Friday, June 10, 2011

More Thoughts on God & Movies

After I finished my most recent blog entry about the pros and cons of escapist entertainment, I was bothered by an unresolved point. In that entry I posited with some pomp that "Good art is part of the beauty of the goodness of creation, part of that God-given self-reflection bestowed upon homo sapiens." It's not that I disagree with myself, but that I felt I had not done justice to what I most love about film: instinctive absorption into a fabricated experience. This category, contra "part of the beauty of the goodness of creation," leaves room for such variety as to allow the darkness of a bloody Scorsese montage scored by Clapton as well as the effulgence of a gourmand rat fulfilling his creative potential and passion. Both sequences unfold masterfully, choreographed and cut into nimble storytelling segments of high visual panache. 

Ratatouille - Fixing the Soup

Goodfellas - Jimmy's Gang gets whacked (not for the sensitive of conscience/disposition)

Yet as one driven to not only refine an aesthetic sense for film but also to engage it with Christian theological reflection, I cannot merely embrace it for its own sake, a la Oscar Wilde. That a film can be deeply dark yet aesthetically compelling therefore presses the question of whether or not art can be fundamentally construed by Christians as a good part of creation--or whether media that does not communicate some variance on Christian hope must be judged as categorically "not art." The question I therefore place to my "good art" proposition is this: "What place does the depiction of darkness have in an authentically Christian depiction of beauty and goodness?"

The classical answer to this question has been handled to great box office success by the twentieth century mythological synthesizers who have adapted the Christian metanarrative into archetypal conflicts of good versus evil. Whether or not the intentionally set out to tell the Christian story, their work nevertheless betrays heavy borrowing from it. George Lucas and the various adapters of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling have thrilled audiences and stuffed their pockets via powerful re-tellings of the Christus Victor myth.* At their best, they inspire our hearts to hope by stirring our longing for eternal mercy of final justice. At their worst, they reduce the gospel to thrill-oriented storytelling, cheap catharsis of an intractable evil.** Quoth Luther, "On earth is not his equal." For this reason and others I detested the flimsily Dickensian Slumdog Millionaire
, which applied Hollywood hope to two-thirds world poverty.

Where, then, is the place for art (film, no less) as a kind of truth-telling that doesn't succumb to the worst excesses of the fantasy epic genre? A strong counter example would be No Country for Old Men--it is utterly devoid of Christian hope or some cipher for it--but the film does tell part of the true story. It undercuts all boasting of human effort as an answer to the problem of evil; analagous to events in other Coen films (including Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing and Fargo), one individual's choice to act nihilistically undermines all attempts at order. Such films*** probe the disturbing realities the great epics avoid entirely: what if we knew of no way to conquer the radical evil of the Emperor, of Sauron, of Voldemort? The twentieth century's great legacy of death on an unprecedented scale looms large over all contemporary attempts to relay genuine, powerful hope through mere storytelling.

Miller's Crossing - "Ethics"

N.T. Wright has proposed one possible way forward. His 2006 sermon "Apocalyptic and Beauty of God" takes the three separate questions of how Christians should think about apocalypse, art and the now-and-not-yet nature of the glory of God and integrates them into an elegant Christian aesthetic. In sum, as the apocalypse is an unveiling of the victorious Christ within the physical world (rather than an elimination of that world by him), as art should not exist to be frivolously pretty but to communicate the deep reality of the gospel, and as we can see that the earth both lacks and contains the glory of God, Christian art must be about the task of creatively communicating the good news that although we know chaos existentially the glory of God is revealed and will be revealed until "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." (Habakkuk 2:14).

Art happens as Christian revelation when it authentically represents the suffering and hopelessness common to the human experience and then depicts the glory of God or its metaphor amid that darkness. Unfortunately, the state of Christian film is dire and lacking competent examples of even purely sentimental film-making. Our subculture thirsts for the intellectual rejuvenation of latter day poets, not just in film but in all of the arts.

Two secular, Mexican filmmakers released 2006 films which approximated Wright's aesthetic. They both ultimately tip the scale in the direction of darkness and chaos, but both Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men depict beauty and hope surviving in the midst of chaos. Joss Whedon's Firefly paints a vivid yet stark universe where the makeshift family of the flagship's crew becomes the hold against void and the personification of its meaninglessness, the Reavers. Jonathan Demme's 2008 family drama Rachel Getting Married wrings moments of poignant forgiveness and intimacy from the deeply fractured family web it works so hard to construct. Even Toy Story 3 required a hellish face-to-face with mortality at a garbage dump before allowing peace and happiness for its protagonists. I'm not sure how well all of these make my (or Wright's) point; perhaps it's because filmmakers (more to the point, studios) don't think in this direction.

Serenity - "The First Rule of Flying"

I wrote last year that, to me, "Movies at their most thrilling and important fabricate vital, visceral experiences which involve the viewer vicariously and, sometimes, voyeuristically." Need Christians even demand or expect movies to tell a recognizably Christian story? Is that the best part of going to the movies? The fact that a film can be good even if it is only about a guy driving a car fast and dangerous to get a random package from one side of town to another begs the question. It suggests that while the medium has the potential for expressing the best and greatest ideas and images we can conceive, it can survive and even flourish as pure pulp nonsense.

Coming back to my point about X-men: First Class, if it had been the visually dynamic experience Avatar was, I wouldn't have been lamenting the art house flick I wasn't seeing but rather quite happy to be caught up in the moment. Sometimes, a movie is just a movie, but that doesn't preclude basic standards for quality. In a smaller, yet still prolific class stands the secular art movie, which may actually provoke your brain to grasp for meaning. Smaller still is the number of provocative, artistically-accomplished movies which register as genuinely Christian. But a boy can dream, can continue to hope that the power of film at its best will not forever be disconnected from the power of the gospel.

*As C.S. Lewis has said, a true myth.
**And, as the years have gone by, not so cheap.
***The Coens are simply the purest and most accomplished example, especially in their commitment to laconic agnosticism.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

X-Men & The Summer Movie I Really Want to See

I saw X-Men: First Class last night. It's an engaging blockbuster with an ensemble cast not afraid to take time away from the "boom" moments in order to develop characters. Apparently, the Cuban Missile Crisis was masterminded by a rogue mutant intent on edging out homo sapiens ftw, and of course it's up to X and crew (including Magneto!) to deal with it. The action is creative and visceral, and they even managed to squeeze in the least throwaway training montage of action film history. And if that's not enough to commend the film, take note of Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto; between this and his short bit in Inglourious Basterds he is becoming one of my new favorite people to see in a movie.

Now that I've done my part to talk up this well-made summer flick, I'm going to renege somewhat. I suppose this is part of not being thirteen anymore, but there were parts of the film where I was bored. I'd say the action, though as effective as one might hope, had about a 50/50 grab on my adrenaline. As a movie nerd/idealist/critic/whatever, my hopes for any film are that I will be absorbed by the audio-visual experience, and that doesn't mean that the "boom" moments have to be overwhelming. Those moments can be used to their full effect (I'm looking at you, James Cameron) but mostly these days they just induce CGI ennui.

I found myself longing for a film of more significance last night. Wishing that Midnight in Paris or The Tree of Life were showing in Pittsburgh. A film that exceeded mere commercial success and accomplished something aesthetically. This may sound kind of old hat--the movie guy saying summer movies are dumb, let's watch something else; but I don't think X-men was dumb, just not what I wanted from the movies last night. I fondly recall seeing Pan's Labyrinth for the first time at the Tallahassee art theater, bowled over by its weirdness, coiled with tension as it built to its climax, pensive and silent for several minutes after it was over. My friend and I sat there as the credits rolled, motionless and quiet. That's the kind of movie I want to see this summer.

I try to be careful with my words when I describe the significance of a film. As a servant of and thinker for the kingdom of God, my cosmic and existential map precludes ever taking a film too seriously. In Ratatouille, one of my favorites and a vivid celebration of the creative process, the rat protagonist insists to his cynical father "I know I'm supposed to hate humans, but there's something about them. They don't just survive, they discover, they create." Good art is part of the beauty of the goodness of creation, part of that God-given self-reflection bestowed upon homo sapiens. I understand that most people don't experience that through film the way that I do. I understand the relative harmlessness of an isolated 2+ hours of blockbuster escapism. But, please, whatever you do, have the itch--the itch for something other, something more than escapism and successful commercialization of intellectual property. Because ultimately that need, that desire will point you beyond yourself, beyond others, beyond mere five-sense knowledge. That's the realm of the holy, the reality of God, and he wants you to want him.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Summer Update

This concludes my longest hiatus from blogging since I began two Augusts ago. I hesitate to admit to much, except to say that the past semester was both emotionally and spiritually difficult and I had not the head-space for organizing thoughts and crafting words for the curious.

It is now June and beautiful in Western Pennsylvania--the power of the White Witch faded some time ago; Aslan has come, and all that. I struggled through the end of my semester, accomplishing by God's mercy a virtual miracle of academic work to complete and submit all that I did within the last 2-3 weeks of the semester. I had some time off after that to recoup and have been enjoying fellowship, books, video games, movies.

I've picked up a part time job as a bookkeeper for Rock the World, a youth missions organization in Ambridge. I have no experience in the field, except that my two Tallahassee-based bureaucratic jobs both gave me crash courses in adapting quickly to new data systems. I'm looking forward to my time there, both for the organization's service to the kingdom and my general liking of the staff and for the experience I'm going to get with understanding fundraising and spending in a non-profit ministry context. I will also be putting in some more chaplain hours at the jail this summer, at least through the end of this month, if not also beyond. Between the two activities I'm only burning about 25 hours a week, so I'm able to stay active without the drain of full work week.

I'm not going to take any summer classes. I decided amidst my end-of-semester chaos that I would take a break from school and enjoy the meatier bits of life. Ministry at the jail and at church. The knowledge and love of God. The company of friends. The consumption of literature and the playing of music. My friend and roommate Scott has given me free reign with his guitar, and I have been playing more this past week than I have in a good while.

I also hope/intend to return to the gym after a 3-4 month hiatus. It's hard to go back when you've been away, especially when your regular partner goes at 5:30 in the morning three days a week. It's just so early, and, as a single and socializing twenty-something it doesn't quite fit the shape of my life.

As for home, who knows whether I'll return. There are certainly some friends I want to see; some few are even moving to other continents within the year. But travel is expensive and my car is unreliable. Yet the Lord is good, and he holds the web of our intersecting lives in his hands.