Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

     You remember how I said this summer I finished watching all the movies on the American Film Institute’s top 100 lists? Well, today’s movie, “A Clockwork Orange”, I saved for last. On purpose. I read a lot of things about this movie, even several years ago, that told me that this movie was pretty extreme. And by that, I mean, graphic and kind of explicit at times. I guess a lot of it could be called “appropriate” in terms of how it helps to convey the film’s message, but personally, I get annoyed by a movie where naked breasts are shown every fifteen minutes. It wasn’t a joy to sit through, but I’ve decided to talk about it today in order to introduce a topic that I’ll be looking into in the next month: predestination versus free will.

     In “A Clockwork Orange”, Malcolm McDowell plays Alex, a teenager living in 1990’s Britain (though this film was made in 1971) who has three close friends and skips school to hang out with them. This doesn’t sound so bad once you put it like that. But when he’s around his friends, he goes around town drinking milk laced with drugs in a bar with statues of naked women, breaking into people’s houses and raping women, and beating other neighborhood gangs so badly that they put them in the hospital or worse. Alex and his gang—his “droogs”, as he calls them—are not off to a very good start.

     Not only that, but Alex and his gang have developed their own sort of dialect based off of some kind of Russian… something. Whatever, just listen to the dialogue in the movie and you’ll notice it’s weird. So as Alex narrates the film in this dialect and calmly describes his acts of “ultra-violence”, we the audience are expected to believe that this is a normal way of life for him. And then, one night, when Alex tries breaking into another woman’s house, he accidentally kills her, and while fleeing, his gang (with whom he has just had a violent argument about the gang’s leadership) bash him on the head with a glass milk bottle and run off, leaving Alex to be picked up by the police.

     When he is, he is sent to prison for murder, and while he is there, he is exposed to religion. In a very interesting scene, we see a re-enactment of Jesus carrying the cross on Calvary, with Alex seeing himself as a Roman whipping him as he walks. He narrates about how he saw himself in that position. At first, I watched this and thought: “Hey, maybe he’s repenting!” The next scene then shows him seeing himself in Old Testament situations, killing soldiers in battle and eating fruit held by bare-breasted women. Mixed messages much?

     Anyway, Alex eventually approaches the priest in the prison and tells him he has learned about a new treatment that cures people of sexually violent nature for good. Long story short, Alex is selected for it and taken to another facility, where he undergoes what’s called the “Ludovico technique”. Alex is given some medicine and is forced to watch hours of film a day featuring strong and often sexual violence until he becomes sick of it. What makes things worse is when Alex realizes music playing in the background: Beethoven. Alex happens to be very fond of Beethoven music, and when he hears this accompanying the film, he starts to scream in surrender.

ALEX: Stop it, stop it, please, I beg you! This is sin!

DOCTOR: I’m sorry, Alex! This is for your own good. You’ll have to bear with us for a while.

ALEX: You’ve proved to me that all this ultra-violence and killing is wrong! Wrong and terribly wrong! I’ve learned me lesson, sir! I see now what I’ve never seen before! I’m cured, praise God!

     Eventually, Alex leaves the facility presumably a cured man. But when he goes home to find his parents have pretty much neglected him, bums off the street that Alex beat long ago are returning the favor, and two of his “droogs” have become policemen and decide to drown him in water and leave him to die, Alex cannot react without feeling sick to his stomach, and it seems like he is almost dying. He is brought into the house of a local man named Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee), who wants to help Alex—until he realizes that Alex raped his wife years before. Then he decides to turn on Beethoven music and let Alex fall out of the second floor window.

     Alex survives, though is in a coma for a long period of time. But when he wakes up, his mind is back to normal—the Ludovico treatment’s effects on him are completely gone, and he no longer gets sick at the sight of ultra-violence. And the movie pretty much ends with Alex in the hospital with a grin on his face—suggesting that he’s probably gone back to his ultra-violent ways.

     …WHAT?! Is this supposed to be a happy ending or what?! I heard an interview from Steven Spielberg talking about Kubrick’s films, including “A Clockwork Orange”, and he said he is convinced with Alex’s grin that once he’s out of the hospital, he is going to kill all the people that “wronged” him. That’s not nice! So how the heck am I supposed to feel about what I just watched?

     Well, I’ve been thinking about it over the past few months. And I have a feeling I know what the real point to the movie is. Alex, under the Ludovico treatment, was unable to do something crucial to his human nature: he was unable to choose. It’s great that he wasn’t able to do others wrong in this state, but there’s a big difference between choosing to turn the other cheek and being physically unable to do anything but turn the other cheek.

     Personally, I do believe that God gave me free will to choose how I will respond to the actions of others against me. He knows what choice I will ultimately make, however—after all, He created me and knows what I think, as Psalm 139 tells me. But as we read in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve, conflicted by God’s command and Satan’s temptation, chose to eat from the tree of good and evil. Humans are created, I believe, with the ability to choose for themselves what they will do. We can either follow God’s plan for us, or we can choose to go the other way.

     This spring I was doing my devotions one day, and I came across a passage in Scripture that I never really noticed before for some reason. It was Matthew 19:11-12, where Jesus tells his followers about their ability to choose to follow Him (or, more specifically in this passage, their decision-making about marriage): “‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.’”

     So what does this mean? God gives us the ability to choose to follow Him? Does that mean there’s a balance between the two sides, between predestination and free will? I know theologians argue about this, but I don’t want to do that. Whatever God wants to do, it’s beyond me, and if I really want to know how we humans think, I’ll ask Him about it in Heaven. But I pray that in this next month, as I explore a few movies that provide both sides, you and I will be able to recognize our gift of choice—and how we might use that to follow God.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Marty (1955)

     This past summer, the world lost one of the great iconic actors of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Ernest Borgnine, an actor whose career ranged decades, passed away at age 95 in July. I first heard of Borgnine when he did the voice of MermaidMan in “SpongeBob SquarePants”. But as I got older, I was able to see a few of his earlier films, including “From Here to Eternity”, “The Wild Bunch”, and today’s film, “Marty”, for which he won his only Academy Award.

     Borgnine plays the title character, a thirty-something Italian-American butcher who has been single all his life—and his mother’s constantly reminding him of that fact isn’t helping him much. He’s convinced that at this point in his life, there’s no woman out there for him. In one scene, his mother (Esther Minciotti), whom he still lives with, tries to convince him to go to a party in town and find a girl there. And Marty starts getting angry, and eventually he agrees to go to the party, but he knows that he will find nothing but heartbreak there.

     But all that changes when he arrives at the ballroom. There he finds Clara (Betsy Blair), a young schoolteacher who is standing alone on the rooftop of the building crying after being abandoned by her date. Marty asks her to dance, and when they start talking on the dance floor, they start to enjoy each other’s company very quickly. They decide to leave the dance and go walking around town, eventually sitting in a diner where they talk for hours. They talk about their ambitions. They talk about their families. And they talk about how they have always felt unlovable because they don’t feel attractive.

     That night, they both end up in Marty’s house, just to talk some more and for Marty to kiss her gently goodnight (something he feels awkward doing for the first time), before Marty takes Clara back home. And Marty feels like he is on top of the world. He runs through traffic, happy as can be, and he’s so excited about the woman he’s finally been able to find.

     Sooner or later, though, people around him start to disapprove. Marty’s mother, warned by her sister, knows that if Marty and Clara start spending more and more time together, Marty might get married and leave home, leaving his mother a lonely widow. So she starts thinking less of Clara. And meanwhile, Marty’s friends, more thirty-something guys more attractive than he is, can’t see any physical attraction in Clara and pressure him into forgetting about Clara.

     That night, Marty planned on calling Clara to go out again, but he doesn’t because of his friends. However, as he starts thinking more and more about her, he decides to leave his friends, go to the nearest telephone booth, and call her up. One of his friends tries to stop him, but Marty tells him honestly:

MARTY: You don't like her. My mother don't like her. She's a dog and I'm a fat, ugly man. Well, all I know is I had a good time last night. I'm gonna have a good time tonight! If we have enough good times together, I'm gonna get down on my knees and I'm gonna beg that girl to marry me. …You don't like her? That's too bad!

