Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Light in the Darkness Part 5: Raging Bull (1980)

     I’ll say right now, this finish to our “Light in the Darkness” series is going to be a little lame. Because the movie we’re looking at today is a very different kind of movie in many ways. The biggest way it’s different is in its screenplay: there’s plot, and there’s dialogue, and there’s a huge character study, but a lot of the main character’s struggle is internal. And so there isn’t a whole lot of material from the movie I’ll be able to share with you. That’s why I encourage you to go watch today’s movie, “Raging Bull”, even though in my opinion it’s the darkest of the films I’ve looked at this month. But when you watch it, be ready to think about what you’ve seen, because you might be thinking for a while.

     Director Martin Scorsese, whose film “The Departed” we looked at earlier this month, teamed up with Robert DeNiro again after working with him in films such as “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” in the 1970’s to make “Raging Bull”, a biopic on boxer Jake LaMotta, a middleweight champion in the 1940’s living in the Bronx. The film starts (sort of… just watch the movie) in 1941, when LaMotta (DeNiro) has won a fight, and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) is figuring out a match between him and a connection of his, Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent). Around that time, LaMotta meets a fifteen-year-old girl named Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) who he starts to pursue—even though he’s married. Eventually, in 1947, Jake and Vickie are married with a couple children, and Jake continues to fight, even fighting against Sugar Ray Robinson, losing to him at one point even though in the fight Jake pummeled Robinson.

     Then things start to go downhill for Jake. Joey accuses Salvy of having an affair with Vickie and fights him outside a club. Jake wins the middleweight championship title in 1949. Jake starts getting suspicious of Joey after he fought Salvy over Vickie, or so Jake thinks. Eventually, his anger gets the better of him, and he ends up beating Vickie and then walking down the street and beating up Joey because he thinks the two of them had an affair. Jake and Joey’s relationship starts to separate, and eventually Jake’s emotions lead to him losing his title to Robinson in 1951 in a brutal fight. (For the record, “Raging Bull” was shot in black-and-white, not only to correspond with the time period but also because if it had been in color, it probably wouldn’t have gotten an “R” rating because there would have been so much blood.)

     Five years later, the LaMotta family has moved to Miami, where Jake runs a nightclub. And he works so much there that at one point, Vickie leaves him and takes the kids. Some time after that, Jake is arrested for letting underage girls into his club, and that leads to one of the most painful breakdowns ever filmed, with Jake punching and hitting his head against a stone wall, weeping. But after he is released, he goes back to doing ill-received stand-up comedy at his nightclub, when one night he runs into Joey. He tries to make amends, and Joey says he forgives him, but he isn’t very vocal. And the film closes with Jake getting ready to do a comedy routine, reciting a monologue from another movie about a boxer: Marlon Brando’s “I coulda’ been a contender” speech from “On the Waterfront”. And as he leaves to go perform, the film cuts to black, and a title starts fading in:

“So, for the second time, [the Pharisees]

summoned the man who had been blind and said:

‘Speak the truth before God.

We know this fellow is a sinner.’

‘Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,’ the man replied.

‘All I know is this: Once I was blind and now I can see.’

John IX, 24-26

the New English Bible

     …WHAT?! Where did that come from? Not only does the Scripture almost come out of nowhere, but it also follows a two-hour movie full of harsh obscenities, bloody violence, and adulterous relationships. Why would you want to associate John 9 with “Raging Bull”? It seriously took me a long time to understand why in the world this was the close of the movie. Is it because Jake LaMotta eventually became a Christian? Well, if he did, I haven’t found any information about it.

     But then I started learning what a personal film this was for Martin Scorsese, perhaps one of the most personal films ever made. Scorsese grew up Catholic and at one point considered becoming a priest before he decided to go into the film industry, but somewhere along the way he stumbled. Before he made “Raging Bull”, he was struggling with a cocaine addiction, and he credits DeNiro and the film with saving his life, since he eventually quit his addiction while making “Raging Bull”. Perhaps the ending of the film with this title (which includes, by the way, an explicit dedication to one of “Marty’s” former film school teachers) reflects the redemption of Martin Scorsese as well as the possible (although never really expressed) redemption of Jake LaMotta.

     But there have been others who have interpreted this passage as applying to their own lives, and one of the stories about this that impacted me the most was how “Raging Bull” influenced Craig Detwiler. Detwiler, a Christian screenwriter with a degree from Fuller Theological Seminary, writes about this in his book Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century:

      I watched the perils of self-immolation, as Jake destroyed his relationships with his brother, his wife, and his fans. Jake ends up alone, in jail, literally banging his head against the wall crying, “Why? Why? Why?” As a high school jock with an equally independent streak, I recognized far too much of myself in Jake. As the film ended, director Martin Scorsese offered a curious counterpoint. The credits read, “All I know is this, once I was blind, but now I can see.” I recognized the blindness in Jake and me, but I wondered, “What does it mean to see?” A violent, profane, R-rated movie had provided the spark to a spiritual search—film forged theology.
     …Only years later, as a student at Fuller Theological Seminary, did I hear a theological term that approximated my experience of cinema and salvation: “general revelation.” Something was revealed to me through “Raging Bull”—a sense of longing, need, and desperation. It was available to any viewer willing to endure two hours of pain for one final challenging dollop of grace. Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay, Martin Scorsese directed the movie, and Robert DeNiro gave the performance, but the Holy Spirit convicted me of sin.

     To sum up, ladies and gentlemen, I believe that Craig Detwiler would say this: Whether or not Jake LaMotta is a follower of Jesus, I do not know. All I know is this: once I was blind, and now I can see. It’s interesting how we can learn lessons about our faith in things we don’t expect. Personally, I can identify spiritually through some mainstream songs I hear on the radio, or secular books I read that deal with those kinds of themes. But I can see it the most in movies. There have been very few films where I’ve walked away and haven’t eventually thought of something from that movie that dealt with Christianity, even if the filmmakers might have been complete pagans.

     Can I do the same for the people around me? If I’m interacting with someone who is not a Christian, or is not very strong about his or her faith, can I still see a characteristic about them that he or she could use to serve God with? If I can do that, I am learning to do what God was teaching Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7: “People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” My prayer for you is that in your world, wherever God has placed you, you would look past differences in people and look at the good in them—and even look for the good in your media.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Light in the Darkness Part 4: Pulp Fiction (1994)

     Yes, indeed, today on our fourth part of “Light in the Darkness” on “Reel Christianity”, we’re looking at Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”. I never thought this day would come. …Actually, yes, I did. But I have to be honest; I’ve never actually seen the actual cut of “Pulp Fiction” before. I’ve only seen it on television. And if you’ve seen the movie, you know that there’s a lot of material they’d have to cut out before they show it on television. But either way, there’s still something to be said about the spirituality of “Pulp Fiction”. Recently I heard a story from a missionary who visited my college who had a friend who was watching “Pulp Fiction” once and came to accept Christ in the middle of the movie. I’m not really sure how that works. But if you haven’t seen “Pulp Fiction”, there’s a theme of redemption that reveals itself through the film, no matter what the intentions of the filmmakers were.

     And in order to get to that point of redemption, writer/director Quentin Tarantino decided to start the film in the middle of the actual story and jump back and forth for the next two hours or so. The film starts with a man and a woman (Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer) robbing a restaurant in Los Angeles. After that and the main credits, we see two hit men, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), going to an apartment to execute a man who stole a briefcase from their boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). We’re not shown what’s in the briefcase, but we don’t get a chance to see, because after Vincent and Jules kill the men who stole it, we transition to a bar, where Marsellus is doing a deal with boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), paying him money to lose an upcoming match. Vincent and Jules arrive and give Marsellus the briefcase.

