Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Choose Life Part 5: Forrest Gump (1994)

     Now we come to the final week in our “Choose Life” series on “Reel Christianity”, asking: What is God’s way for us to live? Does He determine everything beforehand, or does He let us have our own way entirely to make our own life choices? We’ve looked at movies that talk about both sides, but… what if it’s both? What if there’s a balance between God making a way for us and us making a way for ourselves? That is the question that today’s film, the iconic “Forrest Gump”, asks.

     Tom Hanks plays the title character, an unintelligent mama’s boy in 1950’s Alabama who experiences a lot in his first few decades of life. Despite his low intelligence, he gets into a public school. He meets Elvis when he stays at his house, which Forrest’s mother opens for temporary rooms. He falls in love with one girl, Jenny (played mostly by Robin Wright), whose father is an abusive alcoholic that paves the way for Jenny’s rocky young way. And Forrest has to wear leg braces to straighten his legs—which he one days breaks by running away very, very fast from some school bullies.

     Forrest gets older and plays football in high school and college (drafted only for his speed). Jenny goes to an all-girl college but still starts having one-night stands with men. They graduate school, but Forrest is drafted into the Vietnam War while Jenny stays in the States and lives like a hippie, clothes and drugs and all. Forrest meets Bubba (Mykelti Williamson), a hopeful shrimp boat captain who is killed in the Vietnam jungle, prompting Forrest to continue Bubba’s dream of having a shrimp company. Forrest also meets Lieutenant Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise) in Vietnam, and Forrest rescues him during a battle even though Lt. Dan, eventually having to get both legs amputated below the knees, shouts at Forrest to leave him so he can die in war along with his ancestors.

     While in rehab after getting shot in Vietnam, Forrest picks up ping-pong and represents the United States Army in international ping-pong competitions, interviews, and award ceremonies. So in the process, he meets three presidents, inspires John Lennon to write his song “Imagine”, and calls the staff of his hotel one night (Watergate) to alert them of what looks like a break-in. Forrest eventually goes home, stays with his mom as she slowly passes away, and sees Jenny after she has slept with many men, done many drugs, and almost committed suicide. He asks her to marry him one night, but she lightly declines. But that night, she goes to his room and lies with him.

     Forrest then proceeds to run across America, see Jenny again after she has regained herself and her life (though she has contracted HIV), and finds out that he and Jenny had a son, whom she named Forrest (Haley Joel Osment). And as Jenny starts dying, she and Forrest finally are married, and the two Forrest Gumps start their life together without Jenny.

     Whoa. That’s a mouthful. Forrest Gump does a lot in this movie, if you couldn’t tell already. So what can we take away from this? Well, one thing I’ll talk about now is the ideas that Lt. Dan and Forrest’s mother represent. Dan tells Forrest that it was his “destiny” to die on the battlefield and that Forrest cheated him out of it by rescuing him in that jungle. (Eventually, Lt. Dan meets up with Forrest again, assisting him on the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company boat and helping the company get really stinking rich.)

     Forrest’s mother, on the other hand, as she lies on her deathbed, tells Forrest that he shouldn’t be afraid of death, that he should just keep on living and doing the best with what God gave him. She doesn’t exactly believe in a destiny. And Forrest is prompted to gather these thoughts as he stands before Jenny’s grave and talks to her:

FORREST: Jenny, I don’t know if Mama was right, or if it’s Lieutenant Dan. I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze. But I-I think, maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.

     A month ago, I expressed my views on the balance between predestination and free will in my article on “A Clockwork Orange”. But basically, I believe that God created us and knows what paths we each will want to take in our lives and also the paths that He desires for us. But it is ultimately our choice which path we will take. And my prayer for you today is that if you struggle with knowing God’s path, that you will choose to surrender to it. It may be hard, it may cost you, but it will all be worth it in the end. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Choose Life Part 4: The Truman Show (1998)

     A year ago, I talked on “Reel Christianity” about a movie called “Witness”, directed by an Australian filmmaker named Peter Weir. Since then, I can’t think off the top of my head if I’ve talked about some of his other films—though they’re certainly worth talking about on here. Well, one of my favorite films of his (next to “Master and Commander”) is “The Truman Show”, with Jim Carrey in one of his best performances. Written by Andrew Niccol, who went on to make some bland sci-fi films like “Gattaca” and “In Time”, “The Truman Show” is a film about not only reality television (which barely existed in 1998), but also about the idea that our lives may not be our own and whether or not we will choose to keep it that way.

     Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a successful businessman on an island. He has a beautiful wife named Meryl (Laura Linney), a great best friend named Marlon (Noah Emmerich), and a happy life. But Truman has still had his share of trials: his father drowned when Truman was a boy, when the two were fishing in the ocean during a storm. When he was a college student, he was with Meryl but had an affection for another girl named Lauren (Natascha McElhone), but he is prevented from ever being able to be with her, and it haunts him to this day.

     But one day, Truman starts noticing strange things in his world. People he greets and passes by the same way everyday do just that—they do the exact same things everyday. Marlon and Meryl act like Truman doesn’t know what he’s talking about—but then Truman gets suspicious of them too. Meryl keeps showing Truman products in the house, holding them up and talking about them like she’s in a TV commercial. And when Truman finds himself holding a knife and yelling at Meryl to stop, Meryl cries out for “someone” to stop him. Marlon walks in on this and goes out to the beach to talk with Truman.

     And Marlon reveals a truth that Truman never imagined: his father is alive. And as this is revealed to Truman, it is revealed to the audience of the movie what this is: a twist ending to an episode of “The Truman Show”, a reality TV program that has followed Truman Burbank around his life since he was an infant without Truman even knowing. And every week, millions of viewers turn on the show to see what will happen next in the life of Truman Burbank.

     The show was created by some guy named Christof (Ed Harris), and you can guess why his name contains the word “Christ” in it. The night of the reveal of Truman’s father, Christof does an interview, and some viewers call him up to ask him questions. One of those is Sylvia (otherwise known as the Lauren from before) who blasts Christof for exploiting Truman’s life, though Christof claims he is only providing Truman a safe, comfortable life rather than the actual, real, cruel world (not unlike the one that Morpheus warned Neo about last week in “The Matrix”).

     To make a long story short, Truman figures out that this is all a scheme, and he tries to escape the show by sailing into the ocean. Christof literally brings a thunderstorm to stop him, and eventually Truman is left with a wrecked ship in the middle of the ocean—that is, until studio lights come on to reveal he’s in front of a big poster of the ocean and a blue sky. A voice comes on and greets him.

TRUMAN: Who are you?

CHRISTOF: I am the Creator - of a television show that gives hope and joy and inspiration to millions.

TRUMAN: Then who am I?

CHRISTOF: You're the star.

     And Christof encourages Truman to continue staying on the show. Truman, however, decides (to the joy of the audience watching) to prevail against this scheme and go through a nearby exit door to a normal, non-televised life. This ending was a little bittersweet for me, I’ll admit. On the one hand, this shows Truman making the choice to live his own life, demonstrating our free will. On the other hand, he’s choosing to against his “creator”.

     So does this mean that as a human, it’s “good” for us to decide to go our own way instead of living the kind of life Christof made for Truman? Well, no, it isn’t. But it still is a powerful thing that God gave us the ability to choose between living His way or our own way. We may be able to choose, but Truman chose his own way. As a Christian, I believe the best way is God’s Way.

     Deuteronomy 30:19-20: “‘This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’” 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Choose Life Part 3: The Matrix (1999)

     Before there was “Inception”, there was “The Matrix”, a film with not only some groundbreaking special effects, but also a complex story based on a lot of philosophical and religious ideas. The idea that this world is not the “real” world. The idea that there is no such thing as fate. The idea that one is in control of his or her own life. That puts kind of a damper on people who may not believe that, doesn’t it? But “The Matrix” challenges its characters and the audience with the idea that there is a world beyond this one, and we have to choose to enter it ourselves.

     Thomas A. Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a computer programmer by day, but a computer hacker nicknamed “Neo” by night. He keeps seeing references to a “Matrix” on his computer and is curious. And one day, another hacker named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) comes to him in a “dream” and tells that she has been looking for him for a long time, along with her boss Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Neo, confused why he should be the one looked for, lets himself be arrested one day by sinister agents including villain Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), instead of going to find Morpheus.

     But Neo eventually finds him and meets with him one night. Morpheus questions him about what he believes:

MORPHEUS: Do you believe in fate, Neo?

NEO: No.

MORPHEUS: Why not?

NEO: Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.

MORPHEUS: Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know, you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that’s there something wrong with the world, but it’s there… Do you know what I’m talking about?

NEO: The Matrix?

MORPHEUS: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now in this very room. …It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

NEO: What truth?

MORPHEUS: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

     And in an iconic scene, Morpheus gives Neo the choice of taking either a blue pill or red pill. If he takes the blue pill, he goes back to the world—the “prison”. If he takes the red pill, he will be in the Matrix. Neo takes the red pill, and his adventure begins. The rest of the movie, however, I won’t dwell on as much, only because this scene sort of sums up the movie and the point I want to make with it.

     The last couple weeks, we’ve seen movies about people who have found themselves on what seems like a written, destined path. “The Matrix” teaches the opposite: you make your own choice to live in either a world that is, in the words of 1 Corinthians 13, “a reflection in a mirror”, or in some translations, “a mirror dimly” or “a glass darkly”; or we can choose to uncover that veil and see the world as it really is. As a Christian, perhaps this choice is to either live in this world ignoring the presence of God, or realizing that this world is only temporary and that there is indeed an eternal realm awaiting us.

     Deuteronomy 30:19-20: “‘This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’”

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Choose Life Part 2: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

     Jamal Malik is one question away from winning twenty million rupees. How did he do it?

     A) He cheated
     B) He’s lucky
     C) He’s a genius
     D) It is written

     So begins our journey with Jamal (Dev Patel) in “Slumdog Millionaire”, as he guesses questions on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” But when we first see him (and the film switches back and forth between different points in time), he is being beaten and almost tortured to confess that he cheated—he has just gotten the second-to-last question correct, and no one suspects that a poor boy like him could make it that far without help. But Jamal insists he knew the answers, all coming from memories he has of his childhood.

     His childhood, and his entire life, has not been a pleasant one. He grew up in the slums of Mumbai, often at odds with his brother Salim (played as a young adult by Madhur Mittal). One day, their mother is killed in a riot against Muslims, and they have to run away. They eventually find a girl about Jamal’s age named Latika (played as a young woman by Freida Pinto), who accompanies them for a time as they travel around Mumbai, even living in a garbage dump (one that isn’t too unlike the ones I’ve seen in Trujillo, Peru).

     One day at the dump, a man named Maman (Ankur Vidal) comes and offers them a soda, then taking him to his “orphanage”. Dozens of kids are there that Maman sends out into the streets as beggars. Some of them he even goes so far as to blind them himself. When Salim and Jamal realize one night that he is doing this, Salim takes some of the liquid that Maman uses to blind the kids, throws a pan of it at Maman and scars him, and the two brothers and Latika run off again. They try catching a train, but Latika is unable to make it with them.

     Years later, the two boys are in their pre-teens, pretending to be guides around the Taj Mahal so they can try and con tourists out of money. One day, they decide to return to Mumbai so Jamal can look for Latika, whom he has missed. They find that Maman got her and is about to sell her as a virgin prostitute. The boys rescue her, and Salim uses a gun nearby to shoot and kill Maman. The three find a place to stay together for a while until Salim finds Javed (Mahesh Manjrekar), Maman’s rival crime lord, and gets a job working for him. Salim shuns Jamal and keeps him from Latika.

     Years later, Jamal has found a job as a chaiwala (a tea server) at a Mumbai call center, which makes for a funny scene of Jamal as one of those Indian telemarketers. But one day, he gets a chance to call his brother: he is able to reach him and meet with him. And he eventually goes to Javed’s house and finds Latika. He promises her he will wait at a local train station for her everyday so they can be together. But one day, when she does come, Salim and other men of Javed’s take her back, which prompts Jamal to get her to see him somehow that he knows she will see: he goes on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

     But when the host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) tries feeding him a wrong answer and Jamal still gets it right, he gets the police to question him. But after the police listen to his story, they believe him, let him go, and allow Jamal to answer the final question on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” And long story short, Jamal wins, and he and Latika are reunited at the train station finally.

JAMAL: I knew you’d be watching.

LATIKA: I thought we’d meet again only in death.

JAMAL: This is our destiny.

     So I guess the answer is D) It is written. I remember seeing the film for the first time about four years ago, and it didn’t hit me until a couple years later what this implies. “Slumdog Millionaire” suggests that the only reason Jamal got from being a child in the slums to a millionaire in love was because it was his “destiny”, his fate; it was just supposed to happen.

     And this brings up a question that I’m sure many Christians (including myself) ask. If God knows our innermost being (as Psalm 139 tells us), and He knows the plans He has for those who suffer for His name (as Jeremiah 29:11 tells us), then does that mean we are ultimately unable to make our own life choices? This is kind of a conflicting issue when we word it like this.

     Deuteronomy 30:19-20: “‘This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’”

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Choose Life Part 1: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

     The book of Deuteronomy finds God speaking through Moses to the Israelites after leaving Egypt. This is where, in addition to the last part of Exodus, we find a lot of commands and laws that God gave the Israelites as He led them into the Promised Land, including the Ten Commandments. At the end of the longest set of commands, the Lord said this:

     “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (30:19-20)

     This is where the title for this month’s series comes from. God gave the Israelites a bunch of commands, but He said that ultimately, it would be their choice whether or not they would follow those commands. And wouldn’t you know it: a lot of them didn’t “choose life”, which resulted in a forty-year wait to get into the Promised Land. But it’s still fascinating that God didn’t force them to go—he gave them a choice! And that’s what I want to explore this month in “Reel Christianity”: what it looks like to choose to serve God rather than it seeming forced.

     And what better way to start this series by exploring a movie that chronicles the life of a man who liked to choose his own way! “Lawrence of Arabia” is director David Lean’s most famous and most praised film, regarded now as one of the great motion picture epics ever made. Peter O’Toole (who recently retired from acting at almost eighty years old) plays the title character, T.E. Lawrence, a young intelligence officer in Cairo in World War One who was assigned to the Arabian desert, where he eventually leads the Arabs in a revolt against the Turks. (By the way, in order to get through this article in enough time, I’m going to have to skip some plot points. But that will give you all the more reason to see the movie yourself, right?)

     Lawrence starts out as a smart (or smart-aleck) young officer, but as he gets acquainted with Arabs like Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) and Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), he becomes a stronger leader, if a controversial one. In one scene, as his Arab army moves forward through the desert, they realize a man, Gasim, has been left behind, struggling to move along and eventually passing out in the hot desert. Lawrence decides to go back to get him, though Ali protests, saying that it was “written” for Gasim to be left behind. Lawrence’s response: “Nothing is written, except in here”, pointing to his head. And after several days, Lawrence and Gasim return, exhausted. But Lawrence just returns to Ali, stares at him, takes some water, and repeats: “Nothing is written.”

     Later on, however, when the Arabs are camped out in another part of the desert, a gunshot goes off. An Arab has been killed by another Arab, and the murderer must die. But for tribal reasons, they cannot decide who will execute him. Because he has no real Arab royalties, Lawrence decides to do it. And then he sees who the murderer is: Gasim. But he has no choice: he shoots Gasim six times and kills him. Auda sees Lawrence distressed after the execution and wonders why, and Ali tells him the man he killed was the man he rescued. Auda replies: “Oh! It was written then!”

     This first instance of Lawrence executing a man begins a violent urge in him that leads to a Turkish onslaught, where Lawrence famously screams: “No prisoners!” And later on, when the revolt is through, Lawrence returns to Britain and eventually passes away. How? We see it at the beginning of the movie: he crashes his motorcycle on the street. That’s all. Ironic death for a man who led an Arab revolt in the desert.

     I apologize for leaving a lot of things out, but I recommend you see the movie to really see what I’m talking about. T.E. Lawrence constantly lived with a state of mind that said he was the author of his journey. Overall, it may have helped end the rule of the Ottoman Empire, but we see in “Lawrence of Arabia” that his independence played a huge part in changing his humanity for the worst. Perhaps his path was written after all.

     Or was it? As a Christian, should I believe that God purposely made it happen that Lawrence killed Gasim? Or that He made it so that when Lawrence went into a city held by the enemy, he was captured and beaten by Turks? Or were they just mistakes made on Lawrence’s part because he chose to rescue Gasim or go into the city? I’m glad I’m able to think about these things this month, and I hope you’ll continue to join me as we discover what it means to “Choose Life”.