Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hunger Games -- mindless entertainment's desensitizing effects

Director: Gary Ross, 2012. (PG-13) 

In 2008 Suzanne Collins published “The Hunger Games,” the first book in a trilogy. Though aimed at teens, the same audience that ate up Harry Potter and then the Twilight series, Collins’ books have been well-received by young and old alike. After one of my kids’ completed the first two books, I was encouraged to read the first and found it to be a real page-turner! Not only is it an awesome adventure, but it presents a number of important themes thoughtfully. Collins describes them as "issues like severe poverty, starvation, oppression, and the effects of war among others" (from a Wikipedia article).

Now, almost four years later, the first of the books hits the big screen and it hits a home run as far as box office tickets are concerned. It took in $155M on its first weekend to become the third highest film ever, behind only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and The Dark Knight. But it was worth the take, being great entertainment, at least from my perspective.

Most people know the basic plot. The film is set in a dystopian future, where war and violence has left the United States broken, now Panem with 12 districts surrounding the capital. Citizens of these districts live hard lives while President Snow (Donald Sutherland) rule with an iron-fist from the Capitol. To keep the citizens in their place and to discourage rebellion, each year two tributes are randomly selected from each district, one boy and one girl, to compete in the annual hunger games. Not a mere tournament, this is a violence fight to the death in a carefully crafted and controlled arena where only one child will emerge as victor. To that person go the spoils of war, glory and honor, and to his or her district goes extra food, a precious commodity to the starving citizens.

Unlike the book, there is precious little backstory to introduce the film. Much is left unsaid, but then most viewers will already know this. The film quickly gets to the reaping, where the children wait anxiously to see if they will be selected. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), overmade-up and overdressed, emcees the event, fruitlessly tries to instill enthusiasm from those who would be led away to likely death (odds of 23-1 against!). When 13 year-old Prim Everdeen is selected, her 16 year-old sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) steps in to volunteer to take her place, an act unheard of before. Joining her from District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s boy who has a secret crush on Katniss.

The first intersection with biblical Christianity is the theme of sacrifice. Although Katniss is a fighter and survivor, adept with archery, she is stepping up for almost certain death. She typifies a Christ-figure, willing to sacrifice herself to save her sister. Of course Jesus humbled himself and came to earth (Phil. 2:6-8) for the express purpose of going to the cross in our place. Our punishment and death (Rom. 3:25) became his. God “loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10).

The second part of the first act moves the story to the capitol, as Katniss and Peeta journey there to be prepared. Accompanying them are Effie and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). If Effie is to mentor them in etiquette, Haymitch is supposed to mentor them in survival. He is District 12’s only surviving victor, an alcoholic wretch of a man. And in the capital is Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, Julie and Julia), the oily host of the event, selling the show to the viewers.

One of the strengths of the film is in the casting. Harrelson is perfectly cast as a boozy scoundrel, who emerges from his drunken haze as things take off. So too is Tucci, a veteran actor. He is over the top, exactly as Flickerman would be. Hutcherson is solid as Peeta. But the story revolves around Katniss and the film’s fate is sealed by the actress playing her. Fortunately, Jennifer Lawrence is up to the measure and carries the movie. She is outstanding once again, conveying action as well as emotion. She was nominated two years ago for her role as an Appalachian survivor in Winter’s Bone, and that could have been an audition for this role.

One of the complaints against the film is that it underplays some characters and leaves out plenty of detail from the book. That has to happen in any film adaptation, but it is a minor complaint. Perhaps the largest character downplayed here is Gale (Lian Hemsworth), Katniss’s hunting friend and early love interest. He has almost no part here. His best line comes as he says goodbye to her at the station: “You’re stronger than they are. You are. They just want a good show, that’s all they want.” And it’s true. The citizens of the capitol just want something to watch.

The Hunger Games offers commentary on today’s preoccupation with reality TV. Americans idolize these shows and their contestants. From American Idol to Biggest Loser, we tune in to see who is kicked off this week, all the while ignoring the serious things that are going on in the world. Such entertainment is an anesthetic, a distraction from our troubles. Indeed, Panem might be taken from the Latin phrase “panem et cirenses” meaning “bread and circuses”, which is a reference to the Roman formula for keeping the population in its place: give them food and fun. Such strategy sufficed to satisfy Cesar’s citizens. We must wake up and throw off the numbing yoke of mindless television.

Moreover, Collins herself commented in a quoted interview by Douglas Eby that audiences for “both the Roman games and reality TV are almost characters in themselves. They can respond with great enthusiasm or play a role in your elimination”. Even though they do here, it is clear that the entertainment has become almost a new reality for them. Like the text now to protect your favorite Idol singer, the viewers of the hunger games could support their favorites with parachuted supplies. Such reality is unreality.

Just before the film moves out of the capitol, we see Peeta and Katniss spending their last night on the roof of the building, watching the lights below. Peeta comments, “I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me.” He has understood the theatrical nature of the event. He is a player, and the President and creators of the games want him to give a show, to take upon himself a role. They can select him, they can send him to certain death, but they do not own him. He retains his dignity even in death.

The second act of the film brings us to the action, where the 24 tributes must do battle in a contrived spectacle much like the Roman gladiatorial games. And here the pacing is perfect, retaining the tension while still allowing moments of reflection, such as between Katniss and the young girl, Rue. The pacing is not surprising given that Collins helped with the screenplay.

Another theme of the film is its anti-violence message wrapped up in its violent plot. The tributes are all children, and for the most part are innocents. They are all victims, creations of cruel adults for sheer entertainment. Collins, in an interview for Parade Magazine, commented on this as the inspiration for her story:
“I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me. One night I’m sitting there flipping around and on one channel there’s a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe? And on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.”
When children are forced into slavery or war, such as Ishmael Beah was in “A Long Way Gone”, they suffer loss of innocence. Such loss is beyond sad, it is tragic. Childhood should be a time of play and progress, of development and enjoyment. When it is cut short and they are forced to grow up prematurely it comes with a cost. Katniss evidences this here.

Another social commentary is highlighted by Jennifer Lawrence, who said in an interview: “This is what our society could be like if became desensitized to trauma and to each other’s pain.” The viewers in the capital do not see the children as people; they see them as characters in a play. They don’t care that one by one they are dying. Their pain is ignored. Even the tributes are desensitized since they must kill or be killed, as in war. But when we lose empathy and compassion, we lose a little of our humanity. God is called the “Father of compassion” (2 Cor. 1:3), and Jesus commands us to “be kind and compassionate to one another” (Eph. 4:32). Apart from this we become like the rabble who cried “Crucify him” (Matt. 27:22). Indeed, when we are fully desensitized, we become the very soldier who nailed Jesus to the cross, and then we turn and look for more victims to satiate our bloodlust.

There is a great scene toward the end of the film that does not appear in the book. President Snow is genteelly pruning roses in his garden while talking to the Games Master. He tells him that the people need fear and hope, but not too much hope. A little hope goes a long way; too much and they will get ideas. With these two concepts, the carrot and the stick, he can control and manipulate the masses, keeping them subservient and somewhat loyal.

These two concepts play out biblically. Like Katniss, we all face tribulations and suffering. But the apostle Paul tells us “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). Hope is an end-goal, but hope does not disappoint (Rom. 5:5) because we have the love of God in us and a future waiting with him (Phil. 3:20). Such hope is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But fear is crucial, too. The fear of the Lord is both the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7) and wisdom (Prov. 9:10). Such fear refers to reverence and awe. It points to the attitude of the true follower of Jesus, who worships God who has created all things. Such fear enables us to see ourselves for who we are: creatures in need of forgiveness. Yet it also enables us to retain our uniqueness, as Peeta desired, not being forced into a role or image of another’s making.

President Snow and Effie Trinket may offer the platitude, “may the odds be ever in your favor” to the tributes hoping for victory. But if we embrace the fear of the Lord, then the odds will be ever in our favor of realizing our hope for true victory!

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The White Countess -- hiding and not seeing

Director: James Ivory, 2005. (PG-13) 

The White Countess is a Merchant-Ivory production. The team of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant have produced a number of memorable charming period piece films, most notably Howards End and Remains of the Day. Sadly, this was their last partnership before Merchant died later in the same year. Sadly, too, this falls far short of their earlier movies. Despite a strong cast, The White Countess disappoints mostly due to a poor, choppy script and a painfully slow plot.

The film takes place in Shanghai in the 1930s between the two world wars. In the aftermath of the great war, many people emigrated to Shanghai and it was a melting pot of cultures. When the Russian Revolution left its aristocracy stateless, Countess Sofia Belinskya (Natasha Richardson) and her family have moved here. This geographic move south parallels the societal move south, as they are now living in poverty, sharing the beds in shifts.

To survive, Sofia takes a job as a bar-girl, dressing up to act as a companion to the men who come to these places to drink and dance. Although she is the only breadwinner, her relatives are ashamed of her and treat her like a pariah, even telling her to avoid her young daughter when she is in make-up. When she meets Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) a friendship is formed.

Jackson, a blind American diplomat, spends his time frequenting various bars, seeking the perfect one. He dreams of opening that perfect bar, and when he meets Japanese diplomat Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) he shares this dream. When he eventually takes a risk, he gains the money to open his own bar and realize his dream. Taking Sofia with him as hostess, he names the place after her: the White Countess.

As his dream is realized, he finds he is unsatisfied. With Matsuda’s help he accomplishes the refined version of this dream. But he continues to hide inside his bar, avoiding the world outside and even avoiding any relationships of depth. His real dream is to be with Sofia, but he hides even from that.

Fiennes and Richardson are great actors, but here the chemistry is wrong. And so too are the accents. Richardson, in one of the last films of her career before her tragic death in a skiing accident, can’t pull of a good Russian accent, while Fiennes sounds like a Brit trying to be an American. He is unconvincing. Alongside Richardson, her mother Vanessa Redgrave and her aunt Lynn Redgrave also appear as Sofia’s family members. They offer solid acting but don’t really move the plot along.

Jackson’s blindness offers a key to interpreting the film. Physically, he is blind and that is involuntary. The film slowly explains how he lost his sight, but it was not his choice. Yet, he is blind metaphorically, avoiding “seeing” what was going on in the world. He refused to look at Mr. Matsuda, who was more than just a diplomat. He refused to see the imminent invasion of the Japanese into China. He was happy to remain in his little bar, his happy place, hiding alone.

One of the emerging themes here is hiding from the world. To experience life you have to take a risk. Jackson did it once but hesitated later. When we hide, however we choose to do so, we are avoiding the plans and opportunities that lie in wait. God calls us to an abundant life (Jn. 10:10), one that relishes adventure. We cannot simply waste that life in hiding.

On the other hand, the Bible does have something to say about hiding. On the positive side, the Psalmist talks of believers hiding in God: “In the shelter of your presence you hide them from all human intrigues; you keep them safe in your dwelling from accusing tongues.” (Psa. 31:19). Another Psalm is more active, “Rescue me from my enemies, LORD, for I hide myself in you” (Psa. 143:9). Yet, the apostle John spoke of unbelievers who will cry out to the mountains and the rocks in the end times, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16). Clearly, the right form of hiding involves taking refuge in God, and that does not deny taking a risk in life.

Like the blind man plodding carefully forward to avoid unseen obstacles, this film is ponderous, plodding on and hitting the obstacles of plot and dialog. Although the mood and atmosphere captures the era, even the beauty of the cinematography cannot save this one. Do yourself a favor, and hide inside if this one comes along.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Minority Report -- perfection and predeterminism, choices and beliefs

Director: Steven Spielberg, 2002. (PG-13)

The late great Phillip K. Dick wrote over 40 novels and 120 short stories during his lifetime. Though his name might not be well-known, these books have spawned 10 full length feature films, including The Adjustment Bureau and the sci-fi classic Blade Runner. Minority Report is another terrific, dark science fiction flick from the Dick stable.

Like Blade Runner, Minority Report is set in the future, this time 2054 Washington DC. Also like Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Minority Report is a gritty neo noir, centered on a conflicted police detective protagonist. But while Blade Runner dealt in theological and psychological issues, this film focuses more on ethical and philosophical dilemmas.

Tom Cruise (Mission Impossible) stars as Chief John Anderton, a man fractured by the loss of his young son Sean 6 years earlier. That tragedy has left him divorced and doing drugs to cope. It also has him leading the “precrime” unit in the capital.

When murder became an epidemic in the nation, Washington DC embarked on a radical crime prevention program utilizing three “precogs” who, living a half-awake/half-asleep semi-conscious existence in a nutrient pool, can see the future. Visualizing murders to be, their prophecies appear on a screen and provide clues to the police of the victim and perpetrator. With this portending information, the police can swoop in before the crime occurs and seize the perp. In this way, the murder rate has dropped to zero in DC.

Now the program, under Director Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow) and Chief Anderton, is poised to go national. But Justice Agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) is sent to investigate and determine the legitimacy of the program, and he is immediately at odds with Anderton and his fellow cops.

The first part of the film introduces the concept, showing Anderton in action. Standing before a bank of transparent info screens, he is more like a symphony conductor, moving images captured from the precogs brains, shuffling, zooming in, until he has identified the location of the crime. This initial act shows him and his team stopping a nasty murder so we can understand the process.

But when the next perp ball falls with his own name on it and a victim unknown to him, Anderton suddenly finds himself on the run, with his former friends chasing him to arrest him. He has to unravel the mystery of who Leo Crow, the murder victim, is, and why Anderton wants to kill him. If he does kill him, he will prove the precogs right; if he doesn’t the whole system falls apart. Along the way, he takes Agatha (Samantha Morton), the female precog, as he tries to solve the meaning of the minority report and prove himself innocent.

An early scene in the precrime headquarters with Anderton facing off with Witwer introduces the philosophical dilemma. Anderton rolls a ball along a channel that ends with a chute. Before it can fall to the ground, Witwer catches it. “Why’d you catch it?” he asks. Witwer replies, “Because it was going to fall.” Anderton: “You’re certain?” Witwer: “Yeah.” And Anderton responds, “But it didn’t fall. You caught it. The fact that you prevented it from happening doesn’t change the fact that it was going to happen.” But it didn’t!

If something is going to happen but is prevented, was it preordained to happen or not? Did Witwer’s choice to catch the ball change destiny or was the ball never going to fall?

To move this to an ethical dilemma, when the cops arrive to prevent the murder in the opening act, they arrest the perpetrator for the “future murder” of his wife. Yet they prevented the crime. So, since the crime never occurred, how can they arrest him for murder? At best, shouldn’t this be attempted murder? Surely a prevented crime is only an attempted crime. Moreover, since they prevented the crime, wasn’t it predestined to be prevented?

That moves us to ponder the theological dilemma, in a different dimension. The contrast is between predestination (what will happen) and choice (what can be changed). The Bible seems to present both options. God is depicted as one who has preordained events. Romans 8:29-30 says: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” In Ephesians 1:4-5, the apostle Paul goes even further saying, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” Yet, the New Testament also depicts the freedom of mankind to choose and to be held morally accountable. Jesus’ statement, “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God” (Jn. 7:17), implies such choice. This is a conundrum that has puzzled scholars for centuries. The best solution is to seek to hold the two positions in tension without forcing a resolution. God is sovereign and ultimate chooser, while we are free moral agents who can choose even within predetermined outcomes.

Keying off choice, a theme of the film, Burgess comments on Anderton’s passion for the precrime program: “My father once told me, ‘We don’t choose the things we believe in; they choose us.’ “ This, too, has theological parallels. In his final speech to his disciples, hours before his death, Jesus said: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn. 15;16). Earlier he pointed out that God had given these disciples (sheep) to him (Jn. 10:29). Here it is the person, rather than the thing, that we believe in. And he chose us!

The whole precog system is built on the premise that the three precogs working together never fail in their predictions. They are never wrong. If they were wrong, even once, the system would collapse because Anderton and his fellow cops could never know with certainty that the crime they are preventing would have happened. It might not. Anderton explains this to Witwer: “There hasn’t been a murder in 6 years. There’s nothing wrong with the system, it is perfect.” Witwer concurs: “perfect. I agree. But if there’s a flaw, it’s human. It always is.”

The point resonates. Humans are not flawless. Batters might hit .900 but never reach 100% or perfection. No one alive today can say she has no flaw, has never been wrong. We are imperfect, flawed. We make mistakes. We are sinners (Rom. 3:23). We sin. We fail.

In contrast, we see God the one perfect being. His ways are perfect (2 Sam. 22:31), his knowledge is perfect (Job. 36:4), his beauty is perfect (Psa. 50:2), his will is perfect (Rom. 12:2), his faithfulness is perfect (Isa. 25:1), the peace he offers is perfect (Isa. 26:3). And his son, Jesus Christ, came and lived a perfect and sinless life (2 Cor. 5:21, Heb. 7:28), the perfect lamb of God without blemish or defect (1 Pet. 1:19). His perfection provides the source of eternal salvation for his imperfect creatures (Heb. 5:9). He is the perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2), if we follow him by faith and allow him to change us into his image. But then, if we are allowing what has been predestined, is that choice?

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Way -- choosing a life, living a life

Director: Emilio Estevez, 2010. (PG-13)

One person embarks on a 500 mile trek and meets up with three others along the way. They form a love-hate relationship and share some of their personal struggles along the journey. This sounds like a slow and boring movie, especially given the frequent shots of silent striding. Yet, under the sensitive helm of writer-director-producer (and even actor) Emilio Estevez, The Way is actually a poignant and moving (pun intended) film that engages those who want to think about their films.

The story centers on Tom Avery (Martin Sheen, Emilio’s real-life father), an ophthalmologist living in California. His wife dead, his estranged son Daniel (Emilio Estevez in more of a cameo role) has gone to France to walk the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St James the Apostle. This 500 mile trek is one of the most famous Christian (or Catholic) pilgrimages, going from St. Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Camino in Spain. Daniel has turned his back on his PhD program to seek real-world adventure and to live life, to travel and gain experience he can use later.

When Tom gets a call from France, he is informed Daniel died in a storm barely out from the start of his trek. Cancelling his appointments, he goes to France to claim the body, and while there decides to walk the camino with the cremated remains of his son. Wearing his sons gear, Tom begins an unplanned trek to complete what Daniel started. He is bearing not only the box of Daniel’s ashes, scattering them as he goes, but his grief and the bitterness of estrangement.

Estevez shows up in a few scenes, notably at the beginning when Tom is driving Daniel to the airport, to establish the difference between father and son. He shows up later along the journey but only in Tom’s imagination, to either challenge or encourage Tom in his progress along the way.

And along the way Tom picks up a rag-tag trio of misfits. First there is Joost from Amsterdam (Yorick van Wagenngen). Carrying a portly beer belly, he is ostensibly traversing the camino to lose weight. His collegial congeniality and constant patter is diametrically opposite to Tom’s no-nonsense and purposeful manner. They are chalk and cheese. Then there is Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger, The Game), an acid-tongued Canadian with an attitude. She is walking the way to give up smoking, seemingly ready to put her last cancer-sticks at the feet of the statue of James in Camino. Finally, they meet Jack from Ireland (James Nesbitt), a high-strung writer suffering from writer’s block. He is along to find inspiration and unplug his writing. These comprise the main players in this plot.

Some have compared this movie to The Wizard of Oz, with Tom taking the part of Dorothy, finding himself in a land that is not California. The way of Saint James becomes the yellow brick road. The three trekkers parallel the cowardly lion (Sarah), the tin man (Joost) and the scarecrow (Jack). But unlike that earlier classic, when Tom gets to Spain he finds no Wizard, just a church with a statue. But the journey does enable them to attain personal transformation, just like Dorothy’s friends.

One obvious theme is grief. Although not dwelling on this, it is evident that Tom is processing his grief and his loss through finishing up Daniel’s project. He deals with this through much solitude and inner reflection, pushing people away with his gruff and determined manner. But he eventually opens up and shares with those around him.

Bereavement is sadly a fact of life. We all deal with grief differently. Some process alone; others need to talk it out with family and friends. All need to walk through it. And walking is what Tom does. Allowing himself to feel the pain of the lost relationship, he finally comes to terms with how he pushed Daniel aside while he was alive.

The second theme emanates from this point. In the early scene of Tom driving with Daniel, Daniel tells him, “You don’t choose a life, dad. You live one.” This is the core of the movie, as is clear from the tag line. There is a difference between choosing a life and living a life. The former is passive, putting the person on the outside. The latter is much more active, engaging with life and all its facets both positive and negative. Tom was choosing his life, playing golf, treating patients, but not making time to do things he wanted to do, like spend time with Daniel.

How often do we put up the excuse of not doing something now because we are too busy, or saving up for something in the future? If events conspire to throw us a curve ball, like an accident or a tragedy, we lose that future opportunity and lose the gift of life in the immediate.

Jesus told us he is the life we need (Jn. 14:6). He also told us he came to offer us an abundant and full life (Jn. 10:10). But he also warned us that the person who focuses on the present can find it all taken away in an instant (Lk. 12:20) . James told us the same thing, that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring (Jas. 4;14). Although there is a place for planning for the future, there is a clear calling to enjoy life in the present, as there are no guarantees. This is living life, rather than choosing life.

There are a number of funny scenes, including a reference to Psycho. One of my favorites is when Tom loses his backpack when it falls into the river. His fear of losing his gear and his son's remains are paramount and he is willing to risk everything to get them back. Are we willing to risk all we have to gain what we really need? The second scene is when he, in a sense, loses his leadership position in the group.

Having got drunk and shared his opinions about the other three, his arrogant attitude finally spews out. He thinks himself so much better than them. But he finds himself humbled by his predicament and this humiliation leads to a humility that surfaces in allowing others to leave this stop in the lead. Internal transformation cannot really take place until we reach such a place of humility, and it sometimes takes external humiliation.

At the end of the journey, these four peregrinos actually find themselves transformed, but not in the way they spoke about. Their change is all internal. The outward behaviors were smokescreens (literally for Sarah) that were hiding their real problems and fears. Ultimately, the closing scenes point out that they had to walk this path to face their fears, verbalizing them in some cases. By facing them, they came to accept themselves. This did not necessarily result in external transformation, but the change within was much more powerful.

Accepting ourselves is a powerful concept. We can berate ourselves, punishing ourselves for our mistakes and our sins. We can put our inner critical voice on loop-mode, and constantly listen to this negative, demanding and demeaning talk that brings us down and leads us to defeat. On the other hand, when we accept who we are, turn our sins and ourself over to God, and embrace his loving acceptance, self-acceptance will follow. God already knows all our sins. God already knows our inner secrets. If he can love us, if he has already paid the penalty for our sins in the death of Jesus, we can experience the freeing power of forgiveness. Then accepting ourself allows us to live life now, instead of seeking punishment and self-immolation. Instead, Jesus is our sacrifice, and now he is our life.

What is interesting about The Way is that none of these four travelers are seeking God. None find him in an outwardly saving sense with traditional fanfare. But they seem to find a sense of the divine. At the climax in the church, all four stand and ponder the worship service and one breaks down, weeping. He clearly has a divine encounter. I think the others do too, though in their own way, just like we do.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene -- disturbing descent into cult's control

Director: Sean Durkin, 2011. (R) 

Wow! Who would have thought an Olsen could act? I’m not talking about the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley. I’m talking about their younger sister Elizabeth Olsen. She plays the main character here, and the film centers completely on her. She has to carry the movie and she does, with aplomb. She is simply stunning as a young adult who is losing touch with reality and whose haunting memories cause her to descend into an ever-deepening paranoia.

The film focuses on Martha (Olsen) who is living in a hippie-like commune in the Catskills, New York. The community appears peaceful, almost idyllic as we first see it. But this is deceptive, as the commune is more of a cult, ruled by 50-ish gaunt Patrick (John Hawkes). We realize something is amiss when we see their meals, that are eaten in two sittings: the men first and then the women eat what is left. When Martha runs off into the woods with a backpack, she is seeking escape. After she calls her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), she is picked up and driven to her sister’s lakeside weekend home, a beautiful over-large house that Lucy and her English husband ted (Hugh Dancy) use to de-stress from the pressures of New York City.

The plot is simple, how will Martha handle return to normal life after two years in the cult. But debut writer-director Sean Durkin has crafted an atmospheric chiller that is disturbing and unsettling while being unforgettable. With a moody score, the tension increases slowly until the audience is nervous just watching Martha.

Creating the confusion is the deft editing. Durkin jumping back and forth between Martha’s life in the cult, where she is named Marcy May, and her life in the present with her sister. The cuts are picture perfect taking us seamlessly from a moment now to a moment then, as the present brings flashback memories to Martha. We feel some of Martha’s bewilderment, having to slowly assemble to scenes to come up with a picture of what is happening. She has compartmentalized the horrors she has endured, that only slowly emerge, and now cannot quite tell what is real and what is dream.

What we find is a cult that preys on young women, with handsome Watts (Brady Corbet) acting as a ladies man bringing in young “castaways” like Martha, who have little ties or relationships. They are warmly accepted into this friendly environment where everything is shared, even babies. They discover communal clothing, group sleeping arrangements and an absence of electronics. The group is striving for self-sufficiency, seeking to live off the land, cleansing themselves from the toxins of modern-day living. But once they are drawn in they are fed lies and forced to endure rape. Those who have come before, and have endured such atrocities, now tell her, “You have to trust us.” They claim to be a new family for the girls like Martha.

The first thing Patrick gives Martha is a new name. He tells her she looks like a Marcy May. A common cult tactic, this strips young Martha of her previous identity and forces her to look to the cult and its leader for her new identity.

This reminds us that Jesus promises to give to his followers a new name: “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17). But that renaming is a positive one, one that is personal and private. It is a unique link between Jesus and his followers, something special.

Skye Jethani, managing editor of Christianity Today's "Leadership Journal," commented on this new name in his book "With". Quoting George McDonald, he writes:
The true name is the one which expresses the character, the nature, the meaning of the person who bears it. It is the man's own symbol -- his soul's picture, in a word -- the sign which belongs to him and no one else. Who can give a man this, his true nature? God alone. For no one but God sees what a man is.
Jethani continues with his own thought, "Who I really am, my tryest self, my most intimate indentity is something that will only be shared between me and my Creator."

The idea of identity being found in community is distinctly biblical. We find our personal identity in our relationship with God, as a child of his through Jesus (Jn. 1:12). And perhaps this points to the renaming in Revelation. But like a human family, all Jesus’ followers are related as brothers and sisters in Christ. Our identity and character is defined in our relationship with these family members. And just like the cult depicted here, the early church lived in community, sharing everything in common (Acts 2:42-47). But this was when the church numbered only a few thousand and lived in one location. Now that is impractical, although it establishes the practice of giving to others in need in our community or around the world.

Unlike the church, though, this cult is not God-centered. They are not a religious cult. But as the film progresses, it is clear that they are not as simple and as self-sufficient as they claim. They are no saints. Rather, they leave a trail of robbery, rape and murder.

The methods of a cult are further evidenced in their early and easy acceptance of the “acolyte”. These young women like Martha have broken or missing family. They are seeking acceptance and relationship. They crave love. They find it in Patrick and the others. Patrick tells Marcy May, “You are a leader and a teacher,” although he has nothing to base this on. It is a false promise. Yet it is one that triggers a hope in her, since she has not heard such positive affirmation before. Like this false hope his love is a false love, a diabolical lie.

The cultists present half-truths or partial truths to the new followers. “We are your family,” one says. In a sense this is true. But a real family seeks the well-being of all its members. Another member tells Marcy May: “There’s no such thing as dead or alive; we just exist.” There is truth here, since as living souls we exist beyond death (Jn. 5:24; 1 Jn. 3:4). But that is not to refute death or life.

Then there are the out-and-out lies. “You have to trust us,” Marcy May is told after she has been drugged and is about to be ritually raped. After the experience, her friend tells her that it was a beautiful thing; the first time with Patrick is to be savored and remembered. Since when is rape beautiful? When is rape love? Why would we trust a person who has been similarly brainwashed?

Worst of all, perhaps, is the statement by Patrick that “death is love”. This is so contrary to biblical precepts it reminds us of Satan’s wooing of Eve (Gen. 3:2-4). God formed life at creation. He did not bring death into the world. Death entered our reality after the first humans followed Satan’s lie and disobeyed God’s command. To Adam God said, “for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). Death is the opposite of life. Death is not love. God is love (1 Jn. 4:8), and God offers life (Jn. 1:4), not death.

Along with the brainwashing is the mistreatment of women. Patrick and the men treat them as second class citizens. They are subservient to them, almost creatures whose role (“You will find your role” is a common statement) is to provide pleasure and breed babies (only boy babies though). In contrast, the Christian community founded in the church elevated the status of woman, giving them an equality in Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

The acting by the two lead characters is stellar. Hawkes, who featured as a support in last year’s independent and moodily similar best-film nominee Winter’s Bone, is chilling as the cult leader. He exudes confidence but quietly controls all those under his care. He is a villain in the mold of Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs. Against this, Olsen portrays the out-of-touch Martha with a credibility that is undeniable. As Hawkes earned an Oscar nomination last year, Olsen should be similarly rewarded for her work here. In contrast the rest of the actors are mostly throwaways, not being given enough to work with. Dancy (Confessions of a Shopaholic), more often seen in period-piece costume as the handsome British gentleman, has little to do except provide a picture of the normal husband, to contrast with Patrick. But that is all the film really needs.

As Martha tries to come back to normal life, she finds the distance too much. She simply does not know what normal is. And to Lucy and Ted, she is abnormal, mentally damaged in need of professional help. It reminds us that through subtle brainwashing, cults can create a warped norm that we accept as reality. Once accepted, control is accomplished. Marcy May and the other women accepted Patrick’s every command as perfectly normal and when he requires crime they do not blink an eye. He has conquered their will.

As the film moves towards its climax in the final act, the tension is high and we wonder how it will end. And when the ending comes, it is as sudden as a car crash. And it is ambiguous, leaving us wondering if the final scene is a dream or a dark reality portending something worse. Like another independent film, Take Shelter, this is a film that stays with you as you try to fathom the ending. This is a disquieting film, one not for the faint of heart, but one that shows the inner workings of a cult.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Final reminder of Movie Group this Saturday: "The Way", Mosaic Church, 4:30pm

Movie group is this Saturday. I am super-excited because we have a new and improved set-up for this church screening. We will be using a huge 8’x14’ set up on the stage and a HD 16:9 projector hooked up to a Blu-ray player. I am eager to see the resulting “theater-like” experience. All for free!
  • What: The Way (PG-13)
  • When: Saturday 3/10/12, 4:30pm
  • Where: Mosaic Church
Here’s an outline of the film, from the movie’s website. This is:
"a powerful and inspirational story about family, friends and the challenges we face while navigating this ever-changing and complicated world. Martin Sheen plays Tom, an irascible American doctor who comes to France to deal with the tragic loss of his son (played by Emilio Estevez). Rather than return home, Tom decides to embark on the historical pilgrimage "The Way of St. James" to honor his son's desire to finish the journey. What Tom doesn't plan on is the profound impact this trip will have on him. Through unexpected and oftentimes amusing experiences along "The Way," Tom discovers the difference between "the life we live and the life we choose." (from the movie's website)
Although we will not be providing food at this event, feel free to bring something to eat to tide you over if you don't eat before you come.We will offer coffee for the post-movie discussion. We'll plan on hanging out in the church for about 30 minutes after the screening to interact about the film.

We have had no requests for child care, so we will not be offering this option.
Hope to see some or all of you at this screening.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Help -- friendships and truth

Director: Tate Taylor, 2011. (PG-13)

What was the last film you saw that had no main male role? It’s hard to remember, right, since most films have a male lead. The Help, though, is a female dominated film. Actually, there is nary a main part for a man in this movie. Instead, there is a wealth of fine acting on display from women, white and black. There is a man at the helm, Tate Taylor, who himself adapted the screenplay from the popular 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett. And he has created a moving and surprisingly engaging film of friendship across social boundaries that shows the power of the truth to set free.

Set in Mississippi in the early 1960s, the story focuses on Skeeter (Emma Stone, Crazy, Stupid Love), a southern girl returning from college set on becoming a writer. Unlike her genteel friends, like Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), she has no interest in getting married and having kids. No, she wants a career as a journalist in the Big Apple and is set on earning her way there through the small town newspaper route.

When she is offered a job as the housekeeping advice columnist she snaps it up, but then realizes she knows nothing about this. She has little to offer. She needs help. She turns to “the help”, asking Elizabeth’s black maid Aibileen (Viola Davis, Doubt) for advice.

The acting here is consistently strong. Stone is having a break-out year, and plays Skeeter with just enough naivete and nerve. Davis commands the screen as Aibileen, so much so that you can almost feel the weight of her pain. While Octavia Spencer is not quite a caricature as a bug-eyed maid. WIth minor roles for Allison Janney, Mary Steenburgen and Sissy Spacek, this is almost a whos-who of American actresses.

Although Skeeter, like everyone else in this middle-class southern town, has a black maid to do the housework, there is a clear racial line precluding real friendship. The maids may raise the kids as friends, even teaching them self-affirming lessons (“you is kind. You is smart. You is important.”) that their actual parents fail to impart, yet when these kids turn into adults, the relationship turns nasty. Now they are servants to be managed and commanded.

As Skeeter begins her writing, she realizes that these maids are being denied civil rights. She begins to see the effects of separation, where they cannot even use the same toilets as the white people. (Indeed, her friend Hilly starts a political motion to mandate the construction of a blacks-only toilet in each white home.) She realizes that these maids have a story to tell, and she can help them by writing it. That is the thrust of the story.

When she first comes into Aibileen’s home, Aibileen is visibly nervous. It is clear why: “I ain’t never had no white person in my house before.” And there is real danger in this, physical as well as social. What starts out as a simple interview, stiff and stilted, turns into a flowering friendship as Skeeter shows a genuine interest in Aibileen’s story and the personal tragedy that drives this quiet and withdrawn women. But she needs more stories than just this one, and over time Minny (Octavia Spencer), Hilly’s maid, is drawn in.

Minny is the opposite of Aibleen, but a deep friend. Where Aibileen is quiet and withdrawn, Minny is loud and sassy mouthed, always finding herself in trouble. These three form an unlikely friendship through this project.

Friendship is one of the themes of the film. Skeeter has her own friends in her own social circle, but they have the wrong values. They do not align with Skeeter’s. Hilly and Elizabeth would draw towards a lifestyle she does not want. Instead, she finds a closer kinship with these two black women. This echoes the thoughts of Proverbs 12:26: “The righteous choose their friends carefully, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.” We should beware the wrong friends, lest they lead us down the wrong paths.

Then there is Celia (Jessica Chastain, The Debt). A white southern girl, she is cast as a pariah by Hilly for personal reasons, so she has to live miles from town without a maid to help her. Since Hilly is leader of the local women’s league, all of the other women kowtow to her and submitting to peer pressure avoid Celia. She has no friendships, until Minny, jobless after Hilly fires her, becomes her maid. Two outcasts find friendship and renewed life together. This is a reminder that social boundaries also block white friendships just as much as inter-racial relationships.

The theme of faith appears in the contrast of two main female characters, Aibileen and Hilly, the two outwardly Christian women in the movie. Hilly is a strong white Christian, but she uses her “faith” to divide and conquer, to support the status quo. There is no grace or mercy in her Christian make-up. Indeed, she is more characteristic of the Pharisees that Jesus condemns so scornfully. When he says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” he could be talking to Hilly (Matt. 23:27). Aibileen, on the other hand, is a woman who has a slow faith, one that was damaged by an early tragedy. She still attends church (an all-black church of course), but has some hesitation with regards to God. But when a powerful sermon touches, God has spoken. He has broken through her defenses and commanded her to meet with Skeeter regardless of the personal dangers. Aibileen’s quiet faith listens to the Holy Spirit and she obeys the voice of God. Unlike Hilly, she has experienced grace and mercy. She has a legitimate faith. She is an example of one God refers to in Isaiah 66:2: “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.”

A final theme revolves around truth. The white women are living a lie. The maids are telling their stories, stories swimming in truth. As tragedy unfolds in the town among the black community, Aibileen’s front room fills with maids ready and anxious to pour out truth. And they find that the truth unites. It unites them in a radical revolution against the social status quo. The truth also brings healing to Aibileen and to the others, as it allows them to confess earlier tragedies or sins, secrets never shared, that once released shower oil onto open wounds.

More than this, though, this truth ultimately sets Aibileen free from society-imposed and self-imposed prison. As she walks away from Elizabeth’s home at the end, she recounts this new-found freedom. This is exactly what Jesus said: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:32). There is an eternal truth that is freeing, and that truth is found in the very person of Jesus. He said elsewhere, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6). True freedom, indeed true life, is found in Jesus and in him alone.

The film is ultimately about the segregation between races and classes. These women who were trusted with white toddlers were not trusted with white toilets. Segregation was a hateful and shaming practice that divided and dehumanized. Skeeter’s project helped undermine it then, and eventually it was declared unlawful. But it makes us consider ourselves. We may not be practicing racists, like Hilly, but are we like her in some ways? What forms does discrimination and social segregation take today? What are our contemporary blind spots?

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Friday, March 2, 2012

March Movie Group: The Way, Sat 3/10 at 4:30 at Mosaic Church

For March, we decided to show a film, The Way, at church like before. The details are listed out below.
  • What: The Way (PG-13)
  • When: Saturday 3/10/12, 4:30pm
  • Where: Mosaic Church
Directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, this is
"a powerful and inspirational story about family, friends and the challenges we face while navigating this ever-changing and complicated world. Martin Sheen plays Tom, an irascible American doctor who comes to France to deal with the tragic loss of his son (played by Emilio Estevez). Rather than return home, Tom decides to embark on the historical pilgrimage "The Way of St. James" to honor his son's desire to finish the journey. What Tom doesn't plan on is the profound impact this trip will have on him. Through unexpected and oftentimes amusing experiences along "The Way," Tom discovers the difference between "the life we live and the life we choose." (from the movie's website)
 Unlike earlier movie group seasons, we won't be serving popcorn, bagels and cream cheese. However, we will offer coffee for the post-movie discussion. We'll plan on hanging out in the church for about 30 minutes after the screening to interact about the film.

One of my daughters has committed to provide child care if that is needed and requested; however, please respond by Thursday 3/8 so I can firm up child care needs. If no one responds, we will cancel the child care option.

Hope to see some or all of you at this screening in less than 10 days.