Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Tag: Steven Spielberg

Stranger Things 1 and 2 (Matt and Ross Duffer, 2016-17)


It has not been my usual practice to review television shows on this site. I’ve only done so once before, when I wrote about Breaking Bad way back in 2014. It’s not that I don’t watch television; on the contrary, there is too much good content to ignore, from The Wire to Mad Men to Game of Thrones (to mention just a few). Yet, with shows running for multiple seasons and featuring several episodes per season, it is nearly impossible to sum up their main characters and themes in a short blog entry. The Netflix series Stranger Things is certainly no different. Already two seasons in length, with seventeen episodes wrapped and more to come, the show has already outstripped what I can address on Theology + Movies. But it has become so popular that I wanted to offer a few observations about it. Indeed, while I regularly show film clips in my courses, many of which are utterly foreign to my students, Stranger Things immediately strikes a chord. Millennials may not know Taxi Driver from Driving Miss Daisy, but, in my experience, they know pretty much everything about the (fictional) small town of Hawkins, Indiana and the strange events that took place there in 1983.

The first season of Stranger Things centers on the disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), a 12-year-old boy, whose bicycle is found abandoned in the woods near his house. The local police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) initially assumes that Will has run away, but a slew of mysterious coincidences suggest otherwise. The trouble is ultimately traced back to the nearby Hawkins National Laboratory, where a sinister yet brilliant scientist (Matthew Modine) has unwittingly opened a portal to the “Upside Down” — a dimension that normally runs parallel to our own but now interlaces it with disastrous consequences. A monster known as the Demogorgon has been unleashed, and it now lurks among the inhabitants of Hawkins.

The question is: how can the inter-dimensional portal be closed, the Demogorgon vanquished, and Will retrieved from the bowels of Upside Down, where he is hiding from the relentless and hungry demon?

In a manner reminiscent of classic Spielberg blockbusters such as Jaws (1975) and as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Stranger Things showcases a tension in how this threat from beyond is handled. On the one hand, there is the governmental response, which is as concerned with snuffing out those who would expose the danger as with eliminating the danger itself — thus a team of jackbooted bureaucrats, who prowl about Hawkins in the hopes of containing the Demogorgon without alerting the public. On the other hand, there is the grassroots effort, headed by a ragtag bunch of benevolent misfits — thus Will’s buddies, science nerds and lovers of Dungeons and Dragons, who traverse the alleys and backroads of Hawkins on their BMX bikes. Of course, the government has greater resources, but Will’s friends have the insight and moxie to get to the bottom of things, not to mention the invaluable assistance of “Eleven” (Millie Bobby Brown), a mysterious girl with psychokinetic ability who is linked to the Hawkins lab and thus to the Upside Down. As time passes, Eleven becomes arguably the leader of the group, even as she seeks to understand her real identity and the purpose of her considerable powers. After all, the Upside Down’s threat to Hawkins has only just begun, and the second season shows that the Demogorgon, however terrifying, is actually part of an ecosystem of evil.

This is a very rough outline of the series to date, but it should suffice to set up a discussion of the key themes of Stranger Things. Indeed, it is a show begging for allegorical interpretation. Rep. David Cicilline (Democrat, Rhode Island) has argued — on the House floor! — that Stranger Things is a metaphor for American life under the administration of Pres. Donald Trump: “We are now stuck in the Upside Down,” he said, “right is wrong, up is down, black is white.” Others have seen the series as a metaphor for children who are coping with trauma. A more patent line of interpretation has focused on the links between Stranger Things and Dungeons and Dragons. One character in Stranger Things refers to the Upside Down as the “Vale of Shadows,” an appellation that is not officially tied to the D&D canon but does appear in a D&D-themed video game known as Icewind Dale. In any case, this hermeneutical pliability at least partly explains the popularity of Stranger Things: not only is it a well-written, well-acted show, but it can seemingly mean whatever one wants it to mean.

For that reason, a theological reading of Stranger Things is perhaps inevitable. The series is clearly an attempt to “re-enchant” suburban America, where religious affiliation continues to decline in favor of a techno-therapeutic understanding of human existence. Stranger Things, in contrast, takes an almost Pauline approach to daily life, depicting it as the site where otherworldly “principalities and powers” (Eph 6:12) intervene in human affairs, bringing death and destruction in their wake. In the face of this threat, people have to unite together, forming a like-minded “assembly” (in Greek, ekklesia) of those attuned both to the danger and to the virtues that can resist it. That is not to say that the members of this assembly are perfect. Some are vain, some naive, some unhappy. And yet, their flaws serve to make their union all the more poignant; they are not so much a “dysfunctional family” as a collection of dysfunctional individuals who, in love and for love, are able to overcome their personal failings for the sake of the common good.

This point gestures toward one of the more striking aspects of Stranger Things: it is an earnest and at times sentimental show, which bears a palpable ethical undercurrent. For a series already known for nostalgia, this is arguably its most nostalgic element. So much television today is nihilistic, featuring a senseless universe in which evil prospers and good languishes — if good exists at all. This drift toward nihilism began as a counteraction to the sort of entertainment in which every story concludes with a feel-good, socially acceptable “moral.” So, initially, it was an overdue correction to what had become a stale and meaningless formula. What Stranger Things suggests, however, is that the nihilistic correction is now in need of correcting. What, one might ask, are we really learning from the Walter Whites and Don Drapers of recent television — that, in the end, there is really nothing to learn, that violence (economic or physical or psychological) has the last word in early affairs? In contrast, Stranger Things implies that there is meaning in life, and that this meaning lies precisely in the refusal to surrender to meaninglessness, in love’s painful triumph over fear and death.

Is Stranger Things, then, merely a thinly veiled attempt to smuggle Christianity onto Netflix? Some commentators have made this case, but such a reading, while not uninteresting, is reliant upon an elaborate and often strained allegorical method of interpretation — one, moreover, that elides that show’s  flirtation with gnostic (as opposed to Judeo-Christian) metaphysics. The Upside Down, for example, has the appearance of a purely dark and nefarious place, where the wicked prey upon the innocent:

Peering into the Upside Down.

From the standpoint of traditional Christian doctrine, such a dimension could not have been created by the deity. That is to say, such a dimension could not exist at all; death, sin, and suffering are not created realities per se but privations of a good that is always already ontologically prior. In contrast, Stranger Things seems to give independent agency to the Upside Down and (in Season 2) to the “shadow monster” who controls it. Here evil is presented as a thing in and of itself, distinct from the good and against which the good is locked in perpetual struggle.

This point raises a curious question about the tendency of “morality tales” to adopt a dualist perspective on reality. “Good versus evil” is an exciting, palatable, and ostensibly reasonable storyline, whereas the Christian understanding of creation, fall, and redemption is paradoxical (e.g., postlapsarian humanity is at once free and unfree, God loves those who hate God, etc.) and thus resistant to facile dichotomies. Of course, to make this observation is not to criticize Stranger Things. It is simply a reminder that the Christian story remains a “stumbling block and foolishness” (1 Cor 1:23) — even for a show otherwise amenable to a theological reading.

Bridge of Spies (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2015)

In his classic study, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Joseph Campbell argues that the “hero myth” is a universal aspect of human culture — a myth that bears a fundamental tripartite structure. First, the hero departs the ordinary world in order to undertake a quest in a strange and dangerous realm. Next, the hero is initiated into a number of trials, which threaten her task. And, finally, the hero returns to the world from which he came, not only with greater self-knowledge, but also with a gift (or “boon”) for those left behind. Campbell is clear that these stages do not necessarily unfold in the same way; rather, it is the structure that is consistent, so much so that he refers to this heroic narrative as a “monomyth.” In other words, despite the differences separating various tales (say, about Beowulf, Odysseus, and Jesus), they are all united by an underlying framework.

Of course, Campbell’s theory has garnered critical scrutiny over the years, but it nevertheless sheds light on the reception of Steven Spielberg’s films. While often hailed as one of cinema’s great technical filmmakers, Spielberg has also been accused of peddling shopworn themes and techniques to audiences. On a superficial level, there are various Spielbergian “tics” such as track-in shots and his frequent collaboration with composer, John Williams. But there are also recurring motifs, from familial dysfunction (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-TerrestrialIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade, etc.) to threats against humanity from the wild forces of nature (Jaws, the Jurassic Park franchise, etc.). And yet, since the release of Schindler’s List in 1993, perhaps no theme has characterized Spielberg’s work as much as “the hero.” Indeed, while Spielberg has framed the quest of his heroes in a variety of contexts, he has also — in a way that would make Campbell smile — told essentially the same story: the hero (Oskar Schindler, Capt. John Miller in Saving Private Ryan, Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, etc.) undertakes a mission that will challenge him both morally and emotionally, and yet, through courage and acumen, he is able to overcome the obstacles facing him, thereby providing a “boon” to those he loves.

Such, at any rate, is how it appears. And it must be said that Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies, falls into a similar pattern. Based on real-life events, the film tells the story of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), an American insurance lawyer asked to represent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, in an Oscar-winning performance), an accused Soviet spy. It is the height of the Cold War, an era that Spielberg recreates with customary brilliance, and Donovan is pressured to provide only nominal legal counsel. Although he refuses to go along with such coercion — mostly out of principle, but also out of a grudging appreciation for Abel’s dedication — Donovan loses the case and is left to plead for Abel’s life. He argues that, should an American spy be found in similar straits, Abel would serve as collateral. And, needless to say, that is precisely what happens. In a pair of unrelated incidents, two Americans are captured by Soviet authorities, and both are held in East Germany. Thus the CIA tasks Donovan with a secret mission: he is to travel to East Berlin, where he will seek the exchange of Abel for one or, if possible, both of these American detainees. This proves to be an altogether taxing process. Donovan has to weigh manifold political interests and machinations, whether on the American or on the Soviet side. Moreover, he has to fight through poor housing conditions and an increasingly nasty cold. Still, as if on cue, Spielberg goes on to show that Donovan’s “courage and acumen” ultimately secure a happy, if nevertheless exhausting, outcome.

It is tempting to conclude, then, that Spielberg keeps rehashing the “hero myth,” and yet his preferred hero muddles such an interpretation. Here I will focus on Donovan, but, suffice it to say, analogies could be readily applied to Schindler, Miller, et al. First of all, Donovan is not a man of obvious power or influence; he is not an Achilles or an Aeneas but an Everyman who just wants to do what is right. Second, Donovan’s primary talent is not charisma, still less is it physical strength; rather, he excels by way of humility and perseverance. It is Abel, in fact, who calls attention to this side of Donovan:

Third, and lastly, Donovan is political but not partisan. He realizes that a person of good will is called to act in the world, but his actions are guided by his conscience and an unswerving commitment to the dignity of all human beings, rather than to a party platform or to a particular ideology. This sort of moral character may seem humdrum or old-fashioned, but, in Spielberg’s hands, it is shown to be controversial. Donovan, for example, stirs up the ire of those around him, even that of his own family:

In short, Donovan by no means wants to be a hero; yet, in his intellectual commitment to the good, and in his willingness to act on this commitment, he allows himself to become one. This humble trust in and devotion to the good may not entirely place him and other Spielbergian heroes outside the purview of Campbell’s monomyth. But it does underline how such a concept lacks sufficient nuance. In other words, while Spielberg’s heroes bear the contours of Christ figures — in ethical rather than in ontological terms — such characteristics are hardly shared among many other heroes, who pursue a local good through power, fame, charm, or popular appeal. That is not to say, of course, that Spielberg is making films that intentionally draw on the person of Jesus Christ. It is just to say that, when Spielberg is accused of reworking “hero movies,” the sort of “hero” in question deserves consideration. For, on that score, it may be that Spielberg is more countercultural than often acknowledged.

Knight of Cups (dir. Terrence Malick, 2015)

By now, Terrence Malick’s story has become the stuff of legend. He graduated from Harvard in 1965 and, subsequently, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. While at Oxford, he began a doctoral dissertation on Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein, but his supervisor, Gilbert Ryle, did not find it “sufficiently philosophical.” Frustrated, Malick left academia — albeit not before publishing a translation of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes (1929) — and embarked on a career in filmmaking. His first feature, Badlands (1973), was hailed as a masterpiece, and his second film, Days of Heaven (1978), has been deemed one of the most beautiful works in the history of cinema. And then, shockingly, Malick did not make another film for two decades — a move that was as mysterious as it was controversial. But the layoff did not hurt him. In 1998, he returned with The Thin Red Line — one of the finest war films ever made — and then followed it with two other acclaimed pictures: The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011). The latter, in particular, was considered a groundbreaking work, so much so that the late Roger Ebert situated it among the ten best films of all time. This was arguably the apex of Malick’s career. Feted as a master, a visionary, he had entered a fraternity along with figures such as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg: he was one of America’s greatest living directors.

Then came Malick’s 2012 film, To the Wonder. It was hardly an abject failure — in the last review he wrote, Ebert said that it was not just a movie but a noble attempt “to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need” — but Malick’s critical and popular reputation undoubtedly took a hit. Though it was made in the same manner as The Tree of Life, featuring lyrical voiceovers (in multiple languages), minimal dialogue, and a loose plot structure centering on metaphysical questions, it failed to resonate as its predecessor did. Several thought Malick had become formulaic, verging on “self-parody.” Others were perplexed by his new filmmaking process, which, among other things, provided its cast with an abundance of scripted lines…only to leave them on the cutting-room floor. Still others speculated that Malick was no longer concerned as much with his audience as with reflecting on his own life, since both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder contain obvious autobiographical references. And, finally, there were some who thought To the Wonder was just plain bad, lacking a “coherent narrative” and resembling a “high-end perfume ad.” Suddenly Malick had become a cause célèbre — an auteur famous for avoiding fame, a “Hollywood Bigfoot,” whose mercurial films people seemingly loved to hate.

Whatever the case, the reception of To the Wonder has done nothing to deter the septuagenerian filmmaker, who is scheduled to release no less than three films in the next couple of years. The first is Knight of Cups, which premiered last February at the Berlin International Film Festival and will come out in the United States on March 4, 2016. Due to a project I’m currently wrapping up, I was fortunate enough to see Knight of Cups last month in New York, and, within five minutes of its start, one thing was clear: it is by no means a retraction of the direction Malick has taken as of late. On the contrary, it is more like an extension of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, so much so that the three films are demanding to be seen as a kind of trilogy — an intriguing idea, already adumbrated on the Web, which nevertheless exceeds the scope of this review.

Still, the similarities between Knight of Cups and Malick’s two prior efforts are instantly instructive, for they demonstrate that Malick is making films like this on purpose. In other words, his most recent style of filmmaking is an aesthetic choice, rather than a faltering accident. But this point raises a question: why is Malick making films in this way? What do his peculiar approaches to narrative, cinematography, and editing add to his cinematic vision and, perhaps, to the cinematic medium writ large?

Again, this is an impossibly large question, which cannot be fully answered in this context. But I’ll offer a suggestion. Malick now seems less interested in telling a story than in picturing a certain way of being-in-the-world. He is, in short, trying to film “affect” — a notoriously difficult term to define, but one that has been described as “the experience of feeling or mood, of acting or of being acted upon.” Of course, one can tell a story about such things, but Malick seems to want the viewer to feel along with the characters in the film. Hence, with The Tree of Life, the audience does not just watch a movie about growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950s; rather, Malick constructs the film in such a way that one shares in the experience. By limiting dialogue as well as featuring jump cuts and POV shots — and thereby resisting the tendency to turn the film into a static object observed by a passive subject — The Tree of Life “gets inside” its subject matter:

Likewise, To the Wonder is not a mere story about two lovers, who, after a blissful romance, slowly begin to drift apart; on the contrary, it tries to record what it feels like to fall in and out of erotic love — an almost universal experience, which explains why Malick’s characters increasingly resemble archetypes. Indeed, they are not concrete, independent characters but, rather, stand-ins for the viewers themselves. This is why the above term “record” is critical. It stems from the Latin recordari, which literally means “to restore to the heart.” Malick, it seems, wants to facilitate our exploration of the most primal and basic experiences of human life, whether the loss of a loved one, the thrill of new love, or the childlike intuition of God’s presence.

What experience, then, does Knight of Cups highlight? The film centers on Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, who flits across the surface of life. To be sure, Rick’s existence is essentially seduction after seduction: Hollywood moguls wine-and-dine him, and he finds himself in the bed of a myriad of beautiful women. It would seem to be a perfect life, except that it isn’t. One of Rick’s brothers has died, another (Wes Bentley) is on the verge of a breakdown, and his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) — a high-minded doctor, who tends to the lame and to the needy — laments their failed marriage. Hence, no matter how much “fun” Rick has, limitations and shortcomings surround him. Like the earthquakes that rattle southern California, Rick is unstable, dangerous. He is dangerous to those who love him, but, just as importantly, he is dangerous to himself. For insofar as he runs from sensual pleasure to sensual pleasure, he is in peril of losing any sense of who he really is and of what he really wants. Nothing summarizes Rick’s predicament better than the words of one of his smooth-talking Hollywood suitors: “Let me tell you about you.”

Some have complained that this hardly qualifies as a spiritual crisis, but it is worth pointing out that Søren Kierkegaard — a thinker whom Malick has studied and whom he has quoted in both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder — argued otherwise. Famously, Kierkegaard divides human existence into three “stages”: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. And, doubtless, Knight of Cups is a “recording” of the aesthetic stage, where the self seeks a succession of ephemeral, sensual experiences at the expense of an earnest confrontation of life’s meaning and purpose. The dangers of such a lifestyle are manifold: the aesthete is anxious, solipsistic, and terrified of boredom; he will stop at nothing to keep his despair at bay — a desire for which other persons, especially the vulnerable, are often sacrificed. And yet, in the end, the joke is on the aesthete, since he fails to indviduate and, consequently, vanishes into the ether of his own nihilistic misery.

It is just this fate that Rick intuits and, however achingly, seeks to resist. Yet, once more, the point of Knight of Cups is not tied to a tidy overcoming of the protagonist’s dilemma. How can it be, when the protagonist is not so much Rick as the one who also grapples with the aesthetic — that is to say, everyone. Ultimately, then, Knight of Cups seeks to expose aestheticism (in the Kierkegaardian sense) as a trap from which an egress must be sought. But it does not say this; it impresses it. That many will resist such provocation is certain, and, admittedly, Knight of Cups is not always easy viewing. But Malick is pushing at the borders of what the cinematic medium can achieve, and he has deemed that, whatever problems his recent trilogy invites, the risk is worth taking.