“Suicide Squad” Review

Suicide_Squad_(film)_PosterSuicide Squad is less a movie and more a warning; a warning of what blockbusters, and comic book movies in particular, could be and are becoming: primarily financial investments even at the creative level, with any and all artistic and narrative ambition snuffed out for the sake of fulfilling perceived fan desires. With a production history fraught with conflict and a theatrical cut that reveals serious creative and tonal clashes between director David Ayer and studio executives, Suicide Squad flounders along in fits and starts, waffling between ambitious attempts at provocative storytelling and jokey, half-baked Marvel-esque sequences.

One can’t really understand Suicide Squad if one doesn’t first note its production history. The Hollywood Reporter provides a timely and insightful look into the series of events that led to the “hybrid cut” of the film presented in theaters. In a brief summation, after the wildly controversial release of Batman v Superman in a cut deliberately truncated by request of Warner Bros. executives, those same executives panicked and determined that the issue with Zack Snyder’s ambitious film was not their own imposition of cuts but rather its serious tone. They eyed Marvel’s artistically stagnant and flippant but financially lucrative production line and grew envious. When director David Ayer (known for oppressive, brutal films such as Fury and End of Watch) presented his reportedly dark and serious cut to executives the money-holders panicked, demanding and financing reshoots and recuts to add humor and levity to the venture. Caught in the crossfire was Ayer’s initial cinematic vision, and a compromise hybrid cut was released to theaters, mashing together Ayer’s serious cut with the studio’s decidedly more light-hearted affair.

Of course, the viewer cannot fully or accurately discern which scenes should be credited to Ayer, and which ones belong to the teaser trailer company Trailer Park that was brought in to craft the studio’s cut, but it remains painfully obvious that this hybrid cut contains two competing cinematic visions. One features sparks of ambition, even if it wouldn’t hold a candle to the likes of the Snyders and Nolans in the realm of comic adaptations. This possible path for the film utilizes the charismatic charm of Will Smith as Deadshot to explore a super-assassin as first and foremost a man with a daughter. One sequence in particular stands out as Deadshot is confronted by Batman. Deadshot prepares to resist the vigilante, and with his renowned marksmanship skills, the audience doesn’t doubt that Deadshot may very well succeed at killing Batman. Deadshot’s daughter, however, steps in front of the gun that her father holds, pleading with him to cease his endless killing. It’s a poignant scene that makes intelligent use of the DC cinematic universe, guiding the audience towards viewing the activity of the super-villains for what it is: shameful.

There are other character bits that hit home not only at an entertainment level, but a human one. Margot Robbie is superbly cast as Harley Quinn, fully embracing her psychological instability and landing some really great one-liners, but (even better) she also draws out empathy for the character. By the end of the film, and a revelation of Harley’s deepest desire, the audience begins to pity her (while Ayer adroitly avoids anti-hero idolization). The gang-lord/pacifist arc for the fire-summoning El Diablo is also a compelling idea, and a conversation within the squad at the end of the movie bluntly confronts and grieves for the evil that they have individually visited upon others. And one would be remiss to not mention Viola Davis’s chilling turn as Amy Waller, the frightening mastermind behind the government program that organized the squad under threat of death.

These glimmers of narrative ambition themselves are not what fails Suicide Squad. What fails the film is the lack of a substantive superstructure, a narrative construct to hold the adventure together. The failure is not the presence of jokes, or the whimsical, simple nature of the plot. Rather, it is the replacement of that plot with an omnipresence of humor. Conversations that should be used to advance characters are instead littered with quips, idle banter, and visual gags where one or two as comedic color would have sufficed. Even more painful, those conversations often do not flow naturally within themselves, moments where dialogue was obviously pasted together from multiple takes and dialogue threads disrupt the cinematic flow.  With the narrative front-loaded with humor, when Suicide Squad attempts to turn introspective in its final act the turn is undercut by an insufficient amount of foreshadowing and build-up. A villain lacking compelling motivation, like General Zod or Lex Luthor from Snyder’s films, deadens the tension and the emotional high-marks don’t hit with the force they should. The aesthetic does the movie no favors as well: ever shrouded in darkness, the movie never capitalizes visually on the natural pop and life of its cast, instead copying the flat visual composition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Even more obnoxious is the derivative and blatantly manipulative incorporation of pop and rock music numbers into the film at a rate probably never before seen in action cinema. I counted no less than six music montages within the first fifteen to twenty minutes alone, and they continued throughout the film to the point of self-parody. Introduction of Deadshot? Pump in those good rock vibes. Approach an ominously dark and abandoned Midway City? Good rock vibes. Frightening prisoner-abuse scene? Good rock vibes. It’s as if the editor watched nothing but Guardians of the Galaxy for a year and decided that literally any scene could and should be improved with some nostalgic radio tunes, even intruding upon moments that should be (and clearly are meant as) more somber and reflective bits of the film. The most egregious of them all is when a rock number fails to fade out before a flashback to Superman’s funeral, so we get a wonderfully inept moment of editing when guitars and drums are licking happily along while Earth mourns the man of steel.

This moment gets at the utter failure of a particular philosophy of film-making that centers itself around both the trivial criticisms and expectations of fandoms. The emphasis on jokes over story and the scattered, nonsensical movies that result, spring from an emphasis on giving fans and audiences what they want at the expense of what the narrative needs at any given moment. The studio misdiagnosed a problem they themselves had started by tampering with Snyder’s vision for Batman v Superman, and instead determined they would give the audience a hyped-up version of Guardians of the Galaxy because, hey, violence without consequences is all the rage these days.

It’s a trend towards storytelling that balks at challenging its audience, instead catering to their every desire, good and bad, moral and immoral. It should be abundantly clear that a series like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy would never make it through production in today’s climate without executives panicking that audiences couldn’t handle or wouldn’t respond well to his unsettling vision of Batman. These mega-franchises are increasingly becoming mirrors that reflect a societal desire for consequence-free entertainment. Marvel set the precedent while the fandoms, with their endless social media rages and bullying, enforce the new orthodoxy, and now DC is feeling the pressure to bow the knee to fandom reception rather than artistic quality.

The postcard-like and inconsequential appearances of the Joker (Jared Leto) in Suicide Squad provide a fitting snapshot for this philosophy of fan-centrism: one that tantalizes rather than engages, tickles the senses rather than challenges assumptions. Snyder may have bested the comic-book movie machine by eventually getting his masterful Ultimate Cut released, but it appears Ayer’s artistic vision was felled by a beast that we, the audience, have created: one drenched in darkness, splattered with moments of kitsch-neon, in which the world is always in danger but our souls are not.

