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Thoughts on The Tree of Life by Terence Malick

July 5, 2011 2 comments

What happens when you’re world comes crashing down? You show up for work and the boss sends you and half the department home: laid off. Or you come face to face with a horrible darkness in your own heart that has and is damaging relationships all around you. Or your beloved family member dies suddenly, and you wonder if God even cares.

There are moments in life that change all the other moments in life. Suddenly the frailty of our world, our beliefs, our relationships stand in naked clarity, and we shudder. These moments of suffering, of mourning, of anguish can make time feel as though it has stopped.

Struggling through the grief of death and loss, memories flood our hearts in no particular order. Or we may find ourselves fixated on one singular memory that shuts out all other memories. It is difficult to move, to think, to find solace. Just moving through the day feels like we’re pushing through a thick, choking smog that blinds our sight and smothers our lungs. If you’ve ever felt grief or depression or deep anguish, you know some form of this struggle.

Just after the opening moments of the film, The Tree of Life by Terence Malick, we discover a death. The mother (Mrs. O’Brien) breaks down weeping after receiving a letter. Mr. O’Brien answers the phone at a landing strip and is overwhelmed by the news he hears. Their son Jack lights a candle and stares numbly forward. They all three have come face to face with the death of their son and brother.

This sudden death immerses them and us into one of those moments that impacts all other moments. The outer world of schedules and events and daily life moves into the background as the inner world of grieving and questioning and remembering takes the stage. Eugen Rosenstock Huessy calls this “lyrical time.”

Time is no longer chronological. Just like our memories and our feelings don’t follow some chronology. They move and drift in unexpected ways. A smell takes us back to fifth grade in an instant. Seeing an old picture may awaken a flood of memories. This films immerses us into lyrical time through the death of a son and brother, the encounter with personal darkness, and the loss of a job.

We experience the memories and life of a family but at the same time, we experience the deep questions that plague the human heart, “God are you there?” “Do you care about us?” “How could you let this happen?”

The opening shot of the film sets this stage for this questioning with God’s response to Job’s questioning of his suffering and God’s righteousness. As Job finishes his rant against God for allowing him to suffer so completely, he asks, “Does not he see my ways
and number all my steps?” (Job 31:4). After one of Job’s friends (Elihu) speaks on and on about Job’s failure and God’s righteousness, suddenly a whirlwind interrupts and God speaks. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me” (Job 38:2-3). And then we hear the beginning of God’s response to Job, which Malick uses for his opening shot:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:4)

If we read Job 38-41, we hear God challenging Job out of the whirlwind. He never answers Job’s complaint, but he challenges Job’s assumption that he could even understand the ways of God by asking Job about the creation of the world and all manner of mysteries throughout the cosmos. “The Tree of Life” draws from Job in the opening shot, in a scene from a church sermon and in a myriad of images from the creation of the world to all manner of mysteries throughout the cosmos. Malick does not explain that he is imaging Job.

But if we simply read Job, we simply a striking parallel to many of the images that Malick chooses to show. His visuals are breathtaking, beautiful and would seem disconnected if not for the questions at the heart of a family facing death. We are thrust into the story of Job through the O’Brien family. But we are also thrust into the heart of Eden.

The title of the film confronts us with another story, a story of a garden of innocence and a story of two tree: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and life. As Alexander Schmemman explained in the “For the Life of the World,” The tree of life is pure gift and humans receive and enjoy in the goodness of God. The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is not gift. Yet humans take it. They grasp what is not gift and human history becomes a story of human grasping.

This anguish is played out in the life of Jack. He says that his mother and father wrestle within him. As he remembers and reflects on her, he rehearses a life of grace, of gift, of love, of joy. The father on the other hand, models to Jack that he has to be tough and take what is his. The two trees struggle in Jack’s heart. At one point, he takes some lingerie from a women when she is not at home and it is as though Jack has eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Suddenly, he is thrust out of the garden of Eden and comes face to face with his own darkness. He longs to return to innocence but instead mistreats his brothers, threatens his mother and tells his father that he knows the father wants to kill him. Jack is dying in his world of taking and of self hatred. He longs for a return to innocence.

He is not forsaken, but grace makes a way to restore him and his relations. As Jack’s memories of youth, of innocence and experience, of laughter and play flood his mind, we see a taste of the manifold memories from childhood that shape us, struggle within us, and resurface in the midst living.

This film is not to be watched like a puzzle to solve, but more like an unfolding encounter. We feel Jack’s joy and suffering. We lives inside the family. Yet we also encounter the mystery of a cosmos that is beyond our grasp and a Creator who is beyond that. This same Creator encircles us with grace, with wind and water and circles of love and joy and grace.

The great mourning that paralyzes Jack and his parents seems to resolve in worship. This is not a blind worship, but a letting go in trust. In series of images on a beach, we see some sort of family resolve and embrace. And then in a few images later, we see the mother opening her hands in release and possibly worship.

Malick does not try to fill in all the dots. Like the mystery of Job, he does not try to provide an answer for suffering, for death, for grieving. But he does reveal uplifted hands in apparent love and trust.

If you choose to watch this film. I would suggest approaching it like a poem. Let go of trying to solve or understand everything. Allow the images and sounds and clips of narrative to encounter you. And it may be that as you rehearse and revisit these images through memory, a richer story of life and love and trust will unfold within you.

Categories: Film

Inception in a World of Real and Unreal

July 28, 2010 3 comments

Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception

Richard Weaver wrote, “Ideas have consequences.” GK Chesterton once said (and I paraphrase), “There is a thought that brings all thought to an end.” Christopher Nolan’sInception” is a mind-bending trip through dream world upon dream world upon dream world, exploring the consequences of ideas and the power of ideas to bring our world(s) to an end.

Many of Nolan’s film wrestle with ideas about our perception, and the struggle to discern the real from the unreal. Both Batman films (Batman Begins and the Dark Knight) immerse us into a dark world where the hero (Batman) must face an ambiguous evil that disrupts the mind and turns the world upside down. In a strange way, it reminds me of 1 and 2 Kings. In his commentary on Kings, Leithart suggests that these books may really be considered wisdom books because they tell story after story where the ruler is thrust into ambiguous settings, and is called upon to make a decision.

The prime example is Solomon. Being forced to choose between two woman who both make claim to the same baby. Solomon needs wisdom to shed light in a situation where good and evil are not clearly in the light. Nolan’s films reveal characters thrust into those same murky places that confuse the mind. His characters need wisdom to know how to choose, how to act in the middle of the mess.

Ebert sees a connection between Inception and an earlier Nolan film, Memento. I agree. The story of Memento is told by a man with short term memory loss. His blind sight is our blind sight. At times, the film is disorienting as we try to make sense the story in his world. His body is covered in tattoos. Gradually, we realize that these tattoos are his memory. It is not until the end of the movie that we understand the story we’re in.

Memento tells a story backwards through bits and pieces of narrative, fleeting images, a body marked with memory. All these questions come alive in his newest film. Inception follows a man and his wife into a confusion of reality between waking and dreaming. As the lines blur, discernment about what is real and what is not fades.

There are multiple points through “Inception” when we the viewer almost lose our bearing. We are experiencing the chaotic struggle of the characters caught up in a world that intertwines fantasy with reality. While Inception delves inward toward a Jungian subconscious dream world, it explores themes that are just as real in our waking world.

The premise of the film rests on the idea that we can enter into another person’s dreams and learn ways to extract their secrets or even suggest new ideas. This is not the simple dream combat of Dreamscape from the early 80s. This dream tinkering requires a team of professionals: an architect to build the world, a druggist to control the dream state, a forger who is a master of becoming other people in dreams, a researcher who prepares the details, and of course the action man who steals the idea or in this film attempts to plant an idea.

All this inner exploring can be confusing. At one point, the viewers of the film are submerged in four different dream worlds occurring at the same time. All these worlds have been created through ideas. All these worlds have the power to  entrap, deceive and threaten life itself. These worlds are supposed to be about the inner world of dreams, but these inner worlds are not so very different from our outer world.

In the movie, they created symbolic worlds or worlds that carried and expressed meaning, even hidden meaning within a person’s soul. Our dream worlds are filled with all sorts of fascinating images and structures and people. Memory and meaning are blended in fantasy where it is difficult to discern what really real or true. But this isn’t just our dream world. In our waking world, we face the same challenge to discern the real from the unreal.

We live in a world where ideas give birth to homes, clothes, cars and entire cities. The power of a spoken idea is the power to set worlds in motion. As Weaver and Chesterton pointed out, ideas have real power, and some ideas can lead to the end of ideas, to the end of our world.

In this film, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is trying to plant an idea in a man’s mind through his dreams. He knows this can be done because he has done it before with disastrous effects. Cobb himself is a man tormented by the power of deception and guilt to twist the waking and dreaming mind into confusion and limbo.

In this film, we see how ideas can twist our perception and our ability to know the true from the false, the real from the unreal. We see how some ideas can lead to the distrust of every idea.

In his day Chesterton realized there were ideas being planted in people’s mind that would eventually spring up and cause men to question rationality itself. In other words, he saw the danger of some ideas that would lead us into such a state of confusion, we’d be trapped in a limbo.

These ideas were not planted through dreams because the real place of influence is not through our dreams but through our ears. Speech has the power to change the world. To create the world. False speech twists the world into a confusion between the real and the unreal.

Hitler built a world on speech that twisted the real and the unreal. This speech took form in bodies, buildings, books, tanks, and war. Augustine built a world on speech in submission to Christ. The words he speaks in “Confessions” and “The City of God” still resound and still take shape in lives, cities, and societies.

As a rhetorician, Augustine understood that speech touches to heart and the mind and the body. Classical rhetoric is about learning how to speak. Quintillion said that rhetoric is the “art of a good man speaking well.” Great rhetoric integrates the mind with the emotions and moves the body to act. What is often called rhetoric in our world today is simply a shell of what once was a great art, thus it is often seen as manipulative and dishonest.

As I watched Inception, I thought about the power of speech. I thought about how wrong ideas can cloud out ability to perceive our world. Our perception can be distorted by anger, hurt, pride, and self ambition. False words can cloud our ability to see what is really real. But I also thought about the power of true speech to rebuild a world that is crumbling.

Paul writes to a people in Corinth who are being seduced by an idea that suggests the physical world is unimportant and only the spiritual is of value. He sees the danger in this idea. He proclaims true speech over false speech. He challenges the distorting power of false ideas with the true idea. He proclaims gospel (good news). He proclaims resurrection: the bodily resurrection of Christ and the bodily resurrection of His people.

In so doing, he reaffirms a real world. A real material world that really matters. His words still resound in people who need the wisdom of God to make wise decisions, speak wise words and act wisely in a world that confuses the real and unreal, the significant and the trivial, the true and the false.
Categories: Film Tags: , , ,

Moon and Summer Hours

July 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Sam Rockwell in Moon

Last Friday I enjoyed a double feature, watching Moon and Summer Hours. On the surface, both films seem like worlds apart–literally. With nods to 2001 Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Solaris and a host of other sci-fi greats, Moon tells the story of relationship, survival and sacrifice through one’s struggle to survive a lonely outpost on the the moon. By contrast, Summer Hours follows the intimate interactions of French siblings as they eat and talk amidst a collection of fine art and thriving plants.

I enjoy watching two films at a time. The similarities and variations in the films raise questions that I might not have noticed in isolation.

So to paraphrase Tertullian’s biting question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?, ” I wonder aloud, “What does Moon have to do with Summer Hours?” in response, I offer a few thoughts below. Just a warning before you proceed, there are spoilers in my post. So if you haven’t seen the films and want to be surprised, you might bypass my comments.

Moon
Moon opens with commercial promising an abundance of energy for almost all people on the planet to enjoy. As it turns out, the moon provides a source of harvestable energy the planet Earth. Cut to Sam Bell, running on a treadmill with his playful, “Wake Me When It’s Quitting Time” t-shirt. As it turns out, it is almost quitting time.

Sam (Sam Rockwell) is at the end of a three-year commitment, and he’s about to wake up. There’s something about working alone for three years (and no live feed from earth), that is about to drive Sam crazy. From the bright white interior of the moonstation, the videos from earth, to the stark blackness outside the moonstation, many of the images in Moon communicate isolation.

His only companion is the moonstation robot, GERTY, who expresses his feelings via a mini-monitor with emoticons. Sam records his work and his mental state on the videocam. He is weary and ready for home. “Three years is too long for this commitment.”

On a routine mission, Sam crashes in the side of a Helium-3 harvester. We join the disorientation of Sam as he awakes in the recovery room and wonder alongside him, “How did he get there?”

Sam begins waking up to the fact that he’s not Sam. We follow Sam as he clambers across the moonstation like a baby learning to walk. He IS a baby learning to walk. He eventually discovers and rescues the other Sam, dying in the crashed moon vehicle. We puzzle alongside him, as he realizes the other Sam looks like him, has his memories and claims to be the real Sam.

The Sams gradually awake to the realization they are but clones of the original Sam, and that many more clones stand ready to replace them after a three-year interval. GERTY assists Sam in this discovery when he learns to ask GERTY the right questions.
The film turns into a beautiful exploration of Blade Runner’s question, “What does it mean to be human?” We watch the two Sam’s struggle with the bitter reality of their predicament, we also witness genuine human compassion and self-sacrifice. Sam Rockwell offers a stunning portrait of inner angst, the human tenacity of struggle for life, companionship and the tenderness between two humans.

Summer Hours

Summer Hours
Unlike the harsh visual contrast throughout Moon, Summer Hours is a visually soft film that captures the organic unity between humans and their creations in the midst of a welcoming landscape of plants and flowers and trees.

Instead of one person and one machine, we are immersed into an extended family of grandmother, children, grandchildren and a housekeeper. The film opens to children playing and running through a lush, green landscape. They are full of life, laughter and play.

Their parents reminisce, toast to life and celebrate the birthday of their mother Helene. They give her three gifts: a Philips cordless phone set, a soft afghan, and the first press of a book featuring the collection of art she has preserved during her life. Helene discusses the art collection with her son Frederic and encourages him to oversee that sale of this collection once she is gone.

After the children and their families leaves, Helene sits looking at her new phone in the twilight. This scene fades out like other key transitions in the film: the light gives way to shadows and then darkness. We since the day is ended for Helene, and it has.

As the light rises on a new, Helene is gone, and the children are deciding the fate of her estate. The film follows the gentle tension between Frederic who wants to preserve the art collection and the estate, and the other two siblings who prefer to sell it.

Life is Transition
While both films differ in style, substance and setting, I think they both explore the challenge of transition or change from different angles. Moon reveals a world that has tried to use clones instead of people to power their moonstation. Yet the clones are always trapped in a three-year interval, and they are exterminated after three-years.

Those who manage the moonstation have tried to create an endless three-year cycle to power their programs. In one sense, Moon is a sci-fi film about using technology to stop or resist change. The clones are expendable.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy suggested that when the parent refuses to speak to their child (the new generation) and chooses to preserve only the past, they have become decadent. Decadence always requires the sacrifice of the next generation.

This world has come up with a convenient form of sacrifice: clones. One problem. The clones awake to this dark truth, and like all humans fight to live. But I would suggest that it is not the drive to live that ultimately reveals their humanity.

Both Sams struggle with this threat to their existence. Yet instead of viewing one another as competitors for survival, they discover companionship. They play ping-pong together. They share their duplicates memories with one another. And ultimately both men are willing to sacrifice themselves for the other.

In the end, the older Sam convinces the younger Sam to escape to earth while he sacrifices his dreams and hopes of survival. As the film ends, a reporter’s voice talks about the newly arrived clone on planet earth, and there is a sense that the old Sam has sacrificed his life to change the future.

In this act, he fulfills what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy suggests is the power of change, the willingness to die/sacrifice to create the future.

While Summer Hours tells a tale about art and family and French culture, it is also telling a tale about change. In the first scene, children are running across the lawn and through different settings. They are in transition.

Virtually ever scene shows the main character going through doors, moving around, walking from inside to outside and so on. The film pulses with constant motion of people as well as the continuous interplay of light and shadows across windows panes and more.

The art collection is divided up, sold to private collectors and museums and given to some French museums (to reduce the tax burden). The art pieces that seemed part of the family background are decontextualized in the museum and sadly seem a bit lifeless.

The family is changing. Two of the siblings, Adrienne and Jeremie have chosen to leave France and building lives in America and Asia. Sylvie, Frederic’s daughter, is transitioning from childhood into adulthood. While Frederic seems a bit wistful, he adjusts to the transitions.

The film is lyrical movement of family and people and even objects in transition. While there is a sense of loss, there is also a sense of hope at the world ahead. In the final scene, Sylvie has a party at the old house before it is sold. Instead of an image of complete teenage debauchery, we see the old house come back to life and people laugh and dance and talk and move all through the house.

The camera follows Sylvie as she wanders through the crowd finding her boyfriend. Soon they are wandering through the fields. She pauses and laments the loss of this house that her grandmother had told her would always be there. Then she and her boyfriend climb over the wall of the estate and playfully run off into the trees.

In both films, the future breaks into the present in unexpected ways. In Summer Hours it is bittersweet, yet playful and lovingly intimate as a family learns to step forward into a new world. In Moon, change means sacrifice and death for one man so that another man could live. Both films continue to play upon my imagination as I think about the pain and joy of stepping into tomorrow.

An Education (in relationships)

February 26, 2010 3 comments

Kelly and I wandered into “An Education” last Saturday night armed only with a Rotten Tomato rating of 95%, and a preview we watched on the iPhone. We walked out of the theatre enraptured by the magic of film. Great script, great costuming, great soundtrack, and the acting was pure joy. For 99 minutes, we were caught up in teen social world of 1960s Twickenham, Middlesex.

On one level, the basic story seems fairly simple: a precocious young lady is seduced by an older man and suffers the pain of heartbreak (while getting an education). This moral story plays out in homes across the globe every day. The film director weaves this simple plot into an aesthetically fulfilling work that captures the imagination and the heart. I’ll leave it to real film critics to explore the elements of film and subtleties of the plot. I want to briefly comment on the education I experienced in relationships (as seen from a Trinitarian perspective). The sets of relations that captured my attention include Jenny and David (the older man), Jenny and Miss Stubbs, and Jenny and her father.

The transforming power of an outsider
As Jenny stands soaking in a surprise rainstorm, David drives up in his shiny sports car to rescue her Cello and eventually her from the rain. In her mind, he really does rescue her from the rain. At one point in the film, she says that her life was all drab and dreary before David. She even suggests that he may be the one person in the world who is truly alive.

As the tale proceeds, we come to discover her initial assessment as mistaken. David appears to be a man who creates dreary and drab lives for others. He certainly brings grief and pain into her life. And yet, he really does bring her in from the rain. In this pairing and Jenny and David, I see a glimpse of the good and bad of human relationships. We live day after day after day in routines and patterns and habits. Then someone new enters our life.

This person might be a romantic interest, but they also might be a new friend, a new boss, a new co-worker, a new child. Their presence in our life breaks the cycles, the patterns, the habits. A new relation may have the power to transform our whole world. Suddenly our story collides with another story, as we talk and spend time with this new person, they may cause us to think new ways, try new things, create new patterns. In David’s case, his intentions were hurtful and manipulative. He violated Jenny and her family on multiple levels, and yet, his presence still changed her and her family, and possibly opened horizons that previously seemed closed.

Now this may sound off, and I am willing to be challenge, but I would suggest that even people who wrong us and may cause us pain could still ultimately initiate changes that are for the better. Their action and intentions may not be for our ultimate good, but they still could open new horizons in our lives that ultimately enrich us.

I am introducing an “argument through the back door” so to speak. Alvin Plantinga responded to the problem of evil in our world by suggesting that it is possible for a good and all-powerful Creator to create a world where evil exists. While I am probably botching his argument, I understand part of it like this. The presence of evil does not necessarily mean that the world is ultimately. We cannot see the final score. But it is possible that a good and all power God could create a world that allows evil if it allowed the world to become even better (if moral goodness requires free moral creatures).

Now that I’ve probably messed up his main idea, let me just say that presence of another person in our lives even when they may do us harm (intentionally or not) can still bring ultimate benefit in our lives. So while loving friends and lovers may cause pain, I enjoy an enrichment as well. Obviously, Jenny learns that her precocious intellect could not prevent her from making serious mistakes in the way of relationships. She learns there is a real cost of suffering for her mistakes. But she may also discovers new eyes to see her drab world as more beautiful than she previously imagined. It is not David’s gift to her, but rather God’s gift that is part of the fabric of human relationships.

Seeing the Old in New Ways
This is realized when Jenny enters Miss Stubbs house, pleading for help to prepare for college (after she abandoned school in pursuit of David). Up to that point in the film, Miss Stubbs appeared as a tragic figure. She taught teenage girls classic texts and ideas, but she appeared sad and empty (as though life had passed her by). When she warns Jenny of the danger of this new found young man, Jenny responds with hurtful words about Miss Stubbs’ sad and empty life.

But then Jenny experiences the pain of deception and betrayal. With bridges burned, she cannot return to her old school. Her prospects look dim. She visits Miss Stubbs’ at home with hopes of finding tutoring help. Jenny notices Miss Stubbs piano and the beauty of her home. After her painful encounter with David, Jenny can finally see the gift and life of Miss Stubbs in a new way. Her blind eyes have been opened. (see note 1 at bottom).

Weakness and Love in Relation
In the relationship between Jenny and her parents, a very different angle of light caught my eye. The vulnerability of her parents and the challenge of loving and protecting those nearest to us. Throughout the film, Jenny’s father (a humorous figure) is a bit demanding and closed-minded to the outer world beyond their home. But then he encounters David and is seduced right alongside Jenny. He is convinced that David is good for Jenny.

He fails Jenny. But in failing, he is forced to find new words (new articulations of love) for Jenny. He finds words to confess to his beloved daughter that he is weak, and he has not always made the right decisions but his heart is for her prospering. In other words, in his weak and stumbling speech, Jenny’s father gives her a blessing of his love and dedication that the story does not reveal at any other point. In the depths of failure, her father is freed to become a truer, more authentic father.

In this sweet, tragic, funny and beautiful film, I behold images. I behold persons. Persons created in the image of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. People created to love and be loved. People created to live in relationships of real sharing, real giving, yes real suffering, but also real glory. In the film, my eyes are also opened like Jenny, and I walk out finding new ways to love and be grateful for all the wondrous people that I have been privileged to know.

Note 1 – While their may have been other ways to this newfound vision that didn’t involve the seduction by David, this is the particular path that Jenny walks down. And even in the midst of this path, there is a hope. I am not confusing this hope with the hope of Jesus Christ in the gospel. Yet as a person who believes in that sure hope in Christ, I also see a certain hope revealed in Jesus about the nature of His creation. According to John, we are created in and through Jesus (by the Father and through the Holy Spirit). So as a Christian, I under that all human are created in and through the relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit. Relationship is not an extension of who we are, it is the very essence of who we are (Christian, non-Christian, nice, mean, and so on).

In all human relationships there is exchange not necessarily rooted in a selfish social exchange but in an essential social exchange. Relational exchange is at the very heart of who we are. So even when we know the very real pain of failed human relationship, we may still be able to find transformative elements in that exchange that were/are positive.

Sunshine Cleaning, Pearl Diver, I’ve Loved You For So Long

February 2, 2010 1 comment
Elsa Zylberstein and Kristin Scott Thomas in I've Love You For So Long

Elsa Zylberstein and Kristin Scott Thomas in I've Love You For So Long

In the last few months, I’ve watched three films that explore the relationship between sisters who are coping with a death in the background. I’ve Loved You For So Long, Pearl Diver and Sunshine Cleaning all tells bittersweet stories of relationship, love and profound loss. Often when I watch a film, I look at the film against a backdrop of another film to help highlight contrasts and similarities of the varying stories.

I’ve Loved You For So Long is a French that begins with one sister being released from prison. Shot in muted colors the cinematography captures the inward grief of the Juliette Fontaine. Played superbly by Kristen Scott Thomas, Juliette exemplifies a life turned in upon itself. Her face reads grief, emptiness, isolation, and the colors and images reinforce this overshadowing sadness that closes her heart to life. This aching ex-convict rebuilds her life in the midst of the lives of her sister’s family, including a husband, a child, and mute grandfather.

In the conversations with her sister, we discover a deeply strained relationship across many years. We discover that the parents considered Juliette as dead and no longer even spoke of her. We discover the reason for her imprisonment: murder. She killed her child. This memory haunts every conversation, every relationship, every place. She walks in a world of death. Even though all her relationships are strained, we watch as a mute grandfather and a little child bring her back to life and unveil the secret her child’s murder. I won’t disclose the ending, but the story resolves in a deeply poignant way that reinforces the beauty of human life.

Pearl Diver also depicts two sisters reuniting after years of separation. Prison does not separate them, but a murder does. The murder of their Mennonite mother sends the young girls along two very different paths in life. Hannah Eberly leaves the Mennonite faith of her youth, becomes a writer, and appears to life an adult life of struggle, haunted by painful memories of her youth. Rebecca Miller, the older sister, embraces the faith and lifestyle of her Mennonite upbringing, and spends her adult life seeking for a pardon of the man who is convicted of killing her mom. Hannah consistently opposes her sisters actions and fights for his imprisonment to the end of his life.

Rebecca’s daughter nearly dies after falling into farming equipment. This tragic accident reunites the sisters, and flames shared memories of childhood. As they seek to help Rebecca’s daughter find treatment for the wound in her head, they must also face the wound in their own heads. Hannah writes a novel that exposes the brutal murder of her mother, as Rebecca responds in horror that ancient secrets are coming to light, she enters into the light of remembering. Once again, I won’t unravel the mystery of the mother’s murder, but in right remembering, there is healing for all.

Last weekend, I watched Sunshine Cleaning, a tale of two sisters cleaning up crime scenes while remembering the bloody scene of their own mother’s suicide. In this tragicomic tale, both sisters are scarred by the death. Neither is married, both are used by men (and the film follow a popular Hollywood trend of showing men exploit both women sexually), and both women are struggling to survive–financially as well as emotionally. They embark upon a new path of crime scene clean-up. While the film has a few light moments, the tragic overwhelms the comic, and the sunshine vanishes in a cloud of unresolved pain. While this sad tale is true for many people, I think it fails to draw upon the power of narrative and memory to find resolution. The characters live in the cloud of their mother’s death but they never really face the memory and they never find resolution. As the film ends, I have no reason to expect that they won’t continue to be used and exploited by men.

This trio of films highlights the power of shared memories and stories that envelope all our relationships. We might not face the grieve of murders, but we all have memories that haunt us our relationships and our vision of the world. The films reveal the power of memories and the power to retell our stories and recast our memories. The first two films in particular shine light light into the potential power of telling our stories to one another and listening to one another.

As I think about the sad and beautiful longing in these films for right relationships and better worlds, I think the role of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels. Jesus tells his disciples that one reason the Spirit comes is to help them remember. In fact, Hans Urs Von Balthasar goes so far as to say that “retrospective remembering and anamnesis (loss of forgetfulness) constitutes the basis of understanding anything.” He talks about how the disciples could not see Jesus when he was in front of them. But in remembering, they could finally see him by the power of the Spirit as the Son of God.

Remembering plays a vital role in the Old and New Testament. The ancient Hebrews forget who they are while serving in slavery to Pharaoh. But God remembers them. In resurrecting them, he will tell them again and again to “remember.”  They are to re-member, re-hearse, re-tell the stories of deliverance, the stories of creation, the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

In the New Testament, Jesus teaches his disciples to remember by the power of His Spirit. But this remembering is not simply looking back, but it is re-telling or re-calling past events in light of Christ. The disciples on the Road to Emmaus learn how to remember the Old Testament stories in light of Christ. In so doing, they realize all the events of the Old Testament are pointing to Jesus.

I would suggest that all three films have tapped into the pain of forgetfulness in human relationships and human communities. We’ve forgotten who we are. We’ve forgotten what binds us together. We’ve remembered wrongly and in ways that will further divide and not unite. The first two films reveal that remembering often constitutes relearning our history through a new light. But the last film shows our tendency to face painful memory and turn away without resolve. I fear so much in our world call us to distraction as a means for dealing with our pains, our struggles, our brokenness. Distractions offers no lasting hope. But deep memory, especially memory in light of the healing power of the Holy Sprit can restore and heal old relationships. We may still struggle , we may still limp, but we move toward hope in light of Christ.

Miracle at St. Anna

August 29, 2009 Leave a comment
Miracle at St. Anna Movie Poster

Miracle at St. Anna Movie Poster

It’s not black history month, but I can still talk about black history. Tonight I watched Miracle at St. Anna. James McBride and Spike Lee have given a treasure to all Americans that tells a story about the Buffalo Soldiers in WWII The 92nd division (all black soldiers) which has often been portrayed in a negative light (if portrayed at all) is given a wondrous and beautiful portrayal through a small band of soldiers. While the actual story is fictionalized, it is a story worth telling and does reflect element of the period.

James McBride has been studying this period, talking to the men who fought, and listening to their stories. Even while experiencing racial prejudice back home and abroad (from their white officers), these men laid down their lives for America and fought for all of the free world.

Thank you! I’m grateful for the service of these men and am glad to hear more of their stories.

We need to tell the hidden stories of Americans from all races. And I black history is not history for blacks. It is bringing to light stories and people that the greater culture often neglects. So I encourage all Americans to read more and learn more of the stories of blacks through our history.

Over the last few months, I’ve been writing a play on the Harlem Renaissance and was amazed to learn about the “Harlem Hellfighters,” an all black regiment in WWI who not only served heroically but introduced jazz to Europe (under the leadership of the regimental band leader James Reese Europe.

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