“Remember, we’re the bad guys.”

12489243_1674589672821667_4430624289856009994_oLike its predecessors in the DC Comics Extended Universe Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, Suicide Squad (2016) is a bit of a mess cinematically. In all three of these films there are great moments and stunning individual shots, but there are real flaws in the story. In Suicide Squad in particular there seems to be scenes missing at various points where we are not being told essential plot information. Characters are engaged in missions whose activities we are never told.  (What is the Enchantress’s actual evil plan for world domination again?)  And there are too many characters.  Katana, Slipknot, and Captain Boomerang could have been cut without affecting the story at all!  I’m not even sure they needed Incubus (Enchantress’s brother) or Killer Croc.

But – also like its predecessors – Suicide Squad has more on its mind that just simple entertainment.  Maybe that’s why the DC movies are not nearly as entertaining as the Marvel movies like The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy.  The DC films are aiming for something more grown-up, more philosophical, than typical comic book movies.  Many viewers feel these films miss their target and end up with ponderous instead of profound, but I’ll never begrudge a film for asking me to think.

If Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman were explorations of the nature of justice – fitting for films leading up to a Justice League team-up – Suicide Squad tackles the question of flawed heroes. Postmodern audiences have trouble believing in heroes as perfectly good as Superman or Wonder Woman. Most of us today find Batman more compelling, with his shades of gray and moral complexity.

Writer-director David Ayer is not a typical Hollywood liberal. He is an ex-serviceman who respects the military and the police (best seen in his film End of Watch), though he is not afraid to portray their failures and corruption honestly (as in Training Day).  Moreover he is openly Christian and strives to portray religion as a normal part of life for some of his characters (most notably in Fury).  So Ayer believes both in the sinfulness of humanity and in the possibility of redemption. His characters are flawed, but Ayer is not interested in reveling in depravity for its own sake.  Instead he wants to explore the conditions in which flawed people – whether LAPD cops, WWII tank soldiers, or super-powered criminals – become genuine heroes.  And for Ayer the key is friendship and the way comrades-at-arms band together during hardship.

The protagonists in Suicide Squad are hitmen, jewel thieves, gangsters, and psychopaths, but the the Government is the real “bad guy” of the film. Shadowy government official Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis) has super-powered people captured and sent to a Guantanamo Bay-style “black site” prison where they are tortured and otherwise mistreated.  She targets what she calls “the worst of the worst” and then finds their weaknesses (often their families) in order to coerce them into working for her on dangerous secret missions.  Criminals are the perfect soldiers for such “suicide” missions, since they are both expendable and disavowable if they are caught.

Waller admits that she doesn’t believe in friendship, “only leverage.”  “Getting people to go against their self-interest in service of national security is what I do” she boasts. For Waller everyone is expendable in service of some vague greater good. At one point she shoots all of her own people, because they “were not cleared” for the classified information they accidentally learned.  Witnessing this, hitman Deadshot (Will Smith) wonders “And I’m the bad guy?”  In the final analysis the supervillains of the film – Enchantress and her brother Incubus – only exist because of a series of mistakes committed by Waller.  She, of course, never takes responsibility. “They’re going to blame us for the whole thing,” the squad realizes.

With all due respect to The Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the most interesting character in Suicide Squad is El Diablo, a former gangster from Ayer’s beloved South Central Los Angeles with the power to create fire.  El Diablo enables Ayer to introduce explicit religious themes.  “I was born with the Devil’s power,” El Diablo laments. His superpowers grew stronger the more he used them to acquire power on the streets in the gangs. Everyone was afraid of him, except his wife. “She used to pray for me,” he says.  But it didn’t work, because El Diablo himself needed to repent first. “God didn’t give me these powers, so why would He take them away?” El Diablo’s own violent lifestyle enslaved him to his powers, and only his own repentance could free him.

SPOILER WARNING – If you don’t want to know about the plot of Suicide Squad, stop reading now.

When his wife tried to take the kids and leave him, El Diablo lost his temper and burned the whole house down with them inside. When the police showed up, he surrendered and vowed never to use his powers again.  When he sees a video of him using his flame powers, he says, “That guy ain’t me. That guy’s dead.”  He is now a pacifist. As the Squad begins to find themselves in battle, El Diablo stands to the side and refuses to fight. “I’m a man. I ain’t no weapon. And I’m going to die in peace before I raise my fists again.”  Deadshot tries to goad him into action, saying “If you don’t stand for [anything], then you ain’t [nothing]”. El Diablo has turned into the worst kind of pacifist: one who doesn’t believe anything is worth fighting for.

At the climax of the film the Enchantress offers to give the Squad their heart’s desire if they “worship” her. “Why do you serve those who cage you?” she asks. “I know what you want.” They are each tempted by visions of being reunited with their families. They just want to live normal lives.  But El Diablo sees through her false redemption. “I can’t change what I did,” he says, “and neither can you.”  His family is dead and cannot be brought back.  Deadshot and Harley Quinn, however, still have loved ones they might be reunited with.  They are being tempted, like Diablo, to do nothing and not fight back, to go along with the worship of evil, in order to regain their families or to atone for losing them.

Throughout the film Deadshot’s moral transformation is always motivated by his daughter, in whose eyes he desperately wants to be a hero. “This is going to be like a chapter in the Bible,” says Deadshot. “Everyone is going to know what we did”.  Yet the film argues that pacifism is only a half-way redemption.  It is not enough simply to refrain from violence; one must actively pursue good.  The characters all start out self-centered monsters and move toward family-centered penitents.  El Diablo attempts to atone for killing his family, and Deadshot and Harley Quinn are willing to do whatever it takes to get back to their loved ones – even work with the “good guys”.  Now they are being tempted to ignore evil’s threat to humanity, as long as their families are safe.

Their concern for their families alone can’t make them truly good.   Loving someone other than yourself is a good first step, but they won’t truly become heroes until they widen their circle of concern, first to include their friends and then the whole world.  Such heroism is a hard vocation in a world run by the likes of Amanda Waller and those whose pursue only “security” without concern for truth or justice (or the American way, for that matter).  Harley is sorely tempted to worship the Enchantress, but Deadshot rebukes her. “She’s trying to take over the world”, he says.  “So?” replies Harley. “What’s the world ever done for us? The world hates us.” She makes to kneel before Enchantress, but changes her mind. “There’s just one problem,” she says; “You messed with my friends!”

Suicide Squad charts a trajectory of love from self, to family, to friends, to humanity. But friendship is the key step.  Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends. In the end it is friendship that functions to teach these thieves honor and transform villains into heroes.

“Find an Action. Otherwise silence.”

last_days_in_the_desert_xxlgA new demographic for Christian marketing

The producers of Last Days in the Desert (2016) have attempted something unprecedented. The film itself is fairly original in its approach to the character of Jesus. It is rare for a Jesus movie to be based on a wholly invented story not intertwined with at least some of the events described in the New Testament. Even The Young Messiah (2016), which invents a story about Jesus as a 7-year-old child, includes some material from the Bible. But Last Days in the Desert tells a story set entirely during Jesus’s 40 days of prayer and fasting in the desert, a time the Bible does not describe at all beyond listing three temptations Jesus faced (Matthew 4:1-11). What was Jesus doing for the other 39 days in the desert?

But when I say the production of Last Days in the Desert is unprecedented, I don’t mean the film itself. I mean that the marketing of the film has been remarkable. The preview screening of Last Days in the Desert that I attended started with an introduction by Michael Gungor, a musician who used to be a Christian worship leader but was shunned by the mainstream evangelical world when publically declared his belief in evolution and then his approval of homosexuality. It has become common, starting with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) for Hollywood studios to use evangelical celebrities to market faith-based films directly to pastors and church groups. This approach led to the success of films like Fireproof (2008), God’s Not Dead (2014), and Heaven is For Real (2014), as well as the recent Jesus movie Risen (2016). But the conservative evangelicals who supported those films would not be likely to watch a film recommended by a progressive Christian like Gungor.

This is what’s so interesting about Last Days in the Desert: I’ve never seen a film directly marketed to a progressive Christian audience before. The Hollywood marketing people have apparently decided that the audiences who made Heaven is For Real a hit would not be interested in Last Days in the Desert. So they ditched them in favor of the much smaller progressive Christian audience. But why? Last Days is not offensive. There is nothing particularly heretical about it. Some people might not like the idea of telling a story about something that’s not in the Bible, but this movie is a lot more like The Young Messiah than The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Unlike past Jesus movies that evangelicals protested, Last Days in the Desert does not try to challenge traditional theological ideas about Jesus.

A Jesus movie for fans of “art films”

 And yet, I think the marketing people are right to think that most evangelicals won’t like this movie. But the reasons most evangelicals won’t like it have more to do with demographics than with theology. Last Days in the Desert requires a different sort of taste than most “Christian” movies do. Like The Passion of the Christ, this is a film that fits within the tradition of great medieval and renaissance painting, whereas many films look more like Sunday School illustrations. It made me think of “Christ in the Desert” (1872) by Russian painter Ivan Kramskoy.


Last Days in the Desert is beautiful film, but it will be challenging to watch for many people. It is what we call an “art film”— the kind of film that plays film festivals attended by professional film critics – not a Hollywood film aimed the multiplex movie theater in the mall. Last Days in the Desert is slow and quiet, with lots of silence and strange, unexplained imagery.  For example, Jesus has dreams of drowning, having bugs crawl on him, being chased by wolves, and even levitating. He sees a bird attack another bird in flight, a dead dog in the middle of the road, and finds a pile of empty clay jars next to a dried up river. These images are poetic, but not allegorical where everything has a single clear symbolic meaning or interpretation. Often the images include a mixture of beauty and ugliness juxtaposed. The birds in flight are beautiful, but they attack each other. The crucifixion is horrific, but a hummingbird flies by – one of the film’s most striking images.

With apologies to Ewan McGregor, the star of the film is the astonishingly beautiful photography by Emmanuel Lubezki who has won three consecutive Oscars for his cinematography on The Revenant (2015), Birdman (2014), and Gravity (2013). The film’s aesthetic style reminded me a lot of Lubezki’s recent work with director Terrence Malick in films like Knight of Cups (2015), To the Wonder (2012), and The Tree of Life (2011). If you found The Tree of Life challenging, you are likely to be bored by Last Days in the Desert. Conversely, Last Days in the Desert is a exactly what fans of Terrence Malick would want in a Jesus movie. And, statistically, those people are more likely to be “progressive Christians” than evangelical.

Bergmanesque spiritual dryness

The opening titles of Last Days in the Desert describe an unnamed “holy man” who went into the desert “to prepare for his mission” by fasting for 40 days while praying “to seek guidance”. This man (played by Ewan McGregor in Obi Wan Kenobi mode) is later referred to as Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus. After the titles, the film opens with the emptiness of the desert. The first images are the cracked dry ground of the desert and then storm clouds in the distance. Jesus’s first lines are “Father, where are you?” and then “Father, speak to me.” He is experiencing a time of spiritual dryness and thirst for God, trying to discern his vocation in the midst of a Bergmanesque silence from Heaven.

The first question the film raises, then, is whether Jesus, as described in the New Testament, could have felt the absence of God. Like most Jesus movies made by non-Christians, Last Days in the Desert emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. Christians naturally assume that, since Jesus was the incarnation of God in flesh, Jesus must have continually felt God’s presence. But do we really know that? There seems to be evidence that Jesus did sometimes feel the absence of God. For example, hanging on the cross Jesus prays “My God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46). And in the Garden of Gethsemane he seems in great anguish (Matthew 26:37-38), which doesn’t fit with the way we usually assume the peaceful presence of God is supposed to look. So why not think Jesus would experience periods of dryness like the rest of us? The greatest saints throughout history have all talked about the “dark night of the soul” as a period of doubt and testing which everyone eventually goes through so that they will come out stronger afterward. If Jesus was fully human, and had to grow in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52), then he presumably would have had to develop his spiritual strength just like the rest of us do (see Romans 5:3-4, James 1:2-4, etc.).

Fathers and sons finding themselves

Another interesting and poetic choice the filmmakers made was to have the same actor play both Jesus and the Devil. If the Devil can appear in any form he chooses, why not appear as Jesus himself? How unsettling would it be to be tempted by someone wearing your face? From the first moment the Devil shows up, the film establishes its main theme as the relationship between fathers and sons. Your mother calls you Yeshua, the Devil says, but “What does your Father call you?” In many ways the film – written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, son of the Nobel prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez – is more interested in fathers and sons than it is interested in Jesus. The first word of the film is “father”, after all. It is as if Jesus was simply selected as the most archetypal example of a Son trying to please his Father – or, more autobiographically, for Garcia to explore his feelings about having to fill the impossibly big shoes of his own father. But it is good enough art to work on multiple levels, as a film about relating to fathers or a film about Jesus or a film about the meaning of life.

The latter theme shows up when Jesus meets a Man (unnamed in the film, played by actor Ciarán Hinds) who says the world ends when you die. There is no after life, he says, but we leave our children behind as the legacy to establish the only meaning of our lives. Jesus, of course, does not agree, but he does admit to the Man’s son (again, an unnamed Boy, played by Tye Sheridan) that he came to the desert to “find myself” and the meaning of his life. (All the more ironic, then, that he finds a Devil who looks just like him!) What he actually finds in the desert is the Man’s home, a small hut and an unfinished house under construction at the top of a tall hill that seems to overlook the whole world. When Jesus first arrives, the Boy asks where he is going, and Jesus says “To Jerusalem, but I’m a little lost”. Later in the film the Devil will accuse Jesus of purposely avoiding Jerusalem, stalling on his mission because “You’re scared to go on. You’re not ready.” Instead Jesus wanders in the desert, a place the Man says “strips away your vanity” and shows you who you really are.

Beauty and the mystery of God

At one point, Jesus sees beautiful shafts of light shining through the clouds. But the Devil shows up to make fun of such beauty. He tells Jesus not to expect anything more from God than useless beauty. “Talking to you father is like talking to a rock. He is so busy with his little things. … Like the shape of a dew drop. Everything matters more to him than you.” Later the Devil suggests that God is such a perfectionist that he has occasionally scrapped the universe and started over just to get the tiniest detail right, like the angle of a leaf. He mocks such beauty, calling it “self-indulgent”. But at one point Jesus catches the Devil enjoying the wonder of a shooting star. The Devil claims he is bored by such beauty, because he was watched it all since the beginning. Though the movie doesn’t mention this, it is worth pointing out that according to one traditional interpretation the Devil himself was that first shooting star, one of God’s most beautiful creations (Isaiah 14:12, Luke 10:18, Revelation 12:3-4, 9).

The Devil says he can’t understand God’s plan, because it is so repetitive. God keeps doing the same thing over-and-over, day after day, century after century. The Devil even claims that God has created other universes before, restarting the whole thing at the end of time. Jesus asks whether anything ever surprises him, and he says no. People always live the same lives and make the same mistakes. Sons always repeat the sins of their fathers in a never-ending cycle. But, interestingly, the Devil admits that, while he can usually forsee what will happen, he can’t when Jesus is involved. Apparently the film is imagining that Jesus has the power to change things in a way that the rest of us do not.

Jesus is thus one of those “surprises” that the Devil says do not exist. Jesus is able to break the cycle of human sin. The Devil says the “previous tellings” of the world’s story were a “little bit different” than they are now that Jesus is involved. “Now it is your turn” to tell the story, he says. “Can you do any better?” That’s the question the film leaves us with at the end. Did Jesus make a difference to this Man and his son who he met in the desert?

Family conflict

 The Man, his wife, and their son all feel frustrated and trapped in their lives, each having conflicting and apparently irreconcilable desires. The Devil challenges Jesus to resolve the family conflict in a way that satisfies all three people involved.

All the Man ever wanted in life was to raise cattle and be a butcher like his father. But the Man’s father was harsh and strict. He raised the Man to believe that every man must make his own way in life and refused to teach him his trade. The Man says this was selfish. He tries to correct his father’s mistake and teach his own son his trade. He praises Jesus for learning carpentry which is a trade that can always provide for one’s children. The Man is trying to take care of his son as best as he knows how. All he really wants is for the Boy to have financial security, and to know his father loves him. So he teaches the Boy his trade, treating him as he wished he had been treated.

But the Boy doesn’t want to be a builder like the Man. The Boy wants to go to Jerusalem and then travel on the sea. He wants to leave home and make his “footprint” on the world. But he is afraid to tell his father about this. So he just does what he thinks will make his father happy, quietly resenting his life and taking care of his terminally ill mother. The Mother knows she is dying and has watched her son spend his life taking care of her. She wants her son to choose his own trade in Jerusalem, to leave home and not simply hang around to watch her die. She begs the Man to take their son to Jerusalem so he can become an apprentice to a craftsman. But the man says they do not have enough money to pay for such an apprenticeship. Is there any way to resolve this situation?

Does Jesus make a difference?

SPOILER WARNING: The rest of the review contains descriptions of the only plot events that actually happen in this relatively quiet story. Stop reading here if you don’t want to know.

 One possible solution comes up soon: there is a chance that the Man has discovered a valuable rock deposit that he can sell and make enough money to get his son an apprenticeship in Jerusalem. But the Man and the son cannot obtain the rock without Jesus’s help. Initially the plan is for Jesus and the Man to lower the Boy down a cliff to get the rock. But the Boy is afraid and the Man volunteers to take his son’s place. When a rock slide sends the Man falling to his death at the bottom of the cliff, it turns out that the Man has literally sacrificed his own life to save his son.

Jesus does not miraculously intervene in the family’s lives, though the film suggests that he could have. The Devil says Jesus could have pulled up 10 men on the rope. Jesus says that’s “nonsense”, though he does seem to have some ability to perform miracles, because he begins to cure the dying mother’s illness before she asks him to stop.

It might seem that Jesus has failed to resolve the family conflict. But it seems to me that he does effect a reconciliation between father and son, though it is ambiguous. Everyone in fact gets what they want. Without his father holding him back, the Boy gets to leave home and go seek his fortune in Jerusalem, and the Mother gets her wish that the son to decide for himself what career to have. Even the Man even gets what he wants. All he wanted was for his son to recognize that he loved him, which he does. The Boy realizes that he was not a bad son, and the Man realizes that he was not a bad father. The Mother whispers “your son loved you” over his corpse, and, after the Mother burns the Man’s body, the Boy takes his father’s ashes with him when he leaves home.

When all is said and done, Jesus has made a difference, though one that required significant suffering and death. Most importantly, he has broken the cycle of sin and resentment between father and son. When he first challenges him to try to change things, the Devil tells Jesus he foresaw that if Jesus had not stopped to stay with the family in the desert, the Boy would soon have murdered his father and then run away from home. After Jesus’s intervention, the Man still dies but in a way that the Boy is reconciled to him. This seems to me a beautiful parable of the power of Christ to change lives by inspiring self-giving love in those who know him. After the Boy leaves home, Jesus asks the Devil to show him the Boy’s destiny. We don’t see the vision Jesus has, but we do see him smile. Jesus has succeeded in making a difference.

Actions over words

 The Man’s Christ-like death in his son’s place is a testament to speaking love through action. After Jesus tells the Man to talk to the Boy about his feelings, the Man tells Jesus a father speaks to his children through example and does not need words. The relationship between words and actions is another major theme in the film. After lamely spouting a mouthful of clichés and platitudes, Jesus tells himself he needs to “find better words”. Intentions are good, he says, but words alone can be hollow. “Better yet”, he says, “find an action. Otherwise silence.”

Interestingly, this is how God is portrayed in the film: all action and silence. At one point Jesus asks the Devil what it is like to be in God’s presence and whether God has a “face” you can look at. The Devil says God does not have a face but God’s presence produces a “confusing” and overwhelming feeling of “worthlessness” while at the same time a sense of unity in which “you and He are one and the same”. This idea of being “one” with God is partly an appeal to the tradition of Christian mysticism. The Boy, too, says when he is walking alone in the desert he feels at one with God and all of creation. But being “one and the same” with God is also a reference to the idea that sons are just like their fathers. Here the Devil is saying he feels like one of God’s sons, a feeling that also produces a sense of shame at not be able to living up to standard that all sons feel their father creates for them.

God’s love

Again we see the way the film uses the relationship between God and Jesus as an archetype of the universal relationship between Father and Son. And again the film works on both levels. Christians can relate to idea of feeling that you have fallen short in the presence of true holiness. But in Jesus we find the ability to accept that God loves us anyway. Jesus never doubts that in the film, despite the Devil’s taunts. It is the Devil himself who doubts God’s love. When Jesus leaves at the end, the Devil jokes “Give my regards to the Old Man”, but there is sadness behind his laugh and a kind of longing to actually see God again. The Devil is the fallen son who ran away from home because he couldn’t believe his Father loved him.

When Jesus blesses the Boy and sends him off to Jerusalem, he says “Love God above all things. And love life.” Tell riddles; laugh at farts; watch shooting stars. See the useless beauty in all things and know that your Father in Heaven loves you, even if He says it more in actions and through example than in words.

“That’s marriage.”

2876078_bigThe film Gone Girl (Fincher, 2014) represents a bad marriage as a contest of wills where spouses attempt to control one another, to use one another as an accessory to present a public image. (Marriage is literally a move in the game of Life in the film’s opening minutes.) Actually, the film represents all relationships has competitive, whether husband/wife, mother/daughter, police/suspect, media/celebrity, or public/individual.

The film’s main couple, Amy and Nick, initially try to resist this sort of competition in their marriage. They don’t want to be one of “those couples” and insist on a “no bullshit” policy. And it works for a while. They bring out the best in each other. They ground each other’s identity.

Whereas Amy’s mother is always trying to control her through a fictionalized series of novels about “Amazing Amy”, Nick rescues her from this and gives her an unique identity apart from her mother. Actually it is not just Nick; it is explicitly Amy’s marriage to Nick that grounds her identity. Nick proposes marriage to Amy at an Amazing Amy publicity event, redirecting attention away from the mother’s fictionalized Amy to the person Amy is with him.

But director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn worry that this is only possible for the elite in New York City. When the recession hits and the happy couple are forced to move to a small town in Missouri, Amy is thrust into the suburban housewife role and things come unraveled.   She feels as if she has been abducted – her identity is “gone”. Nick withdraws from the marriage, because he doesn’t need Amy to grant him his identity anymore now that he has his mother and sister. And Amy withdraws from the marriage, because Nick no longer gives her an identity. The last straw is when he replaces her attention with one of his 20-year-old students.

Amy initially plans to kill Nick and herself – they are both already dead anyway in her eyes, since they got their identity from a marriage that has dissolved. But when she sees him on a TV talk show talking about her disappearance, she realizes she there is hope for the marriage after all. She discovers that he can still play the public-image game. By the end of the film she has trapped him into playing the game on her terms for the foreseeable future.

Nick had promised to rescue Amy from the duality of having to live up to the false public image of Amazing Amy. In the end, Amy resolves the duality by becoming the false image. Thus Gone Girl is the story of a woman who becomes society’s image of her. It is not a “happy ending” for Amy, even though she “gets away with” her crimes. The film is a feminist horror movie. Amy has indeed been abducted. She has lost her soul to the film’s true villain: the monstrous institution of marriage. What allows Amy to embrace the false image of the perfect suburban housewife is her recognition that marriage is always about hypocrisy.

So Flynn sets up Gone Girl as a reductio ad absurdum of the conception of marriage as “being-for-another”.   Wikipedia’s description of this idea from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness sounds like it could be a summary of the plot of Gone Girl:

Sartre states that many relationships are created by people’s attraction not to another person, but rather how that person makes them feel about themselves by how they look at them. This is a state of emotional alienation whereby a person avoids experiencing their subjectivity by identifying themselves with “the look” of the other. The consequence is conflict. In order to maintain the person’s own being, the person must control the other…. The purpose of either participant is not to exist, but to maintain the other participant’s looking at them. This system is often mistakenly called “love”, but it is, in fact, nothing more than emotional alienation and denial of freedom through conflict with the other.

If Flynn is right and marriage really is all about having your true self dominated by the will of another, then we should never get married! Or at least, we should only get married after we have developed a strong sense of our own self-identity independently of others. Paradoxically, the only woman who should get married is feminism’s “strong woman” who doesn’t need a husband.

But what if Flynn isn’t feminist enough? What if her version of a “strong woman” is actually a woman making the same mistakes men usually make? What if both men and women need to reject the masculine sense of a self-sufficient individual identity and embrace instead a feminine sense of being-for-another. What if Flynn’s feminism isn’t embodied enough? What if it is too caught up in the masculine vision of the human being as disembodied rational thinker?

Gone Girl is in fact a reductio ad absurdum of Cartesian philosophy (“I think therefore I am“). The film begins and ends with the idea that human beings are subjective minds trapped inside a body. Nick’s thought, “What are you thinking?” bookends the film. A person’s “true self” is represented as something private, inner, inaccessible to others. This is exactly how Descartes taught us to think.

And the film taces out the consequences of this Cartesian philosophy. If we believe there is a true self underneath our external behavior, we will believe that authenticity is the key to happiness.   We will try to “find” ourselves, so we can “be true to” ourselves. Hypocrisy and being controlled by the opinions of others will be the mark of the self’s destruction.

Thus the film vigorously rejects the idea that marriage is about making yourself better by seeing yourself through your spouse’s eyes (Sartre’s being-for-another). It argues that if you really believed this, you will end up like Amy does at the end of the film, essentially a character in a reality TV show.

But the film rests on a Cartesian foundation. If we replace Descartes’s image of the self as radically individual and private with an image of the self as more embodied and social, then we can see how being-for-another need not lead to the consequences Gone Girl predicts. It is only if you assume the ideal of authenticity that you make life together impossible and hell becomes “other people” as Sartre said in No Exit.

The Biblical view of marriage provides an alternative. In marriage, “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Note that this is a marriage of flesh. It is not Shakespeare’s “marriage of true minds” or U2’s “two hearts beating as one”. And it is not just about sex, either.  The idea of “flesh” here refers to our embodied identity as social beings. We get our initial identity from our mother and father, but in marriage the husband and wife leave those social roles and create a new identity together. They become a new embodiment of family, a new flesh.

Marriage is about flesh, because it happens in a publicly accessible social space of bodies in action.  That’s what’s real.  Social roles are not necessarily false images that hide our true selves, and aspiration to be better members of society is not necessarily hypocrisy.  Social relationships (including marriage) are not necessarily competitive, and each individual’s true self — and hence their true good — is found in the common good of the community.

From this point of view, your “true self” is not something you are born with; it is something you will become. You are born inauthentic, unreal, and must grow into a real human being and learn to become the author of your own actions. And you learn this, not by separating yourself from others and becoming self-sufficient, but by becoming part of a community, a family.

When Amy tells Nick, “The only time you liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone [I] might like”, the film presents this as a horror of inauthenticity. But if we reject the idea of authenticity, then Amy’s statement actually sounds attractive. Our spouses can bring out the best in us. “That’s marriage”, indeed.

“Fire consumes all, but water cleanses.”

NOAH_Dom_Unrated_Payoff_1ShtIn the Bible, when Noah is born, his father says “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Genesis 5:29).  The film Noah (Aronofsky, 2014) is an extended commentary on this verse.  The movie starts in a post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” style setting, but it ends in a post-post-apocalyptic world.  It is a film about second chances – the possibility of rebirth.

Noah is Aronofsky’s sixth film as director, but only his third original story.  His three most mainstream films Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan were all based on stories written by others.  Noah, like Pi and The Fountain, are entirely Aronofsky’s own vision.  Interestingly, all three are about science, religion, and capitalism.  All three films present a dark vision of human depravity that corrupts even institutional religion.  But all three films also reveal a kind of simple faith in God and respect for divine mystery.  While all three reference Biblical themes and texts, they also incorporate ideas from Kabbalah and other extra-biblical Jewish traditions.

In Pi (Aronofsky, 1998) the hero is a mathematician who discovers a single formula he believes can explain everything in the universe.  He is initially only interested in science and understanding the world, but his discovery is turned into a tool to control the world.  Gangsters want to steal it to manipulate the stock market, and a group of Hasidic Jews want to steal it to manipulate God into sending the Messiah.  In the end, the mathematician destroys the formula, and the film seems to be critiquing modern science (and perhaps institutional religion, too) for attempting to eliminate mystery and control the world.  In contrast to scientism, Pi argues that we cannot really control the world and so we should embrace the mystery.  The desire for knowledge is rejected as the original sin of Adam, alluding to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Fountain (Aronofsky, 2006) turns to the other tree in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life.  The film intercuts between a 16th Century conquistador looking for the fountain of life and a 21st century doctor trying to cure cancer.  This time Aronofsky is a critiquing science and religion for their desire to avoid death.  It presents mortality as essential to humanity so that death would actually be good for us and immortality bad.  Aronofsky conceives of true eternal life in a more Buddhist way – a view shared by some forms of Kabbalah  – where the individual self dies and lives on only by passing its life force on to the next generation, symbolized in the film by a tree that grows on the grave of the hero’s wife.  Like Pi, The Fountain critiques the same three forces for their attempt to overcome death: science, capitalism, and institutional religion.

With Noah, Aronofsky’s obsessions coalesce around the theme of Environmentalism.  Following Lynn White, Jr. it is common to see “our ecological crisis” as a result of medieval Christianity’s teaching that the world is raw material for human purposes, to be conquered by science and manipulated toward capitalist ends.  In his original essay White is careful never to blame Christianity itself or to claim that the Bible teaches that humanity has the right to dominate nature.  Rather White says one traditional interpretation of the Bible has led to an attitude that, while itself not necessarily problematic, mutated during the Enlightenment into a justification for environmental destruction.  And White ends his essay by appealing to St. Francis of Assisi to show that Christian tradition has the resources to support an alternative interpretation of Scripture consonant with modern ecology. I take it that Darren Aronofsky has a similar goal with his film Noah.  He is not a believer, so he approaches the story of Noah as a “myth”, one of the great stories in western civilization.  But he is careful to respect the text, trying not to contradict the letter of Scripture, even while arguing for an interpretation that differs from the traditional view.

The film begins by describing a conflict between the descendents of Cain (or the “Cainites”) and the descendents of Seth (the “Sethites”).  This conflict is grounded in the Biblical text. In fact, some commentators have argued that “the sons of God” who married “the daughters of man” in Genesis 6:1 were actually Sethites who married Cainites, though Aronofsky seems to opt for the more ancient interpretation of “the sons of God” as angels.

The two genealogies in Genesis 4-5 reflect these two families.  The first genealogy is the line of Cain, which ends with Tubal-Cain who was the first human beings to make “instruments of bronze and iron” (Genesis 4:22).  This family was haunted by the violence of their ancestor Cain (4:23-24), and according to Jewish tradition the instruments made by Tubal-Cain were weapons of warfare.  The other genealogy is the line of Seth, which leads to Noah at whose birth it is said, “out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief” (5:29).  This reference to the “ground” is part of a narrative about humanity’s relationship to the earth that goes back to Genesis 1.

According to the Creation story, God made human beings in His own “image” and gave them “dominion” over the animals (Genesis 1:26), where this seems to mean having stewardship to care for the animals, not to dominate them for our own purposes.  (Human beings were originally vegetarians. See 1:29; contrast 9:3.)  Scripture explicitly says the reason God created human beings was to “work the ground” to help plants grow (2:15; cf. 2:5 and 3:23).  But Adam wanted to “be like God” (3:5), and he failed to obey God.  So the ground became “cursed” because of Adam’s sin (3:17).   Notice that the text does not say God cursed the ground.  God only informs Adam that the ground had become cursed.  It seems that Adam’s sin itself was the source of the curse.  Because he failed to “subdue” the earth (Genesis 1:28), the earth became more violent.  When Cain kills Abel, the curse on the ground is reaffirmed (4:10-12).  So there is a strong link in Genesis between human sin and the cursed ground.  This link shows up again in the Flood story, which says “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight” because of it was “filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11).  Read in light of the repeated connection between human sin and the cursed ground in Genesis 1-5, it seems clear that Genesis 6 is saying that the literal land is corrupt.

Significantly, this is also how the Book of Enoch presents the story.   Enoch is one of the main extra-biblical sources Aronofsky used for the plot of Noah.  Enoch 6:1-2 parallels Genesis 6:1-2, but explicitly interprets the “sons of God” as “angels” who married human women.  These angels are called “Watchers” (Enoch 10:8, 15, etc.), a term Aronofsky borrows for his film.  Just as in Noah, Enoch says the Watchers “taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals of the earth and the art of working them”(Enoch 8:1) but the children of the Watchers “began to sin against birds, and beasts, and reptiles, and fish, and to devour one another’s flesh, and drink the blood” (Enoch 7:5-6).  So God decides to “heal the earth” through a “deluge” that will destroy everyone except Noah, because “the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by” the Watchers (Enoch 10:1-9).  So the contrast between the violent Tubal-Cain and the earth-loving Noah is actually grounded in Scripture.  Aronofsky does, however, exaggerate some of the Biblical themes to make a point about modern-day environmental politics.

The film sets up two worldviews – Cainite vs. Sethite – and takes them each to their logical extreme.  In the end it tries to find a middle ground.  According to the film, after Adam sinned and Cain killed Abel, the Watchers felt pity for the cursed human beings and helped the descendents of Cain develop the technology and build the cities Scripture says they did.  But in Noah, following the Book of Enoch, the Cainites betrayed the Watchers and turned their technology to violence. Now they “take what they want” – from earth’s resources but also from each other.  Thus the earth has become full of violence.

Seth’s descendents passed down Adam’s “birthright” – the responsibility to care for creation.  Humanity’s job is to “protect” creation, Noah says in the film.  If they let a creature die, “a small piece of creation” will be “lost forever”.  Noah teaches his children not to take more of the earth’s resources than they can use.  He reprimands Ham for picking a flower simply “because it is pretty”.  This is the fundamental root of sin for Aronofsky:  self-will, taking whatever you desire simply because you desire it, regardless of God’s will.  (This ain’t too far off from St. Augustine’s theory of sin, by the way.)

Right from the start Noah is portrayed as seeking “justice”, the punishment of the Cainities for their destruction of the earth.  Aronofsky’s heroes are always obsessed, and this is Noah’s obsession.  His wife says “perhaps you’ll finally make things right”.  Noah says the flood is God’s way of punishing men “for what they did to this world”. Men “broke the world”, says one of the Watchers.  And Noah believes it is his role as heir to Adam’s birthright to “fix the world”, a goal still reflected in modern Judaism in the concept of tikkun olam.

Noah’s grandfather Methuselah is surprised when Noah tells him that he saw destruction by water and new life.  He had expected a final destruction by fire.  Noah responds, “Fire consumes all, but water cleanses”.  It is not “the end of everything”, Noah tells his daughter-in-law Ila.  It is “the beginning of everything”.  Creation is unmade and remade anew.  The world returns to the primordial waters of Genesis 1:2.

The Cainites desire “zohar”, a rock that bursts into flame when struck.  In the story it serves the role of an ancient energy source.  The Cainites mine it and destroy the earth in the process, symbolizing Aronofsky’s attitude toward fossil fuels.  Zohar also looks like gold, and so has the symbolic resonance of greed.  Zohar is not all bad, though, because Noah uses it for good to provide fire inside the ark.  For Aronofsky, the problem is not with using the earth’s resources, but with over-using them.  Noah has no problem cutting down trees to make the ark.

For Noah to bear God’s “image” is to be God’s representative, and God’s command to have “dominion” means to exercise care and stewardship over creation. He believes humans are here to serve the animals and the earth.  This seems good, but he takes it too far.  What happens if humans become a threat to the earth?  Logic dictates that they be elimated.  This is a temptation that recurs for Noah throughout the film.

This comes out toward the middle of the film when Noah is talking to Ila, an orphan girl he rescued from marauding Cainites, who later grows up to marry Noah’s son Ham.  “I thought you were a burden and I didn’t anyone else ruined by the world,” Noah tells Ila.  “But I was wrong. You are a gift.”  But he immediately makes the same mistake again.  He has a vision of himself eating a live animal – then a flashback to Eden, a snake and a fruit being picked.  He knows original sin has corrupted him, too, and he decides not to find wives for his sons to take on the ark.  He will let humanity die off.  “The wickedness is in all of us”, he tells his family.  He reasons that if creation is going to begin again, we must die.  Otherwise we would just destroy it again.  (Not a bad assumption, given that the next story in Genesis after the Flood is the Tower of Babel, where sinful human civilization is right back where it started.)  Without man, creation will be alone, “safe and beautiful”, he says.  When Noah tries to kill his grandchildren on the ark, he is not insane.  He is simply following the logic of absolute justice.

Tubal-Cain has a different interpretation of man’s dominion over the earth.  For him being in God’s image means having power like God and having dominion over the earth means having power over it.  He reverses Noah’s hierarchy.  Whereas Noah said humans are to serve animals, Tubal-Cain says animals are there to serve humans.  Again, this can seem attractive.  It is the traditional Christian view.  But he takes it to its extreme, just as did Enlightenment humanists who departed from the Christian tradition.

Tubal-Cain insists that human beings are made in God’s image, and he interprets this in terms of dominion—“I give life and I take life away, as You do.”  He is a radical humanist.  He rallies his army by urging them to reject God’s decision to let humanity die.  “We are men,” he says.  “We decide what whether we live or die.  Men united are invincible.”  “This is your world,” he tells Ham in other scene.  “Sieze it.”  “A man is not ruled by the heavens”, he says, but by his own “will”.  He considers himself a “king”, though Noah insists that “there can be no king”, because “the Creator is God”.  The Creator was unsatisfied with the earth, until He created man to have dominion and subdue it, he argues.  We do not serve animals, “they serve us”.  He charges Noah with caring more about animals than humans.  Noah “filed the ark with beasts and lets children drown”.

