Friday, February 26, 2010

The Secret Life of Words -- isolation and fear

Director: Isabel Coixet, 2005. (NR)

Pain. Suffering. These are part of life. But when they are taken to extremes for prolonged periods, traumatic stress can result, and this can be debilitating. How do we deal with this? What are our coping mechanisms?

Coixet gives us a poignant love story of sorts between damaged characters. Since it is produced by Pedro Almodovar (All About My Mother, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), we can expect focus on character, and we are not disappointed. But melodrama is missing. This is slow paced and low-key, but worth the investment. She brings us face-to-face with the brutality of man without resorting to violence.

The Secret Life of Words is centered on Hanna (Sarah Polley), a European woman working in a factory. Deaf and introspective, she is a loner who makes no connections. She has worked for four years without missing a day, and when she is called into the boss' office she is afraid she is being fired. On the contrary, she is being told to take a vacation, to go relax and enjoy herself. But her work is her coping mechanism. It is her avoidance. At home, order is her retreat. She is almost obsessive-compulsive, but this is another of her coping mechanisms. At work, her hearing aid is her shield. She can turn it off and keep people away, not hearing them means no involvement. No friends, no family, she is alone and isolated.

Being forced to leave work, even for just a few weeks is an ordeal. But when she overhears a conversation in a restaurant that a nurse is needed on an oil rig she immediately volunteers. It is another job, albeit temporary, and will keep her from herself and her inner demons.

Arriving by helicopter, she finds the rig is almost abandoned. It is being shut down and there are just a handful of workers left. Her job is to care for one of them, Josef (Tim Robbins, Arlington Road), a man who was injured in a fire on the rig. He is temporarily blind, bed-ridden and cannot yet use his limbs.

As we meet the minimal crew, it is clear they are like Hanna, loners. Living apart from society, they want their space. How often are we like this, needing room? Do we withdraw, like Hanna, into our work to avoid some inner pain? Getting and staying busy will keep our minds occupied but eventually we have to face this pain. Running forever is the wrong approach. We can run but we cannot always hide. We may want to, we may feel that building a shell, a castle, will be our security and protection, but we were made for community. Sometimes the best healing comes from friendships.

As Josef begins talking to her, she cannot ignore him. She is his nurse and has to be able to hear him. So her hearing aid is turned on. His conversations are one-sided; she will not answer his questions. But slowly a picture of both comes into focus. When the cook, Simon (Javier Camara, the male nurse Benigno in Talk to Her), brings breakfast one day his interaction with Josef sparks self-revelation for Josef.

All three of these characters are afraid. They are consumed with internal fears. Josef has been involved with married women and seems afraid of a permanent relationship. Hanna is scared and scarred, both physically, psychologically, and emotionally. She is suffering survivor's guilt and shame. She is petrified that people will not like her if they really knew her, and what she has been through. She will not disclose any history for this reason. Instead, like a chameleon she disappears into her surroundings, avoiding human contact and interaction. Fragile and needy, she is unwilling to let anyone inside her defenses. Simon is an accomplished chef working as an oil rig cook. His "customers" do not appreciate the global cuisine he makes; they want hamburgers and chips! He is afraid of risking his reputation in his own restaurant. Fear is keeping all three prisoner in cages of their own making.

Josef, though, through his secret life of words, gently works his way under Hanna's skin. Ever so slowly he breaks her shell of silence. And then, taking an enormous risk, she shares her story with him. Coixet chooses to use just her words rather than visual images, flashbacks. This makes it more powerful. It is her secret life painted in words. And we see her emotional shutters slowly open, until we realize the horror that she has kept bottled up inside, with only her knowing. She has seen things and experienced horrors that would devastate a grown man. She knows the depths of man's depravity, and perhaps this is why she retreats into solitude. But once she has poured out her story, she has finally made a connection with another person. She has, for the first time in years, established an emotional relationship with someone else.

Do we ever find ourselves holding back due to fear? Perhaps there is a relationship we would like to pursue but we talk ourselves out of taking action for fear of rejection. There is safety in our cave. Or a job might push us out of our comfort zone, and so we take a safer position that leaves us unchallenged. Fear can limit our growth. Fear can cause us to come up with coping mechanisms that leave us living like mechanical robots, as Hanna was. This is not really life. Jesus came that we might have an abundant life (Jn. 10:10), a life filled with the joy of the Lord (Jn. 17:13). As we receive his love, engage with his spirit, we will find that his perfect love drives out fear (1 Jn. 4:18). We can soak in the grace that God pours out, and start living by risking.

The Secret Life of Words is a beautiful and remarkably compelling reminder that even when we feel isolated and all alone, afraid of rejection, there are still people around us who care. We just need to give them a chance to show it.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Jurassic Park -- responsibilty and respect

Director: Steven Spielberg, 1993. (PG-13)

Almost two decades on, Jurassic Park is still a thrill. Having given the world Jaws and Indiana Jones, and before he directed Schindler's List, Spielberg directed Michael Crichton's screenplay (from his own book). The best of the trilogy of these dinosaur films, this movie was one of the first to use CGI on a large scale, and it needed to be to capture the "hero" of the film: Tyrannosaurus Rex. As we look today at films that mix computer generated imagery with reality like Avatar, it is hard to remember when CGI was a novelty and in its fantasy. Here it is used successfully and earned worthy Oscars for sound and visual effects.

The story is simple. Millionaire entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has created a new theme park, Jurassic Park. A Disney Land-type environment, the exhibits are not mechanical rides but living creatures: dinosaurs. Using genetic technology and dino DNA extracted from insects encased in amber, he has brought these giants back to life as a capitalist venture. But an accident has the investors worried. And he needs testimonials from a pair of independent scientists to keep his project on track. Dr. Grant (Sam Neill) is the paleontologist; his girlfirend, Dr. Sattler (Laura Dern) is the paleobotanist. Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), the mathetician and chaos theorist, is thrown in as the wild card (and Hammond's conscience).

When Hammond brings these scientists to his remote tropical island, their initial reaction, upon seeing herds of dinosaurs roaming free, is spectacular. And it is not unlike our own reaction the first time we see these creatures, especially if it is on the big screen. Unbelievable! (I had a similar reaction when seeing the 3D creatures in Avatar recently.) The objects of their lives' work digging up bones are running just feet away from them.

What makes Jurassic Park so good is its pacing. Spielberg tempts us with the bait of dinosaurs, and especially T-Rex, but we have to wait almost half the film to see the monster. He allows the characters time, like us, to marvel at the theme park idea. But he amps up the suspense with a tropical storm and a mercenary geek.

The story moves into high gear when the nerd computer scientist turns off the electricity and the security systems, allowing the dinosaurs to escape their paddocks. With this comes the first sighting of T-Rex, and the famous jeep chase. Added to that are the velociraptors, smaller but more cunning than Rex. These beasts hunt in packs, run like cheetahs, and can even open doors. The third act, where Hammond's two grandchildren are trapped in the kitchen with two raptors hunting them, is as intense and suspenseful as any recent movie.

But Jurassic Park is more than just escapist nonsense. Within this exciting thriller, Spielberg explores man's intrusion into, and commercialization (even destruction) of, nature. Malcolm is the foil who embodies all the social messages of this movie. With a quick wit and a sharp tongue, he gives the film its memorable quotes.

Early on, Malcolm offers the observation, "The lack of humility before nature that's being displayed here, uh . . . staggers me." He goes on, "If there is one thing that the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territory, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously."

The so-called "cultural mandate," given in Genesis 1 to mankind to "be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28) is often seen as a mandate to harness the natural world. More likely, it is a mission to care for the world of nature. Unlike Hammond, we don't have free rein to create whatever we want for our own personal profit. Hammond's motivation was the almighty dollar. He even created the knick-knacks to market with his park. But the world of nature is one that is wild and dangerous. We must be wary of trying to tame it, especially if it is just for cash. It warrants our respect. If that is missing we stand to lose more than our money, as some in this film find out.

Though the movie is clearly evolution-centric, Malcolm quips, "God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs. . . " Regardless of the type of evolution in mind, micro or macro, God is still the Creator. Malcolm has it right. God creates (Gen. 1:1). He made all creatures. But Malcolm is wrong on God's destruction. Man has not and cannot destroy God. God is above mankind. If we could destroy him he would not be God! Although man has tried to replace God, the creature cannot obsolete the Creator, as Hammond eventually finds out to his chagrin.

Malcolm brings up the ethics of technology: "Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." Ethics forces us to ask the "should" questions. Just because we can do something does not make it right. This could be translated into modern bio-ethics. For example, just because we can do stem cell research does not necessarily mean we should. Such questions deserve lengthy discussion and debate. And the answers should not be driven by capitalism. Morality must stand above simple profit and loss statements. It is ironic that it was technology that enabled the creation of these dinosaurs for this movie, and it is technology that comes under its attack.

There is a root problem inherent within Jurassic Park's creators. Malcolm sums it up:
I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here: it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility. . . for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now . . . you're selling it.
Hard work researching and refining something can force us to evaluate the value of our result. But when we simply rip off someone else's ideas or work, we have no context for this. We lose the sense of responsibilty. And there is implicit danger and risk in this: "Don't you see the danger, John, inherent in what you're doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet's ever witnessed, yet you wield it like a kid that's found his dad's gun." Until and unless we understand the gravity of what we are doing we are like ignorant children. As our technological advances move us towards ravaging the land or cloning a man, we must take care to understand the causes driving us and the morality of their possible consequences. It takes an honest man to speak up in these cases.

In Jurassic Park, the humans are left in a desperate race for survival, but survival of the fittest requires a little help from the hero. Responsibility for technology and respect for nature finally come home to rest. Is this a message we need to hear?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, February 22, 2010

Changeling -- power of a mother's love

Director: Clint Eastwood, 2008.

Imagine leaving your child home alone and when you come home from work find he is gone. What a dreadful sinking feeling. Now imagine that he is found and brought home to you. But at the moment of reunion you see he is not your son. He is a changeling. That would be almost as bad. But then consider the authorities telling you that you are wrong. You might feel powerless and defeated. That is the heart of Eastwood's film here.

Clint has directed some powerhouse films over the last decade, including Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby, his Iwo Jima pair (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima), Mystic River, and last year's terrific Gran Torino. Changeling seems a little lighter tan these despite the gravity of the ploth, its emotional story and strong acting from Jolie, who garnered an Oscar nomination for this role. Eastwood's own score adds to the mood, but it is the length and pacing that is a problem. It is a shade too long and it starts to ebb in the last half-hour. Yet it is still a good movie.

Set in Los Angeles in 1928, this is based on the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie, Wanted). She is a roller-skating supervisor at the local telephone exchange and a single mother to 9-year-old Walter (Gattlin Griffith). When she returns home from an unexpected Saturday of overtime, her son has vanished without a trace. No one has seen him. The police are no help, as they tell her she needs to wait to report a missing child. Eventually they file a report and put out an APB for him, but to no avail. When they come to her workplace 5 months later to tell her Walter has been found in Illinois, she is overcome with emotion. The problem is, that the boy who returns by train, courtesy of the LAPD, is not Walter. He is shorter and has other physical differences. But to admit their error would be an embarrassment so the police persuade Christine to accept this changeling as her son; after all, she hasn't seen Walter in 5 months and might have forgotten what he looks like.

As the truth hits home that the police have closed the case as her missing "son" has been found, Christine politely starts to push back against the system. On her side is Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), Pastor of the St. Paul Presbyterian Church. In that day, the LAPD was notorious for incompetence, violence and corruption. They were, in some cases, worse than the criminals they were trying to catch. With a radio show and a pulpit, Briegleb becomes a thorn in the LAPD flesh.

Briegleb's mission, to fight the police corruption, harkens back to the prophets of the Old Testament. Theirs was a call for social justice, exposing all manner of injustice. They were God's spokesmen in the fight against evil and corruption that was often rampant, even amongst the Israelites (Isa. 1:21-27), God's chosen nation (Lev. 26:12; 2 Sam. 7:23). They decried injustice and called out for repentance, a turning back to God's laws and the way of equity and justice. Micah proclaimed what God required of man: "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Mic. 6:8). Like Briegleb, though, the prophets were often ignored, sometimes punished (1 Kings 19:10), but nevertheless used by God for his purposes.

But the film is centered on Christine and is anchored by Jolie's performance, not Briegleb. As she deals with her pain, she becomes visibly tougher. In one scene she reflects back, "I used to tell Walter, 'Never start a fight . . . but always finish it.' I didn't start this fight . . . but by God, I'm going to finish it." She will fight to get her son back.

Christine Collins' message is a lesson for us. She is polite to those in authority and will not start a fight with them. Jesus told his followers in his Sermon on the Mount, "Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other one also" (Matt. 5:39). A number of times Christine figuratively turns the other cheek. But when forced into the corner, with no other options left, she has to fight for what she believes in -- her son. She counts the cost, understands intellectually the price she might pay, but undertakes the mission. We, too, must do that. At times we will be called on to count the cost and go out into the fray, expecting that we will pay a heavy price. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer fought back against the Nazis by continuing to preach the gospel, and he paid the price with his life. Some fights are necessary to finish.

Christine's gritty determination fuels her relentless quest for the truth and for her son. But this puts her at odds with the police, who still want her to accept the changeling as Walter, which she insists she will not do. Using intimidation tactics, they accuse her of hysteria and worse, and lock her in a mental asylum. The corruption and perversion of power is pervasive. The scenes in the mental hospital are among the most wrenching, but underscore Christine's resolve, and highlight Jolie's acting strength. (We recall that she won her Supporting Actress Oscar for the 1999 role of an asylum inmate in Girl Interrupted; here she is "Mother Interrupted," and lost this Oscar to Kate Winslett for The Reader.)

Changeling paints a picture of the profound power of a mother's love. Mothers have an innate protective nature when it comes to their offspring, more so even than fathers. They will do almost anything to shield their young from danger. Jesus shows this very same attitude, demonstrating that God has both feminine as well as masculine qualities, when he cried out in his last days on earth, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing" (Matt. 23:37). The love of God knows no gender boundaries.

A final biblical parallel springs to mind from the way Christine was treated by the police. Harrassed and helpless, they called her essentially a liar or a lunatic. This is so similar to the famous lines from C.S. Lewis' classic book, "Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg - or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.
Lewis said you can only call Jesus liar, lunatic or Lord. Our choices are limited. Those who have tasted have found him to be the one true Lord.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, February 19, 2010

Up in the Air -- what matters in life

Director: Jason Reitman, 2009. (R)

Euphemisms. You gotta love 'em. They help us deal with the dirty and unseemly aspects of life. Many relate to death and grieving. We describe Christian loved ones as "asleep with Jesus." Others have "bought the farm" or "kicked the bucket." No longer are their civilian casualties of war; they are "collateral damage," which is much easier to live with. In Up in the Air, the main characters work for the Omaha based "Career Transition Counseling" Company. This is not a company that offers counseling; it is an outsourced firing firm. For those not man enough to lay off their employees themselves face-to-face, they can hire Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) who will fly in just for the occasion and do this dirty work for them.

Up in the Air is certainly timely. With the recession of 2009 fresh in our minds, many of us know a friend who lost her job. Or perhaps it's our own job that was hit, disappearing like mist up in the air, leaving us stunned and speechless. And that is exactly the reaction of those we see fired in this film. Indeed, most of these people really did lose their jobs recently, and were hired by the filmmakers to recreate their actual responses to that news.

But what makes this a contemporary comic drama is what will date it in less than a decade. Despite its searing sharpness and apropos social commentary, something we would expect from the director of Juno, this does not feel like the Best Picture of 2009, an honor for which it has been nominated by the Academy. (Working with his father Ivan Reitman, this is only the second movie produced by a father-son team to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, the other being Il Postino in 1994.)

Bingham is a corporate downsizing expert -- there's another euphemism. He fires people for a living. And it is a living he enjoys. He has all the right credit cards, frequent traveller miles, knows his way around most airports, maxes out his expenses, and is generally treated like royalty by the airlines. But he has no real home. His condo looks like a hotel suite with less decor. It is just a stop off between trips. And he has no meaningful relationships.

Indeed, Up in the Air is all about relationships and lifestyle choices. Bingham is up front about his philosophy of life. He moonlights as a motivational speaker, a sort of scaled down Tony Robbins for those struggling with relationships and life. Focusing on "What's in your backpack," he declares his views:
Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.
What a philosophy to live by! Sharks are predators, always moving, never settling. That is not the picture of human life we see in the Bible. There man is made male and female by a loving creator (Gen. 1:26), who wants there to be relational bonds between men and women in marriage (Gen. 2:24). Moreover, there are the additional relationships between siblings and friends. Life is richer and more meaningful because of them. Apart from such ties we become isolated and lonely, looking out for only our own personal goals, not bothering about other people.

Perhaps this is why Bingham is so good at his job: he doesn't care about anyone but himself. He can deal out words of career improvement even as he fires someone, because he will never see them again and doesn't want to.

The tagline declares this to be the story of a man ready to make a connection. That is not just the connection to the next airport. He meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), another high-mileage traveller, in an airport bar (where else?). Suddenly it is like looking in the mirror. But as their "relationship" develops, it is nothing more than an extended one-night stand.

When Bingham's boss (Jason Bateman, Juno) takes the advice of the new kid on the block, the movie gets interesting. Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is a young and cocky, know-it-all over-achiever who has visions of greatness. Her idea is to conduct these "counseling" sessions via video over the internet. After all, why do you need to be there in person. Suddenly, Bingham's job is threatened. He is the dinosaur facing extinction, and with it his comfortable life. Ironically he is the one who must show her the ropes by taking her on the road so she can understand how it is done.

This trio of Natalie, Alex and Bingham interact several times in airports and hotels. They play off each well and the acting is on the money. Clooney, especially, comes across perfectly as a man who thinks he has what he wants, but begins to sense something more, something lacking. Two scenes summarize the emptiness of his life. In the first, Natalie comments on Bingham's avoidance of the growing relationship with Alex, telling him, "You live in a cocoon of self-banishment." It is so true. It is his personal choice to cocoon himself away from others. He is not willing to engage or open himself up to others in anything except superficial and sexual ways. He is protected, he is a rock.

The second scene comes in a hotel restaurant. With three plates of food in front of him, naive Natalie wonders what is going on. Bingham: "I don't spend a nickel, if I can help it, unless it somehow profits my mileage account." Natalie: So, what are you saving up for? Hawaii? South of France?" Bingham responds, "It's not like that. The miles are the goal." This is a peek into his heart. "That's it? You're saving just to save?" And Bingham answers, "Let's just say that I have a number in mind and I haven't hit it yet."

Bingham's life goal is to hit a magic number. What an ambition! Such an empty goal. Not interested in people, he wants a pin, a medal of sorts. Is that what life is all about? Not at all! Bingham's vacuous approach to life is seen for what it is here. Apart from people, things become paramount. But things are just trinkets that gather dust and eventually break down. Even when he achieves his goal it is unsatisfying. Goals are like that. God has set it in our hearts to desire meaning and purpose (Ecc. 3"11). And we find it as we trust him and enter his kingdom (Mk. 1:15). He is at work growing his kingdom, bringing mercy and love, peace and compassion to those who come to Jesus. We can be part of this work if we choose. Then our mission expands beyond the tiny walls of our own soul. Our focus turns to others, aand to God. And missional work requires relational beings. We can no longer be content to be cocooned. We must refuse to be sharks, and become lambs, like the Lamb of God (Jn. 1:29).

At the heart of the film is the theme of loyalty. In almost every airport we see a poster with the word loyalty. But this refers to loyalty to the airline. Bingham demonstrates loyalty, but to himself and his airline not to people. There is no familial loyalty. He barely knows his two siblings. He is not loyal to his "girlfriends," although Alex forces him to question this. No, he has no loyalty to anything meaningful.

Loyalty is an excised and extinct word in corporate America. Companies built on loyalty have become transformed into sharks that no longer care for their employees. Corporate loyalty is a thing of the past. Yet, loyalty is a virtuous character quality when applied correctly. Where Bingham failed, we can succeed if we remain loyal to our spouses, our relatives and our friends, not necessarily our employers. As Christians our calling is to remain faithful, to be loyal. By being different from the world, we can stand out and declare a message, the good news of the Kingdom of God. And that God remains loyal to us: "I will never leave you nor forsake you" (Heb. 13:5).

As Up in the Air ends, Bingham stands in an airport and faces a choice. But has he grown? Has he changed? Lifestyle changes are sometimes very hard to make. The biggest one we can ever make is to choose Jesus.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Christianity Today's Critics' Choice Awards for 2009

Just published yesterday was the annual Critics' Choice Awards for 2009. These are the ten most excellent films as voted by the CT Critics. Interestingly, their top two films may well win Oscars for Best Picture and Best Animated Picture. I have seen 6 of these 10 and three of my favorites of 2009 are in this list (Avatar, Star Trek and Up). Four of the movies also showed up on their Most Redeeming Movies of 2009 list, but there are also some notable mentions that are worth considering for future viewing.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Secret (Un Secret) -- identity, secrets, and symbols

Director: Claude Miller, 2007. (NR)

How well do you know your parents? Do you know the story of their romance and early life together? If you're like many this is mostly an unknown. Perhaps we know a smidgen; maybe they have shared a glimmer of their past with us, opening the curtain just enough for us to take a quick peek. Knowing our parents' past is a key theme of this slow but intriguing French drama.

As it starts, it's the 50s in Paris and seven-year-old François (Valentin Vigourt) does not know his parents' story. His father Maxime Grimbert (Patrick Bruel) is a gymnast and wrestler, while his mother Tania (Cécile De France) is a champion swimmer. Sadly, young François is small for his age and non-athletic. He is a disappointment to his father, though adored by his mother. With no real or deep knowledge of his parents and no siblings, François relies on his youthful imagination. He creates a romanticized version of his parents' past and invents for himself a fictitious elder brother, one who can do all the things he cannot. Where he fails, this apparition succeeds.

Knowing our parents is an important piece in our own identity. We have a name given us by our parents and carry a family name from our father (usually). This says who we are. But not knowing the story behind the name can leave us feeling empty, two-dimensional. We need to know who we are, where we have come from, so we can be better prepared to be and live in the present. Minus this knowledge there is a vacuum that we may fill in other ways. François chose to do it with imagination. Ultimately, though, our true identity is found when we follow Jesus. When this happens, we discover that our real Father is God Himself, as we are adopted into his family (Eph. 1:5). He created us (Isa. 49:5); he loves and accepts us (Jn. 3:16); he has plans for us (Jer. 29:11). We might not know our parents' story but we can certainly find out our Parent's story, as communicated to us in the Bible.

Miller interweaves two stories in this adaptation of Philippe Grimbert's truth-inspired novel. We see the young François in beautiful color. Juxtaposed to this we see the adult François (Matthieu Almaric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), 30 years later. He is a counselor who helps children open up. He gives therapy to children who are like he was years before, withdrawn, solitary, isolated. The modern-day Paris is contrasted in a misty monochrome, giving it a dream-like feel. Further, the adult François still has a strained relationship with his father. But a plot thread draws the two together to bring a form of reconciliation. Miller uses Zibigniew Preisner's (composer for the magnificent Bleu) hypnotic musical composition to underscore the human drama that is occurring on screen.

When François turns 15 (Quentin Dubuis), Louise (Julie Depardieu, daughter of Gerard Depardieu), a family friend and nurse, tells him the truth of his parents past. This dark and shocking secret shatters his romantic illusions forever.

In dashing his dreams by revealing the titular "secret", the film forces us to consider the power of secrets. When we hold a secret it holds a power over us. Secrets, like lies, eventually come out into the open. We may not wish this to happen, but a knowing friend may inadvertently let it slip out, or, like here, that friend may choose to reveal what we choose to conceal. Secrets are best left alone. What secrets do we hide from our loved ones? One thing is for sure: God sees all and there are no secrets before his eyes (Psa. 33:13-14). We may fool our friends but we won't fool the Lord.

There are a pair of particularly poignant scenes that play out in the revealed secret. As a boy François discovers an old and mangy teddy bear in a suitcase in his parents' attic. When his mother sees this, she thrusts it back into the case and slams it shut, telling him it is full of fleas. Clearly it holds some emotional memories for her. Later, François throws it through a window, breaking the glass. But his father picks it up from the ground and holds it close to his chest. Again, there is something behind this cuddly animal. What does it represent? Why does it evoke such strong emotional responses from both parents?

The teddy bear is clearly a symbol, a treasured memento. As a symbol it represents something from his parents' past. Symbols are powerful. They can remind us of the past and its pains; they can offer hope of the future and its potential.

In the Christian faith, the cross is one of the most beloved symbols. Though it represents an old form of execution, this global symbol evokes so much more than this. It points us back to the death of Jesus on a wooden tree (Acts 5:30), executed as an innocent man for sins and crimes he did not commit. Two thousand years ago Jesus had to carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem before he was nailed to it and left to die. But his death was a death for us, for the world (Rom. 6:10). But the cross points ahead, too, reminding us that Jesus rose from the grave (Acts 10:41). His resurrection offers hope to those who follow him. In Christ we can have life (Jn. 6:40). We can live in his resurrection power. Powerful indeed, is the symbol of the cross.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dead Man -- Journey with Nobody to Nowhere

Director: Jim Jarmusch, 1995. (R)

Jarmusch's moodily elegiac black and white Western is as unlike an old John Ford film as chalk is from cheese. Indeed, it is more of a Greek tragedy, moving inexorably to an inevitable conclusion.

Even before the opening credits we see William Blake (Johnny Depp) sitting on a west-bound train like a duck out of water. Dressed in a checkerboard suit but surrounded by hunters with rifles and coon-skin hats, Blake the accountant is leaving behind the life he has known for the great unknown of the wild west. His parents have died; his fiancee has left him. So he has sold everything for a one-way ticket from Cleveland to Machine, the outpost town at the literal end of the line. With a couple of dollars in his pocket, and a letter offering a job from John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), the owner of the Machine Metalworks, Blake is looking for a new beginning.

During this physical opening journey, the train fireman (Crispin Glover), the first of many weird and freaky characters Blake will meet, sits opposite him and ominously declares, "I'll tell you one thing for sure . . . I wouldn't trust no words written down on no piece of paper, especially from no Dickinson out in the town of Machine . . . you're just as likely to find your own grave." When he arrives in Machine, he sees death all-around. It is almost a picture of hell, where things are wild and where laws mean little.

But his job does not await, and Blake finds himself penniless and jobless in an unfriendly town. When he helps a woman circumstances conspire against him, and before his first night is through a double murder leaves him wounded and fleeing on a stolen horse. This is a cruel and chaotic world that is counter to the carefully lined up columns of accounting. With three bounty hunters, led by the callous Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), sent after him by Dickinson, Blake is in a world of trouble.

When Blake awakes from a tumble from his horse, he finds himself being helped by a native Indian. "What is your name?" he asks. The befeathered native replies, "Nobody." When Blake wants to know what this means, Nobody answers, "My name is Exaybachay. He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing. . . I preferred to be called Nobody."

Talking too much and saying nothing is simply expelling a lot of hot air and wasting other people's time. Nobody (Gary Farmer) told tales to his tribe but they disbelieved him and so named him as saying nothing. The book of Proverbs has much to say about our speech. Talking too much can lead to sin: "When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise" (Prov. 10:19). Further, "Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent" (Prov. 17:28). When we talk too much or too loudly rather than being heard and being considered knowledgable, we are seen as babbling fools or pompous idiots. Wisdom often stays silent. Too much talk can lead to gossip, lying or other sins.

When Nobody asks Blake his name, Nobody is elated to hear it is William Blake. He thinks he is the English poet, though that Blake died in the first part of the 19th century, years earlier. Nobody's story unfolds throughout the film, but he has been educated and loves Blake's poems. Throughout the film Nobody quotes lines from Blake's poetry, such as "the eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to the crow" and "the vision of Christ that thou dost see is my vision's greatest enemy." It is ironic that this Indian is better educated and more sophisticated than the white bounty hunters.

Jarmusch has created an almost poetic western. He uses slow fades in and out to communicate Blake's falling in and out of consciousness, as he battles to live. Neil Young's moody guitar adds to the surreal ghostly effect. Dead Man paints a realistic picture of the West, down to the dirt and mud of the streets, and the ingredients of the meals the cowboys eat. As a road movie, it is episodic filled with ugly characters. But a journey it is, a journey to nowhere, but nevertheless a journey of discovering the fragility of life. This is the tale of the tragic transformation from accountant to poetic gunslinging outlaw.

As Blake travels with Nobody, he hears the native's story, one that is both tragic and inspiring. Ripped from his tribe as a boy, when he returns as a man he is ignored and ridiculed. He is cast out to live a solitary life. But he accepted his situation in humility, seeing in it a spiritual reason.

This reminds us of the man Jesus, sent from above to live on this earth (Jn. 1:14; 6:42). He came as a Jew to his own people but they rejected him (Jn. 1:11), calling him a liar and blasphemer (Matt. 26:65). He, too, accepted the situation, recognizing the spiritual reason: he had a mission to perform. He trusted himself in humility to his God (Matt. 26:42).

In two of the episodes, "Christians" appear. The first shows three cowboys (including Billy Bob Thornton and Iggy Pop) ready to eat their meal of beans. To say grace, one reads from the Bible: "This day will the LORD deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee . . ." (1 Sam. 17:46). This is not a typical prayer before meals, and these are not typical Christians, as is evident as the scene plays out. In the second scene, a trader (Alfred Molino, Chocolat) seems filled with hatred. None of these Christians appear to be following or loving Jesus.

These scenes made me think of the harsh and fateful words Jesus spoke at the culmination of his sermon on the mount:
Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' (Matt. 7:21-23)
Appearances can be deceiving. It is not what we say that matters. It is how we live in light of who we love. If we love Jesus, it will be evident in our lives.

Like Blake, we are on a spiritual journey. We are all dead men (and women) trying to wake up to life, seeking to enter the realm of the living. If we follow Nobody we will end up nowhere, just like Blake. On the other hand, if we follow Jesus (Matt. 4:19), we will end up in heaven with him some day (Jn. 14:2).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Serious Man -- theodicy and the Uncertainty Principle

Directors: Ethan & Joel Coen, 2009.

"I've done nothing!" This is an all-too-familiar cry. As parents we often hear our offspring say this when confronted with some form of judgment or discipline. When something is broken, it is the immediate plea of blamelessness. It is also the despairing cry of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) late in the film, as his life has disintegrated in front of his eyes.

Yet has he really done nothing? After all, he or his family have arguably broken several of the Ten Commandments that they as Jews strive to keep. He has possibly set his desire for tenure above his love for God ("You shall have no other gods before me", Ex. 20:3). He has spied out his vivacious neighbor naked, much like David saw Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:2), and lusted after her ("You shall not covet your neighbor's wife", Ex. 20:17). In his heart and his dreams he has slept with her ("You shall not commit adultery", Ex. 20:14). He has been tempted to lie, and is seriously considering doing so ("You shall not give false testimony", Ex. 20:16) His kids have stolen his money for their own personal desires ("You shall not steal," Ex. 20:15), and in doing so have not respected or obeyed ther parents ("Honor your father and your mother", Ex. 20:12).

This latest Coen brothers movie is a dark tragi-comedy that seems to ask deep theological and philosophical questions about life. Yet, for all their depth, they offer no answers. Only questions. They leaves us contemplating theodicy (the problem of evil) and the meaning of life, with no help or hint at any greater meaning.

Two scenes at the start of the film set the tone for what is to come. They provide the framework for interpreting this complex movie. The first is a Yiddish prologue that is confusing, but like life offers insight upon reflection. In a 19th century Polish village, a man is helped by a stranger who turns out to be an acquaintance of his wife. He invites him home for supper, but his wife insists the man is dead. She believes he is a "dybbuk," an evil spirit possessing the body. When she seeks to prove her point, he says to the husband, "I ask you, Velvel, as a rational man: which of us is possessed?" As he leaves, it is clear this married couple will not find an answer. They cannot know. Rationality will not help answer the question. Evil has won regardless of the answer.

After the opening credits we meet Larry. He is a physics professor in a small Minnesota university in 1967. He is telling his class the story of Schroedinger's cat, to illustrate Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. The cat is in a box and can be either dead or alive. The uncertainty principle tells us we cannot know both position and momentum of an object with true certainty. If we know one, we do not know the other. So, is the cat alive or dead? Can we know? In context of Larry's Jewish faith, this really expands to the question is God alive or dead? Is this knowable?

Larry is a serious man. He has a reasonably happy life, a wife and two kids who attend Jewish school. He is on track for tenure, and that committee is about to vote on that question. Life seems to be going his way. And then it all falls apart.

His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) tells him she wants to marry their mutual friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), another serious man, and so he must move out. His son is a pot-head, stealing to pay for his records and his dope. His daughter is stealing, too, to pay for a nose-job. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has been living with them, doing nothing more (apparently) than siphoning his cyst and writing his numerological treatise. And a Korean student wants to bribe him for a passing-grade on his test. It is a modern version of the book of Job! With all of this happening, a friend tells him, "It's not always easy, deciphering what God is trying to tell you." So, what is God trying to tell Larry? He decides to visit his rabbi, actually three.

In that Old Testament book Job had a stable and happy life, with a wife and kids and a steady income. But in the prologue to that book (Job 1-2), Satan argues with God that Job will curse God if he loses his family, his wealth and his health. God allows Satan to torment Job, causing his children to die, his finances to disappear, and his health to collapse. Despite his wife's encouragement to "curse God and die" (Job 2:9), Job holds onto his faith. When three friends come to comfort and then counsel him, their insight is not helpful.

Larry seeks out counsel from three rabbis. Their religious experience and faith should surely be able to help him, to explain why these bad things have been happening to him though he has done nothing. It is a classic question of theodicy. Alas, like Job's counselors, these rabbis offer little help.

The first is the young rabbi, who has seen little of life. Looking out on the empty parking lot, he offers the platitude of perspective: "Because with the right perspective you can see Hashem, you know, reaching into the world." As traditional Jews, they would avoid speaking the name of God (Yahweh) so that would not be guilty of breaking one of the Ten Commandments ("You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, Ex. 20:7). Instead, they refer to God by the Hebrew word Hashem, meaning "the name".

Rabbi Scott's advice is superficial. He ignores Larry's problems and offers no help. Yet, there is some truth in his words. Hashem, or God, is reaching into this world which he created. He has already come here in the person of Jesus, but he is reaching out to us, through many means. Sometimes we need the right perspective to see God's hand at work in ways that impact us, or in the wisdom of a trusted friend.

Larry moves onto Rabbi Nachtner, the preaching elder. But Nachtner can only offer him fables and stories. His main story about a goy dentist seems to be meaningless, with no answer to Larry's question. When Larry complains, "I want an answer!" the rabbi replies, "The answer? Sure! We all want the answer! But Hashem doesn't owe us the answer, Larry." What advice is this? There is no answer. God does not promise us one. But Nachtner does pose a question worth considering, "How does God speak to us: it's a good question."

Like the young rabbi, Nachtner is less than helpful to Larry, but his question is provocative. How does God speak to us? He speaks to us in a multitude of ways. He speaks through the mountains and the stars (Psa. 19:1), through the marvels of the human anatomy (Isa. 49:5) and the wonders of the simplicity and complexity of life. This is known as natural revelation (Rom. 1:19-20). He speaks to us through the inner conscience that each of us possesses (Rom. 2:15). He speaks through the words of a stranger and the wisdom of a friend. He speaks through the circumstances of life that he moves to his ends. He speaks through the words of Scripture that were penned thousands of years ago but still retain relevancy in application to our lives. And he speaks through the still small voice of the Spirit, as he did to Moses on the mountain (Exod. 25-31). He speaks but we often fail to listen. And in failing to listen, we fail to hear.

In desperation Larry seeks a meeting with the oldest and wisest rabbi. But this does not happen. This spiritual giant is too busy thinking. He is not doing anything or interacting with anyone. He is pondering, perhaps the meaning of life and cannot be interrupted. Larry will not find out answers from him.

With his impending divorce and a quarrel with his other neighbor, Larry turns to lawyers for legal advice. His lawyer needs assistance from the wiser partner. And this lawyer finds an answer. But just before he can share this with Larry something happens. Just as with the wisest rabbi, answers evade him. Are there really answers to life's questions?

The Coens avoid simplistic answers. Indeed, they avoid all answers. They show Larry confronting certainity in his mathematical proof of the uncertainty principle, but experiening uncertainty and unknowing in the practical things and matters of life. To them, God is uninvolved. He is uninterested in Larry and his situation.

The key to the film is in the moral quandary that Larry faces with the Korean student. Unlike Job, who was unaware of Satan's bet with God, Larry faces this head-on. The student tells him, "If I receive failing grade I lose my scholarship, and feel shame. I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat." He understands the story but not the math. His bribe leaves Larry facing the dilemma of keeping the money and changing a grade, a sin, or standing on the moral high ground. When the student's father later shows up at his home, their dialog provides revelation: "Look it doesn't make sense. Either he left the money or he didn't" For a serious, rational man that is as clear as mathematics. There is no uncertainty there. Not so for the Korean: "Please. Accept the mystery." Larry: "You can't have it both ways!" But the father says, "Why not?"

As in much of physics, so in life: there is mystery. Is there meaning behind Larry's sufferings? Perhaps. Can he discover what it is? No. Life is like that. We often do not understand why things happen. Does this mean life is meaningless. Not necessarily. We must accept the mystery.

As the book of Job ends, God restores to Job what he had lost, double in most cases. But in the Coen's world, life is not fair. Is God alive or is he dead? They do not answer. However, God spoke out of the storm to Job at the end of his experience (Job. 38:1) and never explained why he had to suffer so much. It was enough that he is God. Man cannot question God's purposes or intentions. The Coen's closing scene is perhaps a direct reference to this speaking from the storm to give an account but no answers. Like Larry, we may never know why bad things happen to us or to others. Yet, we can accept the mystery that God appears dead even while he is alive.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Thursday, February 11, 2010

CT's Top 10 Most Redeeming Movies of 2009

Christianity Today just released their list of "The 10 Most Redeeming Films of 2009." At the top of their list is Up, yet another a terrific Pixar film and a parable about the grand adventure of life. I have seen 6 of these (and reviews are posted on 5 of them already), and half of them are up for Best Picture honors. They also include a short list of those that almost made the list. Those are worth checking out, too.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Julie and Julia -- finishing and obsessing

Director: Nora Ephron, 2009.

What is it we do, or try to do, every day? Eat food! Even Jesus taught us to pray, "Give us today our daily bread" (Matt. 6:11). In America, many of us look forward to eating three meals each day. Though this aspect of life is oh-so normal and boring, Hollywood and independent film-makers make movies about food. Come to think of it, there are actually some pretty good ones: Bella, Ratatouille, and Chocolat are all in English. Perhaps the best two food films are foreign: Like Water for Chocolate and (my favorite) Babette's Feast. (Which movies would you add to this list?)

Julie and Julia is another one to add to this collection. A movie about food, it is also a movie about blogging. Blogs have appeared in movies before. Rachel McAdams plays a D.C. reporter who posts her stories to the web in State of Play. But this is the first film that is actually based on a blog! Real-life blogger Julie Powell created "The Julie/Julia Project" and turned this into her memoir. Nora Ephron based her movie of the same name on this book and also on Julia Child's biography, written by Alex Prud'Homme, "My Life in France."

We meet Julie (Amy Adams) working at a government agency in New York in 2002. Answering the phones and dealing with surviving relatives of those lost in the twin towers tragedy, her career is on-hold going nowhere. Compared to her friends who are successful VPs and real estate brokers, she is a failure. A writer with an unpublished novel, she is stuck in a job that heaps depressing woes upon her all day long. What a life! What she really enjoys is writing and eating.

Juxtaposed against Julie is Julia Child (Meryl Streep), the legend of French cooking. We see her moving to Paris in the 50s, with her diplomat husband Paul (Stanley Tucci, Kit Kittredge). While he is away at work, she tries hat-making and bridge to stifle the boredom. But to no avail.
Over a delicious dinner in a Parisian restaurant, Paul asks her, "What is it you really like to do?" Julia gives him a simple, single word answer, accompanied by a characteristic laugh, "Eat!" And so she enrolls in cordon bleu cooking classes.

Both Julie and Julia find themselves bored and lacking fulfillment. Both know what they really want to do: write and cook. Both have supportive husbands. But it will take perseverance from both to overcome the obstacles they face to achieve success.

When Julie comes up with the spur-of-the-moment idea to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child's epic cook book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," in one year, it is her husband Eric (Chris Messina) who suggests she blog about it. After all, she wants to be a writer. But it is her mother who is her doubter. She reminds Julie that she has never finished anything in her life.

Finishing things. How easy it is to start something: a new project, a new book, a new hobby. We even make resolutions each new year. But it doesn't take long for the enthusiasm to fade once the obstacles turn up. The dazzle disappears into the daily grind. Finishing is hard. It takes determination. It takes perseverance. Having supporters, friends and relatives, around to encourage us when we get down is important, if not critical. Keeping our eyes on the prize is essential (Phil. 3:14). We get measured and remembered by the things we finish.

One of the things that makes Julie and Julia such an enjoyable dish is the acting. Meryl Streep is phenomenal as Child. With rounded shoulders and a fluted voice this 5'6" actress seems to grow in stature to inhabit the role of a 6' culinary giant. With 15 academy award nominations and two wins in her resume, she is sure to add one more for this performance. Adams holds her own as Julie. But we don't know Julie Powell, and we do know Julia. The one disappointment is that Streep and Adams never appear on screen in a scene together. The fabulous sparks they created working together in Doubt (2008) is missing here because of this.

As Julie's cooking project advances, she begins to gain readers. These followers leave comments on her blog and slowly Julie becomes obsessed with this cooking/blog project. As it takes over her life, she suffers meltdowns and marriage problems. For a moment, she has lost her perspective.

Projects and obsessions can so easily take over our lives. What starts out as a positive can become an impediment. This is true especially if we are having trouble finishing things. We crank up the persistence and get so engrossed in our determination to make it all the way to the end, we forget that there are other aspects of life to consider. Balance is needed.

As a blog writer myself I can appreciate the desire to publish another post. But when there is homework help needed for high school kids or a romantic evening with my wife, blogs should take a back-seat. Life must go on. It will not be put on hold while we complete our pet projects.

