"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Young Messiah

The 2016 film, The Young Messiah, admits to being an imagined year in Jesus’s childhood. To be sure, historical features are drawn on, but the genre expressed is historical fiction. This label seems too harsh, for Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian, mentions Jesus, “the so-called Christ,” and his brother James. Clearly, Josephus was not a believer; more accurately, he did not believe that Jesus Christ was (or is) the Son of God. Even so, watching the film knowing its screenplay came from imagination drawing on faith narratives and historical figures (e.g. Herod) enables the viewer to become cognizant of religious meaningfulness, which need not depend in the case of faith narratives of conflating them with historical accounts.
That is to say, a distinctive religious meaningfulness can be separated from the domain of history without any loss.


What religious meaningfulness can be taken from a film that admits to be an imaginary year in the life of young Jesus? I contend that the medium of film pulls this off wonderfully. The story takes off when Joseph, Mary, Jesus, James, and a few other relatives leave Egypt to return to Nazareth. Herod has just died, as told by one of Joseph’s dreams, but Herod’s son is intent on catching and killing the future king. Of course, Herod jr. is misunderstanding the sense in which the Kingdom of God is qualitatively different than any extant on Earth. While the search for Jesus is going on. Jesus himself is trying to figure out why he can heal people. He is different, but why? He goes ahead of his parents to the Temple in Jerusalem at Passover to ask the rabbis. Ironically, he asks a blind rabbi, who helps the seven-year old, who in turn heals the man’s blindness. 
Even so, Jesus must get to the bottom of the matter of why he is different, so he asks his mother Mary, who reveals that the spirit of God came onto her and impregnated her. Jesus is God’s son, or God is Jesus’s father. At this point, Jesus has the insight, which can neither have been put into the film from historical or Biblical research, that God had a son at least in part to be able to feel life, for without having become flesh, God can’t know what it like to feel the sun and water, as well as sadness and human happiness. God so loves the world that God wanted to experience life here. Based on this insight, Jesus has a stronger zest of life; he believes God is experiencing life through him. The meaningfulness of this subtle point dwarfs the value of the chase scenes, in my opinion, but a film must have dramatic tension even, interestingly, when the audience knows how the tension will end (i.e., Jesus will survive into adulthood). That film is able to siphon off the status-quo default of the hegemony of the historical in Christianity and yet distill religious meaningfulness as distinct and surprisingly nonetheless as also of value is a testament to the value of film as well as religion as sui generis. In other, more understandable words, the viewer can isolate religious meaning even knowing the film was written as fiction, drawing from history and Biblical studies. The latter two have become so dominant that it can scarcely be believed that religious meaningfulness can not only exist, but also thrive, on its own with only some contextual help from history and what is in the Bible. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Rosemary’s Baby

The film narrative centers on Satan impregnating Rosemary, a married woman in New York City. According to Roman Polanski, the film’s director, the decisive point is actually that neither Rosemary in the film nor the film’s viewers can know whether it was the devil who impregnated her. Beyond the more matter of being able to distinguish a psychosis from a more “objective” or external religious event, the importance of the supernatural to religion is also, albeit subtly, in play, according to Polanski.


“Nothing supernatural is in the film,” Polanski says in an interview that comes with the DVD, so the intrusion of religion into Rosemary’s pregnancy could all be in Rosemary’s head. Given the paranoia “over the safety of her unborn child [that] begins to control her life,” Rosemary may unjustifiably fear that the Satanic couple in the next apartment hosts a coven that plans on sacrifice her baby; Rosemary may hallucinate the devil’s face during the sex scene and the devil’s likeness in her baby after his birth. As for the first hallucination, however, Rosemary does not eat much of the drugged chocolate dessert furnished by Minnie Castevet from next door. Whereas the sequence through the boat scene looks hallucinatory, the fact that Roman Castevet’s painting red lines on Rosemary’s naked chest and abs as she lies on a bed is in the same scene as the sex, which crucially includes a camera shot of part of the devil’s body—a shot not from Rosemary’s point of view—followed by a very brief shot of the devil’s face from Rosemary’s point of view, the supernatural presence of the devil is indeed in the film. A dream or hallucinatory sequence in life as in a film does not maintain a “scene” for long, yet the one of the painting and intercourse is sustained long enough not to be dreamlike. So I cannot agree with Polanski’s claim that nothing supernatural is in the film. He later admitted to being an agnostic, yet he did not keep to his personal beliefs in the making of the film—which is a good thing.