     The next day, Vincent is assigned to take care of Marsellus’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman) while Marsellus is out of town. Vincent takes some drugs from his friend Lance (Eric Stoltz), and then takes Mia out to dinner, where they win a dancing contest. But upon returning to the Wallace house, Mia finds Vincent’s drugs and accidentally overdoses on them, which prompts one of the most intense scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie: Vincent plunging a needle of adrenaline into Mia’s chest at Lance’s house, waking her up, so to speak. Vincent returns Mia to her home, and the two promise to never bring it up again.

     Then we transition to a flashback of Butch as a child, learning from Captain Koons (Christopher Walken), a Vietnam veteran who was in a POW camp with Butch’s father, that he had died of dysentery in the POW camp, and Koons was given his gold watch to return to Butch. The flashback ends, and Butch, now as Bruce Willis again, has just double-crossed Marsellus by winning the fight and even killing his opponent. He flees to the apartment he and his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medieros) are staying at, and they start packing to head out—until Butch realizes that Fabienne forgot to pack his gold watch. So he has to go back to his house, where Marsellus’ men are already looking. Butch ends up killing Vincent there, and on his way out, he gets into a bloody fight with Marsellus, ending with them in a pawnshop, where the owner kidnaps them both and ties them up in the basement, where the owner and another man take Marsellus and begin… beating him. Yeah. And then, in one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen in a film, Butch escapes, gets a knife from upstairs, goes into the room where a man is attacking Marsellus, and kills the pawnshop owner. Marsellus, recovering, shoots the other man and tells Butch that they’re on good terms as long as Butch leaves Los Angeles. So he does.

     And THEN we come back to the execution from the beginning, where Vincent and Jules get the briefcase and then take another man from that apartment named Marvin (Phil LaMarr). But before they leave, another man comes out of the bathroom and unloads at Vincent and Jules—missing them completely and subsequently getting shot. Jules is convinced, as a man of faith (and by that I mean, he quotes Ezekiel 25:17 to his victims before killing them), that this was divine intervention. He and Vincent talk about it on the way to Marsellus’ location, but on the way, Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin in the face, and so the two of them take their car to a friend’s house, where they clean their car, get rid of the corpse, and change clothes. And the two of them end up at a restaurant, where a man and a woman commence a robbery.

     See? Everything ties together. Yeah, if you haven’t seen this movie before, you might be reading this and thinking, This is really, really dark. Well, you’re right. And even after reading my little summary, it’s even darker with all the blood, drugs, and cuss words that I didn’t mention. But the movie isn’t over. The ending of “Pulp Fiction” is not only where the story ties together, but also where the message ties together. The robber, Ringo, threatens Jules at gunpoint to give him his wallet and the briefcase. Jules eventually gets Ringo at gunpoint while the woman, known to Ringo affectionately as Honey Bunny, stands on top of a table, gun pointed at Jules, and Vincent has his gun pointed at Honey Bunny. Confusing, I know. Go along with it.

     But then Jules starts talking to Ringo. He tells him that since he is in a “transitional period” after God saving his life, he doesn’t want to kill Ringo and Honey Bunny. But he gets back his wallet and talks to him, gun still pointed at Ringo’s face. Jules tells him about the passage in Ezekiel that he reads every time he kills, and confesses (for lack of a better word) that he didn’t really think about what it meant.

JULES: I just thought it was a cold-blooded thing to say to a guy before I popped a cap in his behind. But I saw something this morning made me think twice. See, now I'm thinking: maybe it means you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And mister nine-millimeter here, he's the shepherd protecting me in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd, and it's the world that's evil and selfish. And I'd like that. But that ain't the truth. The truth is, you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd.

     And Jules lets Ringo and Honey Bunny go, and Jules and Vincent leave the restaurant, Jules having declared that he is done working for Marsellus. What a way to end this movie about violence and violent people—the bad guys, who have throughout the film been portrayed as the good guys, realizing that they are indeed the bad guys and want to be better. And it all starts because they see God at work. I feel like that missionary’s friend who came to Christ while watching “Pulp Fiction” may have done so because of that divine intervention.

