Category Archives: Movies

Posts that feature a movie

Overcoming Justice

In college a friend I’ve lost track of (and I have, of most of them) turned me on to Irish protest music. I do have some fairly direct Irish heritage, although I didn’t know it at the time, still the righteous anger tied to memorable tunes made a strong impression. Music can move you in that way. In a recent New Jersey Star-Ledger article on protest songs, Lisa Leff raises the poignant question of where the protest songs have gone. In the aftermath of the travesty of justice in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, we find ourselves musically mute. As I sat in the theater awaiting Exodus, the preview of Selma brought tears to my eyes. Martin Luther King Junior knew the power of peaceful protest. “We Shall Overcome” featured in the trailer. Would there be an exodus after all of this at all? We used to voice our discontent. Now we click on to the next page, oblivious.

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Justice has become a myth for many. Please understand, I’m professionally bound not to use “myth” in a pejorative way. No, justice has become a myth. Fear is powerful, and power is fearful. Juries are supposed to be impartial. Who is really not afraid? Why don’t we sing in the dark instead of drawing our weapons and firing? Why don’t we believe “I can’t breathe” is a statement made in earnest? Why don’t we insist on the “for all” part of the pledge? After all, even some recent presidents not known for their sense of social justice have pointed out that these court decisions are puzzling. I wonder where I put those old Irish protest-song records?

Anything you say can and will be used against you. I don’t know what to say. We have lost the ability to experience justifiable outrage. We see powerful lobbies continue to arm the mentally unstable while one percent hordes the wealth that could be used to help fund the solutions. If you walk past Trump Tower you’ll see that visitors are not welcome in one of the highest buildings in the city. We have forgotten how to sing. These most recent cases of Brown and Garner are only the most recent cases. Violence in the name of law has gone on for too long. I’m afraid when I rush past the fatigues in the Port Authority on my way to work. But I am a white man. Do they know that I used to listen to Irish protest music? I wonder where I put those records. Wait a minute, there’s something new in the iTunes store.

Not Your Grandma’s Moses

Exodus Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings is, in many ways, a startling movie. It didn’t leave me with a strong impression of profundity, but it did make me a bit reflective. The media hype about God as an eleven-year-old boy proved to be merely hype. In fact, the boy deity was one of the most intriguing characters in the film. The role was played respectfully, and God, like a good Englishman, favored his tea. There was nothing comedic about it, however. More troubling was the agnostic Moses, à la Clash of the Titans with its unbelieving Perseus. Moses, even after meeting God, comes across as having little interior life. He hides in a cave and builds an army of terrorists making him seem like Moses bin Laden. He conceals himself while innocent Hebrews are hanged for his crimes (and did they even hang people in ancient Egypt?). When a great storm brews over Memphis, however, it is with a sense of wonder that we ponder at an eleven-year-old doing all this.

The movie plays lightly with the scholarly “explanations” that used to be doled out in seminaries about how one plague led to another. In fact, the character called “the Expert” in the credits is shown lecturing the Pharaoh on the causation scheme of clay churning up in the Nile turning it red, and killing the fish which in turn drove the frogs from the toxic water, but when they died flies came along and the flies spread disease. Then the Expert is hanged. Not so subtle a warning to biblical scholars. In fact, there seems to be a science behind much of the movie that makes miracles less acts of God than acts of nature. Even the drying of the Red Sea is understated. Its return is reminiscent of the Christmas Tsunami of 2004. God is sometimes not there when you’d expect a deity to care.

On the matter of caring, for an age of nones who have concerns for equality, the film was thin on women’s roles, making even the Bible appear to foreground them more. Sigourney Weaver—great in any context—seems only to be there to wish Moses dead. Even Miriam is given scant lines in the movie and no role in the Exodus itself. In Prince of Egypt she at least led her famous song. Zipporah is lovely but shows no sign of being as handy with a flint knife as Exodus makes her out to be. A woman of action. Miriam’s quick thinking saved the infant Moses. Overall, however, the Bible is a guy’s book, and Exodus is a guy’s flick. Opening with the battle of Qadesh on the Orontes is a way to draw men to a Bible movie. Lots of slashing, gashing, and charging horses. And the splendor of Egypt, filmed in Spain and the Canary Islands. Some miracles, it seems, are even impossible for CGI.

Behind the Exodus

Over this past week two of my friends/colleagues were quoted in major media outlets about Exodus: Gods and Kings. Being merely a blogger with nearly two decades of teaching Hebrew Bible means, naturally, that I have nothing valuable to say. Nevertheless, I would meekly venture to make my own observations and cast them out there into the world-wide web and see what happens. I haven’t seen the movie since it only opens tomorrow. I already know it is only loosely based on the Bible. Still, I wonder at the talking heads who constantly declare the Bible to be irrelevant to a throughly modern world. Okay, so I realize that this is about money, but Manhattan is often seen to be one of the more sophisticated cultural landmarks in the country. This summer I couldn’t walk more than a book or two without being inundated with Noah posters. Now I am finding the same with Exodus paraphernalia. If we try to put the Bible away, it seems, it will come to find us.

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The Bible, relevant or not, is full of great baseline stories. Even in a secular society we can see the appeal of Noah and his menagerie to young children who are so fascinated with animals. We decorate youngsters’ sleepwear and toys with elephants and lions and giraffes (interestingly not mentioning that these are primarily African animals) aboard an ark with an unfailingly cheerful Noah. Now we have another classic—the great liberation story (also set in Africa) of a people held in bondage being released by divine command. We are a post-Christian society, according to the pundits, so who this divine one is remains an open question. The idea that one people is kept oppressed by another people, however, is presented as unequivocally wrong. Moses rides out on a horse, weapons in hand. Are we not focusing on the larger point yet?

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This latest love affair with the Bible as a source of great cinematography will not last forever. It will surely ebb away until only a few old blog posts might remain to remind us there was a time when Holy Writ inspired screen writers and directors. Nevertheless, the Bible bides its time. Back in the days when I used to teach Hebrew Bible Hollywood didn’t do too much to help out. Students had to slog through pages of picture-less Bibles to get the gist of the what God had in mind. The results may not be the same from those comfy seats in movie theaters, but a future generation will come to see Charlton Heston as a white man who loved guns being overcome by a newer generation of producers and directors who know there is a larger story here. Of course, I’m only a blogger with no credentials. Still I know what I see on the streets of the city.

Manitous

ManitousOne of the yearly autumnal rituals we’ve established is the watching of Escanaba in da Moonlight. It is a silly, crude, and profound movie that revolves around Native American lore—namely, the creature known as the bearwalk. Despite the high level of interest in monsters on the internet, the bearwalk continues to be elusive. Robert C. Wilson wrote a novel, Crooked Tree, about this Ojibwa legend, but academics have seldom explored it. The few resources I found pointed me to the wendigo. Wendigos are frightening spirits of the forest, sometimes presented as skinwalkers, or shape-shifters, who prey on unwary human beings. Some writers call them werewolves, but this isn’t exactly correct. Frustrated at finding no solid information, I picked up a copy of Basil Johnston’s The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway. Johnston, who is Anishinaabe, writes to preserve the heritage of his people.

Manitous don’t have a direct equivalent in English. Some have been inclined to designate them as gods or spirits, but they inhabit that strange realm that overlaps with humans as well. The Ojibwa viewed the world as more animate than western science allows. People were part of this larger universe, but were not the sole end of intelligent life. The tales in this book map out an unseen territory where manitous may be found in lakes and streams, in the hearts of trees, in the early prototypes of humankind, and yes, in the wendigo. The wendigo (also spelled windigo or weendigo) is a representation of excessive acquisitiveness. They often begin life as humans, but become cannibals. As they eat other people their hunger grows, along with their bodies, and they cannot be satisfied. The more they eat the more their hunger remains. They are, therefore, extremely destructive, roaming the woods seeking human victims.

Throughout The Manitous, Johnston gives little in the way of editorial comment. One of his stories is a parable for the coming of Europeans and their subsequent treatment of Native Americans, but most of the tales are of the natural world. The wendigo occupies the last chapter of his book. Before putting the matter to rest, however, Johnston makes a poignant and valid point. Although the Ojibwa no longer believe in a literal wendigo, the treatment of the earth by corporations has taken its place. Always hungry, excessively greedy for more to be taken from the earth, industrialists have made the wendigo look as if it were an amateur slaughterer. Living lightly on the land, the Native Americans tried to take only what they needed. Europeans, on the other hand, created new things in order to keep the hunger going. And those who constantly create new needs grow wealthier and wealthier. Instead of naming this inherently destructive system the wendigo, we call it progress and happily invite it to live among us.

Texodus

I’m not sure what Patheos is, but it has been on my web-radar (or is it “ping”?) for some time now. They host bloggers with a more substantial platform than mine, and often have a number of comments that must require a full-time coterie of first responders. As a working class blogger, however, I siphon off their success to spin my own ideas a little further. All of this is preface to the fact that a recent article by Michael Stone on Patheos comments on Texas’s approval of textbooks where Moses inspired “the American system of democracy.” We are all used to Texas shenanigans by now, but making laws with the ultimate lawmaker just as a movie is being released that portrays Moses as a warrior is apt in a way that Rick Perry’s stomping grounds may not truly appreciate. The need to validate outdated laws with a largely mythical biblical figure is telling. Revisionist history depends on the version of history that is more compelling at the moment, and I find Moses charging the Egyptian army on horseback eerily appropriate.

Textbooks are insidious. They are society’s first crack at young, and naturally open, minds. As we socialize the rising generations to support that with which we’ve always felt comfortable—not wanting to jeopardize our ease in our advancing age—it becomes important to provide the appropriate propaganda. As I speak with fellow scholars (if I may be so bold) I frequently hear them decrying textbooks. By their nature they are a leveling off of what naturally comes in mounds—heaps, even. They are a tool used to keep everything even in a world of rough knowledge. They are insidious in that they are hard to override. Those of us who’ve taught in college know how difficult credibility is when “the book says” is the standard line of recourse. If it was published by Pearson corporation, it must be true.

Revisionist history.

Revisionist history.

Of course, we venerate the published word. Today the Bible, I suspect, were it newly composed, would have difficulty finding a publisher. Since it was written a couple thousand years ago, however, it retains all the trappings of hoary wisdom that is required to make the elders comfortable. Even scholars of the Bible have, as a matter of course, questioned Moses’ role in the story for centuries. As early as the Middle Ages some sages were asking how Moses knew to write his own death scene. Even so, the vast majority took the word literally, and now that we’ve defined ourselves as a “Christian nation,” or at least the southern half of a Christian nation, we can use the Bible as a textbook. What could be more natural? On the big screen I anticipate Christian Bale charging the Egyptians on horseback. In the Pentateuch I read of Moses hiding behind Aaron’s eloquence. One is biblical, but is it believable? If it comes to a contest of force between the two, I’ll go with Ridley Scott every time.

Get Out of Town

If the Bible were to be written today, it would be more graphic. Those who’ve read it know that it is a graphic book already, but with no literal illustrations. Somewhat surprisingly for a post-Christian society where the Bible generally gets bad press, this year has seen the release of at least two major movies based, loosely, on scripture. Noah came with a flood of hype this summer, and even then we were told to keep an eye out for a movie on the exodus later in the year. The New York Times heralds the imminent arrival of Exodus: Gods and Kings with a movie preview. Like Noah the new movie will take liberties with the biblical accounts of the exodus. (The Bible itself is not consistent on the story in any case. The “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15 differs considerably from the prior prose account.) Ridley Scott, who gave us Alien, has cast the iconic Batman, Christian Bale, as Moses. When I first read about this during the summer, I wondered how Bale would take the meek role of the humblest man on earth. With considerable chutzpah seems to be the answer.

The review by Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, however, make the most not of Moses but of his mentor, Yahweh. Using an eleven-year old, Isaac Andrews, as the deity, the movie “preserves the awful severity of the Old Testament God.” In this it touches on one of the sore-spots among biblical scholars and theologians both—the characterization of a bifurcated deity. God in the New Testament is frequently said to be loving and kind (except for the iron-clad rule that makes him (as he is male) sacrifice his own child), while the deity of the Hebrew Bible is said to be angry, mean, and vindictive. Others say he’s simply just just. We like to see a divinity who is swayed by mercy and is deeply aware of the human condition. The Bible presents, it seems, a conflicted God who is sometimes just as confused as we are.

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Casting a deity who is forever young, however, may be a stroke of genius. In the Bible, in as far as there is a coherent storyline, God does seem to evolve. Sure, there are those who claim God always remains the same, but any deity whose first recorded words to Adam and Eve, after laying down the rules, take the form of an interrogative certainly must be able to learn and grow. Of course, it is very much like a human to suppose that the world could not have existed before we got here to see it. We who are so fascinated by the idea that the world could have carried on without us for the generations before we were born. What was God doing in those eons, besides playing with dinosaurs, like a child? I don’t suppose Exodus will delve into those questions, busy as it will be with battle scenes and other adult situations. At least if it’s true to the Bible, which, despite popular opinion is so graphic that would have a hard time retaining an R rating, if taken literally.

The Force Re-Awakens

StarWarsMoviePoster1977In a galaxy long ago, in a galaxy far, far away… The year was 1977 and the Joseph Campbell-inspired Star Wars was like nothing we’d ever seen before. The film captured the essence of good versus evil in what, for the time, were realistic scenes in space. Many of us were in awe. Some worshipped. In fact, some six films later, an only quasi-ironic Star Wars religion does exist (Jediism) and its adherents must be buzzing after yesterday’s announcement that a new Star Wars movie will be released next year. What particularly caught my attention was the New York Times article on the event. Peppered with religious language, the trailer review (have we come to this?) by Dave Itzkoff plays on the fact that fans are nothing less than religious about the movies. I have to admit to falling a few movies behind. I’m a lapsed Jediist, I guess.

The new movie, The Force Awakens, will be directed by J. J. Abrams, and that seems to be a prophecy for a positive outcome. It also provides me with a goal; I need to see the episodes I, II, and III that I somehow missed early in the new millennium. Some see, to borrow Itzkoff’s language, the original trilogy as being canonical. The original novelizations—all of which I read as a teenager—were written by various guest writers with names like Glut and Kahn (the latter somewhat prescient for the upcoming Star Trek movies of the time), recording the sacred texts of the nascent religion. Rituals developed, light-sabers were purchased, and imagination became the vehicle for theology.

Behind it all, of course, is the force. This is a deity for a rationalist world. Even today we know that things don’t always turn out the way they should. Juries make the wrong decisions, computers still crash, even even two space shuttles—highly sophisticated though they were—failed and exploded during routine operations. Many find the white-bearded God untenable, but somewhere out there amid the comets and stars, there seems to be a moral force guiding us in the constant struggle of good versus evil. Heaven is still over our heads, although lost in the darkness of space. Less than 90 seconds of film footage have lit up the web with speculation, critique, and yes, reverence. We may have become the consummate secular society, but there is still always room for the force. Indeed, The Force Awakens may contain a not-so-subtle message for those who have ceased to believe that its personified form still exists.