Advertisements

“Last Days in the Desert” Review

Last_Days_in_the_Desert_posterIn the Bible, the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness appears in the Gospels, but Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert may strike audiences as something far more akin to Ecclesiastes. Anchored by a fine performance from Ewan McGregor as Yeshua (Jesus is identified by his Hebrew name in this most recent film to tackle the Christ) and moving at a subdued pace through Emmanuel Lubezki’s stark desert cinematography, García provides a story that prompts reflection on the meaning, frailty, and purpose of human relationships.

García’s film is strikingly minimalist right from the opening passage of Jesus wandering alone through the wilderness, during which only two lines of dialogue are spoken, and makes no pretensions as to faithfulness to any specific Christian or Jewish understanding of Jesus beyond that of Jesus having been a holy man in real time and space who claimed to be the son of God and was crucified. If Jesus is God become man, then García’s Yeshua is man first and foremost: an ascetic wandering through the desert, searching for an intangible something from his Heavenly Father as he struggles against the elements. This is a shivering, dirty, tired Yeshua, one who laughs at his own predicaments, like his long hair tangling in the bushes he cowers in for shelter, before peaking off into a frustrated, agonized scream.

Yeshua is played by McGregor as a quiet, but earnest man who believes firmly in both his mission and the love of his Father for him, and those around him, who is struggling to fulfill and understand that divine purpose. (I’d be remiss not to mention that it is a bit frustrating for yet another film about Jesus to be so obviously ethnically inaccurate. However, García’s avoidance of the Jewish context for the story in favor of a more universal parable might shed some light on the casting decision.) He is taunted and harassed by the Devil, who most often appears in the form of Yeshua himself (played again by McGregor, fittingly outfitted with a few extra trinkets of jewelry). The conversations between the resolute, pure-hearted Yeshua and the devious, often petulant Lucifer are the highlight of the film. García allows Yeshua to actually be tempted (this isn’t a sympathetic Satan who wants to enlighten Yeshua), and while Satan asks vexing questions to a man who claims to be the son of God, he is frequently spiteful and cruel.

The film is at its most effective when it capitalizes on the Ecclesiastical tone, wondering at what (if any) meaning is to be found in the bitter wastes of the desert. For example, Yeshua catches Lucifer wondering at the beauty of a shooting star, to which Lucifer hotly denies admiring God’s creation before launching into a tirade on the boring repetitiveness of the earth, with its unceasing cycle of animal and human life. It is ultimate death, an ultimate end, that Lucifer longs to see. A motif of the cyclical pattern of life is echoed in the tension-fraught conflict in the family that Yeshua stays with for the bulk of the film’s middle act, where a dreaming son, a frustrated father, and an ill wife talk past each other and cling to alternating love and hatred just as their ancestors have and descendants will. Satan challenges Yeshua to solve the family’s struggles to the satisfaction of all, and Yeshua (who does not use his divine powers in this pre-ministry context) struggles to heal three frail human beings through both word and deed.

It’s a moving struggle, but it is here that the minimalistic nature of the film occasionally works against it. Somber in its tone, though undeniably beautiful, the film lacks a certain something in its resolution of the family plot (though the Crucifixion finale and epilogue are made all the more potent because of their artistic restraint). My instinct is that an element of joy, of the life that Yeshua celebrates in his parting blessing to the young son, is lacking. This is not to say that Last Days in the Desert is one-dimensional: there is occasional welcome and refreshing humor. But it is difficult for sparse humor alone to resonate on a spiritual level, and giving but a glimpse or two more of true human gladness might have made a delicate but significant difference.

Lubezki’s cinematography deserves greater mention here, as he captures the essence of García’s vision, placing characters within curiously subtle vistas. There’s a mystifying unobtrusiveness to Lubezki’s composition: at one point Yeshua and the father walk and talk, and it is only about halfway through the scene that one notices they stand on the edge of a cliff overlooking a beautiful, rugged, valley. An elusive but sublime truth lies hidden here in the desert, the shot suggests, if one would only take the time to notice it. It is an indictment of our modern quickness, our rushing over of things that do not strike us as important or interesting. Last Days in the Desert isn’t perfect by any means, but it prompts us to slow down, to pause, and to reflect, and in this case that’s more than enough to make it well-worth seeing.

Deadpool and Moral Perversion

We watch a movie or read a book because we think it is worth engaging with. While “Transformers 4: Age of Extinction” may have its merits, I don’t think it would demonstrate a great deal of worth to me, so I don’t watch it. As a result, art reflects what we find to be valuable. Art also changes our understanding of what has value. Consciously or unconsciously, we are changed by our art.

http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/effects_cig_smoking/
Louie, I think this is the beginning of a horrible habit.

The way some people will be shaped by certain art will be different, and it is important to be cautious about critiquing art too broadly. It is unwise for a compulsive smoker to watch “Casablanca,” and it is unwise for a particularly violent person to watch “Gladiator,” but that doesn’t make these films particularly evil, it makes them unwise viewing material for some people.

If films can contain content wicked enough to exclude some audiences, can there be films that have content wicked enough to exclude all audiences? Can we ever say with confidence that “No one should see that movie”?

Operating under the assumption that we can make this claim, I will declare (with China, apparently) that no one should see 20th Century Fox’s “Deadpool.”

PRODUCT PLACEMENT
This film was made totally independent from corporate interests, just like how Suburbans are the most reliable and efficient Sports Utility Vehicles on the market that will keep you independent from automotive trouble on the road.

This film, based off of the beloved comic book mercenary Deadpool, has been given an extensive marketing campaign, all trying to reassure comic book fans that this Deadpool will be the character they know from Marvel comics, not the confusedly mute and stoic character in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”

All of my observations have been based off of the handful of trailers that have come out for this film. The fact that the trailers themselves have thoroughly condemned the film to my moral sensibility shows that I am either a fuddy-duddy (possible) or the film is deeply wicked.

Deadpool is a character based on perversion and irreverence, a comic hero in a tragic setting. In the trailers alone the character strips away meaning and value from important things, leaving only cynical humor and gore.

deadpool-trailer-a-brief-breadown-547733
Don’t worry, at least he can do cool tricks.

Nearly every trailer for this film is a comedy trailer. Comedic trailers have patterns, beats and pauses, that demonstrate when the content is telling a joke. When this trailer pauses, once even with the stereotypical comedic record scratch, it is during scenes of brutal violence. We are to laugh as a bullet crashes through several brains, spilling a bloody mess. We are to laugh when Deadpool hoists up a human being with his two swords, crowing that he has turned him into “a f***ing kabob.” Violence is a joke to Deadpool, but we are not asked to be disgusted at him, we are asked to laugh with him as he dances in scenes strewn with carnage of his own making, laughing at human dignity, laughing at the value of life.  

After graphic scenes of death, Deadpool declares that he is “so turned on right now” and “definitely touching myself tonight,” as if violent disposal of human life is a matter of sexual titillation.

