Eyes & Ears 2011: Part 1

The Academy Award nominations were announced yesterday morning.  I thought this was as good a time as any to post the Eyes portion of my annual Eyes & Ears lists.  The following are the ten films I held most dearly from 2011.

Contagion – Steven Soderbergh’s thriller teaches us that a director who cares about craft can play our emotions like a fiddle.  That’s all Soderbergh has ever cared about – craft.  And this expertly crafted pandemic film is effective in all its goals.  From the raw performances to the razor-sharp cinematography, “Contagion” is that rare Hollywood thriller that dares to get under its audience members’ skin.  It’s a compelling portrayal of fear and the lengths humans will go to survive.  Notable here are Jennifer Ehle as a selfless scientist intent on discovering a cure, and Jude Law as a blogger activist.

Terri – This bizarre little gem won me over when I finally realized it had not succumbed to the phoniness of its countless indie counterparts.  “Terri” is filled to the brim with moments of jaw-dropping honesty. The film’s fine performers – most notably its lead, Jacob Wysocki – never spell out how we should feel or think.  We’re left, as in real life, to make judgments on the characters as their behavior unfolds.  I think alumni from rural high schools will watch this movie with warmness, admiring its portrait of outsiders and concluding it all feels real.

Hanna – From Joe Wright, the director of “Atonement” and “Pride and Prejudice”, comes this unlikely action film, which I have difficulty comparing to any other conventional action films.  There is a smoothness to the on-screen action and camerawork that remind me of “Munich”, as well as moments of bizarre beauty that evoke “A Clockwork Orange”.  Confused?  Good.  Watch the film with open arms and discover a unique and risky genre-bender.

The Descendants – Let’s be honest, sometimes George Clooney plays the same suave, silver fox he’s played in a dozen movies.  But here, director Alexander Payne puts his lead in one impossible situation after another.  “The Descendants” is a surprisingly plot-driven drama-comedy in which Clooney’s Matt King has to reconcile familial transgressions while his wife lies comatose and his ancestors’ priceless land is sized up for sale.  But this all works; the characters are given dimension with each new plot turn.  I admire Payne’s decisions directorially.  What is ultimately a very sad movie is also very funny, often simultaneously, and this is largely because all melodrama is cut off at its zenith.  Watch closely: just as a character is about to spill his soul totally – tears and snot and all – the hand of Payne sweeps in to ruin the moment.  I can see viewers leaving the film feeling unresolved.  I felt free to choose what to feel.

Midnight in Paris – I think Woody Allen – for all his accolades as a writer – is as skilled a director who has ever lived.  He surely has some clunkers under his belt, but when he succeeds, he seriously succeeds.  “Midnight in Paris” is the latest in his European film collection and it is as romantic about its city as “Manhattan” was to its city, and an even better film altogether.  Here, we see Owen Wilson in one of his finest performances (playing the role of Woody Allen to neurotic perfection) and a cast indulging in the material.  This is a movie filled with charm and beauty, and from it we clearly sense Allen’s love of literature.  For years, his movies have alluded to this (all his characters are astonishingly well-read) but in “Midnight in Paris” we see Allen the Romantic trumping Allen the Cynic in full close-up.  It’s a wonderful experience.

Trust – To watch David Schwimmer on “Friends” with his outlandish facial expression and comic overreactions, it’s hard to believe he could direct such a subtle and devastating film.  “Trust”, Schwimmer’s second feature film as a director, centers on the rape of a teenage girl named Annie (which is not shown in full detail).  Annie and her family struggles to cope with the consequences, and during this process Schwimmer creates a sense of longing that does not find fulfillment by the movie’s end.  And so, with Annie, we also long for acceptance, and fatherly protection, and perfect love.  Those are good things to long for, and the movie rightly concludes they’ll never be fulfilled in this world.

Melancholia – If not for the strange comedic undertones, “Melancholia” would be almost too much to bear.  I’m thinking back on several scenes and laughing about them, which was not my first reaction.  This is a bold and brilliant film about the end of all things, and its director Lars von Trier is wise to fill the palette with impossibly beautiful images.  Surely von Trier is playing with us every step of the way (how else could we laugh at such nihilism?) but none of it is mean-spirited, like his previous film “Antichrist”.  If you leave dumbfounded, don’t fret; even the characters are dumbfounded!  At the heart of the film’s mystery is a career-shaping performance by Kirsten Dunst, whose character Justine suffers from paralyzing depression.  The portrayal is harrowing and funny, depending on the context, and it helps us understand that “Melancholia” is about needing to resolve the irresolvable.  From prematurely ended scenes to a soundtrack littered with Wagner’s un-resolving “Tristan” theme*, von Trier builds and builds to an inevitable finale.

Hugo – An orphan boy lives and works within the walls of a train station in Paris.  His purpose is to keep the clocks running.  All the axles and wheels – they all have a purpose too, but someone has to make them move.  The boy is Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and his hostile relationship with an old toymaker is the centerpiece of this uproariously charming children’s fable from Martin Scorsese.  “Hugo” should be celebrated for its cinematography and score, for its intricate production design, for its blissful editing, even for its 3D.  Yes, all those things are superlative.  But I cherish “Hugo” for its message of purpose.  “If the whole world is a machine,” Hugo says, “there couldn’t be extra parts, which means I have to be here for a reason.”  This is a movie rooted in love – love for the characters and the time period, even love for cinema itself.  Indeed, the night I saw “Hugo” was the night I fell in love too.

Drive – Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director of “Drive”, showcases a directorial command we usually see in directors 15 years his senior.  “Drive” is a masterpiece of tone and mood.  Even with a lead character that speaks barely a paragraph of dialogue the entire film, “Drive” is a clincher.  It quietly moves at a slow pace most of the time, which only heightens the shock of its more violent sequences.   I’m telling you, Refn is a true talent and this film is one of the finest action thrillers ever made – strange, atmospheric, risky, and filled with one amazing performance after another.

The Tree of Life – For charm and nostalgia, for warmth and beauty, for mystery and profundity, for grace and truth, for frustration and ambiguity, for beginnings and ends, look no further than Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”.  This polarizing film from an elusive and legendary director is as ambitious as the most grandiose movies that came before it.  It’s also desperately personal, more so than the most raw of film dramas.  “The Tree of Life” is about the loss of innocence, about guilt and forgiveness.  It’s about suffering needlessly.  It compares the woes and awes of its characters to those of Job, who was tempted to curse God and die.  Indeed Jack (Hunter McCracken), the young central character of the film is also tempted to curse God, and he comes very close to doing it.  “The Tree of Life” attempts to show us what God did before we were ever here and what he’s still doing now even though we can’t see him, and the intense and sometimes cold emotions that follow make the film one of the wonders of modern cinema.

My Own Private Award Ceremony:

Stellar Teenage Performance Award: Jacob Wysocki – “Terri”; Shailene Woodley – “The Descendants”; Liana Liberato – “Trust”

Awkward Wedding Reception Award: “Melancholia” (which was purposely awkward) & “Breaking Dawn Part 1” (which was accidentally awkward)

Award for Slapstick Actors in Dramas with Outcast Teenagers: Will Ferrell – “Everything Must Go” & John C. Reilly – “Terri”

Movies About Movies Award: “Hugo” & “The Artist”

Eschatological Award: “Melancholia”, “The Tree of Life”, “The Future” & “Another Earth”

Did your favorites from 2011 appear on my list?  What did I leave out?

*Thanks to Ricky Hutton for explaining the “Tristan” theme to me.  His insights helped me understand another layer of von Trier’s madness.

Advertisements

Christians Watching Movies

Have you ever had that moment when you are walking out of the movie theatre having just watched one of the funniest movies you’ve ever seen, and all the friends with whom you watched it are quoting the best lines, and you are all laughing and having a blast – but in a small, stinging moment of conviction, a terrible thought crosses your mind:  I shouldn’t have watched that.

