Saturday, January 22, 2000
Friday, January 21, 2000
This article first appeared at ChristianityToday.com.
For the record, what you are about to read is not a top ten list. I'm offering a slightly different take on the old standard because, for me at least, going to the movies isn't always about digesting the most lauded picture I can. I spend the time at the multiplex, rather, in hope that my experiences there might challenge and inspire me to live how I intend. So, with that in mind, here's a list of films that helped shape and mold me in 1999 -- ten movies that made my year.
Heart of Forgiveness
My struggles in living the Christian life rarely stem from a lack of biblical instruction, but from a lack of understanding how to live by God's principles. I suspect I'm not alone in this condition; Jesus often followed up his teachings with parables that illustrated his message so people like me could grasp what he said more easily. To feed this hunger, I often find myself reading the journals of Henri Nouwen or the memoirs of Kathleen Norris, to see how faith and passion can survive the day-to-day grind. And occasionally, I'll find stories like these at the movies. This year, "The Straight Story" helped instruct me on the nature of forgiveness.
David Lynch's film tells the true story of Alvin Straight, an old man who drove a lawnmower from Iowa to Wisconsin to meet with his estranged and dying brother. In experiencing his slow and painful journey, I caught a glimpse of the Herculean feat that forgiveness really is. My physical obstacles in the way of forgiveness are not nearly so great, but the emotional vulnerability the act requires is just as painful, and just as slow. I'm fantastic at forgiving people in my heart, at releasing grudges, but for me to tell the person I've forgiven that I've done so is wrenchingly difficult. Perhaps it's fear of being trampled on again, or of revealing how dark my heart's really been. Somehow, though, in acknowledging how difficult the process can be, and allowing it to remain difficult (as Straight does by refusing any rides), I'm allowed the freedom to stay the course. To me, Straight is a worthy model; as the film progresses it's clear that his attempt at forgiveness is not simply a last-minute chance to validate his life, but simply something that must be done because of who he is.
Forgiveness is also at the heart of "Magnolia", a film of interwoven parables and morality plays. Here, the focus is on the power of forgiveness -- the life-giving quality at its core -- embodied in the character of LAPD officer Jim Kurring, one of the most human and multifaceted Christian characters seen at the movies lately. On his first date with a drug addict, she asks that they not lie to make themselves sound more impressive, and he agrees. In listening to one another's most vulnerable selves, they are able to offer a measure of forgiveness. It's clear that subtraction of blame lifts a great burden from both their hearts and helps them see again their own worth. As Kurring returns to his day job he begins to see the place for mercy in his profession of justice, finding the opportunity to hand back a criminal's life to him -- not necessarily a cop's action, but a Christian's. As I struggle each day with attitudes of judgment or offense, it is worth remembering Kurring's story and the forgiveness that I, as one already forgiven, am told to give.
Part of the Past
Two films this year transported me back to my youth, alternately bringing joy and guilt, both of which were important to me. For a kid who grew up eating Chewbacca cookies and drinking out of Darth Vader Dixie cups, "Star Wars: Episode IÑThe Phantom Menace" delivered spastic waves of giddiness, not only in the actual film but in the months of eager anticipation: scrounging for truthful rumors, exploring the back stories of characters in insider guides, chatting about the movie with every other movie fan my age. Granted, this movie wasn't quite as exciting as the previous trilogy, but that's to be expected when you're tracing the very beginnings of a conflict than when you're in the full throes of it. Actually, by avoiding the focus on good versus evil that the original trilogy details, "The Phantom Menace" adds nuance and depth to the series by showing how a person at the most innocent and selfless moment is never far from following the dark side -- that the fight between good and evil is more often an internal battle than we recognize.
"Three Kings" also confronted me with the past, but in a less pleasant manner. War movies are nothing new to me, but since I'm young, I've always dissected the wars from the vantage point of someone who didn't live through them. In the case of this Gulf War picture, though, I saw my own actions incriminated by its scathing commentary. I had treated the war as not much more than an international Super Bowl, rooting for the home team. (I even had a set of trading cards featuring military leaders, weapons, vehicles, and patch designs.) It was agony to witness the devastation on the Iraqi people in this movie while I remembered buying souvenir magazines about the conflict. Even if the Gulf War was a just one, my actions were not. I had thought of Iraqis as less than full human beings -- the kind of attitude that makes war possible. "Three Kings" works to erode the very heart of war by giving full human dimension to virtually every character, and by showing what a fired bullet does to the human body, to families, and to ideals. Walking away from this film, I had a renewed sense of compassion for the crowds of anonymous people I used to look beyond.
Often, even the movies that really affect me don't translate into outward action in any immediate way. When I am given a renewed sense of compassion or an understanding of forgiveness, it often results in a incremental shift in my attitude that only over time will lead to healed relationship or act of service. ("God's not finished with me yet" could be my slogan.) But three movies this year actually pushed me to concrete action of significance.
"The Story of Us," which traces the 15-year marriage of a couple on the verge of divorce, opens with a family at a dinner table participating in a routine they call "high-low." Family members give a high point and low point to their day as a means of sharing. A minor detail, to be sure, but I decided it would be fun to try the routine with my wife. It started as a novelty, but over the past several months "high-low" has given me a new understanding of her. Her answers often revolve around physical input like a great dinner or getting too little sleep, whereas mine tend to be emotional stimuli like a kind word from someone or being worried about a project. This has helped us understand and care for one another in ways we never considered before. For me, too little sleep is inconvenient but inconsequential; knowing it's more important to her has helped me be more alert to making sure our schedule allows for that time. We know better what's of value to the other, and that offers clearer ways to show devotion.
Historical inaccuracies plagued "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," yet it's exactly that quality that made the film important to me. Before seeing the movie I knew only sketchy details of Joan's life, so I couldn't ascertain which events were factual and which were fabricated in the film. It seemed a shame I knew so little about such a famous saint; before long it dawned on me that I didn't know much about any heroes of the faith prior to the 20th century. This realization sparked in me an interest to discover more about the lives of saints, whether through historical novels like Frederick Buechner's "Godric" and "Brendan" or through simple biographies. I'm excited to have found these stories of God's work in many places and times. Yet the lives of the saints tend to get obscured under layers of reverence and oversimplification. In these cases I find myself following the example of "The Messenger," trying to discover a real person behind a legend, not taking for granted their holiness but instead searching for where God might have been at work in them.
There's a scene in "Fight Club" in which Tyler Durden forces a store clerk at gunpoint to follow his dream of becoming a veterinarian. I identified with this clerk; sometimes I need the gun to the head to make the bold choice rather than drift along with the rest of society. To me, this scene made the movie's point: Choose this day whom you will serve. It also got me thinking: If I was forced to name what I wanted to do with my life, could I identify one particular thing I hope to accomplish, without which the trigger might as well have been pulled? So I decided to write, in essence, a mission statement. My mission is "to look for God's hand in the everyday and help others see it." The question "Fight Club" asks me, and that I will probably constantly struggle with, is why I'm afraid to leave behind what makes me unhappy in order to pursue that goal wholeheartedly.
Three films this year were influential in helping me achieve that goal of seeing God's hand in everyday life. This is important to me because too often I find myself looking through American eyes, Gen-X eyes, capitalist eyes -- blinded eyes rather than godly ones. I am too often a creature of the time and place that define my station in this world. When I have no eyes for the small signs of God's presence in life, I find myself anchorless. God used these three movies to help align my eyesight more closely with his, so I see not as the world sees but with deeper perception.
