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Filtering by Category: Film

Sub[urban] Creation

Jayne English

“A box without hinges, key, or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid.”
     —J.R.R. Tolkien

I grew up in the suburbs. Those places where you could only see distance if you looked up, because the houses and yards and hedges of your neighbors and their neighbors became the extent of your horizon. These views were vastly different from the ones that inspired Coleridge and Wordsworth on their walking tour through moorland and woodland, and along the coast of Bristol Channel. They weren’t like Emily Dickinson’s views at the Homestead, where she wandered through orchard and gardens, tending the flowers that thrived in her poetry. And they’re not the English countryside Tolkien knew as a child that charmed his Hobbits’ Shire.

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Jayne English

I went reluctantly to see Arrival, remembering my disappointment over The Martianhow its great sweeps of desolate landscape seemed squandered on themes of American ingenuity, determination, and victory over galactic odds. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But placing one man alone on a vast planet far, far from home begged for a nuanced treatment of the larger ideas of isolation and longing.

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The Martian

Jayne English

the-martian-5ga8_1280w “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”   ––David Foster Wallace

There was a lot to enjoy in Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Intriguing science fiction, a beautifully austere landscape, an admirable main character––Mark Watney (Matt Damon)––who was innovative, resilient, funny, and humble – all made the film great entertainment. But, for all it was, it could have been much more.

What is the difference between entertaining science fiction and classic science fiction? Isn’t it the human element that makes a story last in the memory of a culture? Scott’s Martian, focused on Watney’s science of survival, left out Watney’s humanity. As one reviewer wrote: “The relentless focus on technical achievement, in the absence of the complexity of the characters—in the absence of cultural identities and emotional connections, backstories and ambitions, the drive of will and ideological commitment, of fantasy and distraction—is the very antithesis of artistic creation.” The Martian would have tipped into the realm of something weightier if it included more of this aspect of Tracy K. Smith’s poem “The Weather in Space”:

                                                When the storm

Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing

After all we’re certain to lose, so alive—

Faces radiant with panic.

For more humanness, there should have been more questions. Bowie knew this when he phrased the title of his song as a question, “Life on Mars?” His title lends ambiguity to the confusion of Earth-bound scenes in the song. Is the song expressing the desire to escape the familiar? Is it the experience of feeling alienated in the familiar? Ambiguity, instead of Watney’s super smart solutions to difficult problems, would have eased the film into the realm of lasting art because it would allow the audience to consider possible interpretations. As Neil McCormick said of Bowie’s song, it is “at once completely impenetrable and yet resonant with personal meaning.” When Watney shaves a wooden cross because it is the only material at his disposal that is not flame-retardant, he says to the cross, “I'm assuming you'll be all right with this considering my situation.” His comment shows deference, but a simple moment of hesitation before he began would have raised more questions in the audience’s mind about the range of emotions––fear, doubt, hope––that Watney must have been experiencing, considering his situation. Wouldn’t it have let the viewer put their own “personal meaning” into that one motion giving it a far greater scope? It’s the murky non answers that lead us to deeper discovery. McCormick continues: “Bowie’s abstract cut-up lyrics force you to invest the song with something of yourself just to make sense of the experience, and then carries you away to a place resonant with intense, individual emotion.” The Martian would have had universal appeal if it moved through the shadows, rather than delivering the up-front explanations of Watney’s self-dialog.

Watney didn’t leave a wife, girlfriend or children behind on Earth. For that reason, the broader scope of longing was absent from his motivation to get home and be reunited with them. He did have parents waiting for him. And the letter he wrote to them in case he did not make it home was – nice. But it wasn’t tense, or fraught, or mirroring any aspect of missing them from millions of miles away. Overlooking the Martian landscape, its desolation, emptiness, barrenness, its loneliness, he was in control and reasoned, "I could die for that, something bigger." Knowing Watney was surrounded by sky and martian dust, silence and lostness, we should have felt desperation in that letter.

The Martian could have shifted into a movie about the human spirit instead of individualism. There was a weak attempt to play up a sense of lost community with banter when Watney (by now we know he’s a brilliant PhD) was again able to communicate with his coworkers. They teased him good-naturedly saying things like, “We have to do your job, but how hard can it be, you're just a botanist.” He told them immediately that his potential (though we could say at that point in the movie, probable) death on Mars was not their fault. A little resentment toward them for leaving him would have gone a long way in connecting to something human in all of us about betrayal and abandonment. Something transcendent would have anchored us in the Mars storm––something to resonate with our own times of alienation and lostness.

The ending invoked MacGyver solutions when Watney aligned his craft to a ship passing overhead with the use of a ball point pen after NASA’s efforts failed. Leaving out this innovative way for Watney to rescue himself single-handedly, would have given us room to wonder about his return, about life and death and sacrifice.

Hollywood will do what Hollywood does, exaggerate a situation to play up a hero’s strengths. But this American spirit movie had all the elements it needed to be something classic. Something human.

The Case for Krampus

Christina Lee

"Vintage Christmas Postcard Krampus" by Dave / Flickr photo Christmas Eve 1928. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons Good holiday stories need a villain. Ebenezer Scrooge, The Grinch, Hans Gruber. And of course, Krampus.

Krampus is having a moment—he’s acquired a Los Angeles fan club with a pretty spiffy web page, he’s been featured on the Colbert Report, and he’s even starring in a film. This half-goat-half-devil Austrian folk creature dates back, most believe, to Norse mythology. He’s St. Nicholas’ other half—he handles the kids who’ve been nicht so gut. 

He’s horrific, yet Austrians seem to view him rather fondly. They send kitschy cards stamped with Gruß Vom Krampus!" (Greetings from Krampus), and host Krampuslauf (Krampus runs) in which hoards of young men don devil-goat costumes and drunkenly run the streets on the eve of St. Nicholas’ visit. 

It feels a bit goofy to ascribe deep symbolism to Krampus, a character dreamed up largely to terrify children into behaving. If we’re looking for meaning though, it seems obvious that Krampus and St. Nicholas act as foils—the evil preceding the good. As Mental Floss puts it, they form a “Christmassy Yin and Yang.” Krampus reminds us there is darkness as well as light in the holiday season. 

North Americans generally prefer their holidays free of ancient goat devils. Our classic tales, even the really good ones (think Charlie Brown or Miracle on 34th Street) involve only one horror—a lack of the holiday spirit. (Die Hard, it should be noted, is a refreshing exception to this rule.)

I assumed the movie Krampus would be different, but in the film, Krampus is summoned when a boy loses faith in the season and tears up his letter to Santa. Our narrative, “be merry or die trying,” runs deep. 

If you, like me, feel sick of this storyline, please consider as antidote this Youtube footage of an Austrian Krampuslauf. It’s pretty grim. I only made it three minutes in, right to the part where one of the thousand Krampuses rips a little child from his mother’s arms and hisses in his face. I was cowering in fear at my laptop screen, but the kid? The little dude smiles. Tough as nails. He was probably brought up on a steady diet of horrifying Bavarian folk tales. 

Yes, the Krampuslauf seems awfully brutal for the holiday season. But there's a villain in the nativity story, too—Herod. And he isn’t stealing a roast beast or shouting “Bah Humbug.” He is committing infant genocide. Lurking right outside the glow of the manger is a madman, thirsting for power and control. 

I’m not saying we all need to sub out our shiny family photo Christmas cards for Krampuskarten. But it is problematic to remove all darkness from every Christmas story we tell. That’s like editing John 1:5 down to just “The Light shines.” So what? 

The holidays can seem like a very small light in a very dark world. Christmas comes in the midst of war, in the wake of tragedy, mass shootings, devastating personal loss, systemic injustice. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” 

With that in mind, our obsession with cheer for cheer’s sake feels just as bizarre, and maybe more pointless, than any Krampuslauf.

So Merry Christmas. And "Gruß Vom Krampus," too. 

Good Dog

Tom Sturch

english bulldog - one dressed up as santa the other as rudolph An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all. ~ Oscar Wilde

So there we are. It's Black Friday and we're stuffed like the turkey we ate a day ago. Bev is decorating for Christmas and I should be enjoying a day spent writing. But I'm anxious instead. My rough draft is late and the animals of my ideas scurry and hide like scared, hungry strays let in from the cold.

Last month, dear reader, I tempted you with a reductive version of the Christian hope. I isolated Truth and looked at its wasteland. In a reversal of the old fable – where Truth roams naked and unwelcome in the village, then Story wraps it with goodness and finds it a home – I instead annulled its adoption and kicked it back into the street. Brutal!

So, this month I imagined Goodness naked and wandering, but I have found myself overrun with a menagerie of abandoned, ill-mannered notions of it that I feared I could never make presentable. I think every writer is part zookeeper, part animal trainer – each idea needing a bath and the startling redirection of a sharp clap. But I was stuck on one in particular. It had been here a month with no progress. It would snuggle, hairy and hot, morphing as it slept against my body like a large, ungainly dog. And it was a hybrid. I feared it would become the Indominus rex of Jurassic World we had just watched. Ideas have consequences, you know. I looked at the animal. It looked back and drooled. Nights passed slowly.

Today I tried naming it. Leviathan. Doglizza. OMG-itsaurus. Nothing fit. It still stank. It was grimy and matted in ways that looked like extra body parts. I thumbed through books for facts about breed and keeping. I cruised the vast Big Box of the Internet hoping to find the perfect behavior modification, or a sweater. Maybe a bow.

Now and then I would glance up, pensive and vacant. The television was showing Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The sound was off. It was that part near the end where the massive, bright spaceship is rising and dwarfs Devil's Tower in black silhouette. The science base in front is even smaller. I'd seen it twenty -five times but stripped of it's music and sound effects it appeared strange and new. It penetrated my preoccupation and I saw something I'd never seen before.

“Speilberg. You dog,” I said out loud. “This whole movie you've isolated the ground of contrast in that damn tower.” I felt something wash over me. “The whole dog-gone movie.”

It combed through my tangled thinking. Director Speilberg had exaggerated a distraction only to make it disappear like a background with scale that allowed me to see the enormity of his grand idea. The protagonist's obsession became the swirling center of the movie's vortex where all the conflict resolves. As Tom Snyder writes about it, “Light and music transcend the boundaries between the known and the unknown, the human and the alien, the real and the imagined.”

Then, I looked around our house and I saw it was Christmas. Beverly's handiwork, even in the throes of my self-consumed darkness, had surrounded me with extravagant goodness. And suddenly the animal of my idea was groomed, powdered and seemingly well-behaved.

I wrote quickly: Puppy to a good home. Free for the taking. 

Give Me Batman, Mostly

Brad Fruhauff

Photo by Matias G. Martinez / CC BY 4.0 I want to play along with our pop culture superhero obsession, I do. I've seen the movies and the TV series, I've read several dozen superhero comics. My boys pretend to be the Flash and Captain America. But at the end of the day, I don't care that awful much about Superman or the Avengers or even Spider-Man. Give me Batman.

Mostly. I do have a thing for Wonder Woman, and I've developed an affection for Spider-Woman that's kind of hard to explain. I'll watch the next season of Daredevil and I’ll follow Arrow until it jumps the shark. My interest in those characters, however, is pretty limited, even casual. But Batman? I'll read pretty much anything with his name on the cover.

For me, Batman has the most spiritual narratives. I'd venture to say that, in general, D.C. excels Marvel in exploring the hero's soul, and no soul is darker than Bruce Wayne's.

Bruce Wayne suffered the ultimate psychic injustice in witnessing his parents’ murders. That fact, combined with the Gothic setting and the hard-boiled tone (a descendent of Gothic), makes for a hero not just up against incredible odds but against a fundamentally unjust world. Every criminal is his parents’ murderer. Every supervillain embodies the pervasive moral evil at the heart of us all. Other heroes live in worlds where most people are basically good. Batman, like the hard-boiled detective, lives in a broken world and knows he’s as broken as anyone, but he fights tooth and nail to do good anyway.

Arguably, Batman’s mythos is the most nihilistic in that it depends the least on luck, i.e., on something happening just in time because the good guys always win. Batman wins because he spends his free time thinking of and planning for every contingency; he wins by sheer force of will. And, yet, it remains the most spiritual precisely because it takes the pervasiveness of evil so seriously and because Batman opposes absolute evil with moral absolutes: criminals must answer to the law; no killing.

I think that’s why fans often favor him over Superman, and why in Justice League stories Batman somehow manages if not to be the key hero to somehow still be right. Superman, as Frank Miller showed in The Dark Knight Returns, is too public and thus can become co-opted by national governments. Wonder Woman is an outsider. The other guys are aliens or simply lack adequate cool. Batman stands for the capacity of the individual human to do what’s right in the face of insurmountable odds.

I’m aware of the merits of other heroes, and I’m sure you can point to a storyline here or there that’s worth reading, but I have my doubts that any other superhero story can really look into the abyss like Batman can. Iron-Man’s cool. Hulk’s anger mirrors our own inner rage. But for the icon of the human fronting an evil world, give me Batman.

Behind Every Beautiful Thing

Aaron Guest

12 Inside Out Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away Feel like my soul has turned into steel I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal There’s not even room enough to be anywhere It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

I’ve thought about Bob Dylan’s song “Not Dark Yet” for over ten years now. Ever since a lonely plane ride back from Texas, where I’d just help relocate my best friend. Some moments press down a sadness and leave a mark. Songs are like that, too. 

With three kids, it’s no surprise I’ve already seen Inside Out. It’s Pixar’s best movie since that plane ride. It deals with emotions that are central to us all: joy, disgust, fear, anger, sadness. Each emotion is a character, each assigned a color: Anger = Red; Disgust = Green; Fear = Purple; Sadness = Blue; Joy = Yellow. There’s much to Inside Out that captures Pixar’s creative genius. But I also think it captures a crucial and necessary aspect of what Walter Brueggemann calls the prophetic imagination. 

It was my Texas friend that first recommend Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination to me. It’s a succinct little theological book that examines the role of prophets in the Bible. One important condition of humanity that every prophet explores, from Jeremiah to Jesus, is the role of grief and sadness. That’s also at the heart of Inside Out. 

In the film, Joy doesn’t want Sadness to participate in the emotional activity of Riley—the human girl to whom these emotions belong. Isn’t this the way we all view sadness? We don’t want sad memories to imprint themselves on us. Let only the positive emotion be the one in control; Sadness mucks everything up. So often I see Christians mistakenly characterizing joy in this way. It’s the attitude found in what Brueggemann calls the “royal consciousness,” where the goal is self-satisfaction; joy manages and rules all.

But to embrace grief and sadness is what it is to be fully human. True joy never outflanks sadness, suffering, grief. In fact, it comes only through those very emotions.  Brueggemann says it’s fully realized in Jesus, whose ministry is one of “entering into pain and suffering and giving it a voice.”  For Lazarus, for Jerusalem, his crucifixion, “his grief is unmistakable.”

Color has a very specific function in Inside Out. So when a character has another character’s color as part of their being, it’s not only for aesthetic reasons. Joy eventually learns that Sadness has always been present, just behind the memories that were the most joy-filled. The astute viewer has maybe even noticed that Joy’s hair is blue.

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain Behind every beautiful thing, there must be some kind of pain

Jupiter Descends

Joy and Matthew Steem

9 Jupiter Ascending“Boring,” “boorish,” and (my personal favorite) “profoundly terrible” are some of the nicer descriptors that can be found in the reviews of the Wachowski siblings’ latest movie. At just over two hours, this space-opera-cum-heroic-fantasy is acknowledged as visually appealing with its impressive special effects, but declared decidedly drab in the plot department. Worse than merely drab, however, some of the more literary minded commenters pronounce Jupiter, the main character, as nauseatingly implausible. Now, while I do agree with them that Jupiter is most definitely not a classical hero, I wonder at our underlying assumptions of heroism that leave some of us with the feeling that Jupiter got the crap side of the stick in this movie.   If you haven’t seen it, here’s a brutishly rudimentary plot summary (spoiler warning). Jupiter, the female protagonist, is a young, overworked, under-appreciated, and unfulfilled maid in Chicago. Trapped in a life of scrubbing toilets and cleaning up other people’s trash, she starts and ends each day in exhaustion. Jupiter lives in extremely tight quarters with her Russian immigrant mother and extended family, which gives her little personal space or room for expression: the theme constantly upon her lips before her big adventure is, “I hate my life.” Pressured by a capitalistic cousin into selling her eggs at a fertility clinic, she is nearly abducted by assassin aliens and soon thrust into an interplanetary journey where she learns she is actually Earth’s royal owner. Assisted throughout the adventure (and rescued again and again … and again ... and then some) by a genetically altered ex-soldier with flying boots, she is kidnapped, conned, and beat up by royal alien siblings intent on harvesting Earth’s population into a vitality serum: a practice they have been doing on other planets for thousands of years. Always rescued at the last minute by flying boot boy, the aliens are thwarted, the earth remains blissfully ignorant of and safe from the villains and Jupiter lives to see another day. The movie ends with her sacrificing sleep to cheerfully prepare breakfast for the relatives, taking up her cleaning job, and going on flying adventures with her new boyfriend (flying boot boy) and his now-returned sexy set of wings.

Okay—my apologies to anyone who has seen the movie and can readily identify the 27 important plot points that I have casually omitted. But, I trust the theme is clear: little Miss Royalty is rescued (a lot), is not particularly ambitious, seems perfectly content to return to an unimportant job and crowded house, and never seeks out public recognition. Oddly enough, it seems somewhere along the journey she internalizes a new axiom: “It’s not about what I do, it’s about who I am."

As you’ve no doubt gathered, this is not your typical hero story. But what is a hero story, and what makes it so?

For those who’ve read Paradise Lost (a 17thcentury epic poem that dramatizes the creation and subsequent eviction of Eve and Adam from the garden. Satan and his super sneaky schemes to destroy the happy couple and amass an army to usurp God’s Kingship also play a prominent role in the plot) in class, or are generally familiar with the story, we were taught according to two schools of thought. One, Milton screwed up and made Satan the show-stealing character by accident. According to this ideology, Satan is actually the hero of the story. Strong, cunning, ambitious, independent, and a natural-born leader: Satan is clearly the classical hero whom Milton himself unwittingly valorizes. Paradise Lost, then, becomes a tragedy because our favorite guy, Satan, loses.

The other school of thought suggests that in Satan’s unquenchable thirst for status (he wants to be ruler of the world), we uncomfortably identify our own fallen and destructive lust for prestige. Educators of this persuasion suggest that in Satan’s defiant pursuit of dominion, Milton demonstrates the seductive dangers of the quest for control. This second school of thought is a less popular one because in Paradise Lost, Satan is such a sympathetic character; and, indeed while we may not overtly root for him, our culture often tells us that complete self-sufficiency is the key ingredient of happiness. Satan, according to our society’s mores, is a heroic figure. The question then becomes a matter of identifying our current model of heroism.

Which brings me back to Jupiter Ascending. Much of the angst at the film is directed at its improbable plot and boring main character. What kind of story stars a hero who goes on a journey to learn s/he is really, really important (and has a whole lot of resources at her/his disposal) and then moves back to an inhospitable and banal homeland, bickering neighbors, takes up a menial job, and smiles about living the daily grind, saying “it’s not what I do, it’s who I am that matters”? Not a contemporary hero.

Culture often tells us that as heroes of our own stories, we must have status in order to experience personal fulfillment. We have been told that we need resources to experience the world and get the recognition we crave. In other words, we have been told that to be successful is to wield power; and, perhaps even more importantly, be recognized for that power.

I wonder if it’s possible that some of our dissatisfaction with Jupiter’s choices mirror our own consumption of a toxic cultural narrative: a narrative that says, it’s never about who you are, it’s only about what you do. A narrative that uncomfortably sides with Satan's quest in that old tale of so much discussion.

The Beauty of Obstructions

Lou Kaloger

Kaloger copy In 1967, Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth wrote and directed a 12-minute experimental art film. The name of the film was The Perfect Human. Like a lot of experimental art films from the 1960s, The Perfect Human was quirky collection of black-and-white images accompanied by a minimalistic soundtrack and a odd voiceover. The voiceover said:  

Here is the human. Here is the perfect human. This is what an ear looks like. This is what a eye looks like. This is the perfect human shaving. This is the perfect human putting on a bow tie. This is the perfect human eating. This is the perfect human dancing.

Okay, it was no Crime and Punishment.

In 2003, director Lars von Trier collaborated with Leth on a film he titled The Five Obstructions. As the film opens, von Trier announces to Leth that he wants him remake his 12-minute movie with specific "obstructions" that von Trier will supply. Leth agrees. For one version, von Trier tells Leth to make the movie in Cuba but to allow no shot to last for more than a half a second. Leth argues that the film will look "awful and disjointed." Von Trier insists and the film is made. For another version, von Trier insists that the film be made in the streets of India with Leth playing the role of the lead character. Leth protests, explaining that he doesn't want to serve as both actor and director. Again, von Trier insists and the film is made. For yet another version of the film, von Trier tells Leth to remake the movie as an animated film. Leth confesses that he hates animated films. Von Trier insists and Leth makes his cartoon.

Interestingly, in the next scenario, von Trier tells Leth to do whatever he wishes. Leth jumps at the chance. He picks an exotic location in Brussels and shoots his film in a widescreen format. It is fancy and expensive and full of clever split-screen effects. The net result is a cross between a James Bond movie and a luxury car commercial.

So here are four films: Three with limitations and one without.

Guess which was the weakest of the four?

For some reason, von Trier's obstructions and limitations birthed something in Leth's art that was not there when Leth was left to choose as he chose. I'm not sure I want to say this, but I think the same may be true in life. God speaks, and what he says is rarely to my liking. He calls me to a certain constraint; he calls me to a certain love. Given free reign, I'm sure I would choose differently. But hey, that's the price one pays for art!

Lars and the Real Girl

Tom Sturch

1 Lars and the Real Girl We were driving home from a family wedding in Jacksonville. We are attending these gatherings with increasing frequency, but whether marriages or funerals, outside the formal event and appropriate attire, our family conversation is the same, fraying and reweaving itself out of our particular social and cultural fabrics to an quilted knit of unqualified goodness. So, somewhere between Lake City and Gainesville I imagined us home in Tampa, ragged out and crashed around plates of left-overs and a movie. Lars and the Real Girl cropped up in our impromptu movie reviews, so that's what we watched.

If you have not seen Lars and the Real Girl, I hope you will. Says Christianity Today, “Lars and the Real Girl is a sweet and endearing film about a shy, reclusive man who strikes up a chaste relationship with a sex doll that he orders over the Internet...” And further, “we might as well note that the film's risqué premise actually serves to underscore the man's decency and goodness. Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) has brought the doll into his life, and named it 'Bianca,' because for some reason he cannot let himself get too close to anyone, not even his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and his sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer). And he certainly can't handle the thought of dating an actual woman, even though he has an attractive, perky co-worker named Margo (Kelli Garner) who sings in the choir at his church and is obviously interested in him.”

It is easy to ask the wrong questions about Lars and the Real Girl. You can get distracted by comparing it with comfortable mindsets that curtail discussion. You can ask “chicken or egg” questions about Lars' clinical state, its causes, or standard therapies. You can make easy criticisms about individual and corporate responsibilities, or how science and faith act outside their ordinate categories. The movie challenges all manner of convention.

Better questions might come along these lines:

  • In what ways is sex portrayed?
  • Why is the taboo of sex such a good fulcrum to visit cultural questions?
  • How does the implausible situation help get to the bigger questions?
  • What in the film is being made? What is made real?
  • How does the movie engage creatio ex nihilo (creating out of nothing)?
  • Where in the film and in what ways to we find simple acts of caring?
  • How do these simple acts signify a caring community?
  • What is it “to sit and to knit?” What Psalm uses knitting as a metaphor?
  • Lars' brother rarely finishes a sentence. At what important point are they complete?
  • How does the film deal with the connection between death (or suffering) and maturity?
  • How do the seasons change over the course of the film and what does that say?
  • What does the hard scene of Bianca's death at the lake convey to you?
  • How is Paul's “put to death what is earthly in you” possibly considered?

During the week of the wedding the national media was full of existential questions: the Charleston murders, ongoing Middle East wars, trans-racial and trans-sexual identity, political machinations from global trade to greenhouse gases. But at the reception and dinner we checked all those conversations at the door. And not despite, but because of them we got lost in the fray of foolish small talk and made imaginative whole cloth of our colorful oddities.

Time Travel And Fatherhood

Aaron Guest

Back to the Future DeLorean Time Machine The drive home from college lasted about fifteen hours. My dad and I talked a lot during these quarterly trips; but by the end, our topics were the equivalent of a “Coast to Coast with Art Bell” radio hour. For example, the efficacy of Time Travel.

Now in my mind it’s an appropriate conversation between fathers and sons. There’s even a niche in cinema for it: Back to the Future, Frequency, Field of Dreams. But nearly all of these movies are about a son who yearns to regain some lost moment with their dad. Richard Curtis’s About Time is also of the genre but asks: What happens to the father when the son becomes a father?

In About Time, Tim, like all the males in his family, has the ability to travel backward in time. And the first hour of movie devotes itself, comedically and touchingly, to this “talent.” But as he holds his first child, the movie shifts gears. Tim realizes, “Nothing can prepare you for that love.” It also brings a conundrum in the movie’s Time Travel logic: if he is to travel back in time to before the child was born, it will yield a completely different child. And so find himself unable to prevent a misstep of someone whom he loves.

Luke Ripley is the father in Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story.” He, too, finds himself unprepared for how deep the love of a father truly runs. When his daughter hits and kills a man with her car, he rewrites the incident and sets himself up to take the fall. Such an act compromises his faith and, in Ripley’s mind, “does not give [me] the peace I once [had]: not with God, nor the earth, nor anyone on it.” But he is steadfast and cries out to God, “I love her more than I love truth.”

Ever since becoming a father I’ve wrestled with the role. Is it like Luke Ripley, am I willing to “love in weakness”? Like it was for Tim, does fatherhood mean I will inevitably be kept at a distance from other relationships? When my son was a year old, I wrote that he had so filled my life that it seemed to overflow into the past. The truth is I couldn’t and still can’t imagine him not ever being in my life.

SPOILER: In the movie’s final act, Tim’s father has died and the prospect of Tim having another child means having to fully sever the relationship with his own father. Tim and his father make the choice only fathers can make. Nothing can prepare you for that kind of love. The kind of love that’s as simple as Tim and his father throwing rocks in the ocean.

Or discussing Time Travel.

LOST Expectations

Aaron Guest

12 LOST Six years ago, my wife and I binge-watched the first five seasons of LOST. It took four months. Many nights we watched three or four episodes in a sitting, sometimes as a way to pass the time while my wife was feeding our infant daughter… or because we hadn’t finished the package of Oreos yet. Other times compelled by a look or a glance to “keep watching,” a willingness to relinquish the joy of teasing out possible meanings.

This caught us up for season six. But like the rest of the LOST audience had been, we were then dangled out over the cliff for an entire week, week after week. I locked myself into a habit of trolling message boards and meditating over the copious and astute Doc Jensen recaps. I lived, agonized by this hope of what could happen.

This comes to my mind now whenever Pentecost approaches. Maybe you can see where I’m going. How I’m picturing the disciples living in a type of cliff-hanger following Ascension. Trying to figure out the meaning of Christ’s promise and exactly what they could expect.

It so happened that the final episode of LOST aired on Pentecost Sunday. At the time, I felt this was significant for plot reasons—the Season 6 cast photo staging “The Last Supper,” and the smoke monster’s desire to get uncorked from the island and into the real world. As the final episode played out, people felt abjectly betrayed, denied some hoped-for reality.

Awaiting the arrival of a sought after book, listening in the two years between a band’s albums, thinking a Patriot’s 19-0 season is a foregone conclusion, again and again I raise expectations for an experience or encounter. Then the book is disappointing, the album sounds like a group popular ten years ago, and David Tyree haunts my dreams. I think I should learn from this pattern. It leaves me falling in an abyss for weeks on end…like after Manningham reeled in that catch.

“To raise one’s hopes is to risk them falling further,” Anthony Doerr writes in All The Light We Cannot See. Yet, I can’t help but find myself continually uncorking expectations. Even when it leads to the despondence that was first and goal for the Seahawks on the one-yard line, or the slog of Doerr’s overwrought writing.

Where were the disciples after their second cliff-hanger in two months? Ten days of wandering in a gray world, lost, locked away? Was there ever the hope that the doors and windows would be thrown wide? Should I raise my own expectations when again and again I am let down? But I do. I always hope for a book or poem or song—or that interception—to erupt in me a fiery joy.

Boyhood, Birdman and the Problem of Existence, Part 2

Drew Trotter

Michael Keaton as ‚ÄúRiggan‚Äù in BIRDMAN. (Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures) In last month’s blog, I mentioned that Birdman and Boyhood shared more than the race for the Best Picture Oscar last year. Though the two movies were as different as can be imagined in tone, form, subject matter, pace and just about every other movie-making category, they were unified in pushing to the forefront a philosophy that goes back some fifty years, but seems to be gaining momentum as a philosophy of life: existentialism. I wrote about Boyhood and its thoroughgoing, but hopeful, existentialism, and accused it of cheating since classic existentialism was anything but hopeful because of one single factor: death.

Birdman doesn’t make that mistake. In the film references abound to death, particularly suicide, as its main character, Riggan Thompson, played superbly by Michael Keaton in an Oscar-nominated performance, struggles with his celebrity, the emptiness of his power, his own hubris, the effect he is having on others, his need for love.

Birdman portrays Thompson as a popular but shallow superhero actor who wants to be taken seriously, so he writes, directs, and stars in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story. The film spans the few days between final rehearsals and opening night. Shot in the St. James Theatre in New York, Birdman is distinctive, if not unique, for its very long takes, sometimes as long as twenty minutes or more without a cut. This, and a constantly playing jazz drummer rasping in the background, adds hugely to the fast-pace of the dialogue and action to create a feeling of one long moment for the film. Small wonder, given the existential themes explored particularly in two scenes near the end of the film.

[Spoiler alert!] Riggan, unbeknownst to anyone else associated with the play, decides to commit the meaning-creating act of his life by committing suicide on stage, but messes that up either by accidentally missing his head and blowing off his nose instead, or by changing his mind at the last minute (or possibly, but I think unlikely, planning only to blow off his nose all along). What happens before that in two important scenes tells us what the filmmakers were intending.

The first of these takes place in Riggan’s dressing room on opening night near the end of the play, when his ex-wife, Sylvia, played by Amy Ryan, visits him to tell him how well she thinks he’s doing in the play. Riggan declares his love for her and for Samantha, their daughter, and their exchange brings together the themes of family, responsibility and what is actually real:

Riggan: I love you. …And I love Sam. Sylvia: I know. Riggan: I really wish I wouldn’t have videotaped her birth, though. Sylvia: Why? Riggan: ‘Cause… (sighs) I just missed the moment, really. I don’t have it. I should have just been there with the two of you. You know … just the three of us. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t even present in my own life, and now I don’t have it… and I’m never going to have it. Sylvia: You have Sam. Riggan: Not really, I don’t. I mean, she’s… Sylvia: Oh, no, no, no, listen, she’s just going through … Riggan: No, I get it, I understand. She needed a dad; instead she got this guy who was a …three day viral sensation. It is so pathetic, I can’t… Sylvia: No, come on. There are things more pathetic than that. Riggan: Yeah, like? Sylvia: That moustache. (Both laugh.) They kiss. He tells her to get back to her seat. He pulls down a real gun from a shelf, not the toy one he’s been using in rehearsals. He checks and makes sure it’s loaded.

Riggan regrets not actually living the moment of his daughter’s birth instead of trying to do so vicariously through a videotape. Note how he says, “I wasn’t even present in my own life,” a telling admission that he doesn’t really believe he exists because he did not act authentically. He doesn’t have that moment and he’s never going to. So much more could be said about the idea of cynically dismissing the medium of videotape in a movie about a play, but the key for us is this: Riggan does not exist because he has not acted authentically and with passion.

Even more important is the penultimate scene in the film, when Riggan is on stage. In the play, he is Eddie, who has just broken into a motel room where he discovers his wife (Naomi Watts) with her lover (Edward Norton). He brandishes a gun at both of them. She admits she doesn’t love him, and his answer forms the heart of the struggle of the “real” Riggan Thompson within the story of the movie: “Why? I just want you to tell me: why? …What’s the matter with me? Tell me what’s the matter. Why do I always have to beg people to love me? …I just wanted to be what you wanted. What you wanted. Now I spend every fucking minute trying to be something else. Something I’m not. …I don’t exist. I’m not even here. I’m not even here.”

Riggan points the gun at the Norton character and goes “Bang!”, like a very dangerous child playing with a real gun. Then he points the gun at the audience and does the same thing: “Bang!” The terror for the movie viewer is palpable; it looks like a real gun. It is a real gun! Riggan then shoots himself, blowing his nose off, but we don’t know that until later. It looks like he has committed some existentialists’ one authentic act: suicide. The audience stays silent for the slightest of moments, then they wildly applaud—a thumping, rousing standing ovation for the apparently dead actor on the stage floor.

What do we as Christians think of this? Riggan, not finding the love he so craves, a love that takes the form for him of gaining from the audience respect for himself and for his art, chooses to kill himself in order to win that respect. Albert Camus fought this conclusion in his famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” opting instead for an acknowledgment of the absurdity of life and a life lived in revolt against that absurdity.

But why? Stay tuned for part three next month.

The Character Arc of Nightcrawler

Ross Gale

K72A3451d.tif “A novel happens to any one of us when we give ourselves over to it.” So says the novelist Alice McDermott. But what happens when the novel, or in this case, the story, gives itself over to the character? The result is a movie like Nightcrawler. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy and set in present day L.A., the dialogue of Nightcrawler, all of it, every sentence, is a negotiation. Lou (played by a gaunt Jake Gyllenhaal) negotiates the entire movie. He negotiates payments, job positions, relationships, and scenes. 

Gilroy describes what he was doing with Lou’s character as opposing tradition. "There’s no character arc! When I started to write the character I realized, ‘this guy isn’t going to change.’ Every film you’re commissioned to write is all about an arc; usually the arc is that the world creates a change in the character, usually for the better. To not have an arc, the messages and ideas in the film became more prominent.”

Gilroy begins with an evil character and ends with an evil character. But you can’t describe Lou as a flat character because his change—his arc—is industrial rather than moral. He begins at the bottom and builds his own successful business. Lou is an American success story. He negotiates and manipulates himself to the top. More specifically, Nightcrawler is a critique of L.A. culture. A magical place we imagine has long forgone any moral direction for the spotlight. Lou secures his place in the spotlight as the story’s antihero.

While we may not approve of Lou’s actions, we’re captivated by his end goal and how he chooses to eliminate the competition, negotiate deals, and curate his trophy case. In one of the most intense scenes, Lou creates a violent meeting between gang member and police officers. He manipulates the situation for the perfect ingredients and then turns on his camera to film the carnage.

Nightcrawler reveals an exaggerated and virtually realistic capitalist-driven world where everyone plays to win. Where words are only used to negotiate and death and violence become the daily dose of entertainment. Gilroy may not see a character arc to Lou, but Lou changes. He becomes more of a reflection of ourselves and where we could all be headed. That's a fascinating story in itself and a reminder of cultural forces defining the narrative arc of our lives. If Lou's narrative path can oppose tradition, is it possible we have that same power?

Boyhood, Birdman and the Problem of Existence, Part 1

Drew Trotter

20 Boyhood:existentialism Birdman and Boyhood shared more than the race for the Best Picture Oscar last year. Though the two movies were as different as can be imagined in tone, form, subject matter, pace, and just about every other movie-making category, they were unified in pushing to the forefront a philosophy that goes back some fifty years, but seems to be gaining momentum as a philosophy of life: existentialism.

Existentialism is known best at the popular level as the theory that the only meaning one can find in life is by living authentically, i.e. passionately and sincerely, in the moment. The “now,” not the “then” on either side of it on the timeline of existence, is the only part of reality that is relevant, and an existentialist is responsible for creating meaning in that “now.” That meaning, however, does not transcend the “now,” but rather requires the doer to live in a series of disconnected moments as authentically as possible to achieve significance. All of this is predicated on the universe being meaningless, there being no God, and therefore no revelation of where meaning for the human being is to be found.

The conversation that shows how serious Boyhood is about its existentialism comprises the last scene in the film. Mason, Boyhood’s main character, is on a hike on his first day of university. He has typically skipped orientation and has met a new girl, Nicole; they are hitting it off. At a beautiful moment of sunset with the rocks glowing that soft red they do in the Texas desert, Mason and Nicole are sitting together, enjoying a brief rest, awkwardly trying to continue the conversation they’ve been having during the walk. Suddenly Mason’s roommate, a crazy extrovert, yells out from down below: “This moment’s having a falsieful whoregasm! It’s like as if all of time has unfolded before us so we could stand here and look out and scream, ‘Fuck yeah!’ Wooo!”

This juvenile moment prompts the much more thoughtful, yet still feeling-her-way Nicole to turn to Mason tentatively and volunteer, “You know how everyone is always saying, ‘Seize the moment!’? I don’t know. I’m kinda thinkin’ it’s the other way around, you know, like, the moment seizes us.” Mason responds, “Yeah. Yeah, I know. It’s constant. The moments. It’s just, it’s like it’s always right now, you know?” She agrees. They look at each other, again in only that way two young people can, who aren’t sure of the future, but are thinking, “I really like this girl/guy; do you think he/she is the one?” They look away, then look back, and the movie cuts to black, ending.

As if this weren’t enough, as the credits roll, a lone voice begins singing, “Here, at my place in time, and here in my own skin, I can finally begin. Let the century pass me by. Standing under my sky, tomorrow is nothin’.”

One couldn’t find in modern film a more existentialist way of viewing life. “It’s like always right now, you know?” But Boyhood cheats because it ends hopefully. The viewer feels Mason has his whole life ahead of him and sees it as an adventure, filled with moments, some of joy, some of sadness, some of reward, some of punishment, but all to be embraced and simply lived until the next one comes. Classic existentialists, on the other hand, could not get over the loss they felt at the knowledge that we create our own meaning in every moment. It made life absurd, random, without any ultimate significance. This newer popular form of the philosophy simply chooses to ignore the consequences of the future, particularly the looming specter that so terrified Sartre, Camus, Becket and others: death.

That specter dominates, in some ways, the other movie, the one which won the big prize: Birdman. Stay tuned.

Boyhood and the American Family

Drew Trotter

20 boyhood While thinking about the movie Boyhood recently, an image appeared in my head of a bleak landscape, but not a realistic one. Dotting the landscape were a number of brightly colored objects, malleable, some standing at angles, some flopping over edges of rocks or ledges, like the clocks in Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. But the objects weren’t clocks. They were all teenagers—all heights, all ages but all thin, visionless, falling. Maybe the image was more like the orgy scene in the desert of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point—flat, detached, choreographed sexual movement. Love in the desert of meaninglessness.

In both ways of seeing what I imagined, the edge of the knife was the teenagers, robotic, spineless kids with vacant eyes and joyless lives.

I am sure this picture was spawned by the sadness I felt for the American family, as I watched Richard Linklater’s autobiographical Oscar nominee again for a talk I was preparing. In an extra on the DVD, Linklater says, “The film’s called Boyhood, but it could have been called Motherhood, Fatherhood, Bumbling-Into-Adulthood. It was an opportunity to see adults evolve as well as kids.”

The mother in Boyhood in fact evolves very little. Played by Patricia Arquette, in an Oscar-winning performance, Olivia is from the beginning the neediest person in the movie. In one of the earliest scenes, we see her break up an argument between her two small children by simply yelling at them to quit, followed by an argument with a potential boyfriend about how she’d like to go out to a movie, but she’s got to take care of the kids. She doesn’t even know what it’s like to be free to go out, she says. “I was someone’s daughter, and then I was someone’s f**kin’ mother. Okay? I don’t even know what that’s like.” It’s so early in the movie, you pity her, but it doesn’t take long for that to change.

Granted she does take responsibility for her children: she feeds them, gets them to school, clothes them, puts a roof over their heads. But along the way, Olivia—already a divorcee—marries two more times, and divorces two more times. She moves three times, uprooting the children’s lives each time. In fact, there is only one scene in the entire movie, where we see her approach expressing tender love for them; when the children are small, she reads Harry Potter novels to them in bed. Even her graduation toast near the end of the movie is comprised of her telling her son how much fun he’s going to have in college. Admittedly, she does say she loves him and is so proud of him, but she has already spoiled the moment by telling everyone he didn’t want to have the party, yet they had it for him anyway.

In every other scene she appears, she is either flirting with her next husband or suffering from his abuse, fighting with her daughter, commanding Mason, Jr. to do something or talking about how bad her life is. As Mason, Jr. says to a girlfriend when he’s gone on a trip to UT-Austin: “I don’t think [college] is the key to my future. ‘Cause, I mean, look at my mom. She got her degree and got a pretty good job. She can pay her bills.” Girlfriend: “I like your mom.” Mason: “Well, I like my mom, too, I just mean… Basically, she’s still just as fuckin’ confused as I am.”

In her last scene of the movie, Olivia’s narcissism is really put on display. Angry at Mason, Jr. for not being sad because he is leaving home to go off to college, she says, “This is the worst day of my life.… You know what I’m realizing? My life is just gonna go, [snaps fingers] like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced again. Getting my master’s degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my fuckin’ funeral!… I just thought there would be more.” The scene would be funny, if it weren’t so pitiable.

I could go on about Olivia, or about the father, Mason, Sr., played by Ethan Hawke, who gets dealt a much better hand in the script, and does evolve positively in the movie, or about the main character, Mason, Jr., who wanders aimlessly the entire film from age six to age eighteen. The whole film is filled with little moments, some happy, some sad, but none that give Mason any clarity, any vision for his life because his parents don’t have any vision to give him.

One of Boyhood’s stories is of the single mom, who try as she might, simply can’t give her children a vision for what could be because she is so consumed with her own needs. If we stretch this story into a narrative of the state of the American family, we are confronted with the slow-death-by-internal-decay narrative that we have heard so often about our country: parents without vision and foundation, and so kids without hope. It turns into a painting in which the kids are all soft and floppy, visionless and vacant. It saddens me so much because it doesn’t have to be that way.

Peeling Back the Layers

Jayne English

21 Saint Vincent Bill Murray often explores themes beyond the comedic in his films. This is what makes St. Vincent not the predictable story of a misanthropic old man (Vincent, played by Murray), but a film that leans toward larger ideas.

One of the ways it does this is when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), the misanthropic old man’s new neighbor, reads Shel Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree to her 12-year-old son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). I never liked that book because the tree gives itself, apples and limbs and trunk, to the boy, until all that is left is a stump. I read it for the first time to my son when he was five. When I finished, I closed the book and said, "That's ridiculous, you're not supposed to let someone use you up like that." But doesn’t the book reflect the Gospel? If we are measured by the measure we use, what does a good measure—pressed down, shaken together and running over—look like? This scene raises unsettling questions about how we should love. We soon learn that Vincent’s wife is declining from dementia in a nursing home. He sacrifices his own financial security and physical safety to make sure she is well cared for.

Another scene raises existential questions. On Oliver’s first day at his new Catholic school, the teacher (a young priest) welcomes him warmly and asks him to pray to begin the school day. When Oliver objects (“I think I’m Jewish”), the priest has Oliver’s classmates tell him their religious persuasions. Each child identifies their view—Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish, agnostic. The fact that the priest makes space for these expansive differences in his class of 12-year-olds reminds us that these questions about God's existence and our own press in on us from a young age. As with the reading of The Giving Tree, the scene opens the movie’s scope to thoughts of what lies beyond us.

Vincent’s weekly appointment with Daka (Naomi Watts), a prostitute, stands in sharp contrast to his devotion to his ailing wife. But the relationship is another telling fruit of this flawed man. And Daka, being part of the story, crowds in on our tendency to make assumptions about people. In “Tell It Slant,” Camille T. Dungy tells us good poems and fiction “weird the truth” to “subvert our expectations and also reward them.” Dungy points to Lucille Clifton’s poem “here rests” and how Josephine, a prostitute, surprises our expectations by doing something we think would be out of character: she (and her pimp) return home to care for her dying father. The poem also tells us Josephine is a lover of books and “carried a book / on every stroll.” Then Clifton tells us:

and they would take turns reading a bible aloud through the house.

Dungy says knowing this about Josephine has “complicated our understanding of her...Clifton tells us a different side of a story, several different sides of a story, so that we see a deeper truth that is both superbly surprising and also so beautiful we can’t turn away.” Daka “complicates our understanding.” She was changing in ways other than not being able to pole dance anymore, due to her growing belly (we’re never told who the father of her child is). After Vincent suffers a stroke, she cleans and organizes his grossly neglected home. She also tells him the old relationship is over; he will now pay her to keep house for him. She enters into this new relationship with Vincent out of feelings for him and also out of a growing love for her unborn child. The film offers us this surprising and deeper insight into the life of a prostitute we assumed would be predictable.

Throughout the film, Vincent has some of his crusty layers planed through his relationships with Daka, Maggie, and Oliver. At the end, they’re all sitting down to a nice meal in a clean house. They pause to have Vincent pray. But Vincent refuses, shaking his head and laughing his sardonic laugh. It seems blasphemous. Who is he mocking? In “The Fire,” Franz Wright says,

And everything alive (and everything’s alive) is turning into something else as at the heart of some annihilating or is it creating fire that’s burning, unseeably, always burning at such speeds as eyes cannot detect, just try to observe your own face growing old in the mirror, or is it beginning to be born?

The film weirds the truth again. Vincent mocks himself. The prayer he didn’t pray was the prayer and shows us the bigger picture of an old man growing humble before a holy God.

Touching the Sacred

Jean Hoefling

3044_4bc9092b017a3c57fe0032ac_1293128735 Think about conversion, a spiritual or ethical change of heart. Can real change take place without a certain unrehearsed contrition, an artlessness that throws the soul off balance as transforming grace sweeps in? Can conversion take hold without touching the sacred?

In the German political thriller The Lives of Others, one achingly poignant scene shows GDR Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler slipping into the bugged apartment of a playwright under suspicion for disloyalty to the government. For weeks, the lonely, friendless Wiesler—wedded body and soul to the brutal Socialism that was East Germany—has been listening in remotely to the most intimate details of the love affair between this writer and his lover, a talented but insecure actress. As the agent plays government-sanctioned voyeur to absorb the couple’s unfiltered life, he becomes progressively beguiled, wooed from his cold political ideology into the world of the playwright; his fine artistic mind, his political courage, and an ardent love for his beautiful, but weaker-minded companion.

In this pivotal scene, we see Wiesler wandering from room to room, coming across items that are part of the couple’s life together and now mean something to Wiesler as well; a joke gift, certain books, sheet music he’s heard Georg play while Christa-Maria listens. He pockets a volume of poems and is later seen reading Bertolt Brecht’s love poem, "Memory of Marie A," apparently moved by its beauty. He finally arrives at the bedroom, the culminating shrine of the pilgrimage. There he kneels to stroke the bed, symbol of the holiness of human connection he lives only vicariously through the romance of these others. In contrast to his usual rigid, autocratic persona, Wiesler hesitates, barely daring to run his hand along the corner of the mattress and trace the creases of the rumpled bed sheets, taking his time to touch this sacred thing. He becomes disarmingly wretched, shy, and this is as it should be. Breaking from self-delusion to embrace the highest and best within us must almost by necessity be both enthralling and frightening. Wiesler moves through the moment with the innocence of a child on his face, and is transformed. Afterward, there is no going back.

To touch the sacred isn’t usually graceful. Think of Saul of Tarsus. I think of Christ’s words that unless I become like a little child, I might never discover what the Kingdom of Heaven actually is.

Calvary and the Virtue of Self–Sacrifice

Drew Trotter


“Self–sacrifice? But it is precisely the self that cannot and must not be sacrificed.” —Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

My favorite film from last year was an independent movie, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh entitled Calvary. If you are not yet familiar with it, shame on you because Tom Sturch wrote a wonderful piece on it just a few days ago on this website, linking the eight-day structure of the movie to the “Octave of Christmas”, which many in the ancient church celebrated. They did so because one day, i.e. Christmas day, cannot really contain the significance of what actually happened in the incarnation two thousand years ago. Something that big we should celebrate for eight days!

Anyway, the number eight is just about all that the traditional Octave and Calvary share in common because the film moves about as far from celebration and joy as is possible. Calvary is a slice-of-life drama set in a town in which almost every citizen is despicable. I say almost because—in a counter-cultural twist that is mind-boggling for me—one of the two decent characters in the film is Father James Lavelle, a priest played brilliantly by Brendan Gleeson. (The other, a French woman who is a heart-breakingly endearing character, is from out of town.)

The townspeople are portrayed through superb performances, each actor playing an oddball with serious moral deficiencies. There is a police chief, who has a gay lover and points guns at people for fun; a suicidal daughter with attitude; a wealthy retired investment banker, who cynically pees on a priceless painting he owns; a butcher, who is perfectly happy to let his wife’s adultery continue because he is glad to be rid of her; and on and on and on. If there is one thing all of these characters share in common, it is a personal and social nastiness that makes them sardonically dig at the priest over and over again in every interaction in the film.

All of these characters are in need of forgiveness, and none of them seek it. The police chief mocks the priest with his lifestyle and his belief in power. The daughter, who is his own, loves him but resists his attempts to get her to talk about her suicide attempt and, in a remarkable scene when he is sitting in the confessional and she in the place of the penitent, mocks Christ by calling him suicidal. The cynical investment banker cannot let go of spitting on the church for being so greedy, and derides the priest for being part of such a corrupt institution. The butcher, his wife, and her lover all tell the priest to get lost when he tries to help all three of them, because the love-making has turned violent (she’s been beaten up, but it is never quite clear by which man).

What does the priest do in all these situations? Like Jesus, it seems to me, he simply continues to love and seek to serve the people of the town, regardless. The only one for whom he ever really has harsh, condemnatory words is his fellow priest, again like Jesus with the Pharisees. The movie is a study in the responsibility of all of us to treat those who despise us with love and prayer (Matthew 5:43-46), and Father Lavelle does this consistently. He takes the pain and the suffering each of these broken souls experiences, and he internalizes it, not without some suffering of his own, since he is human after all.

But when his church is burned down, when his dog is slaughtered mercilessly, and when his own life is threatened, he simply remains faithful to his tasks of tending the flock, whether it be in the church, at their places of work, in their homes or in the pub. He pays dearly for his love; though he has been personally self-sacrificial throughout the film, he is willing to die—if it takes that—to help his wounded sheep.

Calvary may not be a perfect film, especially in its theology, but it is at worst, a study of a character so worth emulating that the movie ought to be high on everyone’s list to watch. Too much of the meaning of the film seems to be lodged in a thinly veiled religious humanism, though I could be argued out of that, since the priest is often seen praying before a crucifix, and the chief element in the marketing of the film is an empty cross. I’ll leave you to see it, evaluate the striking image at the very end of the movie, and meditate on what it means to forgive.

The Eighth Day and Calvary

Tom Sturch

Untitled This week many Christians will observe Eighth Day services, or The Octave of Christmas. The Eighth Day signifies the dawning of the New Creation of Christ's reign. It is fitting that we celebrate a new year during this time and plan our fresh starts. Eight is the number of new beginnings in Hebrew numerology. God made eight covenants with the children of Abraham. There were eight people on Noah's Ark (2 Peter 2:5) and Jewish boys were circumcised on eighth day from their birth (Genesis 17:10). Luke 2:21 is where we see the rites of the eighth day celebrated in Jesus' life and is the primary reason for its observance. And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus... In the style of a royal birth announcement, Luke foreshadows who the boy will become. In the child's name, he will be Savior, and in the shedding of innocent blood he will be the perfect atonement.

There is a culturally persistent notion that something is wrong and that blood must be shed—that someone must pay. In history, human and animal sacrifice and the penal system all stem from this moral dilemma. It is a subject of great works such as Atonement, The Dead, and Wuthering Heights. Pernicious and unrelenting, it stalks us now in the black and white of the daily news. Its accusations drown our cries for justice. No matter our plans or successes, despite our rituals and good works, it remains. It waits at every door. It says that things can only be made right with restitution of the greatest treasure and with the penalty of a life. And we wonder who will pay? Who can pay?

In Calvary, writer/director John Michael McDonagh wastes no time plunging us into this desperate world. The movie opens with Father James Lavelle dressed in an old-fashioned black soutane and white collar reading Moby Dick in his confessional booth. Someone steps into the adjoining booth and confesses that at the age of seven he was raped every other day for five years by a Catholic priest. “There was a lot of blood,” he said.


I dont know what to say to you. I have no answer for you, Im sorry.


What good would it do anyway, if he were still alive? Whatd be the point in killing the bastard? Thatd be no news. Theres no point in killing a bad priest. But killing a good one? Thatd be a shock, now. They wouldnt know what to make of that. (pause) Im going to kill you, Father. Im going to kill you cause youve done nothing wrong. Im going to kill you cause youre innocent. (pause) Not right now, though. Ill give you enough time to put your house in order. Make your peace with God. Sunday week, lets say. Ill meet you down on the beach there. Down by the water there. (with a laugh) Killing a priest on a Sunday. Thatll be a good one.

Against the beauty of an Irish seaside village, McDonagh gives us eight days with Father James as he ministers to a cynical, flattened human universe where escape is distraction and suicide is made rational. His aloof invulnerability masks the gross presence of mortality as he gently serves a flock too self-absorbed to desire it until the end when he decides what must be done.

This movie is appropriately rated R for giving a real and frightening look at ourselves and providing the dark background for the light of hope that ought shine in us. I do not agree with the movie's tragic outcome, but it, too, is a common falsity prevalent in the world. We can no more author our own salvation than be the atonement for the sin of another. But the movie's hard questions are a good place to start the year. I'll make my resolutions with them in mind toward preparing myself to give a hope-filled answer.