Two years ago, about the time I started to take a more serious interest in film, I started cataloging the new films that Karina and see. I had been doing the same for books and thought it would be interesting to do the same for films. Ok...and I was semi-curious at how many films we actually watched in a given year. Over the past 2 years we have also been slowly working our way through AFI's original 100 greatest films list. It has been a fun project but we have gotten bogged down in that process at times too.
In 2007 we watched 104 new films and in 2008 we watched 110 new films. A few favorites that stand out in my memory are Modern Times with Charlie Chaplin from 1936, Everything Is Illuminated with Elijah Wood from 2005, Ostrov or The Island (a Russian film) about penance that is simply wonderful. Other favorites, Lars and the Real Girl (2007), Into the Wild (2007), King Corn (2007), Wall-E (2008), Iron Man (2008) and Babel (2006).
Our complete viewing list...
1.1.08 Babel 2006
1.1.08 The Seventh Seal 1954
1.4.08 The Natural 1984
1.5.08 Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End 2007
1.05.08 I Married a Witch 1942
1.06.08 Girl In the Café 2005
1.07.08 Doctor Zhivago 1965
1.07.08 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 1969
1.08.08 Pink Panther 1963
1.12.08 The Prestige 2006
1.13.08 The Life & Passion of Jesus Christ 1905
1.14.08 From the Manger to the Cross 1913
1.15.08 Koyaanisqatsi 1982
1.16.08 Dan In Real Life 2007
1.18.08 Good Luck Chuck 2007
1.21.08 Barbarella 1969
1.21.08 War Games 1983
1.22.08 Angels With Dirty Faces 1938
1.22.08 Roaring Twenties 1939
1.26.08 Iron Giant 1999
1.29.08 Reign Over Me 2007
2.4.08 War of the Worlds 1953
2.10.08 Nightmare Before Christmas 1993
2.11.08 Memento 2000 2.13.08 License to Wed 2007
2.15.08 Bourne Ultimatum 2007
2.18.08 Transporter II 2005
2.19.08 The Life of Brian 1978
2.22.08 The Wild Bunch 1969
2.24.08 P.S. I Love You 2007
2.25.08 Evan Almighty 2007
3.01.08 The Man Who Knew Too Much 1956
3.03.08 2 Days in Paris 2007
3.04.08 The Birds 1963
3.08.08 Wild Hogs 2007
3.09.08 Spirited Away 2002
3.09.08 The Jazz Singer 1928
3.10.08 Idiocracy 2006
3.14.08 We Are Marshall 2006
3.15.08 Everything is Illuminated 2005
3.17.08 Absent Minded Professor 1961
3.19.08 The Island 2006
3.20.08 Green Pastures 1936
3.22.08 The Perfect Man 2005
3.25.08 Little Children 2006
3.28.08 I Am Legend 2007
3.29.08 Unforgiven 1992
4.1.08 Goodfellas 1990
4.9.08 Gridiron Gang 2006
4.10.08 Modern Times 1936
4.10.08 Freedom Writers 2007
4.12.08 Night of the Hunter 1955
4.20.08 A Good Year 2006
4.21.08 Battleship Potemkin 1925
4.26.08 Juno 2007
4.27.08 27 Dresses 2007
4.30.08 Duck Soup 1933
5.02.08 Double Indemnity 1944
5.03.08 Iron Man 2008
5.04.08 Lars and the Real Girl 2007
5.06.08 Pan's Labrynth 2006
5.06.08 City Lights 1931
5.10.08 High Fidelity 2006
5.14.08 Friends With Money 2006
5.17.08 National Treasure II 2007
5.18.08 August Rush 2007
5.19.08 Cocktail 1988
5.21.08 Frankenstein 1931
5.27.08 Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull 2008
5.31.08 Jesus Camp 2005
6.02.08 Just Like Heaven 2005
6.03.08 Tootsie 1982
6.07.08 You Don’t Mess With the Zohan 2008
6.08.08 All About Eve 1950
6.10.08 Into the Wild 2007
6.15.08 The Game Plan 2007
6.19.08 The Godfather 1972
6.21.08 The Godfather II 1974
6.21.08 3:10 To Yuma 2007
6.22.08 The Goldrush 1925
7.19.08 Batman: The Dark Night 2008
7.20.08 The Departed 2006
8.04.08 Amadeus 1984
8.10.08 Cabaret 1972
8.11.08 In the Heat of the Night 1967
9.01.08 Bonnie & Clyde 1968
9.06.08 Shrek TheThird 2007
9.14.08 A Flea Market Documentary 2001
10.04.08 The Virgin Suicides 2000
10.04.08 King Corn 2007
10.10.08 The Bucket List 2008
10.11.08 High Noon 1952
10.12.08 The Third Man 1949
10.14.08 Baby Mama 2008
10.16.08 Grapes of Wrath 1940
10.18.08 The French Connection 1971
10.25.08 Fools Gold 2008
11.04.08 Be Kind, Rewind 2007
11.06.08 Get Smart 2008
11.10.08 Stagecoach 1939
11.18.08 Hancock 2008
11.22.08 Wall-E 2008
11.27.08 Quantum of Solace 2008
11.29.08 Black Snake Moan 2006
12.5.08 The Love Guru 2008
12.10.08 Leatherheads 2008
12.18.08 Forgetting Sarah Marshall 2008
12.26.08 Charlie Wilsons War 2008
12.29.08 Grand Theft Auto 1977
12.30.08 Burn After Reading 2008
Last night we went to the opening of Iron Man. While I’ve never been into comic books nor their superhero’s the film is excellent. Robert Downey Jr. is a perfect fit as the womanizing jerk Tony Stark. But after being betrayed and captured in Afghanistan by people using the weapons he designed Stark has a change of heart as he watches the man who saved his life die.
In one sense, this is a conversion story where the character goes from a producer of weapons to the protector of people. Stark creates the ultimate weapon but uses it for “good.” I loved the story, but I struggle with the individualized sense of ethics that Stark converts to. What are his orienting points that guide his new moral compass? Certainly his change is laudable, but what we need to think about is where do we get the framework for what is good in our life. How do we define what is good? Can we leave it up to the individual? The state? Can that individual help others achieve that same type of conversion?
The struggle with individualized values is that there is no larger framework beyond the self to uphold and re-enforce ones chosen values. They can be matters of convenience able to increase or decrease in value (essentially what is profitable for that person) depending on the circumstances. The idea of value comes from the market economy built on needs, wants, and scarcity. Is this where we really want our moral values to emanate from? Values shift from person to person based on what is effective for their own self advancement or fulfillment.
To what are we looking for the moral ideal? From whom or which tradition are we learning our behavior? Who’s traditions are we using and being used by?
A year or so ago, someone near me rejected a proposed brochure because its central focus was of a stained glass image of Jesus the good shepherd. She cited the Old Testament prohibition against graven images from Exodus. Now I am aware that this argument is still alive and well in certain Christian community, but I was startled to find it so near me. This strange series of events made me consider the nature of an image of Christ and the portrayal of his humanity. Some years ago I had the opportunity to engage certain fundamentalist Baptist pastors about such matters who are ardently opposed to images of Christ even though they had certain didactic purposes, which they consented to. Their main claim was that once you had said that this is Jesus, you would also have to explain that this is not Jesus because it only portrayed his humanity.
So how do artists get off with imaging Jesus?
To my fundamentalist interrogators I would now respond with wisdom I did not possess then, that one may have well passed Jesus on the road or in the market wholly unawares of his divinity. Our eyes have been trained by faith to see the divinity within Christ and yet N.T. Wright suggests that few, if any, Jews of the time would have expected the Messiah to be divine.
Another complicating factor concerns our Western intellectual heritage of emphasis on the written word, and for descendants of the Reformation that is seen in the written Word. While Luther was not as condemnatory of images as Calvin and Zwingli, he kept a wary eye on them. I cannot help but wonder how these emphases, so strongly rooted within Protestantism, has perpetuated this anti-image and iconoclastic tendencies within our Western version of Christianity.
Returning to the woman who rejected the brochure with images of Christ, I wanted to ask her what she thought of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion. Did she enjoy it? Did she even see it? Are there Christians who praise the film and yet reject still images whether painted or sculpted? Do those who praise the film and reject images see their duplicity? What is it for them that sets the film apart from images? Are not those who act as Christ not more potentially misleading than the static images which are surely other than the humanity Jesus inhabited?
These are questions I am posing to my class this coming Monday. I am interested to hear their responses after their readings.
This is a rather late addition to the Fight Club series I did a month or so ago, but upon reading The Rule of Saint Benedict this week one short passage stood out, as if I had seen a mirror of this in action recently. Rule 58 states,
“When anyone presents himself to be admitted as a monk, they shall not easily give him entrance; but, as the apostle advises: ‘Make trial of the spirits, to see if they are of God’ (1 John 4.1). If he is importunate and goes on knocking at the door, for four or five days, and patiently bears insults and rebuffs and still persists, he shall be allowed to enter. He shall stay in the guest-room for a few days. Thence he shall go to the cell where the novices study and eat and sleep.”
This Benedictine initiation practice is meant to deter those who are not prepared to undertake such a life change. This is not meant to be easy. After several days of waiting through insults and denials, they still persist in their desire, they may be allowed to enter. I have heard of a Rabbinical tradition that may do similar things. Those who wish to convert to Judaism approach a Rabbi who rebuffs them. If they return three times, they may undertake with seriousness their conversion. In Fight Club, we see young men coming to stand outside on the porch of the Paper Street house waiting to enter. They are verbally and physically harassed about being to young, fat, or blonde. Once they have stood the appropriate time, they are asked if they have brought the needed supplies of black clothing and personal burial money. Once entered they receive a ritualistic head shaving, thus leaving their old beauty of the world behind. They form a new army and take on its uniform.
I wonder how many American Christians would actually put up the waiting and rebuffs to become a Christian? Does the Church allow too easy of conversion? Would any church actually rebuff someone today who came seeking? What can our churches learn from the novitiate or catechumenate processes?
