Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Month: January, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)

Why do human beings produce art? What is art for? To make others happy? To give expression to the artist’s interior life? To make money? These questions swirl about Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest feature from Joel and Ethan Coen. And while they are loath to give a determinate answer — typical for a Coen brothers’ film — they ultimately suggest that one ought not confuse art with the artist.

From the start, Inside Llewyn Davis makes clear that its protagonist is not a pleasant character. Acerbic and irresponsible at best, mean and purposeless at worst, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer, who bounces around New York City, playing gigs for change and mooching off of friends for food and shelter. It’s the early 1960s, just before Bob Dylan broke on the scene, and the folk-music community is as insular as it is thriving. Everybody knows everybody, and they all prize the same cozy aesthetic. As one person rhetorically asks, “Isn’t music a  joyful expression of the soul?”

It is just this perspective, however, that Llewyn can’t stand. He peers behind the three-part harmonies and knit Aran sweaters and finds the sadness in the folk tradition. “Hang me, oh hang me, and I’ll be dead and gone,” he sings as the film opens, “wouldn’t mind the hangin’, but the layin’ in the grave so long.” The audience weakly claps when he finishes, but that’s the least of Llewyn’s problems. Not only is he broke, but his best friend committed suicide, his father has dementia, he may be the father of two children (by two mothers)…and, oh, he lost his benefactors’ cat. As his former lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan), bluntly puts it, “Everything you touch turns to shit! You’re like King Midas’ idiot brother.”

Amid such pain, Llewyn soldiers on. Better to be an artist, he notes, than simply to “exist.” Desperate, he bums a ride to Chicago, hoping to impress a big-name record producer, Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). After a series of misadventures, he finally gets his chance. Grossman watches intently as Llewyn sings the traditional English ballad, “The Death of Queen Jane”:

The doctor was called for and set by her bedside

‘What aileth thee, my ladie, thine eyes seem so red?’

‘O doctor, O doctor, will ye do this for me,

To rip up my two sides and save my babie?’

It is a poignant, soulful performance, and Llewyn’s deep-seated sympathy for the material is not lost on Grossman. Still, as Grossman sees it, Llewyn’s talent is not suited for commercial success. The art that Llewyn creates is not the sort of thing that others would want to purchase. If anything, it speaks to themes that they’d probably prefer to forget, much like Llewyn himself has been forgotten.

Thus Llewyn is brought to a choice: either keep going or give up. And, in raising this problem, the Coens encourage us to consider the nature and purpose of art. Why should Llewyn, the artist, keep creating? It is a question at least as old as Plato, and one that has been treated in a variety of ways since the advent of Christianity. One thought, intimated by the film itself, is that art is simply an articulation of the artist’s psycho-spiritual state. This view has been popular since the Romantics and would seem to align with Llewyn’s rugged and uncompromising individualism. And yet, another thing that the film makes clear is that, despite his pain, Llewyn’s art is attractive. When he sings, something else, something not really intended, also shows up. This is beauty — the beauty of doing something well, of “repeating” the world in poetic form, of allowing the created thing to communicate its truth freely. On this understanding, as Rowan Williams has explained, art is a kind of self-dispossession, a holiness independent of the artist’s moral character.

Of course, whether or not the Coens have something like this in mind is hard to say. It is interesting, however, that Llewyn does not write his own material but, rather, serves as a conduit for old folk songs. In him and in his sorrow they speak again, thereby revealing a depth to reality that commercial interests and the vicissitudes of daily life would have us ignore.

Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass, 2013)

In his Poetics (ca. 335 BC), Aristotle defines tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude…with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions…”. He goes on to list six elements of tragedy, arguing, for example, that the plot (mythos) of a good tragedy should always involve the protagonist’s descent from good fortune into bad — a descent that often involves a mistake (hamartia) he or she makes. Indeed, it is this descent that at once frightens and saddens the viewer, for, in it, an important aspect of the human condition is illuminated. As Alexander Pope famously put it, “To err is human.” Thus the tragic is never far from our lives. Theater allows us to confront that reality and, through the purging of our emotions (katharsis), provides an opportunity for renewal.

Understood in these terms, Paul Greengrass’ latest film, Captain Phillips, might very well be considered a tragedy. As the film begins, we meet Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) — a veteran New England seaman, who is readying to helm the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship, from Oman to Kenya. It is, to be sure, a dangerous journey. The route has been targeted by Somali pirates of late, and, as Phillips’ wife ominously notes, there is no accounting for such violence. But Phillips decides to go anyway. He has a family to provide for, and he hopes that, if safety protocol is followed, the ship will make it around the Horn of Africa and on to Mombasa. What else can he do? The perils of life cannot avoided.

In this way, Phillips is set up as the classic everyman — a quality further brought out by Hanks, who, of course, has made a career out of playing such characters. We understand Phillips’ trepidation, even as we understand why he assumes the risk. After all, we make the same kinds of choices everyday — the late night walk home, the flight to London, the drive up the New Jersey Turnpike! Hence, when the pirates do come, led by the fearless Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), it is just as Aristotle predicted: we fear for Phillips just as, deep down, we fear for ourselves. His story represents the tragic’s inexorable presence in life.

It is a theme that Christians have long struggled with. In Book III of his Confessions (ca. 397 AD), St. Augustine laments his love for theater in general and for tragedy in particular. As he points out, tragedy encourages one to love sorrow, rather than redemption. Moreover, it focuses on the suffering of a character, rather than on the source of suffering in every human life — namely, sin (a word also rendered hamartia in Greek). Much could be said both for and against Augustine on these points. What is certain is that he would be concerned, and perhaps even appalled, by the ending of Captain Phillips. In a scene that may earn Hanks yet another Oscar, a blood-spattered Phillips registers the terror and shock of coming face-to-face with death. Greengrass sugarcoats nothing, and he does not give us the satisfaction of seeing what happens next. We are left with the tragic, alone.

Don Jon (dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013)

Don Jon is, most likely, not the sort of movie you’d want to watch with your mother. Depicting the struggles of Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, also the writer and director), an Italian-American lothario, who, despite his sexual conquests, is addicted to pornography, it is not a film that shies away from the uncomfortable. There are numerous scenes of Jon masturbating to porn, not to mention frank discussions of sex in general. Nevertheless, this edginess is actually in service to what might be seen as an old-fashioned moral. Jon’s trouble, it turns out, is not so much his addiction as his narcissism: he prefers porn to “real sex” because the latter requires him to relate to the other, to care about her emotional and physical needs, whereas the former satisfies his urges free of responsibility. Moreover, this lack of empathy is depicted as a cultural phenomenon. Jon’s girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) is more interested in his upward mobility than in him; his mother (Glenne Headly) doesn’t care what he does as long as he settles down and gives her grandchildren; his sister (Brie Larson) stares into her phone with nary a word; and his father (Tony Danza, a long way from Who’s the Boss?) watches football at the dinner table, pausing only to berate Jon about this or that point. Jon is surrounded by narcissists, and so, the film suggests, it’s not surprising that he engages in similar behavior.

What finally breaks this spell over Jon is his relationship with Esther (Julianne Moore), an older woman, who, it is revealed, has experienced her share of tragedy. In Esther, Jon finds a friend and, indeed, a lover who takes an interest in him. She’s not embarrassed to discuss his porn addiction because she is able to understand the underlying problem — that he is lonely, just as she is lonely. Thus their relationship, however improbable, becomes a means of salvation. In caring for someone else, Jon finally learns to care for himself.

It is a tidy ending — too tidy, in my opinion — but one that is common enough in Hollywood. Yet, from a theological perspective, what makes Don Jon particularly interesting is its portrayal of the Catholic Church. True to his Italian heritage, Jon regularly attends Mass with his family, and he frequents the sacrament of penance. But, for him, these activities function in a way not unlike porn: once he gets what he wants (in this case, priestly absolution), he is satisfied, so much so that he feels no need to really change. The sacrament appears to dispense forgiveness just as porn dispenses sexual pleasure — free of responsibility.

That Gordon-Levitt here misses the meaning of Catholic sacramental theology and practice has been noted, and rightly so. Still, that does not entirely dismiss the point. Jon’s (mis)understanding of the sacrament is not unheard of in Catholic circles, and, besides, one could argue that in a culture of narcissism we are bound to treat the sacraments narcissistically, thinking of them as resources for self-gratification, rather than as the objective presence of God. Thus Don Jon hits on a genuine problem. What is concerning, however, is the film’s failure to see that its proposed solution to Jon’s troubles (his newfound willingness to give selflessly to another) is not at odds with Catholic teaching but, rather, presupposes it. In other words, Jon’s love for Esther is not a radical departure from his upbringing. On the contrary, it is the first time in his life that he actually realizes much of what the Church teaches — that penance is not merely individualistic but also interpersonal; that sexual pleasure obtains significance only in the context of other-directed love; that human happiness requires more than the satisfaction of material desires.

Toward the end of the film, Jon complains that his confessor — whom the viewer, notably, never gets to see — has not recognized his growth as a human being. In response, the confessor merely says, “Have faith, my son,” and then shuts the screen separating him from Jon. This scene intends to underline the hollowness of Jon’s Catholicism: the Church, it is implied, only speaks in veiled platitudes. But might it be just the opposite? Might it be the case that Jon’s habit of confession, however flawed, has disposed him to seek the kind of love he finds in Esther? Isn’t it possible that the sacrament, which marks God’s continued presence on earth, has slowly but surely broken through Jon’s hard-heartedness and set him on the path of redemption? Has not Jon’s imperfect contrition (attritio) made possible a deeper engagement with the world and with others, so that, in the words of the Council of Trent, “[it] is a gift of God and a prompting of the Holy Spirit, by whose help the penitent prepares the way to righteousness”?

Such a conclusion would be plausible, though Don Jon does not acknowledge it. As it is, Jon’s “conversion” is purely immanent, arising from a kinder, gentler romantic love that has no reference point beyond the subjective needs of its participants. For all of its good intentions, then, Gordon-Levitt’s attempt to transcend the culture of narcissism never really gets off the ground.

American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell, 2013)

The word “real” turns up throughout David O. Russell’s latest film, American Hustle. Characters repeatedly talk about “real love,” “real business,” “real friends,” and so on. The irony, of course, is that it is a movie about con artists — that is to say, fakes. Thus the film is always more than a mere caper story; it is an exploration of the difference between real and fake, between authenticity and forgery.

Indeed, this theme is implied from the outset: the movie begins with its lead character, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, in a brilliant, self-effacing performance), fixing his toupee with painstaking care. Rosenfeld, then, is identified as a fake. What you see is not what you get. As we soon learn, he is a small-time conman, who, along with his lover and partner-in-crime, has been forced by the FBI to facilitate a series of cons. The goal is to bust several political leaders who are profiting from efforts to revitalize the casino industry in New Jersey. Rosenfeld provides the bait, while the FBI reels in the fish.

It is a straightforward sting operation, but there is a problem: human beings, it turns out, have an innate desire for truth, for the real. Rosenfeld comes to admire and even to befriend one of the politicians — Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who genuinely wants to benefit the hardworking people of his state. Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the FBI agent heading up the racket, falls in love with Rosenfeld’s mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). But Prosser’s provocations are merely a means of distracting DiMaso, since she truly loves Rosenfeld and remains hopeful that they will run away together when the operation is over. Meanwhile, Rosenfeld’s wife, Rosalyn (a volatile Jennifer Lawrence), is a hot-blooded, chain-smoking neurotic, who nevertheless demands that someone — anyone! — love her just the way she is. Even when we’re faking it, the movie suggests, we still want something real.

But what, finally, is real? Russell is clear that the answer does not lie in institutions. After all, the FBI is, ostensibly, in the business of doing good, and yet, as Rosenfeld points out, the politicians they nab are not so much real bad guys as middle-men looking to make a buck while helping their constituents. Nor does the answer lie in unlimited freedom, for, it seems, an undefined freedom is precisely the trouble — a temptation to put on various masks, to play parts, when what the self most profoundly desires is transparency, openness. Rosenfeld himself ultimately realizes this when Polito, a devoted family man, pays the price for a crime he didn’t want to commit. In a moment of rage, he curses his false friend. Soon after, Rosenfeld crumples to the ground, fumbling in his pockets for — in a repeated double entendre — his “heart pills.” In a movie of ostentatious style, it is a moment of quiet poignance.

In the end, then, Russell points us beyond the con to what is real or, at least, to the search for what is real in a world of fakes. This is a search that characterizes so much great art. Yet, more than that, it also occupies a central place in Christian thinking. From St. Paul and Augustine of Hippo — Christianity’s original con men, so to speak — and on to Kierkegaard and his critique of the aesthetic, the self’s ongoing quest for authenticity is a Christian theme par excellence. Russell simply dresses it up in polyester and gives it a hell of a soundtrack to boot.

The Hunger Games (dir. Gary Ross, 2012)

I am, admittedly, more than a little behind on The Hunger Games phenomenon. I haven’t read the books, and only recently have I seen The Hunger Games — the first of four movies based on the tripartite book series penned by Suzanne Collins (indeed, the second film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, was released a couple of months ago; the final two installments are set to appear in November 2014 and November 2015 respectively). Given the fiscal success of both the books and the films, it’s hardly a surprise that they have attracted a great deal of attention. I initially supposed, however, that much of this attention had to do with the teen-lovers-in-danger storyline, enhanced for the screen by the attractive and preternaturally talented Jennifer Lawrence. What I was less familiar with was the richness of Collins’ premise, which raises a host of cultural, political, and metaphysical questions.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the narrative centers on Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), who comes to represent her “district” in the annual Hunger Games. Though replete with traditions and nuances, the Games have a single purpose — survival. The contestants (or “Tributes”) are, quite literally, locked into a do-or-die cage match, albeit on a grand scale. They are released into a hostile wilderness, armed (pun intended) with minimal supplies and the knowledge that only one of them will emerge victorious. The rest must die. Meanwhile, the nation watches the events on television, not so much desiring the death of the participants as seeking entertainment. For the loss of a few lives is a small price to pay for the social order achieved by the Games, whose festive pageantry amuses and, so, unites an otherwise divided people.

Collins has acknowledged that her story is, in effect, a translation of the culture of the ancient Roman Colosseum into the modern arena of reality TV. Thus it implies that human beings, no matter their socio-historical location, no matter their technological advancement, will tolerate political subjection and moral corruption if they are granted but two things — panem et circenses. (“bread and circuses”). It is an observation that has been repeated throughout Western history, though it has gained peculiar force in modernity. Søren Kierkegaard’s A Literary Review (1846) argued that the rise of the print media has not enlightened persons, as is often held, but rendered them skeptical, bored, and vicious toward ethico-religious ideals. A few decades later, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) contrasted two versions of happiness — that of Christianity, based on the free yet perilous pursuit of the good, and that of the atheistic state, which would deny human freedom but, in exchange, sate persons with panem et circenses. Neither author, I’m sure, would be surprised at today’s cultural landscape, marked as it is by an excess of information and mindless entertainment. Have we, finally, surrendered our freedom for idle curiosity and material comfort?

It is at this juncture that The Hunger Games points to the thought of another important modern thinker, namely, René Girard. As a cultural anthropologist, Girard is well-known for his study, Violence and the Sacred (1972). As he saw it, human desires are socially conditioned: you want something because you learned to want it; in turn, you come into conflict with others, who want the same thing. Thus tension simmers beneath the surface of human society, always promising to erupt into violence. How can this tension be diminished? According to Girard, it must be done through ritual — that is to say, through a kind of public ceremony, which singles out certain persons as sacrifices (or Tributes!) for the good of the whole. Once these persons have discharged their function, social order is temporalily restored, though the ritual must be repeated if it is to have long-term effect.

For Girard, then, religion is an effective anthropological response to the problem of human violence: its customs bring unity from chaos. Historically, however, it has also committed its fair share of violence, since many rites have involved the sacrifice of animals or even people. With this in mind, the Hunger Games, as portrayed by Collins, can be seen as having a religious function. But there is a catch. In the film’s climactic scene, the Games are brought to a halt, when the love of two characters exposes the contest as a means of unjust violence. In an allusive way, this insight parallels Girard’s understanding of the person of Jesus Christ, whose dedication to the love of God and neighbor stands as a “no” to the violent machinations of society and its religious leaders.

Thus Girard suggests that the sacred cannot be eliminated. In other words, the Hunger Games, despite having no reference to the divine, bear sacral meaning all the same. The question is whether or not persons will accept the violence of ceremonial sacrifice or seek the love embodied by Christ — a nonviolent alternative that opens up the way toward permanent reconciliation.