“Playing life like a game without consequence, until you can’t tell the difference between a stage prop and a real knife.”

WARNING: This post will contain major SPOILERS for Knives Out.  DO NOT read it until after you have watched the movie. Part of what is great about the movie is how it constantly subverts expectations.


Knives Out (Johnson, 2019) is a satire of white privilege. It is a critique of those like the Thromby family who think their place at the top of the social hierarchy is due to their individual merit instead of an inheritance. In the film all the characters think of themselves as “self-made” businesspeople, despite the fact that they each built their businesses from loans they got from their patriarch Harlan Thromby. Knives Out contrasts the Thromby family with Marta Cabrera, a kind-hearted and hard working young woman who has been the literal caretaker and “friend” Harlan needed while his children and grandchildren were complacently living off the fortune he made through his own talent and hard work. The household is an image of America, founded by the geniuses of the past whose descendants have lost touch with their heritage and traditions. They have forgotten what it meant to be American in the first place. Marta is the immigrant who deserves to be a part of the America the founders built, because she truly embodies the American dream they envisioned all along.

After the election of Donald Trump there was a lot of discussion among the elites about whose fault it was that such an undemocratic thug could have become president. His lack of reverence for traditional American values — heck, his lack of reverence for anything — seemed to threaten the very survival of the American experiment in democracy. How could this have happened? Whose fault is this? In Knives Out, Rian Johnson has made a movie about this question. A whodunnit. The answer is that the people in power dunnit to themselves.  It was the system itself — the game — not the particular players that has led to the decline of American values. Those who thought the American Way was a game of competition undermined the very national heritage they claim to love. As Detective Benoit Blanc tells Marta in the end, she won by not trying to win but trying to be kind and beautiful.

It is fun to watch Chris Evans play against his Captain America image here.  In fact I’m convinced that Johnson cast Evans because he was Captain America. It is America itself — or at least the self-appointed heroes who see it as their job to protect the American Way — that was threatened by an immigrant and was willing to do anything to maintain the status quo. After Marta was named the sole heir of the Thromby fortune, the family should have known that she would take care of them. They needn’t have felt threatened. But it wasn’t about their welfare or even the money. It was about control. They couldn’t bear the thought of her being in charge. Just like some people couldn’t bear the thought of a non-white president and even made up rumors that he must be an immigrant. 

As more of the country is being publicly led by non-white people — including central cultural myths like Star Wars — those committed to white supremacy feel like their heritage, their country, their inheritance, and their home itself is being “stolen” from them. But how exactly has it been stolen?  Because women and immigrants and former slaves worked hard and refused to play the patriarchal game that those in power insist we have to play? As the family lawyer says, imagining how the family might try to convince a judge that Marta manipulated Harlan into making her sole heir: “Your honor, She endeared herself to him through hard work and good humor.”

Harlan says that his grandson Ransom is the most like him: “Oh, there’s so much of me in that kid. Confident, stupid. I don’t know, protected. Playing life like a game without consequence, until you can’t tell the difference between a stage prop and a real knife.” They both play complicated games. Ransom is the only one who can beat the old man at go. It shouldn’t be surprising that Ransom has a plan to outsmart the family founder’s attempt to pass his fortune on to a new sort of American — one who actually deserves to be the caretaker of the American legacy, because she will use it to benefit everyone not just to protect her own privilege.

But Ransom’s game is foiled by Marta who never plays the game. Every time she has a choice to make she chooses to do the right and good thing instead of the self-interested thing that ransom predicts she will do in setting up his scheme. She doesn’t operate according to an economist’s assumption that the only “rational” action is self-interestedness. Marta foils Ransom’s “game theory” by being a good person — morally good and good at her job. She didn’t “steal” the inheritance. She earned her way into the family by being hardworking and kind. And in the end she was the only one worthy of inheriting the patriarch’s power.

Benoit Blanc says follows the arc of gravity’s rainbow: “I observe the facts, without biases of the head or heart. I determine the arc’s path, stroll leisurely to its terminus, and the truth falls at my feet.” and when he gets there the truth reveals itself. This time the force of “natural law” led to Marta, but when the truth is revealed it shows her to be innocent. The arc of history led to this shift in power, moving those on the margin to the center of culture. They are the true Americans who the country (indeed western civilization, including Christianity) has been trying to produce since its inception, not an invasion from a foreigner. The true American Way is the way of inclusion and cooperation not competition.

“This city, this whole country, is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.”

There is a debate among feminists about whether sex work is work, worthy of respect, which ought to be regulated — or whether sex work is slavery, inherently abusive, which ought to be abolished. The movie Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria, 2019) shows that both things are true. It shows that the work the women do as strippers, prostitutes, and porn actors can be degrading and that all of their clients — all of them — are gross. It establishes clearly that, by definition, any man that goes to a strip club is a pig. But it also shows the women who work there have dignity. They are skilled workers who take a sort of pride in their work, and being good at their job gives them a certain kind of power. 

Hustlers_(Official_Film_Poster)At the same time the film is clear that the power these women have is still located in a patriarchal system that treats them as mere objects for men’s pleasure. It shows that, in some circumstances, sex work can be a good job — at least better than any of a woman’s other choices — but it shows at the same time that none of these women would do this kind of job if they had a better choice available. In Hustlers prostitution is rock bottom, and stripping is a step up, but even the stippers would rather simply “date” the men and take their money without having to use a pole to do it. In any case all of the sex workers in the film are shown to be making the best of what little power they have in an evil system.

Hustlers helped me understand why when we, in the name of feminism, say that sex work is inherently degrading, strippers and prostitutes feel like we are judging them and trying to take away what little dignity they have left. Sex workers need to see sex work as work in order to have self-respect. The film brilliantly captures this dialectic cinematically. The first half of the film is a pastiche of Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 2019) (though it really could have benefitted from the sort of driving energy Thelma Schoonmaker brings to Scorsese’s editing!). Hustlers follows all the story beats of Goodfellas, asking us to see the work of stripping — and hustling their rich clients — as perhaps problematic but also sort of glamorous in the same way that Goodfellas makes the mafia looks sort of glamorous. 

