Friday, October 29, 2010

Lessons in Lost Boys

Some genres and templates are so steeped in meaning and symbolism that even an eighties comedic take still carries a message off sorts. Lost Boys shows us that the vampire mythos is just such a vehicle. A popular, teen-age, very tongue-in-cheek take on the vampire story, Lost Boys was a Two Coreys movie and that sometimes overshadows the fact that there is a good story here with many good performances.

The basic story (for those of you who are over forty or under thirty) concerns two brothers who move with their newly divorced mother into their grandfather’s house in a California town known as “the murder capitol of the world.” Once there they discover that it is the murder capitol because there is a gang of teen vampires, but not before the older brother is partially converted. The younger brother with the help of two teen-age vampire hunters sets out to redeem his brother and save his mom.

At least two big classic themes of vampire stories are explored from a fresh perspective.

First, we see the appealing, seductive side of evil. However, the enticement is updated, targeted at teens and mixed with peer pressure. The older brother, Michael, meets a girl and her biker band. He likes the girl, and wants friends. He is invited to their hang-out and made to feel silly, tricked and teased during diner, so that he will drink their vampire blood without knowing what he is doing. In case that was too subtle for you, they then literally take him to a bridge, all his new friends jump off, and he does too! (It is done in an almost believable way, but it is still the old mother’s clichéd argument against peer pressure.)

The other theme common to some vampire stories and strengthened here is community. Not only is a community of belief needed to stand against evil and overcome it (as we see in Dracula), but the community offered by evil is also explored. The vampires are almost like a family, and they offer a place of belonging that so many teens in the story crave. In fact, the vampires are the only peer group visible in the movie. The Frog brothers—as the other vampire hunters in the film that the younger brother teams up with—are not a part of any group but more loners. This fact helps the evil that the vampires offer to be even more seductive.

Lost Boys is anything but preachy, though. In fact, it is mostly a comedy—with a few genuine scares and plenty of eighties style, music and gross-outs. It is a guilty pleasure, but a good one.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Two Serial Killers by Fincher, p2 Se7en

One would be hard pressed to find a more disturbing “main stream” successful movie than Fincher’s Seven from 1995. It is truly a depressing and horrific movie in the way that it exposes how far our culture has fallen into a depraved apathy. If you are the sort of person for whom the “not a recommendation” tag on NonModern was created, please note that this movie has that tag and this post is not an appeal for you to rush out and experience this film. Most people know the plot already, whether they have seen it or not.

Once again, we have a serial killer story that is not about the serial killer. That point needs to be defended, because most people remember this film for the elaborate way in which John Doe “preaches” his message through his killings. He claims he is doing God’s work, judging sinners for the sins that they commit. The true theme of this movie is not the evil sins that are being judged, but the apathetic attitude of the society where the sins exist. This theme is best seen through the real main character of this story, Morgan Freeman’s Detective William Somerset.

The film takes place in an unnamed city, where it is constantly raining and everything is cloudy and depressing. Every character in the film struggles with living in this city and dealing with the evil and hopelessness that is pervasive there. Somerset has become so fed up with the futility of fighting crime in the city, that he is retiring from the police force and moving away. In his final week on the job, he is orienting his replacement, Brad Pitt’s Detective Mills. Mills is an ideal young detective who is excited to be making a difference. He fought for the chance to come to this city that most people avoid. He hates the evil he sees around him and he wants to fight it. Mills wife is visibly wilting in the oppressive atmosphere, but he is oblivious to that fact.

With all of the shocking murders that Mills and Somerset investigate, the key scene is a quiet moment where the two talk while waiting for a development in the case. Somerset explains why he is leaving the job and the city.

“I just don't think I can continue to live in a place that embraces and nurtures apathy as if it was virtue.”

Mills throws that back in his face. “You’re no different. You’re no better.”

Somerset admits that he understands how apathy is easier than facing the hard life of the city. In leaving his post, he is showing his own form of apathy. He hates the attitude he sees around him, but he has given up himself. This conversation and Mills enthusiasm to fight for good are what start to bring Somerset around. He begins to take an interest in his work again. He embraces the fight against evil.

John Doe may represent a voice railing against evil in the city, and in Mills we see a character that is emotionally driven to fight evil but ill equipped to do so, however it is Somerset who has the intelligence and skill to really fight evil. That knowledge also means he recognizes that it is a never ending battle. What Somerset (and this story) lacks is hope, and that is why it is so depressing.

For many people, we live in a world much like Seven’s city. Without hope, our only choices would delusion, apathy or despair. That is why people avoid the important questions in life. If they do not know the hope that Christ has given us, they will do whatever they can to not acknowledge their condition. God’s true message for them is one of hope. God does not merely confront people with their sin to be punished as John Doe claimed to be doing. God exposes it as He provides the means for it to be forgiven… on the cross. When we know the message of the cross, then we can agree with both parts of Hemingway’s quote at the end of the movie: “The world is fine place and worth fighting for.”

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Two Serial Killers by Fincher, p1 Zodiac

David Fincher continues Hitchcock’s trend of making his serial killer movies about everybody but the killer. The latest of Fincher’s takes on this genre is the supposedly true-to-life story of the Zodiac Killer—the never truly solved case from the last century. The fact that it is based on the case files and that the murders were never solved sort of gives away the fact that we will not focus much on the killer himself, there is no way of telling his story. Instead, we focus on Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist from those days who became obsessed with the case and attempting to solve it.

The viewer (or this viewer in any case) really identifies with Graysmith as he first hears about the killer, begins trying to solve the clues, and eventually takes on the whole case. He never really solves anything. However, as the years go by he becomes more and more obsessed with the puzzle that this case affords. A couple of key events give him enough of an adrenaline rush to feed his obsession to the point where it consumes his whole life, but in retrospect they amount to nothing of value. In one case, he spends a whole date waiting on a call to hear if someone is alright. The fact that they never really were in danger doesn’t matter—for several hours there was the fear of danger. In another instance, he goes to question one man about another suspect but realizes once he is alone with the man that he is in fact a likelier suspect! Once again, he was never in danger—but the idea that he could be is a huge source of excitement.

The actual killings that occurred were important events for those involved and a potential danger for those communities during that time. However, the obsession that the media, the country, and people like Grayson had with the case made the Zodiac more of a cultural phenomenon than he should have been. We do the same thing today with all the dangerous aspects of life. Child molesters, global warming, fatty foods, and any other “danger” in life are a source of obsession that becomes paranoia. In this story, Fincher says a lot about how we handle evil. Our fears can give evil more power.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Redeeming Halloween

You probably know where this is going, but… Do you think a Christian should join the culture in celebrating a holiday with pagan origins, that involves continuing pagan traditions, and that has become completely material and secular? Most Christians—other than a few fringe elements—still find enough to like and redeem in Christmas so yeah… you probably would say yes.

We may not like many aspects of the Christmas season, but most of us use the season to focus on aspects of the Gospel and to remind ourselves of important Christian truths. All that and it is also a fun time of year with rich traditions and fond memories.

Halloween may not seem like an analogous situation, but it is. Both Halloween and Christmas are holidays that were pagan in origin but given Christian significance by the church that tied into the celebrations that existed before. In the same way that many Christians choose to avoid some of the negatives of Christmas and focus on the good parts, the same can be done for Halloween.

Dressing up in costumes, carving pumpkins, bobbing for apples, telling spooky stories and watching Charlie Brown specials are all things that don’t have to pose a problem for Christian families and can build some fond memories and traditions. Halloween is also a time to remind us of the spiritual realities and dangers that exist in the world. We should take those dangers seriously, but also remind ourselves that Christ has overcome them and that they pose no fear for us in Him.

In fact, a complete avoidance of Halloween can create two problems for Christian families: First, we make such things more attractive an appealing to our kids. There is nothing quite as interesting as the forbidden. Second, we remove ourselves from one of the best opportunities to engage the culture with spiritual truth.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Romans 9:30-10:21 (Same Song Second Verse)

In Romans 1:18-2:29, Paul presented the problem of all humanity, our fall from grace in sin and our need of salvation from God. Then in chapters 3-8, he outlined the plan that God had to save all of humanity, all of mankind that was willing to trust in Him for their salvation. Now, in chapters 9-11 it is as though Paul were going back to the beginning and answering the question posed all over again. Why are God’s people the Jews, not trusting in the Messiah? Why have so many people from nations without special revelation, been saved?

The Jews do in fact know who God is and that He is Holy. The problem is that they have misunderstood the righteousness required to be in a relationship with a holy God. They thought that the Law was a way for them to earn their own righteousness. They thought that through religion they could earn their way to God. However, true righteousness is not a perfection that we achieve—it is the perfection of God that brings glory to His name—His righteousness given to us. This is the truth that God has allowed other nations to understand. However, it is also a warning.

Just as God’s people who possessed His special revelation could miss the point and think themselves capable of meriting God’s salvation, so too could the people of the new covenant. In fact, when we look at the long history of Christendom, we can’t help but confess that we often have. There are just as many lost, religious “Christians” around today as lost Jews.

This whole message of the Gospel has nothing to do with religion. We are dependent on the merciful grace of a loving God and what He has done to save us, not any efforts of our own.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Two Serial Killers by Hitchcock, p2

In some ways Frenzy, as Hitchcock’s second to last realized film, is a remake of his first realized feature. Both are set in London. Both are about serial killers of women. Both are about the apparent guilt of a man who ends up innocent of the crimes. However, whereas in The Lodger we never see the killer and the story is not about that character, in Frenzy we know early on who the killer is and even explore him as a character.

The killer in Frenzy is a pathetic, disgusting, terrible person—as any sexual psychopathic killer should be. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that the wrongly accused man—a hero in any Hitchcock film—is also a pathetic, temperamental, pretty lousy person as well. Certainly he is not someone for whom we are particularly rooting. Who is the hero here? The main detective is amusing, but mostly due to his silly if insightful wife. In fact, all of society in this film comes off lacking anything to admire. The reactions of people to the killings early in the film are similar to those of The Lodger, only more disturbing both due to the fact that we are hearing their jests and to the crass nature of those jests.

Sadly, the person who comes off looking the worst here is Hitchcock himself. Free of the restraints that forced him to refine his craft in earlier years; he is here free to indulge. We are left with shocking attitudes towards women and rape, far too much nudity that serves no storytelling, and a general dirty feeling about every aspect of London in the early seventies. (That last bit may not be Hitch’s fault.)

Once again, intentionally or not, Hitchcock makes a movie about a serial killer that serves more to expose the evil in the mundane of everyday society. Even without a killer on the loose, we would be disturbed to live in such a world. We are.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Two Serial Killers by Hitchcock, p1

"To-night Golden Curls." Thus begins Alfred Hitchcock’s first feature film, and the public obsession he had with blonds. The question one asks is, did he objectify his leading ladies, or merely highlight the way our society does? The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog has got to be one of the first of the serial killer genre of horror, and yet the killer is never once seen. He is more of a backdrop than a character in this story.

The real observation made here by Hitchcock is society’s reactions to such horrible events, from the dancing ladies joking about the danger they face to the public’s rush to judgment and attempts to take justice into their own hands. Hitchcock spends no time focusing on the evil of the killer—that is obvious and unnecessary. Instead he holds a mirror up to the rest of us and makes us squirm with how judgmental and self-serving we can be. When the policeman is rejected by Daisy in favor of the lodger, he immediately builds a case in his own mind for accusing his adversary of the crimes being committed.

The killer in this movie has no known motivation. He is driven to kill women based merely on their appearance. The crowd at the end of this film is not much different. When they think a man might be the killer who has terrified (and entertained) them for weeks, they have no qualms trying to kill him with their bare hands.

This being an early (and silent) film makes it a challenge for today’s audiences to appreciate. It is still a classic and a great work for those who can appreciate it removed from its original context.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Missional ≠ Missions

The missional movement of the past several years has been a great thing for the Church. It has replaced and emphasis on the Church’s role in the world. It has given Christians a better approach to doing the work demanded by the great commission. It has helped us realize just how out of touch we were and that that was not a good thing. It was born in large part out of the increased awareness and participation of churches in international missions efforts.

It is not the same thing as missions, though.

Missional is cross-cultural. It took missions principles of going into a different culture and finding ways to make the Gospel message come alive in that context. It was necessary (and still is) because the church-culture in the west has become so out of step with secular culture that it no longer communicates well. It is as if Christians living in western culture are in fact missionaries from another culture when they try to communicate with secular people in their own culture.

The difference is that, while they don’t communicate well with the local culture, it is still their culture. They live in their community. Missions in the traditional sense, has that distinct and difficult dimension. The task of missions is still to be missional, but there is the additional step of completely embracing and moving into a new context. And that is not just something that some missionaries chose to do as a life investment while others do it “part-time” in short term endeavors. It is an essential element of bringing the Gospel into new cultural settings. There may be room for shorter engagements, but someone has to make the full commitment.

Missional living is something every Christian should be practicing wherever they live. Missions is a different calling, given to a few, that remains a necessary element in the great commission. Not everyone is called to do it, and not everyone should directly do it either. The concern here is that a good thing—increased missional awareness and participation, could lead to a bad thing—increased amateur missions and decreased treasuring of specialization and calling.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


The guest in my garden was quite prickly
But I invited him in just the same
I admired his long snout
He scampered under my couch
And I pried him out of his squeeze.

The kids all pleaded for us to keep him
But I pulled out my camera instead
He rolled up in a ball
I couldn’t shoot him at all
It was then that we noticed the fleas!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Romans 9:1-29 (Is Our Hope Already Void?)

One of the best examples of false hope happened in the 2008 American presidential elections. Obama ran on a campaign of “hope and change” in the place of plan and substance. Hope for what? Change to what? Nobody knew or cared. In the words of one of the characters in The Ghostwriter, “He wasn’t a politician, he was a craze.” In the two years since, as his popularity plummeted, many voters are probably telling themselves to check out the goods next time.

Here in Romans 9, Paul is defending his argument from potential opponents. He has just reached a climax of sorts in his Gospel presentation, where he went on with great eloquence concerning the hope that Christians have in Christ. Even though hope by definition is for something unseen, God’s past interaction may seem to place our future in some question. Had not God made promises already to the people of Israel? Why were they now cut off from Christ and condemned in their sin?

Paul begins a lengthy section of teaching here to correct false teaching and understanding that had existed for centuries. God’s promises have never been to save a person based on anything they have done or been. We have no special position with God based on our intentions, lineage, or religious inclination. The true people of God are evidenced as those who have faith in Him. Even that faith, however, is a gift from God. He is not obligated to do anyone any favors. He is only obligated to be true to His own nature.

To that nature He is always true, so that our hope is solid when we depend completely on Him to be true to His promises.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

2003 in Film

The early 00ts were an exciting time in mainstream moviedom. Film technology had reached the point that fantasy could be translated to the big screen in a convincing fashion. More than ever, movies were being launched with a multiple installment mentality (which is exciting and troublesome at the same time.) 2003 saw the end of two important trilogies in the Tolkien and Matrix efforts, that showed how well and how utterly terrible that can be done. Around the last few slots on this top ten list there were some tough decisions to be made. Revisiting some of these may change things in the future. Secondhand Lions, Matchstick Men, and the second Matrix films might need to be re-watched at some point.

Top Ten Personal Films of 2003:
*. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
1. Fin Nemo
2. Big Fish
3. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
4. Down With Love
5. Luther
6. Les Triplettes de Bellville
7. Bruce Almighty
8. Master and Commander
9. Elf
10. Holes

Bottom (or Most Disappointing) Films of 2003:
1. The Matrix Revolutions
2. The Order
3. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
4. Spy Kids 3D
5. Intolerable Cruelty

Films I Still Need to See:
Good Bye, Lenin!
Lost in Translation
Mystic River
Old Boy

Friday, October 15, 2010

Alien Resurrection: Where’s the Laugh Track?

“Why do you go on living? How can you stand being what you are?”
“Not much choice.”

[Spoilers Ahead] There is a conversation late in Alien Resurrection between a clone that is part Ripley, part alien queen (at least psychologically) and a second generation android. They are sitting in a chapel, making a last effort to save themselves and the whole earth from the latest alien menace. The android character hates herself because she is a thing. This view has driven her to be the “most humane” character in the story. When she asks the Ripley clone how she can go on living, knowing what she is, the clone is stoic. However, she also shows a lot of hope throughout the story. Both characters are examples of people overcoming their imperfections and shortcoming to do what is right in spite of great personal risk.

That is about as deep as you can go into the last true installment in the Alien franchise. This fourth film is about as messy as the last entry, but it is slightly more entertaining albeit grotesque tongue in cheek. At least that was how it was written to be played, but most of the filmmakers seem to have missed that point. Weaver takes the part way to seriously and comes off rather silly. When the alien queen shows up in the end pregnant, it is laugh out loud silly. This could have been the Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein of the series.

(Once again, this film is rated R—more for gore than the last film, and less for language—but only slightly less.)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Alien3: One to Skip

“Do you have any faith, sister?”
“Not much.”
“Well, we’ve got a lot of faith here. Enough even for you.”
“I thought women weren’t allowed.”
“Well, we’ve never had any before. But we tolerate anybody. Even the intolerable.”

The first film in the Alien franchise was all about a ship investigating what they thought was an S.O.S. that turned out to be a warning. Consider this your warning. This is the movie you skip. It is “the intolerable.” David Fincher, who got the start to his very successful directorial career with this movie, walked off the project before the editing was started and refuses to claim it to this day. The story is half baked and a huge mess. In the Alien box set they ought to replace this movie with a card that simply reads: “At the end of Aliens, Ripley is infected with an alien and dies never having woken up.” Then you could go onto the fourth film having never watched this mess.

That being said—and this is still not a recommendation that you watch this mess—there are some interesting observations about religion in this story. In one of the many development phases for this film, it was going to take place in a monastery. The final version occurs on a prison planet, but it is basically the same thing. It seems the prisoners all found religion as so many prisoners do. When the prison was going to be shut down, they opted to stay there so as to avoid temptation and sin. All the prisoners are “double y chromosomes,” men that are so tainted with humanity that they are ultra prone to sin. Their version of Christianity is one of those types that is so like all other legalistic religions the world over. You only know that it is Christianity because a character says it is. Otherwise there is no mention of Christ or the Gospel.

This representation of Christianity is both sad and enlightening. It is a completely irrelevant religion. It hides from the world and carries no hope or grace. If this is what the world thinks of when it thinks of Christianity, then many people who take the name of Christ have been taking it in vain.

(This movie is rated R, partly for the gore but largely for the language. The Christians in this film may be legalistic in many things, but not in how they speak. You have been warned!)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Aliens: Underestimating the Problem

“This time it’s war.”

Actually, that is just one viewing possible for Cameron’s take on the Alien universe. He did actually base a lot of what his story is about around the Vietnam conflict. However, there is also the huge theme of motherhood. Also, the minor themes of corporate greed, prejudicial judgment, and overcoming fear, etc. etc. Even though this movie is just an action flick, there is a lot of undercurrent here.

And it is an eighties action flick. The first Alien was a horror movie with a lot of build-up. Some of today’s kids might even dub it boring. Aliens is so fast paced and intense that it would be hard to call it horror. It doesn’t quite even make the terror category. If it weren’t for the sci-fi elements, it could be considered a feminist take on Rambo or any other testosterone movie of the decade.

The motherhood theme is the main thing here. There is the throw-away scene in the beginning where Ripley insists on finding out what happened to her little daughter. Later on, when she meets Newt, you know exactly what is going through Ripley’s mind and understand her motivations completely. It is not exactly subtle, but then it is a James Cameron film. When the alien queen finally comes on the scene the film has reached its natural conclusion—it is mother against mother. Ripley kills all the queen’s babies, and the queen wants revenge.

There is no moral equivalent here, however. Killing the aliens is never brought into question. The only mistake the military make in this conflict is in underestimating the enemy. It is somewhat refreshing to have a military movie where the fight is so clear. There are evil bad guys and no doubts as to what to do. The alien’s very existence is dependent on killing others. It is the way their biology works, and not an evil ideology, but there is a parallel there.

Where evil manifests itself as an ideology of destruction and oppression, that ideology must be eradicated. That does not always mean eradication of the people or groups that hold to that ideology, but where minds cannot be changed survival dictates action. The death of any freedom loving tolerant society lies in what it is willing to tolerate. Tolerate evil ideologies that by definition are intolerant and see how long your way of life is allowed to persist.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Alien: Heeding the Warnings

“Ash, that transmission... Mother's deciphered part of it. It doesn't look like an S.O.S.”
It is easy to forget just what sort of film the first Alien was. After all the franchise has spawned it may be hard to believe that the first film was a slowly paced, tense horror film. It is over an hour—more than halfway into the film—before the most famous and gory scene for which the film is remembered occurs. It is not an action film by any stretch of the imagination. That would not occur until the second film came along.

An important part of the real success and staying power of the first film, aside from the great concept, direction and acting, was the design of the film itself—the art direction and effects work. As so often occurs, the story would end up being your run of the mill monster movie, but the monster itself made it special. Giger’s concepts are unique. Their mixture of mechanical and organic, their slightly rude aspects, their truly otherworldly originality all make them stand apart as a truly new horror. However, it is still classic horror with all that that entails.

Great horror always carries a message, and most examples fall into a limited numbers of classifications. Either you have your vampire/zombie model where evil is examined as something foreign that invades and must be resisted, or you have your Frankenstein/mad scientist where mankind itself is evil trying to take the place of God and reaping the devastating consequences.

Here in Alien, you almost have a third example. The “evil” is not the monster. The alien creature is without intention. It is merely doing what its biology dictates. At most it could be considered “evil” in the way that a volcano or an earthquake would be. The real evil in this movie is the company that sends its workers to retrieve the monster, presumably for study and exploitation. However, this is not science trying to be God, but thinking it is detached, all powerful and can know everything. The company is willing to risk the lives of its workers in exchange for knowledge that could benefit them financially or militarily.

Some people look at the dangerous aspects of creation and try to attribute evil (with violence and danger being evil) to God, as if God creating a dangerous universe makes Him evil. In this film we see a good example of the universe being dangerous for those who go looking for the danger. At first the events seem random, but we soon discover that the ship did not happen upon an SOS, but was sent to investigate a warning. The universe is a dangerous place, but also filled with warnings and wisdom available to those who will heed it. The real message of Alien is to be careful and follow good rules provided for our safety. Ripley continually tries to preach that message, and could have saved the ship’s crew many times over, but is repeatedly ignored or even countermanded.

The message is not the main thing here, however. This is a roller-coaster ride of danger. And for the most part the series would continue to take that ride. But like all good sci-fi and horror, there are always thoughts worth chewing on…

Monday, October 11, 2010

Romans 8:26-39 (Trinitarian Hope)

It is nice to know that we are not left alone with just hope and endurance when we see the evil in this world. To be sure, as with everything in Christianity, we have to rely on faith. We must believe in things we cannot prove. We hope for things that we cannot see. However, we can know that every person in the triune God is alongside us in our suffering, acting in our lives bringing about our glorification.

The Holy Spirit is praying for us. (26, 27) When we see the bad things that we encounter in our lives—the suffering of children, the sickness, the disasters—we find that we do not know what to pray. Where is God’s will evil we see? We are not alone in our prayers. The Spirit of God that is within us, that is God Himself and knows our thoughts and God’s heart helps us to pray for what God’s plan requires.

God the Father is sovereign and His plans take everything into account. (28-30) There is nothing that He allows to enter our lives that He cannot take and use for His purpose. He will bring all of His people into a glorious future that He has planned and that will not only be far greater than this world’s evils could ever cancel out, but also a future that grows out of the current sufferings we face in this world.

Finally, we have the Son. (31-39) Jesus Christ has suffered and died on the cross to heal all the suffering and sin that we will face. There is nothing that we can face here that will separate us from the love of Christ evidenced on the cross.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Movie Review: Shadow of the Vampire

Sometimes the film industry comes up with a novel and interesting approach to an overused genre or formula. Twenty years after Herzog reinvented Nosferatu, the makers of Shadow of the Vampire managed to retell the story again without retreading the ground already covered. It is essentially the same story Stoker came up with and that has been retold over and over again. The evil from the primeval east makes a deal with someone in the modern west to try to regain the glory it had in the past. Only this time, it is not some real estate agent—it is Murnau himself. In an effort to film Stoker’s story as realistically as possible, he stumbles upon a true vampire and uses him to play the part.

The film is well made. The acting, especially Dafoe as Max Schreck, is superb. Audiences familiar with the original film get a kick out of seeing scenes recreated with the “new” perspective. It aims at being an “important” art house film, but really succeeds at being an amusing minor piece. That being said, there are seeds of worthy ideas here. For all of the characters’ talk of philosophy and Murnau’s grand statements about his art and what he is doing for science, the context of the film makes them seem silly. Perhaps that is the point. In the words of the vampire character as the cameraman tries to discuss Plato with him: “I grow tired of your sophistry.”

Plato’s analogy of the cave is an important influence on this film. The idea that film serves as the cave wall is missed by all the filmmakers in the story. They say things like, “If it isn’t in frame, it doesn’t exist.” They think they are showing the world a great truth, but like so many documentarians one can think of, they are manipulating reality to tell a story all the while missing the point. They have encountered true evil, the sort that the very story they are working on warns them about, and they fail to recognize or respect it. It destroys them in the end. In the words of Murnau describing the symbolism in his film, but self indicting:

“Albin, collect the wooden stake and return it to its rightful place; it is necessary for the final frame, to remind us of the inadequacies of our plans, our contingencies, every missed train and failed picnic, every lie to a child.”

Once again, Modernism is the target here. Humanity thought they could know everything, control everything. The truth is we can’t. There are truths in the world that are beyond comprehension. There are powers in the world that we cannot control.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

More Top Films: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht

Werner Herzog broke with his usual innovative habit and remade Nosferatu in 1979 because he considered it the most important German movie ever made and wanted to take his own stab at it. He accomplished what he set out to do. The new movie is a faithful tribute to the original but carries it forward and adds new perspective to the story.

(Interestingly, Herzog made the movie twice over—filming all the scenes with dialogue in both German and English. The German takes are better, and the German version is best appreciated in the German itself as the subtitles are less than helpful. Thus my personal appreciation for this film has increased as with subsequent viewings I have been able to ignore the English version and even the subtitles.)

Herzog stayed true to all the themes of the original, sometimes making them more powerful. (The whole plague plot is very impressive, especially the scenes with the crowds who have accepted their fate.) Yet he has also added some elements of his own. The vampire here is a tragic figure, lonely and longing for humanity. The husband of this film has multiple layers not present in the original, and gives us further perspective on the vampire itself. Through these characters we see that evil is not just a force that affects humanity, but that it is also a product of human nature.

The wife has a stronger representation here as well. We get to see her actually think through the problem of the evil invading her home and city, and see that it is her faith that leads her to do what is necessary to save the day. The problem here is that her faith is rather naïve and more of a product of her modernism more than the primitive faith in the original. One gets the feeling that the critique of Modernism in this film is couched in Modernism itself, and hopeless in its outlook.

“Salvation comes only from ourselves,” says the wife to the vampire. Even though she then shows the vampire the cross to repel him, she has betrayed the flaw in her thinking. She is resting her faith on something no more powerful than the humanity that has produced the evil to begin with. Later on, she elaborates her understanding of faith: “Faith is the faculty of man that allows him to believe things which he knows to be untrue.” What?

With this fatalistic, modern outlook, it is no wonder that the side of good in this movie fails. The wife’s sacrifice does indeed destroy the vampire, but the evil escapes to begin its cycle of persecution and destruction anew.

Here is a clip referred to above. Aside from being a pivotal scene, it may be one of the best technically constructed scenes in any vampire film ever:

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

More Top Films: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

Nosferatu is a classic for many reasons. It was the first horror film featuring a vampire. It is a great example of German expressionism. It was also ordered destroyed and we are fortunate to even be able to see it today. Beyond all those reasons, however, is the fact that it is simply a well crafted and meaningful piece of art.

The story is basically an abbreviated and slightly adapted version of Stoker’s Dracula. A vampire from the east purchases property in the modern west, and then moves in to wreak havoc. Murnau changed the names and locations, but kept the basic plot points. He did change a couple of big things, though. In this story the vampire brings the plague with him—causing many more deaths and generally having a larger impact on modern society at large than Dracula was permitted. He also changed the way that the vampire dies. In the novel Dracula is not particularly bothered by the sun. In Nosferatu (and most versions of vampire legend since) it kills him.

There are several notable elements that carry a lot of meaning in this film. This was the first cinematic take on the vampire legend that had been around for centuries. This time around, the vampire is presented as an ugly evil. Most subsequent takes on the legend would prefer the Bela Lugosi version—seductive and attractive. That take has its own valid message, but here we get to see evil for what it is. It is also interesting the way this story ties the plague and death to evil. The vampire represents the way evil impacts our world without delving into the whys and hows. It simply arrives and kills. The men of science and modern society are helpless in the face of evil because they attempt to understand it. The wife in the story represents the correct approach to evil. She understands the threat and accepts that the only way to defeat the evil is to destroy it, even when that will require sacrifice on her part.

You could view this whole story as a critique of modern philosophy with its attempts to understand and classify everything. It is an ironic critique in that it proposes a faith answer, a pre-modern answer to Modernity’s failure. The future takes on this particular story would go in different directions…

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

More Romans 8:18-25 (Back to Theodicy)

How can evil exist in a world created by a loving God? This question can be a little harder to grapple with than the question of God’s existence, even though they are related. Yesterday we looked at the pointlessness of arguing that God is. The other side of the coin is evil. How can evil exist when we all know God does?

The approach many people take, when they concede in a divine good, is to argue that there is a balance to nature. Good has to have evil in order for it to be good. There are two equal and opposite powers. That is a wrong and false approach. For one thing it renders good as an impersonal force and merely one half of a capricious power. The true God of the universe is a personal all-powerful creator and there is no power in the universe that competes with Him for supremacy.

Another approach is to say that—if there is an all-powerful God then He must have created and caused all the evil in the world and therefore He is no loving being and the Bible is wrong. This is also a wrong and false understanding of the problem of evil—or at the very least an unbiblical one.

The Bible proposes a very different take on evil. It is found in Genesis chapter one, or its analogy is. On the first day, God creates light. He then separates light from darkness. Who created the darkness? Was it already there? Is it some eternal force, the yang to God’s ying? No. Darkness is not a thing. It was not created. It is the absence of light. In the same way, when evil comes on the scene we recognize it for what it really is—or isn’t. It was not created by God. It is not the opposite of all the good things God declared as He created and ordered them. It is the absence of good. It exists, but it is a no-thing.

God allows evil because He is a loving God. He created beings that could experience a true relationship with Him. In order for that to be the case, they had to be able to reject Him and His good way. For freedom to be real, we had to have a choice. However, He did not leave us to perish in our evil choice. He had a plan all along to free us and defeat evil. That is why the suffering we face now does not compare to the plan that God has in store for creation.

Once again, we come to the Gospel.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Romans 8:18-25 (+1:16-32) Theodicy and Other Questions

Why do bad things happen to good people? How can there be a loving God with so much evil in the world? How can you believe in something that you cannot prove?

Such questions preoccupy people a lot. Christians would like to know the answers to them in order to better defend what they believe. Non-Christians like to pose them because it shuts Christians up. The truth of the matter is that, ultimately, they do not matter. At least the unknowable answers do not matter. Our approach to these issues needs to be something other than traditional apologetics.

Here in Romans, Paul does not pose the question of evil, but rather presents the correct response to it. Hope. If we have assurance of something, we cannot hope for it. It is not a possibility; it is a given. In the same way, faith is a belief in something that we cannot prove. If we could, we would not need faith. Instead of wasting energy in engaging these false arguments posed to us, we need to address the motivation behind these questions.

Romans 1 tells us that all people everywhere have knowledge of God. They know that He exists and that He has certain qualities. They know of His natural law and they know that they are guilty of breaking that law and facing the consequences. It is this knowledge that causes people to choose to turn away from God and pretend He does not exist. It is easier to do that than face the truth. As Christians it does little good to try to convince someone that what they know and fear is true.

However, that is not our task anyway. We have been given a message of forgiveness and grace. That message is indeed helpful when we are faced with people in denial born out of fear. Don’t play the philosophical game of fighting these questions. It is like tic-tac-toe; nobody wins. Cut through all of that with the story of God’s love and see what happens.

Thanks to Thomas K. Johnson for unknowingly help me put these thoughts into words.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Movie Review: Case 39

Case 39 would normally fall somewhere below The Social Network and Let Me In on a list of anticipated movies this week-end. Mostly because it was made four years ago and just now finding its way into theaters in the states. However, it has been out in Europe for some time now, and its popularity here was just enough to get it some play, so… Is this a movie to watch?

It has the star power. Rene Zellweger and Bradley Cooper are two of the most popular actors these days. It also has the season—this is the time for scares. Aside from that, though, it has very little to offer. It is not scary and it is not particularly well written. For creepy children/pregnancy movies you could do better with just about any entry in the genre.

It does remind us that there is something creepy about kids, though. Sure a lot of people love them and most people like their own at the very least, but kids—especially when left to their own devices—can really make a great argument for the doctrine of total depravity.

Case 39 is really pretty rudimentary; your typical evil kid scenario. Sure there is a half-hearted attempt to make you think that perhaps the evil forces are after this kid, but the audience knows what is going on from the beginning. The big pay-off for the film comes when the creature reveals its true intentions. It is really just a spoiled rotten kid that is going to have what it wants—one way or another. When seen in that light, you see all the spoiled kids you have known in your life for what they really are: monsters.

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