Me too.  I feel you.  I smell what you’re stepping in.

What was your response to that twinge of guilt?  If you are like me (especially the high school version of me) you probably shrugged off that guilty conscience and moved on with your life, which included more trips to the Cineplex to see movies your conscience told you not to see.

Let me be clear: this is not innocent behavior.

In the Bible, the conscience is no small thing.  In Romans 2, the Apostle Paul affirms that every person is born with a conscience.  It is an inherent “moral compass”, which gives to its carrier the ability, in some measure, to distinguish good from evil.  Rejecting your conscience is a dangerous path to walk.

With regard to movies the question, then, is should Christians see films because films are not bad in and of themselves?  Or should Christians abstain from films because most of them promote sin?  The answer is yes.  It simply depends on your conscience.

Killing Living Things

When the Apostle Paul came to the city of Corinth, he preached the gospel and established a church.  This was truly a miraculous event because Corinth was a cesspool of pagan idolatry.  Sometime later, he received word that Christians in Corinth were experiencing confusion over the issue of food sacrificed to idols.

Here was the problem:  At pagan temples animals were sacrificed to the gods.  In many cases, only a portion of the animal was “destroyed” during the ritual and often the rest of the body was sold in the marketplace or used in temple banquets.  A Corinthian buying food in the marketplace could easily take home meat that had been used in pagan worship.  To the average Corinthian, this was a non-issue.  But for a recently converted Christian Corinthian, the idea of eating that meat could conjure up all kinds of memories from their life before knowing Jesus.

Think of it this way: perhaps you know a former alcoholic who heard the gospel and was saved.  Not only were they saved objectively from God’s wrath, they were saved subjectively from alcoholism.  Now, let’s say this recently converted former alcoholic is at the grocery store and passes the liquor aisle.  Is it permissible for him to buy and consume alcohol?  That’s an imperfect analogy, but still something of a similar dilemma the Christians in Corinth were facing.

First, let’s do what Paul does.  Paul isolates the object of the problem – meat sacrificed to idols.  He says there is nothing wrong with the act of eating this meat, and his reasoning is that the so-called gods to which the meat was sacrificed are not gods at all.  If a Christian is worried about some kind of supernatural transfer of power from the idol to the meat, he need not be concerned any longer.  “…there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Cor. 8:6).

And yet, there is some level of knowledge that a Christian can possess that does not penetrate the heart.  It is possible, according to Paul’s reasoning, for a former idol worshiper to know that Jesus is the one true God and yet still have reservations about eating the sacrificed food simply because of its association with the pagan lifestyle.  If that is the case, that worshiper should stay away from the meat.  Why?  Because his conscience confirms it is sin.

So for that former alcoholic: if he has any inkling that his purchasing of alcohol could possibly lead to sin, then purchasing the alcohol is a sin.  He shouldn’t do it.

What happens to the former pagan idolater who does eat the meat and the alcoholic who does buy the alcohol?  Each one, in his own way, pricks his conscience.  And not realizing his conscience is like a living thing, he continues to prick it.  Easier and easier it becomes until he no longer feels even a twinge of pain.  He has desensitized himself.  He’s killed his conscience.

Friends, that’s what happens when we sacrifice innocent behavior in the name of entertainment.  We slowly kill our consciences (some more quickly than others).

Numbness ≠ Freedom

Two Christians walk into a movie theatre to see an R-rated action film.  The MPAA rating says, “Rated R for violence and language”.  Both walk out thoroughly entertained.  It’s possible they saw the exact same movie under the exact same circumstances – and yet one of them sinned.

There are Christians that can watch movies that many of us would deem unwatchable, and they can do it without sinning.  Is it because they’ve “seen enough so it doesn’t affect” them anymore?  No, it’s because they know in their hearts there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, and they are in love with him to the extent that they can freely enjoy a movie.  A movie, like the meat sacrificed to idols, is morally neutral.  It neither brings a person closer to or further from God (1 Cor. 8:8).  If a Christian’s conscience allows it, then it is indeed permissible.

Desensitization is a different matter.  There are Christians (probably more in this category) who do not feel all that bad about the content they take in at the movies.  This isn’t freedom in Christ; it is numbness to sin, and it will lead to a killing of your conscience.

Two Christians walk into a movie theatre.  Which one sinned?  The one who saw it out of numbness to his sin.  If this is you, you’re called to repent.  Acknowledge that your numbness is not freedom and resolve to listen to the gasping voice of your conscience.

Christ-Exalting Conscience

Feeling guilty yet?  Unfortunately that guilt won’t keep you in tune with your conscience forever.  Might I suggest that, in this comparatively trivial issue of “what movies should I see?”, you fix your eyes on the One who was obedient unto death for you.  If you’re weak in your conscience, remember Christ became weak for you.  When you find yourself more captivated by a vision of the cross and resurrection than by a 90-minute action flick, it suddenly won’t be so difficult to hear and obey your conscience.  In doing so you will fall more deeply in love with Jesus and, consequently, your freedom will increase.

*****

This post also appears on the blog for the Crossroads University Ministry at The Moody Church and can be viewed here.

The Cycle of Sin in “The Ides of March”

The rapper Jay-Z collaborated with Coldplay on a remix of their song “Lost”.  In the song, the lyrics speak of the inevitable backlash of success, especially in the public eye.  In this remix, a full verse is devoted to the gifted hip-hop artist who says:

With the same sword they knight you / they gon’ good night you with
[…] That’s only half what they might do
[…] See success and its outcome
See Jesus, see Judas
See Caesar, see Brutus
See success is like suicide
Suicide, it’s a suicide
If you succeed, prepare to be crucified

There’s a sting that comes with those lyrics, not simply because of the name-dropping, but because there is a sliver of fear attached with them.  The grand stories of history are littered with the rise-and-falls of tycoons and moguls, and I think most of us, when pressed, would admit to having similar fears about our own aspirations.  There’s something upsetting about the possibility of losing all the things for which we have worked so hard.

Especially if it was for a noble cause.

And especially if we’re the ones to blame.

Primary Behavior

George Clooney’s fierce political thriller “The Ides of March” is about a group of politicians and journalists and campaign workers that find themselves at the brink of losing it all.  What’s worse, some of them will look in the mirror and see Brutus staring back at them.

In the film, Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) is running in the democratic primary for president against Senator Pullman (Mike Mantell).  The Ohio primary is fast approaching and this key state will likely determine the outcome of the general election.  On Morris’ staff is campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and, the film’s hero, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling).

At 30-years-old, Stephen is already a seasoned campaign strategist.  He understands the political game and knows how to play janitor in the wake of a politician’s mess.

But this is his first presidential campaign and even Stephen cannot anticipate the scope of the backstabbing and deceit.

In the days before the Ohio election, Senator Pullman’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) calls Stephen and asks for a private meeting.  This suspicious gesture makes Stephen nervous, but he decides that meeting with Duffy could actually be in the interest of his own campaign.

During this time, Stephen also falls into a casual relationship with Molly (Evan Rachel Wood).  Gosling and Wood have major onscreen chemistry, most notably in a scene where they table-talk over drinks at a bar.  The extremely charming opening scenes of their relationship make the outcome all the more unpalatable.  In Molly, Stephen gets much more than he bargained for – not simply a well-spoken strategist in bloom, but a girl who has been broken by a recent sin so great that she’s about to fall apart.

Early on we’re right to feel a lot of admiration for most of the characters in “The Ides of March”.  They are disciplined, ambitious and experienced.  But by the end, each one is exposed.  The success of it all – or rather, the possibility of success – drives each of them toward heinous behavior.

Et tu, Brute?

I admire Clooney’s skill as a director here.  Even after several of the main characters have revealed some of their more subversive motives, we still hold out for the rest of them.  What surfaces in the middle of this political narrative is a sophisticated study of human deceit, and the study is multi-layered.

Consider Hoffman’s character, Paul, a well-respected campaign manager.  In one scene Paul says, “There’s only one thing I value in this world, and that’s loyalty.  Without it, you’re nothing.”  This standard Paul creates is absolute, and there is no chance for repentance once that loyalty has been breached.  Stephen learns this the hard way in one scene as Paul casually undercuts all of Stephen’s work and skill in politics.  So what was once an admirable standard for loyalty spirals into a sanctimonious excuse for humiliating Stephen to his core.  That’s deceitful.

Stephen is caught in his own deceitfulness.  One of the film’s themes is belief – in a person or cause or value system – and Stephen believes that since Mike Morris is such a man of integrity the campaign must be successful.  “Nothing bad happens when you’re doing the right thing,” he says.  He is convinced Morris is a good man, the right man for the job.  Stephen has built a monument to Mike Morris in his mind, and with each passing moment, he sacrifices more at the altar.  That’s deceitful too, just another form of it.

Then, of course, there is Molly, the guilt-ridden campaign intern – spinning her own web of deceit, although we may treat her with more sympathy than the others.  And Duffy, the rival campaign manager – loyal to his campaign so much so that he will destroy the reputation of anyone who stands in the way.  There’s also Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), a politician so fickle in his loyalties it’s puke-worthy.

Around and around it goes.  This cycle of sin.

You see the problem with Stephen is that he thinks he can clean up everyone’s mess.  There are stains, however, that are too penetrating to remove.  Stephen learns this one painful lesson at a time, and by the end he will very nearly be the one pulling the knife out of someone’s back.

The True Ides of March

Movies like this work on a dramatic level because they allow us to witness the corruption process happen right there in front of us and, let’s face it, we love watching it.  We’ll scoff and say, “I’m glad that’s in a movie and not the norm.”  But the terrible truth is that we are all prone to the same desires and behavior, and although our actions may not reach the level of nastiness portrayed in “The Ides of March”, our thoughts and motives testify to its validity.

I’m reminded of the psalmist in Psalm 52: “Your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor, you who practice deceit.  You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth.  You love every harmful word, O you deceitful tongue!”

And again in Psalm 53: “God looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.  Everyone has turned away, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

That second psalm is quoted directly by Paul in Romans 3 as he expertly unveils the true condition of the human race.  His diagnosis: we’re all bad.

We should all humbly acknowledge our proneness toward Brutus-like behavior.  We build monuments to our own Caesars and Mike Morris’s, but when their pitfalls threaten our success, we brandish the knife.  Ask President Obama his thoughts on this subject.

But more than all the treachery of any politician or literary figure, there remains for us a permanent example of betrayal.  It is in the kiss of Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus with a gesture of friendship.

Only Jesus was not a failure.

And Jesus was who he said he was, and did what he promised he would do.  And Jesus didn’t go to the cross for our political or social benefit.  He went to the cross to clean up all our messes once and for all.  He came to expose the Judas in all of us and incline our hearts toward him – the worthy object of our unworthy worship.  At the cross, Jesus was making a mockery of our foolish monuments.  No one told him to beware the ides of March; he didn’t need a warning.  He accepted betrayal of his own volition and in doing so he ended the cycle of our sin.

The final moments of “The Ides of March” are harrowing.  We end on a close-up of one of the key players and a question is asked of him: “Tell us how you got here.”  That question hangs in the air like a foul stench.

A similar question will be asked of me one day.  How will I answer?  How will you?

*****

This essay is also featured on TMC’s Artist Circle blog in a series that explores cinema from a biblical worldview.  View that blog here.

