Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Movies (Page 2 of 2)

The Way of meaning

My wife and I saw the movie The Way last night. It’s a wonderful story that portrays the unbreakable fatherly love of Tom (Martin Sheen) for his estranged and just deceased son, Daniel. In learning that his son has just been killed on his first day on the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James) in France, Tom travels over to collect Daniel’s body. While there though, he is suddenly hit by the magnitude of his loss and decides to make the trek himself that his son had set out to do.

This is a story of redemption and the search for meaning. Richard Rohr says that the soul can live without success but it cannot live without meaning. This is something I have been thinking about a bit recently. If we spend our lives dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, or money, or status, we will be forever coming up short. We will remain in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction and never be happy, or else we will become satisfied with a life of mediocrity and never reach the potential we all have.

As Tom goes on his journey he comes across some characters that he would never choose to have as friends in his cosy Californian lifestyle back home. There is Joost from Amsterdam, Sarah from Canada, and the stereotypically Irishman, Jack. What we don’t see so much of in this story is the change in these latter three characters, but we see it in spades in Tom. Older than the others, he gradually thaws from a frozen, aloof and even arrogant man to learning to enjoy the company and care of his three new travelling companions. His journey reveals that he is not only deeply affected by the loss of his son, but also by the love and warmth of these three strangers in his midst.

Meaning is something we all strive for, whether we realise it or not. Most of the time though, we are so satiated by the entertainment saturation of our culture that we don’t recognise the void within our souls. Walter Brueggemann explains this eloquently in his book The Prophetic Imagination. It is often only when we are confronted with the type of terrible loss that Tom is faced with that we see our need for change. As Tom continues on his pilgrimage, the frown on his face softens, and he learns to get into life and smile more often. The real change though comes after an encounter with a gypsy family, one of whom runs off with Tom’s backpack (which contains the ashes of his son). The much-maligned gypsies, defined stereotypically by theft and deceit, show Tom what community and relationship is about. In one revealing conversation between Tom and the father of the boy who stole Tom’s pack, the father explains that up to 2,000 people attend gyspy weddings. Surprised, Tom points out that they couldn’t all be close family or friends. He is shocked however when the father explains to him that they are indeed all close. These gypsies know what community is all about.

As Tom continues on the way, he is occasionally struck with images of his deceased son, and reminded of the admonition his son once gave to him, that you don’t choose a life, you live it. We only get one chance at this thing called life; this is not a dress rehearsal. We are thrown into it at birth and expected to make the best of it, hopefully with all the love and support we need. As my wife pointed out to me, choosing our life is a very Western idea. Most people in the world don’t get to choose their life, and many don’t even get to live it. But our attitudes towards life are something that no one can take from us. It is amazing what those who have been through the most immense suffering can teach us in the West about how to live our lives. I think of people like Viktor Frankl, stuck for years in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. Frankl of course didn’t choose that life, but he has much to say to us about it , especially in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

One of my greatest fears in life is that I will end up like Tom’s three new friends at the end of The Way. In the end, they didn’t change. Joost decided he wasn’t going to lose weight after all, Sarah was never going to give up her cancer sticks, and Jack seems to remain stuck in his mediocre life. We are too comfortable here. Australia is the second most wealthy country in the world, yet we seem to have the least in terms of meaning to our lives. Many would dispute this of course, as many find their meaning in their devotion to daily and friends. But beneath all of that we are sold the lie that life is found in more stuff. Advertisers deliberately create a dissatisfaction within us by telling us that we will never be happy until we buy their products. So we walk through life perpetually unhappy and comparing ourselves to others. The sin of covetousness is alive and well in 21st century Australia. That is not an indictment on the Australian public, but I think of Jesus’ warning: “woe to those who cause others to sin.” Advertisers, hear the warning.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIsU5H7dBCM&feature=player_embedded

The human soul cannot function without something to live for. And as John Mellencamp sang so many years ago, if we don’t stand for something, we’ll fall for anything. Our life needs to mean something, and if we are constantly entertained, if we constantly live for the weekends or for the next holiday (as legitimate as these are in themselves), we will remain forever dissatisfied. For real change to take place, we need to be aware of the dissatisfaction in our souls with the way things are. We also need to have a vision for a better alternative, and to have people around us who are yearning for the same thing. This is what Jesus meant when he said that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions” (Mark 10:29-30). Contrary to what prosperity ‘gospel’ preachers may say, this passage is not at all about Jesus saying that we will gain a fortune in houses for ourselves when we follow Jesus. That is a purely individualistic way of looking at it. Jesus was talking about community. When we follow him, we gain the hospitality of other pilgrims on the way, as the first Christians showed.

Tom found meaning on The Way of St James (interestingly, it is James who has the most dire warnings to those who want to be rich in the early church). He began to know again what life was about. He could relate to the God of Jesus in knowing what it was like to lose a son. His pain drove him to become a better person. He didn’t push it down or try to drown it in short-term pleasures which would only leave him more unsatisfied later on. He found a deeper magic, found the things that really matter like relationship, community, and the joys that come from sharing life and its struggles in true intimacy with others on the rough road that is often life. There is a revealing scene in another poignant movie, Up in the Air, when George Clooney’s character is trying to talk his future brother-in-law out of bailing out of his upcoming wedding. He asks his future brother-in-law to think about the fondest memories of his life, and then points out that the are always ones that were spent with others. Our fondest memories are rarely ones we experienced alone. Our best times are with loved ones, as they would be for a species like us that is wired for relationship. It just makes sense that our most enjoyable moments are the ones for which we were made.

The Way probably wasn’t the best movie I have ever seen, but it definitely had an emotional impact on me. It touched something deeper, something raw, something which we all know deep down is what we are really about. Relationship does that; it resonates with everyone. The saying certainly is true that while we can live without success, we cannot live without meaning. May I further realise that on my continuing journey on the way.

Movie Review – The Descendants

In this movie set in the beautiful islands of Hawaii, George Clooney plays brilliantly the role of Matt King, the father who could probably relate a bit to the suffering of Job. His wife has just had a boating accident, is in a coma and is about to die. He then finds out that she had been having an affair. And to top it off, the guy she was having an affair with is about to make a bucketload of cash on a property sale that King is working out with his family.

The Descendants portrays the dignified response of a man and his family who are experiencing immense suffering. Despite his impending loss and and recently exposed betrayal, King conducts himself with honour, confronting the man who was sleeping with his wife and allowing him to pay a last visit to her on her death bed. King could have punched his lights out, but he didn’t. And, regarding the property deal, in the end he allows virtue to triumph over cold hard cash by scuttling the deal through his refusal to sign the relevant documents for the sale. King chooses the right way over the more tempting and exciting profitable way. He chooses to keep the property in the family, as the family’s descendants would likely have wanted, much to the chagrin of his cousins who are gobsmacked at his seemingly irrational decision.

This movie shows that character is more important, long-lasting and satisfying than quick gains and cheap shots. King’s seventeen year old daughter, Alex, is also impressive as she follows the example of her Dad in her quickly developing maturity. She lovingly looks after her younger sister, Scottie, and helps their Dad track down the infidel who has been sleeping with his wife. Alex’s immature friend, Sid, is another one who goes through a redemption of sorts as he realises the lack of tact of some of his earlier comments – particularly to Elizabeth’s parents – and pays the price for it. Being a young man about to enter early adulthood, Sid could have chosen to remain defiant and be stubborn and do things his way. But instead he learns from his mistakes and becomes a valuable support to King and the family, to the point that King himself comes to him one night to ask his advice about how to handle his multiple life challenges.

I have been reading Proverbs recently and, as many would know, there is plenty of great advice in that marvelous book about living a life of wisdom. I remember when I read the early chapters of Proverbs as a young man myself, that I had the profound realisation that that is the type of person I want to be. The main characters in this raw and emotional movie provide a real-to-life example of living out much of the sage advice of Proverbs to young men, and indeed to people of all ages and backgrounds.

Dignity, relationship and virtue are the enduring qualities of life. They are what will ultimately win out. They are what will triumph over short-term gain, revenge, and quick riches in the end, if not in this present life. The Descendants is testament to the riches of the wisdom of Proverbs over the riches of this life, which will pass away and prove worthless in the end. Recommended.

Movie Review – The Iron Lady

There is a sense of irony in the fact that this movie, told from the point of view of an ageing, frail, and dementia-suffering former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher, is called The Iron Lady. Her frailty proves again that life catches up with everyone in the end.

Right from the beginning of her entrance into public life, Thatcher had to fight harder than the vast majority of budding politicians of her time simply because she was a woman. I wonder if this was at least part of the reason that many of her policies were so incredibly harsh. Initiatives such as trying to introduce a flat tax – where everybody, rich and poor, pay the same amount, were rightly not tolerated, not just by the workers of Great Britain, but by many in her own Conservative Party itself. It was policies such as this, borne out of her own determination that people should work hard no matter their background, that ultimately led to her political demise after eleven turbulent years as Prime Minister.

This movie about Great Britain’s first female Prime Minister – played brilliantly by Meryl Streep – tells the story of a woman who is pretty much self-made; someone who rose above societal and cultural norms of the day which said that the harsh world of politics is best left to those who are ‘stronger’ – men. It tells the story of a determined woman who would let nothing get in the way of her own ideas. Her response to the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 was portrayed in the movie as one such example of her leadership being done either her way or no way.

As the ageing Thatcher looks back on her own life, one scene takes us back to her time as a young woman when her partner, Dennis Thatcher, proposes to her. After what must have seemed like an eternal pause for Dennis, she only says yes once she makes perfectly clear that she was not going to be the type of wife who was going to stay home and do the dishes, just washing others’ cups (Dennis then explains that this was the quality that he most admired in her). She wanted to be ‘more important’ than that. In the final scene of the movie, we then see a poignant moment in which she stands at the sink washing a cup herself, finally being able to let go of the past and move on with life on her own, without her beloved deceased husband of whom she had been having regular hallucinations. And when she finally and reluctantly says goodbye to Dennis in her mind, she hears him say, “You’ll be fine on your own dear; you always have been.” And so the self-made, determined woman finally comes to grips with a sense of reality in her world.

Though not referred to in the movie, it was Thatcher who once said that there is no such thing as a society, that we are all just individuals. Such a dog-eat-dog, competition-based foundation for her ideas has shown throughout history to lead ultimately not to a happier society, but to one which is more callous and uncaring. In my opinion – and I fully understand that many will disagree – Thatcher’s policies were reminiscent of those implemented in Victoria by Jeff Kennett in the 1990s; policies which certainly improved the economy, but at the cost of ultimately producing more losers than winners, thereby defeating the purpose of having a stronger economy if less people benefit from it.

For those who lived through the times and can remember them, this movie is an important reminder of a decade of huge change in the world. There was recession, privatisation of public assets on an unprecedented scale, the constant fear of nuclear holocaust, and the eventual fall of Communism. I was only a youth when Thatcher was in charge of Great Britain, but having since learned about her ideology, I am convinced that, while her ideas at a difficult time in British history were not difficult to understand, they created a society which was more divided than united. Such a society will not survive with any harmony in the long term.

This movie of the personal story, rise to power and subsequent reminiscing of the most controversial Prime Ministers in the recent history of Great Britain shows in fine detail how the Iron Lady came to form her ideas of how she could make her country a better one. Recommended.

Movie Review – Voyage of the Dawn Treader

This third movie (but not the third story) in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia follows on from the brilliant fantasy and wonder that we saw in the previous two movies. This time only Lucy and Edmund of our four heroes are transported to the magical land of Narnia (older sister Susan plays a bit – but significant – part as well). And they are accompanied, not a little unwittingly, by their cousin Eustace, brilliantly portrayed by Will Poulter as what can only be described as a pretentious little git who is too clever to believe in ridiculous fairy tales of magical lands, witches, and half-human/half-animal creatures.

It is the story of Eustace that is perhaps the most revealing of the effect that time in Narnia, and in particular, time spent in the company of Aslan, can have on its inhabitants. For, as well as being pretentious and pompous beyond measure, the difficult cousin of Lucy and Edmund is a selfish little boy as well. Inevitably his selfishness gets the better of him and he succumbs to the lure of riches that are seemingly there for the taking. The effect of his ugly transformation after giving in to the temptation reminds me of the old saying that we become that which we worship. The ugliness of Eustace’s act turns him into the ugliest of dragons, and it is only then that he realises what a right mess he has gotten himself into.

It is interesting that our response to being found out in the way that Eustace is, is generally twofold. We can either repent and turn our lives around with the help of what 12-Steppers call a Higher Power, or we can doggedly continue on in our life of destruction, becoming less and less human on the way. Fortunately for him and his companions in Narnia, Eustace chooses the former and realises that he doesn’t want to be this way anymore. As often happens in the process of conversion though, Eustace begins to change for the better before he becomes a boy again. But it is a painful process for him, as he becomes despondent at his inability to communicate properly to the others, and at his utter powerlessness to change back to a boy on his own. It is only with the help of Aslan that he is ultimately transformed back into what he was, and better.

The power of temptation and sin to corrupt is a theme that runs strongly throughout this movie, and it is seen elsewhere when even people as good as Edmund and Caspian start to fight each other over some riches that are theirs for the taking. The viewer is quickly attuned to the transformation that overtakes the two as their lust for greed turns them from heroic leaders into selfish competitors. It only takes the sense of Lucy, the younger sister whose trust in Aslan is as strong as ever, to turn Edmund and Caspian back from their errant ways. But even Lucy feels the lure of being other than what she is, regularly fantasizing about being as beautiful as her older sister Susan.

As with the previous Narnia stories, Aslan comes across in this movie as strong, fierce, but also completely trustworthy and good. When our intrepid travelers find themselves in the trouble that they do, it is Aslan and who he is that brings them back to their right minds. And when, in another poignant scene, they come upon a table set for a feast in their journey through Narnia, they are encouragingly told that all are welcome at Aslan’s table. As well as being ultimately good, Aslan evokes a healthy fear and trust but is never one who can be mocked. Sort of reminds you of someone doesn’t it?

With Aslan in control, Narnia is a place where good reigns and those who trust in him are friendly and at peace. It is a place where courage is a virtue, and fearlessness and strength are held in the highest esteem. These attributes come from ultimate trust in Aslan and are demonstrated by the seemingly most vulnerable of children. When the storms are raging on the uncharted waters and the ship, Dawn Treader, is being tossed about like a cork, it is Lucy who, in the midst of it all, is able to soundly go to sleep with the smile of one who knows – despite the chaos all around – that all is going to be ok.

This is a movie that highlights the best and worst of human attitudes and endeavours. And it highlights once again our utter inability to change ourselves on our own, and the hope that there is someone who is ultimately good and trustworthy who will transform us into who we are meant to be. Highly recommended.

Movie Review – 'Up in the Air'

Check out my review of this latest drama-comedy starring George Clooney. A movie that reveals alot about life, love, relationships, and meaning.

Billed as one of George Clooney’s finest cinematic performances, this movie portrays the life of the ultimate corporate jetsetter. Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, whose job it is to travel around the country firing people. His company is hired by other corporations to do their dirty work of informing staff that they no longer have a position in the company they have been working for, sometimes for many years. As Bingham explains it, “we get people at their most vulnerable and then set them adrift”.

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