Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) -- perception and identity

Director: Pedro Almodóvar, 2011. (R) 

Almodovar’s latest film reunites him with star Antonio Banderas (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). Twenty-three years on, Banderas still fills the screen with his handsome visage and physique. Unlike that earlier screwball comedy, this film is serious, deadly serious. This is a suspense drama, with rape and suicide as key plot points. Indeed, it is reminiscent of a somewhat perverted, sexualized Hitchcock film.

The film opens with a quiet and serene scene of a woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), in a leotard-like bodysuit performing yoga moves in a large studio apartment. She uses an intercom to request supplies from a maid, Marilia (Marisa Paredes, All About My Mother), living below. All seems calm and well. But we don’t know the whole story.

Almodovar uses this first scene to communicate the point that first impressions can be deceiving. We perceive reality but often see things only skin-deep. And these first impressions cause us to jump to conclusions. We prejudice our understanding in this way. And then having formed these judgments, we interpret correctly or incorrectly the ongoing story of reality through this grid. As the film continues we see the curtain pulled back on Vera and realize our first impressions were hugely wrong.

As we move on, we meet Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas), a scientist whose wife died in the flames of car crash. Grief-stricken, he has dedicated his life to perfecting a synthetic skin, one that can withstand burns as well as cuts, and shields the lucky person from most pain. He works tirelessly in a private laboratory beneath his large secluded home. But are his motives as altruistic as they seem? The scientific community begins to question the bioethics underlying his discoveries when he shares them to a private audience.

To understand Ledgard’s motives, Almodovar takes us back 6 years. The slowly developing movement of the film takes us back not to the crash, but to its aftermath and its effects on his daughter. And like a true master, Almodovar takes us to the abyss, and then makes us look over the edge, throwing a twist so large it knocks us over the edge. Some may see it coming, and the clues are all there, but once revealed it casts everything we have seen before in a new and striking light.

A key theme emerges: identity. Are we defined by the skin we live in? If so, if we change that skin, do we change our fundamental nature and identity? Ledgard’s mad scientist experiments would have us answer affirmative to both questions. The new skin resists flame and that new skin on Vera, his flawless patient, provides her a new identity. Her identity is skin-deep.

Is this true? Is our identity only as deep as the cells in our skin, superficial? Surely not. Even if we change our skin, through grafts, we remain the same person. If we undergo surgery to change our appearance, we retain our DNA, we maintain our nature. We may even change our name, seeking to change our identity, but this does nothing to modify our character. Our innate personhood, our inherent nature is stable.

Identity is rooted in relationship, to ourself, our parents, our family, and our God. We know who we are even if we change our face, our name, our behavior. Much of our identity stems from our parents and familial upbringing. Even our name usually comes from there. But our fundamental identity, our uniqueness, comes from the God who formed us. Made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), we are marred by sin (Gen. 3). Yet when we come to follow the Lord Jesus we find ourselves adopted back into the family of God; we are called “children of God” (Jn. 1:12). This is at the very heart of our identity. When we come to the heavenly city upon exiting this life, we will find entry dependent on identity and relationship. If we are a child of God through relationship to Jesus Christ, we will be offered access. If we not, we will be shut out.

Once the twist is shown and the cat is out of the bag, a final theme emerges: vengeance. To be more exact, Almodovar forces us to consider the lesson that vengeance begets vengeance. Violence early in the film lays a path for violence throughout culminating at the climax.

The only true solution to vengeance is to absorb the earlier violence rather than repay it. Yet this carries a heavy cost: the cost of forgiveness. When we do not forgive we set ourselves up for bitterness or vengeance. The price of the former is a twisted and loveless life, while the price of the latter is a violent and cruel life. Neither offers hope. Jesus showed us the way. He offers us forgiveness for our sins through his blood shed on the cross (Eph. 1:7). Yet, if we accept his forgiveness to us, we are indebted in turn to offer forgiveness to others (Lk. 17:4). Jesus taught us to pray this way in the Lord’s Prayer, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).

Almodovar is no Christian and his answer is humanistic. His answers to the themes are skin-deep. But this film is a superb story, cleverly told, that allows him, and us, to reflect on these themes. It is a rare movie of philosophical and artistic depth. But for the more conservative be warned: The Skin I Live In depicts sex and violence that is more than skin-deep.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love -- marriage vs one-night stands

Director: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, 2011. (PG-13)

Crazy, Stupid Love is a rom-com, but one with a difference. The couple starts off together, having been married 25 years. The opening scene shows a crowded restaurant, the camera focusing on the feet under tables. Most couples are playing footsie, all except one. The feet of Cal (Steve Carrell, Date Night) and Emily (Julianne Moore, The Kids are All Right) Weaver stay on their own sides of the table. They are discussing what they want: “How about we say what we want on three? One, two, three.” In unison, they declare “Creme Brulee” (Cal) and “I want a divorce” (Emily). The room falls silent, Cal’s mouth drops. He is stunned. After 25 years and children at home, he had no idea. What a way to end a dinner, or start a movie.

Cal takes it like a man. At least, he does not argue or plead with Emily. He does not want hear her talk about the reasons why. Instead, he placidly moves out of the comfortable family home into a small apartment. He believed Emily was his soul mate; now he is not so sure.

Soul-mate is a theme that weaves throughout the movie, from multiple characters cross-generationally. Is there a true concept of a soul-mate? And if so, is there just one? Or can there be multiple soul-mates for a person? The soul-mate is usually thought to be the person with whom we have a deep personal affinity, one with whom we can share the deepest parts of our soul. It speaks to the deepest levels of intimacy. Certainly, if we go that deep, becoming totally exposed and vulnerable we will not likely do it with multiple people.

Biblically, the concept can be found as early as the second chapter of Genesis. When God made Adam he was lonely and God said, ““It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Gen. 2:18). To rectify the situation, God formed Eve. She was more than just a helper, she was his life-partner, his soul-mate. In the New Testament the idea of a life-long union of man and woman in marriage connotes a soul-mate relationship (Eph. 5:25-31). Many marriages do not evolve to this level of intimacy, but I believe it is the goal of a healthy marriage. Obviously, if a married person develops this level of intimacy with someone other than their spouse, it will damage if not destroy the marriage.

But Cal’s marriage is in deep trouble. His soul-mate is finding satisfaction and intimacy elsewhere. As he mopes to himself in a chic pick-up bar, hunky, packed-abs bachelor Jacob (Ryan Gosling) hears him and makes him an offer he cannot refuse: “I’m going to help you rediscover your manhood.” He offers no real reason why, but he plans a total makeover. And he teaches him how to be like him, a player who picks women up for sex. One-night-stands are the name of his game.

Along the way, several other characters emerge. Robbie Weaver (Jonah Bobo) is Cal’s 13 year-old son who thinks he has found his own soul-mate, and alternates between encouraging and chastising his dad. Marisa Tomei (The Ides of March) is funny and fierce as a recovering alcoholic who Cal chooses for his first post-Emily conquest. Emma Stone plays Hannah, a young lawyer who at first refuses Jacob’s advances but later aggressively pursues him. Kevin Bacon is sleazy as the home-breaker who wants to weasel into Emily’s life. And John Carroll Lynch plays a friend who has to choose between Cal and Emily, and then is over-ridden by his wife! All in all, these are solid characters with believable flaws.

The film, though, belongs to Carell and Gosling. Their interplay works well and both characters grow through the course of the film. As Jacob molds Cal into his image, Jacob discovers Hannah is his soul-mate, and he in turn becomes more like the early Cal. Which is better? Which is right? The contrast is between love and sex, between marriage and one-night stands. Cal had love and lost it. He moved to casual sex, but found himself unsatisfied and pining for his real love, his soul-mate.

The Bible offers clear advice here. Sex is a God-given gift to be enjoyed in the context of marriage: “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” (Heb. 13:4) The one-flesh union is designed to be between husband and wife. As Paul warned the church at Corinth, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body” (1 Cor. 6:18). One-night stands offer instant gratification, but at a price. We are prostituting ourselves and committing adultery or fornication. Such sin harms both man and woman involved. There is no commitment, only sex. There is no love, only lust. Such a union does not deepen intimacy and point to a soul-mate. Instead, it leads to shame and guilt.

As the movie progresses, the directors pull out two key plot twists that are not obvious. Both seem to come from left field but work well to give the movie a complete, almost circular feel. The ending may be predictable, but that is to be expected in the rom-com genre. The journey itself is fun and somewhat unpredictable.

In the end, Crazy Stupid Love does not sugar coat love and marriage. It is work. It will not magically solve all relational problems and make us happy. But the effort is usually worthwhile. The payout is intimacy; the result is a soul-mate there for the long-haul. Don’t settle for casual sex; focus on crazy love. If you have not found your soul-mate, keep searching prayerfully. And when you find him or her, commit to lifelong marriage with a goal of growing in intimacy every single day. That is a worthy goal!

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Descendants -- living with dignity, dealing with death

Director: Alexander Payne, 2011. (R)

Life comes at you fast. It’s often brimful of troubles and problems that we don’t see coming. Such is Matt King’s life in Alexander Payne’s independent film. He has all kinds of problems, some of which he isn’t even aware of.

The film opens with a short shot of Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) water-skiing in the beautiful Hawaiian waters. This is the only time we see her awake. A boating accident leaves her comatose on life support in a hospital room. Throughout the rest of the film she remains in this coma, though she shares scenes with all the main characters.

Matt (George Clooney, The Good German) is a lawyer and land baron. He and his extended list of cousins (including one played by Beau Bridges) own a large parcel of undeveloped land on Kauai. As sole trustee, Matt has the responsibility of deciding how this land will be sold, and the numerous cousins are forming groups lobbying for particular buyers.

Against this backdrop, Matt has to pull himself away from his work to deal with life. In particular, with Elizabeth comatose he has to deal with his two girls: grade-school age Scottie (Amara Miller) and high schooler Alexandria (Shailene Woodley). As Matt says in voice-over early, “I’m the back-up parent, the understudy.” He knows little about parenting. Good grief, he knows little about his girls! When he flies to the main island to retrieve Alex late at night, he finds her drunk and verbally abusive. Their relationship is fractured at best. As if this is not enough, back home Alexandria does not want to deal with the pre-grieving over her mom and reveals a huge surprise to Matt: Elizabeth was having an affair. And Matt did not even suspect.

George Clooney is having a great year. He wrote, directed and starred in the political thriller The Ides of March, which has garnered him Golden Globe nominations for writing and directing, and also landed co-star Ryan Gosling an acting nomination. Here, he underplays Matt, showing him as lost but thoughtfully responsive to all the situations he finds himself in. He so submerges himself that we forget this is the charismatic actor that women fawn over. He has been nominated for a Golden Globe for his acting, and he is sure to earn at least an Oscar nomination for this.

The acting, surprisingly though, is dominated by newcomer Shailene Woodley. She stands up to Clooney and plays alongside him like a veteran three times her age. She conveys the emotions of anger, shock, grief and more with authenticity that belies her age. She, too, should be honored with award nominations this season.

And there is Hawaii. It is almost a character itself in this story. Eschewing the typical tropical shots of the island, Payne shows more of the natural beauty of the undeveloped land. And the customs of the islands is weaved throughout the storyline, from music to mantel photos.

The main story, like most of Payne’s movies (including the superb Sideways), focuses on relationships. Matt is trying to find himself. He has buried and busied himself in his work, and now he has lost his wife and kids, and isn't sure about himself. His is a journey of self-discovery. Alex is struggling to find her place in the family and ultimately to help her dad on this journey. Bringing along her friend Sid (Nick Krause), who is the comic relief, she (and Sid) sometimes function almost as Matt’s parents.

Of course, we realize that relationships are vital to life. We are designed to live in community; even from the beginning God said “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). When we ignore our relationships, they wither and die. Sometimes, it is only when we are at risk of losing these that we suddenly realize our predicament. Better to nurture those that are important so we can grow closer, rather than further apart.

Matt genuinely wants to work to get closer to his girls, and despite his anger, still loves his wife. Unlike many films that move the plot forward quickly, Payne is content to allow Matt to think and reflect. In doing so, he often chooses the unexpected path. Each time he seems to want to respond with dignity and grace, though he is not expressing a faith.

One key scene has his father-in-law in the hospital room with Matt and the girls. When he comments how faithful Elizabeth was and then harangues Matt, we know the truth and expect Matt to rebut him. Instead, Matt ponders, and we can almost see his brain working. And then he responds with grace, so as not to destroy the grieving father’s last memories of his daughter.

Like Matt, we need to avoid reacting to life and respond thoughtfully and prayerfully. Grace is the key. The writer of proverbs said, “One who loves a pure heart and who speaks with grace will have the king for a friend” (Prov. 22:11). The apostle Paul put it this way, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6).

The Descendants has received much hype and praise and I found myself a little underwhelmed. The comic moments seen in the trailer are fewer than expected, and the film is quite sad overall. Yet, there is a magic within this melancholy. It is a rare film that lets us see a man dealing with betrayal and death with such dignity, trying to do the right thing by his daughters. He even tries to do the right thing with the land deal.

The movie ends with a shot of a family watching a movie. Ordinary and mundane, this is the destination of the journey. Relationships restored, healing underway. Even in the midst of death, life can go on if we allow grace to suffuse.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, December 16, 2011

Repo Men -- employment, identity and medical responsibility

Director: Miguel Sapochnik, 2010. (R)

“My job is simple. Can't pay for the car, the bank takes it back. Can’t pay for your house, the bank takes it back. Can’t pay for your liver, well that’s where I come in.” Remy (Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes), the protagonist, narrates this voice-over at the start of the film. He is one of the repo men.

Set in a bleak future where technology has produced numerous artiforgs, artificial organs to replace those in the body that are worn out or damaged. But control and sale of these artiforgs belongs to a company known only as “The Union” that seems to be above the law. The sale of organs to needy recipients is smooth and sleek, orchestrated by the morally defunct Frank (Live Schreiber, The Manchurian Candidate). But when the payments stop because the recipient can no longer afford it, they are given only a 90-day grace period before the repo men are sent to retrieve the artiforg, regardless of cost to the current user.

The opening scene sets the tone, as we see Remy repossess a liver from an unhappy man. Gory and shocking, Remy dons gloves and his iPod to jam out while he jimmies out the liver, leaving the unconscious man to twitch and die on the floor. Life has its price, and this man could not make the payment.

One of the themes revolves around the job. Remy’s partner Jake (Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland) quips repeatedly, “A job is a job.” But later, after Remy’s eyes are opened, he understands more and comments, “At the end, a job is not just a job, it is who you are, and if you wanna change who you are, you have to change what you do.”

Repo Men posits, therefore, that identity is wrapped up in employment. You are what you do. Is this true? Does our job define us? We often describe ourselves by our jobs. When asked, “Who are you?” we respond with, “I am a doctor” or an engineer or manager or whatever. But identity is never defined in this way in the Bible. We are so much more than what we do. Our job will likely change over time, through our careers, but we remain the same person. If our job defined us, then we would be lacking if we were laid off or fired, as Remy finds out.

We are defined instead by our nature and by our relationships. Humans are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), uniquely endowed with the immaterial element of soul/spirit that forms personality. And our identity is further refined by our relationships, with each other and with God. Our foremost and most vital relationship is with God through Jesus Christ. When we discover this through faith, we find we are brought into his wonderful family, becoming children of God (Jn. 1:12).

Frank spells out the financial balance sheet to Remy and Jake. The Union does not want to sell artiforgs to people who can pay outright. Rather, they want to sell to those who can only barely afford them, paying the 20% interest and then repossessing when they default on the payments. In that case, they can reuse or resell these organs to new Johns and make more money. They are loan sharks of a sort, preying on the helpless.

Such usury is unjust, an example of social injustice that is prevalent today. God spoke about this through Moses in the Old Testament: ““If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest” (Exod. 22:25). Although not espousing socialism or even communism, this is a far cry from the heartless capitalism that looks to profit from other’s pain.

Remy’s job drives his wife away, and she takes his son with her. When his last job backfires literally, Remy finds himself in a hospital bed with a new artiforg heart. He is now in debt to the company, like the poor victims he chased and killed. With a new heart, he discovers a truth about these victims: they all had names and were human! This not-so-subtle plot point, turns the movie and now Remy no longer has the heart to do his job. It does not take long before he is delinquent on his bill, and Frank sends repo men after him.

The second half of the film, then, becomes a standard chase movie. Remy teams up with a soulful singer (Alice Braga) who is virtually all artiforg, and together they find themselves on the run from The Union. Eventually, and predictably, Frank sends Jake to hunt and kill his friend.

There are some well-choreographed and quite bloody action sequences but their outcome is never in doubt. But Sapochnik throws a curve ball with a final twist that some might see coming and that echoes other sci-fi movies.

Repo Men takes an intriguing concept and fails to really explore the ethical questions. It uses it as a vehicle for a routine action thriller. But it does leave us asking the question, what is society’s responsibility when it comes to medical attention, especially for replacement of organs? Is it right to leave it to the free-trade economy, such as in the USA, to determine who can and who can’t get a new kidney or artificial knee? In that case, the poor will never be able to afford such health care options. But is it better to resort to a socialist scheme where all have the same level of treatment options available, such as in Europe? In some of those countries, citizens have taken out private insurance to get their replacement organs because the national health system was taking too long. Once again, those who could afford it are able to gain, those that can’t have to wait and maybe die before getting their chance.

Ultimately, Repo Men fails to provide answers. But then, the questions are too complex and political for any easy answers. Raising the question may be enough for now. If you leave this movie thinking about such questions rather than about the gore-fest, it would have been worthwhile.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Contagion -- disinformation and disinfection

Director: Steven Soderbergh, 2011. (PG-13)

Soderbergh knows how to make a slick movie. He has all aspects of the craft down pat. And he knows how to attract an A-list cast, as is evident here, with more Oscar-winners or nominees than we can name (at least four and four). But he has perhaps too many characters in this ensemble cast and struggles a little to juggle multiple intersecting stories. More on that to come.

The film opens on day 2 of the outbreak. There is no introduction. We are dropped into the story in progress. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is waiting in Chicago airport for her flight home. As she coughs, the camera tracks what she touches: her phone, her glass, her credit card, her face. . . From here, Soderbergh takes us on a cross-continental montage showing others who have similar symptoms in London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and China. The intent is clear: some kind of viral disease is travelling around the world.

When Beth arrives home to husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and son, her fever increases, her seizures start, and before 10 minutes are up, she is dead. So is her son. Only Mitch survives. And the epidemic is on!

Members of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and the World Health Organization are called in, to respectively search for a vaccine and for the origin of the outbreak. This brings in more characters, doctors mostly. Dr Cheever (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix) sends Dr Mears (Kate Winslet, The Reader) to Wisconsin to investigate Emhoff’s death, while working with Dr Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) on understanding the novel strain of the virus in Atlanta. Meanwhile, Dr Orantes (Marion Cotillard, Inception) from WHO is sent to Hong Kong to pinpoint the location of the index patient. And then there’s Dr Sussman (Elliot Gould), working in a less secure lab in San Francisco. This is a global disaster and requires global participation.

Indeed, working together is the only way the world might survive. And doctors are the heroes here. Whether they are working with big pharmaceutical companies or not, their intentions are true. They want to heal the sick and prevent further deaths. Putting themselves in the face of danger, one key character dies and another chooses self-sacrifice. They are like the great physician, Jesus (Mk. 2:17), who came to heal the sick and sinful, offering himself on the cross.

The strangest character is Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law, Repo Men), a blogger columnist who exposes the truth in his campaign against big business and government control. He is the first to catch onto the enormity of this outbreak. But when he tries to sell this to a legitimate newspaper, he is ignored. Stalking Dr Sussman, he is put in his place with the best line in the film: “Blogging is not writing. It’s just graffiti with punctuation.”

Point taken! True journalists sit behind desks and work for print media. But as a blogger, I resent and ultimately reject this. The internet has leveled the playing field, allowing anyone with a computer or tablet to express his or her thoughts. Certainly that does not equate to journalistic competency, but it enables ideas, if not truths, to be shared. We do need to check our sources and facts more carefully, in this day and age, but this is a small price to pay for the equal access. And I get to write my movie reviews that are read worldwide, when a decade ago that would have been unthinkable and impossible.

But Krumwiede’s blogging has a dark underbelly. While the epidemiologists are trying to keep things under wraps to quell any fear, Krumweide’s columns are exacerbating panic and spreading misinformation. He has a reason: he wants to make money by offering a solution that he tests on himself.

Here is another theme of the film: opportunism vs exploitation. Is Krumwiede being opportunistic? Or is he exploiting a bad situation and making it worse? The former is laudable and sometimes helpful. The latter is low and horrifying. Proverbs tells us, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor” (Prov. 22:22) but in this case it extends beyond the poor. This kind of exploitation hurts everyone, since all are impacted by a contagious disease of this magnitude. Masquerading as an agent of truth, Krumwiede is nothing more than another liar, a deceiver, reminiscent of Lucifer, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers” (2 Cor. 4:4). Krumweide’s words blinded the minds of many.

One problem with Contagion is the vastness of the scope and of the ensemble cast. Some of the stars die quickly, others live but are forgotten in the story for long periods. It is hard to keep the various storylines in mind. And several characters, like the one John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) plays, seem unnecessary. One wonders why Soderbergh didn’t trim these and leave them on the cutting room floor.

What Contagion does well is show the effects such an outbreak might have on society. As information slowly seeps out of official sources, or disinformation rushes out of the blogosphere, people start to understand they are at risk. Panic causes society as we know it to break down. Infrastructure collapses. Looting occurs, food runs out, cities are quarantined, martial law is enforced. When Mitch Emhoff sees neighbors burglarized and possibly shot, his 911 call cannot go through. A virus so small we cannot see could cause the destruction of everything in sight.

One point emerges clean and clear: we should be more careful with what we handle. Whether it is true that we touch our faces three times every minute, we do communicate germs and viruses by touch. And we touch a lot of things each day. When we consider that many others have touched these before us, leaving a microscopic trail of possibly lethal germs, we might take more care to wash our hands more often.

They say, “cleanliness is next to godliness,” meaning that keeping clean is second only to worshipping God. In Contagion, keeping clean and separate could keep you alive. Living a life of godliness, as Paul tells us to do in 1 Timothy 2:2, is far better. And doing this through faith in Jesus will guarantee life in the hereafter, even if the virus gets you in this one.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Movie Group for December: The Descendant​s: Monday 12/12/11 at Regal Fox Downtown (7:05pm)

For our December movie, we have selected The Descendants, a comedy-drama starring George Clooney about life and connecting with family. It is from director Alexander Payne, who did Sideways. This has received excellent reviews (see the Christianity Today review, which gave it 4 stars out of 4), and has been tagged by many as a possible Oscar-contender.
  • What: The Decendants (rated R)
  • Where: Regal Fox Stadium 10 (downtown, parking off-street or in a parking structure)
                 846 SW Park Ave, Portland, OR 97205
  • Date: Momday 12/12/11
  • When: 7:05pm showtime
  • Meet: at the theater lobby around 6:45pm
  • Who: movie-lovers from Mosaic Church and friends
  • Post-move: coffee and chat while we walk around Pioneer Courthouse Square
Since we are all getting into the holiday spirit we thought we'd have some fun by grabbing coffee and checking out the big Christmas Tree in Pioneer Square. We can chat about the film, our thoughts, etc, in pairs or small groups as we walk. What a way to spend a Monday: film, friends, festive fun!

We'd love to see you there. If you are running late, don't worry. Come find a seat in the theater and find us in the lobby after the show. Look for the "Mosaic Faith and Film Connect Group" sign. We'll wait for a few minutes after the film before moving on. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Good German -- sacrifice, survival and smuggling

Director: Steven Soderbergh, 2006. (R)

Moody monochrome movies were a thing of the 40s and 50s. But Steven Soderbergh chose to make this film noir mystery, which is set in Berlin in July 1945, as though it were a creation of that era. With references to Casablanca and an ending that bears striking resemblance to that all-time classic, you might be mistaken for thinking Soderbergh is paying homage to that great. But this is no classic, despite the star-studded cast and Soderbergh’s efforts. It pales into comparison, mostly because the characters don’t grip us like Rick and Ilsa did.

To make it as authentic as possible, the film was shot in black and white with period lenses and incandescent light. Rather than using modern microphones, Soderbergh used booms as they did in those golden years. But to make a movie like the classics requires more than nostalgic technology; it requires a strong script and characters we care about. That is what is missing in this film.

George Clooney (The Ides of March) stars as Captain Jake Geismer, a reporter sent to Berlin to cover the Potsdam conference in which Berlin and Germany will be sliced up by the victorious allies: Britain, America and Russia. A journalist, he is given a captain’s uniform to allow him to navigate the treacherous streets of the city. While the war in Europe is over, it still continued in the Pacific, and echoes of the war were all around in the city of Berlin.

Arriving in Berlin, he is met by Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire, Brothers), an apparently bushy-tailed and innocent GI driver. Yet, he is master of the black market and uses his driving privileges to smuggle materials into and out of the Russian controlled part of the city. War has corrupted his innocence and allowed him to acquire a taste for money. He is also the current lover for Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett, Hanna).

Lena is the femme fatale in this modern noir, and embodies the role with a Marlene Dietrich like approach. The black and white photography accentuates the shadowy life she lives. To complicate matters, Lena was Jake’s stringer and lover when he lived in pre-war Berlin. Naturally, tensions arise when Jake discovers this secret of Tully’s.

When an American soldier turns up dead in the Russian zone during the conference, both the Americans and the Russians want the murder to go away, simply disappear, despite the fact that the corpse had a pocketful of cash. Jake is the only one that seems to care, and wants to pursue solving the mystery. The second and third acts tell the story of his unofficial investigation.

The film divides neatly into three acts, each focusing mostly on one of these three main characters. Yet, none mean enough to us to want to walk with Jake. By the time end comes around, the payoff is poor and we don’t really care what happened. But each character offers a perspective on the epoch and some insight into morality.

Lena, the German, highlights the cost of survival in the midst of war. As we learn more and more about her it is clear that she carries secrets. Yet to survive through 6 years of war, she has had to make sacrifices, moral and ethical sacrifices. Living now as a woman of the street, she prostitutes herself to live. When times get tough, what are we willing to sacrifice to survive? Would we sell our belongings? Our homes? Our bodies? Or to turn the question around, what is so sacrosanct that we would not compromise even to survive? Is our faith in God such a commodity? Would we remain pure in spirit? Would we remain pure in body? We never know what we would do to survive until that day arrives, though we might plan and prepare. God certainly wants us to remain faithful to him and to place our trust in him regardless, as those like Dietrich Bonhoeffer did. But he was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis and so did not survive the war.

If Lena was the survivalist, Tully was the smuggler. He may have arrived innocent, but the war changed him just as it changed Lena. It showed him how to amass money and corrupted him. Money is amoral, but “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:10). Tully is a clear example of this truth. Though he says, “the war was the best thing that ever happened to me,” in fact it actually ruined him, causing his degradation and fall.

Then there is Jake, the good American. He is the only American that cares about the murder. But we never fully understand why he cares. He offers little of moral note. And the film is not entitled “The Good American” but The Good German.

So to the good German. Who is the good German? The film seeks to address this, but instead asks a more pertinent question: were there any good Germans during the war? If all Germans knew what was going on, were they all guilty to some degree? If they committed war crimes under orders, were they responsible? Other films, such as The Reader, have addressed questions of culpability for the bad Germans. Those that actually stood up and called Hitler to account faced the same fate as the non-Aryans? Like Bonhoeffer, they were typically jailed or killed.

The good German in this film is no Bonhoeffer. He seems anything but good, and in the end the question of culpability or forgiveness is forgotten in the meanderings of a film noir plot.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs