Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thoughts on "Phone Booth" and Moral Ambiguity

Joel Schumacher is an oft-reviled director. Case in point: he's the guy who put nipples on the batsuit. But, every once in a while, I contend that he's capable of a gem. His Tigerland (introducing Colin Farrell) went almost completely unseen, and is really great. After making that one, he and Farrell decided that they wanted to work together again, and collaborated on the trifling Phone Booth, a thriller co-starring Forest Whitaker, Kiefer Sutherland, Radha Mitchell, and a pre-Cruisian Katie Holmes.

Phone Booth is interesting in several respects. First of all, the entirety of the action takes place guessed it, a phone booth. It's also shot in real time, so when two things that need to be seen are happening at the same time, Schumacher uses a picture-in-picture technique to show us. the 75 minute film depicts 75 minutes in the life of its characters. It's interesting that Kiefer Sutherland showed up in this the year after he started "24." Maybe it was his idea.

Besides the interesting photographic elements, there is a plot element that is appropriate to our ongoing discussions here. I'm not going to concern myself with spoilers, because this movie came out in 2002! Sutherland plays a deranged moralist, bent on showing "bad" people the evil of their ways. He does this by calling them on the phone (while aiming a high-powered rifle at them) and telling them that if they don't admit their mistakes and right their wrongs, he'll kill them. In the course of the narrative, it is revealed that Colin Farrell, our flawed protagonist, is his third target. The first two were a prolific pornographer and a dishonest Wall Street fat cat. Here's where it gets interesting: Farrell protests that his sins are not in the league of these other targets. All he's done is talk on this pay phone every day to a girl (Holmes) who is not his wife (Mitchell). He's invited her to a hotel with the intention of sleeping with her, but she has refused...nothing has happened. "These are my sins?" he protests.

Sutherland asks him, quietly, "How many times have you slept with [Holmes] your head?" Here Sutherland is echoing (the morality, at least, of) Jesus Christ" "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." I once quoted this verse to a friend, who said, "I don't believe that. I believe that Jesus said it, but I don't believe that it's true."

What do YOU think? Is Jesus' black-and-white moral code ridiculous? If it's true, what does it mean for those of us who are "good?" Do you think Jesus said this? Does it seem to jibe with other things he is said to have said? Should people like Colin Farrell, merely considering something like sin, be regarded as equal to people who actually DO the thing? Finally, how does the way in which you answer this question impact your ethics?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What's Your Pleasure? Guilty, That Is...

We all have guilty pleasures. You know, those entertainments that you love dearly, but are a little embarrassed to talk about in public. My own embarrassment has waned over the years, as my pleasures have leaked out, over and over again, and I've gotten used to the ridicule. But I know what is SUPPOSED to embarrass me. I'll show you mine if you show me yours...

So here we go.

Movie: Starship Troopers. This one is actually less guilty than it seems...or, at least, it SHOULD be! Paul Verhoeven's 1997 actioner is about a weighty subject: humans and their to-the-death fight with interstellar space bugs. Starring the likes of Casper Van Dien, Neil Patrick Harris, Jake Busey, and (gasp) Denise Richards (it's complicated), Starship Troopers is big, dumb, and flashy. Or, is it? No less an august reviewer than Scott Tobias at the A.V. Club calls it "the most subversive major studio film in recent (or distant) memory"! An insightful (and hilarious) critique of fascism, Starship Troopers tackles its target in the mode of The Colbert Report, by pretending to be the thing at which it pokes fun.

Music: Hall and Oates. I have no excuse. They are the kings of cheese, but I love it. I could listen to "You Make My Dreams Come True" and "I Can't Go For That" over and over until the end of time. And those aren't even their biggest hits! "Private Eyes" or "Maneater" (both great tunes in their own right) take home that crown. But it's the catchy melodies and head-bopping rhythms that get me.

Books: Anything by David Sedaris. Now, Sedaris isn't a guilty pleasure for the "quality" of his work. He's a well-regarded and -reviewed writer, often appearing on Ira Glass' "This American Life." No, this pleasure is guilty in the traditional sense...there's lots of naughty words. So while I can officially (in my role as man-of-the-cloth) recommend Hall and Oates, I must caution you to beware of naughtiness in both Starship Troopers (R for language, human on bug and bug on human violence, and brief nudity) and the works of David Sedaris.

But you know? It's because we take pleasure in things that make us feel guilty that we need a savior! And, praise Jesus, we have one! In the comments, I'd love to hear about your guilty pleasures.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thoughts on "Some Kind of Wonderful"

John Hughes was the muse of the 80s high schooler. His writing credits include such giants of the genre as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. In 1987, he finished his run of high school smash hits with Some Kind of Wonderful, the story of a guy (Eric Stoltz) who falls in love with a girl (Lea Thompson) who is completely out of his league. He recruits his best friend (Mary Stuart Masterson) to help him win Thompson's heart, never knowing the obvious truth: Masterson is desperately in love with him.

In true rom-com form, Thompson proves not the vision of perfection she seemed to be from afar, and Stoltz realizes that the girl he really wanted, Masterson, was right there all along. This is not a unique trope, but it might be the clearest distillation of the Christian life, both misguided and proper, that we could ever hope to find.

Christians begin their life (we'll say after conversion, for the sake of the comparison) desperately seeking to know more about God. We sing songs like "In the Secret," which include the lines:

I want to know you
I want to see your face
I want to know you more

I am reaching for the highest goal
That I might receive the prize
Pressing onward
Pushing every hindrance aside
Out of my way
'Cause I want to know you more

At first blush, there is nothing wrong with this goal. Preeminent Mocking-theologian Gerhard Forde would, however, have referred to this as a "tightly woven theology of glory" (On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 6). Luther himself said that the quest to know God was folly, and that the only reason we seek to know God was to domesticate and control him. It is Jesus who we draft into service as our guide to "become more like God" or to "get to know Him more." I think Hughes agrees, but I don't think Hughes thinks it works. John Hughes is with Martin Luther and Gerhard Forde!

Eric Stoltz thinks that he can turn himself into someone that Leah Thompson will love. This is the Christian quest to "know God." To know him, to become like him, so that he will love us more. We call this quest innocuous things like "deepening our relationship" and the goal seems laudable. But it doesn't work. Lea Thompson is inscrutable. Hard to understand. Counterintuitive. Like God, she can't be "gotten to." It just doesn't work.

It is Mary Stuart Masterson, in the Christ role, who is there for us. Stoltz sees her as a means to an end...and yet, she is the end. She is the love of his life. We too often see Christ as a means to get us closer to God, but it is Christ who is there to pick us up when our quest for God ends as it must: in bitter defeat and failure.

John Hughes puts in our common language what Luther and Forde, and before them John the Evangelist (John 1:17-18), said in theological language: We cannot know God. To try is to waste our time, at best, and to struggle for independence from him, at worst. God, though, has made himself known, in God the Son, Jesus Christ. The one we try to use as a means to an end is, in fact, the end in himself. He is the Savior.
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