Category Archives: Movies

Posts that feature a movie

Overboard

NotWantedOnTheVoyageThe story of Noah has long fascinated me. The world of early Genesis is so mysterious and compelling—a mythical time when all the action seemed to be taking place in just one bit of the world, and events were always momentous. Noah, the new Adam ten generations on, stood out as the prototypical good guy. The sort of fellow you’d like living next door. An everyday hero. The movie Noah, however, introduced a dark and brooding ark captain whose unyielding devotion to his own concept of righteousness led to a tormented journey over the flood. I wonder if Darren Aronofsky read Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage. Recommended to me by one of my students, this novel was difficult for me to categorize. At first I thought it might be a funny story—despite the tragic overtones, there is much in the flood story that suggests humor—but no, it was more serious than that. Noah was cast in a primeval, post-Christian world where elements of the twentieth century were freely available, while others were not. And more troubling, Noah was not at all a nice guy. Indeed, he is one of the best written antagonists I’ve encountered. You shudder when he enters the room.

Apart from Noah, however, the novel explores the premise that Yaweh [sic] sent the flood as a final, dying act. Old, feeble, yet the creator of everything, the deity is ready to give it all up as the absentee landlord who has no idea what’s happening on earth. The reader feels little sympathy for the divine. Like humanity, he set something in motion he has no hope of controlling, yet which he can destroy. As he is about to die, unbeknownst to all humans, he sends the flood. Noah, six-hundred years old and senile, oversees his ark with an iron hand. His religion has made him cruel, and I was frequently left wondering whether those who survived were more fortunate than those who did not. As a fantasy the story works, with well drawn characters and a devious plot. The problem comes in trying to reconcile it with a Bible story all too well known. In the end we’re left wondering if the flood does really ever end, and, if so, does anything turn out okay.

Known for his dark, conflicted characters, Findley adds a macabre dash of the improbable to an already unbelievable story. Mrs. Noyes, aka Mrs. Noah, is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the novel. Her son Ham, cursed in the biblical version, is clearly the best son, but one his father dislikes by reason of his love for science. Part morality play, part farce, Not Wanted on the Voyage can be a disturbing novel, rather like the movie Noah. That’s not to suggest there’s no message here. I see it as a cautionary tale of a misplaced faith taken too far. Instead of pleading to save humanity, Noah seems only to glad to let all but his own be wiped out. His sons disappoint him, and the one daughter-in-law he appreciates disappoints him in the end. Perhaps this is what destructions are all about. Does any flood really have a happy ending?

A Night at Culture

AmericanMuseumOne of the undisputed benefits of living in the greater New York City metropolitan area is the potential for culture. I know that culture exists everywhere, and that is precisely one of the points behind Douglas J. Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic. I picked this up at a used book sale because of my love of dinosaurs, but the subtitle provides more of a description: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History. Just when the first Night at the Museum movie came out, the American Museum of Natural History offered a program of nights to sleep in the museum, geared toward children. A generous family member bought us tickets and we got to sleep in the oceanarium under the giant whale dangling from the ceiling. We were allowed to explore galleries by flashlight, including the most famous collection of dinosaurs in the world. Who wouldn’t want to read about the backstory of such a museum after such an event?

As might be expected, with roots in the late nineteenth century, it was a different world in which this museum was conceived and built. Rare animals were shot to be part of exhibits, artifacts were acquired and shipped across national borders, and even world-class bird collections were bought to help an indiscrete baron avoid the humiliation of having an affair revealed by a blackmailer. Still, the religious element was clear. One of the founders for the museum, Albert Bickmore, went off in search of artifacts with his Bible tucked under his arm. Exotic places and peoples were still allowed to be called exotic, and the museum eventually became famous enough to star in a movie.

What struck me the most about this fascinating story, however, is when Preston points out that the most fragile, and valuable possession of the museum are the myths. Early ethnographers visited peoples that, even then it was already too clear would become extinct (culturally), and recorded their religious stories. This, and not the thundering Tyrannosaurus Rex, was the true purpose of the museum. Museums are about people. What we discover, what we make, and how we impact our planet. Myths, religious stories, are some of the most unique and delicate pieces of information that we can leave behind. Even materialists have beliefs. We all believe in something. Although nobody goes to a Night at the Museum to read dusty old stories, it is a source of comfort that they are there. Many of the cultures have indeed died out. Were it not for the foresight of those who could see where globalization would eventually lead, they would have been forever lost. And a world without myth is not a world worth living in.

Lazarus, Come Forth

The red-cast face staring down from the giant LCD billboard this side of the Lincoln Tunnel has my attention. Having become an unwitting fan of horror movies, the genre was clear from the creepy, black-eyed gaze that found me even in mass transit. The Lazarus Effect, it said. I stored the information away knowing that it would be a movie I’d have to rent and watch alone—I don’t know many other true fans, and I don’t like going to a theater by myself. Then I started thinking about Lazarus. The man raised from the dead, according to the Gospels. When I was a child I always confused this Lazarus with the one from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. I’d never known anybody with that name, and to find it twice in the same book must imply, at some level, that they were the same guy, right? I mean, they’re both dead. So my juvenile thinking went. In the parable Lazarus, whose wounds are licked by dogs, is taken into the comfort of heaven when he dies. The rich man, it turns out, isn’t so lucky.

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This was a bitter cold day. Dressed like I was headed to McMurdo Station rather than central Midtown, I tried to keep my head down as the wind howled through the channels constructed by excess wealth. I am always distressed to see the homeless out and about on such days. I’ve got on more layers than an onion on steroids, and I’m still chilled through. What must it be like to face such weather threadbare? There, on Madison Avenue I saw a dog being taken for a walk. He had on a warm sweater and fancy purple slippers to keep his canine feet from touching the cold ground. That dog was better dressed against the cold than some of the people I’d passed. I thought of the dog licking the sores of Lazarus. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me,” the rich man cried.

“Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” The words are almost as harsh as this wind. We’ve become a society that will spend more readily on our pets than on our compatriots. Dogs, at least the breed I saw on the street, have evolved to grow thick coats. I’ve seen pictures of huskies running across the snow like their wolfen ancestors. Indeed, the wolves, where we’ve not hunted them to extinction, still manage in the winter. But then, there’s the Lazarus Effect. I’m feeling guilty thinking about putting out the money to rent it, several months down the road. There’s a real life Lazarus who could use any spare change right now. And the well-heeled dogs, I’m sure, would be made to turn up their noses from even getting near enough to lick his wounds.

Ultimate Superlative

“Push men too far and they fall off the cliff.  Push great men too far and they soar.”  The words are those of my novelist friend K. Marvin Bruce.  Unless you read this blog you’ve probably never heard of him; his novel publishing record is about as successful as my academic career.  Still, I think quite a bit about Marvin’s plight.  He seems to be a gifted writer—he sends me copies of his stuff—but publishers take no notice.  He’s had a few short stories appear in online journals; two of them even won prizes, but the internet is a very crowded place.  It’s not easy to get noticed. Those who try to make a living smithing words often face a dilemma; it feels like all the momentous words have already been taken.

Marvin on a superlative walk

Marvin on a superlative walk

I mentioned in a recent post that we are suffering from a crisis of superlatives.  The other day I was in a mall (this is a foreign activity for me—the people all look far trendier than I do, and they seem to think this is the place to be, not just where you have to go to have your laptop serviced).  I saw a mother walking by holding the hand of her maybe three-year-old son.  His little tee-shirt read “Über Awesome.”  I recall when awesome really meant full of awe.  And that was rare, reserved for things like towering, severe Midwestern thunderstorms alive with constant lightning, or gray north Atlantic waves crashing mercilessly into the cliffs of Maine. I stood, small and insignificant on the prairie or the coast, utterly at a loss for words. Yes, it was that impressive. My superlatives, however, have all been absconded. We live in a world where “greatest” sounds somewhat ordinary. Even the apocalypse has grown thin from overuse, and that used to be the ultimate end of everything. How weak it all sounds.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching the second Star Wars trilogy. While the special effects are impressive, it suffers compared to the original trilogy. One of the reasons, in my idiosyncratic hermeneutic, is that the Jedi knights were reconceived, or reconceptualized. They are action figures, hands on hips, ready to dart into a fight. “May the force be with you,” has become a mere “God bless you.” Was not the real strength of Obi Wan his silence and lack of haste? Was Luke ever more impressive than when he slowly walked into the cave of Jabba the Hut, light saber tucked away, only to be used when such an awesome weapon was called for? It takes a certain placidity of soul to stare long into the abyss. Perhaps this is a metaphor for our superlatives. Calm lives of measured, considered action. This seems to be what the world lacks. To find it would truly be experience simple greatness.

Jedi Night

Star_Wars_Phantom_Menace_posterIt all began with that trailer. You know, the teaser for the new Star Wars movie. I was among those many small-town boys crowding into theaters in 1977 to have their small-town minds blown with a Luke Skywalker, somehow just like us, getting to go on a galactic adventure and conquering evil. It was a transformative experience. Later I was to learn that noted Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell had advised on the story, helping to produce image after archetypal image that spoke to deep levels of viewers’ psyches. Hungrily we watched, as even through some missteps, the franchise grew to trilogy proportions, creating its own cultural memes (has “I am your father” ever been the same since?). Then somehow I missed The Phantom Menace, or episode one. It could be that work at the time (Nashotah House) was an epic struggle in its own right. With a small child and not sure about baby-sitting options, taking a night out to watch the prequel to a story that had already nicely resolved itself felt kind of pointless. We already knew how it ended. But that trailer. Now it seems, the story will continue.

So it was that my wife and I decided to catch up. Over the weekend we watched The Phantom Menace. Of course, I’d seen clips before. I’d also read the reviews that were less than complementary (Joseph Campbell had died in the meantime and George Lucas couldn’t seem to come up with archetypes on his own). I was curious, but not curious enough to rent the video (as people did in those days). So The Phantom Menace, cast from the same die as episode 4, also has a strong religious resonance. The Jedi (and already the religion of Jediism has begun to appear) filled the backstory with near invincibility, and all the aliens seemed somehow comic, yet we are told remarkably little about the Force. Perhaps episode 4 had said enough. When Darth Vader is introduced as a prescient boy, the audience (at least this audience) finds it hard to believe he is the result of a virgin birth. Indeed, Lucas throws us the midi-chlorians as a sop, but we know that when a woman gives birth with no male intervention we’re in messianic territory. And of course, non-Muppet Yoda tells us straight up that he may be the chosen one.

Introducing the Sith, who are the embodiment of the dark side of the force, we are treated to a devil in only a thin disguise. The red and black greasepaint warn us that when he removes his hood he will have horns. Although we’re not shown, I suspect he has cloven feet as well. So through the movie with its gratuitous cameos of creatures we already know from episode 4, we come to an end that is strangely familiar. We’re back where we started. The Jedi favor earth tones over white, however, and the Sith is neither all red nor all black. The evil of the galactic empire seems to be no more than the very real overtaxation of the poor. And yet for all my disappointment, there’s that trailer we all saw in December, and using my own version of the Force, I foresee an attack of clones in my future.

Sporting Chance

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I didn’t watch the SuperBowl last weekend. In fact, I haven’t had television service for over two decades now. I don’t really miss it too much since I don’t have time to watch TV (the commuting life leaves time only for sleeping and working, except on weekends). Still, for special events, I think, it might be nice to see things live. (My wife raises this point every time the Olympics roll around. I seem to recall them being every four years, but now it seems they’re seasonal, and about twice as frequent. Could it be that advertising revenues are really that important? Maybe I missed that, not having television…) Even when I have managed, over the last couple of decades, to pull the SuperBowl onto a fuzzy, snowy screen, it was for one major reason—the commercials. I wonder what that says about a society? I now spend precious weekend time watching commercials on YouTube, sometimes having to watch a commercial for the privilege of watching a commercial. The substance without the fluff of the actual entertainment.

So it was that I saw the Mophie commercial about the apocalypse (here’s the link, in case you’re as entertainment-challenged as I am). So as the world comes to an end, the weather goes even more wonky than we’ve already made it go, Fortean fish fall from the sky, dogs walk their owners and priests steal plasma television sets. Then the punchline, God’s cell phone dies and the end of the world ends. It isn’t the shock of seeing an African-American God—Morgan Freeman led the way there with Bruce Almighty—but rather the technique, the divine delivery, if you will, that is the shock. Not even God is anything without his cell. (I wonder when we’ll see a Latino woman as God? Dogma came close, but not quite.) Is the smartphone really not the deity here?

God, it seems, has become a null concept. I don’t mean because of different racial or gender presentations, but I do mean that the concept itself is completely up for grabs. God, according to Anselm of Canterbury, is that being greater than which nothing can be conceived. In fact, God seems to be that which people worship, more of a Tillichian ultimate concern. A wired world should, in theory, be a world headed toward peace and equality. If we know what’s going on everywhere, shouldn’t we be doing our best to ensure that it is fair and just? The truth of the matter gives the lie to such optimistic musings. I would hate to confess just how much my phone bill is every month. Even without the “triple play” (no television) it is the biggest expense after college tuition and rent. And it goes on, in saecula saeculorum. When I pull out my smartphone, I gaze upon the face of the Almighty. And perhaps that’s a good thing, because how else would I entertain myself without television?

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In honor of the fifty-year anniversary of the release of Dr. Strangelove this past week, my wife and I sat down to rewatch the movie this weekend. Psychologically, as Kubrick found out, dark humor was the only way to deal with the sense of doom that pervaded the world into which those of my generation were born. Nuclear weapons had been developed and the Cold War was in full swing. Somehow, even in small-town America, I didn’t find Communism to seem so awful. After all, I grew up reading the Bible and it sounded quite a bit—at least in theory—like the arrangement the apostles had made in the book of Acts. The idea of private property, the very spine and muscular system of capitalism, was considered a sure way to lead to God’s kingdom not being established on earth. Nevertheless, that is the way, as the phrase goes, that the money went. And Communism threatened the right of one percent to horde all the money, so we were ready to annihilate all human life for it. Talk about taking your marbles and going home! No child should grow up knowing the meaning of the phrase “mutually assured destruction.”

Dr. Strangelove has held up well for the half-century since its release. Despite the thawing of the Cold War, the big chill isn’t over yet. And humor still seems the only way to keep sanity and deal with the state of the world. There are still many General Turgidsons out there (some of whom have held very high government offices, and this is no joke). There are at least, as far as we know, fewer General Rippers. So we hope. As the bomber crew nears its target, Major Kong goes over the contents of the government issued survival kit, among which is a comically small Russian Phrase Book and Bible combined. Kubrick, a master of satire, has the godlessness of Communism thrown time and again across the lips of the hawks. It is better to kill everyone than to allow the godless to rule. Even the Bible, however, shares space with the Russian phrasebook, making us wonder whether it is a tool of conversion or an admission of inevitability. Still the bomber, piloted by a Texan, flies on.

Perhaps the biggest moral dilemma we face is our ability to destroy hope. Capitalism promises opportunity to all. Like many who grew up poor, however, I have found lies hidden in plain sight. It is not easy to move ahead if you choose to mire yourself in debt to get an education. In fact, if you lose a job in higher education you can easily find yourself adrift for a decade or more, not earning any retirement money and being frequenly sought out by your local universities as an adjunct instructor. In fact, at many points your career might look like the end of the world. So it is that I take great comfort in settling down to watch Dr. Strangelove again. At least it is an honest movie, and that hasn’t changed in the past half-century. And I think I may have been wrong about how few General Rippers there really are.