Wednesday, January 05, 2022

The Power of the Dog: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 165 plus films later, here is the review for December 2021.

The Power of the Dog
Reviewed by Steve Taylor

After a twelve-year silence, New Zealand director, Jane Campion, plays again. Acclaimed for her work on The Piano, Campion takes us to 1920’s Montana. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) are brothers. Strikingly different, they share the lonely task of raising cattle on their parents’ ranch. Tensions are heightened when George marries, bringing Rose (Kirsten Dunst) to the family homestead.

A star cast offers powerful performances. Highlights include Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the talented, yet grief-stricken Phil, and Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Rose’s enigmatic son.

Amid a star cast, the films’ most important character is never seen. In a cowboy world of word of few words, the death twenty-five years ago of ranchhand Bronco Henry is a grief that refuses to be forgotten. It is intriguing to watch a film haunted by the main character’s absence, the unprocessed grief a festering wound, demanding attention.

The film is based on a novel by Thomas Savage. In books, words provide interior insight into motives. In films, the inner monologue can either be verbalised or visualised. Or, as in The Power of the Dog, a lack of words becomes a deliberate tool that deepens mystery and builds suspense.

In 1920’s Montana, anthrax is a killer, deadly to cows and humans. In a scene-setting cattle drive, a dead cow draws the attention of Phil and his faithful cattle dog. It wasn’t until 1937 that Max Sterne developed a vaccine. While this new vaccine was to bring immediate good news for humans working with cattle, its’ development was a few years after the movie’s final dramatic scenes.

The movies’ title is a quoting of Christian Scripture. In a final dramatic scene, Peter reads the words from a Funeral Order of the Service. Psalm 22:20 become the last words spoken in the movie: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”

Psalm 22 is a Psalm of lament. The hearer is invited to share in the experiences of a man needing deliverance, a person surrounded by enemies like prowling dogs (verse 16).

In history, the Christian church has connected Psalm 22 with the death of Jesus. In the drama of the cross, Jesus’ last words include the voicing of verse 1: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Yet in the drama of Jesus’ death, his final words also include a prayer that enemies might be forgiven.

The crucifixion thus presents a compelling contrast with the dramatic scenes that end The Power of the Dog. What emerges in the life and death of Jesus is a radically different understanding of justice. Isolated like Rose, Jesus offers a cry of forsakenness rather than a cry for rescue. Mocked like Peter, Jesus places the demand for justice in the hands of God. Such radical trust challenges the human seeking of deliverance, so dramatically enacted in The Power of the Dog.

(For those placed in Covid-19 red traffic lights, The Power of the Dog is available on Netflix from 1 December).

Posted by steve at 03:38 PM | Comments (0)

Friday, November 26, 2021

squid game – a theological film review

I sent off a film review (The Power of the Dog) to Touchstone magazine today. In 2005, the editor rang and asked me to theologically review a film of interest to their readers. 500 words please. And offered to pay! The editor liked the review so much, he asked again next month.

It’s now my 15th year of film reviewing. 11 reviews a year. 500 words a film review. Now over 82,000 words! Writing to a deadline month by month has been such a wonderful challenge. Viewing a film theologically, yet needing to be respectful of the art. This month, it was the realisation that the title – The Power of the Dog – was a quote from Scripture (Psalm 22:20). Last month, with Squid Game, a co-written review with my daughter, pondering the harrowing of hell …

Squid Game
Reviewed by Kayli Taylor and Steve Taylor

Squid Game is a survival drama television series streaming on Netflix. Hundreds of cash-strapped contestants compete in children’s games for a winner take all prize. Yet, the stakes are deadly. Directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, set in South Korea, it has become a Netflix sensation. Rated R16, it is a dark and compelling mediation on contemporary life.

Central to Squid Game are children’s games. Episode 1 centres around Red Light, Green Light, also known as Statues. Participants run on the call of “Green Light” and must freeze on the call of “Red Light.” Any movement during “Red Light” results in elimination. At this point, the story shifts, and it becomes evident that in Squid Game, this children’s game involves real-life survival.

Children’s games should evoke the sounds of gentle laughter. In Squid Game, they illuminate the worst qualities of human character, holding a mirror on the desperation that results from lack of choice.

The lack of choice is brilliantly depicted. Participants begin each game by walking through a hallway of staircases. Painted in pink, yellow and green, it is similar to Dutch artist M. C. Escher’s famed Relativity. At first glance, Escher’s woodcut suggests an idyllic community in which participants enjoy life. Yet all the figures are featureless and identical in dress. The seven staircases are positioned in ways that evoke feelings of being trapped. None of the figures can move freely or escape the image.

The participants in Squid Game are similarly featureless and trapped. They are numbered, not named. Each has been selected based on an assessment of their debt. Yet each number is a person.

Episode 2, intriguingly titled “Hell,” shines a light on the lives of individual numbers. The main character, 456 (played by Lee Jung-jae) is a man caught in a gambling addiction. Number 199 (played by Anupam Tripathi) is a Pakistani migrant caught in an exploitive working environment. Number 067 (played by HoYeon Jung) is desperately trying to reconnect with her family stuck in North Korea – a reunion that comes with heavy costs. Hell exists in the here and now as the circumstances of life’s realities and the consequences of desperate choices play out in human relationships.

A masked man controls Squid Game, watching the carnage from a distance. The notion of an omnipotent being, usually male, controlling the game played by lesser mortals is a familiar image of the Christian God.

Where is God in Squid Game? Christian theology argues that in Jesus, God refuses to watch from a distance. Instead, God gambles by entering the game of life. Christ becomes a number, participating to repay the debts of those trapped by their human choices. An unknown fourth-century sermon describes the events of Easter as God being “swallowed” by Hades. This swallowing occurs so that Christ might search the very depths of human hell. Could God take the number of another human player inside the game of life, even to death?

Kayli Taylor is a Masters student at the University of Otago and researches queer feminist social histories.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is author of “First Expressions” (2019) and Director AngelWings Ltd, resourcing churches in mission.

Posted by steve at 07:58 PM

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Deliver us from evil: theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 160 plus films later, here is the review for July 2021.

Deliver us from evil
Reviewed by Steve Taylor

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil – The Lords Prayer

Evil is a terrible thing to watch. Deliver us from evil, made by Korean director, Hong Won-Chan, subtitled in English, is filmed across Japan, Thailand, and Korea’s cultural diversity and complex histories. Former Korean special agent Kim In-nam (Hwang Jung-min) accepts one last job to find a kidnapped nine-year-old. Arriving in Thailand, he finds himself followed by his past, including Ray (Lee Jung-jae), seeking revenge for the assassination of his twin brother. The result is a rapid spiral into violence, torture and revenge killing. Yui (Park Jung-min), a trans-female, provides humour as she is paid to guide and translate.

While watching evil is terrible, pretending sin does not exist is a travesty. Vulnerable children deserve to play in safety after school. Trafficking in children and organ harvesting must be exposed.

The presence of evil presents challenges; experientially, to those who suffer and intellectually, to claims of God as loving and powerful. It is tempting to consign ideas of sin and evil to a premodern universe. We might tap along to “Into my Arms”, joining Nick Cave (The Boatman’s Call (2011 Remastered Version)) in singing “I don’t believe in an interventionist God”. Yet, the atrocities humans commit, whether ancient or modern, require some form of intervention.

The Lord’s Prayer is another response. The well-worn words turn the Sermon on the Mount’s beaut attitudes into lived reality. The Prayer names the reality of sin. Evil is something to watch for. The words Jesus’ taught his disciples recognise the personal and the systemic, the individual lure of temptation and the malevolent power of unexplained systems.

Prayers require an answer. Deliver us from evil (the movie) provides two different responses to the tragedy that is human trafficking. In-nam leaves a trail of bodies. The value of sacrifice, mixed with the use of violence, has been one way of understanding Christianity. Substitutionary atonement, poorly applied, can turn Jesus’ body broken on the cross into some sort of Divine revenge killing for human sin. But violence, even if sacrificial, should have no place among those who pray the beaut attitudes.

Deliverance can also occur through random acts of kindness. Yui is delightful. Initially paid as a guide, she demonstrates a depth of love. Wide-eyed, out of her depth, her persistent presence becomes essential for the redemption of nine-year-old Yoo-min. Wide-eyed kindness is another way of understanding Jesus. In the somewhat foolish act of riding a donkey on Palm Sunday, the human temptation to follow a crowd and the presence of evil is exposed even in religious communities. Jesus’ actions, mixed with his persistence unto death on the cross, form a new community. Those who see evil find new ways to care for each other. Such can be the wide-eyed hope for all who dare to watch and pray for deliverance from evil.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is author of First Expressions (2019) and writes widely in theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 08:39 PM

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The First Cow: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 160 plus films later, here is the review for June 2021.

The First Cow
Reviewed by Steve Taylor

The First Cow is slow. Like cattle chewing cud, the movie rewards the patient viewer. Beautifully plotted by director Kelly Reichardt, the mix of humanity and humour offer an absorbing meditation on the nature of friendship.

The beginning tells the end. Up a river in the Pacific Northwest, a ship passes. It takes time and little changes. Up that same river, in centuries passed, trappers and traders have passed. Based on Half Life, a novel by Jonathan Raymond, The First Cow reveals the complexity of pioneer ambition.

The land is bountiful. Gold, beaver and the abundance of salmon offer opportunities aplenty. Amid such possibility, what to grow? Yet how to start? Because while dreams are free, getting ahead takes capital and class. Trade requires networks, more available to those already connected. New ventures take cash in advance, less risky for those who already have security.

Pioneer society is riven by class. English gentry has servants, while ships’ captains punish life with death. In contrast, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is an orphan, learning to bake as an indentured labourer in Boston. King-Lu (Orion Lee) is Chinese, on the run from a charge of murder. Across cultures, Cookie and King-Lu form an unlikely friendship. They lack the cash, but as partners find themselves urging each other toward risk.

Oppressed by class, they offer each other trust and loyalty. In a sexualised society, a movie starring platonic friendship between two men, built on respect and partnership, is an oddity.

Theologically, The First Cow brings to mind Jesus’ invitation to friendship. God’s offer of friendship subverts hierarchies of servanthood. Trust, loyalty and mutuality are a radical way to relate to the divine. The cultural differences between Cooke and King-Lu remind us that relationships can be based on respect rather than sexual attraction or social media likes.

Historically, the Christian tradition has seen cultivating friendship as a spiritual discipline. Writing in the eleventh century (“Spiritual Friendship” in Ellen Charry, Inquiring After God: Classic and Contemporary Readings), Aelred, abbot of an English monastery, distinguished between the intimacy of friendship and that of sexuality. Aelred celebrated fun and sharing, arguing that we know God better as we share time, offer tact and draw on the strength of others. In the giving and receiving of life, dignity is possible.

For Aelred, friendship demanded time. Friends should be chosen carefully. Loyalty needs testing, as do intentions and discretion. Only once trust is tried will a friendship offer spiritual growth. For Aelred, such friendships, although few, will be lifelong.

Hence friendship defines the spiritual life. Indeed, greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). This is a way to faith in which the love and loyalty of God on earth is clarified. It explains the slow burn of The First Cow, King-Lu’s final words, “I’ve got you,” and the movie’s beginning, which explains the side-by-side ending.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is author of First Expressions (2019) and writes widely in theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 09:17 AM

Monday, May 17, 2021

Easter in Art

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 160 plus films later, here is the review for May 2021.

Easter in Art
Reviewed by Steve Taylor

“That Jesus film,” said the cashier, somewhat suspiciously as we requested tickets to Easter in Art. Outside, a southerly drizzle left me pondering if the darkness of Good Friday included rain. Upstairs, the Dunedin architects’ gathered, their noisy networking loud enough to disturb the opening credits of Phil Grabsky’s Easter in Art.

“That Jesus film” is actually art history. Since 2009, director Phil Grabsky has brought art and artists to cinema screens across 61 countries. Easter in Art takes this art history approach to visual portrayals of the Jesus story.

Four different voices read the four gospel narratives. A soundtrack marks shifts in mood, from Palm Sunday’s courage, through the betrayals, love and suffering of Holy Week, to the redeeming surprise of Easter Sunday. Slow camera panning of art, from medieval to modern, is spliced with interviews with leading art historians. Easter, we are told, is the most illustrated story in the Western tradition.

Opening and closing scenes highlight how profoundly multi-sensory is the Christian faith. An Easter gathering, likely Orthodox, proclaims that Christ is risen. The words are surrounded by icons and incense. Candles illuminate statues, while bells and music invite listening and singing. Worship includes the bodily actions of walking in pilgrimage, standing to sing and making the signs of the cross. Sights, smells, sounds, touch and taste: all are engaged in the Jesus story.

The art history commentary clarifies the participatory nature of faith. Viewing art is not a spectator sport. Instead, Easter in Art outlines how art positions the viewer as a participant. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper adorned the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Refectory originates from the Latin word “to remake.” The actions of Jesus “remake” the everyday activities of eating with others. Ruben’s Descent from the Cross was created for an altar in Antwerp Cathedral. As the faithful gather, they are invited to imagine carrying in love the body of Christ. The Isenheim Altarpiece was first displayed in the Monastery of St. Anthony, which specialized in hospital work. The sick suffered not alone, but accompanied by “that suffering Jesus.”

The result is a checklist for preacher and hearers. Sermons and worship are for participants, not spectators. Seeing “that Jesus” can remake us, changing how we eat and act together. Hearing about “that Jesus” should connect with the human experience of courage, suffering, love, and redemption.

Next Easter, you could download the Easter story in Art (here). If you are preparing to preach, you could purchase John Drury’s Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and Their Meanings or Richard Harries’ The Passion in Art. If you want a global Jesus, ponder the twelve images in “Searching for a Jesus Who Looks More Like Me” (New York Times 10 April, 2020) or Rev Dr Wayne Te Kaawa’s “Jesus Christ meets Ihu Karaiti.” Each, in different ways, invite “that Jesus” to remake us, not as watchers but as participants in a global story of suffering, love, courage and redemption.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is author of First Expressions (2019) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 12:15 PM

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Cousins: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 160 plus films later, here is the review for April 2021.

Cousins
Reviewed by Steve Taylor

Cousins, directed by Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith, provides a tactile, immersive experience of a bi-cultural Aotearoa. Cinema is often a visual experience. Cousins uses closeups of the visual to invite immersion. Hands holding feathers from a pillow fight release childhood memories, hands braiding hair image the work of whakapapa.

The lives of three cousins – Māta, Makareta, Missy – offer three experiences of colonisation and the dispossession that results. Māta is stolen, forced adoption stripping away her connections to land and family. Cousins follows her through forced adoption, schoolyard bullying, work and loveless relationships. Eventually homeless, her mind locked up by multiple griefs, she wanders Wellington. Her life will personalise many a case that will be heard by the current Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care

Makareta becomes a lawyer, prosecuting the legal justice made law through Te Tiriti. All the time, she searches for Māta. Missy remains near the family marae. Protecting the whenua, Cousins opens with her phoning Makareta for legal advice as surveyors plot a new motorway through Māori owned land.

These three lives, imagined by writer Patricia Grace (Cousins), are historicised through clever use of historic footage. Makareta’s father sails to his death as part of the 28th Māori Battalion leaving for Europe. Māta’s grief absorbs her as news of the 1975 Land March blares on TV. Māta is adrift on Wellington streets as the Foreshore and Seabed Hikoi of 2004 marches by. Cousins might be fiction, but it offers an immersive weaving with the experiences of many in Aotearoa.

If you are teaching the Bible to children, Cousins suggests you tread carefully. Racist interpretations, that mis-apply a traditional Catechetical Formula, are delightfully exposed. The ancestors are “not strange gods.” Rather, they are “just ugly,” announces Missy, as Māta mis-applies her Catholic orphanage Sunday School teaching in her first encounter with the tekoteko (ancestor) carved on the roof top of the wharenui.

If you’re speaking of the cross this Easter, Cousins offers a powerful portrayal of atonement. In choosing to remain near the marae, Missy becomes a female Christ-figure. In a moment of family drama (seeking to avoid spoilers), she takes initiative to absorb the whakamā (shame) of her family. She acts not as a substitutionary atonement but to re-make broken promises. Shame is as crippling as guilt, particularly in cultures that value community. Missy’s actions restore identity and result in new relationship. She follows Jesus, who in crucifixion, took our shame and in resurrection, re-made our broken promises. Hence we find ourselves invited to God’s wedding feast every communion. Hence Cousins offers theological gifts as we approach the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.

It is no wonder then, that Cousins ends with himene (hymns). After the credits have rolled, and the cinema is dark, amid the emotions wrought by the desolations of colonisation, the chords of “Whakaaria Mai” (How Great Thou Art) begin to sound. Not matter how dark, in God’s grace there is always the possibility of praise. Such is the gift of Cousins.

Posted by steve at 06:51 PM

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Fatima: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 155 plus films later, here is the review for October 2020.

Fatima
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Fatima is a movie for the faithful. Directed by Marco Pontecorvo, it tells the story of ten-year-old Lúcia (Stephanie Gil) and her two young cousins, Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) and Francisco (Jorge Lamelas). They report a visitation from Mary, the mother of God. She promises to return monthly, with words of comfort and prediction. Children can be impressionable. Would you believe a child?

In devout Portugal, news of future visits from Mary, attract the masses. Month by month, the crowds gather. Some 70,000 are present for what was the final reported visitation on October 13, 1917. What happened is known as “The Miracle of the Sun.” Lúcia asks Mary for a miracle. Many in the crowd reported seeing the sun spin three times. Each rotation lasted three or four minutes, casting rainbow coloured light across those gathered. Others in the crowd saw nothing. Who would you believe?

In a country racked by war, the voice of suffering is ever-present. Some 12,000 Portuguese troops died during World War I, while civilian deaths due to famine and flu exceeded 220,000. The mother who prayed the rosary for her son to be safe becomes the one who yells in grief as Lucia walks past her door. When Mary speaks of world peace to a child, would you believe?

The voice of religion is heard through the village priest, Father Ferreira (Joaquim de Almeida). During the first decades of the twentieth century, a secularising government placed the church under intense pressure. Clergy were imprisoned, seminaries closed and religious orders suppressed. If there is a time for every activity under the sun, then when is the time for keeping a low profile and when is the time to believe a child? In a number of touching scenes, the potential of saying the rosary to generate peaceful protest is clearly visible.

The voice of the sceptic is heard through Professor Nichols (Harvey Keitel). The year is 1989, and in the name of research, the academic professor visits the now elderly Lucia. Why do divine apparitions always conform to the iconography of the culture in which they appear? Why would stigmata appear on the palms of the hands when it is now known that Roman crucifixion involved the binding of the wrists? These visits are a skilful piece of plot development. Over several scenes, the events of 1917 are given room to breathe. As the present interrogates the past, the space for intellectual doubt is held. In the face of secular scepticism, would you believe a child?

What Fatima lacked was the voice of development. In a poignant moment, Lucia believes Mary is telling her to learn to read. An illiterate ten-year-old, tending sheep rather than attending school, suggests a peasant economy. Is organised religion a force for progress? Or is it the opiate of the people, suppressing women and children in patriarchy and poverty?

Fatima rewards but slowly. Over time, you realise you are looking at life through the eyes of a child. If you were that child, would you believe?

Posted by steve at 08:36 PM

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Radioactive: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 150 plus films later, here is the review for September 2020.

Radioactive
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Radioactive is the illuminating story of human brilliance. Brilliance shines from the science of Madame Curie (Rosamund Pike). Living in Paris, she became in 1903 the first woman to win a Nobel prize, for discovering radioactivity. The first ever woman appointed to as professor at the University of Paris, in 1911, she became the first (and only) woman to win a second Nobel prize, for the discovery of polonium and radium.

Radioactive illuminates not only her brilliance but equally her humanity. Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska, she lost her mother aged ten to tuberculosis and her husband, Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), in a tragic accident. Born Polish, she experienced sexism and xenophobia, at times cruelly scapegoated by the populist press in France.

Radioactive draws from the graphic novel by Lauren Redniss (Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout) and is directed by Iranian-born French woman Marjane Satrapi. Perhaps it is the gift of a migrant, to tenderly illuminate the corrosive impact of causal racism and a xenophobic public.

Before directing, Satrapi had gained critical acclaim for her autobiographical novels Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. Indeed, a feature of Radioactive is the attention paid to the visual in storytelling. While sequences like the woman aflame in the second meeting between Maria and Pierre add meaning, other visual sequences offer an overworked hyperrealism that distracts from the unfolding drama.

The ethics of making are central to any dramatic telling of radiation. Science has a human side, and in a final sequence, Maria walks through humanity’s future. She enters a future room in which she glimpses the radioactivity she discovers making good, in the cure of cancer. She then enters rooms in which radiation is making bad, killing tens of thousands at Hiroshima, causing hundreds of thousands to be evacuated at Chernobyl. These ending sequences invite a theological reflection on the ethics of making.

For Christianity, making is never neutral. Things, as well as humans, can always be converted. In Isaiah 2:4, swords can be beaten into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks. Such is the vision of God, as military hardware is redeemed into agricultural assistance.

A similar vision occurs in Deuteronomy 19:1-13. Handmade axe heads can kill. Things made for good – to cut wood – can make for bad – a neighbour unintentionally killed. In response, God’s people are instructed to make again. The love of God converts an eye for an eye into the making of cities of sanctuary. Things made are never neutral. Yet a city well made can transform the corrosive impact of scapegoating.

Such ancient visions have inspired contemporary makers. Recently in Sweden, Andreas Vural turned the metal from seized illegal guns into sets of wireless headphones. The Megatons to Megawatts Program dismantled nuclear weapons, making them into civilian electric power stations. Over twenty years, as much as ten per cent of the electricity produced in the United States was generated from the equivalent of 20,008 made in Russia nuclear warheads. Makers can transform. It is a vision in which human brilliance is dignified and each of us are capable of making, whether for good or bad.

Posted by steve at 11:22 AM

Monday, August 31, 2020

The High Note: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 150 plus films later, here is the review for August 2020.

The High Note
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“Everyone’s a star in our town, It’s just your light gets dimmer.”
lyrics from California (There Is No End To Love) (There Is No End to Love) by U2

Advertised as a romantic comedy, The High Note offered a light-hearted post-Lockdown return to the cinema. The slow drift toward another manufactured Hollywood Sunset Strip ending is surprisingly dimmed by the arrival of ancient, Biblical wisdom.

The High Note is a 2020 American comedy-drama film directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by Flora Greeson. Set in California, life is a backdrop of palms, pools, and parties, in which everyone is filled with dreams, scripts, and songs.

Like so many Hollywood dreams, The High Note begins in a music studio. By night, Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson), is making music. By day, she is a personal assistant to Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross).

Boasting twelve Grammy’s, Grace Davis embodies diva, with fabulous clothes, private jets, and extravagant parties. But the light of every star in Tinseltown is always slowly fading. This sets up a career tension. Does Grace make another album of new music? Or does she sink into Vegas, a star slowly drawing down on her fading celebrity?

David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) provides character contrast. A young singer, playing community halls, he meets Maggie Sherwoode over an organic orange at the corner store. This sets up another set of tensions. Can there be an ending apart from young love? In Hollywood, armed with a laptop, everyone is a producer. Can personal assistant become a producer of David’s music? As a result, boundaries blur. The tensions around romance and career soon become ethical.

High notes are amplified by low notes. Contrast comes dramatically with an unexpected plot twist, needed to set up the Hollywood ending, as stars new and old fuse in the grand finale.

Contrast comes quietly in the form of a text message. Maggie and David are messing about while Katie (Zoë Chao), Maggie’s flatmate and loyal friend, is at work. A theatre nurse, Katie sends an image of an open heart. Everything is meaningless, responds Maggie, showing the picture of the open heart to David. In the middle of a budding romance and California dreaming, do you laugh? Do you return to messing about with your boyfriend? Or do quietly ponder the meaning of life?

“Everything is meaningless” is a line of poetry from Ecclesiastes 1:2. The writer, likely King Solomon, has sampled the high notes of life. In Ecclesiastes chapter 2, the pleasures are listed: urban landscaping, wealth acquisition, and sexual choice. In other words, plenty of palms and parties under the Jerusalem stars! Yet as Ecclesiastes concludes:

For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (12:14)

Whether scriptwriter Flora Greeson is aware of the Biblical allusion or no, the intrusion certainly changes the mood. Every star, whether rising or falling, has a heart. Every human, famous or forgotten, is vulnerable. Every action, whether unethical or wise, will be judged. One image accompanied by three words insert Biblical wisdom into The High Note’s dreams of starlit glamour.