After watching "The Matrix," in which the world is revealed to be nothing but a virtual reality downloaded into our brains, I walked around for days doubting my senses. This period gave me an idea how much I trust my senses to perceive my existence, when in fact I know they tell me little about spiritual reality. For a short time, I was given different eyes with which to view the world. "The Matrix" also delivered a more lasting perception shift by creating a web of prophecies and miracles that surround the main character. Watching the movie through my 20th-century eyes, I was immediately skeptical of prophecies and miracles in this present age. My cynicism shocked me; it shouldn't belong to someone who believes in God's intervention in human history. In the end, the movie helped wake my interest in the supernatural that helped lead to my interest in saints and searching for God's hand throughout the A.D. era.
In a movie year packed with daring and original material, it's ironic that the film that left me most wowed with what's possible in moviemaking was a sequel. "Toy Story 2"'s stunning animation and pitch-perfect story (even more resonant than the original) gave me a visceral sense of wonder and surprise. Surprise is important to me in seeking godly eyes, because I need to be reminded that the people around me are more complex than I believe, and are capable of surprise. It helps me to stop categorizing or even pigeonholing others but instead view them as whole people. "Toy Story 2" goes a long way to reinforce this perspective for me, since this sequel reveals more facets and depth to characters I thought I was familiar with. Most sequels work against this, offering the same stagnant characters in a different situation, but a handful like this one let you know their characters are more complex than meets the eye. This reminder prompts me to seek fuller definitions of the people around me.
While "Fight Club" prompted me to write my mission statement, "American Beauty" was more forceful in shaping its content. If I had to choose one movie on this list, I would pick this one, because it was in the context of "American Beauty" that I made many of the discoveries I've talked about here. Rather than just providing a small shift in perspective, this film was transformative. At the core of the film is the comparison between human beauty and God's beauty. The Burnhams are, like many American families, obsessed with appearances, doing all they can to put on happy faces to hide from everyone the rotted reality of their lives. Human attempts to create ordered beauty ring false because life isn't always pretty. But the next-door neighbor Ricky Fitts reveals true beauty -- God's beauty -- that is visible in the chaos of everyday life. Looking through the lens of his camcorder, he searches through the random and broken pieces of life until he finds "the eye of God staring back" at him. The mundane becomes the edge of glory, just as a carpenter's son became a healer. This shift in perspective was so complete that during the brief scenes of nudity I did not see the bodies as sex objects, as they are often intended, but rather as God's creation. I saw in the image of a dead bird God's control of life and death. His hand was so clear in the minutiae of life that I left the theater with a hunger to recapture that perspective. The key to getting back there -- which I believe is the lesson God hoped to communicate to me this year -- shows up in so many of these ten films that it's beginning to finally sink in: put aside artifice and live vulnerably.
MAGNOLIA IS A FILM both weird and wonderful, deeply flawed yet deeply insightful. I couldn't help but be awed by the sheer ambition of the spectacle, as it squeezes together the stories of a dozen L.A. citizens into a kind of crucible, revealing the most monsterous and the most tender elements of human nature.
To some degree, its ambition turns it into a mess of a film, simply trying to do too much. Frankly, I could have done without a few of the subplots, especially the one involving a live TV game show that not only stars kids but has been running for 30-some years. (Are we really expected to believe that this is the first time the show falls apart?) But in other ways, the film's ambition is exactly what makes it work, breaking the rules in wonderful ways, casting a spell that captures life's chaos and grace.
The film is anchored by two dying fathers whose failings have turned their kids into lost wrecks, one a self-abusive drug addict and the other a self-absorbed sex addict. Magnolia tells how the past continues to mold and entrap us, which I thought was a pretty impressive statement coming from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. I disliked his first two movies, Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, because they seemed to imply that one's past does not affect the future; whether it was the porn star's angry departure from his parents house or a secondary character's graphic suicide, the events of the past which were obviously hurtful were simply brushed aside. I got the impression that to Anderson, characters were simply chess pieces to be manipulated and sacrificed for the sake of the plot, playthings he didn't endow with any true humanity. But in Magnolia the opposite is true; even the most vile characters are seen as broken but real people. And, as I mentioned before, the role of the past in our present actions is made abundantly clear.
