Gravity Is A Film About Prayer

There are many spoilers in this piece. If you want to skip it, here’s a link to the most recent entry on this blog and here’s a relevant video. Now vamoosh!

Gravity

My Main Claim

Gravity is fundamentally a movie about prayer.

What it postulates is to be human is to pray.

We see this most clearly in the film’s final word of dialogue, where Sandra Bullock has managed to somehow escape the clutches of the vast abyss of airless space and lands in a lake of water, almost drowns, and finally manages to crawl on to the sand of the beach in an unknown location (Isle of Skye maybe?) on the planet she calls home. Her words are, to nobody, to everybody, to God: “Thank you.”

To understand this, we have to go back to the decisive scene where the plot hinges.

There we find Sandra Bullock’s character giving up the will to live. She is lost in space. She thinks she finally has located a radio frequency that will put her in touch with Chinese astronauts. In fact, all she has achieved is to contact an amateur AM radio enthusiast somewhere inside the Arctic Circle. He believes her name is “Mayday”. He has absolutely no English. They have no means to communicate with each other.

In the background she can hear his dogs barking and howling. This sound, this creaturely sound of home evokes a profound emotional reaction in Dr. Ryan Stone. She longs to hear the dogs bark again. Then she mimics her radio operating friend, in his mimicking of a wolf’s cry. She is lost from her pack, her tribe, her clan, her species, her home. It is a picture of what it means to be a human being. We are somewhere between the other animals who are creatures – wolves, dogs – and God the Creator.

Dr. Stone floats in this unimaginably simple and yet complex space. In this, she is representing all humans, even as she is separated from them so profoundly that she cries for her “pack”, certain she’ll never be reunited with them again.

Why I Think My Claim Is Right
We found out earlier in the film that her daughter died at the age of four. In her soliloquy, overheard but uncomprehended by her AM radio friend, she speculates that they may be soon reunited. She will die. Nobody will mourn her. Nobody will pray for her soul. She can’t even pray for her own soul because nobody ever taught her.

“Nobody ever taught me how to pray.” she says. And tears fall from her eyes and float out into her capsule’s cabin.

And right at this moment she hears across the radio, the sounds of a baby crying in a shack in northern Mongolia or Alaska.

If Christianity is true, then the most basic cry of humans is the cry of birth and that means that is a cry that God himself has made. Jesus’ first prayer was his birth cry.

If Jesus is God, then even the wailing of a child is sacred.

If the Kingdom of God has come amongst us, a teardrop can be a more potent prayer than all the words of priests, sages and gurus.

Is It That Simple?

Not really, no.

This scene is the narratival and theological heart of the film but what happens next complicates things.

She hallucinates the return of George Clooney’s character, Matt Kalowski, who sacrificed himself to give her an opportunity to live. In this vision, she is inspired with an idea that will ultimately lead to her salvation.

What began as a simple pious presentation on screen of the fundamental human truth that we long to cry out for home now gets much more complicated. This is an effects-driven, CGI-heavy space movie. I don’t want you to think I’m arguing this is some elaborate philosophical thesis projected in the local Cineworld. For that, we have to wait a while for the next Terence Malick film.

But this prayer, followed by hallucination of a miracle is, I think, a serious step into depth on behalf of the film-makers. Let me be so bold as to suggest that the father and son team who directed and wrote this film are doing something very subtle and interesting here. What we have is a dramatic depiction of situation that the Christian finds herself in after Feuerbach.

Bear with me and I’ll try to explain.

Feuerbach was a friend of Marx, a German intellectual in the middle 1800s who developed a vicious and penetrating critique of modern Christianity. He looked at the comfortable Lutheran church of his day and saw nothing but self satisfied contentment dressed up in supernatural mumbo-jumbo.

He said Christianity is a collective hallucination. In Christianity, society projects all its internal abilities and potential on to a figment character, a charismatic phantom, God.

Now think back to Gravity.

She hallucinates. She projects all her own internal abilities and potential on to this figment character, this charismatic phantom, Matt.

He doesn’t exist.

The director, Alfonso Cuarón, has taken us to the edge of a profound picture of prayer. But where does this picture take us? To a stress induced delusion. He has subverted the religious scene we have just witnessed and shown it all to be wish fulfillment.

He is unwilling to make a pious film about how a general religiosity binds us together in some comfortable sentimental ease. The arrival of George Clooney’s character is an answer to prayer that destroys the credibility of prayer. Cuarón knows Feuerbach. He knows that religious belief is now as much about religious doubt as faith. Nothing can be simple for us anymore, if it ever was. The “miracle” is a figment of her own self-conscious. Dr. Stone is in the quagmire of faith after Feuerbach and Darwin, Nietzsche and the wars of the 20th Century.

But that is not where Cuarón intends us to stay. He won’t leave us there. Perhaps the God that we are calling out to is nothing but a product of our sub-conscious.

Perhaps.

So Is It About Prayer, Or What?

Perhaps it is all a figment.

But, the vision tells the truth. From a psychologist’s perspective, Dr. Stone’s subjective experience has absolutely no referent. And yet it points towards the one thing that leads her home. And so Cuarón manages to undo Feuerbach and all the doubt and second guessing that Christians have inhabited since the 1840s by out-Feuerbach-ing Feuerbach.

Everything that Feuerbach says might be true of particular and general Christianities. It is wish fulfillment. It is corporate projection. That may well be true on the psychological level AND STILL God may be real. AND STILL, God intervenes.

The reason why that argument is sustained is that when she does finally make it to the Chinese space station, the Orthodox icon that sat above the dashboard of the Soyuz capsule is now replaced by a small dollar-store statue of a smiling Buddha. The different Feuerbachian expressions of religiosity that human culture has created may be referring to a shared human desire for the world to be charged with the grace of a supreme deity and yet nonetheless obtusely point us towards the gracious and supreme deity who is real.

Conclusion: Why I’m Sure I’m Right
Maybe I’m reading too much into this movie. I suspect that since we are dealing with the man who made Children of Men, that is not the case.

But here’s why I think my interpretation is in the right direction:

Dr. Stone is this titanic figure of human stamina and ingenuity. She refuses to give up. She yearns to live on. But when she finally arrives at her moment of salvation she issues this prayer of gratitude.

That “Thank you” reconfigures everything that has happened on the three different space-stations. It must be understood as a journey through Feuerbachian doubt and out the other end. It is at this point, at the creaturely point where the human is back on terra firma, that she stands up for the first time in the entire movie.

Remember how she stands after struggle? She has been lost in space, where life cannot exist. This experience has enfeebled her. She stumbles and then she stands. Her standing is pierced by weakness. This is a Christian anthropology, a reflection of the Imago-Dei. Human beings are lost in the complex and simple space between creature and Creator. Our lostness is experienced as alienation. Our suffering sighs are often our most eloquent prayers. But only when we understand ourselves as recipients of a gift, subjects of generosity, captive to gratitude, can we we ever hope to find land upon which to stand.

Of course, I’m also convinced because they made a companion piece shot from the perspective of the Inuit and with his talk of sacrifice and his depiction of human life in community even in the harshest of terrains, it sort of seals the deal.

Nobody can teach you how to pray. Prayer is the breath of God, returning whence it came.

Your Correspondent, He defies gravity.

Long One Quote Review: Living Dolls by Natasha Walter

I spent an afternoon this week helping the wife of a classmate get set up ahead of their move into their new Aberdonian home. I was her chauffeur as she bounced around the city doing essential errands. To pass my time and to assure her that she wasn’t to feel rushed, I thought I’d bring along one of the books I was reading.

I chose to bring my Kindle because the books I was actively reading had the kind of front covers that don’t scream “Normal man sitting outside an upholstery shop” but “Uh… I think I’ll walk the long way around to avoid that man reading from what appears to either be a lurid piece of trashy erotica or an insane Catholic apocalyptic conspiracy text.”

Before I left the house, I had visions of the time I waited in the car park outside a post office while Wife-unit sent some care package somewhere. We had been re-listening to the utterly hilarious Stephen Colbert masterpiece “I Am America. And So Can You!” I found myself buckled over in the driver’s seat in a state of uncontrollable mirth as Colbert unfurled his insane satire of anti-gay marriage advocates. What I had not realised was that the windows were wide open on a hot summer day. Hence, the angry looks of dismay I received from one mother as she simultaneously looked back in scorn at me while protectively ferrying her children as far from my car as possible. Who could blame her? She had just heard Colbert’s preposterously pitch-perfect voice intone:

The biggest threat facing America today – next to socialized medicine, the Dyson vacuum cleaner, and the recumbent bicycle – is Gay Marriage.

So to avoid being the subject of car park suspicion, I left these two behind.

Book covers

As it turns out, the top book is about architecture, war and cultural memory and it was given to me by my best friend. The bottom book is about the objectification of women and it was lent to me by my wife.