     It’s interesting how sometimes God chooses to reveal Himself in strange ways. But many times, it’s in the ways we don’t expect. When Jesus taught, the Pharisees were not the ones that understood all the time—it were those who followed with a simple faith, like many of Jesus’ disciples. In Luke 10:21, Jesus prays to God, rejoicing in this fact: “‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.’” In verse 22, he goes on to say to those around him, “‘All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’”
     And that’s what Jules and Vincent debate about near the end of “Pulp Fiction”, how God reveal Himself:

JULES: What is a miracle, Vincent?

VINCENT: An act of God.

JULES: And what’s an act of God?

VINCENT: When, uh… God makes the impossible possible. BUT, this morning I don’t think qualifies.

JULES: Hey, Vincent, don’t you see? That don’t matter! You’re judging this the wrong way. I mean, it could be God stopped the bullets, or He changed Coke to Pepsi, or He found my car keys. You don’t judge things like this based on merit. Now, whether or not what we experienced was a miracle is insignificant. But what is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.

     And maybe I’m twisting this message a little, but I think what Jules is saying applies to the film itself: it doesn’t matter whether or not the filmmakers meant to make this movie this spiritually resonant. But what is significant is that someone found God in “Pulp Fiction”. And my prayer for you is that in your moments of strength and of weakness, God will reveal Himself to you and give you the peace that only comes from Him.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Light in the Darkness Part 3: The Departed (2006)

     A week from today, I will be home for Thanksgiving break, and one of the few movies that I’m looking forward to seeing with my family when I go home is “Hugo”, the new 3-D family adventure movie from legendary director Martin Scorsese. …Wait. Martin Scorsese directing a family movie? It can’t be. He doesn’t do that. Well, ladies and gentlemen, now he does. This Thanksgiving, Martin Scorsese, the director of such violent dramas as “Taxi Driver”, “GoodFellas”, and “Gangs of New York”, is releasing for the first time in many, many years, a film that families can go see. And I’m personally pumped to see it—I haven’t seen a whole lot of Scorsese films, but even though they’re all pretty dark, they have all impressed me with their style. You’ll probably only know what I’m talking about if you actually go see a Scorsese movie.

     And today, continuing our “Light in the Darkness” series, I’m giving you an excuse to see one. Scorsese’s last film to gain acclaim at the Academy Awards was 2006’s “The Departed”, a crime drama that finally earned Scorsese an Oscar for Best Director. Like filmmakers John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, by whom Scorsese has been strongly influenced, Martin Scorsese is a Catholic who uses images and themes of his faith throughout his movies. But on the other hand, he uses a lot of blood, drugs, and F-bombs throughout most of his movies, too. And I’m still not sure what his reason is for doing so. Realism? Maybe, but I mean it, these movies are pretty graphic sometimes. Which is the biggest reason why, in our series on finding good lessons in dark movies, we’re looking at “The Departed” today.

     “The Departed” teams up Scorsese with lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who has worked with Scorsese on four films in the past nine years. DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a young man training to be a Massachusetts state policeman who is asked by the head captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his less-enthusiastic staff sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) to go undercover to investigate the local mob. That mob is led by Irish mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), who we see in flashbacks trains young Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) to infiltrate the Massachusetts police. So mob mole Sullivan becomes a leader in the Massachusetts state police office, while Costigan becomes a hit man with the Irish mob.

     Throughout their “jobs”, we see both Costigan and Sullivan in their private lives. And ironically, they fall in love with the same woman. Sullivan first starts a relationship with Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), a psychiatrist who happens to have Costigan as a client. Eventually, Costigan falls for her too. But Madden still moves in with Sullivan, who won’t tell her anything about his work. But then, one day, someone in both parties realizes that there’s a rat in the police force and a cop in the mob.

     How do they find this out? Long story. Go watch the movie. But eventually, the police find Costello and his crew, shooting most of them up. Sullivan goes to “find” Costello, and this is where the big theme of the movie starts really becoming prevalent. Sullivan found out earlier through Queenan’s diary that Costello is an occasional FBI informant. Weird side job for a mobster. Anyway, Sullivan confronts him:

SULLIVAN: You’re an FBI informant? Are you kidding me?

COSTELLO: Grow up! Of course I talked to the FBI.

SULLIVAN: Do they know who I am?

COSTELLO: I… I never gave up anybody… who wasn’t going down anyway. Nobody knows nothing.

SULLIVAN: Frank… Frank. Do they know about me?

COSTELLO: I know about you, Colin. You know I'd never give you up. You're like a...

SULLIVAN: What, like a son? To you? Is that what this is about? All that murdering... and no sons?

     Bang. Costello shoots at Sullivan and misses. Bang. Sullivan shoots Costello and kills him. So Costello is dead, Sullivan is praised, and Costigan is let off the hook as an undercover cop. But then Costigan starts finding out files that reveal that Sullivan knows about Costello and his men. And just like Sullivan was shocked at Costello’s undercover work, Costigan is shocked at Sullivan’s. And he starts tracking Sullivan down and almost threatening him. He finds tapes of conversations that Costello had with Sullivan and sends them to Madden, who upon listening to them leaves Sullivan.

     And then, on top of the three characters that are revealed to not be trustworthy, the list just goes on. Costigan meets with Sullivan and handcuffs him on a rooftop, just when another trooper Brown (Anthony Anderson)—who Costigan actually trained with at the police academy—almost shoots Costigan, who tries convincing Brown that it’s okay, that Brown knows who he is. Then, on the way downstairs, another trooper named Barrigan (James Badge Dale) shoots Costigan and Brown and tells Sullivan that he wasn’t the only mole in the police force. Sullivan shoots Barrigan, reports him as a mole, and recommends Costigan for the Medal of Honor, which he receives at his funeral. At the funeral, Madden ignores Sullivan for the last time, and Sullivan goes back to his apartment to find Dignam waiting to shoot him—not out of any double-dealings, but out of a feud that the two of them had days before.

     So now, a bunch of people are dead, and nobody’s trustworthy. What a wonderful message. Yeah, I know what some of you are thinking, this is a dark ending, and there’s nothing redeeming about this movie at all. But to me, there is. We’ve seen all these characters that lead two lives and in the end can’t be trusted. But think about it. How many times have people failed us even in small ways that made us unable to trust others? I know that for me, it’s hard to trust people that don’t always follow up on their word. But whom else can we trust?

     For the Christian believer, it can be a struggle to trust in God for every part of our lives. But He is the only One who is bigger than all our lives. If you grew up in Sunday School like I did, you probably memorized Proverbs 3:5-6, which tells us to “trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” People may fail me sometimes, but God will never fail me. It may take time for my prayers to be answered, but they will be—I can’t think of any time when I was going through a struggle that God didn’t use it to help me grow.

     My prayer for you is that you will be willing to trust in God for whatever you’re carrying today, and that you would not put your faith only in people but in Him first.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Light in the Darkness Part 2: V For Vendetta (2006)

     “Remember, remember, the fifth of November…”

     And so begins “V for Vendetta”, this week’s film in our five-part series “Light in the Darkness”. I remember seeing this for the first time last year with some other guys on my residence hall, and it really made me stop and realize… I am squeamish. I never thought of myself as squeamish before, but some parts of this movie surprised me with how bloody and violent they were. Sure, it’s not the most violent movie out there, but for someone like me who’s become so used to action movies like “The Dark Knight” and “Saving Private Ryan”, movies that show violence without blood or show bloody violence for history’s sake, respectively, this was actually pretty intense for me. However, today I’m going to look past the blood and share with you how this film affected me in terms of my faith, because if you look close enough, it’s really apparent. So here we go.

     “V for Vendetta” takes place in 2020, where the United States government has been overthrown and the United Kingdom is now controlled by a fascist government (which to me feels a lot like George Orwell’s “1984”). Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) works for the government-controlled British Television Network (BTN for short) and is almost attacked by the secret police when a man in a mask comes and rescues her. The man is simply known as V (Hugo Weaving), a vigilante figure who wears a Guy Fawkes-style mask to cover up his disfigured face from a fire years before. He takes Evey with him as he blows up Old Bailey (it’s a building in England apparently… I’ve never been…). The next day, the government tries to cover it up as its own doing, but V infiltrates BTN and goes on national television, telling viewers across the nation to stand up against the government and join him one year from that day, the fifth of November, to destroy Parliament.

     Of course, V gets attacked by officials, but he is able to fight them off, and he takes Evey with him. He tells her that for her own safety, she must stay with him until the fifth of November while he begins killing government officials. Evey flees, but long story short, is caught by officials. She is arrested, head shaven (for some reason… I don’t really remember), and kept in a prison cell with no one to communicate with but the prisoner next door, Valerie (Natasha Wightman). Finally, Evey is told that if she does not tell the government where V’s hideout is, she is to be executed immediately. She says nothing. She is set free. She finds out that V staged her imprisonment to help her get rid of her fears. Understandably so, she’s pretty mad at first. But after this experience, she feels more than ever that she’s ready to stand with V on the fifth of November.

     Meanwhile, Inspector Eric Finch (Stephen Rea), chief of police for Scotland Yard, finds out for himself the corruption within his government, which also was the cause of the United States government being overthrown. And eventually, the fifth of November rolls around, and by this time, V has organized the murder of many government officials and prepared the population for the destruction of Parliament. So he finishes off Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith), the head of the secret police, and his men, being fatally wounded in the process. Evey finds him, and before he dies in her arms, he shows her an underground train headed toward Parliament loaded with explosives, and asks her to be the one to send the train out. She does, putting V’s corpse inside, and accompanied by Finch, she goes to watch the fireworks—literally. And in a pretty epic ending, the “1812 Overture” plays to the bombing of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben and fireworks in the shape of a “V”, as thousands of rebel civilians look on.

     I’d like to thank Wikipedia for helping me remember this dang plot, because truthfully, I wasn’t able to see “V for Vendetta” again while watching this. Oh well. But you know what else Wikipedia told me? According to columnist Don Feder, “‘V for Vendetta’ is the most explicitly anti-Christian movie to date”, for not only its negative portrayal of religious leaders and its positive portrayals of homosexuality, but also for the whole idea of rebelling against authority, as V does in the film. But you know, that’s not the idea I got at all when I saw the film for the first time. Anti-Christian? I wouldn’t say that. In fact, V almost seemed like a Christ figure to me, in the same way that Bruce Wayne’s Batman did in “Batman Begins”. (Don’t believe me? Read my article.) Think about it—V is leading a rebellion against a government that took what was once a peaceful country and turned it into a fascist system. Did Jesus do something like this?

     In a way, He did. When he preached, he wasn’t very subtle about the hypocrisy that he saw in the religious leaders at the time. The Pharisees, for the most part, had twisted religion to make themselves look more powerful than God was supposed to be, and it made Jesus mad. In three of the Gospels, Jesus goes into a temple to find merchants selling all kinds of things, and He starts turning over the moneychangers’ tables, telling them, “‘Is it not written: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations”? But you have made it “a den of robbers.”’” (Matthew 11:17) Later in that Gospel, Jesus devotes a whole chapter to calling the Pharisees out for their hypocrisy, in Matthew 23.

    And as Jesus called out the religious authorities of the day for taking something so sacred and turning into a self-serving system, V in “V for Vendetta” rebels against his government for taking too much corrupt control and not letting the people think for themselves. And though it’s a bloody fight, V succeeds (sort of) in his mission to give the people back their power. At the end of the film (and this part is what really reminded me of “Batman Begins”), during V’s last fight with Creedy, being shot at by Creedy but still able to move because of his bulletproof vest, Creedy cries out:

CREEDY: Why won’t you die?!

V: Beneath this mask, there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask, there is an idea, Mr. Creedy. And ideas are bulletproof.

     And at the very end, as Parliament is exploding, when asked by Finch who V really was, Evey tells him:

EVEY: …He was my father. And my mother. My brother. My friend. He was you. And me. He was all of us.

     V was more than a vigilante. He was the symbol of resistance against corruption. He was more than just a man—just as Jesus was more than just a human man. My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will live for Jesus with all you are, leaving behind your human desires and putting them aside for a purpose greater than yourself—His purpose.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Light in the Darkness Part 1: Psycho (1960)

     Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for reading “Reel Christianity”. I have a confession to make. I haven’t written in this blog for about a month and a half. Sure, there have still been weekly posts, but over the summer I figured out how I could set my posts to post themselves whenever I wanted them to, and because of that, last week’s post, “The Third Man”, was written in the beginning of September. I did this for a number of reasons. For one thing, this semester in college has been very busy for me: I’ve been a leader at freshman orientation; I’ve performed in several concerts already; I’ve had a lot of work to do for my classes; and I’ve been preparing to shoot and finally shooting a short film. And now that October’s over (and most of the things I mentioned are done for a while), I’m finally coming back to “Reel Christianity” to give you another five-week series.

     I had a couple ideas of what I could do this month, but I eventually decided on “Light in the Darkness”. I’ll be talking about five movies this month that are either dark in nature or just plain graphic—or both—and finding elements in them that I can still relate to Christianity. I think the idea came from when I was preparing for freshman orientation. The woman in charge of us leaders was talking to us one night about loving all of the students that we would be leading, no matter who they are or what they like to do. It almost even goes back to Matthew 7:1, which I’ve cited in a couple posts already: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” So as you and I are challenged to love others daily despite of our differences, I feel like the same applies to movies I watch: even if they may be very dark, is there content in them that I can learn from—content that may even redeem the film?

     Well, with that introduction, let’s start “Light in the Darkness”. And our first film, to me, is perfect to start with since we just finished Halloween: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. This movie, made in 1960, followed Hitchcock’s classic “Vertigo”, a big-budget thriller shot in color in San Francisco with some pretty cool special effects. (At least, they were cool in 1958.) So for his next movie, Hitchcock decided to make a low-budget horror film shot in black-and-white on a back lot in Universal Studios. That may make it sound a little less appealing. But if you haven’t seen “Psycho” yet, trust me, it’s pretty dang creepy. Oh, and if you really haven’t seen “Psycho” yet, go see it right now before you read this. Spoilers follow.

     So the film starts with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) having… a conversation in a hotel room in Phoenix, Arizona. (Kinda.) Sam is still paying alimony to his divorced wife, and in order for the two of them to get married, they need money. So what does Marion decide to do? As a secretary for a bank in Phoenix, she intercepts $40,000 from a man buying a house for his soon-to-be-married daughter, and instead of taking it to a safe as she is supposed to do, she takes it home with her and starts off to meet Sam in California.

     However, almost immediately, the guilt trip starts. (No pun intended…) On the way out of town, she and her boss make eye contact. At night, when Marion starts getting sleepy, she pulls over on the highway, and the next morning, she is woken up by a police officer next to her window. Because she acts suspicious, the policeman follows her into the next town when she goes to buy a new car to get rid of evidence. When she realizes he’s following her, she becomes more nervous than ever, and hurries out of the car dealership, full of thoughts of what’s going to come next—and who might come after her.

     But that night, during a heavy rain, she finds herself having to pull over to a little motel off the main highway: the Bates Motel. She arrives and is greeted by an awkward Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). After a dinner of sandwiches and milk and some small talk about the stuffed animals in Norman’s parlor, his childhood, and his mentally ill mother (who lives upstairs in Norman’s house next to the motel), Marion goes back to her room, resolving to return the money. And then, as most people know, she goes to take a shower, and a mysterious female figure opens the curtain and stabs her to death in one of the most iconic movie deaths ever. Norman comes back in, horrified, and then starts… cleaning up.

     Now, isn’t that scary? Killing off your main character in the middle of the movie? Who does that? Alfred Hitchcock, ladies and gentlemen. Anyway, Sam and Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) team up with a private detective named Arbogast (Martin Balsam) to figure out where Marion went and get the money back. So Arbogast goes to several motels in the area to see if Marion checked in anywhere, and sure enough, he gets to the Bates Motel. He wants to go talk to Norman’s mother, but Norman won’t let him. So Arbogast goes, lets Lila know what he’s found out, but then he goes back to the motel. Into the house. Up the stairs. But before he can get into Mrs. Bates’ room, a mysterious female figure comes out the door and stabs him to death.

     So finally, Sam and Lila talk to the local sheriff, who is confused: Mrs. Bates has been dead for decades. Who could Arbogast have seen in the window? And Lila can’t take it. She convinces Sam to go to the Bates motel, so long story short, they go there pretending to be a business trip, and Lila sneaks into the Bates house, looking for Mrs. Bates. She finds her: well, her skeleton. And suddenly, Norman Bates, dressed in drag and a wig, starts coming after her with a knife, until Sam holds him back.

     Once Norman is arrested, a psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) talks to him and finds out once the police could not. When Norman’s father died when he was a child, he and his mother were emotionally scarred, and so for years they grew so close that when Mrs. Bates met another man, Norman became jealous and killed them both. And to hide his guilt, he stole his mother’s corpse, hiding it in his house, and taking care of it as much as he could to keep her alive in a way. He became so consumed with keeping her alive, he even talked for her, carrying on conversations with her—or himself. And soon, her identity became his, and Norman Bates became his mother.

PSYCHIATRIST: You see, when the mind houses two personalities, there’s always a conflict, a battle. In Norman’s case, the battle is over, and the dominant personality is won.

     And this is where “Psycho” ends: Marion and Arbogast murdered, Norman/Mrs. Bates in jail waiting to get let out, and $40,000 lost somewhere in a swamp behind the Bates Motel. Now, personally, when I saw “Psycho” for the first time, I didn’t think so much about this ambiguity at the end. I just liked it for being a cool-looking, thrilling movie. But now that I’m writing this, I realize how hard it might be for some people to find something redemptive about “Psycho”. Does it have a message? Not exactly. Does it resolve anything? Not exactly? Can I relate it to Christianity? Good question.

     To me, there is. And it comes in that ending, seeing Norman Bates torn between two personalities, two identities. As a Christian, I see the same battle in myself a lot of times. I want to follow Jesus, but being a sinful human being, I find myself doing things deliberately that disobey God. And to me, nowhere in the Bible is this idea portrayed better than in Romans 7:15, when the apostle Paul shows the same duality in himself: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” (7:15-18)
     That may take a few times to read, because it does sound a little confusing. But the point is, there’s a battle going on in the Christian between serving God and serving his sinful nature. And it’s tough to actually go in the right direction. And as Paul continues, he acknowledges this even more: What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:24-25) Only through Jesus can I make the right decision to follow Him and turn away from my sinful nature.
     My prayer for you is that you will fight the sinful nature in you this week and decide to turn to Jesus. And I pray that as we continue to look at movies this month that may not seem redemptive and look for ways that they can teach us spiritually, you will do the same in your relationships with others—looking past failures and seeing the good in everyone we come in contact with.