Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On the Waterfront (1954)

     For me, the history of acting in film can be divided into two halves: before “On the Waterfront” and after “On the Waterfront”. And I mean that in all sincerity. In this film, Budd Schulberg’s screenplay and Elia Kazan’s directing come together give this incredible ensemble some great material to work with, and they present a realism of film performances that I feel set a new standard. I suppose Kazan’s previous film “A Streetcar Named Desire” helped do that as well, but it culminates for me in “On the Waterfront”. And not only is it a landmark in filmmaking, but it presents a very impactful view of what the idea of church might mean.

     Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, the brother of Charley (Rod Steiger) who works for the local mob boss at the docks, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). At the beginning of the film, we see Terry send a dock worker named Joey Doyle to the roof of his apartment… where two men working for Friendly push Joey off, sending him to his death. Terry, not thinking that the men would actually kill Joey, is remorseful. Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint in her first film role) is distraught, and the local Catholic priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) tells her that he will be in the church if she needs help. She responds angrily, “You ever heard of a saint hiding in a church?” She promptly decides she will find out the real reasons for her brother’s death.

     Terry works as a dockworker at the pier, and because he has a connection with Friendly, he is one of the few men specifically chosen for work consistently. The day following Joey’s death, a couple key events happen to Terry. A man from the Waterfront Crime Commission approaches him asking if Terry will testify in court about Joey’s murder, which Terry refuses. Later, he finds Father Barry and Edie at the dock, and he hides his guilt. Barry learns of the dockworkers’ policy not to “rat” on Friendly or his men lest they be bumped off, and Father Barry decides to hold a meeting about the situation in the church that night. Charley learns of the meeting and tells Terry to go and report anything suspicious.

     That night at the meeting, despite some of Friendly’s men coming and breaking up the meeting violently, one of the workers named Kayo Dugan decides to testify with Father Barry’s support. Meanwhile, Terry starts talking to Edie Doyle, who is unaware of his involvement in Joey’s death. After some time goes by, the two hit it off and start falling in love, but Terry is too conflicted to be able to tell Edie about Joey’s death. One night, Friendly and Charley approach him and scold him for going around with Edie and not telling everything about the meeting—it seems that Kayo had gone to the crime commission and agreed to testify.

     The next day, Friendly orders a series of crates to “accidentally” fall on top of Kayo, killing him. Father Barry comes later and has a word for the corrupt dockworkers and bosses at the waterfront:

BARRY: Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up. Taking Joey Doyle’s life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. And dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow, that’s a crucifixion. And every time the mob puts the pressure on a good man and tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it’s a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows has happened, shares the guilt of injustice as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of our Lord to see if he was dead.

     Some workers of Johnny Friendly start throwing rocks and things down below.

WORKER: Go back to your church, Father!

BARRY: Boys, this is my church! And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you got another guess coming!

     Terry listens to this message, and later on, he goes to Barry and confesses his role in Joey’s death. Father Barry encourages Terry to tell Edie, who, of course, doesn’t take it very well. That night, Charley tries one last time to get Terry not to testify in court, and this is where we get Terry’s emotional monologue about his failed past as a boxer who compromised. “You don’t understand,” he tells Charley, “I could have had class! I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let’s face it.” Later that night, Terry goes to Edie and reconciles, but soon the two of them find Charley’s murdered body, and this is the last straw for Terry.

     The next day in court, Terry doesn’t hold anything back about the corruption on the waterfront. But for some reason, the dockworkers don’t view him as a hero. They think of him as a “canary”, a tattletale who may have done what he did to make himself look better than everyone else. Edie believes he did the right thing, but Terry still isn’t satisfied. And later, after being turned down for a job at the dock, Terry calls to Johnny Friendly and yells, “You’re a cheap, lousy, dirty, stinking muck! And I’m glad what I done to you!” Friendly attacks Terry and leaves him beaten and bloody, but the dockworkers now have the courage to stand up for themselves.

     In the end, Terry gets up with the help of Edie and Father Barry, ready to work. And another man, here to replace Friendly as head of the waterfront, announces to the workers that it’s time to work, and they all pass the defeated Johnny Friendly on their way to a better job and a better life.

     Here’s the interesting context behind “On the Waterfront”. Shortly before the film’s release, director Elia Kazan, a former member of the Communist Party, reported names to HUAC of former or present Communists, which in that day was very frowned upon. But Kazan believed it was the right thing to do, and “On the Waterfront”, no matter how much Kazan denies it, symbolizes his decision to do right even when everyone else rejects him. And even amidst that controversy, “On the Waterfront” went on to rightfully win eight Academy Awards and become a milestone in American film.

     But recently, after re-watching the film, I realized how much that decision to do right relates to Christianity. Father Barry was preaching it all along, and I never really made the connection. Speaking up for wrongdoing, especially in a corrupt place, is the kind of thing Jesus did constantly in his ministry. He never shunned sinners, but he called out those in the church that did not minister to those in need. And even before Jesus was doing his ministry on Earth, the Bible talks about caring for those who need it most.

     Proverbs 31:8-9 reads, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” This is what, in a sense, Joey Doyle, Kayo Dugan, and Terry Malloy all attempted to do—and what Terry was able to do in the end. He helped put an end to corruption on the waterfront, and believers can also fight for injustice in our own way. Whatever that way is, I pray that you and I would find guidance from God and serve Him in what we do.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

There Will Be Blood (2007)

     In February 2008, I had the opportunity to go to my local movie theater to see an arthouse film that was playing there because it was nominated for several Academy Awards, which, at that particular theater in the suburb where I lived, was a rare occurrence. That film was “There Will Be Blood”, and my father and I watched the film and left the theater feeling very shaken. Well, at least I did; I had never witnessed that ends so ambiguously. But I can safely say now that that night, I was able to see an American film masterpiece, and as time went on, I was able to uncover more and more about it that says a lot about hypocrisy in faith.

     The film focuses on a miner in the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century named Daniel Plainview (played by a phenomenal Daniel Day-Lewis), who one day strikes oil and becomes an oil prospector. Through a series of events, he “inherits” a baby boy from a co-worker killed in a prospecting accident, and that boy becomes H.W. (Dillon Freasier), Daniel’s son/business partner, and after a silent montage of Daniel’s discovery of oil, we find Daniel and H.W. making deals all over California and beyond to drill for oil. Daniel is already pretty rich by now, and he is also pretty irritable. Believe it, he gets worse as we go along.

     One day, a preacher’s son named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) comes to Daniel and tells him that his father’s ranch in Little Boston, California, has a huge amount of oil under it. Paul Sunday is never seen again as Daniel and H.W. head to the Sunday ranch, where they meet Paul’s twin brother Eli (Dano), also a preacher, who seems to be eager to negotiate a price for the land with Daniel. After they make a deal, Eli tells Daniel that he wants to (which really means he will) bless the well, for suspicious reasons. Daniel prevents Eli from even saying a word as he opens the derrick and his team begins drilling.

     There is already a good amount of tension between these two men, and it only increases when things start going wrong. For a few days, no oil is struck. One night, a man is hit by equipment in the well and dies. And when they finally find oil, the gases cause an explosion and eventually a fire, which not only destroys the derrick but also deafens H.W. In a later scene, Eli comes to Daniel to ask for his payment, and Daniel proceeds to smack Eli to the ground and practically bury him in a nearby puddle of mud, as Daniel calls Eli out on his false religion and Eli tells Daniel that none of these misfortunes would have happened if he had been able to bless the well.

     Daniel starts analyzing himself a little more when a man shows up at his doorstep: Henry Plainview (Kevin J. O’Connor), Daniel’s half-brother. Henry tells him that their father has passed away, and the two of them start working together and spending more time with each other than Daniel does with H.W., prompting H.W. to set fire to Daniel’s house, which Daniel and Henry put out before Daniel tricks H.W. into going on a train to boarding school.

     This acts as a turning point for Daniel’s emotional state. In a deal he makes later on, when the client makes a comment about his son, Daniel threatens the man violently and leaves with Henry, and the two men continue to look for areas to drill. One night, as they try to contact William Bandy (Hans Howes), one of the few men in Little Boston who has not sold his land, Henry confesses to the suspecting Daniel that he is not actually Henry Plainview but merely a friend of the real Henry. The real Henry died of tuberculosis, and this man took his story looking for Daniel and a job. Daniel shoots and kills him, burying his body nearby, and he wakes up the next morning to find Bandy and his grandson in front of him. Bandy agrees to sell his land if Daniel will do one thing for him.

     That one thing is the last thing Daniel wants to do: get baptized at Bandy’s church, which happens to be the church led by Eli Sunday. The vengeful Eli tries to humiliate Daniel in front of the congregation, and Daniel simply plays along, hoping to get the land to build a pipeline over and eventually see the end of Eli Sunday. Soon, H.W. returns from school, and it seems that Daniel uses his son for further humiliation toward his clients. H.W., unable to speak or hear, looks toward his father blankly. In a montage, we watch as H.W. learns sign language, as does his childhood sweetheart Mary Sunday (Sydney McAllister), who he eventually marries.

     In the film’s third act, we find Daniel Plainview living in a mansion, complete with shooting gallery and bowling alley. But H.W., who himself has become an oil prospector, tells Daniel that he and Mary are moving to Mexico to drill. Daniel chooses this moment to tell H.W. that they are not actually related, and Daniel looks not the least bit remorse about it. Disowning him, H.W. leaves, and soon, in walks Eli Sunday trying to make another drilling deal—because it seems that amidst the threat of the Great Depression, he has gone broke and helpless. Does Daniel care? Heck no. And the film basically ends with Daniel chasing Eli through the bowling alley, ending with him knocking Eli out with a bowling pin and then hitting him in the head three times, killing him. And again, Daniel isn’t remorseful in the slightest.

     Several weeks ago, I wrote an article on “The Master”, a film by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson about the consequences of false religion. That film is a little more anti-climactic than “There Will Be Blood”, but both films deal explicitly and powerfully with the results of hypocritical worshippers. I still don’t know really anything about Anderson’s views on it all, but I do know this: they serve as warnings to believers about what would happen if we lose track of the purpose of our faith. If we lose sight of God’s will and instead focus on using religion to make ourselves famous or earn wealth, we will be lost, lonely, and potentially dead—spiritually and even, in Eli Sunday’s case, physically.

     In Scripture, we see throughout the Old Testament how the people of God were led astray by idols and immorality, which led to God’s wrath on their cities. But similar warnings to the church are found in the New Testament, including strong words found in 2 John: “Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.” (1:8-11)

     It’s pretty scary stuff, but who knows what might happen if we do not stay true to God’s Word. We can see what happened to Eli Sunday, but we also see in “There Will Be Blood” what happened to Daniel Plainview: instead of being drawn to the church, he was discouraged from it because of the greed he saw in it, and thus he let the greed inside himself take him over. My prayer for all of us is that we would not let false religion take over our lives, but that our sole source of wisdom would be the Word of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit, so that we may be pure witnesses for our Christ.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Apostle (1997)

     It’s always interesting to me to see Christianity portrayed in film by non-Christian filmmakers. “Chariots of Fire”, “Tender Mercies,” and so many other films deal with faith so explicitly (and, in my opinion, more realistically and artistically), but it’s coming from non-believers. That’s fascinating to me. And one of those examples is Robert Duvall’s personal film “The Apostle”, where actor/writer/director Duvall, a Christian Scientist who claims to not attend church, explores a more charismatic church environment and pastor.

     Duvall himself plays this character, Sonny, a Pentecostal preacher raised in a similar environment as a child. He has a wife named Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) and a few children, but his family isn’t doing too well. Sonny has apparently been lustful toward other women (or something, we don’t really see this part of him on-screen that well), and Jessie has decided to leave him and marry a youth minister named Horace (Todd Allen). Sonny, of course, isn’t too happy about this, and his mother who lives with him (June Carter Cash) listens to Sonny yell to God, pacing back and forth in his bedroom:

SONNY: I’m gonna yell at you ‘cause I’m mad at you. I can’t take it. Give me a sign or something. Blow this pain out of me. Give it to me tonight, Lord God Jehovah. If you won’t give me back my wife, give me peace! …I love you, Lord, I love you, but I’m mad at you. I am mad at you!

     The interesting thing about “The Apostle” is that it’s shot very objectively: the camera simply takes in the scene as if neutral, almost like a documentary kind of feel. Moreover, the acting throughout the film is very natural, as if even though there was a written script, the actors were improvising the actual dialogue. This means that when Sonny yells as he does, it doesn’t sound the least bit manipulated. It feels real, and he appears more vulnerable to us. To be honest, the whole movie just feels vulnerable, and that’s why I love it.

     Anyway, Sonny gets himself in a predicament when one day, out of rage, he hits Horace with a baseball bat and kills him, and Sonny has to flee town and basically start a new life. So that’s just what he does: ditching his car into a river and baptizing himself anew, he becomes The Apostle E.F., and he ends up in Louisiana where he starts his new ministry. He begins building a church, and he is able to spread the word about it through a local radio station. Things start looking up as Sonny’s congregation slowly grows, and Sonny even starts a relationship with a woman working at the radio station named Toosie (Miranda Richardson).

     But things don’t stay all well and good for Sonny. At one point, a suspicious man (Billy Bob Thornton) comes into the church asking about who “The Apostle E.F.” really is, and Sonny’s rage at first gets the best of him. Soon after, the man returns with a bulldozer threatening to cave the church in, but Sonny goes to him and comforts him, and the man is prompted to change his ways and convert (which I think is a pretty cool scene). But Sonny’s journey culminates after Jessie hears his voice on the radio talking about the church, and that night, police show up at the church service. Sonny carries on until the end, and then he turns himself in. He drives off with the police, and during the end credits, he is shown preaching to his fellow prisoners.

     Sonny may or may not be based on a person (or persons) in real life, but honestly, he could be any of us Christians. Even though we preach the name of Jesus, we all stumble and sin, and if you think about it, you’ll probably agree with me that it’s a pretty inconsistent way to live. You can see that in Sonny, a preacher with a wandering eye and a short temper. But what’s amazing is that despite all our mistakes, God can still use us. We have to face consequences for our wrong actions, but God is always looking to forgive us. I’m reminded of Isaiah’s plea in Isaiah 6, where the prophet sees the glory of God and cries out:

      “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

     Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (6:5-8)

     My prayer for you and I today is that despite our imperfections, we would confess our sins to He who is able and willing to forgive us, so that He may use us to complete His will.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

     If you look at film history, you’ll notice that a lot of really great movies were released in 1962. Some of them have gotten more and more recognition as classics over the years, like “The Manchurian Candidate”, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, and “Lolita”. But others were immediately recognized as classics and received several Academy Awards, like “The Music Man”, “The Longest Day”, and the Best Picture-winning “Lawrence of Arabia”. But I have to say, out of all those films, “To Kill a Mockingbird” moves me the most, and I hope to show you why in this article.

     Based on the novel by Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird” features the great Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a widower lawyer living in Alabama during the Great Depression. But if the film focuses on him as the main character, it focuses equally on his children. Atticus, who is even known to his kids by his first name, is father to a pre-teen boy named Jem (Philip Alford) and his younger sister Scout (Mary Badham). Through the first act, we see this family react to the signs of the times, as poor families around them are struggling to make ends meet. But the children’s biggest concern is about a man living down the street—if you can call it a “man”.

     That “man” is Boo Radley, who apparently lives in the basement of his house, locked there for fear of terrorizing his family and the neighborhood. More than once, the children try to sneak a peek at Boo, but they never get to see him clearly. And even if they could, they seem too scared of the whole idea to stay on that property for very long. As the story progresses, however, Jem and Scout start finding little trinkets of things by the Radley tree, which, they believe, are left for the two of them. And as more time goes on, the children don’t even talk about Boo anymore… until later on in the story.

     As all this is going on, Atticus has found himself in one of the hardest situations that such a man could think to be in. An African-American man in the neighborhood named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) has been accused of raping a white woman named Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox), the daughter of alcoholic Bob Ewell (James Anderson). Atticus has been asked by Sheriff Tate (Frank Overton) to defend Tom, and Atticus takes the case.

     A year goes by before Tom’s actual trial, but during this time, Atticus is able to teach his children about loving others. In one of my favorite scenes, Scout has had a rough first day at school, and she cries to Atticus that people got mad at her over the silliest things. Atticus puts his arm around her and calms her:

ATTICUS: If you just learned a single trick, Scout, you’d get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Till you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

     This simple statement sums up Atticus’ feelings about why he needs to defend Tom Robinson—he even tells Scout later that if he didn’t defend him, he “couldn’t hold [his] head up in town. [He] couldn’t even tell [Scout] or Jem not to do something again.” He is defending Tom Robinson because he knows that no one else will. And he believes that if he passes his chance on helping Tom Robinson have a fair trial, Tom Robinson could be falsely convicted or even lynched. Atticus Finch has considered Tom’s point of view, and realizing how much Tom needs his help, Atticus chooses to stand by Tom during the trial.

     When the trial finally happens, things get very intense. Bob Ewell’s perspective says that he came home to find Tom with Mayella—then Atticus proves to the jury that Bob is left-handed and couldn’t have made the bruises that appeared on the opposite side of Mayella’s face. Mayella’s perspective is more complicated, but she even contradicts her story at one point, implying that she forgot details or she is lying. But when Tom Robinson takes the stand, he explains in tears why he is innocent. And although Tom’s testimony is most believable, and Atticus’ final statement to the jury (shot in one impressive long take) is convincing, the jury returns with a guilty verdict.

     It doesn’t get much better from there. Atticus gets word afterward that Tom has tried to escape prison and was consequently shot and killed. Atticus has to be the one to tell Tom’s family. But worse still, Bob Ewell finds him after the trial and spits in his face. Atticus is furious, but he simply wipes the spit off and leaves the Robinson house.

     Months later, Jem and Scout are walking through the woods after a party when suddenly they are attacked. The attacker, a left-handed man, goes after Jem with a knife and knocks him out. Scout is almost similarly attacked before another man goes after the attacker, and the attacker ends up fatally stabbed in the ribs. Before Scout realizes it, the other man has taken Jem away, and Scout runs home into Atticus’ arms where the doctor is taking care of Jem. And there, she finds someone she has been waiting to meet for a while: Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall), the man who carried Jem home.

     The sheriff decides that Bob Ewell fell on his knife, Atticus is reunited with both his children, and Boo Radley is no less a man than the rest of them. A narration from a grown-up Scout closes out the film:

SCOUT: One time, Atticus said, “You never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them.” Just standing on the Radley porch was enough. …I was to think of these days many times: of Jem… and Boo Radley, and Tom Robinson, and Atticus. He would be in Jem’s room all night—and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

     There’s this recurring theme of looking at things from another man’s point of view in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and that’s one of the things about the movie that I absolutely love. Does that relate to my faith? Absolutely. How am I supposed to love others like Christ loves them if I don’t consider their background? And maybe there are people around me with imperfect pasts. That cannot be a reason for me not to reach out to them. Jesus certainly didn’t do that. I’ve referenced the story in John 8 before about the woman caught in adultery, but it is a great example for thinking of others before judging them. When Pharisees test Jesus about sentencing an adulterous woman to be stoned to death, Jesus tells them: “Let any of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (8:7b) The Pharisees turn and leave, and Jesus tells the woman: “Neither do I condemn you… Go now and leave your life of sin.” (8:11b)

     My prayer for you and myself today is that we too would consider the world from another man’s point of view, so that we may get a better glimpse of how to be Christ to the world.