I finished Living Dolls this morning and it is superb. It probably says something about the undeveloped and shallow nature of my feminism that I much prefer these journalistic accounts of the situation as it stands in society rather than intellectually creative theory.

The book has two parts. The first half of the book details what the author, Natasha Walter, describes as “The New Sexism”. This is a re-treading of a story that Christians are very familiar with. There has been a coarsening of our culture around sex, lust and embodiment that is detrimental to the opportunities afforded to women. This part of the book could be read as a companion piece to Ariel Levy’s compelling Female Chauvinist Pigs. Walter begins with the apparently superficial observation that a grand marketing push is behind the pinkization of the world in which young girls grow up. But she then considers how the roseate effect has an unhappy influence on adolescent and young adult women. In the 1970s Barbie was commonly marketed as a lab-based scientist or an astronaut or an anthropologist in the field. Today, Barbie, like the Bratz, is exclusively a pretty thing who owns high fashion, customised pets and convertibles.

So in this section Walter considers the remarkably narrow beauty obsession, the normalisation of sex work, the prevalence of emotionally denuded attitudes to sex and most convincingly, the corrosive effects of internet pornography to argue that women coming of age today are in many ways less free than their counterparts a generation ago.

One of the great things about this section is how open it is to voices different from her own. She welcomes the input of the fairly conservative Romance Academy while also constantly reminding the reader that there is some merit to the argument that sex work can be an act of emancipatory empowerment for some women. This is not at anti-pleasure shadow of second-wave feminism.

What also struck me is just how dangerous the world is for women who enter into the sex trade. Regardless of why they get involved, they are about six times more likely to be subject to violence than women in wider society. The preacher in me was hungry for a chance to read 1 Peter and preach to congregations about how this is a Gospel issue Christians must continue to work on. It is easy for us to get agitated about the plight of women who have been trafficked. Of course, that work is important and needs to be supported. But the ongoing extension of grace and comfort to the more “ordinary” women in this line of work is essential.

She concludes this section by arguing that the feminist movement has been epistemologically hijacked by the ideas of the marketplace. In less fancy terms, she thinks that women find it hard to act in a feminist fashion because they think almost exclusively in terms of capitalism. The truth of this is seen in how every action can be justified by the declaration “that is my choice” or “that is just her choice.” The Market trains us to see us as consumers building our own life story through the selection of this option over that option. Of course, this is sociological fantasy. No man is an island and no woman is left unaffected when women forego any concept of solidarity and see themselves as uninfluenced and uninfluencable agents finding their self actualisation, whether that is through glamour modelling, pole dancing or just extreme pursuits of socially constructed concepts of beauty.

Having built a case layer upon layer from the experience of a pink girls section and a blue boys section in a toyshop, in the second part of the book Walter further extends her argument about the dollification of society’s perspective of women by turning her attention to what she calls “The New Determinism”.

In the first section we are necessarily dealing with a sort of impressionistic discussion of a broad interpretation of societal trends. One could quibble and fight with any single point. But in this second section her targets are focused on a social movement of scientists with a particular narratival agenda. She name calls Steven Pinker and Susan Pinker, Simon Baron-Cohen and Helena Cronin as researchers who are pushing a particular story of what it means to be human whereby our nature is determined by our genes. Aided and abetted by a media only too happy to find “scientific proof” that will resolve the complex travesty of gender imbalance, these voices have created a widespread social sense that girls will be girls and boys will be boys. It’s just science.

But whether the half remembered research you draw on to come to these conclusions is neuroscientific experiments with infants or hormonal analysis of testosterone in the womb or the spectacularly stupid arguments about differing size of the corpus callosum, all of these arguments are stretched or outright bogus. In debunking this scientrific determinism, Walter doesn’t seek to propose a competing hypothesis. She is not a scientist. She just read the papers she found in the footnotes. In many cases, the claims were inflated interpolations that bordered on the fraudulent.

Now a digression might be apposite here. Steven Pinker and Helena Cronin are at the forefront of the new Atheism movement. They have a very strongly held philosophical position that sees natural selection as the key that unlocks all that we do not yet know. As their friend Daniel Dennett puts it, natural selection is, for them, a “universal solvent”. They take this agenda to their research. We all take our agenda to our research. But that agenda is never brought back into play when the research is presented and a media that seeks to perpetuate a certain idea of progress through science doesn’t have the time or nuance to bring it up either.

