Movies

A Remark on Malick’s To the Wonder

There is a moment when Jane, having been rejected by her lover Neil in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, declares with equal parts scorn and sorrow, “What we had you turned it into nothing.” For while Jane, an apparent Christian, makes clear that she wants her love with Neil to be elevated to something higher, the latter settles for carnality before turning his affection back towards Marina, a Frenchwoman we see Neil spending time with abroad at the beginning of the movie. Although the fruits and end of Neil and Marina’s relationship remains somewhat ambiguous by the film’s end, Jane’s devastation over having given her body to a man who has no interest in her soul is made painfully apparent.

Were Jane to recount her story to many “good” (conservative) Christians, she would likely be met with chastisement. How could she be so foolish to give of herself physically outside of the bonds of matrimony? Should she not have known that Neil, who professes nary a Christian sentiment in and can be seen reading Heidegger’s Being and Time at one point, would eventually part once he has tasted of the forbidden fruit? Without trivializing Jane’s error, let me suggest that Christians, including Catholics, who take these and similar postures often do so in splendid isolation of the manner in which misplaced hope can drive persons to make decisions which look not only deeply foolish in hindsight, but are objectively deeply sinful. The sense which some hold is that a sin on the frontend will lead to a positive payoff on the backend. Maybe this is why I am no longer surprised when I meet conservative-to-traditional Catholic and Orthodox couples who slept with each other before marriage; there remains an underdeveloped but no less present belief that the ends justifies the means.

Of course, you cannot say such things in the polite company of “official” channels of advice to couples regarding dating, engagement, and matrimony. The entire industry that has popped up around these topics, including bedroom matters post-marriage, depends upon a highly naïve understanding of how human beings think and behave, not just in these times, but in centuries past. Although the costs of out-of-wedlock sexual intercourse were much higher before the advent of modern contraception and more relaxed social standards regarding sexuality in general, it is difficult to maintain that these costs alone ever nullified desire. And while there have always been licentious individuals of both sexes roaming about, there is a lacuna in our understanding of relationships and sexuality if we are to simply hold that people engage in impermissible sexual behavior merely because they are endowed with red hot sin-loving souls. There is a deeper distortion at work, one that cannot be cured with Jane Austen novels and flowery rhetoric about the power of chastity.

Malick, I suspect, understands this to a better extent more than professional moralists. Without having recourse to the blunt instruments of shame and indignation, he portrays, to the best of his cinematic powers, the radiance and beauty of love, even when it is removed from its proper context. He aims not to punish the participants from the outside, but rather allow their own torments to enlighten them. Jane is never singled-out for chastisement by a cleric, a friend, or future lover; it is the realization that what she had invested could never be returned which shatters her. As for Neil, although he remains imperviousness to the damaging consequences of his actions, ultimately they lead to a life of emptiness, hollowed out of the promise of fulfillment which is offered up during the early portions of To the Wonder.

While he barely shares any screen time with Neil and has but a passing connection to Neil’s romantic life, the character of Fr. Quintana is presented as a sharp contrast to Neil. Originally devoid of purpose and apparently on the brink of losing his faith, Quintana does not pull back into himself but rather opens himself up to the world around him, to the suffering souls also in search of love, and eventually, through his unselfish work, is given the grace to love again, not merely himself, but God and the world around him. Quintana’s love is elevated not through a sacramental union with another, but being placed in the service of a higher end. It is not his self-satisfaction which he seeks, but rather to serve as an instrument of mercy for those around him. Instead of collapsing into his own isolation and loneliness as does Neil, he allows himself to be renewed by a elevated love.

Some Thoughts on The Keepers

Less is being made of the new Netflix murder-drama spectacle The Keepers than I had anticipated. After the rousing success of Making a Murderer and, prior to that, the podcast Serial, I had assumed that The Keepers would become the talk around the water cooler at thousands of offices across the country. Apparently not. That is not to say that there hasn’t been some discussion of the miniseries’ contents. The graphic depictions of sexual abuse on teenage girls at a Baltimore Catholic school in the 1960s are as difficult to overlook as they are to stomach. Personally, following the grotesque revelations made in episodes 2 and 3, I had to hit pause on the show lest I find myself overtaken by irrational anticlericalism. Yes, I am well aware that the abuse accounts contained in the series are a gross exception, not the general rule, but acknowledging that fact does not relieve the burning sense of betrayal all Catholics should feel when presented with evidence of priests who violate all standards of decency and care in pursuit of their vile desires.

Like any expose of the Catholic Church, there are points where The Keepers tries to exaggerate the extent of secrecy, malfeasance, and general vice within the Church. There are, naturally, stories of people losing (or, rather, abandoning) their faith because of the abuse that went on, and the “hero” of the story—Sister Catherine Cesnik, who was murdered because she was apparently prepared to expose the abuse scandal in 1969—was a “hip” nun who had been granted permission to live outside of the cloister sans habit prior to her death. (It is hard to not shake the feeling that if she had remained living with her order rather than a mid-grade apartment complex, she might still be alive.)

Beyond the tales of abuse, corruption, and cover-ups galore, The Keepers provides an indirect, but interesting, snapshot of Catholic life during the reforms following the Second Vatican Council. While the image of Catholicism as it appeared in decades prior is still present, there is a noticeable shift in attitude among some of those interviewed about what it meant to be Catholic. For instance, one interviewee, an ex-Jesuit priest, had at one point proposed marriage to Sister Catherine just prior to his ordination and before she was to take her final vows. He was unashamed in his recollection that he had grown to love her; and though she apparently talked him into fulfilling his vocation, it didn’t “take” as they say. Like so many priests and religious after Vatican II and the laicization of the Church, he opted to abandon his calling, perhaps no longer seeing any “value” to it.

As the series proceeds, it’s hard not to notice the shift in aesthetics and tone that are presented over the decades. Well-adorned temples that had been standing for more than a century give way to barns decked out with modernist statuary surrounding priests vested in horse blankets presiding over an emaciated rite. One of the abuse victims, up until her grueling trial of attempting to get the Diocese of Baltimore to take action against the priest who repeatedly raped her, boasted of her involvement in the Church, complete with serving as an “Extraordinary Minister” of the Eucharist. Now, however, the unconsecrated fingers that once held the Body of Christ have been washed of all dealings with the Catholic Church. There was, in her mind, nothing left for the Church to give in exchange for everything some of its priests had taken from her decades ago.

In addition to the abuse accounts themselves, nothing is more chilling in the series than the descriptions of how these perverted clerics used the confessional to their advantage. Without compunction, these priests excommunicated themselves by violating the sacred seal of Confession in order to manipulate their victims into submitting to their carnal desires. While the abuses detailed in The Keepers are undoubtedly excessive, they do call to mind the more general problem of how clerics can use confession to inflict psychic and emotional harm on others, all in the name of being their “spiritual fathers.” Rather than dispensing God’s infinite mercy, they seek to aggrandize themselves by micro-managing the souls entrusted to their care, often leading them not to virtue but to emotional confusion and spiritual despair.

It is difficult for me to recommend The Keepers to everyone. Those who have suffered some form of abuse, regardless of the source, will find the graphic depictions contained in the miniseries difficult to stomach. Those already inclined to blame the Catholic Church for so many of the evils in this world will probably find the series to be little more than a confirmation of all of their prejudices. Even faithful Catholics might be so put off by what unfolds during the documentary that they may begin to question their place in the Church generally. Heaven forbid. However, despite its flaws and occasional biases, The Keepers should remind us that the Church is both a divine and very human institution. It is not, by virtue of its divine establishment, immune from satanic machinations and the corroding power of sin. Its history is one riddled with crises, both moral and doctrinal. While it may be difficult to acknowledge that, particularly in a day and age when “religion” is believed to be either outdated or representative of little more than easygoing sentimentality for the “spiritual,” there’s no good reason to look away from that reality, either.

Some Thoughts on Silence

Note: This brief overview of Martin Scorsese’s Silence was originally written for another outlet, but was passed over for various reasons.

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Watching Silence with Protestants

Just to be clear, this is not a formal review of Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which is being released nationwide today. Quite by accident, I had the opportunity last night to attend a preview screening of the film hosted by John Loeks, Jr., the owner and operator of the highly successful Celebration Cinema theater chain in West Michigan. The screening, which was attended primarily by Protestants of various stripes and featured an after-viewing discussion facilitated by Calvin College’s Carl Plantinga, provided not only an opportunity for me to witness how a master filmmaker handled one of the most unsettling and contentious novels I have ever read, but a chance to see first-hand how emaciated American Protestantism has become. Keep in mind that West Michigan is no secular outlier; it is home to both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America, along with countless evangelical sects and mega-churches. As recently as a decade or so ago, West Michigan was identified as the second most conservative area in the United States—just behind Salt Lake City, Utah. Whatever our faults (and there are plenty of them), a lack of Jesus isn’t one of them.

In both my casual conservations with the screening’s attendees and the audience-wide discussion itself, I found myself unsettled by how easily the heroic ideal of mission is reduced to a vague notion of “service.” One audience member, who not surprisingly is involved in interfaith dialogue, declaredly proudly that the message of Silence is about setting aside pride, particularly the pride of believing one knows “the truth.” In absolute defiance of the film’s brutal depiction of heroic martyrdom, this gentleman lauded the “enlightenment” of contemporary missionaries who go abroad not to “convince others” but to engage in public works. While missionary activity has long been connected with education, charitable giving, and even bottom-up social renewal, at the heart of all true missionary activity—particularly the Tridentine missionary activity of the Society of Jesus in the 16th and 17th centuries—is the salvation of souls. I dare say that some thought I was an alien from another world when I suggested that Jesuits once went forth to win souls for Christ, not spread multiculturalism.

If the aforementioned gentleman’s comments were an aberration, I’d think nothing of it. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Almost without exception, every audience remark was pregnant with religious liberalism and the belief that Scorsese’s movie—just like the novel it is based on—gloriously preaches indifferentism. How that shoddy interpretation squares with the martyric witness of simple peasants is quite beyond me. Beyond me as well is the sense that many in the audience got that Endo’s story is about the spreading of neutered Christianity unmoored from a concrete Church rather than Catholicism. And at least on this point, one audience member (a professor at Calvin College) suggested that the movie’s meaning is likely to be more apparent to Catholics than Protestants. In replying to her, I was tempted to say something about iconoclasts, but I resisted.

There’s no need for me to repeat every scandalous opinion put forth. However, after leaving the theater, I spent a good 15-30 minutes going over the film in my head, wondering if I hadn’t been too quick to read the Catholic Faith into a film that many apparently understood as a lesson in why it’s important to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” around a campfire rather than ask the only question ever worth asking, “What think ye of Christ?”

Although subsequent viewings may dislodge this belief, I remain convinced that whether by accident, design, or a bit of both, Scorsese’s Silence is neither an apologia for apostasy nor panegyric to cultural relativism. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy film. Some concerned Catholics have suggested the film, like the book, is theologically dangerous—and to some extent they’re right. Any artistic achievement that attempts to wrestle with the most difficult tenets of the Faith risks obscuring more than it clarifies. By raising difficult questions without ready-made, manulist answers, Silence inadvertently invites idiotic replies. But more than that, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the fragility of faith and the hard truth that God’s apparent silence is more often than not our obstinate refusal to listen.

Rogue One: A Spoiler-Packed Review

The following post is a spoiler-heavy “review” of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (R1). More accurately, it is a series of thoughts on the film written from the perspective of someone who has been a die-hard fan of the franchise since his youngest years. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a “film buff,” nor do I suffer under any illusion that R1, or any installment in the Star Wars saga (which, since Disney took custody of the property, now includes closely monitored cartoons, books, and comics, in addition to the movies), will ever be deemed “high art.” Moreover, the eight films contain errors, contradictions, continuity flaws, flat characters, under-developed plot points, etc. that can never be fully rectified, especially at this stage in the game. And that’s fine. As you will see from my thoughts below, R1 is intended to both deepen and widen Star Wars, not just in terms of galactic scale, but the motives and desires of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. In my opinion, it was highly successful at doing so.

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A Critical Note on Kriss and American Sniper

I know very little about Sam Kriss, except that he writes a blog entitled Idiot Joy Showland, publishes in Left-leaning outlets, and penned Pater Edmund Waldstein’s favorite reflection on the Charle Hebdo killings in France. People I am friends with in real life and via social media enjoy Kriss, and many more are enjoying his recent piece on Chris Kyle, the slain Navy SEAL whose life—or a certain framing of his life by director Clint Eastwood in the film American Sniper—is causing a tidal wave of controversy. Some of the controversy is quite silly; a good deal of it is trivial and nitpicky; and then there are the heavy-hitting critiques which purport to expose the flaws in both Kyle’s character and Eastwood’s filmmaking talents. For some, such as Kriss, the two are almost intertwined, though perhaps Eastwood shares a bulk of the blame for crafting a movie which portrays Kyle unrealistically while glorifying the Iraq War (and perhaps war in general). For all of Kyle’s faults, including fabricating several outrageous tales in his ghostwritten autobiography, a desperate desire to hide them wasn’t one of them. As Kriss recounts, Kyle bragged remorselessly about the number of people—military and civilian—he killed during his tours in Iraq and his opinion of the Iraqi population as a whole was less-than-edifying. Moreover, Kyle never questioned the Iraq War nor had any qualms about his mission—a mission he frames as protecting American military lives above all else. That facet of Kyle’s character does make its way into Eastwood’s biopic, and it is the least bothersome part of the film.

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A Critical Remark on Linklater’s Boyhood

Friends, acquaintances, and movie critics told me I needed to see Richard Linklater’s ambitious film Boyhood. Shot over a 12-year period, Boyhood attempts to show the physical, mental, and emotional development of a six-year-old boy named Mason in an unprecedentedly realistic manner while chronicling the ups-and-downs of his (divorced) parents’ lives. The mother, played by Patricia Arquette, has a rough go of it as a single mother who enters into two disastrous relationships with alcoholics before pulling herself out of dependency with a college education. The father, portrayed by the often insufferable Ethan Hawke, is the quintessential deadbeat dad: obsessively cool, self-justifying, and locked in adolescence for 80% of the film, he manages to finally “figure it all out” with his second stab at marriage and children. No negative consequences flow from his actions (or, rather, inaction and inattentiveness). Not even Mason appears noticeably harmed by his father’s absence; he even remains immune from harm by the aforementioned alcoholics, which is distressingly convenient. What would the audience think about Mason’s actual father had his son took a beating or suffered emotional harm at the hands of other men? But then that might raise more troubling questions about the social acceptability of absconding fathers.

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2014 Year in Movies

I am not a big film buff, and ever since I left Chicago and the early morning discount at the AMC downtown, I am typically disinclined to visit a movie theater. For what it’s worth, here are the top 15 new movies I saw in 2014. Some titles released in late 2013 are on here as well. Oh, and I have seen neither The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies nor Exodus: Gods and Kings. I don’t anticipate that I will ever see the latter, actually.

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Knight of Cups

I enjoy, even at times love, Terrence Malick’s films. There. I said it, and I won’t apologize for it either. Knight of Cups, his seventh, is due in theaters early next year — a shocker given that To The Wonder came out less than three years ago. Under the usual Malick time horizon, one would expect a decade — maybe two — to go by first, but since 2011’s Tree of Life, he seems intent on getting his projects wrapped up sooner rather than later.

Although I am not deaf to thoughtful criticism of Malick’s work, I believe David Bentley Hart did a fine job lampooning a great deal of anti-Malick sentiment with his “Seven Characters in Search of a Nihil Obstat.” It seems that too many want to approach Malick as a “religious filmmaker” which, in their minds, means he has to be a “Christian filmmaker” with a clear confessional bent. People are understandably uncomfortable with what I would call the “natural theology” of The Thin Red Line; there are Gnostic undertones to the cryptic spirituality which emerges from attempting to comprehend the darkness which relentlessly attempts to engulf the light.

Knight of Cups, based on the trailer, looks surprisingly straightforward film: a life of excess called into question by rediscovering love. If the theme is truly that simple, would it be so bad?