Category Archives: Movies

Posts that feature a movie

The Unliving

Western Pennsylvania, from which I hail, has few claims to fame. One, still largely forgotten, is that it was the birthplace of the petroleum industry. Remains of the early exploitation of the fossil fuel still lie scattered carelessly in the woods. Another claim to fame is that the region was the adopted home of George Romero and served as the setting for his groundbreaking film, Night of the Living Dead. Unintentionally, Romero created what continues to shamble on in the form of the modern zombie. Although the movie doesn’t call the living dead “zombies,” it established the trope of their endless hunger for human flesh and their rabid bite. So it was with sadness that I read of Romero’s death a couple of days ago. Although he wasn’t from Pittsburgh, he established the city as zombie central. It’s nice that he gave something back.

Zombies have, due to their protean nature, become a fixture among the monster constellations. They represent the worst of what people can be—selfish and brainless, without empathy, their own cravings being the only matters of importance to them. Sounds kind of like the Republican Party. The rest of the world calls them monsters. Night of the Living Dead shocked audiences of the late 1960s with its graphic portrayal of cannibalism and thoughtless destruction. Interestingly, the choice of a strong African American lead for the movie was, according to interviews with Romero, simply a matter of his being the best actor, not an intentional racial statement. (That too reminded me of western Pennsylvania; there were racial tensions where I grew up, but many of us befriended those who were “different” without any clue that it should matter at all.) Duane Jones carried off the role of Ben with conviction and energy. He died young but he never became a zombie.

To make an impact intention need not be present. While Romero denied for the rest of his life that the movie was “about” the Vietnam War, and that his choice of a black lead was a racial statement, both of these factors became facts about the film. Concepts, in other words, like zombies, may rise from the dead. Beyond the shock and gore, the movie made a powerful, if unintentional, statement. It helped to define Romero’s future career. A success in a difficult industry may indeed decide one’s fate. George Romero would go on to make many other monster movies. Western Pennsylvania would become a zombie haven. You never know what you might find scattered about in those forgotten woods of your childhood home.

Wonders and Signs

Raised by a woman who would be perhaps classified as a “single mother” these days—she was technically married except for a very brief time just before my step-father came along—I have always had great appreciation for the power of women. She didn’t have super-powers, but she raised three young boys largely single-handedly without the help a young woman has a right to expect. Wonder Woman, when I saw her on television, struck me as a very different kind of female. Strong, yes, but clearly there for men to look at. But then again, I didn’t have the benefit of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. I left the theater speechless. Apart from a few sniffles my wife didn’t have much to say until about an hour later. It’s that kind of movie.

I’ve seen many superhero movies. In fact, heroes are almost custom-made for the big screen. Comic books are basically storyboards already, and the colors and action are the very definition of spectacle. Wonder Woman, however, complicates the tale of the hero fighting for justice and truth. She fights instead for peace and love. Never supposing she’s anything but capable of defeating the evils of war, she doesn’t take orders from men. She actually shames an elderly, heavyset general for not being on the field of battle where, he acknowledges, others will die for the cause of the armistice. It’s a world inverted. Yes, the men are drawn to Diana, and can’t help but be awed by her. They don’t control her, however. She’s the first out of the trenches and she requires no man’s help when combatting the enemy.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the movie is the respect it to shows to women. Only one nude body appears in the film, and it’s male. I suspect I wasn’t the only man present made uncomfortable by the curious female gaze and the assessing questions of the goddess. Women are made to sit through countless movies as the subject of the male gaze. The embarrassment here is a reminder that making women sexual objects is the normal expectation. What if the roles were reversed? When Wonder Woman fights she is largely defensive. Men want to destroy her. She responds by declaring love will overcome war and owning her role as the “God-killer.” This is a movie with substantial subtext. It challenges the paradigm of men’s rule as wise and beneficial. A god may have to die, but the world is a better place for it. We could use some inversion about now.

Viewing Religion

Scholars employed by the academy sometimes fall under its privileged bubble. In that rarified space, the classics, the Bible, and even serious contemporary literature can be parsed and prodded until it’s no longer recognized and everyone thinks it’s normal. Out on the streets (for some of us taste the outer darkness) people have a difficult time with such minute attention to detail. People like movies. They’re visual, colorful, and they meet deep human needs. Scholars were slow to take cinema seriously, though. It was one of those passing things. Ephemeral. Shadows flickering on a screen. Never mind that the budget for a single Hollywood blockbuster could finance an entire humanities department for years. This is a strange dynamic when you stop to think about it.

S. Brent Plate, in his book Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World, addresses in a very intelligent way, how film is like religion. Of course, religion is often on the university chopping block these days, so it is perhaps no surprise that among the first academics to pay serious attention to movies in their discipline were religion scholars. What is truly surprising is the depth of that connection between movies and belief. For such a brief book, Plate dives deep and quickly. In a society that seems to have outlived its need for structured religion, movies have managed to hold on through recessions and depressions and terrorist attacks. Indeed, they often provide meaning during those very times. They have a ritual form that meets the kinds of needs religion has traditionally filled. Movies are well worth the time we spend getting to know them.

Sometimes, under the barrage of rhetoric that says all answers are physical, we forget that humans are meaning-seeking creatures. If there’s no purpose to life, our wellbeing suffers. Nobody looking at modern civilization objectively would say that we’re an overwhelmingly happy bunch. One way to understand the popularity of movies is to see them as venues of finding meaning. For 90 minutes to 2 hours we’re shown some version of modern mythology (at least in some cases) that serves many of the same functions as a sermon or scripture. Although Plate hyphenates the word, it is worth pondering that this is for more than mere recreation. The Sabbath idea always involved more than just a day off work. Movies offer us a way toward meaning. So naturally, the academy tends to ignore them. There are, it seems, more important things to do.

The Nature of Evidence

Home alone on a Friday night, I turned to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Not a typical horror film, this art house production is an updating and remaking of F. W. Murnau’s technically illegal 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It has been a few years since I’ve watched it, but the beauty of the cinematography kept coming back to me at unexpected times. Klaus Kinski is an unforgettable Count Dracula, hideous and compelling simultaneously. He draws pity and revulsion. When he’s not on camera you can’t wait for him to appear. There’s not much new in the story, of course, as it follows Murnau pretty closely, with some shots being nearly identical. One exception to this is the plague. Wherever Dracula appears the Black Death accompanies him. This leads to one of the most unusual twists of this retelling—the role of Dr. Van Helsing.

Instead of being the authority on vampires and leader of the attack, Van Helsing is here a reluctant rationalist who doesn’t accept superstition. He encourages the town elders to respond calmly to an outbreak of the plague. When Lucy Harker insists that Jonathan has been the victim of a vampire (which he has) the professor again urges caution. He insists that this must be approached scientifically, empirically. You don’t pull up wheat to see if it’s growing, he notes philosophically. Take time, trust science, and all will be well. Meanwhile the audience knows the reality of the vampire. There is a supernatural threat and it is moving fast. Lucy knows they must strike against Dracula before the vampire destroys the whole town. Despite the mounting number of deaths by plague, Van Helsing still clings to slow and steady evidence, only realizing after Lucy’s death that she had been right all along.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this retelling after all. A female takes the lead. Lucy is the one determined to stop the vampire. She does so out of belief. Van Helsing rightly points out that this is a dangerous way to approach a problem. One ponders what might’ve happened had science been allowed to run its course. Van Helsing, if science be science, would’ve had to at last come to the same conclusion that Lucy had experientially. She’d read Jonathan’s diary and she had a late night conversation with Dracula where he did not appear in her mirror and did shy away from her crucifix. She too is evaluating evidence, only she has to allow for the reality of the supernatural. Since the story is old and the production artistic, this is no bloodbath horror spectacle. It is a thoughtful, almost quiet reflection on how we perceive reality. Even among the many vampire films it remains a thing of beauty.

Filmy Substance

It’s all about Jesus. Well, that’s an overstatement, even in context. One of the amazing things to me about books addressing the Bible in film is just how often Jesus movies come up. If it’s not Jesus movies, it’s movies that have a “Christ figure” or some such Christian trope. Don’t get me wrong—I have no issues with Jesus. It’s just that the Bible and film have so much more in common than this. David Shepherd’s edited collection, Images of the Word: Hollywood’s Bible and Beyond, has some insightful pieces in it and some of what has become “standard fare” already in a field that’s so new. I found Richard A. Blake’s response fascinating. Maybe this was because he doesn’t approach the topic from a biblicists’ point of view.

I’m not really complaining about scholars who look to cinema for a rich source of reception history. I do it myself from time to time. Most of the books on this topic are collections of essays and collections are, by default, uneven. There’s an amazing amount of biblical material in movies that simply goes overlooked. Also, I would suggest, movies offer valid interpretations of the Bible. Somewhere along the development of the discipline we seem to have slipped into thinking that only certain people can legitimately interpret the Good Book. If it is a sacred text, however, it is as much in the public domain as any text can be. And texts in the public domain can legitimately be interpreted by hoi polloi. That’s the nature of being a text with universal assertions, I suspect. Directors and writers, therefore, are legitimate interpreters. We could learn a lot about the Bible from going to the theater.

Like many who’ve taught Bible to undergrads, I sometimes discussed films with them. I always believed students were legitimate interpreters of Scripture, too. This is a dialogue. One of the more interesting aspects of Shepherd’s collection is the pieces that focus on non-Hollywood movies. I don’t see a problem discussing Hollywood since we can assume a larger body of those who’ve seen the film. It is nice, however, to be reminded that “foreign” films also delve into what is sometimes treated as propriety material by Christians. Hindu representations of the life of Jesus? That’s a very interesting idea! Of course, not everyone likes to know how “outsiders” see them. That’s one of the beauties of using cinema as a means of interpreting the Bible. Those of us who study it don’t have the money to influence movies enough to make them in our image. It’s fun to watch someone else’s interpretation.

Filling the Frame

Those who study the Bible have to reckon with the fact that someone else probably said it first. This is one of the inherent liabilities of studying something a couple thousand years old. Still, scholars have to keep their jobs, and so they come up with new ways of looking at something ancient. One of my favorite new methods is the use of movies to understand the Good Book. Clearly nobody in ancient times had any ideas about films, let alone stills, but still, they liked to tell stories. They have that in common with modern cinema. Although I’m naturally distrustful of collections of essays—there are so many of them and they are all of mixed quality—I decided to read Close Encounters between Bible and Film: An Interdisciplinary Engagement, edited by Laura Copier and Caroline Vander Stichele. I have to admit that I picked it up with some trepidation, but I was pleasantly surprised in the end.

Like all edited volumes, Close Encounters is uneven. Nevertheless, a fair number of the essays are well done and insightful. The others may be insightful too, but my exile from academe has led to a drop in tolerance for method-heavy essays. They make me think the Bible should mean nothing to anyone but experts, which, if true, is a sad state of affairs for a world that depends on it for salvation. But I digress. The fact is movies quite often draw on similar collections of brain cells as do sacred texts. That’s interesting. Not only that, but flicks show just how deeply embedded the Bible is in western consciousness.

Having read many books on cinema and the Bible, I was pleased at how well this one seemed to flow. At times it’s as if that authors are struggling to find some common ground, but the realization that both sacred text and cinema are part of the cultural sphere suggests that the connections are there. More than that, they suggest that the Bible might still retain some relevance for modern people after all. Hollywood hasn’t lost sight of Holy Writ either. Just a few years back three major biblical epics came out in one season. For me this makes it clear that the stories of antiquity still speak to modern people. They have to be gussied up with CGI and big-name actors, but the underlying tales go back to a day before lights and camera were necessary for action. And we might learn something while our intention is simply to be entertained.

Wall-E of Separation

io9 is a progressive website. Its futuristic stories delight and entertain. When a friend sent me a story on io9 titled “New Fan Theory Asks the Obvious Question: Is Wall-E Satan?” I had to read. Then wonder. People know so little about the Bible. The idea is simple: in Wall-E the people live in an undisturbed paradise until Satan (in the form of EVE’s plant) tempts them to leave paradise and return to an earth they’d forgotten existed. Okay, so the Genesis parallels are blindingly obvious (Peter Gabriel was even formerly a member of a band named with the title of that very book). What’s wrong is that there’s no Satan in the Bible’s first book. I give Katharine Trendacosta credit—she discounts the connection of fat, immobile future humans and paradise. The idea that the snake of Genesis is Satan, however, is about as biblical as original sin.

Genesis never calls the snake Satan. It doesn’t mention original sin. In fact, many (Christians, especially) don’t realize the event isn’t called “the fall” in the Hebrew Bible at all. The gaining of knowledge by the first human beings is painful yes, but can be a good thing. Some Jewish interpretations of Genesis 3 suggest precisely that. The story goes that Eve and Adam were living, stupidly, in the garden. The snake points out that the fruit will make them wise—and it does. They do not immediately die as God said they would. Instead they lose a blissful ignorance and have to grow up. The serpent is never said to be the Devil until the very last book of the Christian revisionist scripture, Revelation. Sometimes a snake is just a snake. That’s the way it is in the book of Genesis.

Christian interpretation, however, took over the story of humanity’s awakening and made it into the fall into sin and evil. Things have been so bad ever since than that we have to elect Trump to start a war that’ll end it all. That’s Christian revisionism writ large. Read Genesis again. Slowly. The snake is not said to be Satan. “The fall” isn’t sinful. In fact, the word “sin” doesn’t occur until the story of Cain and Abel in the next chapter. So, is EVE inspired by Satan to end the paradise of the Axiom, unaware of its true origins? Only in a revisionist history of the Bible. The idea existed long before io9, and, according to Genesis, it was wrong even then.