That, however, is not what makes Magnolia so special. In and of itself, that might be a pretty bleak message. But what Anderson does is traces the ways in which forgiveness can unbind us from the past -- which is the essence of the gospel story: God's forgiveness clears us of the sin nature we have inherited. And, even more impressively, Anderson directly points to God as the source of forgiveness: first through an explicitly Christian police officer whose job deals daily with the balance of justice and forgiveness, and secondly through an act of God: a surprising and bizarre miracle that half blows your mind despite the movie's earlier cinematic rule-bending. True to most miracles, it doesn't really make a lot of direct sense, but it's a moment of divine intervention that points to God's active presence in a world that many believe he has abandoned.
What I loved most about this film was LAPD officer Jim Kurring, one of the few really admirable Christian movie characters of the past ten years. The best Christian character I've seen is Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking, a nun who is revealed as a real person with many struggles and few answers. But Kurring might be just as affecting, since he's a little less difficult to relate to than a nun. He's just an average joe, but is remarkable for risking his heart. My favorite scene is when he's on his first date with the drug addict; she asks that they not lie to make themselves sound more impressive, and he agrees. Their vulnerability lifts a great burden from both their hearts, and helps them see again their own worth. As Kurring returns to his day job he begins to see the place for mercy in his profession of justice, finding the opportunity to hand back a criminal's life to him. Not necessarily a cop's action, but a Christian's. As I struggle each day with attitudes of judgment or offense, it is worth remembering Kurring's story and the forgiveness that I, as one already forgiven, am told to give.
Thursday, January 20, 2000
Just a note to those who are about to set off on the fabulous journey that is my review of "Mansfield Park": I'm going to compare the movie with the book. You do not need to have read the book, because I will tell you everything you need to know. It will help you if you have seen the movie, or at least either read the book or seen the movie. If you have done neither, frankly I'm not sure why you'd want to read this. But, in the interests of being generally obliging, here is a short plot summary for the clueless: Fanny Price, oldest daughter in a family of numerous offspring and limited means, is sent off to live with her uncle, aunt, and cousins - the Bertrams. Fanny is never quite accepted as one of the family and is half a servant, always a charity case. The only character who truly likes her is her cousin Edmund. Newcomers to the area, Henry and Mary Crawford, brother and sister, seek to liven things up. Only Fanny holds herself partially distant from the charming influences of these suave city folk, as they seduce the other characters one by one.
I recently read Mansfield Park the novel for the first time. It was the second to last of the Jane Austen novels I had left to read. I was bummed after finishing them off, because Jane hasn't come out with anything new for years and doesn't seem likely to any time soon.
The last of her novels I read was Northanger Abbey, and when I saw posters and scattered ads for "Mansfield Park" the movie, I kept getting the two novels confused in my head. The movie ads looked much too cheerful for the Mansfield Park novel I'd read, and now I know why.
The change in tone has mostly to do with the main character of Fanny Price. Fanny in the book is a static character, sickly, timid, retiring. In a 1966 essay by Tony Tanner on Mansfield Park the novel, Tanner says the point is to contrast the never-changing Fanny with the evil influences in the film, particularly the outsider Crawfords who whisk in, singing the adulation of progress. They try to move things along in the quiet Park, and in doing so, they put into motion the wrecking of many lives. Fanny stays put, her modesty reflecting a quietness of spirit and a superiority of judgment.
Tanner writes: "As Edmund says: 'Fanny is the only one who has judged rightly throughout, who has been consistent.' She prefers custom and habit to novelty and innovation, and her resolute immobility, frail and beset though it is, is a last gesture of resistance against the corrosions of unfettered impulse and change. ... Her immobility, her refusal to be 'moved' are not symptoms of mule-like stubbornness or paralysed fear, but a measure of her integrity, her adherence to her own clear evaluation of how things stand."
The other characters in the novel are lured by "unfettered impulse and change." Some resist, but many meet with disaster. Indeed, no other Austen novel is quite so forceful or blunt in the sins its characters commit. Most Austen tragedies involve secret engagements or unwise elopements, hardly crimes in this day and age, but this one deals with issues including divorce and adultery - not what most commonly associate with proper Jane.
And the movie version didn't stop there - it threw in even more sins, these ones societal rather than personal. They added a subplot involving Fanny's uncle's involvement in slavery and his older son's deep aversion to the practice. It's not at all something that Austen would write about, but it does give the movie some social depth that's unexpected for an Austen-adapted film. There's plenty of character depth in her novels, but she doesn't pass the boundaries of her fictional country towns.
Austen's novels tend to deal also with a narrow range of social classes, only from upper middle class to the very rich. Servants are generally mentioned only by being yelled at by the hurrying mama. The very poor are visited, but the visits last a paragraph or so, with more telling than showing, such as this from Emma, describing one of the young, rich title character's customary visits to nearby villagers: "[Emma] understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those, for whom education had done so little ... . In the present instance, it was sickness and poverty together which she came to visit; and after remaining there as long as she could give comfort or advice, she quitted the cottage ... ." And this is what Emma herself has to say about lower classes a few steps up: "A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other he is below it." I have to put in a word for Austen: She shows by another character's words that Emma's attitude toward the farmer in question is ill-formed. Still, in general, the poor, even when respected, are generally only a foil to the important characters and are easily dismissed.
The movie by contrast enlarges Austen's narrow social scale. Fanny feels out of place in both the movie and book because she's poorer than her cousins. In the movie, Fanny's parents' home is a dim hovel running over with maggots and scurrying cockroaches. But in the novel, we know that the family's not well off because when Fanny goes to visit as a young adult, the servants are lazy. Horror! Giving more range to the social differences in the movie made it somewhat more interesting to us jaded suburbanites. A middle-class person in a rich person's house is just not as startling, and it made Fanny's desire to stay with the wealthy but idle and potentially wicked Bertrams more understandable.
In some ways, though, I understand Austen's tendency to stay within her familiar social circle and not deal (in writing, at least) with classes she didn't live in and didn't understand. We often speak of Christians needing to leave their comfort zone - generally in the sense of living with those poorer, not the other way around - but is that a universally Christian command? We can always look to Jesus' example on earth - he made friends with prostitutes, lepers, and tax collectors (the last rich but outcast), and we can imagine that this was not normal behavior for people in his social circle. But it might not have been as big a jump for him, since he was poor and homeless - an outcast -- already. I've been thinking about this because Steve and I are living in a neighborhood right now that's slightly outside our comfort zone, and sometimes - we're uncomfortable. As someone who loves to move around and try out new places, I often have trouble understanding "normal" people, who grow up in one place, go to school there, move into a place near their parents, and stay there until they die. But I'm finding that I, too, have limits on how much variety I want in life, and I struggle with whether it's Christlike to want to keep to my own safe ethnic, class and religious boundaries. I guess in the end I have to admit there probably isn't one doctrine for each person - God calls each believer to live in a certain place and time, and all my responsibility is, as Jesus told Peter, is to follow him.
Anyway ... those are the social-issue differences between the movie and the book, and now back to the character of Fanny Price, the biggest change in the movie. Fanny, as I said, is a shy and retiring character in the novel, a character that some Austen fans love to hate. (To see what I mean, read "The definitive Fanny-bashing." This funny description, filched from The Screwtape Letters, is from the Jane Austen info page, www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/janeinfo.html, where you'll find plenty of food for discussion. Same for the hosting site, www.pemberley.com.) Fanny in the movie is much more like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, or like Jane Austen herself. Indeed, the movie "Mansfield Park" says it's based on the novel by the same name plus Jane Austen's personal writings. Movie Fanny's The History of England by a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian is 15-year-old Jane's own work, written to amuse her family. Austen, by all accounts, was a witty and gracious companion. You can see why the filmmakers veered toward making their heroine a little more sparkling.
So we have the warring Fannys, the sickly one of the novel, the spunky tomboy of the movie, and which wins? Frankly, I like the movie Fanny better - I respect pious, withering heroines but I don't enjoy them much. (Though I wouldn't go as far as this list of seven ways the story should change.) So it's not true to the original work, and maybe some would say it makes the novel suffer thematically, and maybe I would too if I'd ever really studied the novel, in a class or whatnot (lit major and general purist that I am), and this is a very long sentence, but anyway, I like Punky-power Fanny better. I've disagreed on this sort of subject with Austen before, who felt Pride and Prejudice, published before Mansfield Park, was too light and happy. What's wrong with light and happy, I say?
Speaking of happy, the ending in Austen's novel, though tidy and moral - good people receive good, the wicked go to h-e-double-hockeysticks - was not even close to being romantic. The movie did a primo job of making sparks fly between the heroine and her hero. Austen often deflates at the end of her characters' courtship - you get ending scenes like:
"I must say, Miss [insert name], I regret our past conflicts. Perhaps marriage is still an option?"
"I would not be opposed, sir."
"I am relieved though not surprised. Let's shake hands."
"Shall I now call you by your first name, sir?"
OK, not entirely, but there's certainly no necking. Every Austen movie I've seen has done better at creating sexual tension at the endings of her novels than Austen did - maybe she never French-kissed someone herself, who knows? She did remain a Miss Austen till her death, we know. Anyhow, "Mansfield Park" the movie does a good job of setting up the significant characters and continuing their story arc in such a way that the happy ending doesn't seem a grudging concession but a natural progression. Yea, movie!
So, in the end, I guess I would say that I enjoyed both the novel and the movie, and I wouldn't mind going through either again. The movie was well put-together, well-casted, and seriously funny in places. What interests me is that so much of the novel is changed for the movie and yet I didn't mind. If the changes are judicious and if you remember to take the movie on its own terms, not just as a repeat of the novel, it's easier to enjoy adaptations. It seemed this movie's changes were made judiciously, not arbitrarily tearing the novel to pieces but bringing out different issues, putting on its own slant to make it more resonant with a '90/00s audience. So Hollywood still hasn't made up for the Demi Moore "Scarlet Letter" -- it's paying down its debt.
Wednesday, January 19, 2000
HERE'S WHAT I kept thinking during "Man on the Moon": How the heck did America end up with a $60 million, Oscar-caliber biopic of Andy Kaufman before one of, say, Abraham Lincoln? And one that treats itself as seriously as a Lincoln movie, to boot?
The main problem with "Man on the Moon" is that it's just not any fun. Jim Carrey pulls off a brilliant performance, disappearing into Andy's personas, but his acting is so measured and calculated that he can't capture the madcap joy that the comic brought to the stage. The direction is so heavy-handed, as if the deceased performer were some kind of martyr, or a comedy genius. (In fact, in case you miss the subtle inferences, Danny DeVito has a nice little speech to tell you straight out that Andy "just might be a genius.") Too bad the guy gets buried in so much reverence that I'm not able to judge for myself.
It reminded me of most of the movies about Jesus I've seen. They're so reverent, so much in awe of their subject that they aren't able to make him a human being. We aren't able to see what made Jesus attractive to the marginalized, since films are always aimed toward a mass, mainstream audience. He is sanitized. He becomes an icon. The mystery of the incarnation, God made flesh, is erased because the audience can't connect with his humanity. If "Man on the Moon" held a lesson for me, it's the danger of hiding reality behind the ideal, and the radical behind what's safe. I'm not likely to make any movies about Jesus, to be sure, but my conception of Jesus is nevertheless of utmost importance. As a follower of his, as someone who strives to be more like him, my knowledge of Christ is paramount. Do I see him as "Man on the Moon" sees Kaufman, a glorified construct of his true self, or can I look with eyes of truth? This film, faulty though it may be, at least reminds me to seek God in all his complexity and mystery instead of staring at him through rose-colored glasses.
Tuesday, January 18, 2000
Monday, January 17, 2000
OK, I KNOW that's a cheesy headline, but it'll make sense.
I had a hard time figuring out how to review "Anna and the King." Taken solely as a movie, I think it succeeds, especially in depicting its tender and gradual romance. Jodie Foster is a master at using non-verbal cues to express desire, in "Sommersby," "Contact," and here especially.
But that same element of romance left a bad taste in my mouth, since in real life Anna Leonowens never insinuated a romance with the Siamese King, merely a friendship. As long as we're talking historical flaws, the movie seemed steeped in '90s values like globalization and extreme tolerance, which felt totally out of place.
To throw another log on the fire, I found myself somewhat disheartened by the Thailand protest again this film. The fact is, American film crushes the cinema of most every other country, so there is little chance for a people to tell their own story. Instead we swoop in and tell it our way. On the other hand, the lack of free speech in Thailand means that perhaps "Anna and the King" is the closer to the truth than anything Thai filmmakers could produce.
My mental see-sawing about how to review this picture kept up for weeks, until I sang one Sunday about God being the "King of Kings." I began to think about how little we understand that term, living in a democracy. In America, where our leader changes every four to eight years, where he has limited power, and where the power rests with the people, I don't know if we can truly grasp what it means to live under a king with absolute power, where justice and truth can be dependent on moods and whims. To say that God is the King of Kings is a term of hope, a phrase that tells us that there is divine order behind the chaos. "Anna and the King" immediately jumped to mind as a film that helps communicate this truth, since King Mongkut is revered as a god. You get an idea of how the people lived in fear of him, making the story of Anna's friendship with him that much more powerful. In fact, there's a kind of New Testament story to this friendship; it reflects the way God moved from the distant figure of the Old Testament into flesh who is like us and knows our plight.
This parallel between God and Mongkut is strengthened by the movie's depiction of the king as a visionary (even though it seems unlikely that in real life he held Western, '90s ideals). The king seeks to lead his country toward a more just way of living, but can only move the stubborn people a short distance during his reign. This is also the story of God's invention in human history. He knows the best way for us to live, but it takes much more than one fell swoop to change our ways; it takes millennia. When he gave Moses the law, he changed society from one that would take a life for an eye to a society that would only take an eye for an eye. Thousands of years later, God Incarnate preached a message of mercy that asked us to forgive those who have trespassed against us. Thousands of years after that, we have a system of justice that gives the benefit of doubt to the accused and in only a small percentage of cases repays evil with the same level of evil administered. We're still far short of the goal, but the world has indeed become more just as God intervened. What "Anna and the King" reveals, particularly in a scene where an anguished Mongkut is prevented from administering mercy because of his people's simple-mindedness, is how much God must grieve over our slow, bull-headed movement toward the life he so clearly wishes us to live. But more importantly, because he is a personal God who has been where we are, he grieves with us in our pain.
I'm still undecided of how worthwhile "Anna and the King" is as a movie. But as manna, as nourishment heaven-sent, it's precious.
Sunday, January 16, 2000
Friday, January 14, 2000
GALAXY QUEST IS a whip-smart and side-splitting Star Trek parody, in which the bickering cast of a cheesy Trek-like TV show have to perform their roles in a real intergalactic battle. I was particularly impressed with the measure of redemption the characters are given, as the actors embrace their roles to become their best selves. Like Being John Malkovich, this movie asks to what degree you become what you pretend to be--a question that affects not only actors but all of us who live life behind masks. It also succeeds admirably in its prime directive (sorry, couldn't resist): to get you laughing. Galaxy Quest features brilliantly funny performances, especially from Tony Shaloub and Sam Rockwell, and a sharply written script that mines laughs from both details and from the bigger picture. As a certified Trek fan, I enjoyed the opportunity to laugh at myself and the seriousness with which I sometimes greet science fiction.