Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Few Good Men -- honor, courage and truth

Director: Rob Reiner, 1992.

A Few Good Men opens with a choreographed sequence showing a Marine drill team in full dress uniform. Twirling rifles like batons, their synchronized moves underscore their training. More than this, it shows them as a unit, a machine with one goal: to bring honor to the Marine Corps. Honor is one of the themes of this Oscar-nominated drama.

When a Marine Private dies at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, two fellow marines are accused of murder. To provide defense in their courtmartial, Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is assigned as lead counsel. His approach is to plea bargain, regardless of right or wrong, innocence or guilt. He does not want a trial. His two co-counsels represent two sides to the same coin. Lt. Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollack) sees clear guilt in their two defendants and pushes the plea, while Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) smells a rat and wants to investigate more fully. Naive as a lawyer, she still believes in fairness and truth, and wants to give the two marines the best defense possible, not a simple plea bargain.

When the three lawyers go visit Gitmo to see the crime scene for themselves, they come face to face with their adversary, Col. Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson). Jessop is a career marine with delusions of grandeur. He, too, has two sidekicks who act as foils to his character and values. The use of foils in this movie has been explored by lawyer Ryan Blue, focusing on the two sub-characters on each side of the legal divide. Reiner uses them effectively to move the narrative to its conclusion.

Galloway, underwhelmed by Kaffee's investigation in Cuba and disappointed by his lack of passion, regales him for his lack of courage and conviction. She sees the lack of fairness in the inevitable plea bargain that Kaffee desires, for his own gain not theirs. But it is she who finally wakes him up to the truth.

Fairness is never really at the center of a legal trial. Justice will be done, but not necessarily resulting in fairness. The law does not always ensure that the guilty are pubished and the innocent walk free. As the movie moves toward a climax in the courtroom, Kaffee points out, "This is a sales pitch. It's not going to be won by the law, it's going to be won by the lawyers." It's all a game of posturing, showmanship and storytelling. The lawyers, him included, are paid to create a story that is believable by the jury. With the facts as the bones of its skeleton, their words create the flesh to hang on these bones. The side with the most believable story usually wins. Is this fair? Perhaps, perhaps not. It simply is. The legal system is more concerned with prosecutions and acquittals than with justice.

Getting back to honor and the Marine Corps, A Few Good Men uses the Marine Corps Code of Honor as a thread that keeps the story bound in place. The three core values of this code are commitment, courage and honor. One Marine says of the deceased, "he is dead because he had no honor." Kaffee tells one of the defendants, "You don't need a patch on your arm to have honor." Honor is clearly central to the plot.

This begs the questions, what is honor and how do we get it? Honor involves basic respect: for self, for others, for the unit, for the team. More than this, it connotes honesty and integrity. Honor comes to a person in many ways, through fame, success, distinction in a specific field. But all require the person to be worthy of honor, and this means doing right, maintaining a high standard of moral and ethical behavior. In short, having a high character. This is totally consistent with the biblical commands to live an upright life (Prov. 16:17), walking in the path of right and avoiding sin (Psa. 1:1-3). We attain honor by being honorable. Most Marines earn this through their skill, their strength, and their devotion to duty and to their code.

The code required unquestioning commitment and obedience to orders. That becomes the crux of the legal matter. When questioned on the stand, Lt. Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland), one of Jessop's officers, says: "I have two books at my bedside, Lieutenant, the Marine Corps Code of Conduct and the King James Bible. The only proper authorities I am aware of are my commanding office Colonel Nathan R. Jessup and the Lord our God." But what happens when they conflict?

Kendrick seems to put Jessup on a par with Jesus. But when the laws of man run counter to the laws of God, God must win. In the early days of the church, the Apostles faced a similar situation, when their authority, the Jewish Sanhedrin, commanded them to stop preaching in the name of Jesus (Ac. 4:18). But rather than submitting to the will of these leaders, they obeyed the will of God. Yet, they did so knowingly and faced the painful consequences of this civil disobedience (Ac 5:40). While Kendrick obeyed Jessup, in like circumstances Christians must obey Jesus. As Peter said, "We must obey God rather than men!" (Ac 5:29)

What makes A Few Good Men so good is its dramatic climax. Reiner (The Princess Bride, The Bucket List) pits Cruise against Nicholson in its pivotal scene. The success of Kaffee's defense (and the success of Reiner's film) stands on this powerful interchange. Though Cruise has somewhat cruised through the film playing a typical Cruise character (think Maverick in Top Gun), he rises to the occasion for this confrontation which leads to the notorious declaration, "You can't handle the truth!"

Truth is the final and climactic theme of the film. Ryan Blue, in his blog article, points out that Kaffee's "two foils are used to personify Kaffee's dilemma: will he have the courage to pursue the truth or not?" Truth is powerful. Jesus, in his defense in front of Pilate, the judge who could save his life, said: "In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me" (Jn. 18:37). Earlier in his ministry, Jesus said, "The truth will set you free" (Jn. 8:32). What is that truth? Jesus is that very truth: "I am the way, the life and the truth" (Jn. 14:6).

