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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.”

Read the rest of this entry »


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 »


A good priest

September 13, 2010

Unless it’s on Bing Crosby, I’ve begun to cringe when I see a Roman collar in a movie.  If there’s a priest in a contemporary film I’m prepared for him to be lascivious, greedy, cruel, ambitious, hypocritical, or inept—and sometimes all of the above.  So when I ventured to the cinema last week to see George Clooney’s The American, I braced myself when Paolo Bonacelli appeared on screen as the genial Padre Benedetto.

The priest came off amiably enough at first:  an old Italian with the sort of practical wisdom that comes from having been around a long time and, presumably, having heard a lot of confessions.  Padre Benedetto realizes that George Clooney’s character, Jack, an American arms maker hiding out in a small Abruzzo town, is not who he pretends to be, and, without coming off as heavy-handed, he seeks his conversion.  He can sense the emptiness in Jack’s heart.

Given the usual Hollywood treatment of the clergy, I was ready for skeletons to come tumbling out of Padre Benedetto’s closet, and, indeed, he does have a rather dark secret in his past:  an illegitimate son named Fabio.  But, surprisingly, Padre Benedetto doesn’t come off as a hypocrite or lose our sympathy because he makes no effort to disguise his transgression or excuse his sin.  He also sincerely loves his son despite knowing of the latter’s involvement in various petty criminal enterprises.  Padre Benedetto is a sinner, knows it, and still does his best to be a Christian and a priest.

Read the rest of this entry »


Colonel Hans Landa and the limits of civility

August 23, 2010


There’s nothing like a villain:  Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Heath Ledger as the Joker, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, and, now, Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds.

It is hard to think of a more vile character than Waltz’s Col. Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s latest, bizarrely amusing film.  Col. Landa, who has earned himself the nickname “the Jew Hunter,” stands out as sadistic, even among his fellow Nazis, and yet he is a delight to watch.  You almost start rooting for him just so he’ll be on screen a little longer.

Landa, for one, is a charmer.  He is intelligent, urbane, and witty, speaks elegant French and Italian, and at times positively exudes joie de vivre (“Bingo!  How fun!”).  Whether it’s ordering crème for his strudel or interrogating a victim over a glass of delicious milk, Landa overflows with social graces.  He would be a most agreeable guest at a dinner party.

Read the rest of this entry »


Dressing Korean

August 15, 2010

I’ve blogged about the French-born anthropologist Rene Girard before (here’s my summary of key Girardian ideas); what I find particularly insightful in his work is the emphasis he places on how our desires develop through mimesis.  In other words, we learn what to desire often just by imitating others.  A few Girardian moments this summer reminded me of the validity of this point.

The first came at the first birthday party of my niece, the adorable Chloe, who I’ve mentioned before.  Chloe has idiosyncratic tastes; she’s as often interested in gnawing on someone’s shoe or a newspaper as she is in playing with her toys.  The one thing you can do to make her more interested in the toys, however, is to start playing with them yourself.  Once Chloe notices someone else playing with a toy, she crawls resolutely across the floor and takes it from them!  Mimetic desire starts early.

I thought of Girard again in northeast India when the fifth graders in the remote mountain village where I taught started flashing gang signs whenever I took their picture.  Of course, when I asked them what they were doing and why, they had no real idea—they were just imitating something they had seen on TV.

I should back up a bit here and say that even though the village where I worked has no telephone connections, paved roads, refrigeration, radio reception, or indoor plumbing, nearly every house has satellite TV.  An enduring image of the journey will be that of The Dish sticking out from under the thatched roofs of bamboo huts.

Read the rest of this entry »


Lying & Religion

July 25, 2010

As regular readers have no doubt deduced, I like movies.  Some movies rise to the level of great art—The Godfather and The Godfather II come to mind—while others are merely entertainment.  A very average movie that I saw recently was The Invention of Lying.

The Invention of Lying tells a rather familiar story:  chubby but sympathetic boy gets attractive girl.  It stars Ricky Gervais, of the British version of the TV show The Office, and it has a few amusing moments.  The premise of the movie is that it takes place in a world in which people always tell the truth.  They have not invented lying or even fiction.  In fact, they have no words for “truth” or “lying” because the concepts are beyond them.

I tend to like comedy in which people say terribly inappropriate things which also happen to be true, so the film’s premise appealed to me.  The plot thickens—and the film gets its title—when Mark, the Ricky Gervais character, who is kind of a loser, in a moment of inspiration, tells a bank teller that he has more money in his account than he really does.  Since nobody in their world lies, she assumes her computer has made an error and gives him all the money he asks for.  From then on, Mark realizes all the great things that can be accomplished by inventing one’s own truth.

Read the rest of this entry »


An Education

April 29, 2010

Well, it’s the middle of final paper season, but fear not!  I’m still finding time for blogging.  And procrastinating.  And watching movies.  And procrastinating by blogging about watching movies.  Among the more interesting movies I’ve watched of late has been the British film An Education (2009).

An Education is set in 1960s London, a more innocent age on the verge of becoming, well, a significantly less innocent age.  The star of the movie is Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a smart 16-year old at an all-girls academy with a bright academic future ahead of her, if all goes well, at Oxford.

Jenny’s home life is a bit oppressive, and her parents are rather dull.  Alfred Molina turns in a particularly good performance as Jenny’s father, Jack, who manages to come across as bumbling, overbearing, and awkwardly caring all at the same time.  In the end, despite appearing almost tyrannical in his desire for Jenny to do well at school, Jack’s greatest fault turns out to be his naïveté.  Jenny faults him for not being strict enough.

Read the rest of this entry »


Balancing Acts

March 4, 2010

On August 7th, 1974, in the early thick morning air of New York City, nearly a quarter of a mile up in the air, a man danced on a wire. The wire, strung between the newly constructed twin towers of the World Trade Center, supported Philippe Petit’s six-year-long dream of walking between the world’s tallest structures. In the immediate aftermath of the performance, the world then wanted to know why. The police arrested him and gave him psychological test to determine his sanity. The media speculated and the public stared up in the sky, wondering what might follow such an extraterrestrial  feat. It was an event that ruptured the routine of the New York rush hour, an event that would surely be remembered forever for its shear brazenness, it’s remarkable brilliance. But the event receded into dark canyons of the limitless collective ‘unconscience’ that is New York City. The city that never sleeps  has a very short memory.

Two recent works of art, a film and a novel, recollect Petit’s  early morning walk among the clouds, and both helpfully refocus our memories on the significance of the event and the significance of thinking about such events. Read the rest of this entry »


The Ten Commandments (in Polish)

March 1, 2010

The seventh graders I teach Confirmation classes to every Saturday morning finished their test on the Ten Commandments last week (though a few will be doing retakes!).  As I graded lists of the Ten Commandments, two things came to mind.  The first was a question an agnostic friend posed to me a few years ago:  how useful are the Ten Commandments, really?  Can morality be boiled down to ten rules?

The second was a film—or more precisely, a series of films—I watched at the end of last semester, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue (1989).  If you haven’t seen The Decalogue, add it to the list—along with the Brideshead Revisited miniseries—of really long films you really must see. Read the rest of this entry »


Humility & Domineering Doubt, Part II

February 8, 2010

Last week I posted some reflections on Bill Maher’s anti-religious satire Religulous.  While I thought the movie itself tiring and tired, I found Maher’s elevation of Doubt to the level of high religious virtue too ironic to pass up.  I half-thought Maher was going to recommend building a statue of Doubt and lighting candles at her feet.

I decided to take Maher’s statements about Doubt seriously because I think he makes a mistake that a lot of people make when thinking about religion—namely confusing doubt with humility.

As a more thoughtful example of such confusion I referred to a section of President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame—not the part about abortion that everybody talked about at the time, but a lesser-noticed part when the President spoke of doubt as “the ultimate irony of faith.”

Both President Obama and Maher praised doubt because, in the President’s words, “it should humble us.”  If you think about it, that’s a fairly strange claim. Read the rest of this entry »


Crusading Doubt

February 1, 2010

To shorten my time in Purgatory I recently watched Bill Maher’s silly little anti-religious “documentary” Religulous.  The documentary contains an interview with Fr. George Coyne, SJ, a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican Observatory.  Fr. Coyne does the Society proud in the film, proving himself both more intelligent and funnier than Maher.

Unfortunately, Fr. Coyne is only on screen for a few minutes because Maher, like the other “neo-atheists,” is interested only in religion’s most absurd expressions.  Their strategy is something like attempting to discredit democracy as a system of government by interviewing only members of the Blagojevich administration. Read the rest of this entry »


Tangled Up in Blue

January 17, 2010

For starters, the 3-D glasses are really cool, not the flimsy paper and celluloid things of the past. These are fashioned on the perennially chic Ray-Ban Wayfarers. However, the neat glasses certainly are not the main reason to go see Avatar.

Director James Cameron’s groundbreaking use of 3-D technology was enough to get me into the theater, but the breadth of his vision in bringing an alien world to life kept me glued to my seat. Many reviewers have praised Cameron’s latest project, and I don’t intend on repeating those praises here. It was a beautiful and thrilling movie. Read the rest of this entry »


Wrong turn revisiting Brideshead

January 12, 2010

I am a bit of a Brideshead Revisited junkie.  Evelyn Waugh’s novel is among the best of the 20th century, and the 1981 BBC miniseries, staring a very young Jeremy Irons, along with Anthony Andrews, Sir Lawrence Olivier, and the delightfully passive-aggressive Sir John Gielgud, is arguably the greatest TV miniseries of all time.  Both the novel and the miniseries are elegant, wry, and subtle.

You can imagine, then, the wailing and gnashing of teeth that ensued when I watched the 2008 film “adaptation” of Brideshead, which had all the art and nuance of Melrose Place. Make that outtakes from Melrose Place.  The characters were flat and banal, and the plot drooped.  The cinematography was elegant enough—a good period piece—and the acting passable, but Waugh’s masterpiece had been left behind.

Now this is not the lament of a literary purist—I am a junkie, not a purist—for whom even the slightest alteration smacks of treason. Read the rest of this entry »


Let the Earth Bless the Lord

October 3, 2009
tremont

"When everything is done apart, we forget our connection to each other and the world." Ken Burns at the 2009 Boston College Commencement

In a few other posts I’ve taken up the theme of theology as practiced by artists,  filmmakers (both cinema and television) and fiction writers. Once again, television audiences this past week were witness to a bit of theologizing. This time Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker who changed the way documentaries are made with his Civil War, offers his take on God and nature in The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.

Read the rest of this entry »