Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Barry Lyndon (1975)

     Last year around this time, I did a number of articles on “Reel Christianity” on some of the films of Stanley Kubrick. Last summer, I got to see some of Kubrick’s films for the first time, from “The Killing” to “Spartacus” to “A Clockwork Orange”, and I really admired his work in terms of his visual style and his writing. One film I didn’t talk about, though, was his 1975 historical drama “Barry Lyndon”, which is a truly magnificent film that genuinely feels like a novel put on the big screen. (If you see the movie, you’ll probably see what I mean.) And as I’ve thought about it, this movie, more than some of Kubrick’s other work, is a fascinating portrayal of a common idea in Christianity.

     The movie’s very long and sort of complicated, so as I’ve done in the past, I’m going to skip around some parts of the story to give you the big picture. Young Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) grows up fatherless in eighteenth-century Ireland and falls in love with his older cousin Nora. When she eventually decides to marry a wealthier man, English Captain John Quin. Barry challenges him to a duel, shooting and killing him—or so he thinks, for his family purposely loaded his gun with other material, so that Barry would flee and no longer interfere with Nora’s marriage. Barry then flees to Dublin, but is robbed along the way and soon joins the British Army.

     Barry later deserts the army during the Seven Years’ War and flees to Holland, but along the way, the Prussian Captain Potzdorf catches him disguised as an officer and basically forces him to enlist in the Prussian Army. After the war is over, and after Barry has been commemorated for saving Potzdorf’s life, he is offered a job as a servant of a local gambler, Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), because he is suspected of being a spy. When Barry reveals to the Chevalier that they both come from the same country, the two men start working together cheating at cards. When he cheats a prince one night, the Prussians declare that he must leave the country—so Barry helps him escape in the night, and Barry himself dresses up as the Chevalier and leaves Prussia.

     The two men rejoin and travel around Europe, until one gamble where Barry meets the Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) in Belgium and marries into her wealth after her husband’s death. This is, of course, how Redmond Barry takes up the new name Barry Lyndon. He and Lady Lyndon have a child, but Lord Bullingdon (Dominic Savage), Lady’s son from her first husband, disapproves of the marriage, for Barry is marrying into their family only for their wealth—he is even publicly unfaithful to her. Bullingdon grows to hate Barry and as Barry mistreats his stepson (even once abusing him in public), he spoils his youngest son Bryan, who, in a story straight out of “Gone With the Wind”, gets a horse for his birthday, falls off it, and dies.

     Barry starts drinking, Lady Lyndon eventually attempts suicide, and Barry and Bullingdon even face off in a duel, resulting in Bullingdon not being shot and Barry being shot in the leg. Barry’s leg is amputated, Bullingdon takes control of the estate, and Barry is forced to leave Lady Lyndon as Bullingdon threatens that he will be jailed if he does not leave. A narrator, who has been filling in the blanks for us throughout the film, concludes as we see Lady Lyndon signing Barry’s annuity:

NARRATOR: Utterly baffled and beaten, what was a lonely and broken-hearted man to do? Barry took the annuity and returned to Ireland with his mother to complete his recovery. Sometime later, he travelled to the Continent. His life there, we have not the means of following accurately. But he appears to have resumed his former profession of a gambler without his former success. He never saw Lady Lyndon again.

     In the end, Redmond Barry’s selfish ambition led to him pretty much losing everything. And as restrained as the film is, the emotion is still there as Barry and his “loved ones” start realizing that his life has been in vain. By only trying to find wealth, even marrying solely for wealth, he lost relationships, he lost a future, and he lost all that he had. But even with all that he was able to gain through it all, what could he have possibly gotten to make sure his life was not in vain after all?

     As always, I propose Christ. There isn’t a whole lot of religious content in “Barry Lyndon”—although Lady Lyndon does consult a priest after Bryan’s death, before Barry’s mother dismisses him, telling him he is doing more harm than good. But through the whole movie, a follower of Jesus may watch it and be heartbroken as Barry and so many other characters are pursuing everything in the world to make them happy… except Jesus! And I truly believe that a life without Jesus and without the Gospel really is in vain.

     Paul writes about this in First Corinthians, though he takes it a step further, talking about those who have heard the Gospel but do not live it out. “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.” (15:1-2) The only way we can live our life to the fullest is by believing God’s Word and living it out by loving others—and I pray that you would do that today in whatever situation you are in.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Master (2012)

     I have to apologize, because I feel like in the past few months, I’ve written about way too many recent movies. I think of all the movies I’ve written about this year, eight of them were released in 2012. So I’d really like to talk more about movies from the past. However, I feel really led right now to write about another 2012 film, one that has a lot more spiritual significance to me than many other movies from last year: “The Master”.

     This was writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to his 2007 epic “There Will Be Blood”, which many acclaimed to be the best film of last decade. “The Master” isn’t as developed as that film (in fact, a lot of people have complained about its third act, if you could call it a “third act”), but it’s still pretty powerful to me. The film is about Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War Two veteran who has been scarred in many ways. When we are introduced to him, basically all he talks about is sex and drinking, and it’s not at all healthy.

     When he returns to the States, his habits start interfering with his ability to get back to a normal life. He gets a job as a portrait photographer at a department store, and he ruins a relationship with a female co-worker before getting into a fight with a customer. He leaves that job (or is fired, I’m not sure) and finds a job on a farm, but after some of his alcohol poisons another worker, he runs away and tries to find something else to do.

     One night, he passes a huge yacht where dozens of people are having some kind of party. He sneaks in, drunk, and wakes up the next morning to find out that he had caused another of his drunken riots. But he is rescued in a way by the leader of that group, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who tells Freddie to get him more of that apparently good alcohol. Freddie stays on the yacht for the marriage of Lancaster’s daughter, and he meets Lancaster’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and others in the process, through whom Freddie tries to continue to feed his sexual desires.

     I should probably mention that this film is loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard and the founding of Scientology. Dodd is meant to represent Hubbard, as the leader of a religious sect called “The Cause”. And the way I see it, the Cause has nothing really to say about religion or faith but is rather just a way of Lancaster Dodd feeling like a leader. (Feel free to correct me if I’m seeing it the wrong way.) And Lancaster tries to correct Freddie’s sinful ways through forms of hypnosis, repetition, psychology, and a bunch of other stuff that I needn’t describe here. But I will say that some of the conversations between Freddie and Lancaster contain some intense acting performances.

     Eventually, at an event, Lancaster is confronted from an outsider about what the heck the Cause is. And maybe it’s just me, but as Lancaster tries to explain his organization to this outsider, John More (Christopher Evan Welch), Lancaster neither makes any sense as he speaks, nor does he provide any kindness.

MORE: Good science by definition allows for more than one opinion, doesn't it?
…Otherwise you merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of cult, is it not? …I belong to no club, and if you're unwilling to allow any discussion...

DODD: No, this isn't a discussion, it's a grilling! There's nothing I can do for you, if your mind has been made up. You seem to know the answers to your questions, why do you ask?

MORE: I'm sorry you're unwilling to defend your beliefs in any kind of rational...

DODD: If, if you already know the answers to your questions, then why ask, [pig]? We are not helpless. And we are on a journey that risks the dark. If you don't mind, a good night to you.

     But if Lancaster seems unwilling to explain his beliefs, Freddie is none the wiser as he later goes to John More’s place of residence and beats him up. Soon, Freddie and Lancaster are arrested (not for beating John, but for misappropriation of funds somewhere else), and after they are released, many people (including Lancaster’s family) say that Freddie should not be part of their organization—that he may be a spy, or his heart might not be in it all the way. And long story short, after several months, Freddie takes off and abandons the Cause for good, essentially coming back to the emotionally unstable place that he was when he first met Lancaster.

     Hopefully I made that ending sound abrupt, because really, the film ends abruptly and anticlimactically. But to me, I think the ambiguity of the ending says a lot about how the Cause really was ineffective and useless for Freddie. And maybe part of the problem was that Freddie was unwilling to change, but maybe part of the problem was also that Lancaster’s “religion” was not rooted in truth. The Cause was nothing but a way for people to make them feel better about themselves. And some people would be quick to say that this is all religion is: as the phrase goes, an “opium for the masses”.

     I, of course, do not believe this. I have experienced the love and grace of God in such a powerful way to know that Christianity is not just a positive way of thinking. It is so much more than that—it is the way to a life of purpose, as well as an eternal life. And I mean it when I say that it is the way. Shortly before his arrest, Jesus is recorded to have prayed for his disciples in a lengthy passage in the Gospel of John. Before this, he tells them an often-quoted verse in Scripture: “‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (14:6)

     This is probably why many criticize Christianity—how can Jesus call Himself the only way to God? That doesn’t leave a whole lot of choice. But the way I see it, there has to be only one way to God. Other religions claim that there is more than one way, but to me, that doesn’t really make sense. To live a truly pure, eternal life, there must be only one way, and I firmly believe that the way is through Jesus Christ. I pray that every day, you and I would take steps to believe that more and more, that God would fill our hearts with faith.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Babette's Feast (1987)

     Perhaps you’re reading this article and you grew up in a Christian home, or you went to a Christian high school or university. Did you ever get the feeling that serving God meant forsaking pleasure? I feel like sometimes, I thought that, and I’m sure that there are millions of people out there who rejected Christianity because they were taught that in order to follow Christ, one must never have fun or enjoy life. And while part of this is true, I don’t believe all the way that the Christian life means putting aside all pleasure. There may in fact be pleasure that is good! And that, to me, is what the film “Babette’s Feast” is all about.

     “Babette’s Feast” is a Danish film from 1987 which won the Academy Award that year for Best Foreign Film. Babette (Stephane Audran) is somewhat of a main character, but the story does not start out revealing her background. It begins with the story of Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer), two sisters who grew up in a Christian sect in nineteenth-century Denmark. As they grew up, their father rejected the idea of them marrying, and the two women remained single their whole lives, though at one point each courted by two well-off men. Thirty-five years later, the father has been long gone, and the two women still live together in their village running their decreasing congregation.

     One day, Babette knocks on their door. She has fled from Paris during wartime, and one of Philippa’s former suitors has recommended her to be their housekeeper and cook. She works for them for fourteen years, and then one day, a lottery ticket that her friend has for her back in Paris wins: Babette now has ten thousand francs. But instead of immediately going back to her home, Babette decides to stay with Martine and Philippa and prepare a great feast for the hundredth birthday of the sect’s founder.

     When Babette starts bringing in ingredients for the banquet, even some from Paris, the sisters are nervous. They are thankful for what Babette is doing for them, but they are afraid that the banquet will bring out some kind of carnal, sinful desire in their feasting congregation. The people talk about it before the banquet starts, and they decide to eat the meal but not mention anything about the food or its quality at the table.

     The day of the banquet comes, and one man arrives whom the congregation did not expect: General Lorens Löwenheilm (Jarl Kulle), a Swedish cavalry officer and Martine’s former suitor. He, of course, has no idea that the congregation has planned not to speak of the food, and so when everyone finally sits down to eat, he can’t stop talking. He compares the banquet to a similar meal he ate at the Café Anglais in Paris. Soon, the rest of the congregation can’t help but compliment Babette on the quality of the food, for which she is very grateful.

     After the meal, however, Martine and Philippa realize how important this banquet was to Babette. They think she is now simply going to return to Paris, but it turns out that Babette used all ten thousand francs she had to prepare the meal: she tells them that a similar meal for twelve people at the Café Anglais would cost the same amount.

MARTINE: Now you’ll be poor for the rest of your life!

BABETTE: An artist is never poor.

     And as Martine and Philippa realize the sacrifice Babette has made, Philippa stands and tells her, closing the film out:

PHILIPPA: In Paradise, you will be the great artist that God meant you to be. Ah, how you will delight the angels!

     It seems that Babette’s feast was more than just carnal pleasure. It was an example of serving others and serving God—and that, as far as Martine and Philippa were concerned, transcended pleasure. What if we, as a Christian body, worked to do things that the world saw as just worldly pleasure but instead did it with the intention of serving? What if teachers taught students, coaches prepared athletes, writers composed for readers, and even filmmakers created for audiences not just simply to make a profit, but to provide others with a way of seeing God?

     This, to me, makes anything “pleasurable” glorifying to God as well. And as Christians, we need to find pleasure in serving Him and others. The psalmist writes, “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches… I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.” (Psalm 119:14, 16) I pray that you and I would take delight in the Lord’s commands and in His love, and that we might be able to express our delight and joy to the rest of the world in everything that we do!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

     Today on “Reel Christianity”, I’m doing things a little differently. I’m starting out with a Scripture reference and then telling you about a movie that relates to it. That’s not something I usually do, but I feel like it will be a better way to start off today’s article. It’s a verse that I’ve reference before on the site (you can look up last year’s article on “Sergeant York” to see it), but there’s another movie that illustrates the same point.

     One day, as Jesus is speaking to his followers, the Pharisees come to him and try to trip him up in his words—which, of course, is a very hard thing to accomplish. They ask Jesus whether or not it is right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar. Jesus, knowing exactly what they were trying to do, asks them to show him the coin used to pay the tax. They do so; it is a denarius with someone’s face on it. Jesus asks them to identify the face, and the Pharisees say it is Caesar’s. “Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’” (Matthew 22:21b)

     I don’t think I understood this story as a child, but now, it makes a little more sense. I believe that what Jesus was saying was that to those who are above us in authority, we must honor their requests and respect them, just as we obey and worship God. For if we respect those above us on an earthly level, perhaps people will see how we love God also. This is just my own view on it, and it could very well be different for each one of us. But seeing the passage in this way, I relate it to one of my favorite movies by one of my favorite filmmakers: David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai”.

     In the film, a troop of British soldiers are captured in World War Two by Japanese forces and taken as prisoners of war. They are assigned by Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) to build a bridge across… well, the river Kwai, that will support a railway going from Burma to Siam. Saito tells them that officers will work as men, which the British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) knows is against the Geneva Convention and thus will not support. But because Saito has no regard for these rules, he has Nicholson put in solitude for what seems like weeks. His men, meanwhile, have no idea how to properly build a bridge—and it doesn’t help that neither do the Japanese.

     When Saito finally arranges for Nicholson’s release, Nicholson does not fight back and make an even worse bridge. He actually does the opposite: he makes sure that all of his men are working at their top. This sounds highly irregular, but there is a method to Nicholson’s reasoning:

NICHOLSON: Our task is to rebuild the battalion—which isn’t going to be easy, but fortunately, we have the means at hand: the bridge. We can teach these barbarians a lesson in Western methods and efficiency that will put them to shame. We’ll show them what the British soldier is capable of doing. I realize how difficult it’s going to be in this god-forsaken place where you can’t find what you need. But there’s the challenge.

OFFICER EVANS: I beg your pardon, sir. You mean, you really want them to build the bridge?

NICHOLSON: You’re not usually so slow on the uptake, Evans. I know our men; we’ve got to keep them occupied. The fact is, if there weren’t any work for them to do, we’d invent some… But it’s going to be a proper bridge. Here again, I know the men. It’s essential that they should take a pride in their job.

     I suppose Nicholson’s intentions are more to show off the character of the British soldier rather than to show kindness to the Japanese, but I still feel there’s this idea of respecting the people over you simply because of their authority. Of course, this is definitely not the main theme of “The Bridge on the River Kwai”: it becomes a kind of anti-war film later on, as other British soldiers and an escaped American POW (William Holden) plot to blow up the bridge and succeed.

     However, Colonel Nicholson’s decision to complete the bridge to the best of his ability and his men’s ability speaks volumes about what Jesus tells the Pharisees in Matthew 22. In other words, give to Saito what is Saito’s—and to God what is God’s. I pray that you and I would find opportunities today to bless the people for whom we work, so that they may see an example of Christ working in us.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Days of Heaven (1978)

     Director Terrence Malick has now completed six feature-length films, and before this year is up, I’m determined to write on “Reel Christianity” about the only two left that I haven’t talked about. The other, besides today’s “Days of Heaven”, is his latest romantic drama “To the Wonder”, which I still haven’t seen, but I really want to one of these days. But “Days of Heaven”, his second film and his last before taking a break from filmmaking for twenty years, echoes with not just the discontinuous, image-driven style his later films are known for, but also with the tensions of a story out of the Old Testament.

     The story takes place in Chicago in the early twentieth century, where Bill (Richard Gere) accidentally kills his employer at a steel mill. He has to flee across the country with his beloved Abby (Brooke Adams) and his sister Linda (Linda Manz). Linda provides the narration for the film, and as we see the three on a train to Texas, she explains what Bill and Abby are doing:

LINDA: They told everybody they were brother and sister. My brother didn’t want nobody to know. You know how people are; you tell them something, they start talking.

     The three end up at the Texas panhandle where they start doing work for a farmer (Sam Shepard) who is dying of some disease. He spots Abby working one day and falls in love, so Bill tells her to marry him so that the two of them can inherit all his money once he has passed away. So Abby develops a deeper relationship with the farmer, and the two of them eventually marry—as Bill can do nothing but watch and hope that the farmer dies soon.

     But the farmer, instead of getting sicker, starts getting more and more healthy, and it becomes more and more frustrating to Bill. But as much as he tries to keep his cover posing as Abby’s brother, the farmer and his men start getting suspicious. Bill decides to leave for a time, and in the meantime, the farmer starts growing more with Abby and Linda. Soon, Abby finds herself in love with the farmer.

     One day, after Bill returns, those on the farm start noticing something strange: locusts are suddenly appearing more and more in the house, in the barn, and on the wheat fields. The workers try to clear the locusts away, but damage is still done to the crops. During this time, the farmer angrily tries to kill Bill, and his rage ends up setting the crops on fire. The farmer goes back to his house, ties Abby up to a post on his porch, and sets out to find Bill again. He finds Bill the next morning, but Bill attacks and kills him, fleeing with Abby and Linda until the police find him later on and shoot him down in a river. After this, Abby sets off on her own and sends Linda to a boarding school.

     “Days of Heaven” is a very good movie, though I’m not as much of it as I am of “Badlands” and especially “The Tree of Life”, but it still has a lot of the emotional drama that I’ve found in Terrence Malick’s other work. It’s a very interesting story of adultery, greed, and love told in a very unique setting, and it has a lot of spiritual undertones as well. Early on in the film, Linda narrates a little about a man she met once that foreshadows the darkness to follow in the film:

LINDA: He told me the whole earth is going up in flames. Flames will come outta here and there and they’ll just rise up. …People are gonna be screaming and hollering for help. See, the people that have been good, they’re gonna go to Heaven and escape all that fire. But if you’ve been bad, God don’t even hear you; he don’t even hear you talking.

     To me, this is a very dark, very worldly look at the end of the world, and the fire that the characters are surrounded by near the film’s third act can thus be connected to the end of the world as Bill, Abby, and Linda know it. But in the book of Genesis, there is a story that is hauntingly similar to Bill and Abby’s situation, although the characters in this Scripture passage are very different. It is the story of Abraham and Sarah.

     After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham heads with his wife Sarah to a region called Gerar, and he told people there that Sarah was actually his sister. He did this to protect Sarah and himself, for if the godless people there knew that God was with him, they might have killed him and ravaged Sarah. But when Abimelek the king of Gerar takes Sarah for himself, although he never goes near her, God intervenes and protects Abimelek from sinning. In return, Abimelek offers Abraham his land, and Abraham heals Abimelek and his family.

     Though this story is quite different from “Days of Heaven”, the movie portrays (in my mind) what may have happened if God was not present with Abraham and Sarah. But because God revealed himself to them, they were saved. Even during that dark time in history, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God had a plan for his children. Later on, when Abraham is asked to sacrifice his only son Isaac, Abraham follows God’s commands and is about to kill his son when God intervenes again. An angel came down to Abraham and told him, “‘Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.’” (Genesis 22:12)

     My prayer for you today is that you would trust God to intervene in your life when he feels it is right, because for every moment of every day, he has a plan for you.