Hail, Caesar! (2016)

The latest film from the Coen brothers was actually the result of an idea brewing way back in 2005, intended to complete what star George Clooney called his “idiot trilogy,” including his previous Coen efforts O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty. Whatever changes have occurred in the script since then, I don’t think there’s any doubt that in Hail, Caesar!, Clooney’s Baird Whitlock could (and should) be considered an nothing less than an idiot.

That probably sounds harsh as a description, but it should be noted that the Coens seem to have a real affection for the characters they’ve created in this film—including Baird Whitlock. Admittedly, not everyone in the film is especially agile-minded. Many are consumed with their own projects and lack the ability to empathize with others.

Standing out from the pack is one Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio executive tasked with keeping a host of cinematic plates spinning—a stuffy, high-minded drama, a singing cowboy western (with a director that looks suspiciously like John Ford), and a couple of energetic musicals. The film opens with Mannix in a confessional, seeking absolution for lying to his wife about cigarette smoking. It seems a small thing, and that’s just the point: Mannix is conscientious when it comes to his responsibilities to and relationships with others.

Indeed, this opening scene bestows on Mannix a religious bearing. That the film returns Mannix to the confessional in its final minutes, forming a bookend with the earlier visit, only serves to undergird the identification. As the film plays out with Mannix in the midst of every narrative thread, it gradually becomes clear that the Coens have fashioned this studio head a priest of the secular realm.

First thing every morning, Mannix calls a “higher power” (New York) on the phone to report on the business at hand. He then spends his days mediating between prickly directors and overly sensitive or entitled actors. He makes sacrifices to cover the sins of his people. And he seeks to bring encouragement, guidance, and vision to his flock of misfits and idiots. All the while, none of it is appreciated. None lauded. It’s simply expected that he will be there, someone to rely upon when disobedience and sin seem ready to undermine this society-in-miniature.

And yet, I cannot help but wonder whether the Coens have laced their film with a strong dose of irony. For while the overarching purpose of Mannix’ priestly character serves to align religion and film—suggesting inherent significance for the latter through the connection with the former—the fact that the movie studio (as portrayed in the film) is undoubtedly filled with misfits and idiots seems to raise for the Coens a light-heartedly asked, but nonetheless important question: How significant can film be with this cast of clowns running the operation?

Such a question cuts back the other way as well: How significant can the church be with its own cast of clowns running the operation? I suspect the Coens are exactly right in linking religion and film for the way their respective stories can elevate the human condition. And while I don’t expect that the church or film art is going away anytime soon, I do expect that their lasting contributions to the world will be connected to the degree which they are able to bring humanity into contact with beauty, goodness, and truth.

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday introduced Jacques Tati’s droll title character to the world. The film is about nothing more than what the title indicates—a beach vacation taken by one Mr. Hulot (Tati never gives us his first name). The sense of formality in providing only his last name plays off of Hulot’s ungainly gait and ‘all-elbows-and-knees’ bearing. As Hulot interacts with his fellow seasiders over the course of several days, his air of formality brings a warmth of humanity to his character, even as his clumsiness creates difficulties for others—not to mention plenty of laughs.

That sense of humanity in Mr. Hulot only grows over the course of the film, particularly when we see him in relationship to the vacationers around him. This group of people operates on a strictly regimented schedule, moving like a herd of cattle every time the hotel’s meal bell rings. One couple always finds themselves in the restaurant a bit early, apparently unable to find anything else to occupy them beyond that most basic urge to eat. Cattle, indeed.

One recurring gag involves the lights in the beachside inn coming on in reference to one of Hulot’s nighttime escapades. While everyone else has dutifully made it to bed at a “proper” hour, Hulot finds himself out and about, exploring and adventuring. Where the group predictably files into the restaurant for lunch or sits quietly in the lobby every afternoon, Hulot leaves muddy footprints in the lobby or disturbs the quiet by leaving the door open on a windy day. Time and again Tati emphasizes the distinction between Mr. Hulot and the rest of the vacationers. True humanity looks quite different from the humdrum habits of most people.

This fundamental contrast suggests to us that of all the vacationers (save, possibly, a mysterious young woman) only Hulot has found the freedom that people so desperately seek both in vacation and in general. Hulot’s bumbling nature and the many laughs it produces becomes something of a stand in for individuality, freedom, and, most importantly, human warmth. Ironically, though filled with an attentiveness to others, Mr. Hulot generally remains beyond the touch of any other person. This sense of physical isolation provides something of a dark counterpoint to the inventive gags.

Even as Tati joyfully portrays the title character with a wry blend of formality and flailing limbs, Hulot remains beyond the reach of true human companionship. Indeed, it is the man’s difference from the crowd that makes him such a compelling figure. That Hulot never seems to find the companionship enjoyed by virtually everyone around him is not so much an indictment on his freedom and sense of wonder as it is on the rest of society’s rigidity and predictability.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

A few years ago, Quentin Tarantino offered this blunt assessment of Irish-American (not Anglo-Saxon) John Ford:

One of my American Western heroes is not John Ford, obviously. To say the least, I hate him. Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies. It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else’s humanity—and the idea that that’s hogwash is a very new idea in relative terms. And you can see it in the cinema in the Thirties and Forties—it’s still there. And even in the Fifties.[1]

John Ford’s Revolutionary War-era drama Drums Along the Mohawk—made in 1939—is among his films that include “faceless Indians” and in this way serves as one helpful means of examining Tarantino’s view regarding Ford’s racism.[2] Tarantino isn’t alone in his assessment of Ford’s work, but I find Ford’s films, including his Westerns, to contain a rich and varied portrait of figures of all kinds, colors, and genders.

When it comes to uncomfortable scenes with racial overtones, I won’t deny there are several in Ford’s oeuvre. Drums contains one especially egregious scene recently examined by Mike D’Angelo, where two drunken natives mean to burn down a house, and end up rescuing a bed inside when an old woman protests their actions. Ford’s comic sensibilities don’t always land near my own—he tends toward the broad and the slapstick—and this scene certainly illustrates that tendency well.

However, Ford does something else in this film that complicates the picture of Tarantino’s vision of Anglo-Saxon superiority. And this more complicated picture better reflects the American experience of race through my own lenses—a mixture of good and bad, of outreach and insensitivity, of helping hands and murderous ones.

The film opens with a Northeastern U.S. wedding among colonists of some means. The house, the décor, and the dress all highlight the fact that these people expect to live according to certain standards. The people have gathered to witness the nuptials of Gil Martin (Henry Fonda), who recently built a home on the frontier of Mohawk Valley, and Lana (Claudette Colbert), daughter of high colonial society.

The film follows the Martins through their early years as settlers in the Mohawk Valley. More importantly, however, Ford proceeds to throw obstacles at the naively haughty Lana throughout the course of the film. It turns out that “wonderful” Anglo-Saxon upbringing yielded Lana few frontier survival skills, with all its emphasis on obtaining the elemental things of life—food and shelter most importantly. While Gil puts his back into his work, Lana loses her expensive and impractical possessions and discovers that there’s more to life than the latest fashions from Europe. When Lana stoops to nurse soldiers injured in a Revolutionary War battle, we get the sense that her transformation nears completion.

The final sequence of the film completes an excellent bookend with the opening wedding scene. The European settlers have to fight off a band of Native Americans (led by a pro-British European no less). Lana is among the group of settlers in the local fort, and during the fight, she even picks up a weapon and shoots a man. Not only has she lost all outward claims to gentility that she brought to the frontier, she has lived with the settlers through their darkest moments, where all become equals in the face of imminent death.

Soon after this battle, Gil and Lana visit the fort, which the settlers have set to repair. Here they discover that the Revolutionary War has ended, and someone mounts the flag atop the church steeple (the highest point within the fort). As this occurs, Ford cuts to four separate, still shots of people gazing upon the flag that stands for newfound freedom: a black woman, a blacksmith and his wife, a Native American, and finally, Gil and Lana.

vlcsnap-2015-04-26-17h00m28s253 vlcsnap-2015-04-26-17h00m37s380 vlcsnap-2015-04-26-17h00m50s577 vlcsnap-2015-04-26-17h01m04s670

Interestingly, Ford shoots both the black woman and the Native American from below, attributing to them something like hero status. With the camera pointed upward, Ford makes these people seem larger than life, emphasizing their place in this land of freedom. Of course, these two shots aren’t without irony—as these people would have had nothing like the freedom enjoyed by the blacksmith and by Gil and Lana. In this way, this final montage has a multivalent effect—it celebrates the victory for freedom; it chides the victors for their unbalanced or incomplete views of freedom; and it reveals a yearning for something more, seeing as winning the revolution most certainly did not mean freedom for all. There’s a poignancy to these images that the Tarantino’s of the world don’t seem to count in their reckoning of Ford on race.

The last of the four shots, the one of Gil and Lana, closes the film. It also includes the only lines in this brief sequence, and in it we see the final transformation of the elite as they take on the qualities of the everyman. Gil turns from the flag to his wife and says, “I reckon we’d better be getting back to work. There’s going to be a heap to do from now on.” They no longer have the luxury of leisure. Work beckons, just as it does to many, many others who hope to have a roof over their heads or food on their plates. In the end, Ford presents Gil and Lana as equals with everyone else under the new American flag, an equality borne out of shared suffering, shared surviving, and shared needs.

[1] You can find the original interview here.

[2] Kent Jones has already offered a cogent response to Tarantino, though Jones doesn’t consider Drums. See also Richard Brody’s recent introduction to a Ford retrospective playing this summer.

Siddharth (2014)

Siddharth, Richie Mehta’s recent film set in India, follows an impoverished chain-wallah (zipper repairman) named Mahendra as he deals with the aftermath of his 12-year old son’s abduction. Mahendra has a measure of guilt over the situation because he had sent the boy off to another city to work in a factory. Despite modern child labor laws and access to government-funded schooling, Mahendra continues to operate on an older model of family life: school is fine for a while, but when the child comes of age, he or she needs to begin contributing financially to the family.

However, when the boy doesn’t return home in a month’s time as expected, Mahendra and his family grow worried. They eventually discover that the boy had “run away” some two weeks prior, though they were never notified. With little more information than this, Mahendra begins a search for his son. His impoverished condition means he lacks the resources and the connections to take off work and simply devote himself to the search. In this, Mehta highlights Mahendra’s powerlessness in the face of a largely indifferent society. Stop working and Mahendra will find he and his family without food or a place to stay.

One moment in particular crystalizes the dynamics of power that surge just beneath Siddharth’s surface. At this point, Mahendra only knows that the boy has been taken to a place unfamiliar to him called “Dongri.” So as Mahendra travels through Delhi repairing zippers on bags, pants, and purses, he asks everyone he meets if they know where to find Dongri. No one knows, but Mahendra perseveres in asking.

Finally, Mahendra stops to fix a woman’s purse, and asks her the same question he has been asking for days: Have you heard of a place called Dongri? She answers the same as everyone else. But then she punches the word into her smart phone and a map comes up instantly. This hard working, albeit poor man has little access to the tools most of this film’s western audience take for granted.

Now, possessing a smart phone with internet access won’t make one poor man “powerful.” Nor will it necessarily deliver him his missing son. However, by placing Mahendra in the completely hopeless and helpless situation of having his son abducted, director Mehta offers his western and affluent audience a humanizing connection to the poverty that too often dehumanizes people like Mahendra. This, for me, is the great success of Siddharth. The film challenges dominant western notions of the poor (they’re lazy, stupid, or immoral), and instead draws us into the narrative through a situation that is universal. Any parent—rich or poor—would do anything to find their missing child. And through this, Mehta shows Mahendra as a person with all the dignity of any other human being.

Song of the Sea (2014)

Song of the Sea, Tomm Moore’s follow-up to the beautifully animated Secret of Kells, begins with a memory. A mother, her belly swollen with baby, tucks her son, Ben, into bed just after giving him a special gift—a nautilus shell outfitted to play as a musical instrument. Though Ben’s mother dies that very night giving birth to his sister, Saoirse, he cherishes the shell even as six years pass.

The children’s father raises them in their lighthouse dwelling, but problems lurk just beneath the surface. Saoirse still hasn’t spoken a word by her sixth birthday. When her grandmother finds her washed up on the beach in the middle of the night, she decides to take the children from their seaside home to a “better” life in the city. However, Saoirse has a secret that she only just discovered herself, something she inherited from her mother: Saoirse is a selkie—human on land, but a seal in the sea. Removed from her natural habitat, Saoirse will die.

The threat of death coming to this little girl drives the action of the film, but it’s the death of her mother, which opens the film, that hangs heavy over the proceedings. Furthermore, as the children escape their grandmother’s home in the city and head back to the sea, death becomes an even more significant theme. The children—especially Ben—slowly awaken to the reality that their mother’s death is actually part of a much larger reality in the world—magical creatures such as selkies and fairies are dying at an alarming rate. Only Saoirse has the power to change the course of extinction for this magical world.

Death. Loss. Suffering. Grief. Creatures the world over have become acquainted with circumstances such as these. When the loss occurs with someone especially close—such as within the immediate family—coping can be a puzzling and altogether frustrating experience that leads to a life lived in fear of unknown dangers that lurk just beneath the surface of our otherwise controlled lives.

Indeed, this response of fear and control seems to be Ben’s typical (and natural) response to losing his mother. Though living on the seashore, he sees the ocean as a danger to be avoided—nothing more. Furthermore, anxiety plagues his relationship with Saoirse. Ben constantly expresses his concern that she might leave his sight, even to the point of attaching a leash to her so that she will not wander off.

And while Ben cherishes the gift from his mother—the nautilus shell that plays such beautiful, haunting, and mysterious music—the boy has lost all connection to the magic in the world that his mother would share with him through her stories and songs. In one scene, Ben scares Saoirse by telling one of his mother’s stories, only to proclaim that the story isn’t actually true. Death has removed the magic from Ben’s world. His vision of what’s possible in the world narrows. Fear takes the place of mystery.

The brilliance of Song of the Sea—without even mentioning its splendid 2D animation—is the way in which it gives Ben’s fear no quarter. Indeed, the story presents an approach to death and suffering that’s reminiscent of something poet Christian Wiman calls mystery mastering fear.”[1] As Ben slowly awakens to the mystery and magic in the world—through his little sister, no less—he sees that so much more is possible than he could have ever imagined. As he recognizes his smallness, his finitude, he allows and even encourages his sister to use her gifts to bring freedom and renewal into the lives of many. Empowering others to be who they were made to be, the film seems to be saying, is the ideal response to death, for it is the only response that answers death not with limitations, but with life.

[1] Christian Wiman, “Love’s Last,” in Once in the West, pg. 48

The Last of the Unjust (2014)

I had a provocative moment during my viewing of Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust, his portrait of Benjamin Murmelstein, former elder of the Jews at the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1944-45. Early on in the film, Murmelstein tells Lanzmann: “you have convinced me our conversation is important.” For decades, Murmelstein had been reluctant to speak about the past, due, no doubt in part, to the pain it brought as well as the controversy his own role raised. At the moment just after Murmelstein uttered the above quotation, the disc in my DVD player simply froze without explanation. I couldn’t turn off the player. I couldn’t eject the disc. The image of Murmelstein’s frozen face—before he could really tell his story—lit up my living room. Maybe, this pregnant pause seemed to ask, the past is better left in the past?

Once I got the film restarted, I carried that question with me throughout Lanzmann’s extensive, more-than-three-hour interview with Murmelstein. Seeing as Lanzmann recorded the interview in 1975, the film seemed to pose the same question at a formal level as well. Numerous times throughout the film, Lanzmann’s camera or even Lanzmann himself introduces or interrupts the historical interview, instead wandering through the clean streets, emptied rooms, and beautiful synagogues that once bore witness to innumerable terrors. These places now carry largely unnoticed markers of remembrance, if anything at all.

The film shifts between old footage and new—most directly in the old footage of Lanzmann compared with the recent footage of Lanzmann—visually and formally mark history itself as a character. Indeed, as we try and suss out an honest response to Murmelstein’s admittedly fascinating stories of working for Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann and running the Theresienstadt ghetto, Lanzmann’s film foregrounds the question of historical perspective.

The film does this by taking this controversial “middle man” of the Holocaust era and giving him the dominant voice in the film. Lanzmann doesn’t seek to set up “gotcha” moments, but generally sits quietly as Murmelstein meanders through his tale. Indeed, Murmelstein’s gift of gab is apparent, even as he tends to, at times, drift far from his original point with asides and contextualizing. Lanzmann occasionally questions him, but those questions usually mean to clarify rather than challenge or debate.

The resulting film is masterful as the singular voice of Murmelstein plays off of the contrasting shots of past and present. Time passes. History accumulates. And Murmelstein’s voice resonates through it all. This combination suggests a question: How does time change the impact or estimation of that unchanging footage of a man from forty years ago? Hearing Murmelstein’s words—spoken in 1975—for the first time today reminds us of our distance from the past, as well as our difficulty of assessing the past in the present.

