Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka: But, Charlie, don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.
Charlie Bucket: What happened?
Willy Wonka: He lived happily ever after.

So goes the closing dialogue of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). This was one of my favorite movies as a child. My cousins and I constructed our very own Wonka-esque "chocolate factory" out of junk and cast-off machinery on our family farm. We penned our own lyrics to the haunting and mind-numbing "Oompa Loompa" tune. This movie is embedded in my memories of youth. As special as it is, I was never satisfied by the end of the movie.

I have a hard time dealing with Wonka's statement in the closing lines. Are we really happier if we get everything we always wanted? This statement sort of undoes the whole movie. The Oompa Loompa's have been preaching to us through their eerie little songs about the dangers of being a glutton, a spoiled brat, and a disobedient child. Why then does Wonka suddenly undermine the cinematic exhortation with his sugary dose of sentiment? I guess he is just the candyman after all.

Enough of the past, let's jump into the Way-Back Machine and return to our present day. Tim Burton has produced his own vision of Roald Dahl's story. I must say I was quite intrigued by this pairing of Burton and Dahl. The only one of Dahl's children's stories I have read is The Witches. I have read a few of his short stories for adults. (Trivia Alert: Dahl wrote the screenplay for the 007 movie You Only Live Twice). Dahl has a dark thread in his writing. Many of his short stories have a wicked, Hitchcock/Twilight Zone-style twist. (Trivia Alert 2: Dahl wrote the scripts for at least six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.) If I were looking for a director to handle Dahl's stories I would have two choices: M. Night Shyamalan or Tim Burton. If it were one of the children's stories Burton would be the clear choice.

Burton's films also have a dark thread in them, but balances the dark tones with nostalgia, camp, and cartoonish fun. The combination of Burton and Dahl is perfect in this film. Yet, before I saw it I was hesitant only because of my sentimental appreciation for the 1971 film. I admire Burton's work, but could he improve on the 1971 film? I am surprised to admit that he did - and mainly because he got the ending right!

I confess that I have not read Dahl's original story. I don't know how it ends. When I say that Burton got the ending right I mean he ended the story the way it should end. Burton's version of the story is a perfect parable for children and adults in our culture. Each of the children who win a golden ticket to Wonka's factory, with the exception of Charlie, is a token for the problems of our age. The vices of gluttony and overconsumption are embodied in Augustus Gloop. Arrogance and unbridled competitiveness are represented by Violet Beauregarde. Greed and brattiness are the sole traits of Veruca Salt. Violence and anger are on display in Mike Teavee. Perhaps these characters are simplistic, but do we really want an honest depiction of the situation. We live in a land in which we are concerned about childhood obesity while many more children starve. We live in a land in which some parents berate their children about being the best and the only attention they give their children is the coaching to succeed. Meanwhile in other parts of our land children are abandoned by parents who do not care. We live in a land in which we buy storage for stuff we do not need. We are building bigger barns to store our goods but we are never satisfied. We live in a land in which the line between reality and virtual reality is being blurred. Are violent video games just games or are they crime simulators. We live in an often greedy, selfish, competitive, angry land. In Burton's version of the story, Wonka himself is a victim of greed, selfishness, competition, and anger. Wonka has closed his factory to the public because he no longer trusts society. Instead of appreciating the artistry and goodness of his creations, the world only wants to profit off his talents. This movie also speaks quite convictingly to our consumer age.

Charlie Bucket and his family shine like stars against the darkness of the greedy, selfish, competitive, angry world conjured by Burton and Dahl's combined imaginations. The Bucket family is exceedingly poor, but they are happy. The virtues of love, kindness, and optimism rule their household. The strength and quality of Charlie's family becomes the basis for Burton's wonderful ending to the movie. I won't spoil the ending. You should see it for yourself. I will simply say that it is delightful to see a happy family win out at the end of the movie. As much as I enjoyed seeing the glass elevator fly over London to the symphonic strains of Pure Imagination, I am all the more pleased with the closing scene of Wonka and the Bucket family enjoying a good meal as family. Are we really happier if we suddenly get everything we always wanted? I applaud Tim Burton for suggesting that happiness can more easily be found with family at the dinner table.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Fantastic Four

A look at the previous post list for The Magic Lantern Show reads more like an inventory list from a comic book shop than a blog about films: Fantastic Four, Batman, Sharkboy, Star Wars. Fanboys unite! Nevertheless, these films are the hits of the summer. Why the attraction to tales about super-heroes? Is it just an opportunity to impress the kids with "gee whiz" effects and ultra-cool CGI? Or is there something more ancient and primal in tales about heroic individuals with exceptional powers?

One of the oldest stories known is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Nearly 5,000 years ago, Gilgamesh was the King of Uruk who was supposedly two-thirds divine and one-third human (did he have three parents?). His super-human adventures included a quest for immortality, fighting the Bull of Heaven, and encountering the lone survivor of the Great Flood. Gilgamesh is joined in his adventures by his comrade-in-arms Enkidu, the wild man of the forest and one of the few mortals who can hold his own in combat against the King of Uruk. Gilgamesh and Enkidu face off against the vain and capricious Sumerian gods who have little regard for humans and their cities. And now whenever the tree demon Humbaba or the sky-lord Anu and his wicked daughter Ishtar threaten the fair city of Uruk we need have no fear for Gilgamesh and Enkidu are here!

So you see that we have been telling stories like the Fantastic Four for nearly 5,000 years. Like the Epic of Gilgamesh the film asks us to consider what it means to be great and powerful. Pay attention to the conversations among the characters about power and prestige. Who has power? Is it the handsome and wealthy corporate czars like Victor Von Doom, or the fallible, flawed yet fantastic family of four who work together to champion good. This discussion of fate and using power for the greater good may be the film's most spiritual subtext.

Another light that shines in this film, albeit a bit dimly, is the virtue of family and friendship. Dr. Doom plays a satanic role in the story by using subterfuge to target the emotional character weaknesses of the four in order to turn them against each other. Ben Grimm's resentment and alienation is used to anger him against Reed Richards. Reed Richard's guilt and lack of confidence becomes his stumbling block. Johnny Storm is pulled away from the greater good by his greed, arrogance, and triviality. Susan Storm may be the team's only hope but she is frustrated for she is too often ignored as if she were invisible. To overcome their weaknesses, the Fantastic Four have to mature and learn to take responsibility for the awesome powers bestowed upon them by fate. Too bad Spider-Man wasn't around early on to give them some advice.

Don't expect the same depth and complexity available in this summer's other superhero film Batman Begins (see below). Fantastic Four is a more humorous and lighter-hearted story. Parents need to screen it for younger children. The film is marred by only a few unnecessary moments of cheap innuendo and a sampling of gory violence. Nonetheless, I hope the film does well and that a sequel is in the works. For whenever danger strikes I want to know that the Fantastic Four are ready to answer the call to action. Besides, Gilgamesh and Enkidu haven't been aswering their calls in quite a while.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Batman Begins

Forget all you remember about the previous four Batman films. Eradicate from all conscious and subconscious thought the existence of the 1960’s TV series. This is a serious treatment of the story of Bruce Wayne, perhaps the most serious ever. Batman Begins is set apart from the earlier treatments not simply because it focuses on the characters, but it also places them in a larger framework of human and societal issues.

Batman Begins is not a particularly spiritual film, but it is a deeply human film. It addresses the human experience of fear, anger, guilt, and compassion. In the first half of the story, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) invites Bruce Wayne to study the martial arts and join the League of Shadows in their pursuit of justice. Yet, to join the league Ducard reaches into Wayne’s psyche. Through flashbacks we learn Bruce Wayne’s past and his fear of bats. That fear gave birth to guilt and self-hatred for the death of his parents at the hands of a common criminal. Eventually his guilt was covered over by the callous of anger and revenge. The film deserves to be commended simply for opening a balanced and introspective conversation about these problematic human emotions (see Genesis 4), but it excels in that it broadens the conversation into our societal experience of these inner demons.

Batman Begins uses Gotham City as a symbol for our society and culture. This is the most genuine rendition of Gotham City ever. One believes that it could actually exist in our world rather than only on a soundstage or an art deco poster. Gotham is a city ruled by fear and anxiety. Criminal bosses take advantage of the desperation bred by the anxiety. They keep good people from improving the society by keeping them blissfully entertained and insulated from the desperation of the criminal underworld. As one of the criminal bosses says to Wayne, “Ignorance is bliss, my friend. Don't burden yourself with the secrets of scary people.”

The unfortunate result of insulating the noble and wealthy people of Gotham from the problem is that the good people who have the power and means to make a difference do nothing. The exception is Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father. He invests himself and his resources into saving the city. He meets fear and evil with compassion and courage. Bruce’s personal journey in the film involves his definition of justice. Does justice involve compassion, which is his father’s way, or does it involve anger and revenge, which is the way of Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows?

Bruce Wayne becomes Batman so that he can strike fear into the hearts of those who prey on other’s fears. However, in becoming what they fear he must be careful not to lose his own soul or he only becomes a meaner, nastier criminal than the other criminals. His moral compasses are his friend Rachel Dawes and his butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Rachel reminds him of the legacy of his father. She reminds him of the importance of doing the right thing, which is of greater importance than theatricality and deception. Alfred keeps Bruce Wayne encouraged when all hope seems lost but he also presses him to focus on that which matters most. Because of his good influences, Bruce Wayne becomes more than an avenger; he becomes a hero.

This discussion of revenge, compassion, and justice is extremely relevant to our social situation. Are we weak when we show compassion or do criminals deserve unbridled punishment and revenge? What does it mean to be truly fearless? Does it mean we are strong enough or clever enough to destroy any foe, or does it mean we can maintain our integrity and resolve even in the face of danger and anxiety? This film is a good dialogue for these very human issues given the situation in our Gotham City. Terrorists are brokers of fear. Those who seek to control our culture and society through politics, media, and the institutions of our society wield fear as a tool. (For another treatment of this topic read Michael Crichton’s State of Fear or peruse the following review of the book.)

Batman Begins should urge people of faith to consider the importance of compassion - how it separates us from the criminals and how it takes more courage to be compassionate than it does to be angry and vengeful. After all, what chance does Gotham have, when the good people do nothing?

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl in 3-D

I desperately want to see Cinderella Man. I want to see Batman Begins. I fear Crash will leave the theatre before I get to see it. These are some of the movies that I want to see, but being a parent means you sometimes go to the movies with your children. That means you sometimes have to go to a film like The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl in 3-D.

I had no intention of writing about this film, but I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised. I imagined writing an opening line such as: "I expected a juvenile special effects film but instead I was treated to a well told story rich with spiritual meaning." That is not going to happen. I would be exaggerating if I said that "Sharkboy and Lava Girl" was the stupidest movie I have ever seen, but I have seen some incredibly stupid movies in my time.

I wouldn't say that Sharkboy and Lava Girl is a bad movie. Rather I would say it is not a very good movie. It is not well made. The acting is weak. The plot and story are confusing. The emotional dynamic of the movie shifts too suddenly. I have read comic books with more drama. On top of that, the 3-D effects are poor and wasted on crude humor.

The content of the film has only a bit of redeeming quality. The theme of dreams and dreaming seemed a bit worn out at first. The story is the age-old tale of the persecuted dreamer who is told to give up his dreams and get rooted in reality. The story follows a series of events that vindicates the dreamer and the importance of dreaming. We have seen this many times before. What is unique about this film is the distinction between dreaming selfish dreams and dreaming a better dream. Better dreams are defined as those that consider the good and benefit of others. That is a noble sentiment and I appreciate the filmmaker communicating that to children.

I caution parents once again that my blog is not your best source for making movie viewing choices for your family. That is not the intent of this blog. If you see this movie, or any movie with your children, I urge you to talk with them about the film and get them to think about what they have seen and what values may have been present or missing in the film.

I understand that the filmmaker, Robert Rodriquez, made this film for his 7-year-old son. I appreciate that so much that the only reason I went to see the film was for my sons. My favorite part of the movie was well after it was over and I was enjoying dinner at Burger King with my two young film critics taking in their review of the film. Perhaps they need their own Magic Lantern Shows.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith

In the 16th Century, Doctor John Faustus sold his soul to the Devil in order to gain special powers and secret knowledge. There in a nutshell is the legend told many times by the likes of Christopher Marlowe, Goethe, and most recently George Lucas. How could the considerate and clever little chap who just wanted to help in Episode I devolve into the emperor’s enforcer with the remote control chokehold we met back in 1977 (Episode IV)? How could the love struck teenager whose romantic heart ached for Padme Amidala become the monstrous destroyer of worlds who pulls the trigger on the Death Star cannon? As Episode III reveals, he made a deal with the devil.

There is no end to the critical reviews of this movie. I intend to limit my critical comments on the “magic” of this film to two wonderful uses of setting. Anakin’s complete descent into the Dark Side takes place in Hell. The planet Mustafar in all of its lava-rich digital glory stands in for the Hadean realm. The confrontation with Padme and the battle with Obi-Wan Kenobi that leaves Anakin horribly disfigured could not take place anywhere more fitting. It just wouldn’t have the same impact if it were to take place on the planet with the Ewoks. Likewise, I thought it appropriate that Palpatine/Darth Sidious should use the senate chamber as a weapon in his duel with Master Yoda. Setting is an important element in all six films of the Star Wars series, but I believe it plays a most significant role in this film where it backlights the crucial turn of the saga.

What about the "light" of this movie? What message does it communicate? The content of the story continues Anakin’s obsession with control and power which is developed in the previous films (see earlier entry). Anakin fears loss. He is filled with anxiety over a premonition of his wife, Padme, dying in childbirth. The fear motivates him to acquire power, specifically the power to save her life. The anxious need for power and control places Anakin in conflicts between doing what is right and doing what he wants. Adding to the conflict and complexity is pride. Anakin is insulted by discipline from the Jedi Council and their reluctance to trust or affirm him as a fellow Jedi. These weaknesses are exploited by Palpatine, who serves as a convincing Devil in this Faustian drama.

