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.