Pop Culture Primer: Movies
What place do “secular” movies have in the life of the Christian? I believe one answer can be found in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” which begins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” It’s a startling, triumphant opening for a poem that also goes on to describe the world as “bleared, smeared with toil” and begrimed with “man's smudge” and “man's smell.” The poem points to the constant tension between fallenness and glory, the two things living side by side in the natural world and in all human beings, beings who bear both the smudge of the fall and the grandeur of the imago dei.
Movies flow from both of those human identities: in them we can see the glory of God flaming out as much as we can see the fall and the need for redemption. As such, movies—those flickers of light on screens in the dark—stand as rich objects of spiritual contemplation.
5. Serenity (2005)
Joss Whedon’s space Western, Serenity, opens on a children’s history class. The teacher describes how, after humans fled the overpopulated Earth and found new home planets, a powerful group—the Alliance—became a “beacon of civilization,” subduing rebel planets and uniting everyone under gracious rule. It’s a nice story, but it handily conceals a brutal reality.
The Alliance’s goals initially seem good. They aim, according to one fanatical believer, to make “a world without sin.” But as we follow the adventures of a ragtag crew aboard the spaceship Firefly, who find themselves at odds with the Alliance, we learn how dangerous an admirable ideal can be in the hands of fallible human beings, particularly those with the power to erase history. By the end of the film, the crew has fled to the very edges of the universe, discovered how far the Alliance has gone in pursuit of its goals, and how desperately it’s tried to cover the hideous side effects.
Science fiction often explores the darkest parts of humanity by placing characters in a technologically advanced setting and then interrogating the notion that we could be sinless if only we had more sophisticated props—better medicine, communication systems, and infrastructure. Serenity exposes the cracks in such thinking, revealing that utopia, as Thomas More’s Latin wordplay suggests, is “no place”—at least, no place humans are capable of creating. Serenity speaks to an admirable desire for a perfect earth but reminds us of the Fall, the problem of evil, its human causes and complicities, and the ultimate mess humans make of our own attempts at heaven.
Mal (Nathan Fillion), the captain of the Firefly, holds no illusions about humanity’s supposed incorruptibility. “I don’t hold to that,” he says. “I aim to misbehave.” By this, Mal does not mean he intends evil. He is simply acknowledging his own failings and recognizes that people are incapable of perfection. He and his crew have flashes of heroism and share a little love, but they are still scavengers, making their way through the universe, just trying to survive.
Mal and his friends offer no solution to the problem of evil; they suffer irreparable loss and grief, even as they aim to do the right thing. All they can do in the end is point their beloved, rickety, imperfect ship toward a literal storm, taking comfort in each other. In rejecting sci-fi utopianism, Serenity reminds us that salvation will never come from our imperfect hands. Instead, our hope for the world lies with the one who created and redeemed it.
4. Rashomon (1950)
Just after World War II, during a period of destruction and horror in Japan, director Akira Kurosawa made Rashomon—a film that would stun the Western world with its unique form and startling themes. While Kurosawa made other, more optimistic films during the post-war period, in Rashomon he gives free rein to pessimism, turning the light of cinema on the dark human soul.
The film opens on the ruined Rashomon city gates. Two figures sit, hunched in the rain, one of them repeatedly saying, “I don’t understand.” The statement is a portent of things to come, of the ways in which viewers, too, will be immersed in a story about a mysterious death that confounds understanding.
The murder mystery genre to which Rashomon belongs often underscores a longing for justice and satisfies a human need to discover the truth. In most mysteries, the murderer is discovered and brought to justice. Rashomon initially seems to promise something similar, considering it features a dead man, a trial, and a series of eyewitnesses. But as each witness tells a story that convincingly contradicts the others, the path towards truth becomes as tangled and shadowed as the forest in which the film’s dead man met his demise.
It’s not simply our longing for truth that the film thwarts; it’s our desire to believe human beings are good. The witnesses’ stories contradict each other so radically that the only remaining truth is that of the human capacity to lie. We might be certain, at first, that one witness must be right, but as we examine each story, it becomes clear that the witnesses are casting themselves in the most sympathetic light possible. How can we believe any of them?
Kurosawa, in his Something Like an Autobiography, writes that his assistant directors initially found the script baffling and begged for an explanation. Kurosawa explained, “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. ...Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth.”
Rashomon confronts us with the Fall and asks us to consider whether we truly believe we are included in it. For those who accept complicity, it leaves an urgent need that the film suggests cannot be filled by human means. It leaves a longing for transcendence, and we searchingly gaze upwards, as the movie’s characters themselves often do, towards the sun.
Rashomon confronts us with the Fall and asks us to consider whether we truly believe we are included in it.
3. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Raoul Peck’s documentary is, on the surface level, a film about the black American writer James Baldwin. However, because Baldwin’s novels, plays, poems, essays, speeches, and interviews consider the complex personal and communal intersections relative to race, class, and sexuality in mid-20th century America, the film invites contemplation for all Americans. By way of Baldwin’s own words (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson) and of television clips of Baldwin, Peck holds the man’s work before us, like a mirror, reflecting who we are.
As Baldwin considers America—the country he fled for a time to escape the torments of racism—his words reverberate: “Part of my responsibility as a writer was...to write the story and get it out.” That story is the clear-eyed, blunt account of an America clinging as tightly to its institutional racism as it clings to its notion that it is the land of the free.
“White people,” Baldwin wrote, during the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, “want to believe Birmingham is on Mars; they don’t want to believe there is one step actually or morally between Birmingham and Los Angeles.” One of the strengths of the film is the way it shows us that “Birmingham” is, indeed, only one step from anywhere in America. Peck layers the film with images that connect Baldwin’s words to the country’s past and present: we see the dead bodies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., then see the faces of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. We see images of a white mob attacking those at a lunch counter sit-in during the Civil Rights Movement; we then see images of white policemen beating Rodney King, as well as Eric Garner pinned down on the sidewalk. The past and the present mingle, and Peck makes us witnesses; we see and cannot deny the connections.
As Christians we know that the Fall is not just something that happened long ago; it also manifests itself in the present. I Am Not Your Negro challenges us to take our profession of the Fall seriously and to turn, lest, in a denial of guilt, the guilt compounds. “We are our history,” Baldwin says, in a kind of call to confession. “If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.”
In an interview with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast, Peck suggests the film is “not about punishment; it's about knowing—because knowing is the beginning of change.” The film makes us witnesses to knowledge that white America has long denied. If we, as Christians, agree that we are called by God to partner with him in his work of restoration, I Am Not Your Negro leaves us with one question: what will we do with this knowledge that we have?
2. The House is Black (1962)
In her lyrical essay-film The House is Black, Iranian poet and filmmaker Forugh Farrokhzad invites us into the lives of those living in a leper colony. In a powerful 22 minutes, Farrokhzad layers verses—from the Bible, the Qur’an, and Farrokhzad’s own poetry—with potent images of the men, women, and children whose bodies have been ravaged by disease.
The very first image is of a woman who is studying her scarred, pitted face in a mirror. Her unflinching gaze seems to say, “I see me. Now, you see me.” At first, it is painful to look at her, as well as the others, who present equally eroded faces and diseased body parts: a toeless foot, an eyeless face, a disintegrated nose, a crumpled hand. In an early schoolroom scene, students read, “I thank you for giving me hands to work with” and “I thank you for giving me eyes to see the marvels of this world.” Here Farrokhzad seems to be pointing out the dreadful, ironic joke of it all. Thank God for creating this? Those hands and eyes?
But as we continue to look, the horror dissolves into sympathy, and then into something more complex. Beings who look so far from whole and human become, not only human, but human like me. Eating, laughing, playing, making music, nursing a baby.
One of the most arresting scenes also takes place in a schoolroom. "You. Name a few beautiful things," says the teacher. The addressed student pauses. "The moon, sun, flowers, playtime," he says. To another student, the teacher says, "And you, name a few ugly things." There is another pause, until the answer: "Hand. Foot. Head." We watch and listen in a shock of horrified sympathy, for in this boy's life, the body is grotesque. His world is full of ugly humans, an unbearable tragedy. But quickly, as if in a gentle contradiction to our shocked response, the other students erupt in laughter. And the boy who answered ducks his head, expressing delighted modesty in having made a joke.
Is there nothing more human than laughing in the face of misery? Animals whimper in fear and pain, but what other creature on earth looks at another creature of its kind and, in sweet communion with another, laughs in the midst of trauma? Laughter does not dismiss the pain, but it looks at it, like the woman looking in her mirror. It says, “No, I will hope. I will live.” Laughter is a grace in the darkness, a hope for redemption. It offers the knowledge that in the body, however marred, is the soul. And that the body, in whatever form, has dignity.
Perhaps the best art is that which reminds us of the transcendent, a transcendence that does not dismiss the material world but connects us to it and to one another, making us more alive to our physical world, to the communal implications of living. The House is Black asks us to see the disfigured and recognize the imago dei, the stamp of the image of God. Farrokhzad unveils the transcendence of a leper’s body, for in it, as in all our bodies and lives, is embodied the joy of creation, the horror of the Fall, and the promise of redemption. Like Jesus touching the leper, Farrokhzad’s camera touches these lepers, embraces them, and says, “See.”
Perhaps the best art is that which reminds us of the transcendent.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
As in his earlier Mad Max films (1979’s Mad Max; 1981’s The Road Warrior; 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is set in a post-apocalyptic desert world, where a nuclear holocaust has decimated populations and poisoned the earth. Presiding over part of this world is Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a ruthless ruler turned cult leader, whose machinery controls the only known supply of water, which he gives to and withholds from the masses. His kingdom depends on brutal exploitation: of those who run the machinery, those who fight as warrior slaves, those who give blood to the warriors, those who give him milk, and those who give him children. All—men, women, children—are branded with the mark of Joe’s ownership.
The story follows a group of women, and a few men who join them, who dares to rebel against Immortan Joe’s control, who dare to hope for some other life, a “green place” of fresh water and freedom. Joe, of course, who will not tolerate such rebellion, leads an enraged pursuit after his “property,” and the film becomes a madly treacherous ride over the desert, through sand and sand storms, over poisonous sucking mud, through canyons, over rocks, in vehicles ingeniously patched together with bits of a previous civilization. All is fire, blood, and careening madness, crashings, explosions, and speed.
It is an exhilarating rush, the best of action filmmaking. Its characters are vibrantly memorable, expertly sketched in spare dialogue, and adorned with evocative costuming. The movie’s visual inventiveness is so rich, with surprising, delightful detail, it will tempt you to hit pause to study each bit of texture. Such richness of detail, so thoroughly, organically embedded in the film’s world, recalls one of the most basic joys cinema can offer for the Christian: its reflection of the Creator in the human creative act. Mad Max: Fury Road is as lushly gratuitous as a sunset, viscerally pleasurable as a snowy mountain peak, delightfully ridiculous as a pink fairy armadillo.
The sheer creativity of the film, however, is not its only happiness, for the movie is rich in theme as well. As a film about power and exploitation, Mad Max: Fury Road leads us to consider the human propensity for such things. What fallen darkness are we capable of and how much of it can we tolerate? Though in a seemingly unserious pop-culture form, Mad Max: Fury Road, like Rashomon and I Am Not Your Negro, confronts us with what humans will do, given the power, to other humans in service of their own corrupted egos.
Joe's religious demagoguery—exploiting a need for worship and producing fanatical worshippers—leads us to consider the abuses of religion, as well as the self-destructive acts of some worshippers. It causes us to consider, perhaps, the fraught place of religion in contemporary society and the ways in which a cause, dressed in religious garb, can so easily breed evil.
The film’s invocation of Valhalla and the pursuit of its earthly parallel, the “green place,” cause us to question where heaven may be found, in this life or the next, very near or very far. We are invited to consider, as Augustine did in The City of God, what it means to live with one’s feet planted in the “City of Man” and yet live with hope in the unseen realm of the “City of God.”
Mad Max: Fury Road, in short, exhilarates with its craft and joyous creativity, even as it leaves us with much to consider: the very nature of what it means to be a human soul, living with the hope of heaven in this ugly, beautiful place called Earth.
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