Unlikely Thankfulness for Kevin Smith’s “Red State”

Kevin Smith is the writer/director behind the raunch-coms of the “Clerks” universe.  His mixture of toilet humor and sophisticated verbiage created a strange fan base, dominated by mouth-breather man-boys and ivy league types.  Even the rom-com crowd likes his stuff.

But Smith turned a whole different set of heads last winter when he screened his independent horror thriller “Red State” and announced his sole ownership and distribution rights to the film.  His purpose was to distribute the movie based on the merits of the film itself, and Smith was optimistic that the film’s content and message would find its audience.

Since then, Smith has campaigned the film all over the country, having never maintained a full theatrical run.  It’s available on DVD and BluRay now.

Surprising Reaction

I finally saw “Red State” after anticipating it since 2007 (when Smith teased his blog subscribers with a picture of the script’s title page).  I’m still surprised by my reaction.

Mainly I was disgusted, and I presume that was the desired reaction.  “Red State” is a nasty little movie, in plot and in content.  There are no characters to redeem it.  There are several strange and violent sequences in it.  It’s conclusions about humans are borderline despairing.

There’s not much to boast about in the film’s technical achievement’s either.  “Red State” features some of Smith’s least successful dialogue and exposition.  It’s shot by director of photography David Klein with a kind of film-school visual tactlessness.  This undermines some of the performances; some of the melodrama plays false because the photography is not meeting the same standard as the performances.

There is a lot to dislike about this movie.

Yet, about 24 hours after watching it, I’m filled with thankfulness, and I’ll tell you why:  The plot centers on three teenage boys who are taken captive by the members of an extreme right wing church and subjected to humiliation and torture.   The church, herein called Five Points Trinity Church, finds its inspiration in Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, the congregation dead set on protesting as many funerals of homosexuals and KIA’d soldiers as possible.  Surely you’ve seen this church on the news.  Its members are a pack of bible charlatans.  They are only as powerful as they are loud, and the louder they are the more coverage and attention they get.

The film actually calls Fred Phelps and his church by name.  Five Points Trinity goes a step further.  Westboro Baptist’s behavior is damnable, but they remain non-violent.  In the film, Five Points is not just a church, but a barracks.  They are extremely violent, and the hatred they spew is nauseating.

Religion – it’s for the birds

I know many people will watch “Red State” and say, “Well, that’s what religion does…it turns people into maniacs.”  A lot of people will watch the movie and be disturbed, not just by the content, but by the notion that perhaps all Christians are really just closet Five Point Trinity members.  Maybe even a few nominal Christians will be shaken in their faith after watching it (and I emphasize nominal; the movie will not shake a solid believer).

The reason I am thankful for “Red State” is that it shows us the functional outcome of gospel-less religion: oppression, vitriol, and potentially violence.  Religion without the gospel is some nasty business.  And I’m thankful “Red State” reminded me of the cost of totally misunderstanding the Bible.  The members of Five Points Trinity Church (and the real-life Westboro cronies) make the fatal and tragic mistake of overemphasizing one of God’s attributes over all the rest.  God is vengeful and hateful – that’s actually true.  God hates sin (and yes, even sinners) and will take revenge for the cost of those sins.

But God is patient and merciful and gracious.  God is loving and kind and faithful beyond our wildest dreams.  We know all these things by looking at Jesus Christ on his cross.  Onto Jesus, God’s hate for sinners was unleashed in full.  Onto us, believers, God’s grace was unleashed in full.  It’s at the cross we finally see the folly of hate-filled theology.

Added to this, I’m thankful “Red State” ended badly for pretty much all the characters involved.  There’s no redemption in the gospel according to Fred Phelps, no assurance that all the things of this world will pass away, no promise that all will be made new.  A happy ending to this movie would have suggested otherwise.  But in the Gospel of the Scriptures, I am promised an inheritance beyond the riches and pleasures of this world, such that even if I were taken captive by a group of psychopathic “Christians” and all I have was taken away from me, I could count my fading losses all worth it for the sake of something better and unshakable.

