Since a major focus of this blog is faith and culture, I thought I would try analyzing the past year from the perspective of Christian film. The “faith-based” film market has exploded in recent years, and everyone from indie filmmakers to large production studios like Sony are trying to cash in.
When discussing Christian film, the first task is to explain what exactly that even means. There are three major categories I‘d like to look at: faith-based films, films about historical Christianity (movies about the life of Jesus, in other words, even if they contain fictional elements/characters ) and larger market secular films that contain strong Christian themes/characters. I will assess each category before assigning a grade for the year as a whole.
ROUND 1: “FAITH-BASED” FILMS
The faith based film market was alive and well in 2016, much to the chagrin of Christian moviegoers who desire movies about their faith to qualify as good art. Thankfully, 2016 was not quite as bad as other years. Sure, God’s Not Dead 2 came out, and it was still profitable, but it never seemed to capture the electricity of the original. I’m hoping this means that audiences have already had their fill of this pandering, insipid franchise. The same descriptors could also probably apply to Miracles from Heaven, this year’s “noble” studio attempt at providing soft, un-challenging spiritual uplift (this one backed by Sony’s Affirm Films). It netted a respectable but uninspiring $61 million at the box office.
Priceless is a great example of how to do a faith-based film right.
And…that’s about it! There were a couple of smaller films that I really enjoyed. The human trafficking film Priceless was an effective thriller with an empowering message. And Hillsong’s innovative concert film Let Hope Rise was all-around sensational. Some predictable duds here, but this sub-genre is finally starting to get wise to the fact that Christians might actually want quality films that speak to them, rather than easy religious pandering.
ROUND 2: FILMS ABOUT JESUS
Speaking of quality, there was a plethora of engaging and thought-provoking films about the life of Christ in 2016. Though they weren’t all a slam dunk (remember Ben Hur? Yeah, neither do I), this was an impressive group overall. Risen gave us a unique look at Christ through the eyes of a Roman guard (an always-impressive Joseph Finnes) tasked with finding Christ’s body after it disappears from its tomb three days after his death. This novel take on a well-trod story starts out fairly standard but gets more intriguing as it goes on. By the time it was over, I had tears in my eyes, and they were well-earned. This is a well-written, acted and shot adventure yarn, with a redemptive message that is irresistible.
Another buzz-worthy film was The Young Messiah, which imagines what the missing
The Young Messiah is an intriguing, speculative look at Christ’s adolescence, continuing the recent trends of Jesus movies that blend history with fictional elements.
years of Jesus’ childhood may have looked like. Based on a novel by Anne Rice, the film is sometimes dull but deeply reverent. I left the film feeling like its events could have actually been the real story of Christ’s adolescence, and that’s no small feat. Gorgeous cinematography and great supporting performances from the likes of Sean Bean ensure a decent flick.
The best Jesus-based film of the year by far was Last Days in the Desert, a provocative look at the tail-end of Christ’s 40 days in the desert. Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and the devil, and the result is electrifying. McGregor may seem like a strange choice, but I think his sensibilities work well with the material. Director Rodrigo Garcia’s screenplay doesn’t provide easy answers; it asks difficult questions about divinity, questions that may make some true-believer uncomfortable. But for those willing to probe a bit deeper, the film is well worth your time. It probably helps that three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is predictably stunning (the crucifixion scene, in particular, may be the best ever put to film).
ROUND 3: MAINSTREAM FILMS
This category gets an all-around A+ this year. We thankfully weren’t lacking for filmmakers looking to tell quality stories with courageous Christians at their center. This category mostly tackles the “secular” world of film, or at least the high-budget, A-list director realm. The big success story here is obviously Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. The controversial director’s first film in a decade lived up to the hype, telling the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector in WWII who, due to his Christian conviction, refused to even hold a gun. He did, however, earn the Medal of Honor as a combat medic after saving the lives of dozens of his fellow soldiers during the battle of Okinawa. It’s an inspiring story, and Gibson tells it in an earnest, gritty and effective way. It’s a powerful story told in a powerful way.
While we’re talking about controversial filmmakers, how about Nate Parker and his slave rebellion epic The Birth of a Nation? Here’s a film that garnered major accolades at the Sundance Film Festival, only to make nary a dent at the box office or the awards circuit. Many blame this on rape allegations that surfaced from Parker’s past, but it’s hard to see the fault coming from the film itself (although it didn’t garner quite the critical praise many expected). It’s certainly a troubling film, but one that should inspire conversations about the nature of Christian resistance and how far God’s justice extends to our own actions. It’s certainly an excellent work of art all-around, but an immensely disturbing one. I’m not sure I am comfortable with the conclusions Nat Turner came to, in history or in the film. But the movie is saturated with scripture, and even seeing someone misuse the Bible doesn’t change the fact that the Bible is very much front and center for the vast majority of the film’s run time. I highly recommend it, though I will likely never see it again.
Scorsese’s Silence exemplifies the recent contemplative spiritual mode of many prolific filmmakers.
The final major film about Christian resistance in 2016 is Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Long in gestation, the legendary director’s film about Jesuit missionaries in 16th-century Japan is garnering high praise all around. I have yet to see it, but critics are calling in some of Scorsese’s best work, though, like Birth of a Nation, it may be a film you’ll only want to sit through once. It’s dense, challenging and absolutely essential. Still, seeing courageous Christians martyred for their faith should engender in Christians thoughts and prayers for Christians all around the world martyred for their faith every minute. This is an important story to highlight at a time in our history where violence against Christians has never been higher.
FINAL GRADE B+
Despite a few artistically bankrupt duds (both of the indie and studio variety), 2016 was an inspiring year for Christian film. From innovative concert documentaries to provocative looks at the life of Jesus and famous historical Christians, every believer should find something from this past year to strengthen their conviction, inspire their resolve or lift their spirits. And, in a world filled with hardship and pain, that’s something we could all use a lot more of.
Hacksaw Ridge opens with a striking sequence. We hear the end of Isaiah chapter 40 recited over brutal images of war. We hear about God giving strength to the weary and allowing those who call on him to soar on wings like eagles. At the same time, we see charred and battered bodies flying through the air as they’re torn apart by the ruthlessly efficient weapons of war.
It’s a jarring juxtaposition, to be sure, but one director Mel Gibson knows well. The Passion of the Christ director has always been fascinated by religion and violence, and these motifs pushed to their limits in a film that bleeds passion from every pore. It has been 10 years since Gibson last directed a film, and by all accounts, Hacksaw Ridge was worth the wait.
The voice over we hear in the beginning belongs to that of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, giving the best performance of his career), a true-life WWII soldier who was the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor for courage on the battlefield (he saved more than 75 men as a combat medic). Those don’t seem like terms that naturally go together, but Doss’ life was a true example of living what you believe and sticking to your principles, no matter the cost.
We first see Doss’ aversion to violence as a child after he settles a scruff with his brother by whacking him in the head with a brick. Realizing his brother was nearly killed, Doss vows right then to honor God’s sixth commandment never to murder.
The film is essentially split into two halves, and the first deals with Doss’ relationship with his alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), a veteran of WWI, and mother (Rachel Griffiths), as well as his courting of nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). After the bombing of Pearl Harbor (and after learning his brother has signed up), Desmond decided he must enlist for his country. But there are two inviolable conditions: he will never touch a gun, and he will not serve on a Saturday (as a Seventh Day Adventist, Saturday is his Sabbath). He will instead save lives as a combat medic.
Hacksaw Ridge is a stirring testament to the power of faith and the hope that endures even in the midst of horror.
Doss’ unwavering commitment to his pacifist principles obviously don’t sit well with his fellow soldiers. He draws the particular ire of Smitty (Luke Bracey), who sees him as a coward. Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) and Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) attempt to get Doss to leave voluntarily and, when that fails, Court Martial him (“You are aware quite a bit of killing goes on in war?” Glover asks Doss). But Doss does not back down from either his principles or commitment to serve honorably.
The film’s second half chronicles the battle of Okinawa and the U.S. military’s attempt to take it by securing Hacksaw Ridge. Here, we’re rather jarringly re-introduced to Gibson’s penchant for incredibly gory violence. Okinawa was true hell, one of the most violent conflicts of the war, and the depiction here pulls no punches. It is here we see the manifestation of a question Capt. Glover asks Doss earlier in the film: how can you stick to your principles when the only way to ensure your continued freedom to practice them is to kill those who are putting them under siege?
The battle sequences are truly horrifying, but they’re also some of the best ever put to screen. Gibson knows a thing or two about large-scale epic conflicts, and the chaos of battle is almost beautiful in its brutality. These sequences are bolstered by Simon Duggan’s crisp cinematography and Barry Robinson’s gritty production design. But make no mistake: the imagery here is particularly graphic; those with weak stomachs may want to sit it out.
Amid the insanity of war, it’s downright refreshing to see a man who “wants to put a little piece of [the world] back together again,” in Doss’s own words. His heroics are truly inspiring, but what raises the film to a higher level is the way it treats Doss’ commitment to his faith. Screenwriter Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkann do a bang up job of balancing the need to tell the full story of Doss’ devotion to God without getting preachy. But Gibson’s direction sometimes tips the film’s hand; he’s never been much for subtlety, and there are a few scenes that feel a bit overbearing in their religious imagery.
But, even in its most bombastic moments, Hacksaw Ridge is never anything less than riveting cinema. It’s a war film with a true conscience, made by a true craftsman. It’s inspirational without trying too hard. And, most importantly, it’s a passionate Christian work of art, the kind that we’ve been praying for. People don’t need a theatrical Sunday sermon; they need examples of men and women who served their God and their fellow man with unwavering devotion, humility and courage. This is about the finest example of that rare kind of life I can imagine.
Taxi Driver is celebrating 40 years, and since I consider it my all-time favorite film, it stands to reason that I may have something to say about it. I said a lot, actually, when I analyzed the film for a college paper. I can’t imagine I could ever say it any better than I did then, so I decided to publish that paper here. It’s long, but I couldn’t bear to cut very much; I’m proud of this work, and grateful for everyone involved in the making of the film for crafting and enduring and thought-provoking classic. A 40th Anniversary Blu-ray is set to release Nov. 8.
Ever since it was first released in 1976, Taxi Driver has been hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, and its director, Martin Scorsese, has stood the test of time as one of the world’s great directors. The film garnered four 1976 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, and won the prestigious Palme d’Or prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. Today, Taxi Driver is ranked number 52 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 American films of all time, along with other Scorsese films Goodfellas and Raging Bull. In their book The Greatest Movies Ever, Gail Kinn and Jim Piazza rank it as the 15th greatest film of all time, American or otherwise, and the influential director and astute film critic Quentin Tarantino cites it in his top three. It’s safe to say that Taxi Driver has had an indelible and important impact on the history film. The film, however, is ethically troubling for several reasons. In portraying the seedy side of New York City, the film shows pimps, child prostitutes, graphic violence, and harsh language in a raw and unfiltered manner. Additionally, in its portrayal of the mental deterioration of a war veteran driven to madness by the world around him, the film can be a tough one to watch. In analyzing this film from an ethical and theological perspective, it is important to first analyze the “auteur” of the film as well as both the positive and negative ways in which this film has influenced the culture around it.
Many film critics and historians would consider Martin Scorsese to be one of the greatest living directors, if not the greatest. Raised on strong Roman Catholic roots, Scorsese desired to enter the seminary until he decided that his passions would fit much better in film. One of the forerunners of the “film school generation,” he graduated with a film degree from New York University in 1964. His first major film was Mean Streets, a film that would establish many of the themes and styles that would become hallmarks of most Scorsese films. The film world would never quite be the same again.
Robert DeNiro, delivering his legendary performance as Travis Bickle in a scene from Taxi Driver.
In his body of work, Scorsese often presents lonely characters, outsiders who find themselves in an unfamiliar social context that they are unable to overcome. In this way, Scorsese reflects the fact that, contrary to what we often believe, society can have ultimate and final victory over the individual. In Taxi Driver, that society is reflected by the city itself. Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran, returns to the real world and is disgusted. He finds that he does not fit in with the rest of humanity. “Loneliness has followed me my whole life,” Travis says. “Everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”
“GOD’S LONELY MAN”
This “God’s lonely man” theme has become a hallmark of Scorsese films. In Raging Bull, the lonely man is Jake LaMotta, a man who has been trained in the boxing ring to feel nothing but rage. When he is confronted with real life, he does not know how to turn off that rage, and thus he treats all of his friends and loved ones as he would an opponent in the boxing ring. Similarly, in The King of Comedy, the lonely man is Rupert Pupkin, a struggling comedian who, despite his best attempts to cope with life’s tragedies through humor, is unable to realize that the rest of the world isn’t laughing. Even Jesus Christ, in Scorsese’s controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ can be considered a “lonely man.” The burden of living a sinless life is one that no other person on earth shares or has ever shared. The expectations on him were tremendous, and no one was ever lonelier that Christ, during that moment on the cross where God his father forsook him. The difference here, of course, is that, while it may seem like society got the better of him (he was brutally crucified by the government), in reality Christ conquered the societal pressures around him by conquering death itself.
Another important theme that runs throughout Scorsese’s oeuvre is the concept that our occupation, or “calling,” will inevitably define who we are, for better or worse (often worse). In Taxi Driver, Travis’s friend, the Wizard, puts it like this. “A man takes a job, and that becomes what he is. You become the job.” In Travis’s case, the “job” of night taxi driver, which he takes because of his insomnia that he assumingly incurred from Vietnam, allows him to come into contact with the “animals” that “come out at night.” He sees the corruption and depravity of the world around him, and, as a result, feels that it his destiny to change the world around him for the “better.” Travis reflects upon this “destiny” when he says “My whole life has been pointed in one direction. There never has been any choice for me.” Unfortunately, his methods, while perhaps well-intentioned, are destructive and violent in the extreme, and the audience can’t help but wonder whether his destiny was something else (to die in Vietnam, perhaps)?
This (sometimes dichotomous) relationship between occupation and individuality is evident in many other Scorsese films. In Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta’s career as a boxer defines who he is; there is almost no separation between LaMotta in the ring and LaMotta in real life. His occupation has, in a sense, written his life’s story, and this leads to alienation and misery as his life crumbles around him. Once again, The Last Temptation of Christ provides another great (and more positive) example, as Christ, despite the temptation to remain fully human, to come down off of the cross and live a normal life, embraces his destiny to be the savior of mankind. Ultimately, it is not his temptation, but, rather his ability to live a sinless life in spite of that temptation, that defines him.
One of the more interesting techniques that Scorsese uses in many of his films is the subtle rejection of traditional gender roles. While men may have the physical power, women often hold the emotional and spiritual power, and it is this power that often leads the men to destruction, or at least the threat of it. In Taxi Driver, Travis first sees Betsy and immediately singles her out as a potential exception to the “scum” around him. “She appeared like an angel out of this filthy mass,” Travis narrates. “She is alone, they cannot touch her.” When she first appears, Betsy is wearing a white dress, and is shot with high light in comparison to the other people walking down the street. In this way, Betsy takes on a sort of angelic presence in Travis’ (and the audience’s) mind. When Betsy ultimately rejects him, Travis decides that, if love cannot help him escape the sickness of the world around him, perhaps violence can. Betsy has become the catalyst through which Travis heads on his path of “destiny.”
From the very beginning of his career, Scorsese has had an eye for women. He has seen them as strong, independent and powerful, as well as dangerous. In one of his first feature films, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese explores the theme of female independence and empowerment through the character of Alice, who is determined to not let the memory of her deceased husband haunt her. She wants to live a full life without the shadow of a man hovering over her. In Raging Bull, women hold a tremendous power over Jake. To him, women are something to be conquered, and, once they are, he wants to move on to the next. But, Jake discovers that it isn’t as easy as he might have hoped, and his wife leaving him for good at the end of the film proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, tossing him into a bottomless pit of despair and loneliness that he cannot escape. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill’s wife, Karen, holds a tremendous power over him, convincing him to try and leave the mob life for good. She is often presented as a stronger character than Henry, helping him handle the mob business with a clear and rational head. In Shutter Island, the deceased wife of Teddy Daniels holds a much more sinister power over him, providing the impetus for his paranoid, schizophrenic delusions. Scorsese takes things a step farther in The Last Temptation of Christ, where Mary Magdalene inadvertently puts the redemption of all humanity at risk. She holds a kind of sinful power over Jesus, the kind that tempts him to run away with her and live an ordinary, fully human life.
Ellen Burstyn in a scene from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, one of Scorsese’s earliest flims, viewed by many as a feminist classic.
A SPIRITUAL FILMMAKER
In discussing Scorsese as an “auteur,” a critic would be remiss to reject his spiritual background and Roman Catholic roots. Scorsese himself once said “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.” Indeed, while his films are not overtly evangelistic (in fact, they often seem quite the opposite), it is impossible to provide a full analysis of Scorsese’s work apart from this Catholic lens. The way in which this background is expressed is through the culture that he and his characters inhabit—the culture of the streets. As Scorsese narrates at the beginning of Mean Streets, “You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.” Throughout his work, Scorsese presents a kind of religion of the streets— a spirituality that comes from the natural world of human relationship, rather than from a confession booth. He presents a world that is undeniably corrupted by sin, and a humanity that is fallen. When it comes to God, there are no easy answers for Scorsese, and grace is rarely a way out for his characters, particularly because most of them choose such destructive paths to begin with. In Taxi Driver, Travis hopes that “someday, a rain will come and wash these scum off of the streets.” He realizes that humanity needs a redemptive rain to come and wash away our sins, but he is not sure where this rain will come from. There is often a kind of terrible grace amidst the chaos of this world, a grace that, while we may not be able to always see it, is there nonetheless.
Another spiritual theme inherent in Scorsese’s films is the notion of Catholic guilt, a concept that he has struggled with throughout his life. Catholic guilt is the concept that many Catholics and lapsed Catholics feel an especially heavy guilt because they place so much emphasis on personal responsibility for their salvation. Thus, the threat of hell (or purgatory) becomes more and more real as Catholics shirk their responsibilities, such as partaking in the Eucharist and making frequent trips to the confessional booth. This guilt and fear of hell is expressed by Charlie in Mean Streets. “It’s all bullshit except the pain. The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. Now, ya don’t fuck around with the infinite. There’s no way you do that. The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hands and the kind you can feel in your heart, your soul, the spiritual side. And ya know, the worst of the two is the spiritual.” Many Catholics fear the pain of eternal separation from God, but are unable to reconcile this fear with the way they live their lives. Perhaps Richard Blake put it best when speaking of characters in the work of Catholic filmmakers such as Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. “Their struggles are rarely couched in spiritual terms, but they are inevitably religious quests within milestones along the way marked by Catholic images. The Catholic imagination is more than Catholic, more than sacramental—it is profligate. It sees the workings of grace everywhere.” Perhaps this grace can somehow be found even amidst the moral depravity of the world that Scorsese’s gangsters, drug dealers and lunatics inhabit.
When examining film from a cultural perspective, it is important to ask how the viewer’s social situation influences the way they experience a movie, and vice versa. Throughout his career, Scorsese has had to wrestle with this question more than most filmmakers. Taxi Driver, in particular, had a much larger impact on the audience and society than the filmmakers had perhaps intended.
THE TIME AND PLACE OF TAXI DRIVER
Taxi Driver is a film that is best admired and appreciated through the social context in which it was originally created. Under that lens, the primary issue the film raises from a cultural perspective is the after-effects of the Vietnam War on veterans as well as society in general. After the war, which brought terrifyingly brutal technology and plenty of painful new ways to die to the art of killing, many of the veterans arrived home completely shell-shocked. Many of those who didn’t came home and ended up like Travis, feeling along, afraid, and lost in the a world that had seemed to pass them by. The first film that dealt with this theme more directly was Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, but that film was not released until 1978, while Taxi Driver was released in 1976. The war had officially ended in 1973, and the question that a film like Taxi Driver would have raised would have been “Is it too soon to talk about this?” Scorsese’s answer was a resounding no. Perhaps 1976 would have been too soon to release a war film as raw and violent as The Deer Hunter or Platoon, but the strength of Taxi Driver is that it was able to directly address the issues and fears relating to the aftermath of Vietnam without ever showing the war or even mentioning it directly. And yet, the effects of war are everywhere; not only in the minds of Travis and his fellow veterans, but in the streets of New York City, where horror and disgust over the war has brought about a new generation full of cynicism and amorality. As a nation, we may have felt unprepared to deal with these issues, but that doesn’t mean that they should have been swept under the rug. What great filmmakers like Scorsese have done throughout history is turn the mirror on society, forcing us to come to important revelations about ourselves even in the midst of pain and fear.
Robert DeNiro in a scene from The Deer Hunter, the first film to directly tackle the legacy of the Vietnam war.
Another important cultural issue facing Taxi Driver upon its first release was the nature of the violence in the film itself. Indeed, the graphic shootout (even by today’s standards) at the end of the film threatened to give the film the dreaded “X” rating (now NC-17), which would have completely killed its chances at making any money. It was not until Scorsese and the film’s cinematographer Michael Chapman decided to de-saturate the color to make the blood appear less red that the film was allowed to be released with an “R” rating. Certainly, many who watched the film when it was first released (and even today) would have been horrified by this scene, and would have questioned the necessity of such graphic violence in the film. This troubling violence is further exemplified in the scene where Travis attempts to assassinate the political candidate Charles Palantine. While he fails in his attempt, viewers might question the ethics involved in the scenes leading up to the attempt, which seem almost glamorous in their depiction of Travis as he buys guns and knives, lifts weights, and concocts quick-draw contraptions for his small army of weaponry. With Taxi Driver, Scorsese once again brought up the age-old question, “what are the effects of art on society?” While the filmmakers certainly may have had artistic reasons for including graphically violent content in the film, it nonetheless serves as an important to consider one’s audience and the potential effect on that audience before partaking in any artistic endeavor.
The filmmakers of Taxi Driver learned this lesson the hard way when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981 in Washington, D.C. The attempt came about as a result of Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster, who played Iris, the twelve-year-old prostitute in Taxi Driver. He watched the film fifteen times in a continuous loop, and began to stalk Foster and purchase weapons. In the film, Travis brutally kills the pimps and mob bosses that have been taking advantage of Iris in an attempt to “save” Iris and provide her with a normal life. Hinckley hoped that assassinating the President would place him in the history books, and would impress Foster. The assassination attempt was not successful, but Hinckley seriously injured Reagan and several other staff members who were next to the President at the time. Certainly, Hinckley’s obsession with Foster came about as a result of viewing Taxi Driver multiple times, and thus, the relationship between art and life became all too real. At the trial, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, a verdict that outraged many. As a result, Congress and a number of states rewrote laws regarding the insanity defense, and some states abolished the defense altogether. In this way, Taxi Driver had a direct impact on the legal process. While this might be considered a positive effect of the film, it is all too easy to forget that, if Hinckley had been a better shot, the price paid for this effect could have been much higher.
ANALYZING THE THEOLOGY OF TAXI DRIVER
Taxi Driver is a thematically and spiritually complex film that defies simple categorization. This makes it a rather difficult to provide a theological analysis for. The theological analysis, as provided by Robert K. Johnston in Reel Spirituality, consists of two axes: the experiential axis and the critical axis. The experiential axis involves the concept of “transcendence,” a discovery in film of something beyond ourselves, something that demands our total involvement and has practical consequences for our lives. While consuming popcorn and watching an explosion-filled summer blockbuster, it can sometimes be hard to think of film as transcendent. Nonetheless, film is a medium that has changed peoples’ lives, and viewing film through the lens of transcendence is necessary to appreciating film as not just entertainment, but an art form. The concept of transcendence is divided into two definitions: “transcendence (the human)” and “Transcendence (the Holy).” Taxi Driver, with its graphic and disturbing content, might not seem like an ideal candidate for this kind of analysis, but, as Johnston writes, “any filmic story that portrays human experience truthfully has this spiritual capacity.” Taxi Driver is no exception.
Johnston writes that movies are first experienced and then reflected upon. Taxi Driver is a film that demands, first and foremost, to be experienced. Everything from the jazzy Bernard Hermann score, to the lush cinematography, to the tight script and Robert DeNiro’s indelible performance is designed a primarily emotional response from the viewer. Upon first viewing, the film does not relinquish any particularly divine revelatory moments. But, upon repeated viewings, the film has revealed to me a distinct concept of transcendence at a human level. I realize that, like Travis, I often feel like “God’s lonely man,” particularly as a Christian. I feel like I do not belong in this fallen world that is filled with so many different kinds of evil and corruption. I too, desire a way to “wash the scum off of the streets.” On a deeper level, the film has shown me that even my actions that I consider to be based upon noble or holy intentions can sometimes be harmful or destructive to others. Travis’ goals of cleaning up the streets and saving Iris from child prostitution were based upon noble intentions. But, while he did “save” Iris in the end, he only did so by killing people. And, while the film ends with Travis being praised as a hero, all he has really done is become that which he tried to fight. Despite the fact that I may disapprove of Travis’ actions, they serve as an important reminder that ideology is not always equivalent to action.
A poster that expertly depicts the self-imposed isolation of Travis Bickle. Currently on my bedroom wall, it’s my favorite poster I own.
Transcendence (or “the Holy”) supports the idea that movies are a window through which God speaks. The trick about this holy transcendence is that God chooses a variety of means through which to speak to a variety of people. As Johnston puts it, “the experience can not be programmed.” We are not aware of when and where God will choose to speak to us, or what he will say. Throughout history, God has used artistic media, created by sinful humans, as a vessel through which we can experience divine revelation. Transcendence operates on the idea that grace is everywhere. As Johnston puts it, “God discloses himself through experiences, objects and people in our life.” Admittedly, I did not feel this type of transcendence upon first viewing Taxi Driver. And, even after watching it multiple times, I still did not experience a so-called “God moment,” nor did I expect to. I thought I had experienced everything that the film had to offer. However, a recent viewing of the film spoke to me in new ways, ways that only made sense in the context of holy Transcendence. In Travis, I began to see more than just a crusading, perhaps insane war veteran. I began to see his general disdain for humanity in the context of my own life, where I often self-righteously look down upon others for being sinful without acknowledging my own need for forgiveness. There is a scene where Travis, driving by a broken fire hydrant that is spewing water all over the road, rolls up his window to avoid the water. Like Travis, I often roll up my window, thinking that I am in the right and that it is only everyone except me who needs this redemptive rain. Through Travis, God has shown me my own hypocrisy and my need to prostrate myself at his feet, realizing all the while that I am a sinner who is just as much in need of a savior as everyone else on this planet. I wasn’t looking to find this “God moment,” least of all in a film like Taxi Driver, but it came to me nonetheless.
The horizontal axis of Johnston’s theological analysis is the “critical axis.” This axis relies upon a theological reflection of a film, rather than the experience of the film itself. According to Johnston, a critical response should first be measured by the film itself. After the initial experience, the film can then be reflected upon in a meaningful way. This reflection is of two general types: “staying within the movie itself” and “learning from a theological partner.” Staying within a movie itself seeks to find a standard for theological judgment within the movie itself, and does not appeal to outside ground for critique. Scorsese is the kind of director who wants his films to speak for themselves, so staying within the movie itself is a good critical route to take when analyzing Taxi Driver.
Staying within the film allows a critic to analyze the themes as they appear in the context of the film alone. Some of the themes that I analyzed in my “auteur” critique would work well in the context of staying within the film. Revisiting the “God’s lonely man” theme, a critic can see how this theme is conveyed throughout the film. Scorsese uses the camera to great effect to convey this theme. In a scene where Travis is facing his final rejection from Betsy over the phone, the camera slowly trucks to the right and focuses on a long, empty hallway. The camera stays on this hallway for an excruciatingly long time as we hear Travis being rejected. Through the movement of the camera, Scorsese conveys Travis’ odd-man-out status, and his emptiness and loneliness over his rejection. As an audience, we often feel like Travis, empty and hollow, trudging through a world that seems to refuse to reveal our purpose for existing. Another example of Scorsese using the camerawork to reveal the spiritual implications of Travis’ psychological state occurs in a famous shot towards the end of the film. Travis has just killed several pimps, but he himself has been shot and gravely injured. As the police walk in to examine the scene, Travis is sitting on a couch. He puts his finger to his head as if it were a gun, suggesting that the police put him out of his misery. The camera slowly begins to dolly backward and zoom out, moving out of the room and surveying the carnage and destruction that Travis has caused. The camera continues to move out of the building to reveal a large crowd gathering to see what the commotion is. The camera continues to rise and zoom out, until it is high in the sky. Like Travis, the camera is becoming increasingly detached from the world as it moves closer to the afterlife. Travis looks like he is going to die the way he lived; detached from the world, without a reason for existing. Of course, he doesn’t end up dying, and is even hailed as a hero. The audience wonders, however, whether Travis’ heroic status will only isolate him further from society, especially given that he now has to live with his “noble” actions—actions which amounted to little more than mass murder. These reflections, even though they are based upon style, do not reveal themselves upon first viewing, but instead must be analyzed after the initial viewing experience, in conjunction with thematic and theological reflections.
Like all great art, Taxi Driver does not provide its audience with any easy answers. Through film, Scorsese attempts to convey the fact that the world is a messy, sinful place, and it is often difficult to find God in the midst of our own depravity. A critic can examine how he conveys this messiness through his use of theme. In particular, through a discussion of “God’s lonely man,” the nature of our destiny, and the influence of society on our individuality, he conveys that our desire to do good is often oppressed by the evil in the world around us, that we are often on our own in a world of darkness and that the fires of hell are awaiting those who cannot find the light. This messiness can also be seen by examining the real-life social and cultural implications of the film. In particular, the film’s influence on John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Reagan proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only is the world a messy place, but art, for better or worse, can sometimes influence the larger culture around us. In the midst of all of this, however, God can still use the power of art, created by sinful people, to influence peoples’ lives for the better. On a human level, Taxi Driver provides a kind of transcendence that allows us to re-examine not only our motivations for our actions, but also our actions themselves, and how they can influence others for either good or ill. On a holy level, I have personally experienced the power of Transcendence through Taxi Driver. The film has allowed me to re-examine my Christian mindset and realize that my faith walk is often filled with judgment and hypocrisy. From a critical theological perspective, Taxi Driver is perhaps best examined by “staying within the film.” Scorsese uses the visual design of the film to convey Travis’ status as “God’s lonely man,” as well as to convey that perhaps there is someone out there who is keeping a close eye on all that we do. In the end, sin has caused a big mess, and it’s going to take a big God to clean it up. In the meantime, we need to be patient and hope that, someday, God will deliver the world from injustice and save us all from ourselves. It only took a depraved, vigilante New York City taxi driver to help remind me of this.
In case you were wondering, yes, Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver score is the best ever. Here’s the evidence:
The Birth of a Nation is not a subtle film. That should be obvious from its title, which is cribbed directly from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 classic (and incredibly racist) epic, which helped revitalize the Klu Klux Klan by painting them as the heroes, saving vulnerable women from the nefarious and lecherous blacks. More than 100 years later, and a decade in the making, Nate Parker’s breakout hit is about as much a rebuke of that narrative as a film can be.
Parker himself plays Nat Turner, the real-life slave and preacher in Southampton County Virginia who, fed up with white cruelty and oppression, led a small but violent rebellion against white slaveholders in 1831. His posse killed more than 60 people, and in retaliation slaveholders killed hundreds of slaves and hanged Turner in a very public execution in the hopes of preventing further insurrection.
Nation will probably draw lots of comparisons to the recent Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave, but the films are actually quite different. Steve McQueen told his slave story through a detached, historical, almost cold lens, but Parker’s vision is filled with barely suppressed seething rage, rage which boils over by film’s end. It’s a slow, vicious, unnerving burn, closer at times in tone to Tarantino’s Django Unchained than McQueen’s somber, stoic masterwork.
The other major distinction here is that Parker is not the polished storyteller that McQueen or John Ridley (screenwriter on 12 Years) are. This is Parker’s directorial and writing debut, and in many ways it shows. The first half or so of the film contains awkward pacing and distracting visual flourishes. This segment features flashbacks to Parker’s childhood before running ahead to his adult life. He lives at a plantation under the gentle ownership of Samuel Turner (an almost unrecognizable Armie Hammer, who does great work here). Turner lives with his mother and grandmother, and seems to be eking out a respectable existence as a slave (as much as can be expected, anyways). But he soon sees that not all slave owners are as magnanimous when he sees the damaged Cherry (Aja Naomi King) being put up for auction to a crowd of lecherous whites. He convinces Samuel to buy her as a present to his newly married sister, and soon a romance blossoms and Cherry and Nat are married.
The Birth of a Nation is an important film that asks its audience to stare blankly at the horrors of slavery while wrestling with some uncomfortable questions.
But it’s not long before Turner, a man of deep abiding Christian faith, begins to make waves as a biblically literate and passionate preacher. He is soon asked to travel with Samuel to preach at plantations across the county. He soon realizes, however, that it’s not God’s love the slave owners want preached, but obedience to their masters. Their slaves are lazy and weak, they say, and they need some “divine encouragement” to keep them in line. Turner dutifully follows the rules, but, as he begins to witness the horrors at these neighboring plantations, his preaching begins to change. He reads his Bible and sees that, for every verse used to condone slavery, there’s at least another crying for freedom for all men. So he begins to preach grace and freedom in Christ, and this is something many folks, least of all Samuel, don’t like one bit.
The film is an undeniably Christian work, the most explicit mainstream film about faith since, probably, The Passion of the Christ. The script is absolutely saturated in scripture as Turner preaches and explores the line between God’s mercy and his judgment. This lends the film a great deal of emotional sincerity, and reveals a hard and fast condemnation of any man who would use God’s word to oppress and demean. Parker’s passion shines through here, and there is a ton of great conversation material here for both believer and non-believer alike.
Of course, all this material is building to something, and the set piece moment is the revolt itself. This is a tough film to chew on, filled with brutality and murky moral messages, and that uncomfortable conflict is driven home in the bloody finale. By most standards, it’s hard to say that Turner did the right thing. He killed people. Did God really condone his violence, as he was so convinced? I don’t have an answer to that question, and admitting that is somewhat terrifying. I’d like to retort that the Lord says vengeance is his and his alone. But, then again, I’ve never been a slave. How long can one hold onto that promise, knowing that he’ll likely never be free and never see the men who treated him so cruelly punished? Never has a film confronted me with such uncomfortable, but essential, questions.
That, I believe, is the theme of the film as a whole. Uncomfortable, but essential. Despite its pacing problems and occasional bombast, this is a ferocious, overwhelming and unsettling experience. Its dizzying cinematography creates an unpredictable rhythm, and Henry Jackman’s extraordinary score wisely contrasts somber spirituals with relentless African drumbeats. Turner’s intent is to take the horrid violence of slavery and shove our faces in it, forcing us to look upon it in all its horror.
Is The Birth of a Nation ultimately a stirring work of art or an awful, insensitive racial tirade? Is its ultimate message inspirational or intensely problematic? Can a film perhaps occupy so many polarities at once and still come out as a successful product? I can’t answer these questions, but I strongly encourage you to check out this remarkable film and decide for yourself.
On the surface, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise appears to be your average behind-the-scenes music/concert documentary. And, in many ways, it is. We get the story behind the Australian worship band’s unexpected rise to global fame, the members’ relationships to one another and their families and intimate peeks into recording sessions and live shows. We see the struggles of touring, the cost of artistic genius and the stresses of living life in the limelight.
But this documentary is much more than your average concert doc. It’s billed as something beyond that: a “theatrical worship experience.” The goal of the film is not just to inform and entertain, but to draw people into worship and intimacy with the God of the universe, without having to leave their theater seats. An ambitious goal, to be sure, not to mention a novel one. It’s a testament to the power and intimacy of Let Hope Rise, then, that it accomplishes everything it sets out to do, and more.
Impeccably directed by Michael John Warren (who made the Jay-Z documentary Fade to Black), the selling point of the film is the extended musical sequences, many of them shot at a concert at the Los Angeles Forum (though a concert in Manila gets some focus as well). Here we see the aching intimacy and raw power of the performers in their natural setting. But these folks aren’t in it for the applause or the fame: as all the band members make clear, they exist to make the name of Jesus famous. This is the glue that holds the group together, and we witness that throughout the film. In all their interactions with each other, with their families and with their fans, the members of Hillsong United are a mighty testament to how God’s love looks like lived out in the day-to-day. Not that they’re perfect: they doubt, they disagree, they regret things they’ve said and things they’ve left unsaid. But it’s truly inspiring to see the band, which started as a worship band at Hillsong church in Sydney, selling out arenas around the world and yet remaining so incredibly, almost supernaturally humble.
Better than most music documentaries (and certainly most Christian films), Let Hope Rise conveys the beautiful idea of calling, that we all have something in this life that God is calling us to do. Joel Houston never planned on touring with a hit band around the world; it kind of just happened. He simply saw a need and walked into it with humility. Many band members say they can’t exactly explain this idea of calling, because, in some ways, following God’s will for our lives goes beyond rationalization. When you’re answering God’s call and living out his will for your life, you just know.
Exploring this intimacy with the band members off the stage only adds to the power of their worship experiences on the stage. We’ve seen the struggles they’ve had in coming up with the perfect lyrics (which are designed to be sung, not just listened to, Houston says) and the perfect melodies to allow people to draw near to God at one of their shows. We know how achingly hard they’ve worked to bring this kind of intimate experience about.
Let Hope Rise is billed as a “theatrical worship experience,” and is entirely successful in its ambitious goals.
Now, filming a concert doesn’t mean that an audience watching it on a screen is going to feel the impact of the show in the way that those attending it live might. But, in this case, I think every emotion resonates. This “theatrical worship experience” is something truly special; I felt an immediate connection to these songs I’ve sung in church and heard on the top of the charts for years. I felt the palpable presence of God in that dark theater, and that’s something very rare, particularly in the world of Christian films, which often settle for trite religious platitudes and sentimental spiritual pandering—rarely uplifting, and hardly ever inspiring. There’s not a hint of falsehood with Hillsong: when it comes to Christianity, these folks are the real deal, and a great example of what living a life sold out for Jesus can really look like. This authenticity, rather than the quality of the musicianship or the production values (though those are both stellar) is what makes the concert sequences so exhilarating (Taya Smith’s performance of “Oceans” is, naturally, a highlight, though seeing people around the world sing “Mighty to Save” in different languages was my favorite moment in the film). As one band members says, “Without Jesus, the band would be nowhere, because I honestly don’t think we’re that good.” This kind of authentic worship may have the power to sway those who have grown deeply cynical toward the church or worship music in general (Seth Hurd wrote for Relevant on how the film affected his attitude toward worship).
I chuckle, then groan (or maybe it’s both at once, a chuckle-groan, if you will) when I hear critics of bands like Hillsong United dismissing them because of the fact that (gasp!) they’re successful and make money and sell lots of records. It’s as if they’re expected to donate every cent of their success to charity and live in complete poverty (ironically, there’s no pressure for successful secular artists to do this, for reasons that probably warrant a separate blog post). But there should, I believe, be a healthy skepticism of fame and fortune when it comes under the banner of Christianity. Thankfully, the members of Hillsong avoid that trap by focusing entirely on their message and giving the praise and the glory back to Jesus: the band members discuss the tension of calling attention to themselves so they can direct it back to God, and I think that can be a potentially healthy (or potentially dangerous) space in which to wrestle. But Hillsong emerges from that battle triumphant. In all the ways that matter, they’re still that tiny little worship band from a tiny little church in Sydney. There may be more people listening and watching than ever before, but the invitation remains the same. “Come to the foot of the cross and worship with us, and you will leave changed.”
I, for one, didn’t want Let Hope Rise to end. As it turns out, the presence of God is a pretty awe-inspiring place to be.
Hollywood sure seems to have a thing for interpretive biblical fiction these days. Unlike artistic adaptations of known Bible stories like Noah or inspirational Christian dramas like Miracles from Heaven, this third biblical sub-genre is intent on filling in biblical gaps or providing additional speculative context to known biblical events. This year has already seen the likes of Risen, which told the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from an alternative viewpoint, and The Young Messiah, which took a look at Jesus’ lost childhood years. Now comes Last Days in the Desert, an artistic powerhouse that dives into Jesus’ 40 days of wandering through the desert as he prepares for his ministry and eventual crucifixion. It’s easily the best of the bunch.
Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia was keenly interested in the relationship between fathers and sons as he wrote the script, and that topic permeates the film. The principal relationship, obviously, is between Jesus Christ and God the Father. This version of Christ (played with haunting clarity by Ewan McGregor), is plagued with intense doubt and confusion about his mission. It doesn’t help that the devil (also played by McGregor) continues to taunt him, attempting to draw Yeshua, as he’s called here, away from his ultimate purpose. Compared to Yeshua’s stoic silence, this demon is playful and full of emotion. He tells Yeshua that God doesn’t love him, that he’s abandoned him, that his mission is fruitless. But there’s a pang there, too, a longing in the devil to feel God’s touch the way he once did, when he was the Father’s right hand angel.
This scenes between the two forces are the film’s most riveting. These conversations ask profound questions that most films (and certainly most Christian films) don’t dare to touch upon. The nature of reality, of free will, of God’s love in a cruel universe, these are the topics that envelop the devil’s mind and, by extension, Yeshua’s. What makes these scenes so compelling is not only Garcia’s sharp and intelligent dialogue but McGregor’s top-notch performance. His devil is a hoot, but his portrayal of Christ is equally riveting. If most Jesus movies seem more concerned with Christ’s deity than his humanity, the opposite runs true here. This is the most human portrayal of Christ I’ve seen. He thirsts, he gets blisters on his feet, he yells in frustration, he laughs at jokes and, in one odd scene, a fart. Sometimes, he says the wrong thing, or says the right thing in the wrong way. Because we don’t see Jesus perform any miracles or preach any messages, we see him as much more human that we’re used to. The effect is somewhat disconcerting but also effective.
Last Days in the Desert provides a riveting portrait of a conflicted Christ, and carves an utterly unique space among Jesus films.
Thankfully, the entire film doesn’t consist of Christ wandering around the desert. He runs across a father (Ciaran Hines) and son (Tye Sheridan) caring for the father’s ailing wife (Ayelet Zurer). Yeshua agrees to rest for a few days as he helps the family build a house. The relationship between this earthly father and son is strained. The boy wants to go to Jerusalem and follow his dreams, but the father wants him to stay and build upon the land. As Yeshua befriends the boy, he begins to ponder his relationship with his heavenly father in light of the fraying father-son relationship he has found himself in the middle of. Meanwhile, the devil believes he has found new ways to tempt and torture Yeshua through the family he is so keen on helping.
Last Days is undoubtedly an odd film, one that is very loosely structured and almost deliberately plotless. It’s also gorgeous, thanks to the work of legendary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who makes the harsh desert landscape pop. His lens is so full of light and color, there are scenes where you would swear you were looking at God himself, especially during some of the sky shots (he achieved similar effect in The Tree of Life and The Revenant). I was thrilled to see Lubezki’s interpretation of the crucifixion; the scene’s stark, almost cold beauty and creative angles put it among my all-time favorite interpretations of that iconic moment.
Last Days in the Desert is an extraordinary artistic achievement, but on an emotional level it isn’t entirely successful. Some awkward attempts at humor fall flat, some relationships feel underdeveloped and the pacing will likely be too slow for some. It also isn’t a “redemptive” Christian tale in the traditional sense. In fact, its commercial credentials are almost non-existent. Garcia is much closer to Pier Paolo Pasolini in style and tone than Mel Gibson (we get even less reference to the resurrection here than Gibson’s brief nod in The Passion of the Christ).
But most of the things that would turn people away are what make the film so unique. I’ve never seen a Jesus film like Last Days, and given how much material there is to copy out there, that’s a statement I never thought I’d make. It’s a provocative, soul stirring and yes, uncomfortable film, but that’s exactly why I can’t wait to see it again.
One of my favorite scenes in the latest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is the one where new characters Finn and Daisy first come across the infamous space rogue Han Solo and his longtime Wookie companion Chewbacca. When asked about the ancient myth of the Jedi and the force that surrounds the universe, Han replies, “It’s true. All of it.”
What gives this line so much meaning is that this wasn’t always Han’s conclusion. In the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, Han is outright dismissive of the Force, telling Luke Skywalker, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.”
We, of course, know Han Solo is wrong, but the pleasure of his journey, so expertly capitalized upon in The Force Awakens, is seeing him accept this realization for himself. There are things he doesn’t understand about the universe, things he can’t even see. And Han, ever the pragmatist, denies they exist because he hasn’t seen the evidence for himself.
But his admission 30 years later changes all of that. He is now telling fellow doubters that the things he once refused to believe in are true. All of them.
I’ve thought quite a bit about Han’s realization during Holy Week. I think we often treat the resurrection of Christ in the same way Han initially treated the force. A man rising from the dead? How can such a thing be true?
We live in a pragmatic, logical society, and this is in many ways a good thing. We are naturally skeptical until we have reason to believe otherwise. We value science and evidence-based convictions, much as Han did when he told Luke, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”
But our faith in science only takes us so far, before it becomes just that, faith. We can become so obsessed with what we can observe, what we in fact can witness with our own eyes, that any other way of experiencing the world is dismissed out of hand. We somehow think that science will solve all of our problems, that it will save us from ourselves, despite the fact that the study of science is done by human hands. We need only to look at the atom bomb and two world wars to convince us that our salvation is not found in science alone.
Two famous skeptics, C.S. Lewis and Lee Strobel, were a lot like young Han. They were so obsessed with evidence that they set out to disprove Christianity and the existence of God entirely. They didn’t do a very good job. Both became staunch Christian apologists, and they did so primarily by examining the evidence they were so hoping would lead to a different conclusion. If all things are created by God, then science, like everything else, points back to the majesty of the creator.
As Strobel has written, “Christianity is a very historical religion. It makes specific claims that are open to testing.” He also said, “I think it’s very healthy to use journalistic and legal techniques to investigate the evidence for and against Christianity and other faith systems.”
Doing so is not only healthy, but essential. One of the things I love about the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ is that they strike me as very journalistic. Four men, approaching the same story from four different angles, astonishingly came to the same conclusions. Luke, a doctor by profession, was particularly interested in providing an orderly and accurate account of what transpired during Jesus’ three years of ministry, along with his eventual death and resurrection.
Luke tells Theophilus, to whom his gospel account is addressed, that he intended “to write an orderly account…that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).
The story of Easter is not some far-away fairy tale, but a story rooted in many of the things our society holds dear. Archaeology, science, history…it all points to the risen Christ.
“Points” is the operative word here. None of these things, on their own or combined, irrefutably prove that Christ was raised from the dead three days after he was crucified and buried. There is, of course, a strong element of faith to, well…faith. Christianity is both intellectual and experiential. Han Solo could have seen evidence of the force and still not believed, because doing so would require a change of perspective in his life. It would require him to reorder his priorities, to abandon some of the things that had previously brought him joy. His life would never be the same.
We can assert the veracity of the story of Christ’s resurrection all day, but if we don’t allow it to penetrate our hearts, to reorder our lives in response, that we haven’t really been listening. Some people may never feel like they will be able to take that step of faith to surrender their lives in this way. But the Easter story reminds us that it is, indeed, just a step. Tomorrow there will be another. And the day after, another. Before we know it, Christ has changed us from the inside out.
As Easter approaches, I think of Han Solo’s confession, informed by both rational study and the realization that there are some things about the universe that will never fit neatly into his compartmentalized mind. “It’s true…all of it.” As I look upon the resurrected Christ, I repeat these words with awe, wonder and the realization that it changes everything.
I can’t get baby Joel to stop crying. He doesn’t want his juice box. He doesn’t want me to hold him. As his wails grow louder and more pained, I seem to be out of options. I resign to telling my son that I can’t make him feel better, words no father ever wants to say.
It seems odd for a video game to give you a goal you can’t achieve, but that’s just one of the things that makes That Dragon, Cancer special. The game is a haunting, painful and yet beautiful interactive poem, created by Ryan and Amy Green, along with developer Josh Larson, to tell the story of their young child’s real-life battle with—and eventual loss to—cancer at the age of five.
“Interactive poem” is a better term for the title than video game. There aren’t any traditional goals, and the ones given to you seem awfully mundane. Feed the ducks at the pond. Examine pictures in a hallway. Push baby Joel on a swing. The game seems more concerned with guiding you through the events being depicted rather than letting you having any say in how these events play out. Which is, of course, the point.
That Dragon, Cancer is a devastating interactive story of a family’s real-life encounter with cancer.
Gaming is often goal-oriented, asking us to solve problems and achieve things to make ourselves feel accomplished. We usually expect a reward in return. That Dragon, Cancer is part of a recent trend of “empathy games” that take a different route. More often autobiographical in nature, the goal of empathy games is to put the gamer in someone else’s shoes; perhaps a real person facing real emotions, or at least a reasonable facsimile of one. No bullet sponges or high speed chases here. In the ongoing conversation of games as art, the idea that games can allow us to connect with others in the way a great novel or film can has been a difficult hurdle for the medium to overcome. And yet, I never thought I would emphasize with the identity struggles of a lesbian teenager until I played Gone Home. And The Stanley Parable messed with my conceptions of free will and storytelling as much as One Hundred Years of Solitude.
That Dragon, Cancer is simpler than those games, and yet infinitely richer in its emotional impact. By giving us an impossible task (save Joel from dying) and asking us to control it, the Greens reveal to us the futility of human endeavor, especially when it comes to trying to make sense of unexpected tragedy. One of the game’s more creative examples of this is when the player is tasked with guiding a flying Joel through a minefield of cancer cells. Joel is held up by balloons, and once those balloons pop, he will fall. As the cancer cells continue to multiply and navigating the field becomes harder, I realize that I’m not supposed to win. Eventually, I have to surrender to the makers of the game and fail at this particular task in order to proceed.
Surrender is a big theme in the game, specifically, to God. Not that doing so was easy for the Greens. Throughout the game, the player reads letters the husband and wife wrote to one another. Amy always appears cheerful, resting in the hope that God will hear her prayers and heal Joel.
“I pray I find God’s wisdom in the midst of chaos,” she says. “My doubt is insignificant compared to God’s faithfulness.”
Ryan tries to remain hopeful, but is often jealous of Amy’s cheery outlook on their son’s increasingly grim situation.
“My wife is expecting a surprise party from the Lord…I envy her,” he says.
Ryan and Amy’s prayers seem to have got them through this tough season, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t do their part. They moved with their two other sons to California from Colorado just to try an alternative treatment for Joel. They (and by extension, the player) spent many sleepless nights in the hospital. They tried just about everything they could, but in the scene where the doctors come to announce that there isn’t anything else they can do, the game shifts. We’re no longer battling the cancer; we’re battling the voices of fear, doubt and pain that emerge in Ryan and Amy’s heads. We’re asked to resign ourselves to the fact that prayer is the only thing we have left to do.
The game’s Steam reviews are overwhelmingly positive, but most of the negative reviews complain about its blatant religious overtones. Those opinions are valid, but they miss the point. The Greens’ personal experience is not universally relatable, nor should it be. Their strong Christian faith is no less a part of their story than Joel himself. To diminish its importance in order to appeal to a wider audience would be disingenuous.
But the Greens’ Christian faith isn’t something they just conjured up to make them feel better about their baby’s death. It’s an all-encompassing hope that protrudes into every area of their life. Prayer doesn’t always have to bring tangible results to have value. Faith doesn’t always bring the healing we desire it to. God isn’t a personal genie we conjure up when we need things from him, but God is there in the midst of our pain, and he fights for us and with us.
“Grace is…kind of like help,” Amy narrates as the player fights the fire-breathing dragon of cancer as an avatar of Joel decked in armor. “We know that God fights for Joel, even when he can’t fight for himself.” It is then that grace appears as a majestic golden eagle, lifting up Joel after he is felled by a fireball.
That faith-filled hope is driven home in the game’s ending, where I am tasked with lighting candles in church to pray for Joel’s healing. Each candle is tied to a specific prayer, and as I attempt to light all the candles at once, a symphony of prayers rise, united in their diversity. Of course, we already know those prayers weren’t answered, at least in the way we would have liked them to be, but for Christians the good news is that even this is not the end of the story. Death never has the final say, and neither does cancer. Without giving anything more away, I even get to see Joel one more time before the credits roll.
Yes, That Dragon, Cancer is an unapologetically Christian examination of death and tragedy. It’s also probably the first Christian video game that can be considered great art. From its beautiful soundtrack to its creative use of shifting perspective and haunting stylized visuals, the game is an artistic masterwork. It’s the closest we’ll get to an interactive The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Perhaps, most importantly, it’s a potent reminder that the world needs good Christian art. Stories like the ones the Greens have shared are valuable stories that need to be told—stories of God’s grace and provision through life’s up and (especially) downs. We don’t want to play or watch a religious tract or a Sunday school sermon. Just give us a story, and tell it well. And while you’re at it, give us a few tissues.
That Dragon, Cancer is on sale on Steam through March 21. You can purchase it here.
The opening shot of Joel and Ethan Coen’s new comedy Hail, Caesar! is a close-up of Christ on the cross. We then get an establishing shot of a Catholic Church, where overworked movie studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has come to take confession. He tells the priest it has been 24 hours since his last confession, before admitting he has lied to his wife about quitting smoking (he’s had three cigarettes in the last day). The scene ends quietly, without the expected punchline.
This scene is one of many in Hail, Caesar! that highlight the fixation the Coen Brothers have on religious faith in many of their films. For a directing duo whose work is so diverse they have their own subgenres (goofy Coen comedy, dark Coen comedy, Coen drama, etc), this seems to be one of the major constants throughout their body of work. Hail, Caesar! is a funny movie, one that occasionally plays religion for laughs, but even the jokes here are probing for something much deeper than we typically see in so-called “religious” fare. Behind the laughs, we find once again that the Coens take religious faith quite seriously—and that, I must say, is pretty damn refreshing.
Hail Caesar! is set during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, where movies were seen as morally degrading work and stars had to maintain a squeaky-clean image in order to be successful. Mannix is a man attempting to live a life of depth while forced to care very much about the artificial image of the stars under his care. Some of these stars include aquatic icon DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), fading western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and vacuous pretty boy Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Each star is facing an image crisis, of course. Moran is expecting a child out of wedlock, a fact which would destroy her career. Doyle (in an uproarious scene) is forced to star in a British costume drama directed by the demanding Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Finnes) for which he is spectacularly unqualified. And Baird is, well…missing. Kidnapped, in fact, by a mysterious organization known only as “The Future,” right in the middle of starring in the lavish period drama Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ (an obvious reference to Ben Hur).
As Mannix deals with these series of PR crises, he considers an offer from Lockheed to move to more “important” work. But even through the chaos, Mannix shows a clear commitment to authenticity. This is driven home in the film’s best scene, where he gathers religious scholars to discuss the accuracy of the portrayal of Christ in the upcoming epic. What starts as an interesting conversation develops into an extended theological back-and-forth on the nature of Christ’s divinity. It’s an extraordinary scene, funny and biting and profound, which makes it quintessentially Coen.
Hail Caesar! is the latest example of the Coen brothers’ keen eye for sensitive portrayals of religious faith.
This spiritual profundity is mixed with a nostalgic eye for the Hollywood classics, which the Coens clearly have great respect for. Musicals, costume dramas and westerns are gently mocked through the course of the film. But the central genre on trial here is the biblical epic, and the timing couldn’t be better. In an era where seemingly every producer is foaming at the mouth to make the next great biblical epic (whether on TV or in theaters), the Coens are reminding us of the frequently vacuous nature of “message” movies, particularly religious ones. Hail Caesar! (the film within the film) is meant to pander to the most base, feel-good, whitewashed version of Christianity (much like the original Ben Hur, in fact). The contrast between such artificial faith and Eddie’s staunch Catholicism is stark, but Eddie is still committed to making it the best representation possible.
The nature of celebrity, religion, consumerism, communism (yes, they take plenty of shots at political philosophy too)–these are heavy themes, and the Coens have often tackled them in a somber way. Here, they take a different route, for which I am quite grateful. The film is, after all, simply a pure delight to watch. The rich period details are given extraordinary pop thanks to Roger Deakins’ always-great cinematography. The performances are all-around phenomenal. And the nostalgic tone is emphasized by joyous moments such as a wonderful old-fashioned musical number (starring the immensely talented Channing Tatum). In the sub-genre of “goofy” Coen comedies, this is thankfully more O Brother, Where Art Thou? than Burn After Reading.
But the film’s silly plot is ultimately pretty inconsequential. Always simmering beneath the fun is the Coens’ most overt and accomplished religious fable besides A Serious Man. That very funny but much more somber film explored Jewish themes through a modern-day examination of the Old Testament book of Job. Despite its change in style, Hail Caesar! seems to be the Christian response. Both films feature a man at a crossroads in his life, dedicated to his family and his faith even while the rest of the world seems to be crashing in around him. And both are potent allegories for living a life of authenticity in a world obsessed with artifice.
Religion is important to society and deserves to be respected and admired—today. How often do we hear that message from Hollywood? If faith is not outright mocked, it is given the quaint treatment, its importance relegated to a period in time (as in period pieces, wink, wink) but having little relevance to the modern world. The Coens are part of a select few working filmmakers who have deliberately pushed back against that more popular notion. Through the guise of a period piece, they are pointing the finger at their own industry, and maybe even themselves. The fact that said piece is one of the most purely enjoyable movies in ages is simply a welcome bonus.
On December 9, 1965, nearly half the population of the United States tuned in to watch the premiere of the first Peanuts special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Christmas, and in particular holiday specials, would never look the same. Rightly looked upon as a holiday classic, the animated special is even more of a marvel due to the fact that it very nearly never happened.
What is now the second-longest holiday special following the Rankin-Bass production of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, the special was originally commissioned by Coca-Cola. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, director Bill Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson mapped out the feature in a handful of hours, and were put on a tight five-month deadline to have the animated short ready in time for Christmas. Musician Vince Guaraldi had already written his famous “Linus and Lucy” piano piece, but he was also commissioned to write the rest of the music for the special. Opening song “Christmastime is Here” was recorded just four days before the premiere.
The sponsors were not impressed. “They thought having jazz music on a Christmas show didn’t make much sense,” Mendelson recalled in a recent USA Today article about the making of the special. “They didn’t like the (voice) actors being kids, and they just didn’t like the show in general. They said: ‘You made a nice try. We’ll put it on the air, obviously, but it just doesn’t work.’ ”
Viewers disagreed. The show was a ratings smash, pulling in 15 million viewers. Last year, 6 million people across the country still tuned in to participate in what has become an annual holiday tradition. There are many things that make the show a true classic: it’s laid-back pace, its typically strong cast of characters, its childlike sense of innocence as well as its themes exploring the true value of Christmas in the wake of corporate consumerism.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is considered a classic for many reasons, but its greatest legacy is the purity, simplicity and strength with which it conveys its message.
Nowhere is this charm more evident than in the always riveting moment where, responding to Charlie Brown’s question about the true meaning of Christmas, Linus gets up on stage and starts reciting from the Gospel of Luke. Everyone was worried this scene would scare off sponsors, but not Schulz.
“He said, ‘If we’re going to do a Christmas special, we’ve really got to do it the right way and talk about what Christmas is all about,’ ” Mendelson tells USA Today. “Bill and I looked at each other, and I said, ‘There’s never been any animation that I know of from the Bible. It’s kind of risky.’ Then Schulz said, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, who will?’ ”
The rest of the crew was wise to trust Schulz. This scene is the heart of the special; without it, the message would not have the same impact. Christopher Shea, who was 7 when he voiced Linus for the special (all of the child characters were voiced by actual children), noted this when he discussed the legacy of that scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition.
“At the time, being just 7, I didn’t realize the depth and perception of what I was reading, even though our family did have deep religious values. From a very early age I remember our whole family listening to the Messiah every year as a holiday tradition. But as I grew older I came to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas as it was told on the TV show. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience I will always treasure.”
If reading from the Bible on national television was controversial 50 years ago, how much more so would it seem to be today? And yet, households around the country will tune in each year to hear its message, even if they celebrate the season for reasons that have nothing to do with baby Jesus in a manger.
I think that’s probably because this scene so brilliantly goes against two major social streams of the last 50 years. One is consumerism; certainly an issue in 1965, it’s even more prevalent today. With the advent of commercials and targeted advertising, we schedule our lives around the “shopping season,” with Black Fridays (and Thursdays), cyber Mondays and the mad rush to spend before the year is over. In comparison to that, Linus’ one-minute consolidation of the Christmas story is positively quaint. In that way, it is also a great relief. If this is what Christmas is about, it sounds a lot less stressful than all the other stuff I’ve been running around doing.
The speech also seems to fly in the face of the last 50 years of Christian history. The church has a lot of mud caked on its shoes for choosing to bed with politicians, rising with the “moral majority” of the 1980s and continuing today with presidential candidates like Ted Cruz proposing some sort of terrifying theocracy where Christianity functions more like big brother, regulating everything we say and do. Theologically, we find ourselves mired in legalism once again. It’s icky stuff, but Linus comes to remind us all that Christmas is a time where we can get back to the fundamentals of why Jesus came and what it looked like when he did.
It’s the clearest, most pure distillation of the Christmas message I can imagine hearing. No political agenda, no asking for money, no attempts to shame viewers or scare them into religion. “You’re sick of consumerism? Let me tell you a story. This is what Christmas is all about.” We westerners have managed to muck up the clear and concise gospel message almost beyond recognition, but Linus is not guilty of this. He’s just sharing a pretty awesome story.
And what a witness! Linus doesn’t say “this is what Christmas means to me,” or, “this is how I celebrate during this time of year.” He, and by extension Schulz, is making a stand to say “this is what Christmas is all about,” what everything else we love about this time of year stems from. It’s a bold stance, especially today, but it’s one of the reasons the scene still holds so much power. This may be the only time any part of the gospel message is heard in a household all year. And the secular and spiritual alike welcome it with open arms.
The great television critic Matt Zoller Seitz summed up what truly makes this special, well, special, even to modern audiences, in an article he wrote for the Newark Star Ledger upon the show’s 30th anniversary in 1995.
“Television today favors fast, frequent, exaggerated bursts of action and confrontation. In comparison, A Charlie Brown Christmas is almost unnervingly reflective, dependent on words, emotions and small grace notes rather than speed, glitz and noise.”
A Charlie Brown Christmas finds beauty in simplicity. Ice skating upon a lake. A sad looking tree that needs a little love. A baby boy, born in a manger, who would one day be the savior of the world. Christmas is a stressful time of year for many, and the special doesn’t shy away from that. Charlie is frustrated with the holiday too (“My dog has gone commercial! I can’t stand it!”), which is why the ultimate message is so inspiring. We change along with Charlie, slowly moving away from cynicism to appreciation for home and heart, friends and family and the God who came down as a man to bring us all together. It’s hard to hate the holidays after being exposed to it.
After an initial staff screening of the special, animator Ed Levitt saw what Coca-Cola didn’t. He stood up and declared, “A Charlie Brown Christmas will run for 100 years!”