In his gangster films Scorsese is always only trying to show why a young man would be attracted to the mob.  He is showing the glamor from their point of view, and he always undercuts their illusions by the end of his films. Hustlers makes the exact same move by introducing the journalist character Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) halfway through the film. She’s an Ivy league educated classical feminist who oozes white privilege, but her presence still gives a more objective perspective to the story. We gradually realize that the women who are telling their story of “hustling” see themselves as equivalent to Scorsese-style gangsters. 

When the protagonist Destiny (Constance Wu) tells her story, she tells it in the style of Goodfellas, so the film itself takes the form of a Scorsese movie in order to dramatize her subjective experience. That’s how she wants to remember her story.  But the journalist — and by extension the objective viewer — is not entirely convinced. Destiny sees her mentor Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) as a sex goddess, able to command worship and tribute. But later in the film we see outside the strip club that Ramona is actually just some chick who works a day job at Old Navy. Yet for Destiny Ramona is the mother figure she never had, and the hustlers were the family she needed.

Like a Scorsese gangster movie, Hustlers humanizes these criminals without buying into their self-mythologizing. It both helps us understand why they did what they did and gives them dignity, while also undercutting the self-deceptive fantasy they use to give themselves self-respect. Both things can be true.

“Down to Gehenna or up to the throne / He travels the fastest who travels alone”

MV5BOTdmNTFjNDEtNzg0My00ZjkxLTg1ZDAtZTdkMDc2ZmFiNWQ1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTAzNzgwNTg@._V1_There is so much wonderful filmmaking craft on display in 1917 (Mendes, 2019), from the emotionally moving lead performances by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, to the seamless editing by Lee Smith, to the subtle and powerful set decorating (set decorating!) by Lee Sandales who packs each scene with innumerable subtle horrors of war (often dead bodies) that we only gradually notice amid the rubble as each scene progresses. But I went to see 1917 because of the gimmick: director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins shot the entire film so that it appear to be one long unbroken take.

The movie is actually made of many different shots cleverly edited together to appear like one shot. This technique has been tried before in such notable efforts as Rope (Hitchcock, 1943) and Birdman (Iñárritu, 2014).  In 1917 the technique was interesting but intense, and I’m not sure how to describe the feeling it gave me. With other attempts like Rope or Birdman the one-shot technique felt like watching a dramatic one-man or one-woman show where a single actor holds the stage for 2 hours without a break. Hitchock’s Rope feels much like the play it is based on, and Birdman takes place in and around a play. But using the same technique for a war movie made 1917 feel a bit like a first-person shooter video game. Or, more accurately, it was so immersive that it felt almost like a virtual reality film. It is tempting to think that VR must be the future of storytelling — think of the scene from Ready Player One where the characters inhabit The Shining — but seeing 1917 made me think that VR can’t really be the future of cinema. A movie — especially a war movie — without any cuts feels like having a really intense conversation with someone who stares directly at you the whole time without blinking. For me the cuts in a film are like blinks that give my eyes a chance to rest. 1917 felt like watching an entire movie without blinking. It was exhausting as much as exhilarating. I went home and put a pillow over my eyes.

But as in-your-face as 1917 felt, the film eventually won me over. It reminded me of my response to Mendes’s first film American Beauty (Mendes, 1999). Every time I watch American Beauty I have the same experience. The first half of seems well made but rather familiar and uninvolving. But then there it that plastic bag scene and I am completely won over. The movie transcends its cliches and transfigures the rest of the movie into something numinous.

I had the same experience with 1917. The movie was certainly functioning at the highest level of craft, but most of it seemed like a rehash of war movie cliches. Until late in the film when we happen upon a group of soldiers listening in rapt silence as one young man sings an acapella rendition of the folk song “Wayfaring Stranger”. The moment is so heartbreakingly beautiful that the scene feels like a Church service (a funeral, perhaps) and takes on an almost mystical dimension, somehow retroactively transforming everything that came before into a mythic journey. The lyrics of the song (“I am a poor wayfaring stranger / Traveling through this world of woe”) recall Homer’s Odyssey, but that myth is about searching for one’s lost home. 1917 feels more like Heart of Darkness (or Apocalypse Now) in which a physical journey symbolizes a loss of innocence.

I feel like I want to watch it again to see if there is any mythic resonance to the structure of the film.  There are two mythic images that I already see.  First the barbed wire wound early on that the main character carries, clearly symbolizes the emotional wound he has. And the french girl he meets caring for a lost child seems like a mythic echo of the lure of family he feels, the tension between those who want him to stay behind vs his duty to save as many lives as he can in the war. That’s an image that resonates with me, not as a literal soldier, but as a man trying to balance family and work. What about you? Were let me know in the comments if you noticed any mythic images in the film.

“God help us see ourselves as you see us.”

79c9c92dd3a85a46c41602da39a2f656Let’s get the negative out of the way. The Irishman (Scorsese, 2019) is too long and the use of CGI deaging technology was ill conceived. It would have been better as a tv series with eight 25 min episodes like the exquisite Russian Doll series. And as good as the CGI looks in this film it doesn’t work psychologically! We all know what young DeNiro looked like so the tech is distracting. I kept seeing young DeNiro’s face on old DeNiro’s body. Scorsese should have cast a different actor for the flashback scenes like movies have traditionally done. Ok. Enough with the negative. Because really this is a great film that deeply moved me by the last third.

If you’ve seen Goodfellas (1990) or Casino (1995) you have already seen the first 2/3 of this movie. The Irishman doesn’t have the same energy and flair that those movies had — it is more classical, closer to The Godfather than Goodfellas — but it follows the same basic plot of a typical Scorsese gangster picture. The hero gets entangled with the mob and is tragically destroyed by it. This movie includes that whole typical story. But then Scorsese adds a whole new story afterwards, a kind of long coda where the tragic hero feels remorse and begins to seek redemption.

The Irishman ends with what could be the best prayer in all of cinema: God help us see ourselves as you see us. That I now think has been Scorsese’s mission as a filmmaker at least since Raging Bull which which ends with the line: I once was blind but now I see. That was Scorsese’s way of describing how making the movie had helped him see this brutal boxer character in a new light. I think that’s probably how all of Scorsese’s movies work.

My two favorite kinds of Scorsese movies are his gangster films like Goodfellas and Casino and his religious ones like The Last Temptation and Silence. Now in The Irishman for the first time since Mean Streets Scorsese has bridged the gap between these two kinds of film. He’s come full circle In his career.

And he’s doing something new this time around. He has always portrayed the consequences of crime and violence but his gangsters have never been redeemed before.  Here DeNiro’s character Frank is not quite redeemed either but the door is left open in a way it never has been before. It could be Scorsese being tired of being misunderstood and finally making his point obvious. Or it could be a mature viewpoint finally recognizing the possibility of redemption for gangsters. As an older man Scorsese finally moved beyond glorifying the gangster lifestyle as he perhaps inadvertently did in his younger days. He always recognized The inherent self-destructiveness of violence but he also sort of admired the gangsters or at least portrayed them in a glamorous way that allowed viewers to admire them. Here there is not the least whiff of glamorization. Nor is there the complete condemnation of his previous gangster films. They ended in tragic despair. The Irishman ends with at least a sliver of hope and the sense that Frank tried to do the right thing the best that he knew how — at least that is how Frank tells the story from his perspective and we come to sympathize with him.

Like Frank’s daughters at the end of the film we have a hard time forgiving him because he doesn’t seems to understand what he has done or what he should be sorry for. From a religious point of view we could say he doesn’t see his actions as sin. But neither does he see his belovedness to God. He clings to his good intentions behind all the bad things he’s done but he doesn’t really believe he deserves to be forgiven and neither do we if we’re honest. Both him and us need to see that it is never too late for redemption. I don’t think you have to be religious to believe in the sort of resurrection that’s possible for those who can admit that they failed to live up to the goodness that was in them and to strive to make things right.

“If I had all this money, I’d be nice, too!”

images-w1400Parasite (Bong Joon Ho, 2019) is the story of a poor family in South Korea that is struggling to make ends meet through various short term gigs. The movie opens with them trying to hack the wifi from a nearby cafe so they can check their messages and find out if they got any work. The family ends up folding pizza boxes for less than minimum wage — but they all pitch in and do it together. 

They live in a small basement apartment in a bad part of town where people routinely urinate on their front doorstep. Their apartment is dark and dirty and crammed so full of stuff that it is obvious they used to live in a much bigger house, but they have now fallen on hard times.

The plot follows the family as they each scam and con their way into getting various jobs as servants in a tech billionaire’s household based on false pretences. It is almost like an Oceans 11 style heist where as different as the family members are, they all work together as a unified team. But it’s striking that the goal of the heist is not to steal money from the rich but just to get jobs. And it is also striking that the poor family is barely scraping by, but the rich family has so much extra money they can afford to employ an entire other family as servants. 

Parasite is obviously a metaphor about class and inequality. The rich family is oblivious to the suffering of the poor, and the poor fight with each other to get the scraps the rich leave behind. (There is a brilliant scene where two poor families literally wrestle each other over a cell phone.) The film’s central image — the underground apartment dwellers struggling to climb the social ladder up to the mansion on the hill — is pretty obvious. There is even a running joke about metaphorical symbolism in art — the filmmaker’s way of winking at us and letting us know that he knows that we know a lot of the film’s symbolism is obvious. 

At the same time the plot itself is unpredictable and none of the characters is a stereotype. And I think within the obvious images there is a lot of richness and subtlety. For example there is an interesting bit of ambiguity in the title. Are the parasites the poor who live off the rich or the rich who live off the poor? I think it is actually supposed to be both.

Thematically Parasite is quite similar to another South Korean film from last year called Burning (Chang-dong Lee, 2018) that starred Steven Yun from the Walking Dead. Burning was pretty great, actually, but it was an art film, intellectual and literary — which is to say, slow, quiet, and honestly kinda boring. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Parasite on the other hand is relatively direct and even a bit blunt. And also beautifully photographed and exquisitely directed, precisely written, and acted. And a whole lot of fun.

LIke Burning, Parasite is basically a socially-conscious drama, I guess, but it incorporates elements from lots of more pulpy genres like heist thrillers, horror movies, and a whole lot of dark comedy. It is a subtitled foreign film that critics love, but it is not nearly as boring and pretentious as that description might lead you to believe. I mean, at one point there is a geyser of sewage shooting up from a toilet like something out of the Hangover or Bridesmaids. So yeah. It’s that kind of movie. 

Thematically there are several interesting things about the poop geyser sequence. For example, it is meant to show how a rain storm can look beautiful out the floor-to-ceiling picture windows in the modernist mansions that look out over the city, but be a disaster for those at the bottom of the hill. It’s that kind of movie, too — poop geysers as poetic social commentary.

Even though this is a Korean film, it seemed to me like a critique of the American Dream and the way that American individualism is socially destructive and how it is transforming the traditional family structure of Korean society. One way to interpret Parasite is that the American dream of pulling yourself up out of poverty is an impossible and even dangerous fantasy. If that’s the point then, what, I guess the unemployed are supposed to be content being poor? There must be more to it than that.

Or is the movie calling for the poor to rise up and overthrow the rich? Violent overthrow definitely didn’t work out too well for the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution or the Chinese, and, without spoiling too much, the family’s con job doesn’t go so well in Parasite either. By the end of the movie, it seems obvious that it’s not a call to arms. What is it then?

The American Dream is not just to be wealthy but to be independently wealthy. To not need to rely on others. To have the sort of freedom that comes from wealth — a freedom and independence that is antithetical to the commitment to mutual dependence of traditional family life. Parasite is a philosophically rich description of the dark side of capitalism where we see ourselves an individuals feeding off each other, instead of as part of one holistic organism — various interdependent members of one body — where we all support each other instead of supporting ourselves at each other’s expense. The movie is calling us to imagine society as symbiotic instead of parasitical.

This was a poignant movie for me to watch right now. In fact, I was in this movie when my comfortable life began to fall apart. I came out of the movie theater and saw that I had a message telling me that I was laid off. I never minded devoting my life to making money for other people; it’s just the instability of the whole system that gets me. Forget the tech billionaires, there are all these ordinary millionaires who live in beautiful houses on the hill above my neighborhood while my family and I could barely afford rent in a house we would never have been able to afford to buy even before we were laid off.

My life was comfortable, but it was precarious. And I have to admit that sometimes I dream of striking it rich somehow so that I would never have to worry about money again.  But reflecting philosophically on this movie reminds me that even rich people’s lives are not immune to tragedy and the fantasy of being independently wealthy can turn people into monsters or at least moral insects. There has to be a way to live a happy life without being a parasite. The movie doesn’t necessarily explain how but it clearly sees the problem. 

We can’t let the powerful convince us that life is a competition where some people win and some people lose. And it is not even enough to see ourselves as co-parastites, each taking what we need from each other instead of symbiotically giving each other what they need to survive and flourish. Society is a family where we all succeed or fail together. There are several turning points in the film where I kept thinking things could have worked out so much better if the three main families in the story had seen each other as being on the same side and not as being in competition with each other. There is so much wealth in South Korea and in the United States that we could easily take care of everyone if we just decided to do it. 

“I’ll just get started on the apocalypse.”

motherThe idea of movie “spoilers” doesn’t really apply mother! (Aronofsky, 2017).  The studio’s marketing campaign was careful not to reveal anything about the plot or characters but suggested that the movie was a psychological horror/thriller in the mode of Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, 1968) and Aronofsky’s own 2010 surprise hit Black Swan.  But most people who saw the movie “unspoiled” on opening weekend actually hated it.

Let us then dispense with spoiler warnings and divulge right away that, while it does end in an over-the-top, blood-drenched and exaggeratedly violent climax, it is not really a horror movie.  It is neither scary nor even nearly as intense and difficult to watch as the ending of Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Like a Tarantino movie, the violence in mother! is so exaggerated and preposterous that it is closer to comedy than horror – as perhaps indicated by the campy exclamation point in the title.

So mother! is the very darkest sort of “dark comedy” along the lines of Fight Club or American Psycho which satirize American masculinity by magnifying it to absurd extremes. But the film is also obviously an allegory as well.  As long as we’ve given up on spoiler warnings, let’s admit that the “Mother” of the film’s title (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is “Mother Nature”.  Yes, this a long way from a typical Hollywood movie. Aronofsky isn’t even trying to give us believable characters or an understandable plot.  The characters have names like “Mother”, “Him”, “Man”, and “Woman”, and the plot has the logic of a dream. It is like Aronofsky’s The Fountain if you deleted the relatively normal story lines and only kept the part about the guy who lives in a bubble in outer space and falls in love with a  tree.

Just as Animal Farm is not really a story about pigs taking over a farm – it is about the Russian revolution – so mother! is not really a story about  a poet and his young wife/muse living in an isolated farmhouse and dealing with unexpected house guests. Besides the sheer humorous absurdity of the increasingly outlandish events, the fun of the movie is found in trying to decipher the allegorical meaning.

At first I thought it was going to be about the creative process.  It starts with a self-obsessed poet (played by Javier Bardem) whose past success and over-enthusiastic fans become a distraction that feeds his writers block.  In the first half hour the movie seems like a sort of confession, Aronofsky’s critique of himself as an artist obsessed with public approval who is yet unable to receive love from his wife.  But this story line is just the surface. It quickly becomes clear that there are Biblical parallels here. On one reading, mother! is a remake of Aronofsky’s 2014 environmentalist parable Noah but from the point of view of the Mother Nature.

I won’t bother to explain the Biblical allegory here, since there are many good websites that have already done that.  Here’s a good example.  Suffice it to say that Javier Bardem’s poet is God, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve, and the rest of the characters and events similarly map onto allegorical referents from the Bible. This is all fairly obvious by the end of the film. I’m more interested in what it all means.

The point of the allegory seems to be that humanity loves its Father too much and forgets about its Mother.  Aronofsky wants to remind us to love the earth as much as we love God.  There is a line where the poet refers to Mother as his “wife” and the Man replies, “Wife? I thought it was your daughter”.   On a literal level this is understandable since Javier Bardem is 20 years older than Jennifer Lawrence in real life.  But Aronofsky seems to be drawing attention to an ambiguity about the relationship between God and Nature.  Did God create the universe out of nothing as traditional Christian doctrine holds? In that case Nature would be a child of God like the rest of creation. Or was there some primordial and eternal matter out of which God created as Greek cosmology maintained? In that case creation would be birthed out of a marriage-like relationship between God the Father and Earth our Mother.

Aronofsky hints that the Christian idea of the Earth as being no more than another created being – at best morally equivalent to humanity and, more typically, as subordinate to humanity – has led us to abuse the environment.  A proper relationship to the earth, Aronofsky is saying, requires us to see it as our “Mother”, morally equivalent to God.

In one of the allegory’s most obscure references, we see an occult symbol on the cigarette lighter that Mother uses to burn down the house (i.e., to destroy the entire world).  It is a Wendehorn, a Germanic rune which symbolizes the unity of life and death and suggests an endless cycle of birth and death along the lines of Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence”. Aronofsky seems to be a hinting that humanity is doomed to eternally repeat the same cycle of creation and destruction until we learn to honor Mother Nature as well as Father God.

As the Biblical allegory comes into focus, mother! is clearly a parable about environmental destruction. At first glance this seems amusing but not especially deep. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that the film is supposed to be both an allegory of the creative process and also a parable about environmentalism, and if there is anything deep about it then it is how the two levels illuminate and play off of each other.

Mother laments that her unconditional love and approval is “not enough” for her husband. She just wants to have a family, but he is too distracted by his work to ever make love to her.  This is a fairly typical, even cliche, critique of artistic obsession. But stop and think about what this means in terms of the allegory. If the poet’s fans represent the human race, then it seems like we’re meant to imagine Mother Nature lamenting the creation of humanity because she feels like she’s not enough for God by herself.  The suggestion seems to be that if the Earth were enough for God apart from any human inhabitants, then God wouldn’t have felt the need to create humanity and we wouldn’t be around to destroy the environment.  But this doesn’t make sense. If God didn’t feel the need to create, then Mother Earth wouldn’t have any children, either.

mother! is told from Mother Nature’s perspective, but I don’t think we’re meant to completely agree with her character.  The Poet admits that “nothing is never enough” for him, because he “couldn’t create if it were”. And he has no choice but to create. Creating, he says, is simply “what I do. What I am”. God is by definition the Creator. If He didn’t create, then He wouldn’t be God. But the same should hold true for Mother Nature.  If nature didn’t give birth, then she wouldn’t be a “mother”.  So the Mother needs God’s creative drive in order to be herself, just as the Poet needs the household she builds as a space to fill with his creative work. They are two parts of the same creative process.

Thus the movie calls for a deconstruction of the poet/muse opposition which leads to a deconstruction of the humanity/nature opposition. mother! imagines humanity as an outside force, something the invades and corrupts nature but is not part of nature. But why assume that? If, instead we assume that humanity is part of nature – that the people in the film are not “house guests” but are family members who are part of the household – then we avoid the temptation to burn down the house just to get rid of them.  (This is the same temptation, by the way, that Aronofsky explored in his previous film where Noah plans to intentionally destroy all of humanity in order to save the environment. See my discussion of that film here.)

The Bible portrays God as creating the first human being by “breathing” life into the “dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7).  So, allegorically speaking, we should see the Man and the Woman as the “children” of God and Mother Earth (the “dust”), not outsiders who show up from elsewhere as in mother! Thus the movie itself contains a hidden critique of Aronofsky’s picture of God as self-obsessed and humanity as an intruder in nature.  Perhaps that is actually what Aronofsky is getting at with his call to love the earth as our Mother and not as a house we temporarily inhabit like some run-down rental property.

I don’t know if mother! is a “good” movie. In fact, I’m less and less convinced that “good” and “bad” are helpful ways of thinking about movies.  All I know is that days after seeing it, I’m still thinking about mother!, which is exactly what I look for from a film.


“Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and welcome every moment.”

01_-_usaWittgenstein once remarked that “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” Presumably this would hold true for extraterrestrial life forms, too. Part of what he meant was representing reality to one another is only one of the many things language can do; language is a set of tools for getting other people to do things within a common “form of life”. In other words language is social. But since lions – or aliens – and humans don’t share a form of life, they can’t have a shared language. This is especially true when we attempt to represent reality to each other. As Wittgenstein said in a different place, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” The structure of our language defines the parameters within which we experience the world. Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016) flips this on its head. If language shapes the way we experience reality, then learning a new language gives us a new way of experiencing reality.

In linguistics, this is known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It is probably not strictly true, at least in the way it was originally theorized. But it provides a fun sci-fi premise in Arrival. In the film Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor hired by the U.S. military to help figure out how to communicate with a fleet of mysterious alien spacecraft and to discern their purpose for visiting earth. Do they come in peace? Banks discovers that, unlike human language, the aliens’ language is based only on writing not on speech.

Since human language is a spoken, it happens in time. Every sentence has a beginning, middle, and end, and the meaning of the sentence is determined by the temporal order in which the words are spoken. But the alien language in Arrival is independent of time. It can be read both backward and forward. Sentences in the alien language are written in a circle, and must be understood all at once with the words existing in a kind of timeless relationship that has no beginning or end.

Given the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, as Banks learns the alien language, she begins to experience time differently. Playing cinematically with the theme of non-temporal meaning, Arrival is told in a nonlinear narrative. It opens with the death of Louise’s daughter Hannah and ends with Louise becoming pregnant with Hannah. “I used to think this was the beginning of your story,” Louise tells Hannah in the film’s opening scene. “Now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings.” Instead she believes there are just “days that define you”. Her experience with the alien language has changed her way of understanding her daughter’s life “story”.

Since human language is temporal, we experience time narratively. Our lives have a beginning, middle, and an end. Seen as a narrative, the meaning of one’s life as a whole is determined by how it ends. So when a life ends tragically we are tempted to think that this ending invalidates the meaning of that life as a whole. But learning the alien language teaches Louise how to see her life’s timeline all at once. By the end of the film Louise wonders, “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” Louise has learned to see her life in just this way. Given all the suffering you knew would experience in life, would you still want to live? Louise decides in the affirmative: “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and welcome every moment.” Life is a series of moments to be cherished, good and bad, that make you who you are.

This viewpoint is somewhat similar to Nietzsche’s idea of “amor fati” (the love of fate). A truly great person would love his life exactly as it is, not wanting anything to be different. Because if you changed anything about your life, you wouldn’t be the person you are. So truly loving yourself, affirming your life as worth living, would entail affirming every moment of your life, good and bad, because all those moments contributed to making you who you are.



The idea of fate is important here. For the plot of Arrival to work, the past present and future have to be equally real (which is in fact what Einstein’s theory of relativity assumes). Louise “remembers” her daughter’s life even though (from her perspective) it hasn’t happened yet. Likewise the aliens know that in 3000 years they will need humanity’s help, because from their perspective it is already real. But it must be equally real that humanity does in fact help them. Their visit to earth is necessary to bring about the future that has (for them) already happened.

The idea of embracing every moment also reminds me of Buddhist ideas about mindfulness. It is not an accident that each sentence in the aliens’ language is written as a single circle that resembles the ensō brush paintings that Zen Buddhists make to symbolize the peace and enlightenment that arises from experiencing the present moment. From a Zen perspective, the flow of time is an illusion, and the self that is built up out of that sense of passing time is also an illusion. But learning to see one’s life as a collection of moments allows us to be free from the suffering that comes from attachment to some of those moments and not others. Seeing the whole, we see that no one moment is more important than others and can therefore embrace every moment equally.

In the film these ideas have political implications. The film plays with the indeterminacy of language. Whereas Louise’s linguistics colleague translates the Sanskrit word for war as “an argument”, Louise argues that a better translation is “a desire for more cows”. In other words, depending on our language we can see conflict as fundamentally about ideological disagreement (a clash of civilizations) or as fundamentally about economics. It is not just language that is ambiguous; it is the nature of war that is open to interpretation. Reality itself is ambiguous.

The most important ambiguity in the film is the aliens’ answer to the question about why they have come to earth. The Chinese interpret the message as “use weapon”, whereas Louise argues a better translation is “offer tool”. She says the Chinese mistake was learning the alien language using mahjong tiles, which put everything in the context of a zero-sum game with winners and losers. This is why the military worries that the aliens want us to fight each other to the death. Louise argues that in order to tell the difference between a weapon and a tool we need a language that allows for contexts in which everyone benefits. We need a language like the aliens’ that allows us to see the world as a whole and affirm all its parts equally.

“We never lose our demons, we only learn to live above them.”

doctor-strange-posterDoctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) is perhaps the most philosophically and religiously fertile Hollywood movie since The Matrix.  Director Scott Derrickson is known for bringing a Christian perspective to his work which can, at times, be fairly obvious and (frankly) clumsy as in his early films like Hellraiser: Inferno and The Exorcism of Emily Rose.  But Doctor Strange represents an artistic leap forward for Derrickson. Here he imbues his film with a Christian subtext much more subtle, complex and artistically mature than the straightforward messages of his early work, but Doctor Strange remains a theological artwork nonetheless. There is so much interesting stuff going on in this film, I can only scratch the surface in this brief review.

Philosophically Derrickson has at least three ideological opponents in view throughout Doctor Strange.  He is fighting scientism on the one hand, but also New Age spirituality on the other, while at the same time warning us against Christian legalism.

Spoilers ahead…

Materialistic Scientism

The character arc of the film’s protagonist Dr. Stephen Strange is a conversion from scientism – the view that all that exists in the world is what can be proven by the scientific method – to the embrace of mystery and transcendent spiritual realities beyond human comprehension and control. At beginning of the film Strange is a convinced materialist. When he first meets the guru known as the Ancient One, from whom he will eventually learn to be a sorcerer, Strange tells her “there is no such thing as spirit. We are made of matter and nothing more.” Human beings are “just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.”

The Ancient One sees this scientific perspective on the cosmos as, ironically, a way of focusing too narrowly on yourself. You may be small within the universe, but that doesn’t make you worthless if you can choose to serve something greater than yourself. And Dr. Strange’s life of pursuing medical science doesn’t count, because his underlying motivation was his own fame.  She gives Strange a bit of advice straight out of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life: “It is not about you.”

New Age Mysticism

Strange’s primary antagonist in the film is Kaecilius, a dark sorcerer whose worldview is similar to New Age mysticism.    Kaecilius is seeking “eternal life” and power over death, even though that violates the “natural law” sorcerers learn to respect.  He discovers a demonic otherworldly being called Dormammu can allow him to transcend space and time and enter a dimension of what New Age practitioners call cosmic consciousness and the movie describes as an experience of becoming “One” with all things in a kind of pantheistic monism.

Kaeciliuis knows that tampering with time will violate the laws of nature, but he rejects the idea of good and evil.  He says that time itself is the enemy, not evil. “The world is not what it ought to be” and “death is an insult” that Dormammu has the power to set right.  Here Dormammu plays the role of the Serpent in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve.  His deceptive temptation is that he can make us “like God”, able to defeat death (Genesis 3:5). Dr. Strange, however, is not fooled. He sees that an unchanging world would be Hell, not Paradise or Nirvana. (It is telling that Dr. Strange is eating an apple – symbolic of Adam’s forbidden fruit – while he is reading a book about Dormammu.  And the portal Kaecilius opens to draw power from Dormammu is underneath a Christian church, perhaps implying that the church had been built there to protect the world from him.)


Christian Legalism

Along the way Strange gradually begins to conflict more and more with his fellow sorcerer Mordo, who comic book readers will know is destined to become Dr. Strange’s archenemy. Here Derrickson imagines Mordo as someone with a rigid commitment to the rules, incapable of understanding that sometimes we must be flexible when breaking a rule can serve the greater good. In some ways Mordo resembles Derrickson’s own real life fellow Christians who don’t approve of his dabbling in depictions of the occult, even in service of the greater good of portraying Christian truths.

For Mordo any violation of natural law is a sin, a trespass against the Divine Order.  But the Ancient One says sometimes we have to break the laws of nature for the greater good.  To Mordo this is anarchy and relativism (or at best situational ethics), but why not instead see an exception to the general laws of nature as a miracle, God acting in ways that violate the normal operations of nature to bring about the Divine Purpose in a surprising way?


Surrendering Control

All three of these main characters share a desire for control.  Dr. Strange seeks to control the world first through science and then through magic.  Kaecilius seeks to control death through transcendence.  And Mordo seeks to control his inner demons by strict adherence to the rules of the sorcerers. (“I wanted the power to defeat my enemies,” Mordo tells the Ancient One, “you gave me the power to defeat my demons.”)  The Ancient One sees control as a manifestation of ego.  Only Strange learns to surrender his ego to an unnamed power greater than himself, a lesson he learns from the Ancient One: “You cannot beat a river into submission. You have to surrender to its current and use its power as your own” Here we have the central Christian theme of the film. Stephen Strange learns to die to himself and that his “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

At the film’s climax, Strange creates a time loop trapping Dormammu eternally in a single moment and thereby preventing him from destroying the world.  Of course, there is nothing Strange can do within the time loop to prevent the vastly more powerful Dormammu from killing him.  Thus Strange suffers eternally in one moment, so people on earth can live.  Like Christ himself, Dr. Strange gives his life for the salvation of the world.  “I can’t win”, he tells Dormammu, “but I can lose again and again.”  Just as the Ancient One told him, surrender really does lead to victory.

A Higher Plane

The spiritual trajectory of Doctor Strange is not toward the kind of transcendence that makes all things One, but it is toward an elevated perspective that, while allowing the world to be complex, is able to integrate diverse viewpoints into a harmonious whole in service of a Greater Good.

When they first meet, the Ancient One tells Dr. Strange he needs to “elevate” his mind and “deepen” his spirit.  Science is only a partial viewpoint.  She says he is like “a man looking at the world through a keyhole.” She shows him various pictures of the human body, including a diagram of chakras and an MRI, implying that science, New Age mysticism, and other viewpoints are all partial truths. Only someone who elevates their mind to a higher plane can see the whole picture and knows how to put together all the partial viewpoints. Later we see why it is so important to have the whole picture.

The Ancient One’s library contains certain forbidden books, including the book that describes how to summon Dormammu, stolen by Kaeciliuis in the film’s opening scene.  When Strange asks about these books, the library tells him, “No knowledge is forbidden, only certain practices.” But practice without knowledge can be deadly.  At one point Strange starts performing a ritual described in a book without reading all the way to the end where the book describes the dangers of the ritual.  Incomplete knowledge can be disastrous.


The Infinite Mystery

Another example of this theme is Mordo’s inflexibility about the natural law.  Without the whole picture, he cannot see why there might be reason to break the laws of nature.  From within those laws there could never be an exception.  But to one who transcends those laws and sees reality as a whole, it becomes clear that breaking a particular law of nature can serve the greater good.  The Divine Lawgiver can choose to forgive our trespasses against the law or choose to interrupt the natural system with a miracle or even command us to perform acts inexcusable from within our legalistic frameworks.

We can never fully understand the whole. And we can never be fully healed from our brokenness.  We must be like Jonathan Pangborn, the paralyzed man who never learned enough magic to heal himself but learned to function normally in his life by drawing power from beyond this world, an ongoing miracle that comes from dying to himself moment by moment and surrendering to a Higher Power.  As the Ancient One tells Mordo, “we never lose our demons, we only learn to live above them.”  All we can do is seek the highest plane, try to glimpse a partial vision of the whole, and surrender our lives to the Infinite Mystery.


“There’s a world built on top of ours. People live there.”

midnight-special-posterIn many ways Midnight Special (Nichols, 2016) is a remake of Spielberg’s classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  But director Jeff Nichols makes one important change that gives the story a deeper meaning.  Where Spielberg has aliens, Nichols never says exactly what the other “people” are who have contacted his film’s protagonist, the 8-year old boy Alton Meyer.  In fact, calling them “people” and revealing them to live among us — hidden behind a veil of perception but everywhere nearby “watching” — implies that they are not extraterrestrial life forms but are something else entirely.  Maybe they are a more highly evolved species, what humans may someday become.  Maybe they are humans from the future, traveling back in time.  Or maybe — given the film’s opening context in a religious cult and the fact that the hidden “people” finally appear as balls of light — they are spirits, gods or angels.

A “fairy story” in the Tolkien tradition, Midnight Special is attempting to re-frame our perception and cause us to see our world in a new way.  When the other “world” is revealed, we see that it is built around our world.  The other civilization’s architecture is built on top of, right next to, and even interwoven with our architecture, reminiscent of the way an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright would design his buildings to integrate into the natural landscape of rivers and hills.  So just as a tree or a river lives its life along side of human civilization without any awareness of us, so Midnight Special suggests that we are living our lives alongside another civilization that we have no awareness of. The film opens our eyes so that we can encounter our everyday lives as if they are surrounded by this sort of hidden reality.

As Tolkien puts it, fantasy literature serves the important purpose of “recovery”– the “return and renewal of health … regaining of a clear view”. Fantasy allows us to “be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity” and to see “things as we are (or were) meant to see them.  This is how Midnight Special works, too.  Like Interstellar (Nolan, 2014), Midnight Special uses science fiction to talk about spiritual realities under the guise of “other dimensions” (something both films stole from Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and to a lesser degree C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy).  If we can use speculative science to imagine other dimensions communicating with us, why  not think of speaking in tongues or divine revelation in the same way?

And by opening up this imaginative possibility, Midnight Special aims to heal the fundamental anxiety of human existence. Alton’s parents worry about his health and safety; the government worries that Alton is a “weapon” with access to classified information and nuclear technology; and the cult at the beginning of the film imagines Alton’s visions as a sign of the end of the world.

Indeed, when we finally see the other world for ourselves, it does in fact look like nothing so much as the biblical book of Revelation’s “New Jerusalem” coming down to earth.  But Nichols presents the otherworldly city as an image of hope for the future, transforming the standard approach to the apocalypse in the same way Spielberg transformed Hollywood’s standard War of the Worlds image of alien invasion from terrifying to beautiful in Close Encounters and E.T.. This, indeed, is much closer to the way the Bible talks about the New Jerusalem:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 21:2-4)

In the final shot of Midnight Special, Alton’s father is imprisoned in a mental institution, gazing happily into the brightness of the sunrise with the knowledge that his son is out there watching him.  It is a new day, and now he knows that the gods have made their home with us,  just behind the surface of our world, in a new civilization already growing in the background.  His (and our) experience of the ordinary world has been transformed, imbued with mystery and even holiness: “See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).

“An example of unity in this divided land”

rsz_ben-hur-posterThe 1959 version of Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston is Hollywood spectacle of the highest order. Its level of opulence can perhaps best be measured by its 11 Oscars, a record achievement matched only by two other enormous films, Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).  This year’s remake of Ben-Hur is much smaller and leaner than its predecessor. It tries hard, but it just isn’t in the same league.  

Thankfully the actors in the new version actually look Middle Eastern – several of them actually are – but they can’t hold their own against the legacy of Charlton Heston. Heston is not a “good” actor, but he is a larger-than-life presence who contributes to the epic grandeur of the original.

The portrayal of Jesus, too, is less effective in the remake, even though they show more of him.  Famously, the original film chose not to show Jesus’s face. Yet Jesus was still a powerful presence in that film.  In particular there is a moving scene in both films where Jesus offer the protagonist a drink of water in direct disobedience to a Roman soldier’s command.  In the remake Jesus is less confrontational and is portrayed as merely a quiet presence of compassion for suffering, downplaying his dangerous authority. In the original he literally stares down the soldier.  

Overall the remake just seems smaller than the original, especially in the dialogue scenes which are filmed mostly in close-ups. On the other hand, the new film is much more energetic – the camera is constantly moving – whereas the original was more staid and even lethargic at points. The action sequences in particular are much more urgent in this film.  They are bloodier than the old film (earning a solid PG-13 rating), and are shot with shaky hand-held whip-pans and zooms. This works surprisingly well for the chariot race. (A 70 year old lady sitting next to me in the theater was literally on the edge of her seat with her eyes wide and her hand over her mouth.) But it doesn’t work as well in the slave galley which is too frenetic to achieve genuine suspense. It is simply constant noise, without the slow building of rhythm and the moments of silence required to generate tension.

When it comes to plot and character development, the new Ben-Hur actually makes several genuine improvements over the classic version – at least until the last five minutes when the new film botches the most important element of the story.  Ben-Hur is ostensibly the story of a First Century Judean prince’s conversion from revenge to forgiveness.  The hero’s spiritual awakening never made perfect sense in the original, but here it makes even less sense.

In 1959 the character of Judah Ben-Hur started out as a devout Jew who chooses to support his own people even if that brings him into conflict with the Romans.  He prays to God for strength at multiple points in the story as he struggles to hold on to his faith during years of imprisonment as a Roman galley slave.  Judah’s most repeated prayer is that God will grant him revenge against Messala, the childhood friend who grew up to become the Roman military leader responsible for enslaving Judah and his family.  Not all of Judah’s friends approve of his desire for revenge.  Judah’s girlfriend Esther has become a Christian and tells him about Jesus’s teachings: “I’ve seen a young rabbi who says that forgiveness is better than hate”.  Then, after escaping from slavery and defeating Messala in a chariot race, Judah happens to witness the crucifixion of Jesus where a bystander tells him Jesus has “taken the sins of the world upon himself.”  The movie ends with Judah returning home and reporting that he heard Jesus on the cross praying that God would forgive those who were crucifying him, “And I felt his voice take the sword out of my hand.”

This conversion seems rather abrupt, given that just the day before Judah confessed that getting revenge on Messala did not quench his “thirst”.  He had said he still has unfinished “business with Rome” and was planning to join a zealot’s violent rebellion. Now merely seeing the “look of peace” in Jesus’s eyes and the graciousness with which he accepted his innocent suffering, Judah was instantly transformed into a pacifist.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense as character development.

In fact, Messala’s betrayal of Judah at the beginning of the original Ben-Hur doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. But the remake succeeds in giving the characters intelligible motivations, at least for the majority of the film.  It does this in large part by portraying the political context more clearly, emphasizing the role of the zealots in First Century politics. For example, it is clearer in the remake that Judah’s family are the sort of wealthy aristocrats who benefited from the Roman occupation and did not support the zealots’ political rebellions (somewhat like the Herodians mentioned in the New Testament).  As one zealot accuses Judah, “you confuse peace with freedom”.  Judah is a collaborator, willing to overlook the oppression of his people as long as his family is personally well off.

In the remake the conflict between Judah and Messala arises when Judah begins to have sympathy for the zealots. Early in the film Judah witnesses a zealot’s crucifixion and explicitly rejects the idea of resisting Rome.  This might seem similar to Jesus’s teaching on non-violence, but Judah also explicitly rejects Jesus’s call to love one’s enemies, saying instead that people have to take of themselves.  Unlike in the original film, Judah is portrayed here as a skeptic. He doubts there is a God, saying that God doesn’t do anything to help the poor and needy.  

At first Messala and Judah agree that they should fight for “civilization, progress, prosperity, and stability”.  Messala regrets joining the Roman army and recognizes its oppressiveness. Judah says he doesn’t care about politics, only peace. Both agree in avoiding violence and are complacent about Rome. But then Judah hears the story of a zealot whose father was killed and whose mother was raped by the Romans.  This seems like a genuine political awakening for Judah who refuses to hand the zealot over to Messala, even after the zealot attempts to assassinate Pontius Pilate.  

The remake tries hard to show that both Judah and Messala have good intentions.  Messala is just trying to find a scapegoat that can placate the Romans and prevent the sort of mass death a Roman military invasion would bring, and Judah is trying to protect those he sees as misguided victims of Roman oppression.  This makes for good drama and helps us sympathize with the characters better than we did in the original.   Yet the remake never finds a plausible political solution to the real sources of division.  The film changes Messala from Judah’s childhood friend to his adopted brother, a Roman.  Their family hopes this relationship will “be an example of unity in this divided land”.  Like the original film, it simply asserts that “loving” and forgiving your enemies will somehow be enough to produce peace and political unity. What this has to do with Jesus is never addressed in the film.

Speaking of Jesus, there is a scene in which Jesus protects a leper from being stoned by shielding him with his own body. Jesus tells the crowd to love their neighbors as they love themselves and reiterates the film’s theme about unity as an alternative to the divisiveness of Roman ambition: “Hate, anger, fear — those are lies they use to turn you against each other.” Pilate witnesses this scene and declares that Jesus is “more dangerous than all the zealots combined” though, again, it is not clear why he would think so.

There is something right about all this – Jesus really is a threat to oppressive political systems and Christian love really is the only hope for social stability and familial harmony – but the film does not explore these themes deeply enough.  By giving us a superficial appeal to “unity” as an alternative to political action, Ben-Hur seems to be denying the possibility of earthly justice and appealing to a kind of quietism and otherworldly spirituality.