Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Ben-Hur (1959)

     About a month ago, I was pondering what movie to share with you at Easter time, and I eventually decided to write about Cecil B. DeMille’s “The King of Kings”. And then on Easter Sunday, after my family returned from church, we flipped through the channels on TV and caught the last fifteen minutes of William Wyler’s 1959 remake of “Ben-Hur”, and I realized that this film was probably better to share, since most of you readers have probably seen it and not “The King of Kings”. So about a month late, I hope you don’t mind if I write about “Ben-Hur”, which I never really considered an “Easter” film but certainly fits that time of the year.

     The film, although the book and original film on which it is based is subtitled “A Tale of the Christ”, does not actually center on Jesus most of the time. It is a story about a prince in Jerusalem around the time of Jesus’ ministry named Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston, of course), the childhood friend of a current Roman commander named Messala (Stephen Boyd). Though they both grew up together, Messala is now zealous for the Roman government, while Judah and his family are still practicing Jews. Because of this, there is a growing tension between the two men, and it leads to Judah refusing to give Messala names of Jews who are against the government.

     Soon, Messala pays Judah back for his disobedience: through a series of events that I needn’t explain here, he has Judah’s mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) imprisoned for a crime against the governor that they did not commit. Judah, after swearing revenge on Messala, is sent to life in the galleys—but not before he is given a drink of water on his way, by a man who the audience identifies as Christ. Later, in one of the many iconic epic scenes in the film, Judah refuses to break under the brutality of the men in the galleys with him, even as the ship they row for faces destruction.

     The ship sinks and Judah survives, also saving the life of the Roman Consul Arrius (Jack Hawkins). Because Arrius is now credited with victoriously winning the battle, he makes sure Judah is well taken care of, even adopted into the home of Emperor Tiberius (George Relph). As years go by, Judah becomes a great charioteer in Rome before returning to Judea, where a sheik (Hugh Griffith) encourages Judah to compete in a chariot race before the new governor Pontius Pilate (yes, that one, played by Frank Thring). Judah refuses at first, even when he learns Messala will also be racing.

     However, he changes his mind when he learns about his mother and sister. In the years after their imprisonment, Miriam and Tirzah developed leprosy, and thus were sent out of the city to the Valley of the Lepers. However, they told Judah’s beloved Esther (Haya Harareet) to conceal this from him, so when Judah returns home, Esther tells them that they died in prison. This prompts Judah to compete in the race and have his vengeance on Messala. And in another epic sequence, the famous chariot race, Judah (long story short) wins the race, while Messala is fatally wounded.

     However, before he dies, Messala tells Judah where Miriam and Tirzah really are and says “the race is not over…” Judah sneaks to the Valley of the Lepers when Esther visits the two women there one day, and he is incredibly distraught at their current condition. And his vengeance grows from not solely against Messala but against the entire Roman government. Rejecting his Roman citizenship, he tells Esther his new worldview:

JUDAH: I tell you every man in Judea is unclean, and will stay unclean, until we've scoured off our bodies the crust and filth of being at the mercy of tyranny. No other life is possible except to wash this land clean!

ESTHER: You seem to be now the very thing you set out to destroy, giving evil for evil! Hatred is turning you to stone. It is as though you had become Messala!

     Esther, on the other hand, has just witnessed Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount and was incredibly moved, but Judah will not listen. He laments to her that day of the Sermon that he was given water before going to the galleys, but now he thinks he would have been better off dying of thirst: “I’m still thirsty”, he tells her. But later on, Judah’s redemption comes when he finally sees Miriam and Tirzah, and Esther says that they should all go to see Jesus, that He could heal them of their leprosy.

     To put it bluntly, they picked the worst day possible to see Jesus, for He is now parading in the streets carrying His cross to be crucified on Golgotha. Judah realizes that He is the one who gave him water that day, but when Judah tries to return the favor, a Roman soldier pushes him away. Judah can only watch Christ die on the cross, wondering why He had to die even though He seemingly did nothing wrong. Miriam, Tirzah, and Esther feel the same way. Suddenly, a thunderstorm occurs that night, and the two leprous women find themselves miraculously healed. Better still, Judah approaches Esther about a revelation:

JUDAH: Almost at the moment He died, I heard Him say, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

ESTHER: Even then.

JUDAH: Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.

     Now redeemed, Judah embraces Esther, and then rejoices as he finds Miriam and Tirzah healed.

     A couple years ago, I wrote an article for “Reel Christianity” about the movie “Gladiator”, and I immediately connected the story of that film to “Ben-Hur”. Both tell the story of a man ravaged by the Roman government, rises to the position of a powerful competitor, and eventually finds revenge against the men who wronged him. However, to me, there is a big difference between “Ben-Hur” and “Gladiator”. In “Gladiator”, though there are still ideas of eternity and the afterlife in the film that relate to Christianity, the satisfaction in the film comes in Maximus defeating his enemy. In “Ben-Hur”, Judah does get some satisfaction in revenge, but that is not what the story is about in the end.

     Judah and the people were very affected by the love that Jesus taught, and it led to this man, who had for years held a grudge against the men who wrongly imprisoned and punished him, forsaking his hatred and showing mercy instead. This, to me, is the power of Christ: His love can lead the vengeful to give up their burden of revenge and love them instead. Jesus talked about it himself on the Sermon on the Mount which Esther heard: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) My prayer for you is that today, you will put aside your own grudges and instead focus on Christ’s compassion for others—and that I would do the same.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

     In 1967, several films were released that I believe helped change the course of American cinema. “In the Heat of the Night”, the Academy Award winner for Best Picture that year, was a gritty crime drama dealing with racism. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” also dealt with racism, but in a lighter way in the context of interracial marriage. And Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” was an incredibly innovative and yet incredibly risqué love story from which comes the immortal line, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” But one of my favorite movies from this year is another gritty yet creative crime film, “Bonnie and Clyde”, and although all the films I listed are now considered classics, this film stands out among them, and I want to share it with you today.

     The film takes place in Texas during the Great Depression, a time when crime occurs quite often, if out of desperation. But it’s not always out of desperation for Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), a man who’s been in jail and proud of it, as he stops by a nearby house to steal a car. This is the home of Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), who seems to be turned on by Clyde’s spirit when she finds him outside. The two of them talk for a little while as Clyde convinces Bonnie that a life of crime is much more exciting than her current life as a waitress living with her folks. Bonnie agrees to go with him and leave her current life—which in a way reminded me of another movie I’ve written about on this site, Terrence Malick’s “Badlands”.

     Clyde proceeds to rob a grocery store as the two of them take off and start a life together, accompanied by one of the coolest musical scores I’ve ever heard in a movie: a country band, led by a banjo, pretty much going nuts. Look it up, it’s good music. Anyway, along the way, Bonnie and Clyde meet up with accomplices ranging from young gas station clerk C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) to Clyde’s brother and his wife, Buck (Gene Hackman) and Blanche (Estelle Parsons) Barrow. On the one hand, this means that the team of outlaws can now get away with larger crimes. But on the other hand, since Blanche is an annoying nuisance that Bonnie believes could give them away at any moment, tension begins to grow within the group.

     This doesn’t stop them, however, from living their life of crime and loving it. They rob banks, steal cars, and even take hostages. Bonnie and Clyde even go so far as to humiliatingly take a picture with one of them, Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle), who vows to capture the outlaws one day. Eventually, as their heists continue to grow in number and in violence, the gang is caught in a raid that leaves Buck dead and Blanche blind. Bonnie, Clyde, and C.W. flee to C.W.’s father’s house, where C.W. speaks with his dad Ivan (Dub Taylor), who tells him that Bonnie and Clyde are corrupting him.

     Long story short, Hamer makes a deal with C.W.’s father to catch Bonnie and Clyde, after Blanche blew their cover in an interrogation. And sure enough, the film ends with Bonnie and Clyde left in a car on the side of the road as Ivan Moss has fled and the police riddle the outlaws’ bodies with bullets in a pretty disturbing scene. Hamer and the police come out from hiding, and the film ends. I know I didn’t take a whole lot of time in describing the film, and I apologize, but it’s honestly been a while since I’ve seen “Bonnie and Clyde” the whole way through.

