Saturday, October 31, 2009

Blood Simple -- guarantees, isolation and tests

Director: Joel Coen, 1984.

A quarter century ago a pair of fresh young film-makers hit the scene. They were the brothers Coen. This was their first film, but it contains seeds of the greatness that was to come, with foreshadowings of both Fargo and their Best Picture Oscar, No Country for Old Men.

Like No Country, Blood Simple is set in Texas. But where the later film used the harsh landscape almost as a character, here is is used simply as a backdrop for a film noir. Like any good noir, the private eye provides voice-over narration. Well, at least for the opening scene, but that's all that's needed to provide context for what is about to unfold:
The world is full o' complainers. An' the fact is, nothin' comes with a guarantee. Now I don't care if you're the pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year; somethin' can all go wrong. Now go on ahead, y'know, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, 'n watch him fly. Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else... that's the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an' down here... you're on your own.
Two major themes emerge from this initial soliloquy: guarantees and isolation.

Like most film noir, the premise is clear: cuckolded husband hires a man to kill his wife. But the characters are complex: a cheating wife and a jealous husband, a committed lover and a jaded detective.

When Marty (Dan Hedaya) finds out that his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) is sleeping with his employee Ray (John Getz), he solicits the private eye who discovered the adulterous pair in the act, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), to murder them both. A simple, if sinful, proposition, yet Marty doesn't count on the depths of deceit of the detective, whose greed outstrips his guile. Double-cross follows double-cross until it is unclear whose heart is the coldest.

Of the four main characters, Visser is the simplest and the wickedest. Contrary to film noir norms, this private detective is no good guy. He is not even gray and shadowy. He is cold and cunning, manipulating and malevolent. Although he prefers to stay within the law, he has no conscience about crossing the line if the price is right. Honor and honesty are words absent from his phrasebook. The Coens even portray his evil with careful camera work that focuses on the sweat that slowly slides down his face and the flies that alight on his head. The diseases that the flies may carry are nothing compared to the wickedness that he harbors in his heart. This, combined with a satanic laugh, makes Visser a vile villain.

Since Marty is the husband wronged, he might be the sympathetic hero. But he is loud and obnoxious, and a would-be murderer. He has no charm, no heart, only a love of money. He wants his pound of flesh. He wants his guarantees. But, "nothin' comes with a guarantee," and Marty finds out first-hand how true this is in painful and humiliating ways.

Speaking of guarantees, Benjamin Franklin once said, "in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Even Jesus needed to pay taxes when he walked the earth, though he came up with the money in a miraculous manner (Matt. 17:27). And Jesus faced death, an ignominious penal death by crucifixion. The penalty, though, was not his but ours. Jesus died on our behalf to take the punishment for our sins, that we might find forgiveness and freedom to live in him (Eph. 1:7). Visser was wrong; life comes with a guarantee. We face a choice with two guaranteed outcomes: new life in Jesus (Matt. 25:34) or separation from God apart from him (Matt. 25:41, 46).

Unlike Marty, Abby is the real protagonist in this dark film. Though she sets the wheels in motion with her infidelities, she remains in the dark through most of the narrative. Separated from Marty, when Ray becomes guilt-crazed in a Macbethian manner, Abby realizes she has no one to turn to. She is isolated, on her own. And she does not really know what is happening around her.

Abby may be alone, but we have a guarantee of community and fellowship with Jesus. When we trust him, we are brought into his family as children of God (). Moreover, we become members of the body of Christ, the church universal, even if we are not attending a local church. Best of all, Jesus promises never to leave us or forsake us (). Others might walk away, leaving us like Abby to face our enemies apart from other people. But Jesus will always be with us.

And then there's Ray. When we first meet Ray he seems just a small-town hick, harmless enough. But the way of the adultress is death, as Proverbs says (Prov. 2:16-19). His choices cause him to slide slowly down the slippery slope. But it his love, misplaced though it may be, that drives him there. Visser, the film's anti-conscience, speaks to Marty in one scene about getting our hands dirty. "That's the test, ain't it? Test of true love." Ray in his ignorance misreads the signs and seeks to save his "true love" Abby by getting his hands down and dirty. But at what cost.

Jesus got his hands dirty for us. He humbled himself by clothing his godness in humanity (Phil. 2:6-7). Then he had his hands pierced, nailed to the rough wood of a cross of execution (Acts 2:23). He died to save his true love, humanity; you and me. What we could not do, he did for us. And unlike Ray, Jesus was able to complete his mission, saving us in his love. Our life comes through Jesus' blood simple.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Caché -- guilt and sins of the past

Director: Michael Haneke, 2005.

Caché is a French suspense thriller that defies traditional Hollywood norms. Moodily sad, it ratchets the tension but leaves the ending ambiguous with no real closure. This is intentional, as Haneke wants the audience to reflect on the various possibilities and come up with their own interpretation of the film. For a typical American viewer this may be quite frustrating. For European viewers this will resonate.

The movie opens with an extended camera shot, sans music, of an apartment viewed from an adjacent alley. With little action or movement, we wait patiently until we see the Parisian couple who live there: Georges (Daniel Auteuil), the host of a TV talk show, his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche, Blue), and their teenage son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). When this long, boring surveillance video tape anonymously arrives at their doorstep they are puzzled. But when additional tapes and gory child-like drawings show up, it is clear they are being stalked by a mysterious enemy with an unknown agenda.

When the tapes start to open closets containing skeletons and dreams unearth images of the past, Daniel suspects a culprit. He remarks to Anne, "I have a hunch." But he refuses to share more than this with her. "Can't you tell me?" she shouts. "No, because it's only a hunch." This leaves her furious. Haneke uses this pivotal scene to spring the trap that will catch Georges and force his hand. Anne despairingly cries out, "You never heard of trust?"

Anne has a point. She is, after all, his wife. She deserves his trust. But he is unwilling to open up. A marriage is built on trust. Without this as a foundation it will begin to collapse inwards on itself. Jesus told a parable about faith using the imagery of a house built on sand (Matt. 7:26-27). This is similar. Trust is integral to a healthy relationship. Where this is missing, deception takes root. And this is what occurs in the Laurent house. Georges' lack of trust begins a slow disintegration of his family.

The French title is translated "Hidden" and so much is hidden here. The truth is hidden from Anne by Georges. He hides his emotions from her. She hides depths of relationships from him. Even the cinematography employed by Haneke is designed so that image hides image. According to the director, this is just like reality. He claims that we see only what we want or think, that we never know the truth because there are thousands of truths rather than just one. It is certainly true that different perspectives often offer contradictory takes on reality. Yet, Jesus came claiming to be "the way, the truth and the life" (Jn. 14:16). He did not soften this absolute statement. He is truth. There is truth. We need to look carefully for it.

As Georges goes looking for the truth he resurrects long-forgotten memories, and he finds something he wished had remained lost. Not wishing to share his discovery with Anne, he further damages their fragile trust by lying to her, a lie that will come back to haunt him.

This is one of the themes the Haneke plays with here. We may consider a lie to be trivial, a little white lie. We may rationalize that untruths like this are not bad lies, or that we are fudging or hiding the truth simply to protect our lover. But the director points out that one step in that direction and we have to follow a path that is now defined. Referring to Christian moral terms, Haneke in a commentary refers to sin as a deviation from the righteous path, that once committed leads us further and further down.

Of course, the non-believing Haneke does not allow for repentance, confession and forgiveness. This is the way to break this one-way path to destruction. By admitting the sin, the lies in this case, and not simply defending oneself, true repentance can lead to restoration of relationship. This is what God offers to us, his creatures who have turned aside and gone our own way (Isa 53:6). We have forsaken his path, we have lied to him, we have sinned. Forgiveness is available in Jesus (Ac. 13:38), who paid the price for us at the cross (Rom. 3:25-26).

Haneke extends the concept of hidden things from the personal sins of the man to the public sins of nations. With a clear reference to events that took place in 1961, he puts a spotlight on the 200 Algerian corpses that floated down the Seine during the Algerian War. The French denied this incident for over 35 years before acknowledging in 1998 that at least 40 people died. The shameful acts of the French nation's past still could not remain hidden. These sins of the past eventually caught up with the present and became public. What is true at the personal level is mirrored at the national level.

So, with his sins catching up to him, Georges has to deal with his guilt. The central theme, then, of Caché is how can a person live with guilt. Will he accept it and deal with it? Or will he ignore it? And if so what does this do to him? In this movie analysis, guilt is not such a simple thing. Others, such as Georges' mother, come under the microscope. Even Anne has veiled secrets of her own. There may be enough guilt to share, but the spotlight remains true and focused on Georges. He cannot escape. His sins are no longer hidden. His guilt is center-stage. It has had impacts rippling beyond his own life.

Guilt itself is not a bad thing. It is there to prick our conscience, reminding us that we have transgressed, crossed the line. If we heed guilt's rooster call, we can confess and make course correction. We can come back to God; we can come back to our families. But if we ignore this call, we suppress guilt causing it to fester like a sore. When this happens we have seared our conscience (1 Tim. 4:2), and we begin to develop a guilty conscience, that will come back to bite us at some point. Even if we "get away" with it in this life, we must still face God. Better to 'fess us now, kneeling before the throne of God and leaving our sin at the cross, than carry this burden to the throne later.

Unlike an American thriller, where the conflict faced by the couple would be the catalyst that brings them back together, the conflict here leaves the Laurent family broken and hurt, much like real life. And like real life, the answers to the film's resolution will differ.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Unremembered -- rediscovering the past

Director: Greg Kerr, 2009.

Independent film-maker Greg Kerr brings a striking debut full-length feature to the big screen. Kerr, who is by day a professor at Portland Community College teaching screen writing classes, wrote this screenplay, then self-funded its production in Oregon. A labor of love, it took over 5 years to come to fruition. This is a film made on a shoe-string budget of $31,000, and that is evident. But after the first 5 minutes, the story is strong enough to make us forget the film's limitations. Indeed, the screenplay won Award of Merit at The Indie Fest in California.

"If you had it to do over again, what would you do?" This opening line sets the stage for what is to come -- a sci-fi mystery with a non-linear narrative. There will be opportunities for the protagonist to "live over" his life and rediscover his past. In fact, the film is similar in many ways to Donnie Darko or Memento but in reverse. It takes us through 16 days in the life of John Outis (Tim Delaney), but these 16 days last a literal lifetime.

Unremembered plays with time while giving us, in Kerr's words, "a romp through relativity." It is a complex and convoluted film that plays on multiple levels. As a neo noir, it has the classic sultry femme fatale separating a man and his wife. As a mystery, it is unconventional in making the 'detective' a physics professor, who explains in layman's terms aspects of Einstein's special relativity without belaboring the theory or descending into a patronizing lecture.

If the plotline is fascinating, the quality of acting is surprising. The four lead actors all give strong performances, and Tim Delaney received an Award of Merit for his role. But watching it as a physicist and theologian, I was drawn into the film's main themes of dreams, time, existence, and will, and the spiritual parallels. This independent movie contains more meat to chew on than a number of mainstream Hollywood formula films. It almost begs a second viewing simply to see how the circular timing makes sense.

As the film opens, John Outis stands outside a beautiful home, covered in blood, holding a knife. When he washes the blood off, standing next to an Asian woman, Penelope (Laura Duyn), she seems to not notice him. After he is thrown out of the house by her lover Anthony (Spencer Conway), John is arrested on suspicion of being a thief. But when the police have no remembrance of who he is and why he was arrested, things start to get interesting. Confusing, though, is the fact that John does not know who he is. He has no memory, no past. These first few scenes come rapid fire, leaving the audience as bewildered as the hero. We don't know what's happening any more than John does.

On day 2, when John returns to this house, Penelope welcomes him in. Apparently they have been together a month. But still John cannot remember his past. His confusion is exacerbated. Realizing the police are likely to be of no help, he seeks out an expert, in this case a physics professor, Tina Plantes (Karla Mason). Intrigued, she agrees to help as long as he can come up with proof, evidence. She is a scientist, after all.

As the film progresses John's past seems to change daily. And as it does, the people in the present change too. So, like Groundhog Day, John reprises his visit to Tina's house, injecting some humor to offset the dark drama that is developing. Little by little, though, she begins to peel back the onion of this problem. And she forms hypotheses that can be tested based on special relativity and the perceptions of time.

Dreams form a critical element. John's dreams show him things that happened in his past, thereby enlightening him, or things that are to come, thereby warning him. They are the connection between John's timeline and that of other people. The importance of dreams here is a reflection, in a way, of the truth that dreams can communicate truth. God has used dreams to convey his message to humans in the past. He spoke to Jacob in a dream (Gen. 28:12-15). He used a series of dreams to free Joseph from an Egyptian prison (Gen. 40-41). Pilate's wife was warned in a dream about Jesus' innocence (Matt. 27:19), but could not disuade her husband from condeming Christ. He still uses dreams today, predominantly in cultures that are less rationalistic. That is why many Muslims who convert to Christianity today describe dreams as the way God reached out to them.

As the days continue, John's past emerges. He is not the wounded hero he at first seemed. Callie (Carmela Ramaglia) enters the picture, a foxy mistress. Indeed, there is a history there, a sordid affair. Murder, blackmail and betrayal are piled on, as the thriller gathers momentum towards its climax.

It becomes clear to Tina, if not to John at first, that he is in a different timeline. She brings up the very question of existence: "I don't think that you exist in time like the rest of the world. History is catching up with you." Disconnected timelines are causing weird happenings.

This raises the question of time itself. Is it linear and constant for everyone? Einstein proved that if we move at close to the speed of light not only will we get a speeding ticket but we will also experience a slowing of time. Time, apparently, is not constant. Can there be different timelines, parallel to one another? Superstring theory, in physics, has postulated multiple dimensions beyond space and time. (Brian Greene has written a very readable book on this: "The Elegant Universe," 1999.) And multiverse hypotheses, seeking to understand all that is, propose that multiple parallel universes exist (see Michio Kaku's book, "Hyperspace," 1994). Hard to visualize, there may be more to reality, including time, than most of us know.

Indeed, Unremembered brings to mind the parallels between Jesus and John Outis. John exists in a different timeline to the rest of the world. To others, he is outside of time. Yet he can intersect their timeline in different ways. Before God created all that is, Jesus pre-existed (Jn. 1:1), outside of time. He can intersect with our timeline in an infinite number of points, thus enabling him to experience the past, present and future as if it were one. As hard as it is for us to understand, Unremembered offers a faint glimpse of how this might work.

Then there is the question of existence: what is existence? Is John real or is he somehow an apparition, a figment of someone's imagination. If he is outside of Tina's and Penelope's timeline can he exist for them? Tina says to him, "I can touch you. But you don't exist." Which is it? Do we deny our senses? Jesus said something similar to Thomas, after his resurrection. When he appeared to the disciples gathered in a locked room. Just as John says to Tina, "Why do you doubt me?" so too Jesus said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe." (Jn. 20:27)

Furthermore, John is told at one point, "You can't protect us and save yourself." That was true of Jesus. As his life on earth moved inexorably toward Golgotha and crucifixion, he could save himself or he could save the world. But he could not do both. One had to give. He chose to voluntarily take our place and die on the cross. What sacrifice.

Kerr throws in the issue of the human will. Both John and Tina exercise their wills to create reality and connection points. How much freedom does a person have? Conversely, how much of life is determined? This is a classic conundrum in theology debated for centuries: predestination versus free will.

But there the similarities between John Outis and Jesus end. John is actually an antihero, and his growing understanding of his past reveal dark secrets. He is no savior. Though we are sympathetic towards him, particularly due to Delaney's performance, the sinister side of John's life slowly emerges. The sins of his past seemingly cannot be avoided, and they creep into his present and future.

Unremembered catapults to a startling ending, leaving the viewer wondering and thinking. The clues are there. Some see them and connect the dots; others don't. The film opens the door to various interpretations, but the director's statements help shed light on the plot. For an unknown movie, Unremembered will certainly be unforgotten.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Monty Python and The Holy Grail -- the true God and his word

Director: Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones, 1975.

Forty years ago this October a group of 6 young men came together to form an awfully silly and awfully funny new comedy troupe. Brits John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, and American Terry Gilliam created the now world-famous Monty Python for the BBC TV show, Monty Python's Flying Circus. 45 episodes and 5 films later they called it a day in 1983. But their humor still lives on in DVD collections of compilations.

Their first non-compilation film is a hilarious parody of the knights in shining armor quest genre. Mostly directed by Terry Jones, animator Terry Gilliam stepped in for several scenes when Jones got fed up and gave up. Yet, despite their directorial disagreements and the low budget, the team came up with an anarchic film that is loose on plot but is strong on comic skits. Throw in a few animations and a couple of songs, and the small-screen TV show turns into a cult classic big-screen comedy.

The storyline that holds these episodic scenes together are the two quests embarked upon by King Arthur. His first quest is to seek knights to join his Round Table. We first see him and his servant "riding" over a hilltop. Since the budget was so low that they could not afford real horses, and they came up with the idea of using coconuts to create the clop-clopping noise of the horses' hooves and employ this device throughout.

There are some famously memorable lines in The Holy Grail. The Dead Collector yells, "Bring out yer dead," a spoof on the black death. (And the old man who pleads, "I'm not dead.") Then there is the wonderfully mixed up logic for determining if a woman (Connie Booth, one-time wife of John Cleese) is a witch ("If she weighed the same as a duck. . . she's made of wood. . . And therefore. . . A witch"). Of course, who can forget the Black Knight and his "flesh wound,"or the Knights who say Ni.

One of the funniest scenes occurs early on, an anachronistic parody of political science and imperialism versus communism. King Arthur has yet to find a knight and comes across Dennis (John Cleese) and his wife, a common peasant toiling in the mud. He introduces himself as their king, and Dennis responds, "Oh, king eh? Very nice. And how'd you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers. By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society." When Dennis takes a break, the woman chimes in, "I didn't know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective." Ignoring King Arthur, Dennis answers her, "You're fooling yourself! We're living in a dictatorship. A self-perpetuating autocracy, in which the working class. . . " and he trails off.

Just as neither of these peasants knew they had a king, many today live in ignorance of the one true King, Jesus (Rev. 1:5; 19:16). The peasants didn't experience any benefit from having a sovereign. Unlike them, when we bend our knee in allegiance to our King, we instantly receive sonship in his family (Jn. 1:12), not serfdom. And unlike many medieval kings who did exploit their subjects, taxing them for personal gain or to support war efforts, King Jesus does not explout or oppress the masses. He has lived in the margins, with no place to call home (Lk. 9:58). He understands what it is like to be down-trodden, to be poor, to be a manual worker. He will not Lord it over us as other kings would. That is the kind of King I want.

When King Arthur succeeds in gathering a motley group of knights to follow him, including Sir Galahad the pure, Sir Bedevere the quiet, Sir Lancelot the brave, and Sir Robin the not-quite-so-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot, he gets a second quest. God appears in the clouds, an animated figure, and speaks to him, telling him to go in search of the holy grail. (The holy grail is the chalice that Jesus drank from and shared with his disciples during the last supper -- Lk. 22:17). But in this interchange, God is decidedly grumpy:

God: What are you doing now?
King Arthur: Averting our eyes, oh Lord.
God: Well, don't. It's just like those miserable psalms, always so depressing. Now knock it off! . . . Every time I try to talk to someone it's "sorry this" and "forgive me that" and "I'm not worthy."
This is a comic caricature of God, unfortunately one held by many people. He is seen as a party pooper, a cosmic kill-joy. But, God is not this grumpy person. He is a loving and joy-filled father who wants to enjoy us, his created children, and wants us to enjoy life and all that it entails (1 Tim. 6:17). Furthermore, in this scene God seems to want to be on the same plane as Arthur. Yet, biblically God is exactly the opposite. He is portrayed as completely holy (Isa. 6:3), which is why mortal men like Isaiah realize they are not worthy to be in his presence (Isa. 6:5). And seeing our own sin in the light of God's purity, we cry out for his mercy (Isa. 6:7). This is almost a knee-jerk reaction to God's innate character.

Moreover, the psalms are not at all miserable. They may be difficult to understand, as poetry can be. But they are joyful and loved, a blessing to many a worshiper. Their emotive power penetrates the heart of those who are suffering or grieving, of those who are depressed or rejoicing.The shepherd's Psalm 23 is a pastoral favorite beloved by most Christians ("The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want"). Psalms of thanksgiving, such as Psalm 100, call out plentiful praises to God ("Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations"). Then there are the Messianic Psalms, which point prophetically to the coming Messiah. The most quoted of these is Psalm 110 ("The LORD says to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.' "). Finally, the psalms portray the beauty inherent in God's word, the Bible, such as Psalm 119 ("Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path").

Speaking of the Bible, King Arthur makes implicit reference to this holy text when he needs help. Facing the dreaded killer rabbit, only the "Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch" will suffice. But the king has a problem: "How does it work?" When no one can answer him, Arthur declares, "Consult the Book of Armaments." And Brother Maynard, one of the attending priests, opens the book, "Armaments, chapter two, verses nine through twenty-one."

As much as this elicits laughter, it does impress the point of the power of the holy word. The Bible is God's very own communication to man: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16). As such "the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Heb. 4:12). More powerful than a stick of dynamite or a holy hand grenade, it shows us how to come to a life-bringing faith in the life-bringer, Jesus (Acts 4:12, Rom. 10:10).

For an irreverent parody, Holy Grail points us back to God and the Bible, both key doctrines in theology. And interestingly, when the team were asked by the press what their next project would be, Eric Idle flippantly answered, "Jesus Christ's Lust For Glory." When they realized this shut the reporters up, they continued to use this answer. And over time, they got to thinking that something like that would be a great topic, and this led to The Life of Brian, another comedy that served up much food for theological thought.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning -- a picture of ministry

Director: Christine Jeffs, 2008.

If you've seen crime movies or TV shows you have no doubt seen numerous crime scenes. Dead bodies litter the celluloid landscape, with yellow tape keeping the curious back. But when the CSI specialists have taken all their specimens, the detectives are done, and the coroner's office has removed the corpses, who cleans up the mess that remains? Who you gonna call -- Ghostbusters? No, Sunshine Cleaning!

The film focuses on two sisters Rose (Amy Adams, Doubt) and Norah (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada), and their would-be entrepreneur father Joe (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine). This is a typical dysfunctional family, each with their own problems. Rose is a single mom who can't find a man to marry. Norah is single and can't hold down a job. Joe has too many crazy ideas with no business plan to separate the good from the bad and the ugly.

Rose, the former head cheerleader, is still in love with former boyfriend, high-school star quarterback Mac (Steve Zahn). But he is married with children. He is using Rose and will never leave his wife. Yet Rose is too weak to face this truth. She knows it, because she tries to motivate herself with a bathroom mirror pep-talk: "You are strong, you are powerful, you can do anything, you are a winner." Mere words are not enough. She needs a crisis and a catharsis.

Rose's self-talk, though it is addressing her diametrically reversed intrinsic condition, reminds her and us of a common plight. We want to be strong but we are not. It brings to mind words penned by Paul the apostle in Phil. 4:13: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength." Like Rose, Paul recognized his own weakness. But instead of looking at himself and seeking "bootstrap strength," he called on the Lord Jesus who said to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor. 12: 9). In truth, Paul understood the concept of finding his strength in God alone: "For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Cor. 12:10)

Rose's crisis comes when her son Oscar (Jason Spevack) gets kicked out of school. She faces a dilemma: she wants to put him in private school but her job as a maid, house-cleaning for others, won't pay the ticket. That's when Mac says there is big money in cleaning up crime scenes. With few options, she persuades Norah to join her in sisterly business venture, Sunshine Cleaning.

When they come to their first trailer park suicide clean-up, Rose tells Norah, "All we have to do is go in there and throw everything away." It sounds so simple. If only it were. In a sense, this is another of Rose's self-revelations. All her life she has been throwing everything away. She has not stopped to take stock of what she has and what she wants or needs. As the "responsible" older sister, she has always looked after Norah. Now she is doing this for other people.

Sunshine Cleaning is a comic drama focusing on dark subject matter -- suicide. The leads play well together and have good chemistry. As a quirky low-budget film, it is short but feels longer. It employs a little too many stereotypes for a typical indie movie, and the comedy feels strained in places. But it is of interest for its characters and offers two terrific scenes worth pondering.

In one scene, Sunshine Cleaning has been called out to Mrs. Davis' home, where her husband has killed himself. When Rose sees the widow lost in her loss, she tenderly asks, "Mrs. Davis, would you like me to sit with you for a little while?" As they sit together silently, simply holding hands and shedding quiet tears, it is a reminder of how we can minister to the grieving. Words carry little comfort. The present of personal presence is far more precious. As Job's three friends showed us, when they sat with the grieving man in peace and quiet for seven days they provided solace (Job. 2:11-13). But when they started to analyze and comment they created rifts (Job 3-31). We can best minister to a grieving friend by simply being there.

If this scene gives a glimpse into silent ministry, the next scene presents a beautiful verbal definition of ministry. When Rose is invited to a baby-shower of a former high-school friend, now very well-to-do, she sees this as a way to reconnect. But she is out of her league. She mops up after death; they sell real estate. She sits in silence with widows; they prattle on with each other about trivialities.

When she tells these so-called friends what she does, "We go in and clean up the mess and make sure that everything is clean and sanitary," they stare at her with mouths agape. "You like doing that?" they ask in unbelieving amazement. And that's when we see her catharsis, her eyes lighting up with fresh vitality. With a genuine smile of contentment and satisfaction on her face she answers them,
Yeah, I do. We come into people's lives when they have experienced something profound and sad. They've lost somebody. You know. And the circumstances, they're always different. But that's the same. And . . . we help. In some small way, we help.
She has found strength in her weakness. She has discovered the beauty of serving others in distress and in need. She has found her vocation. If she were a follower of Jesus, she would say she has found her calling and ministry.

Ministry is all about serving those in need. Like Rose, if we are Christians we are called to serve (Gal. 5:13), to help those who are in need. If we can enter people's lives and make a difference by helping them in some small way, then we have succeeded in ministry. We do this for Jesus (1 Cor. 10:31) and in his strength (1 Tim. 1:12, 1 Pet. 4:11). And regardless of what our form of service is, whether to the Rescue Mission or to the widow, to the newcomer with no friends or to the criminal reestablishing himself in society, Jesus knows our hearts. If we help them, then one day we will hear those precious words coming from our Savior's mouth, "Well done, good and faithful servant! . . . Come and share your master's happiness!" (Matt. 25:21)

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are -- frustrations, fun, and family

Director: Spike Jonze, 2009.

Walking out of the theater, it seemed as if I was the only person not lauding this movie. Indeed, my 11-year-old daughter cried at the end, and she rarely does that. In contrast, I could barely contain my yawns midway through and was eager for the movie to end. Even the sense of immediacy conveyed by the hand-held camerawork was not enough to engage me. Perhaps it would have helped if I had read the book. But growing up in England, I was raised with Enid Blyton and Commander Biggles, not King Max and these creatures.

The biggest money-making films of recent times have been based on children's books or toys. Think of classics like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe from the "Chronicles of Narnia" series, or the massive Harry Potter tales. This summer's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was followed by Transformers 2, both raking in over $800M world-wide. So it's not surprising that Maurice Sendak's award-winning 1963 book, Where the Wild Things Are, gets the big screen treatment. Sendak himself approached Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) about this film adaptation, and Jonze wrote the screenplay.

The story is all about Max. Newcomer Max Records plays his namesake and brings a wonderful quality to the main character who is in almost every scene. He captures the childlike emotions beautifully. Max is a product of a broken home, and is largely ignored by his elder sister and his mother (Catherine Keener). This loneliness drives him inward and fuels a fertile imagination.

In the first scene we get a sense of the loneliness and resentment that characterize Max's soul. He is playing in the snow, apparently friendless. Talking to himself, he waves imaginary soldiers to their positions. He prepares snowball ammunition to "attack" his sister's friends and wages war as they emerge from the house. The fun is fast and furious until they overpower him and destroy his igloo fort. Suddenly fun turns serious. Max' loneliness retreats and anger emerges.

Not only do we get a glimpse into the real Max and his deep emotional issues here, we also get a picture of ourselves. Too often we find ourselves lonely even in the midst of so many people. We may be surrounded by others, at home, at work, at church, at a sports event. Yet how many of them are our friends? How many will come play or hang with us even if we ask them? Max asked his sister to come see his creation, but she was too busy talking with her friends. This can be true for us. We may be lonely. And loneliness can turn into sadness or anger in a heartbeat, particularly when we are offended or hurt.

To combat this, we can be less sensitive and more guarded. We can be self-controlled (1 Thess. 5:6), not allowing our fickle emotions to rule our actions. And, on the other side of the fence, we can be more sensitive to others. We can look more gently and caringly on our siblings, our children, even our parents. Are there signs of loneliness or withdrawal? Are we spending enough time with them, listening to them, being with them, showing our love to them? This is critically important. Just as Jesus came and spent time with us, showing us in his life, as well as his death (Rom. 5:8), that he loved us, so we show our love to others with our time, not our pocketbooks.

When Max's mom brings home a boyfriend, Max is further isolated and reacts with a childish tantrum. For this, he is sent to bed without supper. But he is full of indignation and angry energy, and runs away. In escaping from his family, he eventually finds himself alone on an island. It is here, in the wilds of the forest, that he finds the wild things of the title.

These wild creatures stand almost 8 feet tall and are the creation of a combination of costumes (made by The Jim Henson Company, creators of the Muppets), animatronics, and computer generated faces. There are about a half-dozen, none looking particularly wild or ferocious. But they are a family of sorts.

When Max sees these wild things, one of them, Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is having a temper tantrum, destroying things because his friend has left him. This is a mirror-image of Max. Realizing this is a kindred soul, Max emerges from his hiding place. But he is discovered. To protect himself, he declares himself a king, a thing these wild things want. The first order of business for King Max: "Let the wild rumpus start." Then, when Carol shows him this wild and deserted island, he tells Max, "You're the owner of this world."

In a sense, Max is like God. He is their king and the owner of all that they can see on their land. God is king, though many refute this claim. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psa. 50:10), and the hills themselves. And just like Max coming to his land, God came down to earth in Jesus But Jesus came as a humble servant (Mk. 10:45), not ready to claim his kingdom. Pilate asked him if he was a king (Jn. 18:33), and Jesus did not deny it (Jn. 18:36-37). But his kingdom is yet emerging. It is a spiritual kingdom, a kingdom of willing souls. As we yield to him and serve him, his kingdom is being established even now. But we must await his second and regal coming for its ultimate physical establishment. At that time, he will own all the land, all the earth, and all will see and know this.

As King, Max wanted to bring fun to this family. When Carol gets excited and says, "It's going to be a place where only the things you want to happen, would happen," he is tapping into this belief that a king can make us happy by making good things happen. And Max replies, "We could totally build a place like that!" And Max does bring this group together, with fun and a grand mission to build a fort. But like the snowball scene, when Max' wild fun with the wild things gets out of hand, frustration and fighting take over. Then family tensions and jealousies recur. Even a king cannot solve all the wild things' problems with fun.

Fun is not the answer to our problems, as evidenced here. A human king has power, but not enough to change the soul. Sin shows its ugly face and incites selfishness leading to separation. This is just like real life. We are creatures with an ugly interior (Jer. 17:9), that we keep hidden for the most part. When we let our masks down, fun devolves to fracas. But the one true King, Jesus, does have the power to change the souls of men. He can transform us from within, making us new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17). No longer wild things, through Jesus we are now beautiful and pure people destined to be conformed to his very image (Rom. 8:29).

Ultimately, Max discovers the value of family, even a broken and imperfect one. His imaginative journey leads to this self-discovery. Even though the cinematic journey is moody and downbeat, overly sad for too long, this message is an important one. We are all broken in one way or another. Yet our family is valuable and to be cherished. Running away to a world of fun is not the answer. Leave those wild things where they are, and return home.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Science of Sleep (La Science des Rêves) -- reality and romance

Director: Michel Gondry, 2006.

Many people want to be "living the dream." But what is the dream? And can we really live it? Stéphane Miroux (Gael García Bernal, The Motorcycle Diaries) is a young inventor-artist who is literally living the dream in French writer-director Gondry's The Science of Sleep. This is not a documentary on sleep, nor is there much science present. But sleep is there with doses of dreams.

Like his earlier movie, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Sleep is a visually creative fantasy. Heavy on surreal imagination, it is light on plot. While Spotless Mind was in English, Sleep is a combination of English, French and Spanish, as if Gondry could not quite make up his mind whether to make it a foreign film or not.

We see Stéphane at the start in his "TV studio" shooting a new episode of "Stéphane TV." Given that all the stage equipment, including the cameras and monitors, are made of cardboard, it is clear this is not reality. Rather, it is his dream world. He is back in Paris closer to his French mother, but his job at a calendar-making company does not utilize his greater artistic talents and aspirations.

When he meets his apartment neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), he is smitten with her pixie-like friend Zoé (Emma de Caunes). In their initial interaction, he shows them his new 3-D glasses. "You can see real life in 3-D," he tells them. Stephanie, puzzled, retorts, "Isn't life already in 3-D?" But apparently not for Stéphane: "Yeah, but come on."

For Stéphane reality is both boring and risky. He is too shy and insecure to ask Zoé out but retreats into his dream world where anything can happen. He is the star in that world. His dreams can come true there. And they do, in Monty-Python-esque fashion. With animation that is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's work, cardboard reality replaces real-life.

Stephanie puts her finger on Stéphane's issue: "You have a serious problem of distorting reality." He has blurred the line so much that he cannot tell at times if he is awake or asleep and living out a dream. Unlike The Matrix, where humanity was asleep while living in a perceived reality, here Stéphane intermixes the two even as he seeks escape into dream-life.

Do we at times seek to escape our own realities by delving into dreams, both daydreams and night-dreams? Do we find life so drab that we seek to recreate our own perception of life other than what we can see? Perhaps we do. But reality is still there to be faced. And unlike Stéphane we must deal with it head-on. We do not have the luxury of living in a movie. Dreams can inspire and motivate. Dreams can even communicate messages from our God, as they have for those in the Bible (Gen. 20:3, Abraham; 1 Kings 3:5, Solomon; Matt. 1:20, Joseph, etc). But fundamentally, life is to be lived in the reality of our waking senses.

Gondry brings some terrific ideas into this film. There are some wonderful moments where the magic of Stéphane's dream-world become reality, such as with his floating clouds and cellophane water. His "one-second time machine" is a curious concept. Would a machine that could transport us one-second into either the past or the future be of any value? It seems strangely irrelevant but apropos to his mindset. And it is this kind of quirkiness that will either resonate or repulse the viewer.

This is more than just a fantasy, though. It is intended to be a romance of sorts. Although Stéphane yearns for Zoé, it is Stephanie who is really his soul-mate. Gondry defies all standard stereotypes and makes Stéphane weak and sensitive and then uses Guy (Alain Chabat), a co-worker, as an insensitive foil.

Stéphane and Guy are a study in contrasts. Guy wants a conquest. He is too weak for love. That is not in his vocabulary. For him, everything is sexual. Stéphane wants romance and marriage. For him, everything is idealistic, fantasized in dream-life. He is too shy to make a move. Neither really face reality, the authenticity of true love.

As romances go, this is a far cry from Hollywood. Yet, it is a far cry from reality, too. Romance is a beautiful and mysterious quality but if it only leads to sex then it is superficial and seductive. Romance is designed by God to lead to marriage, which is his plan for the union of man and woman (Gen. 2:24). When we walk in the path of God's ideal, we will find reality is actually better than fictitious dreams. Romance may pale, but a marriage founded in Jesus will endure in love.

Ultimately Sleep does not deliver on its potential because its plot is too thin, but it leaves us pining for reality and true love. We can find both rooted in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:35-39). With him, we will have a life that is better than 3-D (John 10:10); we will be spiritually alive, awake to eternal possibilities (Eph. 2:5). And we will experience a love that is endless and unconditional (John 3:16), something that even the best marriage partner cannot give.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, October 9, 2009

Somers Town -- boredom, drinking, and hope

Director: Shane Meadows, 2008.

Somers Town is a realistic but somewhat dull movie of life in London for two non-London teens. What started as a short film, became a short (at 71 minutes) feature-length movie. Billed as a coming-of-age story of their budding friendship, it is patchy and will be of interest primarily to Anglophiles or people familiar with London.

The title refers to the small area of central London around Camden which is defined by the three major railway termini: Euston, Kings Cross and St Pancras. These three service the North and East of England, the Midlands and Scotland. With the present regeneration of the area, this locale is undergoing major change. Indeed, with the relocation of the Eurostar International terminus to St Pancras, it is now a gateway to Europe. And herein lies the heart of the story: two teens, one from Europe and one from the Midlands, come to a cross-roads in Somers Town.

Meadows' had the idea of this film during his journeying to London from Nottingham. Amidst the period of transition for Somers Town, this is a film of the transition of the two youths coming to London and experiencing its familiarity and strangeness. He chose to shoot in black and white to focus on the textures, shapes and forms of the area. And to amplify the naturalness and immediacy, he shot each scene as one continuous take with improvisation from the actors. He also filmed the whole movie in chronological story sequence to add to the effect. What results feels authentic, sometimes too authentic. Life is not that interesting, indeed it can become mundane and boring.

We first see Tomo (Thomas Turgoose), a runaway from Nottingham, coming down to London on a train, bag in hand. Arriving at the terminus, he has no place to go, just a dream of escaping to somewhere. As nightfall arrives, he stands outside a convenience store trying to convince adults to buy beer for him. When he succeeds, he sits on a wall drowning his despair by escaping into his beer can. That is, until three other wayward youths accost him, beat him up and steal his bag with all his worldly belongings.

Marek (Piotr Jagiello), on the other hand, is a Polish teenager living with his single father who is working on the new rail line. His days are spent taking photos, but by night he is bored. His father works hard and then drinks hard, leaving his alone and lonely.

Tomo and Marek's lives intersect at a working class cafe, where Marek is looking at photos of Maria (Elisa Lasowski), the pretty French waitress. When Tomo steals the photos and is then caught by Marek, an unlikely friendship begins.

An immediate issue raised by Somers Town is that of inner city violence. Violence finds Tomo, leaving him bloodied and bruised. Marek unknowingly risks a similar fate by wearing a Manchester United soccer jersey in London. A friendly but exploiting neighbor Graham (Perry Benson) tells Marek this will get him in trouble in a city of strong soccer loyalties. I can attest to the fact that wearing the wrong soccer shirt in the wrong part of town is like wearing cripps colors in a bloods ghetto. Graham gives Marek an Arsenal shirt to wear instead, since the "gunners" are a London team.

Violence often leads to other crime. In this case, the violence that left Tomo a victim of theft, bereft of money and clothes, led to him becoming a thief, stealing others' clothes for himself. Sin leads to sin, and crime leads to crime. It is a vicious cycle that can only be broken by grace and forgiveness. The Bible is clear that theft is a sin and a crime (Exod. 20:15). We should not fall to this level, particularly if we are followers of Jesus. There are often other ways, other people who are willing to help, as Tomo discovers.

But boredom hits the two protagonists. As Tomo and Marek's friendship develops, they spend their days together, hanging out through their boredom. Boredom can easily lead to mischief or crime. Throw in hope, though, and dreams can emerge. For Marek and Tomo, their dream is of Maria. Teenage hormones produce infatuation masquerading as love.

When they determine to win her affections with a picnic, complete with French bread, cheese and wine, little do they know she is no longer in London. Even the best made plans can turn sour. These two lads learn that life does not always go as planned. This is a lesson for us as well. We often make plans and expect them to go smoothly. But life has a way of throwing curve balls at us. The apostle James, brother to Jesus, said, "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." (Jas 4:13-15) God is always in control, and we are not. We make plans but should be ready for them to change. His will be done.

With no Maria, Tomo and Marek get plastered on the wine themselves. Indeed, drinking is evident throughout. Marek's father, at one point, says to his Polish buddies, "Let's get wasted." That is his idea of how to spend an evening. It is not surprising that his drinking to excess leads to his son's underage drinking. The sins of the father are passed on to the son. We learn from those we look up to, especially our parents.

In England and other European countries, the drinking age is set at 18. Yet, most teens drink regularly and it is tolerated, even affirmed within the culture. Certainly, underage drinking is a major problem in many countries, especially the United States. Drinking alcohol is itself not a sin, for those of legal age. Jesus turned water into wine (Jn. 2:1-11) and partook of wine at the last supper (Lk. 22:7-19). In fact, he commanded his disciples to eat bread and drink wine in the sacrament of communion as a means of remembering his sacrificial death (1 Cor. 11:23-26). But drinking to get drunk and losing control is a sin (Eph. 5:18). When this happens we can lose track of our actions and do things or say things we will later regret. Beyond that, we may cause those with a less mature faith to go against their conscience and in so doing commit sin (Rom. 14:15). Drinking responsibly and legally with moderation is an appropriate behavior for a follower of Jesus.

As Somers Town ends, Meadows moves from monochrome to color to highlight dreams fulfilled. The boys' friendship has reached a deeper level of maturity. They have learned from their mistakes and have moved beyond the impoverishment of inner city London to wonders beyond the shores. Hopes and dreams can be realized.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

District 9 -- empathy as cure to prejudice

Director: Neill Blomkamp, 2009.

Blomkamp's full-length feature film debut is a fresh new vision of science fiction. Hired by Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) to adapt the Halo video game into a film, that project was cut after months of work. Instead, Jackson financed Blomkamp to make his own film. Taking his earlier concept short film Alive in Joberg, Blomberg rewrote the screenplay and turned it into this inventive creation.

It is present day and a huge spaceship hovers immobile above a large city. However, this is not a Hollywood movie so the city is not New York or Los Angeles. It is not even Chicago. No, it is Johannesburg in South Africa. The spaceship arrived 28 years-ago, and as the citizens of earth waited for some contact or conflict, nothing happened. After months of waiting, the South Africans cut their way into this mothership and discovered alien creatures resembling human-sized shrimp. In an act of global humanitarianism, they ferried these aliens to earth and set them up in a "temporary" refugee camp known as District 9. Now, almost three decades later, the aliens have worn out their welcome and their district is a slum. Close Encounters of the Third Kind has become City of God, or perhaps City of Aliens!

Blomkamp has used non-celebrities in this film. In fact, these are unknown actors and even real people in some of the interview footage. His protagonist, Wikus Ven De Merwe, is played by Sharlto Copley, an unassuming and unprepossessing man who would not draw a second glance in the street. Around him, Blomkamp creates his aliens with astounding cgi effects. Indeed, the story and the character development of Wikus makes these strange creature totally believable. And, like City of God, the shacks of District 9 were all actual shacks from a real-life ghetto in Johannesburg.

The film opens like a documentary. Wikus is interviewed, as are others. Talking heads reflect back on a mysterious and unnamed incident that made Wikus famous. This foreshadowing is foreboding of what is to come and ratchets up the suspense. The interviews bring us up to speed on what has happened and endow the film with a heightened sense of gritty realism.

There are now almost two million aliens living in squalor. Their shanty town is infested with hatred and crime. Along the way, Nigerian gangsters have moved into exploit these aliens, and are carving out huge profits in illicit trade. Poverty and crime ignite prejudice and judgmentalism amongst the human population of "Joburg." They no longer see opportunity in this interaction with an alien civilization. They merely see the crime and violence that has been born from the ghetto. They refer to the aliens as "prawns," a derogatory term. The aliens have become de-alienized.

Although the aliens are obviously non-human, they represent the blacks of 20th century apartheid in South Africa. Blomkamp has created this vision of the future based on his childhood growing up during these apartheid years. The blacks were dehumanized and separated from whites. They had to live in slums, ghettos. Indeed, prejudice and judgmentalism is prevalent in the unredeemed human heart. It seems we prefer to surround ourselves with those who look like us, who think like us. Then we can separate the rest and make ourselves better than them by putting them down, physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. This is all rooted in the wicked and sinful heart (Jer. 17:9).

Obviously we are not better than other people. Living in suburbs with other white skinned people does not make the blacks of the slums inferior. God made us all equally in his image (Gen. 1:26) regardless of skin color. In fact, diversity is actually more likely to lead to healthier and more creative living because our blind-spots will be exposed for correction.

With the population crying out for the aliens to be gone, the militaristic multi-global Multi-National United (MNU) corporation is hired to evict the alien population and move them to a "better" tent city, District 10, several hundred miles away. There, they will be out of sight and out of mind. Apart, the human population will feel safer. But this is more like a concentration camp than the hovels of District 9. Shades of naziism.

Wikus is selected as the MNU officer to lead the project and descends on the fenced-in ghetto along with a phalanx of military protectors. Going door-to-door, he must get a signature from each alien to "legalize" this immoral action. When something goes wrong, Wikus finds himself an object of interest to MNU, not for himself or his service, but because he can suddenly fire the alien weapons. He has become a unique commodity, more precious than gold or oil. He is exploited for financial gain without any due process or regard for his personal interests or rights.

This aspect of District 9 brings to mind the haunting images of military experiments conducted illegally and unethically on Jewish prisoners by the Nazis during WW2. The Japanese, too, conducted similar experiments on humans who were their prisoners or peoples considered "subhumans." Such exploitation was for the purposes of military advantage. Here it is for financial gain. Either way, biblically the individual person takes precedence over such gain. There is no defense for exploitation of this type. Social injustices like this may still occur in parts of the world, and the Bible calls us to highlight and fight against such societal ills. We cannot remain silent and condone activities like this.

When District 9 moves into its second half, Wikus is a man on the run, like Dr. Kimble in The Fugitive. It starts to feel like a Hollywood action film. The documentary approach takes second fiddle to straight up normal cinema. And here the film loses something. But it still carries us along with the tension and suspense of Wikus' character development.

One of the means to oppose prejudice is empathy. Walking a mile in another man's shoes gives us a new appreciation for that man and his life. We see from a new and different perspective. Hurt and hunted, Wikus gets that opportunity, and befriends Christopher Johnson and his son, a smarter than typical alien. He is no prawn. He is a person, albeit an alien person. He has feelings. He has desires. At one point Wikus realizes he likes Christopher more than his human father-in-law. He can no longer call them prawns.

We can suffer from prejudice, too. Empathy will help us, as it helped Wikus. We can seek to understand others, especially those who are marginalized. Jesus did this during his earthly life. He spent time with the lepers (Matt. 26:6), the tax collectors (Matt. 9:10), the sinners (Mk. 2:15). He got to know them, he empathized with them. When this is combined with love and grace, we will go a long way towards transformation. We will change and they will change. We will be be brought closer together. And like Wikus, we will realize these "lower-class citizens" are real people, like you and me. No longer can we call them names. They are us.

District 9 is a dark and violent film, a tremendous debut from a new director. And it leaves us with haunting images and deep thoughts. Jesus became one of us to reach us and to save us (Phil. 2:7). Perhaps we need to become like those we fear, those we hate, so we might learn to love them and perhaps to see them saved.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, October 2, 2009

Gran Torino -- unforgiven and dead while living

Director: Clint Eastwood, 2008.

Take a grumpy old man who has just become a widower, put a boy/teen in his path and watch the relationship develop, softening the grizzled curmudgeon in the process. That's the plotline for Up right? Yes, but also for Gran Torino, a decidedly non-family friendly film. Both are fine movies, but this one is filled with racial slurs, four-letter cursings, and bursts of violence. Although prejudice and racism are prevalent, they are the vehicle, the Gran Torino that carries the themes of sacrifice, love, redemption, and reflections on life.

It starts with a funeral in a catholic church. Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood in his professed final acting role) stands stiffly beside the coffin of his beloved wife, looking disgustedly at everyone else present. Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), the young priest, intoning the eulogy, gives an indication of these grand themes: "Some may ask, what is death. Is it the end? Or is it the beginning? And what is life? What is this thing called life?" Eastwood will explore these questions through the eyes and the life of Kowalski.

At the wake in his home in a dilapidated Detroit neighborhood that has seen better days, Kowalski realizes he is alone now. His sons are strangers to him. He has no real relationship with them or with his grandchildren. Only his dog, Daisy, and his prize Gran Torino, a muscle car in perfect condition, give him any joy.

When the teenage neighbor boy, Thao (Bee Vang), a quiet and submissive Hmong, is persuaded to go through an initiation rite for a local Hmong gang, he must steal Kowalski's trophy car. Big mistake. He is caught in the act and this brings shame to the Asian family. In an act of reparation and redemption, the mother forces Thao, whom Kowalski ignorantly calls "Toad," to make recompense. This begins the process of relationship building. But it is Thao's sister, Sue Lor (Ahney Her), who really instigates and cultivates this outreach of friendship. Determination, even when cursed and dismissed, wins her over in Kowalski's mind. She becomes his friend. She is the "heart" of the film.

Kowalski's racism and anti-anything non-American prejudice is over-the-top, but communicates his failure to move on from his Korean war days. (Eastwood himself was a Korean war vet, though he saw no action.) Racism was common then, even accepted. Caucasian Americans made up the norm. Now, the demographics have changed. America is much more of a melting pot. And racism and racial slurs are unacceptable by all but the most-bigoted.

As followers of Jesus, we affirm the equality and dignity of all people, regardless of race (Col. 3:11). There is no place for prejudice based on skin color. Even separated by language barriers there is no cause for discrimination and avoidance. We can and should seek to become friends, united with common hope.

Indeed, Eastwood gives us a picture of such racial reconciliation in the character arc of Kowalski. As he interacts with Sue and Thao, he begins to soften towards them. He may maintain a gruff exterior but his heart is melting. Although it is somewhat predictable, it is fun to see Eastwood in a tour-de-force performance showing this change.

There are some very funny scenes in Gran Torino which give it some levity. Most concern Kowalski's slow understanding of the Hmong community. As Kowalski and Thao start to interact, he becomes a mentor for the lad. He teaches him how to be a man in America: "Take these three items, some WD-40, a vise grip, and a roll of duct tape. Any man worth his salt can fix almost any problem with this stuff alone." How true! Then, he teaches him how men banter with mock-insults in an hilarious interchange with his barber (John Carroll Lynch, Fargo).

As the film progresses, Kowalski, who has been in all kinds of situations in war, finds himself in a place he never dreamt he would be: his Hmong neighbor's kitchen eating Hmong food amongst a party of non-English speakers. Surprisingly, he mutters to himself, "I've got more in common with these goddamned gooks than my own spoiled-rotten family." He has connected with the Hmong. Despite the sadness implicit in this self-understanding, it underscores the need for relationship. God has made us with a need to live in community (Rom. 12:16). That community need not be homogeneous, of one kind. It is probably better to be heterogeneous, made up of a rainbow of colors and creeds. We are called to love those around us (Matt. 5:44, Jn. 13:34).

Kowalski was learning this. Yet his realization stuns him. He literally looks himself in the mirror in the Hmong bathroom and sees his life afresh. The last 50 years since his days in Korea have been lived in suspicion and tension. He has not let his guard down. He has not relaxed. He has not let anyone near, including his sons. And as a result he doesn't know them and they don't know him. This is no way to live.

Kowalski's relationship with the young priest is another key to the film and to the character arc. His initial view of Father Janovich is not good: "I think you're an overeducated 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies and promise them everlasting life." But Janovich is persistent, both to befriend him and to invite his confession. And he offers a cutting observation to Walt: "Sounds like you know more about death than you do about living." Kowalski has dealt death before, and is now living a dead life. He has not really lived in half a century.

Kowalski is like many of us. We are alive on the outside and dead or dying on the inside. We have been hurt; we carry the scars of earlier relationships. We are afraid of letting others near. But this is no way to live. We live by giving ourselves away, by opening ourselves and our hearts to others. In this way we create genuine relationships. Further, until we walk in a genuine relationship with Jesus, the Lord and Creator of our world, we are simply dead men walking. We can come into this relationship by simple faith in Jesus (Rom. 10:9), accepting his sacrifice for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3).

Gran Torino presents a contrast between the old and the new. Of course Walt's car itself contrasts with the brand new Japanese minivan that his son drives. Indeed, Kowalski worked for 50 years for Ford while his son sells Japanese. Further, Thao and Sue, even Father Janovich, represent the new who embrace the present. Whereas old Walt is living in the past. He can't accept the changes that the present has brought, let alone those that lie in the future. His American neighbors have gone, replaced by Hmong. Some critics have even suggested that the movie is a metaphor for the death of the American automobile industry, typified by Ford. Whatever, it is clear that the old can and must learn from the new. They must adapt to survive, even to live. But the young can learn from the old also, as Thao discovers through his interactions with Kowalski. The old and the young can form a mutually beneficial partnership in this way.

In another of the key interchanges with the priest, Father Janovich tells Walt,
It seems that it would do you good to unload some of that burden. Things done during war are terrible, being ordered to kill, killing to save others, killing to save yourself. You’re right, those are things I don’t know anything about. But I do know about forgiveness. And I’ve seen a lot of men who have confessed their sins, admitted their guilt and left their burdens behind them. Stronger men than you. Men at war who were ordered to do appalling things and are now
at peace.
Janovich has seen into Walt's soul and it is dark and filled with regret and shame. Like the Hmong family, shame has descended on Walt. But unlike his Hmong neighbors, Walt has done nothing about it for decades. He has become shriveled, haunted by his demons. Eastwood likes to explore this concept. He won best picture Oscars for Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven, and here his hero is unforgiven -- both by himself and by others. In fact, he won't give others the chance to forgive him for the unspoken sins he has committed.

Living with shame, with unforgiven sins, is a burden that will break the back and kill the soul of even the strongest of men. We can ill afford to walk this life with sins unforgiven. The apostle John told us that, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins" (1 Jn 1:9). God is gracious to us. We experience mercy and forgiveness in Jesus as we come to God in confession through Christ. An unconfessed life is an unforgiven life, and this life is filled with regret. Like Kowalski it can only lead to a form of dying.

Gran Torino moves to a dark and shocking conclusion, befitting the older Eastwood. Gone are the blow-them-away days of Dirty Harry Callahan. Now there is a mature reality in its place. And Kowalski is a rounded, if not perfect character. As he faces his demons, he makes us face ours. Are we walking around dead inside, filled with prejudice and hate, regretting our past, yet not forgiving ourselves? Or have we met our Father in heaven, who can and will forgive us and turn us into new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17) who have the fullness of life (Jn. 10:10)? Let's hope it's the latter.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs