Monday, November 30, 2009

The Secrets (Ha-Sodot) -- compassion, connection and change

Director: Avi Nesher, 2007.

Who doesn't have some secret that should not be revealed? In Nesher's film three women have secrets that slowly emerge to transform their lives.

At the heart of the Israeli film The Secrets is Naomi (Ania Bukstein), the daughter of a prominent rabbi. With her mother dead, she is to be married off to an arrogant rabbi-wannabe. But she is not ready for that. A devout orthodox Jew and brilliant student, she imagines herself the first female rabbi. That would be quite something in the traditional, yet repressive culture that she is immersed in. To postpone marriage, she suggests to her father that she spend a year in Jewish seminary in the mountains studying. Surprisingly he agrees.

When she arrives at the "Truth and Knowledge" seminary in the ancient Kabalistic town of Safed she meets Michel (Michal Shtamler in her film debut), a free-spirited student who is set on challenging all the rules and maintaining her individuality. These two will forge an unlikely friendship that will change both.

The third key female is Anouk (the iconic French actress, Fanny Ardant). A middle-aged woman, she has returned to this isolated town to die. She has terminal cancer, and a shocking secret. Assigned to bring her groceries as a mission of compassion, Michel and Naomi come to terms with one another through these visits. Michel is the only French-speaker, and since Anouk cannot speak Hebrew, that leaves Naomi isolated.

Their approach to this ministry underscores the differences between Naomi and Michel. Naomi's desire is to perform the ministry by the letter of the law: deliver the groceries, store them and go. This is much as her religion dictates. In contrast, Michel goes further. She sees compassion as reaching the inner person, not just the outer shell. She befriends Anouk, and their conversations begin to unpack the secret that has been spiritually eating Anouk up like the cancer that has ravaged her body.

This introduces two ethical insights. First, it challenges the notion of religion as a simple list of rules and regulations. Noami has lived her life religiously, doing what is defined as right. She does the grocery chore at the command of the head of the seminary. But in keeping the letter of the law she is missing the underlying spirit of the law. Michal, the non-traditionalist, understands this. She ministers to the heart and in doing so initiates change: in Anouk and in the two students.

How often do we, even Bible-affirming followers of Jesus, seek to live our disciplined lives by keeping rules? We may have our own lists of dos and don'ts, or they may be suggested by our ministers. But Jesus said there is really only one commandment: to love God completely (Lk. 10:27). There is no complicated series of laws to ponder and strive to attain. Just love God. This is so much bigger than our little lists; it is a holistic lifestyle.

The second insight is centered on compassion. Michal reached Anouk by caring for her, by listening to her story. And as she did so, Anouk shared her guilty secret. Jesus realized this, too, when he added an appendix to the one law: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lk. 10:27). We do not love ourselves by simply keeping a list. We go beyond this. We look at our inner person, and feed and nurture our souls. Likewise, ministry that is focused on performance and numbers is often legalistic. Life-changing ministry focuses on compassion, on care, communicating love. This changes both giver and receiver alike.

As Anouk's friendship with these two students blossoms, she reveals her desire to come right with God before her death. Naomi, the more learned of the two, researches and creates several tikkun, Kabbalistic Jewish purification rituals that would cleanse her and restore her relationship with God. One, a cleansing in a sacred pool, seems similar to the Christian sacrament of baptism. Anouk emerges from her submerging with a renewed zeal.

Indeed, Anouk's desperate desire for redemption parallels that of most people, if truth be told. We are all, in some way or another, separated from God (Isa. 59:2). When death comes knocking and we know we have little time left, this desire, dormant for decades perhaps, rises to the surface. Like soldiers offering foxhole prayers, people staring mortality in the eyes often realize their need to get right with God. Redemption is a heart-beat and simple prayer away. It does not require the elaborate rituals that Naomi takes Anouk through. Simply accepting the gift of grace that our savior Jesus offers is enough (Rev. 3:20). We can become children of God through a prayer of faith (Rom. 10:9-10), when we believe in his payment of our sin on the cross on our behalf (Heb. 9:15).

Instead of dealing with sin in this fashion, an alternate approach is evident in Naomi's life. As her secret emerges, she seeks the Jewish Scriptures for an answer and "finds" one. She rationalizes her sin away. We do this, too, when we find our answers, ignoring the clear and crisp words of God. Rationalizing sin is our way to create and control a god who is smaller than Yahweh, the one and only true God found in Scripture (Deut. 6:4).

As the movie winds towards its non-Hollywood ending, we find Naomi liberated from her repressive beliefs. The black clothes of her student days in the first half of the film are replaced with white garments. She is no longer repressed but is rejected by family and society. What a a price to pay for her "freedom." In contrast, we see Michel willing to compromise her individuality and accept a more traditional role in society. Their roles have been reversed.

The Secrets is a slow-paced yet poignantly moving story of repression and forbidden love. But it leaves us focused on change. Are we changing for the better or the worse? Are we more like Naomi or Michel? Either way, have we come to terms with our God like Anouk? That may be our own most important secret.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, November 27, 2009

Watchmen -- watching society, saving humanity

Director: Zach Snyder, 2009.

Snyder has done what many thought impossible: turned Watchmen into a movie that is faithful to the novel. Alan Moore's book has been called the greatest graphic novel of all time. It is certainly no comic book story. Rather, it is dense and deep, with sidebar articles that provide backstory for many of the characters that shed light on the mystery itself. Most of these sidebars have disappeared to make this film a reasonable length. Still, it runs almost three hours, a dark and gritty, violent and gory tale that will surely satisfy fans of the graphic novel. For those who have not read this modern classic, the film may be a little confusing.

It is 1985 and an alternate America where Nixon is President for a third term. The cold war is still hot and the world is on the brink of nuclear destruction. Society has descended into depravity and despair. There is a need for a savior.

At the start, Snyder gives a montage of images that paint the history of America since WW2. Masked vigilantes emerged to watch over society. These so-called superheroes are merely men and women who are prepared to fight crime, for one reason or another. One image shows a group of these watchmen together at a retirement party. This party photo is a recreation of Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" and is clearly painting the parallel to Christ and his disciples. Yet, missing from the picture is the Christ figure. He will show up later.

Snyder employs songs from the 60s-80s on the soundtrack to perfectly match the mood and tone of the film. Bob Dylan's "The times they are a changing" takes us from these histories to 1985 and underscores the pint that change has come. The government has passed a bill outlawing masked men. Their days of vigilante justice are gone. Capes are hung up, masks removed. Superheroes are retired. Yet still society is under attack.

Snyder paints a dark picture of humanity. The rule of mob law and the depravity of the superheroes themselves points to the savage nature of mankind. This is an exaggerated but sadly true picture of humanity. We are depraved (Jer. 17:9), we are tainted by sin. None has lived a righteous life (Rom. 3:10); all have turned away from God (Isa. 53:6).

So when the Comedian, Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is brutally murdered in his high-rise apartment, the other watchmen start to wonder if it is a conspiracy to kill them all. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), another superhero wearing a mask that mutates in rorschach ink-blot patterns, is determined to solve the mystery. And it brings him back in touch with an old partner Dan / Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson). The watchmen start to reconnect with each other: Ozymandias (Matthew Goode, Brideshead Revisited), the smartest and wealthiest man alive; Laurie / Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman, The Proposal), and her lover Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup).

Although these superheroes want to make the world a better place, their motives are mixed and so are their methods. Rorschach lives with the principle, "Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon." He wants to exercise justice on the unjust, the lowlife criminals, but he does so without mercy or compassion. There is nothing that separates him from those he is trying to rid society of. Justice is one thing, justice tempered with grace is quite another.

Ozymandis believes that the solution to war is to find enough resources to go around. If he can rid the world of its reliance on oil and fossil fuels, he can bring in a utopia. What a dream! He does not count on the darkness that lives within the human heart (Rom. 1:21). That cannot be cured by a socialist approach. It requires a savior's touch.

Throughout Snyder intersperses brief vignettes showing us who the watchmen really are. Comedian, the first to die, is the only government-endorsed superhero. But, who watches the watchment? The Comedian is actually a psychopath who relishes societal violence as an opportunity for him to exercise violence on others. We see him enjoying the killing fields of Vietnam and showing no remorse while coldly gunning down a lover.

"Who watches the watchman" dates back to Aristotle who coined this phrase in response to Plato's theory of the filakes, the ancient watchmen who would be the ultimate, infallible authority in the perfect city-state (see "The Republic"). But who really watches the watchmen? When we give too much power to those who are supposed to be protecting us, we run the risk of corrupting those very people we trust. The watchmen in this story are not perfect. They are people with flaws and weaknesses. They are, in some cases, worse than the worst of society. And they get off on the power that is thrust on them. No one, so it seems, is watching these watchmen. But someone is. And that someone is killing them off. Who and why is the mystery that Rorschach, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II set out to solve.

Of all the superheroes, there is only one who actually has super powers -- Dr. Manhattan. His backstory is given midway through the film. A physicist Jon Osterman gets locked into a lab when a field energy experiment is underway and his body is vaporized only to become reassembled later. When he returns, he is transformed into a huge naked blue being who can change matter. He can mentally transport himself or others to any place he desires. Used initially by the government to win the Vietnam war, he becomes more and more distant from his lover, Laurie, until she leaves him.

It is Dr. Manhattan who is the missing Christ-figure. Referring to him, one of his friends says, "I did not say there is a superman and he is American. I said there is a God and he is American." From superman to god, he is deified. And no wonder, he can see past, present and future. He can manipulate matter. He can materialize anywhere he wants. He can split into multiple beings, a veritable holy trinity of blue Jons.

Before the advent of cgi filming, the special effects needed for Dr. Manhattan would have been difficult and overly expensive. With today's technology Snyder pulls off a miracle making this god-like man believable. The scenes on Mars in his ice-palace take our breath away even as Laurie has no breath to take when she is transported there.

The comparison with Christ is clearly worth considering. Dr. Manhattan has resurrected from death to new life and, like Jesus, upon his return he is a new kind of body. Just as Jesus appeared in a room behind locked doors (Jn. 20:26), Dr. Manhattan can suddenly show up in a different place. Further, he was the savior for America in the Vietnam war and is their hope for peace and security amidst the cold war. And when it becomes clear that it requires a scapegoat to save earth from hell, Dr. Manhattan allows himself to be that scapegoat, just like Jesus is our scapegoat (Jn. 11:50).

But Jesus is not a nationalistic savior. Though a Jew and sent to the Jews, Jesus is the savior of the whole world (Jn. 3:16). He is our hope (1 Tim. 4:10), our peace (Jn. 14:27), our security (Psa. 18:2) amidst all human wars.

Indeed Dr. Manhattan is not God, and the contrasts are clear. He was born a man, and is thus a creature. Christ, on the other hand, pre-existed creation (Jn. 1:1). He has always existed and is the creator not one of his created beings. In his new super-body, Dr. Manhattan can see the past, present and future. But he can only see his, not that of others. And when tachyons are used, they shield even his future so he cannot see what is coming. Whereas God can see all of time for all of us. Further, Dr. Manhattan says, in one scene, "I am tired of her, of these people, of the tangle of their lives." He has lost interest in humanity -- "Why would I save a world I no longer have a stake in?" God, on the other hand, is so involved with humanity that he sent Jesus to became one of us, descending from his position on the throne of God (Phil. 2:5). He loved us so much he went to the cross giving up his life for us.

Finally, Dr. Manhattan says, "I can change almost anything . . . but I can't change human nature." How unlike Christ. He who made us innocent (Gen. 2:25), saw mankind become corrupt and sinful (Rom. 3:12). He watched us turn away from God in our savage nature (Gen. 3:1-11). But through his sacrifice, he can change human nature. He can make us into new creatures with a new nature if we turn to him (Jn. 1:12). He can re-create us (2 Cor. 5:17), and to those who become his followers he will mold us into his perfect image (Rom. 8:29). And he has placed in us his Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:16-17). God now lives in us, his followers, not in Dr. Manhattan.

When it all comes to a close, we are reminded that there is only true watchman, one true savior. He stands apart from the rest in his personal involvement. He is the craftsman that has created all and he desires for this creation to be remade (Rom. 8:18-24). One day he will return and peace will be established. Until then, let's put our hope in our Watchman.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Monday, November 23, 2009

No Man's Land -- the absurdities of war

Director: Danis Tanovic, 2001.

"War is hell." Civil War General William Sherman said this in an address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy in 1879. Films have explored this thought, most notably Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg showed us the violence and gore close-up, especially in the opening sequence of the D-Day landings in Normandy.

130 years after Sherman's famous quote, Pope Benedict XVI declared, "The human tragedies and the absurdity of war remain in people's memories." Although talking about WW2, the pope could have been describing any war, anywhere. Writer-director Tanovic focuses on the absurdity and insanity of war in this movie that won the 2002 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (beating out Amélie).

No Man's Land is set in the Bosnian-Serb conflict of the 1990s, and gives war a very personal and bleak picture by honing in on three soldiers. Ciki (Branko Djuric) and Cera (Filip Sovagovic) are Bosnians, while Nino (Rene Bitorajac) is a Serb.

After their guide loses his way in the dense fog, a sudden firefight finds the two Bosnians in a no man's land trench between the two armies' front-lines, Ciki is wounded and Cera is apparently dead. When the Serbs send out two soldiers to scout out what happened, Nino is one of them. The other puts a "bouncing bomb" mine underneath the body of Cera to boobytrap the corpse, but a brief skirmish leaves this Serb dead and Nino wounded. These three wounded soldiers form the core around which Tanovic delivers his thoughts about war.

In one scene, Ciki has a rifle pointed at Nino while both are hiding in a hut in the trench from the shelling by one side who does not care who is in the trench as long as he is killed. His bitter animosity emerges when he asks Nino who started the war. Neither will admit his party and ethnicity to be in the wrong. But finally he tells Nino to admit that the Serbs are at fault. When Nino asks why he should do so, Ciki says "Because I have a gun and you don't." Later, the roles are reversed when Nino gets the rifle, and asks "Now . . . tell me. Who started the war?" And Ciki has to respond, "We did."

These two scenes highlight two moral concepts. First is the universal need to be right. No one will willingly lay their life down in battle for a cause that is wrong. They may be forced into this via conscription or threat, but most soldiers go to war believing their nation is in the right. And a person whose village has been burned and whose relatives have been maimed or killed cannot easily hold onto the idea that his nation started the conflict, although often the initiator is lost in the history of the violence.

The second moral concept is that might is right. The man holding the weapon becomes the man in the right as Ciki testifies. But might is right is an errant philosophy. Just because Ciki holds the rifle does not mean the Serbs started the war. He simply has the power to make the Serb say what he wants to hear or risk being killed. Might is right is simply wrong. When we misuse our might and power to make others say and do things we want, we are guilty of coercion and no better than the enemy who we think started the war.

Ciki represents the bitter cynicism that is generated by war. He has seen his family tortured and killed and wants nothing more than revenge on those who made him suffer. Nino, on the other hand, represents the innocence of humanity. He came to the front as a virgin soldier, never having experienced combat. But he was not accepted, even by his fellow Serbs. When he is confronted by Ciki he tells him his name and extends his hand for a handshake, but he is rebuffed. There is no place for friendship with the enemy for Ciki, only hatred. Even though they have common ground in a mutual acquaintance, the bitterness of war will not allow for sharing of names or shaking of hands. Little by little, his innocence is tarnished and Nino becomes bitter himself, another casualty of war.

Ciki and Nino have fallen prey to the workings of the depraved human nature. It seems normal to hate those who hurt our families and who would do us harm. But such hatred fueled this conflict and led inevitably to the desire for ethnic cleansing and genocide. Millennia before this war occurred, though, Jesus shocked the crowds listening to his sermon on the mount with a counter-cultural command, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:43-44). It is easy to love those who love us, like our spouses, our families, our friends. But it is only by the working of the Spirit that we are empowered and enabled to love those enemies.

Tanovic adds two more elements to this tragedy to highlight the absurdity of war. First there are the UN Peace-keepers. They are the blue-helmeted soldiers sent to keep the peace, not to become involved in the conflict. Their mission is to avoid putting their own forces in harm's way. Yet, one French sergeant, tired of this disinvolvement, determines to disobey the implied orders and provide help. Coming to the trench, he sees the three wounded soldiers. He offers to rescue Nino and Ciki and take them to freedom and safety, but their common hatred steps in the way and prevents their rescue.

Jesus has come down to our war-torn and sin-infected planet to offer humanity rescue and freedom. Yet like the Ciki, much of humankind refuses this offer. They see this as unfair, offering to friend and foe the same opportunity for redemption. Since the enemy apparently does not deserve this chance at new life and since this would stop the war without bringing victory or vengeance, the offer is rejected. How sad and absurd that such faulty logic will cloud our thinking.

In coming to the trench, the French sergeant unwittingly brings the press. When a British reporter learns what is going on, she manipulates the peacekeepers and forces the hand of the presiding UN Officer until all the press are allowed to visit this no man's land. Tanovic forces us to ask the question, what is the role of the press in war? Unlike in earlier, more traditional conflicts, like WW2, where reporters went out with the troops, here the press stand apart from the two sides. Although seemingly neutral, these reporters here have moved beyond mere observation to direct provocation. They are not concerned about the lives of the three soldiers in the trench. They are simply concerned with the live broadcasts that will go out globally and generate more viewers or sell more stories. War has become commercialized for consumers.

No Man's Land is ultimately a dark and disturbing view of war and the absurdities that circle around it. But it is more than that. It is a sad social commentary on people and organizations. From soldiers to civilians, peace-keepers to the press, none is above reproach. All are tainted. As tragic as it is, Tanovic's film puts a human face on the absurdity of war, and leaves us deep in thought as his final frame hovers above a dead soldier.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Taste of Others (Le goût des autres ) -- the power of art

Director: Agnès Jaoui, 2000.

What value does art have in our lives? Can it bring transformation? Is it an acquired taste? Actor-writer Jaoui puts the spotlight on art and love in her directorial debut. This is a slow French comedy of sex, good taste and bad manners. What story there is centers on three men and three women whose lives intersect. These interactions form the crucible for their character development.

Early in the film we see Castella (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a wealthy industrialist who owns a steel plant in Rouen. He is being driven back from a lunch engagement by his driver Bruno (Alain Chabat, I Do). He slowly but vacantly gazes out of the window, bored, seeing nothing. Looking, he does not see.

This reminds us of the parables Jesus told. These stories had important messages to those who heard and understood. But, when his dull disciples asked why he spoke this way, Jesus said, "This is why I speak to them in parables: 'Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand' " (Matt. 13:13). How often do we drift through life, looking but not really seeing. Just like Castella, our minds are elsewhere. We are blind people walking.

When Castella and his wife Angélique (Christiane Millet) later go to the theater, he is once again bored, wishing to be elsewhere. He is a rich philistine, not appreciating the finer things in life. But his eye is caught by Clara (Anne Alvaro), the lead actress in the Greek tragedy and he gazes at her with rapt attention. Somehow, his artless heart has become alive to what is before him. She was the woman he failed to hire as an English teacher. Recognition dawns and so does the spark of life.

If Castella and Clara are the main characters who will change, Angélique and Bruno form a pair of naive foils. He is seemingly faithful to his fiancee, abroad and distant. But his heart is fickle and infidelity becomes a foregone conclusion. She is married but going through the motions. In one scene she and Castella are gazing at the TV engaged with the show but not really with other. Both Angélique and Bruno seem to take for granted what is apparently theirs in the relationships they are in. Yet for both, their partners awake to the taste of others that leaves them surprised and shaken. Angélique's retreat is her interior decorating hobby, a form of art, while Bruno's is his attempt at flute playing.

And then there are Manie (Jaoui) and Franck (Gérard Lanvin). She is a pretty barmaid who deals hash for a living. He is Castella's temporary bodyguard. Both have a cynical approach to love and relationships: casual sex is their choice. He boasts of his hundreds of conquests to the naive Bruno. She tells Franck that she approaches sex like a man: no love just physical union. But by the time the movie is over, they have found in each other someone so much like themselves that they are ready to change.

Manie and Franck represent the mindset and lifestyle of so many today. Sex is simply a form of pleasure to be enjoyed with a person whose name we might never know or forget within days. Partner after partner, faces disappear into the pack. But is this really beneficial or is it simply a taste of others that damages our dignity and puts another brick in our barricade? Both Manie and Franck seem to have a fear of intimacy that they hide behind the physical act of coupling. Surely this is not what God intended when he made man and woman? No, sex is intended to be a loving and intimate act that opens us up to the other, revealing while bringing pleasure. Sex is meant to be enjoyed within the realm of marriage, one man with one woman, committed to one another (Gen. 2:25; Heb. 13:4). Although Manie and Franck find fulfillment in one another, it has taken them y4ars and countless individuals to get there.

Which brings us back to Castella and Clara. After he has gazed upon the beauty of her acting, he wants more. Castella becomes like a puppy in love, wanting to spend time with her, though he is clueless among her bohemian artist friends. She wants little to do with him, but this does not stop him. As he hangs with her, he begins to see art. His eyes are open as if for the first time. She, in turn, is 40 and wants love but cannot find it from the men around her. She cannot see what is in front of her face: Castella. Her preconceptions keep her closed off to this businessman.

Art can have a transformative effect. Just like in this film, it can open our eyes to see things we never dreamed of, to experiences we never felt before. Even if we are not particularly gifted artistically, we can still appreciate what others have created or their performances. Like Castella, I am not an artist yet I have in my family a fine fabric artist and a singing-dancing actrss. I am learning to taske and savor the power of art.

Art stems from God. He created humanity in his image (Gen. 1:26) and as such we have an innate ability to create and express ourselves. There are numerous forms of art, including painting, theater, film, music, quilting. All offer a way of self-expression. If art is fine, it will transcend and inspire, it will open us up to new potentialities. It adds beauty to lives that otherwise may be insipid and dull. And as art points us to beauty we are drawn back to the Artist who made it all possible, the Lord. He is beautiful (Psa. 27:4) and beauty itself.

Art may transform us, turning us from philistines to connoisseurs. But it is the Artist, Jesus, who can transform us truly from within. He can remake us as beautiful works of art. But we must let him. We must allow him to paint on the canvas of our lives. When we do that we experience the beauty of new life (2 Cor. 5:17).

As The Taste of Others closes, Castello gazes on Clara performing beautifully, and she gazes back. Both have been changed. And Bruno plays the theme from Edith Piaf's great song, "Je ne regrette rien" (I regret nothing). His musical art has transformed him, leaving him with no regrets. Art can truly do that.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Carlito's Way -- honor, loyalty and change

Director: Brian De Palma, 1993.
"And I want to thank a lot of people for that. I look over there and I see that man there, Mr. Norwalk. I want to thank you, sir. . . . And I want to thank AImighty God. . . . I can't believe this. I must have forgot. How could I forget my dear, close friend and lawyer David Kleinfeld, who never gave up on me through everything, thick and thin."
This is Al Pacino giving his awards speech for his one and only Oscar, won for the 1992 Scent of a Woman, right? No, actually this is Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) in a courtroom at the start of this film addressing the judge who sentenced him to a 30 year prison stretch as it is over-turned after five years on a technicality.

Al Pacino has played his share of gangsters. He starred as Tony Montana in De Palma's 1983 Scarface. But his most memorable gangster role was as Michael Corleone (The Godfather Trilogy). As Sicilian Corleone, he was the college graduate who wanted nothing to do with the family business but found himself inevitably drawn in. As a result he was changed, corrupted by the inisidious evil that was the heart of the mafia. Here as Puerto Rican Brigante, he is a heroin-dealing gangster, a former big fish in New York who emerges from prison with a change of perspective.

In his courtroom theatrics, Carlito declares, "But my time in the sterling correctional facilities of Greenhaven and Sing Sing has not been in vain. I've been cured; born again. . . . I've changed." This is no religious conversion, but it is a sincere change of heart. This ex-con wants to go straight.

Carlito's reference to being born again takes us back to the first century conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus told this Jewish leader, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (Jn. 3:3). He was referring to the fundamental life change that occurs when a person decides to follow Jesus. An act of faith, it is an act of conversion. It requires an act of God to turn a cold and callous heart of stone into a living, throbbing heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). Being born again brings with it new life (Rom. 6:4), new perspective, a desire to follow the straight and narrow path (Matt. 7:14). We may not be convicts who have spent years behind bars, but we all have gone astray and committed sin (Isa. 53:6). We all need to experience this healing, this rebirth that frees us from our own prisons, much like Carlito.

Carlito has seen the corpses in the dark alleys of his former way of life. Indeed, he has put many of them there himself. But he wants no more of this. He has a plan to earn enough money to buy into a legitimate business venture in the Bahamas and be a regular citizen. But can he do this? Or will his old instincts kick in? Will his misplaced loyalties and his former friends lead him astray, straight back into his former way of life? Those are the questions De Palma asks in this violent but unusual gangster film.

When he agrees to help a relative with a quick drug deal, Carlito does so reluctantly. But this reintroduces him to the violence he left behind. Guns and drugs equate to easy, if dangerous, money. With this money he buys into a nightclub and becomes a manager. Running the club more on reputation, Carlito still carries enough weight to scare the young turks who see themselves as the new Carlito.

But it is Carlito's lawyer, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn in a wild afro) who proves more of a threat. Kleinfeld has gotten Carlito out of prison, so Carlito owes him. And he treats him like a dear friend, even a brother. But this lawyer is a sleazy and corrupt cokehead, and has more problems than the ex-con. When he calls on Carlito for a favor, old loyalties prove too strong. Even his old love Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) cannot dissuade him from doing something foolish.

Carlito's way is to honor old debts. He owes Kleinfeld and will pay him back. There is a sense of transactional fairness and equality. He wants to change his way but this debt is an albatross that flies slowly overhead preventing Carlito from a new way. How unlike Jesus' offer of change. We have a debt, a debt of sin. That debt requires payment of a life. It should be our life, but Jesus walked in our shoes and paid our debt with his own life. No longer do we need to pay our debts for sin. Grace has made Jesus' way possible for us.

Carlito's loyalty to his friend proves his undoing. He knows this, yet still proceeds: "There is a line you cross, you don't never come back from. Point of no return. Dave crossed it. I'm here with him." Just like in Gone Baby Gone, there is a decision that can never be unmade once made. Later, he tells Dave, "Never give up your friends, Dave, no matter what." There is honor and loyalty among some thieves, though not all. Carlito may not give up his friends, but he may let them get what they deserve. In contrast, Jesus wll not give up his friends and will not let them get what they deserve. Justice is trumped by mercy. God is both just and the justifier (Rom. 3:26), and he has provided a way for us to be free in Christ. Once we come to him by faith, he will never give up on us (Rom. 8:38-39). He will not give us up to the devil.

Honor and loyalty are the code of ethics that drove Carlito and caused his downfall. They were his core values. He cried out in desperation to Gail, "It's who I am Gail, it's what I am. Right or wrong, I can't change that." He found his identity in these values and concluded that though he wants to, he cannot change. These values define him and define his future. He is like the hero in a Greek tragedy.

Values are important and play a role in crafting identity. But they can be changed. We can change. We may say, like Carlito, "I can't change," but Jesus breaks our paradigm. He breezes like a breath of fresh air into a stagnant room, replacing stale odors with a sweet scent. If we allow him to come into our lives he causes us to become new creations (2 Cor. 5:17). With new life comes the potential for new identity, identity in Christ. It also brings new values. We come to embrace the values of love and humility, mercy and joy, from Jesus. Change is indeed possible.

De Palma brings an exciting climax in the Grand Central Station with a gunfight that brings flashbacks to his earlier classic, The Untouchables. As much as we want Carlito's way to bring him the success he desires, his way is impossible. Jesus' way is far better than Carlito's way.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, November 13, 2009

State of Play -- playing our friends

Director: Kevin Macdonald, 2009.

The new movie from MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) makes us watch and think to the very end even while taking us on a taut and tense thrill ride. That should be no surprise given that Tony Gilroy wrote the screenplay. Better known for his writing on the Bourne trilogy, Gilroy also wrote and directed Duplicity, itself a fine film.

As the film opens a petty thief is being chased through the backstreets of Washington DC until he is coldly executed in a dark alley. Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey chases down the facts with a cynicism and efficiency that can only come from long years on the beat.

Meanwhile, a Congressman's young assistant falls to her death on the tracks of the DC subway, and rookie reporter Delia Frye is assigned to this news event. Delia is bright and energetic. More than this, she is the on-line reporter, a blogger.

It is not until a connection emerges between these two apparently unrelated deaths that McAffrey and Frye start to work together. When they do, the contrast between old school and new school comes sharply into focus. We see the inner workings of the newspaper, and we also see the future of the industry.

McAffrey represents newspapers of the past. Writing with pen, publishing in print, he lives for the investigation. He wants to see his stories in hard copy. Reporters produce newsprint. Frye, on the other hand, is the new wave of the journalistic future. She blogs, she produces digital copy. More and more newspapers are finding it difficult to turn a profit. News is migrating to on-line, on all-the-time options. With internet in the pocket of paying customers in the form of smart phones and iPods, why wait for today's news to show up in print as tomorrow's headlines? Why not read all about it now, on the internet? Who can wait 12 hours for their news? This is a now generation.

Can the two types coexist? Certainly, in this movie the two main characters coexist in a mutually beneficial relationship that proves ultimately successful. Some, perhaps many, still find the tactile feeling of holding a newspaper very satisfying. I personally prefer to read a paper version of "The Oregonian" while I eat my morning cereal, rather than reading the same story on my iTouch. There may come a time when electronic readers become larger, lighter and brighter, and if this happens newsprint may then become obsolete. But for now, as in this movie, there is room for both.

One of the strengths of State of Play is its cast. Russell Crowe, once again looking dumpy and homely as he did in Body of Lies, plays Cal McAffrey as a wisecracking but jaded loner. Rachel McAdams is his naive but fresh foil as Frye. Helen Mirren shows up as their editor, a hard-as-nails deadline pusher who lets herself be manipulated by McAffrey. Ben Afleck brings his A-game, perhaps his best performance in years, as Congressman Stephen Collins, and Robin Wright Penn (The Princess Bride) is his wife. And Jason Bateman has a small but critical part as a PR man.

As McAffrey and Frye begin working together, a major story appears to be taking shape. McAffrey's clues uncover a corporate cover-up that has huge implications. Collins, the congressman whose aide died, has much to lose, both politically and personally. With a number of insiders, informants and assassins, State of Play plays with the whole concept of friendship and exploitation.

There is a history between McAffrey and Collins. They were friends in college but became estranged, as many college room-mates do. In one emotional scene, Collins confronts McAffrey:
You're just seeking the truth. You're a truth seeker. You can't help it, that is just who you are. You're such a hypocrite. You're not interested in me. You come in here, it's all about you and you getting your story. I trusted you. You're my friend! You were supposed to be my friend anyway.
This begs the question, how far should using a friendship go before it becomes abuse? Is it fair to exploit a friend? The root of the answer to this question comes down to our motivation. In the film, McAffrey is clearly seeking the truth. But he is doing it because he smells a story, perhaps even a Pulitzer. He was not really interested in his friend. His friendship simply opened the door for him to garner more information. He was actually abusing a friendship that had faltered and festered. Though he let Collins sleep on his couch, his friendship was merely functional and self-serving. True friendship looks out for the other person. True friendship is about helping not hurting. True friendship expresses love (Prov. 17:17).

Moreover, the Bible has much to say about truth. It offers truth. It points us to the truth in Jesus (Jn. 14:6). Certainly we should be truth-seekers. But we should also be truth-speakers. What we do with the truth is as important as seeking and finding the truth.

How do we use the truth with our friends? In this context Paul, writer of many of the epistles in the New Testament, gave us the key truth in Eph. 4:15: "Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ." This verse addresses method and purpose. The purpose is to help others grow. It is to benefit rather than berate. Yet the method is critical. Truth alone can be cutting and cruel. But truth tempered with love can never be like this. If we speak the truth in love we will focus on what is said and how it will be heard. It will focus on how we can help. It will affirm our interest in our friend, and this interest will be genuine because we want to see the other reach his potential. There is no hypocrisy in truth spoken in love. It is no longer about me. It is all about the friend.

State of Play keeps us guessing until the very end. Twists and turns add to the tension. But ultimately it makes us reflect on how we deal with our friends, especially those we haven't seen in a while. Will we return trust with love-harnessed truth? Or will we focus on what we can get for ourselves from the relationship?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Monday, November 9, 2009

I Do (Prête-moi ta main) -- meddling and marriage

Director: Eric Lartigau, 2006

The staple of the romantic comedy is the happily single bachelor put into a position where permanent relationship looms, threatening his carefree ways. I Do takes this formula and meddles with it a little.

When we first meet Luis (Alain Chabat), he's a young man in the 70s with wild hair and wildly in love. But he is surrounded by his mother Genevieve (Bernadette Lafont), the strong-willed widow and matriarch of the family, and five sisters. Overbearing, they insult his girlfriend and scare her away. In the process, Luis' heart is scarred. He had eyes only for his girl and she is gone. But it is his nose that reminds him of her scent. And developing a fragrance to remember her, he discovers his career: La Nez. He is the nose, the designer in a perfume company.

Cut ahead to present day, Luis is in his early 40s. He lives in his own bachelor pad apartment, where he can enjoy casual sex with one-night stands and no familial repercussions. Yet his laundry is handled by his mom and sisters, and he gets meals there when he wants. In short, he is pampered.

When this "G6" counsel of women suddenly decide it is time for Luis to grow up and get married, his life takes a decidedly downward turn. The amusing montage of bad blind dates arranged for him by his family is reminscent of that in Arranged, but here Luis is far more blunt with his needs and desires.

Realizing that his family will not give in until he has settled down, Luis hatches a perfect plan to get them off his back. He will get married to a "perfect woman" and then be stood up at the altar. In this way, he can almost get married yet stay single and gain lifelong sympathy from the mother and sisters. Of course, this would not be a comedy if the plan played out perfectly.

The perfect woman comes along in the form of Emma (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the sister of his best friend. She has moved to the city and is in need of a job. When he offers to hire her she strikes a hard bargain but the contract is agreed. These two have appeared together before, in The Science of Sleep, and they play well here. Her businesslike approach covers a different family need. Both want something from the other, yet neither desires any commitment. It is simply a commercial transaction.

Different parts of this premise have appeared in earlier films over the years. Richard Gere hired Julia Roberts to be his escort 20 years ago in Pretty Woman. Kate Hudson tried to show How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Here these combine as a hiring and firing of a bride. And of course, this focus on my best friend's sister's wedding brings to mind Julia Roberts again in My Best Friend's Wedding.

Two moral issues emerge from this film. First, there is the concept of meddling. What gave Luis' mother or sisters' the right to get involved in his life? Are they better able to decide what is best for him than he is? The apostle Paul addresses the problem of meddling in two of his letters. To his young pastor friend Timothy, he writes (about widows): "not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to." (1 Tim. 5:13) These young women who have nothing better to do start meddling in the lives of others. To the church at Thessalonica, Paul warns: "We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies" (2 Thess. 3:11). Meddling is even compared to murder in 1 Pet. 4:15: "If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler."

We might feel the urge to play matchmaker for our friends or single relatives, but is that really our place? Surely it is better for us to give them space to make their own decisions. If they are adults, they are responsible for their own actions. They have their own lives to live. We can offer some insight, even some wisdom. But to press beyond this is to meddle and become a busybody.

The second moral issue is that of casual sex apart from marriage. This shows up in most movies these days. But it is a predominant theme here, since Luis wants to avoid commitment. He is focused on externals, the looks of a woman, the size of her breasts, the smell of her scent. But he cares less about her deeper character qualities. After all, he wants passion, not permanence. Relationships are superficial for him. Yet, this causes great damage to the soul. We are more than animals. We are complex physical, emotional and spiritual beings created to enjoy marital intimacy and sexual union (Gen. 2:24). Marriage may not be for everyone. Even Paul affirms this (1 Cor. 7:8). But sex is to be cherished and enjoyed in the marriage bed (Heb. 13:4). Sex while single diminishes the sanctity of this physical union while making us thinner, weaker people. This is not a message that is welcome today. In contrast, when we find the perfect marriage partner, we help each other become deeper, stronger, more loving people.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, November 6, 2009

Duplicity -- success and trust

Director: Tony Gilroy, 2009.

After his debut film, Michael Clayton, Gilroy comes back with a stronger, smarter, brighter movie. Both deal with multinational conglomerates, but Duplicity has more pizazz. Perhaps it's the star power of Julia Roberts, or the chemistry between Roberts and Clive Owen. It helps that the screenplay is tight and engaging. Gilroy wrote it himself. And he has written some dandies, including the fabulous Bourne movie trilogy.

Owen plays Ray Koval, an MI6 spy while Roberts is Claire Stanwick, a CIA operative. They meet at a cocktail party in the middle east. His attraction to her leads to the bedroom, naturally. Like James Bond, he gets the best looking babe. But he gets more than he bargained for -- a mickey finn. He gets the long sleep, she gets his secret documents.

Jump ahead several years and neither are working for governments any longer. Now they are corporate spies. That pays much better than the bureaucrats, though the thrills may be somewhat diminished. When they meet, their past catches up with them. Their mutual distaste mirrors that of the two corporate CEOs pitted against one another.

Indeed, the opening scene sets the tone well. Sitting on the tarmac of a small airport are two company jets, from two rival pharmaceutical companies, facing each other. When Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti, Sideways) sees his arch-nemesis Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton), something snaps. They get into a yelling, shoving, and wrestling match. There is no love lost between these two.

Both are struggling to find the next big drug. Their need for success is matched only by their need for control. Like the drugs they manufacture, success is their drug of choice. And to achieve this, control is their means.

How do we approach success in our lives, especially our professional careers? Is it a goal that must be attained at any cost, as it is here? If so, the truth will shatter your illusion. It is not a worthy goal. Success, like the drugs themselves, gives a short-lasting hit. After the glow of the achievements dims, we are left with a rusty trophy and a higher goal for our next fix. Such a drug will cost us too much; it will cost us our families, perhaps even our souls.

True success is measured in healthy balance of work and play; it is measured in healthy relationships, with family and friends, even coworkers. True success is measured in pleasing God (1 Thess. 2:4), obeying him and glorifying him (1 Cor. 10:31). These will bring lasting rewards, crowns that will not fade with time but will endure throughout eternity (1 Pet. 5:4).

If control is the means for Tully's success, the means for our spiritual success is service. As we serve those around us, we build them up and our relationships grow stronger. We serve God, and in serving him we minister to others. More than service, love is central. When we love God and then our neighbor (Lk. 10:27), we are pouring ourself into an enduring endeavour. Success will surely follow.

Gilroy slyly brings us new information on the love-hate relationship between Ray and Claire. Employing a clever multi-screen view to segue between the past and present, he shows us there is more to this than we first saw. And as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that they have to trust each other and their team to make their spying and stealing work. But even as this emerges, it seems that the different players are playing each other, so that it is unclear who is on whose side. A scam is happening, but what scam?

This brings us to trust and love. Trust is in short supply here. Can spies really trust? Who do they trust? Certainly, Ray and Claire must trust each other if there is true love between them. But is there this love? For us, if we love someone we need to trust enough to let them see who we really are. We keep our true self hidden most of the time in pursuit of success, but the woman we sleep with needs to know her husband. Ray puts his finger on this when he says to Claire, "I look at you, and I think, 'That woman . . . that woman knows who I am and loves me anyway.' " What is necessary in a human love relationship is infinitely more relevant with God.

Jesus is the only person who completely and absolutely knows us, warts and all. And he loves us anyway. It does not matter what you have done, where you have been. He does not hold that against you. He simply loves you and wants you to love him back. He stands at the door waiting for you to open and let him in (Rev. 3:20). No one else offers that kind of unconditonal acceptance and love. After all, isn't that we what we all really want?

Duplicity offers a sharp picture of deceit and double-dealing. It takes us on a merry journey that requires keen observation to follow the trickery and twists. Yet, it lands on the runway of trust and stops at the gate of unconditional love offered by Jesus, who said he was the gate (Jn. 10:7). Will you exit the plane and enter into his love, or will you look for your own form of human success and acceptance like the two CEOs?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Finding Neverland -- imagination and faith

Director: Marc Forster, 2004.

"Grow up." "Act your age." "Quit being a kid." "Be a man." How many times have we heard people tell us one of these? Or maybe we have used them on our kids. They sound so mature and logical. But they fly in the face of the premise of this movie.

Finding Neverland takes us behind the scenes of "Peter Pan," telling the story that led to that play's creation. Though it is based on real life, some of the events are more imaginative or modified, such as the conflating of five Llewelyn Davies children into four. But surely a movie that extols imagination can be cut some inventive slack.

Johnny Depp (Chocolat) plays James M. Barrie, the Scottish playwright, with a marvelous brogue and a genuine sense of wonder. Coming off an opening night flop, Barrie is keen to create a play that will be a hit. But he has writer's block. His beautiful but distant wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) is no help. There is little love shared between the two. For them, appearance and proper behavior is paramount. After all, this is 1903 London, barely post-Victorian.

Enter Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her brood of kids. When Barrie is walking his dog in a London park, he meets Peter (Freddie Highmore), one of her sons. Peter and Barrie are foils to one another, at the very heart of the film. When Barrie invites Sylvia and her sons to sit and watch him put on a show, he entreats them to activate their childlike imaginations and turn his dog, Porthos, into a dancing bear. The initial interchange between Peter and Barrie set the tone for the film and defines a key theme.

When Peter says cynically, reclining on the green grass, "This is absurd. It's just a dog," Barrie retorts,"Just a dog? Just?" Offended, Barrie addresses his dog first and then Peter:

Porthos, don't listen! Porthos dreams of being a bear, and you want to shatter those dreams by saying he's just a dog? What a horrible candle-snuffing word. That's like saying, 'He can't climb that mountain, he's just a man,' or 'That's not a diamond, it's just a rock.' Just.
Peter has suffered the loss of his father. (In real life, his father was alive when Barrie met them, but his death makes for a better narrative.) He has not processed his grief, and is not ready to embrace dreams that are fragile. He does not want them dashed, as were all his dreams for enjoying time with his dad.

How often do we quash other's dreams with this little word "just." We may put down our kids' goals and aspirations, suggesting they "be real" yet in the process put to death their imagination. Death by little words. Maybe we do this to ourselves with negative self-talk. "I am just a blog-writer," I might say. What I really want is to be an author, writing books that people enjoy and are transformed by. Yet that little word "just" diminishes my hopes and dreams until I settle for what is, instead of aspiring for what could be. Just. Jesus said with faith even as tiny as a mustard seed, as small as could be imagined, nothing would be impossible (Matt. 17:20).

Craig Detweiler, in his excellent book "Into the Dark," quotes another of Barrie's line from this early scene which lays out the film's central thesis: " 'With those eyes, my bonnie lad, I'm afraid you'll never see it. However, with a wee bit of imagination, I can turn around right now and see the great bear, Porthos.' Producer Richard Gladstein says, 'That line is really the quintessential part of the movie. . . . It's really about giving a child back his childhood." Imagining vs settling, growing up vs staying childlike, believing vs disbelieving, these are the antithetical pairs that focus the movie.

As Barrie develops a friendship with the Llewelyn Davies family, he grows more child-like even as Peter stoically remains adult-like. To almost each scene with the boys Barrie brings toys for his imaginative games. Sometimes he is a pirate taking captives, other times he is an Indian shooting cowboys. Yet as he grows closer to them, he grows more distant from his wife. And he draws the ire of Sylvia's pragmatic mother (Julie Christie). She is worried about how the appearance of a grown man acting like a child around a widow can impact the social and marital prospects, rather than being concerned for the boys' well-being. Straitlaced, she is great at social conformity and adept at quashing many dreams.

The whole concept of believing is highlighted in two other scenes. First, we see Barrie trying to show the boys how to fly a kite. When Michael, the youngest, tries the first time he fails and the other boys offer dream-quashing comments, "Oh, I told you this wasn't going to work!" and "I don't think he's fast enough." But the child-like Barrie speaks words of encouragement, calling for faith, "It's not going to work if no one believes in him!" Faith is what they needed.

Then, toward the end of the film, when Sylvia lies ill in bed, Barrie uncharacteristically tells her, "They can see it, you know. You can't go on just pretending." (There's that just word again.) But she refutes this with passion: "Just pretending? You brought pretending into this family, James. You showed us we can change things by simply believing them to be different." And in a closing scene with Peter, Barrie pleads with the boy, "Just believe." And in a moment of magic that will cut through the most hardened heart, Peter finally believes, and lets his grief emerge with a single tear. The man has accepted responsibility and the boy has become a child.

Jesus has called us to become like little children if we wish to enter into his kingdom (Matt. 18:3). As we give up our own maturity and wisdom and once more look at life with eyes that can see the wonder of the dew drop on the rose petal or the beauty of the sunset over the Pacific, we learn to play again. We learn to laugh again. We can dream big dreams again. We can become a writer or an astronaut, a pro sports player or an actor.

Barrie's playing with the boys releases his own imagination. And from this emerges the ground-breaking concept of a playful play. At the time, plays were serious, not fantastic. But, drawing heavily from his times with the Llewelyn Davis family, he creates "Peter Pan," the story of a boy who would not grow up, and who goes to Neverland, the mythical place where we never grow old. And this would be his magnum opus.

The contrast between growing up and staying childlike is captured in two crucial scenes. In one, George, another of the boys, realizes his mother is seriously ill. Watching his reaction, Barrie comments, "Magnificent. The boy is gone. In the last 30 seconds . . . you became a grown-up." Is this a compliment or a put-down? In perhaps the most poignant scene, Barrie finally opens up about Neverland. He has never told this to anyone, but he recounts to Sylvia how the death of his younger brother, when he himself was a child, traumatized his mother and left him in a perpetual child-like state. Evan as an adult, he has retreated from his responsibilities. He has continued to be a child. What a contrast to Peter, and even to George, two young boys who behave like middle-aged men.

Jesus once said if we have faith we can move mountains (Matt. 21:21). We have limited our faith with our adult reasoning. But if faith can save a man destined for hell (Eph. 2:8), if that faith can provide forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:14), all our sins past, present and future (Col. 2:13), that same faith can make us realize dreams we were too afraid even to tell our friends. It's time to give up growing up. It's time to play like a child. It's time to look at life through the eyes of our imaginations.

As nostalgic and mushy as it seems, Finding Neverland is a beautiful film, giving testament to the wonder of a child's imagination. And it points us to faith in a God who can change things.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs