Thursday, July 17, 2008

Modern Christianity Through Film

I have decided to share a list, which most definitely you will be able to add to, of films that take modern Christianity as their subject. I like to have them all on the same list to show how versatile the topic can be and how much there is to say about it, whereas Latter-day Saint films have said very little on the topic. This list will exclude films like New York Doll, which discusses one man's conversion but doesn't talk about Christianity as a whole. It will also exclude films like Spiderman, whose "Christian" element is tacked on rather than being inherent to the foundation.
  1. Ordet. First is a film that I am convinced is the greatest film ever made. From my knowledge of film history, which is admittedly flawed but I have seen a film or two, no film even comes close. The film is formally perfect. The more I see it, the more I want to see it. I've seen it satisfy the highest demands of high art as well as the movie-going needs of those who are still wary of subtitles. I don't want to paint Ordet to be something it's not because it is it's subtlety that gives it its grandeur. It has more to say about the conflict between churches, faith, miracles, and the meaning of Christ than anything else I know of. In my opinion, it is the alpha and omega of films concerning doubt. There is no longer a reason to question God's existence in film. This film said everything that needed to be said on the topic. (I haven't yet seen Silent Light by Carlos Reygadas, an homage to Ordet set in a Mexican Mennonite community, but I suspect that it would have a place on this list if I had.)
  2. Stalker. Tarkovsky's 1979 adaptation of Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem's book is set in a post nuclear present. This film is also on my list of '10 bests.' The complexity of the poetry and metaphor is new and fresh every time I view it. I'm currently reading the biography of Henry Eyring, the scientist, and I can't help but think that he may appreciate if not enjoy this film. The conflict between religion, science, and art has yielded such fruitful ponderings for me. In the end, it is the divine, the controller of both time and space, and the desires of men's hearts that resolve this conflict. In my opinion, it is the only excuse for science fiction as a genre.
  3. The Matrix trilogy. Many may scoff an the inclusion of this on my list, but I am fascinated at how complex the metaphor becomes. The fact that Christianity is tied thoroughly (and love/hatingly) to technology and filtered through a working definition of reality is fascinating to me. I'll admit that the majority of the fight sequences are gratuitous, though I'm still dazzled at many points. But the mention of sexuality (though also fascinating in its relation to technology vs. anti-technology) is obscene and frivolous, not to mention hedonistic and degrading (even as an expression of anti-technologicality). In every sense, it is pleasure-seeking rather than intimate — the difference between which the film is oblivious to. Regardless, I find the expression moving and multi-faceted. For all its profanity, I find it trying harder to say something than almost anything in current 'pop' culture. Two articles I've recently come across show the thoughts of Slavoj Zizek and Jean Baudrillard (!) on The Matrix.
  4. The Decalogue. Kieslowski and his lawyer-turned-screenwriter partner Piesiewicz made ten one-hour films for ten commandments that all took place in the same group of apartment buildings in Warsaw during communist rule. Just as there are no easy answers for any of the moral dilemmas presented, there are no direct links between each one of the films and each one of the commandments. The stories come from Piesiewicz's experiences as a lawyer. But the moral complexity requires the viewers to reconsider their conception of the ten commandments.
  5. Dogville and Manderlay. The world's most anti-Christian living filmmaker (for his sadism, misogyny, control, and outright abuse —formal and otherwise—of his actresses) has perhaps more to say about Christianity than any other living filmmaker. These first two parts of his "American Trilogy" will most likely not see a third, as his abuse of his three consecutive leading ladies, Björk, Nicole Kidman, and Bryce Dallas Howard, should leave no room for question in anyone's mind as to how far away from this man actresses should stay. However, the fragmentation of Lars Von Trier's Christ figure is a powerful lens through which to view modern Christianity, and I must say it has moved me deeply. Nicole Kidman's patience, humility, wisdom, love, and unending "turning of the other cheek" is inspiring. Yet according to this film, it is only half of what Christ embodies. James Caan brings justice to her mercy and "overturns the money changers' tables" to her "turning the other cheek." Christianity is only one lens through which to view these films. Both are powerful political-, economic-, and historic-conundrum readings of America. They can also be viewed in terms of the meaning of art. Both have strong nudity, Manderlay being more vile than Dogville. As a sidenote, Von Trier also understand Brecht far more than any playwright I know of.
  6. Dancer in the Dark. Christ as an eccentric foreign woman, a single mother no less, in 20th-century, working-class America is an audacious casting, to say the least. But the moral dilemma which this Christ figure, played by Björk, is faced with is the thing that most makes me reconsider and reframe the canonical gospels.
  7. Magnolia. For all its crassness, its vile abundance of "f-words," and references to Altman's Nashville, it truly is a wonder to behold. It is a modern recasting and meditation on Israel and the hand of the Lord. The film is "embedded with 8s and 2s," according to Gary Tooze's DVDBeaver, in reference to Exodus 8:2, speaking of the plagues in Egypt. A former bishop of mine, though he had never seen the film, quoted a story from the prologue.
  8. Junebug. Though this film also contains nudity, I find it wrought with tenderness and a film that, over and over, I wish Mormon filmmakers would study. Director Phil Morrison, whom I am familiar with because of his earlier ties to Sonic Youth, directs his first feature as a blatant and consistent homage to the domestic dramas of Yasujiro Ozu. He gives more complexity and reverence to our view of protestant middle America and to the act of believing than all these straight "Mormon" features (which would exclude New York Doll) that I've seen (which, by all means, is not everything).
This is a beginning list. Please add to it as you have the desire.

