates the hearts of young and old alike.

In preparation for seeing my daughter in a musical theater version (she played Timon with the comic delivery of a natural; Nathan Lane watch out!), I watched this with my family again. This time we did it as a sing-a-long. Elton John's songs in The Lion King are phenomenal, and he won the Oscar for Best Song ("Can You Feel the Love Tonight"). Add to this Hans Zimmer's wonderfully atmospheric score and you have a winning combination. Songs, score, tremendous vocal talent, and a story that is loosely based on Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (and in many ways mirrors the gospel story), in combination you have a movie that sits atop the food chain.

Opening with the theme song, "Circle of Life," Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the old and wise lion king, presents his new baby son Simba to the animals who live in the realm of Pride Rock, with Rafiki (Robert Guillaume) and Zazu (Rowan Atkinson, the fabulous Mr. Bean) at his side. A beautiful realm and a beautiful picture, the animals all live within their place in this circle of life.

But Mufasa's brother Scar (Jeremy Irons) is the only animal who is not pleased at Simba's birth. This little fur-ball moves him down the line of succession. He will not be king. "I WILL BE KING!" he shouts to his hyena cronies in the song, "Be Prepared."

Scar is symbolic of Lucifer, the devil. Satan is a usurper who wants to rule the kingdom of God. A creature and part of creation, unlike Scar he has no legitimate claim to the throne. So like Scar, Satan rebelled against the rightful ruler, taking with him a third of the angels to cause destruction and devastation to God's realm (Rev. 12:4, 8-9). Sin has tarnished even the wonders of nature, both via human greed and inherent changes (Rom. 8:22). So we have rivers run dry, toxic landfills, massive deforestation, eco-corruption, and prospects of worse to come. Pride Rock humbled, earth despoiled.

Through a deliberate and deceitful plan, Scar puts Simba in the way of danger and then tells Mufasa who puts his life on the line to save his son. And although it is Scar who murders him, his life is sacrificed saving his son. Though not analogous to the gospel story, it reminds us that it cost the Father, the ruler, dearly to save his people (Rom. 5:10). God had to send his son as the sacrifice that would save us from the death and separation spawned by sin, initiated by Lucifer's lies (Gen. 3:1-5).

Like Satan, who Jesus called "a liar and the father of lies" (Jn. 8:44), Scar is a liar to the core. He lies to Mufasa. He lies to Simba ("Simba, truth is in the eye of the beholder"). He pours guilt on the young Simba, making him believe he caused his father's death and pushing him away from the kingdom that was his to rule.

Guilt is one of the weapons that Satan uses to combat and defeat Christians. Guilt itself is not wrong. It is the state of having committed a crime or an offense. We are all sinners and live in a state of true guilt against a holy God (Isa. 1:4). Guilt, in this sense, should cause us to draw near to God "having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience" (Heb. 10:22). In contrast, Satan pours false guilt on us, a guilt that tells us we are not good enough, can never be forgiven for what we have done. He tells us to go far away from God and never return to him, just as Scar did to Simba.

In the wilderness Simba meets and befriends Timon (Nathan Lane) the meercat and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) the warthog. These two comic characters have the funniest lines in the movie, even throwing in classic movie references. (Pumbaa declares, "They call me Mr. Pig!" -- In the Heat of the Night, as well as, "You talkin' to me?" De Niro's line in Taxi Driver.) They live by the philosophy of "hakuna matata": no worries for the rest of your days. Live free of cares. Worry about nothing. Though this sounds like a throwback to the hippy days of Woodstock, it is actually a biblical concept. Jesus taught, in the Sermon on the Mount, "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own" (Matt. 6:34). We must live the day we are in, not worrying about potentialities that lie in the future, and not looking back to the past in guilt. We can learn from the past even if we cannot change it. But we must live with Jesus today, in this day that he has made for us (Psa. 118:24).

