Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Harry Potter Saga (2001-2011)

     Ephesians 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

     You’re probably wondering why I’m writing about an eight-film saga in one article. Why didn’t I write about each film earlier in the year or something? Well, to be honest, I hadn’t seen any of the “Harry Potter” movies until May. I never really got around to watching them until this summer. I feel really stupid for not seeing them, though, because they’re darn good, all of them in their own ways. But at the same time, I’m glad I didn’t see them until now, because I wouldn’t have immediately understood their significance in terms of my faith.

     See, when “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was released, I was nine years old and dumber than I am now. I think I heard some talk about it being about witchcraft, and since I only knew that witchcraft was bad (I guess I was told something like that in Sunday school), I stayed away from the film and its sequels. If I had seen them at that age, maybe I would have walked into them much more skeptical, thinking it was promoting witchcraft or something. Having seen them all now, I can honestly say that in my opinion, the “Harry Potter” movies aren’t about witchcraft at all. They’re about spiritual warfare.

     If I may, let me go through each film and summarize what happens with Harry and his company:

     “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”: baby Harry, after his parents are killed, is placed in the care of another family that raises him until his teenage years (or so), at which time he enrolls in a wizardry school with other students like him who have special “magical” powers like he.

     “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”: Harry is warned not to go back to Hogwarts, and when he does, he finds other students being attacked and must find a way to save them.

     “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”: Harry meets Sirius Black, whom he believed was working for the evil Lord Voldemort and wished to kill Harry, but who in reality knew Harry’s parents and wants to help him.

     “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”: Harry finds himself competing in a tournament with students from other wizardry schools and discovers that it was a way for the real Voldemort to find him and attempt to kill him.

     “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”: Harry and his friends try to warn others that Lord Voldemort has returned but are not believed until a final attack, where Sirius dies.

     “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”: Harry learns about Voldemort’s past, and his Professor Dumbledore is killed at the hands of Professor Snape.

     “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”: Harry and his friends find tools to end Voldemort once and for all, which ultimately means that Harry sacrifices his own life—only to receive it again and kill Voldemort with his friends.

     Those are, of course, very short and generic summaries, but as you see the story progress, it gets more mature, more complicated, and more apparent that there is some dark stuff going on in this world. When I saw “Half-Blood Prince”, which begins with a bunch of wraiths attacking London in one of the few times where the setting feels like present-day, that’s when I thought: “This stuff’s getting real.” And that’s when I realized that there was more to “Harry Potter” than I thought.

     And I bet some of you who have already seen the films have identified Harry Potter himself as a Christ figure. I don’t disagree with that. But I don’t think he’s the only one. I think he, Dumbledore, Ron Weasley, Neville Longbottom, and so many others have to make choices in the movie to sacrifice their desires, their futures, or even their lives to defeat the Dark Lord (who I’m sure many of you have identified as Satan). But Harry, since the series is about him after all, may be the biggest example of this as he sacrifices himself in “Deathly Hallows Part 2”. As he stands before Voldemort, who strikes him with his wand, Harry finds himself in Heaven—or a train station or his mind or whatever you think of it—talking to the already deceased Dumbledore about what just happened.

DUMBLEDORE: I expect you now realize that you and Voldemort have been connected by something other than fate…

HARRY: So it’s true then, sir? A part of him lives within me?

DUMBLEDORE: Did. It was just destroyed many moments ago by none other than Voldemort himself. You were the Horcrux he never meant to make, Harry.

     (To understand what a Horcrux is, watch the movies. I don't have time to explain it here.)

HARRY: Voldemort has the Elder Wand. …And the snake’s still alive. …And I’ve nothing to kill it with.

DUMBLEDORE: Help will always be given at Hogwarts, Harry… to those who deserve it. Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living—and above all, all those who live without love.

HARRY: Sir? Is this all real? Or is it just happening inside my head?

DUMBLEDORE: Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry! Why should that be that it’s not real?

     These are but snippets of the conflict in these movies dealing with the real world versus a spiritual one, and it’s really awesome to see in a saga like “Harry Potter”. Better still, when Voldemort declares Harry Potter dead, his friends still fight for him—and his true friends fight harder and his false friends leave once Harry comes back alive. I could go on with the analogies, but to be honest, it’s been a few months since I’ve seen these and I’ve forgotten some of the details—and this article’s a little long already.

     So to wrap up, I want to bring you back to that verse I put at the beginning from Ephesians 6 (which makes me realize, I’ve been citing Ephesians a lot lately and should probably focus on another book of the Bible). Paul writes that our struggle is not of this world, but of a world we cannot see. And in my opinion, that’s what “Harry Potter” is ultimately about. It’s not about magic, exactly; it’s about forces that can’t be seen except by people whose eyes have been opened to them. And in the case of spiritual warfare, that may very well be you and me. And I pray that in our everyday lives, we may be aware of that struggle and have the strength to resist temptation and to run to the Lord instead.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

     Last week’s movie on “Reel Christianity” was “To the Wonder”, a pretty unconventional love story from an unconventional filmmaker. Today’s film is another very unconventional love story from another unconventional screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman. If you don’t know his name yet, you surely will within the next couple years as he and director Guillermo del Toro get ready to make a film version of the book “Slaughterhouse-Five”, a pretty unique sci-fi/war book that I read in high school and loved. And if anyone’s gonna write a screenplay version of “Slaughterhouse-Five”, it should be Charlie Kaufman, the key screenwriter in the 2004 sci-fi/rom-com “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”.

     “Eternal Sunshine” stars Jim Carrey in one of his best performances ever as Joel, a young man living in New York who finds himself alone on Valentine’s Day. Then that morning on a train, he meets Clementine (Kate Winslet), a much more energetic person than he, and the two seem to hit it off nicely, as they spend more and more time together hanging around the city and falling in love. Suddenly, the film cuts to what seems like a time later, as Joel sits in his car and weeps because he found out that after he and Clementine had a fight one night, she had an operation done that erased him completely from her memory. (Apparently, this kind of operation is possible, affordable, and popular in the movie’s setting.)

     So Joel himself decides to have Clementine erased from his memory as well. He goes to the Lacuna, Inc. firm in New York City where he meets Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his secretary Mary (Kirsten Dunst). Because this is Valentine’s Day season, the busiest time of the year for operations such as this (which I find darkly comical), it’s tough to get Joel in, but he gets in for the operation, and the majority of the film takes place in Joel’s mind as he sees for the last time all these memories of him and Clementine that are slowly dissipating. And as the memories start to fade away, he realizes that maybe this operation was a mistake, and he starts longing (in his mind) for everything to stop so that he can keep the good memories he had with Clementine.

     In some bizarre scenes, Joel tries hiding Clementine in other memories of his, memories of his childhood and memories that he tries to repress, so that even a part of her will still exist in his mind. I know that me explaining it probably sounds very confusing, but trust me, watching it in the film not only makes slightly more sense, but it’s truly fascinating to watch. In the end, Joel has to watch Clementine disappear, and it really is heartbreaking.

     Meanwhile, there are still other characters that are exposed to this operation. Dr. Mierzwiak’s assistants Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Stan (Mark Ruffalo) are the ones putting Joel through the operation, and it turns out that Stan and Mary are dating… and so are Patrick and Clementine. When Clementine had her operation, Patrick fell in love with her, and now he witnesses Joel’s memories in order to win Clementine over. Later on in the night, Dr. Mierzwiak has to be called in to help with part of the operation, and through a series of events, Mary discovers a secret about herself: she too underwent the operation after she and Dr. Mierzwiak had an affair that his wife found out about. The next morning, Mary leaves her job and sends all the company’s records to its respective clients.

     This means, of course, that the morning where Joel and Clementine “meet” on the train (yeah, the beginning takes place after the operation), they both receive records of their own operations. It’s no surprise that both of them freak out, because not only do they not remember the operation, but they don’t even remember meeting each other to begin with! But their conversation that ends the film sums up the message quite beautifully:

JOEL: I can't see anything that I don't like about you.

CLEMENTINE: But you will! But you will. You know, you will think of things. And I'll get bored with you and feel trapped because that's what happens with me.

JOEL: Okay.


     As the film ends with their reconciliation, the message reminds me of the words of Javier Bardem’s priest in “To the Wonder”: “Love is a duty. You shall love, whether you like it or not.” In the end, Joel and Clementine choose to love each other in spite of each other’s imperfections, in spite of the bumpy road that may be ahead of them in their relationship. And that’s powerful stuff. That’s the kind of love that couples vow to keep when they say they will love one another “for better or for worse”.

     Last week, I referenced Ephesians 5 and what Paul says about husbands and wives loving each other. But continuing in that passage, Paul explains the relationship between Christ and the church: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” (5:25-28)

     I’m not one to talk because I’m not married, but that love seems like the real deal to me. True love is love that not only forgets all imperfections; it heals them! That’s a topic that can be explored much deeper than I can do on this site, but my prayer for you and me both is that we would ask God to fill us with that love, that we can forgive and heal each other as a body of Christ.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

To the Wonder (2013)

     Ladies and gentlemen, I have a confession to make. I haven’t written “Reel Christianity” all summer. Sure, there have been posts, but I wrote them all last semester and set them to post themselves. You can do that on this website, it’s pretty awesome. But bottom line, my mind has been far from this blog this summer as I’ve spent time at home, gone on a mission trip to Medellin, Colombia, and worked on the media team for a Christian summer camp in Ohio. It’s been busy, but it’s been awesome, and now I’m back and ready to finish out the year on “Reel Christianity”.

     That said, I’m going to spend the rest of this month writing about movies that I saw for the first time this summer. Since I was away for most of the summer, I didn’t see as many as I have in past summers. Last year over summer break, I saw close to sixty movies for the first time. This summer, I saw… I don’t know, a couple dozen or so. Which I guess is still a lot, but for me, that’s slacking. But one of the movies I got to see was one I’ve wanted to see before “Reel Christianity” finished, because since I’ve reviewed all the other films of Terrence Malick, I wanted to keep that going.

     So here it is: “To the Wonder”. This is not only Malick’s shortest time between making films (this was released not even two years after “The Tree of Life”), but at two hours, this is also his shortest film, and it’s his only film set in the present day. It’s also his worst reviewed film to date, which I guess I can understand because it’s not as powerful as some of his other work, but I personally thought this was better than “The New World”. There’s some thought-provoking stuff in this movie, as people ask (in trademark Terrence Malick narration) about God’s existence, his divine love, and how they’re supposed to live that out on this earth.

     We see these questions explored through our main characters, a lover (Ben Affleck) and his beloved (Olga Kurylenko), who have names but I won’t mention them because, heck, I can’t think of whether or not their real names were ever spoken in the film. But the woman is living in Paris with her daughter from another marriage, and the man is there for… school or something, and when we meet them on a subway in the beginning of the film, they’re already in love, and the man asks her and her daughter if they want to move to the United States with him.

     So all of them move to his home in Oklahoma, but after what seems to be only a few months (maybe even less than that), the man and woman realize that their love now has changed since Paris. They bicker and argue, often ending in physical fighting, and the daughter (Tatiana Chiline), having no friends at her new school, takes her frustration out on the man, shouting that he is not her real father. It’s a frustrating time for them, and it’s honestly frustrating to watch in the film. I personally benefited from not knowing the characters’ names—I think if you’re not really given those names in a film, those characters become everymen, and you can maybe identify with them more closely. Maybe that’s just me.

     Eventually, however, the woman and daughter move back to Europe after their visas expire, leaving the man alone in his home. During this time of separation, the man encounters an old flame (Rachel McAdams) that takes his former beloved’s place for a time. But when he finds out his beloved needs help financially, the man puts his new beloved aside and goes back to Paris, bringing the woman back to Oklahoma eventually for a civil union.

     Now that they’re married, however, their relationship does not in fact get better. One day, the woman meets a local carpenter, and they have a brief affair. When the woman finally confesses it to her husband as they drive down a road, he gets angry and forces her out of the car, leaving her stranded until he eventually turns around and picks her up. After a time of the husband talking to a priest (Javier Bardem) about his situation, he comes to a place where he can forgive his wife, but they decide to divorce in the end, with the woman keeping her husband’s name. The very end shows a dream-like setting where we see the man with a new family and the woman standing before Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, a place where she and her lover visited at the beginning of the film, her calling it “the wonder”, from which the film gets its title.

     Now, through all this, we see much more footage of the priest in his own crisis of faith, which doesn’t seem to connect to the main narrative of the couple until the end of the film when he and the husband talk. But we see him preach, hear confessions, and minister to people in the local community. And of course, we hear some of his preaching as narration underneath it all:

PRIEST: Jesus insists on choice. …To choose is to commit yourself. And to commit yourself… is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.

     The priest goes on to preach on love being a command: “You shall love, whether you like it or not.” In a way, that message speaks for itself. Jesus tells us several times in Scripture such as Matthew 5 to love our enemies, and the Apostle Paul writes more explicitly about love in marriage in Ephesians 5. “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (5:22), and “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” (5:25)

     But is that kind of love easy? Absolutely not. And we see that evidenced in the fallen-apart relationship of this couple in “To the Wonder”. Is it possible? As crazy as it sounds, yes. And whether you’re married or single, we all have a chance to love others as Christ loved us. We cannot let our relationships be governed by our own desires or what we can gain for ourselves. I can say from experience that those relationships will end hard. But if the love of Jesus is pouring out from us as we love others, that is the kind of love that will change the world. And my prayer for you today is that you would choose to love like that.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

     There are only a handful of silent films that I really enjoy. I know I should enjoy more, but I guess that because I’ve been conditioned to movies having sound my whole life, it’s hard for me to really get into a silent one. But still, there are some really good ones that I’ve seen: “Intolerance”, “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, “The King of Kings”, even the recent film “The Artist”—which is a special kind of silent film in the sense that it actually uses some sound for artistic reasons. Many people probably saw “The Artist” and thought that its use of sound was revolutionary, but it turns out that this technique was first used in 1927 by German expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau in his masterpiece, “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”.

     “Sunrise” tells the story of an unnamed man (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor) living in some kind of country town in the United States, but the city surrounding it is full of distractions, one of which is a woman (Margaret Livingston) who has won the man’s affections—or lust. As we are introduced to these three characters, the woman sits alone in her home with her baby boy, crying for her husband who hardly ever spends time at home anymore and instead sneaks out to see the woman from the city. One night, the man meets up with the city woman, and she suggests that they leave for the city together. And in order to be totally free to leave, she tells him to kill his wife.

     Though he is extremely conflicted about it, the man decides to go through with the act, and one morning, he takes his wife on a rowboat onto the nearby lake. When they are farther in, the man slowly stands in the boat and approaches the wife, about to throw her overboard to her death. But suddenly, he realizes what he is doing and immediately sits back down and turns the boat around, arriving again at shore. The wife leaves the boat and runs away from her husband, who chases after her hoping to make amends. But of course, after a man has almost attempted to kill his wife, it’s understandable that the wife is at least a little shaken.

     Eventually, the two arrive in the city, and the wife is slowly able to accept her husband’s apologies as he buys her flowers and walks her down the street. The two then see a church where a wedding is starting, and they enter to see the ceremony. As the priest talks to the groom, something stirs inside the man:

PRIEST: God is giving you, in the holy bonds of matrimony, a trust. She is young, and inexperienced; guide her and love her, keep and protect her from all harm. Wilt thou love her?

     As the groom responds, so does the man, as his face falls into his wife’s lap in tears, begging for forgiveness. And for the next forty-five minutes of the film, “Sunrise” basically just follows the man and his wife around the city as they spend the day together. The man gets a shave, they get their pictures taken at a photo shop, and they end their day at a carnival. And through it all, the man and his wife fall further and further in love. All these scenes may seem like a lot of “padding” just to make a longer movie, but to me, it portrays the couple’s reconciliation as if to say that it is more important than a film’s conventional three-act structure, and that’s pretty profound to me.

     The film ends, however, on a suspenseful note, as the two of them go on another rowboat at night to go home, and a storm suddenly hits, separating the two and making the man believe that his wife has drowned. The woman from the city arrives at his home, assuming the man killed his wife after all, but when he sees her, he nearly strangles the woman to death. He is stopped, however, when his maid yells for him to come into the house, that some men have found his wife and rescued her. The next morning, as the wife awakes from her sleep, she smiles at her husband sitting next to her as she lays on the bed with her son, and as the woman from the city heads back where she came from, the beautiful sunrise closes the film.

     “Sunrise” has been called one of the greatest films ever made for many reasons regarding its technical side. Murnau was one of the pioneers of German expressionist films, which used exaggerated imagery to symbolize emotions or characters’ feelings. With this film, Murnau brought that touch to a modern American film, and not only is there a whole lot of awesome, symbolic imagery in the film, but the film is also one of the first films ever (if not the first) to use an actual soundtrack in an artistic way. (It was overshadowed upon its release, however, by the more popular “The Jazz Singer”, which, if I may say so, is almost inferior to “Sunrise”.)

     But when you come right down to it, “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” is actually a pretty simple story. A man and his wife are going through a rocky time in their relationship, and in the end, they reconcile and find themselves more in love than they have ever been. It’s a simple story, but it’s so beautiful! And it’s an awesome reminder of how we often as humans have to re-commit ourselves to loving others—not solely our significant others, but everyone!

     The first example of this in the Bible that I think of is Psalm 51, which King David wrote after committing adultery with Bathsheba. His request, as I have referenced before on this site, is a pure and perfect plea for forgiveness. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” (51:1-2) Asking a spouse for forgiveness is hard enough, but I think many of us underestimate how important it is to come to God for forgiveness of sin. Maybe it’s because we need to do it so often?

     Whatever you and I need forgiveness for today, I pray that we would find reconciliation in God’s love, and that we would strive each day to be more in love with Him than we were the day before.