     The reason I wanted to write about it today, though, has to do with a paradox contained within the film. Bonnie and Clyde and their team are criminals plain and simple, and in the real world, we usually root for the law saving the day and giving the bad guys their just desserts. In this film, however, that idea is turned on its head. The couple stands out as independent, confident figures in a time in history when a lot of people were suffering and poor. And not only that, but they even have their own standards: in one scene where they rob a bank, Clyde lets a poor farmer making a deposit keep his own money, while they take the rest of the bank’s money. Later in the film, this farmer speaks this line that stood out to me in the film:

FARMER: All I can say is, they did right by me—and I'm bringing me and a mess of flowers to their funeral.

     It’s a minor line of dialogue, but it still makes a cool point. Because of these standards, there were people who saw Bonnie and Clyde break the law that were okay with it. Why? Because they were still shown respect. It’s a huge paradox, but it sort of makes sense why that farmer or other characters would think that. And as crazy as it sounds, it almost makes Bonnie and Clyde look like Christ figures in the film.

     You see, when Jesus came to this earth, he called out those who thought they were wise and made them humble, challenging them to have a purer faith. But to the “poor in spirit”, to the people who believed even though they were not perfect, Jesus gave blessings. Of course, the difference between Jesus and Bonnie and Clyde is that Jesus did not sin. But in ways, Bonnie and Clyde showed “love” (if you can call it that) to people who were struggling, making them criminals to the law but heroes to the public.

     And this idea of Jesus loving the poor can be best summed up in a passage from the Gospel of Luke, as Christ hangs on the cross about to die. The criminal to his right curses him, but the other acknowledges that he is the Son of God. “Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” (23:42-43) Even as he was dying, Jesus reached out to the poor in spirit that was dying with him, and as we come out of Easter, I pray that you will come humbly before Christ and trust that he indeed has the power to restore you.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Blue Like Jazz (2012)

     Boy, am I gonna get some hate for this one. Now, if you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve been reading “Reel Christianity” for a while, and I’m very grateful, and hopefully I’ve been able to build a sense of trust with you and all other readers of this blog. But I need to come out and say this: I did not like “Blue Like Jazz” the movie. It could have been much, much worse, but I was still not a huge fan. Maybe it’s because I haven’t read the book, I don’t know. I’ll even go so far as to say that hadn’t I known that this was a true story, I would have rejected the film altogether. But because it is, I’m very conflicted about it. And I feel like it’s an important film for me to discuss here on “Reel Christianity.”

     So here we go. The book “Blue Like Jazz” followed the autobiographical adventures of a guy named Donald Miller, who grew up Baptist and for a time lost his faith at a secular college before returning to the faith. Again, I never read the book, so I’m going off the movie’s basic outline. The film was directed by a guy named Steve Taylor, who is best known as a Christian musician (look him up) but has recently started getting into faith-based filmmaking, as in 2006 he directed a film starring Michael W. Smith called “The Second Chance”, of which I also was not a huge fan. But please don’t get mad at me.

     The film, from the very beginning, attempts to be a more honest faith-based film than many audiences have probably seen; it doesn’t shy away from talking about drinking, drugs, sex, or any of that stuff. And I will admit, it is honest in its portrayal of those things, and I definitely respect the film for that. And as we begin to see the conflicting life of Donald Miller (Marshall Allman), who is involved in his Baptist church but also sees his youth pastor hitting on his mom, we can identify with his internal struggle to break free of the religion that seems so hypocritical to him.

     So he leaves his Texas home for Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which Donald says is one of the most godless universities in the nation. (On a side note, I have no idea what Reed College had to say about the book or the film, but I’d sure like to find out.) When he arrives at school, he is immediately exposed to lifestyles that are more controversial and yet more honest than his own. The primary person he meets that exemplifies this is Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), a young woman not afraid in the slightest to talk about her homosexuality. (I’ll get to my opinion about this in a minute.) He also meets a guy student who goes by the nickname “The Pope”—Reed College has its own self-proclaimed student pope, who at campus parties will be there to “absolve” the sins of students who come to him for help.

     But another girl that Donald meets is Penny (Claire Holt), a girl who’s involved in activist groups at school as well as a nearby church. And unlike Don, she is not totally “in the closet” about her faith. Seriously, even Lauryn tells Don that:

LAURYN: Your private, religious, wacko beliefs are none of my business, but if you plan on sticking around… you probably want to keep that quiet around here.

DONALD: What's wrong with being a Christian?

LAURYN: Do you have any idea what your hateful, bullying tribe has been up to? ‘Cause around here, you represent a whole new category of despicable. So, if you plan on ever making friends… get in the closet, Baptist boy, and stay there.

     So yeah, the majority of the movie follows Donald Miller going around campus and the surrounding area losing his faith. And this is the major problem I had with the movie: so much of this second act consists of Don just doing all these things, partying, doing drugs, even pulling a prank at the local cathedral. Now, again, I appreciate the film for being honest in its content—if you’re gonna make a movie about a kid losing his faith at school, shying away from content wouldn’t feel as authentic, and I appreciate the film for not doing that. But at the same time, there were so many times in the film where I was just thinking: “Get to the point!” It spent so much time focusing on the sin at school and so little time exploring Don’s actual crisis of faith that it seemed very unbalanced to me.

     And on top of that, some of the characters that Don meets seemed like they were solely concerned with their own lives, or, as some might say, their own sin. Take Lauryn, for example. From the very first moment we meet her, she is talking to Don about another girl at school and how she wants to… you know, with her. And it’s like every other conversation we hear from her is about her lesbianism. Again, I appreciate the honesty, but it just didn’t lead anywhere for me.

     But I’m sorry, I need to stop ranting and explain the film. Nearing the end, Don has found out his youth pastor got his mom pregnant, and it is as if he has had the last straw with Christianity. Eventually, he reconciles with Penny, and then goes to a party and gets stoned off his rocker. (Those events may be out of order, but I honestly can’t remember.) And one night, as he is named the new “Pope” on Reed College, he talks to the former “Pope” and apologizes to him. The student is confused, but Don explains:

DONALD: There’s a lot you don’t know about me. I come out of this… sub-culture… I came here to escape it, because I was ashamed of it. But it turns out that… I’m ashamed of Jesus.

     And Don apologizes to the student, and other students as the film closes, for not being the example of Jesus that he should have been. Yes, I acknowledge that this is a pretty nice ending, and it’s something that all believers need to take away, but I didn’t really see any point in Don’s character where he suddenly changed. He just went from being stoned to being Pope. However, I encourage you to watch the film, because it’s a great conversation starter nonetheless, and I would love to be proven wrong about my views toward “Blue Like Jazz”.

     So again, even with some faults, “Blue Like Jazz” is still an encouragement for Christians to be Jesus in their world, even when everyone around us seems totally of the world in sin. I’ve referenced John 13 on this site before, but Jesus’ command to His disciples is incredibly relevant to the film’s message. Jesus tells them, “‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’” (13:34-35)

     At times, it bothers me to be at a Christian university, because I find I have less chances to love on unbelievers. And I fear many times that if I were at a secular university, that I would either keep my faith silent, be a negative example of a Christian, or abandon my faith altogether. It’s a blessing to be at my school, but I also have to make myself think about how I am going to really impact the world. How can I be “in it, not of it”? I guess the biggest thing that I can do is to love people. Jesus tells us here that, as the hymn goes, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” My prayer for all of us is that we would follow Jesus’ commandment and love those around us, no matter the cost.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Story About Django Unchained (2012)

     Note: the article you are about to read is not like the other articles I write on “Reel Christianity.” This is not a movie “review” or analysis, though there are some parts of this movie I will address. This is a true story that happened to me a couple weeks ago that I pray will be a warning to some of you readers out there who, Heaven forbid, might find yourselves in a similar situation.

     The weekend before Easter, I went with a friend to see two movies back-to-back, “Django Unchained” and “Life of Pi” in 3-D. They were playing at a “discount theater” about twenty minutes from my university, and I hadn’t seen either film yet (well, I’d seen “Life of Pi”, but not in 3-D). So for five dollars each, my friend and I got to see these two films, and we went into the theater simply expecting to enjoy the movies.

     We saw “Django” first, and immediately upon entering the screening room, we noticed something very unsettling: two boys, who couldn’t have been more than ten years old, were sitting in the far right section by themselves. My friend and I were worried, certainly, but at first we shrugged it off thinking, “Their parents must be terrible.” My friend had seen the film before, and he knew exactly how much violence and language we were about to experience with “Django Unchained”. Even without having seen it, I was aware that it was going to be brutal, and it saddened me to think that these two kids were allowed in to see it as well.

     As the film progressed, though, my friend and I noticed something even more unsettling. About two hours in, we saw these two kids move from the far-right seating section to the center front row. That’s when we realized: these kids shouldn’t be here. They must have snuck in, and we were furious. Well, at least I was; my friend was, too, I’m sure. And I whispered to him: “I’m tempted to go tell somebody.” Ten seconds later, without a word, my friend gives me his popcorn container, gets up, and walks out of the theater. I sat there, as the two boys often looked around the theater to see if anyone saw them.

     Eventually, two theater workers came into the room and approached the two boys. I couldn’t hear what they actually said, but basically, the boys told the workers that their “guardians” were in the back. And I’d like to think that the workers would have asked the boys to show them where their guardians were, or even show them their tickets. But they didn’t; they went back and told my friend that there was nothing they could do. My friend came back and sat down, and we just continued watching the film to the very end—but I’ll admit, I felt incredibly uneasy… even guilty that I didn’t take further action.

     The film ended, and my friend and I watched the two boys walk out of the theater. Just as we expected, they walked out alone, and I for one was infuriated. Well, I was angry because the workers allowed this to happen. But I was also sad about the whole thing, too. I kept thinking that I should have done more to get those boys out of that theater—and I didn’t want to do it because they simply weren’t allowed there, though that was another reason. I wanted them out because I didn’t want them exposed at their age to the kind of worldview that “Django Unchained” presents.

     Those of you who have seen the film know what I’m talking about. The main character, a slave in pre-Civil War Texas named Django (Jamie Foxx), is approached by a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to find his former slave owners, and they eventually find and free his slave wife (Kerry Washington) from a ruthless plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his suspecting servant (Samuel L. Jackson). The writer and director of this film is Quentin Tarantino, the man behind the gritty “Pulp Fiction”, “Reservoir Dogs”, “Inglourious…”, and “Kill Bill” movies.

     So as you can imagine, this film was pretty violent—not to mention repeated use of the “n-word”, among other obscenities. And I’ll admit, I didn’t like the movie at all. I guess it was well made, but it was different to me than the other two Tarantino films I’ve seen, “Pulp Fiction” and “Inglourious…”, because at least those films had important themes. The end of “Pulp Fiction”, which is something I analyzed early on in “Reel Christianity”, presents a character that finds God and thus rejects his life of crime. The end of “Inglourious…” presents the idea of changing history, and the characters in that film certainly do that (violently, of course).

     But still, throughout those films, there was another theme of revenge. Characters are wronged by others and thus go to find them and make them pay, often in death. But at least those two films had other themes that transcended this shallow idea of revenge. “Django Unchained” did not have that—in fact, in that sense, it almost seems like a very sad movie. Django, after helping his boss out with a few “jobs” (you know, killing criminals), starts to like the bounty hunting business, and as he goes to find his wife, he starts to get accustomed to the fact that he lives in a dirty world, and he needs to get dirty in order to do what’s right.

     As a Christian, I know that this worldview is a lie from Satan to make us believe there is no hope, and all we can do is fight for ourselves. I, on the other hand, truly believe (and try to live out) in sacrificial love and forgiveness that Christ exemplified to us as He died on the cross for our sins. It’s as if the characters in “Django Unchained” are living in a world where God doesn’t exist! I find it odd that the same man who presented redemptive Christianity in “Pulp Fiction” now writes this movie about a man driven solely by revenge.

     I say all this to say, I wish I could have prevented those boys from seeing that worldview. If I had been presented with such pessimism at their age, who knows if I would have listened to God’s voice in my teenage years? And I feel like at this point, all I can do is pray for those boys. And I pray that if you are a parent, and if you have the opportunity to dialogue with your children about this kind of entertainment, please do so. I feel that perhaps at an older age, they should be able to see this, because it certainly is a well made film; however, I still feel like sometimes, kids are just too young to see it. So I pray that with God’s guidance, we all may be able to make the right decision. Thanks for reading.

     Also: I need to add that shortly after writing this article, I sent the theater an e-mail about the situation myself, and the manager responded kindly saying that in the future, she would make sure that the employees would take further action from now on in situations like this. So I'm very thankful for their response and wanted to make that known as well.