Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The King of Kings (1927)

     Today’s film is one that most of you probably have not seen. It is a silent film by the great filmmaking pioneer Cecil B. DeMille, known mostly for his grandiose Technicolor epics like “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “The Ten Commandments.” But my favorite film of his is a slightly less grandiose film from 1927, one of his many Biblical epics that especially struck me as powerful when I saw it for the first time. And I thought that it was only fitting that as we approach Easter Sunday, that we reflect on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is DeMille’s “The King of Kings.”

     I won’t go too far into the plot of this film, because most of you reading this probably know the story about which it is based—even though what we read in the Bible and the way it is presented on-screen is structured quite differently at some points. The title character (Jesus, of course) is played by H.B. Warner, who most of you probably know as Mr. Gower from “It’s a Wonderful Life”. But twenty years before that role, Warner was a big silent-film star, and here he plays the character of Jesus in a performance that, in my opinion, stands out as one of the greatest performances of Christ ever filmed. One characteristic of silent films was exaggerated acting, using dramatic gestures and facial expressions to convey emotion rather than dialogue. Warner’s Jesus, however, never feels exaggerated—in fact, it’s one of the greatest examples of subtle acting prior to “talking pictures” that I’ve ever seen.

     The film also has a unique portrayal of Mary Magdalene (Dorothy Cumming), which is probably accurate but certainly not as simple as many Christians today would probably think of her. The film opens with her at a great pagan feast, wondering where her friend Judas Iscariot is. It turns out that he is now a follower of Christ, as she goes to confront him about skipping out on the party and instead runs into Christ. She is immediately humbled by his presence, and rightfully so—Warner is filmed in a way that a certain glow is constantly around his head, a beautiful image that baffles me as to how they could have pulled it off in 1927. 

     Jesus then proceeds to cure Mary Magdalene of her demons, and this sequence is incredibly profound. In Luke 8:2, it is recorded that Jesus had healed her of seven demons. I think most translations call them “seven demons”, but the film’s translation (the titles of dialogue most of the time come directly from Scripture) identifies these demons as the “Seven Deadly Sins”. And in another scene that makes me wonder how they did it, seven creatures dressed in black that represent the Seven Deadly Sins are superimposed on the struggling Mary Magdalene, who eventually falls to the ground, free of her demons.

     Jesus is thus praised by his followers, including those who want to make him a king. As we read in the Scriptures, Jesus goes to the temple courts and turns the tables of the merchants (again, in very subtle acting that makes me believe this is the truest portrayal of Jesus in any film), and when he is almost attacked by a mob trying to make him king, he mysteriously flees. Eventually, he is indeed arrested, tried, and crucified, as many watch in satisfaction and in mourning—including a young boy named Luke, whose leg was healed previously by Jesus. And yeah, the way the film portrays it, the boy seems to be that Luke from Scripture, though I guess it’s still up for interpretation.

     But then, in a glorious scene, the black-and-white film briefly turns to color (a very early form of Technicolor, apparently) on what we now know as Easter Sunday, as Jesus rises from the grave and sees Mary Magdalene and his followers. And of course, Christ ascends to Heaven at the end of the film, and it serves as a beautiful ending to what must have been one of the earliest successes in film of portraying the life of Jesus. Again, I’m sorry for summarizing this pretty quickly, but I encourage you to go see this movie for yourself if you can, because it truly is amazing—or, better yet, read the Gospels!

     To wrap up, though, I want to wish you (probably for the last time) a Happy Easter from me to you. If you happen to be reading this and are unfamiliar with the meaning of this holiday, I just want to tell you from the bottom of my heart what I believe: I was blind, but now I see. (John 9:25b) Even though I grew up in a Christian home, I never fully understood who Jesus was and what He did for me until my teenage years, and that’s when I truly decided to commit my life to Him—and since then, though there have been trials along the way, God has made a path for me that has sincerely blessed me. And I pray that anyone reading this now would recognize Jesus’ sacrifice and remember it today: because of Jesus’ resurrection, we can be too! Hallelujah!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

American Beauty (1999)

     A couple years ago on “Reel Christianity”, I wrote an article about one of my favorite movies ever, “Casablanca”. Known now as having what many call the greatest screenplay ever written, “Casablanca” is the story of a man’s sacrifice of his love in order to serve a greater cause. In the end, the main character does not get what he wants; instead, he gets what he needs. (And yeah, sorry for spoiling the ending, but like I always say, go watch the movie yourself.) Today’s film, “American Beauty”, is quite different from “Casablanca” in terms of its content, but it feels to me like another story of a man not getting what he wants but rather what he needs.

     The film is directed by British filmmaker Sam Mendes, known recently for breathing new life into the James Bond saga with “Skyfall”. But “American Beauty” was his first film, and it won five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, and Actor. That actor, Kevin Spacey, plays Lester Burnham, a middle-aged office worker who is going through a mid-life crisis. His wife Carolyn and daughter Jane (Annette Bening and Thora Birch, respectively) do not appreciate him; his employers are on the verge of laying him off; and he has become very sexually frustrated, as we see in somewhat graphic detail as he takes a shower. (Note: this film is definitely not for kids.)

     Then one night, at a school basketball game where Jane is cheerleading, Lester looks at the group of girls and identifies one in particular: Angela (Mena Suvari), a blond teenager who happens to be Jane’s best friend. Lester immediately is fixated, as he begins fantasies about Angela that aren’t necessarily graphic, but are still slightly gross considering that he’s old enough to be her father. When he picks Jane up after the game, he stutters as he talks to Angela as if he is a teenage boy again himself. Jane is embarrassed, Carolyn is indifferent, and Lester is now awakened.

     Lester spends pretty much the rest of the film trying to re-prioritize his life, if for the wrong reasons. He starts exercising more, saying he wants to “look good naked”—previously he overheard Angela telling Jane (probably somewhat jokingly, or at least that’s what I’d like to believe) that he would look more sexually attractive if he worked out. He quits his job at the office and starts working at a fast-food restaurant—where one day he finds his wife at the drive-thru with another man, though he has apparently lost all interest in his marriage and doesn’t care in the slightest.

     He also starts doing some drugs thanks to the young drug dealer next door, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), whose family just moved in and whose father is a retired Marine Corps colonel (Chris Cooper). Ricky ends up developing feelings for Jane, who does so in return, and the two of them begin a relationship much to Angela’s dismay—she claims that Ricky is a creep for videotaping random things when he has his camera. But as Jane finds out, it’s not random for Ricky: he has a hobby of videotaping beautiful things that he sees, no matter how simple they are, even as simple as a plastic bag blowing in a breeze.

     Things start going wrong when Col. Fitts sees Lester and Ricky together from a distance and assumes they are sexually involved. He punishes Ricky for presumably being homosexual, and Ricky decides to leave the neighborhood with Jane. The colonel, however, we soon discover is secretly in the closet himself, as he goes to confront Lester that night and ends up kissing him, after which Lester immediately pushes him away. The colonel leaves, and Lester suddenly finds himself in his living room alone. His wife is driving home with a newly bought gun, aimed to kill him. Jane and Ricky are upstairs, contemplating leaving. And the only person downstairs with Lester, who happened to be over their house that night, is Angela Hayes.

     So at first, the two of them want to satisfy their sexual frustrations by seducing each other. And you’d think that Lester would want to go through with the act, as would Angela. But when Angela says she is a virgin and apologizes in case she is not a good partner, Lester instead gives her a blanket to clothe herself and comforts her. They talk in the kitchen for a little bit before Angela goes to the bathroom, and Lester sits at his kitchen table looking at a picture of him and his family at a happier time. Slowly, a gun approaches the back of his head and fires. Lester is dead, Col. Fitts is covered in blood, and Carolyn is alone.

     This all might sound complicated, but it’s really not. It’s actually kind of a satisfying ending, despite Lester’s death. But as his narration tells us (yes, he’s been narrating the story while dead the whole time), he’s okay with it:

LESTER: I guess I could be pretty [ticked] off about what happened to me. But it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes, I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much. And then I remember to relax and stop trying to hold onto it… and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid, little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry; you will someday.

     In the end, Lester Burnham doesn’t get what he wants. He gets what he needs. He is able to sacrifice his lust for Angela for a truer, purer love. At least, that was my interpretation of the story. Many critics are still debating on what the film actually means, right up to the title—apparently there is a rose known as the “American Beauty”, which appears in Lester’s fantasies about Angela, but the title could also just be referring to this world Lester now sees clearly for the first time.

     Believe it or not, the first passage of Scripture that I thought of when I watched the movie was the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon, the son of David who wrote the book, spent his whole life looking for satisfaction on an earthly level. He was the wisest man on the planet. He had many wives and got more than enough “pleasure” on that level. He had everything a man could think to have; he was a king!

     And yet, Ecclesiastes 2:11 reads, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” Solomon was never truly satisfied—that is, by a world “under the sun”. Doesn’t this imply that there is something over the sun? Perhaps this is what Solomon truly longed for, a higher power and a higher satisfaction.

     As a follower of Christ, I know that the only way to be truly satisfied in life is through God’s love and doing His will for me. But of course, being in a sinful world with all these earthly pleasures makes that journey much harder. But if I focus my eyes on Him and Him alone, that pleasure and that joy that He gives me will satisfy every desire of my heart. I pray that you would have that kind of faith today, as would I.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Ordet (1955)

     In the International Cinema course I’m taking at my university this semester, I’ve been able for the first time to see a wide variety of cinema from around the world. I got to see a Bollywood epic for the first time and it fascinated me; I finally got to see “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Seven Samurai”, two popular Asian films that were also successes in the United States; and I was moved by two recent films from the Middle East, “Paradise Now” from Pakistan and “A Separation” from Iran. But the movie that has had the hugest impact on me so far is a minimalist film from Denmark called “Ordet”.

     “Ordet”, translated as “The Word”, is a 1955 Danish dramatic film based on a play by Kaj Munk (a play that I’ve never seen or heard of before watching this), directed by a filmmaker named Carl Theodor Dreyer, who is also world-renowned for his haunting, almost-lost historical masterpiece, “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. However, I found “Ordet” more appealing and more impactful—maybe it was because “Joan of Arc” was a silent film, and “Ordet” is not. But even though both films deal explicitly with religious characters and themes, I’d like to explore “Ordet” and just what is so moving about it.

     The film takes place in Denmark in 1925 on a farm, where we meet the father of the house, Morten Borgen (and I apologize for not crediting the actors, but I have a feeling none of us could identify them anyway). Morten has three sons, two of whom are grown men, but all three of them live on the property. The eldest is Mikkel, with his wife Inger pregnant with their third child. The second eldest is Johannes, who we see early on quotes the Gospels and prophesies under the belief that he is Jesus Christ returned (apparently he went crazy while studying philosophy a while back). The youngest, still really a boy, is Anders, who has a crush on a girl whose father happens to be in charge of a local Christian sect.

     (On a side note, I don’t know Danish or how to figure out Danish names into English, but I’m pretty sure all these characters are named after New Testament characters. I’m going to figure that out for sure one of these days.)

     So for the first half or so of the movie, we see the family in their daily lives and learn about each member’s religious beliefs. Morten apparently raised the children in a Lutheran home. Now, Mikkel (and Inger, I believe) live as agnostics, though still interacting with the father. Johannes obviously still has some faith in Christianity, although many times his prophesying seems more creepy than moving. Anders’ faith is never truly expressed, though the fact that he is in love with an independently Christian girl may imply that he loves not based on faith. At first, when Anders tells his father he wants to marry this girl, Anne Petersen, Morten at first refuses. But after Anders goes to Anne’s father Peter and asks but is refused by him, Morten decides (based on his pride) to go arrange a marriage himself.

     At one of Peter’s sect’s religious meetings, he and Morten get in an argument over their differences in religious beliefs, when suddenly they receive word that Inger has gone into labor and is not looking well. (Things don’t improve the argument when Peter said Inger’s bad health is a result of Morten rejecting the sect.) Morten and Anders return home to find the baby dead and Inger barely hanging on to life. Morten’s faith is briefly restored when he finds Inger alive after all, but then Johannes enters the room and tells them that death is near for her. (Inger’s eldest daughter, however, says that she is not sad about this because she is confident that Johannes will raise her from the dead.)

     Sure enough, Inger dies after all, and the family is left devastated and confused. As for Johannes, he leaves home for a time (presumably to find peace with God in his own way), and the family prepares for Inger’s visitation and funeral. At the wake, Peter and Anne actually come and reconcile with Morten and Anders, and Peter gives Anders permission to marry Anne. Then all of a sudden, Johannes comes in, seeming a little less crazy than he usually has. And as he stands above Inger’s casket, he again challenges the family:

JOHANNES: Not one of you has had the idea of asking God to give Inger back to you again.

MORTEN: Johannes, now you are blaspheming God.

JOHANNES: No. All of you blaspheme God with your lukewarm faith. …Inger, in the name of Jesus Christ, I bid thee: arise!

     And sure enough, Inger rises from the casket, Mikkel embraces her, and each one in the room has their faith restored. I’ll be honest, I have rarely been so moved by a film as religiously explicit and profound as “Ordet” is, and I feel that its simplistic production yet complex meaning is why many consider it one of the greatest films ever made.

     But it still prompts the question: do I have enough faith in my Jesus that I believe the dead can be raised to life? It’s a crazy thought, and it’s honestly pretty scary the more I think about it. But that’s the kind of faith it takes to follow Jesus. And seeing a miracle like this happen with their own eyes was what it took for many followers of Jesus to truly believe. The biggest example of this can be found in John 11, where Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead.

     When the news comes to Jesus and his disciples, he tells them in verse 15, “‘For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.’” Though later he weeps for Lazarus (though not solely for Lazarus or for Mary’s sorrow, but also for sin and pain altogether), he is confident early on that Lazarus will live again. And sure enough, Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb, cries out for him to come out, and Lazarus the arisen dead walks right out in his grave clothes, and many of those Jews believed that day in Jesus.

     But what about us, thousands of years later having only heard about this miracle in the Scriptures and never seen anything like it in our lives? Are we following Christ simply because we grew up in the lifestyle, or because people around us are doing it? I personally have been guilty of both those reasons in my past; but I have come to a point where I had seen Jesus work in my life and heal my heart, and I truly believe that (His Will be done, of course) He has the power to raise the dead. My challenge to you is that you would come to that place of strong faith in Christ. After all, he tells Martha and us in John 11:40: “‘If you believe, you will see the glory of God.’”

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

No Country for Old Men (2007)

     In 2007, I was thirteen years old, and I remember some of the best films of the year being R-rated dramas that my father felt I was too young to watch. And I’m honestly thankful for that, because I’m not sure what I would have felt if at that age I had seen such dark films as those: “Sweeney Todd”, “Michael Clayton”, “Atonement”, “Into the Wild”, and the declared Best Picture of the year, “No Country for Old Men”. The only important film I did end up seeing that year was “There Will Be Blood”, which turned out to be the most powerful movie-going experience I had that year.

     But since that time, I have seen most of those other films, and looking back on them all five or six years later, they seem very culturally important to me. Around the time of their release, the United States started slipping into a recession, and these films seem to reflect how many Americans felt at that time. So after finally seeing “No Country for Old Men”, which ended up winning four Academy Awards, the film became much more relevant to me. And now, after having to watch the film again and write about it for one of my classes, I’ve decided to take a closer look at its spiritual content.

     The film starts off with a narration from Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the old sheriff of a presumably small town in Texas in 1980, talking about how the town (and the world) has changed so much since his father was sheriff many years ago. And we see just that, as a policeman arrests our villain, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), just so Chigurh can strangle and kill him with his handcuffs back at the police station. (This scene is but the beginning of many bloody encounters throughout the film.)

     Meanwhile, local Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is hunting one morning when he comes across a frightening sight: bloody corpses and their vehicles in what looks like a drug deal gone wrong. Moss comes across an even more startling sight once he is up close: a suitcase full of about two million dollars. After he finds a man still alive in his truck asking for water, he leaves the scene and returns home that night to his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). But later that night, Moss’ conscience gets to him, and when he goes to get the man water, he finds that man dead and other men chasing him down and getting his license number.

     Moss barely escapes and tells Carla Jean to pack up her valuables, that the two of them have to leave town. Through a long series of events, Llewelyn and Carla Jean are separated, Chigurh tracks Moss down by using a tracking device hidden inside the suitcase, and the two men jump from hotel to hotel as Chigurh chases Moss down. This may not sound so threatening as I write it here, but as we are introduced to Anton Chigurh, we find immediately that he is nearly the personification of evil, killing people seemingly at random with a captive bolt pistol.

     The sheriff tries to track Moss down and keeps in contact with Carla Jean, but he is unable to prevent Moss’ eventual death (which, by the way, we never seen on-screen). Presumably, Chigurh got the money, killing several others in the process (which I needn’t expand on here), and he eventually meets up with Carla Jean shortly after her own mother is buried after her death from cancer. Carla Jean knows that Llewelyn is dead, and Anton tells her that he told Llewelyn that her life would be spared if Llewelyn had given up the money, which he didn’t.

     Carla Jean doesn’t lose her faith in Llewelyn, however, as Anton flips a coin to determine whether or not he will kill her (as he did with another man in an earlier scene). But when he tells Carla Jean to call heads or tails, she refuses to call it, leaving Anton to choose her “fate”. If he indeed kills her, we never see it on-screen, though the signs point in that direction. Nevertheless, Anton drives away, is hit hard by a car and badly breaks his arm, but pretty much just walks away, leaving his future entirely up to the audience to decide. (Unless you read the book, then you might know better what happens with him.)

     So yeah, this film is pretty dark and ambiguous throughout, and I’m sure that even reading about it here may turn some of you off. But the final scene offers a brief, if still an ambiguous, hope that most of the rest of the film does not have. As Bell sits with his wife at breakfast, now retired from his duties as sheriff, he tells her about two dreams he had the night before, both of them about him and his long-deceased father. In the first one, his father entrusts to him some money in town, which he loses. But in the second dream, the two of them are riding horses up in the mountains.

BELL: …He rode past me and kept on going. Never said nothing going by. He just rode on past... And in the dream I knew that he was going on ahead and he was fixing to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.

     Literally, the film ends as he and his wife ponder over those words. And yeah, it’s as abrupt an ending as it sounds like in this blog. But the more I think about it, maybe the entire film was leading up to an ending like this. For most of “No Country for Old Men”, the viewer is left trying to figure out the redemption that there might be for these characters. And you have to look long and hard to find it, because this is a very bleak movie. But with all that searching, maybe if one keeps searching up till the end of the film, one can see the glimmer of light in what Ed Tom Bell heard in his dream. In an earlier scene, he talks with one of his retired friends of his troubles:

BELL: I always figured when I got older, God would sort of come into my life somehow. And He didn't. I don't blame Him. If I was Him, I would have the same opinion of me that He does.

     But in the dream, he sees his father, who has been long dead, going ahead of him to prepare a place for him. I hate to word it so obviously, but putting it like that, one can see more clearly the idea of faith that perhaps one can see when watching “No Country for Old Men”. Jesus tells his disciples in John 14: “‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. …If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.’” (14:1, 3)

     In this world, we will have many obstacles. As a nation, we’ve faced war, terrorism, recession, and unemployment. And as individuals, we’ve all faced loneliness, despair, death, and trials of many kinds. But in the face of all that, can we say that we know our God is preparing a place for us in Heaven? Do we believe that there will be a day where all the evil around us will finally be defeated? And do we have the faith to believe that? Perhaps that is the challenge that “No Country for Old Men” presents to us. And my prayer for you is that you have the faith to trust God in that, no matter what trials you face.