Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

     Even before “Vertigo” got named the greatest movie ever made by Sight and Sound earlier this month, I was still planning to talk about another of Hitchcock’s films, and I’m not going to be stopped. Over the summer I actually got a chance to see two of his earlier films: “The 39 Steps” and “Shadow of a Doubt”. Both of them were excellent, but I really loved “Shadow of a Doubt”. I remember learning about Hitchcock’s technique in high school, how he used familiar settings to create suspense: if an audience sees something frightening happening somewhere or to someone they recognize, it heightens the suspense. And “Shadow of a Doubt” is a perfect example of that.

     The film starts with a man named Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) being followed out of town by two suspicious-looking characters. Charlie is heading to Santa Rosa, California, to see some relatives he hasn’t seen in a while, his sister, her wife, and her three children. The oldest of her children is teenage Charlotte Newton (Teresa Wright in what I call her best performance), nicknamed “Charlie” after her uncle, who she admires very much. She complains to her parents (Henry Travers and Patricia Collinge) about her family being a typical American family, having nothing about them that makes them stand out or be important.

     Then Uncle Charlie shows up, and her world starts looking up again. He comes and gives her a gift: an emerald ring with initials engraved on them. Charlie notices these and asks, but her uncle claims that he was ripped off. But Charlie doesn’t mind, and she is just happy to see her uncle again. And then one day, Uncle Charlie starts acting suspicious when the two men who followed him before come to the Newton’s door and claim to Mrs. Newton that they are working on a survey about the average American family. After a few days of figuring out a time to interview them, one of the men (Macdonald Carey) starts getting closer to Charlie.

     One night, Charlie and the man actually go out on a date, and the man reveals himself to be a detective named Jack Graham. He tells Charlie that he and his partner are actually there to investigate on her uncle, who is one of two men suspected of being a killer. And once Charlie notices this, she starts getting more and more suspicious of her uncle. But one day, word gets out that the killer has apparently been found by the police and was killing while trying to get away, which relieves Uncle Charlie. However, when he remembers that his niece knows his secret (and is the only one around who does, now that Graham and his partner have left), he starts trying to fix it so that Charlie may be killed on accident.

     Uncle Charlie even goes so far as to get Charlie on his train that will take him home after his visit, so that he can push her out and get rid of his secret. And in the film’s climax, Charlie and her uncle struggle on the train, until Uncle Charlie falls out of the car and hits an oncoming train. His funeral is held in Santa Rosa, but only Charlie and Graham (who has returned to marry Charlie, whom he has fallen in love with) know the truth about Uncle Charlie—though they decide not to make it known.

     In “Shadow of a Doubt”, Charlie Newton starts out complaining that she is part of a typical, average, ho-hum family with nothing special about it at all. But as she finds out more and more about her uncle’s past and his crimes, she realizes that this may not be true after all. And having grown up in the United States, I feel like a lot of times I have taken my family and my life her for granted many times—especially once I’ve come back from mission trips to Peru and Ecuador and seen how different some families live.

     In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans in the New Testament, he urges them that the Christian life is not an ordinary one: God wants us to live an extraordinary lifestyle! “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (12:1-2)

     I don’t know about you, but offering my body as a living sacrifice to God does not sound like the typical thing to do. Most of us in the United States have safe, comfortable lives, and we want to keep it that way. But we all know deep down that it shouldn’t be that way. In “Shadow of a Doubt”, Hitchcock takes this idea one way and says, “You think you’re a typical American, but nope—your uncle is actually a murderer.” God, praise His name, takes that the other way and says: “You think you’re a typical American, but nope—you’re my child, and I want you to serve Me with every part of yourself.” My prayer for you this week is that you will rise to that command and offer yourself as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to the Lord.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Lost in Translation (2003)

     Fun fact: different countries around the world can get different movies on Netflix. The night of June 24, I stayed up all night waiting to be driven to the airport at four in the morning from Quito, Ecuador, to Cleveland, Ohio. And luckily, one of the other interns I was working with had Netflix, so I decided to watch a few movies while I waited. “The Artist” (which would be released in the U.S. two days later) was already on Netflix, so I got to watch that. I got to see Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” for the first time, which was an excellent film. But I also got to see another recent indie film: “Lost in Translation”, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola who wrote “The Godfather” movies.

     I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film quite like “Lost in Translation”. I heard one review once that said it’s not so much a story as much as an “experience”. Basically, “Lost in Translation” follows two characters around during their short time in Tokyo, and whatever lessons we learn can only be figured out by the audience. Ironically, this movie won an Academy Award for its script! But even though there isn’t that much of a “story” in “Lost in Translation”, I’d like to share it with you anyway.

     The main character we see throughout the film is Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an American actor going through a midlife crisis. His once thriving acting career has now been reduced to, well, doing commercials for whiskey in Japan, and working with directors who don’t speak a word of English and their interpreters who reduce lengthy directions to small ones. Stateside, Bob’s wife calls him blandly and tells him he missed his son’s birthday and that he needs to pick out new carpet for the house. By what we see, Bob and his wife do not have the thriving relationship that they once probably had together.

     But we also see another couple who isn’t exactly thriving either, and they’ve only been married for a short time. Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson) is the new wife of a photographer named John (Giovanni Ribisi), who is so busy doing work in Tokyo that he has limited time to spend with his new bride, leaving Charlotte hanging out in her hotel room alone, missing her friends in the United States.

     One night, Bob and Charlotte find themselves in the hotel bar, ordering a drink and conversing with each other. From the get-go, their relationship starts out very light-hearted. At the bar, Bob is even making jokes about getting out of Tokyo:

BOB: Can you keep a secret? I'm trying to organize a prison break. I'm looking for, like, an accomplice. We have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in or you out?

CHARLOTTE: I'm in. I'll go pack my stuff.

     Eventually, Bob and Charlotte run into each other often, and on their nights alone, they go around Tokyo together, singing karaoke or having drinks. And their friendship, for both of them, is some of the best fun they’ve had in a long time. In a place where they’ve been so lonely and never thought they could find someone to love, even just as friends, they are able to find somebody else.

     Their relationship isn’t without bumps, however, even if just for a short time. Bob wakes up one morning to find out that while intoxicated, he took the female singer at the bar to bed. Charlotte finds out, and there’s tension, even while they have lunch together that day. But that night, when they find themselves outside the hotel after a fire alarm goes off, they tell each other they’ve missed each other and make amends. And before Bob eventually has to return to the States, he finds Charlotte in the streets of Tokyo and kisses her goodbye.

     I guess you have to just see “Lost in Translation” if you want to really feel the relationship between Bob and Charlotte. I haven’t really warmed up to this movie yet, but the one thing I did like about it is that it builds the relationship between the two without making anything seem forced or contrived. And the film shows a great example of two people who want to find love and find it—not physical lust, mind you, but a companion to spend time with and be yourself with.

     As a young man, not falling into temptation of lust can be—no, is—very, very, hard. But deep down, I know that what I really want in a future girlfriend or wife isn’t someone who can just satisfy physical needs. That’s such a small part of what being in love is all about. Deep down, I know that the woman God wants for me should be someone who will be my companion, you know, “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health”. The relationship between my wife and me (if, Lord willing, I do end up marrying one day) should represent the pure, sacrificial relationship that Jesus has with His Church.

     In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he has this to say to husbands: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” (5:25) I pray that if I do end up finding a companion one day, that I would be willing to commit myself to that sacrificial, honest, pure relationship. And whatever situation you find yourself in, single or married, I pray that God would give you the guidance to make that decision as well.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tootsie (1982)

There’s a handful of movies that I’ve seen (at least, a handful of good ones) that are actually about the media. From classics to “Sunset Boulevard” and “Network” to more modern films like “Ed Wood” or “The Artist”, some of the most entertaining movies ever may be about the film or television industries and the people in them. And often, they deal with that in a comedic light—because, you know, if you were going to make a movie about the industry you worked in, about all the little things that ticked you off, you’d probably want to satirize it too. And so we come to “Tootsie”, Sydney Pollack’s 1982 comedy with Dustin Hoffman, another movie from the American Film Institute top 100 list that I got to see over the summer.

     Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, who is apparently a very well-known actor in Hollywood, who used to be much more popular, doing plays and shows and films in the past. Now, he coaches and does commercials—which I guess is not good. So he goes to his agent George (played by Pollack) who tells him flat-out: he doesn’t work well with others. No one will hire him, and they certainly won’t give him money to produce a play written by his friend Jeff (Bill Murray). So when Michael finds out that his girlfriend Sandy (Teri Garr) didn’t get a part in a soap opera being filmed there in New York, Michael feels he has no other choice.

     And pretty soon, Dorothy Michaels (Hoffman’s—or Dorsey’s alter ego) walks into the soap opera audition with enough charisma to get the part. But soon, the other cast and crew start to feel she has a little too much charisma, because of her strong feminist attitude. But over time, as Dorothy’s soap opera character Emily Kimberly stays longer and longer on the show, Emily/Dorothy/Michael becomes a sensation—not just to audiences, but also to the other cast and crew. One man, John Van Horn (George Gaynes), plays an older man on the soap opera who continually tries to hit on Dorothy. Another man, Les Nichols (Charles Durning), meets Dorothy eventually and starts falling in love.

     How does he meet her? He meets her when his daughter Julie (Jessica Lange), another actress on the show, brings her home one weekend after the two of them have become close friends. And Julie is where Michael starts feeling conflicted. Julie has no identity of his true identity, but he is starting to fall for her, and being with her disguised as Dorothy is not a very fun situation—especially when her father is trying to make time with him. (Oh, and while you’re probably thinking of it, yes, there are a handful of homosexual jokes in the movie. Not many, but a few. I won’t go into detail here.)

     But eventually, Michael finds the opportunity to reveal himself. When the soap opera producers want to extend his contract another year (which Michael certainly wasn’t planning on), and when the show has to be live to tape one day, Michael finds a solution. After making some bogus speech about how Emily Kimberly actually has been dead for a time, he takes off his wig, lowers his voice, and claims he is Edward Kimberly. Sandy and Les are shocked. The director is amazed. Van Horn is ashamed. And Julie is ticked, punching Michael in the stomach once they are off the air.

     A few weeks later, Michael, now having received all the funds he needs to produce this play, is able to find Les and Julie and make amends with each of them. It takes Julie a little longer to let go of her grudge.

JULIE: I miss Dorothy.

MICHAEL: You don't have to. She's right here. And she misses you. Look, you don't know me from Adam. But I was a better man with you, as a woman... than I ever was with a woman, as a man.

     And as he asks for them to start over, as friends, they walk together down the streets of New York.

     I’ll be honest, this is a pretty funny movie. And even with the strange sexual issues going on here, this is still a pretty interesting movie about friendship and how to love someone. The best line of the movie, in my opinion, is Michael’s line near the end: “I was a better man with you, as a woman, than I ever was with a woman, as a man.” Maybe this means that when he, Michael Dorsey who was living so arrogantly, loved someone just for who they were rather than for what he could get out of their relationship, that relationship meant a whole lot more.

     This is called unconditional love—when you love someone for who he or she is rather than for what you may benefit from. On the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his disciples that they should even love those who hate them, because God commands it: “But I tell you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you… If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” (Matthew 5:44, 46a) We may get an earthly reward, Jesus tells us, but not an eternal one—unless we love those who may not love us back.

     My prayer for you today is that you would find opportunities to love those who persecute you, for that is love with a heavenly and an eternal reward.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Vertigo (1958)

     Last week, the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound poll, a list of the greatest films ever made around the world, was updated for the first time in ten years. For the last few decades, “Citizen Kane” topped that list. But no longer—now Sight and Sound critics have called Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” the greatest film ever made. I’m still not really sure how I feel about this, but I do see why it could be called that. “Vertigo”, even though it’s not my favorite Hitchcock film, can definitely be called his deepest film in terms of emotion and character development. A lot of Hitchcock films are just fun to watch, like “Psycho” or “Rear Window”, but this one’s a lot deeper than all of that, and I understand why it’s called Hitchcock’s masterpiece.

     In “Vertigo”, we meet John Ferguson (James Stewart), nicknamed “Scottie” to his friends, who is a police detective in San Francisco. Well, he was; the first scene shows him one night chasing a criminal with another officer, and as they have to hop across buildings to catch him, Scottie almost falls. As he hangs from a pole, he starts getting vertigo because of his fear of heights—and when the other officer tries to bring him up, he falls to his death. So now Scottie is retired and spending time with his friend/ex-fiancĂ©e Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), who tells him he might be cured of his vertigo by another strong emotional shock.

     But then Scottie gets a call from an old friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who asks him to come out of retirement to investigate his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who he thinks is starting to go mad. It seems that Madeleine is starting to become obsessed with an old woman from history named Carlotta Valdes, who (to make a long story short) killed herself after experiencing heartbreak. And Scottie continues to follow Madeleine around, wondering what she will do next. But one day, he follows her to San Francisco Bay—where she jumps in, and Scottie saves her just in time and brings her to his apartment.

     And to make another long story short, Scottie starts actually talking to Madeleine and accompanying her around San Francisco—and eventually, they fall in love. But one day, she can’t take it anymore, and she runs to a Spanish mission where she runs up the stairs, Scottie chasing after her. But because of Scottie’s acrophobia and vertigo, he cannot make it to the top, and he has to watch Madeleine fall from the tower to her death.

     Her death is ruled a suicide, but Scottie cannot help blaming himself. He is put in a hospital of some kind because of his unresponsiveness to anything, and when he comes out, all he can think about is Madeleine. Then one day, he sees a woman who looks like Madeleine a little. He goes to her apartment and introduces himself (yeah, awkward, I know), and she eventually tells him she is Judy Barton (who may or may not be played by Kim Novak…). After he invites her to dinner and leaves, she has a flashback where we see that she was “Madeleine”—Gavin disguised her as his wife so that in a complex plot, he could push his real wife off the tower of the mission and call it a suicide.

     So as you can guess, the relationship between Scottie and Judy gets a little awkward sometimes. And it doesn’t help when Scottie, so obsessed with getting his Madeleine back, starts making Judy dress up and put on makeup exactly like Madeleine’s. Judy cannot take it at first:

JUDY: Couldn't you like me, just me the way I am? When we first started out, it was so good; we had fun. And... and then you started in on the clothes! Well, I'll wear the darn clothes if you want me to, if, if you'll just, just like me!

SCOTTIE: The color of your hair...

JUDY: Oh, no!

SCOTTIE: Judy, please, it can't matter to you.

JUDY: If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?

SCOTTIE: Yes. Yes.

JUDY: All right. All right then, I'll do it. I don't care anymore about me.

     But when Scottie sees one night that Judy wears a necklace that is identical to one that Madeleine (and Carlotta Valdes) wore, Scottie realizes what’s happening. And he takes her one night to the Spanish mission, drags her up the stairs in a rage, and confronts her about what happened. They eventually make amends, but suddenly, Judy is scared by a nun and falls off the tower to her death—giving Scottie a strong emotional shock.

     And the audience gets that emotional shock as well—I saw “Vertigo” my sophomore year of high school, and at that point, with the exception of “There Will Be Blood”, I hadn’t seen a film end so abruptly. But I’m sure this was Hitchcock’s goal, and he definitely created one of the greatest mysteries ever made. But he also made a deep character study about people who become obsessed with the past. Madeleine (even though it was fake) was obsessed with Carlotta Valdes and her death. And then Scottie, once his beloved died, became obsessed with her.

     What does this mean for me as a Christian? Well, personally, I’ve made a ton of mistakes in my life, in so many different areas. I remember a lot of the sins I’ve done. But guess Who doesn’t remember them? That’s right: God. The prophet Isaiah spoke the words of the Lord in Isaiah 43: “‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. …I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.’” (43:18, 25) When we ask God’s forgiveness for our sins, He is able to remove our sins from the past because of Jesus’ death for our sins on the cross. Hallelujah!

     My prayer for you this week is that if you are letting an area of sin bring you guilt, no matter how long ago it might have been, that you would be willing to let it go and let God erase it instead of becoming obsessed with the past.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Shadowlands (1993)

     This summer has been filled with a lot of very mixed emotions. On the one hand, I’ve had a ton of fun: I’ve gone to Peru and Ecuador, come home and edited videos from when I was there, seen a lot of movies, hung out with a lot of friends, and been able to play cello at a wedding (that’s actually on Saturday). But on the other hand, and to most of the rest of the world, it’s been a painful three months or so: four high school students from my hometown were killed in a car accident in June, Penn State University has had to deal with the end of the scandal, multiple celebrities have passed away, twelve people were killed at a movie theater in Colorado, which also experienced a large wildfire, and one of my grandmothers passed away after suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years.

     I don’t think it’s an accident that I received that last piece of news about my grandmother literally seconds after watching “Shadowlands” for the first time. I always liked to think to this as the “C.S. Lewis movie”, because, yes, it’s the story of C.S. Lewis and his relationship with Joy Gresham while she suffered with cancer. But “Shadowlands” is more than just a movie about C.S. Lewis—it’s a movie about suffering people wondering why God would let such things happen, a subject that Lewis wrote about often in books like “Mere Christianity”, “The Problem of Pain”, and other works.

     Anthony Hopkins plays Lewis at a time in his life when he was pretty well known. By the time we meet him, he has already written one of his most famous books, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, and people from England and even the United States will come and listen to him speak publicly. One of those fans is Joy Gresham (Debra Winger), who writes to Lewis asking to meet him one day. She eventually does get to visit him, bringing her son Douglas (Joseph Mazzello) with her, and Lewis and Gresham begin what becomes a very strong friendship.

     Both of them, however, have had to deal with suffering and tell each other about it. Joy is wife to an alcoholic husband who is apparently having an affair with another woman. Lewis, or “Jack” as he is known to his acquaintances, tells her about when his mother died when he was a child and how hard it was to come to terms with the fact that she was never coming back. Lewis was formerly an atheist before he came to know Christ, and before he thought about the existence of Heaven, all he could believe was that she was gone, and that was all there was to it.

     Eventually, Joy divorces her husband, and she and Douglas move to London. And eventually, in order to keep her citizenship, she asks Jack to marry him. He agrees, even though he believes it is only a way for her to stay in London and not much more. But because of this, Jack doesn’t truly love Joy, and it starts to hurt their relationship. And things really start to take a turn for the worse when Joy becomes so weak she can hardly stand, and the doctors determine she has advanced cancer. Jack talks to a colleague about what to do, and what might happen to Douglas if she were to pass away. But his colleague, Harry (Michael Denison), doesn’t realize Jack and Joy are actually married.

HARRY: But she's not...

JACK: Not my wife. No, how could she be? I'd have to love her, wouldn't I? (He starts to cry) She'd have to be more important to me than anything in the World. I'd have to be suffering the torments of the damned. The thought of losing her...

HARRY: I'm so sorry, Jack. I didn't know.

JACK: Neither did I, Harry.

     And while she is in the hospital, Jack goes to Joy for forgiveness and to renew their wedding vows there. And when Joy gets out, she and Jack have a relationship that he only knew from books—even his own. And they do spend a good amount of time together in love until the cancer returns suddenly and Joy does eventually pass away. Jack and his new son Douglas mourn together, but because of this, they also seem to grow together. And at the end of the film, as we see the two of them walk together in a meadow, the words of C.S. Lewis (though I’m still not sure if they come from one of his books) close us out:

JACK: Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I've been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal.

     I remember being in Quito, Ecuador on the first Sunday in June, going on Facebook, and finding out that there had been a car accident in my hometown that killed four students—two of whom were supposed to graduate high school the next morning. That was devastating for me—not only because I was away from home when it happened, but also because I knew two of those students: one of them I led through freshman orientation four years before, and I graduated two years before with the sister of the girl who died. And coming home, I felt like I should let that girl’s sister know that I was praying for her, her family, and the other families affected. But it was hard to figure out words to say.

     The first verse that I thought of was a key verse from Romans that many people probably memorize as a life verse: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Maybe it’s one of those verses that we read so many times that we forget what it actually means. But the Apostle Paul writes there that when we suffer, we will be okay if we put our trust in the Lord. As “Shadowlands” tells us, “The pain now is part of the happiness then”. If we rely on God to deliver us from our pain, we will be rewarded for our faith when we see our Deliverer face-to-face.

     That is the kind of faith that I have been challenging myself to have in the last couple weeks as my family deals with the loss of my grandmother, and I pray that whatever you may be struggling with today, that you would have the faith to trust God in current pain so that you can experience eternal joy later.