Deadpool also perverts sexuality, sexualizing nearly everything with juvenile efficiency. The trailers, complete with strippers, feature the protagonist making every possible reference to sex. As he stuffs an enemy’s mouth, he taunts “I never say this, but don’t swallow,” after a female villain punches someone he quips “I so pity the dude who pressures her into prom sex.” Sexuality is a joke, and the only women not strippers or his love interest seem to be immediately sexualized.

Sigmund_Freud_LIFE
Freud would have a lot of uncomfortable things to say about this movie.

This film is set in the context of the most generic plot imaginable. “When your worst enemy is after your best girl” seems to be the extent of this film’s conflict. This basic plot is a vehicle to portray the hero’s perversion. The film seems to act out a Freudian adolescent daydream where the hero is invincible, dominates everyone, and rejoices in objectification and lechery.

But why have I bothered to write this article? Obviously this film is trashy, it bills itself as such. But humans have been making horrible art forever, and we have to expect evil at the box office.

I am writing this article because I have seen many of my friends, Christians even, expressing overwhelming excitement at this film. Given that the film is unabashedly advertising itself as perverse (one advertisement consists of Deadpool cursing and making sexually charged comments to children), I cannot reason why anyone should watch, much less be excited for, “Deadpool.” What virtue or value can come out of this film?

Some may say the film has merit as an exploration of a wicked character, but Deadpool is not a character as much as a combination of internal desires, a bundle of lusts that is clearly made to be rejoiced in.

Some may answer that the film will be a fun action film purely seen for base enjoyment. But when a film intentionally uses graphic and wicked means to portray “fun,” the very act of watching the film is demeaning.

I may be missing something. Perhaps my frustration at what I have seen has blinded me to real merit and value, and I would welcome correction in the comments, but I can see no reason or acceptable excuse for watching the bloody, carnal circus “Deadpool.”

deadpool-imax-trailer-pic
Maybe the totally interesting and original jokes about chimichangas justify the horrific violence and sexual objectification.

A Treatise On Storytelling, I: All Art Is Formative

“The Boyhood of Raleigh,” by John Everett Millais

An oft-ignored fact, brushed over in the seductively insidious claim that film, television, video games, books and the like are “simply entertainment,” is that all art (and thus storytelling) is formative to one degree or another. Art cannot exist within a vacuum, detached from one’s life experience, and it will always form the viewer or hearer to some degree. This is an inescapable truth that must be grasped before any proper evaluation of good or bad storytelling can begin.

Human beings are endowed with the ability to reflect. This ability is what sets us apart from all other forms of life. Of course, certain animals are, to limited degrees, able to emerge from the naturalistic cycle, but human beings are able to transcend the fight for survival to a level impossible for any other creature. This is the significance of leisure in the human life: the ability to cease the thoughtless, purely instinctual aspects of our existence and reflect. (For a detailed exploration of this idea, see Leisure, the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper) This reflection enables us to, in a way, transcend the constraints of time, to recall memories, to allow ourselves to be formed by our past experiences in a manner far greater than the mere associative memories of animals.

We must also recognize that human beings cannot choose to not be reflective. Put another way, barring some physical injury or mental illness, a human being cannot choose not to remember or think on what they have experienced. Human beings reflect on the whole of their experiences, and these experiences shape their future thoughts, decision-making, and actions. In this way, no part of a person’s existence can be divorced from any other part of it. The human soul is a vast, interconnected web of relationships of both innate characteristics and exterior influences. It is not the comparatively scattered and incoherent experience of, say, a squirrel governed primarily by the laws of survival. By the very fact that a human being can transcend the Darwinian laws and choose to participate in a hunger strike for a moral cause, we can also derive that no aspect of human existence exists in a vacuum.

If no aspect of human existence exists in a vacuum, every experience being internalized, reflected upon, and responded to, we must conclude that any experience of art is formative. And this returns us to storytelling, one of the most prominent art forms, and also a refutation of the lie that any form of entertainment can be mere escapism and should not be judged based on reflective and moral criteria. This excuse is often used to swipe the carpet right out from under legitimate criticisms of popular books, films, and video games, arguing that the simple knowledge that such a narrative is fiction can negate any negative influence. This easy and reassuring response, however, neglects the inherently formative nature of the experience. This is not to say that the purpose of art is formative, for then art would exist merely as didactic instruction. Art, rather, is an overflowing expression of genuine human experience. Even the most fantastic of stories, as it was conceived of by a human mind, must be anchored in some sort of authentic human experience.

The very act of submitting to a storyteller’s narrative means seeing a world through the lens of an Other, temporarily interpreting events through the perspective of the narrator. It is the exploring of experiences and perspectives not our own. This is a good thing that ought to be prized, for it often challenges our presuppositions and broadens our narrow visions of reality. However, while for the storyteller the artistic expression may in fact be just an expression, for the hearer, the reader, the viewer, the act of listening, reading, or viewing is formative. As we have seen before, every part of a human’s experience, however infinitesimal, shapes that person’s reflections in some way. Because of this, adopting a storyteller’s lens for viewing is unavoidable practice for making sense of our own personal narratives. How we perceive our own personal narratives is shaped by how we practice viewing the narratives of others. All art is formative. This is why we must think about and consider deeply the narratives which we regularly consume. This is why we must consider what types of people these narratives shape us to be. This is why we must refute the lie that entertainment merely entertains and is therefore free from moral and critical judgment.

These considerations are vital, for narrative media is present to a degree that is probably unprecedented in the entirety of human history. Luke and I have, in recent months, noted alarming trends in the most popular and beloved of stories, and in this piece we hope to have laid a foundation for fruitful and thoughtful consideration of these stories. In the coming weeks we shall critique examples of storytelling that we see as problematic, as well as explore commendable stories which form us not only to be better readers and viewers, but better people. Considering the prevalence of film and television in modern society, much of our analysis will center around these contemporary forms. We hope that you will join us in thinking on the narratives we consume on a regular basis, and contribute your voice to these necessary discussions. To paraphrase Wordsworth, I hope that we will all bring with us a heart that watches and receives.

“Jurassic World” Review

Jurassic_World_posterIf you go into Jurassic World a bit skeptical, you have good reason. Mega-franchises rule the box office, crowding out original concepts with cinematic constructions designed to tantalize the senses with just enough thoughtless violence, humor and fan-service to separate film-goers from their cash. In such an environment, do we really trust Universal to bring back Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking but progressively floundering franchise? Frankly, I didn’t, but let me reassure you that while director Colin Trevorrow and company can’t quite tap into the magic of Spielberg’s first two installments, Jurassic World stands head and shoulders above Jurassic Park III, cleverly satirizing contemporary blockbusters while supplying a heavy dose of digestible thrills and surprising heart.

Jurassic World demands immediate suspension of disbelief, as every one of these films does, with its assertion that twenty-two years after the initial disastrous attempt, John Hammond’s original dream park has finally opened to smashing success. But there’s a problem: just like real-life American consumers of entertainment, the visitors of Jurassic World have grown bored with normal dinosaurs, and just like their real-life American corporate counterparts, the powers that be have decided that fulfilling customers’ every desire is the most effective way to turn a profit. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire Dearing, the park operations manager, who opens her role by giving a tour to Verizon executives who have eagerly financed the genetic creation of a “cooler” and “scarier” carnivorous predator: the terrifying Indominus rex. She consults with Chris Pratt’s Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady, with whom she has an awkward romantic past, on the strength of the park’s containment strategies for their focus-group-crafted dinosaur. Predictably, the highly intelligent killing machine mounts an escape, and with Claire’s two nephews, the teenaged Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) visiting the park as their parents prepare for divorce, the park breaks down into a terrifying, hellish nightmare.

What sets the original Jurassic Park apart from the majority of horror/thriller/action films is not only Spielberg’s immense technical skill in drawing out both suspense and wonder, but also the film’s development of surprisingly thoughtful themes (man vs. nature, the questioning of what is natural and unnatural, fatherhood, corporate greed) throughout the narrative. These questions are not window dressing, but rather part and parcel of the narrative. Jurassic World wisely reintroduces these themes to the franchise, while adding an interesting commentary on the nature of entertainment, continually emphasizing the discontentment of the consumer and the horrific results when corporations feed human desire. Jurassic World, we are told, must continually introduce new and innovative attractions to its guests in order to stay relevant. Apparently, visitors have become tired of riding baby dinosaurs in the petting zoo or seeing a Tyrannosaurus rex in the flesh. Instead, InGen (that delightfully inept representation of corporate greed) creates its own dinosaur that will not only scare the kids but terrify the parents. Indominus rex and her rampage, then, becomes a literal embodiment of corporate excess, ambition and the insatiable desire for more.

Trevorrow also directs most of the action in a properly frightening manner, following the techniques of clear logic and discernible structure shunned by far too many films. An early sequence in the film is notable for humanizing a group of containment officers slaughtered by Indominus, characters normally treated as disposable fodder in lesser franchises. As the men are picked off, quick cuts to the control room draw attention to the men’s faces next to their rapidly flat-lining vital-signs. It’s a small detail, but one that admirably puts focus on the human tragedy rather than mere spectacle. Trevorrow, throughout the film, strives to hit this mixture of wonder and terror that Spielberg so often struck upon in films like Close Encounters, Jurassic Park, (and to a lesser extent The Lost World) and while he never quite reaches the existential dread of the first two dinosaur films, the presence of actual menace certainly elevates the action above other such fare. The film does stumble during an embarrassingly cartoonish and excessively violent mass flying dinosaur attack (a T-Rex/Pterodactyl genetic hybrid is particularly groan-inducing) but thankfully this proves to be the exception rather than the rule.

The infamous Velociraptors continue their evolution of intelligence, with Owen training them like attack dogs (a subplot involving InGen’s desire to develop them as a military technology is a clever insertion of President Eisenhower’s fear of the military-industrial complex, even if the character pushing the plan is laughably one-dimensional). Chris Pratt is an excellent choice for this role, imparting equal parts charm, swagger, and moral nobility. His performance in Guardians of the Galaxy may be the only truly redeeming element of that film, and audiences will be pleased to see his continual evolution into a Harrison Ford-esque action hero. Some occasionally poignant moral observations on the effect of parents upon children are hit upon through Claire, Zach and Gray’s characters, and a not-so-subtle critique of modern teenage detachment via technology is present as well.

In the end, fans of the Jurassic Park franchise will leave satisfied, and those craving originality may be pleasantly surprised at the extent to which this film rises above its blockbuster peers. Unfortunately, convenient plot contrivances rear their heads a few too many times, and Trevorrow’s cinematography is saddled with the mega-franchise tendency to anonymize visuals, but these flaws aren’t enough to seriously rain on the parade of human driven disaster. And that is the genius of a Jurassic Park film done right, as in the case of Jurassic World. At the end of the day, human beings gleefully signed off on this unnatural disaster.

There is a scene early in the film in which a bedazzled audience “oohs” and “aahs” at an underwater dinosaur. The frame is cut as if the real-life audience of Jurassic World has been presented a mirror image of themselves, a subversive moment of self-awareness. This moment speaks to why Jurassic World stands out from its mega-franchise peers: it dares to suggest that we, the viewers, consumers, and producers, might actually be part of the problem. Indominus rex is a beast that we have been complacent in creating.

The Dangers of a Christian Commercial Culture

lifeway-wont-stop-selling-controversial-bible-8k10rkfr-x-largeThe unfortunate, but sadly predictable news broke in recent days that the “heavenly tourism” book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, which has reportedly sold over one million copies, is in fact a fraud. Alex Malarkey, the young boy whose supposed heavenly experience was recorded in the book co-written by his father, Kevin Malarkey, has put out a letter to LifeWay and other Christian book distributors and publishers declaring that: “I did not die. I did not go to heaven. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to.”

Scandal is now swirling around the Baptist-run publishing and retail organization, as questions are being raised regarding whether LifeWay knew whether or not Malarkey’s book was a fraud before this public revelation. In this post I do not wish to pin blame for, as I see it, this incident is a symptom of a far greater and more concerning problem with American Christianity as a whole. The blatant deception exercised in the conception of this book and the manipulative financial profiting from gimmicky literature is a logical end-point of the Christian commercial culture which American Christians far too eagerly embrace.

What do I mean by a Christian commercial culture? Broadly speaking, it consists of the evangelical Christian subculture, made up of media, books, music, and film produced by exclusively “Christian” companies and distributors designed with explicitly Christian target audiences in mind. The Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry is possibly the best example of this subculture. Artists produce “Christian” music for a specifically Christian audience. Played for mainstream audiences through “inspiring” Christian stations like KLove, it provides a supposedly safe market for Christians to invest in without having to worry about degrading secular music. Christians, then, are reduced to a marketing demographic, a simple commercial target whose tastes, likes and dislikes are catered to for economic success. (I’d encourage anyone who doubts this assessment to read this interesting article detailing WRCM, which is now part of KLove, and their target audience member “Becky”)

Of course, this applies to Christian literature as well, and creates an environment where Christian audiences are pandered to for their business, but when monetary success is the primary goal, morality falls to the wayside. Manipulation is the key to marketing. Thus, a feel-good story about a young boy who died, went to heaven, and came back is pushed through as a beautiful “true story” not necessarily because the publishers believe it, or see its view of the after-life as consistent with their Scriptural doctrine, but because it sells. Hence, a false story is sold as true in Christian bookstores (bookstores who claim a Messiah who declared Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life) to unwitting and unsuspecting consumers.

