Wednesday, August 31, 2011

White Hunter Black Heart (1990)

     Last week I talked about “The African Queen”, about a man and a woman who travel down an African river escaping Germans in World War One. Now, think hard about that. They made this movie in 1951, in color, on location in Africa. Under those conditions, you may think that “The African Queen” was pretty hard to shoot. Well, sure enough, it was. Katharine Hepburn got dysentery, the boat sank twice, and director John Huston spent more time hunting than really working on the film. Today’s movie is a wildly fictional account of that story, directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Clint Eastwood. Eastwood is known more for dramatic films like “Unforgiven”, “Letters From Iwo Jima”, and “Mystic River”, but if he ever directed a comedy, it would be “White Hunter Black Heart”, because it may be the most light-hearted movie of his I’ve seen.

     Eastwood stars as filmmaker John Wilson, who is indeed based off of Huston. He is visited by Pete Verrill (Jeff Fahey), who is based on Peter Vertiel, co-writer of “The African Queen” and writer of the book this movie was based on, which is based on the making of “The African Queen”. I hope that makes sense. Anyway, Wilson employs Verrill to write his next film for him, and he’s excited to make it: they’re going to shoot it in Africa. But his producer, Paul Landers (George Dzundza), who is based on real producer Sam Spiegel, is nervous about sending a film crew to another continent. Eventually, Wilson convinces him, and the crew set out to make their movie.

     However, there are tons of roadblocks along the way. Wilson and Verrill debate about the end of the film, whether it should be a happy ending like Verrill wants or a sadder ending like Wilson wants. There’s also a lot of problems with the weather that keep the crew from shooting. And above all, Wilson gets distracted by his goals of safari. He goes with an African guide into the jungle and finds an elephant that he wants to hunt and kill. And he wants to find it so bad, that he puts that before the movie. The rest of the crew is distressed by it, especially Verrill. He confronts him about his decision one night:

VERRILL: You’re either crazy, or the most egocentric, irresponsible [person] that I’ve ever met. You’re about to blow this whole picture out of your nose, John. And for what? To commit a crime. To kill one of the rarest, most noble creatures that roams the face of this crummy earth. And in order for you to commit this crime, you’re willing to forget about all of us and let this whole thing go down the drain.

WILSON: You’re wrong, kid. It’s not a crime to kill an elephant. It’s bigger than all that. It’s a sin to kill an elephant. You understand? It’s a sin! It’s the only sin that you can buy a license and go out and commit. That’s why I want to do it before I do anything else in this world.

     John Wilson is obsessed with a lot of things. He’s obsessed with women. He seems to be obsessed with cursing. He’s obsessed with getting things his way. And he’s so obsessed with hunting this one elephant that he’s risking everything that he came to do in Africa in the first place. But one day, he finds the elephant. And it’s wild—so wild that it ends up killing the African guide that has led Wilson through his safari. And Wilson is so distressed by it that he decides he can’t shoot the elephant. He feels responsible for the man’s death.

     When he comes back to the movie set, the natives hear about the death and start chanting: “White hunter, black heart”. And Wilson starts to make things right: he goes to Verrill and tells him: “You were right, Pete. The ending is all wrong.” And he starts production, and “The African Queen” is made.

     According to Katharine Hepburn, this movie was entirely fictional. And I believe it—I think if John Huston actually went on safari and it led to the death of his guide, someone would have heard about it. But this movie, even though it may be a little more humorous than Clint Eastwood’s other films, does convey the idea of obsession very well. And it does show that if you put your heart into the wrong things, the consequences can be even fatal. And as a Christian, the one thing that I should constantly be obsessing over is Jesus Christ. And I don’t mean I should obsess over just doing things for Jesus; I need to be so in love with Him that nothing else matters!

     I apologize, but I’m going back once again to the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches different ways you can serve Him, but you should serve in a way that is about glorifying Jesus, not just serving for the sake of serving. You can give to the needy, pray, and fast as much as you want, but if you obsess over doing it so that others can see how holy you are, you won’t be holy at all. Talking about God, his Heavenly Father, Jesus says, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (6:33)

     And going back to the book of James, I shouldn’t be so concerned about my works that I should forget about my faith. James references Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son because his faith was enough for him. “You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” (2:22) So I can’t obsess over just serving: I have to have a good motivation behind it, and my motivation is Jesus Christ.

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will only let yourself become obsessed with Jesus, and that you would serve Him with faith that needs only Him.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The African Queen (1951)

     Humphrey Bogart rocks. Known as one of the greatest actors of his time, he delivered great performances in “Casablanca”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “Key Largo”, and many other movies. And also, Katharine Hepburn rocks. At her time known as “box-office poison” (meaning people stayed away from seeing her movies), she became one of the greatest actresses of her time with films like “The Philadelphia Story”, “Bringing Up Baby”, and in her later years “On Golden Pond”. So what would a movie with both these actors be? Why, a classic, of course. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you “The African Queen”.

     Hepburn plays Rose Sayer, a Methodist missionary from Britain serving in the jungles of Africa with her brother Samuel (Robert Morley). From the beginning of the movie, their efforts seem almost futile—the first time we see them, they’re leading the natives in a hymn while the crowd is either trying to sing along, shouting randomly, or running outside to see the African Queen. The African Queen is a small boat that often travels down the local river, driven by Captain Charlie Allnut (Bogart) who starts bringing the natives to himself and driving them away from the Sayer’s just by throwing his cigarette on the ground. He seems like a nice man to the missionaries, but he comes off as a little coarse, especially to Samuel.

     However, this is during World War One. And one day, German soldiers come in to take natives captive and make them into soldiers. Their villages are destroyed, and the Sayer’s are devastated. Samuel is so much so, that he ends up going crazy and dying just a short time later. Rose is alone until Charlie comes to get her out of the jungle on the African Queen. And soon, Rose comes up with the idea of creating a torpedo with supplies that Charlie has on the boat and using it to blow up a German ship. Charlie, of course, thinks this is impossible. For one thing, he wouldn’t know how to make a torpedo from scratch. For another thing, how could one little torpedo blow up a huge German military ship? But he eventually tells Rose that he will make it, and she holds him to that promise—even through their troubles.

     And believe me, there are troubles. At one point, German soldiers, some of who are African natives, attack the African Queen and shoot a hole into the engine that almost stops their journey. Charlie gets drunk one day from all the liquor he keeps aboard and ends up insulting Rose very harshly, prompting her to pour all the alcohol into the river. This, of course, leads to more tension between the two of them. And one day, they find themselves going down rapids, risking the boat and their lives. But by their teamwork and courage, they end up surviving—and yes, they start falling in love.

     It’s amazing to see the transformation that occurs in the relationship between Charlie and Rose. If last week’s movie “The Apartment” showed the negatives in a relationship between a man and a woman, “The African Queen” shows the positives—and it does it in a very humorous way. They start out disagreeing with each other about everything; from the torpedo to the way Charlie runs the boat to the decision to go down the river in the first place. But they’re around each other for so long that they get used to one another’s presence, and by the time they’ve safely traveled down the rapids, they find themselves in each other’s arm and happy about it.

     That’s what God intends for a loving relationship between a man and a woman. He created Eve because he saw Adam alone in the Garden of Eden and said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18) And his intention was for the two of them to comfort and care for each other and their surroundings. And it should be my intention, as a single young man who wonders all the time whether or not I’m going to get married someday, to make myself pure and holy before God so that I will be able to love my wife well—as well as respect the other women that God puts in my life!

     Last week, I quoted Ephesians 5 where it says not to be sexually immoral. But that chapter goes on to talk about how husbands and wives should love and respect each other: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. …Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” (5:22, 25) If there’s a special someone in my life (forgive me for putting it in those corny terms), I need to love and respect them as Christ would—but I also need to keep in mind that Christ Himself should be the center of that relationship.

     Now, who knows if Charlie becomes a Methodist later on, because they didn’t put that in the movie. What I do know is that he and Rose make a torpedo but are soon captured by Germans and are about to be hanged. But Charlie has one request for the captain: to marry him and Rose. So the captain leads them in their vowels and then says the best line in the movie: “I now pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution.” Then, ka-boom, the torpedo goes off, the ship crashes, and Charlie and Rose escape, happily married. (In the book this movie was based on, they actually die, but the filmmakers changed their minds. I’ll tell you more about it later.) Anyway, my prayer for you, the reader, is that in your friendships, you will strive to love the people around you as Christ would, and that you would make Him the center of your relationships.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Apartment (1960)

     I hate to do this, but I’m going to start today’s blog with a little history lesson. Before we had a movie ratings system (G, PG-13, and so on), movies had to follow the Hollywood Production Code, made in the 1930’s that banned certain controversial content from movies. As time went on, it got a little more lenient, and pretty soon, movies could talk about almost any issue they wanted, as long as it showed consequences. One of the filmmakers that took advantage of this was a man named Billy Wilder. In 1959, he directed the controversial “Some Like It Hot”, and followed it the next year with “The Apartment”, my favorite of all his films, which has a very dark story but is a great movie because of its humor, its characters, and its acceptance of the consequences.

     Jack Lemmon is C.C. Baxter, working for an insurance company in New York City. He’s a good worker, an average worker, who comes to work on time and frequently stays an extra hour or two after the rest of the workers leave. But those aren’t the reasons why Baxter is so popular among his employers. He’s respected because he loans his apartment out to his employers who are having extramarital affairs and need a place to get away with them. (Dead serious. Controversy much?) It started with one guy, and now several men bring his apartment key back and forth so they can make their affairs (in more ways than one) unseen.

     But because he does this, Baxter is living the good life. He’s on his way to a promotion as a second assistant. And everyday on the elevator up to his cubicle, he makes good conversation with the elevator girl, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). To Baxter, Kubelik seems like an innocent girl, even if she does get hit on by the older male workers. But things are more complicated for her than he realizes. One night, a man using his apartment gives Baxter tickets to a musical, and Baxter decides to take Kubelik to see it. She agrees but she tells him she might be late because she’s meeting another man for dinner before the musical. The man is J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), a man high up at the insurance firm who also has used Baxter’s apartment. It turns out that Sheldrake has had numerous extramarital affairs, one of them being the innocent Fran Kubelik. And that night, Sheldrake takes her to a restaurant and tells her that it’s been too long since he’s been with her, but she says, in tears, that she’s started to get over it:

KUBELIK: Look, Jeff. We had two wonderful months this summer, but that was it. It happens all the time. Wife and kids go away to the country, and the boss has a fling with the secretary, or the manicurist or the elevator girl. Come September, the picnic’s over. Goodbye! The kids go back to school; the boss goes back to the wife; and the girl… For a while there, you try kidding yourself that you’re going with an unmarried man. Then one day, he keeps looking at his watch and asks you if there’s any lipstick showing, then rushes out to catch the 714 to White Plains. So you fix yourself a cup of innocent coffee, and you sit there by yourself, and you think. And it all begins to look so ugly!

     Fran is clearly distraught about being caught up in an extramarital affair. And one night, Sheldrake ends up taking her to Baxter’s apartment (and she doesn’t know that it’s Baxter’s apartment), trying to comfort her but she resists. He ends up leaving, and Fran is alone in the apartment. She finds some sleeping pills and overdoses, and Baxter finds her just in time to save her. And what follows is a growing relationship between Baxter and Kubelik, one that she feels that she needs: an innocent friendship with a nice guy.

     And when Baxter finally realizes what Kubelik’s been through, he refuses to let his employers use his apartment. When Sheldrake asks him and offers him an even higher promotion working with him, Baxter takes back his apartment key and quits the firm, telling him that he cannot bring anyone back to his apartment—especially not Miss Kubelik. When Fran finds this out, she starts falling in love with him.

     It was very risky to make a movie like this fifty years ago. Adultery was something that you couldn’t explicitly talk about in the media because it was too… well, adult. But if you’re a Christian, and/or you’ve read the Bible, you know that adultery has been around for basically as long as sin has been around. A couple weeks ago when I talked about “All the President’s Men”, I referenced one of the Ten Commandments that says not to lie. “The Apartment” addresses another Commandment: You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14) Proverbs 6:32 warns that “a man who commits adultery has no sense; whoever does so destroys himself.” But Jesus took it even further in the Gospels: He told His followers in the Sermon on the Mount, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28)

     That’s a scary thought, especially for young men like me who struggle with this often. Later in the New Testament, Paul warns the Ephesians that among them, “there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” (5:3) So basically, a married man can sleep with another woman, and a single man can look at a girl in a lustful way; but they’re still guilty of adultery! And they’re still guilty of sinning and living an impure life.

     However, a powerful story in the Bible is found in John 8:2-11, where the Pharisees test Jesus by bringing to him a woman found in the act of adultery and claiming that the law of Moses says she should be stoned to death. But Jesus knew their hearts, and he said: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (8:7) The crowd dropped their stones and left, leaving Jesus and the woman alone. And He told her that since no one else was left to condemn her, neither did he. What a powerful story of forgiveness! And I bet that’s a story that Fran Kubelik would have loved to hear. She would have been able to put her guilt, her impurities, and even her suicidal thoughts behind her and, as Jesus told the woman, “go and leave [her] life of sin”. (8:11)

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that whatever sin you may be carrying today, and however filthy or guilty you may feel, you will be able to lay it down before Jesus, feel His forgiveness, and live a life striving to be pure before Him.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Breaking Away (1979)

     Tomorrow, I go back to school. I’m a leader at my college’s freshman orientation, and so I have a week of training, a few days of leading new students around campus, and then classes start again. And I’m pumped. I go to school in another state, a five-hour drive from home, and so I haven’t gotten to see basically any of my friends back at school. However, I remember a year ago, when I was going into my freshman year not knowing anyone. To be honest, that first month of college was really tough. I left behind a lot of friends from my school and my youth group, and I really didn’t want to say goodbye. Today’s movie is dedicated to all of you reading this who feel separated like I did by college. Now, I don’t know how many cycling movies I’ve ever seen, if any, but this is definitely considered one of the best. “Breaking Away” is even one of the best sports movies I’ve ever seen. It’s funny, it’s touching, and it has a great theme of friendship that I’m glad I saw right before I went to college.

     Dennis Christopher (who went on to play runner Charlie Paddock in “Chariots of Fire”, one of my favorite movies) is Dave Stoller, a young man about to turn twenty years old who has an obsession with cycling—particularly with the champion cycling team from Italy. He’s so obsessed with them, in fact, that he tries to be Italian himself. He speaks occasional Italian, calling his parents “Mama” and “Papa”. He blasts Italian opera from his bedroom. And he goes by an Italian alias: Enrico Gismondi. But to most of the neighborhood, he’s not known as Enrico. He’s known as Dave, one of the local “cutters”, basically a young bum. I guess. He doesn’t have a job, and he doesn’t go to college, so his first summer after graduating high school is spent basically sitting around with his friends, hanging out and swimming in the local lake that’s formed in the quarries, where buildings that Dave’s father (Paul Dooley) helped construct have been long demolished.

     His friends aren’t as obsessed with cycling as Dave is, but they get along well. All just out of high school, Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern), and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) aren’t sure what to do with their lives, either. But they all are still living in Bloomington, Indiana, the college town of Indiana University, so to all the students there and most of the neighborhood, they are all known as “cutters”. But that doesn’t stop them from interacting with them. Dave falls in love with Kathy (Robyn Douglass), an IU student, and never reveals his real self to her: he introduces himself as Enrico, a foreign exchange student. And unfortunately, she’s smitten with “Enrico”.

     But then something happens that changes Dave’s entire outlook on cycling. The Italian cycling team arrives for a local competition. Dave is excited and joins in the race. But when the Italians see Dave and the fact that he can not only speak to them but also beat them, they cheat the race and knock out Dave’s bike. Dave loses the race and his respect for the Italian cyclists. His mood changes significantly from happy and carefree to depressed and let down. And he finally tells Kathy the truth: he’s not a foreign exchange student; he’s a cutter. She is extremely hurt, having been led to believing this for so long, and Dave feels guilty too.

     But through the summer, Dave and his three friends are always looking out for each other. Moocher is getting married to his high school sweetheart, and the three others are supporting him; Mike tries showing off to the IU male students who have made fun of them by racing them in the lake, and when he starts drowning, the three others rescue him; and when they hear of the IU “Little 500” cycling race, they decide to form a team together. And to make a long story short, by helping each other when one team member loses the strength to make it another lap, their team, the “Cutters”, wins the race. Dave is able to make up with Kathy; he enrolls at Indiana University and there meets a French female foreign exchange student which starts getting into French culture instead.

     This movie is great. It’s one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, particularly with the whole Italian concept. It even leads to one of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard in a movie: when Dave’s mom starts making more Italian food for him, his distressed father complains: “I want some American food! I want French fries!” But one of the best parts about “Breaking Away” is the camaraderie between the four friends. They may not know what they’re doing after high school, but they do know that they’re going to stick together. One day when Mike is complaining about how he’s bored all summer, Cyril reminds him of their friendship:

MIKE: The only thing I’m afraid of is wasting the rest of my life with you guys!

CYRIL: I thought that was the whole plan: that we were going to waste the rest of our lives together.

     And the kind of fellowship that Dave, Mike, Cyril, and Moocher have is the kind of fellowship that God wants for Christians to have with each other. The relationship between Christian friends should be as personal as the fellowship that Christians had in the early church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Acts 2:42. The Apostle Paul also writes in 1 Thessalonians, “Encourage one another and build each other up.” (5:11) And believe me, having good fellowship with believers is extremely important in college. I’m at a Christian university, and so I’m surrounded by neighbors who strive just as I do to live a life of faith, but I think at a secular university, it’s even more important. If you don’t have people supporting you in your walk with Jesus, it’s a lot easier to fall.

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will find fellowship with Christians in your life that are able to encourage you as you are able to encourage them. And I pray that if you’re reading this about to enter a new school, a new home, or a new life, that you will make it your goal to find other believers that will strengthen you.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

All the President's Men (1976)

     In 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal, where the Watergate Hotel at the Democratic Party national headquarters was broken into, uncovering corrupt political campaigning that Nixon approved. But when the burglary itself happened in 1972, it was considered to be a minor crime—until reporters from the Washington Post started uncovering who was really involved. “All the President’s Men”, next to “Good Night, and Good Luck” as the best journalism film I’ve ever seen, tells the story of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their struggle to uncover the crime.

     Woodward (Robert Redford) has been working at the Post for about nine months when he is assigned to report on the Watergate story. Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) also wants in on the story, and he’s been in the newspaper business since he was sixteen years old. Eventually, their superiors, including Harry Rosenfeld and Howard Simons (played respectively by Jack Warden and Martin Balsam, two of the “12 Angry Men” from last month) decide to have them both report on the break-in and its repercussions. The mystery starts for Woodward when he finds out that one of the burglars was retired from the CIA. Calls to the White House lead him to more people working in Washington and beyond who researched their opponents, made monetary deals with others, or did one or both of those things but won’t tell the press about it.

     Woodward sees a mysterious friend in a parking garage who secretly knows deep background information, who is known to Simons as Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook). Deep Throat tells Woodward to simply “follow the money”, and eventually, the two reporters find out that money that the burglars carried or gave came from or ended up in the funds for the Committee to Re-Elect the President, otherwise known as CREEP. And Woodward and Bernstein decide to start questioning people working for the Republicans and CREEP. They are able to get the names of those working for CREEP, and as they start questioning more and more of them, they discover that not only do the names go pretty high up in authority, but also that many of their sources refuse to go on the record, if they say anything at all.

     By the end of the film, Woodward and Bernstein find out what all of us know now: there was indeed a cover-up for the misuse of campaign funds that ended up in the hands of burglars at the Watergate Hotel, leading to a paranoid Richard Nixon being the first president to resign. The two reporters encounter so many acts of dishonesty that it’s hard to believe—but in the process, they run the risk of looking, and being, dishonest themselves. When their articles are printed that read that rich and respectable politicians gave campaign funds to burglars, other news sources blast the Washington Post and its editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) for supposedly using their own political agenda to write their newspaper instead of facts. And yet somehow, when their reputation is at stake, Bradlee and the Post stand by Woodward and Bernstein.

     As a Christian, you hear a lot in church and in the Bible about being an honest person. From the very beginning, God told the Israelites through the Ten Commandments to “not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Proverbs 16:13 says that God “loves him who speaks what is right”. And the Apostle Paul tells the Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right… think about such things” (4:8). Woodward and Bernstein want to be honest reporters, and so they want to report the facts, even those that may look like they have a political agenda.

     But they have to be extremely careful how they go about reporting. In order to get a list of the people who work for CREEP, they ask another reporter, Kay Eddy (Lindsay Crouse), who has just broken off an engagement to one of those working for CREEP, for a list of all the members. Eddy is extremely reluctant, and Woodward notices this immediately:

EDDY: You’re asking me to use a guy I care about!

BERNSTEIN: No, we’re not asking you to use him; we just want you to help us. We’d do the same for you… You said the relationship is over; what do you have to lose?

WOODWARD: (to Kay) Forget it. We don’t want you to do anything that would embarrass you or that you don’t feel right about. Forget it.

     And as he and Bernstein walk away, Bernstein confused about Woodward’s behavior, Woodward tells him: “It’s over.” He’s realizing what he’s doing and the boundary he’s about to overstep in telling this story. He may have been working for the Washington Post much shorter than Bernstein has, but he knows that what he’s doing is wrong. (Later, however, Kay gives in and gets him the list of CREEP members, and the two reporters are able to use it.) 

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will live today in an honest way, serving the Lord in everything you do and thinking about true, noble, and right things.