So yes, I’m thankful.

Fear & Boredom in “The Future”


Thy Kingdom Come

At the beginning of this year, I studied the Sermon on the Mount with more clarity than I ever had before.   When I arrived at Matthew 6:9-13, which is Jesus’ model for prayer, I found that I could barely say the words “thy kingdom come” without profound discomfort and unease.  This request, coming from my mouth, was so disturbing because it meant that I was praying for Christ to come and end it all – time, my dreams and goals, my life as I know it.

We are generally OK with the Bible’s handling of our past.  If the Bible says all my past failures are washed away, well then, that’s great.  But when the Bible begins to tamper with my future – well then, that’s something different altogether.  Why?  Because the future feels like it belongs to each of us in a subjective way.

Statistically speaking, I have more future ahead of me than past behind me, which means that in those moments when the future reveals itself to be totally uncertain, it especially feels like my world is falling apart, bit by bit.

That is, at least in part, something of a hermeneutical key to understanding the new film “The Future”.

The Future

Here’s a film that will fly through a limited release with hardly a drop of fanfare.  It’s Miranda July’s “The Future”, a disproportionately whimsical film about a couple dealing their own uncertain futures.  In the film, writer/director July also stars as Sophie, a children’s dance teacher who apparently has no mastery over children or dance.  She lives with her longtime boyfriend, Jason, played by Hamish Linklater, who works for a technical services company.  He answers phones and helps customers with their computer problems.

There’s also Paw-Paw, an injured cat whom Sophie and Jason rescued and delivered to the veterinarian.  They were told the cat would only survive another six months, so they decided to adopt him for that period of time.  But, in the film’s opening minutes, Sophie and Jason learn that, if the cat becomes emotionally attached to them, she could live another five years.  They have 30 days before Paw-Paw is healthy enough to leave the vet, so they have that time to make their final decision.

And what a decision this becomes!  In the course of a few minutes, Sophie and Jason transform from happy soon-to-be owners of a kitty cat to a couple trapped in a situation in which this cat could consume their lives for the next five years – which, they observe, could very well be the rest of their lives.  “We’ll be 40 in five years,” says Sophie.  “Forty’s basically 50 and then… that’s it for us.”

Over the following weeks, the impending adoption date adds enough pressure to their relationship that each of them begins making impulsive decisions that seem innocuous enough, but yield disastrous consequences.

Conversations With The Moon

Don’t think for a moment that “The Future” is a run-of-the-mill film experience.  It’s about as far from that as possible.  I forgot to mention that Paw-Paw, the injured cat, narrates the film, and that a linear timeline is abandoned in the film’s third act, and that, at one point, Jason has a conversation with the moon (and the moon talks back).  Yes, all that, and more.  “The Future” is a film with a lot of good ideas that get the life squeezed out of them by its oppressive whimsy (kind of defeats the purpose, right?).

Here and there, there are little moments of greatness or nuggets of interesting ideas, but I can’t think of one that leads us anywhere beneficial.  This shouldn’t surprise us; Miranda July does a similar thing in her first, and no less strange, film “Me and You and Everyone We Know”.  Surely July has a unique artistic voice.  There’s no question there.  What I do question is her tendency (or is it more than a tendency?) to build a narrative platform on important, consequential themes and topics and then treat them as though they’re insignificant and inconsequential.

In “The Future”, this works against itself.  For instance, in the film, Sophie copes with her fears about the future by attempting to post one new dance online every day for 30 days.  This fizzles out pretty quickly, for which we can be thankful since the dance sequences are some of the most painfully awkward moments of the whole movie.  So then she pursues an odd friendship with a man she met only briefly.  This turns into a sexual relationship (also very awkward) and is the next stage of deterioration in her relationship with Jason.

And that’s about all the viewer can say about those events.  They find no culmination, no dénouement, and certainly no satisfaction.  I wouldn’t complain about this if it didn’t seem like the movie was copping out.  But the movie does cop out.  By taking itself so lightly, by piling the whimsy on so thickly, “The Future” undermines itself.  This isn’t a fearless movie (as so many critics have claimed).  On the contrary, it’s covered in fear.

Worse than all of this, “The Future” is boring.  That should be the last thing this movie is. The last 20 minutes of the movie confirm what must be July’s fear that the future will be dull.  If that was her point, then bravo.  Wild success.

Might I suggest that a Christian worldview blows a film like this to smithereens?  On one hand, the film on the whole comes off as tragically shallow.  Commitment is farcical in the world of “The Future”.  That might explain why Sophie and Jason are happily unmarried.  It might also explain why the thought of adopting the cat for longer than they originally planned turns their worlds upside down.  Indeed the only character that affirms commitment in any way is an old man name Joe, who is seen as a man losing his grasp on reality.  (This same actor gives voice to the moon, which at one point confesses to Jason, “I don’t know anything.  I’m just a rock in the sky.”)

On the other hand, “The Future” does something far worse.  With all its whimsy it is actually a fairly safe movie, as far as risk-taking goes.  It will feel to the viewer like it’s taking big risks, but I would suggest that it’s not.  It asks some questions, then somewhere along the line it gets sidetracked, and that’s when the boredom sets in.  This movie has no categories for “Thy kingdom come”.  If it did, it wouldn’t be boring.  It has no characters that see the future for what it should be – intimidating and uncertain, sure, but also gloriously secure.  That’s why we can say, “Thy kingdom come”, and have no fear.

The future, for Christians, is not soaked in boredom, but in thrills and constant fascination.  That’s why, “The Future”, for this Christian, is a failure

*****

This essay is also featured on TMC’s Artist Circle blog in a series that explores cinema from a biblical worldview.  View that blog here.

I’m Glad You’re Doing What You Love

I grew up in Small Town, USA – otherwise known as Madison, Indiana.  It’s a town I love.  It’s the town where I went to high school, and during my time there I took several Advanced Placement classes in various subjects, which challenged me to think analytically.  I also took a handful of art classes, and in a addition to that, I was in the Drama Club where I appeared in a number of plays and musicals.  That environment was a crucible for inspiration and goal-setting, and I look back on those days as the days that equipped me for the much less glamorous work I do from day-to-day in the film/TV world.

Both of those strands – the AP and art courses – were under some sort of threat of extinction at one point during the last school year.  Thankfully, they survived several budget cuts.

So I find it ironic that my former art teacher and theatre director, Mr. Aaron Kelsey, will teach an AP Art History course this coming school year.  I consider that poetic justice.

Mr. Kelsey – or MK as his pupils call him – is here in Chicago this week for AP training in order to teach this upcoming course.  I was fortunate enough to join him for dinner tonight and we caught up and reminisced and pondered the future, and at the end of the encounter we shook hands and he said, “I’m glad you’re doing what you love.”

…which reminds me – all the unglamorous, frustrating, illegal, oftentimes thankless work I do “in the industry” – it’s all a part of doing what I love.  I definitely don’t love parts of it.  But I love the big picture, the possible trajectory, the suspense.  And I’m thankful MK reminded me of that with a simple gesture.  After all, he’s one of the reasons why I’m doing it in the first place.

*****

Aaron Kelsey recently received a Teacher Creativity Grant from the Eli Lilly Foundation.  He used the grant to travel around the country researching the life and work of his hero, Walt Disney.  His trip was chronicled and can be viewed at his blog.  I invite you to subscribe to the blog and continue his journey through Life Lessons Learned from Walt Disney.

Lessons from Walt

My Own Private Tree of Life

…Actually I shared it with the rest of my neighbors on Dover Street.

A nasty stormed raged for about 15 minutes and lightning struck this tree, which landed a few inches in front of my car.  Special thanks to the red dumpster.

Storm Tree