The specific reality of Murmelstein’s story is stark: He was the only surviving elder at Theresienstadt. The others suffered execution at the hands of their Nazi captors. Does his survival indicate a failure to protect his people or honor his identity? On its own his survival indicates no such thing. However, when we learn that Murmelstein followed Nazi orders to clean up the ghetto in order to make a show for the outside world that life in the ghettos was acceptable, skepticism about his explanations and reasoning takes root. Is this a man who would defend his personal interests at all costs?

Or maybe it’s more complicated than that . . . does Murmelstein’s personal interest align to a significant degree with the interests of the people, as he argues? The film is compelling precisely because Murmelstein’s claims cannot be easily cast aside. In this way, the film takes us into an issue, a time, and a character, giving us the opportunity to debate and wrestle with the claims we hear.

And it is that recognition that helps to answer my original question. Is the past better left in the past? Is history better left to history? My answer is unequivocal: no. We need history precisely for the purpose of entering into conversation about the whos, whats, and whens of our world. For it is in that debate that real community is forged and stabilized. Without important monuments and acts of remembrance that inspire conversation and debate—monuments and acts such as The Last of the Unjust—we will be left to powerful people wielding shadowy “truths” in the “service” of the people; we will find ourselves building and living and dying in modern-day Theresienstadts.

Boyhood (2014)

Richard Linklater has been making films for more than 25 years. And while his isn’t exactly a household name—despite his more popular collaborations with Jack Black (School of Rock and Bernie)—he has carved out a niche for himself in the world of American independent cinema with the seminal Slacker, the innovative Waking Life, and his affecting Before trilogy. Linklater’s most recent film, Boyhood, fits well into the ethos of those latter films. Heavy on dialogue and light on plot, Linklater’s “smaller” films privilege character, atmosphere, and ideas over story, events, and flashy set pieces.

Linklater’s work connects with the world in often profound and surprising ways. His films have regularly explored “people in time.” The Before trilogy is probably the best example of this as he has tracked Jesse’s and Celine’s relationship over the course of nearly 20 years—though we might also add the drama-in-real-time of Tape, along with sections of Slacker and Waking Life. Indeed, the middle entry in the Before trilogy, Before Sunset, is a film that virtually plays out in real time—the characters spending about 90 minutes together. Thus, that Linklater has played with time in a different way in Boyhood is hardly surprising.

My own interest in Boyhood tangentially revolves around this notion of time’s passage. While the film’s form—a series of twelve segments filmed over twelve consecutive years—clearly projects this particular thematic concern, the film isn’t simply interested in charting time’s passage. No doubt, this formal conceit is remarkable, as we see a boy go from six to eighteen in a little over two hours. However, it’s what the film wants us to do with the passage of time in the life of Mason and those around him that I find most interesting.

Every one of the film’s segments features Mason. Therefore, the action in each segment usually happens to or at least around Mason. In other words, Boyhood’s boy doesn’t initiate a great deal of the action—he most often receives it from his older sister, his parents, or his friends. While this could be criticized as a misstep, leaving the film with something of a blank slate for its central character, I think it works in a couple of important ways.

First, it feels realistic. Kids end up receiving far more than dictating the action of their lives. Parents take children places. Older siblings tell younger siblings what to do. Kids often simply go along with whatever their friends want to do. That Mason models these behaviors makes him more authentic as a character, and helps the audience get into the mindset of what it’s like to be a child.

Second, and more significant, however, has to do with my view that the Mason’s character embodies the way the film operates. The film opens with the image of the sky, as Mason watches the clouds roll by after school one day. The film closes with another scene of Mason gazing at the sky, this time a sunset in Big Bend National Park. Mason carries with him both an attentiveness to and an appreciation of the world around him. He is always watching, always seeking understanding, all the while refusing to judge and dismiss those people and events around him that are outside his typical experience or beyond his comprehension.

While Mason experiences frustration (generally directed at his father or stepfather), he never rejects. Even in one of the more painful sections of the film, as Mason deals with a break-up from his girlfriend, he can’t just dismiss her. He still remembers the good times they had and believes her to be, at heart, a good person.

Mason’s refusal to judge and dismiss people from his life seems to mirror the way Linklater approaches the primary characters in this film (especially Mason, Mom, and Dad). The director affords us the opportunity to observe these characters without him pushing us to dislike them because of their foolish behaviors or poor choices. Indeed, the film is at its weakest in scenes with the stepfathers, men we’ve no real connection to or sympathy with. As a result, these scenes feel stacked against those characters. Maybe this is by design, to place us in the shoes of the stepson thrust into relationships with these men. Regardless, those scenes stand apart from what is otherwise a consistent approach to characterization that takes people at face value—the good with the bad.