In the end, Noah has to be the one to decide whether humanity is worth saving.  He must choose who is good and who is wicked, as Methuselah puts it.  Noah initially believes in that original sin means that no human being is innocent and so all deserve to die.  It is disturbing to hear Noah talk about God’s wrath falling on all humankind.  But isn’t that what the doctrine of original sin means?  Isn’t the point that, from the point of view of justice, everyone does deserve death, but that God, in His mercy, chooses to save some?  The film might seem to obscure this point, because it does not present the story from God’s point of view, as does Scripture.  In Genesis, we know right from the start that God promises to save Noah (6:18).  The film tells the story from Noah’s perspective with the conceit that God “speaks” through visions, which Noah must gradually come to understand.

Noah later regrets his choice to allow all humanity to die.  He seems haunted by the fact that he let everyone die, including the girl Ham tried to save.  Aronofsky plausibly interprets Noah’s turn to drunkenness as an expression of guilt (Genesis 9:20-21).  Noah says he “failed” God.  He could be referring to the fact that he failed to kill all the humans, but probably he means that he misinterpreted God’s will and failed to save more humans than he did.

So the film does affirm a kind of humanism.  Man (symbolized by Noah) is the measure of value.  But it is a humanism that affirms the universality of original sin.  For Aronofsky, man is not “basically good”, as most humanists would say.  Rather, “the wickedness is in all of us”.   Noah sees that no human being is innocent, and so all deserve to die.  And yet, according to Aronofsky, man has good in him, too, as proven by Noah’s willingness to let his newborn grandchildren live, despite the fact that they have inherited original sin.  It is as if, by choosing to have mercy, Noah makes it true that humanity is worth saving.  (Also, I can’t help thinking this scene is supposed to show humanity’s discovery of the link between the image of God and the right to life announced just after the Flood in Genesis 9:6.  Compare the way Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas connects this discover with gazing into the face of the Other, just as Noah looks into the face of the baby and cannot kill it.)  Methuselah was right that God chose Noah for a purpose, but it was not, as Noah thought, that Noah was the only one who would continue the difficult work to the end.  It was that Noah was the only one who was able to see both the goodness and the wickedness of humanity. “He showed you the wickedness of man and you did not look away.  But you saw goodness”.

After the Flood, Ham throws away the relic of Eden, rejecting his birthright.  He does not want to be associated with the idea of caring for creation.  But the relic is a snake skin, presumably from the serpent from the Garden.  This is a symbol of rebirth, while also being a reminder of sin.  Just as a snake sheds its old skin and grows a new one, so can humanity shed original sin and begin a new life.  Thus Ham is also rejecting the idea of original sin and the necessity of new birth.  Yet when he leaves his family, he tells Ila that she is the one who will be able to save humanity.  It seems significant that she is a daughter of Cain raised by the sons of Seth, a marriage of heaven and earth.  “Maybe we’ll learn to be kind” through Ila’s example, Ham says. In the end we have to affirm both Noah and Tubal-Cain.  We have to affirm our dominion as well as our stewardship.  We have to affirm our sin and our potential to be born again.

“Your dad’s way of life may seem more reasonable, but it doesn’t rule out God.”

Krzystof Kieslowski’s Dekalog (1989), a series of 10 one-hour short films made for Polish TV, takes place largely around Christmas, but what better time than Lent to reflect on the relevance of the ten commandments in modern post-Christian society.  The first episode explores the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”.  What could this mean for us today?  Who are the gods of modern society?  Why should we care about the old Christian God anymore?

The episode follows the character Krzystof, an atheist professor who puts his faith in science to solve the world’s problems.  (Is science a false god to him?  Or is his son Pawel his god?  Or is he Pawel’s god?)  The plot, such as it is, involves Kryzstof’s son Pawel’s desire to ice skate on a frozen lake near his apartment in Warsaw.  Krzystof checks and rechecks his scientific calculations to prove that the ice is safe for skating.  (It seems significant that Krzystof doesn’t have blind faith in his scientific calculations. He goes out on the ice himself to check it first-hand.)

In Dekalog 1 God is the unmeasurable.  Not just fate – the unpredictable breaking of the ice that leads to Pawel’s death – but the social bond between Polish people – the relation between souls, which are themselves unmeasurable.  Pawel’s computer knows his overseas mother is sleeping, but it has no access to her dreams. As Krzystof’s sister Irena puts it, God is found in the unquantifiable love of family embraces.  But more than that God is found in the culture itself that Krzystof’s linguistics lecture suggests is untranslatable for a human-made computer.

Krzystof is an unbeliever – a modern professor of the soviet system – and thus on the outside of the religious community.  In grief over his son’s death he lashes out in anger at the community-built altar, but even there God begins to show up, made visible in a crying icon of the absent Mother of God.  Relating to the Church in anger is progress for the man who begins the story with cold indifference toward religion.  He knows where the meaning of life is to be found, as does the Polish Pope (John Paul II).

Kieslowski’s chain of symbols reaches a climax in the image of frozen holy water.  From sour milk that school children refuse to drink (the loss of nourishing culture) to a frozen milk bottle to a frozen baptismal font — a symbol of the state of religion under communist Poland, unable to do its work in the culture.  But the grieving Krzystof  presses the all-but-useless holy ice to his forehead, longing for the thaw of religion.

In a way it is not the father, but the son who has a false god.  Krzystof was raised Catholic and, as Irena points out, does not completely believe what he says about the power of science to explain everything.  But Pawel’s generation was raised without any instruction in religion.  Pawel doesn’t know what the soul is, or even what God is.

He has been deprived of even the cultural dimension of religion, the symbols that give some comfort to the grieving father and have the power to bind him to his community.  For Pawel, God is forever frozen, just as Pawel’s own soul – the memory of his departed personhood – is a frozen image in Krzystof’s computer screen.

“Purgatory’s kind of like the in-betweeny one.”

This Advent season I am thinking about the theme of hope through the lens of four Hollywood movies.  This week:  In Bruges (McDonagh, 2008).

As we will see, In Bruges ends on a note of hope, but it primarily a movie about waiting, particularly waiting for the Last Judgment.

The main characters – Tarantino-esque hit men Ken and Ray – think of the Last Judgment in legalistic terms about being good or bad, but the filmmaker points to a more Christian perspective.

First, there is the theme of substitutionary atonement. The mob boss Harry only cares about honor and has his unbreakable rules.  Ray has accidentally killed a child, which is a sin even a mob boss can’t forgive.  Someone has to pay: “If the buck don’t stop with [Ray],” he asks Ken, “where does it stop?”  “It stops with me, Harry,” Ken replies. “That’s an easy one.”  Ken believes in forgiveness, because he believes people can change.  So Ken literally gives his own life to allow Ray to escape punishment.  It is a parody of medieval Christianity where Jesus gives his life to satisfy God the Father’s wrath.

That’s not the most helpful way to think about the Crucifixion, but the characters discuss also Purgatory, which is a second Christian theme in the film.  It is like Bruges is a kind of Purgatory – an “inbetweeny” place, a place of waiting, a place to be purified of one’s sins through suffering in order to prepare for the afterlife in Heaven.

I would suggest that Purgatory can be a lens through which we think about Advent.  Advent, too, is a time of waiting for the Last Judgment, a time of preparation for the afterlife.  Is it significant that In Bruges takes place during Advent?

Ken and Ray find themselves in “the most well preserved medieval city”.  One that Harry sent them to, because he remembered visiting it as a boy.  It is a “fairytale town”, a mythic place out of the past – a world that doesn’t exist anymore, a world those from a post-Christian culture have a hard time imagining ever existed.

It reminds me of the way our culture continues to celebrate Christmas – a kind of well-preserved medieval holiday – even though we as a culture no longer believe in Christ.  Christmas has become a ritual for tourists – wait in line to touch the relic of Christ’s blood, because that’s just “what you do”.  Like us at Christmas time Ray and Ken find themselves in Bruges, surrounded by symbols from the past, symbols they don’t quite understand but feel they need for reasons they can’t explain.

So In Bruges is about the search for judgment and redemption in a post-Christian world. Ray and Ken no longer believe in God or the Last Judgment or the afterlife, but they still instinctively believe in sin.  They know that even if God is dead, not everything is permitted.  But they have nowhere to turn when they do sin.  Ray is suicidal, because he knows he needs forgiveness.  But if there is no one to judge us, then there is no one to forgive us, either.

Ultimately Ray does find forgiveness.  Ken’s sacrifice is surely eye-opening for Ray, but important, too, is Harry’s death, which shows where the buck really stops, the natural consequence of his life of principled violence.  Through his time in Bruges, Ray learns to affirm life.  He finds hope, as he puts it in the film’s last lines:

“There’s a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that’ll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all of this, I’d go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison… death… didn’t matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn’t be in fuckin’ Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin’ Bruges. And I really really hoped I wouldn’t die. I really really hoped I wouldn’t die.”

Ray decides to take responsibility for his actions and realizes that maybe the concept of the afterlife is useful after all.

“It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away.”

Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of Christ.  The Church celebrates Advent during the four weeks prior to Christmas, our remembrance of the Incarnation in which divinity took on the form of humanity in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  But Advent is not just a commemoration of that first coming of Christ. Advent is about waiting and longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promise of justice – the promise which God began to fulfill in the birth of Jesus and which Christians believe will ultimately be fulfilled when, as the Apostle Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15, God is “all in all”.

This Advent season I am thinking about the theme of hope through the lens of four Hollywood movies.  First up, a modern classic:  The Shawshank Redemption (Darabont, 1994).

Atheists tend to treat religious hope as mere wishful thinking, and Christian tradition (following Aquinas) has tended to conflate hope and expectation.  Here I draw from philosopher Andrew Chignell’s forthcoming book What May I Hope? (Routledge, 2014).

Hope seems different than both wishful thinking on the one hand and expectation on the other.  One of the differences between hoping and wishing is that you can “wish” for anything, but you can only “hope” for something that you believe to be possible.  The more likely the thing is to happen, the more reasonable your hope is.  And we say you have “false hope” if your belief is based on a mistaken understanding of the thing’s likelihood. “Losing hope”, then, is coming to believe that what you desire is actually impossible – when your hope turns into a wish.  “Expectation”, on the other hand, is when you have confidence that the thing you hope for will happen.

In Hebrews 11 faith is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.  So Biblical faith is expectation, the belief that there is good reason to believe that what we hope and wish for will come true.

Now, if you can only hope for what you believe is possible, then there is a link between hope and imagination, since imagination is the power to consider possibilities and alternate realities.  Thus, we can only hope for what we can imagine, i.e., what we can see as a possibility.  This is one of the themes of The Shawshank Redemption.

In the film Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) is sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  He is innocent and so doesn’t fit in with the other (actually guilty) convicts.  Using Christian language, we might say Andy is “not of the world” in which he find himself, and it shows in the way he relates to the world of the prison.  As Andy’s friend Red (played by Morgan Freeman) notices, Andy never really sees himself as a prisoner.

The idea of an “invisible coat” here reminds me of the Biblical concept of “The Armor of God” from Ephesians 6.  Andy is protected from prison, because his identity is shielded by hope.  Andy’s ability to imagine himself someday returning to the world outside the prison– his hope – allows him to continue to draw his identity from that world and not to see himself as merely a prisoner.

Thus Andy is different than the other prisoners.  For example, when a new inmate dies, Andy is the only one to ask his name. The others say it doesn’t matter – he’s just another dead convict, not a unique human being.  More significantly, when Andy overhears a guard complaining about his taxes, Andy (a former banker) offers him financial advice in exchange for beer.

Red interprets this as a way “to feel normal again” for a moment, but it seems to me that Andy simply doesn’t recognize the authority of the prison to define his identity.  In his mind, he’s not a criminal doing forced labor.  Instead he refers to his fellow inmates as his “coworkers”.  This moment foreshadows the scene later when Andy plays a Mozart aria over the prison P.A.

These two scenes – the beer scene and the opera scene – show the importance of Christian hope.  The beer scene shows the way hope allows Andy to hold onto his sense of humanity, which in turn allows him to act altruistically – he risks himself to win a moment’s freedom for his friends, even though he himself has given up drinking.

This is the way Christian hope grounds our ability to have compassion.  If there is no hope that things can ever change – if we lose the ability to imagine that we can never be anything other than cruel to each other – then we will lose the ability to treat each other with humanity.  It is our ability to imagine ourselves otherwise than we are, our belief that change is possible, and hence our hope that allows us to bring about that change.  And our belief is grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  Jesus’s life – the Incarnation – shows the true dignity that God has given to human beings, and Jesus’s death shows us what it is possible for a human to do – to give our lives for others – and Jesus’ resurrection shows us that God will not allow this self-sacrifice to be in vain.

Likewise, the opera scene echoes these same themes.  Andy’s hope allows him to retain his sense of humanity which allows him to risk his own punishment to share a moment of freedom with his friends.  The music, says Red, made the “walls dissolve away”.  But this scene also adds something new to our understanding of hope.

After Andy does hard time in solitary for playing the illicit music, he explains why he did it.  Music – art, imagination – makes as much sense – maybe more sense – in the prison as anywhere else.  “You need it so you don’t forget,” Andy says, “that there are places in the world that are not made out of stone.”  This is the role of worship in the Christian life.  It is in the weekly liturgy that we are reminded of another reality and enabled to imagine the world otherwise than it is.  When we encounter the risen Christ in the bread and wine of Communion, our walls dissolve away.

Andy believes “There is something inside that they can’t get to”, but Red rejects this sort of hope as “dangerous”.  Andy replies that without Hope we end up “institutionalized” like the the elderly inmate named Brooks (played by James Whitmore) who had committed suicide when he was paroled after 50 years in prison.  Brooks had forgotten how to imagine another world and let the prison become his home, his reality. He had lost hope that he would ever see his true home again, that there could ever be another reality.

This time of year it is easy for us to become “institutionalized” and worldly.  We are surrounded by a secularized, commercialized Holiday season that has nothing to do with the Christ whose birth once inspired the celebration.  For those of us who are trying to celebrate Advent, the impatience and insistence of the secular Holiday can become oppressive, like a prison.

But The Shawshank Redemption helps us know what to do about that.  We need not completely reject the worldly Holiday and somehow try to use Advent to keep the secular Christmas at bay until December 24.  Go to the mall and buy your bargains; go to your office Holiday parties.  Just as there is no way for Andy to simply walk away from the prison, there is no way to keep yourself separate from secular Christmas.  But what we can do is create a space in our church – the liturgical season of Advent – in which we find refuge for a short time once a week from the craziness of shopping and partying and we renew our imaginations, remembering the true purpose of it all as we wait patiently in hope of the redemption of the world.

“You can force a story’s shape, but the color will always bloom upstream.”

In Upstream Color (Carruth, 2013), psychological trauma is symbolized by a worm that literally gets under your skin and grows ever longer.  The worms in the film somehow have a psychic connection to each other and allow those who ingest them to have a psychic connection to each other, too.  So the film turns out to be about the psychic connection that can happen between those who experience similar kinds of trauma.

Psychic connection can be used for good.  At the start of the film a nefarious character credited only as the Thief harvests the worms from the roots of a rare blue orchid.  The teens who help him procure these worms are rewarded with a sample, granting them a psychic connection with they use to synchronize dance movements in artistic collaboration leading to beauty.  But such a psychic connection can also be used for exploitation as when the Thief proceeds to hypnotize people and manipulate them into giving him money.  The film’s main female character (Kris) takes out a home equity loan under hypnosis and gives the money to the Thief, and the main male character (Jeff) is hypnotized into embezzling money from his employer.

When we first meet her, Kris is symbolically raped – she has a worm forced into her body – and then literally kidnapped and held captive.  Jeff has gone through the same thing, but he is initially ensnared through a drug addiction – he presumably he takes one of the pills we see the Thief insert a worm into and sell on the street corner.  So both characters are dealing with psychological impediments that were not entirely in their own control – addiction and trauma.

Here the film plays on the idea of real-life behavior-altering parasites to raise issues of free will.  How much of our lives – our choices, our beliefs, even our character – have been shaped by contingent events outside of our control?  This raises a problematic link between divine predestination and the problem of evil.  Not only do bad things to happen to us beyond our control, but those things shape our identity, perhaps determining how we will react to God in the future and whether we will be able to find redemption for our suffering.

But the changes we experience due to suffering are not always bad.  When Kris and Jeff first meet the similarity of their trauma unconsciously draws them together.  The connection is so deep that when Kris tells about an experience from her childhood, Jeff begins to remember it as happening to him.  It is as though their life-stories have become one through shared trauma.

When a mysterious character credited as the Sampler removes the worm from Kris (and presumably Jeff) and places it into a pig as the host for the next stage in the parasite’s life cycle, even Kris and Jeff’s pigs become psychically bonded to teach other.  Apparently this connection is not typical in the world of the film, because the Sampler seems displeased by it.  It seems that there was some special connection between the parasites themselves.  Maybe they were born from the same orchid.  Maybe one of the two pills the thief makes was bought by the drug-addicted Jeff and the other was forced into Kris like a date rape drug.  In any event, their pigs mate and the Sampler must kill the resulting litter of piglets.  But this only leads to the blooming of new orchids out of the dead piglets’ bodies which starts the cycle over and spreads the psychic connection to others.

In the end trauma becomes the birth of a social movement that is able to finally end the exploitation.  It is as if all the parasite victims share one transcendentalist World Soul. Kris and Jeff find a list of other victims and mail them all a copy of Thoreau’s Walden to help them awaken from their dogmatic slumber and recall their suppressed trauma – which includes being forced to copy Walden by hand.

At the end Kris kills the Sampler and thinks she is now free.  But, like those who thought the death of God would make them free, she is wrong. For one thing, the Sampler wasn’t really her tormenter, the Thief was.  For another, if she really wanted to be free from “upstream” influences, she would have to renounce her relationship with Jeff which was only made possible by the cycle of exploitation.

It is interesting that of all books it is Walden that allows them to break the cycle of exploitation.  On the one hand, Walden is about self-reliance and the film’s characters long to be free from the past influence of the Thief and the on-going interference of the Sampler.  But the film as a whole seems to be a reminder that we can’t ever be truly self-reliant, since we are created by forces beyond ourselves.  At best be make ourselves out of pre-existing material from the life we find ourselves thrown into.  We can’t control whether we are raped or otherwise traumatized in our lives.  And who we become is inevitably affected by those experiences.  All we can control is what we make of ourselves after that.

Ask yourself: who would I sacrifice for what’s mine?

My friend Vern Cisney recently gave a brilliant paper at a philosophy conference where  he used Derrida’s account of the self to illuminate the film Looper (Johnson, 2013).  Derrida is beyond my expertise, but the gist of the paper was to show that we have to relate to ourselves as if we were relating another being.  I see a similar point in The Sickness Unto Death where Kierkegaard says “the self is a relation that relates itself to itself”.  But Cisney goes further: the very possibility of being a human person assumes temporality, to be a person means to relate oneself to the future, to be a person means to be open to change, etc.  It is easy to see why all this seems relevant to a movie about a man who travels back in time and meets himself.

Cisney argues that it is not until Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) comes face to face with himself (Bruce Willis) that he is able to become a self at all – that he is able to take responsibility for his life and decide for himself who he is going to be.  Up until that moment he is just doing what other people tell him to do.  The best example is how he is studying French but ends up going to China simply because his boss told him to.

At the same time, Joe is very self-involved.  He works only for himself until he comes face to face with himself and sees what evil he is capable of.  Then, instead of holding on tightly to “what is mine”, he learns to open himself to others.  Thus, as Cisney puts it, Joe is able to transform his relation to himself through affirming life even in the midst of Nietzschean Eternal Return.  Or, as I thought of it before reading Cisney, Joe learns the Buddhist lesson to let go of himself, and in so doing he closes his loop, ending the cycle of suffering.

The Buddhist reading is probably closer to what filmmaker Rian Johnson had in mind when he made Looper, but Cisney’s reading of the film is no less brilliant for that.  In fact, as I have reflected on his reading, I have come to think Cisney is actually giving us an insight into the nature of cinema itself.

Every time we watch a movie, we are traveling back in time.  We are seeing something that happened in the past.  This is more clear in old movies when we see someone who has died, for example when I watch The Maltese Falcon, I see Humphrey Bogart doing things he did on a Warner Brothers sound stage more than 70 years ago.  But it is also true in current movies.  When I watch Gravity, I’m seeing things Sandra Bullock did two years ago in front of a green screen in London.  The scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise talks to holographic videos of his dead son is a good example of the power this sort of time travel can have.

But there is another way movies allow us to time travel.  They allow us to imaginatively project our consciousness back in time.  When we watch a movie like Lincoln, we literally see something Daniel Day Lewis did two years ago, but we imaginatively see things Abraham Lincoln did 150 years ago.  When this is done well, it gives us a new kind of knowledge of what the past was like – knowledge that could only be had otherwise by time travel.  The TV show Hannibal might be a good example, where Will Graham empathically projects himself into the position of a serial killer to get clues.  Moreover we can travel to the future, too.  We can imaginatively project our consciousness forward in time as when we watch a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey which gives us a way to understand what the future might be like if it continues on its current path.

There is yet a third way movies allow us to time travel, perhaps the most important way.  (Here is where I come back around to Looper.)  We can travel into our own past and future.  By seeing characters we identify with, we can remember our own past actions and even come to new knowledge of and their current effects.  By watching a movie like Star Wars, I am taken back to my childhood, and I remember what it was like to see that movie as a child.  Or, more directly, by watching a movie like E.T. I am reminded of what it was like to be myself as a child.  But even a movie that is not from my childhood can help me understand myself.  Even though I wasn’t alive in the 1950s, seeing Tree of Life helped me understand my relationship with my father.  It was like time traveling in my consciousness back to my childhood and coming to understand my present day better.  Likewise, something like Big Fish can help me imagine what the future of my relationship with my son might be like.

So Cisney’s analysis of Looper is actually analysis of the potential power of film.  Just as Joe is able to become himself for the first time by seeing himself as another person, so we can all see ourselves externalized in film.

Shakespeare, of course, knew this.  Hamlet uses a play to hold a mirror up to his uncle’s nature and thereby “catch the conscience of the king”.  Dickens, too, seems to be onto the same idea when he has Ebenezer Scrooge see scenes from his past and future in order to come to self-knowledge.  This is the same method is used in The Master where Philip Seymour Hoffman teaches people to imaginatively project their consciousness into their past to understand their present better – a method he calls “time travel”.  And that’s a pretty good description of what happens to Scrooge, too.  Scrooge seems to travel back and forward in time.  Yet, perhaps he doesn’t really travel.  Perhaps he only sees visions – visions analogous to modern day movies.

Thus watching movies is itself a form of time travel.