     “Marty” is the story of a man convinced that he is unlovable. But one night, when he has lost all hope, he finds a woman who is the perfect one for him. I remember seeing this movie during my freshman year of high school for the first time. And I’ll spare you details, but I was feeling a little unlovable myself. That was a time in my life where this movie had the kind of message I needed to hear.

     But beyond what “Marty” could have showed me, God desires to tell me everyday that I am His child and that I am loved. One of the most famous passages in the Bible about how God loves us is in Psalm 139, where David writes what we now like to memorize as Psalm 139:14: “I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” When I feel unlovable, I just need to turn to God, and He will remind me that I am worth so much more. My prayer for you this week is that you will feel that love in your life the same way.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

We Bought a Zoo (2011)

     On May 25, I took a plane from Cleveland to Atlanta and then from Atlanta to Lima when I started my month-long missions experience in Peru and Ecuador. On that second flight, which was about six hours or more, we had time for a couple in-flight movies. I was very thankful that both the movies they showed us were ones I hadn’t seen before, and they were both fairly decent. The first one they showed was “We Bought a Zoo” (the other, if you’re wondering, was the new “Mission Impossible” movie). I heard mixed reviews about Cameron Crowe’s new family movie, and I never ended up seeing it. But ignoring some of the clichés about the deceased parent that I’ve seen in other family movies, “We Bought a Zoo” was pretty entertaining, thanks to Crowe’s direction and some good performances from Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson.

     Damon plays Benjamin Mee (a real person who wrote the memoir that inspired this movie), a recently widowed man whose children, teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), are having trouble adjusting to their mother’s death. But one day, Benjamin decides to move his family to a nicer house so they can start anew. They find a really nice house on really nice property, but there is one minor detail: the house is next to property that is an old abandoned zoo. Does that stop them from buying the house? Heck no! And the Mee’s move in to Benjamin’s and Rosie’s delight and to Dylan’s disappointment.

     When they arrive, Kelly Foster (Johansson), the twenty-something lead zookeeper at this Rosemoor Animal Park introduces herself and her team to the Mee’s. But in private, she confronts Benjamin about what he thinks he’s doing. She can’t understand why Benjamin would move with his family to this property that no one’s cared about for years. Benjamin’s response: “Why not?” More on this later.

     Through the rest of the movie, a bunch of things just happen, I guess. Benjamin finds out that his wife left me a large sum of money that will allow him to stay on the property and even re-open the zoo. A local zoo inspector (whom most of the staff hates) comes in before they can re-open and gives his approval just in time. Lily (Elle Fanning), Kelly’s cousin who is about Dylan’s age and also helps out at the zoo, has a crush on Dylan early on, and the two eventually “fall in love”—if you can call two kids in their early teens in a crush “falling in love”. And eventually, despite the threat of a huge storm the night before, the zoo opens to a huge crowd and regains its popularity.

     The movie ends with Benjamin taking his two kids, with whom he has been able to fully reconcile, to the café where he met their mother for the first time. He walked past and saw her sitting by the window and was immediately smitten. And the film ends with him going into the café and demonstrating the start of the first conversation he had with his wife:

BENJAMIN: Excuse me… Why would an amazing woman like you even talk to someone like me?

     And his wife, Katherine Mee (Stephanie Szostak), appears in the café booth (in Benjamin’s head, of course), and responds:


     This last scene reveals why Benjamin decided to take a chance on buying the new house (and the zoo): he was moved by the chance his wife took when she decided to talk to him for the first time. And beyond this movie’s imperfections, that message really stood out to me. As a Christian, I may feel compelled by God to do something, which could range from giving more in my tithing to sharing my faith with a non-believer to moving from the United States to another country to serve as a missionary. But the comfort and safety of my life here at home can often keep me from taking that chance.

     But God doesn’t want us to hesitate. When we are called to serve the Lord, we need to open ourselves to His plan and say “yes”. One of the most well-known verses about this in the Bible is in the book of Isaiah, where the prophet tells us: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying: ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” (6:8) Are we willing to forget about our comfortable lives and make that sacrifice when God calls us? My prayer is that we would indeed say “yes” to God today.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Badlands (1973)

     This summer, among all the other goals I made for myself, I finished one that I’d wanted to do for about a year: finish seeing all five of Terrence Malick’s films. I’d seen his most recent three (all three of which I’ve written about on “Reel Christianity”), but I’d never been able to see his first two films. Today’s film, “Badlands”, was Malick’s directorial debut, and an excellent one. But it’s the one film of Malick’s that doesn’t have the Terrence Malick “feel” to it. “Badlands”, even though it has the signature narration that every Malick movie has and also contains a lot of pretty images of nature, has a well-structured narrative story that Malick’s other films don’t have. I think the non-linear, impressionistic style came along when Malick made “Days of Heaven” five years later. But I still really enjoyed “Badlands”, especially because it was a director’s first feature.

     “Badlands” introduces us to Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek), a teenage girl in 1950’s South Dakota with the sweet innocence that reminded me of Jessica Chastain’s character in Malick’s “The Tree of Life”. Holly, whose mother has passed away, lives with her father in sort of a strict home environment—if you want to call sending a girl to school and forbidding her to chase after suspicious-looking, older boys “strict”. However, she eventually meets Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a young man who presently collects garbage but soon meets Holly and starts falling for her.

     The two of them do eventually fall in love, but Holly’s father disapproves. Kit, who tries to come across as macho even though you can’t help but be charmed by him, goes to Holly’s house one day with a gun and tells her father that she is going away with him to elope. As her father goes to call the police, Kit shoots him in the back and kills him. And showing very little emotion, Kit and Holly decide that they need to run away. Unsure of where they’re heading, they eventually head towards the Badlands of Montana.

     On the way there, they get themselves in even more trouble but still manage to avoid the police. They find shelter in the woods for a short time before authorities catch up with them, but Kit kills several of them and the two of them run off once again. They stay at the house of a friend of Kit’s, but when they get suspicious of him too, Kit kills him. And they even are able to stay in the house of a wealthy man (who welcomes him very peacefully, for some reason), and they stay there for enough time before authorities start coming after them again.

     But soon, Holly (who kills no one, for the record) starts to feel guilt about their escapades. And as we hear in her narration, she goes from feeling like a smitten teenager to a scared young woman:

HOLLY: One day… it hit me that I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who only had just so many years to live. It sent a chill down my spine and I thought where would I be this very moment, if Kit had never met me? Or killed anybody... this very moment... if my mom had never met my dad... if she had never died. And what's the man I'll marry gonna look like? What's he doing right this minute? Is he thinking about me now, by some coincidence, even though he doesn't know me? Does it show on his face? For days afterwards I lived in dread. Sometimes I wished I could fall asleep and be taken off to some magical land, and this never happened. 

     And one day, when a helicopter identifies Kit and Holly, and the police chase after Kit, Holly decides to stay where she is and be caught, so that this can all be over. Kit doesn’t go too quietly, but eventually he is caught by the police, put in jail, and soon sentenced to die in the electric chair, while Holly gets probation.

     One of the other reasons why “Badlands” stands out as so different from all of Terrence Malick’s other films is because the spiritual aspects in this film are not as prevalent as his other works. But even though it’s not as clear as his other work, there’s still some lessons to be found here. “Badlands” is based on a true story (the names were changed in the film), but sometimes it feels like one of those stories in the Old Testament about people on the run—and there are a lot of them.

     But it also feels a little like stories in the Old Testament where people recognize wrongdoing and accept the punishment for it. One example of this is King David, after he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered. When the prophet Nathan came to him and convicted him, David wrote what we now know as Psalm 51, where he asks God for forgiveness: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (51:10-12)

     How humbling it is to kneel before God and ask Him to forgive us for our sins! But as I talked a little about last month in another article, God is ready to forgive us as long as we are committed to lay our sins and our past down before Him. My prayer for you this week is that you would have that willingness to surrender before God—for even if you receive a punishment on this earth, your Heavenly Father will remember your sins no more.