Anakin’s struggle is presented in one of the movie’s weaker scenes, yet it is a scene worth mentioning because it gets to the core of Star Wars theology. Anakin has a “counseling session” with Yoda in which he chats with the diminutive green sage about his disturbing dreams. The scene is weak because it plays out more like a clip from Oprah as Yoda utters his views on death and passage to a higher state of consciousness. Death, according to Yoda, is just one form of life being consumed by the "life-Force" of the universe and reprocessed into all living things. In the world of Star Wars, Yoda’s point of view is reality, but his view does not necessarily have such pre-eminence in our world. Why rejoice for those who die even if, as Yoda says, they are processed into the greater cycle of life in the universe? Do not the circumstances of death have something to do with our response to death? Arguing from Anakin’s point of view, we might ask why there is cause to rejoice when his mother is brutalized by thugs. How can one accept death as natural when it is sometimes hastened by injustice, deception, and oppression? Does Yoda rejoice when all of the Jedi “younglings” are massacred by Darth Vader?

Absent in Yoda’s view of the universe is the view of death as an enemy. This view is present in Judaic and Christian worldviews, though it is not the exclusive view of death. In the Christian worldview, it is possible to regard death as something that is not natural or willed by God; rather it is an enemy or an aberration of the natural order. Like Anakin, we may struggle with questions about death and suffering, in fact we may struggle more deeply because we question what may seem to be God’s indifference. The struggle is not easily resolved, but we are given a choice between faith and fear. Christians believe that a champion, Jesus Christ, has defanged the terrible beast called death and so we no longer have to fear it and we can actually laugh in its face. Yet, we do laugh at death because of our own power to conquer the beast, rather we rely on the power of the champion. So we vest our faith in this champion, not ourselves.

The option between faith and fear is crucial to the Christian life. Fear leads us to trust in structures of power and protection that actually lead to our downfall. Like Faust, we bargain with the Devil, even if he presents himself through his agents. Like Anakin, we bargain for secret knowledge, and even though our intentions may be just, we may be tempted to pay an unjust price for the power and protection. Self-preservation masquerading as self-sacrifice is masterfully portrayed in Episode III. On Mustafar, Padme pleads for Anakin not to continue his descent into evil. He replies, “I'm doing this for you, to protect you.” To which she replies, “Anakin, you're breaking my heart!” Is Anakin really trying to save Padme, or is he trying to save himself? Is he taking a stand against the enemy or is he sheltering himself from a power that he fears could destroy him? Ironically, it is Anakin’s efforts to protect Padme that lead to her ruin and his.

The Bible is rife with stories of people who try to devise their own solutions for power and protection. They build towers, arrange for the birth of heirs, negotiate with rulers of other nations, construct religious strictures and structures, and execute prophets and messiahs who threaten their sense of safety. Ironically, these solutions become the mode of suffering and loss. Yet, God works in these disasters to bring forth new hope.

I have many other thoughts on the story that unfolds in Episode III. I am interested in the theme of trust and relationships. I am interested in the inconsistent approach to absolutes and complexities that is most apparent in this film but also prevalent in the six-part saga. I hope to share these reflections, but in the meantime, what do you think?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones

No, I didn't stumble into the wrong theatre. I know that Episode III: Revenge of the Sith premiers today. Of course if you are among the loyal fans you've already seen the third episode twice. It has been playing somewhere since midnight. I drove by the Malco 12 last night and waved at our representatives from the Jedi Order who have been waiting in line since days ago. I have been watching the previous films in preparation for the next episode, and since I will not be among the first to see this movie I thought it appropriate to go back and reflect on the Star Wars story thus far.

The entire Star Wars story focuses on Anakin Skywalker. I remember hearing George Lucas say that the series could be titled "The Rise and Fall of Anakin Skywalker." Those of us who were initiated into Star Wars around 1977 only knew Anakin as Darth Vader (Oops! Spoiler Warning - Anakin becomes Darth Vader - as if you didn't know!) In the final episode we learn that there's a man behind the mask, even if he is a rather mangled man. Anakin's final act is redemptive as he takes down the evil emperor and saves his son, Luke.

Despite all this, Darth Vader is never a very sympathetic character in the earlier trilogy (Episodes IV - VI). He has no facial expressions and he sounds like James Earl Jones speaking into a empty Folger's can. He is just the bad guy; and as far as villains go he is one of the best. With the first three episodes however, we are introduced to the man behind the mask. We meet him as a little boy in Episode I and even though it is probably the least of the six films, we are confronted with the fact that the murderous dictator in his black Nazi-helmeted mask was once a child with dreams.

I found it difficult to believe that this clever young child was the seed that would sprout into the Dark Sith Lord. I can only guess that Lucas' intent was to show that Anakin starts off as good. I was expecting more explanation of the circumstance that tainted this child. The elements were there and I think it would have been quite moving if the film had keyed in more heavily on the fact that Anakin and his mother are slaves. They are among the oppressed and they suffer a cruel injustice that the grand Republic and its super-powerful Jedi seem to ignore. Anakin's contempt of slavery is displayed briefly in dialogue between he and Padme in Watto's shop. Unfortunately, Jar-Jar Binks gets in the way with an unnecessary gag. Later, in a scene on the royal space cruiser, Anakin again speaks to Padme and expresses his desire to get away from his home planet. If these scenes had been played stronger to communicate more of the injustice that Anakin and his mother, Shmi, had experienced perhaps we could have witnessed a more vivid portrayal of how violence begets violence, oppression leads to revenge, and indifference toward injustice creates consequences for all of us.

