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.

What The Movie Gandhi Thinks* – Oscar Series #3

(All media is telling you something.  This is the third 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 blahibity blah.  I’ll make an attempt to take a look at themes on Jesus and Christianity.  Spoilers are a necessity on this so be warned!  Previous entry in series: Wings.)

Gandhi

Best Picture, Best Director (Richard Attenborough), Best Actor (Ben Kingsley), Best Writing – 1982

“Where there’s injustice, I always believed in fighting. The question is, do you fight to change things or to punish? For myself, I’ve found we’re all such sinners, we should leave punishment to God. And if we really want to change things, there are better things than derailing trains or slashing someone with a sword.” – Gandhi

Some biopics are dedicated to a subject simply because they impersonally think that the person’s life makes great spectacle.  Gandhi is not that kind of biopic  Gandhi honestly thinks that Mohandas Gandhi was a fascinating, great man – and it thinks you should think that to.  That this biopic is just really into the guy it is portraying is evidenced by the fact that the first scene of the film is dedicated to a written lamentation that so few scenes from his life could be selected, the director/writer funded the movie himself, and the film clocks in over 3 hours, among others.  Gandhi was once asked what message he would share with the world and he stated that his message is his life.  This movie respects that wish by not trying to tell you about that life but show you it.

There’s a reason this couldn’t get funded in 1982, however.  In all honesty, Gandhi isn’t easily palatable for a heavily Christian audience.**  For that reason, Gandhi tries very hard to portray a digestible Gandhi to a heavily Christian audience.  It does so by focusing mostly on his actual references to God.  For example, the film quotes him as saying, “Whenever I despair, I remember that the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.”  It also quotes him saying “I am a Muslim, and a Hindu, and a Christian, and a Jew, and so are all of you. When you wave those flags and shout, you send fear into the hearts of your brothers. That is not the India I want! Stop it! For God’s sake stop it! “.  Gandhi, at least for a large portion of his life, could perhaps be best described as a Deist.  The film doesn’t hide that.  However, towards the end of his life he allegedly softened that and turned more philosophical about the life force in all of us.  Gandhi ignores this, emphasizing things like the first quote, which occurs rather early in the film, and other sayings Christians would heavily relate to Christ.  These comparative ideas that hint at synchronicity with Christ appear many more times and the effect is subtlety intensified by adding a sympathetic Christian minister (played by a familiar Christian mouthpiece: Ian Charleston) who aids Gandhi.  The film even quotes his last words (which are supposedly controversial) as “he ram” which means “Oh God”.

The film stays away from most potentially controversial things in Gandhi’s life, choosing to focus on certain actions the man took.  From that, we learn that Gandhi agrees that despite your religion, you should live in peace.  Gandhi believes in non-violent protest as an effective methodology for social change (although selectively).  Gandhi is entranced with the community lifestyle lived by Gandhi.  It believes in it as a beautiful way to live and thinks his brazen humility would solve a lot of inequality in our lives if we accepted it.  Ultimately, Gandhi accepts that there is an invisible minimum line of human dignity that we all, regardless of race or religion, will see clearly in humility.

Gandhi’s desire to be palatable to Christianity does not mean that it does not challenge Christians.  Early in the film when Gandhi, an Englishman, is faced with inequality in South Africa, he is befuddled because that inequality opposes Christian belief.  In this is a challenge to those of us who live in Christianity based countries to consider why we allow repression of certain people when Christ certainly would and does not.  Another challenge lies with non-Christian marriages not being accepted in South Africa at the time. In the movie, Gandhi points out “No marriage other than a Christian marriage is considered valid. Under this act our wives and mothers are whores. And every man here is a bastard. “  Gandhi believes that the purpose of these laws are humiliation and the purpose of humiliation is control.

What interests me about its approach is how differently a modern movie would approach this subject.  The Gandhi of 1982 is, much like the man would do himself it seems, gently petitioning reconsideration of what we silently approve by seeing the results.  If this movie was made today I imagine that a lot of the writing would bluntly portray villainous Christian caricatures to oppose him.  There is little of that in Gandhi.  As a Christian, it is refreshing.  Perhaps those who believe Christians are out of line with morality could learn a lesson from Gandhi in how to approach real change instead of just a shift in the balance of power.

As a Christian, our kingdom and citizenship is heaven.  We must, however, live in a social compact with others around us.  Some of those people will disagree with us.  Living with a foot in both worlds causes moral conflict because of temporality.  Do we choose actions to do some good now or perhaps a greater good later?

Jesus understood this conflict and speaks of it often.  Jesus’ life is his best message though.  He lived only for God.  God strategically chose moments for Jesus to face punishment for breaking or challenging terrestrial law that conflicted with the “invisible minimum” – or His law.  So, Jesus paid the temple taxes, even though it was an unlawful charge, by giving to Caesar what was Caesar’s.  However, he did not give his obedience to men despite the law and gave to God what was Gods.  That obedience to God led him to a cross.  Gandhi’s life mimics this (he was an admirer of Jesus) even if he doesn’t claim Christ solely.

It seems from the conduct and writings of the New Testament, along with the actions of Jesus, that our focus is to be on a kingdom that is chosen and then born into (God’s ) rather than a kingdom we are born into and then decide whether we choose.  It also seems from the same sources that our method of change is one of hearts, not laws (the Bible calls even the most perfect law given by God himself on Mt. Sinai “powerless”), and that we change those hearts by letting men make bad choices and confronting them with our broken bodies as evidence of their injustice.  This is not diminishing Paul telling us that the government is given the “sword” by God (although it should be noted that the sword in that case was being used against Christians and Paul himself) or that God is just and there will be judgment (the film actually portrays Gandhi as believing in hell and I believe scripture teaches it too), it is just stating that I believe the emphasis is on the former when it comes to our part and the latter is focused on being God’s part.

In the end these discussions usually come to nothing because they exist only in intellectual arenas.  Few are willing to really stick their neck out on the line to prove their point.  That’s what I love about Gandhi and why I love the films portrayal of him.  It takes the debate out of the realm of philosophy and makes it real.  We can see that these principles he used have a power all their own.  In short, they worked!  They work because Christ is in them, regardless of whether the person claims Christ or not.  Gandhi is not a threat to Christian faith; he is confirmation of its deep abiding truth like a deep reservoir waiting to be tapped across the face of the earth.

Imagine the sweeping change across the earth if we tapped into that by obeying a greater invisible truth than instead giving our loyalty to the earth born status quo.

They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me, then they will have my dead body. Not my obedience.”  – Gandhi

* A note about the process.  When delving into what a biopic thinks, I’m looking to do three things in particular.  I attempt to articulate what the film makers think of the subject of the film and not what I think independently.  I look at which events were selected and which were left out historically of the portrayal.  Finally, I put more weight than usual on how other characters in the film react to the protagonist.

** I believe that the issue isn’t with the morality of his actions.  Most people would agree that his actions were beautiful, moral, and a bit mesmerizing.  The problem is the sticky questions it brings up for Christians with a mindset that is obsessed with determining who is saved and who isn’t.  It also raises uncomfortable questions about how a man who didn’t claim Jesus was better at following his lifestyle than people who do claim Him.