Monday, August 30, 2010

Henry Poole is Here -- hope and faith in the face of God

Director: Mark Pellington, 2008. (PG)

Over 25 years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the well-known book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." Mark Pellington (Arlington Road) seems to be addressing this question in this small-budget but big-hearted fable.

Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) is like Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), the principal character in Leaving Las Vegas. He has moved to a big city, in this case a lower-middle class neighborhood in Los Angeles. Like Sanderson, Poole seems to be drinking himself to death, with a steady diet of vodka and pizza.

When he buys a house, he seems indifferent to its price or condition. Despite his wishes, his realtor has the house restuccoed. That proves eventful and the inciting incident here, because one wall is left with a stain. Shoddy workmanship or something else? When his Catholic neighbor Esperanza (Adriana Barraza) looks at this stain she sees something else: she sees the face of Christ. A miracle! She brings her priest Father Salazar (George Lopez), to come and view it, to possibly validate this miracle. Of course, this is a major disruption to Henry's plans.  

The other side of Henry's property lives Dawn (Radha Mitchell, Finding Neverland). Divorced with a 6-year old Millie (Morgan Lily) who refusees to speak due to the trauma of her parents' separation, Dawn is beautiful and an available love interest. The primary characters are rounded out with Patience (Rachel Seiferth), a grocery clerk, with coke-bottle glasses and bug eyes, who sees Henry's condition and names it for what it is: sadness and anger.

Pellington has created a fable. This is evident from the names of the characters. Esperanza is Spanish for hope, and she brings hope and not a little faith to the story. Dawn offers the ray of light that morning brings to the depresed and almost despondent Henry. Patience points to what is needed to bring faith to a skeptic, as Henry is. In fact, one of the characters says early on, "Those without faith sometimes need a little help" and need a little patience.

Henry and Esperanza offer two polar extremes on viewing events that happen. Henry's perspective is colored by the dark happenings within his own life. Faced with the possible divine face on his wall, he argues, "It was a completely random event. Things just . . . they don't happen like that in real life."  He goes on, "Ever feel like things happen for no reason?" Here is his philosophy in a nutshell. Miracles don't happen. There is no rhyme or reason behind events. There is no such thing as fate or divine intervention. He is skeptical and unbelieving.

Esperanza is the opposite. "Everything happens for a reason." She sees the hand of God involved. Her philosophy emerges from a deep faith, and reflects a biblical world view. God is always at work and even uses the bad things, as well as the good, that happen to people. Writing to the Romans, the apostle Paul made this clear: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Rom. 8:28).

Patience offers some middle ground: "Sometimes things just happen." She does not refute the miracle. She has witnessed with her own eyes. But she is not willing to go much further. Many today are like this. They don't dispute miracles but don't necessarily see a divine hand at work behind the scenes. They are not ready to believe in a personal God.

When the face starts weeping blood, it starts to become too much for Henry. How can this be? Miracles have no scientific rationale. If they can be argued away with science are they really miracles? A miracle by definition is something outside of the natural course of events. The Bible is filled with miracles, the greatest being the resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ after his execution on the wooden cross. (1 Cor. 15:3-8)

As the film progresses and Henry's frustrations amplify, Dawn points out, "It's getting harder, isn't it? To pretend this isn't happening." Perhaps an unintended double meaning, she is pointing out the challenge to his unbelief as well as their growing relationship.

Life without hope quickly descends into despair and sometimes suicide. Henry is on that path. But Dawn, Millie and Esperanza offer hope. It is Millie, surprisingly, that pulls him out of his shell, but it is Dawn that provides his reason to live.

Ultimately, Henry is forced to confront his faith or lack of it. Patience calls him on this, too. "Imagine that there was something wrong with you, Mr. Poole. And you did this seemingly meaningless thing, put your hand on a wall, and you were healed." She is challenging him to have the faith to put his hand on the wall believing it would make a difference.

Naaman was like Henry. In the Old Testament book of 2 Kings chapter 5 we read about this man who was the commander of the army of the king of Aram. Despite his importance he had leprosy. He wanted to be healed. Learning that Elisha the prophet of Yahweh could heal him, he visited him, bringing expensives gifts. He expected some fantastic ceremony or event. Instead:
Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, "Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed."  But Naaman went away angry and said, "I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn't I wash in them and be cleansed?" So he turned and went off in a rage. (2 Kings 5:10-12)
Like Henry, Elisha refused to believe at first. But he went back and decided to wash after all. And he was healed, as Elisha had declared.

Sometimes God works like that. He asks us to trust in him, bringing faith into play. We may not like what he asks us to do, but if we do it we see him fulfill his promises. Are we willing to set aside common objections, rationalizations, and take God at his word? Will we believe the one who has create the world and all that is in it?

The film feels a little contrived at times, but its comedy and cast carry us over these times. Esperanza offers the light relief. Wilson plays the forlorn everyman with almost a single moody expression throughout. But Lilly is outstanding in her breakout role with hardly a word to say.

Mark Pellington has drawn from his own personal tragedy to craft this. Himself a Catholic, he experienced a devastating loss in 2004 when his wife died from complications from a ruptured colon. He was left to raise their 2 ½-year-old daughter. Like Henry, he had to choose how to interpret this event and what to do. He chose to make this film, the first since that loss, and it wears its heart on its sleeve.

Henry Poole leaves us with an ambiguous ending and a question of Henry's faith. But that is so much like real life. We rearely know the true workings of another person's heart. Only God knows the heart (Acts 15:8). We cannot judge another. But we can look inside our own heart and determine our own faith. That is what Pellington really calls us to do. Have you checked your heart? Do you believe in miracles? Do you have faith in Jesus? That is between you and God.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, August 27, 2010

Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos) -- jealousy and identity

Director: Pedro Almodóvar, 2009. (R)

Penelope Cruz has worked with Pedro Almodóvar five times in 12 years. It's easy to see why. He brings out the best in her. She was nominated for an Oscar under his direction in Volver.  Here, she is luminary but the story fails to match her quality.

Unlike most Almodóvar films, this is not female-centric. Two male stars together with Cruz form a love triangle that carries half the movie. When Cruz is in front of the camera she is beautiful and stunning to watch; and the film is, too. But when she is out of the picture and the story, the plot wanes.

Like many of his other films, though, Almodóvar mixes melodrama with mystery. This sexually charged movie opens with a close-up of a brown eye, in which we see reflections. The eye belongs to a woman who is sitting opposite Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), a blind screenwriter. Not seeing, he can "see" a film in his mind's eye and create the script. Also, though his visual sense is gone, he has not lost his physical senses of touch and taste. And he makes this evident when he beds this woman, a stranger he met just minutes ago. Sex, for Harry, becomes an expression of himself.

Harry relies on his agent Judit (Blanco Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas) to assist him with his work and his life. They are his eyes; they are even his muse for ideas. But Harry is carrying a secret. When a wealthy financier, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luiz Gomez) dies, it triggers memories from the 90s. Then, a stranger, a documentary maker, shows up at Harry's door trying to convince him to co-write a screenplay. These two events force Harry to confront a past he has been avoiding.

Almodóvar splits the film into the current day, where Harry recounts a story of his past to Diego, and that past itself. In that past life, Harry Caine was a movie dierector named Mateo Blanco. Working on his newest film, Blanco comes into contact with Lena (Cruz), an aspiring actress who shows up for the casting call. She is a knockout and wows him, winning his heart immediately. But she is Martel's young mistress. When Blanco needs funds, Martel becomes his financier and producer with Lena as the leading lady. But Martel insists that his gay son Ray (Ruben Ochandiano) make a "making of" documentary. He does this, though, to spy on his mistress.

Broken Embraces explores father-son relationships, but jealousy is the key theme that drives the plot. Jealousy is a sin (2 Cor. 12:20), a crippling emotion that eats away the joy and love inside a person like the cancer that killed Lena's father. It rarely leads to anything positive, and it does not in this movie.

Home decor plays a part. Martel's spacious home is decorated with giant paintings of guns and knives. This man, outwardly generous and kind, carries a sack of anger internally and is quietly violent. Harry's home and Judit's apartment are adorned with crosses, but neither are religious. These decorations provide masks and insights into the identities of their owners, one accusing, one denying.

Almodóvar likes to use the trope of a film-within-a-film. He did it in Talk to Her, and he does it here. What is surprising, though, is that his internal movie, "Girls and Suitcases, Blanco's lastest film, is modeled on his own earlier breakthrough movie, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The parallels come down even to the drug-spiked gazpacho. Moreover, there are other movie and movie star references. Cruz is stunning in a platinum wig, looking amazingly like Marilyn Monroe. Then a little later, she is the spitting image of Audrey Hepburn, sitting demurely sipping tea. Truly, Cruz' eye-candy beauty makes this film.

But Blanco and Lena cannot keep their love a secret. As Cruz acts as Almodóvar's muse, Lena does likewise for Blanco. Martel's act of jealousy hits to the heart of Blanco's identity -- as a director. He edits the film while the two are away and creates a monster. The film is a bust. In that act he metaphorically kills Blanco. Then when Blanco loses his eyesight in an accident, his identity is gone. Destroyed. Without his sight he cannot direct, he cannot live. And he puts to death Mateo Blanco, and takes on the persona of Harry Caine.

Blanco's identity is tied tightly to his work. Apart from his work he cannot live. This is common. Yet it is a fallacy. Our identity does not come from our work. As Mateo discovered, his work could be removed in an instant. Neither does our identity derive from success. Mateo learned this, too, when his "Girls and Suitcases" was a bomb. Success does not define us, though it is nice to have. Identity comes from within, from who we are. The externals may change. Even our senses may change. But the inner core remains, providing our identity.

And our inner core is driven by our nature and our relationships. If we know God, if we are related to him, we are truly children of his (Jn. 1:12). We can find our identity in him (1 Jn. 3:2). Then we are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:20), followers of Jesus. We can weather the storms of life, even loss of limb or organ, life itself, but remain constant in who we are.

In the climax, there is catharsis for Harry, who rediscovers life. Though his sight is still gone, his inner being once more matches his external mask. Identity is constant.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
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Monday, August 23, 2010

Hamlet -- ambition, murder and revenge

Director: Kenneth Branagh, 1996. (PG-13)

Two things stand out immediately about Branagh's screen adaptation of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. First, it's long, playing at 4 hours duration. (It's the first full-length version, true to the text, that has been made.) Second, it's remarkably engaging, despite the Elizabethan English that is a little hard to follow at times.

I've never seen or read "Hamlet" but decided to watch this version in preparation for seeing the play at the Ashland Shakespeare festival later this month. Knowing it was a tragedy didn't prepare me for the depths of sadness. It is an uber-tragedy, one that moves deliberately, almost fatalistically, to the shocking climax.

Branagh has assembled an all-star cast, with the best of British thespians: Kate Winslet, John Gielgud, Richard Attenborough, Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers, Bian Blessed, Judi Dench, and Rufus Sewell. Even the bit characters have big name actors, including Jack Lemon, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, and Robin Williams. Billy Crystal shows up stealing his one scene as a grave-digger, bringing some light relief to a dark story. But the film belongs to Branagh. And he excels as Hamlet, the tortured hero. He conveys the chaos and turmoil that fuels Hamlet's inner pain. His crazed antics communicate the confusion of his lost soul.

The story, one of the Bard's best, centers on murder, ambition and revenge. Hamlet (Branagh) returns home to Denmark to attend his father's funeral only to find his uncle, Claudius (Jacobi), is marrying his mother, Gertrude (Julie Christie, who came out of retirement for this role), barely two months a widow. Marching into the throne room at Elsinore Castle, Hamlet stands starkly apart from his relatives and friends in his black uniform while all else wear white or red.

When Hamlet sees the ghost of his father (Blessed), he discovers the truth behind his father's death: "murder most foul". His mission: revenge.

Four hundred years after the play was written, Hamlet still presents a keen insight into the human condition. Ambition and lust, envy and jealousy will drive a man to murder. Claudius wants his brother's crown and queen. One of the ten commandments says, "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife" (Exod. 20:17). Especially abhorrent is it when that neighbor is your brother. It parts brother from brother until, like Cain (Gen. 4:8) one kills the other. Murder is another of the sins warned against in the ten commandments (Exod. 20:13).

Not only is his murderous uncle the new king, but his lover, Ophelia (Winslet), is warned to stay away from Hamlet.With so much conspiring against him, it is no wonder Hamlet uttered his famous soliloquy: "To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them." As he totters between grief-struck craziness and despair, it seems he must choose suicide or revenge.

Suicide is an easy way out. He could end his troubles, sink into the sorrow and let it engulf him, swallowing him until he is no more. But suicide is ethically questionable. It is the way of the wimp. It leaves behind grieving survivors who must wrestle with the question of "why?" for years, if not their whole lives. Suicide focuses on self at the expense of family and community.

Hamlet comes to his senses and realizes revenge beckons stronger. Inside his shell of insanity he plots murder. Given the chance to do it furtively, while Claudius is in confession, he withdraws since it would excecute Claudius with his sins pardoned. That is not revenge. That is release. Instead, he must wait until Claudius has racked up more sin, unforgiven, and catch him at that point.

Revenge is a meal best eaten cold. But revenge consumes the murderer when he eats this poisonous meal. Moses understood that when he penned, "'Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). Moreover, in the New Testament Paul wrote, "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord." (Ron. 12:19). This is not something Hamlet wanted to hear, but it is something we should listen to. God is the ultimate judge, though that judgment and sentence may wait till the next life.

Full of wonderful scenes, two stand out. The first is the play within a play, where Hamlet asks the players (including Heston) to use his own dialog as a trap. "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." He calls it "The Mousetrap." Hamlet begins to go over the top, making a scene that only a prince could pull off. Then there is the climax, where all key players, including Ophelia's brother, plot murder in their own ways.

If you have never seen Hamlet,  Branagh's version is the one to watch. This sweeping epic will ignite a spark for classic literature that most high school or college English classes snuffed out. The Bard is dead, long live the Bard!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Count of Monte Cristo -- kings and pawns, revenge and justice

Director: Kevin Reynolds, 2002. (PG-13)

Classic literature does not always translate into classic cinema. Here, though, Reynolds does a terrific job of bringing Alexander Dumas' masterpiece to the silver screen. This swashbuckling epic plays well and has a strong and tight script. It has enough comic relief amidst the dramatic events to keep even the kids engaged in this family-friendly feature.

Jim Caviezel plays Edmond Dantes, the sailor who persuades the crew to row to the isle of Elba when his captain falls ill. When they come ashore,  Dantes and his best friend, Count Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce, Memento) meet Napoleon, who is exiled there. In private, Napoleon gives Dantes a letter, a communique that subsequently causes Dantes to be accused of treason.

Later, arriving back home, Dantes is rewarded for his initiative and plans to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk). But Mondego loves her, too, and is consumed with jeolousy. He betrays his friend, and Dantes is arrested and secretly carted off to the dreaded Chateau d'If, an island prison from which there is no return; a sort of historical Alcatraz but with less creature comforts.

The Count of Monte Cristo is, at its core, a story of betrayal and vengeance. And jealousy is at the heart of this betrayal. Jealousy eats away at a person's character, causing him a growing resentment of another until that other seems to become a bitter rival. Jealousy shows up in the Old Testament book of Genesis between two sisters, both being married to Jacob (Gen. 30:1). We see Saul jealous of young David (1 Sam. 18:9). In general, it is a negative emotion, and Paul warns against it in Gal. 5:20. Yet, we also see God being described as a "a jealous and avenging God" (Nah. 1:2). His jealousy, though, is warranted. He is envious for our love and worship, and he alone is worthy of such worship. Likewise, a devoted husband's jealousy for his wife's love and affections is a positive emotion, keeping them together.

Betrayal is a bitter fruit of jealousy. The Psalmist recognized how friendships broken are so painful: "If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked with the throng at the house of God" (Psa. 55:12-14). Jesus himself experienced the pain of betrayal by his close friend Judas (Lk. 22:48).

Betrayed, it is in his dark, dank cell, alone, that Dantes' character develops. And it is not positive. When he unexpectedly meets another inmate, Father Faria (Richard Harris, the original Professor Dumblesdore in Harry Potter), this priest offers to teach him. But as his knowledge grows so does his hatred and his thirst for revenge. Yet, Abbe Faria concludes his teaching with this, "Here is your final lesson -- do not commit the crime for which you now serve the sentence. God said, 'Vengeance is mine.' "

Here is the contrast between revenge and justice. Dantes does not want justice, leaving punishment for his oppressors to the authorities (Rom. 13:1-7). Rather, he wants to mete out his own form of justice in the form of revenge, which includes similar emotional torture to what he endured. It's payback. In contrast, God's vengeance wll come in his good time and it will involve true justice.

The issue is control. A chess piece, the king, forms a metaphor for this throughout. Earlier, Napoleon offered sage advice to Dantes, "In life, we are kings or pawns." We tend to want to be the king not the pawn. As king, we can command and control. We can execute justice, our own justice, and no one can question us. But a pawn has no control and must bow before the king. Dantes wants to be king. He wants to rule the game.

We have our own decision to make. Will we be pawn or king? There is a king already and his name is Jesus. We can accept him now as Lord of our life (Rom. 10:9) or we can wait till a future time when this acceptance will be forced but inevitable (Rom. 14:11). At that time it will carry with it the consequence of punishment (Rev. 20:15). When we yield the rule of our heart to Jesus' reign we willingly become his pawn, allowing him to move us about the big board of life as he sees fit. It is counter-intuitive, but freedom and life is found in serving and carrying our cross (Lk. 14:27).

Eventually, Dantes does escape. Fourteen years have passed. When he discovers a fortune on the island of Monte Cristo, with the help of Jacopi (Luis Guzman), a pirate he saved and who has committed his life to him ("I swear on my dead relatives -- and even on the ones who are not feeling too good -- I am your man forever!"), he is ready to take on the persona of the Count of Monte Cristo. He is ready to return to France to find his betrayers and ruin their lives.

Jacopi is the jester in the film, offering the comic lines. When the Count shares with him his complex plan, Jacopi responds, "Why not just kill them? I'll do it! I'll run up to Paris -- bam, bam, bam, bam. I'm back before week's end. We spend the treasure. How is this a bad plan?" And he has a good point, even if it is delivered in a New Jersey accent.

As Dantes' plot develops, and the flies get stuck in his intricate web, he comes face to face with his former love: "If you ever loved me, don't rob me of my hate. It's all I have." Hatred and revenge have consumed him. They have devoured what little faith he had.

When he first entered the prison, the warden, about to whip him unconscious, taunted him, "If you're thinking just now 'Why me, oh God?' the answer is: God has nothing to do with it." But Dantes still carries some faith and hope: "God has everything to do with it. He's everywhere. He sees everything." He is correct, of course. God is onmipresent (Psa. 139:7).Yet, after years of imprisonment his faith is shattered, "I don't believe in God." The cruelties of life can do this to a man.

The apostle James addressed this at the very start of his letter: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (Jas. 1:2-4). Faith untested is a weak faith. It is only when it faces the crucible that its true character can be tested and seen.

The Count of Monte Cristo sums it up unwittingly when he offers a toast at a society dinner. Although giving these words to a young friend, he is really talking about himself: "Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes." Character is developed or destroyed in the storms of life. When his storm came, Dantes made his choice. When your storm comes, how will you choose?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Reader -- seduction, secrets and shame

Director: Stephen Daldry, 2008. (R)

After five unsuccessful nominations, Kate Winslet finally won her Oscar for this role as Hanna Schmitz. Holocaust movies often scoop up the awards, and this post-Holocaust film set in Germany in the turbulent 1950s proved no exception. Winslet gives a strong performance as a lonely German woman whose actions have deep repercussions, both for her and for others, in this this story of seduction, secrets and shame.

The Reader plays in three acts each set in a distinct time period. It opens in 1958. Hanna lives alone in a small apartment. One day Michael (David Kross), a teenager, stops outside her building feeling ill. She helps him briefly, and then, weeks later, when he has recovered, he returns to thank her. A glimpse of stocking leads to a passionate affair. Twice his age, Hanna seduces the hapless boy and begins a relationship that involves two things: sex and books. As a high school student, he brings his books to her room and reads to her before they make love. The cerebral and physical coexist.

Usually in Hollywood films, it is an older man seducing a younger woman. The Reader inverts this structure. World-weary Hanna takes advantage of the virginal and impressionable boy. As Michael's obsession with Hanna increases, the film depicts clearly the effects of this kind of "love affair" on people of different generations. Michael wants his young love to be requited. "I can't live without you. The thought of leaving you kills me. Do you love me?" he pleads with puppy eyes. This is his first love and sexual encounter. But Hanna is mature and cynical. She tells him later, "You don't have the power to upset me. You don't matter enough to upset me."

It is clear that this kind of relationship is wrong for so many reasons. Hanna is using Michael to fill a hole in her soul. She does not love him; she just takes advantage of him before moving on. This leaves him emotionally stranded, wounded in his psyche in a way that will impact him for a lifetime, There are laws protecting minors from predators, for this very reason. It hardly ever ends happily, and the kid gets hurt. Moreover, Scripture underscores the value of keeping sex within the marriage relationship (Heb. 13:4). This enhances a relationship that is already centered instead of forming the basis of the relationship. Sex apart from marriage is usually a formula for pain. And when the summer of love is over, Hanna departs suddenly leaving Michael alone, to cauterize his broken heart.

Act 2 is set in Heidelberg eight years later. Michael is now a law student at the university, still reading but not developing relationships. When his professor takes him and other students to a court to hear a notorious case, he is shocked to find Hanna one of six defendants. Listening to the trial, Michael comes to realize that he is in possession of a secret that might bring salvation and freedom to Hanna. When he seeks advice from his professor, he is told: "What information? You don't need me to tell you. It's perfectly clear you have a moral obligation to disclose it to the court." But Michael is torn, because Hanna knows this secret and is herself choosing to keep it hidden despite the consequences of her actions.

Daldry's movie explores this concept of secrecy. Early on in the movie a high school teacher posits, "The notion of secrecy is central to western literature. You may say, the whole idea of character is defined by people holding specific information which for various reasons, sometimes perverse, sometimes noble, they are determined not to disclose." Is this true? Is secrecy this vital? Is our character defined by what we hold back? No. Character is the sum of the moral and ethical qualities of a person. It has more to do with what we believe and what we do, than what we do not share. Keeping secrets, being trustworthy, is a part of character, but a small part, not the central core. Generally, secrecy is viewed as an undesirable facet of character, being opposed to transparency and vulnerability.

Hanna's secrecy is driven by her sense of guilt and shame. It is not a badge of character that makes her withhold information that could make a huge difference. Guilt, the internal recognition of violation of law and hence moral culpability, is a slave-driver. It forces us to do things we would not normally do. Guilt can only be assuaged through atonement. True guilt has been dealt with through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross (Rom. 3:25-26). He carried our sins and guilt, past, present and future (Col. 2:13), that we might be forgiven and experience freedom and a guilt-free life. Shame, the second cousin to guilt, arises from the consciousness of something dishonorable. Shame can drive us to experience suffering, which ironically we find more bearable than others' knowing our shame. This is Hanna. Sometimes it is us. Coming clean, once and for all, can solve this.

The final chapter of the film brings us to the 1990s, where a middle-aged Michael (Ralph Fiennes, The English Patient) is practicing law but has few relationships. Divorced, he is estranged from his daughter and his mother. Through a phone call, he has opportunity to revisit Hanna, now an elderly woman. There is little screen time between Fiennes and Winslet, but he brings a gravity to the role of a troubled and lonely man. The meat of the film hinges on Winslet and Kross. Unfortunately, neither character is empathetic. Both are cold and become colder as the film goes on.

It's clear that each act carries with it the seed of its own consequence. Hanna's life bears the scars of her wartime years, and she experiences its repercussions. The glance that led to an affair brought with it the pain of emotional separation, leaving Michael broken, unable to hold down a deep relationship with other women. At the end he still feels something for Hanna, more than he had for his ex-wife or other women. That one moment, as a sensitive youth, left him discarded and damaged, impacting his entire life and that of his immediate family.

We can learn from Hanna and Michael. We must guard ourselves and watch our actions carefully. Our eyes can easily lead us astray. We see, we want, we strive to get. That was also the story of David when he saw a beautiful woman bathing on her roof. He took steps to have her, and then have her husband murdered. David paid the price, though, as his glance led to a life of familial strife (2 Sam. 12:10).

Seduction, secrets and shame drive this film. I hope they don't drive our lives. In contrast we should seek mercy, transparency, and self-respect. If we do what Jesus said, namely to love God, love your neighbor and love yourself (Lk. 10:27), we can fulfill all moral obligations and live a rich and rewarding life.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, August 13, 2010

Departures (Okuribito) -- Passion and Purpose, Death and Life

Director: Yôjirô Takita, 2008. (PG-13)

What do flying geese have in common with a dead octopus? Both function as a metaphor in this slow but moving masterpiece which won Japan's first ever Oscar (it picked up Best Foreign Picture in 2009). Departures is about dreams dashed and passions rekindled. It offers a portrait of a man who has found meaning in his life. Fundamentally, though, it is a tale about death, and with it, life.

Daigo Koboyashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a professional cellist in a Tokyo orchestra. After completing Beethoven's 9th Symphony to an almost empty house, the orchestra is informed it is dissolved. That night the octopus his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) is preparing for dinner moves -- it seems to be alive. But when they cast it into the Tokyo Bay to freedom, it simply floats lifeless atop the water. The tossing of the dead octopus represents the dreams that Daigo has to cast off. He had dreamt of showing his wife the big cities of the world with his music. Now that dream is gone. When he sells his expensive cello to recoup some of the cost, he realizes "What I'd always thought of as my dream maybe hadn't been one after all." It is the final nail in the coffin.

With no job in Tokyo, Daigo and Mika leave the big city and return to Yamagata, his hometown, where his deceased mother has left him an old home. Rent-free, all he needs now is a job. When he responds to a newspaper advertisement asking for a person to help with "departures" he thinks it has to do with travel. Really it has to do with death.

Daigo's new job is as a "Nokanshi," or professional encoffineer. In Japan families no longer prepare the bodies of their loved ones for the final journey. Neither do the undertakers. This task has become a niche career. The Nokanshi go into the homes of the grieving and ritually disrobe, wash, re-clothe, and make-up the bodies. It sounds morbid, but it is actually an act of beauty in the hands of a caring professional.

For Daigo this undesired job becomes a journey of personal discovery as he learns lessons of life alongside the master, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). He does not realize at first that the job has its own occupational hazards. The smells of rotting corpses are enough to bring up lunch. And these smells stick to his clothing and body, enough for others to notice. But there are blessings, too. The careful and solemn ritual is an act of grace given to those living. Daigo grows into the job until he understands this is his calling, his purpose in life.

Though not a Christian film, we can see in Daigo a person who has found his vocation, his ministry. Like the cleaners in Sunshine Cleaning, those who come to clean up after death or make up the dead to look beautiful are performing an act of ministry that others will not or cannot do. They are serving those who are in deepest need.

Director Takita brings a sense of grace and gravity to the funeral rituals. With long lingering cinematography and a remarkably emotive original score, the film is beautiful to watch, eschewing trivial sentimentality. Though death is central to the film, it is not heavy and somber. Rather, he portrays these rituals as celebrating the life of the one who has gone. And in doing so, it is both respecting the dead and giving hope to the living.

Food features prominently in the film. It is true that Nokanshis get very hungry after performing a funeral ceremony. It takes intense concentration and that generates immense hunger. We see Daigo eat a number of meals here, from romantic dinners with his wife, to thoughtful musings with his boss. In the latter, the wise Sasaki tells him, "The living eat the dead. Unless they're plants. Unless you want to die you eat." Eating is part of life and Nokanshis eat with gusto and enjoyment. Eating a large and delicious meal after a ritual seems appropriate, as a way of endorsing the value of life, having been in the midst of death.

There is another occupational hazard of a Nokanshi: shame. People look down on them. It is a profession no one wants, but everyone needs. When Mika eventually finds out what he does, she asks, "Aren't you ashamed of having a job like that? . . . Touching dead people?" And when he goes to touch her, she recoils in disgust, "Don't touch me. You're filthy!" Rejected by friends, he is now rejected by his wife.

Daigo presents a portrait of the stigma carried by certain people in the Bible. Lepers were shunned, avoided due to their physical condition. They had to cover their faces and shout out, "Unclean! Unclean!" (Lev. 13:45) whereupon people would retreat from the leper's presence. But they had no control over this disease; it was not their choice. Closer to Daigo is Simon the tanner (Acts 10:6). He dealt with dead bodies and was considered unclean. His was a shameful profession. What jobs carry this kind of stigma today? Probably undertakers and morticians. Dealing with the dead has always been a societal opprobrium. No one, it seems, wants to see or touch the dead. But other jobs also carry similar disesteem: refuse collectors, janitors, people who perform the tasks we sweep under the carpet. Seeing Daigo work this stigmatic job as a ministry reminds us of the inherent dignity of these jobs and more.

Takita chooses the cello as Daigo's instrument carefully, even though creating an orchestral score for cellos is difficult to do. The cello is a large instrument with a wide range of sound, something like the depths of the human voice. More than this, though, its shape resembles the feminine form, with curves. Playing the cello resonates with the act of encoffining, where both the instrument and the corpse need to be cradled gently with care and affection. Daigo's attention to detail in his work reignites the memory of the cello he has left behind

In finding his purpose in living, Daigo rekindles his passion for music. This brings us back to the geese. When he finds his childhood cello, he begins to play again, now for fun not for funds. We see him playing outdoors, amidst nature, both in the cold of a harsh winter and the cherry blossoms of a new spring. When he sees the geese take off flying free, we recognize this as a metaphor for the freedom he now finds in his music. No longer is it constricting, holding him to dreams that would prove dead. Now music once more enables him to experience and enjoy life. His purpose promotes his passion. They go hand in hand, as much of life seems to do.

Few films take on the subject of death. It is too tricky and not usually a good commercial enterprise.We tend to avoid it in common conversation, because it makes us face our own mortality. It took 15 years from the conception of the film's idea until it became reality. But death is slowly creeping up on all of us

Life, though, is tied to death. Daigo tells Mika, "Everyone dies. I will and so will you." He is one of the gatekeepers on the deceased's journey to the next life. Toward the end, another funeral worker says, "I've often thought . . . that maybe death is a gateway. Dying doesn't mean the end. You go through it and on to the next thing. It's a gate." Both he and Daigo have it right.

Life encompasses death, and death is indeed a gateway to the next life. We all will pass through that gateway. But we can prepare ourselves now for that future journey even while we are living. Jesus says "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved" (Jn. 10:9); he is the gate to life. If we put our faith in him, then we can be assured that when we die we will move into his presence. Later we will brought into a new life in the new earth which will be his eternal kingdom (2 Pet. 1:11). Death will then be a gateway to that future life with King Jesus.

Nobody wants to think about death, as it is seen as filthy and disgusting. But, as Departures shows, by facing death we look at life differently. We cannot live an authentic life if we avoid death. Are you ready for your departure yet?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, August 9, 2010

Inception -- dreams, reality, and leaps of faith

Director: Christopher Nolan, 2010. (PG-13)

You can't just watch Inception once. It is too deep and complex and exciting for that. You simply have to see it again. It really helps. Be assured, this is a multifaceted and epic film that deserves the chance for revisiting and pays back the opportunity in dividends. It is the best film of 2010 so far.

Working from his own script, Nolan demonstrates that he has come of age as one of the premier directors working today. His earlier films were good. Memento played with the concept of memory in an innovative reverse plotline. Batman Begins rebooted this comic book hero franchise. He followed this with The Dark Knight, one of my favorite films, filled with morality questions. But Nolan has raised the bar here and exceeded his earlier achievements. Inception is on a par with The Matrix, a film it seems to draw from.

Nolan has described this movie as a contemporary sci-fi action thriller "set within the architecture of the mind." And that is a perfect description. It brings together Bourne-like action, Bond-like thrills, and Matrix-like sci-fi sequences that force us to question reality, not once or twice but four-times over.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a specialist, an extractor. Explaining to Japanese businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe), he asks: "What's the most resilient parasite? An idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules. Which is why I have to steal it." He extracts ideas by getting inside the dreams of his victims: "We bring the subject into that dream and fill it with their subconscious." When his dream-architect creates a safe or lock-box the subject will put their deep secrets "safely" inside; but Cobb will find them and steal them.

In essence, Inception is a caper film with the mind as the location and dreams as the medium. Although the concept of dream-stealing is briefly explained as coming out of military R&D, the mechanism is left dark and we have to suspend our disbelief and simply go along with the story.

Inception Publicity StillWhen Cobb's initial mission of "corporate espionage" fails, he is ready to go on the run again. We learn something of his background over the course of the film, but it is enough to say he is a wanted man in America, where he has left his children. His wife is dead, but she keeps showing up in his dreams to haunt him and hinder his "work." Ready to evade his employer, Saito makes him an offer he cannot refuse: he will, with one phone call, clear the slate and allow Cobb to go home. But in return Cobb must do the impossible: inception. He must plant an idea into the mind of Robert Fisher Jr. (Cillian Murphy, Scarecrow in Batman Begins). Fisher's father lies dying and Saito wants his multinational empire broken up. This straw Cobb cannot refuse.

Inception is clearly an immoral and unethical practice. It is a little like brainwashing, but more subtle and less obvious. In The Manchurian Candidate we witnessed Liev Schreiber undergo physical and emotional manipulation to put ideas into his head. He did not remember that he had been tortured, but eventually this brainwashing came undone. Here Cobb has to dive deep into the subject's own mind, battling his own defense agents, to do something more profound: make him think it is his own idea and let this idea germinate and blossom on its own until it changes him from within completely.

Inception Publicity StillCobb brings together a talented team. Ariadne (Juno's Ellen Page) becomes his new architect, suggested to him by his father-in-law Miles (Michael Caine, Sleuth). A student, yet she harbors talents in dream-making and world-creation Cobb has rarely seen before. He flies to Africa to find Eames (Tom Hardy, in a wonderfully droll and scene-stealing role), a forger and dream-world shape-shifter. Arthur (Josep Gordon-Leavitt) functions as Cobb's right-hand man, while Yusuf (Dileep Rao) makes the potions that keeps the subject, and the team, asleep.

Indeed, in Africa Cobb sees a room-full of men literally dreaming their life away . They have swapped the reality of life for the perceived reality of sleep and dreams, where time is elongated: one hour asleep corresponds to many hours in the dream. They return day after day to find their reality. This is akin to The Matrix, where humanity lies in pods, "living" in the matrix of dream-state while the are being harvested for their energy, batteries for the machines.

This forces us to consider reality and dreams. Sometimes we desire escape from real life and all its problems. Some make this happen with drugs, creating their own surreal reality with illegal chemicals. Dreams, on the other hand, are natural and unforced. As Cobb says, "they feel real when we're in them. It's only when we wake up then we realize that something was actually strange!" When we rely on drugs or other reality-substitutes for too long we become confused and unable to separate the real from the illusory. God has created this world and all that it contains. This is reality. Like it or not, it is what we have. There is a spiritual reality that surrounds us, but our eyes are blind to this. Only in exceptions has God opened human eyes to witness what surrounds us, as he did for Elisha and his servant, who saw the chariots of fire and the angels who were prepared to fight for him (2 Kings 6:17).

If this all sounds cerebral, it is  . . . and it isn't. Inception contains depth that belies its Hollywood genesis. But it also contains some marvelous action sequences and fabulous cgi scenes. The chase through the streets of the crowded African city resembles a Jason Bourne chase, complete with hand-held camera-work. A later fight between Eames and a bad guy in a hotel in zero-gravity looks like something Neo would have done in The Matrix. The car chase and fight in New York is startling and violent. Visceral and compelling.

One of the finest scenes is set in Paris, as Ariadne is learning to create worlds. Sitting with Cobb in an outdoor cafe, she sees the world suddenly and balletically explode. This is not a typical Hollywood explosion. This is the world rupturing and coming apart in a carefully choreographed sequence with glass and tables and road tiles blowing past their heads in slow motion as they sit and watch in wonder. Picking up the concept, Ariadne makes the same location suddenly defy the laws of physics as it wrap over on itself. The buildings of Paris are both beside her normally and above her upside down. Creative is an understatement.

With his team assembled, Cobb relies on Ariadne to create several dream-world mazes to put Fisher in. Going deeper and deeper into his subconscious, they descend into dreams within dreams. As the plot progresses to a score that ratchets the suspense without relief, we need to keep multiple story-lines in mind as Nolan interweaves events in separate worlds. This is Matrix to the max!

It has been pointed out elsewhere (Christianity Today) that Inception is an extended metaphor on the movie-making process itself, wherein Nolan and fellow directors create illusions that we, the audience, watch as if real for several hours. We immerse ourselves in the dark theater and experience, albeit vicariously, the thrills and wonders of the movie-maker's imagination and story. We suspend disbelief if the story is good enough. But we expect a strong and meaningful conclusion. As one character in this story says, "Everyone wants catharsis" and that is true for the film's audience as well. Which makes us expel a nervous laugh as Inception itself ends with a hanging question over its cathartic climx. What just happened at the end there, we ask ourselves as we exit the cineplex?

Inception Publicity StillYet with each level they descend into, Mal (Marion Cotillard) appears wreaking havoc with their plans. It becomes obvious to Ariadne alone, that Cobb is harboring his own secret. And he must descend into his own dreams to face his deepest secret, a secret that involves grief and guilt.

Whether Cobb's guilt is appropriate or not, it highlights the power of guilt. Guilt often drives us to crazy, risk-taking behavior. It did for Cobb. And it was a danger to his team. Guilt has a purpose -- to drive us to God in repentance. When we ignore this and try to run from it or even to resolve it in our way, we fall prey to its dominance. Only in confessing and releasing can we find the catharsis we want and need -- forgiveness (Acts 2:38). God has promised us this, but we must come to him on his terms (1 Jn. 1:9). Guilt ignored and unforgiven leads to regret and a life unredeemed.

Interestingly, the Edith Piaf song, "Non, je ne regrette rien," (I have no regrets) is used thematically throughout the film as sign to the team in the dreams that they are about to be "kicked out" and back to reality, or at least one level higher. Having no regrets brings Cobb back to his regret-filled life. (And further, Cotillard won an Oscar for her role as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.)

Early in the film, an old man tells Cobb, "Dare you take a leap of faith? Or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone." This idea of a leap of faith arises again, later, when Mal asks Cobb to take a leap of faith with her. Inception asks its character as well as its viewers to take a leap of faith into a reality that may not be what it appears.

This parallels the theological underpinnings of the Christian faith. We are asked to take a leap of faith to follow Jesus and believe in his God. When we look around us at reality, if we start to question ontological existence or the meaning of life, we begin to consider a first mover, an initial creator. But science will not prove the existence of God. We must at some point take a leap of faith. In taking this leap we do what Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard considered to be a leap to faith. We find ourself trusting in a God we cannot see, following a man who died and rose to life. This same man, Jesus, offers real life now, a reality we barely understand before, and a life in the future kingdom that will last for eternity (Lk. 1:33).

At the very heart of Inception is the premise that a single idea has the power to define someone. In planting the chosen idea in Fisher's mind, Cobb believes it can come to change him forever, creating a new person, different from who he was before, destined to do something other than he would have done apart from this one idea.

How reminiscent of Christian belief and faith.

The one idea, that Jesus came to give us life if we choose to follow him, can define a person. It can change a person completely. We saw this in the original 12 followers of Christ in the first century. Those uneducated, selfish peasants grasped this one idea and let it run like a virus within their minds and souls. They became selfless and giving, authors whose writings have been read the world over. From self-seeking to sacrificed martyrs, the gospel turned them into missionaries never seen before. It can do the same for you and me. As we allow this idea to take hold, we are changed; we become new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17). We find our whole worldview replaced with a new one. We may find for ourselves a destiny we never dreamed of, a future in a foreign land doing things we never contemplated before. The power of a single idea. Inception.

Having seen this for a second time, it has taken a place in my top ten movie favorites. It is inspired and iconic,working on multiple levels to deliver superb entertainment with ideas that will tick in our heads causing us to think, And with so many allusions to our Christian faith, can we ask for more in a Hollywood film?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
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Friday, August 6, 2010

Phoebe in Wonderland -- rules and the uniqueness of the individual

Director: Daniel Barnz, 2008. (PG-13)

Phoebe in Wonderland is a low-budget independent film from first-time writer-director Barnz. It is also the debut film for Elle Fanning, the younger sister of Dakota Fanning. It opened in 11 theaters in 2009 and grossed a paltry $72,000 at the box office. An interesting story of uniqueness hidden amidst conventionality and the rules of normalcy, it could have been developed better, and its conclusion leaves us wondering somewhat.

Phoebe (Fanning) wants to be Alice. But so do all the other girls in her drama class at school. After all, Alice is the heroine and main character in the play, Alice in Wonderland. But there is something different about 9-year-old Phoebe. She lives in her own wonderland of sorts. Drama teacher Miss Dodge (Patricia Clarkson, Elegy) recognizes this, as Phoebe is the only kid in the auditions whose eyes light up when she speaks the lines, and she gives Phoebe the part.

As the movie develops it becomes apparent that there is something strange about Phoebe. Her parents are both writers. Her dad Peter (Bill Pullman) is always working on a book. Her mom Hillary (Felicity Huffman) wants to be working on her book, a revision of her dissertation on Alice. However, she has writer's block and blames it on her two girls. She cannot write even a sentence a day. With such distracted and inattentive parents, it seems of little surprise that Phoebe, an Alice fan, resorts to living in her dreams.

In her waking dreams she sees Alice, along with the Red Queen, the White Rabbit and other characters from Lewis Carroll's famous story. But these characters become more real to her than her teachers and fellow students. Her parents at first think this is a sign of Phoebe's creativity and unique imagination. But as her behavior becomes more and more odd, Hillary takes her to see a psychiatrist. She seems to be at risk of falling through her own looking glass.

At school, it is clear that Phoebe is an outsider. When the teachers describe the rules of the classroom, unchanging year to year, Phoebe seems to challenge their authority. She is unwilling to simply be part of the crowd. Of course, this targets her for bullying and she reacts. It is her reaction, not the bully's, that gets noticed and gets her in trouble. Rules are her achilles' heel.

Rules form the core theme of Barnz' film. Unchanging rules form a sort of prison for Phoebe. She explains this to her shrink, when she describes her "conversations" with the Red Queen. When asked what they discuss, she replies: "Wonderland. How nice it is to have a place where things aren't fixed. It's all the opposite there, you know. It'd be nice if . . .  if it were the same here."

So what are the benefits of rules? Obviously, they provide the basis for society to function. Some are unspoken, simple expectations that we learn to follow: be home by midnight; clean up after yourself in the kitchen; follow the musical score. Others are written and communicated so we fully understand their meaning: no smoking;don't litter; fasten seatbelts. Even games have rules. Without them we would not know how to play, and there would be no order and no fun. Rules can be arbitrary. But rules usually have a foundation. Some are elevated to laws with criminal consequences if broken. These, too, can lack a moral foundation, although many are rooted in morality, such as laws against stealing (Exod. 20:15) and killing (Exod. 20:13). There is clear biblical support for these.

Society expects us to adhere to most rules. And we usually try, even if we fail often. We may have every good intention but lack implementation. The Old Testament Chronicler knew this. When King Hezekiah wanted to reestablish the Passover for the Israelite nation, many came from far away to worship.
Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, 'May the LORD, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God—the LORD, the God of his fathers—even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary'  (2 Chron. 30:18-19). 
Some rules can be broken and forgiven.

Phoebe's predicament is different, as she explains: "It's a voice in your head that makes you do the opposite of what you're supposed to do. It makes you want to break rules. But sometimes breaking rules is good." She seems constrained to go against whatever rules are established. This sounds like the apostle Paul.

In Romans 7 Paul breaks off his theological treatise to discuss his personal spirituality. "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do" (Rom. 7:14-15). He cannot do what he knows is good and right. He is led to break the rules and do what is wrong, what he hates: sin. This is often true for us, too. We know the rules; we know what is right. Yet we go right on doing what is wrong, disregarding the rules with the rationalization that we will ask forgiveness if and when we are caught. Yes, we know God is a forgiving God (Mic. 7:18). But he would prefer we enjoy his blessing and company by doing right and walking with him, following Jesus, than to see us break fellowship and forgive us later.

All the characters in Phoebe in Wonderland are abnormal in some way. Phoebe has her imaginative friends and rule-breaking. Her mother is distracted and depressed. Her father is uninvolved and aloof. The teachers are almost automatons, reciting and policing the rules. The principal is a wimp, afraid to assert his authority, willing only to go along with the teachers. And Miss Dodger is an oddball teacher. Her eccentricities extend to allowing the students to direct their own play. She refuses to answer their questions but turns each question back to the children, forcing them to come up with their own answers. But her unusual teaching methods result in problems, both for her and for Phoebe.

Miss Dodger, though, expounds a second theme of the film, in her encouraging words to Phoebe:
At a certain part in your life, probably when too much of it has gone by, you will open your eyes and see yourself for who you are. Especially for everything that made you so different from all the awful normals. And you will say to yourself, "But I am this person." And in that statement, that correction, there will be a kind of love. 
The uniqueness of individuals. When we are young we want to fit in, to avoid standing out and being picked on, by teachers or students.We want to be "normal". But what is normal? Who defines it? Who, if any, is actually normal? That seems to be the point. None of the characters appear normal. Rather, God has made us different from everyone else in the world. We are unique. There is no one else exactly like you. And we can be glad for this. It makes each one of us special. We can celebrate our uniqueness. Of course, there is a level of normality, a boiling down to the lowest common denominator of humanity. But the real value of each one of us is in the flair we bring because "I am this person". When we can accept this and love ourselves, a true biblical concept (Matt. 22:39), then we have grasped David Barnz' point and understood his picture. This takes maturity. We don't always get there.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Jaws -- fear and greed in a peaceful community

Director: Steven Spielberg, 1975 (PG-13).

Almost 70 years ago Franklin D. Roosevelt said the immortal words, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He obviously had not seen Spielberg's Jaws. If he had, he would have added Bruce the shark to that short-list.

Watching Jaws again in its 35th anniversary year, it still packs a wallop. At the tender age of 28 Spielberg directed what some have called the first summer blockbuster. Although only opening on 409 screens across the nation, this big fish swam silently and menacingly through the theatrical waters. Just over two months later over 67 million Americans had seen it and it had become the then highest grossing film of all time.

Almost everyone knows the plot by now. Indeed, it is razor-thin. A killer shark, a great white, descends upon the island resort town of Amity in New England at the beginning of tourist season. When it begins feeding on humans, the chief of police Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches, but Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) refuses. Throw in shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and crabby shark hunter Sam Quint (Robert Shaw) and the key characters are in view.

Several factors contribute to the success of the film's suspense and thrills. First, surprisingly, is the failure of the mechanical shark There were three mechanical sharks built for the film (all named Bruce after Spielberg's lawyer!), each created for different shots. However, since the shark was broken for much of the shooting, Spielberg resorted to filming from the shark's viewpoint. We see what he sees, looking up at vulnerable humans, prey for this soul-less predator. It also means that we rarely see the actual shark and this, in a Hitchcockian way, adds to the sense of anticipation. It leaves much to the viewer's imagination until the latter parts of the film.

A second factor is another directorial choice of viewpoint. Spielberg shoots a quarter of the movie from water level, higher than the shark's eye-view. This makes the viewer feel as if we, like those in the ocean, are treading water. In this way, it puts us in their shoes, or bare-feet, and allows us to feel their fear.

The third factor is the marvellous score composed by John Williams. Anyone who has seen the film can hardly forget the ominous notes of the bitonal "dum-dum-dum-dum" which begins to increase in speed and volume as the shark approaches. Williams won the Oscar for Best Score for this composition, and it is indeed almost a character in itself, so effective is it in contributing to the suspense.

In contrast to many contemporary thrillers, Jaws contains fewer than half-dozen deaths. I counted four shark killings, although there is at least one more not shown. The thrill is not in the quantity but in the quality of anticipating the attacks. And when they do occur, their suddenness is shocking. Unlike today's movies, though, the effects seem cheesy. The various body parts that are shown in the aftermath of the attacks appear artificial and plastic. But this criticism is perhaps anachronistic and unwarranted.

For points of trivia, Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, the resort frequented by numerous American presidents, was selected as the shooting location for Amity. This was apparently because of the shallowness of the ocean floor, even far out to sea, which allowed for better use of the mechanical sharks. The town benefited, and the residents did too, as they were paid $64 per day to scream their lungs out while running across the beach as extras.

In the second half of the film Chief Brody and Hooper join Quint on his boat, the Orca, as they go out to hunt this killer. Quint and Hooper bear the scars of former engagements with shark, but Brody harbors his inner fear of water. Brody is the one who has to courageously face up to his fears to act on behalf of his family and his community. Quint is merely a mercenary, making the most of a bad situation. Hooper is a resourceful scientist who has found Amity a closer place to research sharks than Brisbane. Though all must put their lives on the line, as the third act elaborates, Brody is the only one who is truly vested in the community.

Two points of intersection with biblical ethics are worth exploring, both based on native human emotions. The first is fear. The film is based on the residents' fear as their peaceful community is terrorized by this shark. Such fear is natural. We recoil when we see a shark, a predator that will kill and devour us without thought. Such fear is instinctual. It focuses on our survival. Without such fear we might be an extinct species.

But there is both good fear and bad fear. Fear of sharks is good if it leads to our survival. Fearing something that can harm or kill us is beneficial. Fear of the Lord is another positive fear (Prov. 1:7), although God does not wish to harm us. This kind of fear, commanded throughout the scriptures (Deut. 6:13, Josh. 24:14, Ac. 9:31), is a positive awe-filled respect for the creator of the universe. It, too, leads to life but not through avoidance of death, as in the shark-fear, but in the attraction to life. Jesus offers us life in him (Jn. 10:10), as we fear and respect his father.

The bad kind of fear, though, is that which is driven by selfish impulses. Mayor Vaughn has this kind of fear when he recognizes that the publicity from a shark attack would frighten casual tourists away. This fear is not life-affirming. It is second cousin to greed, the other emotion on view here.

Vaughn is greedy for the dollars brought by the tourists. The town's economy is driven by the summer visitors. Without them it would fail. And that would blow his chance of future re-election. Greed is self-promoting. Vaughn is less concerned about those at risk. He cares less for the truth. He is willing to sacrifice the odd tourist or two, and cover up their deaths, if it means the survival of his town and his political career.

Greed is a sly virus. Once we are infected, it eats away at our contentment. We can never have enough. There is always the allure of more, just over the horizon. The writer of Proverbs warns against the strife caused by greed: "A greedy man stirs up dissension, but he who trusts in the LORD will prosper" (Prov. 28:5). The prophets gave stern warnings against greed, so prevalent amongst the Israelite nation (Hab. 2:5; Ezek. 33:31; Jer. 6:13). Jesus poured scorn on the religious leaders of his day, proclaiming, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence" (Matt. 23:25).  And he offered his closest disciples, and us via the words of Luke (12:15), this exhortation, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

We may not face a great white shark but the emotions that such a beast evokes are certain to confront us. Fear and greed are common to all. How will we confront them? Like Vaughn or like Chief Brody?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs