Ex Machina

A Review of 'Ex Machina'
(Movie released April 10, 2015)
by R. Greg Grooms

To be or not to be- that is the question.” Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

Things were changing when Mortimer Adler published his The DIfference of Man and the Difference It Makes in 1966. The centuries-old belief that there is something unique and universal about being human was under attack. To determinists like B.F. Skinner being human was simply a matter of biology, one that isn’t so unique after all. Post-moderns like Michel Foucault saw human nature as an ever-changing picture painted by social forces, especially language.

The shifting philosophical sands between Adler, Skinner, and Foucault proved to be fertile ground for the arts. In the decades that followed Adler’s book lots of films nibbled away at his argument. For example, 2001: A Space Odyssey wondered aloud if computers could be intelligent, too. Built upon an assumption of naturalism, its logic was unassailable: mechanical forces produce intelligence in us, ergo they can do so in machines.  To illustrate this 2001 gave us HAL, a computer that was not only intelligent, but psychotic, too.

Ex Machina’s Ava (Alicia Vikander) is the answer to a very different question.

But before we meet her, director Alex Garland introduces us to Caleb (Domnall Gleeson).  Think of him as Everyman of the Computer Age.  We meet him in a cubicle, working on a computer as a software engineer in the world’s largest internet company. His isn’t the most exciting life in the world, but as we meet him, he gets exciting news: he’s won the company lottery and first prize is a week with the company’s reclusive head, founder and resident genius, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), in his remote fastness in Norway. Before he/we know it, he’s whisked away by helicopter and introduced to Nathan, who explains why he’s here.

It’s simple: Nathan has invented artificial intelligence and Caleb is to be its Turing test. Named after Alan Turing (of The Imitation Game) the test is designed to determine if a computer is intelligent. From the start Nathan goes out of his way to tickle Caleb’s ego. It seems he wasn’t randomly selected after all.

Caleb: Why me?

Nathan: I needed someone that would ask the right questions, so I did a search and I found the most talented coder in my company. You know, instead of seeing this as a deception, you should see it as proof.

Caleb: Proof of what?

Nathan: Come on, Caleb. You don't think I don't know what it's like to be smart? Smarter than everyone else. Jockeying for position. You got the light on you, man. Not lucky. Chosen.

Then he introduces him to Ava. Three things are evident about her. First, she is a machine. Her face, hands, and feet look human down to the very skin that covers them, but her mechanical arms and legs are transparent. We not only see her gears and wires, we hear them faintly when she moves. Second, she is undoubtedly intelligent, even more so than Caleb. Third, she is very beautiful. When Caleb asks Nathan why he made her so, he offers this explanation: we have no experience of personality that is not gender-based, so creating artificial intelligence that is neither male nor female is just too hard. Caleb’s counter suggestion proves to be more to the point. Is she beautiful, he wonders, for the same reason the magician’s assistant is beautiful, i.e., to distract the audience from what really going on?

What’s really going on becomes clear only slowly. From the start Caleb and Ava are only allowed to interact through a glass wall, never truly face to face. We learn that Ava is a prisoner, locked in and perpetually under surveillance. So too, Caleb finds, is he. His comings and goings are carefully restricted by Nathan’s high-tech security system. What at first looks merely awkward soon becomes sinister, when Ava warns Caleb that all is not as it seems and Nathan is not to be trusted.

As we get to know Nathan, he certainly feels less than trustworthy. He’s easy not to like, not to trust. He’s brilliant to be sure, but also arrogant, crass, unashamedly self-centered and inclined to drink too much. His conversations with Caleb range over a wide variety of fascinating subjects: God, creation, love, sex, etc. but his comments never rise above the level of a junior high boy in a locker room.  He’s abusive to Kyoko, an earlier, less-advanced model of Ava. And dear, sweet beautiful Ava is everything Nathan isn’t. So, when she suggests escape to Caleb, he willingly assists her in concocting a plan.

All comes to a head the night before Caleb’s scheduled departure. At their farewell dinner, Nathan gets a little drunk and tells Caleb what’s really been going on: Ava isn’t the test subject. He is. Her challenge isn’t to persuade him that she’s intelligent, it’s to gain his trust, deceive him, and use him to escape for this in Nathan’s opinion is the true test: a real self is one that can be selfish, can use others for its own ends.

Ex Machina’s conclusion is predictably violent. Let me warn you of it and leave it to your imagination.

It’s tempting to see this fable as a fulfillment of Stephen Hawking’s prophecy to the BBC in December of 2014: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race." He fears the Terminator series run amok. If machines become smarter and more powerful than us, we’re doomed to lose Darwin’s survival of the fittest game. But seeing Garland’s film in that light, I think, would be foolish and self-serving, for as he made clear in an NPR interview in April of 2015 the problem he’s warning us of isn’t Ava, it’s us: “The tension in this film is much more directed at the humans.”

I’m reminded of the words of Lewis’ Screwtape here:

“The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition”.

I heartily recommend Ex Machina to you.

Obvious Child

A Review of 'Obvious Child'
(Movie released June 6, 2014)
by R. Greg Grooms

“Good Morning!" said Bilbo, and he meant it...

"What do you mean?" Gandalf said. "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"

 "All of them at once," said Bilbo.

–from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit

When I was a student – back in the Dark Ages – “What do you mean?” was thought to be a good question to ask of a book or a story or a film. The correct answer lay in the intent of the writer or director; what he or she meant by it was what it was all about. It’s an old-fashioned idea that has since been replaced by the belief that there simply isn’t one true meaning in any story, just lots of ever-changing meanings in the hearts and minds of writers, readers, and viewers.

Now, I’m not old-fashioned, but I must admit that I am curious about what inspires writers and directors to create and how this shapes their creations. Gillian Robespierre’s  Obvious Child hasn’t exactly shaken my faith in the intent of the writer, but it has opened my eyes to the many ways in which a film can be seen.

In an interview this summer she stated quite clearly what she intended for her film: it’s a romantic comedy about “a safe, regrets-free, shame-free abortion.” To that end she introduces us to Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), a young New Yorker, who works in a quirky bookstore- Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books-- during the day and does standup comedy in a club at night. One evening, after she delivers a colorful monologue about sex, dirty underpants, farts and parts of her boyfriend’s anatomy, he dumps her, announcing that he’s tired of being the butt of her jokes and that he’s been sleeping with a friend of her’s for a couple of weeks anyway. So Donna gets drunk, hooks up with a stranger-  Max, played by Jake Lacy-- and shortly thereafter learns that she’s pregnant.

The rest of  OC revolves around The Big Question. Not “Will I have an abortion?” The answer to that question is taken for granted. Robespierre quite deliberately has Donna avoid any Juno-esque agonizing about whether or not she should have her baby. No, the question she and her friends struggle with is, “Do I tell Max that I’m pregnant?” OC is meant to be a romantic comedy, and true to form the tension that drives it is whether or not Donna and Max can overcome their differences-- she’s Jewish, he’s “so Christian”; he’s a business major, she couldn’t care less about spreadsheets and profit margins; she’s frightfully childish, he looks like stability incarnate--  and find a path ahead together.

 Why this title? Who’s obviously a child? Donna certainly qualifies. She’s smart and funny, but not so funny as she thinks. Her business-professor Mom’s critique-- “And now you waste that 780 verbal telling jokes about having diarrhea in your pants.”-- fits her like a glove.  She’s funny, but also self-centered, flippant, seemingly incapable of running her own life, much less caring for a baby.  Marian Wright Edelmans’ comment about “the crisis of children having children” captures OC’s dilemma perfectly. Donna isn’t ready to be a mother, despite the fact that she is one.

And despite answering The Big Question with a “Yes!” she finds herself unable to tell Max until the night before the abortion. He comes to her club and hears in her monologue that she is pregnant with his child and will be having an abortion the next day. The audience in the club and the audience in the theater in which I saw OC, responded to this as if it were the comedic high point of the movie. Lots of laughs, lots of close ups of people in the audience laughing. I wept, and Max left… only to return the next morning, bearing flowers, to go the clinic with Donna and take her home after the procedure. The film ends with them cuddling on her couch with cups of tea, watching Gone With the Wind.

This is Gillian Robespierre’s story just she she intended it to be. But there’s another story behind her story and perhaps despite her intentions, it shines through in her film, too. Donna’s abortion is never spoken of, either by her, her friends, or her mother, without evoking tears and, once, anger. The images from the film that linger in my mind aren’t laughing faces, but Donna in the bath on the morning of her abortion, washing her face over and over; a closeup of her face with tears streaming from her eyes,  just as the abortion begins; Donna sitting silently in the recovery room afterwards, surrounded by lots of pretty, young women like herself, avoiding eye contact with all but one; her dark humor at the club the night before, when a friend tells her just before she goes on stage, “You’re gonna kill it out there tonight,” and she replies, “No. I’ll do that tomorrow.”

Am I suggesting that Ms. Robespierre made a film other than the one she intended? No, not at all, but I am saying that there are truths that cannot be fully obscured by any author’s intentions. You can see them in her film just as you can see them in Paul Simon’s song of the same title from his album The Rhythm of the Saints.

And in remembering a road sign
I am remembering a girl when I was young
And we said These songs are true
These days are ours

These tears are free
And hey
The cross is in the ballpark
The cross is in the ballpark

We had a lot of fun
We had a lot of money
We had a little son and we thought we'd call him Sonny
Sonny gets married and moves away
Sonny has a baby and bills to pay

Sonny gets sunnier
Day by day by day by day

I've been waking up at sunrise
I've been following the light across my room
I watch the night receive the room of my day
Some people say the sky is just the sky
But I say
Why deny the obvious child?



Failing the Test: A Review of 'Her'
(Movie released December 18, 2013)
by R. Greg Grooms

Back in 1950, when the best computer in the world lacked the power of your old laptop, British mathematician/philosopher Alan Turing anticipated a day in which this would no longer be so. In his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” he asked a question- “Can machines think?”- and proposed a test whereby it might be answered. In the Turing Test a judge may ask any question-- via keyboard-- of two subjects: a human being and a computer. When he is no longer able to tell which answers are human and which are computer-driven, the machine has passed the test.

It’s tempting to see Spike Jonze’s Her as the latest chapter in the same essay – after all a relationship between a man and his computer occupies the film’s center stage – but that would be a mistake, for Jonze really isn’t interested in machines.  He’s interested in persons, or to be more precise, in personal relationships. Her, in his own words, is “about something that I think has maybe always been here, which is our yearning to connect, our need for intimacy, and the things inside us that prevent us from connecting.”

So in Her he draws us into us three relationships: Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Catherine (Roony Mara), Theodore and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher). The first is offered only as a backdrop to the next, for Theodore and Catherine are almost divorced by the time we meet them, and most of their story is told through a series of flashbacks in Theodore’s memory. There’s an irony in their breakup as there is in most failed romances. You see, Theodore makes his living writing love letters for other people. He’s a kind of nerdy Cyrano de Bergerac; he puts into words the things others would like to say to loved ones, but can’t find the words to say. He writes Catherine a letter, too, in which he apologizes for “everything I needed you to be or needed you to say.” Remember it. It’s a central theme in Her: needs are tough on relationships. It’s Theodore’s relationship with Samantha that takes center stage in Her. She enters his life as a new operating system in his computer and is programed, at least initially, to be utterly him-focused: to understand who he is, what he wants, how to please him. With the aid of Scarlett Johansson’s voice and personality, she does that very well, so much so that Theodore falls for her, fast and hard. They are, to be sure, an odd couple. Even Theodore admits that: “Well, you seem like a person, but you’re just a voice in a computer.” At the same time Samantha is at first almost everything any self-centered person like Theodore – like most of us –could ever want. And then the predictable happens: Samantha outgrows her programming. She becomes aware that the world is bigger than Theodore and his wants and desires, and that she is bigger than that, too. She becomes a person, not in an ontological sense of the word but selfishly. She doesn’t exactly stop loving Theodore, but loving him simply isn’t enough anymore. So she leaves him. I call this predictable, not only because lovers have left lovers before in lots of other films, but because Jonze has been giving us hints about what will happen between Theodore and Samantha throughout Her. He sees a pattern in relationships, and in this pattern what happened to them isn’t the exception, it’s the rule.

For example, the third relationship in Her--Amy and Charles-- has all the hallmarks of disaster in it by the time we meet them. They are together, but one can’t help but wonder why. They don’t seem to enjoy one another very much. They are constantly bickering about small things. If there ever was any real love between them, it is long gone. They are together just because they are together, and one day being together becomes too much for them, so Charles leaves. When Theodore comes to comfort Amy, she offers her take on why their relationship failed. “You know what, I can over think everything and find a million ways to doubt myself. And since Charles left I've been really thinking about that part of myself and, I've just come to realize that, we're only here briefly. And while I'm here, I wanna allow myself joy. So f--- it.” I think Amy is speaking for Jonze here, “about the things inside us that prevent us from connecting.” And what he thinks those “things” are seems clear at least at first glance: we’re so needy that mere love and companionship aren’t enough. We need someone willing and able to sacrifice himself/herself for us, to be in the relationship for me. And since no other needy person can do this, at least not for long, relationships always fail. But it’s not that clear, and Jonze knows it. In his December 16th interview on NPR (“Spike Jonze opens his heart for “Her’”), Audie Cornish talked with him about the many and contradictory reactions she and her friends had to Her-- some thought it ‘creepy,” others “melancholy,” still others “hopeful”-- and asked, “Are you actually saying this is cheerful?” To which he replied, “I’m not saying anything.”

I didn’t like his answer, but I think I understand it. Like most artists, Jonze would rather let his art speak for itself rather than speaking for it. But saying that he’s saying nothing is too disingenuous to be true, for Her says a mouthful about relationships, not only how and why they fail, but that they can be creepy, melancholy, and hopeful, all at the same time. Whatever else he’s saying, it isn’t that we shouldn’t have them. Still every relationship in Her does fail, and what I yearn for after watching it is a reason to believe that it must not always be so. In chapter 18 of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters a senior demon patiently explains to his nephew why love is impossible. “The whole philosophy of Hell rests on the recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses.” Screwtape makes a good point; the same, I think, that Jonze is flirting with. If relationships are like math, then every relationship fails the test, because ultimately the relational math can never favor us both. Either my needs are met, or yours are. Either way we fail. Unless there’s another option. “The Enemy’s philosophy,“ says Screwtape, is nothing more than an attempt to evade the obvious. “Things are to be many, yet somehow also one. The good of the one self is to be the good of another. This impossibility He calls Love.” Herein, I think, lies the true test of any relationship. Can two needy people forge a relationship in which the impossible becomes possible? Jonze is right to suggest that the answer may be no; our needs and our natures incline us to Screwtape’s philosophy, unless something changes radically in us. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not suggesting that becoming a Christian will solve all of your relational problems. Far from it. The truth is that many unbelievers are both better spouses and better parents than many believers. Given the divorce rate amongst evangelicals, it would be ridiculous to suggest that the only key to a happy marriage is becoming a Christian. But I think, I hope that Spike Jones would understand and agree with what I am saying: that we shouldn’t attempt it without realizing that we need to change in order to relate well, and to seek the help we need to do so. Be warned: there are two rather embarrassing sex scenes in Her that you may wish to avoid. If you struggle with erotic conversations or nudity, you might well forego seeing Her in a theater, wait till it comes out on dvd, and simply skip those scenes. (Ah! The advantages of modern technology!) Despite these, it’s a fascinating, original, well-made, and well-acted movie. I recommend it highly.

Watch it with someone you love and talk about it.

Life of Pi

A Theology of the Imagination: A Review of 'Life of Pi'
(Movie released November 21, 2012)
by R. Greg Grooms

Who is God? 

Ask a secular friend and his/her answers may surprise you. Yes,  it is possible to be secular and a deist. According to Christian Smith,  Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Notre Dame, most young Americans are. They see God as a mix of divine butler and cosmic therapist: a spirit who “grants you anything you want, but not anything bad” and “is there to guide us, for someone to talk to and help us through our problems.” 

Ask the question, “How do you know who God is?” and the answers may be even more surprising. Most are qualified with an “I feel”, “I think” or “I believe”. It seems we are as uncomfortable with a god who can be known as we are with a god who isn’t content to stay in the shadows. In the words of poet Wallace Stevens, “We say God and the Imagination are one...”

Ang Lee’s beautiful film, The Life of Pi, is ostensibly a film about God. Early in the film, when Pi meets the writer who will chronicle his adventure, he says he wants to tell him a story which  will “make you believe in God.” In the end we hear, not one, but two stories: one is a beautiful, imaginative adventure; the other a grim tale of survival. 

The title of the film The Life of Pi  is a little misleading in that we are given only a brief introductory sketch of his life . We learn that Pi was named after an elegant French swimming pool-- the Piscine Molitor in Paris, was raised in a zoo by a rationalistic father and Hindu mother, and became a convert first to Catholicism and then to Islam without ceasing to be Hindu. 

Then comes the adventure.While sailing with his family and their zoo animals from India to Canada, the ship sinks in a storm, and young Pi is left adrift in the Pacific in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger, named Richard Parker. (Yes, there’s a story behind the name) The other animals quickly become food for Richard Parker, leaving him and Pi as the two players in tense and beautiful drama. 

The Life of Pi won a much-deserved Oscar earlier this year for Claudio Miranda’s realization of Yann Martel’s novel. Through his visual magic we experience the fury of a storm at sea, the ghostly phosphorescence of sea creatures in a nighttime ballet, a swarm of flying fish pursued by tuna and an island more mysterious than anything Jules Verne ever dreamed of. But most of all we experience what it might feel like to be adrift in a tiny lifeboat with a large Bengal tiger. It’s this story--not the shipwreck, but Pi’s face to face struggle with Richard Parker-- that is supposed to make us believe in God. 

I’ve watched the film three times so far, and each time I’ve wrestled with what seems to me to be a very obvious question: how is this story supposed to make me believe in God? God makes no appearance in the tale. Although it is filled with wonders, nothing occurs that might be  considered a miracle. Instead we witness Pi’s existential crisis, his journey with himself and within himself, and he offers this to inspire faith. 

John Calvin begins his Institutes with a statement that both echoes and contradicts Pi’s story:
“Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom , consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.” 

Should the knowledge of myself lead to a knowledge of God? Sure, but not in the way we often think of self-knowledge. The Pis of the world seek to discover who they are through their experiences and their responses to them. Having thus defined themselves, they then imagine a god who complements them, a god made in their image instead of vice versa. Calvin’s approach couldn’t be more at odd with Pi’s: I only understand myself truly as I understand myself as I stand before and in relation to God. 

Of course, there is another version of Pi’s story.  After drifting for months, Pi and Richard Parker make landfall in Mexico, the tiger disappears into the jungle, and  Pi is rescued. But when he tells the story we’ve seen to the insurance agents investigating the shipwreck, they are incredulous, so he tells them another story. When the ship sank,  Pi was joined in the lifeboat by his mother, an injured sailor and the ship’s cook. After the sailor died due to his injuries, the cook--“a disgusting man”--used him first for fish bait, then for food.  When Pi’s mother objected, he killed her, and the next day Pi killed the cook. 

After telling this story, Pi asks the most important question in the film: not “Which is story true?” but “Which do you prefer?”  

Allow me to offer two postscripts to The Life of Pi. In the last stanza of his poem “Creed” Steve Turner writes,

“We believe that each man must find the truth
that is right for him.
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust. History will alter.
We believe that there is no absolute truth
excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.”

Our imagination can produce very beautiful stories about gods. Through the years I’ve enjoyed many of them, especially in fantasy literature. Reading them can sometimes even be good preparation for getting to know God, sparking our divine curiosity as it were.  But the God who is there is not the product of our imagination. He is who he is; the fear of the Lord begins with acknowledging this. And as CS Lewis noted, merely enjoying such tales isn’t enough.. 

“We want something else which can hardly be put into words-- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses, nymphs and elves..”

Pi’s quest for god is a beautiful tale, but like any story rooted only in imagination it fails to satisfy. Only a real God will do, one speaks, acts and is willing and able to present us before His beauty without blemish and with great joy. 

Please, watch The Life of Pi with some friends, then talk about the film, about who God is, and see where the conversation takes you. 

Searching for Sugar Man

Portrait of an Artist in Exile: A Review of 'Searching for Sugar Man'
(Movie released July 27, 2012)
by R. Greg Grooms

If you plan to see Searching for Sugar Man, please, stop reading this and watch the film first. Most films, in my opinion, should be viewed without introduction, if at all possible, but none more so than this. Should you ignore my warning, the review may do more than spoil the film’s drama for you; it may color your experience of it.  I still feel guilty for reading Tolkien out loud to my children before they were able to know it firsthand for themselves. One of the many things they must forgive me for.

The safe details: Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary released last year by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul . It’s had rave reviews at Sundance, Tribeca, and SXSW, won many awards, and been nominated for many more, including an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. This is a well-made film. But even more important, it tells a good story, or perhaps I should say two good stories.

Here’s where the line between safe and spoiler gets crossed.

The first story is the story of how South Africa changed from a white-dominated police state to an open democracy. To be sure, only a small part of this story is told in SFSM, but for anyone who is an artist first and a historian later, it’s one of the best parts of the story. It’s the story of how art has the power to change what politics often cannot.

I know how this works. In Alabama, where I grew up during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, while our parents were electing George Wallace governor four times, we were listening to Bob Dylan: “How many roads must a man walk down, before they call him a man?” No one quotes George Wallace anymore, not even in Alabama, but I still listen to Dylan.

While we were listening to him, white South Africans were listening to someone else. Cape Town record shop owner Stephen Segerman says that during the seventies every South African record collection contained at least three records:  the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Cold Fact by Sixto Rodriguez. Yes, I know. This begs the Sesame Street question: which one of these things is not like the other?  But, you see, South Africans didn’t know that no one in the United States had heard of Rodriguez. They thought that he was just another famous American rocker, and his music lit the flames of South Africa’s counter-culture.

“I wonder how many times you've been had
And I wonder how many plans have gone bad
I wonder how many times you had sex
I wonder do you know who'll be next
I wonder... l wonder… wonder I do.”

-“I Wonder” from Cold Fact (1970)


“Sugar man, won't you hurry
'Cos I'm tired of these scenes.
For a blue coin won't you bring back
all those colors to my dreams.
Silver magic ships you carry,
Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane.”

-“Sugar Man” from Cold Fact


 “The mayor hides the crime rate
council woman hesitates
Public gets irate but forget the vote date
Weatherman complaining, predicted sun, it's raining
Everyone's protesting, boyfriend keeps suggesting
you're not like all of the rest.”

-“This is not a Song, It’s an Outburst” or “The Establishment’s Blues” from Cold Fact

Forty years later the old sex-drugs-and-rebellion message in Rodriguez’ lyrics feels rather tired and generic, but his voice (imagine a cross between Jim Croce and James Taylor) and his simple sincerity give them an enduring power. And in authoritarian apartheid South Africa it was subversive, illegal (“Sugar Man” was banned by South African censors), and inspiring. A generation of Afrikaaner musicians turned to Rodriguez and his music for the courage to speak out against their own system. And as they followed in his musical footsteps, they wondered about his fate.

The two most popular Stories of Rodriguez’ End imagined him committing suicide onstage after a concert. In version one after singing “Forget It”, he pulled out a pistol and blew his brains out.

“But thanks for your time
Then you can thank me for mine
And after that's said
Forget it.
Don't be inane
There's no one to blame
No reason why
You should stay here
And lie to me.”

-“Forget It” from Cold Fact

In version two he doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. Either way he was outrageous, rebellious, and mysterious to the end, at least in the minds of his fans. But neither tale is true.

The second good story told by SFSM is the true story of Sixto Rodriguez, an aspiring folk rock musician in Detroit in the early 70s. His first album, Cold Fact, got a four star review from Billboard magazine, but failed to sell. After his second album- Coming from Reality (1971)- met the same fate, he abandoned his career in music, started work in demolishing and restoring old buildings, and raised his family. Quite simply, the artist turned from his art to the more mundane pursuits of family and community. But art has a way of refusing to be ignored even when we turn our backs on it.

If you’ve ever written a song or published a book, you know that once your turn it loose, it takes on a life of its own. People that you don’t know read it or sing it and find things in it that you never imagined. In a way you are connected to everyone who knows your work and at the same time alienated from them painfully. While no fan has an inalienable right to discuss art with the artist, every artist should have the chance to know the people touched by his art if he wishes to. Circumstances conspired to deny Sixto Rodriguez this opportunity for over two decades.

Then in 1996 South African journalist Craig Batholomew Strydom began looking for Rodriguez. Well, to be more accurate, I should say he began investigating the myths of his fate and found, to his surprise, that Rodriguez was alive and well and living in Detroit with no idea that he is a musical legend in South Africa. It’s hard to tell who was more surprised by this revelation: the South Africans, who had celebrated his music and the tales of his death, or Rodriguez himself, still working as a laborer. But surprise rapidly gave way to delight and plans for 5 concerts in South Africa. Rodriguez daughter, Regan, hoped that 20 people might show up so that her Dad wouldn’t be disappointed. 20,000 did. Every concert was sold out.

And they all lived happily ever after?  Not quite. It’s estimated that Rodriguez albums sold around 500,000 copies in South Africa during his exile. A major mystery that remains is who got the money? Not Rodriguez himself. And in a recent interview on NPR he washed his hands of the matter, declaring that he doesn’t know who got it and he doesn’t care. Of course, the cynic in me whispers, “That’s never true,” but it may well be so in this case. Since his renaissance Rodriguez has played five sold out concert tours in South Africa and has given away the money he made on them to family and friends. He still lives in the same old house in Detroit that he has for years.

“And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I'll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then I'll go mend all my shattered dreams
Maybe today, yeah
I'll slip away”

-“Slip Away” from Cold Fact.

One last footnote: critics of SFSM point out, rightly, that the story it tells is a bit misleading. Evidently Rodriguez toured New Zealand and Australia and sold lots of records there right in the midst of his supposed exile. It seems Bendjelloul is guilty not so much of misrepresenting the facts as selectively emphasizing some at the cost of others for dramatic purposes. If so, he’s not the first storyteller to do so, and if he needs forgiving for this, then, I think, forgiveness is in order here for SFSM tells one heck of a story.

If you are an artist and wonder about the value of your work, please, watch SFSM. If you’re a cynic and need to hear a story that may shake your cynicism, watch it. If you’re simply someone who likes a good story, or two, watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

The Sunset Limited

A Review of 'The Sunset Limited'
(Movie released February 12, 2011)
by R. Greg Grooms

“To be, or not to be, that is the question...” Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1.

I admit it: Cormac McCarthy fascinates me. In the seven years since I stumbled across No Country For Old Men in an airport bookstore, I’ve savored every morsel of his writing, including his ten novels, two plays, and one screenplay. Three of his novels – All the Pretty Horses, No Country, and The Road—have made it to the screen so far, and both of his plays, albeit only on TV. Last year’s HBO production of his play The Sunset Limited is the subject of this review.

There are but two characters in TSL: Black, a poorly educated ex-con, played by Samuel L. Jackson, and White, a university professor played by Tommy Lee Jones. The play begins just after Black rescued White, who tried to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of a commuter train. Black takes White home to his shabby apartment, and the two spend the next hour and a half debating the meaning of life.

Black is a believer and argues simply but eloquently for the gospel. His approach to evangelism is the one I was taught years ago in the First Baptist Church of my home town: start by telling what Jesus has done for you. I’m sad to say it’s an approach that never worked well for me. At the time I felt this was due to the fact that my testimony is boring; there simply isn’t much drama in growing up white, middle-class and Baptist. Black’s story in contrast packs all the pop mine lacked. When White learns that Black has spent time in prison, he asks him to tell him a story about his time in the Big House. Black responds with a tale that my evangelism teachers would have been proud of: one day in the prison cafeteria he got into a fight with another inmate that produced two results: his salvation and permanent brain damage for his assailant. There are, of course, more details to the story than this, but trust me: you need to hear Samuel L. Jackson tell it, not me.

Unfortunately Black’s testimony isn’t any more persuasive than mine used to be. White just isn’t interested in what Jesus can do to improve his quality of life; offers of eternal life make him shudder. You see, existence itself is The Problem in his eyes. Is he an atheist? Sure, but that’s not why he tried to commit suicide. White’s dilemma is the Dilemma of the Secular Existentialist. On one hand, life is whatever you make of it, and you are free to do with it as you will. On the other, life is whatever you make of it, and if despite your best efforts, it doesn’t turn out well, why not end it all? Indeed, in his opinion this is the only honest choice available to anyone. In his words, “If people could see the world for what it truly is, see their lives for what they truly are without dreams and illusions, I don't believe they could offer the first reason why they should not elect to die as soon as possible.”

Cormac McCarthy is a master at writing dialogue and it is the richness of his dialogue even more than the strength of his characters that carries TSL. If the idea of listening to an hour and a half of conversation sounds boring to you, think again. Conversation this good is rare, and if I had McCarthy writing my dialogues for me, I’d never tire of talking to anyone. Still like good food, dialogue this rich should be digested slowly, if at all possible. So if you have the time and the inclination, please get a copy of the play and read it before watching the movie. It’ll set the stage (no pun intended) for what follows. And if you’ve already read the play, please watch the film, too. Remember what it was like to read Shakespeare the first time? The beauty of the words, getting to know the characters, the delight of the story? It was good, wasn’t it? And then remember what it was like to see Much Ado About Nothing performed well, by real artists. If nothing else it brought home the simple fact that plays were meant to be performed, not just read. TSL is at its heart a play about whether or not life is worth living, and while you can learn a lot about Cormac McCarthy’s answers to that question by reading it, you’ll learn even more by watching.

The tagline on The Sunset Limited DVD reads, “Nothing is ever black or white.” I imagine it’s the product of an ad exec’s imagination rather than McCarthy’s for the predominant shades in all his work are back and white. He sees the world, rightly, as a world of sharp contrasts. Either we make choices and are responsible or our lives are ruled by fate. Either evil is real or all our tragedies are pointless. Either life is worth living or it isn’t. What’s hard to find amidst his blacks and whites is a clue to which he thinks is so.

I’ve read lots of reviews of the play and the movie. I’ve read the play out loud with friends, watched the film with them, and spent hours discussing both, and in our discussions I’ve noticed a consistent pattern. Believers think, “Our guy won. His arguments were better. He carried the day.” Secularists think the same things, but about White, not Black. I think that The Sunset Limited is a carefully balanced presentation of what McCarthy considers some of the best arguments each side has to offer. If so, in his mind it’s a tossup in the end. You make your choice and you place your bets. Everything is riding on your bet, but you can’t know if your bet was a good one until it’s too late. If I’m right, then The Sunset Limited begs an important question: not the one I started this review with--“To be or not to be”-- but rather Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus in John 18-- “What is truth?”

And as Hamlet also said, “There’s the rub.” Living well without answers—the American Way-- is a comfortable make-believe. As Dick Keyes once memorably put it, it’s like sailing first class on the Titanic: we go out in style. But having good answers that can’t be lived is no better. A belief in God that doesn’t translate into hope that existence has not always been and will not always be hell just isn’t attractive to White or anyone else I know. Fortunately the gospel according to Jesus does just that, even if the gospel according to Cormac McCarthy does not.

The Conspirator

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and...the Rule of Law?: A Review of 'The Conspirator'
(Movie released November 3, 2010)
by R. Greg Grooms

I remember when my email inbox began filling with the messages about “Ground Zero Mosque”: “You Can Build Your Mosque at Ground Zero When We Can Build Our Synagogue at Mecca,” and “Building a Mosque at Ground Zero Is Like Building a Memorial to Hitler at Auschwitz.” My first impression was that a mosque was actually being planned for the site of the old World Trade Center towers, but of course, that wasn’t the case. The site for the proposed community center/mosque was about two blocks away. Still it was close enough to strike a nerve in war-weary, post-9/11 America.

At first I was sympathetic. Angry New Yorkers felt that building a mosque there and now was an insult to the friends and families of those who died in the 9/11 attacks. More than this, they feared the center would become a rallying point for any Muslims who saw the World Trade Center tragedy not as a treacherous, cowardly attack on innocent civilians, but as high-and-mighty America finally getting a taste of what it deserves. I shared these patriotic fears, but there was one problem.

The law was on their side. The property had been purchased, the site plan submitted in accordance with city zoning statues, and the project approved in a legal and orderly fashion.

Of course millions of Americans simply didn’t care about the legal rights of New York Muslims. What significance could they possibly hold when weighed against the outrage of their fellow citizens?

It’s an old problem.

On April 14, 1865—five days after Lee surrendered to Grant—John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. It was arguably the worst possible epitaph to the Civil War, dooming the south to reconstruction and angering millions of war-weary northerners. In the hysteria following the assassination, many suspects were arrested and interrogated, and just 17 days after the assassination, 8 people were brought to trial: 7 men and one woman, Mary Surratt.

Director Robert Redford’s film The Conspirator examines Mary Surratt’s trial. In so doing he hopes to stir our emotions regarding the abuse of what was once considered a sacred principle, but of late has fallen on hard times: the rule of law.

Robin Wright’s portrayal of Mary Surratt is in my opinion brilliantly acted, but far too severe to make her a sympathetic figure. She is in the film as she was in life a southerner, openly sympathetic to the Confederate cause. The issue of her guilt—Did she actually know of and participate in the plot to kill the president?—is never clearly resolved in the film.

What is made clear is that her guilt or innocence was never really the issue at trial. The war and the assassination had overtaxed our nation’s ability to endure, so someone had to pay. Mary Surratt was called upon to pay, if not for her own sins, at least for the sins of others. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, chillingly portrayed by Kevin Kline, is the bad guy in Redford’s tale. He justified it like this to Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), Mrs. Surratt’s lawyer: “Mary Surratt was a party to the most grievous crime in our history. Necessity demands that she be given a swift, sure, and harsh sentence.”

In pursuit of this noble goal the deck was stacked against Mrs. Surratt from the beginning. Rather than the trial before a jury of her peers guaranteed by the Constitution, she was judged instead by a military tribunal. She was not even allowed to testify on her own behalf. Others who dared do so were openly intimidated and subverted by government prosecutors. When the tribunal initially found her guilty, but sentenced her to a life sentence, pressure was successfully brought to bear on them to change the sentence to death by hanging. And a last-minute writ from a civilian judge staying her execution and granting her a constitutional trial by jury was set aside by the President of the United States himself.

Of course, the argument can be made, so what? The nation had endured an outrage. Justice was needed. And given her traitorous sentiments, her close relationship with many who were guilty, and the nagging uncertainty of how much she actually knew, who’s to say that justice isn’t what she got? If some corners were cut along the way, is that really a big deal?

It depends, obviously, on how important law is.

Once civil laws were seen as reflections of larger principles. Just as the laws of science were rooted in nature and therefore had to be reckoned with, so, too, moral principles were thought to be part of the fabric of the world God had made and should be revered and taught to following generations. Of course, there were differences of opinion on what those principles were even back in the day.

Now civil laws are most often seen as rules societies pragmatically adopt and replace as a matter of convenience. They’re a matter of what works, and when they cease to work or become inconvenient, we’re free to discard them or even ignore them. It’s a rather cynical view, one that rarely stirs the heart or the conscience on legal matters.

Still I salute Robert Redford and his film for trying to do just that. The American exceptionalism that was such a big part of my youth—we think we’re special and don’t make the same mistakes other countries do—has fallen on hard times for good reasons. (May it never make a comeback!) But American cynicism, especially when applied to the rule of law, is an even poorer substitute. The belief that there is one set of rules that apply equally to all our citizens, regardless of race, sex, or social standing, has never been as true in practice as we like to pretend it is. But each time we abandon the pursuit of it, the American Experiment becomes a little less worthwhile.

The Conspirator is the first production of The American Film Company. According to their website the AFC is “founded on the belief that real life is often more compelling than fiction, [and so] produces feature films about incredible, true stories from America's past. Central to the company's filmmaking will be prominent historians, assuring that each production remains true to the history from which it is drawn.” Their first effort admirably achieved these lofty goals. May their future work be as thoughtful and even more successful.

The Tree of Life

A Picture in Need of Words: A Review of 'The Tree of Life'
(Movie released May 27, 2011)
by R. Greg Grooms

Remember the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words?” It’s not true. Take Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, for example.

If you know him at all, it’s probably as the director of one or another of the five feature-length films he’s made over the last 40 years: Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), and this year’s The Tree of Life. But it would be misleading to describe him as just a film director. He is a Philosopher-Who-Makes-Movies, and they are rare and wonderful creatures indeed. Malick cut his philosophical teeth as an undergrad at Harvard, then did most of the work necessary for a PhD in the subject at Oxford, but left without the degree after a disagreement with a professor about the writings of the 20th century Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Yes, I hear you: you don’t know who Wittgenstein was, you don’t care, and what does this have to do with the movie, anyway? Patience, please.

Wittgenstein had the unusual distinction of having inspired two philosophical movements: logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy. The former is probably familiar to you, at least in its street form. LP’s think that the only questions worth asking are those that can be answered scientifically. Thus, he concluded, “Most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical.” Still Wittgenstein—unlike most of the LPs who followed him—was fascinated with those questions. They may be nonsense, but they are in his opinion a special kind of higher nonsense that cannot be conveyed in words. The problem in describing them doesn’t lie in them, but in the limits of language. Thus in one of his early works he famously wrote, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

Terrence Malick isn’t content to live within those limits. In The Tree of Life he bombards us with image after image, epic in their scope and extraordinarily beautiful in appearance. Many of them will be familiar to residents of central Texas: Barton Springs Pool and Hamilton Pool make their appearance, along with Eisenhower-era Waco in all its 1950s glory. Others are less familiar, but no less stunning: the birth of the universe, the origin of life, and the survival of the fittest all parade across the screen to the accompaniment of Alexandre Desplat’s exquisite musical score.

Malick offers us two things to help tie these images together and make sense of them. First, the O’Brien family: Mom (Jessica Chastain), Dad (Brad Pitt), and their three sons. Lest we mistake this as a nostalgic recollection, the film begins with the death of one of the boys, jumps back to their childhood, and then moves forward, leaving us all to wonder when and why the tragedy will arrive. Through it all Dad—frustrated, overbearing, frightened and frightening—is the persistent threat to their happiness and security. Mom though winsome and beautiful is neither the equal of the threat Dad poses, nor strong enough to be her family’s savior.

In, around, and beneath the unfolding family drama, Malick weaves one of his trademarks: a series of voice-overs, but most spoken in whispers. It’s as if he’s saying, “There are things you need to know here, but I’m not sure I really want you to hear them.” I have to admit that his voice-overs annoy me. He’s a skillful director; can’t he stitch his story together in any other way? But perhaps he doesn’t think the story can—or should—be stitched together. Perhaps Malick agrees with Marshall McLuhan’s dictum, “The medium is the message,” i.e., how the story is told is what the story is about. Life often seems beautiful, but is apparently random and disjointed. Rarely does it make sense to us as we’d like it to. In this regard Malick’s film is certainly honest, if not encouraging.

Even so, no one, I think, can see The Tree of Life and walk away feeling that Malick doesn’t believe in beauty, the significance of human relationships, and an ultimately hopeful resolution of all our conflicts, but why he believes in them is anyone’s guess. A.O. Scott closed his review of The Tree of Life like this: “…the imagination lives by risk, including the risk of incomprehension. Do all the parts of The Tree of Life cohere? Does it all make sense? I can’t say that it does. I suspect, though, that sometime between now and Judgment Day it will.”

It’s a fitting postscript to this beautiful, sprawling mess of a film, I think. One can only hope that if—before Judgment Day—life begins to make sense to Mr. Malick, he’ll be willing to talk about it.

The Social Network

A Review of 'The Social Network'
(Movie released October 1, 2010)
by R. Greg Grooms

At the end of their 1979 ode-to-nihilism album entitle The Wall, Pink Floyd --after dismissing most of the things we turn to for comfort—school, work, love, sex, politics—as “just another brick in the wall,” gave themselves an out in the album’s last cut, “Outside the Wall”:

"All alone, or in twos
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall
Some hand in hand
Some gathering together in bands
The bleeding hearts and the artists
Make their stand
And when they've given you their all
Some stagger and fall after all it's not easy
banging your heart against some mad bugger’s

Yes, I’m afraid even mainstream nihilists cannot be trusted; they need something to live for as much as the rest of us do. And what better refuge from the pointlessness of it all than humanity itself? Whatever else may happen to disappoint you, there will always be someone to love you, someone you can trust, someone to rely on. Or will there be?

In perhaps the best made of last year’s films, The Social Network turns the cynical eye of reason on the last refuge of the meaningless: human relationships. No matter what you may have heard, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay isn’t about Mark Zuckerberg, who refused to take part in the project, nor is it about the advent of Facebook, the Internet phenomenon that, according to its devotees, has changed the world. It’s about relationships, or perhaps more precisely, what relationships are about.

I’m not suggesting that reason per se is inherently cynical. Most Americans would benefit greatly from a little disciplined thought about themselves and the world they live in. Thinking doesn’t produce cynicism; failing to think clearly does. But when the cynic turns reason towards relationships, his conclusions are predictable.

Relationships are about sex
In his book Accidental Billionaires, on which The Social Network is based, Ben Mezrich writes, “The impetus of everything in college, I think, is to get laid… I know that was my whole purpose in becoming a writer.” I don’t know Mark Zuckerberg; perhaps he and Ben Mezrich are really alike at this point, or perhaps Mezrich is guilty of creating the film’s Zuckerberg in his own image. Either way, sex is the cheapest commodity that is traded in The Social Network, and thus, the most easily obtained.

Relationships are about social standing
Crowds and music are a sure sign in The Social Network that an important conversation is going on. If like me, those are just the sort of circumstances in which you have a hard time understanding words, be sure to add subtitles to your viewing. This is never more important than in the film’s first and most painful scene. Mark and his girlfriend Erica are having a DTR—Define The Relationship—talk you shouldn’t miss. It’s quickly evident to everyone but Mark that it isn’t going to end well.

Mark: “I want to try to be straightforward with you and tell you that I think you might want to be a little more supportive. If I get in [to the Phoenix Club, an elite Harvard social club] I will be taking you to the events, and the gatherings, and you’ll be meeting a lot of people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet.”

Erica: “You would do that for me?”

Remember Erica’s line, because Mark will repeat it (whether consciously or not, I can’t tell) at another turning point in the film.

Does Mark need Erica? Sure, but in his mind he needs to be seen with her even more. He’s like the eccentric who buys a Van Gogh, not because he loves it, but because others will look at him differently because he owns a Van Gogh. He’s the ultimate nerd: brilliant, needy, awkward, inspiring sympathy and loathing in equal measure. That Facebook is born from the tension between his needs and his ineptitude is at the same time his salvation and his tragedy.

Relationships are about money
Or not. Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter won a well-deserved Oscar for their seamless melding of The Social Network’s two story lines: the Story of Mark and Facebook, and the Story of the Lawsuits filed in the wake of Facebook’s success by two of his former classmates, Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss, who accuse him of stealing the idea for Facebook from them, and by his best friend, Eduardo Saverin, co-founder of Facebook. When an opposing attorney accuses him of starting Facebook so he could gain admittance to the Phoenix club, Mark replies, “Ma’am, I know you’ve done your homework and so you know that money isn’t a big part of my life, but at the moment I could buy Mt. Auburn Street, take the Phoenix Club, and turn it into my ping-pong room.”

It’s a quote that perfectly captures a central Social Network dilemma: having money isn’t a worthy goal. That’s old school. But what money can do for you creatively, socially, relationally? That’s cool. Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, makes a brief appearance in The Social Network in the person of Justin Timberlake, and explains it like this:

Sean: “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool?”

Eduardo: “You?”

Sean: “A billion dollars.”

Of course, there’s just enough truth in Sorkin’s snapshots of love to make them believable

Anyone who watches The Social Network and can’t relate to the pain of Mark’s failed relationships is either a liar or has led a charmed life. None of us are immune to the lure of sex, money or social standing; all of us struggle with the power they exert over us and our relationships. The cynic is right in admitting that even the best of our relationships are flawed, just as all of us are. But he’s dishonest in pretending that once we’ve seen the faults, there’s nothing left to see.

C.S. Lewis put it like this in The Four Loves:

"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable."

The Social Network begins with Mark in a room full of people, talking with Erica face-to-face. It ends with Mark alone with his computer, sending her a friend request via Facebook, waiting for her reply. How do you think she answers? There’s a sad irony evident in this ending: while Facebook may allow you a “yes” here, The Social Network does not.

The King's Speech

A Review of 'The King's Speech'
(Movie released September 6, 2010)
by R. Greg Grooms

"Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” 

-William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene V

In January 1936 King George V of England died, leaving the throne to his son David, who reigned as Edward VIII for 325 days before abdicating in order to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. His brother, Albert, then became King George VI and reigned until his death in 1952.

Tom Hooper’s splendidly entertaining film The King’s Speech is the story of Albert’s unlikely ascension to the throne and of help he received along the way from an equally unlikely source.

In America we’ve long celebrated the right of an individual to shape his or her own life. It is part of our DNA. In pre-World War II Britain, things could not have been less American, especially for the royal family. The young Albert, it seems, was left-handed. As this was considered inappropriate for a prince, he was forced to use his right. Bertie was also slightly knock-kneed, thus his boyhood years were spent in braces to create a good, royal bearing. Unfortunately all of this shaping also produced a strong stammer that haunted Albert throughout his life, and for a man whose professional purpose is to be a public figure this was, to say the least, awkward.

In The King’s Speech Albert’s search for help with this problem leads him through a frustrating procession of doctors who treat his problem with less-than-effective therapies ranging from marbles–in-the-mouth to smoking. (Albert died in 1952 from lung cancer brought on by smoking.) When his wife Elizabeth (played by Helena Bonham Carter) in disguise seeks the help of yet another therapist, he simply suggests her husband “change jobs,” and when she says “he can’t,” he wants to know why. “What is he, an indentured servant?” Her ironic answer—“Something like that”—captures Albert’s dilemma: he is not free to decide which role his life will play. His only choice is how that role will be played and with war looming there’s a lot riding on his performance.

Enter his redeemer. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) is the antithesis of Albert (Colin Firth). He’s not only a commoner he’s a (mostly) failed actor who makes his living as a self-styled speech therapist. He’s a man who determinedly lives life his way. He treats speech impediments his own way, too. The King’s Speech is rated R because of a scene in which Lionel encourages Bertie to curse extemporaneously. The result is one of the most delightfully vulgar things I’ve ever seen on film. With Lionel’s help Bertie not only learns how to give a speech, he learns how to serve.

The bell tower here at the University of Texas is engraved with a quote from the gospel according to John: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” It’s a goal students at U.T. pursue every day, nota pursuit of knowledge, but of the freedom to define one’s self. In the name of freedom they choose not only their careers and spouses, they can choose to change their sex, their appearance, and one day whether or not to keep their children. For them, freedom is doing what they want. It’s not what Jesus had in mind when he spoke. According to theologian J. I. Packer, Christian freedom is first freedom from: freedom from the power of sin and the tyranny of pleasing ourselves. And as people who have been set free, we’re called to see what freedom is for: to love and serve God and our neighbor. Service is what we were made for, so freedom is found in serving.

Does Bertie live happily ever after? At the risk of spoiling the film, I’ll answer: no more than we do. The hope of the gospel isn’t that if we work hard everything will be all right. Our hope is in what Christ has done and is doing in our midst. But Bertie does discover that necessity isn’t the opposite of freedom.

I recommend The King’s Speech to you: well acted, well scripted, a delightful story. It’s Oscar worthy.

Get Low

A Story that Needs to be Told: A Review of 'Get Low'
(Movie released September 12, 2009)
by R. Greg Grooms

I love good stories. Sitting in a rocking chair on my grandmother’s front porch on a hot Alabama summer night, listening to my father and his brothers laugh about boyhood egg-stealing; cold November evenings in northern Minnesota while the Block kids recall the bringing-the-horse-in-the-house tale; Edith Schaeffer, dropping names and recounting miracles high in the Swiss Alps: it doesn’t get any better than this.

In my opinion Get Low tells a very good story. My delight in it is, no doubt, due in part to the fact that Chris Provenzano’s screenplay is as essentially southern a tale as the ones I used to hear on my grandmother’s front porch. The personalities, events, music, the look and feel of it are as familiar to me as my Dad’s stories of his childhood. I know these people. Indeed I wonder how many of them I may be related to. For me watching Get Low felt like a visit home. Of course, these qualities that endeared it to me may distance it from others. The New York Times review of Get Low, while quite complimentary on the whole couldn’t resist this jab: “Get Low is, in the end, not quite believable.” Not believable? You need to spend a little time south of Manhattan.

Actor Robert Duvall’s taste in stories is impeccable. Over the years he’s brought many of them to life and created some unforgettable characters: Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, Sonny Dewey in The Apostle, Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove. Get Low’s Felix Bush is as memorable as any of them. “I talked to God a lot about you over the years,” a friend tells him. “He said he broke the mold when he made you, said you sure were entertaining to watch—but way too much trouble.”

After living alone for more than 30 years in a cabin in the woods near a small town in the hills, Bush startles the local minister with his presence one morning and with an odd request: “It’s time for me to get low,” he says, and explains that he wants to host his own funeral, a big party to which everyone is town is invited to come and tell stories about him. He, of course, wants to be present—alive—and to listen.

From this unconventional beginning the story leisurely unfolds through the introduction and interaction of other memorable characters. When the preacher declines to take part, Bush turns to Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), the director of the local funeral home, whose reservations about the project are easily overcome by his greed: “Oooh, hermit money!” Frank’s greenhorn assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) gently guides Bush—and us—through the preparations. The appearance of Bush’s old flame Mattie (Sissy Spacek) after an absence of many years adds a touch of spice and grace to proceedings.

All these apparently random introductions take on a sharper focus when we meet Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), the minister Bush wants to preach at his funeral. It seems Jackson is the only man alive that knows a certain story about Bush and his past, a story that Bush wants told, a story that needs to be told. It’s a story of love and loss, of sin and redemption, of guilt and forgiveness. And I couldn’t help but wonder in hearing it if this is what made Get Low so “unbelievable” to the New York Times.

What makes a story a story that needs to be told? Writer Rebecca Horton gives this answer:

"I sometimes challenge myself by asking the question ‘does this story need to be told?’ …stories become needed, not because the author felt that they were needed, but instead because there is a deep human longing for truth, meaning, and relationship that extends beyond material need. Good stories scratch the itch that lies just below the surface of things, churning up just enough dust to make others curious."

Get Low admirably scratches the itch without satisfying it. It stirs up the dust just enough to make us curious. It’s a tale that needs to be told. Would that more filmmakers, especially those who are believers, learn to tell it as well.


Reality Revisited: A Review of 'Inception'
(Movie released July 13, 2010)
by R. Greg Grooms

"Pardon him, Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature."

-George Bernard Shaw in Caesar and Cleopatra

Shaw has had lots of fans in recent years. “Constructivists,” as some are called, think that knowledge has much more to do with social interactions than reality. The upside to this is obvious: freedom, freedom from taking the tension of our differences too seriously and freedom to go with what one feels is right. It’s a freedom Hollywood has long celebrated in films like Dead Poets Society (1989) and Pleasantville (1998).

Christopher Nolan isn’t an old-fashioned barbarian, but at the very least he sees a downside to not knowing. For example consider his latest film, Inception.

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an Extractor, a thief who makes his living by entering the dreams of others and stealing their ideas. It is quite a lucrative business, but for him it has several downsides: it’s dangerous and, thus, exciting (for us if not for him); it cuts him off from his family for reasons you should learn only by watching the movie; it is confusing. The last in Nolan’s opinion may be the worst.

At first glance Inception is a typical summer movie, teeming with romance, action, and stunning visuals. Cobb is blackmailed by Saito (Ken Watanabe) into using his dream-walker skills to plant an idea in the mind of a business rival. With the help of Ariadne (Ellen Page), Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy), and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), he concocts a scheme complicated enough to confuse Sherlock Holmes.

Thankfully even as it embraces the summer movie motif, Inception transcends it, and its sizzle makes its steak all the more satisfying. The story within Inception’s story is Cobb’s story, a story filled with questions. He and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) once chose to live in their shared dreams. In them they enjoyed god-like freedom to create a world in their own image, according to their own imaginations. But their delight in it was tempered by troubling questions: Is it really real? If it isn’t what is? How can I know? Give Nolan credit here: he’s not content to sweep these nagging doubts under the rug and enjoy the fruits of freedom. They obviously drive him crazy and through him, Cobb.

Constructivists think asking such questions is a no-win situation, as Stanley Fish once famously pontificated: “I would believe in absolute truth, if there was an explanation of reality which was independent of the standpoint of the observer.” If he’s right, then all perceptions as far as we know are just perceptions, all are equally trustworthy and untrustworthy, and the question “What is real?” becomes impossible to answer. If he’s right, then so is Saito, when he tells Cobb, “Don’t you want to take a leap of faith? Or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?” And Mal is right when she begs Cobb simply to forget the questions and love her: “You’re waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can’t be sure. But it doesn’t matter, because we’ll be together.”

How does Cobb answer the questions? Well, just as no good question is ever answered well just in theory, you’ll need to watch Inception to appreciate how Cobb deals with his dilemma. But before you do, let me encourage you to do two things. First, watch Nolan’s Memento (2000); it’s a more confusing film in many ways than Inception, but clearer in its revelation of Christopher Nolan’s worldview. Then, read chapter 1 of Romans. Paul argues that there are a couple of things that we cannot not know: that God exists and that we are guilty.

One imagines that Paul and Christopher Nolan would have much to discuss after watching his film. I cannot imagine a better film to discuss after watching it with friends of my own.



To See or Not to See 'Avatar': A Movie Review
(Movie released December 18, 2009)
by R. Greg Grooms

I know all the good reasons not to.

Yes, the story’s been told before—and better—in Dances with Wolves. Lonely American serviceman meets beautiful native girl who opens his eyes to a new way of looking at the world and in so doing brings him into conflict with his own people. One of the strengths of Costner’s film is character development; in Cameron’s film everyone screams “caricature” from the male and female leads down to the militaristic bad guy. Not since the old westerns of my youth have I seen a film in which it was so clear who you should cheer for and who you should boo as soon as he/she walks on screen as in Avatar.

And yes, I’ve heard the reports—and been appalled by them!—of parents naming their children Neytiri (Avatar’s warrior-princess heroine), Pandora (the planet), even Toruk, after the giant winged-steeds of the blue-skinned Na’Vi. It’s like naming your kid Artoodeetoo or Ceethreepio.

And yes, watching Avatar does feel like eating too much junk food: it tastes good going down, but isn’t very satisfying. There’s a reason for this. Avatar’s unabashed nature-worship has already been round the block a few times in Hollywood in films from Star Wars to The Lion King. While pantheism’s box-office appeal has been proven, philosophically it’s still lite beer, as Ross Douthat explained in his New York Times review:

"Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality. This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward—or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it—a deeply tragic one."

If you’re looking for enlightenment, Avatar doesn’t offer it. Still the film has received 9 Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and as of this morning has raked in an astonishing $2 billion in box office receipts so far. And I can’t help but wonder why. The easy answer is to point to Avatar’s obvious strength: it is visually stunning. Watching Avatar was my first experience with a 3-D film, and while I must admit that wearing the glasses felt a little goofy, they did open wide the doors of Pandora. Paying an extra 3 bucks for the 3-D version of the film was well worth it. Avatar’s a shoo-in for the Best Visual Effects Oscar.

But is Avatar’s popularity due only to its good looks? I don’t think so. Like it or not, Cameron has touched a nerve with this film, and in so doing he’s laid bare a deep dissatisfaction in the way modern people look at nature. At the end of his The First Three Minutes, Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg observed:

"As I write this I happen to be in an airplane at 30,000 feet, flying over Wyoming en route home from San Francisco to Boston. Below, the earth looks very soft and comfortable—fluffy clouds here and there, snow turning pink as the sun sets, roads stretching straight across the country from one town to another. It is very hard to realize that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."

The dilemma Weinberg describes is a familiar one: in making the world understandable and—to a degree—controllable, naturalistic science has also stripped it of its mystery and beauty. In Avatar, Cameron seeks to restore that beauty in the name of pantheism. In Miracles, C.S. Lewis reminds us that as followers of Jesus Christ we’re better equipped for that task:

"Only Supernaturalists really see nature… To treat her as God or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see… this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes, and toads. How could you ever have though this was the ultimate reality? How could you have ever thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss the half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The ‘vanity’ to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured, but cured in character, not tamed (Heaven forbid), not sterilized. We shall still be able to recognize our old enemy, friend, playfellow, and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting."

No book or film is ever really understood, until one understands what makes it attractive. If you don’t see it in Avatar, look again.

A Serious Man

Laughing with the Devil: A Review of 'A Serious Man'
(Movie released October 2, 2009)
by R. Greg Grooms



"The devil laughs because God’s world seems senseless to him; the angel laughs with joy because everything in God’s world has its meaning."

-Milan Kundera

Humor is a funny thing. A comedian tells two jokes; he invests each with all his skill, experience, and timing. One gets a laugh, the other falls flat. Why?

Joel and Ethan Coen have been telling us jokes cinematically for years, and I’ve laughed at them all from Fargo to O Brother, Where art Thou? But their latest attempt—A Serious Man—fell flat with me, and I’ve been wondering why. It’s a typical Coen brothers film with great camera work, crisp editing, and extraordinary casting. All the elements of good humor are there, so why am I not laughing?

In A Serious Man we meet Larry Gopnik, physics professor at a small college in the mid-west in 1967. (With a nod towards Garrison Keillor the Coens once referred to their film as “Jews on the Prairie”.)

Everyone wants something from Larry that he/she has no right to. A student wants a passing grade in physics, which he is willing to pay good money for. His daughter wants a nose job. His son wants pot and rock and roll. One neighbor has laid claim to some of his yard; another wants him to join her for sex and pot. The tenure committee at his college passive-aggressively passes on ominous rumor after rumor about his standing, all the while assuring him that all is well. Worst of all, his wife wants a new man, not a younger, handsomer man, but Sy Ableman, a sort of old, fat Jewish Dr. Phil, who ironically is the only person in the film referred to as “a serious man.”

A Serious Man is loosely based on the book of Job, but instead of three friends, Larry seeks advice from three rabbis: Rabbi Scott offers him a monologue about seeing God in a parking lot; Rabbi Nachtner, a story about a dentist who finds the words “Help me” engraved in Hebrew on the back of a patient’s lower incisors. Rabbi Marshak quotes Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick: “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies.”

But Larry doesn’t want somebody to love; he wants somebody to explain to him what “Hashem”—God—is trying to tell him in this, and here’s the joke. You see, as a physics prof, Larry knows that on a quantum level the world doesn’t make sense.

The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on, so it shouldn’t bother you not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.

So why insist religiously, philosophically that it should? That’s the Coen’s joke, and well-told as it is, I still find it hard to laugh with them, and I think I know why.

A century ago, the bane of G.K. Chesterton’s existence were slipshod typesetters who inadvertently turned the word “cosmic” in his essays into “comic”. Eventually he came to see the humor in the error.

Whatever is cosmic is comic… Unless a thing is dignified, it cannot be undignified. Why is it funny that a man should sit down suddenly in the street? There is only one possible or intelligent reason: that man is the image of God. It is not funny that anything else should fall down; only that a man should fall down. No one sees anything funny in a tree falling down. No one sees a delicate absurdity in a stone falling down. No man stops in the road and roars with laughter at the sight of the snow coming down. The fall of thunderbolts is treated with some gravity. The fall of roofs and high buildings is taken seriously. It is only when a man tumbles down that we laugh. Why do we laugh? Because it is a grave religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.

Larry Gopnik is the most existentially feckless character since Hamlet. He gives in where he should stand up, smiles where he should scream. Stripped of any shred of dignity, he just isn’t very funny. Feel free to laugh at him, if you wish, but remember if you do, the joke is on you.


A Review of 'Doubt'
(Movie released December 25, 2008)
by R. Greg Grooms

"Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know."


How do you feel about people who are certain? Do you find them attractive, admirable, encouraging? Or do you tend to suspect their character, their motives? How you answer the question may depend more on who you know than what you believe. Often the attractiveness of certainty depends on who embodies it.

In the opening scenes of his play-turned-film, Doubt writer/director John Patrick Shanley shows us two very different faces of certainty. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) is the very model of a fifties era conservative. “Every easy choice today will have its consequence tomorrow, mark my words,” she tells us and we almost believe her. Doubt takes place in 1964, shortly after John Kennedy declared “all encompassing, explosive change” to be “the motif of our time.” One imagines Sister Aloysius voted for Nixon. Ironically she is also a strong woman in an era in which strong women simply weren’t welcome. As the principal of The St. Nicholas Church School, she is lord of the fief, quick to make sure her underlings know it.

At first glance Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is Kennedy to Sister Aloysius’ Nixon. He’s young, progressive, easier to warm up to than the elderly nun, an agent of the change she hates. He uses a ballpoint pen; Sister Aloysius is wedded in principle to fountain pens only. She’s “Ave Maria;” he’s “Frosty, the Snowman.” She’s the Council of Trent; he’s Vatican II.

Caught in the no man’s land between these antagonists are two unsuspecting innocents: Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), a 12 year old boy and the school’s first black student, and Sister James (wide-eyed Amy Adams), his 8th grade English teacher.

If you don’t like movies driven by dialogue, you’ll hate Doubt. It was made for the stage, not the screen, and its conversations are what are important, especially early conversations between Sister Aloysius and Sister James. In these dialogues the elder works the younger like a good attorney working a frightened witness, producing in her first insecurity, then suspicion, specifically the fear that Father Flynn is guilty of sexually abusing Donald Miller.

Why does Sister Aloysius suspect Father Flynn? We’re never quite sure, but a few things become quite clear during the film. One is that she has no evidence to support her charges, to which she answers “But I have my certainty!” Another is that she resents the male-centered authority structure of the church. When Father Flynn attempts to bully her into silence—“You have no right to act on your own! You have taken vows, obedience being one! You answer to us! You have no right to step outside the church!”—she is not cowed: “I will step outside the church if that's what needs to be done, till the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I'm damned to Hell! You should understand that, or you will mistake me.”

Lastly, and most important of all, we are given no definitive answer to the question of Father Flynn's guilt or innocence. But what if Sister Aloysius is right?

What the point of this parable is has been the subject of many discussions with friends. Some see it as a post-mortem on the scandals that have rocked the Roman church during the last decade, others as a post-modern fable of gender and power. John Patrick Shanley himself says it’s a story of “the invasion of Iraq and the utter certainty that my government had about the weapons of mass destruction being there; and it turning out that they weren’t; and how they dealt with that change in reality.”

In his essay “In Defense of Certainty,” Charles Krauthammer noted, “Doubt is in. Certainty is out.” He concluded, “The campaign against certainty is merely the philosophical veneer for an attempt to politically marginalize and intellectually disenfranchise believers,” i.e., our culture has soured on certainty because of an anti-religion bias. I agree with his analysis as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Shanley’s film is the missing footnote to Krauthammer’s essay: without a doubt, how and why we are certain is almost as important as what we are certain of.


A Review of 'Valkyrie'
(Movie released December 25, 2008)
by R. Greg Grooms

Last fall my friend Adam was discussing The Counterfeiters with a German grad student, who asked, “Why is it you’re watching so many German movies?” While he paused searching for an answer, she continued, “But then, it’s not as if American movies are about anything, are they?”

There’s enough truth in her comment for it to sting a little. After all when was the last time you watched an American movie that dealt with an issue of substance? But like most generalizations, this one falls short, too. Once in a while American movies are about things, important things like German history for example. And when a hefty dose of morality, sacrifice and heroism, is added to one, the result is a film like Valkyrie.

In 1944 a group of German Army officers attempted to execute Adolph Hitler, replace him as head of state, and sue for peace with the Allies. Most of us may be aware that such attempts were made, but probably aren’t aware of the details of the plan, nor of the character of those officers involved. Valkyrie fills in those blanks quite nicely.

At its heart Valkyrie is the story of a German hero: Claus von Stauffenberg. The movie’s von Stauffenberg is a German aristocrat and Wehrmacht officer, appalled at the Nazi atrocities; the real von Stauffenberg was all this and a believer, too. (This is hinted at in the film, but never given any substance.) His faith not only motivated his participation in the conspiracy, it lifted him from minor player to lead role.

In perhaps it’s most intriguing scene, Valkyrie imagines von Stauffenberg’s introduction to the men who became his co-conspirators. He was a colonel, they were generals, and in the presence of generals, colonels are meant to be seen, not heard. But in the midst of their discussion of how to kill Hitler, von Stauffenberg raises an embarrassing, but important question: after you kill Hitler, what next? As they gape uncomprehendingly at him, he continues with what is in essence a lesson in Christian just war theory. In order for revolution to be just, it must do more than remove an unjust ruler. That ruler must be replaced by a just government. To fail in this is to embrace anarchy. While von Stauffenberg’s argument carries the day, his fellows never wholeheartedly embrace it. In the end it is their indecision that cripples the execution of their plan.

Sound interesting? Beware: Valkyrie is a deeply flawed film. Tom Cruise’s von Stauffenberg never rises above, well, Tom Cruise. Worse than this, the film only flirts with the questions it raises; it never embraces them passionately. Despite its flaws I recommend Valkyrie; indeed, I cannot imagine a more timely film. As the United States considers how and when to remove its military forces from Iraq, I hope that watching and discussing it will teach us wisdom, even if it doesn’t guarantee success.

One thought lingers in my mind here: why is it that films with strong moral and heroic themes are rarely if ever made about the post-World War II world? In their book The Day America Told the Truth James Patterson and Peter Kim offered this answer:

“70% of Americans now say that America has no more heroes. Why are there no more heroes today? There are no more heroes because we have ceased to believe anything strongly enough to be impressed by its attainment.”

Valkyrie is a movie for those who believe—or want to believe—there are things worth dying for. Watch it and learn.


Redefining an Old Problem: A Review of 'Atonement'
(Movie released August 29, 2007)
by R. Greg Grooms

In The Death of Satan: How Americans have lost the sense of evil Andrew Delbanco puts a new spin on an old problem:

"A gulf has opened up in our culture between the visibility of evil and the intellectual resources for coping with it… The repertoire of evil has never been richer. Yet never have our responses been so weak. We have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes in the outer world."

The old problem? The problem of evil, traditionally seen as philosophical in nature and defined something like this: God is good and all-powerful, but evil exists. How can the reality of the latter be reconciled with the truth of the former? Despite the efforts of philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (see his God, Freedom, and Evil) fans of the problem of evil insist that its only acceptable solution is for God to disappear, this despite the irony that apart from God the concept of evil itself fades, too.

Novelist Ian McEwan acknowledged the same problem in a PBS interview after the 9/11 attacks.

"I don't really believe in evil at all. I mean, I don't believe in God, and I certainly don't, therefore, believe in some sort of supernatural or trans-historical force that somehow organizes life on dark or black principles. I think there are only people behaving—and sometimes behaving monstrously. And sometimes their monstrous behavior is so beyond our abilities to explain it, we have to reach for this numinous notion of evil."

Delbanco and McEwan recognize the same dilemma: doing away with the idea of evil doesn't make the problem of evil go away. It merely changes it from a philosophical problem to an existential one: if there is no God—no one to make atonement to—and no real evil—nothing to atone for—how do we cope with the reality of evil? The magnitude of this dilemma is painfully and beautifully captured in the film version of McEwan's novel Atonement.

Set in the years leading up to World War II it's a story with an unlikely villain: an adolescent girl from an upper-class English family. At 13, Briony Tallis (brilliantly played by Saiorse Ronan) is a fledgling writer with a good imagination, who witnesses two vivid romantic encounters between her sister Celia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McEvoy), a friend and former family servant, and is in turns shocked, bewildered and fascinated by what she sees. Later that same day she also witnesses a crime, and her imagination links all these events together with tragic consequences.

Act one of Atonement is as nicely a crafted bit of filmmaking as I've seen recently. Director Joe Wright shows us each of the key events here from different points of view, and as our point of view changes, so do our feelings and our understanding of what has occurred. In so doing he underscores an important part of McEwan's message: choices that later seem evil often begin as nothing more than psychological confusion.

Only in act two does Briony (now 18, and played by Romola Garai) realize how mistaken—and destructive—her choices have been. She's a nurse, caring for wounded soldiers, seeking penance and reconciliation with her sister Celia, who's not willing to grant it, while Robbie in what is the most visually stunning scene in the film struggles to survive the evacuation of the British Army at Dunkirk.

In act three Briony, now old and dying (played by Vanessa Redgrave), is a famous writer, publishing her 21st and last novel: the story of her choices as a child and their tragic aftermath, but with an important twist. The atonement which eluded her in real life is written into her novel. The college students with whom I watch films reacted very differently to this twist. Some saw it as a weak attempt at a happy ending, others as a final acknowledgement of the pointlessness of the story. Briony's thought's on the matter are found on the last page of McEwan's novel:

"The problem these fifty nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all."

To be sure, there are elements of grace in Atonement. In the blood and madness of Dunkirk an impromptu choir sings a Charles Parry hymn that echoes persistently. After Briony comforts a dying French soldier in a London hospital, she (and we) are blessed with a few moments of Debussy's Clair de Lune, the emotional high point in Dario Marinelli's extraordinary musical score. Despite the beauty of these moments I've no doubt that in the end McEwan would leave us all where he left Briony: with the grim realization that if God is fictional, atonement is, too.

The Lives of Others

A Review of 'The Lives of Others'
(Movie released March 23, 2006)
by R. Greg Grooms

How do you feel when you see or hear something beautiful? Not a leaf-in-the-wind kind of beauty, but extraordinary beauty? In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton makes an intriguing suggestion:

"While a common reaction to seeing a thing of beauty is to want to buy it, our real desire may be not so much to own what we find beautiful as to lay permanent claim to the inner qualities it embodies… What we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess, the objects and places that touch us through their beauty."

If he's right, then I am attracted to my wife not only because I long to be with her. I think that in so doing I may become like her in visible ways. By being with someone or owning something beautiful, I may become beautiful.

The transformative power of beauty is at the heart of an urban legend of the old Soviet Union. After a concert Lenin remarked to Maxim Gorky that Beethoven's Appassionata sonata was the most beautiful piece of music he'd ever heard, but that he was going to stop listening to it. He said Beethoven makes me want to pat the heads of people… But now one must not pat anyone's head… one has to beat their heads, beat mercilessly, although ideally we're against any sort of force against people. Hmm… it's a devilishly difficult task.

In The Lives of Others writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck explores what might have happened if Lenin had kept listening.

The Lives of Others won the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture. It should have won Best Picture, period. (Compared to it The Departed feels like a bad day spent in Boston traffic.) In it, first time director von Donnersmarck has crafted the most satisfying and deeply human film I've seen in years.

Set in East Germany before the wall came down, The Lives of Others is the story of Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi agent (short for Ministerium für Staatsicherheit, i.e. the East German secret police, whose stated goal was "To know everything") who specializes in and teaches interrogation techniques. He wears the same outfit everyday (gray, of course), lives in a tidy but Spartan apartment, and has only one friend: ex-classmate Anton Grubitz, who owes his academic success to Wiesler's tutoring and who ironically is now his boss. His only other human contact, as far as we can see, comes in the form of a liaison with a prostitute. (After sex when he asks her to stay for awhile, she says: "Next time hire me longer.") Above all, he is a true believer in the state-dominated system. (When one of his students questions the inhumane nature of the interrogation techniques Wiesler is teaching, he's reminded that the people they're dealing with are "all enemies of the state.") All things considered he's not so much an evil little man as a terribly efficient one.

In the course of the film we observe his transformation from efficient state servant to human being. It's not a fast change or a dramatic one. (In a recent interview Herr von Donnersmarck remarked that no one changes quickly "without divine intervention.") Nor is the transformation primarily political in nature. The Lives of Others is not yet another tired tale of the triumph of capitalism. It is instead a story of the power of beauty and the sacrifices necessary to create it.

The catalyst of Wiesler's metamorphosis at first seems unlikely: he's assigned the task of spying on playwright Georg Dreymann and his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland. Their lives are the antithesis of his. Their apartment is full of people; his is empty. In the evening they read Brecht, listen to music, and discuss the world with their friends; he watches TV alone. They are trying, quietly and subversively, to be human in a horribly inhuman setting, and as Wiesler vicariously participates in their lives, he becomes more like them. He becomes more human.

I can't describe the details of this process without ruining the film for you and that would be a crime, but I will offer one bad analogy. When was the last time you fell in love? Poet Christian Wiman describes the experience like this:

"...the sense I have is of color slowly aching into things, the world coming brilliantly, abradingly alive. I remember tiny Albert’s Café on Elm Street in Chicago where we first met, a pastry case like a Pollock in the corner of my eye, sunlight suddenly more itself on an empty plate, a piece of silver. I think of walking together along Lake Michigan a couple of months later talking about a particular poem of Dickinson’s (“A loss of something ever felt I”), clouds finding and failing to keep one form after another, the lake booming its blue into everything; of lying in bed in my highrise apartment downtown watching the little blazes in the distance that were the planes at Midway, so numerous and endless that all those safe departures and homecomings seemed a kind of secular miracle."

In a way Wiesler's change is like this: his second-hand world is more beautiful and more significant. But it is more painful, too, as de Botton acknowledges:

"A perplexing consequence of fixing our lives on an ideal is that it may make us sad… Our sadness won't be of the searing kind but more like a blend of joy and melancholy: joy at the perfection we see before us, melancholy at an awareness of how seldom we are sufficiently blessed to encounter anything of its kind. The flawless object throws into perspective the mediocrity that surrounds it. We are reminded of the way we would wish things always to be and of how incomplete our lives remain."

Edith Schaeffer used to be fond of saying, "In a fallen world nothing of beauty is ever created without someone making a sacrifice." It's certainly true in von Donnersmarck's story. In the end both Wiesler and Dreymann make sacrifices. Their sacrifices cost them a great deal, produce great beauty, but the world around them goes on unchanged.

It's true in our story, too. According to the Scriptures Christ sacrificed himself to make us beautiful, as in Philippians 2:15: 

"… so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe."

Ironically often the opposite seems to be true. My friend Ellis Potter often asks, "If someone you know becomes a Christian, would you expect him to become more creative or less? More interesting or less? More beautiful or less?"

How our lives answer this question may have less to do with our soteriology than it does with our anthropology. What does it mean to be human? What should it look like? Our lives will either move the Wieslers of the world to seek to lay permanent claim to the inner qualities we embody or turn them to the lives of others.


A Review of 'Crash'
(Movie released September 10, 2004)
by R. Greg Grooms

One of the more delightful parts of my work as a campus minister at the University of Texas at Austin is watching films with students. For us it’s a practical and valuable exercise in developing discernment. Mary Jane prepares dinner for the crowd, we eat, watch the film, and then spend a few hours talking about it.

In our discussions the central questions rarely vary from film to film: we talk about the ideas presented in the film, what makes these ideas attractive, how buying into them influences the way we live our lives, and what kind of questions we’d like to discuss with writers and directors. But inevitably someone raises another question: Is this a good movie?

It’s a question that makes me cringe.

Often when we say a movie is good, all we mean is that we find it entertaining. To combat this know-nothing approach to film I periodically offer a seminar entitled “Watching Films to the Glory of God” that raises the question without really answering it. My goal isn’t to talk about what I like in films as much as it is to make students think about what they like and why. So we review the technical aspects of movie-making, performance, creativity, content, and, yes, the entertainment value of film.

My goal here is different. In this review I want to confess what I as a follower of Jesus Christ have come to value in films and why, and to explain why I think Crash is a very good film.

Let me explain. The greater part of my struggle as a Christian middle-aged man isn’t to understand things better, it’s to translate my understanding into something more. All too often there is a disconnect between what I know to be true and the way I really see things. For example, losing my temper with my wife once produced a biblically sound sermon on anger, which unfortunately didn’t help me one whit in my struggles with my temper. This is not only evidence that my sanctification isn’t complete, it shows that the way I look at the world isn’t very Christian.

Having a Christian world view is more than having biblical answers to the basic philosophical questions. It’s having those answers by God’s grace actually shape the way I see, understand, and feel about the world. For me a good film is one that helps me do this better.

Crash follows the lives of several people over a 36 hour period: a black police detective (Don Cheadle) with an ailing mother and a thieving little brother; two young car thieves (Chris Bridges and Larenz Tate) who are constantly debating society and race; a image-conscious district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his spoiled, depressed wife (Sandra Bullock); a racist veteran cop (Matt Dillon) who disgusts his more idealistic younger partner (Ryan Phillippe); a successful black Hollywood director (Terrence Howard) and his wife (Thandie Newton); a Persian-immigrant (Shaun Toub) who buys a gun to protect his shop; and an Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena) and his young daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) who is afraid of bullets. Their lives don’t so much tell a story as raise a host of questions.

This isn’t a coincidence. In an interview with the BBC, Crash director Paul Haggis described a good film as one that “...makes you ask questions of yourself as you leave the theater.” Many of the questions he asks in Crash deal with race. Indeed, one reviewer reduced his take on the film to two words: Racism lives!

Yet while Haggis is clearly quite dismayed by the many manifestations of American racism, he doesn’t fall prey to the cynicism that is such a tempting response to it. Indeed he takes great pains to make us see that the Most Offensive Racist in his story—Matt Dillon’s cop—has a tender side, too, (e.g., he loves his sick and aging father) and is capable of true greatness (e.g., he risks his own life in rescuing a black woman from a burning car). In his tale Haggis takes care to show that almost every one of his characters is both racist and remarkable.

Making sense of our greatness and our depravity was at the heart of Blaise Pascal’s faith and of his world view. In his Pensees he wrote:

"It is dangerous to let a man recognize too clearly how much he has in common with the animals without at the same time helping him to realize his greatness. It is also unwise to let him see his greatness too clearly without realizing his baseness. It is even more dangerous still to leave him in ignorance of them both. So it is advantageous to draw attention to them both."

The danger of not recognizing our depravity? The evil in us hides itself from us. When was the last time you were surprised by the depths of your own depravity, when you did something that shocked even yourself? In Crash the Persian shop owner, Farhad, sees himself as a good man surrounded by thieves. But when disaster strikes, and his shop is looted, his anger drives him to attempt murder, an act that he would never have thought himself capable of.

Ryan Phillippe plays the good cop counterbalance to Matt Dillon’s racist bad cop. His character is sympathetic, sensitive, one we like to like. But caught in the grip of his own fears and prejudices, he commits the most shocking and brutal act in the story.

Matt Dillon’s character sums up this danger well, when he says, “You think you know who you are. You have no idea.” 

The danger of not seeing our greatness? When confronted with our depravity we see nothing worth redeeming. A common take on Crash among students was “Haggis just thinks we’re all scum.” My response to them was to urge them to look closer.

Perhaps the most winsome character in the film is the locksmith, Daniel. He works hard, treats people with respect, and cares for his family. In a scene that is the emotional high point of the film, he whimsically calms his daughter’s fear of bullets with an invisible cape, which he promises will protect her from harm. So when she returns from school one day to find him held at gun point by Farhad, who imagines him responsible for the destruction of his shop, she flings herself between her father and the gun, imagining the cape will protect her from harm. And it does, in a way.

Later, in explaining what happened, Farhad calls it a miracle: “an angel” intervened to save the girl and him from harm. And while still later we learn that what we witnessed was not a miracle in the strict sense of the word, it was nonetheless as good an illustration of the grace of God at work as I’ve seen recently in film.

Of course this is only my take on Crash. And I fear that if Paul Haggis were here he would take issue with much that I’ve seen in his story. After all, his intent was just to raise questions, and I’m still old-fashioned enough to think that the real meaning of a film is what the writer/director intended it to be. Still I am free to supply answers to those questions from my own faith, and in so doing to more fully flesh out my world view.

In Prince Caspian, C. S. Lewis wrote “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve… And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor in earth.” Biblically speaking there is a glory to being human. God has made us in small way to be like himself, in his image, and in so doing has crowned us with glory and honor. This side of the fall there is also great shame in being human, for there is no part of us that is not touched and disfigured by our sin.

At times the shame I see in other people overshadows the glory God created in them. Even as I verbally and mentally reject racial stereotypes, I still often see stereotypes instead of people. And as Pascal said, calling attention to this, as Haggis has in Crash, is “advantageous” because it amends my seeing, bringing it more in line with my thinking.

And at others, especially while struggling with the persistence of my own sinfulness, I need to be reminded of the glory of how God has made me and of his grace at work in me to restore me in his likeness. Perhaps this is why Crash takes place during the Christmas season.

After all, living in hope is easier when we have a reason for it.