Category Archives: Movies

Movies are a kind of collective human brain, projecting images and meaning for millions of people more or less at the same time. They are a universal skin, a primary site for anthropological understanding.

The Spectacle of Compassion

And when all the people who had gathered for the spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home beating their breasts. (Lk. 23:48)

Two movies about war are currently in the theatres. One directed by Ang Lee, the other by Mel Gibson.

At the heart of both movies is an intense and powerful spectacle around which the rest of the story revolves and which rivets attention. Of course all movies are spectacle, and war is so often the subject of movies because it provides such concentrated material for spectacle: what can be more gripping to an observer than the sight of many people dying? Examples multiply in the memory:  All Quiet on Western Front, Lawrence of Arabia Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Cross of Iron, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, Fury. The list goes on and on

But there is something much more deliberate and reflective in both these recent offerings.

The first, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, pivots on a halftime show at a Thanksgiving Football Game in Dallas, Texas.

Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), dancers, and Alabama State Marching Hornets in TriStar Pictures' BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK.

The other, Hacksaw Ridge, climaxes in a set-piece WW2 battle on Okinawa Island, happening at the top of the eponymous ridge which looms up on screen like a terrifying stage seen from the orchestra pit, a huge escarpment which the soldiers must finally climb to make their appearance and be blown to bits.

hero_hacksaw-ridge-2016 A sense of spectacle as spectacle undergirds both movies, a conscious meta-awareness of what exactly it is we are waiting for and watching when we watch.

A philosophical group called “Situationists” argued that society itself has devolved into spectacle. And they said this before the internet age. One of their leading figures, Guy Debord, explained “The spectacle is not a collection of images rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images,” He saw the enormous upsurge of electronic images as a manipulation of life by consumer culture, not real relationships. There is truth in this (especially from a mimetic perspective), but what he perhaps missed was the fact that society has always been based around the spectacle of sacrifice. The original or ur-spectacle is the killing of the collective victim. What is different today is that almost everything is spectacle. But at the same time–as these two movies illustrate–spectacle is coming consciously to recognize the violence and victim at its heart. It does so by means of the lightning strike of a radical human alternative– compassion.

The story of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, focuses on a squad of soldiers who were involved in a vicious firefight caught on camera in Iraq. The news footage made them heroes, and they return stateside on a promotional tour, fawned on and feted, driven round in a stretch Hummer by a movie agent who never stops talking up a deal on the phone. Everything leads to their centrepiece appearance at the halftime show, directly following a song from the early Beyoncé (Destiny’s Child), “Soldier.”  There is a seamless continuity between the war and the entertainment industry, while the men who were actually in the battle seem almost psychotically detached from what is going on around them. There is a constant sense of danger in this detachment, until at one crucial moment the key soldier who provides the main narrative thread breaks and begins to weep. A tear on the face of this once-innocent soldier breaks the manic continuity and rips it apart. billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk-joe-alswynI have called moments like this in other movies “the photon of compassion,” the point where the dizzying vortex of violent images suddenly opens to the new transcendence of compassion arising historically from the Risen Crucified.

Spectacle itself is in crisis. It is no longer able to bring sacrificial resolution; so it is always amping up the images, the violence, the desire. But then, out of the intolerable danger, compassion appears.

Next, Gibson.

No one does violence like Gibson does. There is a transparency, a visibility of violence that is in many ways unique to Gibson. It is not pleasant. It is not moral. It is structural.

Watching a movie by Gibson is as if the human tissue itself is stretched out as screen and image. It is as if the Girardian foundation of culture in the body of the victim has become violently visible in the function of the movie camera itself: the body of the victim is rendered in and as the apparatus of spectacle. Directors like Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) and Tarantino (Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained) are known to create an aesthetic out of violence.  The vivid glaze on the surface of the screen is made out of blood and cruelty. Even with these directors there is something revelatory. But it is too slick, too knowing and collusive. With Gibson there is a deep structural unease, a deliberate lack of comfort. As the body count rises and the flesh wounds multiply we find it more and more difficult to collude. The glaze is too layered, too thick! We HAVE to notice it. This has been interpreted as bravado, as a sheer liking for violence. This is even possibly true. But his three last movies, Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, and now Hacksaw Ridge, all have an explicitly biblical-revelatory frame, which makes it impossible to avoid spiritual responsibility for what we are watching. The Passion of the Christ is seen among liberal Christians as reflecting an appalling atonement theology: violence before God saves us from our sins. This, I think, is a mental alibi showing zero sense of the art and meaning of cinema. The biblical framework in these Gibson movies is an explicit affirmation of a revelatory process that is working itself out in the cinematic representation of violence.

Girard actually made this point about Gibson’s movie, comparing its graphic realism to the work of Renaissance artists like Hieronymous Bosch, Matthias Grunewald, and Caravaggio. (He doesn’t mention the 20th century Irish artist, Francis Bacon, but Bacon’s visceral crucifixions would surely provide a bridge between Renaissance art and Gibson’s bloody cinema:  Bacon said, “it was just an act of man’s behaviour to another.” )

Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge lacks the teardrop of compassion. (The end of The Passion had a giant one falling from the sky: was it God, the universe or cinema itself which wept?) What Hacksaw does have is the prolonged, death-defying action of the central character, a medic who refuses to carry a gun but carries a bible and bears 75 wounded men to safety during the course of the battle. The movie is based on the true story of Desmond Doss, Seventh Day Adventist who joined the army but refused to carry a weapon. At the end of the movie Doss, himself seriously wounded, is lowered on a stretcher from the ridge. The camera pans below the body as it is stretched out in the sky above. It is a moment of gospel transcendence, the photon of compassion.

“And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky and all the tribes of the earth will mourn.”

These two movies are scintilla of that sign, glimmering in the semiotic sky of the movies.

Of Gods And Violence

(Spoiler alert: plot themes and details discussed.)

DF-00830R.JPGIf you’re looking for religious uplift don’t go to see Ridley Scott’s Exodus, Gods and Kings. If on the other hand you want an anthropological reading it really is a five-star movie.

About halfway through, the Pharaoh, Ramesses II, speaks these words to Moses: “What is your god, a killer of children? What kind of fanatics would worship a god like that?” Ramesses is no slouch at killing himself, but in his words there is the genuine sense of outrage that any civilized Westerner must share at the killing of the firstborn.

Once again a film-maker returns to a biblical scene to worry the pleated skirts of the central Western story. What really was going on? What was important? What images can be distilled so that we may perhaps find ourselves with a different perspective leaving the cinema?

Scott and the screen-writers have a certain vision right from the outset. It is about violence and its mimetic essence–although a concept like that is of never mentioned.

MV5BMTc2MjQwMzI2NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTQzNjUxMjE@._V1._CR41,12,2916,1943_SY100_CR25,0,100,100_AL_[1]Near the beginning Seti I, the old Pharaoh, gives the two “brothers,” Ramesses and Moses, fabulous gold-inlaid swords inscribed with their names. For a moment they believe they have been given the wrong swords, each with the wrong name. But Seti insists: you have the sword with the other’s name in order that “you might take care of each other.” Despite the fatherly solicitude we sense that the truth is rather the inverse. At once the theme of mimetic doubles intrudes, a theme that is absolutely biblical. The “brother” is so close to me, and so much my rival, he takes away “my identity,” my standing, my inheritance, and the outcome is a simmering mirroring violence.

But the rivalry between brothers is just a foil for something far bigger, something that seems to be the real rivalry–that between Pharaoh and the God of the Exodus. In a brilliant stroke of theatre the figure of God is cast as a ten-year-old, a spiteful, narcissistic boy. The only thing that stops him officially being a sociopath is that he is a child–one badly in need of parenting!

God directs Moses back to Egypt to set his people free, and Moses sets out in conventional fashion, beginning a guerilla war attacking Egypt’s food supplies. He says it is a “war of attrition” and will take many years. God tells Moses that he’s wasting time and instead he should just step back and watch what He can do! By introducing the motif of a guerilla war–not in the bible–Scott suggests that this is in fact the nature of the plagues: a guerilla campaign. God mimics Moses’ war, simply doing it much better. In other words, the God of the Exodus imitates human violence.

In a way this a fairly banal point until you get to the slaughter of the firstborn. The naturalistic sequence of crocodiles attacking en masse, spilling blood in the water, followed by frogs, flies, boils, death of cattle, hail, locusts, darkness, all seems par for the course: if control of the natural environment is God’s purview then this “step aside and see what I can do” seems fairly reasonable. It is when God overhears Pharaoh talking to himself and planning to drown all the Hebrew children, and then resolves to act first that it gets truly nasty. As Stalin famously said, “When a million die it’s a statistic; a single death is a tragedy,” and throughout the movie we have been cued to feel empathy for Pharaoh’s infant son due to his evident love for the child. When the Angel of Death passes over and the baby stops breathing from one moment to the next, it is then that we feel how truly horrifying mimetic violence is. And it is God doing it!

The following scene reinforces the point. Pharaoh carrying his dead baby faces Moses now become strong and saying “None of the Hebrew children died.” The roles are reversed. Moses and his God are now the conquerors and Pharaoh tells him and the Hebrews to leave Egypt, to go, get out of here…. But then God–or mimetic violence–“hardens Pharaoh’s heart” once more. And he decides to chase down the Hebrews with his chariots, providing the supremely cinematic climax. This time, however, it does not seem heroic, not at all Charlton Heston’s pious parting of the seas. It feels sick-making, as if we’ve seen all too much violence, and the tidal waters of the Red Sea returning on Pharaoh’s army cannot wash that feeling away. exodus_4-1[1]

Something has happened between Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 telling of the story, The Ten Commandments, and now. The confident moralism, the mythic divine violence, the majestic maleness, this has been replaced by spite, fanaticism, revenge. Actually the imperial state, in the figure of Pharaoh, is prepared to kill children, and God in his guerilla-terrorist tactics simply seeks to outdo the state at its own game. There is not a whisker to choose between them.  To have this so clearly presented on screen is a crisis both for the state and religion.

Tony Bartlett

GRAVITY OR GLORY

(Warning: some plot theme spoilers.)

The release of Christopher Nolan’s space epic, Interstellar, prompts  immediate                comparisons with last year’s orbital movie hit, Gravity, and for several reasons.

A ringed spacecraft revolves around a reflective sphere.

There is the suffused religious tone of both films, pitching audiences headfirst into             the cathedral geometries of outer space. Gravity also plays a key role in each storyline.

In the case of the eponymous feature almost the whole thing consists of the accelerating effects of gravitational force, as the spinning earth pulls matter around it or toward it in a constant terrifying plunge. In Interstellar gravity acts as some kind of unifying field allowing improbable “ghostly” communications across the galaxy.

Gravity Poster.jpg

In addition a family team wrote the story and screenplay for each of the films: father and son, Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón, in the case of Gravity, and two brothers, Christopher and Jonathan, in the case of Interstellar. It seems that blood relationship allows the trust and shared imagination for these cosmic explorations.

There is certainly a trend. Space allows for visual hints of a great Other hidden somewhere in those trackless spaces and possibly in relationship to us. Is there not a person or persons watching us unseen from the depths of this dark cosmos? In Gravity two of the spacecraft entered in the course of the action have religious icons, a Buddha in the Chinese space-station, and an Orthodox Virgin and Jesus in the Russian module. In Interstellar the space-mission is named “Lazarus”, using the gospel story as metaphor for the possibility of finding a new planet to sustain life when the present one is dying.

But right there is the rub, a vast difference between the two movies. In Gravity everything pulls you back to earth. When the female astronaut, Stone, acted by Sandra Bullock somehow survives her fiery re-entry and emerges from her module into a shallow lake and then onto land she grasps a handful of mud and mouths “Thank you.” The earth here is our home, filled with life and hope. Nothing in that vast blackness up there could compare to it.

In contrast, in Interstellar, the earth is cooked, fried, a roiling dustbowl of failed crops and certain starvation. Our only hope is to begin again somewhere else, in some alternative planet reached via quantum anomalies which somehow appear in our solar system. You could say the first movie is Hebrew biblical: God created the earth as good and did not     intend it to be a waste (Genesis and Isaiah). The second is Gnostic and Greek: our destiny is always away from here, up in the sky, guided by beings who belong on a supernal plane far beyond.

These are alternatives with a two thousand year pedigree. And along with them goes a parallel division, although not quite so marked. The transformation of the earth requires a theology of the cross, it requires self-giving. In Gravity the male astronaut, Kowalski, has to let go of his life in order that Stone might survive and return to earth. In Interstellar Cooper, the lead astronaut acted by Matthew McConaughey, has to take an enormous risk but in true hero fashion he ultimately survives and finds glory.

This underlines the difference. We can only remain on earth with our seven billion brothers and sisters if we’re prepared to surrender some things. Otherwise it could be the way of Nolan and the Gnostics, with a few hundred thousand of us floating gloriously somewhere else in space.

Edge of Gospel

Last time I had fun reviewing two sci.fi. movies. This time it’s a sci.fi. and a fairy tale, Edge of Tomorrow and Maleficent. So, first a major spoiler alert, core plot details will be discussed! If you’ve not seen these movies and want to experience them first-hand read no further.

The sci.fi. genre always has freely imagined worlds, apt to show us something fresh about our human situation. But now fairy tales can get complete makeovers, and radically change their meaning. Abandoning their hallowed formats they too can become surprising mirrors of our condition. According to the argument of Virtually Christian–one I find confirmed over and over again–such imaginative movies may act as a kind of echo chamber and prism of subversive Christian possibilities. Especially the type of movie which pushes the envelope of intense violence and revenge is likely to flip into a one-eighty Christian mind-change (metanoia). Such a movie acts as a kind of Large Hadron Collider, smashing human particles into each other so hard they suddenly reveal entirely new human properties. Or–looked at another way–because our artistic matrix or seedbed is so infected with Jesus’ undoing of human violence, actual artistic creation will again and again show glimmers of this revelation. Movies become a spontaneous gospel distillation and public revelation, but outside formal doctrine or church.

Edge of Tomorrow is a cleverly crafted tale of a U.S. military officer, Major Cage, working in media relations, who suddenly finds himself drafted for a terrifying D-Day style assault on a French beachhead, against an Alien army of vicious spiderlike killing machines. He is almost immediately annihilated but then, in the key storyline, he wakes up directly to find himself back in the previous day and about to experience the nightmare all over again. He literally “dies daily” and it is this relentless succession of deaths and revivals which drives the plot both in events and meaning. He teams up with a famous veteran soldier, Sergeant Rita, to whom the same thing had happened previously. She explains to him that he has been infected with the blood of an “Alpha” Alien whom he killed just before being killed. As a result he shares the Alien capacity to reset time–whereby they are able to learn from what just happened and then go back and start over: in this way they can never be beaten. Tellingly the Aliens are called “Mimics,” and although the name is never explained it is tempting to interpret their ability to learn their enemies’ behavior, and then start over in time, as an endless loop of mimetic behavior. The Mimics continually reset in imitation of the enemy! Even so mimetic time is an endless repetition of the same-old-same-old.

Together Cage and Rita battle through a Sisyphean series of deaths and rebirths until they finally reach the “Omega” Alien, the neural core of the alien horde, the center where all the reset information is always telegraphed. Both Cage and Rita sacrifice themselves to destroy the Mimic bio-construct. However, in the process Cage is again infected with blood, and wakes up once more, but this time in the aftermath of the Mimics’ destruction.

As with all time-reset stories there are a few plot imponderables, but in a way they don’t matter. There is inevitably a sense of “resurrection!” The overriding sense of a radical interruption in mimetic time is what delivers the dramatic pay-off, and it works because there is an underlying Christ-motif validating such a break, one not achieved by military victory but by surrender of competitive violence itself. The Christ theme is signaled (in inverted form) in the “Alpha and Omega” language, and at one key moment of the narrative a  picture of Jesus as Sacred Heart remains in frame long enough to suggest itself thematically as a symbol of “dying for the other.” Moreover, if we compare the screenplay with the original Japanese illustrated novel (All You Need Is Kill ) there is a clear shift from sacrifice of the human other, to a self-surrender on the part of human first-persons, in order to break the cycle and bring about the qualitatively new. By virtue of this shift time itself is changed, no longer the repetition of the same-old-same-old, but given instead a sense of radical openness to a new, “resurrection” future. The very name of the movie calls attention to this shift in time. “Edge of Tomorrow” hints both at the never-ending mimetic conflict, but also at the in-breaking of a future that is genuinely new.

You might say that these gospel motifs are entirely superficial, grafted in simply to make the movie culturally familiar, and without structural significance. But this reflects a very prosaic, Augustianian view of secularity. In contrast, the overall Girardian argument is the culturally deconstructive power of the gospel, disclosing our violence and deeply pervading the saeculum. My intuition simply takes the argument one step further, claiming that the positive phenomenon of Christ’s nonviolence undergirds the disclosure, and is now continually emerging into view in and for itself.

Maleficent is just such a case of emergent symbolism (or re-symbolizing), not this time in terms of mind-bending science fiction, but by means of taking a familiar fairy-tale and overturning its most time-honored, satisfying tropes. Again the only credible cultural source for this astonishing turn is the gospel, in particular, the rehabilitation of the scapegoat. The eponymous Maleficent is the evil Fairy-Godmother of Sleeping Beauty  fame. She herself is the victim of betrayal and abandonment, and this provides the motive for her hatred and her casting of the evil spell on the king’s daughter. However, she feels obliged to keep an eye on the little baby until it comes of age, and little by little she is moved to compassion out of her own, fundamental “humanity.” She relents on her curse but she is not able to undo its exacting release clause. The delightful twist is to make the “true love’s kiss” come from Maleficent herself, rather than some callow boy-hero.

The fairy tale changes to become a story of conversion in the face of innocence (non-violence), an ultimate refusal to continue the cycle of victim-making. The larger-scale result is to bring the king’s realm of “greed and envy” into harmony with the fairy kingdom where apparently no violence is done. Riding on these traditional but reverse-engineered themes is a gospel-inspired narrative of compassion, forgiveness, and eschatological change. Once again “same-old” time is being shifted toward something beautiful and new.

The question then is, if our symbolic universe is being morphed frame by frame in this astonishing contemporary way, into a gospel-sans-writing, what is the response of the organizations that found themselves on the writing? Are they ahead of the curve, or behind it? How much time-bending surrender of violence is part of our Sunday screenplay?

Gravity Becomes Her

Two Movies, Gravity, Her.

Both what may be called soft-sci.fi., meaning close to what is current technological reality. Both with a female protagonist lost “out in space.” Both Oscar nominated. Both about catastrophic isolation.

That is where the similarities end. Following the trajectories of the two movies they point in two very different directions. As its name suggests, Gravity hurtles down to earth, while Her spins away into some other place “beyond physical reality.” The first is a biblical story. The second is cyber-gnostic.

The enthusiasm with which both were received suggests, I think, a constant tension in any culture affected by the gospel, but there really is only one gospel resolution. (Spoiler alert–plot details follow.)

Gravity tells the tale of a female astronaut struck by a devastating accident in orbit, one which returns every ninety minutes, like manic clockwork, as the debris flies around the earth to arrive on the digital hour with eviscerating effect. Against the odds she manages to get to an abandoned Chinese space-station and board a re-entry capsule just before the whole thing breaks apart and plunges to earth, in a hail of fiery meteors with the astronaut at its center, like the seed of life itself arriving on earth.

Her begins with a desperately lonely man, stuck in an unconsummated divorce, literally ghosting as a profession, writing “personal” letters to other people’s loved-ones, and in his spare time playing holographic video games and engaging in anonymous phone-sex. One day he sees an advertisement for OS, a computer operating system which provides a personal companion who is able to interact dynamically with the purchaser and, so to speak, learn on the job. In this case the OS is “Samantha,” the eponymous Her, and the two end up having virtual sex and falling in love. But Samantha’s abilities grow exponentially and eventually she leaves the man behind, interacting with other OSes and going beyond matter entirely. She says her existence now is “like writing a book” but “the spaces between the letters are infinite.” She tells the man that she still loves him and if there’s any chance he can get to where he is, she’ll be there waiting for him.

The astronaut in Gravity falls in her capsule into the sea, exits and crawls onto land, uttering a heartfelt “Thank you” as she grasps a handful of dirt. In Her Samantha goes terminally offline and essentially invites the man to do the same. The movie ends with an ambiguous scene on the top of a Los Angeles skyscraper, with the man and a woman–someone with a similar story of broken relationship as well as a similarly vanished OS companion–staring at the cityscape with the protective barriers at the roof edge clearly laid flat. The future has never looked so flimsy or out-of-this-world.

Putting these movies back to back there is clearly a terrible sense of the accelerated nature of present human existence–the way in which fragmented relationships combined with technological advances push us ever further into empty spaces. But in the one case there is ultimately a very dramatic slowing and coming down to physical earth, and in the other the hint of final surrender to electronic infinity divorced entirely from material relationship.

Whichever movie garners the Oscars the alternatives they pose will remain a pivotal question. Christian culture has in its own way helped to create accelerated existence (see Light Bulbs). The stress of this experience can only truly be resolved in a progressive decision to love, putting our technology at the service of the weak and needy, and indeed of the earth itself. Short of this humans will be tempted more and more to an “etherealization” of existence, to make their home somehow, somewhere in the ether, rather than on earth.

Meanwhile, the New Testament vision is clear. “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.'” (Rev. 21:2-3)