Category Archives: Movies

Posts that feature a movie

Steel Pennies

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I remember seeing my first steel penny. At first I didn’t think it was real. Like many poor kids, I was a collector. I collected anything cheap: cancelled stamps, bottle tops from glass pop bottles, fossils, just to name a few free trinkets. And I’d started coin collecting, with pennies. I’d noticed the difference between wheat backs and Lincoln Memorial pennies, and I knew that the former might be worth something some day. There was a hobby store in town and by thumbing through the collectors’ books, before being shooed out, I’d learned that keeping an eye out for wheaties was a kind of investment. Just hold onto it long enough, and it’ll grow in value. I never saw a 1943 penny, though, until a fellow collector traded me one. During the war, he explained, copper was too valuable to use for pennies. Wartime, it turns out, changes lots of things. About the same time as these steel pennies were being minted, Casablanca was still showing in theaters.

As I sat down to watch Casablanca again last night, some new thoughts occurred to me. A wary eye can spot the cost-cutting measures of a wartime movie. Somethings never change. Nazis were bad guys, obviously, but we still didn’t know who’d win the war by then. And refugees flooded to Casablanca to try to escape Europe for America. The movie makes quite a lot of this endless waiting. It’s hot in the desert. People are waiting to go somewhere better. And there are elements of torture there as corrupt officials cooperate with Nazis, even though this is Free France. It occurred to me that this is an allegory of Purgatory. I’m pretty sure it’s not intentional, but here are lost souls waiting for deliverance. The plane to Lisbon is the soul’s escape to Heaven. Meanwhile the relentless waiting.

For a movie approaching 75 years old, Casablanca holds up remarkably well. The extras on our DVD tell us the plane in the final scenes is a cheap cutout just a few feet away on a sound stage. The mechanics attending it are little people to bring it into perspective. Tucked away in some box somewhere I’ve got a few steel pennies. These days coins change so frequently that I wonder just how stable this world really is. While the “Middle East” still has us as worried as ever, our money is, for all practical purposes, only virtual. Paychecks are mere electrons and I’m just a temporary repository between my employer and those who claim increasingly more of my pretend money. We seem to be caught between two worlds. In one nothing is really real at all. Rick’s Café Americain feels somehow very familiar, as we spend our time waiting for passage on a plane to Lisbon.

What Do Sheep Know?

We trust those we see in the media. You see, those who have the longest reach can bring in the most advertising dollars and therefore must have a wisdom the rest of us lack. The cult of celebrity is perhaps the truest cult of all. Don’t get me wrong, I like reading books by bestselling authors once in a while, and I like movies by talented directors and writers. The problem with the cult of celebrity that it often confuses fame with knowledge. If someone knows how to get you to pull your wallet out, they must know about all kinds of things, right? It stands to reason. A recent article in The Guardian features an interview with Ridley Scott. Forever in my mind typecast as the director of Blade Runner and Alien, I think of Scott as one who understands science fiction. He, of course, gave us a version of Exodus that many didn’t buy, and now that The Martian has been gaining attention, people are once again wondering what they might learn from the director.

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Ironically, like the recently late David Bowie, Scott considers himself an agnostic. As the Guardian article says, that doesn’t stop him from having a lot to say about God. Catherine Shoard notes that religious questioning runs throughout Scott’s movies. The big issues, it seems, still matter. People will crowd to his movies and perhaps not even know that they were facing the questions that motivate people like Scott. Taking up such questions in the hopes of making a career out of it all is still not a wise choice, but if you can put it in fiction without people knowing it, you might become famous.

I’ve always been of the opinion that everyone is an expert when it comes to religion. Believer or not, everyone knows what to believe and is pretty certain about it. The people I find most fascinating in this mix are those who dare to question. While many doctrinaire religions call questioners “doubters” and suggest curiosity is some kind of sin, there are both religious and non who face the world with questions rather than answers. To me, this seems a more honest approach to things. The funny thing about this appreciation is that it is seldom reciprocal. Of course, people might be interested if I’d directed a block-buster movie or if I were a star. Until that happens, I’m an expert just like everybody else.

What You Pay For

VampireHunterWhen a friend pointed out the easily missed 2001 film, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, (well before Seth Grahame-Smith came up with the same role for Abraham Lincoln) I knew I was duty-bound to see it. As regular readers know, although I’m not a fan of gore or violence, I have a soft spot for vampire movies. Vampires, although often evil, are frequently presented as conflicted characters. As former humans they have some level of sympathy for their victims, while at the same time, all people are objectified for the vampire. We are food. This low-budget, independent film didn’t promise to deliver on many levels, but as the end credits show, they did shoot enough film to be able to cut out a few bloopers. The story, in as far as there is one, has Jesus fighting lesbian vampires in modern-day Ottawa (where the film was shot).

Not that the film was serious enough to invite critical dialogue, I did wonder what Jesus had to do with the whole thing apart from the shock value. There were a few cute moments, as when the “atheists” pile, clown-like, out of a car for an extended fight scene, but the lead could have been any character apart from one scene where a miracle does occur. Jesus fights with his fists, not with supernatural power. Tossing in Mary Magnum and “professional wrestler” El Santo, the movie came close to the screwball level of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. It’s difficult to critique a film where logic isn’t held accountable for the plot—the only thing to keep the film going is the action of a particular scene. And that, as I’ve intimated, can’t be counted on.

Interestingly enough, Jesus is treated throughout the film in a positive way. Although he doesn’t use supernatural powers, he is the “good guy” and is even tolerant of alternative lifestyles as long as love is the basis of relationships. The movie is biblically literate, using the Good Samaritan in a scene that underscores the accepting nature of the new millennium Jesus. The vampires don’t add much to the lore of the monster. They can be out in daylight because it is cheaper to shoot film that way, but the plot does come up with an explanation for it. Vampirism, at the end, can be healed by prayer, and when Mary Magnum, El Santo, and Jesus go their separate ways at the end, we are left wondering what all the fuss was about.

First Stronghold

FIRST Robotics has a way of getting into your blood. Like many people of my generation, I learned about FIRST Robotics through my daughter. Our local high school has a robotics team and, as we quickly learned, the decision to join FIRST is a four-year family commitment. My wife and I were both involved at some level, despite being the world’s least likely engineers. I even served a term as the president of the foundation (responsible for funding the team). We made lasting friendships and grew in the lingo and odd humor that is FIRST. The founder and chief promoter of FIRST, Dean Kamen, is an unapologetic geek and has helped develop what some journalists are calling “the new cool.” Yesterday was launch. If you are a FIRST follower, I don’t have to explain that. In case you’re not, “launch” is the revelation of this year’s game. Teams now have six weeks to plan, design, and build their robots.

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Launch is a big deal. We haven’t been part of the competition for three years now and we still watch the live web-broadcast. The major players (Kamen, and Woodie Flowers) get in character and meet kids from various teams. They give inspirational talks. Dean Kamen told the kids “Don’t get stuck into today.” Technology changes too fast. What you learn in school are tools, because facts are available instantaneously on the internet. Those of us who retain facts are so yesterday that we’ve become the trivial pursuit generation. Any computer, let alone robot, could beat us. Woodie Flowers told the young audience thinking about careers that they must do what machines cannot do, otherwise their jobs will become obsolete. What could be more human than religion? What’s religion got to do with it? This is science and technology!

This year’s competition is FIRST Stronghold. The entire buildup of yesterday’s launch was a takeoff on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. What is this I see before me? History? The Middle Ages were nothing if not religion run wild. This was a world ruled by bishops, popes and nobility. It was a world where no matter who you were, God trumped all. Technology meant that a trebuchet was a pretty sexy device and long distance communication traveled at the speed of a horse or human runner. (Or, I suppose, a trebuchet missile.) Now that the humanities have fallen victim to science, we look back to them for inspiration. It reminds me of John Keating in Dead Poets Society: “And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” This hasn’t changed since 1989. Or even 932 for that matter.

Girl, Rising

It is perhaps unusual to stop and think about who you are. From the moment consciousness kicks in, our lives are a non-stop progression of stimuli and response and taking the time to stop and think what someone else must be feeling is, I sometimes fear, a dying art. Although I can’t accept the goddess hypothesis, purely on historical grounds, I am utterly at sympathy with it. I sensed that when Merlin Stone took the time to introduce herself to me at an American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting some years back. She was one of the few who knew and appreciated my book on Asherah, and I in turn knew of her work both as a feminist and creative theological thinker. It was an honor to shake her hand. The heart of work such as that of Stone and Marija Gimbutas was that women deserve, and have always deserved, to be treated equally with men.

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Watching Girl Rising, I was forcefully reminded of this once again. A 2013 documentary film telling the story of nine girls from “third world” countries, the movie is quite sobering. In many parts of the world women are still treated as property, although slavery has been considered a violation of human rights for well over a century. Hearing what young girls have to face in much of the world is heartrending. Hearing what certain unnamed presidential candidates have to say in this country is downright terrifying. Why is it that so many men never stop to consider what it would have been like for them, had they been born female? Would they have accepted that their lives would consist of lower pay and their healthcare would teeter in the balance every four years when a new crop of neo-cons puts the White House in its sights? And this is called the “first world.”

Having been raised by a woman who had, for many years, no support of a husband, I have been sensitive to the plight of women my entire life. I could see no reason that my mother shouldn’t be given the opportunity that other people had. Courageous, strong, and self-abnegating, she did what it took to raise her sons in a safe and loving environment. In my own experience of adulthood, full of struggles and turmoil as it has been, I wonder what life would have been like had I been a girl in similar circumstances. What if I had been born a girl in another country where my active mind would be grounds for beatings, or being shot? It is unconscionable. There may not have been an egalitarian society that centered on the worship of a goddess, but there is no reason we shouldn’t try to make such a peaceful, fair, and just society nevertheless. If only men would stop to think about how distorted a one-sided view of life inevitably becomes, perhaps the entire world would be able to claim to be “first.” It is only when women and men share rights that the world can start to be considered a just place.

Awakening Forces

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens does not disappoint. Many of us who saw the original installment recognized the archetypal image right away. Good versus evil, light and darkness, the quest for the father, and a host of other tropes backed the story in ways that made us believe we were in a galaxy far, far away. As is well known, the mythographer Joseph Campbell was closely consulted on the movie, bringing his own Jungian understanding of myth to the story. We felt that we cared about the outcome of these characters’ lives. Prequels are, of course, a hard sell. Although technically proficient, the Sith episodes I-III dulled the eyes of many original fans. It wasn’t just because the action had to be all “shoot-‘em-up” western style either. There is a logic to mythology, and yes, whether we want to admit it or not, religious imagery. The Force Awakens returns to that religious, archetypal imagery and it shows not only in box office numbers, but in the reviews.

This is one of those movies that kept interrupting my subconscious the night after I saw it, even as a matinee. There was some powerful imagery going on there. Having seen the film only once, I’m sure much of it escaped me, but even based on the trailers people were wondering about the cruciform light saber wielded by Kylo Ren. Naturally, the force does awaken, carrying the mythology further. C-3PO, however, is the one who blurts out “Thank the Maker” when the resistance finally gets a break. What would a robot know of the force? Visions and prophets, the stuff of classical conflicts of good and evil, are fully present and accounted for. Even the marking of Finn’s helmet in the opening scene has elements of the Passover to it.

What stayed with me the most is a concept traditionally associated with the Quakers—the light within. Kylo Ren is struggling to defeat that light. Others are, in effect, praying for him to realize that it is still there. The force pervades every living thing, but humanoids have the light within. Movies that understand this kind of archetypal thinking quickly draw a fan base. Part of what we are seeing on the screen moves beyond entertainment to a kind of religious thinking. The original trilogy led to the growth of an actual religion called Jediism. The tenets are almost Manichean in their duality, and despite an ending that leaves you wondering, those who know the power of mythology have no doubts who, at the end, will be victorious. It is the way of the force.

Top Predator

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The reboot of Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has been on my mind. Back in the early days of this century I hadn’t bothered to see either Jurassic Park II or III. The original, despite its faults, was like a childhood dream come true. I’ve always felt that dinosaurs (along with vampires and pirates) made for the best movies, although space has to be right up there in the top since 2001 (not the year, the movie). Since the summer I’ve made a point to carve out time to finish out the holy trilogy of dinosaur flicks. I liked the character Dr. Malcolm in the original, but he should’ve never been the main character of the sequel. The Lost World almost lost my resolve to see the series through. The story was unvarying: humans meet dinosaurs, dinosaurs chase humans. New and innovative means of trying to contain or exploit them try to demonstrate the evils of hubris and greed, but dinosaurs always prevail. Jurassic Park III was a bit better, going back to the original formula but adding something bigger than Tyrannosaurus Rex—the Spinosaurus. It was unbelievable, however, that a paleontology doctoral student couldn’t recognize it, thinking it a mere Suchomimus. At the turn of the century, new dinosaur finds had suggested that Spinosaurus was larger than T-Rex, and the movie reflected the new top predator of the time.

It is the little boy in me that keeps me coming back for dinosaurs. Some of my favorite toys were cheap, molded plastic dinos, and when my daughter was young we bought her all the more realistic (and pricey) Safari versions. When I get to the store, I still stop and look at the species we never acquired and make a wish. I think it’s because dinosaurs represent something we can never have. Species that grew to enormous size and had armor-like skin, and even, if some paleontologists are to be believed, considerable intelligence. Of course, that may just be the movie talking. In a world where all things are equal, we’d never stand a chance against dinosaurs. They are like reptilian deities.

When Amanda Kirby (ironically, the only adult to be addressed by first name in the movie by new acquaintances; the males are called by their titles even after they’ve been through several dinosaur attacks together) sees the incubators at the compound, she says, “So this is how you make dinosaurs.” Dr. Grant (let’s give him his title) responds, “No, this is how you play God.” Playing God is a trope as old as science itself. Planting crops to grow where you want them to grow is playing God in its own way. Creating uncontrollable forces that can destroy you seems to be a uniquely human trait. And so my imagination is drawn back to dinosaur days. Those who make the movies tug on wishes that any mere creature would have: to create its own gods and somehow manage to survive them. Hubris, it seems, is just as human as dreaming of dinosaurs.