This past week one of our class viewings was the delightful comedy Keeping the Faith which picks up on the plethora of priest/rabbi jokes that seem to circulate. It tells the story of 3 inseparable kids growing up in New York City until Anna, played by Jenna Elfman, leaves her two boys Jake Schram, played by Ben Stiller, and Brian Finn, played by Edward Norton after their eighth grade year. Stiller’s character grows up to be a rabbi while Norton’s character becomes a Catholic priest. Many years later, but still in the infancy of their ministries, Anna, now a high-power business woman returns to New York for work and looks up he long lost childhood friends. What ensues are crises faith, falling in love, conversions, and questionable ethics.
Going in, I asked my students to read articles on love, sexuality, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and pluralism from the Musser & Price New and Enlarged Handbook on Christian Theology. I also asked them to read Beth Newman’s article “Pluralism as Idolatry.”
One of my questions of the film and filmmaking in general, is what should we expect from them in the portrayal of religion? Should I expect them to give an accurate portrayal? Can we appreciate the film on its own merits and still be dissatisfied with its shallow portrayal of religion?
Notes on the positive:
Fr. Finn is a young priest who seems to be inspiring his congregation, at least by sight in terms of growth. He had brought a sense of renewal to this apparently dying congregation. Fr. Finn is an interesting portrait of a priest as well. In one sense, this film is about calling and the challenges of ministry. We see a very human priest facing the challenges of celibacy. It is cliché these days to portray a faithless priest as pedophile or sexually active among his congregants. Keeping the Faith walks a fine line. Brian certainly falls in love with his childhood friend Anna, makes a pass at her, but still remains true to his vows. At the highpoint of poignancy, the elder priest comforts Brian by telling him that he had fallen in love at least once every decade of his ministry. But he says to the young priest that each day it is a choice, in marriage or ministry, to be faithful and fulfill your vows. The scene goes like this,
Father Brian: I keep thinking about what you said in seminary, that the life of a priest is hard and if you can see yourself being happy doing anything else you should do that.
Father Havel: That was my recruitment pitch, which is not bad when you're starting out because it makes you feel like a marine. The truth is you can never tell yourself there is only one thing you could be. If you are a priest or if you marry a woman it's the same challenge. You cannot make a real commitment unless you accept that it's a choice that you keep making again and again and again.
It is a welcomed word for both those who are married and serve in ministry. It is a helpful corrective to the “feeling” of love, and Brian’s own definition of faith as feeling.
Notes on the not-as-positive:
My feeling is that the portrayal of religion is ultimately shallow. Brian, in a sermon defines faith as,
“The truth is, I don't really learn that much about your faith by asking questions like that...because those aren't really questions about faith, those are questions about religion. And it's very important to understand the difference between religion and faith. Because faith is not about having the right answers. Faith is a feeling. Faith is a hunch, really. It's a hunch that there is something bigger connecting it all... connecting us all together. And that feeling, that hunch, is God. And coming here tonight, on your Sunday evening... to connect with that feeling, that is an act of faith. And so all I have to do is look around the room at this packed church... to know that we're doing pretty well as a community.”
Not only does he define faith based something as fickle as feeling he connects vital faith with numbers. Not that this is particularly unique to our society. Rather, in many circles this is heightened by the health and wealth gospel as well as our addiction to self-help resources. Faith, for Brian, is about us and not about God. I do not want to reduce faith to pure rationalism, and feelings are a necessary part of the life of faith. But his succinct definition would seem to truncate the historical definitions of faith.
Similarly, the required readings for this film were intended to help students consider our cultures pluralism. Does Keeping the Faith simply show the existence of a plurality of religions or does it suggest in a typical postmodern fashion, that all faiths or spiritualities are equal and can be chosen at random as long as it is useful to ones life? Are the interrelations between Brian’s Catholicism and Jake’s Judaism simply friendship between the two acknowledging the gulf in between or are they just two options in the spiritual marketplace?
Another comical scene in the film takes place when Brian, distraught on a bender shares his story with a local bartender. In this scene we get an insight into the very complicated religious plurality of human lives.
Father Brian: You're a Sikh, Catholic Muslim with Jewish in-laws?
Bartender: Yes. Yes. It gets very complicated. I'm reading Dianetics.
Father Brian: Don't blame you.
Additionally questionable, Brian, along with Rabbi Schram want to bring their religions into the 21st century…“old world religion with a new age spin.” Both run up against religions steeped in tradition. Jake seems though to take it on more directly with the introduction of non-Judaic practices into the communities spiritual life. He also runs up against their expectation of a rabbi. He too receives wise words from an elder that people want to be lead into the next century and change rather than pushed. People like their traditions because they give them stability that orients them in the world. So while both young men want to push their congregants to keep pace with the changing world, they hopefully learn the value of tradition along the way.
I have seen this film numerous times and yet have not come to a conclusion on the films view of pluralism. I do feel it is a valuable film to explore topics of vocation, love, tradition, family, conversion, similarity and differences of faith and religion; but also pastoral ethics, revitalization and many more.