Thursday, March 27, 2008

Spoiling, In a Good Way

I want to warn you now that this article is full of spoilers.
What? Some of you are unclear on the term “spoilers”? You haven’t been reading your internet movie reviews. At a variety of movie sites you can read reviews of movies that are seen before the films are released. Sometimes you can read reviews of scripts before a film is even produced. Often the reviewers will warn *minor spoilers* or *major spoilers*, depending on whether they plan on giving away minor plot details or every twist and turn in the story.
Some people like spoilers, some don’t.
I prefer not to know what’s going to happen in the movies I watch and the books I read; I want to be surprised. On the other hand, my wife Mindy often reads the ends of novels before deciding if she wants to go on reading. She does this with mysteries. This is a mystery to me.
Some people like spoilers, some don’t.
*Major Spoilers*! I plan on giving away the whole plot of a certain film, and not only that, but some major spoilers about life itself.
So if you were planning on rushing out to rent F.W. Murau’s silent German Expressionist classic The Last Laugh, and you don’t want to know how it ends, quit reading now!
Emil Jannings plays the doorman (or porter) of an elite German hotel. He is proud of his job and especially proud of his gaudy uniform. When he returns from work to his dilapidated tenement, his neighbors treat him with deference and respect because of his big lapels and shiny buttons.
But the doorman is getting on in years, and when the manager of the hotel sees him take a long break after struggling with heavy luggage, the manager demotes him to restroom attendant.
The new job does not have the status of doorman and does not have a uniform.
So the former doorman decides to steal a uniform so he can still wear it when he’s back in his neighborhood. But when a neighbor spies him at work in the restroom, he becomes the laughing stock of the neighborhood.
The man breaks down in tears when he returns the uniform to the hotel security guard. And then the film makers show one of the most amazing title cards in silent films.
I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the card says something like this: “In real life, the porter would have little to look forward to, except his own death. However, the writer took pity upon the man and added this unexpected epilogue.”
The film then shows guests in the hotel laughing as they read a newspaper article. The article tells about a millionaire who died in the arms of a hotel restroom attendant. The millionaire’s last will and testament specified that his entire fortune would go to the person who held him as he died.
The final minutes of the film show the former doorman of the hotel enjoying the hotel’s luxuries, along with his friend the security guard. The film ends with the new millionaire tipping all of the bell staff before riding off in a convertible.
The title card that changes the doorman’s fortune is a classic “Deus ex machine” device (or ‘God from the machine’). This is a phrase that originated in Greek drama, when the writer would paint his characters into such a difficult situation that the only solution was an arbitrary plot intervention by one of the many Greek gods.
It is usually quite an annoying device in a play, book or film.
If an ordinary Western story concludes with a UFO blasting the bad guy with lasers in the climatic gun fight or a parent’s objection to the love match in a Victorian romance resolved by having Dr. Phil enter in and give counsel, the audience is understandably upset.
But somehow, this device works in The Last Laugh, because the film makers are so transparent about its use. A (slightly) more recent use of blatant “Deus ex machine” is found in Wayne’s World. The film appears to be ending with our hero Wayne losing the girl and the villain triumphant. But Wayne speaks to the camera and suggests a different ending. They first try the Scooby Doo ending (“I would have succeeded, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids”) and then finish with the mega-happy ending.
I think the “God from the machine” device works because there is an acknowledgement of a creator outside of the fictional world. Of course, we get ourselves into impossible situations. Particularly, we’ve got the problem of sin (Romans 6:23 – “The wages of sin is death”), and we need help to get us out of our predicament.
Fortunately, help did come from out of our world, when Jesus came to save us (John 1:14 – “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling with us.”)
I don’t mind that “Deus ex machine” at all. And when I said before that I don’t like spoilers -- well, Jesus perhaps gave away the biggest spoiler of all when He said in John 14:3, “I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
I don’t mind that spoiler at all.

The Last Laugh (1924) (original German title, Der Letzte Mann) directed by F.W. Murau, written by Carl Mayer, starring Emil Jannings. No objectionable content.

Wayne’s World (1992) directed by Penelope Spheeris, written and starring Mike Myers. Some offensive language and humor, and a gratuitous sex scene clearly marked with subtitles as “GRATUITOUS SEX SCENE”

Latest Article at On Course

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

About Christian Films (Eventually)

Over the last year, a number of films have been released about the war in Iraq and more generally about the United States’ policies on terror. These films have almost uniformly flopped, both financially and critically.
I don’t want to write about the politics of the war. I know that people in our congregation cover the whole spectrum of views from far right to far left, as does the nation. I don’t really even want to talk about the Iraq War films, but I think there is something important to learn from them. The interesting thing is that these films (In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, etc.) failed in the “blue” (liberal, Democrat) states as well as the “red” (conservative, Republican) states.
There were major talents involved with making these films. Lions for Lambs, for instance, was directed by Oscar winning Robert Redford. He acted in the film along with Oscar winner Meryl Streep and box office champ Tom Cruise. Cruise has a long streak of films that make over one hundred million dollars. This film made fifteen million in the U.S. At the ratings review website, Lions for Lambs received positive reviews from only twenty-seven percent of the critics.
In the Valley of Elah, from the director of the Oscar winning Crash (Paul Haggis); Redacted, directed by Brian DePalma (Carrie, The Untouchables, Scarface) and Rendition, starring Legally Blonde’s Reese Witherspoon and Spiderman’s Jake Gyllenhaal all were even less successful at the box office and didn’t fare well with the critics either.
Even last year’s Oscar-nominated Iraq documentaries No End in Sight, Operation Homecoming, and the winner, Taxi to the Darkside, have all underperformed at the box office even though they won critical acclaim.
I suppose this is as good a time as any to mention that I didn’t see any of these films, so I’m not fit to discuss their merit.
Which brings me to the topic of Christian films. Admittedly, it leads me indirectly to the topic of Christian films, but we’re still here. Here’s the connection: I believe these Iraq films fail for the same reason that many films made by Christians through the years have failed both in the critical sense and failed to reach a broad audience.
Here are some of those reasons:
1) Films should tell a story rather than preach.
Fair or not, I skipped these films for the same reason I believe many other people skipped these films. I assumed they were made to teach a lesson rather than entertain. People want to know these things about a film: “Is it exciting?” “Is it funny?” “Is it scary?” “Are the stars pretty?”
“Will I learn anything?” sadly falls way down the list.
There’s nothing wrong with preaching in my book. I do it on occasion. But some people would rather avoid it altogether, and they certainly don’t want to pay for it.
I find it interesting that the film from the recent batch of terrorism films that did best was The Kingdom. I believe it did better because it was sold as an action film rather than an issue film.
The problem with many political films and Christian films is that the filmmakers are more concerned with the message they are trying to present rather than with making an entertaining story.
2) Characters in the films are too black or white.
This is a problem with both the Iraq films and the Christian films, but it plays out in polar opposites. Many people avoided the Iraq films because they heard that the politicians or, even worse, the soldiers were portrayed as mustache-twirling villains. Many Christian films present Christian characters that are pure and holy creatures that we just can’t relate to. The great heroes of the Scripture are complex. Abraham founded a nation, but he was also a liar. David was a great king, but also an adulterer and murderer. The villains are complex as well: Pilate seems at times to be working to save the life of Jesus, Saul is loved by his son and David. These films failed to present characters that are as complicated and interesting as people from real life.
3) “Tell me something I don’t know.”
In 2004, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 broke box office records, becoming the most successful documentary ever released. It won wide critical acclaim and the Oscar for Best Documentary. And it was about the war in Iraq.
Why did this film succeed while last year’s films failed? I think it’s because the ideas in the film (that the war was based on lies, that civil liberties were being violated, that the media was complicit in deceiving the public, etc.) were still fresh at that time. Whether we agree or disagree with those ideas, most of us feel we have heard all of those arguments from newspapers, the internet, TV and private conversations.
This is a challenge for Christian filmmakers as well. Whether the average American really understands Christianity or not, it would be hard to come across an American who doesn’t believe that he (or she) knows what Christianity is all about.
4) We don’t want to have our values insulted.
As I mentioned, the Iraq films didn’t do well with any particular political constituency. But I think it is obvious that there was a sizable portion of the film-going public who knew these films would present views counter to their political views, so they chose to avoid them.
There are a sizable number of people that will avoid a Christian film because they aren’t Christians and are concerned that their values will be insulted.
You’ll notice I have not referenced any specific Christian films. I just didn’t feel the need to insult work that Christians made with the best of motives to bring glory to God. And some of these films have provided encouragement to some of the readers of this column, so they have value.
But I find it interesting that many of the best Christian films (I’ll pick Tender Mercies as my example here) were not made by Christians (or at least, the film makers didn’t proclaim their faith while promoting their films). And some of the great Christian stories (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Crime and Punishment) are not even initially recognized as such. When God took the form of a man in Jesus Christ, He kind of sneaked up on people. He told entertaining stories with messages that were not obvious. But the stories worked into people’s hearts and minds and eventually changed lives. I hope future films have sly Christian messages that will do the same.