Only one very brief look at the devil having intercourse and another such glimpse of the baby’s face struck me most in my first viewing of the film. Genius! I thought, as the viewers would only get a glimpse of the central character—and one that is distinctively religious. By showing us less, in other words, Polanski actually raised the significance of the supernatural to religion. This raises the question of whether the supernatural really is so important in the phenomenology of religion. Perhaps supernatural additives have been placed in religions to gain adherents. In Christianity, perhaps it is easier for people to focus on an image of the resurrected Jesus than the invisible Kingdom of God, even though Jesus in the Gospels claims he came to preach the mysteries (i.e., what is hidden) of his Father’s Kingdom. It is easier to call the prince of peace the king in that Kingdom, with not much attention going either to the invisible Father or the Kingdom. In his book, The History of Natural Religion, David Hume argues that the human brain has an innate tendency to posit human characteristics on inanimate objects (and animals). As we do so in a given religion, it becomes overladen, human all too human, such that the original divine simplicity is covered. The human mind has trouble holding onto such divine purity as Plotinus’s the One; it is much easier for us to envision the supernatural. That which catches our eyes is irresistible even to an agnostic director, as well as to the viewers. We crave even just a glimpse of Satan in the film, and the provision of just a glimpse actually validates how important the supernatural is not only in the film, but, moreover, in religion itself. But is the supernatural in religion itself, or do we humans bring the supernatural images to religion?

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Risen

In Risen (2016), A Roman Tribune, Clavius, is tasked with overseeing Jesus’s crucifixion; more importantly, Pilote tasks his Tribune with making sure that no one steals the body out of the tomb so no one could claim that Jesus is arisen. This would put the Jesus movement within Judaism as much more of a threat to Pilote as well as the Jewish leaders. More than Christians can glean interesting lessons from the film. That is to say, it is by no means a remake of The Greatest Story Ever Told and Son of God.


Both Pilote and Clavius exclude the possibility of a resurrection from their minds, so when the body goes missing, they naturally assume that it is possible to find the corpse. The possibility of anything supernatural is reserved only for the Roman gods and goddesses. So when Clavius sees the resurrected Jesus lounging in the Upper Room with the disciples minus Judus, the Roman’s reaction is sheer shock. This can’t be possible, yet it apparently is. So he goes with the disciples to the Sea of Galilee as Jesus has instructed in the room. In that turn-around, Clavius’s operative cognitive paradigm completely shifts; he is like a lost boy in his newly adopted paradigm. In the process, he first questions his extant assumptions and then adopts others that fit with new empirical knowledge. How often does this happen to people in life? Most people hold to their beliefs as if they counted as knowledge. Ironically, this disease is particularly evident in people for whom religion is important—the political realm running a close second—but the harm is arguably worse in religion (e.g. all the religious wars and arguments). I submit that faith and rigidity are actually incongruous even though a person holding to her beliefs is part of a cognitive faith.
Although the film centers on the Resurrection, a more significant contribution made by the film concerns the relationship between Clavius and Peter. On the journey to the sea, the two men start out fighting, with Clavius cutting quite a scar into one of Peter’s legs. Even so, after saying The Lord’s Prayer with the other disciples, Peter tosses some bread backwards to the excluded Roman. I can scarce think of an instance in which I have witnessed such a feat, even by Christians who claim to follow Jesus. Peter has absorbed Jesus’s teaching and example such that the disciple who is the Rock allows himself sufficient flexibility to become a friend to the ironically otherwise isolated Clavius.
Clavius’s night chat with Jesus is also of note, as the viewer gets not only a snapshot of Jesus’s philosophy, but also how far the character arc goes for Clavius. He is not only open to Jesus’s teachings (and values!), but also accepts them. Would the Tribune have been even open to the messages that those who live by the sword may die from it, and that “there are no enemies here” had he not seen Jesus arisen? I contend that this is the vital question for contemporary Christianity. Perhaps even in it, assumptions may need to be re-examined rather than merely assumed. Namely, is anything missed in the hegemony of the supernatural? 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Jobs

Typically as a company transitions from an enterprising, creative new venture to a large organization to be managed, a staid CEO replaces a visionary founder. In the case of Steve Jobs at Apple, the very nature of the man’s vision was not only inherently at odds with the status-quo underpinning of a large organization with a budget, but also essential to the company’s business model. Hence, the company, including its shareholders, paid a price for years for jettisoning Jobs. The film, Jobs (2013), is centered on the distinctiveness of Jobs’ vision. Although the film also hints at why this distinctiveness is such that the company would (and did) lose as a large organization after making the typical founder-to-CEO transition.