Speaking of romance, Ephron weaves some romance in along the way. This is not surprising from the rom-com director of Sleepless in Seattle. Though a head shorter than his wife, Paul Child is clearly head over heels in love with Julia. Her says to her words that Eric echoes almost half a century later to Julie: "You are the butter to my bread, you are the breath to my life." It is a pleasure to see a middle-aged couple so in love without resorting to sex and nudity.

When we find our calling, our passion, and when we are supported by a loving spouse, we have achieved success even if we don't finish that project. Sometimes it is enough to find that balance. Our blog may never become a famous book turned into a film. And that's OK.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Oscar Nominees

OK, so the nominees were announced on Tuesday, but things were too busy on the home-front to get this post out at that time. The Academy has expanded the list of movies up for Best Picture to 10. Here they are:
I have seen five of these already. Four are posted (links above) already, and I will be posting A Serious Man later this week. I am going to try to see and review as many of the other 5 as I can before Oscar Sunday. Here's trying.

If you want to see the entire list of nominees for all the categories, check out the Oscars website. Here is a cool printable ballot of the major categories to share with your friends. (There's a more complete one on the Oscar site.)

Meanwhile, I am curious as to which of these you would vote Best Picture of 2009. I have added a poll at the top of the right side-bar on this blog. Please record your vote in this non-sanctioned ballot.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Singin' in the Rain -- adapt with dignity

Director: Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952.

Half a century old, this classic musical resonates with lyrics and thoughts apropos for our times. Even the way the film came into being is politically correct, underscoring the green concept of recycling: most of the songs had been used in earlier films, and the script was written to work with the pre-chosen songs.

The film opens in 1927 with a cheering crowd of fans waiting outside Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood at a silent film's premier. They want a glimpse of the stars: Don Lockwood (Glen Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen, nominated for an Oscar). On-screen lovers but off-screen enemies, the charcters' backstory context is given right up front as Don recounts for the fans his journey to stardom. He closes by stating his life motto: "Dignity. Always dignity." This is one of the film's themes, along with its opposite, indignity.

Despite the enthusiasm of this screening and its subsequent opening night party, there is an undercurrent of change. 1927 was the year that The Jazz Singer, the first "talking picture," came out. At the party, the guests are shown a demonstration of this new-fangled concept, and one producer says, "It'll never amount to a thing." That is the common belief until a few weeks later The Jazz Singer is a hit and other studios are playing catch up. When Lockwood and Lamont's new picture is put on hold, the demise of silent movies hangs ominously in the air.

The underlying context for Singin' in the Rain is the transformation of industry through technology. This happened then; it happens now. Silent films gave way to talkies; black and white film was replaced by color. Writing by hand was replaced by typing and now word processing. Just four years before this film was made, Thomas Watson, IBM Chairman, said about the newly invented electric computer: “I think there’s a world market for about 5 computers.” Imagine a world with only 5 computers total (just about one for each continent?). Today, many American homes have 5 computers in them. And computers are getting smaller and more powerful each year.

We have grown accustomed to the now rapid pace of change. But change, like that shown in this movie, brings with it job loss. The silent movie stars relied on overly dramatic movement without need to learn or speak lines. Those whose voices were ugly or who could not become true actors became unemployed and left the industry, some to die poor and destitute. To survive, we must adapt. Each new invention forces us to change. Our degree of embracing and adapting to the change is our degree of survival. We see this today in the recent recession and loss of jobs. Those who can easily adjust to the current conditions, the "new norm," prosper; those who don't are laid off.

In the film, Lockwood and Lamont face this prospect of adapt or die. Lamont, whose shrill voice is well suited for the silent film era, remains in the dreamy world of self-delusion, while Lockwood dissolves in the despair of self-reality: he is no actor. Enter friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) and new love, chorus girl Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). These two come up with the brilliant idea to turn the new soon-to-be silent flop into a stunning musical.

Singin' in the Rain uses its script well to carry some marvellous songs and dance routines. O'Connor sings "Make 'Em Laugh" in a comic fashion. O'Connor and Kelly form a duet for "Moses Supposes." Interestingly, these were the only two original songs written specifically for this film. The three heroes combine for "Good Mornin' ". The Broadway Melody "Gotta Dance!" gives an extended opportunity for Kelly to sing and tap. It is during this song that Cyd Charisse vamps it up with him on a nightclub floor, earning her the opportunity for future stardom of her own. However, the best and most well-known song is the title tune.

Kelly's solo rendition of "Singin' in the Rain" is a classic. Who can forget the image of him standing on the lamp-post, holding an umbrella with a huge grin on his face, soaked to the skin. What is less known is that Kelly had a 103-degree fever when he was doing this, and filmed it all in one take. Moreover, he ad-libbed the dance sequence as it had not been choreographed in any detail. What a wonder that it has remained a favorite scene for 50 years.

Dignity and indignity, though, do take center stage. Faced with job loss and career death, Lockwood holds his head up with dignity. Lamont, a foil, stands haughtily on her stardom and fame, expecting that it is her right to be successful. But as the proverbs say, "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall" (Prov. 16:18). And Lamont's pride eventually puts her in a position of serious indignity. Unlike the others, she has brought this upon herself.

Dignity is the character quality denoting worthiness of respect. When we carry ourselves with dignity we are showing the world we are not beaten by the circumstances of life. By contrast, indignity is an insult or a humiliating affront to one's character. God has given us inherent dignity and worth by making us in his image (Gen. 1:26). As human beings, this is an innate quality. But how we choose to live our lives can amplify or attenuate this dignity. When we ignore reality and choose to vilify or victimize others, we bring indignity upon ourselves, as Lamont did.

Cosmo and Lockwood give us the pointers for living. Lockwood's motto is a valid one: live with dignity. But it is Cosmo who gives us the means, the how to. When life gets too tough, laugh. If someone else is down, "Make 'Em Laugh;" if it is ourselves catch a classic comedy. King Solomon put it this way, "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones" (Prov. 17:22). Likewise, the psalmist wrote the lyric, "Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy." (Psa. 126:2). Laughter is good medicine.

When the storms of life rain down hard on you and your parade, retain your dignity, adapt as necessary, and start laughing and singing in the rain!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs