What On The Waterfront Thinks – Oscar Series #6

(All media is telling you something.  This is the sixth post of a series where I take a look at the thoughts conveyed through Oscar winning movies. This isn’t a typical critique where I say I liked blah about the movie because of blahbity blah.  I’ll make an attempt to take a look at themes in general and on Jesus and Christianity.  Spoilers are a necessity on this so be warned!  I will assume you have already watched this movie.  Previous entry in series: The Deer Hunter.)

On The Waterfront

Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Best Writing, Best Director (Elia Kazan) – 1954

“Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary.  Well, they better wise up!” – Father Barry

On The Waterfront thinks that evil prevails when good men are more concerned about suffering for doing good than the good itself.  On the Waterfront is in many ways a follow up to the thinking in Gentleman’s Agreement, Elia Kazan’s first Academy Award Best Picture winner (which will be discussed next in the series).  Gentleman’s Agreement focused on the necessity of action in individual, small, everyday ways to combat society wide prejudice.  On the Waterfront addresses the need for dynamic and bold action by community to protect itself.

On the Waterfront’s focus on how that bold change occurs centers on an appeal to authentic faith.  Father Barry follows the quotation above by saying that anyone who stands by and sees a good man be punished for his goodness without doing anything about it is like the soldier who stood in front of a crucified Jesus and did nothing.  On the Waterfront tells us that real Christianity acts.  Doing nothing makes you complicit.  You become just as guilty as if you were doing it yourself by not standing up for the good.

The film backs up this message through the story of its main character, Terry Malloy.  Terry’s philosophy of life is simple, summed up in these snippets:

“Which side are you with?” – Edie

“Me? I’m with me, Terry.” – Terry

 “Shouldn’t everybody care about everybody else?” – Edie

“Boy, What a fruitcake you are!  Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life?  Do it to him before he does it to you” – Terry

Terry, however, in the glow of Edie’s goodness and love, is forced to come to grips that he was not just a nobody for his attitude.  He realized that he was, in his words, a bum.  He was a guy with no class.

On the Waterfront is passionate about Terry redeeming himself.  In fact, the subtitle to the film on many of the advertisements was “The Redemption of Terry Malloy.”  On the Waterfront tells us that redemption has a price, but it’s worth it.  Redemption, according to the film, does not come from the barrel of a gun.  It comes from being willing to suffer for good.  Terry suffers terrible things for choosing to act towards good.  He loses his job.  He loses his brother.  Ultimately, he takes a beating reminiscent of Jesus before the cross.  Terry’s redemption is not unlike Jesus redemption of Peter after the resurrection for betraying Him in the courtyard.  Terry is given a similar situation at the end of the film to choose a different path than he chose earlier, much like Peter.  Instead of taking a fall for the easy money, Terry stands up after being knocked down.

On the Waterfront deals heavily with Christian themes.  In fact, the movie is almost entirely a study of Christian ethics.  It makes it fantastic to watch if you are looking to film to help you progress in being like Christ.  The film is devastatingly poignant in revealing that the real reason we do nothing as Christians is often because it financially benefits us or we are cowards.

Father Barry’s speeches are the highlight of the film.  After standing by and doing nothing in the beginning he realizes the falseness of his actions when compared to Christ.  As he says, “If you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront you’ve got another guess coming!”  From that point, Father Barry declares that if anyone stands up for good then he will stand up for good with them no matter what the consequences.  It reminds us of Christ being willing to share in our suffering.  It also reminds us that our purposes are not earthly, but heavenly.

I like the Christianity in this film.  The Christianity portrayed is valiant.  It is courageous.  It cares.  It has an eye on the eternity.  It also has earthly implications.  It is defiant in the face of evil.  It acts.  Is it still that way today?

“If I spill, my life won’t be worth a nickel.” – Terry

“And how much is your soul worth if you don’t” – Father Barry

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What The Deer Hunter Thinks – Oscar Series # 5

(All media is telling you something.  This is the fifth post of a series where I take a look at the thoughts conveyed through Oscar winning movies. This isn’t a typical critique where I say I liked blah about the movie because of blahbity blah.  I’ll make an attempt to take a look at themes in general and on Jesus and Christianity.  Spoilers are a necessity on this so be warned!  I will assume you have already watched this movie.  Previous entry in series: Rain Man.)

The Deer Hunter

Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Cimino), Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken) – 1978

“A deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don’t listen.” – Michael

A lot of the analysis of The Deer Hunter has attempted to force a parable out of it regarding America’s role in the Vietnam War.  The problem with that is that The Deer Hunter isn’t really about Vietnam.  Vietnam is almost a giant MacGuffin to The Deer Hunter.  If the movie is saying something about it, it is only an afterthought.  What The Deer Hunter really thinks is that Russian Roulette makes a dramatic story element.  Multiple members of the cast, the director, and a lot of people that produced this movie have confirmed that it is not about Vietnam.  In fact, the script was originally about a man who professionally played Russian Roulette.  Vietnam was added later.  Any attempt to analyze the message of the movie needs to keep this at the forefront of its thoughts.

Because the setting is secondary to the purposes of the film makers, the Deer Hunter seems determined to not be definitive about any topic.  It prefers to let its dramatic Russian Roulette story element play out in three long chapters with ambiguous beginning and ending points in their narratives.  The sheer length and abundance of empty scenes fuzzify any attempt at a direct point – perhaps purposefully.  If you like to watch films that don’t spell out an agenda to you, this is your film.

That doesn’t mean that The Deer Hunter isn’t trying to say anything at all.  For example, we are repeatedly told in the beginning by the films protagonist that a deer should be taken with just one shot.  By repeatedly saying this, The Deer Hunter is telling us that it believes that if you shoot a gun, you should do so with purpose, precision, and careful preparation.  People who don’t take the care to do just that are lost.  Lesser.  The character Stan is the embodiment of this.  There is a subtext, perhaps, telling us that a drunken, wildly distracted America has lost sight of the value of life wielding its power and freedom carelessly.

The Deer Hunter proceeds to tell us that using a gun without a purpose to shoot only once in a directed way has consequences in the real world.  Russian Roulette, of course, is the opposite of wielding a gun with the purpose of taking one directed shot.  It affects not only the people participating in it (because the willingness to pull the trigger, even with coercion, requires you to give up life in some way) but it also affects the people at home as well because they must deal with the consequences.  It shows abandonment to the value of life by the player and the people betting on it.  Again, perhaps, there is intention in the film to draw a parallel to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.  I’m not sure I buy that, though.  If so, the film’s heart is not in it.

The film begins with a drunken wedding.  It ends with a sober funeral.  From this I gather that The Deer Hunter thinks we need to sober up both individually and as a country.

God is a strong and purposeful undercurrent of the film, particularly in meditation on how God works within duty to country.  The beginning of the film takes place in an immaculate church building with a wedding.  A church choir plays strategic prominence both at the wedding and later in the first deer hunting scene.  A banner hangs in the background of the wedding chapel displaying the message “Serving God and Country.”  The characters at the beginning of the film drunkenly sing “Drop Kick My Jesus Through the Goalpost of Life”.  The films highly debated final scene centers on the cast singing God Bless America.

As stated above, the film seems determined to not take a stance on anything so it’s hard to say what it is trying to say about God other than that He is a foundational part of the American life.  Taking the scenes at face value I see a bunch of people who go to a place with God’s name on it but are not Godly at all in the way they act.  These people seem to have no relationship with a living God.  If anything, according to the film, God’s name is used flippantly to authorize our excesses without bothering to realize that we haven’t had a real relationship with him for a long time.

Perhaps that is the meaning of God Bless America at the end.  Or maybe not.  I get the gut feeling that it was not meant to be ironic at all.  Who could know for certain?  You couldn’t get a definitive answer from the film itself because delivering a message is not what it really cares about.  It simply wanted intense moments and to provide the thrill of feeling the pain of its characters as the result of those moments.  Regardless, the watcher should take the opportunity to ask itself at the end if America really should be blessed by God.

Or maybe a better question would be: Is America blessing the people of the world through being like God?

I don’t think about that much with one shot anymore, Mike.” 

You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about.”

 

What Rain Man Thinks – Oscar Series # 4

(All media is telling you something.  This is the fourth post of a series where I take a look at the thoughts conveyed through Oscar winning movies. This isn’t a typical critique where I say I liked blah about the movie because of blahbity blah.  I’ll make an attempt to take a look at themes in general and on Jesus and Christianity.  Spoilers are a necessity on this so be warned!  I will assume you have already watched this movie.  Previous entry in series: Gandhi.)

Rain Man

Best Picture, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best  Director (Barry Levinson), Best Writing 1988

Susanna:”You use me.  You use Raymond.  You use everybody.”
Charlie: “Using Raymond? Hey Raymond, am I using you? Am I using you Raymond?”
Raymond: “Yeah.“

Sometimes a performance in a movie is so strong that it takes a film away from its original intent and draws the focus to the character.  A modern movie that illustrates this is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.  In these cases, the message of the movie becomes secondary to the character study.  This is the story of Rain Man.

The primary intent of Rain Man was to tell us that our family relationships, or lack of them, have powerful effect on us.  That was before Dustin Hoffman successfully lobbied a change for Raymond to be an autistic savant instead of mentally retarded.  That made the focus of Rain Man to tell us about autism and that we need to pay more attention to it as a society.  The evidence of this change is found in that Raymond ultimately does not end up living with his brother (the found family and healed Charlie route) but instead goes back to an institution (a result of another successful lobbying effort from Hoffman).

Even though it begrudgingly took second fiddle , the film still has a lot to say about the effect of family in our life.  Rain Man thinks that broken relationships with our family affect most everything we do.  Rain Man also thinks that we often purposefully misunderstand our family’s motives to mask our own selfishness.  Rain Man thinks that lack of family makes you off kilter in life and that found family has tremendous healing power.  Family is antidote for the poison of selfishness.

Direct references to Christianity or morality are sparse in the film.  Charlie’s girlfriend Susanna gives half-hearted appeals about how using his brother is “wrong” despite the fact that she clearly aids Charlie in being deceitful in his business dealings.  Most of the reference to God is indirectly played out.  First it is played out as the power behind the family unit.  Second it is played out through a common theme of film and literature: the estranged father.

In this theme, the father is stern.  Distant.  Always mildly disappointed.  He never gives his approval.  He surgically points out weaknesses.  The son, somewhat reckless – impulsive – is never good enough.  He leaves but his father’s disapproval haunts him.  It affects his life.  This story resonates timelessly because it springs from our deep spiritual subconscious.  God, to us, feels like a stern, distant father.  We are never good enough.  He promises us things but only when we are worthy of them.   We are mad at him, but we secretly think he’s right.  Our shortcomings haunt us.

Charlie’s story plays this out.  He has a disapproving father.  At his father’s funeral (subconsciously connecting it to Jesus death for us), his father’s will voices his disapproval and his disappointment with his son not trying to connect with him more.  Charlie’s frustration with his father is illustrated with a story he tells of getting all A’s but not getting the thing he wanted – to ride in his father’s special car. Charlie’s used that pain to get into the high end car business where the ethics were fast and loose.  Charlie makes a spiritual reference after this story by claiming his father is in hell looking up and laughing at him.  That means Charlie’s experience caused him to question his father’s goodness.  The parallels that can be drawn to our spiritual lives are vast!

The sad thing is that God is nothing like the caricature we paint him out to be.  Like Charlie, we mask our greed by accusing him of being not good.  As God says to Job, “Would you discredit my justice?  Would you condemn me to justify yourself?”  (Job 40:8)  Our enemy, the accuser, is a master of PR and uses skillful revelation of parts of God while subduing others to paint God as the father described above.  He whispers that our desires are good and that God doesn’t give into them because he doesn’t really love us or want the best for us.  This was essentially his technique in the garden and he still uses it masterfully.  But, God is not like that!  He is a father who gives generously when asked (Matt. 7:10), regardless of our righteousness (Romans 5:8).  He was willing to die for us.  (Romans 5:8)  He always listens.  (Hebrews 10)  He cares.  (1 Peter 5:7) His love abounds.  (John 3:16)

Connection to God puts us into a family.  We, like Charlie, do not know how good that family is until we become a part of it.  That family, the church, scrubs away our selfishness, sometimes in ways that frustrate us.  But, in the end if we stay with it, we, like Charlie, will feel it’s unbelievable goodness.

Charlie:  “I just realized I’m not pissed off anymore. My father cut me out of his will. You probably knew he tried to contact me over the years. I never called him back. I was a prick. If he was my son and didn’t return my calls, I’d have written him out. But it’s not about the money anymore. You know, I just don’t understand. Why didn’t he tell me I had a brother? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that I had a brother? Because it’d have been nice to know him for more than just the past six days.