Everything Happens, but not ‘for a reason’

It’s possible to fill a book (and a few people have done so) with lists of things Jesus did say. Some of them are quoted so often by well-meaning Christians that they attain some kind of untouchable status. The one I’ve heard the most is ‘Everything happens for a reason’. It’s been quoted to me when I’ve been ill or sad or having a tough time; I’ve heard people who are ill or sad or having a tough time say it back to me. It’s helped me get through, they say. The idea seems to be that even if things are awful, God has secret plan for this and we’ll find out in due course.

I don’t believe that, and never have. I believe something rather different that can sound rather similar if it’s not spoken to or listened to carefully. It runs like this: God doesn’t make or cause bad, painful things to happen to us. But so good and creative is he that he’s able to recreate even what seems lost to make something better out of it. I don’t know if it’s right, but it makes sense to me.

Everything Happens

I also don’t know if Kate Bowler, the author of this book, believes that. She’s a Canadian theologian and church historian living and working in America, who has stage four cancer. As someone who has researched and written a lot about the prosperity gospel movement (the idea that God wants Christians to be happy, healthy, and wise and we can be if we just ask the right way), the idea that ‘Everything Happens For A Reason’ is something she was well used to hearing, along with several other sub-Christian truisms that just don’t work when things go wrong. Hence on the logo of the excellent podcast she hosts, the last 3 words of the main part of the title are crossed out. So it simply reads thus: ‘Everything Happens’.

Jesus didn’t promise health, wealth, success or even happiness. He asks us to take up a cross and expect to suffer. I’m writing this in Holy Week, so Jesus’ cross is even more at the forefront of my mind than ever. This books is an account of Kate Bowler’s journey with diagnosis and illness, processing the different responses she hears herself and others giving to the situation. It’s short, easy to read, and painfully, beautifully honest. You might say it’s the story of a woman taking up her own cross, and just how bloody hard that can be to do – and for those who love the one carrying it to watch.

I’ve been in pain for 20 years (Ankylosing Spondylitis), and there’s no prospect of that changing. I have depression, anxiety and PTSD. I have 2 learning disabilities. Having scoured the Bible, listened to countless talks, read a lot, prayed some, listened and been spoken at, cried a lot, considered suicide a few times and much else besides not least working as a priest for 18 years … I too have concluded that everything can and does happen to Jesus-disciple and the rest alike. The rain, cancer, depression, Ankylosing Spondylitis and mental health issues and everything else all fall on the just and the unjust alike. They don’t bother to check what you believe before invading your life; there’s rarely a reason apparent; and it’s often hard to see what beautiful something God may bring out of it. I trust that God will do that, but I may be wrong. I do know, though, that even if I am wrong God is still good, and He’s still with me and not letting me go. So when everything happens to me, as it does to Kate Bowler, and is it does to all of us, I am not alone. I am seen and accompanied and heard and held. I just wish it didn’t hurt so much in the meantime.

This books offers no answers; but it gives us a story we can find ourselves in. Which is why we all need this book, an inoculation against the seemingly appealing lies of finding a reason when there may be none to find.

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#haveseenmonday: The Long And Winding Road Less Travelled in Arrival

I didn’t realise Arrival was such a dark film. Seeing it in the cinema on release I had been so overwhelmed by the sound, the cinematography and Amy Adams’s mesmeric performance that this passed me by. I’m not talking about tone, of course; this films ends in a place of hope and invitation. I mean in light levels. Most – or all? – of the exterior scenes of the film take place in shadows, or with the sun evidently just one side of the horizon or the other. Interiors are low lit also; I notice two exceptions – the spotlight shone from a helicopter in to Amy Adams’s face when Forest Whitaker returns to pick her up in the early stages of the story, the second towards the film’s end, when the whole screen is bathed in white smoke as one character goes behind the screen that had separated people from the alien visitors up to that point. It all points to a person – and a human race – living in the half-light of partial understanding; unaware that there’s a light that can be turned on until someone (or something else) does it instead.