13 comments:

MoJo said...

Well. You know what I'm going to say. ;)

Trevor said...

Ordet, is truly an under-appreciated film. It is one of my favorites of all time!

It has a message about faith that is that we could use today, where is faith without miracles? Insanity as holiness is interesting too.

Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury said...

Well, I haven't seen any of those films (I really don't see very many films at all), and I'm certainly no judge of filmmaking and filmmakers.

But maybe I can represent the "great unwashed" and relatively ignorant in this discussion (and hope that such are not unwelcome).

I am a science fiction and fantasy fan (but I haven't even seen all of those movies either), and so when I saw M. Night Shyamalan's SIGNS, I knew at once that it was a poor example (in a filmland full of poor examples, to the frustration of many science fiction and fantasy readers) of what filmmakers COULD do with science fiction in film if they really wanted to.

But as a religious person, I was rather tickled by the way I saw Shyamalan using science fiction (as it so often has actually been used) to sneak in something else entirely. The movie may be really poor science fiction, but I thought it was a lovely story about how God is in the details; and I was willing to let Shyamalan make poor use of science fiction to sneak his REAL STORY past the anti-religious Hollywood people we "great unwashed" are always hearing about and get the message across anyway.

Whether SIGNS deserves to be anywhere near your list is one question, and whether "God is in the details" counts as a Christian message is another question, but I wanted to mention the movie anyway.

MoJo said...

Kathleen, I would agree with that assessment most heartily. As not a science fiction/fantasy type of person, I didn't have a problem with the "vehicle" of "God is in the details."

Trevor said...

Kathleen:
I don't consider you 'ignorant,' though I'd hope you'd visit if you were.

About Signs: I consider M. Night one of the most deeply religious working filmmakers in the world (I can't think of anyone who rivals him in the States). I am constantly amazed at his precision and storytelling. I have to admit that I'm not sure where to frame his Lady in the Water yet (there was a surprising viciousness which alters the film from its meta-fairy-tale to something I can't quite name), and I consider Unbreakable to be his greatest achievement. As a religious film, Signs reached something American films haven't reached for a long time. You're right that it's wrong to see it as a sci-fi film. It cuts against the genre... even 'cuts' is too forceful. It conquers the genre: it lulls it to sleep, and the film emerges triumphant. I really enjoyed that film.

But I wouldn't place it on this list. Though it is deeply religious, I don't think it takes Christianity as its subject: rather it espouses Christian ideals. It doesn't frame or discuss those ideals. (is this just semantics?)

But boy, its Christianity is dazzling, isn't it? Needless to say, I think we could learn A LOT from his filmmaking.

trevor: TWO TREVORS? And both admiring Ordet? the odds are staggering. (by the way, I would argue that it is perfect.)

Mojo: so you would say DOGMA takes Christianity as its subject? I'm more and more intrigued. Not ready yet to see it, but it's still working on me.

MoJo said...

Mojo: so you would say DOGMA takes Christianity as its subject? I'm more and more intrigued. Not ready yet to see it, but it's still working on me.

Hmmm, not Christianity directly, but through the conduit of Catholicism.

IMO, it's ponders the question of the fallibility/infallibility of God paradox while also dealing with the matter of repentance and forgiveness.

Both God and Christ are dealt with respectfully. There's an angst in the angels who are on the outs with God that you can feel. Not only that, but the protagonist has pretty much lost her faith just before the story begins and you watch her regain her faith to a, ah, rather surprising end. :)

I'm telling you, Trevor, it's got layers and layers and layers of subtext and some of it's not far off our theological/philosophical roots.

Alan Rickman being a funny good guy doesn't hurt.

whitney said...

I completely agree with you about Ordet.

w. leavitt said...

"Dancer in the Dark" as a film about Christianity? Interesting. I haven't seen it in several years otherwise I might have something else to say about it.

Bryan said...

I've wanted to comment on this post for several days, but I haven't been able to frame what I want to say very well. There are a few movies I've wanted to add to this list, and while they may not tackle modern Christianity as a central theme (according to a strict interpretation of the phrase), they've at least earned a special place in my heart as very spiritual films with strong Christian themes.

Seeing as how I have a knack for courting controversy in my comments here, and perhaps for misunderstanding others' intent, I'll just title-drop and run. Each of these films deserve better than comment-length treatment, but maybe someone will nod their head and smile in agreement when reading one or more of these titles: Contact (1997), Bridge to Terabithia (2007), and The Dark Knight (2008). Yes, you read that right.

MoJo said...

Bryan,

I haven't seen A Bridge to Terabithia,, but I would second both your other choices (saw Dark Knight last night.

Bryan said...

"Bridge to Terabithia" is one of my favorite films of 2007, and deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Disney totally dropped the ball in terms of its marketing. Its one theatrical trailer leads you to believe it's a "Lord of the Rings"-style knockoff for the kiddie set. That's not true at all.

It's nearly impossible for me to talk about the film without revealing significant spoilers, but it's one of the best films about dealing with ___________ from a child's perspective that I've ever seen. Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, and Robert Patrick all give standout performances. Some of the other child actors in the film give weak performances, and the seams in the VFX are easy to see. But it's otherwise a wonderful film that rewards repeat viewings.

As far as its ties to modern Christianity are concerned, much of it has to do with the aforementioned spoiler, but there's three other moments I'll have you look out for:

(1) a visit to a Sunday morning worship service
(2) a conversation between three children in the back of a pickup truck
(3) a tender moment between father and son

In regard to "Contact," how can I watch the closing scene and not think of Joseph Smith?

(As a side note, I find it fascinating that several of Zemeckis' latest films (notably, "Forrest Gump," "Contact," "Cast Away," "The Polar Express," "Beowulf") end with a character by him/herself, on the verge of making a fateful choice - or remaining faithful to his/her convictions.)

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Bryan,

Consider my head nodded and my agreeing smile displayed on Contact. I haven't seen Bridge to Terabithia as my wife insists that I read the book to her before we see the movie (a pastime of ours). I've loved the book since childhood. As for The Dark Knight, well, we've been discussing that elsewhere, so I'll leave it alone.

Matt said...

Revelant Magazine just did a list of the 10 spiritual films in their last issue (the one before the current issue), and it had some interesting picks.

I believe O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country For Old Men, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were among the films.