Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Network (1976)

     Recently, I saw for the first time a film called “Network”, directed by the recently deceased Sidney Lumet. “Network” is a satirical film about the television industry written by Paddy Chayefsky, who won an Academy Award for his original screenplay for the film, which is known as one of the greatest scripts ever written. Having been “experienced” (a very loose term) in television production in high school, I could almost relate to the things I saw in the film. The film portrays the men and women working in television as hungry for sensationalism, no matter what the cost, and to them, the television, or “the tube” as it is sometimes called, is the source of knowledge, truth, and life for viewers. And of course, I can identify this to my faith.

     The film opens with news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Academy Award for his performance) and Max Schumacher (William Holden) getting drunk in New York as Max tells Howard that because of poor ratings and Howard’s alcoholic behavior since his divorce, his news show will be cancelled. So what does Howard do? Two weeks before his last broadcast, he proclaims that he will kill himself, right on the news program. The ratings skyrocket. And Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, who also won an Academy Award), a young producer for UBS, the television network carrying Howard’s show, sees this as an opportunity to create sensational television. So, by convincing her bosses at UBS of this (including Max, whom she convinces in ways that I won’t go into in this blog), Howard is kept back on the air, and as his rants get crazier and crazier, the ratings go higher and higher. (By rants, I mean that instead of giving the news, he goes on air complaining about the government, the industry, and so on, even using obscenities that normally would not be used on public television.) One of his rants sticks out in particular:

HOWARD: I don't have to tell you things are bad. …We know things are bad—worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. …Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! …So I want you to get up now, I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now, and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out, and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”

     And this man has gained so much attention all over the country, people listen to him—so much so, that people all over New York are standing outside of their apartments and yelling out the windows, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” (This, by the way, is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever seen in a film.) What does this mean? It means the ratings skyrocket, and Howard Beale gets a new “prophetic” show of its own where he rants about anything he wants—and this means that soon, companies are under attack after Howard has called them out. And after being talked to (quite forcefully) by an executive, Howard tones down his show.

     The ratings drop significantly. The sensationalism that was once with Howard Beale is gone. But luckily, Diana has an idea: another UBS program is “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour”, a show tracking the crimes of a gang led by Communists (I’m dead serious). The men in the gang are then assigned to go to a live taping of Howard’s show and assassinate him on live television. This means that not only does UBS not have to worry about Howard Beale anymore, but also “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour” will have an extraordinary season premiere.

     Okay, maybe Chayefsky overemphasizing the satire here a little. But this is his point: the television industry is so obsessed with sensation, with extremity, and with shock, that those types of programming are put before ethics. But why would the industry do this? Because television is so important. Howard even shouts this on his show:

HOWARD: Less than three percent of you people read books! Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers! Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube! …Listen to me: Television is not the truth! Television is [an] amusement park! …We're in the boredom-killing business! So if you want the truth, go to God! Go to your gurus! Go to yourselves—because that's the only place you're ever going to find any real truth!

     Truth. That’s apparently what people want to find when they watch television. I can believe it. But as a Christian, where should my truth come from? In John 14:6, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Later in the book, as Jesus prays for his disciples, he prays, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” (17:17) If a Christian is seeking truth, there’s only One in whom we can find it. I don’t need a “tube” to tell me what to think.

     However, this film reminds me a lot of a theme in “Good Night, and Good Luck.”, which I blogged about a couple months ago. Both films deal with the television industry, but “Network” puts a negative, satirical feel on the industry. “Good Night, and Good Luck.” seems to be more positive about the possibilities of television. This is what I believe: media, whether it’s television, film, radio, print, or whatever, can be used to glorify God—and even, ironically, reveal truth to those who don’t know God. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will find truth in Jesus, and that you will also be encouraged to serve Him in everything in order to reveal His truth to others. And whenever you have doubts, think of what executive Arthur Jensen tells Howard Beale when Howard is asked to keep doing his show:

HOWARD: Why me?

ARTHUR: Because you’re on television, dummy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

     I have to admit, even though Easter is approaching, I wasn’t sure if I should talk about “The Passion of the Christ” today—not because I don’t want to, but because I have no idea what to say. It’s easy for anyone who has studied film like I am right now to take a movie, even “The Passion of the Christ”, and look at the way that it is made and either praise it or tear it apart. But I know that today, I can’t do that, because this film is so much more than just a film. And forget Mel Gibson—I know that he’s shown in the last couple years that he isn’t perfect, even after Christ got to him around the time this movie was made, but I’m not judging this film based on what I know of him. For a believer, this is a tough film to review. And I’ll get into why today.

      “The Passion of the Christ” isn’t a film about the life of Jesus. It’s about the death of Jesus. There are flashbacks here and there that show Jesus as a child, working as a carpenter, or teaching the Sermon on the Mount, but primarily, it details the passion, the crucifixion of the Christ. And this is one of the reasons why this film is so controversial—it may very well be one of the most violent films ever made. I’ve even heard of some viewers who have called director Gibson a sadist because of it. The film opens with Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, and within minutes of the film, Roman guards have arrested Jesus and already beating him brutally. He goes on trial before Pontius Pilate, who in the film is portrayed as almost a paranoid ruler who wants to free Jesus but is too afraid of the people revolting to release him. However, even though Pilate finds no fault in Jesus, he punishes Jesus in exchange for letting murderer Barabbas go. Jesus is whipped brutally (this, to me, is the most graphic scene in the film—Jesus is whipped with sticks and hooks on basically every part of his body) and then handed back over to Pilate, who under pressure sends Jesus to be crucified.

     And thus, the second half of the film details the crucifixion of Jesus. Simon, “a certain man from Cyrene… passing by on his way in from the country” (Mark 15:21), is forced to help Jesus carry his cross up to the hill of Golgotha, and the journey is excruciating. Jesus falls several times, and Simon is more and more compelled. Whoever this bloodied man is, he is showing no anger. He literally embraces his cross at one point, and even one of the two other men that will die next to Jesus laughs at him for it. But once all three men have been nailed to the cross (which is another graphic sequence in the film—Jesus even has his right arm dislocated as the Roman guards are stretching out his hand to nail in the hole), the criminal on Jesus’ left says to the doubtful one on his right:

DISMAS: We deserve this, Gesmas, but he does not. I have sinned, and my punishment is just. (to Jesus) You would be justified in condemning me. I only ask that You remember me, Lord, when You enter Your kingdom.

JESUS: Amen, I tell you, on this day, you shall be with me in paradise.

     This scene is paraphrased from Scripture (Luke 23:40-43), as are many scenes and dialogue in the film. But another criticism that many have for “The Passion of the Christ” is that it supposedly portrays the Passion of Jesus inaccurately at some points. And I believe this to some extent—there are instances where Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, the other screenwriter, take a little too much dramatic license in the wording of the film’s dialogue and plot. For example, in the scenes with characters like Barabbas and Pilate who aren’t described in detail too much in the Gospels, the actors and writers try to give them more depth as characters. This makes sense for giving the film more depth dramatically, but some of the material isn’t exactly Biblical.

     And besides, if you’re looking for a film that details who Jesus was as a man (a term I use very loosely), you won’t get a whole lot from “The Passion of the Christ”. I remember years ago right after the film was released, Mel Gibson did an interview with Diane Sawyer and told her that he felt the crucifixion was the most important part of Jesus’ life. And in a way, that’s true—Jesus came to Earth in order to die for and with our sins. The film even opens not with the main title, but with Isaiah 53:5: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by His wounds we are healed.” The whole film is to show what Jesus went through to save us all from spending eternity separated from our Creator God. And the film not only portrays that in words directly from Scripture, but there are images that Gibson uses that subtly hint at other Scripture passages. For instance, Satan in the film (who is portrayed as an actual man, pale but wrapped in a black cloak—even carrying a deformed child in one scene, which to me could be the Antichrist but I don’t know for sure) haunts Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as He prays. Satan slowly turns a snake to go to Jesus as He is praying what He said in Luke 22:42, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus stands up, resisting Satan’s temptation, and crushes the serpent’s head (hinting at Genesis 3:15).

     But the most powerful image to me is one of the images that does not come from the Gospels. Watching the film recently, this image somehow got to me in a way that it never has before. As Jesus starts carrying his cross, his mother Mary is standing at a distance with John, whom many believe is “the disciple whom [Jesus] loved”, as John 19:26 says. Jesus, weakening more and more because of the pain, both physical and spiritual, falls to the ground. Mary sees this and runs to him. The film cuts between this scene and a flashback of Jesus falling as a small child and Mary running immediately to help him. In the flashback, Mary goes to him and carries small Jesus in her arms, telling him, “I’m here.” She says the same thing as she kneels beside Jesus as he starts getting up. Jesus sees her and in his weakness manages to say:

JESUS: See, Mother, I make all things new.

     The music builds, and He stands back up again, continuing to carry his cross. What a powerful image. Jesus, who has been whipped, beaten, and bloodied, is telling his mother, “This is why I’m here. I am carrying this cross to restore the relationship that my Father can have with his people.” And for that, I am grateful. My sins are such a burden to me, I couldn’t possibly imagine someone carrying all my sins times several billion to take on the sins of the world. And when I, as a Christian, see this portrayal of Jesus being whipped and nailed to a cross, I realize that I should have been in this man’s place. For all its imperfections, “The Passion of the Christ” drives this idea home.

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will continually thank God for sending his one and only Son to die an excruciating death for your sins. And if you’re reading this having not confessed your sins to Jesus, I strongly encourage you to do so. Jesus took your sins with Him on the cross, and He’s waiting for you to come back to Him. He died for you—and He rose again! That is the whole point of Easter. In the film, the stone that covers Jesus’ burial tomb is rolled away, and Jesus stands up, holes in his hands, and walks out. Because Jesus rose from the dead after dying for us, we have a chance to be redeemed and live forever in Heaven someday. I hope to see you there.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

     The other day, I took a chance and watched “Pride & Prejudice”, expecting it to be nothing more than a flat, overly romantic costume drama. …It’s not. Dude. It’s not. This is actually a really well-made film: the music is fantastic, the camerawork is stunning, the acting ensemble is great, and the story itself is a lot more complex than I expected it to be. But enough film-major talk—what “Pride & Prejudice” really sticks out for in terms of my faith is its theme of, well, pride and prejudice. Each character deals with putting differences like class and personality aside, even when marrying, and the idea of pride is a huge stumbling block to any Christian.

     Keira Knightley plays Elizabeth Bennet, a young single woman with four sisters living in… England, somewhere. I forget. Anyway, one night at a fancy ball, she meets a man named Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), who is high in class but not in being able to strike up a conversation. He strikes Elizabeth almost as snobby from the start, and soon she feels a dislike for him. (And no, this disliking doesn’t stay for long.) One day as she converses with him, she confronts him about his prideful nature.

ELIZABETH: Are you too proud, Mr. Darcy? And would you consider pride a fault or a virtue?

DARCY: Maybe it's that I find it hard to forgive the follies and vices of others, or their offenses against me. My good opinion, once lost, is lost forever.

     Elizabeth finds out soon from a friend that Darcy has had a history of disagreements with others, even though that he grew up with from infancy. But while Darcy is dealing with his own kind of pride, Elizabeth is struggling with it as well—Mr. Collins, an awkward priest who has been sent by a patron into the Bennet’s town to look for a wife, sets his eye on Elizabeth. Worried for her well being, Elizabeth rejects him, and Collins marries another woman. Elizabeth cannot believe this: when her friend Charlotte, who has accepted Collins’ proposal, tells her this, Elizabeth can’t get a shocked look off her face.

CHARLOTTE:  Oh, for Heaven's sake, don't look at me like that, Lizzie! There is no earthly reason why I shouldn't be as happy with him as any other.

ELIZABETH: But he's ridiculous!

CHARLOTTE: Oh, hush! Not all of us can afford to be romantic. I've been offered a comfortable home and protection. There's a lot to be thankful for.


CHARLOTTE: I'm twenty-seven years old. I've no money and no prospects. I'm already a burden to my parents… and I'm frightened. So don't you dare judge me, Lizzie. Don't you dare!

     And she walks away. From this point on, it seems like Elizabeth can see that she has put her own pride before marriage. And it shows, because in the end, when Darcy reveals that she loves Elizabeth after all but just couldn’t show it, and has helped marry two of her sisters to try to prove himself in a way, Elizabeth realizes how foolish she’s been. She tells her father when trying to convince him to accept her and Darcy marrying:

ELIZABETH: He is not proud. I was wrong, I was entirely wrong about him. You don't know him, Papa. If I told you what he's really like, what he's done. …He's been a fool about so many things... but then, so have I. You see, he and I are so similar!

     And finally, Elizabeth and Darcy are engaged. They’ve been able to put pride and prejudice aside and find love instead.

     You’re probably familiar with Proverbs 16:18, which reads, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” But Jesus Himself also had a lot to say about pride. In his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7, he tells the crowd not to be hypocrites and judge others before themselves: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (7:3-5) Jesus is saying that if we are too proud, we will not be able to see our own faults, which one could say is what Elizabeth struggles with in the film. She cared too much about social standing to find true love. And true love, in 1 Corinthians 13:4, is “patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that if you can see a prideful struggle in your life that keeps you from loving or even forgiving others, that you would get rid of that plank in your eye and show others the love of Jesus.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

     Chances are you’ve been to or at least heard of, the Internet Movie Database, where you can look up huge amounts of information on past, present, and upcoming movies. On that site, there’s a list of the top 250 movies voted by users. For a while, “The Godfather” was at the top, but recently, the #2 spot took its place. What was that film? “The Shawshank Redemption”. And when I saw it for the first time a few years ago, I understood why. This is an extremely dark yet inspirational film, and it definitely carries with it themes that I can relate to as a Christian.

     Morgan Freeman narrates and plays Ellis “Red” Redding, a lifer sent to Shawshank Prison in Maine for murder. As he gets done with his twentieth year, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) comes in—a former banker accused of murdering his wife and the man she was cheating on, even though Dufresne claims he was innocent. From the start Andy strikes Red as odd:

RED (narrating): I must admit I didn't think much of Andy first time I laid eyes on him; looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over. That was my first impression of the man. …He had a quiet way about him. …He strode like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place.

     And in the next several years that Andy is at Shawshank, he starts making a difference. At first, some rapist prisoners start abusing Andy and keep at it for two years. But during this time, he never loses it. One day, while he, Red, and other prisoners are putting tar on the top of a building, Andy takes a huge risk and recommends a finance plan to the harsh Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), who in return gives to Andy and all his friends beer after work. This is a huge step in Andy’s new friendship with Red and the other prisoners. It also gives Andy opportunities to help other officers—and even Warden Norton (Bob Gunton)—with their financial issues. And finally, it encourages Hadley to beat up the head rapist and get him paralyzed, leaving Andy alone forever.

     In the years following, Andy works to improve his situation even more. He writes to the government to send books to expand Shawshank’s library and succeeds (one of the best scenes in the film is when he plays a Mozart record he has received through the prison loudspeakers). And he helps a new prisoner Tommy (Gil Bellows) finish his high school education. Tommy, it turns out, puts the pieces of his past experiences in prison and Andy’s experience together and realizes—he knows who killed Andy’s wife. Andy really is innocent. But the corrupt warden, who has benefited from Andy’s financial help, won’t help Andy with a release. He wants to keep Andy in Shawshank to help his own funds. So one day, after twenty years of being in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Andy can’t take it anymore. The next morning, the guards find that Andy’s cell is empty. Andy has escaped.

     How? I’ll get to that in a minute. First, though, hopefully you can see as well as I do the connection between Andy Dufresne and a certain Man in the Bible. Yes, that’s Jesus. Jesus Christ, whom the Apostle John refers to in his Gospel as “the Word”, “was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (1:2-3) He goes on to say in verse ten, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” This passage says that even though Jesus was fully God because he was with God at the creation of the world, he was also fully human because he was living in the world. And because Jesus is fully God, he lived without sin. He was the only human being to never sin. Andy Dufresne may be a sinner, but he was sent to Shawshank for a crime he didn’t commit. In that sense, he is as innocent as Jesus was when he died on the cross for our sins.

     Jesus also not only had several best friends in his disciples (just as Andy had Red and the other prisoners closest to him), but Jesus also challenged the authorities—particularly the Pharisees. Matthew 23 has Jesus declaring repeatedly: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” In “The Shawshank Redemption”, Warden Norton is a Pharisee. He tells Andy and other prisoners with him on their first day:

WARDEN: I believe in two things: discipline and the Bible. Here you'll receive both. Put your trust in the Lord—your [hide] belongs to me. Welcome to Shawshank.

     The warden may proclaim Christian faith to his prisoners, giving them Bibles and quoting Scripture during surprise inspections. But he lets his love of money corrupt him. And when Andy gets out, he takes with him money that he had essentially stolen from the warden while he had worked with him, along with files that show the warden’s actions that he sends to a local newspaper. Sure enough, after Andy’s escape, Shawshank Prison is investigated, Captain Hadley is arrested, and Norton kills himself in his office.

     But another aspect of faith that I found in the movie was how Andy actually escaped. Early on in his life sentence, Andy met Red and asked him for a small rock hammer. That way, he could keep himself busy making chess pieces out of rocks he found. But one night, he uses the rock hammer to carve his name in the cell wall, and a huge chunk of cement comes out of the wall. Until now, Andy had no hope of escaping. But now, there’s hope. And he tells the other prisoners this:

ANDY: There are places in this world that aren't made out of stone. …There's something inside... that they can't get to, that they can't touch. That's yours.

RED: What are you talking about?

ANDY: Hope.

RED: Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.

     But that doesn’t stop Andy. And in the end, Andy escapes a rich man with an alias, Shawshank Prison is retaken over, and Red is accepted for parole, where he eventually finds Andy in Mexico. My prayer for you, the reader, is Paul’s prayer in Roman 15:13, that “the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”, and that you would constantly seek to be more like Jesus. As Andy writes Red near the end of the film: “Remember, Red, hope is a good thing. And no good thing ever dies.”