The reason this matters is because at base, the problem isn’t shoddy science. The problem is that this new determinism is, at base, anti-human. It is fatalism. It is dismissive of the role of human society and culture, the potential for change and transformation. It betrays a hallmark of heresy – it repudiates its own dogma. Natural selection is about the potential of all organisms to adapt. When misapplied in territory where it has no purchase, its effect is to deny the potential of humans to adapt.

Here is Walter, making her point:

In the eyes of those who subscribe to biological determinism, there is a good fit between the world as it is today and the innate aptitudes of men and women. There is no dissatisfaction, there is no frustration, there is no misfiring between our desires and our situations. Every aspect of inequality that we see today can be explained by the different genetic and hormonal make-up of men and women; if women earn less, if men have more power, if women do more domestic work, if men have more status, then this is simply the way that things are meant to be.

– Natasha Walter, Living Dolls, 209.

This is the best kind of feminism in that it is humanism. Walter has not just struck a blow for women but in so doing she has liberated men. The bullshit of determinism doesn’t just truncate who women can be. It offers non stop crap about men lacking empathy and being less verbal, it subjugates boys under ideas of masculinity that have no bearing on the full diversity of expression available to human beings. Autism is not extreme maleness. The princess is not the innate ambition of women.

But at the same time, Walter does not for a moment deny the biological grounding of gender. Her position is not “socially constructed”. Her position is not “biologically determined”. Her position is not even “nature AND nurture”. These are all models that are insufficiently adaptable to account for human beings. Instead, her intention is to encourage us to cultivate in our society the opportunity for full human flourishing. As she ends the book:

Because the dream that feminists first spoke about over two hundred years ago is still urging us on, the dream that one day women and men will be able to work and love side by side, freely, without the constraints of restrictive traditions. This dream tells us that rather than modelling themselves on the plastic charm of a pink and smiling doll, women can aim to realise their full human potential.

– Walter, 238.

That vision must still excite us and command our attention.

Your Correspondent, Just a puppet, like Roland Rat or the Queen

Film Review: The Way Way Back

We can now declare that the three best films of the year deal with friendship between men. First there was the tragic Elefante Blanco. Then there was the haunting Mud. Now we have the simply charming The Way Way Back.

Sam Rockwell cements his place as the most under-rated actor going. Here he plays a character that manages a water park but also manages to be the greatest youth pastor in history, taking care of the troubled and lonely 14 year old Duncan.

That’s all you need to know. It is charming. It has Sam Rockwell. It is about a man who is a friend to a boy on the edge of manhood.

Also, while we’re at it, it has a terrifyingly convincing turn from Steve Carell and Allison Janney is even better than you are used to expecting from her. The plot is simple and uncontrived. The dialogue sparkles. It is a lovely film. Catch it in the cinema with friends before it leaves.

Your Correspondent, Wants to be a friend to all the 3s of the world.

Book Review: Mornings in Jenin

On the evening of September 12th 2001, I sat in my living room watching, like the rest of the world, the footage that would come to define the geopolitics of my adulthood. I said something too casual and too careless, like, “What can they expect, when they stride around the world pretending to be masters of the universe?”

My mother, sitting in the chair by the door to the kitchen, where she always sits, responded instantly and with unusual insistence, “I cannot understand this viewpoint I keep hearing! What has happened in America is criminal and nothing else. It is savagery! Nothing can justify it. No one deserves it.”

Through my life, reprimands from my mother have been rare and so they weigh heavy. But on that evening, the broad humanism and refusal to trade in the logic of violence that she role-modelled had a lasting impact.

After helping my wife and I move to Scotland, my mom and dad headed off on a short excursion through the Highlands, a long way round back to the ferry home. My mom left a novel for me to read. She had gotten it because it was a book-club choice. Mornings in Jenin is not a book I would buy. Sure, no one judges a book by its cover but this cover needs to be judged, a photoshopped monstrosity of a vaguely Arab little girl peeking out behind a worn-wooden door.

But I practically read it in one sitting. It made me cry constantly. Like every book that makes me cry constantly, I suspect it of not being very good. I think that if I re-read it, I will see through its manipulation. That is of course, a helpful suspicion to harbour because it closes off the possibility of me re-reading it and it affecting me just as hard a second time.

It is written by a Palestinian American, Susan Abulhawa and it tells the purely fictional tale of a family of Palestinian olive farmers who are first dispossessed in 1948 by Jewish settlers, then devastated in the 1967 war and then slowly tortured by the destiny of being refugees without protection or hope over decades in Jenin. The fiction is realistic however. And it’s great success is in rooting out the stereotypes about “terrorists” by unfolding the commitments and losses and loves and longings that lead a person to raise up arms against his oppressor.

As the chapters passed, I did find myself falling into that dreadful bogeyman of the half-educated and wanting to hear “the other side” as well. It might just speak to prejudices unearthed in me, but I suspect this is more as a result of the pervasive and generations-long attempt in my native culture to cast Islam and Muslims as outside the pale of civilization. The Jews of Israel are practically Europeans. The Muslims of Palestine are not. The Christians of Palestine are forgotten, most especially by their brothers and sisters in Christ.

I call it a dreadful bogeyman because there is no “other side” to the story. There is no plot being unfolded with purpose and narrative when peoples harbour age-old resentments and injustices and express them in violence so ungodly that with each passing page I wanted to close the book and turn to prayer. Humans are story-telling animals but some of the stories we tell are misguided, ungrounded and dangerous. You will likely gladly agree that the story about the Promised Land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob taking the form of the secular state of Israel is one such story. You likely also agree, in the staunchest terms, that the story about Arabs needing to extinguish the Jewish race from the entire region also fits this bill. These are misguided, ungrounded and dangerous stories. But other people tell them, not us.

Yet the story that there are always two sides to any conflict and that reason and analysis can resolve such disputes is one of the misguided, ungrounded and dangerous stories we tell ourselves. It is one of the most long-lasting of our “Enlightenment” fables. We imagine that there is a logic to violence that we can make sense of. Al Quaeda tries to destroy Manhattan because America has bases all over the Middle East. America has bases all over the Middle East because the Soviet Union lay threateningly to the north. The Soviet Union needed to stand belligerently to the West because of how the White Armies invaded immediately after their glorious revolution. And on and and on and on back to Cain and Abel. The human biographies that create the contexts for ongoing violence are obscured by such abstract conceptions of history, the myth of Force A exerting itself on Force B who exerts and equal yet opposite force in return. There are not two sides to any conflict. There are as many sides as there are people involved and if you are old-fashioned like me and belive in human subjectivity and God’s sovereignty, then there is one more side too, the truth.

Mornings in Jenin might be propaganda, and it might be sentimental manipulation, and it might be guilty of a whole host of accusations critics can throw at it. But it weaves a human narrative around the inhuman violence of the Shabila massacre. That is a notable thing. It sets the history of a conflict not in objective terms but as a story about a family trying to do basic human things like raise babies, pass on wisdom and keep their word. It refuses to say the conflict is about “land” or “politics” or even “religion” since none of those things actually exist. The rose garden on the hill above Ein Hod exists. When we call that “land” we are telling a story as fictional as this novel, but more dangerous because we don’t notice the invention.

That September evening back in 2001, as we consumed unholy images that corrupted us by exhilarating us, my mom was on to something. If only Dubya had dropped in for a cup of tea. There is no logic to murder. It is the least logical thing in the world. The demonic (and I mean that most fully, literally, figuratively, all the meanings that the word holds) force of violence traps us by convincing us that our freedom is a prison. God knows the way to respond to murder and torture and military power is with empathy, prayer and a renewed hunger for peace. There is freedom in that response, that we forsake when we imagine that now They have done This to Us, the only option left is for Us to do This to Them.

Mornings in Jenin gave me a fresh insight into the prolonged injustices that the Palestinians endure. Mornings in Jenin made me fear for the future of Israel because it has stored up a hurricane of anger against it that if released, no nation could endure. Mornings in Jenin made me suspect that when the Torah speaks of sin casting a shadow over generations, it is a more realistic account of life in this world than the destructive stories of national self-interest and geopolitical ideology with which we choose to furnish our minds. I suppose when a book makes one think in so many directions and prompts one to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, the only thing you can say of it is that it is a good book.

Your Correspondent, Wonders why hedgehogs can’t just share the shrubbery.

Some Thoughts After Man of Steel

According to the trustworthy Declan Kelly, a PR firm is selling the new Superman movie as a sermon aid. I think his analysis is typically spot-on:

That a company like this exists is just further proof that western Christians are blind and numb to the ways that we try to serve both God and mammon.

After watching Man of Steel I am struck by a couple of thoughts.

Firstly, the only believable thing in the film is that Amy Adams was wonderful enough to convince a man to betray his entire species (or as the movie puts it “race”) to shack up with humanity.

Secondly, Amy Adams has the nicest voice of any voices in Hollywood.

Thirdly, I realise I am attracted to women in a large part based on how lovely their voices are.

Also, the evil Kryptonians are, allegedly, bound to win because they have “evolved beyond morality” or some such guff. But then they get morally offended when Superman/Man of Steel/Ka’al does the wrong thing in their eyes.

Evil alien lady says “Evolution always wins!” Evil alien lady loses. Is Intelligent Design a movement so insidious as to forsake academic journals and embrace instead comic-book movies?

The aliens are fascists, and there is allusion to them being religious fundamentalists (“Heretic!” shouts Zod at the beginning). The film ends with what was intended to be a charming scene where a man destroys a drone with force so as to better protect his interests, all the while asserting his credentials as a loyal citizen of the United States of America. Don’t worry though. Fascism, a militarised nationalism that over-awes the political through force is something that just happens in cartoon villains.

The film ends and you are sort of glad you went to see it. Then it turns out the film isn’t over. There is an extended twenty five minute trailer for the computer game version of the movie. This CGI extravaganza is the most egregious case of ninja-ballet since the Matrix sequels. Utterly impressive from a technological perspective but not only boring, alienating, from a narratival perspective.

By the way, Ninja-ballet is when movie makers put you through an intensive and extensive scene of fighting, choreographed perfectly by the cold, precise and inhuman efficiency of a computer graphics package. It is how all bad superhero movies end.

The ninja-ballet goes on for what feels like 3 hours and 50 minutes before the staff in the Daily Planet decide to leave the building. They are the dumbest and bravest people on Earth.

A good sequel would have no footage of Superman. It would just follow the lives of the bricklayers and welders who have to rebuild the destroyed Metropolis and mourn for their dead.

As every wag has surely pointed out already, it is unlikely that people in a major news office would first find out about the alien onslaught happening right outside their windows by congregating under a shared television. It is, admittedly, more likely than Clark Kent getting a job as a reporter.

Zod’s first broadcast to Earth dominates the television and radio feeds. “He’s also jamming RSS” says one unnamed person. Weeks before they shutter Reader, Google should take this as a warning, right?

Compared to the Avengers, the fatal flaw of Superm… I mean Man of Steel is a deep lack of humour. It is such a serious film, which is a serious problem when your material is so foundationally, fecking ontologically, unserious. The jokes are there, but bring no relief. Instead we find ourselves laughing at the po-faced scene chewing of Michael Shannon. Shannon is one of the great actors of our day. But he may be under the misapprehension that sincerity is the only way to dignify. Apart from Downey Jr., none of the Avengers could hold a candle to him, acting-wise. But Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson know they are making a movie that is meant to be fun.

Back to the PR firm selling this movie to Christian pastors: there is a scene with a priest. The priest says “What does your gut tell you?” That this is a believable line is another demonstration of the western Church’s capitulation to the apostasy of the age. Our guts, as Nick Hornby says, have shit for brains. Christians don’t respond to gut feeling. They keep in step with the Spirit. That this is seen more as a hunch, a vibe, an intuition or a gut-feeling than the disciplined path following the way the Master has walked demonstrates that pastors using bad movies to prop up sermons is not the core of our problem.

Finally, this film does not feature a type of Christ. It is instead the resurrection of Pelagius. One imagines that the grace of God is so wide that Pelagius will indeed enjoy resurrection and he will be all the more fun to hang out with in heaven because grace will mean all that more to him. To try and raise him ahead of that bright morning, in the form of a moral example that might teach humankind the right way, is not only bad and boring filmmaking, its theologically horrendous.

All in all, a two-star movie, which is an achievement when we remember what kind of movies Snyder has previously made.

Your Correspondent, Listen to the sound of his voice; it is an island that warns you off this movie

One Line Review: The Great Gatsby

While this movie stretches the traditional definition of what a film is and it betrays a drunk disregard to the beauty of the material, it does conclusively prove that our pop music is as good as the stuff that they came up with back in the 1920s.

Your Correspondent, He is simultaneously, the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.

One Quote Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

First: the sheer scope of this book, in hardback, makes an eloquent appeal for that blasted Kindle-like technology. If someone could produce one with firmware, software and a licensing approach that actually allowed people to confidently develop their libraries, it would be wonderful. This is a big, bulky book with evidence of rushed copy-editing all over the place. It is a book for bedtime reading and its actual presence as a thing mitigates against reading in that context. An ebook I could trust would be a vast improvement.

Even if the book is uncomfortable as an artefact, it reads comfortably. It starts slow and climbs sluggishly over the sense that there is not a single sympathetic character on display. But once it gets over that hill, the story gains traction and it becomes compulsive.

Saying that a book is a great story is not a backhanded compliment. This is intricately worked out. For sure, the characters are sometimes pawns to move the plot around. Worse again, they are pawns shaped to reflect social issues but underneath all the layers of shared human meaning that makes a thing like a novel possible, fundamentally we want to hear stories. The woman who made wizards interesting again makes parish politics interesting. And as social issues go, at least she seems to be suggesting that people should be more careful and patient.

There are some lovely paragraphs that stand out. This one seemed to describe the stretched but rapid hours after death quite brilliantly:

Two mornings after her husband’s death, Mary Fairbrother woke at five o’clock. She had slept in the marital bed with her twelve-year-old, Declan, who had crawled in, sobbing, shortly after midnight. He was sound asleep now, so Mary crept out of the room and went down into the kitchen to cry more freely. Every hour that passed added to her grief, because it bore her further away from the living man, and because it was a tiny foretaste of the eternity she would have to spend without him. Again and again she found herself forgetting, for the space of a heartbeat, that he was gone for ever and that she could not turn to him for comfort.

J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy, p. 63

Your Correspondent, Democracy is fantastic but it is also dull.

One Quote Review: Exit/Entrance by Aidan Mathews

WordPress won’t allow me to format quotes of dialogue from a play so instead allow me to present the relevant quote in an image:

Aidan Mathews dialogue

Aidan Mathews, Exit/Entrance, p. 53. Itallics added.

The play Exit/Entrance was first performed in 1988. I have no idea when it was last performed. It is a play about love and marriage and hope and regret and death. And Hesiod. I wish I could see it live but until contemporary Irish culture wakes up to how simply terrific Aidan Mathews writing is, it is unlikely. Hauerwas’ First Law is: “You never marry the right person.” This interchange between Charles and Helen is a dramatic depiction of the truth of that law. It comes towards the end of the play, which is towards the start of their life together. It is wonderful. Marriage may be, depending on who you listen to (I don’t quite agree), a sacrament; an expression of God’s grace in time and space and material form. It is a heavenly thing, perhaps. But because of that (not in spite of that) it must be an earthly thing made on the ground upon which we stand and from the ground upon which we stand.

Your Correspondent, His favourite exercises are woodworking and sex

Film Review: White Elephant

1.
Right here in the prologue, let me give you my verdict:

This is a film you should track down and watch.

Especially if you are one of the very many Christians who read this blog: please, track down this movie, put your phone away, close over the laptop, draw the curtains, exile distraction and watch this film.

In the rest of what follows, spoilers (if such a term applies) will be shared so come back to read this after watching the film, if you’re the kind of person who thinks movies are ruined by being able to tell what comes next.
2.
In our age, films involving priests as primary characters are rarely satisfying. They are sometimes very good but they usually involve two key character dynamics and one major over-riding point. The character tensions are: how hard it is for a principled individual to work under a hierarchy and how impossible it is to commit to celibacy. The major over-riding point of films involving priests tends to be anti-clerical. Priests are bad and worse, priesthood itself is bad.

3.
In White Elephant you have the character tensions but you do not have the major over-riding point. This places it in a rare group of movies which includes the greatest film I’ve ever seen about vocation, Of Gods And Men, and the recently over-looked Malick movie, To The Wonder. White Elephant tells the story of two dear friends who happen to be priests. The older friend has brought the younger friend, recovering from injuries sustained in a largely undiscussed massacre in the Amazon where a colleague was martyred, to work with him in a massive Argentinian slum, based around the carcass of an unfinished, half constructed super hospital.

4.
The film depicts three communities, interwoven together, overlapping and inter-penetrating. At the heart of the film is the community of priests, centred around Fr. Julian. It includes a volunteer named Cruz who teaches the boys of the favela practical skills, and a driven, compassionate social worker, Luciana, who is played brilliantly by Martina Gusman. These are people of faith* who are possessed by a missional purpose. They want to see the young people of the slum rise out of it. They want to see the dignity of the older people in the slum restored. They want to be enemies of no one. They pray together and they eat together. This is a rare, unflinching look at Christian ministry in community.

The second community the film records is the slum itself, the district of Villa Virgin. The depiction of the city is neither tuned to evoke a sentimental response nor used as a menacing piece of exotica. It is what it is – the result of human beings living close together. There are good things and bad things quite independent of the horrendous decay.

We might called the third community the “Enemies”, although the point of Fr. Julian and Fr. Nicholas’ work is that the people we want to blame must instead be embraced. So the State in the form of an obstructionist city council and a brutal police force are included in this number, as are the two rival drug gangs that vie for control of the district. The plot of the film is nothing more than the interaction of the three main character, Fr. Julian, Fr. Nichols and Luciana, with the different communities that make up Villa Virgin.

* The notes on the film from the Cannes Festival last year describe Luciana as an atheist. Unless I passed out at some point, this is never suggested in the film. In fact, prominently placed above her desk in her office is an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. One might speculate that this shines light on what faith means in a secular age. Many jump to a conclusion that because a character doesn’t appear in scenes where “devotion” occurs, we imagine that they must be irreligious. The underlying idea revealed in this assumption is that religious faith is a gloss that sits on top of a more primal, universally shared idea of what it means to be a human. Unless I missed some explicit signal somewhere, the reviewers** who have come to this “Luciana is atheist” conclusion are reading stuff into the film that isn’t actually there in a way that allows us to read out of their reviews a lot about the hidden assumptions of our age.

** One could further speculate that the critical dullness elicited by To The Wonder is also at work in responses to White Elephant. An idea of faith as a set of outmoded metaphysical commitments that some people have and that might possibly be of social benefit in some settings can be found again and again (good example here). This is a serious journalistic deficit. Imagine how crippled a film reviewer would be if they believed politics was nothing more than elections?

5.
The film does fall into the trap of nodding towards the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church as an obstacle to the ministry being carried out. However, this nod is restrained. Fr. Julian and his team seek to work under the authority of their bishop. This is at times frustrating. The depiction of hierarchy is still negative, but it is viewed realistically.

6.
The film also falls into the trap of depicting celibacy as almost impossible. This is a pity. But the way that it is done is wonderful, if just taken for what it is. Fr. Nicholas doesn’t fall out of celibacy because celibacy is a horrendous burden, but because friendship is desirable. The sex scene and subsequent relationship scenes that ensue are actually profoundly touching because what is communicated is the hunger for the other, not in some tacky counterfeit idea of a physical urge that can’t be resisted but in the sense of an attraction to the beauty of the other self. Falling out of celibacy is not a torturous existential crisis so much as a thing that happens because he loves his friend and desires her and she him. It is not a deficit in the path he is walking but a surplus in her beauty that possesses him. The falling out of celibacy creates internal contradictions but it doesn’t destroy his vocation.

7.
The reason why I want my Christian friends to watch this film is threefold. Firstly, it is a very good, gripping, thought provoking drama. It is superbly acted, it is restrained, it is interesting. These are rare and good things.

8.
Secondly, the film is an informed attempt to show us what it means to do Kingdom of God work embedded in a community. The protagonists are embedded in their community of faith but they live and dress and speak like the community that makes up the favela. Christians mis-use the word incarnational when they are describing this kind of work. What White Elephant offers us is a depiction of what this kind of community based ministry should look like. It is representational, not incarnational. Worship and mission and social justice work are not segmented. It is integrated. This film manages to do all this without being in any way propagandistic.

9.
Thirdly, the film shows us what our right stance should be towards politics, power and the State. We do not resist the State, any more than we seek to resist the drug dealers. We neither want the State overturned nor see that as our job, regardless of how unjust it is. Equally, we neither want the drug dealers extinguished nor see that as our job, in spite of the damage they inflict. Rather we witness to the State that we are citizens of a different Kingdom. The Argentine flag is a recurring motif in the film. Everyone except Fr. Nicholas is Argentinian and his Belgian origin is much discussed because to be foreign is to be strange. But the Christians in this film demonstrate in their words and their deeds that they are holding the State we call Argentina to account by the standards of the in-breaking Kingdom of God, which is their true home and the entity to which they owe allegiance. If that higher allegiance means they must shelter those that the law of the land deem criminal, then so be it. If that higher allegiance means that they must seek to restrain violence against the State even when they wish they could lash out, then so be it. If that higher allegiance calls them to martyrdom, then so be it.

10.
Final point: The soundtrack kicks in with some stirring stuff at important moments.

Your Correspondent, A cool name for his dog would be “Bark Obama”