On the surface, Steve Jobs’ vision was to create new products that people could use. In fact, Jobs wanted the invented products to play a ubiquitous role in people’s lives—even being a virtual extension of their arms. Considering the Apple phones, laptops, ipads, and ipods that resulted from this vision after its initial desk-top computer manifestation, Jobs turned out to be incredibly successful. Perhaps the lesson we can draw is that it takes a lot of time for a different vision of society to come to fruition. Besides the sheer time it takes to invent and implement a product that is radically different, the tyranny of the status quo in institutions as well as a society itself acts as a solid counter-force that holds the process back—especially from one invented product to the next on the long way to the vision being realized.
The vision was so massive in terms of how much it would change society, including what people do on a daily basis, and so different from the status quo societally that the normal transition from a founder to an organizationally-ensconced CEO threatened the realization of the vision from being accomplished. As if this problem were not enough, the film shows the viewer just how much of an asshole Jobs could be (someone actually calls him that in the film). More typically of a founder, Jobs also tossed out the strictures of budges on a regular basis. In the film, he says that the next product line should risk the whole company, presumably because of the sheer differentness of the next invention. In fact, he also says that he wants different, not just better. So rather than assume that the company’s focus should be on an incrementally better version of the Apple II desktop computer, he pushed the untested Macintosh project, to which he had been tasked by the CEO, into front and center for the company even though that project by its very nature as radically new needed more money, staff and time (including a two-year extension on the delivery date) than the board could accept. At the time, seventy percent of the revenue was coming from the Apple II, so why not act like a company in business and focus on the winner rather than an untested product line?
Yet to Steve Jobs, the very point of Apple (and perhaps any company) is not finally to maximize profit, but, rather, to build something that will not only be useful, but will change society. It was the status quo and its sycophants that Jobs pointed to as the societal sickness. The year 1984 would not reflect George Orwell’s book, 1984, which describes an autocratic, totalitarian society. Apple would see to it that a different society would exist—different to not only the status quo prior to 1984, but also a future in which people do not have the ability (and thus freedom) to express themselves as unique (and free) individuals. Jobs wanted employees whom society viewed as crazy for thinking outside the box—even questioning societal assumptions. This included thinking outside the organizational box—even questioning organizational constraints that enforce the status quo. HR departments don’t usually seek out such people to hire. The distinctiveness of Job’s vision thus meant that the company could not be run as other companies—those that are inherently ensconced in the societal and even organizational status quo. In fact, large corporations even unwittingly promote and enforce the societal status quo because they can make a lot of money in it.
How to break the natural law of founder-to-CEO transition in organizational lifecycles by retaining a founder’s power while still giving some heed to financial constraints is the question that the film does not answer; Jobs is simply replaced, then let back in again. The vision gains new force, but what of the running of the large organization viably so it can continue to deliver financial resources for different, rather than just better, projects that are untested and by their very nature long in gestation? In short, what if a founder’s vision is not so easily replaced by an organizational mission that everyone pays lip-service to but in actuality ignores? Apple depended on Jobs not only because of his inventive brilliance, but also the very nature of his distinctive vision.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Post

In Spielberg’s The Post (2017), the fateful decision to publish portions of the Pentagon Papers centers on Katharine Graham’s being willing to rebuff her newspaper’s lawyers, who represent the company’s financial interests, in favor of Ben Bradlee’s argument that free speech of the press as a check on government in a viable democracy—the company’s mission—is of overriding importance. As important as this critical decision was historically, I submit that the film allots too much attention to the decision and even the relationship between Graham and Bradlee at the expense of other deserving matters.


