Marriage Wars

September 20, 2011

On a transatlantic flight this summer, I found myself watching Bride Wars—not, to be sure, my first choice for entertainment.

The movie was nothing special:  a scheduling glitch turns best friends Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson into enemies when their weddings at the Plaza Hotel end up falling on the same day; after ruining each other’s ceremonies, in the end, they reconcile.  At around the same time I saw the movie, the New York legislature was voting to legalize gay “marriage,” which made me take the film a bit more seriously than I might have otherwise.  (And probably more seriously than the film deserved.)

One line in particular struck me as off.  As they sit giggling and awed in her office, famed wedding planner Marion St. Claire (Candice Bergen) tells the brides-to-be, “A wedding marks the first day of the rest of your lives.”

The line rang a false note because both of the future brides were already living with their boyfriends, and had been for some time, so it was hard to see what was going to change so radically in their lives.  For both of the women, the wedding itself—the party and ceremony and dresses and flowers and location—was what really mattered, not any change in lifestyle or family structure.

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Ouch.

May 16, 2011

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his disciples, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matt. 5:30).

When I’m teaching confirmation class, I often use this passage to make the point that taking the Bible seriously sometimes means not taking the Bible literally.

Last week, however, I watched a movie, 127 Hours, which is about cutting off one’s arm.  Literally.

James Franco stars as Aron Ralston, a mountain climber who becomes trapped in a remote canyon in Utah, his arm pinned underneath a boulder.  After 127 hours in the canyon, facing dehydration and death, Ralston cuts off his own arm with a rather dull substitute for a Swiss Army knife.  First he has to break the bone, since the knife isn’t sharp enough to saw through it.  Yes:  ouch.  Or, as a delirious Ralston puts it while videotaping what may turn out to be his last moments, “Oops.”

The movie is not religious, but nonetheless contains a few good metaphors for the spiritual life.  The point of Jesus’ hyperbole in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, is that when it comes to doing good and avoiding evil, the stakes are higher even than life or death.  Ralston finally resorts to cutting off his arm after 127 hours—though we’re led to believe that the thought occurs to him soon after he’s been trapped—because his only other alternative is death.  More than a few conversion stories have begun in similar fashion, as when the alcoholic only sobers up after finally hitting rock bottom.

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Pontius Pilate, Postmodern American

April 18, 2011

Nathan’s post on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ last year generated a lot of discussion and ended with an intriguing question:  “Why does Pilate always get so much empathy from us?”

It would be easy, at this point, to start tossing around charges of anti-Semitism, charges which would allow us to feel a certain measure of moral superiority over those less enlightened than ourselves.  Then we could pray like the righteous Pharisee, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, anti-Semites like Mel Gibson over there” (Lk 18:10).

Throwing around such charges is a way of doing precisely the same thing that blaming the Jews for the crucifixion once did:  deflecting guilt from ourselves.  I would suggest a far more troubling answer to the question, “Why do we empathize with Pilate?”

Because Pontius Pilate is the character in the Passion who is most like us.

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Of Gods and Men

March 15, 2011

It takes a lot to leave me speechless, but the French film Of Gods and Men, which tells the story of the 1996 assassination of seven Trappist monks by Islamic extremists in Algeria, did just that this weekend.  It may well be the best religious film I’ve ever seen.

Like the 2005 documentary Into Great Silence, the film allows the Trappists’ monastic lifestyle to unfold simply and quietly.  We see the monks at prayer, tending their garden, making honey, attending patients in their small clinic.  The film makes great use of silence and of the rugged Algerian countryside to allow us to feel the elemental beauty and humanity of the Trappists’ way of life.

We also feel the humanity of the Algerian villagers who live around the monastery.  As we watch the elderly physician Br. Luc tending a child’s wound, then rummaging for shoes for a mother and her daughter, or another of the monks helping a village matron address an envelope to her son in Paris, one has the sense that the relationship of monastery to village we’re seeing might as easily be unfolding in medieval Europe as in Muslim Algeria; it touches on timeless parts of being human—sickness, celebration, making a living, family, death, elders complaining that the world has gone mad, falling in love.

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A new index of forbidden ideas?

February 22, 2011

The satirical documentary is not a genre known to be friendly to religious faith.  See, for example, my posts on Bill Maher’s Religulous (here and here).  Michael Moore pioneered this type of documentary—NOVA meets Saturday Night Live—with Roger & Me in 1989.  The genre relies heavily on ironic juxtapositions and gotcha moments.

While I have nothing against a little satire, the style and technique of such documentaries limit how deeply they can engage an issue.  These limitations apply to Ben Stein’s Expelled:  No Intelligence Allowed (2008), though Stein’s perspective is antithetical to Maher’s:  it’s secular orthodoxy he’s skewering.

The point of departure for the documentary is the dismissal of several faculty members from various universities across the country (George Mason, SUNY Stony Brook, Baylor, and Iowa State, as well as the Smithsonian Institute).  These professors were allegedly too sympathetic to “intelligent design”.  The film doesn’t do much to help us judge the merits of intelligent design theories, but Stein’s point is not so much about the validity of the theory itself as it is about academic freedom.

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On screen exorcists

October 30, 2010

This Halloween I thought I’d watch a few exorcist movies.  Their popularity in our increasingly secular culture strikes me as an intriguing anomaly.  When I taught freshmen at Marquette High School, the exorcism stories from the Gospels inevitably provoked a barrage of questions.

Exorcist movies intrigue in a way other stories don’t because—in addition to the thrill of being frightened—they provide a backdoor into questions of the supernatural.  I watched The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose last week, both based loosely on actual events, and I was struck by the certitude of the unbelievers in both films:  the roomful of psychologists in lab coats who tell The Exorcist’s Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn), whose daughter is possessed, that exorcisms sometimes work, just not for the reasons “the Catholics” think they do; and the prosecutor in Emily Rose, Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), who pronounces the word “miraculous” with scorn.

The confident rejection of the supernatural these skeptics show represents the conventional wisdom of our culture, just as the acceptance of a world filled with spirits represented—and in most parts of the world still represents—the accepted belief in other cultures.  In an interview, Jennifer Carpenter, who plays the possessed girl Emily Rose, said that the movie aimed to send viewers away with “fistfuls of questions.”

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Gordon Gekko returns

October 5, 2010

Oliver Stone’s new Wall Street sequel contains moments of gimmicky directorial over-reach, self-congratulation, wild implausibility, and hackneyed sermonizing.

It’s also a brilliant film.

Stone’s style is often a bit too much for me, but his Wall Street films are American classics.  His ambition in both films is tragedy on a Shakespearean scale, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is worth the risk.  It is a visually beautiful film, from the glittering shots of Manhattan to the Goya masterpiece that hangs over its villain’s fireplace—Saturn Devouring His Son—and its soundtrack is great.

But best of all is Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko, a character on a tragic scale.  When he emerges from prison at the beginning of the film, there’s something in him of King Lear, alone, broke, and abandoned by his family.  As he strides the stage at Fordham University, lecturing on his new book, Is Greed Good?, his hair white and wavy, railing against the real estate bubble, debt, and lack of accountability in the American economy, he has something in him of an Old Testament prophet, an Amos or a Jeremiah.  Gekko’s prophetic aura is heightened by the fact that the movie starts out in the weeks just before the stock market crash of 2008, a crash which he predicts.

If you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading and come back when you have, for the slick-haired Gordon Gekko we came to despise in the first Wall Street is not dead but only dormant.   Read the rest of this entry »