This leads me to my primary complaint with the Christian commercial culture. While I understand the appeal of having specifically Christian stores and distributors, which provide a convenient place for purchasing tools and materials relating to the faith, the unfortunate reality is that anything sold or produced with a “Christian” label at a “Christian” store attempts to claim the full endorsement of Christianity. In LifeWay’s instance, all items sold bear the endorsement of the Baptist denomination as being in accordance with Baptist theology, which holds Scripture and the person of Christ as the highest authorities. Thus, the materials LifeWay sells should be put under close and careful scrutiny as to both their theological and factual merit. But are these books/albums/films truly representative of Christianity as Christ conceived it? Clearly, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven did not meet the most basic and fundamental of Christian principles: that of truth (John instructs, in 1 John 3:18 HCSB, that “we must not love with word or speech, but with truth and action”). Obviously, LifeWay either made an egregious human error and failed to discern the falsehood inherent in the book, thus unintentionally deceiving those purchasing the book in good faith, or they willfully and knowingly allowed such deceit to happen because they knew such deception would sell. Either way, it is shameful and concerning behavior.

Christians often deride secular society’s “escapist” tendencies in entertainment, failing to realize that the Christian commercial culture provides them with the very same thing. Christians can go into a Christian bookstore, they assume, and not have to worry about discernment. They can turn on the Christian radio station in comfortable knowledge that the lyrics are Christ-honoring and truthful. They can go to a Christian movie and let the positive affirmation wash over them, knowing full well they can easily agree with whatever the story puts before them to believe because it’s “Christian”. Why do they feel this comfort? Because they are given what they want, and they trust a company whose vision is “providing Biblical solutions for Life”. But those running the Christian commercial culture are business-minded, and they know that in order to succeed they must give customers what they want, but what they want (here, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven) and what they need (the truth, here being the fact that Malarkey’s book is a lie) are diametrically opposed.

American Christians must realize the extent to which their faith has been hijacked by corporate thinking, and The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven may be just the type of warning call to wake us up. Simply because the Christian subculture claims something is Christian does not mean that it is consistent with truth. This business mentality applied to the Church is a toxic mixture, turning believers to unthinking self-gratification. It is this mentality that leads our churches to measure their success by attendance and branding rather than by how well they are caring for orphans and widows, leads the flock to buy songs like Building 429’s “Where I Belong” (a most likely unintentional but still subversive denial of God’s Creation) and prompts Christians to loudly denounce a challenging Hollywood exploration of Gospel themes (Darren Aronofsky’s Noah) in favor of a poorly made but smoothly Christian commercial culture affirming apologetics film (God’s Not Dead).

When considering how to react to the news of LifeWay’s witting or unwitting deception, we would be wise to heed Paul’s words to Timothy: “Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according their own desires will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. But as for you, be serious about everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:2-5 HCSB)

Let us indeed pray for discernment, that we can examine ourselves and see how often our own selfish desires pervert how we perceive and, more importantly, what we accept as truth.

“Selma” Review

Selma_posterThere are exciting films, entertaining films and moving films, films of beauty and films of ugliness. Some films provide fascinating historical commentary, others tell deeply personal stories. Selma is none of these, yet all of these. At its heart, Selma is a film of morality, a moving account of a dark chapter of American history, a chapter still felt rippling today. Selma paints a powerful portrait of the events of the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights march organized by Martin Luther King Jr., bringing attention to the political subtexts, moral issues and personal narratives that surrounded these pivotal events in American history, and because of how masterfully these threads are woven together, director Ava DuVernay succeeds at providing a story of remarkable depth and poignancy.

Selma triumphs for a number of reasons intertwined in such a way that it proves difficult to separate them in order to analyze. DuVernay is to be commended for this intricacy of construction: remove one element, and the entire picture is lessened. To be admired first and foremost is the screenplay by Paul Webb, which takes the factually based story of the Civil Rights movement and the Selma-Montgomery march and tackles it from multiple levels. We get glimpses of the context surrounding the march, the injustice predicated towards African-Americans by systemic and societal prejudice in the South, as well as King’s (David Oyelowo) singular importance for the Civil Rights movement. Immediately, the audience is forced to reckon with the necessity of this march and given the sense that the events of the story to come are an inevitable and urgent undertaking.

Webb gives insight into the greater political machinations behind the scenes, shedding light on the occasional clashes between President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (Tom Wilkinson) agenda and King’s activism. Light is also shed on dissent within King’s movement regarding his highly organized methods of non-violence (a theme that is brought out to stunning clarity throughout the film), which heightens our appreciation of the complexity and weight of the strategies King opts to pursue. The film’s depiction of the brutal “Bloody Sunday” incident on the Edmund Pettus Bridge is unsettling, portrayed in all its unnatural and immoral terror by the camerawork of Bradford Young, whose cinematography is full of even and steady motion, sweeping the audience away in the action while still permitting us to intellectually process it.

DuVernay and Webb balance these broader stroke depictions of the injustice committed towards African-Americans with intimate and deeply moving portraits of the individual players. David Oyelowo stands out with his incredible depiction of King, (his lack of an Oscar nomination a terrible disappointment) capturing the inspiring power and charisma of King as a leader, while also revealing his very human weaknesses. Carmen Ejogo is a highlight as Coretta Scott King, emphasizing both the dignities and struggles that her and her family embodied and endured during their great struggle. Other performances, ranging from notable to exceptional, abound throughout.

This personal focus elevates Selma beyond a competent history lesson, transforming it into a powerful and convicting picture whose images and emotions linger long after leaving the theater. Scattered throughout the film are small, powerful portraits of individuals caught up in the turmoil, from the heartbreaking death of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), a demonstrator shot by an Alabama state trooper while trying to protect his mother, to the killing of Reverend James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), a white minister beaten to death by KKK men for daring to participate in the marches for justice. These individual, moving vignettes, coupled with the remarkably human portrayals of the major players, are what make Selma a powerful and compelling picture.

Because of its combination of history, artistry and narrative power, Selma succeeds at doing what Unbroken failed to accomplish only a few weeks earlier: provide a depiction of human suffering and sacrifice that does not numb, but moves. DuVernay finds the beauty within the darkness. Powerful images of broken and flawed people standing up and saying that enough is enough, that there is a better moral way by which we can live our lives, abound in Selma, and the film calls for its audience not only to watch, but to participate. This way has a cost, but it is a cost well worth paying. Selma is not a perfect film, but it is a deeply moral film, and for that reason a must-see.

Guest Writer Jacob Smith: A Young Man on Hymns

At Pulling On The Push Door, we love to have a wide variety of voices to provoke us to thought and discussion. Thus, we are more than happy to welcome our good friend Jacob Smith, who has written the following post on hymns, as a guest writer for the blog. Please feel free to comment with your own perspective on the issue!

***

hymnsThe Church made for herself quite the divisive topic when she invented modern praise music. I doubt that many of those who pioneered the “Contemporary” movement foresaw how churches would bicker and split over their very own songs. The conflicts over worship styles definitely provide for an interesting conversation, but the so called “worship wars” of the past do not concern me today. Today, the average church goer rarely thinks about his music and that, indeed, constitutes a much greater problem. Thus, the church must return to the question of worship styles once more.

I am twenty-one and a college student, and, therefore, most would assume that nothing makes me feel more worshipful than soft synth, deep bass, and crisp lighting sets, but not so fast. As the title of this article clearly states, I love hymns. I love them quite a bit actually. This does make me an aberration I suppose, but I know that I am not alone in this. Therefore, I would like to begin with clearing an unfortunately common false assumption from the ecclesiological air, twenty-one year olds are not a monolith, we cannot agree on a uniform dress style—thus the exceptionally cliquish nature of style this day (i.e. hipsters, rockers, preps, goths)—let alone on something vastly significant such as how we worship God. So no, for all those over forty, switching to all contemporary music will not necessarily “bring in more of the young people.” In fact, if you switch and do so poorly, then you are more likely to drive off “the young people” than to draw them in. Switching styles does not send out an instant notification to all those under thirty, such that they throng to your doors in a hysterical mass bent on awesome worship. A multitude of reasons could be contributing to the older demographics in many churches, the most common of which is a generally more demographic in many smaller towns, and you should not assume that switching teams would alter your demographics any more than switching socks alters your height

Also, please stop subjecting what youth you have in your church to poorly executed worship music (or, heaven help us, worship track CDs) when you have a perfectly good piano and organ. Most of us would rather sing thirty well executed hymns—and I am not talking about Rachmaninoff concerto performance here—than attempt to sing one contemporary song with the ubiquitous struggling praise band. Furthermore, some people seem to have the alarmingly foolish formula in their minds that traditional = insincere. There are few more logically deficient assumptions as this. I am sure that anyone who lived before 1978 would love to discover that they along with the nineteen hundred and seventy-eight years’ worth of faithful Christians who preceded them were worshiping God insincerely this whole time. What a foolish thought, but I digress.

1. Hymns are simpler

This may not seem quite right. You might point out that modern praise music operates by a much simpler chord system and has more commonplace words in its lyrics, but these both miss the mark on this point. Do you recall how I was talking about churches poorly executing praise music earlier? Well, the reason for this is not because non-professional musicians are all terrible, but because executing a praise song well requires quite a few more people and the addition of people equals the addition of multiple possible points of failure. You see, to do modern music well you must have a full praise band, a sound technician, and a light/projection crew. This provides for quite a few opportunities for things to go wrong. We all know how irritating it is when the man working the slides gets lost or the guitarist plays in the wrong key, and it happens all of the time.

Hymns are a totally different story. They are simple. They require no more than three people to execute them well. When was the last time any of us were distracted while singing a hymn because the pianist accidentally lapsed into the wrong key? Furthermore, organs and pianos are both acoustic instruments, so no sound technicians are required. As far as people’s voices go, the church got along quite well for 1800 years without any electrical amplification, so I imagine we could still pull it off. Also, hymnals work quite well, in that they never get lost mid song and give you the wrong lyrics. They always work and even give you more information than slides do anyway.

2. Hymns are more musical

I am sorry, but the continual progression of the same chords kills modern music for me. Furthermore, most all of it is in major keys, which may seem like an advantage, but a minor key is a powerful thing and should never be excluded from any kind of music. Sure, praise music is much more emotional, but, just as a passionately pained road stripe does not equal Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” in artistry, this is a poor comparison. This carries over into the realm of beauty as well. How many of us want “10,000 Reasons” sung at our funerals? Few if any, I would guess. It is a nice song, but ultimately not a beautiful work. I ask you, what contemporary song is as hauntingly beautiful as “I Wonder as I Wander” or as jubilant as “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”? None, I would say.

3. Hymns are More Theological

This is a pretty classic argument, so I will not belabor my point here. I will say that modern praise music often doesn’t get the props it deserves on this front. Your average praise song tends to have more straight scripture than your average hymn (unless you use a psalter), but even then that does not truly resolve this question. Most hymns will teach you more about Christianity and the truths in scripture than your average contemporary song could imagine, and hymns also tend not to have a heavy proliferation of that great theological term “oh.” What does singing a single meaningless syllable communicate about faith in Christ? Substitutionary atonement? Incarnation? The consubstantiality of the Son with the Father? This non-theological bend becomes especially evident in how modern praise music so often relies on giant musical mood swings to whip its listeners into some kind of a worshipful frenzy, rather than actually engaging them in the lyrics. Needless to say, hymns are powerful theological works in their own right.

4. Hymns are Holier

This might get me in trouble, but I think singing hymns is a holier pursuit than singing praise songs. Now, am I saying that those who sing hymns are holier? No, and do not construe this as self-righteousness. I have always felt holier while singing hymns. I know this is very much a personal feeling, but this is a blog post, it is all personal opinion. Anyway, Hymns have a far greater air of holiness to them; you feel like you are doing something sacred. I think that this feeling actually roots itself in some facts though. Firstly, the fact is that Hymns are inescapably sacred. Sure, some have a colorful past, but no one remembers them as bar songs or whatnot. Their defining influence has been as a hymn. People often decry a sacred/secular divide, but to do so, I believe, is shallow. Yes, Christians should integrate their faiths with the lives out in the world, but something should be different from the world when believers get together to worship. I am confident that most people want to feel like they are somewhere different, somewhere better, than the outside world when they are at church. Modern praise music is too akin to the popular music of our day to effectively be sacred. It is like claiming a 2011 Chevrolet Aveo really is the same thing as a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. It may be produced by the same company, but it really cannot share the stage. Contemporary music is sacred, but only in name. Little, other than a lack of creativity perhaps, sets it apart from this world. Hymns have always been clearly distinguishable from the secular world. Since the meaning of holy is “to set apart for God” it is clear from this angle that hymns are holier, since contemporary music fails to fulfill this above listed definition.

Secondly, there is a tradition to hymns. Hymns are how the Church has facilitated worship for nearly eight hundred years. We cannot just deny that. People have sought Christ with the very some words you are singing for hundreds of years, which connects you to a long tradition. While many spurn tradition these days, I contend that it should always play an important role in the activity of the Church. When singing hymns you are in-line with not only those older than you in the church, but countless others who have gone before you. Furthermore, churches are more cohesive bodies when they embrace hymns. They remain together, forming strong bonds held together with the firm glue of tradition. I will emphasize this with some anecdotal evidence. I recently attended a joint service between a church’s traditional and contemporary services and in this service we did not sing one hymn. Everything was modern. Do you know what that did? It created division, because those who love hymns were told by the worship leader that their feelings did not matter. They were told that it was more important that the folks used to the contemporary service not be inconvenienced with their old-fashioned musical tastes, than it was for them to feel included and comfortable. It was divisive and disappointing.

In conclusion, I think we have cast off hymns too quickly, as if the music that replaced them was impossibly superior, and alienated our elders. Furthermore, in embracing modern praise music we have taken what was a simple and effective system and introduced so many points of failure that few churches can execute a worship service well. Too many distracting errors are possible in contemporary services. Somewhere along the way, we decided to throw out beauty with simplicity. Sure, complex things are often beautiful, but this is not that easy. The praise music of today is rarely, if ever, beautiful to hear and has little musical complexity. In keeping with this motif, we replaced hymns that were both beautiful and thoughtful in lyric with praise songs which are often poetically and theologically lazy and, it is almost as if modern lyricists prefer to blunder about in a rhyme making app on their phones more than they prefer to compose. Finally, hymns set the music and worship of the church apart from that of the world. I want my praise to God to be different in every conceivable way from the culture’s praise of sexuality, fame, or money. I want that difference to stretch even into the form of the music. After all, that is what holiness is: set-apartness. Furthermore, hymns link you to a tradition that not only unifies individual churches, but the Church as a whole throughout time.

Finally, how, then, are we going to change this? If you think I am asking you to form a mob, go beat down your music minister’s door, and demand more hymns in your church services, you are wrong. Such an act would be profoundly disrespectful to a man who, as a pastor, is in spiritual authority over you. What I would suggest is for many of you to begin thinking seriously about how worship is carried out at your church and quietly bring your individual concerns to your music minister, because coming as a group automatically sets you up as an opposing party. No one wants that. At the end of the day though, as long as a church is unified it is in far better shape than one that is disjointed, regardless of worship style. The last thing I want is for there to be disunity in a church. So always seek unity and always display love, for these are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and that, indeed, is what Jesus would do.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” Review

Exodus2014PosterQuite a bit of controversy has stirred up surrounding the release of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. On the one hand, many are upset about the casting of Anglo-Saxon actors in an ethnically inaccurate fashion. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Christians raise the usual complaints about supposed Biblical inaccuracies. Unfortunately, all of these vehement debates distract from an accurate judgment of the film on its own terms, and while it may possess a few structural flaws, Exodus proves a solid and compelling retelling of a well-worn tale.

Scott, armed with an excellent cast of actors (setting the controversy aside for the moment), attempts to anchor his retelling of the Exodus account firmly in the development of characters, with admittedly mixed results. Christian Bale proves a worthy Moses, a prince of Egypt raised a royal warrior, whose true identity lies with the Hebrew people his kingdom has enslaved. Moses struggles with commands from God, relayed to him through a young child messenger, questioning the necessity and justice of God’s wrath visited upon the Egyptians, while also exhibiting violent tendencies himself, a logical result of his own upbringing. Moses’ relationship with his Midianite family in exile, particularly with Zipporah, however, feels shortchanged, rushed through in a spotty first act that sets up the action to come, but does not give enough screen-time to key emotional bonds.

Moses’ relationships with his Egyptian family also feel stilted in this prologue, revealing significant relational dynamics without allowing them to truly breathe. My sneaking suspicion is that a good amount of material was cut to fit a shorter run-time, and this would not be the first time Scott has been shortchanged with a theatrical cut (I optimistically hope a director’s cut will eventually remedy some of these problems). I find it hard to believe that Sigourney Weaver was cast as Queen of Egypt only to have her pitting of Moses and Ramses against each other simply mentioned in passing. This is only one example of several plot ideas that are briefly addressed but fail to develop to their full potential.

Mentioning Ramses, however, brings us to the true strength of Exodus: Joel Edgerton. His performance as Ramses is a revelation, and once the film brings us to the showdown between the royal brothers it begins to feel less like the story of Moses and more like the tragic descent and humbling of a proud Pharaoh. Edgerton packs his performance full of broiling, seething emotion: confusion, anger, and surprising tenderness all appear. Scott’s crafting of Ramses provides the film’s most complex and compelling material. Edgerton lays on the intensity as a vain and insecure tyrant while also allowing the audience to glimpse a deep and human desire for familial love, born from his perceived rejection by his father. It is a nuanced portrayal of an iconic figure, one that culminates in increasingly heart-wrenching scenes, the most potent of which coming when Ramses confronts Moses holding the body of his dead son, truthfully and honestly asking “what kind of fanatics worship such a God?”

Scott’s keen visual eye and penchant for epic action shines throughout Exodus. The Egyptian army is carefully and powerfully shot, represented as an unstoppable force of nature through wide sweeping vistas, and the plagues are terrifyingly horrific and realistic. No other film adaptation has so potently provoked the instinctive revulsion inherent in understanding God’s justice in the Exodus account. The parting of the Red Sea is magnificently staged, reveling in the supernatural spectacle of the entire affair while keeping the narrative focus clearly on the conflict between Ramses and Moses. Scott’s decision to portray God’s messenger as a young child also adds an eerie dynamic, tapping into the Scriptural thematic motif of the weak shaming the strong, while simultaneously creating a certain queasiness with the idea a little boy calling out for destructive retributive justice.

Exodus might flounder a bit at its conclusion, when characters initially underdeveloped prove vital to important character arcs, but these are relatively minor complaints when taken in consideration of the whole. Scott has crafted a biblical epic that remains faithful to the heart of this old story while probing new and often uncomfortable questions of faith. The answers to these questions will vary widely from viewer to viewer, but Scott is to be commended for humanizing Ramses in a manner not seen before. Ironically, it removes him from his godlike pedestal much like God himself does through the plagues. While Exodus: Gods and Kings may not reach the transcendent heights of The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt, it is a worthy addition to Hollywood’s Exodus canon, providing provocative, thrilling storytelling of a spiritual nature on a grand scale, and in the end, what more can one ask of a biblical epic?

In Defense of Boring Films

"The New World"
“The New World”

Just the other night I watched Terrence Malick’s The New World with my family. A poetic and beautiful reimagining of the legendary romance of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, it was a remarkable cinematic journey to undertake, as we found ourselves whisked off a land of profound magic, spirituality and humanity. Malick, in his direction, takes a leisurely route through the story, which leads to a resonant and powerful conclusion, but also a path that had several of us puzzling and even yawning at the numerous slow and tranquil shots of nature and simple human interactions. Perhaps frustrated by the film’s lack of action in the traditional sense, instead focusing on pensive reflection, a few of us complained vocally about the ponderous length of the story. But by the time the credits rolled, The New World had chastised us for our impatience, rewarding what we mistook for boredom with a remarkable amount of emotional resonance that would not have been possible without the meandering journey that came before.

I began to think on how Malick’s vision for The New World, taking a slow, beautiful and hypnotic pace that is so peaceful it threatens to lull its audience to sleep, is a complete antithesis to modern American society and culture. We demand speed and efficiency in all that we do. Our food must be made quickly and served immediately. Our packages must come within mere days of placing our orders. Our internet must provide information instantaneously. If we are not served what we desire within seconds, we are dissatisfied. Malick’s film is torturous to the audience of modernity because it requires its audience to wait, to soak in the scenery, to drink in deep and profound emotion that only comes with the passage of time. These qualities of patience and contentment, which allow for life to unfold at its own pace, are virtues sorely lacking in America today, and for this reason I wish to put forth a brief defense of slowly paced, immensely long, and tiringly boring films.

I include the word boring because, it must be admitted, the type of film I am defending has been known to bore many an audience. In conversations with fellow filmgoers I hear them lament the slow and deliberate pacing of the old epics, for instance, such as Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. When watching 2001: A Space Odyssey the modern viewer glances at their cell phone for the time, impatient at the camera’s lingering over spaceships participating in delicate dance, accompanied not by dialogue but by classical music (Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic has other glaring flaws, but its pace is most certainly not one of them). More recently, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, released in a proper director’s cut, moves at a snail’s pace, unfolding musings on the Crusades and faith over more than three hours with a surprisingly small amount of action for viewers expecting a Gladiator-like emphasis on masculine violence. One of my personal favorites, The Last Samurai, is also slowly paced, clocking in at just under three hours as it peacefully and methodically explores the fated old order at the turn of the 20th century. Some of the greatest films in American cinema, The Godfather, for instance, also move at a glacial pace, allowing sleep to remain a menacingly present threat for the viewer expecting frequent mobster violence.

So what am I trying to say by listing all these slowly paced films? I bring these up because too often have I heard fellow film-goers dismiss films such as these because they are “too slow, incredibly boring” and “sleep inducing.” I have even heard some complain that last year’s Gravity bored them from the opening sustained shot of Earth! (Considering it clocks in at only about 90 minutes, I find these complaints hard to comprehend.) Frankly, a slow pace by itself is an absurd reason to count off a story, and reflects a flaw in our modern standards for art and perspectives on life rather than something wrong with the film itself. Our culture has pushed forth an increasingly selfish and self-centered view of the world, and it is often reflected in the intersection of business and art that is Hollywood. When we go to the cinema, we go to watch films that have been marketed to meet our specific tastes. We have certain expectations, and we want what we want in a film (whether that be distraction, entertainment, humor, action, drama) and we want it immediately. We do not want to be challenged by our art. We want to be affirmed. We want excitement, we want a distraction, and we want it now.

"The Godfather"
“The Godfather”

The slowly paced film is offensive because it evokes reality. Real life is not a series of quick cuts and flashy maneuvers, stylized violence and sexualized models, (as in a myriad of action films, Transformers foremost in my mind) but rather a gradual progression of moments, moments that slowly build sometimes to profound sadness, and other times to profound beauty. The slow film does not distract us from reality, it instead invites us to draw connections between the images on screen and the lives we lead, challenging our preconceived notions. It will not yield what we want immediately, but forces us to wait as we wait in life. The Godfather is a masterpiece not because of its portrayals of gangster violence and savagery (though those are present) but rather is impactful because of its shockingly normal and understated portrayal of the Corleone family. We see them live, love and hate on a day to day basis. Think of the beginning of the film, an extended wedding sequence. Surely the modern blockbuster editors would cut down the wedding to a fraction of what it exists as in the final cut, afraid that audiences would lose interest. “We have to give them action, what they want is a powerful hook!” I can hear them complaining to Francis Ford Coppola. But I can just as easily picture Coppola shaking his head and replying “we cannot give them what they want, but rather what they need.” And what the story needs is for us to truly know the Corleone family, and to know the Corleones we need time with them.

In some ways, encountering the slowly paced film is like encountering a new family, a friend or a person. We meet them and immediately have our own expectations and desires of who we want them to be. Initially, however, we may be repulsed. “This is not who I expected,” we might say, “I don’t think I’m interested in this person because they are not who I want as a friend.” But if we dropped every friendship simply because it initially did not give us what we thought we needed, we most likely would miss out on all the things it offered that we actually needed. I have found that the best friendships are forged in difference, in transcending our petty expectations and, after time and patience, yielding fruit we never could have imagined.

"Kingdom of Heaven"
“Kingdom of Heaven”

Kingdom of Heaven, for instance, is a film I entered with expectations of a boldly heroic tale of the Crusades, based on my previous experience with Scott’s Gladiator and Robin Hood. Instead, the director’s cut meandered through the Holy Land, following the decidedly uncharismatic knight Balian as he attempts to found a kingdom of conscience in the midst of a remarkably murky and tragic religious conflict. Scott allows us to explore the conflict as it slowly builds towards Saladin’s Siege of Jerusalem, giving us time to weigh the sides for ourselves, noting the tragic honor of the leper King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, fuming at the disgusting bloodlust of the Templars, puzzling at the noble figure of Saladin and his violently eager lieutenants, all while repeatedly posing the question “is God real, and if He is, what does His Kingdom really look like?” The answer is only halfway given after a long, arduous journey that ends with a sigh of relief rather than a cheer of victory, and at times the film tested my attentiveness, threatening to lose my interest with line after line of dense dialogue and methodical action. But after the fact, I found Kingdom of Heaven dominated my absent-minded musings for weeks. What is the kingdom of heaven? I weighed the varying interpretations put forth by the characters Balian had encountered, and eventually Balian himself, and though I might not completely agree with the humanistic/moralistic philosophy Scott espouses, his ideas have much merit, and the time spent in a “boring” film rewarded me with a bounty of food for thought.

Would such meditation have been possible had the film been trimmer, leaner, and better-paced? Probably not, as the time spent within Scott’s story deepened my level of engagement. I began not simply to know the characters in an intellectual sense, but I began to know them in the sense that you know a long-time friend. And this knowledge, this time spent bored, made it possible for the film to challenge how I look at the kingdom of heaven on Earth. I find the leper king a fascinating moral example of a man striving to maintain peace in a world hell-bent on war and violence. I find the questions of faith challenging. Our film-viewing should not be intended to simply shore up our own conceptions of reality, or even worse, to distract ourselves from it. Let us surrender ourselves to the long, boring films which may not grab our selfish interest initially, but will bring immense rewards afterwards. But better yet, perhaps we should stop looking at people as those from whom we can immediately get satisfaction, money, or enjoyment. Instead, let’s open ourselves to investing in those we might otherwise brush past, give them a little time, and see what wonders their Creator might have embedded deep within.