The film gives scant attention to Daniel Ellsberg, the former Marine and military analyst who “brought the Pentagon Papers to The Times, and later to The Post, motivated by an all-American notion that the nation’s citizen’s had the right to know more about what was going on half a world away in a war financed by their tax dollars and fought by so many of their children.”[1] The script does not include, for example, his statement, “Taking an oath as a public servant does not mean keeping secrets or obeying the president—it’s respecting the Constitution.”[2] The viewer sees little if any of the internal struggle that must have led to his conclusion.
Secondly, that Ellsberg first brought portions of the Pentagon’s study to The New York Times is shown in the film mainly through Ben Bradlee’s competitive disappointment rather than showing more of what was going on at The Times. In fact, whereas Bradlee and Graham could look to The Times as a precedent, Arthur O. Sulzberger, publisher of The Times, had no forerunner and thus “took on far more risk,” James Goodale, the paper’s in-house counsel at the time, has written.[3] “It’s as though Hollywood had made a movie about the Times’s triumphant role in Watergate,” he added.[4] Neil Sheehan, the lead reporter on the story, has said in retirement that Sulzberger “was absolutely heroic in publishing the Pentagon Papers. . . . He was all alone in making his decision.”[5]
Thirdly, and most importantly, although the film gives viewers the “important lesson . . . that, in both cases, family-led newspapers placed their journalistic missions ahead of business imperatives. And they did so under intense governmental pressure,” scant attention is allotted to the contents of the articles themselves.[6] Little is revealed other than that administrations going back to Truman’s lied to the American people regarding American involvement and prospects in Vietnam. The film highlights the lying by showing Nixon’s Secretary of State blatantly lie to the press on his view of the prospects for winning the war. The viewer is left with the image of a misled public that is nonetheless supposed to hold its government accountable. Even so, the film does not convey much of what the Pentagon study found. The scattered, cryptic references made at Bradlee’s house are not sufficient, given the potential for informing the viewers, and thus a sizable portion of the American people, on just how bad the lies were by spelling them out.
The medium of film, as well as its popular situs in modern society, can handle making “deep” philosophical issues transparent. In the case of The Post, the increasing power of the American presidency, referred to academically as the imperial presidency, could have received attention, as could have the particular cover-ups by Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon—each lie specified rather than glided over. It was not just Richard Nixon, who can be easily relegated as the crook who occupied the White House for a term and a half. That several presidents successively lied points to something systemic getting in the way of democratic accountability in the U.S. Besides the growing power of the presidency since World War II, the ease by which administrations can insulate themselves from the public, rather than being accountable to it, would have come through more in the film.
In short, more substance on the main character, the Pentagon Papers, as well as the initial roles of Ellsberg and The New York Times, could have come in by not giving so much screen time to the Bradlee-Graham relationship and even the competing interests within The Washington Post. The result would have been more of a multi-level film.  



[1] Jim Rutenberg, “Spielberg’s ‘The Post’ Provides Fitting End to Turbulent Year for the Media,” The New York Times, December 24, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Seminarian

A closeted gay student at an evangelical seminary is a contrast with a rather obvious clashing point, with the predicted ending being that the student is kicked out and must find or come into his own identity free of exterior constraints. Yet The Seminarian (2010) smartly avoids that road well-traveled. Instead, the screenwriter risks giving theology a prominent, and perhaps even central place in the film. The venture is at odds with the bottom-feeder mentality of Hollywood represented in the film, De-Lovely (2004), in which Cole Porter’s bisexuality occupies center-stage. Comparing these two films, irony drips off the screen as De-Lovely, which is patterned after a theatrical musical, looks down on Hollywood and yet has a common theme, while The Seminarian is a film through and through and yet takes the high road by supposing that the viewers can and will stay through some substantive theology, which transcends social issues and even the dramatic.
Theologically, The Seminarian, through its protagonist Ryan, wrestles with the relation of God as love and the love that is in human relationships. Specifically, if God made us capable of feeling love for another person so to demonstrate that God is love, then why do we suffer in relationships in which there is love? Ryan, who is suffering because he is falling for a guy he met online but keeps postponing a second date, runs the risk of using theological analysis to work out a personal problem. He supposes that we suffer in matters of love here below because God suffers for want of love from us. The unmentioned implication is that Jesus suffers on the Cross because we have fallen short from loving God. We have hurt God and so stand in need of being redeemed in order to be able to love God such that it will not suffer from want of our love. The suffering servant on the Cross is not just a human suffering, but also the divine suffering. Yet doesn’t this imply that God is incomplete in some way? God may have created humans so to be loved by us—hence the hurt from having love denied—but God itself is the fullness of love. As Augustine and Calvin emphasize in their respective writings, God is love. This is the subtitle of the film!
So, as in most theological problems worth their salt, an internal problem can be found and begs to be solved. Although Ryan attempts a solution in his thesis, the problem of God being complete unto itself is not addressed in the film. Perhaps God voluntarily created a vulnerability within the divine when he created humans to love, and thus glorify, it. The second person of the trinity, the Logos, is a part or manifestation of God since before the beginning, and we can perhaps find the vulnerability—even if still when the suffering of God is potential—meaning before the Incarnation of Jesus as a god-man, fully human and fully divine, and even so fully able to suffer. In other words, the divine in Jesus suffers too; it is not just his human nature that suffers. Interestingly, the Gnostic text, The Gospel of Philip, has the divine leave, or abandon, Jesus on the cross just before he dies, and thus after he suffers. The question is perhaps whether love that is by its very divine-nature complete or whole yet suffer. If so, the pain would be from humans not loving God as we were meant (by God) to; the pain suffered by God would not be from a want of divine love.
It is significant, I submit, that a Hollywood film would give viewers such ideas to ponder rather than focus on the gay-guy-meets-conservative-religionists element of the narrative—a theme which had already enjoyed pride of place in many films that tease the tension that is in a society in motion. To be sure, Hollywood is indeed still capable of dishing out banal sugar to a superficial public, but this makes the choice made in the screenwriting of The Seminarian all the more noteworthy and deserving of emulation.



Sunday, September 23, 2018

De-Lovely

Cole Porter (1891-1964), an American composer and songwriter, is the centerpiece of the film, De-Lovely (2004). The film begins when he meets Linda, who would become his wife. Their relationship is at the center of the story, as well as Porter’s love songs sung throughout the film. Although the complicated nature of the relationship takes center stage, the film can be viewed as a moving snapshot of the first half of the twentieth century, when film made inroads that would dwarf the stage.


The message is clear: quality (e.g. clever humor) was be sacrificed, or “dumbed down,” to be attractive to the much larger movie-market. In other words, entertainment would have to become virtual eye-candy to be attractive to the ordinary American. In the film, Porter’s “Be a Clown” is meant as a swipe at J.B. Meyer even as the eye-candy visuals were deployed to tickle his ribs so he would be oblivious to the insult being leveled at his industry, and thus himself.
Linda Porter is more direct at the film’s party at the set, likening Hollywood to being deep down in an ocean—suggestive of the bisexual activities of Cole having found ready outlets in L.A.—rather than being in warm and sunny southern California. No opening after-party on Broadway would take place literally on a stage. How low class that would be!
Lastly, after watching a private screening of Night and Day (1946), in which Cary Grant is implausibly cast to play Cole Porter, neither Cole nor Linda is impressed. Looking at the attempt to capture Cole’s life in film, the couple could be concluding, moreover, that the ascendancy of film would result in a new decadence—a new low—in American entertainment.
Had they been around, the Porters would have stayed home rather than see the slew of disaster sans narrative films, such as Earthquake (1974), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and San Andreas (2015).  An interesting question is how Cole Porter viewed the decline in the number of Hollywood musicals beginning in the 1950s as the studio system started to come apart. He likely did not appreciate the dollar argument wherein what is produced should be what will maximize revenue, even if Porter benefitted financially from higher ticket sales of his films. It seems to me that the film medium is not to blame, for the film, Amadeus (1984), shows the existence of low theatre in the eighteenth century, before cinema would come into being.
Both theatre and film can go to the most base in terms of humor and narrative to titillate certain market-segments, while producing truly astonishing quality. Hence, films like Dumb and Dumber (1994) have not been made with an eye to getting an Academy Award, whereas films like The Iron Lady (2011) and Lincoln (2012) likely were. Astonishingly, actors like Meryl Streep can play in both camps, such as in starring in films like The Iron Lady and The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and yet also films like Mamma Mia! (2008) and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018). I am not saying that the latter films cannot or should not be taken to be entertaining; rather, I am pointing to the sheer distance between such films and those that receive best picture and acting nominations at the Academy of Motion Pictures. The existence of films such as Dumb and Dumber does not negate the high art of the films that are nominated (and win) Academy awards.