December 28, 2006

Source Material

I sat through The Fifth Element once more tonight. It is a fat, sloppy, stupid mess of a sci-fi/action flick that you'll hate yourself for liking, and I've probably seen it five or six times. It makes me ill to think I've endured half a dozen showings of this thing and maybe two of, say, Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now or The Godfather but no more . . . I probably haven't seen it in 2 or 3 years now, and as I watched this time a revelation hit me like a ton of bricks:

Writer/director Luc Besson's 1997 movie is the hideous sire of writer/director George Lucas's monstrous 1999-2005 Star Wars prequel trilogy. Lucas ripped off The Fifth Element just as surely as the Wachowskis' Matrix movies ripped off Dark City.

It's in the individual elements: the cab chase in 23rd century New York City translates directly to the Coruscant car chase scenes of Episode II; the opera diva and her entourage are dead ringers for Queen Amidala and hers; Chris Tucker's shrill DJ, Ruby Rhod, and Ahmed Best's frantic Gungan, Jar Jar Binks, are brothers from a different mother. But it is also in the style, the atmosphere, the costumes, the dialogue (and acting), the set design, the characters and the flow. Watch any movie from the original Star Wars trilogy and The Fifth Element, back to back, then follow it up with any movie from the prequel trilogy and tell me where the family resemblance lies.

A quick internet scan revealed that I am not the first person to make this connection to some degree (but I didn't find anyone who seems to realize the extreme degree of sameness). Similarities and even duplicate elements abound to a degree that makes them difficult to catalogue. I'm not sure what conclusion that leads to or what questions it raises (if any), I was just too thunderstruck by the sudden realization not to share it, for whatever that's worth. The Fifth Element is a compendium of everything I hate about the Star Wars prequels.

Posted by Jared at 12:05 AM | TrackBack

December 21, 2006


This struck me as an interesting idea, so I thought I'd give it a shot, even though I have a few in common (sort of). Give the original post and the comments a look-see. They're pretty worthwhile.

Citizen Kane
I might as well start by getting this one out of the way. Allow me to quote myself: "I'm the kind of person who can watch a movie and appreciate it immensely on the technical level, but still not enjoy it, or think it is an exceptional movie." That statement is no longer true. I am now almost incapable of disliking a well-made movie. I wrote that almost three years ago, here. I think that even as I was composing that post, I knew how silly it was. Perhaps I haven't done a complete 180 on Citizen Kane in one sense, but I have developed a very deep appreciation of it that wasn't there before. In terms of pure artistry, I no longer judge a movie based on its chosen subject. I still think that The Godfather should be the #1 film on that list, but Citizen Kane's spot in the top ten is well-deserved. Dang, I need to see that movie again. I really do.

Dr. Strangelove
I first saw this film the summer before I came to college, and I was baffled (to say the least). I didn't hate it, or even deeply dislike it, I just didn't get it. The movie was one big "Huh? Why?" It didn't help that I was the oldest person in the room, and everyone else would rather have been watching the other movie we had on hand (Danny Kaye's hilarious The Court Jester). Since then I've probably seen it 7 or 8 times, each with increased enjoyment. I realized the last time I watched it that Strangelove is probably one of the few movies that I could record my own commentary track for, and easily fill up the entire film with a steady stream of trivia, history, and analysis. If I could keep from laughing, anyway. I tend to spend most of Strangelove doubled over, even now.

Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Let's track back the other direction, shall we? I was 15 years old when the first Star Wars prequel came out, and it had only been 2 years since I saw the first Star Wars movie. I was still climbing toward the peak of my fanaticism for the franchise. Phantom Menace came out on May 19th in the United States, but didn't come out until late June in Guatemala. We came to Texas that summer on around June 17th . . . in other words, I had to wait a ridiculously long time to see one of the most anticipated movies ever. I had remained scrupulously spoiler-free, with the exception of about 500 viewings of the video recording I had of the trailer.

From the moment the lights went down, I was enraptured. I adored every frame of that movie. I believe it jumped immediately to the number 2 spot on my hierarchy of Star Wars movies (The Empire Strikes Back remained and remains unsurpassed). Suffice to say that Phantom has not fared so well as Empire as time goes on. By the time Attack of the Clones came out in 2002, my loyalty was shaky, and when Revenge of the Sith (which I've still only seen once) was released three years after that, I had long since fallen off the prequel bandwagon. I don't hate Episode I (all of the prequels have their moments . . . the final one is pretty good . . . and there are just too many happy memories associated with Star Wars for me to despise them), but I do hate certain portions of it, and I don't harbor any illusions about its quality.

I'm sure I could (and will) think of more movies to write about here, but I'm very tired right now and it's nearly time for me to get ready to fly to California this afternoon. Respond with your own changes of opinion, if you can think of any. I'm interested to know what you come up with.

Posted by Jared at 12:00 PM | TrackBack

December 20, 2006

The Little Grey Cells

I decided to get a few "different" Christmas movies in from Netflix this year. They were already on my queue, but I bumped them up to the top so as to have them before I left town. The first was Joyeux Noël, which we all gathered to watch on Saturday night before everyone scattered to the four winds. I loved it. We all loved it. It was one of the best Christmas movies I've ever seen, and if you have the means, make the effort to see it this Christmas yourself. I already went out and bought it.

The other one came in later than I expected, and watched it last night before bed. It was Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1995), the adaptation of one of my favorite mystery stories (alternately titled Murder for Christmas). It was nothing special (made-for-TV and all), but it was still quite charming and evoked a certain nostalgia from several years ago when I used to watch Poirot mysteries regularly with my family. The music people rather cleverly rearranged the show theme (usually heavy on the saxaphone) with pan pipes and the like, throwing in a few extra-Christmas-y flairs for good measure.

I do love me a good Poirot mystery. Barring Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot is by far my favorite fictional detective. But, when it comes to the movies, the actor behind the character is vitally important to the enjoyment. For instance, the last Poirot I watched was the 1970s Murder on the Orient Express with an all-star (and I do mean all-star) cast. Some incompetent moron cast Albert Finney (38 at the time) in the role of the 60-year old, eccentric Belgian detective. Finney was actually 3rd choice for the role, behind Sir Alec Guinness (if you can possibly imagine) and Paul Scofield.

Finney is an atrocity in the role; an absolute travesty. He brings the entire movie crashing down around him. Finney's Poirot barely seems like a human being, let alone an intelligent one. He seems to honk like a demented goose (etc.) more than he articulates human speech. It's not his fault . . . he's doing his best. He just doesn't have any business playing Hercule Poirot. The awful punchline is, Agatha Christie saw the film and declared Finney to be the nearest thing she had seen to the Poirot of her imagination. She loved him in the part. There are three reasons I don't think her opinion counts:

1) She was 84 and dying, so senility was clearly a factor. Additionally, she had been around since before the beginning of the motion picture, so she might not have been as difficult to impress as she should have been.

2) Agatha Christie didn't like the character of Poirot, anyway, and her prejudice no doubt made the extremely unlikable portrayal by Finney seem adequate.

3) She never met David Suchet.

David Suchet has played Poirot flawlessly on television since 1989 in 59 dramatizations of Christie mysteries. In a few more years (at this rate), every Poirot mystery Christie ever wrote will have been filmed with Suchet as the star. It is difficult to imagine his equal, let alone his better. David Suchet is Hercule Poirot.

For the sake of completeness, I should note that in-between Finney's Poirot of 1974 and Suchet's beginning in 1989, there was one other: Peter Ustinov. He featured in about half a dozen full-length Poirot mysteries during the 1980s; most with strong, star-studded casts. I have a certain fondness for the Ustinov Poirot. He is a talented actor playing an entertaining, likeable character. However, that character is not the Hercule Poirot of Agatha Christie's novels. He isn't even trying to be. Nevertheless, the films are in all other respects scrupulously faithful to their source material, and very well made. I particularly recommend Death on the Nile.

In 1985 (4 B.D.S.), Ustinov starred as Poirot in a film version of the Christie novel Thirteen at Dinner. Cast opposite him as the Belgian detective's complete anti-thesis, the stodgy, ultra-British, somewhat-thick Chief Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard, was David Suchet. I need to make an effort to see that. And you need to make an effort to get watch a Suchet adaptation this holiday season (try the Christmas one, it's fun). If you enjoy mysteries at all, you'll enjoy these.

Posted by Jared at 04:20 PM | TrackBack

December 19, 2006

Let's Talk About Sex

I don't know whether I'll publish this. I watched Kinsey the other night, and I'm not yet convinced that I had any business sitting through it without spending some time reflecting and writing on the subject. The movie is a biopic about the life and work of Alfred Kinsey, one of the first scientists to conduct a large-scale, in-depth study of human sexual behavior.

His findings were published in two studies: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). His work was instrumental in such major changes as the American Psychological Association's decision to remove homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses in the 1970s. In short, for good or ill, Kinsey is an important 20th century figure.

Kinsey is, to my limited understanding, a figure very similar to Freud: a controversial pioneer in a socially-disreputable field whose findings are now suspect and possibly even obsolete, but who deserves a certain amount of recognition for the difficult task of beginning the necessary dialogue. Some people (i.e. some Christians) were and continue to be deeply threatened and offended by his ideas. Some embrace him as a champion of enlightenment in a dark time.

The film captured me during its opening hour, alienated me halfway through, and then proceeded to bounce me back and forth on a moment's notice for the duration. Reading (more-or-less) opposing reviews of it from Ebert and Focus on the Family's Plugged In didn't relieve my strong sense of ambiguity at all. This movie, much like the subject of its protagonist's studies, is not to be trifled with.

Let me try and quantify what I mean just a bit . . . and I think I shall proceed beneath the fold for good measure.

Christianity, of course, gets a pretty bad play throughout. Kinsey's father is a Methodist minister whose first scene involves a sermon on how electricity (leading to the picture show), cars ("parking" and "the joy ride"), telephones (unmarried men and women speaking to each other from their beds) and the zipper (uhhh . . .) are all modern inventions of Satan designed to lure humankind towards lustful pursuits. It is later revealed that Kinsey's father was fitted with a humiliating and painful leather strap at the age of 10 to keep him from masturbating.

One of Kinsey's fellow professors (played by the always-smarmy Tim Curry) insists on abstinence-only sex education taught as a sub-section of the university's general health course. The man is a pompous idiot and obviously unfit to teach the subject. His views and his stupidity are presumably (and unfairly) linked. There is no sympathetic opposition to Kinseyan ideas. On almost any issue you can find individuals on both sides who aren't mindless idiots, and only by addressing these can you truly strengthen your own position.

The implication in a few reviews I read was that a close-minded, silent approach to sex-ed is still the dominant Christian position. On the way to work this morning I flipped by a Christian radio program which was discussing the importance of parents being open and honest with their teens regarding sex.

Kinsey is inspired in conducting his study by two things: ignorance and misinformation. He becomes aware that people know next to nothing about sex, and a lot of what they do know is wrong. Both he and his wife are virgins when they are married, and (not to put too fine a point on it) they struggle a great deal at first in "making things work."

Kinsey eventually discovers that a lot of newly-wed couples have this problem, and he tries to help them with a college course defined by its frank and open dealing with the subject of how sex works (the course is open only to faculty, graduate students, married students, and seniors). With this unprecedented forum for discussion open before them, Kinsey's students are suddenly full of questions for which he has no answers: Does masturbation really cause blindness and insanity? Does oral sex cause problems during pregnancy?

Some of the issues raised, both here and at other points in the film, are scarcely creditable (but oddly believable). Did, for instance, turn-of-the-century scout handbooks really recommend reading the Sermon on the Mount, sitting with the testicles immersed in ice-cold water, and thinking of your mother's pure love as antidotes to masturbation? Was it truly taught that only the lower classes, and particularly Negros, had difficulty with abstinence?

Ebert points out in his review that oral sex between married heterosexuals is still nominally illegal in 9 states. Wikipedia notes that all such laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003, but still . . . as recently as that?

The presence of these questions and the fact that no one has any answers to them bothers Kinsey a great deal, and he sets out to answer some of them. His method is simple: grab a few assistants and start compiling complete sexual histories of vast cross-sections of the population in an attempt to ascertain what constitutes "normal" sexual behavior. His shocking conclusion? If "normal" is defined as "something that a large percentage of people do," then pretty much anything is normal (and therefore, he adds, acceptable) when it comes to sex.

Along the way, he engages in behavior that may be in the interest of science, or may simply be fetishistic self-indulgence. He begins by cheating on his wife with a bi-sexual male assistant. She isn't shocked or horrified, but she is deeply saddened and hurt, and they have an excellent discussion about the reasons for confining sex to marriage. However, this admirable sequence is rendered as ambiguous as anything else in the film when Mrs. Kinsey ("Mac") sleeps with the same assistant a few minutes later. This is done with the full fore-knowledge and consent of Kinsey himself. It is vaguely implied that Mac is more interested in showing Kinsey how it feels than anything else, but if he notices anything, he doesn't let on and the entire line is more-or-less let alone.

In their studies regarding the sex act, Kinsey, his wife, his assistants, and their spouses are all prime test subjects. They are encouraged to essentially mix and match with each other, and often they are filmed and studied later by the group. It's all part of the job and they are all (in the words of Plugged In) "serial adulterers." This is not without consequences, however. Soon, a few marriages are on the rocks and Kinsey's assistants are at each other's throats. One rages at Kinsey for his casual view of sex (and I paraphrase):

"[Sex] isn't just something, it's the whole thing. [Sex] is a risky game, because if you're not careful, it will cut you wide open."

You won't find any mention of the stark portrayal of the consequences of adultery and the impassioned words spoken against it in the Plugged In review. They were far too determined to smear this movie to allow too much of its positive content to creep into their assessment. But I'll come back to them in a moment.

Kinsey was particularly interested in revising laws concerning sex offenders, and in one particular scene he rather vehemently defends them. I ultimately realized that this must be referring to any adult convicted for engaging in a sexual act with another consenting adult. Still, it disturbed me both with its lack of clarity and its lack of acknowledgement of the seriousness of sexual crime.

In what is certainly the film's most troubling sequence, Kinsey and his assistant Wardell Pomeroy visit a man whom Kinsey nonjudgmentally regards as a gold mine of information which he will not be able to acquire in any other way. The man, if he actually existed, would have to be among the most sexually active and deviant human beings in history. He is a deeply twisted and disturbed individual whose goal for decades seems to have been to engage in intercourse with as many people and things as possible and make detailed measurements and recordings of the results. He claims to have had sex with 22 different species of animal and over 9500 human beings, including about 800 pre-adolescents of both genders and 17 members of his own family and extended family from 7 different generations. I could go on, but you get the idea.

At some point during the interview, Pomeroy has had enough and storms from the room. Kinsey remains, commenting on the difficulty of remaining impartial. Does he have any personal opinion about this? Do the filmmakers? If so, they are keeping it entirely to themselves. Kinsey ends rather vaguely with Kinsey stating (in response to a question) that love is an important piece of the puzzle, but impossible to quantify scientifically.

I searched rather diligently for some Plugged In equivalent on what Bill O'Reilly would call the "secular-progressive" side. Not surprisingly, non-Christian film critics largely confined themselves to assessing Kinsey's success as a film. Novel idea, that. They certainly didn't engage in the rather vehement, slanted diatribe practiced by Plugged In's Tom Neven. The Focus on the Family review also includes a few links to related articles:

Let's NOT Talk About Sex
If Kinsey didn’t start the conversation about sex, as his movie’s slogan would have us believe, what did he do?

The Truth About Kinsey
The real Alfred Kinsey was not an objective scientist, and certainly not an emotionally well man. The informational links found here are designed to help you learn the truth about Kinsey, his fraud and his crimes, and what you can do combat his influence in your community.

The second link is broken. The first opens with "I’m not going to see Kinsey and I doubt any of my friends will, either. The movie is . . ." which really automatically makes it not worth my time. To petulantly decline viewing a film and in the same breath assess it is beyond dopey. It invites me to stop taking you seriously. The author, Sam Torode, goes on to assume that there is an ideological unity in Hollywood, with a focused agenda to push, and that this film is an attempt to somehow rescue the purportedly floundering sexual revolution . . . bla bla bla.

Torode then proceeds to make the laughable claim that sexual repression has never existed in American society, so Kinsey can hardly be credited for fighting it. For evidence it cites a number of so-called "sex books" written for married couples in the 1920s. In answer I would point out, first that the 1920s were a good sight more "liberated" in many areas of the United States than the 1950s, and second that Kinsey very pointedly acknowledges the existence of these books as sources of a great deal of misinformation; ideology disguised as instruction.

It goes on like that for a good while . . . I'm not so very interested in it, simply because it is belligerently not about the movie. I'm not as interested in the man himself as I am in what the movie about his life has to say. I wish PI were capable of that distinction. And speaking of their review, let me return briefly to it. I have already noted that it is not as complete in its cataloguing as I have known that publication to be in the past. Particularly, it glosses over or ignores many of the extremely positive statements made in Kinsey. If every negative sexual attitude in Kinsey deserves such scrupulous attention, how much more should its affirmations of fidelity be noted? If you can't play fair, don't show up for the game.

The "conclusion" section of the review is one of the longest I've seen on the site, comprising a good half of the text or more. A large portion of it amounts to bogus character assassination: "Kinsey’s legacy is that he played a role in unleashing epidemic levels of sexually transmitted diseases, rampant divorce, massive numbers of out-of-wedlock births, the breakdown of the family, abortion and the destruction of marriage."

After reading it over, I was a bit shocked at the difference between the Kinsey presented there and the Kinsey of the movie. Further research revealed that many of Neven's "facts" about Alfred Kinsey are probably about as credible as the rumored cause of Catherine the Great's death (and easily as sordid). And, of course, with no citations in the review, it is unclear where Neven got his information. Neven also makes this tangentially funny statement: "writer/director Bill Condon has long been known for his advocacy for homosexual rights." (Condon is a homosexual, so his history of advocacy is hardly surprising. It's like calling Tony Blair an Anglophile.)

There is also a rather infuriating cheap shot: "(Simply judging the craft of filmmaking, however, Kinsey is fairly pedestrian.)" It is my impression that, perhaps through no fault of their own, the good folks of Plugged In have long since ceased to have any idea of what constitutes good filmmaking. Kinsey employs a unique and engaging narrative device to drive the story in a way that keeps it interesting throughout. I was quite impressed with it from the beginning. Liam Neeson and Laura Linney are both superb in their roles, and Linney's Oscar nomination was well-deserved. Chris O’Donnell, Peter Sarsgaard, John Lithgow, and Oliver Platt round out a notably stellar cast. After railing on its ideology for several paragraphs, for Neven to finish up with "And besides, it's not even that great of a movie anyway" is simply childish and obviously unreliable.

Anyway, I'm not sure that I can recommend it either, in the end. Actually, I'm not sure that I have to. If, after reading all of this, you feel that it is something you should or would like to see, then it is likely that you should. If there is any doubt in your mind, steer clear. If you do see it, though, I would be very interested in your thoughts.

Ultimately I am left wondering whether I dislike Kinsey for its refusal to take a moral position (whatever that position might be), or whether I am in awe of its scrupulous adherence to the essential ambiguity surrounding any historical figure or period. There is a certain integrity in the filmmakers' refusal to inject any sort of conclusive judgment of the man and his methods. I watch Kinsey and I see neither the hero Plugged In claims he has been made into, nor the monster they claim that he actually was, but simply a man. That smells like artistic success to me.

Posted by Jared at 07:48 PM | TrackBack

December 18, 2006

Milking the Sacred Cow

They are the greatest success the industry has to offer. Everything they publish is turning to gold. Their books fly off of our library shelves, and I reluctantly feed the flow of fundamentalist fiction to faithful fans fastidiously awaiting their reserved titles as they are released. Money talks, and it says that this is what Christians want to read; the work of two writers who have set Christian fiction back at least 3 decades: Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye.

It all started in 1995, when the first book in their interminable saga (Left Behind) erupted. I was 12, and I don't even remember clearly what nationally best-selling Christian fiction for adults looked like before this. Did it exist? (Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness comes to mind as an example of a big hit in the Christian world, but did it get this kind of attention? Plus, he stopped after two.)

I'm certainly aware that the school of End Times thought represented by Left Behind is nothing new (hence a great deal of its success, I'd say). And, of course, popular accounts of it aren't exactly original either . . . The subject caught fire in the United States during the early '70s, continuing through the '80s with movies (A Thief in the Night), "nonfiction" books (The Late, Great Planet Earth), and so forth.

Still, something has clearly changed, and I don't think any of the apocalyptic grist flowing out of the Christian fiction mill has spawned a franchise on the order of Left Behind. In fact, I don't believe there has been a franchise this shameless in Christian marketing history. Back at the beginning, the series was conceived as a trilogy; three books examining the rapture, tribulation, and second coming. When I began the series late in 1999, there were 6 books out with a 7th on the way and a parallel series for young adults with several published titles under its belt.

I personally read the first 10, and then I simply couldn't continue. 10 was at least 3 too many. Hey, I'll be generous . . . I was younger, but I did get some enjoyment out of them at the time. I once sprinted across a shin-to-knee-deep pool that I knew was full of scalding hot water. I started off moving so fast that I was about halfway across before I noticed how much it hurt. I couldn't turn around, I couldn't stop, and I was terrified of tripping and landing on my face, so I kept moving. I emerged from the other side with feet and lower legs as red as boiled lobster. Similarly, I used to read some things so quickly, I could go a very long way before realizing how awful they were. I also read somewhere around 50 Hardy Boys mysteries shortly before beginning this series. It wasn't until my late teens that I learned to occasionally just stop reading something.

Meanwhile, here we are at the end of 2006. Left Behind: The Kids has hit critical mass with 40 (forty!) books in its series. Left Behind appeared to have ended with book 12. Then (and my chronology on this is a bit fuzzy, but who cares?) Jenkins and LeHaye went back and wrote three prequels: The Rising, The Regime and The Rapture.

This prequel trilogy begins 27 years before Left Behind and brings its characters up to the instant the series begins. A good half of The Rapture is devoted to the experiences of the raptured and, in a shockingly ego-centric display, a sizable chunk of that concerns the equivalent of an Academy Awards ceremony in heaven. Only, instead of the best movies of the year, Christ is handing out acclaim to the greatest Christians EV4R (sic). The atmosphere of these scenes is very drippy, with billions of happy fundies drooling over the scrupulously righteous (perfect, even) lives of such (apparently) superstar giants as Billy Graham, Dr. Bill Bright, and Ken Taylor (of The Living Bible translation).

Meanwhile, amidst the publishing of the prequels, Jenkins and LaHaye both went their separate ways, each beginning a new series that would cover the End Times in an alternate universe from the one they'd created together. So far, Jenkins has a trilogy whose titles begin with the letter "s" starring a Christian James Bond, and LaHaye has a trilogy called "Babylon Rising" starring a Christian Indiana Jones. Both are obviously derivative, although LaHaye's is doubly so since Peretti has been-there-done-that a good decade and a half ago.

However, the pièces de résistance of this eschatological spread are still to come. You'd have thought that the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment would be a good place to conclude one's account of the End Times (book 12 even featured the sub-title "The End of Days"). Not so, small sage. This coming March will see the release of book 13: Kingdom Come.

The horrors of the Tribulation are over, and Jesus Christ has set up his perfect kingdom on earth. Believers all around the world enjoy a newly perfected relationship with their Lord, and the earth itself is transformed. Yet evil still lurks in the hearts of the unbelieving. As the Millennium draws to a close, the final generation of the unrepentant prepares to mount a new offensive against the Lord Himself--sparking the final and ultimate conflict from which only one side will emerge the eternal victor.

Do they seriously propose to fill an entire book with that plot? Won't it run something like:

Evil, unrepentant guy: I'm still evil and unrepentant! Victory shall be mine! God's going d-

God: *casual smite*

Evil, unrepentant guy: Smoted! Ow, my eternal soul!

The End

Are people still paying real money for this? Oh, and I did say pièces earlier. Just a few days ago, I received this book from Tech Services, ready to go out to the shelf:

The Jesus Chronicles: Book One
John's Story: The Last Eyewitness
by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye

Before the Tribulation, before the Rapture, before there was a legacy that could be left behind . . . there was Jesus. Now the authors of the phenomenal Left Behind series introduce The Jesus Chronicles, four books that individually and collectively paint a vivid portrait of the Prince of Peace told in the voices of those who knew Him best: the Gospel writers, John, Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

Yes, Jenkins and LaHaye will now be fictionalizing all four gospels. Finally, we can hear this story retold again. This is such a necessary and worthwhile effort, what with the originals being so long out of print and all. And I'm so glad that they'll be putting the story of Christ in proper perspective, as a small foreshadowing of the much grander story arch presented in the Left Behind series.

As I reflect on the literary wreckage that these two men have wrought over the past decade, I come to a deeply disturbing realization: Jenk and LaHa have an infinite of time to work with, stretching in both directions along the timeline they have created jointly, and an equal scope along an infinite number of alternate timelines which they could create separetely or together as they please. There is no reason for them to ever stop, and at this point, odds are pretty damn good that Christ will come back before they run out of Christian bestsellers.

Y'know, Dr. Olson is always talking about all the literary types she wants to meet in heaven (despite a salvation status which, for many of them, is dubious at best). Well, I think I'd like to hunt down these two guys in the sweet by-and-by . . . and just laugh and laugh and laugh.

Posted by Jared at 10:29 AM | TrackBack

December 12, 2006

YellowJacket Apocrypha

I don't generally post material that I write for the YellowJacket, and in this case my Borat review is partially derivative of the brief remarks I made in an earlier entry. However, I was generally pleased with the review, and it wasn't printed in the YJ (I also submitted a review of Stranger Than Fiction, and they went with that one instead of both, presumably due to space considerations). I've also been a bit short on posting material for a week or so. Enjoy the review that you may avoid not enjoying the movie. I probably wouldn't hate it so much if it weren't so satisfied with itself, as though it had actually proved something.

I would also like to note my appreciation of Brett's role in allowing me to see the movie. Without him I wouldn't have found anyone to go with, and consequently I wouldn't have gone. He's a great cognoscenti of low culture, my brother. That's not necessarily an insult, mind you. Joe of "Joe Loves Crappy Movies" is also a great surveyor of the baser offerings of the entertainment industry, and he does great work.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
starring Sacha Baron Cohen & Ken Davitian
Rated R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language.
20th Century Fox
Written by Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines and directed by Larry Charles

Summary: Borat Sagdiyev, a television celebrity from Kazakhstan, travels to New York City in order to learn from American culture to benefit his own. Seeing footage of Pamela Anderson on a rerun of "Baywatch," he resolves to find her and marry her, and sets out for California in a used ice cream truck, discovering America along the way.

1 star

Disparaging a film that is intended to be satirical can open someone up to ridicule. Perhaps, some might suggest, you have no sense of humor. Clearly, they will assert, you just didn't get it. Fear of such accusations is my only explanation for the near-unanimous critical acclaim that has greeted Sacha Baron Cohen's leap to the big screen. Certainly, satire in any given medium has a propensity to escape a large portion of its audience, but there can be no doubt that in this case the emperor has no clothes (a fact which the film seems eager to parade all too literally throughout its excruciating 84-minute runtime).

In setting out to ostensibly lampoon, parody, satirize, and otherwise ridicule American bigotry and intolerance for the amusement (presumably) of a more enlightened public, Sacha Baron Cohen has succeeded in three things.

First, he has created a character and dragged him through situations that only an audience which is either bigoted or is callously unaffected by racism and discrimination will find consistently funny. The biggest racist (and, in fact, almost the only racist) is Borat himself. This is ostensibly a tool wielded skillfully by Cohen to expose the outrageous attitudes of many Americans. Many scenes, however, are filmed in isolation from reality. Borat is alone in a room, or surrounded by a staged event, but he's still plying his schtick for self-serving laughs. We are expected to derive comedic joy from the outlandish bigotry with its offensive caricatures and hurtful misrepresentations.

This has nothing helpful to say about the realities of ridiculous prejudice because it's all a put-on, and we are supposed to find the misogyny, the homophobia and the anti-semitism (to name just a few) funny on their own merits. Meanwhile, his reprehensible characterization of people from third-world countries could very well entrench harmful stereotypes.

Second, in his search for wanton bigots (of which I'm sure there are still more than a few left in our country) Cohen has somehow managed to find almost exclusively tolerant, hospitable, genuinely nice people who go far farther out of their way than I would to tolerate "Borat's" belligerent, cruel attempts to offend them. The movie's few bigots (Which could be counted on the fingers of one hand) range from an elderly redneck to a trio of drunken frat boys. Surprise, surprise.

When he is invited to dinner at the home of some upstanding members of a southern community, Cohen begins by pretending to assume that one of his fellow guests is mentally retarded (rather than "retired"). His hosts patiently correct him. He ups the ante by paying sexual compliments to a few of the (married) ladies around the table, and insults the appearance of another. Still,everyone accepts that this must be a difference in his culture, even saying as much when he excuses himself briefly from the table. Then he returns with some of his own excrement in a sack. His hostess rises to the occasion, tactfully pulling him to the side and graciously explaining the finer points of indoor plumbing. Finally, Borat invites a prostitute into their home, and even then everyone tries to find a delicate solution. Only when Cohen sadistically continues to feign ignorance of his continued egregious behavior (and refuses to leave) do things finally turn ugly.

Third, of the few outrageous reactions that Cohen manages to wrench forcefully from his victims (because, racists or not, everyone who has scenes with Cohen are victims themselves), almost all are the result of repeated actions by "Borat" which travel far beyond the boundaries of sanity and good taste (see above). In short, he has proved that, if pushed hard enough and long enough, most people do have a breaking point. Fascinating. In short, this is not a canny and scathing satire on the dark heart of American culture, it is "Jackass Three."

Not every moment of this film is a complete failure. I can think of one scene (really only one) that succeeded rather well, when Borat visits a rodeo. After listening to a few remarks from the only genuine, sober bigot in the whole film, Borat plods out into the arena and dupes the crowd into cheering some rather outrageous statements about wiping out the population of Iraq before they catch on. It got me to laugh from time to time. But then, many of the situations are staged (all are manipulated heavily in some way) and some are not (with no differentiating between the two). The filmmakers are hardly playing fair at any point. If you can't expose, ridicule or refute something that is as big of a no-brainer as racism on a level playing field, you have already failed. And that makes this is a tacky, sloppy and ultimately cataclysmic effort.

Posted by Jared at 04:47 PM | TrackBack

December 02, 2006

HNRS-3553: Exploring the Gospel in Modern Film (updated)

Spring, 2007, Tuesdays 6:00-9:00 pm
Glaske, Room 101

Required Books:
· Roy M. Anker, Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005).
· Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, (Harper San Francisco, 1st edition, 1977).
· Clive Marsh & Gaye Ortiz, Explorations in Theology and Film: An Introduction, (Blackwell Publishing, 1997).
· Clive Marsh, Cinema and Sentiment: Film's Challenge to Theology (Studies in Religion and Culture Series), (Authentic Media, 2004).
· Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.
· Herman Melville, Billy Budd.
· C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
· Burton Raffel (Trans.), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, (Signet Classics, Reissue edition, 2001).
· Flannery O'Connor, The Complete Stories, (Noonday Press, Reissue edition, 1996).

Course Objectives:
· This course is designed to introduce students to some of the classics of modern film, encourage them to connect their viewing with supplementary readings from important works of modern literature, and inspire them to examine these films critically through the lens of a deep commitment to the truths of Christian doctrine. In particular, they will learn to to explore connections between the films, the literature, and their faith. Students will be expected to:
o Process a broad body of literature, film, and film criticism
o Demonstrate an understanding of critical thinking, viewing, reading, and writing skills
o Use course material and the above skills to produce their own body of theologically-based film criticism
o Gain an understanding of various viewpoints on the ongoing dialogue between the entertainment industry and the Christian community

· Major Paper: Each student will write an 8-12 page, typed and double-spaced paper due at the end of the class. This will count as the course's final exam. For this paper, students should choose at least one film (note that this is a minimum, not a maximum) over which they will conduct a scholarly theological analysis following the example of the course texts. Students should engage in an appropriate amount of research into the background and existing scholarship of their selected topic, however there is no maximum or minimum number of sources required. (A bibliography with at least 5 sources is recommended.)

· Short Papers: Four times during the semester, a 4-6 page, typed and double-spaced paper will be due. This paper should examine the connections between the films, the readings, and the discussions of the preceding three weeks of class as they pertain to the theological topic under consideration. All four topics are listed under the dates on which the related short paper is due in the course schedule. Further information can be found in the course text Catching Light.

· Weekly Discussion: Each week there will be a discussion open on Blackboard dealing with the topic of the latest class period. The instructor will supply one discussion question, and each participating student will post at least one observation. This observation should be considered an opportunity to develop any thoughts raised in class discussion (or introduce any that did not), as well as prepare for the broader discussion required in the short papers. Observations from any participants who wish to receive the full grade that week should be posted no later than midnight Thursday. In addition, one response to another student's observation is required, to be posted no later than midnight Sunday. Finally, a response to the instructor's opening question should be posted by class time on Tuesday.

Papers not turned in on the day specified in the syllabus will depreciate at the following rate: 1-2 days late = 1 letter grade; 3-6 days late = 2 letter grades; beyond 7 days = 3 letter grades.

Reading assignments should be completed by class time on the date they are listed in the course schedule.

· Computation of Final Grade and Grade Scale:
1 Major Paper-20%
4 Short Papers-15% each
14 Discussion Boards-2% each
A = 100-90
B = 89-80
C = 79-70
D = 69-60
F = below 60

Course Schedule: Calendar of Class Activities, Weekly Reading, and Assignment Due Dates

January 9 - Introduction and Syllabus. Video: "Hollywood vs. Religion" (1994, Michael Medved).

January 16 - Reading: Heart of Darkness (1st half), Catching Light pp. 1-66, Explorations pp. 9-43.
Movie: The Godfather.
Due: Discussion Board 1.

January 23 - Reading: Heart of Darkness (2nd half) Catching Light pp. 67-91.
Movie: Chinatown.
Due: Discussion Board 2.

January 30 - Reading: "Young Goodman Brown" (handout), Telling the Truth pp. 25-48.
Movie: Apocalypse Now.
Due: Discussion Board 3.

February 6 - Reading: Billy Budd (1st half), Catching Light pp. 119-123, 162-190.
Movie: The Mission.
Due: Short paper - "Darkness Visible," Discussion Board 4.

February 13 - Reading: Billy Budd (2nd half), Catching Light pp. 191-214.
Movie: Babette's Feast.
Due: Discussion Board 5.

February 20 - Reading: "Barn Burning" (handout), Telling the Truth pp. 49-72.
Movie: The Apostle.
Due: Discussion Board 6.

February 27 - Reading: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1st half), Catching Light pp. 215-243.
Movie: Star Wars.
Due: Short paper - "Light Shines in the Darkness," Discussion Board 7.

March 6 - Reading: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2nd half), Explorations pp.73-86.
Movie: Edward Scissorhands.
Due: Discussion Board 8.

March 13 - Spring Break; No class

March 20 - Reading: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Telling the Truth pp. 73-98.
Movie: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
Due: Discussion Board 9.

March 27 - Reading: The Complete Stories: "A Stroke of Good Fortune" & "The Enduring Chill," Catching Light pp. 315-317, 345-363.
Movie: American Beauty.
Due: Short paper - "Fables of Light," Discussion Board 10.

April 3 - Reading: The Complete Stories: "Good Country People" & "The Lame Shall Enter First," Catching Light pp.364-402.
Movie: Trois couleurs: Bleu (Blue).
Due: Discussion Board 11.

April 10 - Reading: The Complete Stories: "A Good Man is Hard to Find" & "Revelation." Movie: Tsotsi.
Due: Discussion Board 12.

April 17 - Reading: Explorations pp. 115-139.
Movie: The Passion of the Christ.
Due: Short paper - "Found," Discussion Board 13.

April 24- Reading: Cinema and Sentiment pp. 1-162, Explorations pp. 235-256.
Due: Discussion Board 14.

April 31- Final paper due.

Syllabus Supplement

Detail of Course Required Reading:

Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies

Anker's approach forms the basis of both the outline of this course and the selection of over half of the films to be viewed. He examines movies divided into four categories by theological characteristics (his terminology borrowed for short paper titles, summaries oversimplified here but explained in much greater detail in the book):

1) Darkness Visible - This section examines the proposition that the natural human condition is one of darkness. The films examined take evil seriously, positing that things must get worse before they can get better. Humanity is surrounded and overwhelmed by the consequences of the Fall and cannot pull themselves into the Light.

2) Light Shines in the Darkness - The films in this section embrace a Christian understanding of redemption from evil, beginning in dark circumstances and travelling towards a state of grace for their characters. They end "well," but not necessarily "happily." They are stories where Christian love beats the odds, although the outcome may be unexpected for everyone involved.

3) Fables of Light - The sort of story that falls under this popular heading is one where anything is possible. Some feature the forces of good battling the forces of evil in epic and fantastical style, most attempt to impart a sense of wonder to their audiences. Stories such as these are often full of Christian imagery and symbolism (whether intentionally or not) and can be theologically enriching to examine.

4) Found - The characters and stories of the final section exist in a markedly secular society. Redemption and light break out in their lives, hitting them from nowhere. The manner in which this sudden epiphany appears is generally shocking, and the results are always surprising (at least to those involved). These people have received God's grace which they have not asked for or sought, at a moment when it might least be expected.

The readings from Catching Light as they appear in the course schedule are (in order):

1. "Introduction," "Darkness Visible," & "Utterly Lost: Michael Corleone's Descent in The Godfather Saga"
2. "'The Design of Darkness to Appall:' Metaphysical Evil in Chinatown"
3. "Light Shines in the Darkness" & "The Laughter Beyond Tears: Love's Redemptive Call in The Mission"
4. "'In the Regions of the Heart:' The Meeting of Art and Belief in Babette's Feast"
5. "Fables of Light" & "Tracking the Force: Meaning and Morality in the Star Wars Saga"
6. "Found" & "The War of the Roses: Meaning and Epiphany in American Beauty"
7. "The Sound of the Color of Love: The Construction of Meaning in Kieslowski's Three Colors: Blue"

Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

Roy Anker cites this book as the inspiration for his own categories, with the addition of "Found" made by him. Buechner addresses the gospel in terms of the above three literary genres, providing a basis for both broadening and strengthening the connections being made between the films and the literature in the course and the various theological aspects they address. The three readings found in the course schedule correspond to the chapters in the book entitled, "The Gospel as Tragedy," "The Gospel as Comedy," and "The Gospel as Fairy Tale," respectively.

Explorations in Theology and Film: An Introduction

This collection of essays by several authors provides some valuable entries for both introductory and conclusory ruminations on the topic of film and theology. It forms the basis of the inclusion of two films in the course. It should also serve as a valuable springboard for the examination of several films not touched on in this course, in particular aiding students in their search for a topic for their major papers. The readings from Explorations included in the course schedule are (in order):

1. "Film, Movies, Meanings," "Film and Theologies of Culture," & "The Uses of Film in Theology" (ch. 1-3)
2. "Edward Scissorhands: Christology from a Suburban Fairy-tale" (ch. 6)
3. "Jesus Christ Movie Star: The Depiction of Jesus in the Cinema" (ch. 9)
4. "On Systematizing the Unsystematic: A Response" & "Theology Beyond the Modern and Postmodern: A Future Agenda for Theology and Film" (ch. 17-18)

Cinema and Sentiment: Film's Challenge to Theology

Written by the editor of Explorations, this should serve as a concise summary of the philosophy behind this course, a coda which will inspire discussion of what has been learned and where pursuit of the topic could and should lead. Its positing of a healthy dialogue between theology and film in the readings of the final week is the destination of a journey which begins in the first week of the course with Michael Medved's declaration of open war between the two in "Hollywood vs. Religion."

The Literature

Simply put, all other required reading for this course is designed to establish literary connections within the category from Catching Light which is receiving the class's attention at the time.

Posted by Jared at 01:02 PM | TrackBack