Sunday, August 26, 2012

In Bruges -- purgatory and honor

Director: Martin McDonagh, 2008. (R) 

How would you feel if you killed a person by accident? I imagine you'd be wracked with guilt and sorrow. That's pretty much how we find Ray (Colin Farrell) at the start of this film. The difference is that Ray is a hit-man. On his first job he kills the target and hits an innocent bystander. Now he and partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) have been sent bu London mob-boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to cool off and hide in Bruges, a quaint medieval town in the middle of Belgium.

The first part of the film is slow and cinematic, with the camera flowing over (and up and down) the various pieces of gothic architecture as these two Irish killers spend a day sight-seeing in Bruges. Ken, the older and wiser one, enjoys the respite from work. Ray, on the other hand, finds it all tedious and boring. He pines for the night life of London, the pubs and bowling alleys that would keep him entertained.

Then Ray meets Chloe (Clemence Poesy), a young woman working on the set of an indie film being shot in Bruges. She is selling drugs to a dwarf, a character who becomes critical to the developing plot.

It is when Harry calls to give further instructions to Ken that the film really takes off. This mobster with a deep sense of honor commands death and betrayal. When his instructions are ignored, he decides he must take matters into his own hands, thereby setting up a bloody finale that has as much irony as gore.

Farrell shines here as the emotionally-stricken gunman. His face conveys accurately the mixture of fickle feelings that oscillate like a yo-yo. He has delicate chemistry with Gleeson, whose world-weary pathos make him a beautiful foil. Both were nominated for the golden globe but Farrell deservedly won. Fiennes is also terrific as a caricature of a mobster. His lines are deliciously funny, even if they seem surprisingly unbefiting. Perhaps it is because of this that they are so comedic.

Here is one of the problems with the film. It cannot make up its mind what it is. Is it a film noir? Is it a comedy? Is it a thriller? One reviewer for Christianity Today suggested it might be "called a neo-noir crime comedy, or a postmodern Shakespearean tragedy, or even a medieval morality tale."  It's not truly a comedy, though the dialog is witty and biting. The first half is clearly a character-driven drama, but the second half veers towards action. It's caught in the middle.

That's probably for the best, given that its central theme is purgatory. At one point, Ken and Ray are viewing the Hieronymous Bosch painting of the last judgment, a horribly symbolic piece. Ray, the naive one, asks what it is and Ken replies, "Well, it's you know, the final day on earth, when mankind will be judged for the crimes they've committed and that." Ray, starting to grasp this, says: "Oh. And see who gets into heaven and who gets into hell and all that." Ken agrees: "Yeah. And what's that other place?" Ray: "Purgatory." Little do they realize, their time in Bruges is their very own form of purgatory, a waiting between judgment or redemption.

Purgatory is a peculiar concept specific to the Catholic faith. Its focus is on process not location. It is the purification of those who die in a state of grace through the process of temporary punishment. It has come to mean a place of waiting and suffering through this pain. Unlike the view of Ray and Ken, the Catholic church views those in purgatory as already knowing they will get to heaven, just when is the question. In contrast, in evangelical protestant church doctrine, purgatory has no place. There is no middle waiting ground. There is heaven and there is hell. Christ's blood has offered purification sufficient for both justification and sanctification. We do not need to suffer more.

Ray and Ken both feel a need to keep their professional job apart from their personal goodness, not wishing to end up in purgatory. In one dialog, Ken reflects: "And at the same time as trying to lead a good life, I have to reconcile that with the fact that, yes, I have killed people." Here are two philosophical killers discussing theology and ethics.

Like many people, they want to think of themselves as good people, who strive to lead a good life and whose good deeds at the final judgment will outweigh their bad deeds. This view pictures St Peter holding a balance scale at the pearly gates and only letting in those whose good deeds win. This is really bad theology.

We all want to think that we can earn eternal life. This view is exemplified in the man who came up to Jesus and asked, " “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16) We want to contribute to our own personal salvation. Yet Paul made it clear in his epistle to the Ephesians, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast" (2:8-9). We cannot contribute even one iota to our salvation. Grace forbids this. 

Moreover, as much as we want to think that we can do good, the psalmist David says of all mankind, "They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good" (Psa. 14:1). The prophet Jeremiah adds, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure" (Jer. 17:9). This is the doctrine of total depravity. We are touched by original sin (Gen. 3) and cannot add good deeds.

Harry, on the other hand, has no qualms about purgatory. Instead, he is a man of principles, a criminal with a code of conduct. He is a man of honor who wants to be honored (cf. Psa. 45:11). But this is honor among thieves, and unfortunately this conduct includes betrayal and murder. When push comes to shove, he resorts to relying on himself. He cannot trust others.

Principles are fine. Codes of conducts are common these days in organizations. But none trump relationships. Ken understands this. He is willing to pay the price to give another a chance at redemption. Doesn't that sound familiar?

In the end, In Bruges leaves us hanging. We wait for closure but it is not there. What is there is excessive swearing and moments of gory violence. 

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Book Review: What Matters Most -- relationships and mystery

Author: Leonard Sweet, 2004 (Waterbrook Press)

What is the number one problem today? Global warming? The rich-poor divide? Rampant over-population? Crime? Social critic and cultural observer Sweet has a different view. He opens his introduction with a provocative statement: "The number one problem in the world is people's living disconnected lives." From this, his fascinating and easily readable book can be summarized in two words: relationships and mystery.

He poses three questions at the outset: "Why did God create us? What does God require of us? What is the essence of 'faith in God'?" (p.7) Although he immediately answers that question with a quote from the prophet Micah (6:8 "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God") he spends the rest of the book answering these questions. In particular, though, the first question takes precedence: "there is only one answer: for relationships" (p.16). Relationships, then, become the focus of the book. Indeed, the book is divided into 8 parts, each focusing on a specific relationship (faith, God, Bible, others within the faith, others outside the faith, creation, art, and the spiritual world).

Sweet begins with faith and belief. These are often muddled together, but Sweet offers a different perspective: "To admit (believe) falls far short of to commit (faith)" (p.23). Later he says, "an act of belief is stepping forth based on what you know. In contrast, an act of faith is stepping forth as you admit you don't know." (p.115) Faith is primal, taking precedent over belief. "Faith is . . . a mystery to be lived." (p.31) Here is the first use of the concept of mystery, a theme that weaves throughout the book until becoming prominent at the end.

I am a fan of Leonard Sweet. A Wesleyan theologian, he offers fresh views of Scripture while continuing to hold to its primacy. He is easy to read, yet his style is arresting, challenging even compelling. He says old things in new ways. An example: "Evangelism is the practice of out-narrating the world by telling a much better story" (p.85) and " evangelism is inviting prodigals to a party" (p.149)

The highlights of the book for me are Sweet's fresh approaches to the Abraham-Isaac sacrifice story and the prodigal son-father parable.

Most people know of the Abraham-Isaac story outlined in Genesis 22. It is elevated as a successful testing of Abraham's faith, the culmination of his relationship with God. This is not Sweet's belief. In contrast, "Abraham's silence in the face of an outrageous command from God signals a failure of relationship on his part. . . . Here is the real point of the Abraham story: what God wants from us, even more than our obedience, is our relationship." (p.53) We are back to that central theme. But, remembering that Abraham argued with God over the fate of Sodom (Gen. 18), Sweet asks, "why did Abraham not struggle with God about his beloved son?" (p.57) He answers this question later, "The fact that Abraham kept his head down on the three-day hike to Mount Moriah, refusing to show God his face, speaks volumes about his vacating of his prior intimacy with God." (p.125) So, rather than being a testimony to his great faith, it is evidence of his declining faith. This is sure to challenge the beliefs of many, as it did me.

The chapter on the parable of the prodigal son is good, though not at the level of the Abraham-Isaac story. Sweet asks, "what actually was the younger brother's sin? Not 'loose living,' but nonliving in relationship with his father." (p.147) But the other brother was not unblemished. "The elder brother who stayed home had every virtue but one -- love. Anyone without love is as lost as you can get." (p.148) Summarizing both brothers, "we are either away from God but drawing near, or we are near to God but drawing away." (p.149) Which are we?

Although mystery remains covert for most of the book, it is there nevertheless. And it comes into the spotlight in center stage at the very end tying into relationship very neatly:"Relationships only stay alive by retaining the mystery. Once something is fully known it dies." (p.196) We can apply this aphorism to any relationship. When relationships lose this mystery, they become stagnant and suffocate. Boredom takes over. Divorce often follows.

Sweet's early chapters are terrific, but the last three chapters fall short of the early promise, as though he needed to address the topics of creation, art and spiritual world but had run out of significant ideas. Yet this book is worth the read, if only for the view of the Abraham-Isaac story and the discussion of Abraham's relationship with God. Has Sweet unlocked the mystery of that relationship? Read and reflect.

Note: I received a free copy from Waterbrook Publishing but was not influenced to provide a positive review.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Beginners -- relational reality and the Velveteen Rabbit!

Director:Mike Mills, 2010. (R)  

Almost everyone has heard of, if not actually read, the children's classic story "The Velveteen Rabbit". In some ways, Mills' semi-autobiographical drama exemplifies that book, at least in one key scene late in the film.

The story follows two plot LA lines, interweaving them while cutting back and forth in time. One line follows Hal (Christopher Plummer, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), a 75 year old widower. After his wife of 45 years dies, he comes out of the closet as homosexual and determines to go from being theoretically gay to actually gay. In doing so, he hooks up with a young man, Andy (Goran Visnjic) and a large troop of older gay men. Over the next 5 years he embraces a joie de vivre that he never experienced during his dour married life. Yet, he battles terminal cancer, ultimately losing his life.

The second arc follows Oliver (Ewan McGregor, The Ghost Writer), Hal's only son. A graphic artist, he is aloof, not embracing life. At work he passes the time by developing a cartoon history of sadness. In flashback we see him watching his father's life transformation and death, and realize that as Hal is finding life, Hal is merely observing life. After Hal's death, Oliver enters into a relationship with a lonely French actress Anna (Melanie Laurent).

All this sounds dull and gloomy, but it is surprisingly engaging, mostly due to the quality of the acting. Plummer won an Oscar for his portrayal of the older Fields, becoming, at 82, the oldest person eer to win an Academy Award for acting. But it is McGregor who quietly carries the film, bringing a depth of acting he has not shown before. But stealing every scene is Cosmo as Arthur, the charming telepathic Jack Russell terrier who seems to be the only one who understands Oliver and provides him with romantic advice.

Probably another reason the movie is so pleasing is the reality of emotion Mills brings to it. When we understand the genesis of the film, this is not unexpected. Mills explained in an interview,
Beginners started when my father came out of the closet. He was 75 years old, and had been married to my mother for 45 years. His hunger to completely change his life was confusing, painful, very funny and deeply inspiring. Change, honesty, and openness can happen when it seems least likely. Even as he passed away 5 years later to cancer, he was energized, reaching out; he wasn't in any way finished.
Beginners clearly has themes of homosexuality and grief. Some may find the openness of the homosexual behavior, the loving relationship between Hal and Andy, offensive. I won't discuss or debate this. Instead, I want to focus on the beginnings of the title, particularly as it focuses on two specific relationships. It is in these that we see the key themes of the film.

The first relationship is that between Hal and Andy. When Hal comes out and finds Andy as a lover, he is as giddy as a teenager experiencing love for the first time. He literally dances around his living room. And it is in this scene of him dancing that he refers to the "Velveteen Rabbit". He points out that in that book, the rabbit only became real after he was old and falling apart. By then, he had been all loved out and was no longer a shiny new stuffed animal, he was a real person.

Are we real? However old we are, do we put on a false persona, as Hal did for years, to hide behind something we are not? To turn the "Velveteen Rabbit" analogy around, only when we are real with others can we be truly loved. Hypocrisy deceives others and puts a barrier in the way of authentic relationships. The apostle Peter commanded, "Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy" (1 Pet. 2:1). To begin a real relationship we must be honest with the other person, we must be real.

The second relationship is between Oliver and Anna. Although they hit it off at first, they are so alike that the relationship is fraught with peril. Anna tells Oliver, commenting on her vagabond lifestyle (always moving between New York, LA and anywhere else the movie industry calls her), "But now I'm always in a new apartment or in another hotel somewhere." He questions: "How do you keep hold of friends? Or boyfriends?" She answers, "Makes it very easy to end up alone. To leave people." And in a moment of vulnerability, Oliver responds, "You can stay in the same place and still find ways to leave people."

Oliver's childhood perception of the emptiness and isolation of his parents' marriage and relationship has deeply scarred him. Like Anna, he is afraid of relationships, expecting them to be as unreal as his parents' one. So afraid is he, that he prefers to sabotage any budding relationship he has so he can walk away. Yet that leaves him alone and lonely, missing out on life

Any relationship has a point of no return, a point at which a fork in the road presents itself. We must choose. Will we go on and take the risk of being hurt? Or will we walk away, protecting ourselves while in reality isolating ourselves from the possibility of true intimacy? Jesus tells us to "Love one another" (Jn. 13:34). Such love requires risk. The reward of reciprocated love will not come in any other way.

We are all beginners in one relationship or another. Even those that are decades long might need a retooling of sorts, as Hal's really did. We can learn from Hal to be real with ourselves, with others and with our God. And we can learn from Oliver to push through any relational fears to take the risk of rejection and emptiness. We will not know if we don't try. Beginners is more than just a 101 on relationships!

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Alien -- purity, morals and corporate politics

Director: Ridley Scott, 1979. (R) 

Before his paradigmatic sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott cut his teeth in the genre with this classic. Despite being considered science fiction, it is really a horror film, with a standard B-movie plot. But Scott rises above the genre norm with excellent editing, moody atmosphere, and terrific acting to start a series (there have been 4 sequels and a recent prequel, Prometheus, directed by Scott himself) and launch a star: Sigourney Weaver used this role to springboard a career.

Aboard the deep space mining ship Nostromo, the crew of seven are awakened prematurely to investigate a strange SOS signal the ship has picked up. At first the blue-collar crew bickers over union contracts and shares to be received, particularly Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), but Dallas (Tom Skerritt), the captain, pulls them back to reality. They are obligated by the ship's company's terms and conditions to check it out or forfeit all shares.

When they do send a shuttle down to the planetoid, they experience trouble: in the form of vehicular damage and weather. Yet, Dallas and two others, Kane (John Hurt) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) go exploring. What they find is astonishing: a space vehicle with a petrified alien, and deep down in a cavernous area hundreds of eggs, sitting below a bluish glow. One hatches and attaches itself to Kane. The other two crew members, Ripley (Weaver) and Ash (Ian Holm, later to be Bilbo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring) remain aboard, and it is these two actors who provide the standout performances.

Most know the kernel of the story by now. The alien parasite burrows into Kane, to gestate and emerges in one of cinema's most memorable birth scenes: a cesarean section of sorts. It is from here that the real story begins.

Scott takes his time leading us through the first half of the film, setting up characters and motivations. By the time this birth takes place, we are ready for the film to turn dark. With the dark labyrinthian interiors of the working ship, any space could be hiding the creature. And by not revealing it too soon, it plays on the audience's imagination and lend a sense of trepidation and terror. As the crew begin to disappear one by one, this classic horror trope ratchets the tension. The accompanying discordant score and the jittery visuals (smoke, flashing warning lights) add to the moody atmosphere of dread. It all leads up to the climactic scene when Ripley faces her fears and faces off with the fearsome alien. Along the way there are some nasty surprises among the crew and from the mother corporation.

At one point in the film Ash, the science officer, comments admiringly on the "purity" of the still young alien. What he means is its lack of self-awareness that would require a moral code. Instead, it is pure in its desire for self-survival at any cost to anything.

Purity is a biblical virtue. Paul tells his young friend Timothy, "Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity" (1 Tim. 4:12). Jesus himself preached in the beatitudes, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" (Matt. 5:8). It is clear that we are "to be self-controlled and pure" (Tit. 2:5).

Our purity, though, is not at the price of morality. We seek to serve others, to live selflessly not to survive at any cost. Our purity is tempered by love, not defined by violence. We may be aliens in this world, with a citizenship in heaven (Phil. 3;20), but we are God-centered image-bearers.

But what is the real monster in view in Alien? For sure, the creature is there, throughout. But the subtle monster that is bigger by far is the corporation that sent out the Nostromo. It desires to sacrifice its crew for the sake of finding and bringing back the alien monster. It sees in it a source of profit, as it would use it to create a new form of weapon.

Apart from the obvious sexual imagery present in the birth and impregnation, the underlying sociopolitical message is one of the workers against the Man. Blue-collar labor, even white-collar middle management, tends to be treated as expendable for the mighty dollar. When multinational corporations wield such power, the workers become little more than robots, actually less useful than robots since they question authority and require more resources. Only when the workers refuse to follow obediently to unethical commands can the corporations be called to account.

The later Alien movies may go on to more thrills and more action, but this original set the tone. Despite limited effects, this film still packs a punch and still makes me jump in my seat, even after several viewings. This is Ridley Scott at his best!

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs