Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Amadeus (1984)

     If you know me at all, you know I’ve been playing the cello for about nine years. You may also know I’ve been playing piano (sort of) for about seven. I have a huge passion for music as well as movies. And aside from “Fiddler On the Roof”, another film that inspired me to become a filmmaker with its balance of film technique and music was “Amadeus”. And if you haven’t seen or heard of this movie, it is indeed based (partially) on the life of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

     Tom Hulce plays Mozart as an extremely talented but extremely immature young man engaged to a beautiful woman named Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge). The first time we meet Mozart, we don’t hear his name, but he is flirting with her (using foul language) at a party. But he hears music outside the room he is in, and he realizes that his music has started without him. When the audience realizes that this is Mozart, it’s hard to believe—especially for Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), the other main character in the film. “Amadeus” is told exclusively from Salieri’s point of view. The film opens with an older Salieri attempting suicide and then being rushed to an asylum, where he talks to a priest through the night about his life and his envy of Mozart. He tells the priest that as a boy, he prayed to God, asking:

SALIERI: Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate Your glory through music—and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote.

     Later on in life, however, he catches Mozart flirting with Constanze dirtily, and he cannot believe that such a vile, lustful man could compose such beautiful music that he heard at that party. After that event, Salieri’s envy begins to grow and grow. When Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) invites Mozart to visit, Salieri composes a march in his honor, which Mozart starts tweaking and changing, somewhat disrespectfully. Mozart is commissioned to write an opera and writes “Abduction from the Seraglio”, set in a brothel and starring one of Salieri’s pupils, Katerina Cavalieri, whom Salieri was in love with. When he finds out that Cavalieri fell for Mozart, he is extremely distressed.

SALIERI: What was God up to? …All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing—and then made me mute! Why? Tell me that. If He didn't want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?

     Salieri’s envy for Mozart rages on, and he uses his power as the Emperor’s court composer to see that Mozart’s operas are withdrawn quickly after they are released. Mozart, meanwhile, is struggling as well. His drinking habits start driving him to bankruptcy, and his compositions are bringing in little pay. When his father dies, Mozart is as distraught as ever. But Salieri, in his anger, uses death to haunt Mozart: in disguise, Salieri goes to Mozart and pays him to write a requiem mass for an unnamed dead man. The older Salieri tells the priest his plan: get Mozart to write a requiem mass, then kill Mozart, and have the mass play at his funeral—pretending that it was Salieri who wrote it!

     However, Salieri’s plan doesn’t work so well because of drunk and dying Mozart: one night, Mozart faints while playing piano at his final opera, and Salieri, posing at the true friend to Mozart that he is, takes him back to Mozart’s home. Eventually, they both sit down to finish the requiem. (Yes, this probably didn’t happen, but it’s a pretty cool scene.) Dying Mozart dictates the music to Salieri who writes it down, but the next morning, before Constanze can throw Salieri out of the house, Mozart is dead. And because the family was so poor, Mozart doesn’t even get his own grave—his body is thrown into a pit with others who were too poor to afford a funeral. So ends the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and so begins the downfall of Antonio Salieri into obscurity and, in his own words, “mediocrity”.

     The name “Amadeus” can be translated to “lover of God”, “for the love of God”, or, according to the filmmakers, “beloved of God”. What a symbolic title: Salieri believed that God was rejected Salieri’s musical talent and using Mozart as his instrument instead. Because of this, Salieri began a downward spiral into jealousy, envy, and hatred for Mozart—and even a hatred for God. In a heartbreaking scene, Salieri places his crucifix on his wall (which he has looked to several times for inspiration while composing) into his fireplace to burn. Salieri has let envy get the better of him.

     God makes it clear throughout the Bible that envy is wrong. Even in Exodus 20, He tells the Israelites as one of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” (20:17). Jesus condemns envy in Mark 7, teaching, “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” (7:20-22) Being jealous of another person, his belongings, or his talents is wrong—and it is even twisted in Salieri’s case, because he is jealous that God would use someone else to serve Him rather than Salieri himself!

     But another spiritual element to this film that I noticed is the fact that God uses Mozart, who is (at least, portrayed in the film as) a lustful, immature drunkard, to make beautiful music that the world remembers. God can use anyone to serve Him despite his or her faults. One of my favorite verses is Ephesians 2:10, which says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” This is the New International Version of the Bible (the version I normally use for this blog), but I do know that other versions of this verse don’t say “handiwork”—they say “masterpiece”. What a thought! Even in my sins and imperfections, I am God’s masterpiece, and He can use me to praise Him no matter what.

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will reject the idea of envying another person’s gifts and ask God to use you to serve others however He wants—no matter the cost.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Witness (1985)

     Where I live in Ohio, Amish Country isn’t too far away. Every once in a while, my family goes down there to see the villages, have lunch at the local restaurants, and shop at the general stores. It’s hard not to judge the Amish—without electricity, cars, or even modern clothes, a lot of people, myself included, almost look down upon them. Today’s film, “Witness”, is the only film I’ve ever seen that goes into detail into the lives of the Amish. And it’s probably the only film ever made that puts the average American into their lives to learn from what they live.

     And the man put into their lives is John Book, played by Harrison Ford (who was nominated for his only Academy Award for this role). Book is a police officer in Philadelphia, and he is sent to a local train station to start investigating the murder of another policeman. The murder was done by two men in the bathroom of the station, and the only witness was a young Amish boy named Samuel (Lukas Haas, who I personally know as the engineer killed off in the first few minutes of “Inception”). Samuel and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGinniss) were on their way to Baltimore to visit her sister after the death of her husband Daniel when the murder occurred. Samuel identifies one of the murderers as a fellow police officer, McFee (Danny Glover), and Book reports this to an authority. But soon, McFee finds Book in a parking garage and shoots him, so Book has to go to the Amish village not only to be healed but also to protect Samuel, the sole witness of the murder.
     Most of the rest of the movie feels less like a crime drama than I expected “Witness” to be. The rest of the movie, Book is cared for by the Amish people, learning more of their customs, working for Rachel’s father Eli (Jan Rubes), and helping the neighbors build a farm. He and Rachel even start falling in love—much to Eli’s concern. But the biggest concern of all to everyone is Book’s use of his gun. One day, he finds Samuel holding it, scolds him, and tells him that he can handle it as long as it isn’t loaded and Book is there with him. Rachel is not pleased. She takes the gun from him and keeps it hidden until Book needs it.

     Then one day, Book finds out that his partner policeman has been killed. He realizes that the officer he went to before, Schaeffer (Josef Sommer), who he told that McFee was one of the murderers was working with McFee and his partner all along. Schaeffer, McFee, and the other murderer head to the Amish village, armed and loaded to find and kill Book. In the end, McFee and his partner are killed, and Samuel, who has kept himself safe while the three crooked cops hunt through the village, rings a bell in a tower to send for the rest of the Amish. Once Schaeffer finally finds Book, Book leads him outside, where Samuel, Rachel, Eli, and dozens of other Amish residents are watching. Schaeffer knows he can’t kill Book and get away with it. He is taken into custody, and Book finally is able to leave the village.

     “Witness” is at times a very violent movie, but in the film, violence seems to be condemned. After Samuel finds Book’s gun, there is a scene where Eli sits Samuel down at the kitchen table, with the gun on the table, and he asks Samuel:

ELI: We believe it is wrong to take a life. That is only for God. …Would you kill another man?

SAMUEL: I would only kill the bad man.

ELI: Only the bad man, I see. And you know these bad men by sight? You are able to look into their hearts and see this badness?

SAMUEL: I can see what they do. I have seen it.

ELI: And having seen, you become one of them! Don't you understand? What you take into your hands, you take into your heart.

     Two passages came to mind after watching this scene. The first is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he talks about murder. Jesus says, “‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.’” (Matthew 5:21-22a) Jesus says that if you hate your neighbor, your friend, or anyone, you have killed them in your heart. This is similar to what Eli is telling Samuel: by wanting to kill a “bad man”, he has murdered in his heart and become one of them!

     This leads to the other passage I want to share with you. This semester, I did a Bible study on James with some of the guys on my residence hall, and one of the passages that stuck out to me was James 2:10-11. It says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery’, also said, ‘Do not murder’. If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.” This passage is saying that each person’s sins may be different, and each may have different consequences, but since we all have broken God’s commandments in one way or another, we are all sinners. Samuel may hate McFee, and McFee may have murdered a fellow police officer; but both men are sinners.

     And by the end of the film, Book realizes that he cannot defeat Schaeffer with violence. His path to redemption has begun. My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will find redemption, no matter how great your sin, in the loving arms of God. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

     I haven’t seen that many films made by the Coen brothers—that is, writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen. I have not seen “Fargo”, “The Big Lebowski”, or “A Serious Man”. I have seen “No Country for Old Men”, “True Grit”, and most recently, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” But what I can already tell about the Coen brothers’ films is that they have a great sense of humor. Some of their films are darker than others, but they are all still pretty funny. Today’s movie is probably the funniest Coen brothers’ film I’ve seen yet. I vaguely remember reading “The Odyssey” by Homer early on in high school (the work which this film is loosely based on), but I do know that Homer’s story wasn’t as funny as this one—but both works come to (what I think is) an equal spiritual level.

     However, the spirituality in “The Odyssey” was probably more about ancient legends of gods and myths. “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, set in 1930’s Mississippi, focuses on different modern faiths, including Christianity. The film opens with Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) escaping a chain gang in order to look for a treasure. When running through the woods, they come across a congregation dressed in white walking to a nearby river, singing a Gospel tune as members are baptized. Delmar is transfixed: he runs to the preacher and is baptized. When he tells his two companions excitedly that the preacher told him his sins were forgiven, Pete runs in as well. Everett, however, is doubtful.

EVERETT: Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi's a little more hard-nosed. Baptism! You two are just dumber than a bag of hammers!

     And their journey to find the treasure continues. They meet up with Tommy Johnson, a young African-American man who says he just sold his soul to the devil. In exchange, apparently the devil gave him the ability to play the guitar. And along the way, the four of them meet up with a blind music producer who records music out of his home. The four runaways, calling themselves “The Soggy Bottom Boys”, record a song that becomes a huge hit. When police figure out that three of those boys have escaped a chain gang, they go on the hunt for them.

     As the four of them continue their journey, Tommy goes his separate way, and the three runaways meet George Nelson, a vain gangster who gets them to help him rob a bank—in the least exciting way possible. That night, Nelson gives them his share of the money and walks off, and Everett decides that he is looking for something else fulfilling. He tells his companions, however, that Nelson will be on top again. Later on, at a political rally (the race for mayor is between current mayor Pappy O’Daniel and opponent Homer Stokes), Everett finds his daughters and learns that when his wife left him, she told them that he’d been hit by a train. When Everett finds Daisy, his wife (Holly Hunter), he learns that she is remarrying. Everett is distraught.

     If you’ve seen the movie, you know that there’s a lot that I’m not mentioning here. Well, there’s a lot that happens in this movie, but in the end, the three run into a Ku Klux Klan meeting—led by none other than Homer Stokes. They have captured Tommy and are about to lynch him. The three runaways break up the meeting, get Tommy back, and end up at a political convention for O’Daniel where they perform their hit single. Everett’s wife is there, and she is stunned. Stokes also shows up and tries to convince the audience that the Soggy Bottom Boys are guilty of… breaking up a lynch mob meeting. So it’s no use: Stokes is booed out of the auditorium, and O’Daniel makes a statement:

O’DANIEL: Sounded to me that [Stokes] was harboring some kinda hateful grudge against the Soggy Bottom Boys on account a’ their rough and rowdy past. Looks like Homer Stokes is the kinda fella who likes to cast the first stone! Well, I’m with you folks! I’m a forgive-and-forget Christian. And I say, if their rambunctiousness and misdemeanoring is behind them—(to Everett, seriously) it is, ain’t it, boys?

EVERETT: Uh, yes sir, it is.

O’DANIEL: Well then I say, by the power vested in me, these boys is hereby pardoned!

     The crowd goes wild. Everett and Daisy are now on good terms—until she learns that Everett doesn’t have a ring for her. Then she leaves him again. And as the Soggy Bottom Boys go off into the woods again, they pass George Nelson, on his way to the electric chair, smiling and yelling as always.

     I’ll stop here for a second and say: yes, Paddy O’Daniel is probably referencing John 8, where Jesus pardons a woman caught in the act of adultery. The Pharisees brought her to him and challenged him, saying that Moses says such women should be stoned to death. Jesus starts writing in the ground and responds: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (8:7) The authorities leave, and soon it is just Jesus and the woman there. John writes, “Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’” (8:10-11) This is a powerful story of forgiveness that shows that even though we may have been caught in sin, we all have sinned, and Jesus can forgive us all.
     However, the only way he can forgive us and save us is if we ask. This brings us to the very end of the movie. The police have caught up with the runaways, and when they don’t believe them when they say that the mayor has pardoned them, they get the nooses ready. Everett, Pete, and Delmar are about to meet their death. But they all stop to pray before being hanged—even Everett. Everett gets down on his knees and asks sincerely: 
EVERETT: Lord, please look down and recognize us poor sinners. Please, Lord, I just want to see my daughters again. I’ve been separated from my family for so long. I know I’ve been guilty of pride and sharp dealing. I’m sorry that I turned my back on you. Forgive me. Help us, Lord, for the sake of my family. For Tommy’s sake, for Delmar’s and Pete’s. Let me see my daughters again, Lord. Help us, please.
     Oh yeah, I probably should have mentioned this. The three of them mentioned earlier on in the film that a dam was being built on the river. It just happened to be built that day. So after Everett finishes praying, water starts flowing underneath their feet, and suddenly, a huge rushing water floods the valley. Everett tries to convince himself that “there’s a perfectly scientific explanation for what just happened”, but Pete and Delmar believe it was a miracle and an answer to prayer.
     My prayer for you, the reader, is that today you will find God’s forgiveness. Whatever you are guilty of, I believe He can wash your sins away through the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for your sins and mine.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

     When I was preparing to write this week, it was really hard for me to figure out what to say. What can I say? I mean, our world has been through some major events the last couple months. In March, a huge earthquake hit Japan and the surrounding area and destroyed thousands of lives. In April, tornadoes hit the United States and destroyed property and lives in three states. And even in the last couple days, with the death of Osama bin Laden, we’re still reminded of the tension in the Middle East that’s been going on for years. And I’m feeling called to address all this today. But I needed God to give me the right words—on my own, there’s no way that I could respond to all of this.

     But this weekend, God showed me what kind of a message I wanted to share with you. This semester, I’m taking a history class (excuse me, Western Civilization class), and we just got done discussing the Russian Revolution, prompting me to watch a movie I hadn’t seen in a very long time, “Doctor Zhivago”. If you’ve seen it, you know—it’s epic. “Doctor Zhivago” is a three-and-a-half-hour-long epic film set during the Russian Revolution, made by the same filmmakers that created “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia” (two films that hopefully I will be able to share with you soon). But while “Kwai” is set in a Japanese jungle during World War Two, and “Lawrence” is set in a huge Arabian desert during World War One, “Zhivago” is set in a vast, snowy landscape, and it is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. But at times, it’s also very painful to watch.

     Omar Sharif, who also starred in “Lawrence of Arabia”, plays Yuri A. Zhivago (I abbreviate his middle name because I don’t remember how to spell it and I don’t want to look it up), a young graduate student studying to be a doctor who writes poetry as a hobby. His mother died when he was a child, and so he was raised by his aunt and uncle, whose daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie) he eventually marries (which, I suppose, wasn’t objectionable back then and there). But soon, Yuri is separated from them as he serves in the Revolution, doing medical work wherever needed. While he is there, he works with a volunteer named Lara (Julie Christie). Lara has had an interesting history: at seventeen years old, she was seduced by a much older man, Victor Komarosky (Rod Steiger). It not only destroys her innocence, but it also almost ruins the engagement she already has with Pasha (Tom Courtenay), a man fighting against the government during the Revolution. And one night, at a local Christmas Eve party, Lara shoots Victor (who, fearing arrest, commands those around him not to get the police), and Pasha takes Lara away. Yuri was at this party—he already knows Lara.

     As the war goes on, his love for Lara grows and grows, and then one day, she is able to leave. Yuri goes home to Tonya and their new son Sasha and discovers that their huge house has been used by Red officials for housing other locals. Soon, they realize they have to leave. And who should help them leave? Yuri’s long-lost brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness), a Bolshevik who decides to help Yuri despite the political conflict. So Yuri, Tonya, her father, and Sasha take a train to Varykino far away, and the struggle of the war starts hitting home for them.

     I’ll try to explain as much as I can in a small amount of space. At one point when the train stops, Yuri goes for a walk and finds himself captured by Red soldiers. He meets their leader, Strelnikov—Pasha’s new alias. When Yuri tells him about Lara, Strelnikov eventually lets him go. The four reach Varykino to find the property they had there locked up by the government, manage to fix up a nearby cottage to live in, and Tonya gets ready for bearing her new child with Yuri. Yuri, however, finds Lara in a town nearby and ends up having an affair with her. Then one day, when he realizes he can’t do that to his pregnant wife, he goes to Lara’s house and leaves her—and on his way home gets captured by more soldiers and is forced to serve as a medical officer. He never sees Tonya or his children again.

     One night, in the middle of a frozen, snowy battlefield, Yuri simply turns around and heads away from the war. By the time he reaches the nearest city, Yuriatin, he is practically frozen to the point of death, and he longs to see his family again. But one morning, he wakes up in Lara’s home, with whom he stays until Victor comes back, almost out of nowhere, and tells them that they have to flee. Strelnikov—or Pasha or whatever you want to call him—has been arrested and shot himself on his way to trial, and now Lara is in danger. Lara ends up leaving with Victor, leaving Yuri to find another way to them.

     He never does. Then almost ten years later, he catches a glimpse of Lara down the street, but his failing heart prevents him from getting to her—while running to his lover, he has a heart attack and dies. And now that I’ve written all this, I see how dark this story actually is. The movie is shot beautifully, but the story is very sad. The tone of the story is almost as cold as its setting. We even see images of bodies in front of machine guns along the lines of battle, literally frozen in their place. And one little line that struck me near the end of the film is when Yuri and Lara have had to flee and find Yuri’s childhood home, where they and Lara’s daughter live until Victor comes to warn them. Lara is scared—she realizes she’s in the middle of a frozen wasteland, wolves howling outside and the weather keeping her awake at night. On the verge of a breakdown, she tells Yuri: “This is an awful time to be alive.” Yuri tries to convince her that it isn’t, but it’s hard. And even in the end, it is probably hard for Lara to believe it.

     Do you think that’s what some people in our world are saying right now amidst all this tragedy? “This is an awful time to be alive”? I believe that people have been saying that since the beginning of the world. This is a fallen world, filled with sin and devastation, and at times it feels terrible to be alive. I saw this film and knew that I should address this. But what could I say? The only way that I could say something worth saying was if God gave me the words to speak. The next day, he did. In my devotions, I read 2 Corinthians 5, which I feel perfectly describes the conflict between living a worldly life and longing for a heavenly one. “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked.” (5:1-2) The Apostle Paul goes on and says in the following verses, “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” (5:6-9)

     What a profound statement! Paul tells the Corinthians—and us—that even while we suffer on this earth, we need to remember that we have a home waiting for us in Heaven: an eternal, pure, glorious home with Christ! So even while we are on this earth, we need to “make it our goal to please him”. My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will find encouragement in God’s words (not mine) to live your life for Him even through worldly suffering; for one day, these things will pass away, and we will live gloriously with our God and our Savior.