The adult Simba (Matthew Broderick) struggles with the guilt that Scar infused in him as a child. He cannot face up to the person he is. It takes Nala (Moira Kelly), his long-lost friend, and Rafiki, the witch-doctor, to find him and remind him of his identity. As followers of Jesus, we find our identity in Jesus, as children of God (Jn. 1:12). Yet, Satan wants us to disbelieve Scripture and forget who we are. If he can get us to live our lives in quiet desperation, in the gutter instead of the palace, he has won a victory over us. We are then out of the game, and of no use to Jesus in the ongoing spiritual battle surrounding us (Eph. 6:12). Apart from Jesus, apart from his power, we cannot help the emergence of the kingdom.

When Rafiki enables him to see Mufasa once more, his dead father calls out, "Remember who you are. You are my son, and the one true king." Shades of the Father's proclamation about Jesus, both at his baptism and at his transfiguration (Matt. 3:17; 17:5). It also highlights Simba as rightful king and returning Savior. Jesus, the true Savior, will return some day to reclaim his throne and kingdom (Phil. 3:20). It will result in a great battle with Satan predicted in Revelation (Rev. 19:11-21), although Christ's victory is foretold and assured (1 Cor. 15:53-55).

Who would have thought that such a fun family film was also "Intro to the Gospel: 101."

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Arlington Road -- suspecting your neighbor

Director: Mark Pellington, 1999.

The twentieth century saw mass departures from the cities. Some named this the "white flight" as caucasian Americans left in droves headed for the suburbs. The urban areas of the inner cities had become drug-infested and riddled with crime. Gangs were growing and drive-bys were becomnig common. The suburbs offered security.

Arlington Road itself is a picture perfect example of suburban safety. Large detached brick-faced houses with beautifully groomed yards sit side-by-side. The garages house SUVs suitable for driving kids around. You can almost smell the BBQ cooking on the backyard grills. All is well in this suburb of Washington D.C. Or is it?

The serenity of this visage is broken by a boy stumbling down the center of the street. The camera catches the drops of blood slowly dripping onto his tennis shoes. When Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), driving home from his job as professor of history at GWU, sees him, he stops the car, runs to gather up the bleeding kid, and drives like a maniac to the ER. The boy is saved and Faraday gets to meet the thankful parents, Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl Lang (Joan Cusack, My Sister's Keeper). It turns out, they are his kitty-corner neighbors.

Pellington highlights one of the fallacies of the suburban lifestyle: not knowing your neighbors. Many people, like Michael, come home and cocoon themselves in their air-conditioned homes, separating themselves from any neighborly contact. Michael, a lonely widower with a 10-year-old boy, has little touch with those who live around him. So, this emergency enables him to meet the all-American family who moved in several months ago.

As Michael's friendship with the Langs develops, he catches Oliver in a lie. He asks his girlfriend, Brooke (Hope Davis) why Oliver would lie to him. Seeing no reason for him to do so, his suspicions are aroused. Added to this, Michael is teaching a class on American terrorism and the extremist groups that are involved in such conspiracies. Suspicion turns to obsession, and then to fear or paranoia.

Arlington Road is one of my favorite movies and a real chiller-thriller. Pellington slowly builds a sense of suspense by allowing us to identify with Michael. He gives us glimpses into his backstory through perfectly timed flashbacks. We see a Ruby Ridge-like FBI assault on a rural redneck family home. We begin to understand some of the inner demons that fuel the fires of Faraaday's fear. We see his outward academic face become a fallen facade as he crumbles beneath the sheer oppression and relentlessness of the faceless enemy.

Apart from the twists and turns of the plot and the inevitability of the impending doom, what makes Arlington Road better than most films in this genre is the talent of the acting. Bridges was good as The Dude in The Big Lebowski but here he is great as an everyman in over his head. We can relate to his conflicted character. Robbins shows us the neighbor we all want, warm and charming, a soft-spoken professional. But he adds the sense of steel and menace that is needed. But Cusack is simply outstanding as the smiling homemaker. Her smile is a stiletto that pierces the heart and comes out, leaving you dead while still beholding her "caring smile."

The film is somewhat Hitchcockian. It has the same sense of momentum that his movies had. As Psycho gave us the shower scene, where something is going to happen, Arlington Road gives us Cheryl surprising Brooke at a crucial turning point, which is so tense that I jump out of my seat every time, though I know it's coming. And there are several scenes where Michael is on the brink of discovering something vital only to be caught in the act.

The film tears down the safety and security we take for granted. The suburbs of Arlington Road are not safe. So where do we look for our security? In this regard, there is no real safety in locale. Certainly, we can buy into gated communities and security systems. But criminals and conspiracists can overcome these, too, with enough desire and determination. Our real security can only be found in God. The psalmist wrote, "LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure" (Psa. 16:5). Proverbs adds,"He who fears the LORD has a secure fortress" (Prov. 14:26). As we turn to Jesus, we can trust in his providential love and care. In the words of the old hymn, we will be "safe and secure from all alarms."

Ultimately, though, Arlington Road leaves me thinking about my neighbors. Do we really know who we live next to? Do they truly know who we are?

Jesus commanded his disciples, when he sent them out on mission,"I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16). We, too, must be like that in life. We cannot live in crippling fear, yet we must not be pollyannas looking at the world blindly through artificially rose-colored glasses.

Jesus left us with a clear imperative when it comes to neighbors: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 19:19). So important is this, that it is repeated in the gospel of Matthew. In Luke's gospel it is followed by the famous parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:28-37). So, we can ill afford to live in fear of our neighbors. Instead, living in light of Jesus, we must fear God and love our neighbor.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Usual Suspects -- seeing Satan, fearing God

Director: Bryan Singer, 1994.

With only his third film, Bryan Singer hit a career high. Although he directed other action-packed films, including the first two X-Men movies, and the WW2 drama, Valkyrie, this mystery stands as a pinnacle in his resume and in the genre itself.

The Usual Suspects is built around the throw-away line from Casablanca. The five principal characters, with nothing in common, find themselves in a police line-up after a truck hijacking in New York. Kevin Spacey, in an Oscar-winning role, is Verbal Kint, a wimpy conman with gimpy limbs. Gabriel Byrne is the corrupt ex-cop turned straight business man. McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Hockney (Kevin Pollack) and Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) round out this motley crew of usual suspects.

Though the police have nothing on them for this crime, their coincidental meeting proves fortuitous as they plan a revenge job together, getting one back on the police. This heist leads to blackmail and betrayal.

All this is back-story to the real quest and questions of the plot. The movie opens with a scene of carnage at the LA docks. A mystery man shoots Byrne and leaves 27 others dead before blowing up the ship. Only two men survive: Kint and a badly burned and deathly scared Hungarian. So, who is this mystery man killer? What did we see happening in this event?

Singer weaves together multiple threads to create an absorbing and intriguing puzzle. Viewers have to watch carefully since the facts and the truth are before us throughout. As in Memento, we cling to the main character's narrative thread, as Verbal verbally spars with an FBI agent and a police detective in an LA police station. But the director's sleight of hand is enough to keep us guessing until the very end.

It becomes clear that the mystery man is Keyser Soze, an enigmatic arch-criminal and brutal murderer. But this does little to reveal his identity. He is almost mythical in underworld circles. He is the criminal's bogeyman. People interact with him through his assistant, Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite). As Verbal makes clear,
Who is Keyser Soze? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was
German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that
ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have
worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the
Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. And like that, poof.
He's gone.
Verbal illustrates a biblical warning. The Devil is not a myth. Like Keyser Soze, he has succeeded in making many today think that Satan is a fantasy. He is a figment of the imaginations of the non-scientific peoples of the past. Yet this is exactly what Satan wants us to think. When we disregard him, we forget him and he can attack us easily in our unpreparedness. Jesus knew the reality of Satan. One of the first of God's creation, a fallen angel, Satan tempted Jesus with real and physical temptations during the 40-day wilderness experience that marked the start of his ministry (Matt. 4:1-11). Paul warns us to stand firm against the devil and his plots and attacks (Eph. 6:10-14). Peter also tells us that Satan is waiting for us, ready to devour us like a lion eating its prey (1 Pet. 5:8-9).

