Friday, November 22, 2013
"Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection: the fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief."
Suffering is a part of life. At some point in our time spent on this Earth we are all confronted with this truth. Charles Grodin begins his autobiography It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here with the anecdote: "I remember crying once as a little boy (I forgot why) and thinking that if this was the best life had to offer, I wasn't so sure about going on." I mention this passage because it eerily reflects one of my own experiences. I also remember crying once when I was younger (like Chuck, I don't recall the reason or even the exact circumstances) and disliking it to the point that I wasn't so crazy about continuing on with this life if it was going to involve this. It's not that I was contemplating suicide or anything like that. I was just desperately searching for a way to "bargain" with life such that I wouldn't have to endure any more pain.
For some individuals this is where the dealing with the reality of pain begins and ends. My college professor once said that there are two kinds of people in this world: philosophers and drug addicts. The drug addict merely goes through life looking for the next distraction to keep himself occupied. The philosopher actually faces into the tough issues that life has to offer. He asks questions and seeks answers. Even as a youngster (though I was beginning to display "drug addict" tendencies in my desire to sidestep as much pain as possible) I was also already launching my tenure as a lifelong philosopher because in the midst of my tears I was asking a simple but vital question: "Why?"
"Why?" is a very important question. In fact, "Why?" may be the most important question a person can ever ask in his lifetime. The question of "Why?" particularly seems to surface in the face of extreme hardship. As the aforementioned college professor wrote once in a book: "Our questioning is not really from a desire to know the particular meaning of the particular event. More importantly, it is from a desire to be assured that it has any meaning at all." In other words, does my suffering serve some purpose? Is there meaning behind it? Or rather is it pointless and arbitrary? Is it simply another random occurrence in a cold, unfeeling and ultimately absurd universe? Well, as a Christian, quite obviously I believe that there is meaning to suffering (and consequently to life) and some of my favorite stories deal with this very theme. That's why, when I heard a while back about RC's "Film + Faith Blog-a-thon" over at Strange Culture, I knew exactly which film I was going to write about... well, it was this one or The Mission.
Though raised in a religious family, Lewis became an atheist in his teen years. It was actually Tolkien who helped convert him back to theism and Lewis ended up becoming one of the great Christian apologists. Certainly no stranger to suffering (having fought in the trenches of WWI), Lewis wrote some thought-provoking meditations on reconciling the existence of evil and the reality of human suffering with the concept of a righteous, loving and omnipotent God in such works as The Problem of Pain. Lewis' theodicy was well-developed, intelligent and rational.
"God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
"No one ever told me grief felt so much like fear."
Interestingly, A Grief Observed was initially published under a pseudonym and never mentioned his wife by name. Thus, a number of Lewis' friends recommended the book to him thinking it might be of some help to him. I find this scenario not only ironic but also extremely revealing because it suggests that Lewis' own friends didn't recognize him in his writing. This indicates to me that his musings in A Grief Observed were unlike any writing he had ever done before. Indeed, I first read it during somewhat of a dark period in my own life and found that it "felt" completely different from, say, Mere Christianity (which I had also recently read at the time). The Lewis who wrote before Joy's death and the Lewis who wrote after it seemed to me like two completely different men. It's as if the first Lewis had it all figured out and the second Lewis wasn't quite so sure anymore. The Lewis who wrote A Grief Observed is the Lewis whose perspective on pain was really put to the test, who was given more of an intense taste of the kind of acute, almost crippling, anguish and heartache that life has offer. Thus, he gained a deeper understanding and more profound appreciation of what pain truly is, what it does to us and, of course, whether or not it has purpose.
"Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn."
Being that C.S. Lewis is one of my heroes and his story is an extremely moving one to me, it should come as no shock to people that one of my favorite films is Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands as it dramatizes the period in Lewis' life I have described above. Shadowlands actually began as a 1985 BBC-TV movie written by William Nicholson starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom (of which I've only seen bits and pieces a long time ago) and was then adapted by Nicholson into a stageplay. It was this stageplay that served as the basis for the 1993 film which features the great Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and the effervescent Debra Winger as Joy. While I've been told that the earlier version is far more subtle, less "Hollywood" in its style and sensibilities and contains fewer liberties taken with Lewis' story (the two Gresham sons, for example, are combined into one child for the '93 version) it would be a mistake, I think, to dismiss the later version's "gloss" for lack of substance. Certainly the film is handsomely shot and exceptionally well acted but, in fact, there is quite a bit about it that is very "un-Hollywood." First off, while some might find it emotionally manipulative I find it to be very restrained and low-key. Also, while many films are content to simply use tragedy as a means for injecting "drama" into a love story (cancer almost always serves quite effectively in that capacity) without unpacking its deep and lasting effects on real flesh-and-blood human beings, Shadowlands faces directly into the provocative complexities of dealing with suffering and death... especially in the context of spiritual faith.
Sometimes it seems to me that faith is perceived nowadays as a kind of unflinching optimism; a delusional reassurance in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that "all will be well;" it amounts to little more than closing one's ears, covering one's eyes and singing "LA! LA! LA!" in the face of any and all adversity. In this sense, the idea of faith is almost always associated with blindness or ignorance, a phenomenon with which I must admit I don't necessarily see a lot of virtue. In essence, that kind of faith is really just another way of distracting one's self, another drug for the addict to take to deaden the pain rather than actually deal with it. I'm not so sure that God wants us to be a bunch of "Pollyannas," only seeing good everywhere and not admitting that oftentimes things just plain suck, taking pleasure in our pain as if we were masochists. I think He wants us to look squarely into the darkness that exists and acknowledge it for what it is (this includes seeing the darkness in ourselves as well). A lot of the time this involves anger, sadness and a whole other range of sensations that really don't feel very good. If one can emerge from the other end of this tunnel of misery and still have hope, then I think one can be more assured of his faith.
Just as I would recommend Lewis' book A Grief Observed to anyone going through a rough period in their life, I feel I can recommend Shadowlands to anyone who has ever asked "Why?" in the midst of a tough time. It may not make anybody's list of great films (although it did make the "100 Most Spiritually Significant Films" over at Arts & Faith) but on the subject of faith, I happen to think it is one of the greatest out there. It doesn't provide any huge, enlightening answers, but it does ask some hard questions and poses some thought-provoking ideas. Like C.S. Lewis himself, the film is humble but passionate, warm but melancholy, terribly sad and yet simultaneously full of immense joy. As Jack (Lewis' nickname) and his wife discuss in a scene set in the beauty of a picturesque countryside (but with rain serving as an almost symbolic counterpoint):
JOY: It’s not going to last.
JACK: We don’t need to think of that now. Let’s not spoil the time we have together.
JOY: It doesn’t spoil it. It makes it real.... What I’m trying to say is that the pain then is part of the happiness now.
In closing, I want to briefly mention something that I think is interesting. As it does to all men, death finally came C.S. Lewis on November 22, 1963. If that date looks at all familiar to you it's because it was the same day that JFK was assassinated and from a global socio-political perspective that was naturally the more significant event. Thus, every newspaper the world over splashed across their front pages headlines of Kennedy's untimely demise. So, while everyone was in shock and mourning the passing of one of America's most handsome, most charming, most charismatic and, consequently, most popular presidents ever, an old, but great, man was quietly leaving this planet in a manner very befitting the time that he spent on it.
"You play the hand you're dealt. I think the game's worthwhile.”
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Maybe I'm a little late to the party on this one but it really is becoming more and more apparent to me what an enormous influence Chris Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy is having on current comic book adaptations.
Like its 1995 counterpart starring Sylvester Stallone, last year's Dredd is based on a 1970's British comic book series (unread by me) about a dystopian future society where the "cops" are in fact judges with the power to try, convict and execute criminals on the spot (this sounds like a premise with potential but unfortunately neither film really does much with it). From a technical perspective, there is little to complain about in Dredd. The film has a gritty, grainy look that makes its sprawling polluted metropolis seem like an actual place. The majority of it takes place in a massive residence building which gives the film a suspenseful, claustrophobic atmosphere (sort of like a futuristic Die Hard) and the digital effects are most convincing when used to make the oppressive environment more believable. They are somewhat less convincing when trying to make gun shot wounds seem real. The film also has a number of gorgeously stylized sequences that are almost hypnotic in their visual beauty (the plot centers around a drug called "slow-mo" that makes everything seem slowed down; imagine the cinematic possibilities). Karl Urban, despite having half of his face hidden through the entire film, provides menace and charisma (and can grimace just as good as Stallone can) to a character with very little personality and Lena Headly gives a fantastic, eccentric performance as a truly terrifying and evil villain named Ma-Ma.
What's missing from the whole enterprise, frankly, is just good old-fashioned fun. When compared with the cheesy, colorful big screen comic incarnations of the late 80's-90's (Batman, The Shadow, The Phantom, Darkman, etc), I am starting to be of the opinion that contemporary comic book movies just take themselves way too damn seriously. At a certain point in the story I found myself thinking, "This movie is holding my attention, but I am not really enjoying it." For all of its misfires, the '95 film at least realized the absurdities of its central conceit and made no bones about it. I saw the original in the theater with my father and a mutual friend and while none of us would have praised Judge Dredd as being a fine film by any means, we all enjoyed it and laughed heartily as we talked about it afterward. Dredd is so dark, so grim and so humorless that there is virtually nothing in it to laugh at or even really smile about. I think I watched the entire film with a "Dredd-like" unamused expression on my face. Furthermore, its stone-cold soberness throws the sillier aspects into even sharper contrast. In that regard Stallone's rendition might have the upper hand. It was incoherent but it was not inconsistent. This Dredd is both.
Also, the film is EXTREMELY violent, with a body count that must number in the hundreds (most of them innocent civilians). I am not at all squeamish when it comes to onscreen violence, but it is so relentless and unflinching here that it becomes sort of numbing after a while. A couple times I was reminded of Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, a comic book movie (though it has no "direct" inspiration) that also had shocking violence but delivered it with such panache that it still managed to be an enjoyable experience. Robocop was both serious and fun, gory but also witty and satirical, cynical but not nihilistic. It demonstrates that it is possible to make a dark, stylish and grown-up "superhero" movie that doesn't collapse under the weight of its own solemnity. I have little hope that its upcoming remake will strike the same delicate balance and will instead probably err more on the side of the bleak ugliness that Dredd wallows in.
Unlike its predecessor, which did not charm the critics, Dredd received generally positive reviews. This did not, however, prevent it from following in the footsteps of its predecessor financially as it flopped at the box office. This is probably unfair since it is not really a bad movie. In many ways it is superior to the '95 version. It's just so joyless, so ugly, so utterly devoid of any modicum of self-awareness that if, for some inconceivable reason, I were to suddenly feel the urge to watch a "Judge Dredd" movie, Stallone's is probably the one I'd reach for.
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
In a few weeks Bryan Singer's Superman Returns opens worldwide and it is a movie that has been a long time in coming (at one point the film was to be directed by Tim Burton, written by Kevin Smith and starring Nicolas Cage; I think I can safely speak for everyone when I say: "Thank God that didn't happen!"). Needless to say, I'm very excited about this event. I realize I'm advertising my hopeless "geekiness" with this blog, but I've long been a "Superfan." He's always been among my top three favorite comic book heroes (the other two being Batman and Spider-man; whoever occupied the number "1" spot depended on what phase of my life I was going through at the time).
In response to the upcoming release, the IMDB used its "daily poll" feature to ask its members to vote on which superhero was better: Superman or Batman. The results were interesting if, admittedly, not that surprising. Batman got a whopping 67% while Superman only got 15%. 10% said, "I like both equally" and 8% said," I don't like either." I have actually observed, in recent years, that Superman's "approval ratings" have dropped significantly and I couldn't help but wonder why that is. Superman used to be considered the greatest of the superheroes. In fact, Superman was essentially the first superhero, the "Adam" if you will. Without Superman there would be no Batman, Spider-man or anyone else. Superman used to be looked upon with awe. He was admired. He was a symbol for "truth" and "justice" and all that stuff! Why has the Man of Steele fallen into such disfavor in recent years? Why has his popularity waned so drastically and his cultural status declined so monumentally?
Is it the suit? Are the bright blue tights with the red cape, boots and the large red-and-gold "S" not only unimpressive anymore but downright corny? Perhaps its the sheer implausibility of his disguise. While Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne protect their secret identities by wearing masks that cover at least half their faces, all Superman does to become Clark Kent is put on a pair of glasses. Is it just too much anymore to accept that sharp-eyed journalist Lois Lane can't tell the difference between the guy she loves and the guy she works with? Is it the pantheon of powers that Superman possesses? Super-speed, super-strength, x-ray vision, heat vision, flight, super-breath... Do people just think it's too much? Maybe it's the invulnerability in particular. Maybe folks are just tired of Superman not being affected by anything (besides kryptonite of course). Maybe they expect that their heroes be subject to some harm or else there's no suspense. Then again, it might be the villains. Perhaps people prefer a whole rogues gallery of baddies for a hero to combat. I mean, Batman has a colorful array of nasty characters hes constantly fighting (Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler, Scarecrow, etc), as does Spider-man (Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, Venom, Sandman, Vulture, etc), while all Superman really has is Lex Luthor (and to a lesser extent Brainiac).
Any one these things could have contributed to Superman's fall from grace, but I think it's something else that has caused him to lose his appeal, something that makes him, in the eyes of today's youth, not quite as "cool" as Batman, Spider-man or Wolverine, something that has actually caused my own personal respect for the character to increase: namely, his righteousness. This is a theory I've been formulating for a while now and I'd like to lay it out now.
Of all the comic book heroes out there, Superman is the only who is naturally good. He has no ulterior motives for fighting crime. Batman's is revenge (he saw his parents murdered when he was a child) and Spider-man's is guilt (he feels responsible for the death of his uncle), but Superman does good for its own sake. He is a truly virtuous, god-like individual, his physical and moral perfection, his extreme strength and incorruptible nature, used to be the very characteristics that made him worthy of respect and emulation. However, the fact that Superman is now referred to as an overgrown "boy scout" (both in and out of the comics) demonstrates that these characteristics have lost their luster. Superman is now considered "dull" or "two-dimensional." Heroes who are darker and more angst-ridden are called "cool" or "a badass." At the very least, they are more complex and therefore more "believable," i.e. there's a greater chance that these characters could actually exist in our own reality.
Understand that I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with these other heroes. On the contrary, I am just as much a product of my culture as anybody else. I love these other heroes. I am very drawn to the inherent drama of the ongoing struggle that Bruce Wayne he has with his own dark self. I also love the realistic, and oftentimes humiliating, problems that Peter Parker has to contend with. I find these multi-layered universes are, in fact, sometimes more interesting than the fantasy world of Superman, but what saddens me is that these worlds and their heroes are now being embraced to the exclusion of Superman. It is understandable that we want our heroes to be more like us (fallible, prone to temptation, at times selfish and weak, etc) but what we are losing in the process is an ideal and that is exactly what Superman is: an ideal. He represents not who we are, and not even who we could be, but who we should be. Superman personifies the type of end goal we ought to strive for, even if we never actually get there.
When Superman does indeed return to the big screen later this month, how the film is received should be an indicator of what we as a culture think of him. Does society still care about exploits of a person who acts completely selflessly, who helps weaker individuals without any sort of desire for personal gain? Is such a superhero still worth our time? Well, here's hoping.