Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Rope (1948)

     In the history of film, there have been a few films that I call “experimental movies”. Those are movies where the filmmakers said, “Let’s take this idea for a technique and see what it looks like in an entire movie.” For instance, there was a movie in 1947 by Robert Montgomery called “Lady in the Lake”, where the camera acted as the main character for most of the movie—whenever the main character was talking to someone else, that person was literally talking to the camera. (And for the record, it was an interesting idea, but I got tired of it after the first twenty minutes.)

     So a film was based almost around a whole technique, as opposed to just a story. The film I’ll be sharing with you today is another “experimental movie”. “Rope”, directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock in 1948, used long camera movement and careful editing to make the movie look like it was only a few really long takes. And besides looking incredibly well-done, “Rope” still conveys a message of justice that I want to share with you today.

     The film starts with a young man being strangled by two of his former classmates in their apartment in Manhattan, belonging to Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger, who worked with Hitchcock again three years in “Strangers on a Train”). Determined to commit and get away with a perfect murder, Brandon and Phillip strangle this classmate, David Kentley (Dick Hogan), and place his body in a large chest in the living room. And for whatever reason (if they explain it in the movie, I don’t remember it), Brandon and Phillip then proceed to host a dinner party at their apartment, with the help of their maid (Edith Evanson), using the chest as a table for food. At the party are David’s father (Cedric Hardwicke), his aunt (Constance Collier), his fiancée Janet (Joan Chandler), Janet’s ex-boyfriend Kenneth (Douglas Dick), and finally, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), a prep-school housemaster at Brandon and Phillip’s former school.

     So since this is a movie with seven or eight people having dinner, and a movie where the camera decides to follow those people around for ten minutes at a time without cutting, “Rope” is driven by the characters’ dialogue. And eventually, Brandon, being much calmer than Phillip, starts talking to Rupert about his thoughts on murder. (Very subtly, of course—bringing up the subject of murder out of nowhere would be very suspicious.) Rupert, previously at prep school, had expressed his ideas to Brandon and Phillip about “the art of murder”, how murder is an example of someone’s superiority (which helped prompt the two men to strangle David). It is suggested that “the lives of inferior beings are unimportant”.

     And eventually, the party starts to get a little tense. No one can get in touch with David. Phillip gets more and more nervous as Rupert talks about murder and even questions him about strangling chickens at Brandon’s farm. Brandon even suggests to Janet and Kenneth that they might get back together. And soon, the party ends, everyone wondering where David might be—except for Brandon and Phillip. And Brandon is about to call it a successful night when Rupert comes back, pretending to have left something but actually suspicious of what the two are up to. And eventually, Rupert gets Brandon to open the chest in the living room. And finding David’s corpse inside, Rupert is stunned.

RUPERT: Brandon, until this very moment, this world and the people in it have always been dark and incomprehensible to me. And I’ve tried to clear my way with logic and superior intellect; and you’ve thrown my own words right back in my face, Brandon. …You’ve given my words a meaning that I never dreamed of! And you’ve tried to twist them into a cold, logical excuse for your ugly murder! …By what right do you dare say that there’s a superior few to which you belong? By what right did you dare decide that that boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed? Did you think you were God, Brandon?

     And with that, Rupert takes a gun he has brought with him and shoots three shots out the window into the night sky, alerting people of what’s going on. And with that, the movie ends.

     Aside from the technical aspects of this movie (this really is fascinating to watch, at least from my perspective), this is also a fascinating movie in terms of what it means philosophically. My freshman year of college, I took a philosophy course that I actually enjoyed very much (to my surprise), where the instructor talked about different ideas about superiority and inferiority, as Rupert talks about the film, but also about how people have what seems like a natural-born instinct to say that something is right or wrong. And that raises the question: is that more than an instinct—say, God working in us?

     One day, I really want to expand my knowledge on this kind of stuff, so I might have a plausible answer for a non-Christian that asks me about that. But in the meantime, what I know is this: throughout the Bible, we are taught that because of the fall of man at the beginning of time, we have been born into sin. Psalm 51:5 reads, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Romans 5:12 reads, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…” Because of how Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God, we have all been marked by sin. And we all start out with the dark desires similar to what Brandon and Phillip were capable of, dark enough to commit murder.

     But the Bible also gives us hope in spite of our sinful nature. Psalm 51:6 reads, “Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.” 1 John 1:9 says that “If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” And my prayer for you this week is that whatever sin you may be struggling with, whatever dark desires that may be tempting you, you would confess it to God, who is able to forgive and purify you.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Michael Clayton (2007)

   Today’s movie is a film from 2007 called “Michael Clayton”, written and directed by filmmaker Tony Gilroy. Gilroy is known for writing the screenplays for the Bourne movies, including writing and directing “The Bourne Legacy”, set to release this year, and has also written the screenplays for “State of Play” and “Duplicity” in 2009. If you’ve seen any of these movies already, you know: Tony Gilroy’s movies can be thrilling, but they can be confusing at times. So as I explain to you what “Michael Clayton” is about, I’m going to try my best to describe what all it is about, but I might skip some details. But hey, if you really care, you’ll watch the movie, right? So here goes.

     The film centers around… well, a guy named Michael Clayton (George Clooney), a lawyer in New York who calls himself a “janitor”. He can find ways to work a case to a client’s advantage, even if that includes loopholes and connections. As we see him one night talk with a new client about a hit-and-run, he drives one night in the middle of nowhere, and as he stops and gets out of his car at one point, he walks away and his car explodes.

     This takes us back four days earlier, at the beginning of Clayton’s latest case. Another attorney, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), apparently off his medications for his bipolar disorder, has stripped naked in a meeting in Milwaukee with a client and gotten himself arrested. But for Edens, it’s a moment of clarity. The plaintiff in his new case is a young woman named Anna (Merritt Wever) who is part of a lawsuit against U-North, a sort of agricultural company whose new weed-killing product is apparently responsible for more than four hundred deaths. U-North is run by Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), who is more concerned about her image as the head of the company than to let a lawsuit ruin her career. And as Clayton tries to convince Edens to calm down and go home, Edens responds apparently out of nowhere: “I am Shiva, the god of death.” (Remember that.)

     Clayton takes Edens to his hotel room that night to calm down, but that doesn’t stop Edens from escaping the next morning and heading back to New York. Soon, Crowder finds out that Edens had obtained a confidential file proving that the weed killer was deadly. And what does she do? She gets two guys to spy on him and eventually inject him with a drug that kills him, making his death look like suicide. And that’s what everybody believes… for a while.

     Soon, Clayton finds out that Edens had planned for Anna to come to New York to help with his case against U-North, buying her a first-class plane ticket, a hotel room, the works. And if that didn’t make him suspicious enough, U-North was planning on a settlement around that same time. And if that didn’t make him suspicious enough, he learns that Anna told no one about the conversations she and Edens had. Someone must be spying. So as Clayton goes to Edens’ old apartment to investigate, he finds inside a book a copy of a receipt: Edens had ordered thousands of copies of the file he had on U-North’s weed killer.

     Eventually, Crowder’s spies find him and try to kill him with a car bomb, which, as we saw at the beginning, doesn’t work. But as the film finishes, Clayton fakes his own death, U-North is about to close a settlement on the lawsuit, and Crowder seems to have succeeded when Clayton finds her at her conference room and shows her the memorandum he’s found. He gets her to give him $10 million to keep quiet about the file, but once she agrees, he pulls out a phone that he’s been recording her message on. He walks away, and the police come and get Crowder and her boss, who asks him who he is. Clayton responds: “I’m Shiva, the god of death!” And Michael Clayton drives away in a cab to who knows where.

     Yeah, I left out a bunch of details. Trust me, this movie gets complicated. I didn’t even mention Clayton’s home life: he’s divorced, he only gets to see his son every so often, and his brother Timmy is an alcoholic with whom Clayton tried to start a business with and instead got into debt. But with all this information, what can we conclude about Michael Clayton? He’s just another man with problems who has to make a choice between being the “janitor” that he’s always been or making a mess in exposing a company for their deadly product. In a conversation in the middle of the film that Clayton and Edens have, Clayton sums up his job:

CLAYTON: I’m out there covering for you—I’m telling them everything’s fine, you’re fine, everything is going to be fine, everybody’s cool. I’m out there running this “price of genius” story to anybody who will listen, and then I wake up this morning, and I hear that you’re… messing with documents and [who] knows whatever else. They’re going to take everything away from you!

EDENS: Michael, I have great affection for you, and you live a very rich and interesting life. …But I’ll tell you this: the last place you want to see me is in court.

CLAYTON: I’m not the enemy.

EDENS: Then who are you?

     For me, this is the scene that best describes how Michael Clayton is struggling with defining who he is. Is he a good guy, or is he just another corrupt official? He won’t reveal himself as one or the other. This is a term that most Christians like to define as “lukewarm”, quoting Revelation 3:15-16: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

     The background for this verse is that as the Apostle John is experiencing… well, the revelation of Christ’s return (which, as I’ve mentioned before, could very well happen at the end of this year, for all we know, but no one can really know for sure), he writes to seven surrounding churches about his visions and what God wants from them. One of those churches was in Laodicea, where churchgoers basically struggled with being all in for spreading the Gospel. And because of this, God said that they cannot be lukewarm—either you’re all in, or you’re not in at all. (Sorry for the clichéd saying.)

     That can be a daily struggle for a lot of believers, myself included. With all the temptations and struggles of the world, it can be hard to follow Christ wholeheartedly. However, if we keep our eyes focused on His good, pleasing, and perfect will for us, we can do it. And that’s my prayer for you this week.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

It Happened One Night (1934)

     About a month ago, I wrote about the movie “Up” in honor of Valentine’s Day. After that was posted, I thought of another, much older movie that I could have written about, but I guess I can just do it now. This is “It Happened One Night”, one of the first great romantic comedies of all time, directed by the great Catholic filmmaker Frank Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”). I saw this for the first time last summer, and I’m so impressed that after almost eighty years, this movie still has an impact on audiences.

     “It Happened One Night” introduces us to Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), the wealthy daughter of a wealthy ship captain (Walter Connolly) who disapproves of her marriage to a fortune-hunting man. After an argument between Ellie and her father, she runs away to New York City, where on a bus she comes across a news reporter named Peter Warne (Clark Gable). And of course, since Warne is anxious to get an exclusive story on why the famous Ellie Andrews is running away, he gives her two options: give him a story and he will help her get to her husband, or don’t give him a story and he’ll send her back to her father and collect reward money.

     So pretty soon, Ellie is following Peter around on a bus to New York. And since this is a romantic comedy, they of course get into some humorous situations early on. One of the most famous is when the two of them stop at a hotel one night and pretend to be husband and wife to avoid suspicion. Before going to bed, Peter puts a curtain between their two beds, declaring, “Behold the walls of Jericho!” Later, in another famous scene, as Peter and Ellie have started to hitchhike, Peter is unsuccessful in getting a car to stop for them by sticking his thumb out—but when Ellie lifts her skirt up a little showing off her leg, a car brakes in front of them and stops for them. (This was brilliant comedy in 1934, by the way. Especially compared to the lame rom-coms out today. In my opinion.)

     But eventually, Peter starts looking out for Ellie in a very unique way. When a passenger on the bus recognizes her and wants a part of the reward, Peter threatens him to quit thinking about it (and that’s when they decide to leave the bus and start hitchhiking). It seems that as Peter and Ellie has grown closer together in those several days together, he has started protecting her, not only as a friend but maybe even as more than that. And Ellie starts feeling the same way about Peter, confessing to him one night that she longs to go with him wherever he goes.

     But the next morning, Peter’s car is gone, and Ellie is kicked out of the motel she is staying in. Ellie, thinking that Peter has abandoned her, gets in contact with her father, who allows her to marry her husband again (in an actual, formal ceremony). In reality, Peter went to his former editor to get money to marry Ellie, and as he drives back to meet her, he passes her on the road on the way to her father. Eventually, Ellie tells her father the whole story about her and Peter, and eventually, Peter comes to their house, presumably to obtain the reward money. But all he asks for is to be paid for gas. Mr. Andrews is confused:

ANDREWS: You’re peculiar, chap!

PETER: Yeah, we’ll go into that some other time.

ANDREWS: The average man would go after the reward. …Do you mind if I ask you a question frankly? Do you love my daughter?

PETER: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She’s my idea of nothing!

ANDREWS: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?

PETER: YES! But don’t hold that against me; I’m a little screwy myself!

     And with that, Peter storms out of the Andrews’ property. Ellie sees him leave and tells her father not to mention him again. But at the wedding, as the two of them walk down the aisle, Ellie’s father whispers:

ANDREWS: You’re a sucker to go through with this. That guy Warne is okay. He didn’t want the reward. All he asked for was $39.60, what he spent on you. He said it was a matter of principle… He loves you, Ellie. He told me so.

     And before she can say “I do”, Ellie makes her decision: she runs from the wedding and meets up with Peter in Michigan. And the movie ends with the two of them in a cabin, with a marriage license, a rope, a blanket, and a trumpet. And that night, the trumpet blows, and the walls of Jericho fall.

     (By the way, on a sidenote: does this ending of the woman finding out her lover's true intentions and then running away from a wedding sound familiar at all? If you thought of "Spaceballs", you'd be right. That's right, the ending of "Spaceballs" is a total rip-off of "It Happened One Night". I thought that was kinda funny.)

     A year ago about this time, I talked about another love story called “The Quiet Man”, and the more I think about it, the more I see similarities between the two movies. The man and woman start out in disagreement, unwilling to admit their love for one another. There’s a misunderstanding in the end that separates them, but eventually they get back together. And regardless of how much money the woman has, the man loves her anyway.

     An idea emphasized throughout the Bible is how temporary wealth on Earth is. We can do all we can just to obtain money or property, but in the end, we won’t be able to save it in Heaven. There’s a verse in Ecclesiastes where Solomon says that in addition to everything else under the sun, money is meaningless: “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.” (5:10)

     Peter Warne wasn’t interested in Ellie Andrews’ monetary reward at all—in the end, even though a misunderstanding made him think less of her, he still loved her. And I feel like that message, that love is more important than money, is one of the reasons why “It Happened One Night” is still regarded as a great romantic comedy. And my prayer for you this week is that you will put aside the desires of this world and decide to love: love God and love others.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Modern Times (1936)

    You know, I was looking at “Reel Christianity” the other day and the movies I’ve written about in the past few weeks. And you know what I realized? All but one of them have been from the past twenty years. So today, I’ve decided to look at an older movie. And after talking about “The Artist” last week, a recent mostly silent movie that uses sound effectively, I’ve decided to talk about another mostly silent movie that used sound effectively—from seventy-six years ago. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you once again to a man named Charlie Chaplin.

     Chaplin is known as one of the great movie pioneers. Born in 1889 in London (at least, that’s what we thought until a certain FBI file popped up saying he was born in France… whatever), Chaplin began his film career in 1914, originating his signature character of “the Tramp”: a gentleman sporting a mustache and baggy black clothes. The Tramp appeared in pretty much all of Chaplin’s early films, from 1916’s “The Kid” to 1925’s “The Gold Rush” to 1931’s “City Lights”. But the last film to feature Chaplin’s Tramp was “Modern Times” in 1936, the first Chaplin film to use sound at all. Chaplin (unlike George Valentin in “The Artist”) was one of the many movie stars that successfully made the transition from silent movies to talkies, and in “Modern Times”, sound is used as not only a political commentary but as another of Chaplin’s techniques to make humor universal for all audiences. But more on that in a minute.

     “Modern Times” starts with a shot of sheep running aimlessly together through an open field. This makes little sense until we dissolve to a similar shot of factory workers running out of a subway into their workplaces. (You can tell this is going to be a political commentary from the start.) One of those workers is the Tramp, working on an assembly line screwing bolts onto… um… I can’t really tell. But who cares, he’s working so hard and can never stop to rest that his work starts getting to him. (By the way, one of the first ways Chaplin uses sound in this movie is to relate it to new technology. The manager of the factory uses a screen to communicate—and even speak—with his workers. And when a new invention comes in, it speaks too. Brilliant use of sound.)

     Anyway, the Tramp starts going nuts at his work, eventually even getting stuck in the machinery (an image that has become synonymous with the silent movie in general), and he is taken to a hospital. After he is let out, he accidentally finds himself carrying a red flag in the middle of a Communist parade, and he ends up getting arrested. After getting out of jail, he cannot find a job, but he does find an orphaned young woman working at the waterfront (Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s wife for six years). The girl has stolen a loaf of bread and is running from the police, but the Tramp tells the police he is the thief and gets put in prison again, letting the girl escape. Eventually, he is freed, but gets arrested again after eating too much in a cafeteria without paying. On his way to jail, he meets up with the girl again, and together they escape.

     The Tramp eventually finds a job as a night watchman at a department store. But after he mistakenly lets some burglars have some food, he is robbed and arrested the next morning. But eventually, he is freed again, and he and the girl find a run-down place to stay. The Tramp finds another job in a factory, but after getting his boss stuck and unstuck in machinery, and then after getting involved in a strike, he is arrested yet again. (Yeah, the Tramp gets in trouble a lot. That’s sort of his trademark.) And when he is freed, he finds the girl again, now working as a dancer in a restaurant. The Tramp gets a job there as a waiter, but of course, he runs into a little trouble.

     But at the end of the day, he gets his own song in a floorshow. And when he loses the lyrics he has written down on his shirt cuff, he starts making up words on the fly—and yes, we hear them. (Another brilliant use of sound—whatever the Tramp says is nonsense, so anyone can laugh at him, whatever language he or she speaks.) And when the police eventually come for the girl for her earlier escape, she and the Tramp escape. And the film ends with the two of them setting out on a country road, uncertain of the future:

GIRL: What’s the use of trying?

TRAMP: Buck up—never say die. We’ll get along!

     A huge reason why “Modern Times” is such an important movie is because of its significance in history. The film was released in 1936, seven years after the 1929 stock market crash, in the middle of the Great Depression. Many Americans—and people around the world, for that matter—were living as poor as the Tramp and his companion, if not poorer. And there was so much going on in our world as far as politics go—World War Two was about to begin, the threat of Communism was starting to come about, and Hitler was coming to power. For Chaplin to portray that world in a comedic way, as well as in a darker way, and to end his film with our two protagonists going out into the world with hope in their hearts, must have been a really inspirational image for audiences around the world to see.

     I remember this time about a year ago when there was a lot going on in the world: protests in the Middle East, earthquakes in Japan, and tornadoes in the United States, among other things that I probably didn’t even hear about. And even as our economy is slowly but surely improving, this is still a hard world to live in. Can this seventy-six-year-old movie still give people hope? I believe it can. But I don’t place my hope in the movies—if I did, this blog wouldn’t mean anything. I know that I need to constantly be putting my hope and my trust in the Lord. As the psalmist says, “But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.” (39:7)

     Personally, I’m going through some difficulties that I don’t mind sharing with you guys. This summer, I’m going on a mission trip to Peru and Ecuador that I’m still in the process of fundraising for, which gets a little stressful for me and my family. On top of that, I’m in the middle of midterms in a semester with seventeen credits, which can definitely get frustrating. On top of that, I’ve already seen a lot of tough stuff already in 2012--not only have the tornadoes devastated a lot of areas surrounding me, but I've also seen a lot of death hit close to home, from family pets to a former classmate who lived down the street to a nearby school shooting killing three students. 

     It’s already been a year of ups and downs. But if I constantly look to God for help and remind myself that He is always in control, I won’t be able to let my tough times dominate me. And my prayer for you is the same—trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).