In many respects Arrival tells a familiar story of alien first contact with earth, and tells it as a thoughtful drama rather than an action spectacular. Like many science-fiction stories, this is one concerned with how we as a species and as individuals understand ourselves, and how we conceive of ‘the other’ – whether that’s people or beings different to us, or God. It’s certainly the case that even on the small screen this is a film that’s deeply effective in evoking a sense of wonder; it may only be just over 30 minutes in to the film when we first see the aliens, but the lighting, the camera’s repeated reminding us of Amy Adams’s aloneness, the sound design and the remarkable score all evoke a sense of encounter with something that is truly different, alien in every sense of the word.

Arrival

Amy Adams’s performance is towering; she seems to be on screen for at least 95% of the run time; for much of that time we seem to be following her from behind or looking in to her face, a face blessed with the ability to express volumes. This film was always going to stand or fall on her performance; as a result, it stands very tall indeed.

The film initially sets itself up as a struggle between science (in the shape of Jeremy Renner’s character, a theoretical physicist) and language (Amy Adams); but it becomes more than that. Breakthrough in communication with the aliens is only achieved when Adams, followed by Renner, break out of the strict, rigid almost ritualistic structures laid down by science and the military; maybe it’s because I’m a priest and I was watching it in Holy Week, that I saw more than a hint of a reference to the curtain in the temple, separating people from God, through which only one priest could go and which was torn in two by Jesus’ crucifixion.

There’s something in that, however. So often words and laboratories, religion and science, mind and heart are pitted against each other. In Arrival we see the fruit of something else; something the film calls a ‘non-zero sum’ game, a movement beyond linear, binary thinking in to something more fluid, more supple. If moving beyond the boundaries laid down by military and science gives humanity a breakthrough in communicating with the aliens, it’s a departure from conventional ‘zero sum’, straight line thinking that is the key to the whole mystery and crisis that forms the heart of the film.

Like Arthur C Clarke’s classic 1950s novel Childhood’s End (clearly an influence on both this film and its source text), the vision of humanity presented could easily be something so optimistic and naive as to be of no use. Certainly that’s where Childhood’s End left me; but I felt differently on rewatching Arrival. Of course, right and wrong, truth and falsehood and many others are binaries we need – too much blurring of the lines leaves with an epidemic of uncertainty and fake news. This time around, however, I was reminded of how I characterise my own thinking as someone with ADD and two learning disabilities; not neuro-typical, I guess you would say. I say that I don’t think in straight lines; I think in blobs. Then I try to string the blobs together, make connections in order to form coherent thought and output (or not … ). Straight lines can be helpful; but I find it very difficult to follow them.

 

amy adams

A valuing of intuitive, relational thinking can also make us a bit more humble, a little less keen to make it all about us. Especially useful when it comes to the ‘other’ – the other person, culture, lifestyle or God. Trying to build bridges with something or someone utterly different to us needs more than a straight line-rationale; it needs a humble willingness to take the long, winding road of presence, listening and submission. When it comes to God, it comes with the awareness that we can’t build the bridge ourselves; we have to accept that all our rationality will only get us so far, and instead accept the invitation to the humble submission of walking across a bridge which we had no hand in building – and which for much of the time, we can’t see the other side of, or even much more than a step or two in front of us.

Arrival, in the form of Amy Adams’s portrayal of a linguistics expert learning a new of way of speaking and thinking, presents us with a humbling invitation to engagement with others and the Other; a vision which requires us to step beyond the straight lines we naturally default to, a commitment to the long and winding road of another’s design. It is in the letting go that we take up, the losing that we find, the dying that we live.

Have Seen Monday is a (hopefully) weekly series in which I reflect on rewatching a film I haven’t seen in a while. 

 

First Time Friday … Fyre: selling paradise at the price of the poor.

