Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Month: December, 2013

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (dir. Adam McKay, 2013)

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is not as funny as its 2004 predecessor, but this deficiency is not for want of effort. Not only do the jokes come fast and furious, but screenwriters Will Ferrell (who, of course, also stars as the film’s titular hero, Ron Burgundy) and Adam McKay are unafraid to delve into the absurd, incorporating a pet shark, a Minotaur, the ghost of Stonewall Jackson, and even Kanye West into the story arc. It’s so silly, in fact, that criticism seems pointless. Are we supposed to quibble that, if the ghost of Stonewall Jackson were to appear, he would certainly not have the Dementor-like powers attributed to him by Ferrell and McKay?! No, better to just giggle and move on.

Nevertheless, this ridiculousness does have a cost. For Anchorman 2 rests on a brilliant premise: the buffoonish, chauvinistic, racially-insensitive Burgundy is the one responsible for the rise of today’s cable news. Hired to anchor the 2:00am broadcast on GNN (Global News Network) — the first 24-hour news channel — Burgundy and his “team” ponder how to attract a viewership. Burgundy’s answer is as prophetic as it is amusing: “Why do we need to tell people what they need to hear? Why can’t we tell them what they want to hear?” Soon a revolution is born. While another network is conducting an interview with Yasser Arafat, Burgundy features an O.J. Simpson-style car chase. Of course, the viewers (and, as it turns out, Arafat himself!) prefer the latter, and, for all of his foolishness, Burgundy is smart enough to perceive that the news, no less than anything else, can be presented as entertainment, as circus. Thus his slot on GNN, which is quickly bumped to prime-time, features stories about sex, death, patriotism, and, yes, cute animals. Moreover, these issues are handled in carnivalesque fashion, with flashing screens, constant information, talking heads, and sensationalistic reporting. The implication not only smacks of Freud, but also of the Bible: human beings are drawn to the salacious, the sentimental, and the fearful. They want what they can’t have, and they hate what they do have.

Thus Ferrell and McKay raise important questions that Anchorman 2 is, by and large, content to ignore. Nevertheless, Burgundy’s redemption late in the film gestures toward a surprisingly theological conclusion: for all of their foibles and flaws, for all of their darker impulses, persons ultimately desire the happiness of concrete relationships — with family, friends, even with creation — rather than the simulacra of virtual reality. Yet, for this redemption to occur, the TV and other forms of media, which always present the real in restricted, abstract terms, have to be turned off. Burgundy’s salvation, then, points away from the gnosticism of postmodern media to the “enfleshed” spirituality of the Christian story. Burgundy is a fool, but even fools can perceive that, in the end, the real is better than the virtual.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (dir. Peter Jackson, 2013)

Confession: I’m a Tolkien fan, and I have enjoyed each of Peter Jackson’s movies based on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit — yes, even last years’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, whose flaws were, in many respects, owing to Jackson’s fascination with the entirety of Tolkien’s oeuvre. That being said, The Desolation of Smaug is a far superior film. It’s a nearly three-hour romp through Middle Earth, which, ironically, only runs out of steam when Bilbo encounters the dragon deep in the heart of the Lonely Mountain. Yes, Smaug is magnificent, but, really, how long do we have to watch him blast through walls of Erebor and breathe tunnels of flame at defenseless dwarves?

The literature on Tolkien and theology is expansive and seemingly growing. I have not studied it in earnest, but I suspect that one issue that crops up is Tolkien’s understanding of evil. Is evil, for him, something that is, or is it a privation of being? The latter view, as is well-known, was common for many of Christianity’s greatest thinkers (Augustine, Aquinas, et al.), who, while not denying that evil things happen in the world, asserted that such things are neither created by God nor part of the structure of being itself. The upshot, for them, was the very nature of the cosmos: is it a place where good and evil are locked in a perpetual war, or is it a place where good always already retains primacy and will, indeed, prevail in the end?

As a Catholic, Tolkien would presumably be sympathetic to this view. But what about Jackson? After all, his films relish the clash of good and evil, and, though he does not not stray too far from Tolkien’s material, he grants Sauron and the denizens of Dol Guldur and Mordor a kind of sublime power. At the very least, Jackson seems to flirt with a Manichean dualism. For instance, in The Desolation of Smaug (spoiler alert!), not only is Gandalf vanquished by the Necromancer, but he appears impotent, even fearful, in the face of such evil. Still, I think Jackson ultimately toes the line set by Tolkien. Consider his portrayal of the orcs:

They are grisly, to be sure. And yet, they are clearly distortions of the human form; they are not a race sui generis but, rather, a deficient version of that which is. That, in fact, is why they are so frightening, for they represent the privation of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Of course, in this, Jackson again follows Tolkien, who wrote that the orcs were bred from elves captured and subsequently corrupted by Melkor, one of the Ainur (angelic spirits), and himself a fallen being. In Middle Earth, whether in page or on screen, evil does not have the first — or the last! — word.

Prolegomena

Before starting this blog in earnest, it makes sense to offer a few prefatory comments. After all, though it’s clear that I intend to write about “theology and movies,” it’s not clear how I understand the two to be related. What follows, then, is not a systematic analysis of the relation between theology and cinema–I’ll save such an endeavor for another venue–but, rather, a few presuppositions that will guide my reflections on the subject. To be sure, one might object to these premises. And yet, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, there are no presuppositionless beginnings in thinking. I might as well own up to my beliefs at the outset. So, with that in mind, I assume…

  • That both theology and cinema are human activities.
  • That cinema, in particular, is human art form, which, like all art forms, is capable of sacramental significance–that is to say, of pointing to the sacred, inexhaustible mystery of reality.
  • That theology, as a form of discourse about God, seeks to clarify the nature and goals of human life by attending to the meaning of God.
  • That insofar as theology, in attending to God, also attends to matters of ultimate concern, it is a discourse that engages “believers” and “nonbelievers” alike.
  • That cinema, insofar as it is a medium that combines both auditory and visual elements, is uniquely situated to (re)present life to us and, so, to shape the way we live.
  • That, in the above characteristics, there is notable overlap between theology and movies. Indeed, as Martin Scorsese once noted, to enter into the theater is to enter into a kind of sanctuary, where our eyes are opened, as it were, to a world that we often fail to see in our day-to-day lives.

Of course, this list could be expanded. But these convictions form the bedrock of what is to come.