Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Month: April, 2014

Friends with Kids (dir. Jennifer Westfeldt, 2011)

Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (2014), has elicited more than a little debate, including a recent piece by New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat. As Douthat sees it, one of the most important lessons of Senior’s research is that it underlines a chasm that has opened between the “lifestyles and choices available to nonparents and the irreducible burdens still involved in raising children.” In other words, as more and more Americans either put off or rule out having children, the challenges of being a parent are brought into sharper relief. It is as if one group of persons gets to enjoy unlimited wealth and freedom, while the other slaves away for the sake of an institution that is, as Douthat quips, “almost medieval.” Indeed, whereas previous generations saw childbearing as part of the warp and woof of human life, today it is depicted as a near Job-like affliction — a reversal that, for Douthat, owes to the excess and self-centeredness of postmodern culture, wherein “death and children’s diapers are the only unavoidable realities left.”

With this in mind, Jennifer Westfeldt’s directorial debut, Friends with Kids, is undoubtedly a timely film.  It stars Westfeldt as Julie, a Manhattan-based investment guru, who, as she inches closer to forty, watches with a combination of dismay and envy as her closest friends begin to have children. The exception to this trend is Jason (Adam Scott), her longtime best friend. Jason is, ostensibly, a kind of iconoclast. An advertising executive, who is equally nimble with words and women, he has no pretensions of settling down. Life, he says, is about the unencumbered pursuit of pleasure, and, in a trope that turns up a few times throughout the movie, he spouts off against any religious suggestions to the contrary (notably, he keeps a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion on his bedside table). And yet, like Julie, he admits that having a kid might be fun, particularly if it could be done without the trappings of marriage. So, after an amusingly awkward liaison, Julie and Jason have a child together, even as they are intent to continue to enjoy the financial and sexual independence to which they have grown accustomed. In fact, as they agree, that is the best security for a successful parenting experience, since it is only when such freedom is lost that having a child becomes an onerous chore.

Friends with Kids is a romantic comedy, and so one needn’t be a rocket scientist to guess where it goes from here. The kid proves to be a blessing, and, as time passes, Julie realizes that she and Jason do not simply have an arrangement. Rather, they are a family. Jason is slower to warm to the idea, but, eventually, he comes around too, declaring (to put it discreetly) that sexual gratification can arrive because of marriage, not despite it.

In a sense, then, Westfeldt’s film affirms (or anticipates) the opinions of Senior and Douthat: the juxtaposition of personal happiness and familial responsibility is a false either-or, albeit one that is increasingly tenacious in our society. On the other hand, like so many rom-coms, Friends with Kids articulates its position from within an individualistic, sentimentalistic worldview. In other words, Jason’s “conversion” does not involve a recognition of the importance of marriage as an objective commitment, much less an openness to Christianity’s understanding and promotion of the institution. Consequently, it is fair to wonder what will happen when his relationship with Julie hits a snag, when its newfound sexual intensity simmers down or, at least, rises and falls. Will he just go by his feelings? Or will he consult with some authority? Perhaps he will turn to Richard Dawkins, who will suggest that, far from a binding commitment, marriage is a “meme” that is culturally determined and, therefore, evanescent in the manner of all flesh. Whatever the case, Westfeldt is happy to ignore such questions, even though, in doing so, she fails to fully address the phenomenon that Senior and Douthat are concerned with. In short, Friends with Kids recognizes the problem, but is loath to think through the answer.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson, 2014)

The word “nostalgia” is typically associated with a maudlin recollection of the past, but its explicit meaning is even more pointed. Taken from a pair of Greek terms, nostos (homecoming) and algos (ache), “nostalgia” literally involves a painful ache to go home — indeed, a home-sickness for a time or place that no longer exists. The term was originally applied to soldiers, who, stationed abroad, longed to return to their home country. Indeed, for a time, it was categorized as a proper disease, which, if left untreated, might lead to suicide. “Nostalgia,” then, bears more than a little resemblance to a word that is more favored today — “depression.”

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is profoundly nostalgic. Under the careful hand of its auteur, virtually every scene bears a longing for a world that no longer exists, both (to borrow a phrase from Flannery O’Connor) its manners and its mystery. The plot centers on Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, in a spot-on performance), the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel — a resort famed for its alpine views, Roman-style baths, wine selection, and, perhaps above all, Monsieur Gustave H. himself. The sort of old-world figure unthinkable in a society of Holiday Inns, Gustave lives to serve the guests of the Grand Budapest, from arranging their suites to (in the case of elderly dowagers) providing sexual favors. His ethical code, then, is not explicitly of the Judeo-Christian variety, but it’s not exactly opposed to it either. For Gustave, there is a right way to do things: champagne must be vintage, trysts discreet, and others treated with decorous respect. And, as the (rather intricate) plot develops, it is this insistence on interpersonal civility that is his undoing. For society, under pressure from totalitarian forces, is moving toward an altogether different set of values — avarice, bland uniformity, and, perhaps most worrisome for Gustave, rudeness. Thus the concierge comes to represent, in the words of one character, “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity.”

Of course, the longing for bygone days and ways is typical of Anderson’s work, from Rushmore‘s portrayal of prep school clubs to The Life Aquatic‘s celebration of Jacques Cousteau. One might even say that Anderson is a “nostalgic” director, and, as noted above, this is no small matter. It means that his films, however pristine, however quaint, convey a certain kind of sadness — one apt to stir up feelings of ache for worlds (school plays, summer camp, pre-war Europe) that we no longer have access to.

This tendency, for Anderson, extends to Christianity as well. Many of his films include depictions of traditional Christian (and especially Catholic) habits, practices, and offices. There are priests, nuns, altar boys, school uniforms, sacramentals, sacraments, and so on. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, for example, one of the dowagers asks Gustave to have a candle lit for her in the (fictional) Cathedral of Santa Maria Christiana. It is a flitting moment, but, seen in the context of Anderson’s oeuvre, it is one that makes sense, harking back to a religious decorum now frequently neglected in the West.

It is, in short, nostalgic. And, as with all nostalgia, it is potentially perilous. After all, life must be lived forward, not backward. But Anderson certainly knows how to make the backward glance enchanting, and, in prompting us to ask why we abandoned the old ways, he opens up a space for us to reconsider the future.

12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen, 2013)

There is a scene, late in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which makes the horror of slavery painfully manifest: Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) — once a free man but now a slave in the employ of Louisiana plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) — is forced to lash his fellow slave and friend, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). It is the sort of scene that garners a film an Oscar, gathering all of the atrocities of the slave trade into a single, unforgettable moment. With each crack of the whip, the human beings involved are reduced to something less than human, and so, like Schindler’s List before it, 12 Years a Slave becomes something more than a “movie.” It is a witness to human tragedy.

With that said, the quieter moments of 12 Years a Slave merit equal consideration. Indeed, for the most part, McQueen is content to observe what, for lack of a better word, might be called the “paradoxes” of the slave trade. For example, in one early scene, a slave named Clemens Ray (Chris Chalk) runs like a child into the arms of his master, petrified that he will be sent to another (presumably more cruel) owner. Or there is the moment in the shop of the (paradoxically named) slave dealer, Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), when a bewildered Northrup plays his fiddle as a family of slaves is divided among different “customers.” Nevertheless, from a theological point of view, there is no more paradoxical figure than William Prince Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, excellent as usual) — a Baptist preacher and farmer, who purchased Northrup in 1841. A pious man, Ford holds worship services for his slaves, treats them well, and is not above taking their advice on how to run his plantation. As Northrup himself once wrote of Ford: “In my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.” But Ford is a slaveowner, one whose piety has merged with the habits and mores of a corrupt institution. He wants to do the right thing but, crucially, lacks a vantage point from which to discern right and wrong. To quote Northrup once more: “The influences and associations that had always surrounded [Ford], blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery.”

Northrup’s insight here points to one of the more subtle lessons of 12 Years a Slave. People tend to approach moral questions in binary terms, but the truth is devastatingly more complex than that. Ford may very well have been a “good” man — as his ancestors have recently protested — but his notion of “good” was significantly indebted to a nefarious culture. Moreover, this is a problem that threatens all of our moral reasoning. What looks to be right and normal today may not be viewed that way in subsequent times; in fact, it may just be the projection of a culture that has been warped by envy or greed. Doubtless, that is just another reason why, for St. Paul, one’s salvation is never a matter of course, but must be worked out “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).

The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2013)

Though never one to shy away from Dionysian excess, Martin Scorsese’s films have often carried moralistic undertones. For example, in Taxi Driver (1976), it is disgust at human degradation that drives Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) to rampage against society. Likewise, Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) is not the God-man of orthodox Christianity but, rather, “the saint of blasphemy” — a human, all too human, enemy of religious and political corruption. One would expect, then, that Scorsese’s latest picture, The Wolf of Wall Street, would bear a similar critique. But that is not the case. The film’s ethical message seems to be that there is none.

Of course, it should be pointed out that this is not Scorsese’s story but, rather, that of Jordan Belfort — a New York stockbroker, who founded the brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, in the early 1990s. Through grit, wit, and a vertiginous drug regimen (cocaine to get up, Quaaludes to come down), Belfort turned Stratton Oakmont into the largest off-exchange firm in the country. And yet, in 1998, he was indicted for fraud and money laundering, eventually landing himself in federal prison for swindling roughly 200 million dollars from investors. Here would seem to be the moral edge to the tale, but, for the most part, Scorsese is disinterested in Belfort’s downfall. After all, why pay attention to such a downer (no pun intended) when Belfort’s heyday was so much fun? So, instead, The Wolf of Wall Street features countless scenes of decadence, from in-flight orgies to midget tossing to (above all) drug abuse, including a morbidly comic overdose on Methaqualone. As played by Leonardo DiCaprio — in a strikingly uninhibited performance — Belfort is a man who simply no longer gives a damn about anything but money. As he commands his investment team, “I want you to deal with your problems…by becoming rich!”

This sort of Weltanschauung makes for easy critique, particularly from a Christian point of view. But Scorsese knows that, and he doesn’t care. Here we get an idealized picture of Nietzsche’s will to power, which, if one is being is honest, is as attractive as it is offensive. Thus The Wolf of Wall Street seems to end with the questions: if you could live like this, would you want to? if you could buy whatever you wanted, what would stop you? Such questions cast an indirect light on the possibility of a moral order. Yet, for Scorsese, whether or not one sees anything is entirely up to the viewer.