Count me as one of those people who usually “gets it” with multi-layered, highly symbolic and open-ended books and movies. I liked songs in the Seventies that ended on a minor not-home chord to depict “ambiguity. And I was dazzled by Terrance Malik;s glorious “The Tree of Life” link and consider his talents profound.
His latest movie, “To the Wonder” therefore hit me in multiple ways. I was frustrated in many places—mostly by the fact that most of the dialogue takes place inside the heads of the main characters. Olga Kurylenko is Marina, a divorced woman who meets and falls in love with Ben Affleck, an American, while he is traveling in Paris. Neil (Affleck) commits to her and invites her and her 10 year old daughter to live with him Read the rest of this entry
“Blue Like Jazz” arrived at selected theaters this past week, an odd stepchild among usual movie fare of aliens, vampires, and things that go boom. Derived from Donald Miller’s book by the same name, “Blue Like Jazz” is a story of life and faith during a young man’s first year of college. Don, the main character, is son of a bible believing single mother who wants to protect her son and an atheist father who is emotionally disconnected, mostly absent, and religiously hostile.
Donald’s Dad wangles an acceptance from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a school filled with intellectually brilliant and morally unfettered not-quite-adults. After struggling with it, he heads to Reed and Portland instead of the Baptist college his mother wants him to attend. Soon life is filled with Political Correctness, drugs, booze and moral haze. The professors challenge every aspect of life, and students engage in protest and outrageousness as an extracurricular activity.
From that point we follow Don as he struggles with the pain of the life he has left behind but the faith that won’t leave him alone. He is ashamed of that identity, and tries to fit in, but never really does. The church is an ambiguous presence throughout the movie. The childhood church that Don leaves behind is a stereotype of tacky children’s sermons and fear of the world. The youth pastor is glib, a know-it-all, self-assured, and, it turns out, secretly sleeping with Don’s mother, which brings a crisis into his life later in the story. Read the rest of this entry
Here in Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of our great treasures. You can still go to Monroeville, Alabama and see a live re-enactment of the story every year by the local citizenry. You start out in the yard, then move inside the courthouse, and it is eerily reminiscent of the movie because Hollywood built a replica of it for the film. When I went with friends a few years back, I felt a flash of shame and pain when the n-word was uttered while African American locals up in the balcony were in our presence. I was embarrassed. So we’ve made some progress, I guess. As a child in North Carolina the word was uttered around me thoughtlessly, as a part of an unquestioned culture of resentment and vulnerable entitlement. Read the rest of this entry
Napoleon Dynamite. It’s been seven years and I still laugh at this movie. I have it on DVR so I can speed through to favorite moments. A friend and I were laughing as we sent quotes back and forth this week.
- Napoleon Dynamite: Do the chickens have large talons?
- Farmer: Do they have what?
- Napoleon Dynamite: Large talons.
- Farmer: I don’t understand a word you just said.
His dialogue is so painfully true to life. I knew kids just like him, and he talks like them. The humor is not cruel, slapstick, humiliation or vulgarity–it’s recognition and insight into irony. You feel the pain and wince because you’ve been there as one of the characters in that movie.
- Napoleon Dynamite: Stay home and eat all the freakin’ chips, Kip.
- Kip: Napoleon, don’t be jealous that I’ve been chatting online with babes all day. Besides, we both know that I’m training to be a cage fighter.
- Napoleon Dynamite: Since when, Kip? You have the worst reflexes of all time.
- Napoleon Dynamite: Well, nobody’s going to go out with me!
- Pedro: Have you asked anybody yet?
- Napoleon Dynamite: No, but who would? I don’t even have any good skills.
- Pedro: What do you mean?
- Napoleon Dynamite: You know, like nunchuku skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills… Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.
It’s the little details–Don the Jock, mocking and threatening but never actually doing anything but sneering and shaking his head; the bully who kicks Napoleon’s pants to mash his “tots” when he refuses to share them; the kids in the bus screaming when Lyle shoots a cow without thinking about who’s watching; the town rich girl who always wins everything because she was entitled from the get-go and the faceless mass of kids who never have a chance. Then the principal—lecturing Pedro for his “cruelty” for mocking his opponent with a piñata and later leering at the Happy Hands dancers do their skit bare-footed at the assembly. I could go on.
Napoleon grabs onto a new kid from Mexico in the desperate hope for a friend who might stick by him. I winced. I was that kid. I spent most of my life as an outsider, since I moved throughout childhood. I attended seven different school systems in five states before I graduated high school due to my father’s job. I get “not belonging.” I had to fit in and figure out a world others created, often obliviously, before I arrived.
I am actually grateful for these experiences. Any capacity I have for empathy and compassion owes a lot to this experience in my life. While America is throwing trillions around I think we ought to move everybody in the country at least once, some of us to a foreign country, for at least a year so we can grow up a little and have some informed opinions. The lack of imagination, openness to others and real knowledge of what it means to be “dislocated” probably has a little to do with our trivial politics and fear-based anxieties about the rest of the world. Once you’ve been the powerless, unimportant and an outsider, you never see life the same again.
I tell young couples pondering marriage that friendship is one of the most underestimated predictors of marital success. As I approach 38 years with the same woman, I credit some of it to a sense of humor and the fact that we like each other. Once when she dramatically said, “Sometimes I just want to RUN AWAY, I asked, “Can I go with you.”
My version of, “I caught you a delicious bass.”
In the theater on Saturday to see “Tree of Life,” we watched the obligatory previews and saw with interest that a film version of “The Help” is coming in August. Allison Janney was one of the actresses I recognized, and heard enough to know this would be another butchered movie attempt to capture Southern accents. Anyone NOT from the South cannot hear the hundred subtleties in Southernspeak. We do not all sound like Foghorn Leghorn (“Ah, SAY-uh, ah sey-uh Miss Priss-ay”).
In the case of Mississippi, parts of Alabama and south Georgia you would be pretty close, but a little off is worse than way off, the linguistic equivalent of losing a baseball game on a balk in the ninth. You think, “they don’t know us, don’t know anything about where we live, who we are. What’s the deal? Most of ‘em still think we’re unchanged from the barking dogs and fire hoses and Atticus Finch. It’s as though the South is invisible.
According to Wikipedia: the movie “The Help” is about Aibileen, an African-American maid living in Mississippi in the early 1960s who cleans houses and cares for the young children of various white families.” There is a storyline about a campaign to get the white residents of Jackson to build separate bathrooms in their garage or carport for the use of the “colored” help. Characters with odd Southern names like Hilly and Skeeter are here, as well as Aibileen, another maid who has been through 19 jobs because she speaks out too much. A lot more develops, but pick up the book or see the film.
I started thinking about real life versions of “The Help” many times. As a minister you go and sit in people’s homes a lot, especially when things are going badly. Death, divorce, children run amuck, that sort of thing. You go as a holy man or woman and sit there, listening, trying to lend some presence to some terrifying absence. It can be anywhere: in nursing homes, assisted living or elegant suburban homes. The help, especially down south, some long-time worker for the family, inevitably comes in and brings me a glass of tea or says hello or dusts around us.
When my wife worked in welfare reform she got to know a lot of women who worked as domestics—cooks, maids, caretakers for the elderly, sitters and raisers of babies. Often they worked for more than one family to put food on the table. And if you wanted to know what was REALLY going on, talk to these women. It helps explain reality television, I think. Often I think, “Why on earth would you say that with cameras rolling? How can you be sincere and still know your being taped?” I suppose you just forget after a while and then, out it comes.
My wife Vickie used to say, “People forget and talk in front of their maids like they’re not there, and don’t realize that everything in their house is known.” Another way to put it is that these people become invisible. We stop seeing them, being aware of them, taking account of their presence.
I wondered recently as I thought about a really BAD immigration law passed by the Alabama legislature: “WHAT were they thinking?” At first I focused on the legal, financial and constitutional issues—how will we enforce it, who will pay for it, and so on. My question was, “Am I my brother’s Big Brother?” Absurdities occurred—will we build a wall like the Israelis to keep the Floridians and Mississippians out? But there were also somber thoughts—a lot of law enforcement may ignore it, but some might abuse it on people too scared and vulnerable to speak up. And also frustration that the federal government, whose real job it is, has failed to do their job. This is not a state issue. But let’s not go there.
Mainly I have been thinking about the help. The help are people who clean toilets and wash dishes and dig gardens and mow lawns and help build houses. They mop hospital halls and work long hours without complaining. And when they work their fingers to the bone for subsistence wages, we’re only too glad to let them do it. Then, when the bottom drops out of the Dow and we’re scared, we started passing laws that have a nice, authoritative sound to them. “Let’s stand up and do something.”
I called the governor’s office before this became law and told his staff I strongly opposed this law—unaffordable, unconstitutional, unenforceable. But mostly, if truth be told, I was thinking about the Old Testament and Jesus and all those passages in the Bible about the way we treat strangers and foreigners in our midst. There isn’t one passage in the Bible that says, “When they’re down and out, draw the line and shove ‘em out.” Find it if you can. No, it says, “You were strangers in Egypt. Don’t forget it. Don’t oppress widows and foreigners and orphans.” In other words, “Don’t tread harshly on people who can’t fight back.”
I am embarrassed by this law. We can do better. Nothing in it about the people already here or treating them with respect and hospitality or how to go from where we are to where we could be or even a mere way to authorize those already here to stay as guest workers. We didn’t even offer them a ride home. Just jails, fines, and, worse, the rest of us being tattlers to pull it off. It’s not that hard, it seems to me, to figure out. But that didn’t seem to get in this law.
A lot of our newcomers pretty soon become business owners and contractors themselves. They work hard and pull themselves up. I’ve met people who were doctors or dentists in their former country but work in menial jobs here because they are not “qualified” and they don’t complain. It’s a familiar story—like the 24 million immigrants who came into this country between 1860 and the 1920s—some of whose descendants sit in nice homes griping about immigrants.
Most of all, I feel like we got in the living room and made a decision affecting our maids and yard workers and day laborers and restaurant workers and lots of women and children. Many of them are legal and sometimes their families are not. It’s a mess, I admit. But we got in the living room and came up with a half-baked solution that, like those bathrooms in the garages in The Help will look absurd a few years down the line.
We committed the two great sins for Southern Christians. We were rude to strangers and we talked about things that affected the help’s lives as though they weren’t even there. And now our teachers and law enforcement folks and business owners are asked to fix it by becoming an enforcement bureau, ratting out first graders who don’t know anything about why they are here.
I’m for homeland security—career criminals don’t belong here, terrorists need to be stopped. I hate the ocean of drugs pouring over our borders as much as Mexico hates the avalanche of guns pouring over theirs. But maybe if we stopped talking about our help like they aren’t even there we could make distinctions between people who make us better and those who don’t.
We had the wrong kind of discussion and we ended up with a Rube Goldberg law. We can do better. We should do better. I pray we will.
Gary Furr Reviews
“The Tree of Life,” a film by Terrence Malik http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0478304/
I, as did Rabbi David Wolpe[i], was immediately zoned in to the opening scenes of Terrence Malik’s movie, “The Tree of Life” when the haunting quotation appeared from In Job 38: 4 and 7, where God asks Job “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together?” I leaned over to my daughter Katie, who came to see the film and said, “Uh, oh.”
Every good seminary graduate watching this movie, and especially those of us who saw, “The Thin Red Line,” know what’s probably coming—mystery and unexplained mystical reflection. This movie is an exercise in disappointing usual movie expectations. An impelling story of a very average family in Waco, Texas (where, I believe, Malik grew up and I myself lived for seven years in grad school) is haunted by a tragedy that is never fully resolved, and never completely explained. It dissolves into mystical reflection.
The tone of “Tree of Life” often reminded me of “2001, A Space Odyssey,” which from the time I originally saw it until now I have no clue about what it means. Therein the similarities end, however. “Tree of Life,” is superior to “2001.” And the Job reference set me up to receive it.
Perhaps, I reflected later, the lack of biblical competency in our current time accounts for the difficulties expressed by the viewers sitting around us in the theater as they were leaving: “Huh?” “You mean we paid $7.50 for that?” “I didn’t think that nature scene would EVER end.” “I hate movies like that.” And some just looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders.
The book of Job ends similarly. Job finally gets his day in God’s court and God never breathes a word of his wager with Satan, his faith in Job or the purpose of life. He backs Job into submission with a long rehearsal of creation, full of wonders in the sky, mysteries in the earth and giant monsters that send shivers down the human spine. “If you were there for all of these things,” God says to Job, “I will tell you how it all fits together. Otherwise, trust me.” And Job does. What else can he do?
This is a movie that left me unsatisfied at first. I wanted all the storylines of part B, the microcosm story of the family in Waco, resolved and explained, and it is not. I realized as I continued to reflect on it that this was a good thing. The movie was like actual life—with prayers and sinful thoughts interwoven, bad people (Brad Pitt’s father character) also capable of beauty and tenderness. The movie is a stream of collective consciousness ride that carries the viewer in and out of cosmic, primeval and intimate thoughts of the most ordinary and extraordinary sorts. It soars at times, especially visually. The long interlude about the universe, creation and evolution of the world is one of the most brilliant film sequences I have ever seen–I don’t know how else to describe it. And you won’t enjoy it unless you quit worrying about the smaller storyline of the people in Waco.
I think a lot of people will not like this movie. Not because they are not smart people or anything that condescending, but because they don’t go to movies for these kinds of experiences. For some people movies are simply for fun, and that’s completely okay. I go to predictable romantic comedies for the same reason. This is more like every time I have stood by the south rim of the Grand Canyon and looked without speaking, or walked into the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Anything you say at those moments feels inadequate.
Malik’s visionary exploration (and I have avoided saying much more about the story in Waco so that I will not spoil it) is stunning. It’s a movie that perplexed me, but then I have kept thinking about it, always a sign of a great film for me. If you know the book of Job well, particularly those final chapters, I think it will make more sense to you—that things don’t, can’t, won’t make “sense” as we insist they do, but some instinct in us says, “They will and they do.”
The small story of the little family is well-acted– a frustrated musician-inventor husband played by Pitt, who turns another in a catelog of great performances; Sean Penn as grownup son Jack, whose inner struggles as a child are a significant part of the story; Jessica Chastain as Pitt’s graceful, loving wife, who is the embodiment of grace and faith counterpoised against Pitt’s character with his more brutal “nature” view of life.
You may not like it. You may choose to wait and watch it on cable or UVerse, which would be a mistake unless you have a home theater screen, because the nature images in this film are IMAX material. The cinematography is that good. If you just want to be entertained, save your bucks and see something else. No one should think badly of you. But if you want to walk into a cathedral and sit down for a while and listen to the universe, you may find this film worth your while. And when you walk out, it will walk with you.
[i] Rabbi David Wolpe, “The Religious Meaning of Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-david-wolpe/tree-of-life_b_868717.html I waited to read Wolpe’s review until I had already read my own, so I would not be influenced by his interpretation.