First Time Friday is a new, what I hope will be weekly, series where I write about a film I’ve seen for the first time. That won’t, of course, preclude me from watching films on other days …

It feels like there’s not much left to say about the Fyre festival debacle, the people behind, and even the two recent documentary films trying to tell the story. A con job that was enabled and bought down by social media , now the subject of short notice films that gain traction through … you guessed it, social media.

This film – the Netflix production – tells the story through footage shot for the festival organisers from conception through to aftermath. It was, as is explicitly said in the documentary, an attempt not so much to put on a music festival as to sell a dream; an exclusive weekend on an idyllic island with supermodels, stars and social media influencers, staying in luxury accomodation, eating the best food and partying. It fell apart in real time, finally exposed to the world by a viral photo of a cheap cheese sandwich taking the place of the best in catering.

That just about everybody fell under the influence of the charismatic, persuasive Billy McFarland is a matter of public record. Several things become apparent as we watch this film. One is that, to quote Leonard Cohen, the people involved really don’t care for music, do they? As quoted above, they didn’t care about the music festival; they cared about a buzz of exclusivity, exploiting FOMO, making money by selling an ephemeral dream. That one of the staff involved, interviewed for the film, is wearing a Nirvana t-shirt whilst he talks about the vision of an island paradise makes this point eloquently; the icons of grunge, repackaged as a fashion accessory.

fyre picture

Even as it becomes apparent that the whole thing is a disaster, and the people trying to make it happen are telling the story, they are laughing. Of course, this may be a trick of the director’s editing, or it may be the laughter of regret and disbelief; either way, they laugh as they talk about sleeping on soaking mattresses and the disappearance of vast amounts of money. At no point do these people show concern for the real victims – the local islanders, who laboured hard to build and set up for the festival and received no money; the local club owner who tearfully tells us of the extra staff she took on in anticipation and had to pay from her life savings when promised money never materialised. The locals – many of whom are poor – will never be paid back. Billy McFarland has been convicted, and others too; but what use is that when you’ve worked for weeks without pay, or shelled money out of our lifetime savings? The rich mostly escape, relatively free; the poor bear the brunt (and this divide is also expressed largely but not exclusively on skin colour lines also). It was ever thus, and it’s a failing of the film that it never really gives full voice or the last word to those who suffered most. We get to peak behind the curtain of deception, but the human cost is never really examined.

The problem is that this was a disembodied project from the word go. Relying on the myth of the perfect sun-kissed island and celebrity lifestyle, the myth was sold, and turned out to be nothing but smoke and mirrors. We can blame it all on social media hype; and yes, that was the vehicle used for this con. But it’s really a story as old as time; it’s always just out of reach, around the next corner, as intangible as it is expensive. No one looks behind the curtain until it’s too late; those that do visit the site in advance or raise a warning word are ignored or sacked. It’s an attempt to parachute a paradise into the backyard of some real people; and leave them to pick up the pieces afterwards. And when they do pick up the pieces, they find they have even less than they started with; no one to pay them back, no one to sit and weep with them, no one to help them rebuild.

As a Christian, I can criticise this – and I do. But that’s a dangerous road; how many megachurch or rich foreign, usually white-skinned missionaries have parachuted in to poorer places promising revival and renewal, not sticking around after to remake what they have broken – or to use the language of the moment, ‘disrupted’? It seems it’s in our nature, all of us, to keep our poor and our mistakes as equally out of our site as each other. Embodiment, incarnation, long-term rooting in the one place; such is the way to which we are called.

Hope or despair: which do we choose?

This is the first in a what I hope will be a regular series where I rewatch a movie I’ve seen before and liked, and write about it from a personal perspecitve. I would give the series a cool name, but I haven’t come up with one yet … 

Jaws – a film that is often credited with launching what we now know as the summer blockbuster phenomenon – is justly famous for many things. It’s a masterpiece of slowly building fear, in part because the shark itself is unseen by the viewer for a long, long time. David Fincher’s 1994 serial killer thriller Se7en (Seven) takes inspiration from Spielberg’s game-changer in that respect; we don’t see the face of the killer until 30 minutes before the film’s end, at a moment of revelation of his own choosing. Neither do we see the murders take place; in the film’s memorable rain-sodden foot chase we only see his back; his face remains out of focus even when he’s pointing a gun in Brad Pitt’s face, deciding his fate. David Fincher knows what most good horror films and thrillers have made apparent over the years: the unseen is more threatening and frightening than the known.

Rewatching this film for the first time in years in 2019, I’m struck especially by how normal the abnormal events it portrays are made to seem. A serial killer who bases his work on the seven deadly sins of Christian tradition is nothing especially original; religious references are a familiar serial killer trope. Fincher places this killing spree in the hands of an apparently ordinary figure – one who goes by the name of John Doe (the name given by American police to an unidentified deceased male). As John Doe himself says, as the film’s unforgettable ending hoves into view: “I’m not special; I’ve never been exceptional … it’s more comfortable for you to label me insane”.

seven poster

 

It’s dangerous to quote the words of a killer as if they contain some kind of truthfulness, but this is the heart of the film: that evil is ubiquitous; it’s in all of us. In each of the serial killer’s victims, in the police chasing him, in the killer himself. In an age where the mass shootings that still stalk America are so routinely passed off as committed by someone with ‘mental health problems’, personal responsibility is avoided. The truth is we’re all to blame; Se7en holds a mirror up to us, and it’s not a pleasant sight. To summarise what John Doe says near the conclusion, we tolerate sin in ourselves and others because it’s normal. It’s this, it seems, that as the credits roll and those involved are left to live with the terrible consequences of their actions, that drives Morgan Freeman to utter the film’s final words in voice over: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” It’s a brutal way to leave the story, and one which the makers of the film fought the studio to keep in, and no less powerful for it; though now, having seen many more films than I had on seeing Se7en in the cinema, it seemed a tad too much of tell as opposed to show.

This seems bleak – and it is, if we conclude that the fight of which Hemingway is speaking is fruitless. For those who believe following Jesus is worthwhile and eternally meaningful, it’s a profoundly hopeful place to be; the world may not be as fine a place, as was intended; but there is a better way; and that better way will, eventually, be seen by all.

It is a battle, though, and in the meantime many suffer. As long as any of us – like John Doe in this film – take matters in to our hands, take the judging as something for us to execute, then there will be casualties. Not least ourselves, but also those unfortunate enough to be in our orbit.

All of which leads us to the Kevin Spacey question. With the revelations about his alleged sexual harassments and assaults, the question remains: should we watch his films? I have no easy answer here. I have been bullied to the point of suicide by someone who used to speak on big conference stages; I know how painful it was to see that person lauded by thousands when I knew different; I have forgiven the person, but still my stomach lurches with nausea and I’m wracked with anxiety if I see his name alluded to in a social media feed. I was sexually and physically abused as an adult by an adult; if I were to see her in a public role, it would be very hard to take. So I argue that Spacey’s victims must be given much consideration here; I would want the same for myself. With that in mind, I rewatched Se7en for the first time since these allegations came out. As I reflected on the film’s themes of the ubiquity of evil I found myself asking uncomfortable questions. If Spacey’s past work is not to be considered any more; if my bully’s speaking is no longer to be listened to; if my abuser is never to have a relationship … then what of me? I have not done any of these things – but if I believe sin and evil are ubiquitous (and I do), then that means I’m as guilty of sin as anyone else. I hope I own my sins and seek forgiveness, in large part through the regular discipline of confession; but I also know I am prone to err. Let he who is without sin …

I do not have an answer, at least not yet. Certainly it seems to me that Spacey, and those like him, should not be widely spoken of or employed in the public eye – at the very least until fault has been admitted, responsibility taken and justice served. Fittingly for this film, for now I remain with this tension unresolved.

What remains true is that it’s still a beautifully constructed, chilling and gripping thriller that haunts and shocks even after all these years; even when I know the point to which the story is heading. More culturally significant films still lay ahead of Fincher, not least Fight Club; many would cite Zodiac (2006) as his best film; The Social Network (2010) tells at least part of the story of one of the era’s dominant themes. Of course, we don’t know what more is to come from him. Se7en sets the template for his best work: morally complex, darkly thrilling, and directed with a flair that fits the story and the theme. If not quite as dynamic as I remember, it’s still a film to be reckoned with, that ultimately asks us to choose between despair and hope.

Finding The Prophet We Need

Finding The Prophet We Need

Early in Quentin Tarantino’s career it was hard to tell what type of film-maker he’d turn out to be. His early films were so soaked in pop culture references, sly allusions and dialogue about comic book characters and the like, that the task of decoding what, if anything his films were about was a largely fruitless one. It could be argued that we still don’t know; we do know that he needs a more ruthless editor, but there seems to be little (if any) thematic consistency. Two films in to Jordan Peele’s career, we know rather more. His films so far seem equally replete with pop cultural references; there’s little sign of the ill discipline that has come to define Tarantino (though in Quentin’s defence, Pulp Fiction was just the right side of baggy. Just.); and whilst we can see the fingerprints of Tarantino in, for instance, Peele’s use of music, we can also see the larger themes he’s reaching for. It helps that Peele is sticking to the horror genre; but taking Peele’s calling card of Get Out and his second film Us together, it’s apparent that he may well be one of the key film-makers of the era. He may also, it seems, be the prophet our times need.

Whereas Get Out was clearly and obviously about race, Us could be about any number of things. Peele has been articulate about how this is in itself a breakthrough – a major film by a black film-maker with black leads that isn’t about race shows, he says, a development in the conversation. The way Us appears to light up like a forcefield whichever of a number of themes you bring near it could be a weakness, and lead to a game of decoding that causes viewers to lose the power of the film’s concerns; for me, that would be a mistake from the viewer rather than Peele, but I can see why it may be a problem.

Us movie

Let’s be clear; Us is scary, funny, technically brilliant, stuffed with standout performances, and profound. Is it better than Get Out? Who knows. That seems a daft game to play. Like Get Out, you can decode any number of cultural and genre reference points; I’ll throw one in to the ring I haven’t seen mentioned (yet) – HG Wells’s ‘The Time Machine‘, the science-fiction book that more or less created the time travel sub-genre. The influence here isn’t in time travel; but rather, to me, in something hinted at in the film’s opening shot that becomes a central part of the film’s plot. I’ll say no more on that for fear of spoilers.

It’s an adrenaline ride, for sure. A home invasion movie, a doppelgänger movie, a family in crisis drama, a slyly satirical/comic take on and deconstruction of the American dream, consumerism, capitalism, celebrity charity drives (prefiguring the Insta-charity brigade); it touches too on animal testing. Like many horror movies it looks at the consequences of early trauma on later life, throwing in a dose of imposter syndrome for good measure.

For me it says most about privilege. During apartheid in South Africa, the governing party banned any art that would be deemed to subvert their rule. Sometimes they missed the point. Bright Blue’s song ‘Weeping’ snuck through, because it appeared to be a song about a man with noisy neighbours. It was, of course, a parable; a parable about the way white South Africa kept the rest of the country at bay. In the words of the song, in the quest for peace and order, the threat of the angry underclass was stifled. The mistake made was that what they thought was anger, wasn’t; it was weeping. But if the weeping remained unheard for too long, it may well turn to anger.

That’s the thematic territory that Us seems to me to tread. As the moneyed classes bury themselves in consumption and comfort, an underclass is increasingly alienated, and increasingly desperate. The underclass might be seen as angry; in fact they are weeping. But when the weeping is unheard, and instead patronised and then forced to continue to pay the price of the privileged’s comfortable life, we watch it eventually turn to blood-soaked, murderous anger.

It should go without saying that, controversies about accents notwithstanding, Lupita Nyong’o’s central performance is remarkable; each cast member who’s asked to play two versions of the same character is similarly terrific. Elisabeth Moss is superb in her supporting role, which does not give her enough to do (but in fairness, no film gives an actress of her remarkable talents enough to do). There are jump scares to rival most, but it’s the chilling, creeping dread and the final, head-scrambling twist that lives in your (sub) conscious for days after. It has what may be the bleakest final shot since Frank Darabont’s The Mist, made bearable by the film’s well-judged wit and laugh out loud tension-breaking.

As with Get Out, Peele is tackling one of our era’s most urgent issues, calling us to listen and act before it’s too late. Whilst churches squabble, politicians drown in self-interest and celebrity culture demands its tribute, Jordan Peele may well be the prophet our times urgently need. Maybe many won’t give credence to that, soaked as his horror stories are in blood and fear; but therein lies the challenge. Prophets rarely invite us to comfort.

Have we ears to hear?

 

As of the beginning of 2019, you can find all my reviews by following me on https://letterboxd.com/vicardave/

 

Freedom In The Unknown: Free Will, Questioning God (and an interactive film)

Freedom In The Unknown: Free Will, Questioning God (and an interactive film)

It’s interesting to speculate how things might have turned out differently. In late December 2011, British television aired a new show called Black Mirror. The publicity promised something dark, possibly comic, with a plot revolving around a pig. It was to be an anthology series – meaning that each episode was unconnected (narratively speaking) to others. When episode one aired, what unfolded was a story about a British Prime Minister blackmailed in to a sex act with a pig which was to be broadcast live on television, in order to save a popular member of the Royal Family who had been kidnapped. It’s had to watch, simultaneously horrifying and funny with a plot twist in the conclusion. The series gained some traction, and two short seasons were made. Then, in 2015, a story broke about real life British Prime Minister David Cameron allegedly doing something similar involving a pig’s head at university – and though there’s little in the way to establish the truth of the story, Black Mirror‘s prophetic legend was established. Netflix picked up the series, and now it’s a genuine cultural force; it’s become something of a tired cliché to wearily sigh that a news story is ‘like something out of Black Mirror‘; but the tiredness of the cliché doesn’t stop people saying it, of course.

So it was that a one-off new, 90 minute episode of the show arrived on Netflix over Christmas. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch has its own unique hook; it’s an interactive film. Throughout the narrative, the viewer is invited to choose one of two courses of action by clicking the trackpad. Technically it’s brilliant; there’s only occasionally a slightly discernible jump in the edit when the choice is made, and buffering never rears its head. The plot itself is, well, somewhat meta: it’s set in the mid-1980s. A young man is writing a computer game called Bandersnatch, based on an epic Choose Your Own Adventure book of the same name, a book which drove its author into dark, paranoid places. This being Black Mirror, the narrative doesn’t stint on shock value. Initially the choices the viewer is presented with seem insignificant  – what sort of breakfast cereal should he eat?; what music should he listen to?. By the time the central character starts holding a conversation with you and directly posing the viewer a question, you’re in a much stranger, more ostensibly troubling place.

BlackMirrorTitleCard.jpg

The performances are all fine; though slightly hindered by the format – it’s hard, after all, to act a scene when you don’t know how the scene is going to conclude. But that’s a small gripe, which the viewer learns to let slide; by the time you reach one of the five or so main endings, you’re given the choice of exiting to the credits or returning to certain points in the story to try again. It’s addictive, fun, and has obvious rewatch value. For me, though, despite its many strengths, it left me cold. Yes it’s fun; yes, I even tried to place myself in the narrative (by choosing my own favourite cereal or music or even express mental health issues the way I do in real life), but I still felt strangely distanced from it. This isn’t a unique problem for Black Mirror; for all the show’s cleverness, capacity to shock and undeniable entertainment value, it’s one of those shows that tries hard to be about something without actually having much to say about the thing it’s about. That thing often happens to be free will and/or the effect of technology on the user – but too often interesting ideas are left dangling like that wire behind the television that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Writer Charlie Brooker rarely seems able to make a coherent blend out of big themes and the desire to shock or horrify; the results are too often a stone-in-the-shoe sort of lack of satisfaction, for all the cleverness and gripping material that has gone before.

When it comes to the big question of free will, with which this episode is so clearly concerned, there is much that could have been said that wasn’t. Free will has always been a thorny issue for the Christian; are we puppets on God’s strings, and if so, is He kind or cruel? Do we have the capacity to say no to God? What does ‘predestined’ mean? Poles of interpretation  – as in so many areas – are rarely satisfying or logically coherent. To take the one view, God orders and wills and causes everything – in which case it’s almost a logical impossibility to see Him as good; and you end with such a delicately constructed theological system that if one part is troubled, the whole edifice shakes and threatens to fall apart. Surely God’s more intellectually secure than that? The other pole is to suggest that either we’re in charge of everything – which might explain the messes we’re always in, but rather makes a mockery of God’s wisdom and our need of Him at all; or He doesn’t know and can’t foresee everything. Which is certainly interesting, but makes him somewhat hard to trust.

There are moments in Bandersnatch when the central character is railing at whoever is controlling him, asking for a sign, questioning the choices he’s presented with and wrestling with the situations in which he finds himself. In that sense, he reminds me of Job; but unlike Job, the man at the heart of Bandersnatch can hardly be called blameless. What we can’t criticise him for – because God doesn’t rebuke Job for it either – is his raging or questioning. God seems to positively encourage that. The issue is what we do it when the raging is done; Bandersnatch offers few answers because the writer doesn’t seem able to – and as viewers, picking one of two options, we make for awfully limited gods. Ultimately this may lead to a new kind of visual storytelling; or it may go the way of Betamax video. Who can say yet what the divine storyteller has in mind for interactive film-making?

In the endings I came to in the film, the central character never seems to find peace; every ending leads to question, a self-doubt, a cause for anger or fear or guilt. That’s not how Job ends; at the end of Job’s questioning, he’s met with few answers. He’s not rebuked for asking them, but he is asked by God to accept his place, to learn who’s God and who’s man, and to understand that there are limits to his understandings. It’s not wrong to want to know why things are happening; but he must accept that in the end he will not know  – other than that he is known by the one who knows.

Bandersnatch is, for now, an example of a young art form, testing technology to see where it will bend or break; there may yet be much to come from this format, or there may not. But for now the choices it offers remain strictly binary; even that can send us down potentially mind-bending roads of multiple possibilities which soon fracture under our limited capacities. When we create, we create out of what already exists, with limited possibilities and conclusions available to us; even that is too . The God who invites our questions is big enough to hold our questions and allow us peace in both the asking and the lack of answering. There’s courage in our asking and freedom to be embraced in our unknowing; our divine storyteller comes to se us free, not to control, manipulate and abuse. Bandersnatch gives us a fun, pale imitation of our futile and cruel capacity to play at being god. We’d do well to address our questions to a better writer.

Telling The Stories Of Trump’s America

Charles Dickens wasn’t simply a writer. He was a celebrity. His books were serialised, published in monthly instalments to a public desperate to know what happened next. Newspaper headlines screamed the news of characters’ deaths. When he gave public readings of his work, it was the hottest ticket in town. All this is not simply explained by his brilliant storytelling and the lack of technology to distract people from books as the dominant media of the day. Whilst this clearly contributed to his remarkable success, there’s something more important as all that to take into consideration. He understood what was happening in the England of his day better than anyone else. His work told the story of a society of alarming gaps between rich and poor. The rich lived in cloistered ignorance and the poor  – where they were able to work – were cogs in the industrial machine. The country’s cities were chaotic, frightening places. In this chaotic milieu of a country  – which . many historians will testify was teetering on the brink of violent revolution – Dickens found his voice. Crucially, he found and became the voice of the desperate poor; and presented to the cossetted rich a way of being that invited something better. He spoke of people crushed beneath the wheels of systems designed to grease the palms of the already rich and keep the already poor that way. His stories spoke of facts, but of deeper truths also.

Artists are so often the weather-vanes of a culture, and if we listen well to them then there is much to learn. It’s not new to say that major Westernised countries are experiencing frightening political and social convulsions. This isn’t the space to analyse that in detail, but there are similarities with Dickens’ England. New technologies are putting the old working-classes out of work; gaps between rich and poor are growing; add to the mix the complexities of mass migration and we have a toxic, angry cocktail emboldening extremism at both ends of the political spectrum. It’s said of economics that if America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. Well, the current infection is more than a cold and America seems much more sick than simply a sneeze.

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Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com

So to whom do we go to try to understand how we got here, and what we might do next? There are many contenders, of course; and culture is much more fragmented than the one Dickens spoke in to. There are few – if any  – unifying voices. Of the voices I hear and can manage a level of understanding of, the films of writer-director Taylor Sheridan might provide some insight. His trio of films from 2015 to 2017 SicarioHell Or High Water, Wind River (he wrote all three and directed the middle one) give voice to stories we all need to hear. Each of them are American crime stories of various types; each (like Dickens) manage to tell their stories with economy and excitement, never drowning beneath a weight of self-important worthiness. Like Dickens, these stories also recognise the milieu into which they’re speaking: the cocktail of drugs and immigration on the Mexican border, a disenfranchised and economically disempowered working class, Native American populations uncounted and unprotected (Wind River, which I watched last night, ends with a devastating piece of on-screen text: Native American women are the only American people group for whom missing person statistics aren’t kept; no one knows how many of them are missing). Women in patriarchal contexts are a particular focus of this trio of films

Technically, each film is dazzling and at times brilliant. Roger Deakins – widely seen as the greatest living cinematographer – shoots Sicario with a wide-screen beauty that has seared images into my mind in a still fresh way 3 years later. The snowscapes of Wind River are retina-scorching, brilliantly played against the night-time scenes which seem somehow darkened and sparkling at the same time. In one brilliantly realised moment in Wind River, character knock on a door; we cut behind the door to a character walking to the door to answer – and we realise we’re now reliving the events that took place behind that door from a couple of days ago. Events play out … and we cut back to outside, and the closed-door, in the present day.

In all the technical and storytelling brilliance of these three films, there is no sense of the privileged presenting a solution; that would be to compound the problem. What Taylor Sheridan is doing is allowing stories to be heard to which the cossetted rich have failed to pay attention as they stay in the illusion of secluded security. The stories are compelling and urgent; the gridlock of the Mexican-American border gives startling rise to an unbearable tense traffic jam in Sicario; in each film, when violence erupts (and none of the films are relentlessly violent, but it’s rumbling constantly beneath the surface of each) we know who each person is, the forces that have driven them there and what they think they need. We’re emotionally invested, and the lines between good and bad are blurred, running through each fractured person rather than the simple delineations of black and white hats (though all three films owe something to the traditions of Western movies).

It’s perhaps too simple to say that these films tell us everything; but it’s also true to say that if Jesus could communicate eternal truth in a parable, then we would do well to listen to the story-tellers whose voices are saying things we need to here. Like Dickens, it is Taylor Sheridan’s gift to do so in stories that grip, engage and move; there are other voices, of course. But here is one who is telling stories that help us listen to what the alienated voices of Trump’s America may be saying. He who has ears, let him hear.