Tag: religion

Top 100 Films List (2013): Movies about God(s)

Welcome to the first real post about my new top 100 movies list! It’s very exciting, at least to me. The first grouping will be, as the title suggests, movies about God(s). As a not-religious person my interest here is not to affirm my own point of view or force it upon you, but to see how movies about god(s) and religion raise questions that matter deeply to us as humans. How does the presence or lack of a god inform our lives? How do we cope when we try to approach something beyond our understanding? Who do we blame when something goes wrong, or praise when something goes right? Religion has been a large part of our cultural heritage and movies are no different. Without further ado, here are, in alphabetical order, the movies from my top 100 list that are, in some way, about God(s).

Ok, have you voted? That’s a poll, go vote on it! Pick one that is your favorite. Do it!

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk a little. First, movies about playing God. We have within us a deep desire to create and specifically to create life. That is often seen as the territory of God or Gods, depending on the creation myth you like best. Through movies we’ve come up with some fantastic creation myths of our own, none better than Jurassic Park. Here’s an example of creating life gone wrong, bringing back what should have been left dead, or at least should have been created with a little more care and foresight. “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.” This pretty accurately describes the thought process up to the beginning of the movie as wryly stated by the one and only Jeff Goldblum. Laura Dern counters with the potential plot of the rest of the film, “Dinosaurs eat man … woman inherits the earth.” But Jurassic Park isn’t the only movie about humans trying to reach god-like status as creators of life. Blade Runner, too, concerns itself with the perils of trying to re-create humans and improve upon them. At what point does that creation turn on its creators for being imperfect as some would argue we have done with God? Roy Batty is perhaps the most human character in the film as he struggles with this question, though beneath his synthetic skin an artificial heart beats and a computer thinks. The Truman Show goes on a bit of a different path as a tv producer creates not life but a life for the titular character. Everything is controlled and broadcast for all to see and though it may seem idyllic initially, soon the curated life becomes a prison, which leads the viewer to ask whether or not the same would be the case if we were to know with certainty that our lives are curated in a similar respect.

Some movies warn of the perils of religion and religious thinking. Doubt, for example, presents some obvious issues with the concept of certainty when it comes to things that are immensely complex, whether it be belief in God or the relationship between a man and a boy. That film does a wonderful job of not answering any of the factual questions we have as that would not accurately reflect the situation the characters find themselves in. Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages is an early documentary that explores the way religion has treated anybody that isn’t normal in the society of the time. Even in 1922 the movie is smart enough to link this bad behavior to the treatment of mental illness in “modern” times, a situation that hasn’t improved as much as it should. In The Wicker Man a Christian detective is brought to an island of pagans to investigate a missing girl. It’s a clash of religious ideas that is as loopy as it is unsettling, with its nude ritual scenes and creepy costumes. Fanny and Alexander is a movie in which an artistic family is subjected to the strict religious rules thanks to a mother’s second marriage. The bishop she marries is one of the greatest screen villains precisely because he is almost always certain he is doing the right thing. The Night of the Hunter has a similar father figure, and though his evil is even more apparent, it is no less scary.

It’s not always so obvious, though, the insidious implications of religion. The Long Day Closes shows a boy struggling with his sexual identity in the face of religious doctrine which states that he is ill-formed. The Seventh Seal demonstrates that life during the Black Plague was a nasty one, and religions reflected and enhanced that nastiness with their own misguided beliefs. In A Serious Man, the Job story from the bible is reinterpreted for the 60’s as a Jewish man’s life is ripped apart in any way possible while his religious leaders offer little comfort. And finally, in There Will Be Blood, capitalism is set against harsh Christianity as two ideals enter and both lose. There is very little up side to either as the deep-seated flaws are laid out in the forms of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday. Metropolis, too, shows us that economics are nothing to be worshiped.

Of course, God and religion are really just one way of trying to understand things that are bigger than ourselves and beyond our current understandings. As our scientific knowledge grows we answer questions with facts that we had once answered with gods, though new questions always appear in relation to even crazier things that happen in the natural world. Sunshine shows us a man who has lived so close to the sun for so long that he has gone crazy, believing that the sun is God incarnate and that he is an angel sent to destroy humanity. Cloud Atlas has, in one of its stories, a woman who becomes a god-figure thanks to her deeply human act of freeing millions of slaves. How one person can be so good is deified through countless retellings of a story. The Devil’s Backbone shows young orphans as they try to comprehend the insane violence of the Spanish Civil War through an unexploded bomb in the middle of their orphanage and tales of a ghostly kid who will exact revenge. Melancholia is a planet that appears out of nowhere and is on a collision course with the earth. As it nears us, a young woman deals with depression and the pressures of life. The Tree of Life and The Fountain are twins of a sort, both of which examine the role of God in our day to day lives, however mundane or grand they may be.

We also have, in movies, a great way of exploring whether or not God even exists. The Seventh Seal and Doubt ask the question early and often, while movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Fantasia, The Exorcist, and Contact answer the question with a resounding yes, and that God is kinda scary. Fantasia and Throne of Blood explore non-christian religions through sometimes creepy and sometimes glorious imagery. Haxan, too, has a terrifyingly beautiful vision of hell, while Contact‘s heaven might be some distant planet. Holy Motors posits that movies are our new religion where we can make our own heavens and hells and realities. That’s the one that appeals to me most, I think. Cameras and projectors as instruments of revelation. That’s my kind of religion.

That’s enough for this subject, I think. I hope you voted. I’ve compiled this list on Letterboxd as well, so you can check off what you’ve seen. If you have any thoughts on what I’ve shared here, or a movie you think might fit this topic that you love, or anything at all, please leave a comment below! Tune in soon for a new topic of consideration.

The Handmaid’s Tale; The Old Man and the Sea; Cat’s Cradle

Faith is only a word, embroidered.

Do not think about sin, he thought. There are enough problems now without sin. Also I have no understanding of it.

“No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s . . .”
“And?”
“No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”

                    

I recently went on vacation to Portland, Maine. I took a few books with me to read, waiting to decide which one would get the call up from the general population to a seat of high honor until I arrived at our destination and got a feel for the place. You can’t just charge into these things willy-nilly. The lucky book was a used copy of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know why. Anyways, I read it, and I got some new used books. I finished it on our second night there. The next night I had to decide what book would succeed it. I took our location into account and decided that Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea should enjoy its reign. It was short, a one night stand. And then, finally, I chose to re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, a book I hadn’t read since high school and had only vague memories drifting around in my head. These three books in the span of a week. So there won’t be any single review, instead let us look at each book as it relates to the other. Because what good are coincidences if they are not explored?

The Handmaid’s Tale and The Old Man and the Sea

Here are two books that seem to be complete opposites. Atwood’s prose is, quite literally, flowery. We are introduced piece by piece into a world where the religious zealots have taken over and made everything more sacred. Some women are lucky, married to officers in the new government, and enjoy some degree of freedom. Others are less lucky and are forced to have sex with the officers in the stead of the wives because such an act cannot be left to chance anymore, and these women are the best bets for conception, that most holy of acts. The remaining women are forced into labor camps where they spend the short remainder of their lives working in radioactive wastelands. It’s not a fun time. In fact, the strongest element of Atwood’s novel is the illustration of how little good has actually come of these changes. The wives despise their replacements and the replacements despise everything. The sense of despair permeates the descriptions provided by the narrator, Offred, one of the replacements. Her language is detailed and florid, emphasizing the physical and mental limits she has taken on. It’s a tough read at times, but so goes the dystopian novel.

The Old Man and the Sea is opposite in almost every way. Where Atwood describes everything in long, detailed thoughts, Hemingway is the master of the short, concise sentence. It is a simple story of an old man who goes fishing as he does every day and lands an almost mythic marlin. Half the book describes his attempts to tire the fish out enough to kill it and the rest details his journey back to his hometown on the island of Cuba while he fends off sharks from eating his prized fish. The book is short, very short, and not much really “happens”. Hemingway takes time to describe the physical torture of a multi-day battle with such a gargantuan force and then the sinking spirits of a man that has his great accomplishment taken away from him, piece by piece. We get a few insights into the old man’s thought process, too, but little more than a few thoughts on God/The Great DiMaggio and a young boy who had been his apprentice until a recent unlucky spell forced the boy to abandon him for a different fishing crew.

The Old Man and the Sea
A Picture I took while in Portland

Perhaps you’ve noticed that my descriptions do overlap a bit. Both books are focused on the physical torture forces outside of the characters impose upon them, and they both examine the role of God and religion in the lives of their protagonists. Where The Handmaid’s Tale takes the time to chronicle minute details of Offred’s situation, The Old Man and the Sea takes an almost workman-like look at a very physical job. It’s taken as a given that the man would suffer great pain in order to finally catch the fish, and then it happens. When the old man arrives back at his port with only a skeleton, head, and tail lashed to the side of his boat we see how much the long journey has taken from him. He’s malnourished and has almost nothing to show for it. Similarly, Offred undergoes much pain, though we see a lot more of the emotional side for her, with nothing to show for it. Were she to get pregnant she would never know the joy of raising her child, nor would the wife have any emotional attachment to the kid. It’s the worst of all possible worlds. The religion that forced everybody to change for the benefit of a few in The Handmaid’s Tale is taken a little less seriously in The Old Man and the Sea. He thinks about God and whether he should be killing such a marvelous animal and the harm he is doing to himself while he does so, but equal merit is given to the great baseball stars of the time, including Joe DiMaggio. Maybe the worst part of his week-long expedition is the fact that he’s missed reading about the baseball games that have happened while he was doing battle.

Cat’s Cradle

Like I said above, this one was a re-read. I remembered only a scene on a plane and the effects of Ice-Nine vividly, the rest was a swirl of ideas and characters that meant little to me. Upon this reading I think I understood more of what Vonnegut was going for, having settled more into what I do and do not believe in. Religion is a big part of the book, the made-up religion of Bokononism permeates almost every chapter and page. It’s probably the best kind of religion you can have. One of the central tenants is the implicit silliness of any belief system, and it exploits the way our lives overlap and interact with other lives. Perhaps the most cogent element put forth is the idea of a karass and a granfalloon. The first is the group of people that make up the important players in your life, the second is a group of people that think their connection is important when it is actually meaningless. It’s a great way of thinking about the ways we try to organize ourselves. There are the people that we think matter and those that actually do. The book is full of these fantastic ideas and it’s presentation is at once hilarious and sad. I knew the ending this time around, and the point of view presented by our main character acknowledges the kind of cosmic comedy of such a disastrous scenario.

Game Trail
Bokononism?

If The Handmaid’s Tale is the ultimate serious examination of the potential problems of a religious regime, and The Old Man and the Sea gently points out some of the ways pop culture has begun to replace religion, then Cat’s Cradle presents both the benefits and detriments of religious belief. There’s something to be said for the idea that, in our own wandering from point to point we are really fulfilling some kind of cosmic destiny. I don’t necessarily believe that’s the case, but I do think that by doing what we do, we form our own kind of meaning. If this is all there is it’s our duty to do the best we can. Bokononism places the highest value on love and the intermingling of selves through the touching of foot to foot, sole to soul. This ritual serves as a metaphor for all of our interactions. There’s always a mixing of ideas, personalities, feelings when a person interacts with another. And that’s the most important thing we can do.

Ok, that’s enough of that. I’ve been away for a while, so I hope you excuse this longer post. Turns out I had a bit to say. If you want to talk about any specific element of any of these books or any idea’s I brought up in this piece, please do so in the comments. They’re all great books with a lot to say, no matter the subject or style. And follow me on Goodreads to see what I’m reading and my ratings for what I’ve read in the past.

Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman made his name with the His Dark Materials series of kid lit. That series is, for me, among the best of the kid lit genre, if not the entirety of literature. He gets so much heart and so many ideas out of a really interesting idea. It did, however, inspire a lot of controversy among those in the religious community. In Pullman’s follow-up book he doesn’t shy away from that controversy. He full on embraces it.

TGMJatSC (which is a long title even when abbreviated!) is a retelling of the story of Jesus with a couple of twists thrown in, the most important of which is Jesus’ twin brother, Christ. Jesus follows his path as we know it and his brother follows him around to record his deeds. But he doesn’t just record the “history”, he records the “truth”. For example, the “feeding the multitude” story is really Jesus’ generosity and hospitality inspiring the rest of the crowd to share their food, thus multiplying the food in a figurative sense if not a miraculous one. It is only in the recording of this story by Christ that the miracle appears fully formed so that Jesus literally feeds thousands of people with only a few fish and loaves of bread.

The idea that Pullman is getting at throughout this book is that Jesus never wanted an entire religion and church to be built around him. During his forty days in the wilderness it’s not the Devil but Christ who comes and tempts him with the idea of fame and everlasting reverence. When Jesus rejects this Christ is approached by an “angel” – who is never identified but might be a certain fallen one – and is set the task of following Jesus around and recording not what happened but what should have happened. He’s making a story here and he is free to warp and exaggerate what Jesus does and say in order to later use him as the foundation of Christianity. This can be best seen in the Sermon on the Mount segment (and they really are segments. Pullman writes the book as if it were one of the books of the Bible and his short chapters with clipped writing do well to get the reader in the feel of those books.) where Jesus uses phrases like “yakkety yak” and “blah blah blah” with Christ resolving to edit them later to seem more Messiah-worthy.

This book is short (I read it in a couple of hours) and the ideas presented within are really interesting to consider. A religious person will get as much out of it as a non-religious person because the story of Christ writing “truth” instead of “history” can be expanded to the act of storytelling in general. Late last year and continuing into this one there has been a lot of talk about The Social Network, a film that has dubious ties to reality but tells a compelling story. Here Pullman argues that it’s not the thing that happened which matters but what it means and what we can learn from it. This book shows us what “actually happened” and our collective knowledge tells us the “truth” of the situation. As the great John Ford film says, “When fact becomes legend, print the legend.”