How do we stand against the devil? First, we must recognize and acknowledge his existence. Second, we must put on the full armor of God, as described by Paul in Ephesians 6:11-18. Finally, we must stand firm, holding fast to the ground we have, trusting in the Word of God and prayer.

When asked by the cops if he believes in Keyser Soze, Verbal says, "Keaton always said, 'I don't believe in God, but I'm afraid of him.' Well I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze."

A real response to Satan (or Keyser Soze) is to fear him, as he is powerful and stronger than any human. Yet, beyond this, we must believe in God, who is infinitely mightier than anything in his creation, including Satan. This belief in God must include a healthy fear of God. The Psalmist commands us to "fear the Lord" (Psa. 34:9). This is not the same fear we must have of Satan. It is an awesome respect and rightful worship of Him who deserves all worship. When we truly fear God, our fear of Satan will be tempered with the knowledge that God has already defeated him, and "the one [Jesus] who is in you is greater than the one [Satan] who is in the world" (1 Jn 4:4). We must fear someone. Who will it be?

When all is said and done, to understand The Usual Suspects you have to stand back from the details and see the big picture. The details can be terribly intriguing but they can also mask the truth. The Christian life is like this, too. As we reflect on the reality of Satan and God, the fear of Satan and God, and our present circumstances (which may or may not make much sense to us), we need to stand back and see the big picture portrayed in the Bible. God is at work in this time slowly building his kingdom. Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is near," (Mk. 1:15) and his ministry was one of proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. We must not let ourselves get lost in the minutia of ministry, the trivial details of church and church issues. Too quicky we can forget our mission. Too easily we can slip into the shadow of the irrelevant.

Like Verbal, let us leave our dialog and emerge into the big picture knowing we must love God, love our neighbor (Lk. 10:27), and proclaim the gospel of the kingdom (Mt. 24:14). Anything else will leave us sidelined by the devil.

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Airplane! -- facing your fears

Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker , 1980.

The 70s highlighted the disaster movie genre, with Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and the Airport series. Airplane! introduced the disaster-movie spoof. And having cut their comedic teeth here, the trio of directors went on to other famous parodies, such as Naked Gun and the Scary Movie films. Though seemingly a take off on Airport, it actually rips Zero Hour. The plot is the same; so is the hero's name: Lt. Ted Striker (Robert Hays).

Striker is a WW2 fighter pilot whose war experiences left him mired in the past, fearful of flying. Since he cannot move on from these memories and the pain of those lost, he has lost his love, Elaine (Julie Hagerty in her debut role). She has chosen to move on with her life as an airline stewardess; he is stuck in a taxi-driving job. She is flying high in the sky, he is flat on the tarmac. But when he pulls up at the airport one night and enters the terminal, he is running after Elaine. Throwing caution to the winds, Ted buys a "smoking" ticket to be on the plane to talk to her.

Ted's commitment to his relationship with Elaine and his willingness to pursue her highlights the first of two major issues raised here: running after relationships. Ted realized he wanted what he had lost. What have we lost? Perhaps our relationship with someone has stagnated and is now distant. Are we willing to drop what we are doing and chase after that relationship? It will take work. It does for Ted. But what relationship worth keeping doesn't take work? Will we sacrifice all that we have to recoup what we are missing?

Jesus told two parables about sacrificing all to gain what is worth more. Speaking of the kingdom of heaven, he spoke of a man who sold all that he had so as to buy a field where great treasure was buried (Matt. 13:44-46). Our relationship with Jesus, is like that. We must be willing to let go of everything we consider precious in this life so we might experience a true and growing relationship with Jesus. Paul said he counted it all as rubbish that he might know Jesus (Phil. 3:7-8).