The overall lack of judgment toward its characters, taken in the spirit of Mason appreciating the world around him, is, in my view, one of Boyhood’s great achievements. It points out the value of appreciating people, experiences, and moments, and does so through the eyes of a child. Such a childlike vision of the world prompts us to be open and vulnerable to the world around us. It recognizes that such an approach will certainly yield pain, but not just pain. In the character of Mason, Boyhood gives us the eyes to see the beauty around us, to relish those moments of overwhelming grace or exciting opportunity that seize us and will not let us go. It is because of that spirit that I am most grateful for Boyhood.

God’s Not Dead (2014)

God’s Not Dead tells a familiar story (the lone hero delivers salvation to the community by defeating the forces of evil) filtered through a modern Evangelical mindset that seeks victory in its war with an out-of-control culture. Here are the story details: a freshman student (the too-aptly named Josh Wheaton) at a major university won’t compromise his Christian faith by fulfilling a course requirement of his atheist professor, namely to sign a statement affirming that God is dead. The professor then requires the student to give three twenty-minute lectures—one in each of the next three class meetings—to prove his point that God is not dead, with the class serving as the jury. If the student fails in his task, he will fail that section of the course—and possibly the course overall, while also apparently putting at risk his hopes of getting into law school.

An Unconvincing Approach

While I certainly believe that students of faith will sometimes have troubles in classrooms led by non-believing professors, the way in which this movie presents its story leaves the final product completely unconvincing. A couple of quick examples will have to suffice:

  • No atheist would recognize him or herself in the atheistic characters in the movie. I mean, who responds to news of a friend’s cancer diagnosis with, “Couldn’t this have waited until tomorrow?” If a Christian writer or filmmaker can’t portray an atheist that’s recognizable to other atheists, it’s best to go back to the drawing board until you get it right. Otherwise, your movie will alienate and infuriate the very people you claim to be concerned about. Furthermore, the way the atheist characters are written opens up the filmmakers to claims of hypocrisy: just as the “bad guys” in the movie openly mock the Christians, so too do the filmmakers create mocking caricatures for their bad guys. We Christians need to be better than this.
  • No freshman student is going to be able to put together presentations like those we see in the film on his own and in such a short period of time. The fact that Josh is completely alone on the campus, with no one to help him or even to bounce ideas off of further compounds the problem. Either this is the only college campus in America that doesn’t have Christians on it, or Josh isn’t bright enough to seek out those Christians for some assistance. Either way, it makes the fact that he comes up with those presentations all the more unbelievable.

I could critique any number of other things in the film from the way characters are mere mouthpieces for ideas rather than anything resembling human beings or the way the villains are shown to be both non-Christians and terrible people (as if the former was not enough for these filmmakers). However, I want to focus on two particular points that reveal a dangerous strand of thinking in Evangelicalism today.

Celebrating Death?

This film handles death in despicable fashion. As the wicked, atheist professor sees his godless fiefdom crumbling, he steps off a curb in the middle of a raging thunderstorm and gets hit by a car. That the storm came up right before that moment is the first indication that this death is an act of God. Further, notice the God’s-eye view of the camera in the moment after the car hits the Professor. This indicates even more strongly some kind of sovereign act, a meting out of eschatological judgment on someone who hasn’t once in this film experienced the love of Christ through God’s people. Harsh. What are we left with? God kills this man in a car accident in order to convince him to convert moments before expiring. At least in the Bible God announced His judgment before it came. The resulting conversion is no victory when God has blood on His hands.

But if that wasn’t enough, the two “mature” Christians in the film extend this despicable view of death. The final line of the movie comes from the African missionary friend of the pastor (both of whom just so happened to be at the scene of the accident). With police and ambulance sirens still flashing in his eyes at the scene of the death, the missionary calls the moment a cause for celebration. While he acknowledges the pain involved in death, he also expresses his pleasure that the dead professor is joyful now that he’s with God. Apparently, we can celebrate the death of one of God’s image-bearers, but only because he has just converted from atheism to Christianity.

That this line is the final moment in an ostensibly Christian film shows a deep misunderstanding of the Christian teaching about death. Death is always a tragedy. It should be treated be as such. The Bible calls death our enemy. It should be treated as such. Our enemy certainly did not originate with our Creator. That Christians are celebrating the man’s death at all, not to mention while the sirens are still flashing, is one of the most calloused moments I’ve seen at the movies in some time.

A New Kind of Martyr Story

I believe God’s Not Dead to be a uniquely American Evangelical take on the ancient Christian martyr story tradition. In those ancient tales from the first centuries after Christ, the martyr suffered imprisonment, harsh questioning, torture, and ultimately death. The popularity of the stories involved the opportunity for hearers to appreciate the perseverance and faithfulness of the martyrs, but also the opportunity to identify with Christ in His suffering.

God’s Not Dead turns that ancient story form on its head in important ways. Although the situation is set up to reveal persecution, the protagonist suffers little outside the indignity of a few snide remarks and vague threats. But most importantly, God’s Not Dead doesn’t end with the Christian dying in identification with Christ as the ancient martyr story would have prescribed. Rather, the American Evangelical spin sees not the persecuted but the persecutor die, while victorious Christians stand over him in triumph and receive praise before thousands.

Popular American cinema has long had a fascination with the lone hero destroying the wicked. That this has nothing to do with the role of Christians in the world seems not to have occurred to the Evangelical filmmakers in charge of this project. This film is so fascinated with the triumph of Christians in their carefully constructed culture war that it completely casts aside the fundamental Christian values of suffering and self-sacrifice. Josh sacrificed virtually nothing and received the accolades of thousands for it. If Jesus had followed Josh’s pattern, he would have been threatened, told non-believers why they were wrong (He only ever challenged His own religious community), and then been praised for winning the argument. That kind of Jesus would require him taking a rhetoric class, not offering Himself as a sacrifice.

God’s Not Dead is a dangerous film because it rips the self-sacrificial heart out of Christianity’s chest. I hope non-Christians never see it (that they might not have one more reason to hate/dismiss Christians). And I hope that the Christians who see it will not simply look to have some pre-conceived notions or fears affirmed. Rather, I hope they will see through the movie’s errors about image-bearing human beings, death, and winning the “war” between Christians and non-Christians. As Christians, we need to be better at reaching out to people, not destroying them; at serving them, not standing against them; and at loving them, not hating them.

Like Someone in Love (2012)

Abbas Kiarostami has long been exploring the line between fact and fiction. His 1990 film Close-Up follows a man posing as Iranian director Moshen Makhmalbaf to a well-off family. Twenty years later, Kiarostami came back around to the fact/fiction line in his masterful Certified Copy. There, two strangers tour an Italian village together and then they inexplicably begin to take on the characteristics of a married couple.

These two films explore ideas around representation and the filmic image. How much of reality does the “copy” or the “image” actually represent? What is merely an image in Close-Up, and what reflects the reality of the characters (who play themselves)? Are the couple in Certified Copy merely acting out an elaborate scene due to mutual attraction, or do they have a real and remembered past together? Kiarostami provides no definitive answers to these questions in the films. This ambiguity seems to give a vibrancy and immediacy to film (and art, more broadly) by suggesting that the image of something has a real and particular connection to that which it images. Seen in that light, these films from Kiarostami read as apologies for art, beautifully fashioned visual statements that show us that art matters in whatever form it comes, for art’s fictions cannot help but break into reality.

These thoughts were in my mind at the conclusion of Kiarostami’s most recent feature, Like Someone in Love (2012). Here too the old master explores issues around identity, representation, and image. This is no more clearly seen than in the sequence that stands at the film’s center, a conversation between Akiko (a call girl) and Watanabe (an aged, widowed professor) about a painting—Yazaki’s Training a Parrot—hanging in his home. Akiko reminisces about receiving a print of the painting as a teenager, naively believing her uncle’s assertion that he had painted it with her image in mind. As she describes this memory, she also sets herself in the pose of the woman in the painting, demonstrating the resemblance.

The layers of image are several in this single moment. Moving backwards from most immediate layer to the original, we have the film image itself, Akiko’s pose, uncle’s claim of her being the inspiration for the painting, the copy of the original painting hanging in Watanabe’s home, the original painting that hangs in a Tokyo museum, and finally the moment itself (which may have been posed or simply imagined in the mind of the painter). Each of the moments leading back to the original more or less resemble the original painting, if not the actual inspiration itself, which remains unknown to us. And yet, despite the resemblances from one layer to the next, what we also have here are a series of deceptions. In my view, the film’s story leads us to believe that the deceptions carry the greatest weight.

We don’t see these negative results until these two characters spend some time together, allowing Kiarostami to introduce Akiko’s boyfriend, Noriaki into the mix. He believes his girlfriend to be chaste and faithful to him (though he has had that questioned recently), and comes to believe that the old man is her grandfather. In both cases, Noriaki’s relationships with the two principals—while in one sense connected to reality—are fundamentally based on deceptions. It is those deceptions, rather than any resemblance to reality, that comes to define the narrative.

This leaves the film with a much darker tone than we find in the ambiguities of Close-Up and Certified Copy. Here Kiarostami seems to be wrestling specifically with the way that images deceive, and the tragedies that result. Such misunderstandings introduce a sense of betrayal over what seemed to be real but was in fact merely an image.

However, these deceptions also point us to the posture of Noriaki, whose insistence on nailing down the identities of both Akiko (he wants to marry her to alleviate any falseness he senses in her) and Watanabe (Noriaki merely assumes that Watanabe is her grandfather), leads him to increasing levels of frustration and rage. Rather than simply interacting with them as they present themselves to him, Noriaki seeks to force the issue, and in doing so, creates circumstances where deception thrives.

What we see then is that all are party to the deception, none are without responsibility, and all have some immediate connection to the results. Image or representation in this context takes on something of a complicated character. On the one hand its essential deceptions could lead to tragedy. On the other, if those deceptions are engaged the right way, one might indeed find a path toward unparalleled beauty.

Camera Buff (1979)

The central paradox of Kieslowski’s Camera Buff portrays an aspiring filmmaker, Filip, unable to balance his love of his family with his love of his art.

Kieslowski first raises this paradox with a strong ambiguity placed upon Filip’s pursuit of filmmaking in the film’s first act. The reticence over the place of the family in Filip’s life comes primarily from Filip’s wife, who sees all along that he has been blinded by a growing obsession. Kieslowski regularly punctuates her dialogue with some negative commentary on Filip’s filming.

However, even Filip initially has a limited understanding—or at least a sense—of the way his obsession might undermine his family. When Filip’s boss first enlists him to film the company’s anniversary celebrations, the boss cites an axiom of sorts, that cinema is the first great art. Filip responds that the quote came from Lenin, along with a decidedly confused, even disapproving look on his face. Filip wasn’t interested in making the film. And while some of that might have been the pressure of performing for regional bosses, the discomforting idea of moving away from family, already placed there by his wife, would have likely been in his mind. If Filip did indeed understand that tantalizing lure of obsession, he also had some choice in the matter. Kieslowski’s Filip is not some helpless mass of flesh prevailed upon by outside forces, but a willful man who chooses art over family.

Furthermore, Kieslowski carries an irony through the film that builds off of this notion of Filip’s vision or lack thereof: In his films, Filip seeks to present the world as it is, in a completely natural fashion. He even claims to want to see everything. Initially, this filmic desire was pointed at his family—Filip bought his first camera to film his newborn daughter. But as Filip turns the camera away from his family, he stops seeing them clearly. He gives in to the obsession. So we have a moment after a dispute with his wife: Filip should seek her out, but instead merely watches her walk away. Seeing the back of her head in the street as she walks home is enough for Filip.

Kieslowski could easily demonize this move from family to art, but he holds the tension by revealing the praiseworthy aspects of Filip’s work: the way his friend Piotr praises the film of his mother, or how the handicapped worker is moved by Filip’s television special about him. As the conflict with his wife grows, Filip is a man divided between good things. And yet, he leaves behind the greater good (his family)? Or does he? That is the question, I suppose.

Filip’s pursuit of his art to the neglect of his family ends tragically, but also with the promise that from his pain, a more acute sense of self will emerge. Kieslowski doesn’t provide Filip an easy way out of his predicament, instead leading him to point the lens at himself as he searches for answers. This final act by Filip seems to be a recognition of his situatedness. All seeing occurs within a context. Though some like Filip have tried to ignore their own context in order to present an “objective” view of their world, none have succeeded at such “lofty” expectations. When Filip filmed the deceitful way that his town had spruced itself up for a regional event, he felt that his “objective” vision of the truth had to be seen, despite his boss’ direction to keep the film under wraps. The “truth” of Filip’s film, he believed, was the most important thing. However, Filip discovered that his own position was not nearly as objective as he had thought. This is the final straw for Filip, who destroys his next film, another similarly-themed exposé. Without recognizing his own subjectivity and context, he could never make honest, truthful art.