Will we be like Kaffee? Will we have the courage to pursue the truth? Will we have the courage to accept the truth and do what is right? Jesus is looking for a few good men!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Epic Christmas 2009

This Christmas we experienced two epic marathons: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

We planned to watch all six Star Wars films in one setting. The main question was, which order? Should we watch in release chronology (i.e., episodes 4-6 followed by episodes 1-3)? Or should we view in narrative chronology (i.e. episodes 1-6)? With the advice of Jedi Master Zach, a long-time Star Wars fan, we decided on an alternate approach: start with episode 3, then 4-6, and close out with 1-2. The reason was logical: if you are going to be tired and prone to sleep, do so during the worst two movies in the series, episodes 1-2. As it turned out, since we started the marathon at 5pm, we only made it through three films (3-5) in one sitting, and completed the series in two subsequent evenings. But episode 3 provides a terrific segue to episode 4, the original Star Wars.

Having learned from our Star Wars attempt we were more prepared for The Lord of the Rings (extended editions). Starting at 3pm, with Thai take-out for dinner, drinks and snacks a-plenty, we made it through the entire 12+ hours of viewing in one session. EPIC!

I will be posting reviews/responses to all 9 movies in January, but may combine/conflate somewhat due to similarity of themes.

As we approach the new decade, may the Force be with you, my precious!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Age of Innocence -- the labyrinth of social conventions

Director: Martin Scorsese, 1993.

Like many of Scorsese's films The Age of Innocence is set in New York. But these are not the Mean Streets of the late 20th century Little Italy. Neither is it the dark and violent underworld of the civil war era Gangs of New York. No, this is the highly cultured and civilized central New York of the late nineteenth century where convention and social expectations were paramount. Scorsese's usual violence and bloodshed are replaced by repressed emotions and inner turmoil.

Based on an adaptation of Edith Wharton's period piece novel, Scorsese creates a beautiful visual feast for the eyes, even though the narrative is as slow as the multiple course dinners the main characters enjoy or endure. The film earned five Academy Award nominations and won the Oscar for best costume design.

The focus of the story is Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis, with whom Scorsese would work again in Gangs of New York). A society bachelor and lawyer, Archer is about to be engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder). Welland is beautiful but superficial. Her focus is on the conventional aspects of society life: garments, gatherings, and gossip. They appear to have nothing in common except the expectations of society. The Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the third key character in the film. Welland's cousin, she has returned from Europe to New York seeking a divorce and a new life.

As beautiful as Welland, Olenska is her opposite in many ways. She is refined and well travelled; Welland is immature and limited in her geographic exposure. She is free-spirited and irrepressible; Welland is restricted and repressed. She sees no issues in associating with many single men, despite the appearance of impropriety; Welland is most proper in her associations.

Olenska's disparaging and ignoring of the social conventions cause her to become something of a social outcast. Archer, to his credit, goes out of his way to defend her before the high society's unofficial judge Henry van der Luyden. When he wins her a dinner thrown by the van der Luyden's it would appear Olenska has been granted a reprieve. But she does not understand the expectations of this society and strays once more.

Archer's slow understanding of Welland as a clueless socialite causes him to look at the only free-bird in his social circle, Olenska. As he does so, he comes to realize they are a match for one another. But his engagement to Welland and Olenska's marriage to the count prove to be barriers to their love. Unconsummated, his love is not unrequited. Sadly it remains unfulfilled.

Archer's pursuit of Olenska does not go unnoticed by Welland, his wife. Her clueless nature is actually a facade, hiding a covert deviousness and manipulation. She knows more than she lets on.

The Age of Innocence is like The Wings of the Dove in many ways. Both are beautiful period dramas centering on a love triangle. Both have a scheming beauty in the main role, although Welland is seeking to keep what is hers, while Kate (Helena Bonham Carter in The Wings of the Dove) is trying to get what is not hers. Both are restricted in their actions by society and relatives. Ultimately, both movies are somewhat dull and over-long.

One of the key themes of The Age of Innocence is the maze of social customs and norms that permeate a culture. As Ellen Olenska says to Archer, "Is New York such a labyrinth? I thought it was all straight up and down like Fifth Avenue. All the cross streets numbered and big honest labels on everything." Archer retorts, "Everything is labeled, but everybody is not." Olenska wanted a simple road map, all in plain sight. But high society is not like that. It is a jungle, a civilized one, but one that is uncharted.

Our society, wherever we live, places expectations and cultural standards on us. If we choose to identify them, to recognize them, and to conform to these conventions, then we are usually accepted. If we don't, then we are ostracized, to some degree or another. We can become, like the Countess Olenska, a social outcast.

Jesus defied the social conventions of his day. He touched lepers (Matt. 8:3). He talked to tax collectors (Matt. 9:9). He dined with sinners (Matt. 9:10). When he was questioned about his followers' behavior, he said: "How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them" (Mark 2:19). He would not be pressured or conformed by the traditions of his people. He had come to set them free (Heb. 9:15). This freedom included the liberation of inner transformation (2 Cor. 3:18). We, too, must live within a social situation but do not have to conform to all its norms or expectations. Yet, by refusing to navigate the labyrinth we must be willing to pay the price. For Olenska, that price was exclusion. For Jesus, it was execution.

As Archer treads deeper in his plot of emotional treachery, he tries to persuade Olenska to somehow be with him. But she understands that even with their liberated approach, this could not be. "How can we be happy behind the backs of people who trust us?" The price for their love would be the unhappiness of their friends and relatives. That is too high a price. There are some social customs and norms that even Olenska was willing to accept. Likewise, Jesus was not an anarchist. He did follow Jewish tradition. He obeyed the law (Matt. 8:2-4). He worshipped in the synagogue (Lk. 4:14-20). He prayed to his father (Mk. 1:35). As we live within our social situations we must conform to some of its norms and expectations lest we become a malcontent, an insurrectionist, a rebel. Jesus was a counter-revolutionary, but not a rebel.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Monday, December 21, 2009

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios) -- the weakness of infidelity

Director: Pedro Almodóvar, 1988.

Almodóvar is known for his absurd comedies and this is one of them. This was the film that catapulted him to international attention, winning numerous awards and being nominated for an Oscar. (He later won one for the 2002 Talk to Her.) More of a farce, it has a loose plot but strong characters.

Pepa (Maura Carmen) and Ivan (Fernando Guillen) are lovers who work together as voice-over actors who dub foreign films into Spanish. When Pepa wakes one morning Ivan is gone. He has left her. All he wants is his clothes, packed in a suitcase left by the door so he can pick it up later. He is going on an international trip with a woman, but not her.

When Pepa realizes his betrayal, she is mad. She has some news for him, but cannot reach him. He will not return calls and has made himself scarce. Indeed, he is not a main character in the movie. But we will return to Ivan later.

As Pepa begins her search for him, she runs into a number of eccentric characters: Paulina (Kiti Manver), a feminist lawyer and Ivan's new lover; Lucia (Julieta Serrano), Ivan's wigged-out and bewigged ex-wife; Candela (Maria Barranco), a brainless model; Carlos (Antonio Banderas), Ivan's son; and Marisa (Rossy de Palma), Carlos' fiancee. Impossibly unlikely scenarios bring laughs to this comedy: a terrorist skyjacking plot, a barbiturate-spiked gazpacho drink, a burned bed, and windows broken by tossed telephones. Then there is the elegantly coiffed but overly emotional cab driver who finds himself repeatedly in Hollywood-like chase scenes. You can't help but find something to laugh about even if the story is somewhat disjointed.

Like most of Almodovar's films (All About My Mother) the plot revolves around women, with hardly any men. However, he highlights the negative influence of men, and these women are all left on the verge of nervous breakdowns because of the men. In one scene clueless Candela says, "Men keep taking advantage of me. I always realize when it's too late." Certainly, in the narrative Candela has allowed herself to be taken advantage of. Likewise, Pepa made the choice to sleep with Ivan and become his lover. In some sense they have themselves to blame. They entered these relationships with eyes wide open.

Life is like that. We make choices and then live with the consequences. Sometimes these are positive and we call them blessings. Sometimes these are negative and we call these cursings, a fallout of poor decision making. Either way, if we are honest with ourselves, when we allow others to take advantage of us we are adopting a victim mentality. We can, we must choose to be stronger than that.

In ourselves we are weak. The apostle Paul recognized that. He cried out to the Lord three times to have a "thorn in his flesh" removed (2 Cor. 12:7-8). Each time, though, he was ignored. The thorn remained. Finally God answered him: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor. 12:9) When we understand this we can turn to Jesus and find his strength and his grace sufficient. We can then make choices and live gracefully with the results, not like Pepa or Candela, but like Christ.

If the women are clueless and victims of the men's infidelities, the men in this movie are weak. Not weak in Paul's sense, but weak in character. In particular, Ivan, whose infidelities are central to the main plot, is told by Paulina his latest lover, "You're weak, Ivan." He doesn't argue, he simply agrees, "Yes, sweetheart." He knows who and what he is.

Ivan's weakness has prevented him from working through his relationship issues. His weakness has caused him to move from one lover to the next when he gets tired of them or things get tough. The weakness of infidelity is that without commitment it is easier to move on than to stay put.

How often have we experienced struggle in our marriages? By bringing two people together in this form of union it is inevitable that tension and conflict will occur. Yet, it is by working through the conflict that we can become stronger. The strength of our commitment shows in the length of our confederation together. Marriage is a God-blessed and God-ordained institution from the very beginning (Gen. 2:25). He wants marriage to last and that is why he says, "I hate divorce" (Mal. 2:16). Worse, though, is the weakness of giving up and moving onto someone with whom we are not committed. Not only do we degrade our own marriage, we cheapen the illicit relationship we embark on. No, it shows a far stronger character to remain faithful and work through issues with the wife or husband of your youth.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, December 18, 2009

Wings of the Dove -- hypocrisy and fake love

Director: Iain Softley, 1997.

Based on the Henry James book of the same name, Wings of the Dove is a forgettable disappointment. Sure, it has beautiful locations from London to Venice, with wonderful cinematography. It dresses its stars in fabulous clothing. But that is expected in an English period piece film. What lets it down are the characters themselves. They are cold and hard to sympathize with.

The protagaonist is Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter), the daughter of a wealthy woman and a penniless opium addict (Michael Gambon, Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series). But with her mother dead and her father in the poor house, she is a ward of her aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling), who gives her the chance to return to the high society life her mother gave up for love. But it comes at a cost. Kate must give up her lover, Merton Densher (Linus Roache, Thomas Wayne in Batman Begins). Kate's love for Merton is true love. Despite Merton's working-class background, they are secretly planning to be married. What a choice she faces.

Wings of the Dove raises the question of the priority of economic security or love. Would we sacrifice true love if it meant we could live a secure life of comfort? Would we marry someone we did not love for this purpose? Love is a precious thing, more valuable than simple creature comforts. Life is a fleeting thing, a mist that disappears (Jas. 4:14). So, to find love is to find a pearl of great value. Casting this aside for physical comfort is a sad indictment of a warped value system.

Kate, though, chooses initially to please her aunt and not follow in her father's footsteps. She cuts all ties to Merton and refuses to answer his letters. When he unexpectedly shows up at a black tie party, they are once more thrown together, and their love cannot be denied.

It is at that party that Millie (Alison Elliot), a red-haired American and "the world's richest orphan," enters the scene. She meets Kate and then espies Merton, seeing him as a handsome Englishman. She is an heiress with everything but love and sees her opportunity for love. Meanwhile, Kate sees a scheme to get everything she wants.

Helena Bonham Carter plays Kate as calculating and manipulative. She is a selfish lover who is at once both jealous and Machiavellian. One character says of her, "there's something going on behind those beautiful lashes." And there is, but we cannot be sympathetic to her, as she connives against friends who care for her. With Millie bearing a secret, she is an innocent who we root for, not Kate. And Roache seems miscast as Merton. He is not handsome enough to be credible as the love interest for multiple women. He does fill the role.

Merton's character, too, is somewhat unlikable. He is a jaded journalist, raking up muck to satisfy the masses who buy the rag he works for. A hypocrite, he says of himself in one scene, "I don't believe in any of the things I write about. I fake passion. I fake conviction." In a word, he is a fake.

This brings us to the question of true love vs fake love. If love is precious, is fake love worth anything? Should we fake a love we don't feel to attain a true love we yearn for? Surely the ends do not justify the means. Fake love is a lie. If we still feel a love that is true we cannot disguise it in the shape of a love for another. That is unfair and untrue, to ourselves and to the other person.

Merton's hypocrisy plays itself out. Hypocrisy is the pretense of having a virtuous character, in this case to be in love with someone you're not in love with. It comes from the Greek root to act in a play, to pretend. It is not a positive quality. Whenever we consider faking it, whether in love or in other situations, we must realize we are lying. The New Testament exhorts us to avoid lying (Col. 3:9). Indeed, one of the Ten Commandments says, "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor" (Exod. 20:16). For reasons good or ill, it is a slippery slope that will pull us down to a dismal end.

When the credits rolled, my wife reminded me that we had seen this film before. Apart from Carter's acting, which earned her an Oscar nomination, it was not one that stays in the memory long. Like fake love, it is best left alone.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Traitor -- terrorism, tactics, and faith commitment

Director: Jeffrey Nachmanoff, 2008

Almost a decade past 9/11 it is "safe" to make movies about terrorism. In the immediate aftermath, the wounds on the US national psyche left by the attacks were still fresh and open. But time heals some wounds, and we are ready to consider some deeper questions now. Traitor forces some of these upon us.

The film starts with Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) in Yemen. He is a US citizen born in Yemen, and is back there doing business. Only his business is selling detonators to the highest bidder. A war-mongerer and weapons-seller, he might be a terrorist and a traitor.

When his meet with a Yemeni is interrupted by state police with FBI agents Clayton (Guy Pearce, Memento) and Archer (Neal McDonough), who are trying to stop a terrorist group, he is captured and put in prison. The prison scenes, though important to show his developing friendship with Omar (Said Taghmaoui), a radical Islamic terrorist, are slow and make the film seem longer than it is. Indeed, this is a not an action thriller in the vein of The Bourne Identity; it is more of a thoughtful drama with some action set-pieces akin to Rendition.

From an early flashback we realize that as a boy Samir witnessed his father being killed by a car bomb. There is clearly more to Samir than meets the eye. As a devout Moslem he fits in well with Omar and when they escape he becomes central to the cell group's mission to bring terror to mainland America. But is he merely a terrorist? Or is there something else?

This is one of the complaints about Traitor. It is hard to be sympathetic towards Samir, as we don't really know who he is. By the time the truth emerges, both he and we are conflicted.

Traitor takes us from Yemen to Marseilles, from London to Washington. As Agent Clayton, himself a religious man, doggedly searches for clues to the whereabouts of Samir and the terrorists, the sense of fatalism for Samir grows. He is locked in a plot from which he cannot emerge.

Traitor does give a key insight into terrorism. In one scene the terrorist leader waxes philosophical speech: "The art of asymmetrical warfare is less about inflating damage than provoking response. Terrorism . . . is theater. Theater is always performed for an audience. Ours is the American people. But they are dispersed across a large country. The question is, how to convince them that nowhere is safe." Terrorism is not about war; it is about security. It is about bringing terror to the hearts of civilians, not soldiers. It has the aim of bringing a government to its knees by a civilian outcry of fear.

Moreover, terrorism is not about numbers of deaths. In terms of fatalities, there were 2,819 people killed that awful day on 9/11. That compares to 4,367 American soldiers killed in Iraq since 2003, 58,236 killed in the Vietnam war, almost 500,000 in WW2 and almost 700,00 in the Civil War. Statistically, the casualties of the terrorist attacks in 2001 were small, but the attacks brought the possibility of imminent death to millions of Americans. We are still more likely to die in an automobile accident than as the result of a terrorist bomb but the former is mundane, the latter memorable.

In one scene, a stressed and pursued Samir is talking with an American intelligence operative, who tells him, "This is war! You do what it takes to win." This is the same message that the terrorist preached to him earlier. Both sides see this as war. And both sides are willing to take matters into their own hands. How different are they are? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Indeed, as a terrorist reminded Samir, "Once upon a time it was the Americans who were terrorists to the British." Black and white has mixed to form gray shades with dark shadows.

In traditional war, the enemy is a known quantity, a visible force. His whereabouts are usually localized. In terrorism the enemy is unknown, often within our midst. The enemy might be our next-door neighbor, or the barista we buy coffee from each morning. With a new kind of enemy comes new offensive strategies. When Samir tells Omar, "Tactics have changed, my friend," Omar simply replies, "Tactics have always changed. You don't defeat an empire by fighting by their rules."

As tactics change in war, tactics also change in living and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus we live in enemy territory. We are subject to attack by the forces of darkness (Eph. 6:11-12). This has been true for centuries. But our weapons are not of this world (2 Cor. 10:4). And our tactics change as we reach out to bring the life-changing gospel of Christ to a needy world. The apostle Paul said that "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Cor. 9:22). We change and our tactics change. What worked a generation ago will not work today. What worked in one country must be altered for another country. What was effective in a rural part of America may be ineffective in a cosmopolitan city. We adjust, we morph, we change tactics with the goal of winning some to Jesus.

Traitor bears comparison with Paradise Now, another film made since the Iraq war began. Whereas Traitor is an American Hollywood vision of terrorism, Paradise Now is Palestinian, bringing us into the heart of war-torn Israel. Both show terrorist suicide bombers building and donning suicide vests in preparation for attacks. Both let us consider the terrorists themselves. But where Paradise Now feels true, to its material Traitor seems trite and contrived. Although both do go below the surface to some degree, Paradise Now allows us a more holistic picture, seeing the impact on survivors as well as on the "soldiers."

For a Hollywood film, putting a Muslim as the hero of this story is a brave act. We remember 9/11 as being a Muslim ordered act of aggression. Of course, Traitor would not work as well if Samir were a Christian or an atheist merely playing a role. No, it is his commitment to his Islamic faith that makes him believable to us and to Omar.

Indeed, it is this faith commitment that causes Samir to point out, "If a man hasn't found something he's willing to die for, he isn't fit to live." Life and death are two sides of the same coin, in this sin-marred world we live in. More than this, though, "A man who is not afraid to die, can never be defeated." This is the implicit motto of the terrorist. The suicide bombers cannot be defeated because they are ready to die, and death ushers them into paradise, or so they think.

Followers of Jesus have something greater than this life and so can live apart from fear. Perfect love casts out fear (1 Jn. 4:18). Knowing that death is just a transition to life with Jesus himself, we can never be defeated. Paul said as much in his letter to the Romans, when he said we are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:37).

Samir points to this same faith commitment when he says, "We answer to God." Though he is talking of Allah, the god of the Koran, this is actually true for all of us. According to the Bible, whoever we are, we will face a judgment with the almighty one day (2 Cor. 5:10, Rev. 20:11-15). We must live our lives so we are ready for that day. We don't know when it will arrive. If we have not yet reflected on faith, now is the time. Now is the time to ponder the message of the gospel (Rom. 3:23, 6:23, 10:9-10). "I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation." (2 Cor. 6:2). We might not have another day to procrastinate. Who knows if we might find ourselves caught in the middle of another 9/11.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown -- three needs of a human being

Director: Jim Sheridan, 1989.

What would it be like to be in a room with your family, totally aware of what's going on, and yet not be able to communicate with them? Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French editor, experienced this and described in his book, which was turned into the film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. He had been healthy for most of his life until a car crash left him with "Locked-In Syndrome." But what if you had been unable to communicate from birth? That's Christy Brown's true story in this film.

Born in Dublin to a large poor, working-class, Catholic family in the early part of the 20th century, Christy Brown suffered from cerebral palsy and could not speak or even move his body. The only thing he could control was his left foot. More than disabled, he was considered nothing more than an animal. He lived his early years lying on the floor in the living room watching his parents and many siblings go about their lives while he was ignored, like a piece of furniture.

Sheridan could have milked this story for its sentimentality. But he refrains from doing so. Instead, he lets Daniel Day-Lewis lose himself in the main role as the adult Brown. He plays the man as a cantankerous yet brilliant artist who does not want sympathy. Rather, he wants to be treated as a person, a real human being. Lewis is so good in this role it seems he really has cerebral palsy, and he worthily won the Oscar for best actor, his first. (He was nominated for his outstanding role in Gangs of New York, but won his second Oscar for another brilliant performance as the oilman in There Will be Blood.) But the young Brown, played by Hugh O'Connor, is completely believable, too. He even looks like a young Day-Lewis. Then there is Brenda Flicker, giving an Oscar-winning performance as Christy's mother.

Mrs. Brown is the only person who really believes in Christy. Like mothers the world over, she stands by her son and supports him when no one else does. When Christy picks up a piece of chalk in his left foot and writes a single word on the floor, all their lives change irreversibly. No longer is Christy the mongrel in the corner. Now he is a person with intelligence; a person who cannot easily make himself known, but a person nonetheless.

As he grows, his control of his left foot improves, allowing him to produce beautiful art work. But his speech is still limited, sounding like gutteral grunts. When Dr. Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw) offers free treatment in a new clinic, he reluctantly agrees to participate. This begins the friendship between the two that enables him to learn to talk in clearer and understandable ways and shows her the beauty of the art he produces.

Christy Brown was no saint, and neither were his parents. But they were people in a tough situation and trying to make the best of it. The normality and banality of the Brown family serves to underscore the abnormality and disability of Christy.

In My Left Foot, and through Christy Brown in particular, we see underscored the three things people the everywhere desire: to express themselves to others, to express their own creativity, and to express and share love, especially genuine love in the intimacy of marriage.

Fundamental to humanity is the first need. We want to be able to express ourselves to those around us, especially our family. Our ability to communicate in words lifts us above the animals. We can think and craft sentences, theses, even books. When we cannot express ourselves, we feel trapped, imprisoned, helpless. This is how Christy felt until he was freed with a piece of chalk and his left foot.

Once we can communicate with others, a deeper need is to be able to express our unique creativity. We have all been made in the image of our creative creator (Gen. 1:26). Part of this image is the ability to create. Art is one form. Christy had that gift. For years he must have felt a yearning to express himself through this artistic outlet, yet was unable to do so. Once he could communicate he was given the tools necessary to paint: brushes, canvas, paints, etc. And he made contributions to the world that others, with the use of all their limbs, could not match. He even painstakingly wrote his own autobiography, typing it a letter at a time with the toes of his left foot, offering hope to many!

Perhaps the deepest need of the human heart is to express and share love. Christy was no exception. How hard it must have been for him as a child to have to listen to people around him mocking him, all the while simply wanting love, particularly from his father. Yet his father never told him he loved him. In one scene where Mr. Brown (Ray McAnally) takes over building a room for Christy in the small back yard, Christy's mom tells him, "Well, Christy, that's the nearest he'll ever come to saying I love you." Christy comes to experience parental love and shows love back to his mom by giving her what she does not have: money. He gets to receive and share love within his family.

But this is not enough. Most of us want something deeper, the intimacy of love between a man and a woman. God made mankind in his image as man and woman, and joined them together in marital union (Gen. 2:21-25). As part of God's original intention, Christy wanted this. His love for Dr. Cole was misunderstood and unrequited. Often when this need is foiled or blocked, we can fall into depression, even despair. This happens to Christy, but eventually he finds a woman who will love him as wife.

My Left Foot is a very human story, showing the grittiness of life in poverty and the struggles of life with disability. More than this, though, it reminds us that even the disabled are human beings. We cannot and should not look on them as anything less than a person bearing the image of God.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Star Trek -- friendships and choices

Director: J.J. Abrams, 2009.

"Space: the final frontier.These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life-forms and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before." These words that opened the long-ago TV series that first brought Star Trek to the pop culture close out the newest movie while connecting it with its predecessor.

After creating Alias and Lost for TV, and then directing Mission Impossible III, Abrams took on the challenge of directing the latest Star Trek movie. This is the 11th feature film in the series but it is a brand new start. In the era of reboots, this is about as good as it gets. Where Batman Begins fired up the caped crusader once again, this Star Trek puts new life in the USS Enterprise and its crew. But unlike Batman Begins, which was dark and realistic, this film is bright and optimistic and full of fun.

The film opens with the USS Kelvin in dire straits. A Romulan mining, under the command of Captain Nero (Eric Bana), has damaged the federation vessel and is about to deliver the coup de grace. But Captain George Kirk orders the crew to abandon ship, while he stays on to ensure their safe escape. On one of the escape pods is his wife, delivering their only child: James Tiberius Kirk. Birth juxtaposes with death in this prologue.

To trekkies who have followed the various series over the decades, this timeline will seem wrong. James Kirk had a father who did captain a federation starship. But in a plot that plays with time and time-travel, Captain Nero changes the timeline and provide an alternate universe. In this one Kirk's father dies while his mother is in childbirth. By doing this, Abrams can bring the main characters back but in his own way, sticking to much of the lore while changing parts to his story's end.

We start with Kirk (Chris Pine) as a rebellious teenager in Iowa. One by one the rest of the crew of the Enterprise are brought center-stage. There are Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin). Of course Doctor "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) is an early and close buddy of Kirk's, who helps him get onto the USS Enterprise when he is supposed to be grounded. And there's Scotty (Simon Pegg, Hot Fuzz), the engineer who can always squeeze just a little more oomph out of the dilithium crystals, even when "I'm giving her all she's got, Captain!"

And then there's Spock (Zachary Quinto). There is as much time spent on Spock's early life as Kirk's. And rightfully so. He is as central to the Star Trek stories, and this story in particular, as Kirk. In one scene, he asks a character why Kirk was not told the truth, and he is told prophetically in response, "Because you needed each other. I could not deprive you of the revelation of all that you could accomplish together, of a friendship that will define you both in ways you cannot yet realize." The friendship between Spock and Kirk is legendary. Although they start out as opponents, not quite enemies, they go beyond animosity (an emotion Spock should not feel) to a life-long friendship that plays out in the TV series.

Although Star Trek is mostly flash and fun, without much depth, there are one or two nuggets. This is the first -- friendship. Initially Kirk despises Spock, who has accused him of cheating on a key test. But Kirk moves beyond this. He does not allow this incident to define the relationship. Likewise, we too may find our best friendships emerging in the strangest circumstances. Friendship is one of life's greatest joys. To have a true friend is to have a treasure from heaven. The Bible tells us "a friend loves at all times" (Prov. 17:17). Even a person who seems to be a thorn in our side may be destined to become an intimate pal. We just need to be willing to be open to any possibilities that God has for us.

As a young boy Spock grows up facing discrimination for being half-human. With a human mother (Winona Ryder) and a Vulcan father, Sarek (Ben Cross, Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire), he is at a disadvantage compared to the other Vulcan children. But Sarek gives him excellent advice early on: "You will always be a child of two worlds, and fully capable of deciding your own destiny. The question you face is: which path will you choose."

This is a question we, too, must face. We are children of this planet, mere mortals, humans. But we are also children created by God to be like him (Gen. 1:26), children of heaven. Sin has had an impact and separated us from our creator (Eph. 4:18). Now we must choose: will we follow him and accepted our citizenship in heaven (Phil. 3:20), or will we remain earth-bound, alienated from God (Col. 1:21)? It is a choice that will seal our destiny, as Spock's choice sealed his. We must choose wisely, so we can live long and prosper.

When Vulcan faces the evil plans of Nero, the federation is called into action, manning the Enterprise with all the cadets at hand. The main plot line, then, is the race to thwart Nero, who determines to destroy planet after planet in his vengeance-fueled fury, while secondarily bringing all these characters into their position for subsequent adventures. Abrams pulls it off well.

Spock's early accusation against Kirk for breach of ethics highlights the difference between the two. Spock sees the test as a no-win opportunity to teach mastery of fear in the face of death. This is logical to him. But Kirk cannot face a no-win scenario. He is too confident and too cocky for that. He does not like to lose. He creates his own no-lose scenario, and that is so characteristic of Kirk. He can turn a no-win into a no-lose. He brings emotion and instinct to complement Spock's logic and rationality.

In the DVD extras, the producers contrast the old TV series with Star Wars, seeing the former as classical music and the latter as rock and roll. They have sought to bring more rock to this classic, and surprisingly have accomplished their mission. This is a new Star Trek for a new generation. You don't need to have any knowledge of the earlier characters; they have been explained anew.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Paradise Now -- extreme self-sacrifice

Director: Hany Abu-Assad, 2005.

Set in Nablas in the occupied West Bank of Israel Paradise Now recounts the story of three Palestinians and gives stark insight into the minds and hearts of suicide bombers. As a political thriller its slow pacing allows the characters to take center stage. Writer-director Abu-Assad avoids turning this into simple propaganda and instead allows us to care about the fate of the protagonists, whether we are pro- or anti-Israel. And it earned the honor of being the first Palestinian movie nominated for an Academy Award.

Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are young car mechanics, barely making a living. When extremist Jamal informs them that they have been chosen to be suicide bombers, their lives and plans are suddenly interrupted. The terrorist cell group that Jamal is part of has decided that, after two years of inactivity, the time for violence is prime. Tel-Aviv is the place, tomorrow is the time.

During the movie, Said and Khaled offer perspectives on what has led them to this point. "Life here is like life imprisonment. The crimes of the occupation are countless." The West Bank settlers have brought injustice and discrimination with them. "They use their war machine and their political and economical might to force us to accept their solution: that either we accept inferiority, or we will be killed." From their position, life under Israeli authority is unacceptable; they have little freedom. Khaled's philosophy, perhaps drummed into him by Jamal and his extreme Muslim fundamentalism, offers him only one solution: "If we can't live as equals, at least we'll die as equals." There is another perspective, a different solution to injustice, which emerges later.

Said and Khaled are shorn and shaved, ritually bathed to prepare them for their personal jihad: to blow up themselves and as many Israeli soldiers as possible. As they allow the explosives to be strapped to their chests, they offer a study in contrasts. One is confident in his Islamic faith. He is ready to martyr himself and arrive in paradise now. The other is afraid. He is unsure. Is this what God (Allah) has decreed for him? The biggest contrast, though, is between the two soon-to-be martyrs and their handler, Jamal. His job is easy, to recruit, prepare, motivate, and send. There is no immediate personal sacrifice for him. He just needs to ensure his two recruits don't turn back.

The third person central to the film is Suha (Lubna Azabal). She is the daughter of a martyr and acquaintance to both Said and Khaled. When the operation becomes compromised and she learns of their plans, she seizes the opportunity to persuade them to give up the mission. She is the foil that allows us to see the other perspective. Her scenes become crucial to making this a balanced and fair film.

In one interaction with Khaled, the more devoted of the two bombers, she questions even the Koranic concept of paradise for martyrs, "There is no paradise. It only exists in your head." She seeks peace not war. As a survivor of a martyr, she knows firsthand the sorrow for those left behind: "And what about us? The ones who remain? Will we win that way? Don't you see that what you're doing is destroying us?" She highlights the fact that there is tremendous pain and grief for the families of these "heroes." Such martyrdom brings sorrow to all involved and merely promulgates the conflict it seeks to win. And there is no real paradise for such murderers. Biblically, there is an existence in eternal punishment that awaits them (Rev. 21:8).

In this one extended conversation, Khaled declares, "Don't be so naive. There can be no freedom without struggle. As long as there is injustice, someone must make a sacrifice." Suha responds, "That's no sacrifice. That's revenge. If you kill, there's no difference between victim and occupier." This highlights the other response to injustice -- sacrifice. Although Khaled's form of sacrifice is to kill others, there is a sacrifice that has already dealt with injustice: Jesus' sacrifice. He willingly allowed himself to be executed on the cross (Lk. 23:26-49). He did so, to absorb the punishment for sin, all the sins of the world (Rom. 3:23-26). His sacrifice came with the gift of forgiveness and life (Col. 1:14), not death.

Indeed, when Said speaks a monologue on what has driven him to his hopelessness, the contrast between Said and Christ is striking, "A life without dignity is worthless. Especially when it reminds you day after day of humiliation and weakness." Said sees worth in power and victory; Jesus sees power in weakness (1 Cor. 1:25). Jesus humbled himself, giving up his position on the throne of heaven (Phil. 2:8), so he could live a "worthless" life as a humble unknown carpenter in a forlorn and desolate country. His was a life of humiliation and weakness. His was the greater sacrifice. And his is the perfect paradise later, not now. Though he did not usher in an age of perfect justice, a paradise on earth, Jesus coming kingdom will be one where injustice has no place (Isa. 65:17-25).

In her first scene, Suha says, "One day things will be better." This is the film's only moment of hope. But it does portend the hope of paradise that will eventually come when Jesus, our sacrifice and martyr, returns as a conquering King.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Elf -- naivete and belief

Director: Jon Favreau, 2003.

Some movies are deep or convoluted requiring repeat viewings to gain better understanding of what happened. Memento and Unremembered would fit this category. Others are simply pulp films, without depth. Elf is one of those. Superficial, yes. Sentimental, absolutely. Side-splittingly funny, in places certainly. It bears repeat viewing, but for its comedy not its chasmic proportions.

Before Iron Man, Favreau cut his directorial teeth on this Christmas film. Will Ferrell, in his cleanest and perhaps funniest role, stars as Buddy a human raised by elves. As a baby, he somehow escapes from his crib in the orphanage and stows away in Santa's sack one Christmas Eve. When he is finally discovered by old Saint Nick, after his once-per-year special workday is done, there is nothing to do but keep him at the north pole. Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), with no kids of his own, "adopts" Buddy.

The opening scenes depict Buddy as a fish-out-of-water, being a giant "elf" trying to fit into an elf's world. Clothes, furniture, even houses are difficult for him. Hardest of all is his job making etch-a-sketch toys. He simply cannot cut the pace of a true toy-making elf. He does not fit in. When he overhears one elf telling another that he is actually a human, it crushes him. "Why the long face, Buddy?" says Leon the Snowman. "It seems I'm not an elf," replies the sad Buddy. "Of course you're not an elf. You're six-foot-three and had a beard since you were fifteen." Buddy was the only one who didn't know he was no elf.

With the truth now no secret, Santa tells him who his father is: Walter Hobbs (James Caan), a heartless children's book publisher living in New York City. Worse yet, Walter is on Santa's naughty list. So, Buddy takes off on a grand adventure to find and bond with his true father.

Of course, if Buddy is a stand-out outcast at the north pole, he is just as much out of his element in the real world. Still dressed in elf clothes, Walter thinks he is a Christmas-gram. Others mistake him for a seasonal worker, one of Santa's elves working in Gimbals, the huge toy store. It is there that he meets Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), another "elf" and discovers that warmth in his face might be love in his heart.

As Buddy navigates the minefields of New York, his naive innocence and elf-like cultural habits create opportunities for comedy. He pours syrup on spaghetti for his new stepmom (Mary Steenburgen). He offers hugs to complete strangers. He gets drunk with an ex-con and descends into a frenetic tickle fight. He eats cotton balls like cotton candy in a doctor's office (cameo from Favreau as Walter's doctor). He tells the truth. To a dwarf (Peter Dinklage, The Station Agent) he speaks from his heart: "You're an angry elf" despite the threat of consequences. And he declares in outrage that the Gimbal Santa is a fraud, sitting on a throne of lies.

His naivete presents a lesson for all of us. He accepts everyone. In his childlike (elf-like?) innocence, he simply cannot compute cynicism, sarcasm or even criminality. He is warm-hearted and kind to both family and strangers, those he knows and those he does not. In doing so, he enables Walter to see what is most important to him, and find his own heart.

Jesus tells us to be kind to those around us (Eph. 4:32). Kindness is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22), after love. We should love, even the unlovely, especially our enemies (Matt. 5:44). We can put aside our distrust in humanity, and embrace the spirit of Christmas, of wonder and allow the Spirit of God to warm our hearts and imbue us with his grace and love. We can learn to believe in others, even when the rest of the world is pessimistic about them.

Indeed, belief is another theme of Elf, just like another Christmas movie, The Polar Express. When Santa is en route for his deliveries, his clause-o-meter drops to zero. The cause: the world has stopped believing in him, effectively grounding his sleigh. What he needs is a resurgence of human belief.

What the world needs is belief. The difference is the object of that belief. We all know that Santa Claus is not real. At some point, in our childhood, we discover that our parents were the ones who left the gifts at the end of the bed or beside the tree. But true belief, life-changing belief, must be focused on Jesus. He is the real reason for the Christmas season. Advent is all about his coming as a person in that stable 2000 years ago (Lk. 2:4-7). In the prophetic words of Isaiah: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel" (Isa. 7:4), which means God with us (Matt. 1:23). God is still with us. Jesus came with a mission: to live and die as a man for the sins of humanity (1 Pet. 3;18). We can experience life, forgiveness, freedom, by simply believing in his finished work.

Wouldn't the world be a little bit better place if we took these lessons from Buddy seriously?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs