Film and “The Most Meaningful Questions Ever Asked by Mankind”

The following is a thesis paper for my final project of a Cinema Aesthetics class at Regent University. WARNING: Some film clips contain brief strong language or strong violence. WARNING: Some plot details and spoilers of recent movies are included. The presentation itself, including clips from various films, can be viewed at the following link: http://prezi.com/2di27txcun53/films-and-the-big-questions/

While a film’s primary purpose must be to entertain its audience, the most effective films can provoke profound thought and conversation on life’s most meaningful questions. Questions like “Why were we made?” and “What is truth?” are often left with the walls of a church or university Philosophy classroom, but films are a unique and important means for the artistic filmmaker to communicate timeless themes. As an art form, movies have been and continue to be rooted to philosophical and religious ideas that every human ponders.

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The primary purpose for a film must always be that is entertaining as an art form, for this is the reason that an audience frequents the movie theater. However, the artist or the filmmaker, has a unique opportunity to encourage meaningful thought and discussion about fundamental questions, because the storm of the film puts these questions in a scenario with characters and circumstances that dramatize and realize the issue.

In this way, a film can potentially demonstrate how certain ideas play out as well as be more effective than a classroom setting within the walls of a church or university. “When a learner has an emotional reaction to new stimuli, lessons presented by that stimuli get remembered better over time” (Eifler). In fact, George Miller, a movie producer, even said, “The cinema storytellers have now become the new priests” (Jonston). Martin Scorsese echoed this sentiment when he said, “I can see great similarities between a church and a movie house” (Jonston).

“How were we made?”

sacrificial_engineer_prometheus2Regardless of the content of a movie, audience members are prone to reflect on it after a viewing. “Movies, like life itself, are first experienced and then reflected on” (Jonston). For example, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus poses questions on the origins of man and his purpose. These questions represent the primary motivations for the characters as they travel across the galaxy to search out a solar system they believe to be the home of alien life. The primary characters, an atheist scientist and a Christian scientist, are both determined to discover the truth of who created humans and for what purpose were they created. Later, a character calls the quest “a search to answer the most meaningful questions ever asked by man.”

The very climax of the movie is an attempt to get these questions answered. Although the conclusion to the movie seems to resonate with Agnostic sentiments, the film effectively explores the basics of these questions. In one scene between the two scientists, the atheist suggests that the Christian give up her faith in God since they had discovered proof of an alien species seeding life on Earth; rightfully, the Christian scientist points out that the alien species must have had a maker themselves, and the atheist concedes the point.

630-ridleyscott-jpg_193836The audience’s post-viewing reflection upon Prometheus will undoubtedly include musings upon these questions. Ridley Scott himself said, “I’m really intrigued by those eternal questions of creation and belief and faith. I don’t care who you are, it’s what we all think about. It’s in the back of all our minds.” Above all else, the film promotes the conscious search for answers, presumably so that individuals can know what they believe and why. The very last line of the movie comes from the heroine when she says, “I’m still searching.” This is a very human sentiment that speaks to a person’s basic need to know one’s purpose.

“Is my reality real?”

inception-7As stated earlier, a film is unique in its ability to bring life to theological, philosophical, and academic issues involving truth and worldview. “Film and religion are deeply related activities in our contemporary culture. Both attempt to re-create the world and thereby offer us new ways of seeing, sensing, and experiencing life itself” (Plate). In fact, the film Inception takes this concept of re-creation quite literally, wherein characters are actually creating a dream world that leads characters to question “What is real?” In the dream world, Mal, who is a projection of Dom Cobb’s mind, asks Dom, “What if I’m what’s real? You keep telling yourself what you know. But what do you believe? What do you feel?” Cobb’s answer continues this line of thought in which he explains his plot to give her the idea that “her world isn’t real.”

I believe that Inception is encouraging the audience to question what they believe, even to examine the difference between “knowledge” and “belief” in one’s own life. Indeed, the very last shot of the movie on the spinning top invites the question: “Is it real?” Dom Cobb believes he is with his children, but are they just projections in his own mind? Writer and director Christopher Nolan seems to be establishing that truth and reality do matter to people, and that it is important to question what we believe and “know.”

Writing with the assumption that Nolan was influenced by British philosopher Bernard Williams, Hibbs asserts, “Arguing that truth has an intrinsic value, and not merely an instrumental value, Bernard Williams writes that ‘If we lose a sense of the value of truth, we will certainly lose something, and we may very well lose everything.’” These ideas are in striking opposition to the rise of Postmodern relativism, which argues that there is no real truth outside of one’s own mind.

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Dom Cobb was not merely interested in being happy, for he could have been happy within the construct of a dream in which he was with projections of his dead wife and absent children. Instead, he is obsessed with getting back to his children in the real world, or at least what he believes to be the real world. “Artists attempt to portray ‘a touch of eternity’ that communicates potent truths about their subjects, and even to evoke certain feelings and responses in the viewer” (Eifler, Gordon). Clearly, Nolan is tackling the human struggle with reality, belief, and truth in a very powerful way, and thus encouraging meaningful thought.

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“Is there absolute truth?”

In fact, Nolan had already toyed with these ideas in his first Hollywood film Memento. That film featured another unreliable protagonist was confident of certain “facts.” As another character says to Leonard, “You lie to yourself to be happy. We all do it.” Again, Nolan is very clearly questioning beliefs that make us happy and encouraging people to acknowledge a truth outside of one’s own mind. In Leonard’s final monologue, he declares, “I have to believe in a world outside of my own mind… Is the world still there when I close my eyes? Is it still there? Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves of who we are. I’m no different.”

110310nolanI believe Nolan is making the argument that just because we close our eyes does not mean the world is blanketed in darkness; there is a reality outside of our own perspective. According to Nolan, our understanding may not necessarily correlate with truth and reality. In a sense, we are each of us our own unreliable protagonist, and that in and of itself is a reason to give the viewer pause. “Nolan’s films dramatize the conflicts between wish fulfillment and truthfulness, and illustrate the cost of conflating fantasy with reality” (Hibbs).

Christopher Nolan asserts that, “When it’s well done, a film noir or a psychological thriller speaks to things inside you very clearly. It speaks to your own fears, your own neuroses. It speaks to your way of looking at the world.” Therefore, I believe that Nolan is very conscious that he is probing at the viewer’s worldview and inner thoughts. He does not seem so interested at conveying a particular message, only to encourage the viewer to think and come to his or her own conclusion.

“Is there a spiritual realm?”

ohudftivmrhvbigAgain, a film’s “explication can be sheer joy, in addition to giving theological insight, intellectual illumination, and dramatic engagement” (Kozlovic). When a film can draw a connection between its entertainment value and its “illumination,” I believed it has achieved the ultimate. Although not as well-received critically as the other films mentioned, The Exorcism of Emily Rose has been received positively by audiences as one of the most effective exorcism horror movies ever. This film raises the question: “Is the spiritual realm real?” This question carries with it a host of other questions, including the existence of demons, angels, the Devil, and God. Interestingly enough, Emily Rose makes this issue very much the subject of the court case that drives its narrative.

Out of the court case testimony comes the horrific scenes that feature a demon-possessed Emily Rose. An Agnostic lawyer defends the Catholic priest charged with negligence in Emily’s death, while a Protestant Christian is charged with convicting the priest, arguing that Emily’s condition was physical. The Christian lawyer therefore takes the atheistic stance, therefore embodying his role as a hypocritical lawyer, while the Agnostic lawyer is forced to confront what she really believes about the spiritual.

the exorcism of emily rose 2005This contrast in views, one arguing for the possibility of the spiritual, and the other for the naturalistic or so-called scientific, is an excellent example of Didacticism. In his book Story, Robert McKee encourages the screenwriter to present both sides of his or argument, making the theme that much more powerful. The Exorcism of Emily Rose puts the existence of God and demons on trial, ultimately encouraging the viewer to ponder and discuss the reality of the supernatural, bringing the issue to life, and injecting real-world arguments.

“The communal viewing of a film in a darkened theatre and the lively discussion it inspires have become a more vital site of spiritual exploration and reflection that the mainstream church service… No longer is it simply a time of leisure or escapism. Rather it has become a time of rest, centering, Sabbath and sacrament” (Kozlovic). Clearly, films are capable of provoking meaningful discussion.

“Am I good or evil?”

seven1One could even argue that films can lead to spiritual epiphanies. “Since feature films are significant cultural bearers of social, moral and political values, watching them can be a valid form of religious practice” (Kozlovic). In David Fincher’s Se7en, the theme of human depravity is on full display. Though the theme is spoken in monologue by the villain, the movie’s tone, plot, and climax seem to resonate, to a limited degree, with his logic.

Indeed, the depravity of man is a fundamental idea in Judeo-Christian theology. Time after time, Scripture asserts that man is desperately wicked and has no hope apart from a Savior. Se7en offers no salvation, however it does seem to acknowledge that perhaps we are not all good. Perhaps we really are all selfish at our core, and if our intentions are selfish, is there any redemption for us? “In any film that seeks to connect with its viewers with regard to the human condition…theological criticism is both appropriate and even necessary” (Jonston). Se7en certainly provokes thought on the human condition.

“Can I be redeemed?”

gran-torino_image2The movie Gran Torino is very much about a man who is consumed with guilt, pride, and prejudice. Walt seems to believe that there is no real hope for him, no redemption to be had. However, in the last act, he confesses his sins to the priest, except of course for the fact that he had killed an unarmed man in Vietnam. While saying a Hail Mary to atone for his sins, he redeems himself by sacrificing himself for the sake of the new friends he has made. Director Clint Eastwood intends there to be no doubt about this moment, with Walt falling in the form of a crucified Christ.

“Walt’s behavior underscores the claim that the most morally ugly figures can be redeemed. This is also the meaning behind the tension between Walt’s bigotry and his sacrifice. Even the most wretched individual, ugly in word and ugly in deed, is capable of reaching redemption. It is an important and innovative Christian argument that the lowliest man is capable of tragedy” (Ward). Eastwood seems to be saying that man can indeed be redeemed of his crimes, and the audience is left with hope that the death of another can act as salvation for another.

16363551Clearly, theological and philosophical questions belong in the movie theater, but the film must first be entertaining and high quality, otherwise the message will be cheapened. The film must be worthy of the meaningful issues that it seeks to elevate. Braveheart screenwriter Randal Wallace said, “I want to walk out of a theater and think, Because of what I just experienced, my life will never be the same. I think everyone wants that.”

Works Cited

Eifler, Karen E., and Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C. “Bringing Eyes of Faith to Film: Using Popular

Movies to Cultivate a Sacramental Imagination and Improve Media Literacy in Adolescents.”

Catholic Education. September. (2011): 28-53. Web.

Hess, Mary. “Learning Religion and Religiously Learning: Musing on a Theme.”Luther Seminary.

105.3 234-237. Web.

Hibbs, Thomas. “Chronicle of Higher Education.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 50.12 (2003). Web.

Jonston, Robert. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006. Print

Kozlovic, Anton Karl. “Christian Education and the Popular Cinema: The Creative Fusion of Film,

Faith, and Fun.”McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry. (2007): 51-71. Web.

Legg, Pamela Mitchell. “Contemporary Films and Religious Exploration: An Opportunity for Religious

Education Part II: How to Engage in Conversation With Film.” Presbyterian School of

Christian Education. Atlas Serials. 120-132. Web.

McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. 1st ed.

New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Print.

Mitchell, Jolyon. “Studies in World Christianity.” Studies in World Christianity. 107-112. Web.

Plate, S. Brent. “The Re-Creation of the World: Filming Faith.” Dialog: A Journal of Theology. 42.2 (2003): 155-160. Web.

Ward, Annalee R. “Gran Torino and Moral Order.” Christian Scholar’s Review. 375-392. Web.

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Groundhog Day: Comedy meets Philosophy

The following is a critique for Groundhog Day, as submitted for a Cinema class at Regent University.

The 1990s classic Groundhog Day is a surprisingly philosophical and yet charming science-fiction film disguised as a romantic comedy, complete with a fantastical premise and unique narrative structure. The film has generated countless discussions and academic works in relation to its deeper meanings that have earned it status as a modern-day parable. However, Groundhog Day would not be so celebrated or controversial had it not first been genuinely funny, as the director and co-writer Harold Ramis insisted it be just that.

For most of the movie, the colors and lighting of the film seem somewhat muted and bleak. This is probably because of Phil’s predicament of being trapped in an endless winter. Being on the eve of a blizzard, the day that Phil is trapped in is very overcast, and the colors seem to reflect the hopeless feeling that begins to dominate Phil in the second act. Phil often refers to his predicament as a “long winter,” and the radio host starts his broadcast by saying “It’s cold out there, folks!” Phil’s sarcastic, cold demeanor towards the other characters also reflects this frigid theme, and the colors help set the mood for Phil’s outlook on his seemingly meaningless life. Lighting is used very strongly in a few scenes in particular. In the scene in which he has taken a woman to his bedroom, the room is lit with reds, reflecting the passion and lust of the moment. In the romantic scenes between Phil and Rita, particularly towards the end, the scenes contain soft colors that accentuate the romance. In the club scene, a myriad of lights reflect the crazy atmosphere of the town in party mode. Most notably, in the final scene wherein Phil has escaped Groundhog Day, the sun is radiant and reflecting off the fresh snowfall, creating a very bright, welcoming, Heaven-like feeling; this change reflects a sharp contrast to the rest of the movie. Interestingly enough, both the opening credits, as well as the end of the movie, frame a bright, partly cloudy sky.

The soundtrack of the film largely ties in to the film quite smoothly. Some of the first lyrics we hear are “I’m your weatherman,” obviously alluding to the main character’s profession. The lyrics that Phil wakes up to on each Groundhog Day are “I got you, babe”; this seems to imply that Groundhog Day literally has “got,” or trapped, Phil. The song which the town’s citizens are singing as Phil shows up to the park for the main Groundhog Day event has a strangely goofy sound to it, reflecting the unique nature of the citizens that Phil meets. During one of the “first dates” between Phil and Rita, the song “You Don’t Know Me” plays while they dance, echoed by Rita’s rejection of Phil’s early declarations of love; “You don’t even know me,” she says. “This is love,” Phil insists, but Rita stands her ground: “You don’t know what love is,” Rita says. She’s right; Phil may know facts about Rita, but he doesn’t really know the noble qualities that makes her tick, particularly the inherent kindness and true love that he lacks.

The fact that Phil chooses a piano as the instrument he learns to play, as well as the style he plays during the club scene (Jazz), both maximize the possibilities for musical variation and creativity—Jazz, by its very nature is versatile, while the piano has a plethora of keys. Phil echoes this theme when he says, “I’m versatile,” a term that Rita used earlier to describe his inspiring speech at the latest Groundhog Day. The director also uses the sound of a piano and a simple shot to tell the story of one scene in particular: While keeping the exterior of a house framed as a piano plays in the background, the music suddenly stops, a girl is shoved outside, and the piano begins to play again with much simpler notes, indicating that Phil has begun his first lesson.

Camera movement is fairly limited in the movie, mostly consisting of pans. A notable exception is a repeated shot which starts on the alarm clock on the night stand as the radio turns on, then pulling out and panning over to a close-up of Phil’s face as he awakes. The following shot is also repeated in which it starts as a long shot of Phil getting out of bed, pas as he walks to the bathroom to splash water in his face, and then pans back across the room as he re-enters the bedroom. Another more complex shot that is repeated is a crane shot when Phil first enters the Groundhog Day festival: at first, this shot pans with Phil, but as he passes the camera the crane rises to reveal the large crowd that is forming. Another crane shot starts with a slowly rotating angle from above the club scene as dancers spin beneath, then the camera descends and levels off at eye level; this shot ties into the perspective of the very next shot which is a dolly backwards, framed at eye level, as three characters walk forward. Another interesting shot was an extreme close-up and slow motion shot of the clock’s digits epically turning from 5:59 to 6:00, complete with loud sounds indicating that this is indeed the moment that time jumps back twenty-four hours.

Of course, the script is by far the most fascinating aspect of the film. In fact, “Groundhog Day is a cultural text that serves as a parable and rhetorically exhorts viewers to learn moral and spiritual lessons and behave in new ways” (Daughton 139). By violating natural laws of space and time, Groundhog Day is able to illustrate poignant and somewhat radical ideas about life. It is no coincidence that Phil’s name is also the groundhog’s name, and the film is itself philosophical. The writers feature Phil demonstrating various versions of humanity’s philosophies through the course of the movie. Phil is at times a Nietzche (seeing no meaning, he repeatedly commits suicide), at times a hedonist (“We could do whatever we want”), at times a polytheist (“I’m a god, not the God”), at times a charitable savior (the boy in the tree, the Mayor), not to mention his daily “reincarnation,” which is an allusion to Hinduism. On his final Groundhog Day, he becomes a part of the town and reaches a sort of Nirvana, evoking Buddhist themes. The idea of living in service for others is also a theme in Christianity. In the final scene, it is clear that Phil’s happiness is no longer found in pleasing himself, but in pleasing others. He asks Rita, as soon as he discovers he is no longer trapped in Groundhog Day, “Is there anything I can do for you?” His transformation from selfishness to selflessness is complete.

The first few scenes in the movie introduce weatherman Phil as an arrogant man who cares only for himself; he feels that covering Groundhog Day is beneath him and cannot wait to flee the town. However, the blizzard traps him in town, a foreshadowing of being trapped in Groundhog Day for what is likely years, though the exact length of time is never revealed. Interestingly enough, the only forecast we see Phil make as a weatherman turns out to be incorrect; he turns out to be wrong about the blizzard missing the Pittsburgh area. His professional prediction is unreliable. However, once he begins to re-live Groundhog Day, he is obviously able to accurately predict events, to a degree; when he sets out to manipulate outcomes, he is not always successful, despite countless attempts. “Groundhog Day presents one man’s metaphorical journey away from the stereotypically masculine pursuit of Power and agency, the drive to control his life and the people and events in it” (Daughton 143). The irony that Phil can only control events up to a certain point is true of the human condition in that we can expert certain things to happen due to prior experiences, but we cannot accurately predict everything that people will do; every person is a unique agent, and when two or more agents interact, outcomes will vary.

As stated previously, “when (Phil) first realizes he’s not crazy and that he can, in effect, live forever without consequences-if there’s no tomorrow, how can you be punished? He indulges his adolescent self” (Goldberg 36). This hedonistic lifestyle is ultimately unfulfilling, and his attempts at winning the affections of his true love, Rita, fall flat time and again. In fact, the film could be looked at as a rebuttal of post-modern and hedonistic philosophies: “Connors’s metamorphosis contradicts almost everything postmodernity teaches. He doesn’t find paradise or liberation by becoming more ‘authentic,’ by acting on his whims and urges and listening to his inner voices. That behavior is soul-killing” (Goldberg 37). Though he is not aging, Phil seems to be maturing before our eyes. He realizes that he is “stuck in the same place,” and wondering what if “nothing you ever did mattered,” to which another character replies: “That sums it up for me.” This literal repetition of events with some variation is therefore strikingly similar to each person’s individual life in which certain elements of one’s life are continually repeating; everyone can fall into a monotonous routine of going to work everyday and seemingly living a meaningless life, as Phil finds himself doing. Phil is always seeing “the glass half empty,” as one character says. He can never satisfy his desires, particularly his one deep desire: winning Rita’s heart, even after years of attempts.

Is it any coincidence, then, that the ice on his bedroom window seems to have formed the shape of an eye through which Phil can see the world? One day it looks bleak, the next bright and magical, complete with a fresh snowfall. His worldview, his very way of living, has completely changed. “Connors eventually achieves spiritual growth by completely revising his estimate of what ‘getting it right’ means. Phil Connors learns the hard way, one concentrated day at a time, how to live his life” (Daughton 144). By forgoing his own desires for the desires of others, Phil finally learns to truly love. He is no longer consumed by his own wants; instead, he immerses himself in the town that he once hated, completely content in making the quirky town his home.

Works Cited

Daughton, Suzanne. “The Spiritual Power of Repetitive Form: Steps Toward Transcendence in

Groundhog Day.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication. 13. (1996): n. page. Print.

Goldberg, Jonah. “A Movie For All Time.” National Review. 57.2 (2005): n. page. Print.

‘Lincoln’ is Cinema at its Finest

The following is the first draft of a critique of the film Lincoln which I wrote for a cinema class at Regent University. 

Steven Spielberg has fashioned a film of tremendous historical import and timeless, masterful artistry. The film envelopes the viewer in the story with its density of pertinent plot points, meaningful imagery, emotional performances, and incredible attention to detail as a legitimate period piece depicting the final months of the life President Lincoln and his political battle to both end slavery and end the Civil War. 

Lincoln has been well-received by critics, scoring a positive review from 145 critics, a 91 percent rate, according to the website Rotten Tomatoes. Claudia Puig of the USA Today gave it three and a half stars out of four, calling it “an absorbing intellectual look at the political machinations involved in abolishing slavery,” adding that Tony Kushner’s script is “perfectly-calibrated.”

The film begins with the sounds and images of a brutal battle in the American Civil War. Soldiers from the North and South are depicted in hand-to-hand combat on a mud-soaked battlefield. Within seconds, Spielberg has captured the ugliness that is war, particularly a Civil War that pits fellow countrymen against each other. The first image we see of President Abraham Lincoln himself is an over-the-shoulder shot that captures his slumping figure, looking out upon a Union camp. Immediately we see that this man of impressive physical and historical stature has become weary and frail yet still seems to tower above it all like a mythic figure.

Lincoln narrates a dream sequence in which the sixteenth President is upon a ship racing at high speeds to an unknown destination. Mrs. Lincoln suggests that this has something to do with his pursuit of the Thirteenth Amendment, but one wonders if it doesn’t have more to do with Lincoln’s impending death and reaching the shores of Heaven; or, perhaps it is suggesting that Lincoln is leader of a nation that was racing quickly toward the shore of freedom and equality for all.

The lighting in the film seems realistic yet strangely surreal, with dim light in several interior scenes where the only lighting would have been fire-related, like candles and oil lamps. Often, the frame contains smoke imagery from the cigars of politicians and bureaucrats, recalling the smoke-filled battlefields of the Cvil War with its cannons and gunfire.

As Anthony Lane writes in The New Yorker, Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s cinematographer, veils events in such a rarefied and sifted haze that they seem already poised halfway to myth. Just look at the President, haloed and framed against a window, in semi-silhouette, as he sits in a rocking chair reading to his young son Tad . They could be in a picture book themselves.”

Lincoln’s son studies photographs of slaves by flickering orange firelight, recalling images of the Holocaust. Other than the orange glows from candles and fires, muted and cool greens, grays and blues seem to dominate the picture, contributing to the cold atmosphere of nineteenth century winters in Washington. Lincoln is often shown with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. His top hat aptly becomes a character of its own in the movie, often garnering close-ups.

Equality becomes a central theme in the movie, as it is traditionally understood (equality in terms of personhood). Thaddeus Stevens asserts before Congress that he holds all men be “equal before the law.” The very first scene with Lincoln depicts him speaking with a pair of African-American Union officers, one of which is boiling over with the frustration of slow progress in attaining economic equality in the eyes of white men. The man’s frustration is righteous, but Lincoln could do little about the prejudice in the hearts of men, and he says as much: “I suppose that they will learn to tolerate each other.” Spielberg’s Lincoln acknowledges that with time and limited government action, the nation could be united wherein men of all skin colors could enjoy equal liberties as well as associate with each other without reservation or prejudice.

In another scene, Lincoln tells two men that he used to read a lot as a young man, and he brings up Euclid’s rule that “Things which equal the same thing also equal one another.” Lincoln seems to be saying that if both a black man and a white man are human, then they are equal. Thaddeus Stevens later makes the argument that he may look at another man and think him an idiot or full of corruption, but that does not make him any less human. Lincoln therefore makes both moral and logical arguments for the Thirteenth Amendment and irrationality of slavery built on racial prejudice.

It is Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln, though, that truly mesmerizes the viewer. Lou Lumenick of The New York Post explains: “Adopting an odd, high-pitched voice, Day-Lewis thoroughly inhabits the part of a war-weary president who’s fond of telling long and folksy autobiographical stories.” Daniel Day-Lewis is so convincing and riveting as the most beloved political figure in American history, that it is hard not to be completely enraptured by his authentic, layered, and moving portrayal of the often melancholy, introspective, self-deprecating, somewhat peculiar, thoroughly human, yet passionate and attention-commanding figure.

In an interview Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Lincoln’s older son Robert, even remarked that he did not actually meet the actor Day-Lewis until after filming for the movie had wrapped; apparently, the Academy Award-winning actor never broke character during production of the film. Daniel Day-Lewis may have been the only actor on the planet who could have delivered the gravitas to the character of Abraham Lincoln in such a thoroughly engrossing way.

Another accomplished actor receiving Oscar buzz is Tommy Lee Jones, who is witty, cantankerous, and sincere as the passionate abolitionist Representative Thaddeus Stevens. However, there were no weak links in the entire massive cast; every actor seemed to realize the importance of the film, however small his or her role might be.

The subtle parallels drawn between the final months of Abraham Lincoln and the final days of Jesus Christ are striking. The character of General Ulysses S. Grant tells Lincoln that he looks to have aged ten years in the past year. Throughout the film, Lincoln is depicted as a man under incredible stress and suffering, as if he bears the pains of a nation in Civil War; as if he bears the weight of every fallen American and the tortuous life of every black man still in slavery—as if he were carrying a cross. Even his family life is anything but ideal.

Like the story of Job in the Bible, Lincoln’s wife is represented as unsupportive, divisive, and angry, if not mentally unstable as some historians suggest. We learn that the child they lost still weighs heavy on his heart. His older son is portrayed as constantly pestering Lincoln to allow him to join the army, and Lincoln faces the prospect of both losing another child as well as inviting his wife’s further rage. This suffering is similar to the turmoil that was apparently going on with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, as well as his physical and spiritual torture leading up to and including his crucifixion.

Just as Mrs. Lincoln says, “No one has ever been so loved by the people;” but perhaps no one had ever been so hated by those among the Confederates. This is yet another similarity with Christ, because Jesus was and is to this day loved and worshipped by His followers, yet was hated enough that he was brutally tortured and killed and is still hated to this day.

In the scene directly preceding Lincoln’s assassination, he says, “I guess it’s time to go, though I’d rather stay.” This obvious double meaning is then followed by his discarding of his gloves, which the black butler retrieves. The black butler then watches as Lincoln and his famous hat are framed in silhouette by a window, as he descends down a staircase out of sight. There seems to be a good deal of symbolism going on in this brief sequence. Lincoln is both leaving this life behind, descending into the grave, a mysterious and legendary man. Historically, Lincoln is known for his dislike of wearing gloves, but there seems to be more to the moment, as if Lincoln was passing the torch to black men and women. Perhaps the moment is indicating that Lincoln’s fight is over, and he is leaving those that he freed to now possess the power to continue the fight themselves. Indeed, the film suggests that the fight to come will be difficult for black people, a likely allusion to the persecution leading up until and through the Civil Rights Movement. Again, this seems to be yet another parallel with Christ, recalling His charge to the disciples, that they might further His mission though they would be persecuted for His sake.

The visual image of Lincoln being cloaked in black from head to toe, except for his hands, also seems to be an allusion to Christ in which He took on the sins of the world so that the world might live and be free. Likewise, Lincoln figuratively took on the sins of a nation—the sins of slavery and violence—by giving his life, both literally and figuratively, so that the slaves might live; so that the words of the Declaration of Independence might be fulfilled: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Just as Christ was killed on a cross, the last image of the film is a shot depicting Lincoln’s second inaugural address in which he is holding his arms out, palms outward, for an extended moment, recalling Christ hanging on the cross before a multitude of onlookers.

Lincoln is truly masterful filmmaking, thick with rich imagery and themes that remain relevant even until today and will likely remain relevant for generations to come. Steven Spielberg celebrates and honors a legendary and heroic man who is loved and revered, perhaps more than any other American historical figure. Indeed, the film is worthy of the man it depicts. As the film transitions from Lincoln’s deathbed to his inaugural address, the man is framed in the flame of a candle, perhaps signifying that the words and work of Abraham Lincoln will continue to burn on as an eternal flame, a light that shines for our nation and nations around the world.

 

Prometheus: The Movie and Questions of Origins

“A king has his reign. And then he dies.”

When I first learned that director Ridley Scott was revisiting his Alien series with a prequel, I immediately introduced myself to the series. I’m glad that I did. Alien was a visionary piece of film, and its sequels would launch the careers of James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) and David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club) respectively. Prometheus promised to give context to the original trilogy.

It doesn’t disappoint. Elevated by brilliant cinematography and awe-inspiring visuals, Prometheus is a masterpiece of spectacle and terror. It is the anti-Avatar with its barren landscapes and cynical tone. It is as thought-provoking as it is horrifying. In other words, it’s everything it’s meant to be and more.

When Doctors Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway discover several ancient cave paintings from diverse civilizations, all indicating visitors who came from space, the Weyland Corporation agrees to fund a mission to discover the solar system portrayed in the paintings.

As you might have guessed, what they find is not the friendly “gods” they imagined. What follows is arguably the most shocking experience I’ve had in the cinema. I saw things I’ve never seen before, and isn’t that why we still go to the theater? Those hoping for answers regarding the Alien series will have many more questions by the end credits, and that is the film’s one glaring flaw, if you can call it that.

Noomi Rapace gives a completely engrossing performance as Doctor Shaw, the film’s heroine, and Michael Fassbender nearly steals the show as a devilishly enigmatic android named David. Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce lend star credence to the cast, offering haunting portrayals of their own. Through its first ten days in wide release, Prometheus has collected about $90 million in the United States and another $130 million in the foreign box office on a $130 million budget.

But what struck me, even more than the plot of the movie and the new possibilities it opened, was the questions the film posed, as well as the mythological and spiritual undertones. The name of the central spaceship, and of the movie itself, has deep mythological roots. In Greek lore, Prometheus formed mankind from clay and then introduced humans to the power of fire. As punishment for giving mere mortals this power, Zeus had Prometheus chained to a cliff. Once a day, a large bird would come to pick at Prometheus’ liver as a perpetual torture.

There are striking similarities to the Biblical account of creation in which God formed mankind out of the dust of the earth. But it also recalls non-canonical writings like the Book of Enoch, which is of unknown origin. In the Book of Enoch, demons assume superhuman form and share their knowledge with humans. Sound familiar? The account of Prometheus’ punishment even mirrors the prophecies in the book of Revelation, which says Satan will be released from the bottomless pit only to be later chained in Hades forever. The god Prometheus has ties to both God and Satan of the Bible, as do the “Engineers” in the film Prometheus. Whether the accounts be from the Bible, Greek mythology, scientists, or a hit movie, they all pose fundamental questions: Where do we come from, and why were we made?

Ridley Scott, who recently converted from Atheism to Agnosticism, says that nearly half of the scientists that he has interacted with or read, say that there must be something more than Darwinian Evolution. According to Scott, a growing number of scientists are increasingly finding the theory ridiculous. In his mind, there almost must have been some creative intelligence behind the existence of mankind. When you study the complexity and the miracle that is life, it’s difficult to think otherwise. A growing number of people, including renowned atheist Richard Dawkins, posture that life must have been “seeded” on earth, which Prometheus certainly gives credence to. Whether Ridley Scott believes this is unclear, but the movie acknowledges that even if extraterrestrial beings did seed life on earth, it only moves the questions of origins to another race and another planet. In other words, where did the aliens who created us come from? It still allows for the possibility of a God.

It is therefore only fitting that the two scientists in the movie are Atheist and Christian respectively. When it appears early on in the movie that the “Engineers” have all died, the Atheist is devastated, even though he has made the greatest discovery in the history of mankind. His questions will never be answered. In his mind, there is no meaning, no purpose. But the Christian scientist didn’t need those answers. Though she thirsts for knowledge, she is satisfied by her own faith.

Faith is a recurring theme in the movie, starting with a flashback of the Christian scientist when she was very young, interacting with her father. When she asks him about the afterlife and how he can know he will see his loved ones again one day, he simply replies, “I don’t know. But it’s what I choose to believe.”

It’s not exactly the pat answer of a fundamentalist Christian, but it does speak to mankind’s basic needs, though Prometheus seems to be saying that none of us can know for sure; we can only choose our beliefs. Everyone wants truth. Everyone asks the questions. Where did I come from? Why am I here? Is there more than this short, brutal life on earth? Am I alone? Is there a life after death? Where do I get my answers? Can any of us really know?

Regardless of what you believe, this movie will make you think. What do you believe? Do you have your answers? Are your answers reliable? A film that poses these questions in such a powerful way is a very good film indeed.

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Note: This movie is rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and some language.


Jesus & Cinema: Why Most Christian Movies Suck, and What We Can Do About It


About two years ago Douglas Gresham, stepson of C.S. Lewis and Executive Producer of Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia series, spoke at Liberty University’s Chapel service, as well as in not one but two of my classes. I can’t say I’ve been more impressed with a man than Douglas Gresham. He’s been a rancher in the Australian outback, a radio broadcaster, an actor, and a Hollywood producer. He’s pretty much the real version of “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” So when Gresham opened up about his opinion of Christian filmmaking in my History of Film class, my ears perked up. He told us with steely-eyed conviction in his thick British-Australian accent, “The world doesn’t need more Christian movies. It needs more Christians making good movies.”

That phrase has stuck with me for the past two and a half years. I didn’t even have to write it down, because it was forever engrained in my mind. Early the next day, Gresham would drop by my 400-level Philosophy class (an elective that I didn’t have the brain capacity for, and had to later drop). After he weathered through the 60 minutes of Narnia-related questions from my peers, I was able to chase him down the hallway and ask for his e-mail address and phone number.

Eventually I was able to share a thirty minute phone conversation with him about what it takes to make it in Hollywood. I had to wake up very early one Saturday morning to call his house phone in Malta; it was evening there. In our conversation, he dutifully answered my questions. He emphasized hard work, connections, and most of all, prayer. In other words, “Good luck, kid. You’re gonna need it.”

When I pressed him on whether Christians should pursue the purchase of a multi-billion dollar studio, as was recently proposed by Christian filmmakers in a book, he soundly rejected the notion. He acknowledged that, not only would this foster an “Us vs. Them” mentality and thus compromise the legitimacy of the films, but it is completely unnecessary.  “Christians don’t need to fight Hollywood, Garrett,” he said. “They need to infiltrate Hollywood.”

Let’s face it. Christian movies, by and large, are disappointments. I’m not talking The Passion of the Christ or Narnia, because those movies were well-produced with the power of Hollywood behind them. I’m talking Left Behind. I’m talking Fireproof. I’m even talking Thr3e and The Visitation and House, which were based on very good Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker novels. The last three, products of a recent 20th Century Fox venture called FoxFaith, are the kind of stories that I think can be successful. Psychological thrillers can really make people think if done well. Unfortunately, the movies are embarrassments.

The problem with the latter three movies, based on the stellar books of Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti, has something to do with money. The average Hollywood movie costs over $100 million. But the average budget for a FoxFaith film was $1 million. To make a movie, you need money. If it’s a big idea, you need a lot more money. Avatar cost $500 million. The Dark Knight was a relatively cheap superhero movie at $200 million. But Saw, which is a similar scale to House, cost only $1.2 million to make. Paranormal Activity is extremely entertaining and made on a $15,000 budget. Obviously a movie doesn’t have to be expensive to work.

So why is one movie a success and the other a joke? My theory is personnel. House had bad direction, worse acting, awkward editing, and a poorly adapted script. Had a legitimate studio with accomplished filmmakers taken the reigns of House, my theory is that it would have been professionally made, well-promoted, and would have performed positively at the box office.

People have to have a reason to see a movie. First, they have to know it exists. Second, promotional materials have to spark interest and capture their imagination. There has to be a hook, some spectacle, or interesting idea behind it. A potential audience has to “buy” it. Does it look like it’s worth $10 to go see it? Is it worth two or more hours of their time? Of course, it helps when a movie is associated with people who have a strong reputation. If Steven Spielberg’s name is on a film, chances are it’s going to be very entertaining. If Leonardo DiCaprio is starring, it’s probably an Oscar contender. We expect excellence from established stars. I doubt Christopher Nolan would be directing an ensemble cast in The Dark Knight Rises, had it not been for his brilliant script Memento that caught the interest of Guy Pearce. Nolan’s very first film is considered to be one of the top 100 films of all time, and it cost only $3 million to make.

So it’s not so much money as it is execution. Which brings me to the Sherwood films, produced by Sherwood Baptist Church. They have come a long way in terms of production quality since Facing the Giants, but Courageous is still laughable in terms of acting, writing, and appeal. These films have their place: they have redeeming and soul-altering messages. But they are sadly, deeply flawed. First of all, they have little to no appeal outside of churchgoing folk. And even churchgoers find little worth their time in these movies. It’s a two-hour sermon masquerading as a movie. Movies are supposed to whisper truths, not take a crowbar to people’s heads until they “get it.” I don’t dislike the Sherwood films because of their messages; I dislike them, because of the way they tell them.

The great Christian fiction writers didn’t preach in their fiction. C.S. Lewis, as obvious as his analogy was, did not make Lucy accept Aslan into her heart. The reason that Ted Dekker has sold about 10 million books in just 10 years is because he weaves Christ into his writing without actually telling you that he does it. It’s the mark of a great storyteller. Christians may pick up on it, but his stories undoubtedly make non-believers think. Dekker was highly influential in making Christ tangible to me, and he didn’t pen the name “Jesus” once. He didn’t even quote Scripture.

When I pick up a book, pop in a DVD, or sit down at a movie theater, I don’t do it to get hit over the head with a shovel. I do it to be entertained. I do it to have my mind stretched, my eyes dazzled, and my heart softened. And when I think about the message of the story being told, I want to be pointed to the answer, not given the answer repeatedly. Not only is it lame, but it’s cheap. People don’t want to be treated like complete idiots, and that’s what too many Christian movies do. Storytellers who can’t show without telling are just not good storytellers.

Remember Jesus’ fiction? It was edgy, and it resonated with the day’s culture. An outcast Samaritan was the hero of one of his tales. In several stories, a religious leader was the antagonist. A man trespassed, then deceived a land owner in order to obtain a hidden treasure. A father celebrated the return of a wayward son who had spent his inheritance and committed all kinds of sins. And usually people had to bug the crap out of Jesus to understand what He had meant. The listeners of Jesus’ stories were so moved and deeply invested in his stories, that they debated their meanings, and were perplexed by the implications.

Yes, we need movies like Dekker’s The Circle Series. Movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which poses very spiritual questions like no other movie I’ve seen. Movies like Memento and Inception, which deal with the topics of truth, belief, and depravity. Like Signs, which confronts issues of faith and loss. I believe that Christians can make the best ideas, the best movies, because we have the greatest muse in the Greatest Storyteller. We can show the world Truth and Love. We can provoke people to life-altering thoughts and heart-stirring emotion.

But that raises another question. Where do we draw the line? If we don’t have to quote Scripture or preach Jesus in our stories, where is the end? How much violence is permissible for a Christian filmmaker to show? Is profane language off-limits? I can’t say for certain, but I do know that Jesus was more concerned about hearts than rules.

Randall Wallace, who spoke at Liberty University’s 2011 Commencement ceremony, penned the screenplay for movies like We Were Soldiers, The Man in the Iron Mask, and most notably Braveheart. He grew up in a strongly Christian home and is still a bold Christ-follower to this day. Wallace frequently cites Jesus Christ as his inspiration, Savior, and Lord. But there is graphic violence in his movies. Yes, there is cursing as well. In fact, there are even a handful of F-words.

In an interview with Christianity Today, Wallace defended the content of his films. “I resist and even resent the notion that a film with faith-based values has to be placid, soft, un-masculine and un-muscular.”

Has he crossed the line? Disobeyed Christ? Has he forsaken his witness? As a young aspiring screenwriter, I am still establishing the lines I wish to never cross. But one phrase keeps running through my head, and it was made by one of the most prolific authors in the history of mankind: Stephen King. In his nonfiction book titled On Writing, speaks to this issue: “A writer has one job. To tell the truth.”

King is not a Christian, as far as I know, but he acknowledges the principle that stories are told best when they are believable and real. If we cannot tell the truth in film, I fear we will never succeed.

“Doesn’t everybody love stories about heroes?” asks Wallace. “They grab our attention, they make our hearts pound—but only if we believe them, only if we can identify with them in some way and hope that to some extent we can become more like them.”

Like the greatest storytellers, he recognizes the influence and importance of messages and themes in film.  “I want to walk out of a theater and think, Because of what I just experienced, my life will never be the same. I think everybody wants that.”

To create stories that provoke deep thoughts and emotions, we must portray both good and evil in clear and tangible ways. Ted Dekker said it best, when he defended the edgy nature of his novels.

“It’s critical as a storyteller, as anybody who’s interested in impacting culture, [that] you must speak the language of the culture you wish to impact.”

Could this be what the Apostle Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 9:22 when he said, “I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some”? Through the surrounding verses, he emphasized being able to relate to the lost, not ostracizing them. We are all human, and we all struggle with the same questions, the same vices. The difference is that as Christians, we have a hero, lover, and friend in Jesus Christ who enables us to be His instruments. To be that, we have to have a conversation with the prostitute, the tax collector, the drunkard, the lame–the abused, the user, the afflicted, and the weak. We have to tell it straight.

“It’s critical that we use a very dark brush to paint evil,” says Dekker. “When you bring the light into that darkness, that light is very vivid. When it dispels the darkness, we see the brilliance that’s there.”

I’m completely with Dekker on this issue. He attracts a wide audience with themes and stories that resonate. They are radical, completely original, and soul-searching without being off-putting. But he’s not about to downplay his Christianity either.

“The greatest hero that exists today without a doubt is Jesus Christ,” says Dekker. “To characterize him as a hero, it’s important to make his enemy a ferocious enemy. The one story that’s most exciting to us, and to Him, is that story when He defeats evil.”

Forbidden: Ted Dekker Takes on Religion

Since Ted Dekker broke into the scene less than 10 years ago, he has published nearly 40 books, which have sold around 10 million copies. The psychological thriller Thr3e quickly won him a cult following before he released his blockbuster, epic fantasy saga the following year, a trilogy of novels titled The Circle series. Dekker’s latest project is called The Books of Mortals, which he is co-authoring with Tosca Lee. Forbidden is the first of three novels, followed by Mortal, to be released this summer, and Sovereign, set for release in 2013.

Set several hundred years in the future, Forbidden presents a post-apocalyptic world in which science has finally discovered how to eliminate emotion in the human psyche. The Order, the ruling class of Earth, has set up an extensive code of laws based on the one basic emotion that all humans can still feel: fear. When a secret priesthood discovers the prophecy of a nine year-old boy who will show the world how to truly live, the rulers in the Order will do anything to hunt down and exterminate those who question them. A misfit band of rebels, who have tasted the Chaos we know as love and emotion, make it their mission to find and protect the boy of the prophecies.

Forbidden is definitely an introduction to this series, though the signature Dekker twists and suspense are ever-present. The world he and Lee create is both imaginative and dark. In this world, the main characters that drink of Chaos are confronted with the truth: that their world is dead, and the people in it deader. In the Circle Series, Ted Dekker opened readers’ eyes to an alternate universe where the spiritual is physical, and the story is dazzling. The world of the Books of Mortals seems to focus on the opposite, to haunting effect. Instead of a world where everything is alive and how it should be, it’s the story of dead people in a dead world.

As he did with The Circles series, Dekker paints a beautiful allegory with Lee. It seems they are leveling a solemn condemnation of religion and legalism. Like the Order, religion seeks to control. Religion is focused on behavioral modification and lists of do’s and dont’s. Likewise, legalism is focused on the doing, not the being. In Forbidden, when the main characters are transformed by the Chaos, their feelings are often out of control. They fall in love easily. They cry without reservation. They laugh hysterically. They begin to wonder if Chaos is worth the pain; they want the rules back. But with time, they learn to control their emotions. They become less focused on rules and more focused on people. Their hearts aren’t filled with fear of doing something wrong or reporting the wrongs of others to the Order. Instead they are driven by a desire to love others and give them the gift of Chaos.

Love is chaos. It provokes us to do unusual things. More often than not, it hurts more than it soothes. We often wonder if it’s worth it. Is it? Read Forbidden. Decide for yourself.

4 stars out of 5

http://www.amazon.com/Forbidden-The-Books-Mortals-Dekker/dp/1599953544/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1335773240&sr=1-1

Warrior Poets

“In words are seen the state of mind and character and disposition of the speaker.” -Plutarch

I’ve been thinking about communication lately. It’s a great gift, to be able to communicate. It’s what makes us human, in many ways. It represents influence and power. I believe we were given the gift of Communication in order to speak truth and love into one another’s lives. But in a world of such diverse thought, those who stand for what is true are often ridiculed and condemned.

“Do not say a little in many words but a great deal in a few.” -Pythagorus

It happened to Ghandi and to Martin Luther King Jr., to Galileo and Einstein, and even to Jesus Christ. The greatest communicators often had no home, only a message. Maybe that’s why Odin was not only the Norse god of communication but also of wandering. He was an outcast among the gods. He was a poet without a home, a warrior without refuge, and a hunter of wisdom. He led men into battle with a spear that never missed its target.

“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.” -Socrates

In a world where we are constantly being bombarded by communication, with all the social media, the 24 hour news cycles, the advertisements, television and music and movies, it seems everyone has something to say. Everyone has a spear to throw. But who, or what, are you throwing your spear at? And does your spear hit its target?

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” -Robin Williams

This blog is a place where I aim to share some of my words, and the words of others, whether the subject be movies, politics, or samples from my  own fiction. I hope you’ll join in the conversation so we can help each other be better communicators.