Category Archives: Movies

Posts that feature a movie

Time and Again

One score and ten years ago, I graduated from college. I also enrolled in seminary and worked in a United Methodist summer camp. I bought my own car and worked as a bag boy in a grocery store. I also met my future wife. Last night we watched Back to the Future, the sleeper hit and highest grossing film of 1985. There’s been a bit of buzz about it because, discounting the sequels, Doc Brown wants to travel thirty years into the future, yes, 2015, which seemed impossibly far off back then. I have to think his envisioned 2015 was more advanced than what we’ve actually managed. Technology, instead of sending us to Jupiter like Arthur C. Clarke imagined, has instead focused on the incredibly tiny. We now do finally have Dick Tracy wrist-phones with real-time images, but we’re still pretty much earth-bound and our rockets are aimed at other people rather than outer space. Instead of fighting aliens with lasers, we’re shooting fellow humans while at church, synagogue, or mosque. Instead of presidential candidates who want to see how far we can go, we’ve got a stagnant pool of people who want to turn the clock back to, well, 1955.

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Don’t get me wrong—this is a fascinating time to be alive. Just yesterday I sat down to recollect the number of computers we’ve purchased as a family and what each could and couldn’t do. Our first couldn’t connect to the internet since no such thing existed. Our first laptop—which we still have—weights as much as a current desktop and has a black-and-white screen. Now we walk around with the internet in our pockets, never really disconnected from a web in which, I’m sure, lurks a huge spider. But back in 1985 you could make quite a few, as it turns out, false assumptions. Church attendance was healthy and would always continue so. We had space shuttles and were looking to walk on other planets. Rock had matured into a provocative mix of selfishness and social protest. Despite the president of those years, things seemed to be improving.

In Back to the Future, Marty McFly returns to the same Hill Valley he left. A fictional town, I noticed last night, that had a seedy downtown square with adult themed stores and movies. The 1955 square had bullies and manure trucks, but a cleanness that was only on the surface. When Marty’s DeLorean reappears in the square in 1985, he crashes it into a Church of Christ. Although this detail had escaped me before, now it strikes me as somewhat prophetic. Thirty years into the future and, like Marty, we are backing out of the church into an age of nones. Our nones not only refer to our religiously unaffiliated, however. We have nones who’ve lost faith in our government, our economy, and our worldview. Instead of going to Jupiter, we stare at our palms. And like Doc Brown, we look back thirty years with nostalgia and wonder at how wrong we are when we believe in the status quo.

Night Terrors

TerrorInTheNightNightmares are the stuff dreams are made of. Or maybe I’ve got that the wrong way around. Having grown up subject to frequent nightmares, I still occasionally have them. I suppose it is easy enough to assume someone who reads about monsters and watches horror films should not find this unexpected, however, I’m not sure they’re related. My nightmares visit issues that horror films avoid, and most of my monster reading is, well, academic. Surely the scientific study of nightmares has advanced since David J. Hufford’s The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions, but it remains a very important book. As someone familiar with the phenomenon, I found Hufford’s study somewhat therapeutic, and it certainly does raise some interesting questions.

Apart from the unfortunately, inherently sexist, folk-title “the old hag,” Hufford is addressing a universal experience of people of all ages. Using his original setting in remote Newfoundland where his work began, Hufford collected tales of what might technically be called sleep paralysis with a specific hypnogogic hallucination of being attacked. A designation, he acknowledges, that is quite awkward for repeated use. Back in the early 1980’s, when the book was published, these accounts of nighttime attacks—a person waking up, or not having yet fallen asleep, sensing a presence in the room, finding her- or himself unable to move, and sometimes seeing or hearing an entity and feeling it on his or her chest—were rarely discussed. Especially in scientific literature. They seem a kind of embarrassing medievalism related to the ancient concepts of incubi and succubi, and even vampires. Having “the old hag” (a moniker relating to witches) is what the experience is known as in Newfoundland. Hufford, taking these accounts seriously, investigated what the sufferers had experienced. Unwilling to judge whether the event “actually happened,” Hufford’s scientific objectivity is truly admirable. Since the time of his book, the concept has become widely known and the argument is often made that having heard of sleep paralysis episodes feeds those with hypnogogic hallucinations the idea of a supernatural oppressor. In other words, now that we know about it, we don’t have to take it seriously.

Hufford is one of a small number of academics that is willing to engage with the supernatural on its own terms. Religion scholars do, of course, but we are generally dismissed from the starting block anyway. Most scientists disregard the possibility of anything beyond deluded brains and say nightmares are normal. Just deal with it. Those who’ve experienced the nighttime attack know that it feels very different than a garden variety nightmare. You can tell when you’re awake. Of course, we’re of the generation who’ve seen The Matrix and Inception, and we know that, at least in popular thought, reality has become negotiable. Nobody is much surprised any more by the idea of such an attack in the night. Waking nightmares have become as common as the headlines. If only more scholars would take human experience as more than just “old wives tales” we might all be surprised at how just rolling over can change everything for the better.

Contacting Faith

Contact_0001Sometime after the movie Contact came out, I saw it while on a flight to somewhere here or there. As with most movies on airplanes, it didn’t receive my full attention and I seem to recall not hearing a lot of the sound. Having always been intrigued by the possibility of aliens, however, I told myself I’d watch it again. Several months ago I did just that, but as Carl Sagan hoped, much of the story had become somewhat dated. I finally finished reading the novel, and this was a case of the book being better than the movie (as is frequently the case). A number of things surprised me about the story, the primary one being just how prominent religion is in the plot. In the movie some crazy preacher sabotages the first machine just as it’s nearing completion, and even though Ellie Arroway is long connected to Palmer Joss, their relationship doesn’t seem to dominate the script the way it does the book.

Almost immediately upon reading about adult Ellie, it became clear that religion was a major interest that Carl Sagan had. While the chiliasts receive many scathing comments throughout the novel, thoughtful Christian thinkers, such as Palmer, find a way of being taken seriously by Ellie, despite her own personal unbelief. Unable to understand how someone could not accept the evidence before their eyes, she wants to belittle religion but can’t when serious thinkers like Palmer remind her that they have a sophisticated worldview as well. The story represents a long struggle between alternative outlooks. While as a novel it doesn’t always flow, it pulls the reader along, partly based on the intriguing character of Sagan himself.

Carl Sagan believed in life on other planets. He was less sanguine about the possibility of either ancient astronauts or current-day visitors from space, but he kept an open mind. While he was the respected author of numerous scientific papers, other astronomers didn’t always know what to make of such a popularizer. Of course I never knew him, but I have to wonder if his true beliefs didn’t appear in his fiction rather than in his factual writing. At times I found the novel slow and plodding, and as the machine gives ambiguous results, I wondered where the rest of the story could go. Sagan profoundly brings the end back to belief. Without evidence, Ellie finds herself in the place of the religious who believe on the basis of experience and faith alone. And she finds her best friend is a clergyman. Contact, with its God-like aliens, is really a story of finding oneself a place in an infinite universe. To do that well, Sagan seems to have believed, requires both science and religion.

Seeing the Trees

Into_the_Woods_film_posterI first learned of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods while liking in the woods of Wisconsin. I was teaching a summer term course of mature students, one of whom used one of the songs to illustrate the point he was making during a presentation. Of course I don’t remember what the point was, but I did remember the movie. Then along came Shrek and fractured fairy tales were back in business. Enchanted brought Disney into the act, and a number of self-aware takeoffs from the brothers Grimm have followed. I’d seen the film of the stage show of Into the Woods before, but it had been a while. Over the weekend we decided to watch the new Disney offering of the story and as we did a couple of familiar, if obscure, ancient mythological motifs came to mind.

Cinderella, as we all know, was sorely abused by her evil step-mother and step-sisters. She seeks solace at her mother’s grave, in the woods, of course, in the movie version. While there, singing somewhere between a lament and a prayer, her mother appears to her in the tree that grew from a branch she’d planted there many years before. It’s a musical number, of course, but my mind couldn’t help going back to Asherah. Asherah is considered by many (without good reason, and I should know) to be the goddess of the trees. Yes, this was a mortal, a dead mortal at that, who spoke from the tree but the way she was presented in the movie was distinctly divine. Indeed, there is similar iconography from ancient Egypt. It was almost enough to make me go back on my own evidence that Asherah wasn’t a tree goddess.

The giant’s wife poses a real threat in this film. Jack’s beanstalk and the effects resembled those of Jack the Giant Slayer, a movie that I only vaguely remember as being one of many I watched with bleary eyes on a transatlantic flight a few years back. Nevertheless, Mrs. Giant is here stomping about the village when Jack and the baker decide to take her out at the tar pit, with the help of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. The preferred weapon is a sling. As the giantess is pelted with stones, she grows annoyed until Jack, in the perfect image of David, strikes the giant between the eyes, slaying her. We all know the fairy tale version ends with the beanstalk chopped down. We’ve entered a new world, however. A world where Bible and fairy tale are harder to distinguish. And not only that, but even fairy tales no longer have the canonical status they once held.

Human Race

PlanetOfTheApesMythFor reasons no one fully understands, Planet of the Apes touched a deep level of responsiveness in American society. I have to admit to having fallen behind a bit; I need to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to be back up to speed, but nevertheless, I remember the television releases and airings of the originals, and even have gone through the entire series in the form of home theater offerings. One Saturday long ago on a visit home, I sat through a marathon of the entire five-movies sequence all in a day. It should be no surprise, then, that as soon as I saw Eric Greene’s Planet of the Apes as American Myth it went on my reading list. Race and Politics in the Films and Television Series, the subtitle read. I admit that I grew up in a conservative, but sheltered environment. Having friends who were African-American, although, admittedly, they were a small fraction of the demographic in my small town, I never realized that there was a problem. Not until I took history and social science classes in school. You have to learn things such as racial distrust.

Struck by Planet of the Apes when I first saw it, I had no idea that it was a racial tale. It makes sense now, in the light of Greene’s analysis. To a child fearing evolution as much as Hell itself, the movie was a kind of forbidden fruit, and by making it science fiction, there was no reason to suppose there was a message here. It was a powerful kind of captivity. I have watched the movie, and current adaptations, many times over. Greene does an excellent job of demonstrating that the movies came at a time of great racial distress. Civil rights, the Vietnam War, the fear of the Communist—xenophobia was perhaps at an all-time high when the apes invaded our planet. As the series goes on, the identifications become clearer and clearer.

But more than that, Greene pointed out some very obvious—in retrospect—religious symbolism in the movies. Some of it was so intentional that it was written into the script. Among the scenes from the life of Jesus, the movies borrow most heavily from Exodus. Moses figures abound. Even Charlton Heston, in his role as Taylor, was following up on the Ten Commandments. Holy families and sacrificial victims mark just about every stage of this dystopia, a world where trust is always far from any relationship with someone physically different. It’s about time that I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And after that, I need to go back to the beginning, and watch them all with renewed eyes. In the light of current events, also with the hope of a more just future.

Christian Horrorshow

Books & Culture is the review organ of Christianity Today. Christianity Today is the evangelical answer to the more liberal Christian Century. Working in publishing, particularly in the field of religion, it is important to keep an eye on what the popular magazines are saying about our books. Well, neither is as popular as it used to be, but still. I’ll grown used to Books & Culture taking a rather wholesome reaction to books that challenge worldviews. In fact, it’s not unusual to find a fairly mild tome castigated as somewhat insidious. Negative reviews tend to sell books as well as positive reviews. Sometimes better.

I was a bit surprised to see a two-page spread in a recent edition of Books & Culture focusing on horror stories. Horror and evangelical generally don’t play well together. Well, maybe I should temper that a little bit. The first article was actually on Shirley Jackson, best known for her excellently moody The Haunting of Hill House. That particular book has spawned or inspired at least five scary movies, two of them versions of the book itself. I have to confess that this is the only Shirley Jackson novel I’ve read. The article, somewhat strangely for an evangelical magazine, had made me want to explore some of her other offerings. Horror doesn’t have to be splatter to be effective.

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The second review in this issue was for an Oxford anthology called Horror Stories. The reviewer, Victor LeValle, also comes out with a positive review of the collection. All of this makes me wonder if I missed something growing up as a conservative Christian who felt distinctively unsavory because his love of monsters and the macabre. I can’t remember ever not liking mild horror stories. They manage to evoke parts of my psyche that most other literature bypasses. I discovered Poe at an early age. That’s not to say that I like being afraid. Fear is not what I’m seeking here. It is a kind of strange redemption. In college many of my evangelical friends couldn’t understand my fascination. “Why don’t you watch something more uplifting?” I’d be asked. I was as surprised as anyone when one of my very few Grove City dates agreed to see Nightmare on Elm Street with me. Not even Shirley Jackson could’ve seen that one coming. I wonder how she’d respond to being written up as an evangelical inspiration?

Becoming an Icon

A kid among the Monster Boomers can’t let the death of Christopher Lee go by without comment. How many hours of my childhood were spent watching movies on Saturday afternoon TV with his many personae arresting my attention? And, of course, his prolific output just kept on coming. The Wicker Man, for instance, would never have been among my childhood fare, but his performance as Lord Summerisle is still captivating and sends shivers down my spine. Of course, he wasn’t always a horror movie star. His voice nevertheless conditioned us to be on our guard, for we knew something untoward was about to happen.

Photo credit: Avda, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Avda, Wikimedia Commons

I often ponder the lure of monster movies. As a young boy, I couldn’t get enough of them. I tried to grow out of this stage, and managed pretty well through my doctoral work, but then when I found myself in a Gothic seminary where my life would be shredded and discarded, I suddenly found myself sitting up late to watch movies my family would not care to see. There was a catharsis happening here. Some would claim that it is puerile and immature—they would be the same people who’ve not been forced from careers and faced with unemployment and been dealt a failing hand by an institution that received full commitment during the formative years of an aborted career. No, those who’ve faced monsters cannot easily leave them alone.

Of course, Christopher Lee was only playing monsters. Now many people around the world can instantly recognize his name, face, or voice. We all face monsters. Our society teaches us to deny that they exist, much to our own peril. Little children, bewildered by this insanely complex world that adults have constructed, may be the ones to see most clearly. We watch the monsters on the screen so that we might figure out how to deal with them on the playground or in the boardroom. Christopher Lee was more than an actor. He was a teacher. And his best students learned something of human nature from him.