Wednesday, February 06, 2008

"7 Movies That Subvert"

Okay, if it was 1978, and Missio Dei church already existed, I would have moved to Minneapolis instead of Vancouver. The winters and distance from the ocean notwithstanding. At least, as far as I can tell from a website.

But that's not the point. (Whatever the point may have been that I ended up making.) Point is, my friend Dan Williams sent me a link to a blog and website where Jesus looks and sounds like Che Guevara (if he'd lived long enough to accept Jesus, become a pacifist and move into a Downtown East Side monastery), they use words like praxis and doxis and manifest, they post poetry, satire (?!) and movie recommendations as well as Jacques Ellul pdfs. A cultural mash-up for God. www.jesusmanifesto.

The point being, Dan linked me a post called "7 Movies That Subvert," and it's really a terrific little piece. As far as the intro goes, this guy's right on target with how Jesus worked, and how art works, and how movies can work. As far as his movie picks, what an eclectic, fascinating handful! Including;my #3 favourite of all time, an under-seen recent film with a huge conscience and compassion and even some nods to God, another widely-seen recent film that was hugely appreciated but under-appreciated by me, a longtime favourite and Soul Food classic, one film I really don't like but almost every other Christian does, a fine flick that never gets mentioned in "spiritually significant cinema" conversations but which is a terrific companion piece to FIGHT CLUB which does, and - probably the main reason my movie-and-theology pal sent me the link - a film that affected my spirit so deeply I went out immediately and tracked down the script of the play it was based on, and put it in my current season - in spite of the fact that there are other PT folks who just don't see the grace at all, and would rather we not do the darn thing at all. I'll let you read the post (partially edited here, but I encourage you to link to the original site for the whole article and a whole lot more) and see if you can match those descriptors with the titles in Mark Van Steenwyk's original post.
7 Flicks that Subvert
Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : January 16, 2008

The other day, someone asked me if I knew of any movies that demonstrate the radical nature of the Gospel....

When Jesus started preaching, he didn’t jump into philosophical arguments or a list of propositions. Usually, he raised cognitive dissonance by challenging his listeners’ perceptions or he used provocative parables or he acted in ways that upset common sensibilities.

When it comes to challenging perceptions, telling provocative stories, and upsetting common sensibilities, films can sometimes [go] further (and deeper) than cleverly written works of non-fiction or thoughtful arguments.
And so, I offer my list of seven flicks that subvert conventional wisdom and help bridge towards a kingdom vision:

To End All Wars: Allied prisoners-of-war in a WWII Japanese prison camp attempt to love their enemies.
The Mission: A Jesuit missionary in South America struggles against colonialism while a Portuguese convert grapples with his own violent nature. This film raises painful questions about the history of missions and the relationship between church and state.

Children of Men: This film demonstrates the human capacity for marginalizing “the other.” In its bleak portrayal of growing human despair, glimpses of hope are all the more poignant.

Maria Full of Grace: A gritty story of an illegal immigrant’s journey to the United States. The film gives a fairly objective perspective on illegal immigration and the drug trade.

The Woodsman: A sympathetic take on the life of a child molester trying to make a new life after he is released from prison. This film forced me to ask myself, “how do I show love to one of the ‘least of these’ if he is guilty of hurting the ‘least of these’ himself?”

Network: Upon discovering that he is going to be fired after decades as a news anchor, an aging anchorman announces to viewers that he commit suicide during his last broadcast. Seeing that it helps ratings, greedy execs exploit the anchorman’s devolving emotional state in front of millions of viewers. This satire from 1976 holds up fairly well as a critique of the exploitative nature of modern media.

Dogville: A woman on the run is grudgingly accepted by a cautious secluded town. Their fragile acceptance is shattered as hospitality gives way to human nature. This film (which reminds a LOT of the writings of Flannery O’Conner) is an excellent exploration of hospitality and grace in America.

Working backwards... DOGVILLE is one of the reigning triumvirate of my favourite films. I've tried writing about it, but haven't managed to more than flounder around amongst the endless strengths and complexities of this highly confrontational, explicitly theatrical piece of soul-disturbing, theology-disrupting provocation by Lars von Trier. So I got no link for you on the Muttburg Movie. Some day. NETWORK is a late-seventies classic that I invoke in my Soul Food rantings about FIGHT CLUB. THE WOODSMAN is next up in my Pacific Theatre season, the edgy installment in our "PT Goes To The Movies" series - in the lineage of GRACE, PRODIGAL SON, ESPRESSO and HOSPITALITY SUITE, you'd best fasten your seat belts. I'm not sure whether MARIA FULL OF GRACE uses Catholic imagery for irony or to invoke transcendence...
(that's not a communion wafer)

...but I tend toward the latter, and it sounds like Mr Van Steenwyk is convinced of it: there's certainly a measure of grace in the film, and plenty of compassion alongside its political fury. Only the first third of CHILDREN OF MEN really worked for me - once it devolved into a chase movie, I just couldn't help thinking of APOCALYPTO or the climax of THE LOVE BUG - but among Soul Food Cinephiles, that's admittedly a minority opinion, and it's clearly got the social conscience that stirs the maker of this estimable seven-movie list. And for all its intentions not to be merely a piece of propaganda (so enticingly celebrated in a Books & Culture piece by Eric Metaxas), TO END ALL WARS was a disappointment to me - it seemed thoroughly a piece of propaganda, an intentional explication of a worldview rather than a story where the audience is left to do its own interpreting and theologizing. Again, though, a minority opinion on my part.

A terrific fistful of films, fascinating choices: you could do worse than to head for a well-stocked video shop with this list in hand. And for a few movies more, check out the original blog post for titles suggested by readers; PAN'S LABYRINTH, JOE DIRT (somebody else recommended this, can't remember who), BABEL, tv series JOHN FROM CINCINNATTI (my buddy John Cody is a huge fan, even though he's not from Cincinnatti), BABETTE'S FEAST, BROTHER SUN SISTER MOON, THE SOUND OF MUSIC (yup - the poster writes "Admittedly, the movie/play takes liberties with the true story, but the truth is the Von Trapps had the courage to do what most did not: leave. See this movie again with a different perspective."), THE KILLING FIELDS, SALAAM BOMBAY, TENDER MERCIES (my #1 favourite of all time), MAN ON FIRE, THE TAKE, ROMERO (Soul Food through and through), MAGNOLIA (my #2 favourite of all time), TSOTSI, THE LIVES OF OTHERS, PRISONER OF THE MOUNTAINS.

First film that comes to my mind when Mark writes about "movies that demonstrate the radical nature of the Gospel," that raise cognitive dissonance by challenging our perceptions, telling provocative stories and upsetting common sensibilities... ADAM'S APPLES - my favourite film of 2007, and finally available for purchase! God bless And then I think of SON OF MAN, the South African Jesus movie that rocked Sundance a year ago but failed to pick up a distributor - I suspect American distributors figured their so-called "faith market" would be too politically conservative for so incendiary a film. Shame on them. But - finally! - it's set for an Easter release in the UK, and the DVD will supposedly be available soon!

1 comment:

Mark Van Steenwyk said...

Great article Ron! Thanks for taking the time to interact with my choices. I wish more people would think artfully about the Kingdom of God. Following Christ takes such a change of perception. It is sad that most Christians assume that “Christian” films should educate or simply push a worldview (I concede that “To End All Wars” is on the brink of doing that. But I agree with that worldview so much that I’m willing to give it a pass).

I’m convinced that the church needs to spend a LOT more time subverting the imagination while, at the same time, opening up new ways of seeing. I can tell from your website that you’re a busy man, but I’d absolutely LOVE it if you would ever share some of your thoughts/writings on Jesus Manifesto. I’m working hard to make it a place where perceptions can change. And based upon the feedback I’ve gotten, perceptions have changed.