All the familiar conventions of the airplane disaster movie show up here. There is the strained relationship, and the protagonist-coward facing up to his fears. Both of these offer illustrations of issues we can explore. Add to these, the sick child needing intraveinous medication, a singing nun, and the tense air-traffic controller on the ground (Lloyd Bridges), and the scene is set for the impending disaster.

Airplane! works by having some fine comic actors throwing so many one-liners that some cannot fail to arrive. Peter Graves is Captain Oveur ("Over, Oveur"), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar plays co-pilot Roger Murdock ("Roger, Roger"), although actually as himself. Funniest of all is Leslie Nielsen, who teamed up with these directors for a number of later parodies, as Dr. Rumack. His is the repeated, "Don't call me Shirley" line.

Although it parodies the older Zero Hour, it throws in spoofs of numerous films starting with an opening reminiscent of Jaws. There is a beach scene based on From Here to Eternity. and the anachronistic morphing of a WW2 Casablanca-like bar into a disco straight from Saturday Night Fever, complete with Travolta moves, is simply hilarious. All are played deadpan with purposefully stilted acting.

When most of the passengers and all the crew become ill after eating the fish, there is no one to fly the plane. Striker must choose to let the plane go down or face his fears and overcome them, even while his memories are telling him he cannot do it.

This is the second of the theme-related issues: facing our fears. Like Ted, we all have fears. Some are debilitating, leaving us unwilling to return. Others can be overcome easily. Worst fears tend to linger on. But there almost always comes a time when we must return to these fears and make a choice. When the future of others, even the lives of others, hangs in the balance, we must look our fears in the eyes and stare them down. Only by facing up to them can we overcome and emerge victorious.

The apostle John said perfect love drives out fear (1 Jn. 4:18). God knows our hearts and our minds. He knows what we are afraid of. And he will be there with us. In the most-beloved psalm, the psalmist wrote, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me, your rod and staff, they comfort me" (Psa 23:4-5). In life, we face the choice to let fear overcome us or to engage it as Ted engaged the controls. Let's put cowardice aside, and be courageous. Jesus is beside us, with us. He will not let us down.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Top Gun -- arrogance, recklessness and rules

Director: Tony Scott, 1986.

Some movies stand the test of time well, and are classics. Think of Casablanca or It's A Wonderful Life from the 40s. Or, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Blade Runner from the 80s, and The Matrix from the 90s. In contrast, Top Gun looks dated and its dialog is cheesy throughout. But it has fabulous aerial sequences of dogfights, and a tight 80s soundtrack. And this made Tom Cruise a star and a stud. (It's also a great example of classic plot-development, since it is so formulaic, and this has been pointed out in an earlier summary of film and faith, which includes spoilers.)

Cruise plays Maverick, a hot shot navy fighter pilot with an attitude, teamed with radar officer Goose (Anthony Edwards). When he and another pilot encounter a pir of MiGs while on a standard mission, his actions earn him a place at the Navy's elite dogfight academy, Fighter Weapons School in Southern California, known affectionately as Top Gun.

Tony Scott (Taking of Pelham 1-2-3), brother of Ridley (Blade Runner), has made a testosterone-fueled homage to these ace flyers. He throws in a superficial romance with Charlie (Kelly McGillis), one of the instructors at the school. A Ph.D. in astrophysics, she is the prettiest and least likely teacher for these egotistical jocks. Indeed, the scene where Maverick meets Charlie in abar filled with servicemen, crooning "You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'," highlights the macho confidence that permeates this film.

Only the best of the best, the top 1%, get to Top Gun. And the very best gets his name on the trophy. When Viper (Tom Skerritt), the commanding officer, asks him, "Do you think your name will be on that plaque?" Maverick replies, "Yes, sir." Viper puts his finger on one aspect of Maverick's attitude, "That's pretty arrogant, considering the company you're in."

Arrogance was an attractive aspect of a fighter pilot's persona. Viper wanted to see this in his students. They needed to strive to be the best but flaunted it to others. But what place does arrogance have in the Christian's life? Is it attractive? Is it appropriate? The Bible is full of commands to God-seekers and followers to be humble (Eph. 4:2; 1 Pet. 5:6). Humility is the attitude of choice. And this is a polar opposite to arrogance. We may be the best, but we should not flaunt it in a Maverick-like manner.

Maverick's chief opponent is Iceman (Val Kilmer), a cool-as-a-cucumber flyer who makes no mistakes. Their mutual dislike is apparent to all. Iceman sees Maverick as a cowboy: "You're everyone's problem. That's because every time you go up in the air, you're unsafe. I don't like you because you're dangerous." This is so true. Maverick is reckless, with a disregard for safety. He is not a team player. He is a maverick who feels "the need for speed."

More than this, Maverick has no regard for the rules. Although Viper tells him, "Top Gun rules of engagement are written for your safety and for that of your team. They are not flexible, nor am I." Yet, Maverick wants to push himself and his plane to the limit and beyond, not caring for bureaucratic rules. He wants to write his own set.

Maverick is almost a poster child for how a follower of Jesus should not live. We may take risks with our own lives but we need to have a compassionate care and concern for those on our team and around us. And we need to be respectful of those in authority over us, as Paul told the Roman church (Rom. 13:1). There might be times when we must bend the rules and seek forgiveness instead of permission, but deliberately disregarding denied permission, as Maverick does so often, is anathema to gospel-centered living.

As the movie moves through act 2, Maverick comes face-to-face with disaster. Like Striker in Airplane!, the earlier disaster-spoof, Maverick loses his confidence and must face his fears. But flying is where he finds his identity. Viper asks him, rhetorically, "Is that why you fly the way you do? Trying to prove something?" He was trying to prove his value for the memory of his father, a wartime flyer. His identity is performance oriented.

Once more, Maverick gets it all wrong. We must not find our identity in our jobs, or our performances, though we sometimes try. Or we might look for it in our relationships, our families, even our hobbies. But all of these offer false identity. When the relationships fade, when the hobbies disappear, when the jobs get terminated, we are still the same people we were before. As followers of Jesus, our fundamental identity is found in our relationship to our God. In Jesus we are adopted into the family of God (Eph. 1:5), we become children of the Creator (Jn. 1:12). He has prepared us (Jer. 1:5), he has prepared works for us (Eph. 2:10), and he is working in us to prepare us to be fully Christ-like in the life to come (Rom. 8:29).

Top Gun is a fun movie to watch or rewatch. But Maverick is a bad role model to imitate.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

High Sierra -- Crashing Out

Director: Raoul Walsh, 1941.

A year before the classic Casablanca came out, Humphrey Bogart appeared in this existentialist gangster flick. Indeed, this is the last film in which Bogey did not get top-billing; here it went to Ida Lupino, the moll.
High Sierra is a strange film. It is not classic gangster, a la Cagney in White Heat. It is more a character study of the gangster, Roy "Mad Dog" Earle (Humphrey Bogart) who is a man whose time has passed and for whom time has passed him by. It includes some elements of the emerging film noir, but it is not a classic example of the genre.

As the film begins, Earle "crashes out": he receives a pardon from the governor and is released from prison. This has been arranged by associates so he can lead a hotel robbery in the high sierras of California. Having spent most of his last decade inside, the prohibition and depression era has ended and the new jitterbugging spirit of the 40s is upon America. This is a new America, one Earle does not know.

Driving across the country, Earle encounters a poor family heading west. Pa (Henry Travers, the wing-less angel Clarence from It's A Wonderful Life) was a farmer and connects with Earle, also from a rural farming family. This encounter is important to the plot, since Pa's 20-something club-footed grand-daughter, Velma (Joan Leslie), becomes Earle's fantasy woman.

Reality, though, hits Earle smack in the face when he gets to the sierras and meets the two punks who form his team. There is more: "Of all the 14 karat saps, starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog." The woman is Marie (Ida Lupino), a conniving former dance-hall girl, and the dog is Pod, a mutt needing a friend (Bogart's real-life dog). These two are essential to the story, and will prove to be Earle's downfall.

Earle is a man living in two worlds -- the real world and his fantasy world. In the real world he is a hardened criminal, killing people as easily as he puts out his cigarettes. In this world he is in control, making decisions, leading his small gang. But he sees himself in a romanticized way. He is the knight in shining armor that can help Velma escape her prison of disability. He is a farmer wanting to return to the small town life, with Velma as his bride. Not really seeing that Marie has him in her sights, he only has eyes for Velma. Two girls, two lifestyles, one divided man.

How often do we live in a fantasy world of our own imagination? Like Earle, we can create a world of deception, thinking differently, making more of who we are than reality reflects. Madison Avenue bombards us with all kinds of fantasies, telling us we are more than we are, we deserve better than we have. This is dangerous. As dangerous as Earle was in his real persona, believing the concoctions of our own making leads us into a quicksand that will swallow us alive. The solution is to look to the truth. Jesus offers such truth; he is the truth (Jn. 14:6). Friends can keep us safe and free with a dose of honest reality (Prov. 27:6). That is the value of community. Velma wanted to offer this to Earle, but he was not prepared to accept it from her. She was competing for his love. She had an agenda; true friends don't.

When the hotel heist goes wrong and someone is killed, Earle and Marie find themselves on the run from the law, with the manhunt drawing closer. In an early scene, one crook tells Earle, "You remember what Johnny Dillinger said about guys like you and him? He said you were just rushing toward death. Yeah, that's it; just rushing toward death." And as the climax draws near, Earle finds himself in a car chase up Mount Whitmore to a standoff with the police.

Throughout High Sierra the concept of "crashing out" recurs. This phrase denotes finding freedom and realizing dreams. Roy had spent most of his life behind bars, and he dreamed of seeing the trees and feeling the grass. He crashed out at the start. But he was trapped by his lifestyle and only in one way could he truly crash out. Marie, a world-weary survivor, wanted to crash out from her claustrophobic lifestyle of dingy dance-halls and violent men. She sought a savior, and saw Earle as her noble knight. Even Velma was trapped by her club-foot and dreamed of dancing with her love (not Earle). But thanks to Earle, she got to crash out of her imprisonment.

How are we trapped? What is imprisoning us? Frmo what are we dreaming of escape? It might be a dead-end job. It could be a stagnant relationship. It might even be a rules-based religion that has strangled the life out of us. Like Earle, Velma and Marie, our dreams of crashing out can become reality, but only in the person of our savior Jesus. He offers liberation, freedom from the oppression of sin (Gal. 2:4). We can walk in newness of life, experiencing life afresh (Jn. 10:10), as Earle did initially, but only momentarily, when he walked free from prison. Unlike Earle, we can live in this new lifestyle as we walk with Jesus day by day. Are you ready to "crash out"?

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Thelma and Louise -- female oppression and awakening

Director: Ridley Scott, 1991.

Any mention of road-trip brings to mind Doritos, music, and buddies. Road-trip movies usually present a pair of guys eating up the open road. But in this male-dominated genre, the female focused Thelma and Louise is surprisingly one of the best road-trip movies of all time. Certainly it is a classic in modern pop culture and the closing scene is positively unforgettable.

Louise (Susan Sarandon) and Thelma (Geena Davis) have planned a weekend getaway to the mountains in a classic 66 T-bird convertible. Louise is a world-weary waitress who has seen it all, and is tired of her musician boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madson) whose touring lifestyle leaves her lonely. Thelma is a browbeaten housewife whose life is controlled by her football-loving insensitive lout of a husband. Together, they represent the oppression of the everyday American woman in the late 80s: unequal worker or mistreated homemaker. They are at the mercy of the men in their lives and in society.

Thelma is so fearful of her husband and his response to her vacation request that she simply does not ask. And when these two women begin their journey she is the follower. Louise is the leader and careful planner of the trip.

All is well until they stop for a drink at a country and western bar. A few drinks and a few dances later, Thelma has let her hair down and is carefree . . . too carefree. A nasty encounter with an amorous dancer leaves Thelma and Louise accidental outlaws on the run. Many women can identify easily with this fright and flight approach and this underscores the theme of feminine oppression.

Driving through Arkansas to Oklahoma and beyond, the two heroines come into contact with four men who symbolize the spectrum of males in this world. At one end of the spectrum is the obnoxious truck driver who simply wants another sexual conquest. He wants to take advantage of the women for their sexuality alone. He cares nothing for them as people. At the other end of the spectrum is Hal (Harvey Keitel), the determined but sympathetic detective hunting them down believing them to be victims of their circumstance. He is on their side, seeking to be their protector. Toward the middle is J.D. (Brad Pitt, destined for stardom after this role), a charming rogue who lies and lays but helps to bring life out of captivity for Thelma. Yet, for all his charm, he is a thief and a cheat. And there is Jimmy, who wants to do the right thing for Louise but is filled with anger at her independence. He wants control.

As with all road-trip films, the journey is one of change and awakenings. As they flee from the law and these men, they find a freedom that their normal lives of routine had denied them. They refused to submit to male dominance, and, with a nod to the western genre of loner cowboys, they drive west and ride-off into the sunset. Though the plot paints them into a corner, with no obvious escape, the final image Scott chooses to leave us with mythically embodies Thelma and Louise achieving the freedom they sought. Likable outlaws, they are in many ways like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Thelma and Louise forces us to reflect on the progress of female emancipation in the 21st century. Have women attained true equality with men in the workplace? While pay inequity still exists today, more and more women are in the workforce and job inequality seems to be disappearing. In the church, women are increasingly taking staff positions or even becoming pastors. In the family more women than men stay home to raise children. In child-raising, women still find themselves stereotyped.

The Bible has much to say about this though it is interpreted differently. Some see it as emphasizing egalitarianism, where there is true equality between the sexes. Others see it underscoring a complementarian approach where distinctions remain. A middle ground seems more appropriate, where gender roles and distinctions remain yet essential equality is affirmed. Men and women are both made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Yet, there are roles carved out for them, that are not simply culturally mandated. Paul's distinctives on the qualifications of elders seem to suggest that these should be men (1 Tim. 3:2-4). Men are placed in headship over their wives and families (Eph. 5:23). This is symbolic of the relationship between Jesus and his bride, the church (Eph. 5:24-33).

The journey of these two women is a journey of self-actualization. At one point, the timid Thelma tells Louise, "I don't ever remember feeling this awake. You know? Everything looks different now." She adds later, "Something's, like, crossed over in me and I can't go back, I mean I just couldn't live." She becomes irreversibly changed by the events of the weekend. Indeed, the two women experience a strange role-reversal with Thelma becoming the dominant leader while Louise breaks down and reverts to followership. She is not as strong as she liked to think she was.

In a sense, this weekend getaway highlights the value of retreats. Many people in this fast-paced age, especially church-goers, take short breaks from the rut of routine to experience something different. Though these are often quiet and meditative, simply breaking out of the norm can allow us to find out more about ourselves. We can move forward in character growth and personal actualization as we encounter things that are new and novel. These retreats are highly valuable. Even Jesus took time away from his busy life of ministry to connect with God and refresh his humanity (Mk. 1:35).

Of course, a road-trip movie and the personal growth that goes with it is to a large degree founded on the friendship of the heroes. This is true here. Thelma says, "Louise, no matter what happens, I'm glad I came with you." Both changed through interactions with one another. Both changed through their interaction with the other characters, especially J.D.

We are like this, too. Our retreats can be especially beneficial when we are with friends who know us and challenge us. We grow better in community. The picture of the loner, who walks into the picture alone and leaves alone, is not the proper portrait for personal transformation. Proverbs tells us, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Prov. 27:17). As followers of Jesus, we turn to one another in small groups and we turn to Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is a journey, a road-trip. And we embark on it with buddies who will help us grow and change.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs