A word on not being offended

I was going to blog about the Oscars, but seeing as it would pretty much have been a repeat of what I said about the BAFTAs, I suggest that you just go look there instead. 

Instead I thought I’d just take the opportunity for a general post about what I am, and am not, trying to do when I post about a film on this site; especially on the issue of taking offence at the content of movies.

I am a Christian, and inevitably being a Christian informs my everything I do – and that includes writing about film. However when I post about a film here I’m not aiming to provide ‘the Christian perspective’ on a film. I don’t think there is one Christian perspective on something as complex and personal as a film. Instead I’m reflecting on it personally – giving a personal reaction and evaluation of the film. This requires a bit of space, words-wise, so I don’t tend to post short posts on films. I try to give, where I can, a brief guide to the genre and plot of the film; a bit about the context of the film; and my personal response to it. Where that causes me to reflect on it from a faith-based perspective I will do so, but that won’t always happen. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t. What I won’t do is tell you if you, as a Christian (if you are a Christian  – I know by no means all my readers are Christians) should watch a given film. That is for you to decide. There’s enough information easily accessible about films for you to decide if you – or children for whom you are responsible – are likely to be offended by certain film content. We all draw the lines in different places, so I won’t tell you what to do. That’s for you to work out for yourself before God, in relationship with the people with whom you walk through life. I would make two suggestions.

1) Pay attention to the guidelines of the country you are in. The film ratings are there for a reason – find out about them, and don’t break the law. 2) Wherever you are, the British Board Of Film Classification (BBFC) is worth consulting. They have done great work in recent years by consulting with the public  – especially carers of children – about what they think is acceptable for different age groups and people. They rate films accordingly and publish brief summaries of their finding on the film posters, in cinemas and online. Their website and mobile apps contain more detailed summaries of what potentially offensive material a film may contain, and the reason for the age rating they’ve given it. They fully deserve all the praise they’ve been given for the public service they offer. For any film you want more information about in this area, I strongly recommend consulting their website and downloading their apps. Start with the website by clicking here. 

I also don’t like to give marks out of 10 or 5 to a film; I think that’s a reductive approach. What differentiates 6/10 from 7/10? Usually it’s as much about mood as anything else. I prefer to give a personal response, which as I’ve outlined in this post is what I try to do. I know, though, that some people like these ratings, so at the bottom of film reviews I mention the rating /10 I’ve given the film on IMDB (a good source of general film information) and /5 on Rotten Tomatoes (where I also post my reviews). The reason I choose to rate on these sites is that they both ‘aggregate’ the ratings users give films, giving a more nuanced sense of what people are thinking, ironing out unhelpfully extreme responses and giving a sense of critical consensus. Those two websites are good general resources for film fans.

So there you have it. That’s what I’m about with films. I try to review every film I see in the cinema, and any other film that sparks my interest. For yourself – you know your tastes and tolerance. Work the levels out for yourself. But also take a few risks and see films that challenge you. Sometimes you will be bored or offended. But it may just change your life.

A Year Of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

Like The Cross In The Closet, this book represents an experiment. For Timothy Kurek, that was consciously pretending to be something he wasn’t in order to better understand. That’s a version of what happens in A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, but it’s not the whole story.

The author – Rachel Held Evans, a blogger, evangelical in the Dayton, Tennessee and author of  this and Evolving In Monkey Town – is a woman who takes on a year-long project to take what the Bible says to and about women as literally as possible. She does this as one who is happy to wear the feminist label, so this was always going to be an uncomfortable journey, if one that naturally fits a book. All of this presupposes that it’s possible to distill what the Bible says to and out women into list of things to do and be. Which is, to a certain extent the point of the project.

The sometimes bizarre sub-sub-culture of evangelical Christianity is not short of opinion when it comes to gender. We’ll be tackling different aspects of that opinion on the blog over the next while. Gender and sexuality are increasingly issues of fracture for churches and individuals – they are straws which break the proverbial camels’ backs. This is the stuff which causes people to leave churches; it’s important, and goes to the core of our personal identity. Books like this and The Cross In The Closet represent, for me, an inevitably imperfect but ultimately hopeful attempt to reframe the debate and provide something solid to stand on for those of us who feel increasingly alienated by each wing of the arguments.

In the case of Rachel Held Evans her project has her focus on a different theme every month: October (month 1) is gentleness, November is domesticity, March is modesty, June is submission. Naturally division by title makes things seems more tidy than they are in reality; there’s overflow and blurred edges all the way. Rachel is married to Dan, and they are people who approach marriage as a mutual, equal partnership; so inevitably there’s going to be some bumpy places along the way. There’s also a good deal of interesting conversation with people and exploration of texts to discover what the Bible may actually be saying or not saying. Take, for instance, Proverbs chapter 31:10-31, a section often titled ‘A Wife Of Noble Character’. So often this has been seen as a list of what women in general should aspire to be as wives, or should be working towards. Held Evans, tellingly, suggests that Jewish tradition sees the passage in a quite different way: it’s aimed at husbands, as a list of general strengths and achievements to honour and celebrate when they are seen and demonstrated in a woman. She reframes this as, for her culture, ‘woman of valour’, a blessing for a man or woman to speak over a woman. A throw-away example: her husband Dan greeting her tired arrival home,  bearing take-away having not been able to cook that day, with ‘Pizza? Woman Of Valour!’. Burden becomes blessing. Who could possibly thought men could have got it so (wilfully?) wrong?

It’s at moments like that, and in describing the unlikely friendships she forms over year, that the book is at its strongest points. I got a little frustrated by not hearing more from her husband – there are excerpts from his journal, but for me not enough. I’d love to hear his view of his wife’s journey in parallel detail. Necessarily it’s a personal book, but given the profound impact such a journey is likely to have on a significant relationship, it would have been instructive to hear more from him. None of us, ever, exist in a vacuum; the conclusion of the book handles this well. I just would have liked a little more from Dan peppered throughout. Bizarrely, I was also a little annoyed by the photographs. Rachel’s usually pictured holding something she’s just described herself making; often that process has featured frustration, tears, anger. Yet in the photos she’s almost always smiling. Maybe there’s a cultural thing going on here, but to me the photos of a smiling Rachel near a passage where she describes sobbing on the kitchen floor seem a little incongruous.

I and my wife Bev have long been people who have held ‘traditional’ Christian interpretations of gender roles and characteristics at arm’s length. We don’t find ourselves as isolated from the evangelical community as Rachel Held Evans does, but we do often feel like we’re swimming upstream. Books like this give people like me hope .I don’t agree with everything she writes, but certainly I do with most of it. It’s oxygen  – proof that we’re not mad, that there are other people who want to be faithful to the Bible but don’t want to assume that a ‘Biblical’ view of some issues is always what the vocally dominant say it is. The book shed light on some things and confirmed as viable what I had often suspected may be the case but hadn’t gone to the trouble of exploring. I’m humbled by Held Evans reaching the end of her year and finding herself confronting her sense of judgement and grudge-holding against those who feel differently. Given how suffocating it can be to hold views which aren’t recognised by the majority, that’s admirable. Experience suggests that the majority may not always be the majority – that when oxygen is offered, there are plenty there ready to breathe more deeply. May we do so – and speak. There’s more to people than a 2,000+ year-old list culled from carelessly applied texts.

You can find Rachel Held Evans’ excellent blog by clicking here. I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com

Zero Dark Thirty

Here are we again. Another predictable film. Another film which keeps you engaged, tense and uncertain despite the high-profile story. First it was Argo – taken from a still relatively obscure true source – a film with a plot you could have guessed given the set-up without seeing a minute of the film. As we said, though, there was much there going on which means that Argo is a genuinely tense and riveting work.

So to Zero Dark Thirty, arriving on a wave of controversy and award nominations; the former being the sort of the publicly raging opprobrium which means that the high-profile latter are unlikely to translate into shiny new statues. It’s from a more recent, more public story than Argo. As has been hard to avoid recently, Zero Dark Thirty is the latest film from Kathryn Bigelow, whose previous film hit awards gold with The Hurt Locker. As has also been impossible to escape, the film has been accused of condoning the CIA’s torture, as it tells the story for the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. In a variety of sources, I’ve heard the director accused of hastening moral decay and being compared to a Nazi propogandist. Boycotts of the film have been suggested.

There’s not much I can tell you about the plot – it’s all in the public domain, and it’s not as if the ending’s in any doubt for anyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the last few years. What it presents to us is a stark, disturbing, brilliant portrayal of the cycle of wickedness we too easily find ourselves in. The film starts in darkness; a black screen and the simple statement that what follows is based on first hand accounts. The words fade, the date September 11, 2001 appears and fades and a confused soundtrack of emergency calls, hurried conversations with loved ones and various officials plays. Then we’re into the torture and years of following paper trails, detainee testimonies, please for more resources, punctuated by the violent explosions of subsequent attacks. It’s physically dark – even in the Middle East sun the light seems slightly muted, much of the rest of film taking place in darkened rooms or at night; it’s emotionally dark  – if the 9/11 recreation was harrowing, for this Brit who lived in London at the time the 7/7 bombings, that re-creation was almost unbearably hard to watch. It’s morally dark too – central character Maya, the one obsessed with finding Bin Laden – starts standing uneasily on the edge of torture. By the end she greets an Obama declaration on a televised interview that the USA will cease to torture with nothing more than a hint of passing interest. She’s long since passed the point where she cares what she needs to do to find her target.

This is where some of the complexities throw, for me, some ironic light on some of the criticisms. The film presents torture as part of the process – a part of the process which degrades and numbs and dehumanises the perpetrators as much as the detainees. Maya’s descent into obsessed coldness slowly shuts out the rest of the world, with the end result of her, sitting alone in a military transport (because she’s ‘so important’, she’s told), speechless and shaken having seen Bin Laden’s body, tears breaking on her cheeks. She’s relieved, she’s successful – but she has nothing to return to. Simply put, I cannot see how this film can be understood as condoning torture. It simply presents it. Now there may be issues with the veracity of what is presented as fact; but sometimes Truth doesn’t have to be entirely true. It is most likely not entirely true; it is one interpretation of years’ worth of events in the space of two and a half hours. We can debate which interrogation aided or obscured the obtaining of which facts; what isn’t disputed is that some Americans, in what they believed was service of the country, tortured detainees to get information. They water-boarded; they crammed them into tiny wooden boxes; they stripped Muslim men naked in front of American women; they beat them; they put them in stress positions and exposed them to deafening noise. In Zero Dark Thirty we see it all – the success or otherwise is unclear, but the effect on all in the room is stark. Dark things are done in bleak, hollow rooms where time of day has no meaning. It’s a black hour for all involved (the title is a military term for half-past midnight, the hour the final attack on Bin Laden was launched).

So the film shows us the moral whirlpool which engulfed, and continues to engulf, so many. To catch mass-killers, to create any sense of safety from numerous future attacks, moral compromises were made. Is that condoned or condemned? I’m not sure it’s condemned, but it’s certainly not actively condemned. Does that mean the bravery and sacrifice of some involved can’t be honoured? Of course not. The whirlpool leads to chaos. The climactic assault on Bin Laden, at the titular time is pitch black and shot through with scarcely controlled chaos. We know how it will end, but still it’s throat-grabbing tense; with the added moral confusion that you can’t shake the awareness that you are watching the recreated death of actual people. People who were the parents of the presumably still living children whom the American soldiers shield from the worst. Even in the most tense and exciting moments, Zero Dark Thirty allows us no easy moral out.

This, then, maybe the source of the controversy the film has courted. Previously Bigelow has been praised for what some perceive her take on masculinity – what is seen by some as films about men shot through with testosterone. All of which is, of course, a form of prejudice which insults both women and men; it carries the implication that if a woman makes a film about a military subject it must be because she wants to talk about men (not, you know, the bigger issues of war and militarism). There’s also the whiff there that men make one type of film, women another. Well that’s shot to shreds in this film. We have strong women who are, well, women and strong and as affected by what they do as the men. Maybe Bigelow actually just makes films about people.

Maybe it’s having that interperative rug pulled from under them which has made some so vitriolic in identifying her non-existant support of torture. Many of those so vocal on this were the same ones who lined the streets of New York shouting and singing the day of Bin Laden’s death. They want, some of these people, the celebration, the victory, the evil mastermind vanquished but not to have to face what that has done to those who have actually done it. That’s not to excuse what they may have done; that’s not to dishonour bravery and sacrifice even as we critique – but what Zero Dark Thirty does so powerfully is show us the moral and physical cost of doing in secret the result of which was so loudly trumpeted in public, show us just how low the self-styled leaders of the free world (and in this I include my native Britain) sunk to bring catharsis. It seems to me that in asking such questions, Bigelow has exposed a deep moral confusion at the heart of the Western response to the still young century’s defining global conflict.

Zero Dark Thirty is a better, more urgent film than The Hurt Locker, a film which also probed the addictive drug that war becomes to those who have to actually do it. It asks deeper questions and asks us to look at means at well as ends. It asks us to think and choose, to qualify and query, to pause and consider what has become of us.  As a Christian, my vocabulary gives me the language of universal sin and redemption universally offered. That’s the sort of journey Zero Dark Thirty takes us on; it’s not a comfortable or easy one. It is emphatically important to take it nevertheless.

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Lincoln

be as shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves (Jesus)

There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make ’em: laws and sausages. (Leo McGarry, The West Wing)

Some films are a natural hard sell. A film about the passing of a legal amendment in the nineteenth century is one of those. Lincoln has pedigree to tempt  – directed by Steven Spielberg, the man with seemingly innate sense of how to entertain, and a lead performance from one of the generation’s great actors in Daniel Day-Lewis. But still. Lincoln is a parliamentary procedural film.

It’s also one with no suspense of the unknown. Even if we may not know how it happened, we all know that slavery was outlawed in the USA, and who one the civil war. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Spielberg was making life deliberately difficult for himself. Add to that, then, that there are precious few directorial flourishes here – it’s a story that’s simply told, navigating the political trading and vote-buying necessary to secure the safe passage of the bid to outlaw slavery. It’s an ugly business – honourable motives; dubious trading favours for votes; half-truths uttered for the sake of a larger goal; families neglected; lives spent on the seldom-glimpsed battle field. It’s also Spielberg flirting with his own directorial Achilles heel – misty-eyed sentimentalism, uncritical praise and the creation of a celluloid monument to go with the stone ones.

That’s how you’d think Lincoln would play out. It doesn’t. Or at least, if it does, it does so in a good way. Day-Lewis navigates Spielberg’s  sentimentalism with a steely humanity, lifting the film beyond hagiography to appropriate honour. Maybe I’m just too much of West Wing fan, but I was utterly compelled by the political maneuverings and the moral quagmire of short-term compromise for long-term greater good. It made me question what I hold too dearly which is of lesser importance, and how I might helpfully release the one for the sake of something bigger. I heard that once expressed as not letting your Isaacs – your blessings, gifts – turn into idols. Is that too much? Certainly the Biblical story to which that phrase alludes takes us to the brink of a moral dilemma we dare not even consider, so much does it offend us. Still, though, the extremity helps us see – Lincoln and his supporters in the defining moral issue of his day found themselves driven to the very limit of moral sacrifices. How far is too far? Ultimately history judges Lincoln well, on this at least. It’s much easier with hindsight, though. One man’s moral victor banishing slavery and ending a Civil War can easily find himself on the wrong side of history, a Nazi-appeaser claiming peace in our time.

Lincoln is not perfect, and it flirts with too many endings and slightly too much exposition. The cast in general, Day-Lewis in particular, and the moral weight of what it considers save it, tempting us back to re-view, re-consider and revisit. Ultimately, that’s quite an achievement for a film about the making of a law.

I rated this movie 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

A prayer for the church

There’s a season in the life of the Christian church called Lent. It starts today, and marks a period leading up to Easter when Christians intentionally reflect on their life before God and what He may be calling us to give up or take up. As one who leads a local church, I often find myself reflecting too on what I pray for my church.

The Bible is full of prayers Jesus and others prayed for God’s people. They’re helpful to reflect on. If you know me, or have grown to know me through this blog, then you’ll also likely know that the things which help me encounter God are as much found outside the fold of what some may consider ‘usual’, as they are the standard bread and water of the Christian life (Bible, prayer, worship, fellowship). So here it is.

In a moment. But first – what are the prayers you find yourself praying for church, others, yourself? What are they influenced by? This Lent might you look in the unusual as well as the usual places for inspiration?

So. The prayer I pray for the church I lead is inspired by the words of a song by the man who I’ve heard called America’s greatest living theologian. His music is amongst the most misunderstood in history, I think. So often his work has been appropriated and used in causes which might turn the author’s stomach. So I hope he doesn’t mind me appropriating one of his newest songs to my own ends.

I can’t find an official video for the song, so click here for a fan made video … ignore the images, just listen.

Or you can read the lyrics below. The artist is Bruce Springsteen, the song Land Of Hope Dreams from his 2012 album Wrecking Ball. Or as I call it, a prayer for the church.

Grab your ticket and your suitcase, thunder’s rolling down this track
Well, you don’t know where you’re going now, but you know you won’t be back
Well, darling, if you’re weary, lay your head upon my chest
We’ll take what we can carry, yeah, and we’ll leave the rest

Well, big wheels roll through the fields where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

I will provide for you and I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion now for this part of the ride
Yeah, leave behind your sorrows, let this day be the last
Well, tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past

Well, big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams
Oh, meet me in a land of hope and dreams

Well, this train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls

I said, this train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded
This train, hear the steel wheels singing
This train, bells of freedom ringing

[Clarence Clemons sax solo]

Yes, this train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls

I said, this train carries broken-hearted
This train, thieves and sweet souls departed
This train carries fools and kings thrown
This train, all aboard

I said, now this train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded
This train, the steel wheels singing
This train, bells of freedom ringing

Come on this train
People get ready
You don’t need no ticket
Oh, you gotta do this
Just get onboard
Onboard this train (this train, now)
People get ready
You don’t need no ticket (oh now, no you don’t)
You don’t need no ticket
You just get onboard (people get ready)
You just thank the Lord (people get ready)
You just thank the Lord (people get ready)
You just thank the Lord (people get ready)
(Come on this train, people get ready)

BAFTAs 2013

So the BAFTAs are done and dusted for another year and have, surprisingly for some of us, given the Oscars a sharp dig in the ribs by recognising Argo as the big winner, along with Les Miserables. No very major surprises other than that – what, if anything, does this mean for the Oscars come the end of the month? The ways of Academy voters are sometimes willfully bizarre (Driving Miss Daisy ???), so speculation is pointless. Personally I think it’s odd Tom Hooper hasn’t received at least a few more nominations for Les Miserables; for all it’s strengths, it’s odd that a film as ill-disciplined as Django Unchained gets more nods for its director than Les Miserables. I could go on … whither, BAFTA, Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Anyway below is a list of links to my blog posts on BAFTA winners I’ve had the chance to see thus far, to which I hope to add Lincoln in the next few days. Enjoy.

Skyfall – Outstanding British Film, Best Original Music

Les Miserables  – Best Make Up and Hair, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway), Best Production Design

Argo – Best Editing, Best Director, Best Picture

Life Of Pi – Best Cinematography, Best Special Visual Effects

Django Unchained – Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Christoph Waltz)

Searching For Sugar Man  – Best Documentary

 

Those that won BAFTAS this year which don’t appear above are films I haven’t had the chance to see due to release dates and accessibility here in South Africa. As and when I see them, I’ll add links to my blogs above.

In case you want to know …

My Films Of 2012 are on this link 

Argo

This post contains plot spoilers for Argo.

Predictability can be an unpredictably lazy criticism. If a film feels too safe, if the plot’s on rails from which it can’t deviate, if you know the end from the beginning not because of omniscience but because you know the reality the film is based on, if it’s simply evident from the start what’s going to happen – all of these can be appropriate reasons for criticising a film. Not always, though; certainly not in the case of Argo.

The film is the third directorial outing for Ben Affleck; his first (Gone Baby Gone) was, for me, one of the most underrated films of recent years. Argo is taken from the recently declassified true story of the rescue of six fugitive American diplomatic staff from the chaos of Iran in 1980. The cover story under which the rescue was undertaken by a CIA-Canadian partnership was that of scouting Iran for locations in which to shoot an entirely fabricated movie production (the fake movie being ‘Argo’).

This isn’t a story I knew. I knew some of the broader context, but nothing of the details – for me, that’s a period of history that often falls into vague ignorance on account of being too young to take an interest at the time and it being too recent for much study. I thought I knew how the story would play out – I assumed some predictable plotting, my possibly naive reasoning being that if this hadn’t ended well the film wouldn’t have been made. In fact the reality is, on one level, even more predictable. The mechanics of the plot play out with precious few of the clichés you’d expect under fictional circumstances. If that feels like a spoiler, don’t let it put you off – with all the predictability, it’s funny, insightful and razor-wire tense.

The cast’s performances are low-key and self-effacing – Affleck especially, whose role demands a kind of broken anonymity which he pulls off brilliantly. It’s with these performances, and a script which gently sets context and propels plot, that tension gradually creeps up on you. You feel – in a good way – like the proverbial frog in a kettle – only latterly aware that for two hours you’ve been in the grip of a slowly rising tension from which you can’t escape even if you know what’s coming. That included me and my wife with our lightly educated guesses at the conclusion as well as the unknown couple next to us who evidently knew the story well if their pre-film conversation was anything to go by. The female half of that couple kept shifting in her seat as the film neared a climax, positively gasping with tension despite her proclaimed knowledge of the story. The script peppers wit throughout the film without ever breaking the dramatic moment. My favourite exchange? CIA strategists discussing if they’re going to approve the fake film (‘The Hollywood Option’) plan to gain the fugitives’ liberation:

Boss  – ‘Don’t we have a better bad idea than this?’

Employee – ‘This the best bad idea we have, sir. By far’.

Economic, plot advancing, and I’m still chuckling to myself about it 2 days later.

The most moving aspect of the film snuck in under my radar in the closing minutes. Ben Affleck’s character receives the news he’s going to be lauded with the Intelligence trade’s highest honour for his efforts to rescue the diplomatic staff. There’s a catch  – because the mission still, even after completion, bears such a high degree of secrecy, he’d receive the award at a ceremony with no-one else present; and he would immediately have to return the award. No-one could know. No-one could then have predicted that a future President (Clinton) would be able to declassify the story; it could easily have remained untold indefinitely. As his boss tells him, ‘If we’d wanted applause, we’d have joined the circus’.

It struck me to the core. Wouldn’t he want recognition from the country he’d served so bravely? Even if applause isn’t granted, surely he’d have longed for it? As a Christian and as a leader, there are times when I feel the need to do (or not do) something. Sometimes I do the right thing, sometimes I don’t. On the occasions I do get it more right than wrong, my heart suddenly yearns for approval, applause, recognition, validation. I can’t talk about it though – to ensure confidentiality, to facilitate growth or simply because gaining recognition would defeat the purpose of doing it in the first place. I can suddenly move into a horrible version of jealousy at those who seem to get more recognition for doing the opposite (forgetting, of course, that I have no idea what God may be calling them to). Then I’m reminded of the audience of One who sees everything – my soft seduction into sin as well as my occasional good deed. To the One, I’m invited to keep open accounts. To confess, to tell things to, to ask for help and understanding. The words of my Biblical namesake help me. David – God-seeking, God-pleasing, adulterer, murderer, leader, David:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. 

(Psalm 139 verses 23-24, NIV)

David, a leader not of 60 people in a service on a Sunday morning, but millions in battle and politics; David, a broken failure who pleased God, kept clean lines with God, knows he’s been heard, been seen, is forgiven and receives divine approval. David, for whom, on good days, the applause of One was enough.

May we who follow Jesus, may we who try to help others do so too, may we all have similar good days.

I rated this film 9/10 on imdb.com and 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com