Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fallen -- seeing with eyes of faith

Director: Gregory Hoblit, 1998.

Not too many Hollywood films have explicit themes that are religious in nature. Religion, though an integral part of the lives of many people worldwide, is politically incorrect as a topic or theme in the West. Yet Hoblit's Fallen is overtly religious dealing with faith and demons. As a supernatural thriller it is engaging and effective. As a primer on biblical theology it is less effective.

Denzel Washington (The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3) plays Detective John Hobbes, a homicide cop who struggles with the big philosophical and theological questions of life, like "Why are we here?" His divorce has left him alone, living with his brother and nephew. His partner, Jonesy (John Goodman, Barton Fink), is a foil to allow Hobbes to ponder these questions. Interestingly, Hobbes' name is taken from the combination of two 17th century philosphers, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. These both explored the innate nature of humanity, whether evil or rational and good. And these are themes explored in Fallen.

After an opening scene that leaves us wondering about Denzel Washington's character (Detective John Hobbes), we flashback in time to see him visiting a condemned killer he captured, Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas). Hobbes is the one on the outside of the cell, but Reese acts as though Hobbes is the one trapped and imprisoned. Indeed, Reese is arrogant and cocky, confidently shaking Hobbes' hand though death is only minutes away. As he skips to his execution he sings, "Time is on my side," a key song throughout. And before he is put to death he touches the executioner.

Hobbes thinks the string of serial murders has run its course, but how wrong he is. When a clue whispered to him by Reese shows up written on the wall of another murder victim, Hobbes begins to question what is going on. Something is happening that appears evident only to him.

And that brings us to one of the themes and points of contact with biblical Christianity. Hobbes says it, "Something is always happening, but when it happens, people don't always see it, or understand it, or accept it." It takes him a while but he begins to see. Our eyes are closed to the unusual and invisible. We see what we expect to see. But many times things are hiding in plain sight. The supernatural, the immaterial, is not visible to the eyes in our head. But they are visible to the eyes of faith. The prophet Elisha saw the chariots of fire that surrounded his city although his servant did not (2 Kings 6:16). When Elisha prayed God opened his servant's eyes of faith to see what Elijah already knew was there (2 Kings 6:17). It often takes faith to see things.

Sometimes, though, we see things that don't match our experience and disregard or ignore them because they don't fit our paradigm. This happens to Hobbes. As his investigation into the next several murders escalates it seems that the killer has the exact same modus operandi as Reese. Yet Reese is dead; Hobbes saw that with his own eyes. Something else is behind these chilling crimes.

Hobbes visits Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidz, Junebug), a theology professor and daughter of a dead detective. Asking questions about her father's death, Hobbes pries into a past she wants left alone. As she verbally spars with him, she asks, "You believe in God?" This is a strange question to ask a homicide detective, although coming from a theologian perhaps it is not unusual. Hobbes responds, "Just Sundays. My job, seeing what I see, faith isn't easy to sustain." We are back to seeing. He has become jaded and cynical from seeing too much evil and its effects. But Gretta says, "What you see in your job is nothing." His physical eyes are open but his spiritual eyes are blind.

Gretta's question is pertinent to us. Do we believe in God? That is one of the fundamental questions of life. How we answer it will steer how we live our lives. Of course, as a follower of Jesus I affirm the existence of God (Heb. 11:6), the God of the Bible (Gen. 1:1). He is there if we seek him (Deut. 4:29). But it takes faith to find him and to come into relationship with him through Jesus (Jn. 14:6). Faith itself is fundamental to life. If we do not believe in God, like so many atheists, that disbelief itself is an act of faith. When we ride in our cars we have faith that our brakes will stop us before we plow into the car stopped at the red light in front of us. We cannot avoid faith. The real question is, in what or in whom do we place our faith? Hobbes placed his faith in what he could see. He was a pragmatist. But that would change.

As Hobbes' eyes begin to open he realizes that there is something sinister and supernatural behind the events and the murders. He suspects a demon named Azazel is possessing the killers. With no one to turn to with these "non-rational" thoughts, he takes his suspicions to Gretta for her assessment. "I believe more is hidden than is seen," she tells him. Hobbes is still not ready to see the spiritual in the physical world: "Well I believe what I see, but I'm still trying to get my mind around what I just saw."

At its heart, Fallen is about opening the eyes of faith. A demon is an invisible spiritual being that is personal and usually stronger than people. The Bible presents demons as a reality (Matt. 8:16). They were originally created as angels who were good but rebelled against God, their creator, and chose to follow Lucifer, or Satan, the chief opponent of the Lord (Rev. 12:7-9, Jude 6). In their rebellion they have fallen, hence the title.

These fallen angels can possess humans. There are many examples of this in the gospel accounts (Mk. 1:32; 5:18; 7:26). Part of the ministry of Jesus and his disciples was to cast out these demons, freeing the demonized (Matt. 9:32-33). It is clear that they can move from host to host; when the demons were cast out of the two demoniacs of Gadarenes, Jesus cast them into a herd of swine (Matt. 8:28-32). But exactly how they pass from person to person is not elaborated in the Bible. A means is postulated in Fallen, as this plays an important role in the film.

As a thriller with a shocking ending, Fallen works well. And hopefully it opens some eyes to the unseen reality of the spirit world that surrounds us. If so, it moves us towards a crisis of faith, as it did for Hobbes. Are you seeing yet?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Golden Compass -- truth, heresy and authority

The Golden Compass

Director: Chris Weitz, 2007.

Weitz himself adapted Philip Pullman's book for the big screen. The book was the first in "His Dark Materials" fantasy trilogy and provided a good read. But this adaptation is surprisingly dull and pedestrian, quite disappointing. The fight between two armor-clad bears, both cgi creatures, is cool but the other set piece at the climax is cut short too quickly. And the conclusion is open-ended, in contrast to the book, leaving it weak and ambiguous. If a sequel is made, it will pick up the story at that point no doubt.

Pullman's trilogy is a barely hidden attack on religion in general and the Church in particular. But Weitz and the production companies decided to remove any mention of God or religion. However, these themes are evident if a little veiled. Indeed, there are a number of themes which interplay with religion and Christianity, including the soul, truth, heresy, and authority.

As the film starts the witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green, the Bond babe in Casino Royale) tells Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, Bond in Casino Royale): "There are many universes and many Earths parallel to each other. Worlds like yours, where people's souls live inside their bodies, and worlds like mine, where they walk beside us, as animal spirits we call daemons." This introduces the concept of people having souls which are visible to others, living outside of their bodies in the shapes of animals. In children, these daemons can change shape but they become fixed when adulthood is attained.

Certainly there is an aspect of humanity that is immaterial. Biblically, men and women are multi-dimensional in composition (1 Thess. 5:23, Heb. 4:12), but there is disagreement as to the numberof the components. At its broadest level, all Christians agree that we are made up of a material aspect (body) and an immaterial aspect (soul or spirit). Some see a difference between the soul and spirit. Dallas Willard, a philosophy professor at USC, has a model of the human constitution with 5 elements: spirit, mind, body, social context, and soul ("Renovation of the Heart"). In his model, the soul is the core dimension that interrelates all the other dimensions of a person to integrate into one holistic life.

But in our reality, the soul is invisible. We can only see a person's body, not his or her soul/spirit. We cannot exist in this world without the immaterial aspect. It is critical to our present existence. It drives our being. In The Golden Compass, the souls are embodied but remain close to the person they belong to. Interestingly, when the soul is harmed the person hurts, and vice versa. This is a good illustration of the biblical truth that some things damage us inwardly by damaging our souls, though it may not be clear from the outside. These can be emotional wounds, pscyhological scars, sinful thoughts and desires, etc.

Compass also raises a curious question of whether a person can live without a soul. In the movie, some are separated from their souls and they remain alive but clearly damaged. In reality, we cannot live apart from our soul. In the time between times, when we have died but not been resurrected, we will exist as disembodied souls (2 Cor. 5:1-5) awaiting the moment when our souls are given resurrected bodies (1 Thess. 4:15-17). But that is the only time we have a soul apart from a body. This is a body-less soul rather than the Compass' soul-less body.

The protagonist of the film is Lyra Belacqua, a young orphan and niece of Asriel being raised by the tutors of Jordan College, Oxford. Dakota Blue Richards gives a strong debut performance and is in almost every scene. Indeed, she carries the movie even when working with the veteran actors like Kidman and Craig. When she overhears her uncle talking about a magic dust only found in the arctic north which opens doorways between parallel universes, she wants to join him in his expedition, but is denied the privilege. Yet, when the mysterious and icy cold Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman) offers to take her on a similar journey she jumps at the chance. Before she leaves, the Master of the College gives her the golden compass. When she asks what it is, he replies, "It's an alethiometer. It tells the truth." This is central to this movie.

Lyra's use of the alethiometer to see the truth (from the Greek, aletheia [αλήθεια], meaning truth) is symbolic of reality. Truth is present, but not all can see it. In Compass, Lyra uses this magical instrument to get at truth, formulating questions for it to answer. In our world, truth is fully embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. He declared, "I am the way and the truth and the life" (Jn. 14:6). Those who look for truth and find Christ find truth. And apart from an alethiometer, we can offer prayers to God seeking wisdom and truth.

When her friend Roger is kidnapped by the "Gobblers," Lyra's quest becomes Roger's salvation. Along the way, her adventures include meeting and rescuing a huge armored bear, Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellan's voice), and hooking up with an aeronaut Lee Scoresby (a perfectly cast Sam Elliott) as well as a group of Gyptians on her quest.

Her quest is not without opposition, though. The ruling Magisterium pursues Lyra with its own evil agenda. It has succeeded in destroying all but this one compass. It is a threat, as it can reveal truth to the initiated holder. And Asriel is a threat, too, as one of its emissaries comments: "If he succeeds in proving the existence of these other worlds, it will contradict centuries of teaching. There will always be free thinkers and heretics, unless we deal with the root of the problem." The Magisterium does not want truth; it wants to retain control. It sees its authority jeopardized.

The Magisterium clearly represent a caricature of the Church. (The Church is actually the body of Christ and his spotless bride, being prepared for his second coming. It is not perfect but it is God's chosen vessel of grace to a fallen world.) In the Dark Ages the Church used the inquisition to suppress heresy. Free thinkers that contradicted catholic teaching experienced torture and death. Earlier still, during the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were the ruling Jewish party and they retained their power and authority through selective oppression. When Jesus spoke out truth in contrast to their legalistic teaching (Lk. 12:1), they determined he should die. He threatened their authority with his free thinking (Mk. 1:27). His truth was a mirror that they dared not look into. Finally the High Priest declared, "it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (Jn. 11:50). Oppressive authoritarian regimes usually resort to intimidation and execution to silence their opponents, regardless of truth. This happened to Jesus. It happens today.

So,whose authority do we place ourselves under? Are we open to truth? Are we seeking truth? If we are, we will find it in Jesus as we place ourselves under his lordship.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Barbarian Invasians (Les invasions barbares) -- living, dying and success

Director: Denys Arcand, 2003.

The Barbarian Invasions sounds like an all-action historical war movie. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a French-Canadian drama, with not a single bullet fired or sword swung. Filled with references to sex and drugs, it s a reflection on life. So what is the meaning of the title? More on that later, as it comes up obliquely in the film.

Arcand's Oscar-winning film (Best Foreign Film) is actually a sequel to his The Decline of the American Empire, made 17 years earlier. I didn't realize this, having not seen that prior movie. But The Barbarian Invasions stands alone on its own merits. The older characters reprise their roles but their children, now mostly grown up, show up as key people in the plot.

This is the story of Rémy (Rémy Girard), a college professor in his prime but dying from terminal cancer. As we first meet him, he is lying in a bed in a Quebec hospital. The failing socialist healthcare system means he has no private room. He shares a room with several other men. At least he is not out in the corridor like many. This opening reminds me of the Romanian film, The Death of Mr Lazarescu. But where that movie focused on the ills of the Romanian medical system, this one has higher aspirations: death, life, success and reconciliation.

When Rémy's ex-wife calls their son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), a highly successful financial analyst living in London with his girlfriend Gaëlle (Marina Hands, Tell No One), he reluctantly takes the next flight. There is more than the physical distance between Rémy and his estranged son. Occupational differences add to their political differences (capitalism vs socialism), combined with the blame Sébastien places on Rémy for the breakup of his parents' marriage.

Seeing the lack of privacy Sébastien uses the wealth he has created to enable his father to have some level of comfort in his last days on earth. A novice in bribery, corruption and crime, he nevertheless manages to grease enough palms to get a whole private wing for his dad. Then to bring happiness to the man he still despises, he contacts old friends and ex-lovers, bringing them to the hospital suite for a reunion that will bring tears of joy and tears of pain. Surrounded by the peope he has loved, with food and wine aplenty, Rémy waxes nostalgic reminiscing on the good times.

When the cancer gets worse and his father's pain becomes acute as well as chronic, Sébastien sets out to find some heroin to ease the pain. With the help of Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Tell No One), an old friend and present junkie, he scores the dope but he needs her to administer it to Rémy. It is in one of these interactions that Arcand brings out one of the themes of the movie.

Lying in a drug-addled state Rémy reflects on his life to Nathalie: "At least I'd have left a mark. We need to succeed, even on our own terms. To be able to say we did our best. It allows us to die at peace." And then he comes to the self-realization: "I'm a total failure." His son despises him. He has gone through multiple lovers, leaving a broken marriage and two children cast aside.

What is success? Rémy is filled with regret. To him success would have been writing a book, making a mark, leaving a legacy. Even on his own terms he lived his life for self: self-satisfaction at whatever cost to those he used and those around him. Although most define success as "the gaining of fame or prosperity" it is also defined as "the achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted." Success is a matter of perspective. From a biblical perspective: "Then you will have success if you are careful to observe the decrees and laws that the LORD gave Moses for Israel" (1 Chron 22:13). Jesus-followers do not live under the Mosaic Law but success for us is obeying the teachings of Christ. Then, just like King David in the Old Testament, who "in everything he did he had great success, because the LORD was with him" (1 Sam. 18:14), we will have success.

Being set in 2001, a TV playing in an early scene shows news reports of the 9/11 attack on the twin towers. An analyst opines on this:

What is significant, as my old prof said, is they struck at the heart of the Empire. In previous conflicts - Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, the Empire managed to keep the barbarians outside its gates, its borders. In that sense, people may look back on, and I stress may, as the beginning of the great barbarian invasions.
The barbarians were those that invaded from the outside bringing with them transformation. This life change could be bad or good, but change came with the invasion. Rémy's cancer was his barbarian invasion, bringing with it termination of life. But it also brought opportunity, opportunity for reflection on living and dying.

For many death comes suddenly, in a car crash or in an airplane diving into a building. For others it creeps up on us slowly as we get old and gray. In the former we have no time to react or reflect. In the latter, we have too much time and often do not get around to it. In Rémy's case his barbarian gave him the gift of time: just enough of it to come to terms with his life and his friends.

The barbaric cancer ultimately brought reconciliation between Rémy and Sébastien. The father-son relationship is supposed to be one of love and mutual respect. When death knocks on the door, it is time to put aside bitterness, bury the hatchet, and restore relationships.

Death may knock on our door today. Knowing this we must make reconciliation a priority. Reconciliation with God is priority one. He has made this possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom. 5:10, 2 Cor. 5:18). We can partake of reconciliation by bowing our heart, bending our knee, and following Jesus (Acts 4:12, Phil. 2:10). Then we must reconcile with our family and friends. Life is too short and fragile to live with broken relationship, as Rémy had.

In a beautiful scene, Rémy whispers in Sébastien's ear, "I wish that one day you will have a son like you." Success may have eluded him but he lived long enough to see his son as a strong and caring man, and to give him a blessing. Would that we might do likewise.

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Miller's Crossing -- ethics and criminals

Director: Joel Coen, 1990.

The Coen brothers like to make films about crime, whether it be murder (Barton Fink), blackmail (Burn After Reading) or kidnapping (Raising Arizona, Fargo). Their third film (although Joel gets sole credit for direction) continues this theme, but focuses on the morals of the criminal underworld. Unlike their amoral Oscar-winner, No Country For Old Men, Miller's Crossing presents criminals with a code of ethics.

Set in an unnamed city on the east coast, it is prohibition era 1930s and Leo (Albert Finney) runs the town. His Irish gang contols the rackets, the liquor, and the gambling. When Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), an Italian subordinate, tells Leo that bookie Bernie (John Turturro) is cheating on him, he wants permission to kill him. But Leo is in love with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Bernie's sister, and denies Caspar his desire. Even when Leo's trusted counselor Tom (Gabriel Byrne) suggests this is unwise, Leo stands firm. This obstinacy ignites a gang war between the Irish and the Italians.

In the opening scene, Caspar introduces the theme: "I'm talkin' about friendship. I'm talkin' about character. I'm talkin' about - hell. Leo, I ain't embarrassed to use the word - I'm talkin' about ethics." Strange as it may seem, these two murderous men have a code of ethics. He adds, in an unrecognized note of irony, "It's gettin' so a businessman can't expect no return from a fixed fight. Now, if you can't trust a fix, what can you trust?"

Ethics is a system of moral principles, a code of right and wrong. There must be a foundation for ethics. Where does this come from? Why would Caspar, a vile villain, feel compelled to refer to ethics? It is because it is deeply ingrained. Everyone has a conscience (Rom. 2:15). This is given by God, and it has a purpose to highlight actions and intentions that are morally wrong. Even if we are not religious and do not affirm biblical morals, we have an intrinsic recognition of God, who is outside of us and bigger than we are (Rom. 1:20). Conscience is a gift from God that points us towards him, as he is the only one who can forgive our sins (Mk. 2:7). But conscience can be seared and dulled (1 Tim. 4:2). When it becomes too dull, it loses its effectiveness and then our ears become deaf to its cries.

Caspar adds in another scene, "You double-cross once - where's it all end? An interesting ethical question." He is willing to discuss the ethics of his situation. He is willing to kill a man. But he is not willing to double-cross someone, since that would violate his ethical code. Further, he places high value on respect, and when he is given the "high hat" of disrespect he feels defiled. The Coen brothers illustrate here that all people have an ethic, all people recognize there is right and wrong. Nihilism is not a true or practical philosophy for life.

Tom is the antihero protagonist of this deep, dark movie. Byrne played a similar character in the later The Usual Suspects, but here he is at the very top of his game. Tom is a good counselor but a complex and conflicted character. With the gang war going on, he himself is playing around with Verna and is "friends" with Bernie. Yet nothing is what it seems at Miller's Crossing, a remote forest where gangland executions take place. Miller's Crossing is symbolic of the heart of the gangster.

This takes us to the other main theme of Miller's Crossing: the heart of the criminal. And Tom is at the center of the question. At one point, Verna tells him, "That's you all over, Tom. A lie and no heart." He thinks he loves her, but this could be lust, not love. He is cold and aloof. Does he have a heart? Can a criminal really have a heart? Or is the criminal cold-hearted and cold-blooded, driven by greed and lust?

The biblical prophet Jeremiah focused on the heart as the center of a person. Several thousand years ago he said, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9) Our hearts have been tainted by the original sin of Adam (Gen. 3:1-7) and now we cannot love and we cannot live the way God originally intended for us.

Tom, himself, seems to understand the dishonesty and lack of transparency in the criminal's heart, when he says, "Nobody knows anybody. Not that well." Nothing is what it seems. The superficial is a visage hiding a dark beast within. This is Jeremiah's deceitful heart.

Bernie, though, asks another key question, when Tom leads him deep into the heart of Miller's Crossing for an execution. Pleading with Tom, he begs in self-defense, "they can't make us different people than we are. We're not muscle, Tom. I... I... I... never killed anybody. I used a little information for a chisel, that's all. It's my nature." He believed it was his nature to chisel a little, to lie and cheat. His ethic was not violated since he did not kill. What was Tom's nature? Was he a killer? Could he change his nature? Were Bernie and Tom fixed in stone? Can we even change our nature?

Miller's Crossing offers the Coen brothers' ambiguous answer to this question. But the question cuts straight to the very heart of the gospel of Jesus. If Jeremiah is true, we are depraved. We are like Bernie or Tom. Our natures are corrupt. We need redemption, a new nature, a new heart. Another prophet, Ezekiel, pointed out that our cold hearts of stone would be exchanged for a fresh heart in the new covenant (Ezek. 36:26). And this occurs when we accept our condition and seek this change of nature in Jesus. Paul said it well, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Cor. 5:17)

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne) -- grief, secrets and saviors

Director: Guillaume Canet, 2006.

Tell No One is a terrific French thriller, adapted by Canet from an American novel by Harlan Coban. Unlike American thrillers, the action is not pervasive. There is an exciting foot chase, but most of the thrills come from psychological suspense. So, as with most French films, even their thrillers are slower allowing for character development. Tell No One adds a plot that is intricate enough to keep us guessing even to the climax.

The film opens with the back story of Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet), a pediatrician. As we meet him, he is with his family at a farmhouse. There is laughter but there is also tension. Canet does not spoon feed us by explaining up front who the various characters are. He leaves it to the film to show these relationships.

When Beck goes for a midnight swim in the private family lake with his wife Margot (Marie-Josée Croze, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Wolves in the Snow) their skinny dip begins with frollicking fun. But when Margot swims across the lake and then disappears into the forest, Beck's night turns dark. She is murdered and he is left unconscious by the attacker. Although initially a suspect, a serial killer is charged with the crime.

Eight years later we find Beck still working at the hospital but his grief is an albatross around his neck. He loses himself in alcohol. Drink is his solace, isolation his escape. His love for Margot was so great that he cannot move on.

This brings to mind the theme of grief portrayed in another French film, Blue. Part of Kieslowski's important tri-color trilogy (Blue, White, Red), the first film shows Julie (Juliette Binoche) trying to deal with life after the death of her composer husband and young child. She chooses to withdraw from society, hiding alone in a new apartment in a different part of Paris. Solitude without alcohol for Julie, work and drink for Alexandre. Both cannot sustain new relationships. Both have to work through their grief in their own fashions.

The New Testament tells us that we will all die (Heb. 9:27). Death is a part of life. But for Christians, we can have hope that we will go to be with the Lord. Because of this fact, Paul said we should grieve differently than those apart from Christ (1 Thess 4:13). We can be confident that we will see these loved ones and friends again, in the life hereafter. Of course, there will still be tears and pain and change now. But God's grace will carry us through and enable us at some point to move on with life. Those without this hope, like Julie and Alexandre, are stuck in an endless cycle of grief.

Grief aside, Beck's life is changed when two more bodies are discovered in the same woods where Margot's body was found eight years earlier. Once again, the police look at him as a suspect. Then when a mysterious email arrives in his inbox pointing to a website showing a live webcam, he sees what appears to be his dead wife, alive and well. The message comes with the warning, "Tell no one!"

In life there are times when a friend or colleague confides in us some secret or intrigue and then tells us to keep this confidential. We are really told, "tell no one!" How do we respond? Do we honor this confidence and keep it to ourselves? Or do we "share" this with another, whether a spouse, a friend or a prayer partner. Often this is gossip by another name, and gossip is a sin warned against in multiple places in Scripture (Prov. 11:13, Rom. 1:29, 2 Cor. 12:20). A secret shared is a secret revealed. How good are you at keeping a secret?

With a faceless enemy following him apparently aware of his every move, Beck is left wondering who to turn to. He does tell someone: Helene Perkins (Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient, I've Loved You So Long), his sister's lesbian lover. She is his only real friend. And she is a help to a degree. But when the enemy frames him for murder, he becomes a wanted man on the run without money or friends.

When we are in trouble, we need a friend, someone we can turn to. Beck found his friends less helpful but a minor acquaintance proved to be his savior. But even when friends are hard to find, Jesus is always there, ready to offer grace and help in time of need (Heb. 4:16). He is our savior if we simply call on him.

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Great Debaters -- injustice, inequality and civil disobedience

Director: Denzel Washington, 2007.

"An unjust law is no law at all." Saint Augustine said this line two millenia ago. And it is one of the key lines and themes of this uplifting movie which uses the vehicle of racial separatism in debate competition to highlight separatism on the national scale.

Based on real events, The Great Debaters is set in rural Texas in the mid 1930s. Amidst the Great Depression, Marshall is the location of Wiley College, a black school where Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) teaches and coaches the debate team. When he has try-outs, the four students who make the team are diverse even if all black: Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), an older roguish youth; Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), a conservative returning debater; James Farmer Jr (Denzel Whitaker), the precocious 14-year-old son of the principal Dr. James Farmer Sr (Forrest Whitaker); and Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the attractive interest of both James and Henry.

The young actors give outstanding performances, even alongside screen veteran and Oscar winners, Washington and Whitaker. Interestingly, young Denzel Whitaker is named after Denzel Washington but is no relation to Forest Whitaker. But, despite the movie's ethical themes, argued in debate format, it is ultimately lightweight devoid of intellectual depth or argument.

As the movie starts we see Tolson, dressed as a humble field worker, breaking up a fight at an illicit party and preventing Lowe from slashing a man. The next time we see him, Tolson is in a classroom and Lowe is one of his students. There is history between these two, a history that will work its way through the film until the final conclusion.

The town of Marshall is still living as though the Civil War had missed it completely. Racism is alive and well. Blacks are separated from whites, and must act in a servile manner despite having superior intellect in many cases. One scene highlights this, when Farmer Sr hits and kills a hog owned by a redneck. Ordinarily this would be considered a minor car accident, but as a black he is essentially blackmailed into making excessive recompense. He has no recourse or alternative.

In one scene that is graphic and shocking, a lynch mob has burned and strung up a black man. Tolson and his debate team witness this shocking spectacle and barely escape with their lives. It begs the question what crime warrants the rule of mob justice? How can killing a man like this be defended? The Old Testament makes it clear, "You shall not murder" (Exod. 20:13). There is a place for judicial punishment administered by the state (Rom. 13) but even there injustice is sometimes present. As God-fearing followers of Jesus, we can never condone this kind of violence brought on by blood-lust and mob psychology.

As the debate team is formed it needs Tolson's teachings on elocution and discipline. Further, it relies on his development of debate position and logic. But as the team starts winning, the young debaters' confidence soars and they yearn to define their own arguments. As they win against the top black colleges of the time, Tolson wants them to compete against white schools.

When they get the chance, Samantha also gets her chance to debate. Arguing that blacks should have the opportunity to go to the same colleges as whites, she plumbs an emotional depth and concludes, "the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always, is always right now!" The injustice of the separatist laws of the country screamed out with her. Why couldn't these highly intelligent young people go to the same colleges as their white counterparts and competitors?

Ethically and morally, we can look back 70 years and see the injustice of the era. Biblically we know that black and white are both equally human, neither intrinsically better than the other. We are all the same in our fundamental human nature, created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). We are the same in our redeemed nature, saved by Jesus and progressively conformed to his likeness (Rom. 8:28-30). As Paul said in his letter to the church in Galatia, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

When circumstances conspire against Tolson and his team, he is black-balled and white colleges start to rescind their invitations to debate. All appears lost. But then Tolson gives them his pep talk. Never quit, he tells them. Failure can make them stronger. For those viewed as second class citizens accustomed to the scraps, this is good advice. They can use failure to their advantage. But this advice is sage indeed, even for us today. Success can blind us and make us complacent. We learn better from our mistakes and our failures than from a surfeit of success.

The Great Debaters
moves inexorably to the culminating debate with Harvard, the first time a black school had debated the national debating champions. It is in this debate on civil disobedience that Farmer Jr emotionally draws on personal experience and then calls on Augustine: "In Texas they lynch Negroes. . . . St Augustine said, 'An unjust law is no law at all.' Which means I have a right, even a duty to resist."

There is indeed a place for civil disobedience. When justice cannot be found in the courts of the land, and when injustice is occurring in the streets and the fields, people have an obligation to resist. The apostles knew this. When they were told to refrain from teaching and preaching Christ (Acts 4) they refused to do so. They disobeyed without violence but paid the price with jail time (Acts 5:18). In their defense they declared, "We must obey God rather than men!" (Acts 5:29). God had commanded them to love others and share Jesus. There was no violence in their acts of disobedience.

The Great Debaters leaves us contemplating the need for justice and equality, and helps us reflect on the place of civil disobedience. There might come a time when, like the Apostle Peter, we will face a decision to obey God rather than men.

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Pianist -- music, survival and randomness

Director: Roman Polanski, 2002.

In 2002, drawing from his own experiences as a boy in war-torn Poland, Polanski (Chinatown) hit the high-point of his career. He took the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman and with Ron Harwood's screenplay adaptation, created this masterpiece. Much of the credit goes to Adrien Brody, the British actor who totally poured himself into a role tailor-made for him. All three won Academy Awards for The Pianist. But despite Polanski's Oscar for Best Director, the film itself lost the big prize (Best Picture) to Chicago, which was a travesty of justice.

Szpilman (Brody) was Poland's most accomplished pianist before World War 2. As the movie starts we see him in a radio studio beautifully playing the piano. But then the tanks start shooting, the bombs start falling, and the studio is damaged. He can no longer avoid the rapidly escalating situation. Germany is invading his homeland. His time as a concert pianist and radio performer has come to a sudden end.

When he returns to his home, where he lives with his siblings and his parents (Frank Finlay and Maureen Lipman), we realize he is a Jew. The first half of The Pianist focuses on the impact on their lives of this German invasion.

At first nothing changes. But then little by little, there is a progressive dehumanization of the Jewish people. It starts with the ban of Jews in cafes, restaurants and parks. It moves to their "branding," like cattle, as they are required to wear the star of David. It culminates in their forced eviction and resettlement in the Warsaw ghetto, an area that is literally walled in with bricks. It concludes with the deportation to the concentration camps where they are mercilessly exterminated like vermin. This is a harrowing descent into hell.

Craig Detweiler, in his book "Into the Dark," analyses The Pianist as one of the most influential movies of the last decade. He highlights the questions that this film raises: "How much evil are we capable of? How much can we tolerate? How do we muster the courage to continue in the face of wartime atrocities?" Without specifically answering these rhetorical questions, he points out that the movie puts "audiences through the wringer as a wake-up call. Elie Wiesel describes this important work of remembering: 'The memory of death will serve as a shield against death.' [This] powerful film offers impassioned and personal cries of 'Never Again!' "

One of the intents of The Pianist, then, is to act as a reminder and a deterrent to the horrors of the Holocaust. Certainly Polanski paints a grim and colorless portrait of a dark reality. He imbues the film with a pervading sense of desperation. Yet, in focusing on one man throughout he makes this catastrophe very personal. In watching Szpilman wither and wane, we see the riveting impact of the dehumanization. We don't need to see the atrocities of the Holocaust inside the concentration camps; other movies (Schindler's List and recently The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) have done this. It is enough to view the deterioration of life in the ghetto.

As his life is forced into the overcrowded and underfed conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto, survival becomes paramount. At first he wants to be active in the underground distributing propaganda, but he is told, "You're too well known, Wladek. And you know what? You musicians don't make good conspirators. You're too . . . too . . . musical!" His very essence, his life passion, prevents him from becoming part of the resistance. He can only look on as he plays piano as entertainment in one of the last remaining restaurants for Jews.

But music and survival go hand in hand for Szpilman. Without music he cannot exist. When his family is being herded, with the rest of these Jews, like cattle into cattle cars for transportation out of the ghetto, Szpilman's life is saved. He remains as one of the conscripted forced laborers. And when this becomes unbearable, he escapes into Warsaw proper. With some help from friends, he flees from apartment to apartment, living locked in like a caged animal in a zoo.

Polanski's use of Chopin throughout the film as the background score is moving and effective. The Polish composer's evoctive music brings a sad mood, yet frosted with a subtle hint of hope. Detweiler comments on a powerful moment: "The scene in which Szpilman discovers an upright piano in his latest safe house affirms the sustaining power of art. Szpilman's private recital drives all the horrors of his reality away."

Survival is a major theme in The Pianist. To survive these horrors, Szpilman had to retreat from the harshness surrounding him and use his gifts, his passions and his memories to give himself strength and purpose. Human beings react differently in this kind of situation. Some will give up, become fatalistic and die. Many did. Others will rally and find a strong sense of self-preservation, often surviving at the expense of others. Szpilman, once separated from his family, focused on personal survival mostly alone. Yet, God-fearers and Jesus-followers will find that God never leaves them or fails them (Heb. 13:5-6). He is only a prayer away.

Another major theme is the arbitrariness of life and death. Its randomness is illustrated in two ghetto scenes. In one, a group of Nazis enter an apartment just when a Jewish family is sitting down to dinner. When all but one family member stands up, they pour their wrath on the one still sitting. They pick up this wheel-chair-bound man and toss him over the balcony to fall to his death. In another scene, a Nazi officer pulls men from the conscript work force as they are on their way back to the ghetto after the day's work. Ordering these selected men to lie down, he calmly shoots each one in the head. Abritrary and ruthless.

Toward the end, this arbitrariness directly encounters Szpilman. When he is discovered living in a bombed-out building by a German officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann, Valkyrie, Transsiberian) he is asked what he does. When he says he is a pianist, he is led to a grand piano, amazingly intact, and ordered to play. The man who lived to play, now must play to live. Thinking his life is over, he plays a passionate and haunting movement that transports him to his earlier days while captivating the German.

In these events, we are asked to consider if life is random. How can some live while others die? There is no difference in those who remain, except they happened to be in the right place in the line. Is there really a God who providentially moves in his creation? When Szpilman asks Hosenfeld how he can thank him, he is answered, "Thank God, not me. He wants us to survive. Well, that's what we have to believe." Polanski leaves us with an ambiguous answer. But followers of Jesus understand that we do have to believe this. He is in control (Acts 17:24-26), even in the midst of the Holocaust. He does love us (Jn. 3:16). He does want us to survive. The problem of evil is an age old problem, and not one to be solved in a simple blog posting or enduring movie. Yet, these scenes make us realize that we are all but a hair-breadth away from death, and it is only by the grace of God that we go on living. It is thanks to God that we breathe our next breath (Acts 17:28).

Detweiler leaves us with an appropriate closing thought:

The grace extended by a Nazi officer suggests that individuals can still make a
difference even amid the most trying circumstances. Even within genocide, people
can demonstrate redemptive qualities. Good people can wear bad uniforms. The
universe may appear capricious; God may seem absent. But we stil retain a choice
in how we respond -- offering a coat of comfort or a cold shoulder of death.
History asks us to choose wisely.
Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Up -- life as an adventure

Director: Pete Docter & Bob Peterson, 2009

When you're at the top of your game, where do you go? Either down or up. After the wonderful Wall-E, Pixar clearly decided their direction was up, with this latest movie Up!

Up has all you would expect from a Pixar movie: marvellous story, comic humor, heartfelt emotion, great voice acting, terrific animation and a super score by Michael Giacchino. In fact the story is so good that you forget that this is an animated movie.

The first act shows Carl as a young boy dreaming of a life of adventure. Watching the black and white newsreels at the movies, he sees his hero, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), a Lindbergh-like explorer discovering the long lost lands of South America. (History buffs will know this is an ironic play on Charles Mintz, the film producer who took Disney's first creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, for his own, and in so doing forced Walt to come up with Mickey Mouse; guess which was luckier!) Muntz voices the idea that compels Carl to action: "Adventure is out there!" When Carl meets Ellie, a like-minded young girl, both are ready to take on the world.

What follows then is a beautiful montage that shows Carl and Ellie dating, marrying and growing old together, child-less. With no dialog, this short portion is reminiscent of the first half of Wall-E. It is a silent film, conveying emotional material with vivid visual imagery alone.

Their dreams of exploring Paradise Falls in South America disappear with the onset of each new problem life throws at them, until Ellie's death leaves Carl (Ed Asner) a gray and grumpy old-man. Seventy years have passed and his dreams lie on the floor like the confetti thrown at a wedding but then left abandoned as the honeymoon starts. As he sits alone looking back at the mementos of his life, we see his regret at never achieving his dreams.

There are two major lessons that Up imparts in its storyline. The first is to avoid forfeiting the adventure. Like Carl, we can get so caught up in the details of life that we give up on our dreams. We all have dreams, or had dreams at one point. These might be big, like flying to the moon. They might be more limited, like flying to South America to explore. Or they might even be focused, becoming a Hollywood star or Broadway diva. Some have down-to-earth dreams of being a small business owner, running a restaurant, road-tripping across all 49 contiguous states of America. Whatever they might be, the incidental costs of life will chip awat at these dreams incessantly until we are worn down and the dreams are forgotten. We must be relentless at keeping the dream alive. We must take life by the horns and experience the adventure. If we put it off, we will never get to it, we will never make it happen.

If we have a dream, a calling, we must not let others discourage or dissuade us from pursuing it. Paul, the great apostle of the first century, was called to be a missionary and left a life of "successful Pharisaism" (Acts 7:57, 9:1-2) to become an adventurous missionary (Acts 13). He blazed new trails bringing the gospel to those in southern Europe. His God-given dream (Acts 9:15-16) led to a life of adventure, a life fraught with difficulties nonetheless (Acts 16:22-23). Yet, he followed his calling, not being side-tracked by the trivial worries of life. We, too, should consider following our dreams.

When Carl is forced to abandon his life-long home, the one he shared with Ellie and which contains ghosts of happier times, he decides it is time to throw caution to the winds and follow his dreams, fulfilling the promise he made to her. If he couldn't make it to South America with Ellie he will do it alone with her memory. And he casts off, with thousands of helium-filled balloons taking his house up into the sky and awaiting adventure. What he doesn't count on is a castaway -- Russell (Jordan Nagai), a hapless boy scout looking for one more merit badge.

Together these two unlikely adventurers, make it to South America where they encounter a rare bird named Kevin, talking dogs and a twisted enemy. The dogs voice their thoughts, an interesting concept as there is no guile in some of the canine comments. Dug (Bob Peterson), for example, says, "My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you."

As Carl and Russell traverse the unexplored territory they are literally held down by the ropes tied to the levitating house. They are carrying the weight of Carl's world on their backs. In one scene, as the balloons start to lose their helium, Carl realizes that the only way for it to go up again is to rid it of excess weight. What a metaphor for life!

Sometimes we are held back from our potential by the baggage we choose to carry with us. It may be unforgiven sins. Perhaps it is the grudges we bear against those who have hurt us. Or we may have emotional wounds that are still open and weeping. Relational and physical baggage will only hold us down from soaring with our dreams. They will not help, they only hinder. Much like the scene in The Darjeeling Limited when the brothers let their luggage go so as to catch the train, so Carl gets rid of much of what kept him going and in doing this he enabled himself to move on.

The second great lesson from Up is that life is the adventure. When Carl looks into the scrapbook that Ellie kept, he finds that her life with him was her great adventure. It may have looked boring to others, but it was an adventure to her.

By the time we reach our mid-life years most come to realize that life is mundane. The great adventure we dreamed we would live out is gone. This is mid-life crisis. But we are surrounded by family and friends who love us. We have houses or homes filled with warm memories. We have jobs or vocations. Life may seem boring but it is life, and this life is the grand adventure. If we are raising kids, we may have sacrificed our dreams of world travel and new "toys," but we can experience the sublime moments in their lives: the winning shot, the song sung in the musical, the first date, the walk down the aisle. These moments make up the better dream.

Russell said it well when he spoke to Carl: "Sometimes it's the boring stuff I remember the most." And King Solomon, certainly a man who lived a grand adventure, said it best: "So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad" (Ecc. 8:15). And again he commented, "Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love" (Ecc. 9:9).

Though Up's second lesson seems contradictory to the first, it is actually complementary. We should not forfeit the adventure because life is the adventure, boring and all. Go follow your dream!

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The English Patient -- amnesia and slavery

Director: Anthony Minghella, 1996.

I love these long, slow English historical dramas. Set on a grand-scale, they almost flow across the screen like a river meandering on its merry course. This is one of those movies.

Indeed, The English Patient is like the English: patient. A nation characterized by its stoic approach, this describes the main character in this magnificent epic. Set in the 30s and 40s in Africa and Italy, it is reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia, full of grandeur and beauty. The cinematography is stunning, and was awarded one of the 9 Oscars this film took home.

From the opening scene, the expansiveness of the movie captivates the imagination. A hand is seen in close up painting a picture. It is not clear what this picture is until the final stroke of the brush: it is a swimmer. Then this pictures magically becomes a biplane flying over the dunes of a north African desert. This initial transition is indicative of those that follow. The superb editing earned another worthy Oscar.

The English Patient is the story of a mysterious burn victim, the pilot of the biplane. When he is shot down by German flak during WW2, he is rescued by nomadic Arabs and eventually finds himself in the hands of a Canadian troop en route for Italy. This mystery man (Ralph Fiennes) has no memory, and cannot even recall his own name. But his accent suggests he is English. The only clue to his identity is the book he has with him.

When Hana (Juliette Binoche), a sympathetic Canadian nurse, realizes that he is dying, she gets permission to stay with him in an abandoned monastery in Italy. Left with a pistol and morphine, she sets about trying to keep him alive. And it is in this monastery, reading his book, that the events of his life unfold in flashback, enabling both the patient and the nurse to discover more about themselves.

As he begins to remember, his identity is still in question, even to him. English Patient raises the question of the interplay between memory and identity. It posits that without the ability to recall our past and our name, we really have no identity. Memory is critical to realizing our true identity. Memento, a later film, explored this concept even further, as it delved into the idea of self-deceptive memories as a means to changing our identity.

Further, as we see the patient before his horrific crash, we realize that he was aloof. He rarely let others in emotionally. He remained a mystery even when others knew his name. But in the midst of a sudden sandstorm in the desert this mystery man finds himself in a car with Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of one his explorer colleagues. And it is here that we begin to see the pent-up passion that lurks beneath the surface. This passion slowly emerges into a tragic love affair that smolders on the screen.

In a scene of post-coital relaxation, he asks Katherine, "What do you hate most?" She answers, "A lie." How interesting that the English woman seeks truth while the English patient wants to hide. He won't reveal himself, even to her. He won't let his mask down.

Of course, lying is sinful (Lev. 19:11). All healthy relationships are built on the foundation of truth. We must be open and vulnerable if we are to touch others and be touched; if we are to share emotionally. A relationship built on falsehood and lying is one that is constructed on shifting sands, like those that brought the two lovers together and left the rest for dead.

Not only does The English Patient give marvellous visual imagery, it offers superb acting. Fiennes and Scott Thomas have a subtle and changing chemistry. Both were nominated for their roles. Juliette Binoche (Blue) is terrific as the shell-shocked nurse, and won her only Oscar here. Around them are Willem Dafoe as David Carraggio, a furtive thief who shows up at the monastery with an agenda of his own. Another mystery man, he unwittingly helps to reveal the secrets of the English patient's past. Colin Firth, as Clifton's husband, and Naveen Andrews, as Hana's love interest, round out a stellar cast.

The English patient's story is a sad one. Saddest of all, though, is his answer to Katherine's question of him ("What do you hate most"). He lets her see a glimpse into his soul: "Being owned." She wants honesty, he wants freedom. But his freedom is from people. By letting her into his person, he thinks he is giving up his liberty. He thinks she will take part of his soul in ownership. He fears relational slavery.

What the English patient doesn't realize is that we are all owned by things or others. We are all slaves in one way or another. The Bible says we are slaves to sin (Rom. 6:17) or we are slaves to God (Rom. 6:22). In Jesus' death, he has purchased us, if we choose to follow him. He has paid the ransom for our souls (Mk. 10:45). We are now no longer our own; we are his (1 Cor. 7:23). We are bond-servants to God (Eph. 6:6). But beyond this, ownership by God brings relationship. We are also children of God (Jn. 1:12); we are adopted into his family (Eph. 1:5). We enjoy all the rights of inheritance of an heir (Rom. 8:17). This is a beautiful type of ownership.

Ultimately, The English Patient reveals the identity of the man. He has lived a conflicted life. Confusion has caused him great pain. He has been a slave to the circumstances of this confusion, and he bears the scars, emotionally and physically, to prove it.

A film of love and betrayals, it leaves us contemplating which form of slavery we will choose for ourselves. Will we betray Jesus, and become the ultimate burn victims in the endless fires of hell? Or will we embrace Jesus and experience the tender nursing mercies of a loving father?

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Fargo -- more to life than money

Director: Joel Coen, 1996.

Jerry walks into a low-class bar and meets two sketchy hoodlums. He's late; they're not happy. He wants them to kidnap his wife. The ransom will be paid by his father-in-law, or so he assumes, and this will get him out of the financial problems he is in. So starts the Coen's gray tragic crime thriller.

This first scene is the only one that actually takes place in Fargo, North Dakota. Most of the film is set in either Minneapolis, where Jerry lives and works, or in the cold, bleak winterscape of Brainerd, Minnesota, where the kidnappers hide. Big city, small town, the contrast in cultures is huge.

Long before the Coen brothers scooped up multiple Oscars for their very bleak No Country for Old Men, they won their first Oscar for the screenplay here. Moreover, Frances McDormand picked up the Best Actress Oscar (beating out Kristin Scott Thomas in the 9-Oscar winner, The English Patient). Indeed, McDormand is the wife of Joel Coen and a frequent star in his movies (e.g., Burn After Reading).

William H. Macy plays Jerry Lundegaard, a wimp of a man who works for his father-in-law as sales manager at a car dealership. His financial troubles are never explained, but they are significant enough that his only hope is a "simple" criminal activity. But when is crime ever simple? Steve Buscemi is terrific as Carl Showalter, one of the two crooks, partnered with Peter Skomare as the almost silent but trigger-happy Gaear Grimsrud. When the kidnapping occurs and they are fleeing Minneapolis, they are pulled over by a police car and the end result is a triple homicide. Crime leads to crime.

This first act highlights the terrible cost of crime. Crime creates a desperate downward spiral towards destruction. The book of Proverbs describes this descent in graphic terms (Prov. 1:18-19; 2:13-22). Once on the slope it is hard to get off. Jerry's desperation led to the out-of-control events and unneccessary bloodshed and loss of life. Better to never get on this slope. Once there, the irresistible pull of gravity.

It is not until about the second act that we meet Police Chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand). Seven-months pregnant, she is a delight, a breath of "Minnesota-nice" fresh air. With the mid-west colloquialisms ("Yah" and "You betcha!"), she is so friendly it is hard to accept she is the Brainerd chief of police. But her small-town charm hides a big-city intellect. She is sharp as a tack. She gently disagrees with one of her officers when called to the scene of the homicides, but with a walk-through the crime scene, she describes the general events to a tee, before catching the morning sickness feeling.

Marge contrasts sharply with the criminals, including city-slicker Jerry. All three of the criminals are driven by money. Jerry's predicament precipates the crime spree, but the greed of the two kidnappers propels it along. But Marge is different. She tells her husband, "There's more to life than a little money, you know." How true! Money is a commodity. It is not a source of happiness or life. It is necessary, not a dependency. The apostle Paul tells Timothy that "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Tim. 6:10). Money itself is not the problem; our love of money is.

Marge's simple life is illustrative of her aphorism. She dines at a buffet restaurant with her loving husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch, Things We Lost in the Fire). She lives in a small home. But when awakened in the dead of night, Norm gets up to make her breakfast sacrificing his sleep. Here is love. She enjoys the simple pleasures of life: being with someone who loves her, watching TV, eating food, drinking coffee. She does not need an excess of money to be happy.

Despite the grim events of the film, Coen adds a strange character to the mix: Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). An old school friend of Marg's, he calls her out of the blue and they meet up in Minneapolis when she is there investigating the crimes. He seems to have no real reason to be in the movie. He does not move the narrative forward. Yet, he offers a foil to Marg's family situation.

Mike's life is empty and lonely without family. He appears successful, but it is shallow success. He has no depth. He has no life. He is depressed and looking for relationship. Seen alongside Mike, Marg has everything that is important. She has Norm, a homely and dumpy guy but one who is her true love. She has a baby about to be born. She has a family.

How often we envy what others have. Fargo reminds us that there is more to life than money. There is family. We must count our own blessings. For most of us, God has been more than good. And his mercy and compassion to each of us is new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23).

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs