Theology At the Movies
John M. Frame
Table of Contents
Readers familiar only with my theological writings may be surprised to hear that for a brief time I considered an avocational career as a movie reviewer. I’ve always enjoyed movies, and I thought that some of my observations on films might be useful, at least to my students who took courses from me in modern culture. I had before me, also, the example of my colleague Harvie Conn, who reviewed movies for Christianity Today until the editors told him, “CT readers don’t go to movies.” (Evidently that has changed in the years since.)
So around 1992-93, I wrote up a number of reviews, with some introductory reflections on the medium. My main purpose was to use them in courses, but I also sent them around to publishers and to periodicals, in hope that I could perhaps moonlight somewhere as a reviewer, following Harvie. The responses were wholly negative. Publishers did not want to publish movie books, because they got out-of-date so fast. Periodical editors thought, well, that I should not give up my day job.
Hence the unmaking of a reviewer. But I have used these reviews and analytical pieces in other contexts, and the responses have not been totally negative. So I make them available now on the web. The reviews are still dated. Most are from around 1993, though I have added one or two in the years since. But with the increasing popularity of tape and DVD, there may still be interest in these particular films. More important, these reviews may be helpful to readers as they seek to evaluate more contemporary films.
I should warn you that the reviews contain “spoilers.” That is, I have reviewed the films as one reviews classic literature, with freedom to describe the ending and relate that ending to the overall interpretation. If anyone cannot bear to know the endings in advance, I urge you to see the film before reading the review.
After I go to a movie, I usually “debrief” myself, asking what the film was about, what I enjoyed, what I didn’t, etc. Sometimes my debriefing occurs in conversation with others, but often I simply sit down at the computer and type up my own review of the film, seeking to put into words my response to the experience.
I have gathered some of my reviews together, with some introductory essays, to present to my students at Westminster Theological Seminary for our course called “The Modern Mind,” a critical survey of modern thought and culture. In order to teach such a course, one must have some source of regular first-hand exposure to cultural trends, and I have found that for myself films are the best means of gaining that exposure. Although I love music, I confess I find modern avant-garde music, both popular and “serious,” very hard to listen to. I have little taste for, or understanding of, modern art. Novels take too long to read; plays are too expensive. I used to watch a lot of TV but, well, we now have young children in the house, and I don’t want them to become “addicted.” I do read modern philosophy and theology, but I also need exposure to something more universally popular, to see how academic philosophical and religious ideas are reflected and anticipated in the general culture. For that purpose, film has become my medium of choice.
Movie reviews are a dime a dozen; why do I add mine to the pile? Well, reviewers differ greatly in their emphasis. Most are concerned with aesthetic or technical matters, or with judgments of entertainment value. Christian reviewers tend to focus also on the moral tone of films, some actually counting the instances of sex, violence or foul language. A few reviewers offer unique perspectives. Jim Jordan, for example, brings to his reviews a rich background in literary symbolism, and he suggests patterns of symbolism in film that have subtle but profound bearing on the content of the film. All these approaches have their usefulness.
I do not have Jordan’s sensitivity to symbolism. I do have thoughts about aesthetic, technical and entertainment values, which I will express from time to time in the reviews. I am obviously interested also in the moral aspects of film, though I have neither the head nor the heart for counting up dirty words.
Though I have no degree in film or drama, I do have some knowledge of the history of film, having enjoyed movies and discussions of movies from childhood. I believe that my musical experience also gives me some appreciation for dramatic structure: ebb, flow and climax. But others certainly have stronger qualifications than mine for expressing opinions on these matters.
What I do bring to the reviews is, in a word, theology. For theology is my main life work. It is Jordan’s too, and Harvie Conn’s. But perhaps because I am less knowledgeable than they about matters of cinematic detail, I tend to focus more than they on the larger picture. I see the “messages” of the films less in the context of film as such than in the context of the general culture and of those great cultural debates which are at bottom theological. My approach is to stand back from each film and ask, what is it trying to tell me? What is its world-view, its law, its gospel?
The world-view is the most important issue in film. That is the element that is most culturally influential (often in a destructive way), and it is often most central to the filmmaker’s purpose.
One of the old film moguls (Sam Goldwyn’s name comes to mind, but it may have been someone else) is often quoted as saying “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Many filmmakers have made this sort of claim, that their work has nothing to do with messages, with theology or philosophy, that it is nothing other than “art for art’s sake,” or, at least, ”entertainment for entertainment’s sake.”
I would not want to claim that art can be reduced to theology or philosophy. Art tends to be particular and concrete, while philosophy, and theology to a lesser extent, tend to be general and abstract. Art strives to entertain; theology and philosophy generally do not, although the difference here too is a matter of degree. (Plato, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard are entertaining in a way that Aristotle, Kant and Tillich are not. That fact is not irrelevant to the proper evaluation of their work.) Art does have dimensions that delight or disturb us, quite apart from any ideological content. Much of what art communicates is the ingeniousness of its own design: its colors, its musical harmonies, the juxtapositions of its scenes. In film, much of the product’s quality comes from the sheer interest of the camera angles, the harsh or soft focus, the direction of the light, the short pauses in the actors’ speech, the vast range of artistically formed detail.
Having said all of that, I must add that it is simply false to claim that art has nothing to do with “messages.” Indeed, we are living in a time in which the messages of art are becoming more and more explicit. Oliver Stone, for example, is quite explicit about the political content of his films. He is not at all embarrassed by claims that he has an axe to grind. So much the better. In the film community, directors and actors are praised on all sides for participating in films (even, often, mediocre films) that take “controversial” positions on moral/political issues. That is, they are praised when those controversial positions are the ones that are popular in the film community and in the national media.
The “art for art’s sake” rhetoric tends to appear when these controversial projects receive criticism from conservative or Christian viewers. To such criticism, the standard reply is, ”Art is not philosophy and should not be judged as such. Art is above politics and religion. Art communicates only itself, not ideology.” But that reply is disingenuous. Everyone knows that it simply isn’t true.
Even such concepts as beauty and form are not religiously neutral. What is beautiful to a non-Christian may very well be ugly to a Christian: homosexual romance, for instance, or the demonic simulations in Disney’s “Fantasia.” Some techniques, of course, like the use of hand-held cameras, can be used by Christians or non-Christians. A dim level of lighting in a scene does not necessarily distinguish Christian from non-Christian filmmaking. On the other hand, such dim lighting can be used to make a value judgment. A director’s choice to use dim lighting in a room for the scene of a meeting might in some contexts convey that director’s view that the characters at that meeting are fairly unsavory. That doesn’t mean that dim lighting always indicates the presence of evil; but granted other elements of the drama, it may indicate that. And of course Christians and non-Christians tend to disagree as to where evil is to be found.
Message, then, is not all there is to art, but it is an important element of it, one that is especially important to Christians who are concerned about the impact of films on their families and upon society. From one “perspective,” it is the whole: for when we ask about “message,” we are simply asking what the art as a whole is communicating to us. The message may not always be easily expressed in words, or in the terms of philosophy or theology. But attempting to express it in words is a worthy goal for a reviewer. Nor is the message of a film to be obtained in the same way we obtain the message of a philosophical treatise. Films, even Oliver Stone’s, do not simply teach or preach. But no one should have any objection to analysis of a director’s artistic decisions to see what they reveal about his vision of life.
It is usually not hard to answer the question, “What does the director want us to think (about the characters, the events, the setting, the atmosphere)?” It is usually pretty clear who are the basically sympathetic characters, who are the villains. In films as in real life there is, of course, moral ambiguity. There is good in the worst, bad in the best. But even to make such comments we must be able to use moral terms; we must be able to distinguish good from bad. The chief approach of my theological analysis of the films will be simply to ask “What does the film consider good, and what bad?”
So my reviews will basically try to sum up the “message” of each film: its ideology, its values, its world-view, its philosophy, its theology. I will comment on other elements of the film as they seem especially relevant to formulating that message. In the process I will try to observe proper distinctions between art and philosophy, especially to recognize the particularism of a film’s focus. But particularism is of no interest unless it is in some measure universal, unless it reminds its viewers of what they, too, have observed.
Such is the program underlying these reviews. I hope that readers and viewers will find them in some measure edifying. May God use them in some small or large way to strengthen the Christian presence in the contemporary world.
One word of warning: since these reviews attempt to be serious analysis rather than “viewing guides,” I will not avoid discussions of endings. Obviously, one could not meaningfully discuss “Hamlet” or “Death of a Salesman” without saying something about the endings of these dramas. The same is true about significant films. Those who can’t bear to know the ending of a film before seeing it should proceed with appropriate caution.
My thanks and appreciation go to those Christian authors who have entered this arena before me, who have endured the scorn of the world by developing a Christian interpretation of film and who have often endured the scorn of Christians because they have chosen to go to movies. Especially, I have learned from the contributions of Donald Drew, Harvie Conn, Jim Jordan, and Keith Billingsley. Much should be said also for the work of an observant Jew, Michael Medved, who has exposed the moral antagonism between Hollywood and “traditional American values.” Whether he recognizes it or not, those values he cherishes are, by and large, the values taught and advanced by the Christian gospel.
Chapter 1: Should Christians Go to Movies?
Some Christians may wonder how a fellow believer can give any support to the film industry, notorious as it is for anti-Christian bias and moral relativism. I would note that there is also a view on the opposite extreme: some Christian critics of culture insist that all Christians have a responsibility to become culturally aware, to become knowledgeable about cultural trends in art, music, literature, film, drama and so on.
I reject both of these extremes. A more balanced position, I think, is to recognize that Scripture tells us to be ”in” the world, but not “of” the world. That means that we not only may, but should, be willing to live amid secular (=anti-Christian) influence without ourselves compromising the faith. In this respect, it doesn’t matter whether that secular influence comes from film, or from involvement in business, labor, neighborhood, politics, or whatever. Nor, within the general realm of media entertainment, does it matter whether we are talking about Beethoven or modern rock, Jane Austen or William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway or Jackie Collins, news or business magazines, TV or film, Disney films or films by Martin Scorsese. To avoid non-Christian influence altogether, we would have to live as hermits (assuming that we could even find some place in the world beyond the reach of modern communications and government). In all modern experience there is a heavy component of anti-Biblical teaching and influence. But complete isolation is not a live option for biblical Christians. Even the Christian hermits of the ancient and medieval periods justified their existence as a life of prayer, and thus a life which was, after all, in and for the world. How can we pray for a world we know nothing about? We must not seek to isolate ourselves from the world, but rather to be “salt” and “light” in our fallen culture, to carry out our Lord’s Great Commission.
That balance, of being “in” but not “of” the world, is sometimes difficult to maintain. One’s choices in this area should be based in part upon his or her own moral and spiritual maturity. Some people, especially children, or those young in the faith, or those with special problems like alcohol addiction or unusual susceptibility to sexual temptation, should limit their exposure to secular culture in appropriate ways. But at the same time they should be trained in Christian maturity, so that eventually they can enter more fully the secular arena, not fearing that they will be compromised by the culture, but expecting to influence the culture positively for Christ.
I do not believe, with the Christian “culturalists,” that every Christian, or even every mature Christian, has an @UN(obligation) to attend art exhibits, concerts, films, etc. Christians should seek to influence the world for Christ in some way: that is the Great Commission. But the precise way in which they reach out to the world may differ greatly from one believer to another. My brother-in-law is pastor of a church in the inner city of Philadelphia. He does not normally go to films, dramas, or art exhibits. But he is definitely “in” the world, the real world, and he ministers to it with all the strength God provides him. A knowledge of entertainment media would be of little use to him in his ministry, and I would be the last person to urge him to become “culturally aware.”
Yet there are others (such as myself, I believe) who are called of God to devote some of their energy to Christian culture-criticism. Many pastors, as well as youth workers, scholars, teachers, writers, parents and others are in this category. For them it is not wrong, I believe, within sensible limits, to expose themselves to modern film or other media. The apostle Paul said that he was not ignorant of Satan’s devices (2 Cor. 2:11). For that purpose, if for no other, we may be called to learn what filmmakers have to say to us.
Some arguments used by Christians opposed to moderate attendance at films are as follows:
(1) “Graphic acts of violence debase those who watch them, making the viewers more prone to violence.” On this proposition there is mixed statistical evidence. Some people, especially children, do seem to resort more quickly to violence, or imitation-violent play, as the result of viewing simulated violence on TV or film. I do advocate that parents limit and monitor the use of these media by their children. But I find it hard to believe that everyone should for this reason drastically curtail their film attendance. I have never myself (even in childhood, as best I can recall) felt the least bit inclined toward violence as the result of watching it on film. For the most part, viewing such violence increases my resolve toward finding non-violent solutions to problems. I think that many other people are similar to me in this respect.
Further, if we maintain a proper critical distance from the films we watch (a distance which is necessary for many other reasons), we can see that film violence is essentially choreography. No one really gets hurt. And for the most part in films, even today, unjustly violent people are not rewarded or glorified.
It is important to maintain perspective: lack of perspective is one of the most prevalent defects in Christian thought today, in my view. And the larger perspective is that violence is all around us, unavoidable. To avoid it entirely is to depart from the world. Indeed, Scripture itself contains descriptions of terrifying, even gory violence; just read the Book of Judges. Since Scripture includes such descriptions, we must assume that there are good reasons for it– reasons conducive to edification (2 Tim. 3:16, 17). It is not hard to imagine what those reasons might be. The violence of the wicked shows us what the Fall has done to us; and the violence of divine judgment summons us to repentance. On this basis we cannot deny that some exposure to depictions of violence can be edifying.
(2) “Sexual scenes in movies excite impure lusts.” Again, I think this is true of some viewers, but not others. If sex scenes in films have that effect on you, then don’t go to films until God gives you a greater mastery over temptation. But I don’t think this is a problem for every Christian.
But some might go further and insist that, even for those who are not tempted toward sin by screen sex, it is wrong to view actors in the process of doing things which are sinful in themselves. (The same point has been made with regard to the use of unwholesome or blasphemous language in movie scripts.) I grant that some love scenes in the movies cross over that line of being ”sinful in themselves.” True, screen sex is usually, for the actors and actresses involved, not very “sexy.” The filming of such scenes is done bit by bit, with all sorts of technical intrusions, and usually without actual genital contact. Still, if I were married to an actress who chose to engage publicly in deep kissing and simulated intercourse with a third party, I would consider myself to have been violated. In my view that is a scriptural view of the matter.
So some movie sex is certainly sinful in itself. And one cannot, certainly, justify watching sin for its own sake. I would not go to a film for the purpose of watching an actor and actress in a nude sex scene (thus I avoid “XXX” flicks), any more than I would take a walk in the park to spy on kids making love behind the bushes. On the other hand, I would not stay away from the park out of fear that I might happen to observe some illicit sex. Similarly, if film actors wish to commit sin before the camera, that is their responsibility. I don’t believe I commit sin when I, in the normal course of my cultural pursuits, observe what they, without consulting me, have chosen to do in public.
(3) “Modern films promote, very effectively, a non-Christian philosophy of life.” This is true, and it is the most profound of all arguments against Christian attendance at films. Sex, foul language, and violence are incidental elements in film, but the non-Christian world- and life-view is often at its core. That world-view does more damage in society than any cinematic portrayals of sex, violence, and ungodly speech. Indeed, that world-view is what makes the sex, violence, and language in movies unwholesome, in contrast with biblical depictions of such things.
But again, perspective is in order. Non-Christian philosophy has dominated the arts and general culture for the last three centuries. To avoid exposure to non-Christian world-views and values, we would have to avoid exposure to Mozart and Beethoven, Emerson and Thoreau, Hume and Kant, Paine and Jefferson, D. W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, and so on, not to mention Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Euripides, Cicero, and other ancients. We tend to discount older exponents of non-Christian values, viewing them with the halo that comes with long cultural acceptance. For that reason, these older thinkers are often more dangerous than those which are more contemporary and more obviously anti-Christian. Indeed, for similar reasons, we must beware of G-rated films as much as of R- and X-rated films. Yes, let us limit our exposure to all of these influences; but not to the extent of leaving the world, or to the extent of becoming ignorant of Satan’s devices.
(4) “We should not give our money to an industry that encourages immorality and unbelief.” Scripture does not require believers to support only industries and institutions that are morally and religiously pure. Jesus taught his disciples to pay taxes to Caesar, taxes which supported the emperor cult, among other things. Paul taught the Corinthians to buy food in the market place without asking whether or not it had been offered to idols. Scripture is realistic enough to know that if we had to inquire about the religion or morals of every merchant before doing business with him, we could not buy at all.
I do not think it is wrong for Christians to boycott industries which they believe are doing social and/or religious harm in the world. They are certainly free to withhold their economic support from those industries. On the other hand, I do not believe that Scripture @UN(requires) us to boycott such organizations. We really could not do that in every case without completely isolating ourselves from the world.
I would conclude, therefore, that a moderate amount of movie-going is legitimate for most Christians. I don’t think we should be ashamed of that or even ashamed of enjoying it. Moderation, of course, requires careful thought about priorities. Even activities which are good in themselves can become wrong if they crowd out of our lives things which are more important. Each of us needs to do some self-examination in this area. Choices about exposure to entertainment and culture are not religiously neutral. But those who are conscientious about pleasing God and keeping his commandments need not feel guilty about moderate movie attendance.
Chapter 2: Film and Culture
Harvie Conn has described film as a “cultural mirror,” a valuable reflection of contemporary attitudes, philosophies, values, lifestyles. Others, such as Michael Medved, have placed more emphasis on the idea of film as a former of culture.
As I see it, both emphases are true. The relation between film and culture is a chicken-and-egg relationship. Film is of course a product of culture, for the makers of films are people of their own time. On the other hand, within their own culture, filmmakers are often atypical. They tend to be more liberal politically, less inclined to practice religion, more open to radical social attitudes and movements, than the general population. Thus their films tend more often than not to support radicalism and to subvert traditional, especially Christian, values. When those filmmakers answer criticisms of the content of their films by saying “we are only reflecting the broader culture,” they are either being naive or dishonest. In the broader culture, there is far more interest in religion, far more family integrity, far more clean language and honest work than one would ever guess from films.
In any case, it is important when we go to the movies to take with us some understanding of what is happening in the general culture: both what is considered “traditional” and what is considered “avant-garde.”
One cannot adequately summarize the current cultural situation in a brief essay, but I will offer a summary here simply to show the reader where I am coming from in my reviews. As I see it, western culture has moved in the last three hundred years from a time of Christian dominance to a time of anti-Christian secular dominance. Even today, however, there is in western culture quite a bit of “borrowed Christian capital,” and, every now and then, Christian teaching is heard with respect.
It is possible to overestimate the role of secular liberalism in contemporary society. From the portrayals of the 1960s in popular media, especially film, one would get the impression that everybody in the United States was “dropping out,” taking drugs, protesting the war, supporting radical leftist causes. Perhaps that is what most filmmakers and their friends were doing. But most Americans were fed up with all the protests, drugs, and pompous young moralizers. They elected Richard Nixon president in 1968, and they overwhelmingly re-elected him in 1972, against George McGovern, who was the voice of the radical left. Arguably, the populace continued to move rightward through the 1970s, resulting in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. During the last thirty years, the only Democrats elected president were men who persuaded the electorate of their moderation. Overt liberals, McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis were soundly defeated.
Liberal ideas, therefore, are not nearly as pervasive within the general culture as they are in the press, educational and entertainment media. Still, they do leave their mark in important ways, largely because these media– together with the influence of government– have so much power.
Today the focus of the liberal movement can be summarized by the term equality. That movement especially emphasizes, in a quasi-Marxist way, equality between men and women, between races, cultures, religions, between rich and poor.
Christianity also endorses equality of all persons before divine and human law. God is no respecter of persons, and human law must not give preference to people based on wealth, gender or race. But the liberal consensus endorses unbiblical forms of equality: identical roles for men and women, abolishment of any “gaps” between rich and poor, elimination of any moral sanction against homosexuality. Ultimately, liberal equality amounts to moral relativism. But it is a moral relativism that becomes very dogmatic, very non-relativist, in asserting its own egalitarianism. Anyone who disagrees, who is not “politically correct,” must be smeared and ostracized from polite society.
The God of the Bible treats people equally in some respects, but, in other ways, he is the great divider. He separates the righteous from the wicked in his terrible judgments. He sets the non-relative moral boundaries for creatures by revealing forth his law. He has no interest in abolishing economic differences between people in this world. He establishes institutions of family, state and church, and gives different people different roles within these institutions: husband/wife/child, magistrate/citizen, elder/member.
The biblical God is able to make choices among people, because he is a person. One distinctive of personhood is rational choice. The problem with secular liberalism is that it has abandoned belief in the personal God of the Bible. In the secular view, the most ultimate features of the universe are impersonal, not personal. But an impersonal force cannot make choices. It must act on all other realities equally. An electrical current will shock anyone or anything that comes up against it. But a person can choose how he will respond to other persons and objects in its environment.
Rejection of the personal God of scripture inevitably brings universalism: either all are saved or all are lost. And it brings egalitarianism.
The moral relativist side of secular liberalism stems from the fact that, as Dostoyevsky noted, if God doesn’t exist, anything is permitted. But such universal permissiveness is a recipe for chaos, one which even secularists cannot easily accept. Thus they seek to replace God with another supposed absolute. (Scripture calls this process “idolatry.”) That absolute is, in most cases, their own autonomous moral judgment. Hence the “dogmatic” side of secularism. But when that dogmatism fails, when the secularists’ own judgment proves untrustworthy, then they revert to relativism: “Oh, well; nobody really knows.” Relativism and dogmatism: these are the Scylla and Charybdis of secular liberalism. Strictly these are inconsistent with one another. But they supplement and need one another. The secularist bounces back and forth from one to the other as on a pendulum.
Cornelius Van Til calls relativism and dogmatism by the terms “irrationalism” and “rationalism” respectively, thereby relating these themes to the traditional concerns of philosophical epistemology, theory of knowledge. Os Guinness in The Dust of Death describes them as “pessimism” and ”optimism,” thus relating these motifs to practical attitudes. It is important, especially in the context of film, that we do not see these themes only as elements of a theoretical world-view or ethical system, but that we see them as attitudes which affect all areas of human life. For if someone has adopted a relativist ethic, that person will likely be in despair, “pessimism,” when it comes to making choices in any area of life. He has rejected God, the source of all meaning. What ground can he possibly have for optimism? On the other hand, he can become a dogmatic secularist instead of a relativist, even though these are two sides of the same coin. Then he may well be optimistic; but it will be a false hope.
In films, then, we must reckon with the presence both of moral relativism and of secular dogmatism. But we may also find in films traces, sometimes more than traces, of Christian ideas which, in spite of the present resistance both of the general culture and of the film industry, have managed to assert themselves. One will find large elements of Christian teaching and values in older stories set to modern films: Shakespeare plays, medieval legends, etc. And one will also find films of recent conception where Christian values are prominent. “Chariots of Fire,” “Tender Mercies,” and “A Trip to Bountiful” are recent films which, if not distinctively Christian in every way, nevertheless present distinctively Christian ideas in a favorable light. Sometimes, one finds Christian themes and symbolism in films, even films which are not in themselves supportive of Christian values. Christians should be ready to be surprised when they attend films, and not only negatively.
Sometimes it is easy to explain these authentically Christian elements of films, by the Christian convictions of a writer, director, or other member(s) of the filmmaking team. Other times it is not easy to explain. Sometimes it just seems as though the non-Christian filmmakers were unable to overcome the dramatic, intellectual, and moral force of the Christian revelation, and so, for once, they let it have its way.
In my reviews, as I try to bring out the “messages” of the filmmakers, I will be focusing on the themes of equality, relativism, and dogmatic idolatry. And I shall also bring out those elements in which I think God’s word has overcome cultural resistance to speak its cinematic piece.
Chapter 3: Questions to Ask of Films
In my discussion of film and culture, I identified the general thrust of modern secular liberalism and its antithesis with Christianity. My reviews will deal with those themes in general. Here I wish to be a bit more specific. What follows are certain questions that are always in my mind when I go to films. I would recommend that other Christian viewers ask the same questions. I will not go through this whole list in each review; I will only discuss the ones I think most important to the particular film.
1. Who wrote the film? Who produced it? Who directed it? Do we know through the writings and previous work of these people anything about their philosophy of life? The previous works of actors are also important. Actors contribute much to the quality of a film, little to its fundamental conception. But actors do tend to sign on to projects with which they have some ideological affinity (assuming financial rewards are not otherwise determinative). Mel Gibson almost never takes on films with a heavy sexual element; Mickey Rourke almost always does. The presence of certain actors, granting that they sometimes go ”against type,” can tell you something about the message of a film.
2. Is it well-made, aesthetically? Are the production and acting values of high quality? These factors may have little to do with the “message.” But they do tend to determine the extent of the film’s cultural impact, and that is important for our purposes. If a film is well-made, it can have a large impact upon the culture for good or ill. (Of course some bad films also have a major impact!)
3. Is it honest, true to its own position? This is another mark of “quality.” Generally speaking, an honest film, regardless of its point of view, will have a larger cultural impact than one which blunts its points.
4. What kind of film is it? Fantasy? Biography? Realistic drama? Comedy? Obviously each film must be judged according to its purpose and genre. We don’t demand of a fantasy the kind of historical accuracy we demand of a supposedly literal biography.
5. What is the world view of the film? Is it theistic or atheistic? Christian or non-Christian? If non-Christian, is its main thrust relativistic or dogmatic? How does it employ the theme of “equality?” Is there any role for providence, for God? Is the film pessimistic or optimistic? Does the action move in deterministic fashion, or is there a significant role for human choice?
6. What is the plot? What problems do the characters face? Can these problems be correlated in some way with the Fall of mankind in Adam? Does the film in effect deny the Fall, or does it affirm it in some way?
7. Are the problems soluble? If so, how? What methods are available to the characters so that they can find the answers they need?
8. What is the moral stance of the film? Is the film relativistic, dogmatic, or both in some combination? What are its attitudes toward sex, family, human life, property, truth, heart-attitudes? What is the source of moral norms, if any? Does justice prevail?
9. In comedy, what is it that is funny? What are the typical incongruities? Who is the butt of the jokes? (Christians? traditional values? the wicked? the righteous? God? Satan?) Is the humor anarchic? Is it rationality gone awry? Is it bitter or gentle? Does it rely on caricatures? If so, of whom?
10. Are there allusions to historical events, literary works, other films, famous people, Scripture, etc. that would give us some idea where the filmmakers are coming from? We should remember, of course, that allusions may be negative, positive, ironic, or merely decorative. A biblical allusion does not necessarily indicate acceptance of biblical values.
11. What are the chief images of the film? Is there anything interesting about the lighting, the camera angles, the sound, the timing which would reinforce a particular theme? Are there significant symbols?
12. Are there any explicit religious themes? Christ-figures?1 Does the film express significant attitudes toward Christ, the clergy, or the church? Does it distort Christianity or present it at its worst? Or does it present it with some insight and/or sympathy? Does it recognize the element of personal piety in people’s lives?2 There are exceptions. If so, does it approve or disapprove of it? What about Satan, the demons, the occult? Does the film recognize their activity in some way? Is the devil taken seriously? If so, how is he dealt with? _
1 Steven Spielberg’s ”E. T.” is, I think, a genuine Christ figure: recall the themes of pre-existence, growth, teaching, miracle, healing, death, resurrection, ascension. Spielberg denied this parallel, but in my view it is objectively there, even if Spielberg was unconscious of it. The reason is that the human mind has a need for a gospel like that of the New Testament. Those who don’t accept that gospel often instinctively give to their idolatrous inventions powers parallel to those of Christ.
2 The character of Frank Burns in the original M*A*S*H was a pious fellow who kneeled to pray at his bedside, to the scorn of his fellow soldiers. Eventually, it turned out that he was an adulterer and hypocrite. That is fairly typical of the way Hollywood portrays Christian piety.
A Perfect World
Red Garnett ………. Clint Eastwood
Butch Haynes ……… Kevin Costner
Sally Gerber ……… Laura Dern
Phillip Perry …….. T.J. Lowther
Terry Pugh ……….. Keith Szarabajka
Tom Adler ………… Leo Burmester
Bobby Lee ………… Bradley Whiteford
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Produced by Mark Johnson and David Valdes. Written by John Lee Hancock. Photographed by Jack N. Green. Edited by Joel Cox. Music by Lennie Niehaus. Running time: 136 minutes. Classified: PG-13 (on appeal for violence, sexual content and language).
Some critics have raved over this film, Clint Eastwood’s first directorial project since “Unforgiven.” Like the previous film, this one emphasizes moral ambiguity: the good in the worst of us and the bad in the best. I was not nearly as impressed with this effort, however.
Butch Haynes, played by Kevin Costner, is a fellow who has had a rotten childhood and has spent most of his recent years in jail. He breaks out of prison with a fellow inmate and (mainly because of his colleague’s wildness) winds up with an eight-year-old hostage. The boy’s mother is a Jehovah’s Witness, who has never permitted him to go trick or treating at Halloween time, or to celebrate Christmas, or to go to carnivals or fairs. He has never eaten cotton candy. He has understandably developed as a shy young man, not much at ease in public. His real father left the family years before.
When Costner’s fellow escapee tries to molest the boy, Costner kills him and leaves his body in a cornfield. Then he and the boy drive away together, pursued by Texas Rangers headed by Clint Eastwood’s character, Red Garnett. Haynes becomes a surrogate father to “Buzz,” as he calls the boy. He teaches him by experience all the things from which his mother shielded him: guns, cars, sex, trick or treating.
Eastwood’s Garnett feels the guilt of having sent young Butch to a juvenile prison years ago, though he was quite warranted in doing that. Butch learned there how to be a criminal, and he was never able to be anything else.
The story climaxes as Haynes and Buzz receive hospitality at the home of a black farmer. The farmer slaps his own little boy around, and Haynes becomes so angry he nearly kills him. To stop him from doing this, Buzz shoots Haynes and runs away; but eventually the boy comes to recognize how much he loves his kidnapper. In time, Butch is killed by a dumb-but-imperious police sharpshooter who wrongly thinks Butch is armed. Buzz goes back to his Mom but, we imagine, will never be the same again.
There are routine plot elements here: jail break, abduction, car chases, detective work, growing friendship between kidnapper and victim. But the film plays down these elements in favor of the personal relationships. It is essentially about fathers (biological and surrogate) and sons: Haynes and his rotten father, Buzz and his, Haynes and Buzz, Garnett and Haynes, the black sharecropper and his boy. Cruelty to children is the one thing Haynes cannot abide. That is, we are told in effect, what provokes him to his most violent acts. But as a surrogate father to Buzz, he gains a certain nobility, according to the film.
As a Christian, however, I resisted the movie’s values. I will not comment on the theological differences between the Jehovah’s Witness cult and Christian orthodoxy, though there are many. Nor will I expound on the difference between the evident legalism of Buzz’s mother and the ethics of Scripture, though much could be said about that as well. Hollywood knows nothing of such distinctions. To this film, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are bad, not because they are heretical or legalistic, but because they stand for “straight” values, against the values of Hollywood and modern culture. On this score, I will have to side with the Witnesses. Buzz’s mother is trying hard to stand against the tide of decadence. For all her heresy and legalism, she is trying to shield her boy from the world. Haynes is trying, essentially, to undo that. The film sides with Haynes; I do not.
Thus for all the film’s attempts at moral profoundity (i.e. recognizing moral ambiguity), it mostly left me cold. Butch Haynes is a murderer and a thief. Is he to be excused because of his bad upbringing? Does he redeem himself by arousing Buzz’s selfish instincts? Not in my book. Of course it is hard not to sympathize with any character played by Kevin Costner. All his movements (in all of his films) proclaim that he is a nice guy. But the choice of Costner for this role is part of the film’s propaganda. It virtually commands us to sympathize with Haynes. Can we resist that command? Another reason not to leave your critical faculties at home when you go to the movies.
A River Runs Through It
This is a Horton Foote script from a novel about a Presbyterian minister and his two sons living in Montana in the early twentieth century. Foote also wrote “Tender Mercies” and ”A Trip to Bountiful,” two films praised in Christian circles for their sympathetic treatment of Christian convictions (a rare commodity in recent movies). Here, too, the religious family is viewed with sympathy. But in this film the father is a rather liberal pastor, or so his sermons would indicate. Although the pastor spoke with some eloquence about human life, I heard nothing in his preaching or elsewhere that reminded me of the biblical gospel. We should remember the argument of J. Gresham Machen that liberalism and Christianity are two different and antithetical religions.
At any rate, the pastor is also an expert fly fisherman, and, we are told in the introduction, in their family it was hard to draw the line between theology and fishing. He was a home schooler too. We see him telling his boys the nuances of writing. (“Now try it again, but make it half as long.”) And he taught them to fish.
The older son went to college and eventually became a professor of English. The younger stayed at home and become a newspaper reporter. As the current birth-order literature would lead you to believe, the younger son is somewhat less ”responsible” than the older one. (I write as a first sibling.) He gets drunk a lot, gambles, goes out with a woman of the wrong race, eventually gets himself killed.
But shortly before his death, he goes fishing again, with his Dad and his older brother. As the older ones look on, in astonishment, he plays a fish with a skill that elicits from the script the language of divine inspiration. For the three, it is a moment of inexplicable beauty and wonder.
The mysticism of the moment stays with the older son, and at the end of the film, after many years have passed, he stands by the river and looks back on those times. He sees all the people, all the times and places coming together in a single flow, “and a river runs through it.”
The theology of the film, therefore, reveals itself as monistic: all is one. The brother is dead, but he is alive in memory. In his moment of glory, he ascended to a higher level of being, and in time all of us will be part of him and he part of us. The boy’s dissipation and death, in the final analysis, are of no consequence.
Well, that’s what many people would like to believe today. It is very far from Christianity; in fact it is the very nemesis of Christianity, which maintains distinctions between God and man, between one human being and another, between good and evil, between fishing and theology, between death and life. Do we really want to believe that a life of dissipation can be atoned for by a skillful fishing performance? I realize that question rather trivializes the film which is in many ways beautiful and thoughtful. But let us not simply accept the mesmerizing effect which this film seeks to work on us. Let us ask what it is that we are being taught, and hear it, not as part of the “flow,” but with a Christian thoughtfulness which is not afraid to question such a seductive drama as this.
Addams Family Values
Morticia ………. Anjelica Huston
Gomez …………. Raul Julia
Fester ………… Christopher Lloyd
Granny ………… Carol Kane
Wednesday ……… Christina Ricci
Pugsley ……….. Jimmy Workman
Debbie Jelinsky … Joan Cusack
Lurch …………. Carel Struycken
Paramount presents a film directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Produced by Scott Rudin. Written by Paul Rudnick. Based on characters created by Charles Addams. Photographed by Donald Peterman. Edited by Arthur Schmidt. Music by Mark Shaiman. Running time: 88 minutes. Classified: PG-13 (for macabre humor).
This is a movie about murder and the occult, played not for horror, but for laughs. As a comedy, this is a corker. The script and sight gags are enormously funny. It moves fast, not making the mistake of many comedies which take forever to set up a gag only to have it fall flat. In this film, the punch lines are rapid in coming, often in only one word. Girl at summer camp to Wednesday Addams: “Why are you dressed like someone died?” Wednesday: “Wait.” Watch the scenes carefully for details, like the boiling, smoking witches’ brew in the drinks at the cocktail party.
The performances are great: Raul Julia as the new Fernando Lamas/ Ricardo Montalban/ Cesar Romero, the stereotypical Latin lover. Anjelica Huston as Morticia, communicating volumes with her eyebrows. The chemistry between them, especially their incredible dance number, transcended the genre. I especially enjoyed Christina Ricci, the young actress who played daughter Wednesday. She played the part so straight, so somber, that whenever she broke a smile it was hilarious.
The plot develops in three directions: (1) the Addams’ new baby and the comic-murderous sibling rivalry of his sister and brother, (2) the older kids’ experience at summer camp which leads to a flaming Armageddon, (3) uncle Fester (an unrecognizable Christopher Lloyd) marrying a “black widow,” a supposed governess who marries wealthy men and then disposes of them on her honeymoon. (Her disgruntlement over her failure to murder Fester is wonderful to behold.)
Christians may well wonder whether it is legitimate for them to laugh at this sort of thing. After all, we take very seriously such things as mass murder and witchcraft.
Some, too, have quoted Proverbs 14:9 in the translation ”Fools make a mock at sin” to indicate that Christians should never laugh at anything evil. However, the NIV translation, ”Fools mock at making amends for sin, but good will is found among the upright” is a legitimate possibility and seems to fit the context better. And can we forget entirely the jokes that Jesus tells about rich fools, those who strain at gnats, and the like?
Now at one level, laughter about such things is not hard to justify. God laughs at the wicked (Psm. 2:7), and one ”perspective” on Scripture is that God’s redemptive plan is a great joke upon the wicked. God’s wisdom, foolish to the world, makes the world look foolish (I Cor. 1, 2). But in this particular movie, the wicked win out. Indeed, the Addams monsters, murderers and ghouls attract most all of the audience’s sympathy. (The “straight” people in the film are hideously unattractive.) Should we be embarrassed about laughing, to say nothing of cheering them on?
The laughter here is based on the old premise, common to many New Yorker cartoonists, not only the late Charles Addams, that famous and infamous people must have some kind of ordinary home life: Napoleon taking out the garbage, etc. I remember one New Yorker cartoon in which a king in full regalia walks into a living room, throws his beautifully jeweled crown on a hat rack and says “honey, I’m home.” The ironic juxtaposition between his political dignity and his “typical” home life evokes laughter. The Addamses are like that: monsters, to be sure, but with “family values” that are in some ways “just like you and me.”
But Christians know better than most people that wickedness destroys “typical family life.” Most mass murderers are “loners,” as we are told over and over again in the press. Witches and ghouls are not usually “family” people. Going against God’s order in one area of life tends to produce dislocations in other areas, and the family is usually the first to undergo distortion. The family is a delicate institution. Its preservation requires close attention to God’s laws.
So the idea of murderers and witches having a typical American family life is all the more absurd to those who know Christ. We know it just can’t be so. Thus we can be amused at the fantasy. It is like a pig dancing the tango. It is funny, because it just doesn’t happen. When the older Addams kids try several times to kill their baby brother, we know perfectly well that no real family could survive the crisis. (It enhances my amusement to note that had the events of the film taken place in California, Child Protective Services would have torn the Addams Family apart ten minutes into the first reel.) That the family remains together and resolves the whole thing with some bizarre rationality and good feeling satirizes neatly not only the wicked, but also the psychiatric establishment, which mandates ”acceptance” as therapy. When the Addams kids burn down their summer camp, evidently destroying the majority of kids and counselors in the process, we know that in the real world they would be sent to a juvenile detention facility. But there they are in the next scene, back at home again, having a great time.
Humor is often based on discrepancy, and good humor reveals important discrepancies in the world. The largest discrepancy is between God’s created order (the family) and human sin (the Addams’ lifestyle). Humor which underscores that discrepancy says much that needs to be said in our time. “Addams Family Values,” though not informed by Scripture, recognizes the absurdity of family coexisting with monstrosity; therefore, in one sense, it is an edifying movie. I believe that God is pleased to see us laughing at it.
But not to see us cheering them on. Unfortunately, the great comedy in this movie is a kind of lure. It offers us scripturally proper laughter to guide us into scripturally improper attitudes. While a Christian would (or should) find the situation entirely ridiculous, the filmmakers actually seem to be taking it seriously, at a certain level. To them, the “ordinary home life” of the murderers, ghouls, and vampires is not just an ironic bit of nonsense. Rather, the Addamses seem to be a kind of symbol of all those groups in society which are misunderstood and oppressed. This is especially evident in the summer camp adventure. The camp establishment is a political liberal’s nightmare: rich WASP bigots who demand of everyone else happy, Disneyesque, smiling faces. Wednesday and Pugsley Addams, however, befriend Jews, blacks, and handicapped, and they come on with an “attitude.” Of course, according to the film, they are the only ones in camp with any brains at all. When the camp director puts on a maudlin Thanksgiving pageant, the Addams and their friends, forced to participate in Indian costume, turn it into a demonstration for Native American rights, and hence a massacre. The film seems to be saying that all the WASP campers deserve to die because they are not politically correct.
There is also at least a hint of support to animal rights. At the pageant, Pugsley comes on dressed as a turkey, singing “eat me,” “eat me.” Unlike Wednesday’s Indians, Pugsley is following the script of the WASP camp director, who hates all minorities and who, by writing this song, we gather, also oppresses the turkey population.
So, by analogy, the Addams are just another victim group. They are just like you and me, except that society has misunderstood them. Sure, the kids try several times to murder their baby brother; but underneath it all, their hearts are pure, because they defend Native American claims to the continent. Indeed: who do the “straights” think they are, telling other people what a “family” should be? Doesn’t any group which lives together in love, after a fashion, constitute a family? (Where have we heard that before?) Don’t the Addamses, after all, have ”family values” in the best sense?
I suppose the filmmakers could chide us at this point for taking it all too seriously. Perhaps they could even make a case that the movie is a satire on political correctness. Maybe so, to some extent. Indeed, I prefer to take it that way, for as such it makes better comedy. But there is no doubt that this film is on the side of the witches. In the best comedies, the major comic characters are never scum, never mere fools, though some of the supporting characters may be. In some way, the lead figures evoke the sympathy of the audience. Think of Chaplin, or Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, or Mickey Mouse. (There are exceptions, like Leslie Nielsen’s Frank Drebin in the “Naked Gun” series. But while that series is quite funny, most of us would not list it among the “great” comedies.) The filmmakers want us not only to laugh at the Addamses, indeed not only to love them, but also to admire them in some respects. But these are not, on the whole, candidates for Christian admiration. I admit that they do stand by their convictions and support their constituency, which they consider to be oppressed; but, after all, so did Hitler. So be careful. Do laugh, but don’t leave your critical faculties at the door.
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
I saw Woody Allen’s Celebrity, a fairly dreary film at one level. It presented the usual Allen line about how all intellectual thought, social relationships, etc. is merely a quest by everybody to get the most fame, money, thrills, and sex. Kenneth Branagh plays Woody Allen (evidently Woody, the director, didn’t like Branagh’s attempt to mimic his director; but who other than a Woody-type could say the lines written by Woody, the writer?) and drifts from woman to woman, betraying and being betrayed, absurdly transparent in his motivations and silly in his flatteries and rationalizations.
But there is also the wife of the Branagh character, who he casts off at the beginning of the film and who goes searching for help of various kinds. There is the Roman Catholic Church, but the priests are as banal as the New York society, in their own way. She also goes to a famous makeover expert and eventually does get made over. One expects her to end in the same kind of despair as the Branagh character. But she fares better. The difference is grace.
A man, played by Joe Mantegna, pops in on her makeover doctor’s office while she is making plans for the physical transformation. But Mantegna says she is fine as she is. In context, it seems like a boldface lie. She is not attractive at all. But as she gets involved with this man, we notice changes, and not only from the makeover.
She hesitates about marriage, at one point leaving Mantegna at the altar. For she is “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” This man seems all too perfect. He must be an axe murderer or something. But she talks to a fortune teller (!) who tells her simply to trust. She does, marries, and finds happiness. The Mantegna character seems in retrospect to be a Christ-surrogate. He demands nothing of her, changes her life by giving her undeserved respect and love.
Jesus does take us as we are, but he does not tell us we are perfectly ok, as we are. Rather, he shows us our sins and takes us through the path of repentance. There is no repentance in this film, but there is something like grace. But how can grace function without standards? That is an important theological question, and it is also a question in our interpersonal relationships.
But at least the film admits that we need help, and that help must be quite out of the ordinary if it is to meet our need. The movie begins and ends with a skywriter writing “HELP.” At the end, the Branagh character watches the writing (as part of a film) and sits dazed. Only his ex-wife has found the help for which the film cries to heaven.
Dazed and Confused
Pink ………….. Jason London
Simone ………… Joey Lauren Adams
Michelle ………. Milla Jovovich
Pickford ………. Shawn Andrews
Slater ………… Rory Cochrane
Mike ………….. Adam Goldberg
Gramercy presents a film written and directed by Richard Linklater. Produced by James Jacks, Sean Daniel and Richard Linklater. Photographed by Lee Daniel. Edited by Sandra Adair. Running time: 97 minutes. Classified: R (for pervasive, continuous teen drug and alcohol use and very strong language).
This film is a somewhat darker version of “American Graffiti,” set about ten years after that film, in 1975. Again, it is the last day of high school, and the kids are living it up before going on into the world or into the next year of school. As with “Graffiti,” there is a lot of cruising, drinking, sex. I don’t remember if the kids in “Graffiti” smoked pot, but these kids do. Also, as with “Graffiti,” there are many subplots that weave in and out of one another.
Perhaps the most dominant one (among equals) is the story of the quarterback on next year’s (potentially powerhouse) football team. His coach, presented as fifty years behind the times, wants the whole team to sign a pledge that they won’t drink, smoke or use drugs all summer, for the sake of the team. The big moment, supposedly, is when the kid throws the pledge back in the coach’s face unsigned and tells him that although he’d like to play football, he will never sign such a document. The film sees this as his great rite of passage, the quarterback’s affirmation of autonomy.
The school has a tradition in which the seniors beat up on the incoming freshmen (girls on girls, boys on boys). There is a lot of supposed fun with the seniors chasing the frosh and the frosh getting even. As one who used to get beaten up by bigger kids when returning home from school, I didn’t find that whole theme very funny, but others might look at it differently. The ”initiation” process, however, is for these kids another rite of passage. After the senior boys paddle the freshman boys within an inch of their lives, they introduce them to their world of booze, girls, pot, vandalism, cussing, etc.
The movie seems to be saying that this is the right world to be a part of. The adults who try to restrict access to it, especially the coach, are presented as demons and impossible reactionaries. The kids who join that society are simply doing what they must do, and nobody has a right to tell them otherwise. Indeed, the heroic thing is to defy or deceive the straight adults as much as possible.
There are no tragedies in this film. Nobody dies of an overdose or an auto crash. Indeed, there is very little plot. It’s just a slice of life, well-directed and convincing in its portrayals.
But the message of the film is appalling. Apparently it never occurs once to the filmmakers that the values of autonomy and peer-acceptance which they romanticize here are the values that have put our very civilization in jeopardy. Nor do they see anything wrong with the teen society which rationalizes drugs, drunkenness, fights, free sex, and hatred of the “straight” world. Many movies today have progressed beyond this moral viewpoint, though it was certainly the dominant one in the 1960s and ’70s. For it is now painfully evident that there is a huge downside to this kind of teen-age fun. But this film is quite complacent about its ’60s sensibility concerning the ’70s. Someone should tell the makers of this film that they are the ones who are reactionary. The only ones whose message will not fade with time are those who get their values from God’s Word.
This movie, starring Sylvester Stallone, is something more than its title (and the previews) suggest. It is certainly a very violent film, with Stallone and Wesley Snipes spilling blood and bodies all over the place. But it is also a rather tongue-in-cheek look at the possible outcomes of present-day trends.
The premise is that in the mid-90s, the level of violence in Los Angeles exceeds even the tolerance of laid-back Californians, and they succumb to the plans of a would-be Messiah named Cocteau. By the 2030s, he has set up a society where everybody’s whereabouts are known (by an electronic device surgically implanted in their hands) and where behavior is carefully monitored. There is no cholesterol, fat, meat, toxics, air pollution, noise pollution, smoking, guns. Because of AIDS and other diseases, there is no sex, at least no “exchange of bodily fluids.” I leave it to you to find out what Stallone and his pretty policewoman friend do on their first date.
Anything “bad for you” is illegal. Bad language is forbidden: when someone utters profanity, a ticket comes out of a nearby machine removing a “credit.” There is, of course, no money; only electronic transactions of “credits” monitored by the government. Criminals are frozen and programmed (while frozen, I gather, though I find that hard to believe) via electrodes attached to the head, to learn new skills and habits. Everybody walks around with Polyannish dispositions, at least on the outside. This is the ultimate Nanny State.
Its cultural barrenness is symbolized by its popular music, which consists of 1950s and 60s commercial jingles, believe it or not. And because of the “franchise wars,” all restaurants in the area are Taco Bells!
Understandably, when Simon Phoenix, the Snipes character, escapes from his ice prison and runs around killing people, the police are quite incapable of dealing with him. They have never seen real violence, and they have no idea how to deal with anyone so barbaric. Thus they release the Stallone character, John Spartan, who apprehended Phoenix in the 1990s. Sly shows the wimpish police how to fight.
It turns out that Phoenix’s escape was actually arranged by Cocteau, who wants him to go underground and kill the leader of what he considers a rebellious group. Actually, the rebels are just plain folks, who treasure their freedoms and don’t want to live in Cocteau’s New Order. They like their guns and their junk food; they like to cuss. Unfortunately, they have a hard time getting food; most of the time they “have to” steal it from the world above. So they stage raids on the New Order from time to time. This irritates Cocteau no end, who sends Phoenix to dispose of them. Unfortunately for the plan, Phoenix kills Cocteau (among many others) and puts himself in control of things, briefly, until Stallone gets to him. How could Cocteau have been so stupid as to believe that he could control that mad dog Phoenix? Especially after he programmed Phoenix in his ice cube to be even badder than he was in 1995? But in this sort of movie, logic is a luxury.
While we’re on the subject of logic, whatever happened to the daughter that Spartan just had to find? After the beginning of the movie, we never hear of her again. Perhaps they decided to save her for Demolition Man II.
The chases and violence are rather long and tiresome. I don’t take them very seriously, for it is mostly choreography, but I suspect some people might be nauseated by it.
What is interesting, of course, and often very funny, is the social satire. The movie takes as its targets, as few have, many liberal notions: “political correctness” and its attempts at thought control, extreme environmentalism, government activism, the tendency of liberal governments to “protect us from ourselves.” The film sides against all of this and in favor of the plain folks who love freedom.
But to my mind, the plain folks, though presented as much more attractive people, are not much better than the New Order gang. Their goal is autonomy. They don’t want to take orders from anybody, and the freedom they want is to shoot guns, cuss, smoke, listen to rock music, and steal. I think if I lived among them, I’d find the New Order rather attractive.
So the film presents two alternatives: extreme liberalism and secular libertarianism. More or less. The extreme “liberals” also prohibit abortion; but didn’t the filmmakers know that there is a vast difference between the anti-abortion mentality and the mindset that says “what’s bad for you is illegal?”
At the end, with Cocteau and Phoenix out of the picture, Stallone brings together representatives of the two groups and tells them to find a happy medium somewhere. But is that the answer for society? A happy medium between totalitarianism and anarchy? Those seem to be the alternatives apart from Christian standards. The film’s value is to make that plain.
Apart from biblical revelation, how can anyone determine where the prerogatives of government end and the rights of the individual begin? The difficulty of this question pressures secular political theorists toward the extremes of totalitarianism and anarchy. Scripture, however, places both government and the individual under God and establishes the limits for both. Without it, Stallone’s happy medium society seems destined to fall again into chaos or tyranny. And that will doubtless set the stage for the sequel.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman
I went to see Diary of a Mad Black Woman which was a deeply Christian film. I wouldn’t have gotten that impression from any of the critics. It wasn’t real smoothly done, and I cringed at some things that the film seems to approve of. But on the whole, it was a memorable taste of African-American Christianity.
The heroine, played by Kimberly Elise, is treated very badly by her lawyer husband, kicked out of the house with nothing, watching her rival displace her. She is of course mad at the world, finds it difficult to trust anybody, especially men. But a man enters her life, a man who is so absolutely perfect that I cringed; but perhaps, on reflection, he is a Christ figure. He woos her with complete gentleness and understanding, and when they begin kissing and lying down together, there is no sex, only “intimacy.” At this point, she renounces her old life, allows her husband to take everything in the divorce settlement.
But then the husband is paralyzed by one of his clients, and the heroine goes back to him, torments him a bit (after his girlfriend has left him), but eventually nurtures him back to health. There’s a remarkable scene at a church service at which the husband puts his crutches down and another subplot is resolved. Everybody sings praise to Jesus, then goes to Grandma’s for dinner. (Grandma is a comic character, played by director Tyler Perry in drag.) Then the heroine presents divorce papers to her husband and runs to rejoin the Christ-figure suitor.
To a Christian, there should be problems with the film’s attitude toward divorce, and to some of the language. But the Lord’s name is used very often, not in vain. Everyone in the film (except the profane Grandma and her brother) profess to be Christians, and eventually everybody is reconciled as much as one can imagine.
This is a wonderful English film. The English often have a great facility for presenting accounts of the utterly unexpected, with total credibility. “Enchanted April” is a case in point.
Two women from dysfunctional marriages decide to go for a vacation together at an Italian villa. There they meet two more women: one gorgeous model, fleeing from her celebrity, and one cantankerous older woman who recalls her younger days among people of culture.
Eventually, the husbands of the first two women arrive, and we are prepared for the usual movie stuff: angry fighting between spouses and sexual games. Indeed, the film sets up the audience with all the premises of the sex farce: both men are attracted to the glamorous model, and there is much discussion about who will sleep where. We expect that there will be much farcical bumping around in the night, as the men go after the pretty woman.
What happens, however, is entirely different, and shockingly wonderful. Both marriages are repaired, and the single women are reborn, so to speak. Through his wife’s assistance, one of the men makes a valuable business contact, in such a way that he comes to appreciate anew what his wife means to him. In the end, everyone is happy; all have learned to look at life differently. Nor does it happen in ways obviously “concocted” by maudlin filmmakers. Rather, the development is entirely credible in both script and performance.
It is not a Christian movie, particularly. But it honors a lot of things important to Christians: marriage, the beauties of creation, reconciliation, love, inter-generational compassion. It twists, perhaps even satirizes, the conventions of the Hollywood sex farce. One expects in movies to see the libertines laughing at the “straights.” Here it is the straights that get the last laugh.
Starring Liam Neeson
Based on the novel by Edith Wharton. Ethan is a sturdy, promising young New Englander, whose ambitions are thwarted by his mother’s sickness and death. After his mother dies, he marries a distant cousin who has been tending to his mother’s needs. She then becomes sickly herself and calls on another distant cousin to come and care for her. The second woman herself seems sickly at first, but eventually recovers and becomes strong and vivacious, enough to seduce Ethan while his wife is visiting a doctor in a distant town. Whether or not the wife knows of this, she sends the caretaker away on the basis of petty criticisms, intending to hire another caretaker. Ethan, very much in love, takes her to the train, trying to persuade her to leave with him for Florida, which stands for heaven in the movie’s symbolism. In the course of the afternoon, Ethan asks her to tell him her heart’s desire: it is to go sledriding down the tall mountain near the town. Ethan procures a sled, and they have a good time together until a terrible accident leaves Ethan with a lame leg and the girl– well, sickly. We see the old Ethan, now a recluse, doing manual labor to support the two sickly women who now live with him at home.
It’s all told very deadpan, but the ironies are great: a man frustrated by three sickly women. God conspires against him, or so it seems.
GERONIMO and Some Other Films About Indians
Lt. Charles Gatewood ……. Jason Patric
Brig. Gen. George Crook …. Gene Hackman
Al Sieber ……………… Robert Duvall
Geronimo ………………. Wes Studi
Lt. Britton Davis ………. Matt Damon
Mangas ………………… Rodney A. Grant
Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles …. Kevin Tighe
Columbia presents a film directed by Walter Hill. Produced by Hill and Neil Canton. Written by John Milius and Larry Gross. Based on a story by Milius. Photographed by Lloyd Ahern. Edited by Freeman Davies, Carmel Davies and Donn Aron. Music by Ry Cooder. Running Time: 115 minutes. Classified: PG-13 (for frontier violence).
“Geronimo” presents again the revisionist view of Native Americans seen earlier in such films as “Dances With Wolves,” ”Last of the Mohicans.” All three of these films are beautifully directed and photographed, with sympathetic portrayals of the Indian point of view. Generally speaking I tend to be critical of ”political correctness,” but I liked these films very much, and their presentation of the Indians’ case is really compelling, a needed balance to the “murderin’ redskins” stereotype.
“Dances” did demonize whites, except for the lead character, played by Kevin Costner. (How did he get to be so wonderfully broad-minded after growing up in such a depraved culture?) It also demonized the Pawnee, because they helped the whites. But its portrayal of the Indians’ lives was superb. It was all done in the Sioux language, with subtitles, and that made it all the more effective. Graham Greene gave a marvelous performance as the main Indian character.
“Mohicans” was actually somewhat biased toward the whites. Magua, the voice of Indian grievances, was presented (of course as James Fenimore Cooper did in the original volume) as somewhat unreasonable in his hatreds. But he did get to make his case, and allowing for exaggerations, it was cogent.
“Geronimo” is also a most impressive film, with an excellent performance by Wes Studi as the title character. (He also played Magua in “Mohicans.”) The action takes place mostly among Monument-Valley-type buttes (like hundreds of other westerns, it seems), but in this picture, the buttes are often dwarfed by snow-capped Rockies. I thought at first that was a bit much, but the film seems to focus on the greatness of the land and the importance of a just distribution of it. Why, says Geronimo, do the whites have to haveall of it? Good question.
His argument essentially is that he is not a murderer, but a warrior. And that is simply true. There was a war between the whites and the Indians and, as it turned out, the whites won. We may think what we want about that, but we should set it in perspective. For thousands of years, nations have been conquering nations. It is not a pleasant experience, especially for the conquered, and we would often like to believe that we would never permit that sort of thing to happen today. But it is still happening in our own day, even in supposedly civilized Europe. The Indians may have a grievance, but no more than any other conquered people. And, to be fair, most all nations, including whites and Indians, have been both conquerors and conquered at some time in their history.
The history is, of course, more complicated than any of these films present. One gets the impression from them that the Indians held some legal title to all the land in North America, and the whites came in entirely against the will of the landowners. Actually, “land ownership” was not a big thing with Indians; on that account they are often praised. (One cannot, by the way, simultaneously praise the Indians for their lack of concern about land ownership and then turn around and say that their owners’ rights were violated.) And the coming of the whites was welcomed by some of the Indians. They were happy to enter into fur trades and the like, which supplied them with additional resources, not to mention the new technology of guns and horses. Indeed, the expansion of trade improved some Indians’ living standard considerably.
Of course, some Indians resisted the whites from the start. But the continent was certainly big enough for both the immigrants and the earlier inhabitants (they were immigrants too) to live together in peace. Ultimately, however, that proved impossible. What should have happened? As a believer in relatively free immigration, I don’t believe the whites should simply have stayed out, or that the Indians should have kept them out. The best thing that could have happened (I say with hindsight) was a legal division of the continent some time early in the process, wherein one part of the continent would be developed as a part of western civilization, with Indians welcomed to be a part of that if they chose. The other part, perhaps the greater part of it, would be left to the Indians to observe their traditional way of life. The two nations would freely trade with one another. (I still wonder if it might be possible to give to the Indians some of the huge tracts of federal lands in the west– not as reservations, which are an atrocity, but as the Indians’ own sovereign territory.) Of course, that didn’t happen, and it couldn’t have, granted the events and the mentalities of the people involved.
“Geronimo” is somewhat more balanced in its perspective than either of the other films I have mentioned. The warriors on both sides are simply that: men at war. They are neither glorified nor demonized, and the film makes it clear that neither side is monolithic in its attitudes. There are “hawks” and ”doves” in both armies, some who are cruel, some who seek justice. There is little moralizing here, but the film ultimately sides with the Indians, I would say. The American soldiers aren’t bad people, except, perhaps, for General Miles who takes over the army late in the film. But the political situation takes on a life of its own, and it becomes impossible for the Indians even to save face, let alone to obtain justice.
There are some rather subtle religious themes in the picture. The exquisitely beautiful musical score, by Ry Cooder, is based on the “shape note” hymns of the nineteenth century, found in such volumes as “Sacred Harp” and “Southern Harmony.” You may recognize “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched” and ”Poor, Wayfaring Stranger.” This literature was largely Biblical, but with a tendency toward religious escapism: longing for heaven without much sense of anything to do on earth. It’s a bit hard to see why the film makes so much use of this music, except for period atmosphere. Certainly at least it conveys something of the harshness of life on both sides, the impossibility of any happiness this side of the grave. Perhaps there is also some subtle mockery of the irrelevance of the white men’s religion to the achievement of concrete justice.
Both Geronimo and Gatewood (the most sympathetic white soldier) believe in gods of love, they say. But for Geronimo, love for his people requires him to kill whites. Geronimo gives Gatewood a turquoise piece valuable (perhaps religiously?) to the Apache. Later, Gatewood gives Geronimo a cross, which he says has brought him good fortune. The cross doesn’t do much for Geronimo and his people. Perhaps the most significant religious event is that before three Indians are hanged, one of them tells onlookers in the Apache language not to believe anything that the white clergy say to them.
The film doesn’t show it, but I understand that late in life Geronimo became a Christian and reconciled himself to the US government, even riding in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade. It would have been interesting to see how all of that came about. Of course, focus on those events would probably have been inconsistent with the purposes of these filmmakers. They are not, of course, required to tell everything. But we should demur a bit from the viewpoint of a film in which the actual facts, even very interesting facts, are omitted because inconvenient to the film’s “message.”
Longstreet …………….. Tom Berenger
Robert E. Lee ………….. Martin Sheen
George E. Pickett ………. Stephen Lang
Armistead ……………… Richard Jordan
Col. Chamberlain ……….. Jeff Daniels
Buford ………………… Sam Elliott
Tom Chamberlain ………… C. Thomas Howell
Kilrain ……………….. Kevin Conway
New Line presents a film written and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell. Produced by Robert Katz and Moctesuma Esparza. Based on the novel by Michael Shaara. Photographed by Kees Van Oostrum. Edited by Corky Ehlers. Music by Randy Edelman. Running time: 4 hours and 18 minutes, including 20-minute intermission. Classified: PG.
This is a very informative film about the pivotal battle in the Civil War. It is a drama, but it also has all the elements of a good documentary. It is as if we were looking over the shoulders of those planning and executing the strategy. I grew up in Pennsylvania and have visited the battlefield several times, but I never before knew what actually went on. Now I feel that I do have a general idea of that, and it is quite a story. It is a fit subject for documentary, and for drama too.
The pivotal dramatic point was the overconfidence of General Lee and its genesis: bad intelligence, then desperation, then a mystical faith. Lee had come to Pennsylvania fresh from some major victories, hoping to wrap up the war in a few days. Ironically, July 4 was approaching. Lee sensed the irony: maybe he could achieve southern independence that very day. He hoped to destroy the Army of the Potomac, headed by the ineffectual General Meade, and then march triumphant into Washington, offering peace to President Lincoln.
But various problems developed. General J. E. B. Stuart, charged with tracking the union armies with his cavalry, somehow got lost for some days and didn’t accomplish his task. (If the movie told me why, I missed it.) The south had to fight, therefore, without their usual knowledge of the enemy’s positions and strength. Then another general failed to obey orders given him to take a small hill which would have given Lee the advantage of position. Eventually the union army took over that hill and defeated the southern soldiers who tried to take it from them. After this, ammunition and supplies were very low. Lee’s troops had to either fight or retreat. Lee saw a retreat as a betrayal of the brave men who had given their lives to get this far, and his past victories gave him the confidence that his men could win another battle, even against substantial odds. With the aforementioned mystical faith, Lee sent his troops on a suicidal march for a mile across an open field in the face of union guns. The defeat was devastating, and Lee was humiliated, but hoped to fight another day.
This is not a preachy film. However, it does take some dramatic license, speculating about attitudes and conversations among characters. As such, it certainly does more than simply narrate the facts; it has a point of view. There are a lot of conversations about the Meaning of Life and Death.
The southerners, the philosophical ones, anyway, seem to be Bible-believing Christians for the most part. We get the impression that some of their problems are caused by an inordinate faith in God, or at least a proud confidence that God was on their side. The northerners are also Christians, but they seem more modern somehow. The Chamberlain character, played by Jeff Daniels, is a Professor of Rhetoric and Theology at Bowdoin College. He is the real hero of the movie, incredibly courageous, resourceful, eloquent, wise, compassionate. The theology of the northern soldiers is mainly a theology of racial equality, presented in such terms as to suggest the “political correctness” movement of the 1990s. Indeed, Chamberlain is a real sensitive 1990s male who can nevertheless fight with the best of them when he must.
In the end, Lee (in his disappointment, to be sure) sounds less like a Christian than like a nihilist: he observes that it really doesn’t matter who wins or loses, that we all play out our roles in life, but without hope that it will make much difference. I doubt if the historical Lee was that close in his philosophy to modern existentialism.
So there are hints of modern ideologies, both equality and nihilism, without much reflection on the consistency between these two ideas.
In general, however, the movie is a learning experience. There is some graphic violence, but that isn’t overdone considering the subject matter of the movie. Four hours is a bit much, but I found the time spent well worth-while.
Daniel ………… Michael J. Fox
Uncle Joe ……… Kirk Douglas
Robin …………. Nancy Travis
Molly …………. Olivia d’Abo
Frank …………. Phil Hartman
Carl ………….. Ed Begley Jr.
Glen ………….. Jere Burns
Patti …………. Colleen Camp
Ed ……………. Bob Balaban
Imagine Entertainment presents a film directed by Jonathan Lynn. Produced by Brian Grazer. Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Photographed by Gabriel Beristain. Edited by Tony Lombardo. Music by Randy Edelman. Running time: 113 minutes. Classified: PG-13 (for language).
This film is not a great one, by any means, but there are a few good laughs in it. The idea is that rich Uncle Joe, played by Kirk Douglas, has a horrid family of people who are totally devoted to inheriting his vast wealth, no matter what it takes. The skull-duggery is sometimes funny, most often tedious. When filmmakers ask the audience to spend a couple hours watching thoroughly unpleasant people, they should really give us more in return than they give us here. Scheming can be fun, in a film like “The Sting;” but in this one it is heavy-handed and boring.
The one interesting thing about the movie is its exploration of the concept of greed. Daniel, played by Michael J. Fox is, at the beginning of the film, the one uncorrupted relative. His father had walked out on Uncle Joe years ago, motivated by disgust at the other relatives’ behavior and some measure of liberal aversion to the very idea of wealth. Danny is a professional bowler who chokes in the big games and is ready to throw his career overboard anyway when his relatives try to bring him into their plans regarding Uncle Joe. They figure that Joe always liked Danny as a boy (though he now hates his other relatives for obvious reasons), and that if he left his money to Danny they could make deals with Danny on the side.
Danny starts out, however, as a marvel of integrity, vowing not to let himself be sold out to greed. He manfully resists some opportunities to ingratiate himself for financial reward. Eventually, however, he begins to crack. For various reasons, it appears that Joe wants to dispose of his assets before he dies. In time, Danny comes to feel that it is in Uncle Joe’s best interest to leave the money to him rather than to the other family members, since they would simply dump Joe in a nursing home and forget about him. So Danny schemes like the rest of them, on one occasion transparently and shamefully, to get the money.
The question arises, to what extent are Danny’s actions motivated by real love for Uncle Joe, and to what extent by greed? What the film seems to tell us (mostly through the sayings of Danny’s all-wise girl friend) is that in the final analysis the motive is greed, though from seeing Danny’s actions I would not have been so sure. At any rate, at the end, Danny’s true (ungreedy) colors shine through.
The film does present, if it doesn’t always understand, the fact that people’s motives are usually mixed. Even the horrible relatives can plead some measure of altruism as they state their own cases. Danny undoubtedly has good and bad in his intentions. And Uncle Joe’s young British “nurse,” who spends most of her time nearly nude, is the butt (ahem) of much the family’s hatred, but in the end she has the integrity to leave (or at least so it seems) rather than sleep with Joe. After all of this, one wonders why the film seems so sure about the moral judgments it does make.
The other question: have the people been corrupted by the quest for money, or has the quest been corrupted by the people involved? The film leaves the question open, but the plot seems to lead us to the conclusion that both are true.
Christians can raise issues here about original sin. The quest for moral purity in a sinful world, apart from divine grace, is so futile. The love of money, too, is a root of all kinds of evil. Who among us can claim to be free from covetousness? The film seems to be saying that all of us are greedy at heart. Whether intentionally or not, they have hit a biblical principle. Would that they had seen the biblical solution. The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked; but Jesus can cleanse it through his blood.
Tess Carlisle ……… Shirley MacLaine
Doug Chesnic ………. Nicolas Cage
Earl ……………… Austin Pendleton
Barry Carlisle …….. Edward Albert
Howard Shaeffer ……. James Rebhorn
Frederick …………. Richard Griffiths
TriStar presents a film directed by Hugh Wilson. Produced by Ned Tanen and Nancy Graham Tanen. Written by Wilson and Peter Torokvei. Photographed by Brian J. Reynolds. Edited by Sidney Levin. Music by Michael Convertino. Running time: 98 minutes. Classified: PG-13 (for some language).
This film is enormously satisfying as entertainment. Shirley MacLaine gives a wonderful performance here, I think the best in a fine career. I am not wild about her occult philosophizing, any more than I am enthusiastic about Jane Fonda’s politics; but both ladies are very substantial actresses. MacLaine here provides a funny, yet realistic portrait of a woman who is both difficult and likeable, nasty yet surprisingly loving, apparently irrational, yet supremely rational in the context of the plot. All these paradoxes require a performance of great nuance, and MacLaine provides it here.
Nicholas Cage also gives what may be his most impressive performance to date. In the past, he has played a lot of Wild and Crazy men. Here, for most of the film, his emotions are tightly under control as he portrays an uptight, by-the-book secret service agent. But it is evident that he could explode at any moment, as he does at a few crucial points, especially once late in the film.
The script is beautifully written, and the humor is constant, though not the slightest bit heavy-handed. Tiny bits of uneasiness in the characters for reasons known to the audience produced much laughter. The film is remarkably balanced in its comedy. It has a keen eye for the ridiculous elements in various government procedures, but in the end it respects, even vindicates them. It satirizes the uptightness of the secret service, but it also shows that in one agent there is a lot going on below the surface. Except for the villains of the piece, every character, no matter how silly at moments, comes out lovable in the end.
Cage plays Doug Chesnic, assigned by the secret service to guard Tess Carlisle, a former first lady, played by MacLaine. Tess gives Doug quite a hard time, requiring him to run trivial errands, rebelling at petty rules, sneaking away from her protectors, insulting Doug in various ways, often hitting him hard with true but unwelcome insights about himself. But when he seeks a new assignment, she calls the president, who then calls Doug and tells him to stay with her and shape up. The Clinton-like president’s annoyance at having to play peacemaker between these two is hilarious.
When all the truth is out on the table, Tess’s eccentricities make perfect sense, her maternal love for Doug becomes patent, and he breaks through all sorts of standard procedures in order to save her life.
There is no God in this movie, no reference to religion, no obvious theological theme, except, perhaps, the effect of approaching death on behavior. Therefore, it was a real challenge for this highly theological reviewer to come up with anything interesting to say. But after some reflection, it is evident to me that there is a very profound theological dimension here, doubtless quite contrary to the intentions of the filmmakers.
Cornelius Van Til taught that all non-Christian thinkers fall into a kind of dialectic between rationalism (= “my mind is the final standard of truth”) and irrationalism (=”there is no ultimate truth”). These positions are formally contradictory; yet naturalist thinkers need to appeal to both of them, and they tend to hold them in tension. I have argued that the same pattern can be seen in non-Christian political theory: a dialectic between totalitarianism (= rationalism: society must be totally under control of the rational elite) and anarchy (=irrationalism: nobody has the wisdom to govern, so there should be no government at all). Without appeal to divine revelation, non-Christian political thought and practice vacillates constantly between these two extremes. Believers in scripture know that God requires both authority and freedom in society, and they know in general where those lines are to be drawn. Unbelievers do not, so they vacillate from a belief in total control to advocacy of total freedom.
Now if ever a film demonstrated the totalitarian/anarchic dialectic, it is this one. The secret service people are totalitarians for the most part. The film ridicules their blind, unsmiling commitment to total control. Tess is the anarchist, the free spirit, wanting no restraint at all, manipulating events humorously and successfully (for the most part) to control her controllers. But she knows (at the end, more than ever) she must have some protection, and Doug comes to understand her need for freedom. The film notes insightfully that total control is impossible and that anarchy leads to disaster. But the balance between the two is just as mysterious at the end as it is in the beginning. I gather that the film wants to say that love is the answer, but it is too smart to state such a truism explicitly. What emerges is a kind of accommodation, but how can there be any stable accommodation between anarchy and totalitarianism?
At the end of the film, when an officious hospital orderly requires Tess to exit in a wheelchair and she demurs, Doug solves the problem with a twofold exhortation. To the orderly: “are the rules really that sacred?” and to Tess, “get in that wheelchair!” Very funny, but also an excellent illustration of the tension which is the main theme of the film. He is saying that rules aren’t really sacred, but we absolutely must accommodate ourselves to them.
The relation between Tess and Doug hits home, because it is essentially the relation between government and all of us. We love our country and appreciate its protections, but most of our concrete experiences with it are exasperating.
Were Tess and Doug Christians, their relationship would have been very different. Love would have been an important part of it, no doubt, and that would have gone a long way toward reconciling their divergent interests, as in this film. But Christians also acknowledge rules, rules which are ”sacred,” and among which love is the chief. A Christian Tess would not have run away without protection, and a Secret Service organized on Christian principles would have been more flexible, knowing that they are servants: servants of God and of God’s people (Matt. 20:26).
The same benefits, and more, might be expected from a really Christian government.
As for the theme of the approach of death: Tess has a brain tumor. Her odd behavior, wanting to play golf and have a picnic by the lake in the dead of winter, turns out in the end to result from a desire to have a few of her old enjoyments one more time before the end. One can hardly blame her, but it is a bit sad that these things are so important to her, and God’s heaven so unimportant, as she approaches the end. The meaning of her life is personal freedom, anarchic freedom, which the film itself regards as ultimately disappointing. This movie comedy presents her as finally triumphant and happy, but a more careful look at the story offers for our meditation a sense of tragedy.
Heaven and Earth
Le Ly ………………. Hiep Thi Le
Steve Butler ………… Tommy Lee Jones
Mama ……………….. Joan Chen
Papa ……………….. Haing S. Ngor
Eugenia …………….. Debbie Reynolds
Warner Bros. presents a film written and directed by Oliver Stone. Produced by Stone, Arnon Milchan, Robert Kline and A. Kitman Ho. Based on the books “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places” by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts and “Child of War, Woman of Peace” by Le Ly Hayslip with James Hayslip. Photographed by Robert Richardson. Edited by David Brenner and Sally Menke. Music by Kitaro. Running time: 138 minutes. Classified: R (for violence, language and sexuality).
This is the third of Oliver Stone’s movies about the Viet Nam war and its aftermath, the others being “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” This one is a true story, though I assume certain liberties have been taken, of a Vietnamese woman. During her childhood, the French destroy her village. Then in her teen years, the Viet Cong come, demanding the loyalty of the villagers, torturing and raping any (including Le Ly, on the basis of a mistake) who appear to give aid and comfort to the enemy. Then came the Americans, who transform everything. Now Viet Nam is a bog of prostitution, cigarettes, drugs, corruption, suspicions, hatreds. Le Ly is forced to go to the city and work for a Vietnamese man who fathers her first son to the angry response of his wife. Le Ly is reduced to begging and selling goods to soldiers in the streets.
At this point, Steve Butler appears, a Marine officer who seems to genuinely love and understand her. He makes her his wife, and the family flees Viet Nam with the American pullout, settling in San Diego, at first with Butler’s family. Steve cannot make it financially, and his bitterness turns to viciousness and eventual suicide. In the course of events, Le Ly learns that his work in Viet Nam was to assassinate Vietnamese who collaborated with the Cong. What the film tells us is that he was in effect a serial killer, who after the war is wracked with guilt over it.
Le Ly herself prospers in the US. She visits her family in Viet Nam, and encounters more bitterness: family members resent her wealth while they have so little. But there is reconciliation.
Oliver Stone is, of course, one of the most deeply ideological of directors, and in many ways he expresses here his loathing for American values and culture. To his credit, he does not glamorize the Viet Cong: they are brutal. But their brutality is the brutality of self-defense, we are told, the brutality made necessary by people who want the freedom to govern themselves. The Americans are the real wreckers of the peaceful culture. Butler seems to typify the whole American war effort: sheer murder under the guise of nation-building.
Also, in America, we see scenes of huge refrigerators and supermarket shelves filled with all sorts of food, to the amazement of Le Ly. And we see shovels of it being emptied into the sink disposal unit, after mass quantities have been conspicuously consumed by Steve’s fat female relatives.
Nevertheless, Stone does not hide the fact that Le Ly does eventually find happiness in America and through her prosperity is able to help the poor of her own country, doubtless far more than if she had stayed there. Nor does he hide the fact that the Communist rule puts Le Ly’s family into a state of constant poverty and suffering. Yet it is not clear how these inconvenient facts have modified Stone’s value judgments.
It is a very beautiful movie. Hiep Thi Le and Tommy Lee Jones give wonderful performances, as do the others in the cast. Stone’s critiques of American materialism are certainly not entirely wrong, though they come across to me as rather heavy-handed.
The film has a deeply Buddhist sensibility. Repentance and reconciliation inhibit bad karma. But is that not, in the end, a form of selfishness just as much as that which Stone has been quick to condemn in the American culture? Would that Christ had been allowed to speak his Word of peace, so truly to lift the burdens of these afflicted people.
In the Name of the Father
Gerry Conlon ………. Daniel Day-Lewis
Guiseppe Conlon ……. Pete Postlethwaite
Gareth Peirce ……… Emma Thompson
Paul Hill …………. John Lynch
Robert Dixon ………. Corin Redgrave
Joe McAndrew ………. Don Baker
Universal presents a film produced and directed by Jim Sheridan. Written by Terry George and Sheridan, based on the autobiography “Proved Innocent,” by Gerry Conlon. Photographed by Peter Biziou. Edited by Gerry Hambling. Music by Trevor Jones. Running time: 127 minutes. Classified: R (for language and politically generated violence).
This is a powerful film about a tragic miscarriage of justice. In 1974, Gerry Conlon and some friends were arrested and convicted of the IRA terrorist attack upon a Guildford pub in which many innocent people were killed. Conlon’s father, Giuseppe, and some of his friends, were also convicted of supporting the terrorists. Giuseppe died in prison. After fifteen years in jail, the remaining members of the group were set free on the basis of evidence that they were framed by the police and prosecutors and forced to confess by torture and intimidation.
Gerry was a thief, though he had no political attachments. His father was even less likely as a suspect, a hard-working, devout Catholic, who sought in vain to inspire his wayward son with homely wisdom.
The film is fairly true to the history, although it takes some liberties, particularly by adding some characters whose significance in the plot is crucial. One wonders if the actual facts would have made the issue at the appeal less black-and-white than it appears here.
Day-Lewis’s performance is excellent, miles removed from the genteel New Yorker of “Age of Innocence” or the frontiersman of “Last of the Mohicans.” His range is truly astonishing. Here as a rough-hewn young Irishman, he is thoroughly credible. The other actors are also very good. The actors get lost in the characters, and that is the key to great performances.
In addition to the main political/courtroom drama, there is a subplot of reconciliation. Gerry and his father are in the same prison (in the same cell, according to the film, but apparently that was not the way it was historically). Gerry recalls all the anger against his father remembered from his youth. Together, and in very subtle ways, the two men grow to a deeper understanding and acceptance of one another. Gerry grows in self-confidence and in the maturity of his perspective.
The title of the film seems to be based on the parallel between Gerry’s human father and God. Gerry associates the communion service with his mental picture of eating his father. Religion is not, however, a powerful motive for any of the characters. The main thrust of the religious imagery seems to be that a “communion” develops in prison between Gerry and Giuseppe, and that although Giuseppe dies, much of his good character eventually lodges in his son.
One gets the impression that the filmmakers intend to convey certain political-philosophical messages: Britain should have simply gotten out of Northern Ireland; Anglo-establishment justice cannot be trusted; the death penalty is wrong. On that last point, a judge tells Gerry and the others upon their conviction that he would be happy to sentence them to death if it were legally possible. Several references to this through the film invite us to consider how much more terrible the miscarriage of justice might have been had the death penalty been in force.
None of these messages come through very plausibly, however. The framing of the Guildford defendants took place at a time when the police and prosecutors were panicked at the prospect of widespread terrorism and were under enormous pressure to produce convictions. That does not excuse what they did, but it does suggest that this is something of an isolated case and should not be made a model of British behavior or of western justice in general.
Nor does the film produce much of an argument against the death penalty. Indeed, in a way, the film displays some of the reasons in favor of the death penalty. Most opponents of the death penalty take the view that the only legitimate purpose of punishment is deterrence, and then they oppose the death penalty because statistics indicate that it doesn’t deter. But this film presents an excellent argument against deterrence as a basis for punishment. When the police and prosecutors framed the Guildford Five, they did it for the sake of deterrence. It was irrelevant to them whether the suspects were actually guilty. What was important was that someone be apprehended and punished, as a deterring example to other would-be terrorists and to reassure the public that their safety was in good hands. The film makes clear that the deterrence mentality can lead to atrocious injustice. One should be arrested and punished only if he is objectively guilty of something and if the punishment is justified by that objective guilt. But what penalty other than death is strictly deserved by mass murderers?
Vincent Eastman ……. Richard Gere
Sally Eastman ……… Sharon Stone
Olivia Marshak …….. Lolita Davidovich
Neal ……………… Martin Landau
Richard Quarry …….. David Selby
Meaghan Eastman ……. Jenny Morrison
Charlie …………… Ron White
Paramount presents a film directed by Mark Rydell. Produced by Bud Yorkin and Mark Rydell. Written by David Rayfiel and Marshall Brickman. Photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond. Edited by Mark Warner. Music by James Newton Howard. Running time: 98 minutes. Classified: R (for some language and sexuality).
I try in these reviews to focus on movies that are well-done technically and/or which are liable to attract major notice from the public. This is not one of those. Reviews of this film have been negative. However, I think that there are sometimes theological reasons for a film being bad, just as there are theological reasons for a film’s virtues. (To be sure, films sometimes mix bad theology with good dramatic quality, and vice versa.) That is, I believe, true in this case. We need a few examples of this fact in a book dealing with theology at the movies. Thus we must deal with a few bad films, as well as a lot of good ones.
The direction and photography are o.k. Vancouver, B. C., the setting, is a beautiful area; it seems to me that the filmmakers could have done it more justice. Most other features are not memorable.
The story is the main problem. The central character, Vincent Eastman, played by Richard Gere, is an architect who marries Sally (Sharon Stone) and has one daughter, Meaghan (played by Jenny Morrison as a remarkable lookalike to Stone). Eastman is terribly self-absorbed, in an almost typical Hollywood way. His marriage loses “spark,” though his wife is exceptionally beautiful and indispensable to him professionally and socially, and so he just does what Hollywood thinks is the natural thing to do: he looks elsewhere. He falls in love with Olivia, a writer for a magazine. Olivia, played by Lolita Davidovich is potentially an interesting character; but the script gives her nothing to do except to supply for Vincent the missing “sparks.” We know almost nothing of her as a writer.
Anyhow, things develop, and Vince must decide between Olivia, who supplies him with sparks, on the one hand, and his long-suffering wife and daughter on the other. His mind keeps changing, which is the height of tension in this film. The conclusion presents us with a bit of irony: a tragic accident to Vince, the two women each left thinking that he had chosen her. In retrospect, the whole plot seems concocted to lead to that irony and only to that irony. None of it has anything much to do with character or real drama.
The biggest trouble here, I think, is Hollywood morality. Not the two or three sex scenes particularly, although that is part of it. The problem is that these filmmakers assume that their audiences are like them: viewing adultery and divorce not as tragedy, but mainly as a situation in which the perpetrator is ”trying to find himself.” We are supposed to sympathize with his search for sparks, while his wife and daughter are left hanging. Frankly, I hadn’t the slightest sympathy for Vincent’s agonizing over the two women, or for Olivia’s supposedly gallant attempt to (as she puts it to Meaghan of all people) “make him happy.” I didn’t want to see Vincent “happy.” I just wanted to see him go home where he belongs. I did sympathize with Sally and Meaghan. (Stone in this film plays a woman with some dignity for a change, rather than her usual nymphomaniac; of course there has to be one brief (clothed) sex scene for her in the movie for those people who come to see Sharon do her thing.)
The filmmakers evidently thought that the viewing audience would be pretty much like them: broad, tolerant, winking at adultery and divorce, maximizing the importance of emotional self-fulfillment. This is not always the case, even in secular films. Although most filmmakers are very liberal in politics and morals, most films made today are fairly hard on adultery (though not on divorce). In taking a hard attitude, they realize that their audiences will respond better to a world with some moral rights and wrongs. For all the culture critics say, most people today in the US are not entirely “post-Christian.” They still carry with them a lot of “borrowed capital” from Christianity, and they still believe in moral reality.
The makers of “Intersection” betrayed their audience in this regard and thereby lost all hope of putting together a quality drama. Drama, whether comedy or tragedy or history, requires a moral universe. Without that it loses not only significance, but also (unless it tries to be really outrageous) viewer interest.
Into the West
Papa Riley ………. Gabriel Byrne
Kathleen ………… Ellen Barkin
Ossie …………… Ciaran Fitzgerald
Tito ……………. Ruaidhri (Rory) Conroy
Grandfather ……… David Kelly
Tracker …………. Johnny Murphy
Barreller ……….. Colm Meaney
Hartnett ………… John Kavanagh
Miramax presents a film directed by Mike Newell. Produced by Jonathan Cavendish and Tim Palmer. Written by Jim Sheridan. Based on a story by Michael Pearce. Photographed by Tom Sigel. Edited by Peter Boyle. Music by Patrick Doyle. Running time: 91 minutes. Classified: PG.
This is a very wonderful film, starring two excellent boy actors (around 12 and 10) and Gabriel Byrne as their father. They are Irish, “Travellers,” specifically. That is the name of a tribe of “Celtic Gypsies.”
The father lost his wife in the birth of the second son. Formerly the “prince of the travellers,” he is now wracked with guilt and drunk most of the time. Though he dearly loves his sons, he hasn’t the heart to give them a decent upbringing. Their real home is in the Gypsy camps, but as the film begins they are all out of place: in the city, in a grubby apartment.
Grandfather appears on the scene and gives to the boys a wonderful white horse, which grandfather envelops in mythology about the horse’s mystical origin. The boys bring the horse into their apartment, which riles the neighbors and the law. Eventually, the horse falls into the hands of a rich man who plans to use him as a champion jumper. But the boys kidnap the horse, who takes them on a journey of discovery. On his back, they elude their pursuers and visit the grave of the boys’ mother. Byrne and some Traveller trackers are close behind, and the gravesite provokes closure to the bitter experiences of the past. Eventually they all reach the sea, boys, horse, trackers, the rich oppressor, the bad lawmen and one good lawman. The horse goes into the water, and the youngest boy, nearly drowning, has a vision of the mother he never knew. The horse disappears, going back to his mystical origin; and the family is ready to return home to the Traveller camp and make a new start.
Production values are terrific: photography, dialogue, direction. The basic plot (a lot of people chasing kids on a horse) is pretty uninteresting; but the handling of it is really gripping.
It seems to be based on the psychological idea that you need to go back and relive traumatic events in order to put them behind you. The boy’s near-drowning experience seems to be a reliving of the birth trauma which killed his mother, and the encounters at the grave of the wife seem to bring her back to her loved ones in a metaphorical sense. The mysticism, however, shows more than pop-psychology: a kind of invisible hand of providence guiding events. The boys do pray, and the prayer is answered.
It’s a good movie for families: no sex or violence, but very profound in content. It gives us an impressive view of a culture I never was aware of before. At one level, kids can understand the film, and its deeper dimensions will challenge them.
Theologically, the movie says that there are times when our total inability to help ourselves becomes obvious and overwhelming. Its answer does not reach to the fullness of the biblical gospel. But the film assumes an already existing belief in God and in Christ– or at least the Virgin Mary (for whom the boys’ mother is a kind of surrogate); and it says that such faith can help us to put the terrible past behind us and reach on to the future. There is a lot of Irish blarney in the movie– superstitious mythologizing– but there is something genuinely biblical here too.
Lost in Yonkers
Louie ………… Richard Dreyfuss
Bella ………… Mercedes Ruehl
Grandma ………. Irene Worth
Jay ………….. Brad Stoll
Arty …………. Mike Damus
Johnny ……….. David Strathairn
Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Martha Coolidge. Produced by Ray Stark. Written by Neil Simon, based on his play. Photographed by Johnny E. Jensen. Edited by Steven Cohen. Music by Elmer Bernstein. Running time: 110 minutes. Classified: PG.
The Simon formula is: find representatives of various stereotypes, have them do and say outrageous and funny things. Put in the midst of these some normally straight and sensible folks (representing the audience, and Simon) to lead the laughter and provide the comic commentary. In Simon’s better work, then, we learn that the stereotypes are more than that, and the straights are enriched by gaining a more mature and ironic view of human nature.
Here the stereotypes are: a tough-as-nails grandmother who terrorized her children into abject submission and various personality problems; Aunt Bella, bordering on mental illness, especially manic-depression, naive, yet slyly insightful; Uncle Louie (Richard Dreyfuss), a “henchman” worried about what some other gangsters are getting ready to do to him; Gert (?) who can’t get a sentence out without wheezing. The straights are two grandchildren whose mother (another daughter of grandma) has died and whose father must carry on a traveling business to support the family. Grandma takes care of the boys in her candy store.
This is one of the better Simon efforts. One does get perspective on all these characters. Salvation comes for Bella when she gets up the courage to leave to find a job in Florida. Salvation for the boys: just don’t hurt people the way grandma did, or else those people will turn out like her kids. Still, for my money, grandma is the most impressive character. She knows what she believes and won’t compromise an inch.
Malcolm X ………… Denzel Washington
Betty Shabazz …….. Angela Bassett
Baines …………… Albert Hall
Elijah Muhammad …… Al Freeman Jr.
West Indian Archie … Delroy Lindo
Shorty …………… Spike Lee
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Spike Lee. Produced by Marvin Worth and Lee. Written by Arnold Perl and Lee. Based on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Photographed by Ernest Dickerson. Edited by Barry Alexander Brown. Music by Terence Blanchard. Running time: 201 minutes. Classified: PG-13 (for a scene of violence, and for drugs and some language).
“Malcolm X” is one of those very long, very literal, almost worshipful biographical movies, like Ghandi. Still, it is fascinating. Director Spike Lee really knows old Harlem, evidently, and there is lots of dancing, music, gangster action in the early part. The rest is mainly a study of Malcolm’s spiritual development. Fascinating in itself. I have no sympathy for the Muslim religion, nor do I appreciate Malcolm’s talk about white devils; but I really enjoyed getting to know Malcolm as a person.
He was really a kind of black conservative: keep the races separate, quit behaving like a victim, quit begging for handouts; behave morally, work hard, support your families, defend yourselves if others go after you. That sort of thinking was pretty wild for the ’60s. It still sounds more like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas and Walter Williams than like Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson and the more broadly recognized black leadership.
Unfortunately, the black establishment in the ’60s didn’t listen to him. If they had, there would not have been the huge wave of professional welfarism, divorce, illegitimacy, the nearly total destruction of the black family, that followed the Great Society legislation. Why do Spike Lee and other liberals think so highly of Malcolm? Is it simply because he made whites angry? Malcolm’s teaching is nearly the exact opposite of theirs.
If I were part of an oppressed race, my response to it, I confess, would be a lot more like Malcolm’s than like Martin Luther King’s.
Malcolm also had a big smile and a great sense of humor. And in the moral area, as one CIA spy says to another, “compared to King, this guy was a monk!” I am not at all surprised that he attracted followers as well as enemies.
Carl Ellis, author of Free at Last (Inter-Varsity Press, 1996) thinks that Malcolm was drawing nearer to Christ when he was killed. Well, he was disillusioned with some of his Islamic friends, and he was reaching out to other groups. It would not be surprising, however, if he fell short of a full profession of Christ. Here is a man who had been treated very badly by Christians, and in the name of Jesus. Why should we expect him, humanly speaking, to believe in Jesus’ deity?
One would, however, hope for more objectivity from the filmmakers, who are claiming to present a more or less accurate picture of the events. The film’s attitude toward Christianity, however, is pure scorn. There are two ministers who are shown with Malcolm during his jail sentence. One visits him in solitary confinement, when he is suffering miserably. In an attitude of supreme insensitivity, we gather, the minister asks Malcolm to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Doubtless Malcolm was thinking, “What kind of a friend would put me in here?” The minister would have been more helpful if he had offered some answer to that question.
The other minister leads a Bible study at the prison. Malcolm asks what color God is. The minister replies (as if he had answered the question many times) that of course God is white. Now I’ve known a lot of ministers, some of them rather lacking in compassion and/or intelligence. But for the life of me I can’t imagine even the worst of them saying something like this. There is simply no basis for it in anybody’s theology (except possibly Mormonism), and addressed to an audience of black men it is simply too tactless to be imagined. I have some sympathy for Malcolm’s tendency to demonize whites. I have very little sympathy for the same tendency in Spike Lee. I’m sure that the episode of the minister saying “God is white” is a flat-out lie.
We can learn from Malcolm’s life, and from his death. Whatever Malcolm hoped to do at the end of his life, it was snuffed out by violence. The Muslim movement had given its people some new ideals and had improved their lives in obvious ways. But instead of eliminating their violence, in the end, the movement only redirected it. Instead of mugging people on the streets, the Muslims destroyed the other Muslims who preferred rival groups. One leaves this movie longing that somewhere someone had introduced these people to an authentic Christianity, one with orthodox biblical doctrine and a quality of life to match.
Menace II Society
Caine …………. Tyrin Turner
O-Dog …………. Larenz Tate
Ronnie ………… Jada Pinkett
A-Wax …………. MC Eiht
Grandmama ……… Marilyn Coleman
Grandpapa ……… Arnold Johnson
Tat Lawson …….. Samuel L. Jackson
New Line Cinema presents a film directed by the Hughes Brothers. Produced by Darin Scott. Written by Tyger Williams. Based on the story by Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes and Tyger Williams. Photographed by Lisa Rinzler. Edited by Christopher Koefoed. Music by QD III. Running time: 97 minutes. Classified: R (for strong violence, drug use and language).
Excellently directed by the makers of Boyz in the Hood, this movie tells about a Los Angeles black young man who, though offered opportunities to escape his terrible environment, refuses to change until it is too late. The language is filthy; every other phrase is profane. Yet the dialogue and the narrative ring true. It is a movie about the horrendous values of these young men and what those values do to them. It proposes no answers, casts no blame. It is a monument to the failure of the church, and to the power of sin to blind people to the truth, so that even the small remnants of gospel (the boy’s grandparents) are unheard. My analysis: when people accept the lie that they are victims and can’t do anything to help themselves in a prejudiced society, they shut out their only real source of hope, the gospel of God’s grace. And the wages of sin is death: that is patent throughout the film. More young black men die of murder than of any other cause.
Mr. Jones …………. Richard Gere
Libbie ……………. Lena Olin
Dr. Holland………… Anne Bancroft
Patrick …………… Tom Irwin
Howard ……………. Delroy Lindo
David …………….. Bruce Altman
Amanda ……………. Lauren Tom
Susan …………….. Lisa Malkiewicz
TriStar presents a film directed by Mike Figgis. Produced by Alan Greisman and Debra Greenfield. Written by Eric Roth and Michael Cristofer. Based on the story by Roth. Photographed by Juan Ruiz Anchia. Edited by Tom Rolf. Music by Maurice Jarre. Running time: 114 minutes. Classified: R (for language).
This film stars Richard Gere and was made in San Diego, making good use of the scenery and the milieu. San Diegans will exchange knowing nods, for example, when the film shows planes flying low over the city. Lindbergh Field, the city airport, is very close to the downtown area; so planes frequently fly very low over buildings there creating all sorts of annoyance and amazement. This phenomenon is used very cleverly in the film, in which the main character climbs up on the roof of a building and almost feels that he can grab hold of one of those planes as it descends to its runway.
The main character is afflicted with manic-depression, and, like the treatment of autism in “Rain Man,” the film treats its subject convincingly. Evidently the filmmakers did their homework. Roger Ebert says that Gere visited mental patients to render his performance more authentic. Of course his task was less difficult than that of Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” because manic-depression is easier to imitate than is autism. Indeed one might think that the very nature of acting is to emulate manic-depression: the fundamental craft of acting, before any nuances enter the picture, is to move between happy, sad, and relatively normal.
Mr. Jones, the Gere character, is enormously charming, and without pressing her very much he is able to win the heart of a lady psychiatrist who is treating him. Although he accepts treatment off and on, he profoundly distrusts it. “This is not a disease,” he tells his would-be healers; “this is what I am.” He loves his highs, and he is willing to take his chances with the lows. But at times he realizes that he needs help, though he is not very sure of what form that help should take.
There is not much religion in this movie, although, significantly, Jones’s one real male friend is a black construction worker who leads his family in prayer before dinner. That friend is not, ultimately, able to help him much, but that friend’s ministry does foreshadow the film’s actual conclusion, which suggests that human relationships are often more important than clinical treatment. At one point, Jones explodes at his friend, using some profane expressions which we are, I gather, to attribute to his mental condition. But at that point he catches himself, realizing that he has offended a man of sincere piety. At this point, the filmmakers realize that although the “disease” influences Jones’s behavior, it doesn’t force him to do what he does. And it doesn’t take away his responsibility.
The most controversial aspect of the film is the relationship between Jones and the psychiatrist, which is consummated offscreen. She is filled with guilt on this account: ironically, not a guilt before God, but a secular guilt, that of having broken the professional rule against personal (especially sexual) relations with a patient. It is interesting that at a time when “Victorian” attitudes toward sex are universally rejected, at least in the movies, a new Victorianism (I don’t say ”Puritanism”) has entered “professional” circles. The professionals are to be commended, I suppose, for recognizing the harm illicit sex can do in a therapeutic relationship; why, I wonder, don’t they see the damage pre- and extra-marital sex can do in other areas of life? The film also makes clear that the ”secular Victorianism” is woodenly and rigidly enforced, without regard to the persons involved. We must grant that Christians, also, sometimes enforce their moral rules without love, without regard for the persons. But the film shows us that Christians are not alone in this. The secular Victorianism is more of a bondage than any religious moralism has ever been.
Roger Ebert sees the romance as an unnecessary soap-opera element in an otherwise instructive movie about mental illness. On the contrary, I see the romance as quite central to the point of the film. The film is not at all a documentary, as Ebert seems to read its deepest intention, but a drama. And though Ebert accepts the professional taboo as a given, the film does not, but brings it into serious question. The ending of the film brings the psychiatrist (now resigned from the hospital) and the patient back together as man and woman and projects a future of real mutual help and hope. And it is that, not the mere portrayal of manic-depression and its treatment, that is the real focus of the film.
The Christian will not be pleased with the extra-marital sex presented and approved by this film, nor with the profane language of some of the characters. But there is much food for thought here. As Christians come more and more to question the ”medical model” of “mental illness,” they must ask what God would have them put in its place. Should we substitute for the secular professionalism a Christian professionalism, to try to deal with these conditions? Or should we consider this film’s implicit proposal: that what such people need, beyond drug treatment to improve their brain chemistry, is real love? Is that a hokey Hollywood romanticism? Or is it a real insight into the needs of these people?
Though I am not by any means an expert on manic-depression, I suspect the film’s prescription is at least part of the truth. The whole truth is that these people need physical healing, they need Christ, and they need loving people to support and disciple them. We must, after all, deal, not only with the person’s “disease” (if indeed we call it that) but also with “what he is.”
Much Ado About Nothing
Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon … Denzel Washington
Benedick, of Padua ………… Kenneth Branagh
Claudio, of Florence ………. Robert Sean Leonard
Beatrice, an orphan ……….. Emma Thompson
Hero …………………….. Kate Beckinsale
Don John …………………. Keanu Reeves
Dogberry …………………. Michael Keaton
Borachio …………………. Gerald Horan
Conrade ………………….. Richard Clifford
Samuel Goldwyn presents a film written, produced and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Also produced by David Parfitt and Stephen Evans. Photographed by Roger Lanser. Edited by Andrew Marcus. Music by Patrick Doyle. Running time: 111 minutes. Classified: PG-13 (for momentary sensuality).
Kenneth Branagh’s film of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is a wonderful treat. All production, direction and acting values were great. It really communicated the play to a modern viewer. I have never been so wonderfully amused and moved (simultaneously) in a long time. I kept in mind Jim Jordan’s case that Shakespeare was a Christian playwright, and I saw all kinds of parallels to the gospel. It begins as a wonderful, happy party (Edenic) (so Edenic that– in a modern touch– no one seems to notice that the revered leader of the army is black, played by Denzel Washington; even though his brother is white!), except for wicked Don John, whose jealousy leads him to slander one of the two heroines. He is the Satan figure, and as played in the movie, he also reminds me of the older brother in the prodigal son parable: unable to enjoy the festivities, because of some imagined injustice. He is the only dour figure, the devil-as-Pharisee.
The slandered girl undergoes symbolic death and resurrection. Her fiance, who believed the false charges, and therefore is himself liable to death (the Branagh character challenges him to a duel), repents, and forgiveness wonderfully abounds. Sin is not ignored; the fiance must pay a price which appears somewhat ominous to him; but the price, accepted voluntarily, turns out to be the consummation of joy. In the ”risen” girl’s arms he is symbolically raised with her to newness of life, and the party begins again. She is the Christ figure.
Meanwhile, there is wonderful comic dialogue, good natured put-downs between the other couple, Benedick and Beatrice, played by Branagh and his wife Emma Thompson. Even in her most wicked comments, her good heart shows through. The character’s good heart or Thompson’s? Well, it’s hard for me to imagine Thompson playing a really evil person. Eventually, Beatrice and Benedick discover their love for one another under their cynical facades. Essentially, what happens is that each is deceived by third parties into thinking he/she is loved by the other. That hypothesis puts a new “perspective” on the data, whereby each is able to discover his/her love for the other. Each learns to love by being persuaded that he/she has first been beloved. The parallel with God’s grace is remarkable.
The music is rich, wonderful, and appropriate. Shakespeare’s songs have never been arranged so beautifully.
The Satan figure and his cohorts get their just deserts, but most everyone else rejoices at the end, so that the wicked simply disappear from the picture. Not a bad representation of the biblical eschatology: far from being glamorized as in this world, the wicked are not even missed.
Do Reformed people really understand “the kingdom of God as a party,” to quote Tony Campolo? I think not very often. Shakespeare’s portrayal of the kingdom (I really think that’s what it is) is far more compelling than the usual sour Reformed picture of the Christian life. I think of Jordan’s comment about people who think that God sits up in heaven waiting to pounce on us for making a liturgical or theological mistake. That seems to be the theological mentality of many Reformed people.
I took courses in Shakespeare in college. It was a chore then, understanding the Elizabethan English and sorting out all the professor’s ideas about the “deeper meanings.” But now, especially after Branagh’s “Henry V” and this one, I have come to loveShakespeare and to find in him a kindred spirit.
Bob Jones ……… Michael Keaton
Gail Jones …….. Nicole Kidman
Paul ………….. Bradley Whitford
Theresa ……….. Queen Latifah
Bill ………….. Michael Constantine
Rose ………….. Rebecca Schull
Dr. Mills ……… Mark Lowenthal
Columbia presents a film written and directed by Bruce Joel Rubin. Produced by Jerry Zucker, Rubin and Hunt Lowry. Photographed by Peter James. Edited by Richard Chew. Music by John Barry. Running time: 112 minutes. Classified: PG-13 (for mature subject matter).
A film like this can teach us a lot about modern attitudes toward religion, for it deals with death and dying, perhaps the one area where even modern people still think seriously.
Bob Jones, born in Detroit as Bob Ivanovich, is dying of cancer while his wife is expecting his first son. The film’s resident theologian, a Chinese folk healer, diagnoses the underlying problem as repressed anger. Indeed, Bob has been angry at his father since boyhood, because his father spent so little time with him. The father was a dealer in scrap metal, which Bob thinks should be described more honestly as “junk.” Bob hated Detroit and the junk business. He left for Los Angeles at the first opportunity and became a public relations man. (Did the authors of the script see an analogy between Hollywood public relations experts and junk dealers?) He became successful, but had few real friends. In an embarrassing search for testimonials, he finds no one who can say anything much on his behalf beyond commending his business prowess and charitable contributions. Even his wife Gail, who deeply loves him, complains about being left out of his struggles. Evidently his anger has kept him from any deep human relationships.
He also, evidently, is angry at God. As a boy, he once prayed that God would bring a circus to his back yard after school. (His father had promised to take him to the circus, but had failed to do so because of the press of work.) The film overwhelms us with the earnest sincerity of the prayer. He invites all his classmates to see the wonderful circus. But there is no circus; the kids must all be sent home. Both earthly father and heavenly father have let Bob down, the film implies.
So Bob is estranged from God and men, and the disease is progressing. Until the very end of the movie, he looks perfectly healthy for the most part– a rather awkward element in the film’s portrayal. But Bob’s mind is preoccupied by his fate and by the future. At first, this preoccupation actually increases his estrangement from the world. So determined is he to keep a record of his last days for his yet-unborn son that he sees the entire world through a video camera. He is a spectator, not a participant. It is as if he has died already and sees the world from some ghostly realm outside it.
But he does change. He visits Detroit again for his brother’s wedding, and he actually lays aside the video camera to join his brother in some ethnic dances. (At the beginning of the movie, I would have guessed the family was Jewish, but they turn out to be Ukrainian.) Still, the old hatreds resurface when he talks to his parents. They condemn his disrespect: that he left his family, that he changed the family name, that he hardly ever called them. He in turn raises all of his old complaints.
The Chinese healer ministers to him. Orthodox medicine cannot help, but clearly this healer has powers beyond the standard treatments. He has healed others, and he keeps Bob going far beyond the expected time of his death, so that he does meet his new son. The healer’s hands put Bob in touch with his inner self, which, we learn, is the source of wholeness. Bob has a vision of the great light which is this transcendental ego. But the anger-generated tumors grow too fast even for the Chinese healer, who advises Bob to prepare for the next life, reincarnation.
The film reinforces the reincarnation theme as Bob’s death-watch parallels Gail’s pregnancy and childbirth. In both cases, ice cubes are wiped across the lips, breathing is labored and disciplined, and the end is a release into joyous abandon.
Everyone is reconciled after a fashion. The parents come to Los Angeles. Bob sort of apologizes for his unkindness to them, but it’s a Hollywood type of apology: he says in effect that the whole thing is really nobody’s fault; such problems just happen and nobody’s to blame. Thus estrangement is dissolved in moral relativism and Bob is set free to be reincarnated. Is he also reconciled to God? Not in any obvious way. God plays no role in the New Age theology which informs Bob’s last days. In a morally relativist universe, there is no God to be reconciled to.
The film lingers over his dying for a longer time than I was comfortable with; perhaps it intended to. I guess that I was supposed to find Bob’s death a triumphant experience, but I did not. If the film is right, and reality is an impersonal process without moral distinctions, then neither death nor life offer any hope.
Andrew Beckett ……… Tom Hanks
Joe Miller …………. Denzel Washington
Belinda Conine ……… Mary Steenburgen
Charles Wheeler …….. Jason Robards
Kenneth Killcoyne …… Charles Glenn
Miguel Alvarez ……… Antonio Banderas
Walter Kenton ………. Robert Ridgely
TriStar presents a film directed by Jonathan Demme. Produced by Edward Saxon and Demme. Written by Ron Nyswaner. Photographed by Tak Fujimoto. Edited by Craig McKay. Music by Howard Shore. Running time: 119 minutes. Classified: PG- 13 (for some graphic language and thematic material).
This is Hollywood’s first big AIDS movie, produced with top stars, a leading director, and much advertising. It has obtained some rave reviews. It is a disappointment to me, and not only because I oppose many views of the gay community. Although I enjoyed the rather touristy shots of Philadelphia, where I lived for some years, there wasn’t much else about the movie that was interesting.
Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), brilliant young gay lawyer, has AIDS. And when his prestigious law firm finds out, someone steals an important document to make Beckett appear careless, whereupon the law firm fires him, supposedly for incompetence. Beckett thinks he was fired for having AIDS, which is, of course, the truth. He sues the firm, under the representation of Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). Miller doesn’t like gays, but eventually he takes the case and wins. Meanwhile, Beckett dies of AIDS. That’s it.
If you attend the movie expecting a great drama of legal warfare, you will be disappointed. The trial contains no surprises, no particularly interesting strategies. What convinces the jury is a point that was obvious from the very start of the movie. There is a lot of glowering on both sides, with the firm lawyers saying mean things about gays and whatnot. In other words, the legal process is a bore.
Beckett’s death, therefore, has to bear most of the burden of supplying interest. There is one remarkable scene, where Beckett and Miller are working on the case at Beckett’s home. Beckett, who by this point is close to death, plays an opera record, narrating a beautiful solo by Maria Callas. He translates it and explains the plot to Miller, who is not an opera fan. In the description of the operatic situation he bares his soul to Miller and, we gather, for the first time helps Miller to see him as a person.
But the rest of Beckett’s suffering is as tiresome as the trial. The camera lingers in the hospital as each member of his large family (including, of course, Beckett’s gay lover) hugs and kisses him. They are all on his side, and this big “traditional values” family just tugs at our heartstrings, begging us to love their Andrew. The whole movie is like this: it seems to shout loudly at us, “you just gotta love this guy,” without giving us any specific reasons to love him. In truth, he comes across as nothing more than another smart lawyer who got into a bad situation.
Similarly the viewpoint of the film, like the plot elements, is predictable political correctness. Beckett is a victim, pure and simple. Anyone who suggests that he bears any responsibility for his condition is denounced as a bigot. Anyone who has some doubts about the consensus-view that AIDS cannot be spread by “casual contact” is also bigoted. The firm’s action is simply a denial of civil rights. So the film is as dull in intellectual interest as it is in plot.
It’s hard to conceive how this film could have come from the director of “Silence of the Lambs,” in which the audience was constantly kept on edge by plot twists, riveting images and intricate moral ironies. That does, however, happen sometimes when a director gets earnest and ideological. Hanks, Washington and the minor actors do a pretty good job with their characters. Jason Robards’ turn as the head of the wicked law firm was a mere caricature, as were the other firm members. I am reminded of ”Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” the 1967 movie about interracial marriage. It boasted Stanley Kramer’s direction, Sidney Poitier, and the legendary couple, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. But to my mind there was little of interest in the film. It was a liberal tract, with an entirely predictable plot and incredibly wonderful people.
No doubt AIDS is a terrible thing, and we should rightly sympathize with its victims. But it will not be conquered as long as our society insists on treating homosexuality as a valid alternate life-style, and AIDS as a condition protected by legally enforced silence and treated as a civil rights issue. That is the treatment this film advocates. As such, the film will do more harm than good in the battle against AIDS.
Starring and directed by Melvin Van Peebles
A western featuring black actors, making the point that half the cowboys in the old west were black. Van Peebles plays a Spanish American war soldier who, with five friends, goes AWOL from his sadistic commander and heads west to avenge the death of his father. Eventually the sadistic commander catches up with him, and Van Peebles’ character must also confront the equally sadistic white sheriff. Meanwhile, we learn that his father had led a group of people to found an all black town called Freemanville and had urged them to educate themselves before he was lynched. The town still stands, though threatened by the white sheriff and the corruption of the leading black official.
The movie is loud and fast paced, ladling out blood by the bucketful. It is reminiscent of Van Peebles’ “New Jack City” and similar films by Spike Lee and others. Some reviewers have thought that this pace was inappropriate for a western, that it obscured the story. I felt it was, well, a black western, told as non-Christian African Americans themselves chose to tell it. Nothing of God here. The main message of the film is that you have to take control of things for yourself, by force if necessary, and don’t allow anyone to “dis” you. It’s a ghetto movie set outside the ghetto, with ghetto values.
Of course, we should also observe through this film that the ghetto values are not terribly different from the values of that “old west” which has traditionally been glamorized as a part of white history. That may make us more sympathetic to the plight of urban blacks today. Perhaps, without condoning their bellicose spirit, we can understand them better by comparing them to the families that populated the lawless western communities. These townspeople, like modern inner-city dwellers, often lived where they did out of economic necessity, and with considerable courage.
Oskar Schindler …….. Liam Neeson
Itzhak Stern ……….. Ben Kingsley
Amon Goeth …………. Ralph Fiennes
Emilie Schindler ……. Caroline Goodall
Poldek Pfefferberg ….. Jonathan Sagalle
Helen Hirsch ……….. Embeth Davidtz
Universal presents a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Produced by Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen and Branko Lustig. Written by Steven Zaillian. Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally. Photographed by Janusz Kaminski. Edited by Michael Kahn. Music by John Williams. Running time: 184 minutes. Classified: R (for language, some sexuality and actuality violence).
Stephen Spielberg has directed three or four of the ten top grossing pictures of all time, including “E. T.,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Jaws.” But “Schindler’s List” is unquestionably his masterpiece, and a very different film from the others. Typically we associate Spielberg with fairly light-hearted stuff, however skillfully directed. In a typical Spielberg movie, there are all sorts of tour-de-force scenes, scenes that seem designed primarily to show what wonderful things a director can do if he has a big enough budget at his disposal. The present film, though an even greater directorial challenge than the others, with huge sets and a “cast of thousands,” as they used to say, contains no ”gee whiz” scenes. The direction is quite subordinate to the story, the power of which is enormous.
That is not to say that there aren’t some directorial tricks; but these are subordinate to the theme. For example, the film is mostly in black and white film, the medium in which most of our communal memories of the 1940s are stored. This is not at all distracting; it seems the most natural way possible to add realism to the drama. But there are daubs of color here and there, for reasons important to the film’s purpose. For example, in all the grayness and the Warsaw ghetto massacre, there is a little red on a young girl’s coat. She is running away from the German murderers. We see that coat and remember it when we later see the dead body of the girl being hauled away with a load of other Jewish corpses.
Oskar Schindler is a German businessman who discovers early in World War II that if one can (1) make something useful to the war effort (2) hire Jewish workers who can be had for slave wages (3) attract investment from Jewish businessmen who legally cannot own property and thus must do all their bargaining informally, he can make a great deal of money. He is played by Liam Neeson, somewhat against his usual type-casting. Neeson often plays vulnerable, super-sensitive men; here, his inner life is quite closed to us. On the outside, he is oblivious to the suffering around him, interested only in business, money, and good times. He is a member of the Nazi party and cultivates friendships among the S. S.
At some point, however, his fundamental motivation does change. Perhaps that point is the Nazis’ destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, which he watches from a hill, where he and a woman friend (one of many) have come on a horseback ride. The film does not tell us when he is changing and why. Naturally; for to talk about such things in that context might have meant death. And in any case, to leave that question open is certainly better drama. Schindler displays his changed convictions in his acts, not speeches, soliloquies, or emotional outbursts. However this change took place, the second half of the film shows Schindler using all his powers conning Nazis, paying them off (losing all his money in the process), rescuing Jews, and undermining the German war effort. He and Itzhak Stern, his Jewish bookkeeper, compile a list of Jews who would otherwise almost certainly be considered “expendable” and Schindler demands that the Jews on that list be freed to work in Schindler’s factory. When the Jews are routed to Auschwitz by mistake, Schindler even marches into the death camp to take them back. These are “his people;” the film presents this rescue as a Moses/Pharoah confrontation.
To the Nazis, his motivation is still business. One slight dramatic weakness in the film is the stupidity of the Nazis and officers– reminiscent almost of Colonel Klink in the old TV comedy, “Hogan’s Heroes.” Were they really so gullible as to fall for Schindler’s really rather transparent scams? Perhaps Spielberg would like to believe they were, but I have my doubts.
Parallels between Schinldler and Moses abound in the film, whether by Spielberg’s intention or by divine providence in the real history. As Moses was trained in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, so Schindler was part of the oppressive establishment. As Moses was moved by a close-up view of oppression, so was Schindler. As Moses led the people through the wilderness, so Schindler takes his enormous workforce on an improbable journey from Poland to Czechoslovakia. As God led the people under Moses, so it seems that an invisible hand is pushing obstacles from Schindler’s path. Of course, Moses was Jewish; Schindler was not, though Moses was criticized for having married a foreign wife, and he may have been under suspicion for his ties to Pharaoh’s daughter.
Unlike Moses, however, Schindler was essentially a showman. Early on, he tells Stern that he (Schindler) knows little about running factories and recruiting workers; that is Stern’s job. Schindler’s job is to keep up appearances. He wines and dines the Nazis and military officers. He sends them big baskets of black-market delicacies, keeps everybody happy with bribes. He tells all sorts of plausible lies about how this or that worker is enormously skilled or how this other man is absolutely essential for the war effort. Meanwhile he does his best to see to it that his munitions factory does not produce a single usable shell. Schindler’s story must have appealed to Spielberg in part because it is a story of salvation-through-theater. This idea has been tried before, for example, in the TV series, “Mission Impossible.” There, super-professional thespians saved the world each week through disguises, performances, elaborate sets and deceptions. In MI, it was just good fun. But in this movie, it almost seems like it could have happened. Maybe it did.
Schindler’s Jews survive. There are now 6000 of their descendants. By way of contrast, at the end of the war, only 4000 Jews remained alive in Poland. Many of the rescued Jews and their families appear at the end of the film, putting memorial stones on Schindler’s grave. It is a fitting and moving conclusion.
The Holocaust, more than the biblical Exodus, is the great historical event which dominates the memory of the Jewish community today and unites that community– both the theists and the atheists among them. The horrors of that time have caused some Jews to renounce God, others to think of him in a different way.
This film presents a savior from the atrocities, a savior of a few thousand among the six million destroyed. (The real Moses, I note, saved quite a few more; but not as many as Jesus.) The savior in this film is a secularist who is scarcely aware of his own motives and who has no master plan, but improvises his way from one difficulty to the next. The churches in the film are used only for clandestine meetings of Jews and, at one point, as a setting for Schindler’s marriage proposal. Christians must ask the serious question, where was the body of Christ? Of course, there were heroic Christians too during the war. But why did so many professing Christians do nothing, or even support the evil Nazi regime?
And, of course, there is the larger question, where was God? I will not trivialize these terrible events by promulgating some theory of why God let them happen, though I have faith that He had purposes even in this history which were wonderfully wise. But there is a problem here for unbelief as well. Certainly the situation destroys both ethical relativism and humanist sentimentality. After seeing this movie, few will be able to deny that there is real evil, and it clearly infected not only Hitler and his henchmen, but vast numbers of collaborators and passive observers, not excluding Schindler himself, the self-described war profiteer. Would any of us have done any better?
Simply by telling the historical truth, the film shows mankind’s desperate need for divine forgiveness in Christ. And it shows that even the efforts of a great man can only save a few, for a few years more of physical life. If there is justice at all, there must be an eternal life, and the savior must be God himself. The Biblical story is not salvation-through-theater; it is, in execution and result, the sheerest reality. This story raises some questions that are difficult for Christians (or anyone else) to answer. But it also raises some thatonly Christianity can resolve.
C.S. Lewis ………. Anthony Hopkins
Joy Gresham ……… Debra Winger
Warnie Lewis …….. Edward Hardwicke
Prof. Riley ……… John Wood
Rev. Harrington ….. Michael Denison
Douglas Gresham ….. Joseph Mazzello
Dr. Craig ……….. Peter Firth
Savoy Pictures presents a film directed by Richard Attenborough. Produced by Attenborough and Brian Eastman. Written by William Nicholson, based on his play. Photographed by Roger Pratt. Edited by Lesley Walker. Music by George Fenton. Running time: 133 minutes. Classified: PG (for thematic elements).
“Shadowlands” will have to be counted in the very small list of recent films which present a largely accurate and sympathetic view of Protestant Christians who are serious about their faith. That list is so small that I can almost repeat it from memory: “Chariots of Fire,” “Tender Mercies,” “Trip to Bountiful.” In that respect, this film is perhaps not as strong as the other three, as I shall indicate below. But it is worthy to be included in that small group, and that is a significant fact.
Like the others, this is an excellent film, well acted, directed, photographed, scripted. Everything feels authentic, and the dialogue is always intelligent: witty in the early intellectual repartee, profound in the ending sadness. Winger is a trifle inconsistent in her Jewish accent, but that is a quibble. The supporting actors are excellent, a trademark of the English film industry.
The story is of C. S. Lewis, known as “Jack” to his friends, Oxford literature professor, Christian apologist and writer of many books including the children’s “Narnia” fantasies. In 1951, he meets an American woman named Joy Gresham who has been corresponding with him. She is of Jewish background, a poet, converted to Christianity from a history of atheism and communism. She is also unhappily married (later divorced), trying to raise her ten (?) year old son Douglas (who loves the Narnia books). At first, the relationship of Jack and Joy is an intellectual duel, with increasing respect and affection.
After her divorce, she wants to remain in England with her son, and Lewis marries her in a civil ceremony, merely to facilitate that desire; still, they continue to live apart and to relate to one another only as friends. Lewis tells nobody of this marriage of convenience except his brother and housemate Warnie.
But Joy discovers she is dying of cancer. In caring for her, Lewis discovers real love, and in the hospital room he marries her for real, before a clergyman, with a ring. Eventually she does move into his home and they enjoy brief periods of marital happiness before the end comes. The ending is bittersweet in a way somewhat reminiscent of “Love Story,” though more profound because (in my view) the couple in the present film has far more spiritual substance.
Narnia readers will be moved by the scenes in which Douglas discovers an old wardrobe in Lewis’s attic and pushes his way through the garments seeking the magic land of Lewis’s Chronicles. His disappointment upon finding only a solid wall on the other side prefigures the film’s sad ending.
The film shows us Lewis several times lecturing on “The Problem of Evil,” the question of why a good God permits evil in his creation. In the lecture scenes, the film seems to be telling us that Lewis is all too smug about it all. One of his colleagues early on says half-seriously that Lewis is in the business of finding easy answers to difficult questions, and the film seems to validate that estimate. Essentially, Lewis’s lectures in the film make the point that suffering is God’s “megaphone,” to challenge us to move from our selfish preoccupations to greater things. Actually, Lewis’s treatment of the Problem was more complicated and more nuanced than that, as can be seen in his Problem of Pain.
The filmmakers try to make the point that when Lewis himself endured tragedy all his glib assurances of his lectures left him and he saw nothing in Joy’s sufferings except tragedy and pain. Like the boy in the wardrobe, Lewis loses his illusions. Did Joy really need a “divine wake-up call?” Did her son? Did anybody profit in any way from her suffering?
There is probably some truth in this account. One might compare The Problem of Pain with Lewis’s later A Grief Observed in which he deals with Joy’s death. Such comparison, plus the biographical literature on Lewis, suggest that Joy’s death did change his perspective on evil to some extent. Certainly it is legitimate to observe that The Problem of Pain is not a book to give someone in the midst of a personal tragedy. Yet its reasoning is not worthless for all of that. Even the idea of suffering as “God’s wake-up call” contains much truth. It bothers me somewhat that the film belittles apologetics as much as it does. In my view, that evaluation fails to distinguish sufficiently between pastoral counseling and apologetics as an intellectual discipline. On the other hand, The Problem of Pain would certainly have been a better book had there been in it a clearer view of divine sovereignty and therefore a greater acknowledgment of mystery.
Although I’m properly thankful for the sympathetic treatment of Christians here, I cannot help but observe that this movie is about someone whose Christian theology fails him at a crucial point. I grant that that does happen, and I don’t deny that it is a fit subject for drama. But why don’t we ever see movies about how someone’s faith, his theology, sustains him through temptation and trial? What of Lewis’s conversion, so dramatically depicted in his book “Surprised by Joy?” (The title of the book, ironically foreshadowing his romance, was written long before it.) Why couldn’t there have been a movie about that, rather than about a theological failure in his life? Indeed, why do we have to go back to “Beckett” and “Man For All Seasons” to find any sort of triumphant faith?
Another problem I had in the film was the treatment of Joy. Although we are told she is a Christian, we learn nothing much about her own personal faith. How did she come to Christ, out of such an unlikely background? How did her own faith bear upon her sufferings? In the film, she is very intelligent, witty, forthright, honest, patient, and, in the end, loving; but it is not clear how these qualities emerge from, or interact with, her religious commitment. We learn much of Jack’s religion, but almost nothing of Joy’s. Indeed, Joy seems most often to present a kind of challenge to Jack’s religion, forcing him to rethink his assurances, reinforcing the somewhat negative theological thrust noted above.
Is it conceivable that a woman who had been moved by Lewis’s writings enough to want to visit him, who could identify passages in his books word-for-word, would after meeting him never talk at all about God or Jesus? The film seems to rather secularize the story in a way that is hardly plausible to those of us who know C. S. Lewis through other channels. One reviewer mentioned that when Lewis married Joy in the hospital, there was a church healing rite performed, and her long remission followed this. The movie omits this entirely. It does observe that Lewis prayed for her recovery; but when someone remarks that God is answering his prayers, Lewis objects: he is not praying to change God, but to change himself. Does that mean that he doesn’t actually expect God to answer, and that he didn’t think God was actually answering him? Typical of Hollywood, the nuances of Christian devotion rather escape these filmmakers.
On the whole, however, the film is excellent, a truly edifying experience for Christian believers, and a witness to unbelievers of one authentic Christian life. For all my quibbles, the real C. S. Lewis does shine through. Anyone who thinks that Christianity impoverishes one’s intellect and depth of feeling ought to see this film.
Gene Shepard ………. Tim Robbins
Sherri Shepard …….. Madeleine Stowe
Ann Finnigan ………. Andie MacDowell
Howard Finnigan ……. Bruce Davison
Marian Wyman ………. Julianne Moore
Dr. Ralph Wyman ……. Matthew Modine
Paul Finnigan ……… Jack Lemmon
Lois Kaiser ……….. Jennifer Jason Leigh
Jerry Kaiser ………. Chris Penn
Doreen Piggot ……… Lily Tomlin
Stormy Weathers ……. Peter Gallagher
Fine Line presents a film directed by Robert Altman. Produced by Cary Brokaw. Written by Altman and Frank Barhydt. Based on the stories of Raymond Carver. Photographed by Walt Lloyd. Edited by Geraldine Peroni. Music by Mark Isham. Running time: 189 minutes. Classified: R (for graphic sexual language, and for nudity).
Robert Altman’s better-known films, particularly ”Nashville” and “The Player,” are big and expansive, attempting to take the measure of an entire culture or subculture. They have many subplots and many characters whose lives overlap only occasionally and at significant moments. Altman’s worldview seems to be that much of life just happens without any planning or foresight. The most important moments of life are moments which we cannot plan for, and in which we often do the wrong thing, through no fault of our own.
I enjoyed “Short Cuts” and admired Altman’s craftsmanship. However, I really liked “Nashville” and “The Player” better, for those films, for all their diversity, had a greater unity and sense of direction. This one is more of a ”slice of life,” a series of looks at ’90s Los Angeles through many, many specific examples. Still, this film is a pretty good example of the Altman worldview.
Doreen (Lily Tomlin) drives slowly down the road on her way home. Eight-year-old Casey is late to school, and he runs out in the street trying to beat her to the intersection. She hits him, and in agony stops her car and goes to him. She offers him a ride to the hospital, or home, but he refuses, because his Mom won’t let him ride with or talk to strangers. So he walks home by himself. She thinks he looks ok, so she gets back in her car and drives home, with, to be sure, a lot of guilt on her conscience. The boy goes home, tells his mother what happened, then falls asleep on the bed. His sleep turns out to be a coma. Something has happened to a vessel in his brain, and he dies in the hospital.
The boy’s eighth birthday would have been the next day, and the parents had hired a baker to make a cake for him. The baker calls the family to arrange a pick up, but they don’t want to be bothered explaining the situation to him. He gets angry. It was a lot of work for him to make that cake. After a few drinks he calls them again, making insulting and perhaps threatening remarks about their child. The parents later surmise who the caller is, and they visit him in anger. When he hears that the child died, he is mortified. Suddenly he becomes compassionate and comforts the grieving parents. We get the impression that they forgive and accept that comfort.
These are typical of the many incidents in the film. What Altman seems to be saying is that things just happen. When we judge others, we usually don’t know their story. If we did, we would not blame; we would rather reach out to forgive and comfort. Everybody means well, but it’s just awfully hard to live in this world, and it often becomes too much for us.
The mistakes people make in this film can usually be summarized in terms of the film’s title. People do wrong things, because it is just too much trouble to do right: too much trouble to really understand someone else’s feelings, or to take all the precautions that morality dictates.
I can sympathize with that attitude up to a point. Scripture does teach us to be slow to judge others, and it is true that many, possibly most, of our anger at others is due to ignorance. And certainly this world could do with a whole lot more compassion and forgiveness. And Ecclesiastes has a lot to say about the apparent randomness of events in the world, and how many of our best efforts come to naught.
But I fear that Altman is generalizing here. He seems to want to say that everyone is basically good– even the murderers and adulterers among us. Our problems are caused by our finitude, our being misplaced in the social and cosmic orders of things. Listen to Jack Lemmon telling his long-estranged son why he was unfaithful to his wife: just one thing happened, then another. No one was to blame, least of all him.
That, certainly, is not God’s universe, but Altman’s. Altman is a persuasive filmmaker, and his universe almost looks real. But there are moral and metaphysical dimensions in creation that he knows nothing about. Certainly a Christian must take him to task at least for his lack of consistency: if adultery and cruelty are just accidents, then compassion is too. If we are not to judge the former, why should we admire the latter? But when Altman turns from tragedy to forgiveness and compassion, his moral attitude changes from relativism to preachiness. The Christian answer is neither moral relativism, nor unfounded preachiness, nor anything in between these extremes. It is, rather, a recognition that there is a living God who sets firmly the standards for human behavior, who has also shown compassion upon us in Jesus. We love, not because sin doesn’t exist, but because Jesus loved us.
I saw M. Night Shamyalan’s Signs again. I will surely remember it longer than any other movie I’ve seen this year. The “signs” are, ostensibly, the crop circles, made by the aliens to guide their navigation. In fact, the signs are more broadly theological.
Mel Gibson is a “Father” Hess, a former Episcopal priest, who lost his faith when his wife was killed by a driver (remarkably played by Shyalaman himself) who fell asleep at the wheel. The driver says he had never fallen asleep at the wheel before and never has done it since. That night, he saw nobody on the road for miles and miles. He encountered only this poor woman. Almost as if it had to be, he says.
Predestination is a major theme. Hess, trying hard now to be an unbeliever, explains to his brother Merrill that there are two kinds of people in the world. For the one kind, things just happen at random: no connection or deeper significance. For the other group, there are connections: things happen as signs of other things. For the second group there are no coincidences. The former priest tries hard to be a person of the first type, but events keep pressing him in the other direction.
In a subplot, we learn that Merrill was a minor league baseball player who scored many home run records, but never made it in the majors because he also won the record for the number of strikeouts. He just swung at everything; couldn’t stand the idea of not swinging. (I am reminded of the Pittsburgh player of the 1960s Dick Stuart, once known as the “Babe Ruth of the bush leagues,” later as “Dr. Strangeglove.”) When the priest’s wife hung between life and death at the accident, she told her husband, “Seek,” and she asked him to tell his brother, “keep swinging.” Hess tries to explain to Merrill that these dying words were the result of delirium, had no meaning. Her brain was dredging up “random” memories. But in the crisis of the movie, it is Merrill’s “swinging” that makes the difference.
Hess’s two children play major roles in the drama, and in the network of signs. Morgan, the older, has asthma, and one element of tension in the film is whether he will survive an attack without his medicine. But ultimately, the fact that his asthma has closed up his lungs, proves to be his salvation. Bo, the daughter, has a penchant for leaving glasses of water all over the house. She thinks one is polluted, one is too dirty, one has a hair in it, etc. The glasses of water turn out, too, to play a crucial role in the resolution of the battle.
So the film works on several levels. On one, it is a reprise of “War of the Worlds,” but much scarier than any other movie about aliens I can recall. On another, a study of a very real family, responding to their fears in the midst of equally difficult problems of health, regrets, and loss. On still another level (I think even deeper), it is a film about worldviews.
Shyamalan was born into a Hindu family. Later he went to an Episcopal school on the Philadelphia Main Line. I don’t know much about his theology, but this film gets deeper into theology than any other film this year. For Christians, it raises the question of general revelation. When we think about general revelation we tends to think, Thomistic fashion, about causality: God reveals himself in the starry heavens, because who else could be great enough to bring them into being? Or teleologically: God reveals himself in the intricate machinery of the human eye (or now, thanks to Michael Behe, the living cell) because these machines require intelligent design. But Signs suggests that general revelation is also to be found in the rhythm of human life, the structure of coincidence, the fact that one event prepares us for the next. Apparently meaningless events turn out, maybe years later, to take on importance in our lives. And as we reflect on that, that too seems to presuppose a designer.
This kind of teleology is not so much that of a machine-designer as that of an author writing a novel or play, using one event to anticipate another. We are not surprised to find insight into that kind of teleology from a gifted writer and film director like Shyalaman, for it is precisely his business to design a world with such a structure of foreshadowing and recapitulation. The interesting thing is that that kind of world, from my experience anyway, comes out looking very much like the real one.
Some Short Notes
11/24/98: This afternoon, I saw American History X with Edward Norton and Edward Furlong. Marvelous performances and direction. About California white supremacists. The hero learns his lesson, but not soon enough to avoid tragic consequences. Trouble is that intellectually I found the white power arguments more cogent than those on the other side. What converted the hero was that in prison (1) his white power buddies were inconsistent (one dealt with the Mexicans to sell drugs to his “own people”), and they turned on him when he objected, and (2) in jail his only friend was a black man, who protected him after his white protectors turned against him. Moving story, but not much of an argument.
My conclusion is that apart from God’s Word, it is hard to argue against racists. Why shouldn’t each race contend against the others for their own interests? Scripture tells us that God made us all of one blood, and that he sends his people across racial and national barriers with the love of Christ. Hollywood’s answer to racism, on the contrary, seems to be sheer sentimentality.
12/19/98: “Prince of Egypt,” an animated feature from DreamWorks, took pains not to conflict with what Scripture actually says, but its focus was on a story that is not found in the Bible, the relationship of Pharaoh Rameses to his step-brother Moses. Meredith Kline taught us years ago that Rameses was not the pharaoh of the Exodus and that Moses lived about a hundred years before him. But most critical scholars still accept a later date for the Exodus, if they believe in the Exodus at all.
God was much involved in the film, but only as a mysterious presence who pops in and out from time to time. The moral thrust of it (as with the de Mille versions of The Ten Commandments) was that slavery is bad, and rescuing people from slavery is a great thing, the chief movement of history. But in Romans 9, Paul says that God raised up Pharaoh to glorify Himself. And in this movie there isn’t much glorifying of God. Moses makes many appeals in seeking to save his people: the cruelty of Rameses’ father Sethi in killing the Hebrew babies, the ties of friendship with Rameses, the burdens of his enslaved people. But he says little or nothing about God’s promise to Abraham or God’s honor in the situation.
The story ends with the crossing of the sea, though the final scene is of Moses in the mountain with the tables of the law. No reference to the golden calf worship which he meets on his descent, or of the tabernacle-temple-priesthood, the wilderness wanderings, or the death of M.
The movie is somewhat non-committal on the politically correct thesis that the Egyptians were black. They have heavy tans, and they could be described as African, but that is somewhat less than obvious. Songs are pretty good.
Roemello Skuggs …….. Wesley Snipes
Raynathan Skuggs ……. Michael Wright
Melissa ……………. Theresa Randle
A.R. Skuggs ………… Clarence Williams III
Gus Molino …………. Abe Vigoda
Lolly Jonas ………… Ernie Hudson
20th Century-Fox presents a film directed by Leon Ichaso. Produced by Rudy Langlais and Gregory Brown. Written by Barry Michael Cooper. Photography by Bojan Bazelli. Edited by Gary Karr. Music by Terence Blanchard. Running time: 123 minutes. Classified: R (for intense drug related- violence, graphic heroin use and strong language).
In the last few years there have been some wonderful movies by black directors and actors. They tend, understandably, to deal with gangs, drugs and dysfunctional families. This one is the best one I know of, from the standpoint of acting and direction. The play itself is close to Greek tragedy in its depth and impact.
There are echoes of the “Godfather Saga” through here: a baptism scene, an strong younger brother and a weak older one (Michael Wright’s Raynathan combines traits of hot-headed Sonny and weak Fredo Corleone, but is a richer character than either), intergenerational grudges, an intelligent woman character who loves a gangster but not the gang life, lots of violence (pre-emptive strikes, vengeance, and what looks at first like sheer hotheadedness but turns into something more) and foul language. Yet this is a more powerful drama than “The Godfather,” to my mind. It has a bit less pizazz; the violence is not so explosive and neatly choreographed. Coppola in “Godfather” was dealing with professional villains who carried out their craft with a ruthless efficiency. Here the violence is less efficient, less a matter of “business.” The violent acts in this movie are pre-eminently personal.
The film is not perfect. For one thing, amid all the mayhem, the police are nowhere to be found. The characters live in a world wholly to themselves. Perhaps that is how they perceive it, but for me it removes some credibility from the story. For another thing, there is the ending, which I shall discuss presently. But on the whole, the film is extremely powerful drama. One really comes to care for the chief characters, even, in time, the hot-headed brother, the Mafia boss, and the invalid father. Minor characters like Roemello’s childhood friends and associates, take on real color and warmth.
Roemello and Raynathan are sons of a drug dealer who was paralyzed when his Mafia bosses turned on him and fired many bullets into his body. Their mother died of a drug overdose, powerfully portrayed at the beginning of the film, with the boys watching in horror. As a teenager, Roemello, the younger brother, played by Wesley Snipes, kills the Mafia thug who fired the bullets into his father. Gus, the Mafia chief, rather than avenging the death of his henchman, hires Roemello to work drugs in Harlem, pretending that he does not know what Roemello did. We gather that he admires the young man and has a certain guilt over the attack upon the father. Roemello climbs the mob ladder until he has his own drug franchise, under Gus’s organization, and is living prosperously, with his older brother as his chief assistant.
But Roemello (like Michael Corleone) desperately wants out. He is filled with guilt and anguish. He is in the same business that destroyed his mother and wrecked his father’s life. Eventually he meets Melissa, a beautiful, gracious and intelligent woman; he wants to marry her and leave the whole area. But Raynathan, Ray, wants him to stay; Ray, who despises his father, has no one to love him except his older brother. Gus’s mob decide to hire another black man to take some of the Harlem business, creating suspicions fulfilled in violence.
Things develop in a remarkable way to set the two brothers against one another at the end. The film could have ended after the tragic attack of Ray upon Roemello, after which Ray kills himself. Magically, it seems, Roemello recovers from his injuries and moves to North Carolina to raise children with Melissa.
Some critics consider the final happy familial scene a cop-out. Well, there are plenty of these films that end tragically, and we expect that. In general, films of this genre teach the lesson that tragedy is inevitable in the drug-gang culture, that it binds generation after generation to wickedness and terror. This one, in a rather awkward way, to be sure, seems to be saying that that is not necessarily so. It is possible to ”just say no.”
Now this is certainly rather artificial. After all, Roemello is a rich man; he can afford to move to an idyllic location with his wife and start a family. Others are not so fortunate. Yet at least there is a nod here to the fact that there is more to life than environmental determinism. From a Christian point of view, there certainly are for everyone turns in the trail of life when we can “just say no.” That we don’t is our own fault, and therefore subject to God’s judgment. We can’t blame our circumstances, even when they are as terrible as they are here. This is far from being a Christian film, but that it at least presents the possibility of such an alternative has to be a plus. I prefer to look at the film as a tragedy with a postscript in heaven. I mean “heaven” symbolically, of course. Roemello never confesses Christ in the film. But it seems that he undergoes a profound change in his life that to be is credible only on the assumption of regeneration.
Still, the most powerful elements of the film occur not at the ending, but in the body of the film, in the interplay of the characters. The understandings, misunderstandings, revelations, are remarkably complex and ring true again and again. There is much wisdom here about human nature.
The Age of Innocence
Newland Archer ………. Daniel Day-Lewis
Ellen Olenska ……….. Michelle Pfeiffer
May Welland …………. Winona Ryder
Mrs. Welland ………… Geraldine Chaplin
Regina Beaufort ……… Mary Beth Hurt
Mrs. Mingott ………… Miriam Margolyes
Larry Lefferts ………. Richard E. Grant
Sillerton Jackson ……. Alec McCowen
Columbia presents a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Produced by Barbara De Fina. Written by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese. Based upon the novel by Edith Wharton. Photographed by Michael Ballhaus. Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker. Music by Elmer Bernstein. Running time: 132 minutes. Classified: PG.
The critics are raving about this film, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, based on a novel of Edith Wharton. Production values are wonderful; you really get a good taste of the opulent society in 1870s New York. Its furnishings, foods, dances, parties are presented with authenticity and relish.
The movie is a substantial change-of-pace for Scorsese, who is known for blood-and-guts realism on the mean streets. This movie is about genteel society, where nobody would dream of acting violently, and where quiet, polite talk is the only weapon. The critical consensus, however, is that this is a film about terrible, intense psychological violence, in which the genteel society viciously destroys people. One critic labeled it as Scorsese’s most violent film.
Well, it certainly depends on your presuppositions. What actually happens is that a man (Daniel Day-Lewis) engaged to a sweet young representative of social conformity (Wynona Ryder) is attracted to another woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) who for unjust reasons is despised by the arbiters of convention. Naturally, the Pfeiffer character is presented as a much more interesting and nicer person than the Ryder character. But when the time comes for the illicit lovers to consummate their adulterous relationship, the wife’s family and friends, while outwardly admitting no knowledge of the affair, scheme in various ways to prevent the adultery from happening. In time, both the Pfeiffer and the Day-Lewis characters go along with their families, even reconciling themselves to the situation.
What are we to think about this? According to the consensus of critics, this picture is psychologically violent, because in it the horrid, hypocritical society destroys the prospect of true love for this would-be adulterous couple. With my Christian presuppositions, I look at it very differently. Here is a society where, despite its faults, moral standards are observed, and the families close ranks to keep their members from moral temptation and from the destruction of their families. This they do without any shouting or violence, with only the quietest looks of accusation. I am nouthetic enough to believe that more direct confrontation of a sinner is desirable. But this 1870s New York society is so much better than my own, I almost wish I could raise my children within it.
Interestingly enough, in the last scene, the Day-Lewis character, maybe twenty-five years after the major events, his wife now dead, renounces the possibility of renewing his relationship the Pfeiffer character. Does Scorsese want me to think this is the renunciation of a broken man, pushed into society’s mold? Or does it show moral growth on his part? Probably Scorsese intended the former; but his honesty as a director will not leave that conclusion unambiguous. The logic of the events themselves (in the light of Scripture) push me to a different conclusion.
So the effect of the movie on me was, I suspect, very different from what Scorsese intended. I note that in the 1970s, the TV show “All in the Family” spoofed conservatism through the mouth of the supposed Neanderthal Archie Bunker. But although Bunker’s speeches made conservatism look ridiculous, I think that in the final analysis (and contrary to producer-director Norman Lear’s intent), Bunker was a more sympathetic character than the liberal potheads who made life miserable for him. Somewhat heretically, I believe that “All in the Family” contributed to Ronald Reagan’s election. Now: is it possible that “The Age of Innocence” will contribute something toward a rekindling of ”family values” in this country? Don’t dismiss the idea until you have given it some thought.
It sometimes happens that movies show truth in spite of themselves. Scorsese has created a world, has made it logical and compellingly real. But sometimes such a world becomes so real, takes on so much of a life of its own, that it escapes the attempts of its creators to press it into a preconceived interpretation. Further, reality is always God’s reality, and logic is God’s logic; so a film like this which conveys a good amount of reality and logic, will for that reason also reflect God’s truth. In this film, I think, despite the best efforts of its humanist authors, a surprising strain of scriptural values comes through.
This film, featuring Robert Duvall as writer and star, deals with a pastor-evangelist. It captures much of the authentic flavor of “holiness” Christianity in the heart of the Bible belt, Texas and Louisiana.
The film touches a lot of “hot buttons” for Reformed Christian viewers. Clearly Duvall’s preacher is not a Calvinist. And we are rightly appalled at the film’s light view of sin, continuing revelation, self-ordained church leaders, churches without church discipline, superficial preaching, and so on. Some may even object to the bouncy gospel music, but I thought that was wonderful.
But I think we should be grateful for small blessings. Hollywood rarely treats Protestant Christianity with any respect at all. Bible-belt preachers in films are almost inevitably charlatans and hypocrites. Only occasionally will there be a positive picture of Christian faith, so occasionally that one can almost count the recent films of this kind on one hand: Tender Mercies (also starring Duvall), Chariots of Fire, The Trip to Bountiful, Shadowlands (sort of).
Sonny, the preacher played by Robert Duvall is, for all his other sins, not a charlatan. He really believes in God. Toward the beginning, he stops at a car accident and walks out in the field to find the injured (maybe dying) driver. He rouses the driver slightly and tells him of Jesus. This early moment establishes Sonny’s main motivation. His witness to the dying man brings him no earthly profit, fame, or pleasure. He really believes that the man needs Jesus.
Nevertheless, Sonny is a sinful man. He is an adulterer, and early in the film he discovers that his wife is also adulterous, cheating on him with the youth pastor. Then he discovers that she and the youth minister have pulled some legal strings to take over the church and force him, Sonny, out. (I can’t imagine any church polity that would allow this, but the film justifies our suspension of disbelief.) He confronts her, then confronts God. He admits he is angry with God, but also that he loves Him. He begs for guidance. His first instinct is to go to the church service, now being run by the adulterous couple, join in the worship, embrace them, and go on his way, returning good for evil. But later on, when he visits his son’s Little League game, the youth minister gets into Sonny’s space, and Sonny first abuses him verbally, then hits him with a baseball bat. Eventually the youth minister dies of the injury.
Rather than face the music, Sonny takes off. As he travels, he talks to God, and he becomes convinced that God wants him to baptize himself (literally) as an “apostle.” His new identity: “The Apostle E. F.” The film tantalizes us about the meaning of these initials, but if the meaning was ever given I missed it.
In a typical Hollywood film, the plot would at this point focus on police investigation, concluding in a car chase. But in this film, the focus turns to church planting! Sonny makes contact in a Louisiana town with a retired black minister, and together they fix up an old church building and gather a congregation. The methods and dynamics of it are fascinating and feel entirely authentic. Sonny preaches over the radio, gathers shopping bags full of food and deposits them as a “surprise” at the homes of poor families. He fixes up a bus and drives it around to pick up people on Sunday morning.
One character, played by Billy Bob Thornton, is described in the cast listing only as “troublemaker.” He appears at the service and makes racist comments and threats. Sonny takes him out back and punches him out. But when Troublemaker returns, to bulldoze the church building during a congregational picnic, Sonny puts his Bible in front of the bulldozer and challenges Troublemaker to drive over it. Well, this is the Bible belt, after all. Troublemaker can hate blacks, but he can’t drive over the Bible. Eventually, Sonny and Troublemaker are on their knees, praying for him to receive Christ as his savior. A remarkable scene. I’ve never seen a serious conversion to Christianity in a commercial Hollywood film. And the scene is played straight, without mockery.
The end of the film is almost a complete church service, with another significant conversion. A friend of Sonny has found out about his legal problems. He overhears Sonny saying that he might be taken in by the law; but he wants his valuables sold for the benefit of the church. One has the impression that the conversion is partly based, humanly speaking, on the friend’s perception of Sonny’s selfless integrity.
So Sonny is a remarkable figure indeed. He is deeply flawed, but in one sense he is always God’s man and, yes, selfless. We ask, of course, how could God use someone like this? But then we recall that King David was also an adulterer and, in effect, a murderer; and Saul of Tarsus was responsible for the deaths of Christians. Luther was an anti-Semite; Calvin condoned the killing of Servetus. In real life, there is the worst in the best of us; that is the Bible’s realistic teaching about man’s condition.
But I found more in the film than Sonny. It really does seem as though the chief character here is God. God works, through the foolishness and sin of man, to build his church. The three conversions in the film (the dying driver, the Troublemaker, Sonny’s friend) seemed entirely credible to me, granted the context of Bible-belt culture. And the film clearly sees the building of the church as a great benefit to the community.
Considering Hollywood’s track record with Christianity, it is astounding to find a film like this that is so positive about the gospel. The films I mentioned earlier (listed on one hand) present in a positive way the benefits of Christian faith to individuals. This film actually states the gospel clearly and puts it in the context of a real church community. Old movies about churches (like the 1940s Bing Crosby films, “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s”) tended to present church life at its best as a kind of secular fun-time for everybody, despite bad guys trying to get them to tear down the building. But “The Apostle” presents the church as it should be—as a community of believers centered around the gospel of Jesus. Certainly, then, “The Apostle” marks a long step forward in Hollywood’s understanding of Christianity.
The Joy Luck Club
Suyuan ……. Kieu Chinh
Lindo …….. Tsai Chin
Ying Ying …. France Nuyen
An Mei ……. Lisa Lu
June ……… Ming-Na Wen
Waverly …… Tamlyn Tomita
Lena ……… Lauren Tom
Rose ……… Rosalind Chao
Hollywood Pictures presents a film directed by Wayne Wang. Produced by Wang, Amy Tan, Ronald Bass and Patrick Markey. Written by Tan and Bass. Based on the novel by Tan. Photographed by Amir Mokri. Edited by Maysie Hoy. Music by Rachel Portman. Running time: 135 minutes. Classified: R (for strong depiction of thematic material).
In this long film, Amy Tan’s novel is skillfully realized. The acting, direction and photography are fine, and we get a good introduction to Chinese and Chinese-American culture, going back sixty years or so. The story concerns four Chinese women who ultimately emigrate to America, and their American daughters (the men are demons and cartoon figures). The film also scrutinizes the mothers of the mothers. It is mainly a series of vignettes, by which we understand something of each woman’s background, her sacrifices, her shame, her relations with her daughter, her hopes for the future.
There are a lot of obligatory feminist, generation-gap, and communication-gap cliches, but behind all of that there is something more substantial as well. The story recognizes and illustrates the biblical principle that sins of fathers (and mothers) are visited upon later generations. Mothers who are ashamed from early abuse and humiliation seek to redeem themselves by maintaining hope for their daughters: hope which the daughters see as impossibly high expectations. Eventually, broken down lines of communication are repaired and the women come to love one another despite past bitterness.
But as the title (based on a continuing meeting of the four immigrant women for Mah Jong and group therapy) suggests, much of the joy that takes place is just luck, attributed to ancestors, omens, accidental revelations. Murder, suicide, profane language (often glaringly at odds with the super-polite diction usually employed by the ladies), and divorce are among the tools these women have used to maintain their self-respect. The film treats traditional Chinese religious practices as something of a joke: on a couple of occasions, the woman protagonists cynically use the superstitions of their oppressors to gain victories over them. Essentially, the women accomplish their goals through their own cleverness and through sheer luck.
But what hope is there for these women that the cycle won’t continue, that their daughters, and daughters’ daughters, won’t go through the same heartbreak? Hope is evidently, in the filmmakers’ minds, the main theme of the movie, as it is the major theme of some crucial speeches. But what basis for hope is there in a universe of chance? Although the movie conveys no sense of the reality of a personal God, it certainly presents the need for something more than luck as a basis for joy.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Character Voice by
Jack Skellington ……. Chris Sarandon
……. Danny Elfman (music)
Sally ……………… Catherine O’Hara
Mayor ……………… Glenn Shadix
Oogie Boogie ……….. Ken Page
Lock ………………. Paul Reubens
Shock ……………… Catherine O’Hara
Barrel …………….. Danny Elfman
Evil Scientist ……… William Hickey
Touchstone presents an animated film directed by Henry Selick. Produced by Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi. Written by Caroline Thompson; based on a story and characters by Tim Burton. Adaptation by Michael McDowell. Photographed by Pete Kozachik. Edited by Stan Webb. Music by Danny Elfman. Running time: 76 minutes. Classified: PG.
I have never been a great fan of Tim Burton, the producer of this film and the director of such previous films as “Edward Scissorhands,” “BeetleJuice,” and “Batman” I and II, though his vision has been hailed by many critics. Certainly he is technically able and creative; he always takes an unexpected approach to his material. But he seems to delight in weirdness for its own sake, and his universe seems most of the time to be dark, disgusting, unkempt, trashy. There is humor in his movies, but never enough to redeem all the dreariness.
This new film is a stop-action animation feature about two kingdoms: Halloween Land and Christmas Land. The hero is Jack Skellington (he’s a skeleton, get it?) the Pumpkin King, who is beloved by the inhabitants of Halloween Land because he always produces the most wonderfully scary Halloweens. Halloween Land is populated by witches, skeletons, vampires, a (literally!) two-faced mayor, Frankenstein monsters and other monstrosities of all descriptions. Sort of an extended Addams Family. Looks a bit like Burton’s Gotham City from “Batman.” On Halloween, Jack sends these creatures out to the real world to scare everybody out of their socks.
However, Jack is a sensitive soul at heart, and he feels that there must be more to life than scaring people. These feelings he expresses in songs written by Danny Elfman, who also supplies Jack’s singing voice. Eventually Jack wanders into the woods and finds a grove of trees with various holiday symbols on them: a turkey for Thanksgiving, an egg for Easter, and so on. He taps the one with a Christmas tree and eventually finds himself in Christmas Land, which is all bright colors, happy elves, toys, and of course old Santa himself. Naturally this is a Hollywood version of Christmas; not a hint of Christ or of any religious symbolism. The values here are not at all theistic, but those of the secular Christmas: indiscriminate peace and goodwill.
Jack is inspired to return to Halloween Land in order to mobilize his friends to put on a Christmas celebration. That will be something different; but these folks have done an excellent job at producing Halloween, why not Christmas too? To facilitate the plan, Jack arranges to have Santa kidnapped from Christmas Land, so that the Halloween crew can replace him in distributing toys. (The youthful kidnappers first abduct the Easter Bunny by mistake!) Jack intends this to be a friendly kidnapping, a kind of vacation for Santa; but Santa falls into the hands of a really bad guy, Oogie Boogie, who intends to torture and kill him.
Jack’s Christmas turns out to be a disaster, as his rag doll female admirer Sally (put together by the local Frankenstein) has prophesied. The Halloween folks, with perfectly good intentions, make toys for the kids which they think will be fun. These include shrunken heads, toy animals that attack the children and so on. Everyone is scared to death, so much so that the real world people shoot Jack and his reindeer sleigh out of the air. Eventually he recovers and returns to Halloween Land in disgrace. He rescues Santa, however, who has time to give the kids some real toys before dawn, and everybody is happy.
In a more traditional kids’ movie, the Halloween people would be moved by the Christmas spirit to embrace the values of love and goodwill to all. This one is more, well, “realistic.” The Halloween creatures decide to let Santa handle Christmas and to restrict their own holiday-making to Halloween, which, doubtless, will continue to be as ghoulish as possible. The lesson to Jack is to stick with what he is best at, to manage his own holiday and to leave Christmas to Santa and the elves.
The idea is fascinating, ridiculous, outrageous, funny. Perhaps that is enough to justify the making of the movie. But one suspects a more serious point behind all this. All Burton’s work seems to be saying that in the final analysis, dark is better. One should bet on the weird, the evil, the perverse. For all the best efforts of good people, the most interesting things are done by the wicked (e.g. BeetleJuice, the Joker). Even a nice fellow like Jack (or Batman, or Edward Scissorhands) must eventually capitulate. People who grow up in a sleazy environment have no choice, Burton seems to say, but to promote its values.
Perhaps, indeed, Europe would have been wise, on this basis, to retain its Halloween paganism rather than to embrace the values of the new religion that came from Palestine. Of course, if we find that sort of point in the movie, we must remember that what it presents as Christmas is very far removed from the actual gospel of Christianity.
Of course, the film does make legitimate points about how leopards cannot change their spots. It is certainly true that a Halloween person cannot by sheer force of will transform himself into a Christmas person. This illustrates the biblical picture of the antithesis between believers and unbelievers. Fallen man often puts on a veneer of Christianity without experiencing actual heart-regeneration. The effects of this sort of Christianity can indeed be horrible to contemplate, and the attempt of Jack’s friends to combine Halloween and Christmas is a good parable of that horror. Of course, we should not assume that such parabolic meaning was in the minds of these filmmakers; their ignorance of the actual meaning of Christmas rules out any such homiletic intent. But they know, as we must, that combining two fundamentally opposed world-and-life views leads to disaster.
I’m amused to think that for Halloween people to produce a Christmas celebration is a little bit like a Hollywood movie team trying to produce a film about Christmas. The results in both cases are not terribly different.
Christianity is fundamentally opposed to both of the world-and-life views presented in this film. A Christian will find the values of Halloween and Christmas Lands equally unpalatable: romantic peace and love, versus moral anarchy. If these are opposed, as the film suggests, they are together even more opposed to biblical Christianity.
Burton prefers the Halloween ideology, the standpoint of moral anarchy. But he is relativistic enough to say in effect that Christmas (as he understands it) is fine for those who are so inclined. Neither his preference nor his relativism are particularly edifying. Like so many Hollywood films, this one celebrates and supports the very ideas (and lack of same) which are most ruinous to our society. But we may be thankful that this film clarifies for believer and unbeliever alike the necessity of making a choice. And it shows us that it is more difficult than most people imagine to escape from the presuppositions of our world-view once we have determined to live under its authority. In other words, despite the filmmakers’ intentions, the movie has something to say about the necessity of divine grace.
Henry Hackett ….. Michael Keaton
Bernie White …… Robert Duvall
Alicia Clark …… Glenn Close
Martha Hackett …. Marisa Tomei
McDougal ………. Randy Quaid
Graham Keighley … Jason Robards
Marion Sandusky … Jason Alexander
Paul Bladden …… Spalding Gray
Universal presents a film directed by Ron Howard. Produced by Brian Grazer and Frederick Zollo. Written by David Koepp and Stephen Koepp. Photographed by John Seale. Edited by Daniel Hanley and Michael Hill. Music by Randy Newman. Running time: 112 minutes. Classified: R (for strong language).
“The Paper” is not quite as fast paced as the preview suggested, nor as fast and funny as “The Front Page,” the classic newspaper drama of the 1930s. Yet it is well-performed, written and directed, and it gives us a good sense of the hectic rush of newspaper life. Journalist reviewers have given it high marks for realism. It builds up very logically the problems of editors and reporters who have seven or eight things to do at once, and who have to do them an hour ago.
That deadline lies behind the moral issue central to the plot: if a newspaper intends to run a story, but has reasons to think that story is wrong, are they obligated to change it, even when they are past deadline?
Two visiting WASP businessmen are murdered in a black neighborhood of New York. Racial epithets are painted on the car. The police arrest two black youths, creating fears of race riots. The New York Sun, scooped on the story by other papers, has reason to suspect that the arrest was illegitimate. But their publication deadline comes and goes, and they still do not have sufficient confirmation of their own theory, which is that the businessmen were killed by mob hit men, who made it look like a racial incident.
Henry Hackett, an assistant editor of the paper, played by Michael Keaton, is trying to do the right thing. He has never knowingly printed a false story. But the editorial board has decided to slant the arrest of the youths with the caption ”Gotcha!” under a giant front-page picture of them, in the best tabloid tradition of sensationalism. But what if the boys didn’t do it? “No problem,” says Alicia Clark (Glenn Close), the “bean counter” in charge of trimming costs and personnel, who has saved the paper’s existence through various financial crises. “We taint them today, make them look good tomorrow.” But that’s not enough for Hackett. He wants to get out the truth tonight.
Of course, Hackett has other things on his mind. His wife Martha (Marisa Tomei) is ready to deliver a child, he has an opportunity to take a new job at the prestigious New York Sentinel (read Times), he has a dinner engagement with his wife and parents that night supposedly to celebrate that new opportunity. Martha, formerly a reporter, longs to get back into the action, and she fears that motherhood will be the end of her career. One of the paper’s columnists, McDougal (Randy Quaid), is sleeping in Henry’s office with a gun in his belt, because Marion Sandusky, a city official and subject of his critical columns, is ”plotting” against him. Alicia is angling for more money for herself, while resisting on economic grounds (and up to a point) Henry’s attempts to maintain the paper’s integrity. Editor Bernie White (Robert Duvall) has an enlarged prostate, two ex-wives, and a daughter who won’t talk to him. In other words, we have here enough plot for at least five films, and the criss-crossings of the story lines make great theater. At the climax, Henry physically battles Alicia to “stop the presses;” Martha gives birth among serious complications; Sandusky and McDougal wrestle for a gun, which goes off and shoots another character.
There is no reference to God in the film, but that is only realistic, granted the present state of the journalistic profession. Still, as usual, there are matters here demanding theological analysis and evaluation. Chief of these is the moral dilemma posed by the paper’s account of the killing: what if the boys are innocent?
In the world of this paper, points of view about the incident are expressed in terms of possible headlines. Do they run “Gotcha!”, meaning that the cops succeeded in apprehending the real perpetrators? Or do they run “They Didn’t Do It!” as Hackett hopes to do? Or do they relegate the story to page two and lead with a “minor derailment” of the subway? Alicia wants to run “Gotcha!” tonight and tomorrow to revise it, if necessary, to ”They Didn’t Do It!” Henry is desperate to get enough confirmation to run “They Didn’t Do It!” tonight.
The movie applauds Henry’s heroic measures in trying to get the story right the first time. At the end, even Alicia is on his side. I guess I applauded too. But what if getting the information required eight hours past the deadline, rather than three? I’m inclined to think that there is a point– some deadline after the deadline– at which you have to run what you’ve got. After all, Hackett didn’t know that the men were innocent until fairly late at night. Why couldn’t he have run what he had, and then amplified or corrected it the next day? You can only run what you know to be true, right?
The reason why, according to the film, it was urgent to correct the story today was the nature of the agreed-upon headline, namely, “Gotcha!” That headline presumed the guilt of the youths. I’m a bit surprised that such a headline would even be considered, since journalists today are terribly scrupulous to say “alleged” this and that, even in cases of obvious guilt, to protect the legal presumption of innocence. I am not altogether sympathetic with that scrupulosity: why can’t journalists express their opinions on matters of guilt as they do on every other significant issue? But surely it is inconsistent to maintain those scruples and then to formulate a headline like “Gotcha!”
The obvious solution, then, to that moral dilemma, would have been to drop that headline, to use a less prejudicial expression concerning the arrest. They could then have run the original story, then later suggested the boys’ innocence, if necessary, when additional facts were available.
Why was that solution never considered? Well, it would have made a duller movie, certainly! But within the structure of the film itself, the main reason evidently is that the Sun is a certain kind of paper. It is a sensationalistic tabloid. And of course the grabber headline, followed by an inevitable exclamation point, is the very trademark of the paper, an absolute essential. A neutral, non-prejudicial (and therefore bland) treatment of a story is simply an impossibility.
So the real moral issue here is whether this kind of tabloid journalism is itself a legitimate enterprise. That question, of course, never arises in the film. It is simply assumed that this paper is a wonderful institution and that its employees are heroically striving to communicate the truth to the public. How easily we deceive ourselves! The well-accepted conventions of journalism are among the main problems afflicting contemporary society, and we need dramas and documentaries that face up to that fact. In that regard, The Paper takes the easy way out. It’s fine entertainment, but as a study in heroism it lacks credibility.
Ada …………. Holly Hunter
Baines ………. Harvey Keitel
Stewart ……… Sam Neill
Flora ……….. Anna Paquin
Aunt Morag …… Kerry Walker
Nessie ………. Genevieve Lemon
Hira ………… Tungia Baker
Miramax presents a film written and directed by Jane Campion. Produced by Jan Chapman. Photographed by Stuart Dryburgh. Edited by Veronika Jenet. Music by Michael Nyman. Running time: 121 minutes. Classified: R (for moments of extremely graphic sexuality).
Even if this picture does not win the Academy Award for Best Picture, it has already won enough honors to make a plausible claim to “Most Honored Film of 1993.” Speaking as a Christian, this fact is a little hard for me to understand. Although the production values and performances are fine in this film, they are no better than any number of other recent films. The setting is a rather unpleasant group of primitive homes in a sea of mud somewhere in New Zealand. New Zealand is a very beautiful country, but one sees little of its beauty in this film, except of course for one beach, which is usually presented as an omen rather than as something glorious. If the main setting is muddy, the moral atmosphere is even muddier. Altogether, this is not a setting to which I have any eagerness to return. As for the plot, it is essentially the story of a woman trapped, to some extent willingly, in a moral mire, from which she makes a kind of escape at the end.
The woman Ada, played by Holly Hunter, has been mute since the age of six. I assume from the costumes that the action takes place sometime in the late nineteenth century. She has borne a child out of wedlock, and evidently is now good for nothing else than to leave England, becoming a mail-order bride for Stewart, a pioneer landowner in New Zealand. She arrives there with her child and her belongings, especially the piano of the title. At first it is left on the beach, to her great distress, because there aren’t enough strong backs to carry it to Stewart’s house. Then George Baines, a neighbor of Stewart, who sees Ada’s great love for the instrument, offers Stewart a trade for the piano. Baines brings it to his house and invites Ada to come over and give him lessons. He is, however, more interested in Ada than in the music. She plays, he listens and watches. Eventually, George and Ada strike a bargain. She can buy back the piano by permitting George certain sexual favors: one black key for an upraised skirt, five to give George a look at her undraped arms, ten to lie for a while naked in bed with him.
Before they reach the logical consequence, George realizes that he is turning Ada into a whore. Repentant, but honestly in love with her, he gives her the piano outright and tells her not to return. She still loves him, however, and she does return to consummate their relationship. However, Stewart finds out, and, in his anger, he swings his axe and chops off part of one of her fingers. Upon more cool reflection, however, he invites Ada and the daughter to leave with George.
Naturally, the piano must also go with them, although the native canoers say it is too heavy. “It is a coffin,” they say. When they are some distance from shore, Ada announces that she no longer wants the piano; they should throw it overboard. When they do, they discover that she has tied her leg to it. She goes down with it. But somewhere in the depths, she decides she wants to live after all. She frees herself by removing the shoe that is tied to the piano and returns to the surface. At the end of the film, she resumes her life in a much more pleasant neighborhood, with her daughter and George. He fashions a prosthesis for her finger, and she again takes up piano playing. And she learns how to talk.
I’m reasonably sure that the filmmakers view these events from a feminist perspective. Here is a woman trapped by the double standards and general sexual oppression of her age, who nevertheless takes her life into her own hands. It is she who autonomously decides at age six not to talk any more. (Most talk comes from stupid people, she tells her daughter in sign language. Or are we to assume that Ada was abused as a child?) It is she who bore an illegitimate child, she who determined to go to New Zealand, she who determined to get her piano back by whatever means, she who decided whom she would love (despite the mail-order arrangement), she who decided to die, and then to live again.
Her piano playing (which Holly Hunter does by herself quite skillfully) has an improvised feel to it (I assume it is actually written by Michael Nyman), though at one point she lapses into a Chopin Prelude to fend off unwanted attentions. Most of her music sounds more like a 1990s movie score than like the work of any nineteenth century composer. I believe this fact reiterates the emphasis on autonomy. The music, too, is Ada’s own. In the music, she, otherwise mute, expresses herself, particularly her passions. (When the piano is moved from Baines’s to Stewart’s house, Ada resists playing it, I gather because for her at this point any playing would express her sexuality, and she has no feeling for Stewart.) There is no God in this movie; Ada is Lord of all.
The film also prefers autonomy in the other characters. The native Maori people, who perform menial jobs in the area, are rather contemptuous of the whites; they lack “good manners,” we are told by the older ladies of Stewart’s household. George Baines, though white, for some reason bears Maori markings on his face. Evidently, like the Maori, he does not accept all the strictures of Stewart’s society. Ada (and the film) chooses him over the strait-laced, respectable, hard-working Stewart. Ada herself, by refusing to speak, rejects the good mannered society and communicates by means of her own choosing.
I have little sympathy for the film’s message of autonomy and its commendations of bad manners. At the same time, this film, like others which urge the modern secularist worldview, involuntarily records certain truths of God’s revelation. Where has Ada’s autonomy gotten her, after all? She must endure all the indignity of an unwed mother, cart her child off to a strange and primitive land totally unsuited to her musical interests, become the plaything of two men, lose her finger and her desire to live. I must say that the loose shoe in the ocean strikes me as a deus ex machina (or perhaps deus ex cinema?). I wanted her to live as much as did anybody in the audience, but at this point it seemed to me that the film did a bit of cheating. Having shown truly the wages of sin, it produced a less-than-convincing resurrection.
Or should I think of the loose shoe as God’s grace, and her rising a newness of spiritual life? I’d like to believe that. I doubt that the filmmakers had that idea in their heads but, again, perhaps they saw something more profound than can be accounted for in terms of their own autonomous feminism. Certainly the piano, Ada’s means of communicating lust, did turn out to be a coffin for her, and it quite rightly ended up at the bottom of the sea. May I see her freedom from that piano as a liberation from sin?
And what of her new efforts to learn speech at the end of the film? That says to me that she has transcended her anger, her hatred, and, to some extent, her autonomous rebellion. In Scripture, part of redemption is that God “opens our lips” (Psm. 51:15) and purifies them (Zeph. 3:9). Perhaps the filmmakers want us to believe that Ada can achieve this redemption apart from the biblical God. As self-salvation, their portrayal of this process is not very credible. Understood as a divine act, however, her new life makes more sense. At any rate, the filmmakers rightly see something of the change that must take place if Ada is to be truly free.
There are graphic sexual scenes in this film (unnecessarily graphic, in my opinion) which may pose a spiritual danger to some Christians. Even more seductive, if we believe the majority of the reviewers, is the film’s message of autonomous redemption. But if the film had acknowledged Christ, it would have presented both a more credible redemption and a better drama, a real Deus rather than a deus ex machina.
The Remains of the Day
Stevens …………. Anthony Hopkins
Miss Kenton ……… Emma Thompson
Lord Darlington ….. James Fox
Mr. Lewis ……….. Christopher Reeve
Stevens’ Father ….. Peter Vaughan
Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by James Ivory. Produced by Mike Nichols, John Calley and Ismail Merchant. Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Photographed by Tony Pierce-Roberts. Edited by Andrew Marcus. Music by Richard Robbins. Running time: 134 minutes. Classified: PG.
Theologically, this film might be understood as a critique of servanthood. Anthony Hopkins plays Stevens, butler to Lord Darlington, whose ultimate goal is to do all he can to render service to his employer. Everything else in life escapes him. It is 1936, and Stevens is oblivious to the fact that his employer, Lord Darlington, is a German sympathizer. It is not his place, Stevens thinks, to hold opinions on political matters, or even to oppose racial oppression. Stevens is too busy serving his Lord even to attend to his dying father. And he stiffly avoids responding to the attentions of the attractive housekeeper, Miss Kenton, played by Emma Thompson. Years later, after she has made an unhappy marriage, he visits her, hoping to renew their professional relationship and (evidently) also the former possibilities of romance. But he cannot change his shy, uncommunicative, all-business demeanor, and communication again fails.
The film seems to be telling us that Stevens should not have been so preoccupied with service to his employer; he should also have served himself. As it turned out, he lost everything worth having in life.
The film also places Stevens over against the background of Europe in the ’30s, where many Germans, like him, sacrificed their minds and hearts to an impressive, but ultimately wicked, regime. The film seems to want to tell us that the mentality of those Germans, blind as they were to Hitler’s atrocities, was not absent from other countries: even such a quaint and lovable figure as the English butler may have harbored an culpable ignorance and indifference that gave aid and comfort to Naziism. Thus the film thinks that Stevens not only destroys himself, but he is a menace to society as well.
I have some sympathy for the film’s point of view. There is a fanatical kind of service that considers any sort of enjoyment to be a vice. That kind of service is not the service described in Scripture, service of the God who “gives us all things richly to enjoy” (I Tim. 6:17). Such fanatical service is indeed destructive, both personally and socially.
I must say, however, that I found the character of Stevens hard to believe, though the performance of Hopkins (like that of Thompson) is wonderfully nuanced and effective. Was this kind of tunnel-vision actually typical of English butlers in the 1930s? I have no first-hand knowledge of the institution of the ”great English household,” so I can’t say for sure. (“Upstairs, Downstairs,” the television series of some years ago, presented a much more sympathetic picture of a household butler.) But I think if I were a butler I would be somewhat scandalized, in this day when films are supposed to be avoiding stereotypes. The whole thing strikes me, frankly, as caricature. No doubt, of course, there was at least one butler in 1930s England who was as divorced from reality as Stevens. But the film seems to regard him as more than an individual weird case: he is somehow a type, a representative of an institution, even of the working class as a whole, so that he bears the author’s indictment of national apathy on social issues.
These filmmakers seem to be telling us by this caricature that really devoted service is foolish and socially destructive. They seem to think that we need to be more self-centered, more concerned with our own enjoyment of life, more preoccupied by politics and social issues. In reply, it seems to me that (1) we need something more than a caricature to make that argument stick. (2) What we need in our own society (1993) is actually more devoted service, less self-seeking, and less political activism, however important the last two categories are in their proper place. It is precisely the “me-centered” ideal which has destroyed much that is valuable in our world.
As the Servant of the Lord (Isa. 53), Jesus is a far cry from Stevens the butler. He stood for justice and for the abundant life. He enjoyed fellowship with his Father, the God of heaven and earth, a God who is quite absent from the present film. And he was no Kantian ethicist, opposing duty to pleasure. On the contrary, he promised the richest rewards to those who follow Him. But he did not consider service to be beneath him, even service to his disciples. He washed his disciples’ feet (as Stevens brought hot water to soak the feet of a French visitor), and he promises to wait at our table at the eschatological marriage feast (Luke 12:37). He is the good butler, as He is the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep.
And he calls us to serve Him, a service which brings perfect freedom. We are slaves, but also kings and priests. And friends of Jesus. Christianity, especially Reformed Christianity, has always emphasized such service to Christ and to other people: family, church, state, employer. Hence the economic prosperity of those nations most leavened by the Reformed gospel. There is nothing foolish about such service, and its social consequences have been universally beneficial, not destructive. The Stevens-stereotype represents a secularized version of that Christian ethic of service, as 1930s English society in general survived on the “remains” of a rejected Christianity. The secularization of that ethic makes it look stupid, as in this film (so stupid as to compromise, for me, the film’s dramatic impact). But it would be unfortunate if such stereotypes led people even further from the Christian doctrine of service, and into more of the modern me-centered thinking which leads to death.
The Wedding Banquet
Wai Tung …… Winston Chao
Wei Wei ……. May Chin
Simon ……… Mitchell Lichtenstein
Mr. Gao ……. Sihung Lung
Mrs. Gao …… Ah-Leh Gua
Goldwyn presents a film directed by Ang Lee. Produced by Lee, Ted Hope and James Schamus. Written by Lee, Neil Peng and Schamus. Photographed by Jong Lin. Edited by Tim Squyres. Music by Mader. Running time: 112 minutes. No MPAA rating.
This is a “gay” movie, rated R, including some male-to-male kissing (without explicit sex) and one scene of under-the-covers heterosexual intercourse. You will have to decide whether you can watch this sort of movie despite its spiritual climate. However, if you want to understand modern culture through film (or any other medium) you need to have some concept of its prevailing attitude toward homosexuality.
The leading character is a Chinese-American gay man, Wai, living with Simon, his white lover, in New York. His parents, having fled the mainland to Taiwan with General Chiang, inundate Wang with marriage prospects, not knowing that he is gay. Wang’s father, now in poor health, wants a grandchild more than anything else, and only a suitable marriage for Wang can bring that about. Wang naturally resists. When his mother sends him an application to a “singles club” for a marriage prospect, he dutifully fills out the form, making demands he considers impossible of fulfillment: for example, the prospect must have two doctorates. The club comes up with a prospect: a professional opera singer with, alas, only one doctorate. Wang meets with her, but their dinner together becomes disaster when they meet people who know of his other relationships.
But there is Wei Wei, a woman artist who lives in a building owned by Wai. She knows he is gay but hopes, somehow, that he will reciprocate her affection. He is kind to her, accepting her art work as payment of rent, though he does not understand it. He tries, within economic limits, to make her living situation fairly tolerable. But she has lost her job, has no green card, and fears she will be sent back to the China mainland.
Wai bites the bullet. By marrying Wei Wei, he can clear up her immigration problem and get his parents off his back. So he invites his parents to New York for the wedding. The wedding itself is perfunctory, before a justice of the peace, and the parents are quite humiliated by the lack of ceremony. Their spirits are lifted when an old friend of the family, now a successful restauranteur, offers to stage an elaborate wedding banquet for the supposed happy couple.
The banquet is indeed lavish and boisterous. There is much drinking, and it goes into the night. To Wai’s distress, the couple must spend the night together in the hotel, though Wai longs for Simon. After Wai and Wei-Wei go up to their room, their friends “invade” the honeymoon suite and carouse for some additional time. They promise to leave after one more performance: the couple must get under the bedcovers together and remove their clothes item by item until the onlookers are assured that they are both completely naked. That is done, and the guests do leave.
Wei Wei then gropes Wai (who is somewhat drunk, but still conscious) under the covers. Feeling his physical response, she remarks, “I thought you told me you could not be aroused by women?” He has no answer. What happens next would be considered ”marital rape” if the sexes were reversed, but the film presents it as a tender bit of exploration and affection. And the long-awaited grandchild is conceived.
The rest of the film deals with the revelation to the parents of Wai’s homosexuality, the question of whether Wei Wei will abort the baby, and various ups and downs between Wang and Simon. In the end, Wei Wei agrees to have the baby and turn it over to the gay lovers who will be its “two daddies.” Wai will then supply her with a rent-free apartment. The parents are resigned to the situation and accept Simon as a second son.
The film assumes the homosexual line that sexual orientation is given at birth and unavoidable, with no element of choice. But interestingly, it concedes that Wai was intimate with a number of girls during his high school years and that he was able to conceive a child by Wei Wei. Surely those relationships were “chosen” in a sense, and Wai’s later avoidance of such relationships was also a choice. Wai is not physically incapable of relationships with women; he just happens to prefer relationships with his own sex. In this area, the film admits a certain truth that is inconsistent with its ideology.
The same is true on another front. Wai’s relationship to Simon is quite romanticized as a monogamous, caring union. But once things get sticky, Simon goes off and has a good time with another fellow, and later he indicates that he may have to leave Wai if the situation doesn’t change. The essential promiscuity and the transitory nature of gay love intervenes on the official ideology. Thus there is in this film more truth than its party line would suggest. The fact is that gay relationships rarely take the form of “monogamous” unions. The rule is promiscuity and transitory living arrangements.
The ending suggests that everybody will live happily ever after. But what about Wei Wei, who must give up her child and the love of her heart? What of the child who must be raised in the gay culture? What of the gay lovers themselves, who may well betray one another again? As often, this film reveals some disquieting truths despite the apparent intentions of its producers.
I suppose I would have been a Yankee fan in the days of Babe Ruth. Although I sympathize with losers, I prefer to see winners, the more dominant the better. Perhaps that is connected with one of my childhood fantasies: to become so much more competent than everybody else that I could go through life joking about everything. I think others have had that fantasy too, for it has been a staple of movies, from Superman to James Bond.
Undercover Blues takes up the theme in a highly amusing way. Jeff and Jane Blue are CIA/FBI people (presumably married, though one can’t be sure these days) who show up in New Orleans with a baby and with the high spirits of a young couple who have the world as their oyster. It turns out they are chasing some villains to the chagrin of the local police, who look silly by comparison. That is the point of the movie: various people on both sides of the law, doubtless very competent, even awesome, among their peers, turn into stumblebums when up against the Blues. The prideful bungling of the Blues’ rivals reminds me of Inspector Clouseau: in this movie there are about 20 Clouseaus. The slapstick, the stumbling, the wonderful dialogue, and the fantasy of omnicompetence make this a wonderfully entertaining film, though one must mention the presence of a few (I mean a few) profane expressions and some sexual activity which is not consummated on screen.
Of course, there is no place for God in this movie; it is all thoroughly humanistic. But one can draw a theological lesson between fits of laughter. The fact is that willy-nilly the Blues illustrate God, as the all-competent one. The wicked may appear invincible in their time, but up against God they provoke only laughter (Psalm 2:7).
So consider your own trials. The wicked may persecute you to the grave, but in time the Lord will give them what for. Say in your heart, “with the Lord as my defender, what can man do to me?” And then laugh. Christians are sometimes too serious about life. I wouldn’t advocate the presumptiousness of the Blues; but God will have so much for us to laugh at in the last day, it would be a pity to take everything seriously now. Laughter is the result of a sense of true proportion, and that is one great gift the Gospel gives to us.
Such laughter is deeply scriptural. In Christian history, the Lord Jesus has sometimes been represented as a clown, the fool (in the world’s eyes) who makes foolish the wisdom of the world. Satan stepped into his own net, when he arranged for Jesus’ crucifixion. And God’s elect rose with him, surprised by joy. God responded gently to the laughter of Sarah, because he knew that although it was a laughter of unbelief there was something supremely appropriate about it, that Sarah could not have understood. Now Sarah’s laughter rings through the ages. May our laughter join with hers, and with God’s.
Clint Eastwood stars in “Unforgiven,” the most honored movie of 1992. What a film! Beautifully written, acted, directed. Kind of a realistic debunking of western stereotypes, which nevertheless provides all the standard excitement we expect from Westerns: the gunplay, the moral quandaries, the battle of good and evil.
Gene Hackman’s sheriff, “little Bill” Daggett, is an affable debunker of western gunmen and legends, a kind of secular humanist. Reminds me a lot of Bill Clinton. Rational, calculating, thoroughly secular. He loves polite civilization, but has no feeling for the mythic spirit of the west. He has no sense of the need of retribution, thinks that every wrong may be taken care of with a handout and a smile. Everybody, he thinks, should forgive and forget and just get along. Don’t worry about justice in any metaphysical sense. Just do what you’re told, and especially obey the gun control ordinance. But this pleasant situation ethicist turns out to be a worse sadist than any of the gunmen he dispatches. He supplements his gun control program by beating the daylights out of anyone he suspects might intend to make trouble.
He is building a house for himself, having, he thinks, pacified the town and brought civilization to the area. This pattern evokes a Biblical theme: the great King– God at creation, Moses, David, Christ– builds his house after he has subdued his wicked enemies. But Little Bill is not a very good Messiah-figure, either in subduing evil or in building his house. Visitors keep noticing that there are all kinds of leaks in the roof and other evidences of architectural incompetence, but Bill does not warm to criticism. Is this a subtle commentary, perhaps, on the bureaucratic institutions erected by our secular humanist government?
Eastwood, a very imperfect good guy in this movie, nevertheless draws cheers when he lays out little Bill. Eastwood’s almost-reformed gunslinger turns out to be something of a Puritan at heart.
The film has its share of politically correct attitudes. Eastwood’s companion is African American, whose wife is Native American. They are going to arrange justice for some abused prostitutes. But there is paradox there. In fighting for women’s rights, the film in effect endorses capital punishment, which is not nearly so popular today among the politically correct.
The fact is that “Unforgiven” evokes an earlier time, and earlier values, and does it convincingly. The deceased wife of the Eastwood character had gotten him off drink and swayed him away from violence, turning him into a peaceful (and dirty) pig farmer. Now he tries to communicate his wife’s values to their two little children. He wants the blood money for their sake, and he can hardly bring himself to shoot the prostitute-abusers, for whom the script evokes some sympathy. But when Daggett tortures and murders Eastwood’s friend and publicly displays his body, Eastwood becomes the “famous gunfighter” of old. Fortifying himself with a bottle of whiskey, he walks into Daggett’s headquarters and dispatches the bad guys with relish.
In general, however, the killing in the movie is bumbling. It shows vividly, as Alfred Hitchcock once said, “how difficult it really is to kill a human being.” Thus there is a certain debunking of the ethos of western legend in the main body of the film; but in the end the legend is vindicated. Eastwood’s character becomes the hero (his accomplishment doubtless to be embellished by legend) and Hackman’s humanist is relegated to the dustbin.
Christianity, of course, is far more than a myth; but it is also more than casual historical truth. People who try to debunk the gospel are, like Daggett, debunking something larger than they are. The same must be said for the social traditions: capital punishment, respect for women, equal justice under the law, heroic defending of the powerless, that Christianity has championed in western society. The interplay of such traditions with modern unbelief (and its social fruits) is what makes this movie theologically interesting.
Clearly, the film concludes, we must have something more than Daggett’s humanism if we are to build a lasting house of civilization. We need more than small-minded historicism, let’s-all-get-along optimism, and gun control. We also need the epic courage of inspired, if flawed, heroes, who stand for divine justice and mercy.