The other struggle that leads Anakin to the Dark Side is his desire for control. This is more masterfully portrayed in Episode II. Anakin, now older and edgier, returns to his home planet to save his mother. She has been kidnapped and tortured by raiders. He finds her in the raider camp and spends only a brief moment talking to her before she dies. The failure to save his mother sends Anakin over the edge and he kills every raider in the camp, including the women and children. I applaud Lucas for not showing the massacre but instead focusing on the internal struggle in Anakin. This is revealed in a conversation between Anakin and Padme in the Lars family workshop. Anakin reflects on his childhood and on how he loves to fix things. Life is much simpler when one is fixing things. He expresses his rage over his failure to save his mother. He fumes at Padme because he is not all-powerful. (Padme: "You are not all-powerful." Anakin: "Well, I should be!") Anakin is full of hubris and a desire for ultimate control when he utters his fateful boast: "One day, I will become the greatest Jedi EVER. I will even learn how to stop people from dying." Both the actors play their parts well: a young man tortured by anger, self-condemnation, and limitations; a young woman frightened by the dangerous intensity of his rage.

This glimpse into the man behind the Vader mask is a very human, very real moment. Forget for a moment that it takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In truth this struggle plays out in the ghettos of our cities. It plays out in office buildings, in highway traffic, in the bedrooms of suburbia, on school playgrounds, and even churches. How many well-intentioned leaders have destroyed men, women, and children simply because they wanted to "fix things." How often are any of us consumed by anger that grows from our frustration because we cannot control our circumstances?

Every time I watch this scene I am reminded of the Genesis 4 story of Cain and Abel. Sin crouches at the door waiting for us to open it just enough that it can gain entry into our lives. It does not announce its arrival with a disclaimer that it is capable of maiming us physically and spiritually and that it will destroy our relationships with others. Rather, it calls promising to give us the ability to "fix things" quickly and that it will establish control. This scene masterfully captures the cycle of anger and frustration and the desire to control that has been the downfall of many good people.

I anticipate that this theme will be continued in Episode III. It will certainly be the theme that catches my attention. So, what do you think?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

What's In A Name?

A question that no one in particular asks is: "What does the title Magic Lantern Show mean?" This is a very different question than "What is a Magic Lantern Show?" For the answer to that question, I urge you to do a Google search or take a look at this rather informative website from the Magic Lantern Society. (Yes, I know it sounds like something from a comic book).

I chose the name The Magic Lantern Show for a variety of reasons. I originally tried to get the word "cinema" into the title since the purpose of the blog is to dialogue with films. Nothing inspiring came to mind. I am a history buff and when it comes to pop culture I dig all things retro, so I thought about using archaic terms for films and movies. The ancestors of the modern cinema are devices such as the camera obscura and the magic lantern. The camera obscura is perhaps more closely related to the cinema, but camera obscura sounds like a photography club for Satanists. I would guess that the Magic Lantern is more accurately an ancestor to those fimstrip projectors most of us over 35 remember from the school library. The ones that would ping or make a tone telling you when to advance the roll of film. You may also recall when the noble filmstrip projector was recruited into the service of the Jule Miller filmstrip series. They not only entertained; they educated and evangelized! Yet, this is not the main reason I settled on the name The Magic Lantern Show.

For me, the three words that make up the title (once again "the" goes unnoticed) evoke the three dimensions of faith and film and dialogue. The Magic speaks of the artistic qualities of movies. In his comment to my comments on Hitchhiker's Guide, CJR observes that it is legitimate to engage and understand film simply on an artistic level. I agree. In the modern worldview, values and characteristics such as beauty, wonder, goodness, and humor have been ignored by an unbalanced preference for reason. One of the reasons that the cinema may be the location for the 21st century conversation about God and spirituality is becuase the cinema does not ignore that there is a magical and mysterious quality to human life. So, our Lantern Show is Magic.

The word Lantern connotes light. I find it interesting that despite our advances in technology that have witnessed quantum leaps in media and communication, movies are still projected with a really bright bulb. However high-tech the movie biz becomes, everything from 8mm to IMAX is essentially a lantern. Yet, I am interested in more than the photonic sort of light. Sometimes a spiritual light shines forth in a film. One may even perceive that light coming from the most unexpected of films. When Changing Lanes came out to theatres, my wife and went to see it. We expected an action thriller from a film starring Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson. Instead we discovered a rather thought provoking commentary on human society, covenant, and faith. Karen said it best at the end of the film when she turned to me and said, "That will preach." Movies that shed this sort of light on our murky world deserve to have their light examined with the lenses of our faith or filtered through our spiritual prisms so we can separate the colors of Christ and the colors of culture. Our magical show we call the movies is indeed a Lantern shining its light for better or worse.

The third dimension is the Show. Movies are still a communal phenomenon, even if they are sold on DVD's and VHS. I appreciate the fact that I still have to make a social commitment to "go to" the movies even though I am not always happy about the rather anti-social behavior of some of the fellow patrons of the theatre (turn off those cell phones people!). The Show dimension is the broadest dimension. It includes everything from a film's impact on popular culture to its appreciation among a small cult following. It may even have to do with the experience of going to a film and watching it with others. For example, most of the reporting about Star Wars Episode III will focus on this. Notice how many stories are about the Jedi-garbed fans standing in lines for hours versus the content of the film. When the content of the film is discussed it will focus on how disturbing the film is for younger viewers. This sort of reportage really isn't about the art or the spirituality of the film. Remember this as an example of my point that our magical lantern light is also part of a Show.

So there are the three dimensions specifying the art, beauty, awe, humor, faith, emotion, provocation, culture, and community created by and reflected in films. That is the reason it is called the Magic Lantern Show.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Opening This Week at a Theatre Near You

The third dimension of the Magic Lantern Show (the "show" part) focuses on the public and cultural aspects of "going to the movies." That is what interests me the most about the releases this week. It is certainly more interesting than the individual releases.

Have you noticed how movies are strategically released? Much of the strategy has to do with economics; but the studios are also paying attention to other releases in an attempt to maintain some variety and draw in a wider audience. Movies dialogue with one another in this way and they represent trends in the culture. This is not a recent development. Watch the 1930's Universal production of Frankenstein and you will notice there is hardly a soundtrack. That is because the public had grown weary of musicals and the studio recognized the need for a different genre of movie to draw a wider audience.

Perhaps this explains why most of the films opening this week seem to be lighter fare. The studios and theatres are offering a cleansing of the cinematic palete between the rich meat of Kingdom of Heaven and the blockbuster final course of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Taking my cue from the studios, I offer a re-hash of an entry earlier this week from my other blog, Written Without Ink. But before the feature, a prieview of upcoming entries: If I get the chance this weekend, I am going to see one of last week's other releases, Crash. Next week the choice is plain. There is no film being released opposite Star Wars excpet for a few indie pictures. I wonder why? (The Force is strong with this one!) Now, on to the show:

I have enjoyed two weeks worth of new release movies. First I saw Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Last week I saw Kingdom of Heaven. Good start to the summer. However, there are no releases for this Friday (yes, I know it is Friday the 13th) that really interest me.

The big release this week is Kicking and Screaming, the latest Will Ferrell comedy. This is the one where he is a TV anchorman married to a witch, right? No wait he's a cheerleader raised by elves. Does it really matter?

What about Mindhunters? It is about the FBI. I used to work for the FBI. Seriously, I was a contracted sketch artist. They still didn't let me in on their greatest secret: What does the J in LL Cool J stand for? Perhaps this film will give the answer. Perhaps this film is one big question mark.

Maybe we could all go see Monster-In-Law. It stars Jane Fonda and J-Lo. J-Lo is going to marry Ben Affleck, but Jennifer Garner shows up with her boyfriend from Alias and then J-Lo falls in love with Vaughn from Alias and Jennifer Gardner (J-Gar?) falls in love with Ben and they are forever known as Bennifer. Wait, which Jennifer make Ben a Bennifer? Could it be that Jane Fonda is there to sort all this out? No wonder she is a monster. Maybe we shouldn't go to this one, it's too silly.

Well, unless one of those art films comes to town there's Unleashed. Now here is an enigma of a film. It looks like a Jet Li action movie but it also stars Bob Hoskins and Morgan Freeman. Isn't that like Jimmy Stewart showing up on an episode of Gilligan's Island? Man, Jet's going to have to carry this film.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott’s latest epic will attract the crowds who are lured by the thrill of a historical action flick or, in the case of some, the presence of heart throb Orlando Bloom. Those seeking an action picture will not be disappointed, and I gladly confess I am not an expert on Orlando Bloom’s “hotness quotient” so you will have to figure that out for yourself. There is much more to this film than star power and epic special effects, for which I am very grateful. It is a clear example of the spiritual conversation taking place in our culture.

In my first entry on this blog, I stated that I would not “endorse” movies and I still stand by my assertion that you must use your own discretion in deciding whether or not to see a film, but this is a film that I urge people to watch if they can because it raises important questions on many levels that we need to be discussing. Please be aware that the movie is rated R for graphic depictions of brutal warfare, but even the violence has a message in the way it has been artistically portrayed. The folly of war is conveyed when the war-mongering Guy de Lusignan, recently defeated in battle, is paraded shamefully on a donkey by his enemy. Even more moving is the aerial scene of the final assault on Jerusalem at the Christopher Gate in which the combatants are reduced to a mass of humanity pressing against each other violently but without progress on either side.

The main character of the story, Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), is a builder before he is a warrior. He is a blacksmith who lives by the question “What man is a man who does not make the world better?” This question is introduced early in the film and from there Balian is thrust into circumstances that require him to answer this question in more ways than shoeing horses and fixing garden tools.

This is one of the spiritual themes, and there are many, running through the story. Balian is made a knight and his oath demands that he safeguard the helpless and speak the truth even if it costs him his life. His spiritual advisor, the Hospitaler (David Thewlis), reduces the charge to an even simpler statement: “Do what is right!” Balian’s struggle to do this is played out ironically in the story. In the midst of those who claim to speak for God and who are certain that it is God’s will to go to war, Balian, who believes himself cut off from God’s grace, is the one who truly understands what God requires, yet he is simply trying to do what is right. As I watched this theme develop during the story, I reflected on texts such as Micah 6:8 - “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Balian believes that he is outside of God’s grace because of his misfortunes. The characters that struggle with misfortune, such as the leprous King Baldwin and his sister Princess Sybilla, are those who struggle the most with forgiveness. Baldwin believes that his physical deformity is God’s curse and his efforts to bring peace to Jerusalem are an attempt at penance. Sybilla makes choices during the story that cause her to condemn herself as she carries the burden for the misfortune of others. The film doesn’t offer easy resolution for the guilt that these characters feel. I respect that and I appreciate the way the story poignantly portrays the reality of guilt and forgiveness. In one such scene Godfrey of Ibelin is asked if he renounces his sins. He replies, “All but one,” referring to his actions that made him Balian’s father.

As the title suggests, the central discussion in the film is about the idea of kingdom. As the tale begins, Jerusalem is described as the center of the spiritual universe and all religions have access to God through Jerusalem. However, the peace in Jerusalem is fragile and religious extremists on all sides want to claim exclusive access to the center of the universe. This concept of heavenly kingdom is intertwined with geopolitical dominance. However, the developing story challenges that view of kingdom. Balian voices this new concept of kingdom more clearly than any other character. He contends, almost blasphemously, that the most sacred part of Jerusalem is not the bricks and stones that make up the holy shrines, but the people that live there. Balian is willing to fight on his honor to protect these people but he will not defend stones and mortar. In another scene, Balian describes the "Kingdom of Heaven" as a kingdom of conscience. He tries to assuage the guilt of Sybilla, who holds herself responsible for the collapse of her brother’s rule in Jerusalem, by explaining to her that Baldwin’s kingdom is a kingdom of heart and mind that cannot ever be surrendered.

This theme is so reminiscent of Christ’s teaching about the kingdom of heaven. It is not a geopolitical or religious kingdom (John 18:36). Christ’s kingdom is indeed a kingdom of conscience, heart, and mind (Luke 17:21). It is convicting to watch this film and realize that throughout history those of us who claim to know God’s will and word have failed to take this teaching to heart. Instead we have invested ourselves in the institutions and empires of this age and have excused our actions by claiming that we are doing God's will. The movie is a post-Christendom examination of the failure of institutional and political religion. Believers would do well to accept this examination without mourning the loss of our political capital, but at the same time proclaim that we believe that the kingdom of Christ is a kingdom of heart and mind that cannot be surrendered.

One cannot watch this film and avoid its compelling commentary on the political realities of our day and age. I could not help but think of terrorism in Iraq when the results of the Saracen’s decapitation of prisoners was shown. Also, Balian’s speech before the final defense of Jerusalem would be appropriate for peace summits in Palestine.

The film also comments on the spiritual and ecclesiastical realities of our day and age, although this message is subtler. The church in the 21st century is realizing that Christendom (the political/institutional/territorial structuring of the church) is an obsolete concept of kingdom. Instead, a missional concept of kingdom, not unlike the movie’s description of a kingdom of conscience, is emerging as a better way to understand God’s rule that is breaking into our world. It is a kingdom rule over heart and mind, but it should be one that goes beyond private experience and translates into right action. I am inspired by this movie to imagine that Christ’s church can be a people who will do what is right and be willing to die for, but not kill for, the Kingdom of Heaven.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

What is the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything? This simple little question is easily answered by the film The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The answer is 42. Okay, that may be easy, but not much to go on is it?

I enjoyed watching this movie with my oldest son, age 11. I was probably a few years older than my son when I first read the book and watched the BBC series on PBS. The film features some true fanboy moments. Watch for a cameo by the BBC version of Marvin the Paranoid Android and Simon Jones (Arthur Dent in the BBC series) appears as the Ghostly Image from Magrathea.

Since I went with my son, I am thankful that the film didn't contain any seriously crude material (not even flatulence, which seems to be routine in every comedy made these days). Of course there is the presumption of evolution; but then again people turn into sofas and yarn dolls in this film, which is just as improbable as people evolving from apes, right? Bottom line, it is all nonsense and smirks.

Yet, buried in the crackpot humor is philosophy. The film takes a humorous point of view on the grandest of all topics, the meaning of life. The hero, Arthur Dent, is an ordinary man who does not have a clue about his role in destiny. He is no more aware of his place in the grand scheme than "a tea leaf is aware of its place in the British East India Company." During the end credits a bonus entry from the Hitchhiker's Guide appears that makes a joke about the scale of life in the universe. Sometimes those who seem great and mighty in their own eyes are actually very insignificant. Isn't this a biblical theme from as far back as Genesis 11?

Arthur Dent, who ends up as the last man from Earth stands in to make us realize just how small and insignificant we are supposed to feel in the galaxy. Bombardment with astronomical numbers and entanglement in galactic bureaucracies also keep us in our place. It is a theme of the movie and it speaks to the sense of paranoia, meaningless, and malaise that our culture seems to be experiencing now and certainly in the decade when the book was written.

I enjoy the humorous take on philosophy, but I certainly do not agree with all of it. Taking in Douglas Adams' story one more time after all these years I cannot help but compare it to the book of Ecclesiastes. The wise Preacher shares with us his quest for the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy comforts us in our sense of overwhelming meaningless with the words "Don't Panic" but ultimately tells us that nothing really matters because it is all just chance. Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, unsettles us with the message "Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!" (Ecclesiastes 1:2), but in the end tells us what really does matter.

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy we drift along in our quest to find an answer to THE question. We do not find it in bureaucratic meticulousness (the Vogons), or in two-faced, half-brained politicians (Zaphod Beeblebrox), or in institutional religion (Humma Kavula and the Church of the Great Green Arkleseizure), or even in pouring our life into work (Slartibartfast and the Magrathean planetary construction engineers). Not even the super-computer Deep Thought calculating for 7.5 million years is able to come up with an answer. Well, it does but the answer is 42 - again, not very satisfying, right?

Ecclesiastes is slightly more artistic in his conclusion of the whole matter. He has tried it all and lost faith in every imaginable answer that the galaxy has to offer. The one thing that doesn't fail us is this - - "Respect God. Do what he tells you. That's it." (Ecclesiastes 12:13, loosely translated) .

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy realizes that we are a people who are full of questions, but it has enough class not to provide us with a schmaltzy answer to the meaning of life. No one in their right mind could recommend the movie or the book as a source of ultimate meaning. Like hitchhiking itself, it is just free-spirited, aimless wandering. Watch the film and enjoy the ride. But please don't forget to put on your thinking cap when you go and do take plenty of lemons to squeeze into it. Just go see the film and you will know what I mean by that last bit.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Welcome to the Show

I have always enjoyed the movies. For most of my life I thought they were just a diversion. I went to the movies to waste time, enjoy a laugh, or thrill at adventure. Then I began to notice how some films are discussions of serious subjects. I discovered that some films made me think. At times, they even disturbed me. The more I started to notice this, the more I realized that more was going on at the movies than entertainment.

In his book Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Baker Academic, 2000), Robert K. Johnston helped me articulate what more is going on. According to Johnston, there is a conversation going on about God in Western culture and the church has not been invited to be a part of it. In fact, we are hardly aware of it. I agree with Johnston, and I believe as he does that if this discussion is taking place anywhere, it taking place at the movies.

"The Magic Lantern Show" is my attempt to bring the church back into the conversation. I want to redeem my time at the movies by writing to this blog. Really, I hope it turns into a b’logue, which is my term for a web dialogue, so I urge you to post your comments. In the hopes of good conversation, I want to hear from you. Of course, I should make some clear statements about my intended purpose for "The Magic Lantern Show" so we will be clear what it is and what it is not . . .

1. My entries are a dialogue between faith and film. It is an exercise in engaging the culture with a faith perspective. Whether you attend the movies or not, I invite you to be a part of the conversation. I invite you to disagree and share your faith perspective. Everyone is welcome to join in. Only please, as at the movies, be considerate of others and turn off your cell phones.

2. This website is not intended to be a review or recommendation of movies. I may comment on the content of the film, but please do not use my articles as a guide in determining you viewing choices. Please don’t assume that because I, a minister, went to see a film that it has some sort of religious seal of approval and it is safe for family viewing. You need to use your own discretion in making choices for you and your family. I don’t mind helping you make those choices if you want to email me, but please don’t mistake my commentary as an endorsement of any film. There are many good resources to find reviews on films.

3. Robert K. Johnston’s book is recommended reading. There are also many other websites devoted to a dialogue between faith and film. I recommend starting with the Hollywood Jesus website.

4. I intend to see a movie each week this summer and I intend to make at least one entry a week. I may make continued comments about the movie as the week goes on. Especially if we get a good conversation going.

5. Some of my reflections will be about my personal experience of growing up going to the movies. Going to the cinema is still a public event in many respects and I cannot help but reflect on the cultural and communal aspects of “going to the movies.”

Those are the basics. I have a list of movies I intend to go to but I am open to your recommendations. And now, "On with the show!"