Posted by steve at 08:05 PM

Monday, March 30, 2020

contagion – a theological review in a time of pandemic

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 140 plus films later, here is the review for April 2020. Touchstone have kindly given permission for me to place it online prior to print publication, given the extraordinary times in which we find ourselves

Contagion
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Contagion was released in 2011. It is available on iTunes and Google Play and at prices cheaper than a movie ticket. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, a “stay-at-home” theological film review seemed appropriate.

“Get ready for the future, It is murder,” sings Leonard Cohen in 1992. The song would make an apt soundtrack for the movie “Contagion.” The film, released in 2011, has in the last week, become the second-most popular movie on iTunes. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the movie dramatizes a medical apocalypse that has, in recent weeks, become our present reality.

A mystery virus, originating in China, is swiftly carried by airline travel around the world. Highly contagious, able to survive on door handles and drinking glasses, a global pandemic ensures.

In this future vision (and unlike our present reality), the United States takes the lead. Central to the drama is the team at the Centre Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP). They are researching (Kate Winslett as Dr Erin Mears), communicating (Laurence Fishburne as Dr Ellis Cheever) and testing (Jennifer Ehle as Dr Ally Hextall; Demetri Martin as Dr David Eisenberg). A vaccine takes months. Distrust of science, mixed with the conspiracy, accelerated by social media results, results in looting, panic and vigilante action. As Cohen laments, the future indeed is murder.

“Contagion” has two emotional palette’s. A cold and fearful first half, as initial heroines (Gwyneth Paltrow as Beth Emhoff) collapse and masked medical professionals seek (unsuccessfully) to contain. A more empathetic second half follows, as romance blooms and sacrifices made for the greater good.

The movie cleverly pairs characters – wife (Beth Emhoff) with husband (Matt Damon as Mitch Emhoff); CDCP scientists’ female (Dr Erin Mears) with male (Dr Ellis Cheever). One sex will die, while the other will find creative ways to care for the next generation. Why, even in a pandemic, do gender stereotypes remain?

“Contagion” becomes an important watch amid the COVID-19 pandemic. What is made visible is the interplay between an unseen virus and a palpable human dread.

In the face of fear, we can choose anxiety. Believe social media. Distrust science. Surrender to conspiracy theories. Or we can choose to re-imagine. Open ourselves to love our neighbour as ourselves. Find different ways to care and connect through times of turbulence.

Churches have historically played an essential role in loving the sick. Basil of Caesarea in the fourth century, founded what historians consider was the world’s first hospital. At Basil’s funeral, the hospital he founded was praised as an institution of mercy in which “diseases are studied, misfortune made blessed and sympathy put to the test.” Such is Christianity. Science is valued, and research is respected. Kindness is evident, and greater love casts out fear.

We find ourselves in an unprecedented time in human history. Might the images of “Contagion” and the lyrics of Cohen accurately portray our emerging present? Or will the compassion of Mother Teresa and the innovation of Basil, mark the church as visible in the face of an invisible virus? Get ready for the future, it becomes our choice.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of First Expressions (2019), Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 04:23 PM

Monday, November 18, 2019

ending a 15th year as a theological film reviewer

On Friday I hit send on a film review of Jojo Rabbit. It marked the end of my 15th consecutive year of film reviewing.

In August of 2005, I was teaching Gospel and Film at Laidlaw College. The phone rang and Paul Titus, the then editor of Touchstone, the denominational magazine for the Methodists of Aotearoa New Zealand introduced himself. He explained that he had two (free) tickets to Sedition, a documentary about conscientious objectors to war in Aotearoa New Zealand. It was a New Zealand film festival release. Since the film included a number of Methodists, the film would be of interest to readers of Touchstone. Would I be willing to attend (for free) and write a review?  They would pay per word, for a 500 word film review.

I agreed, attended and scratched out my first every film review.  I was a paid writer!

The editor was delighted. As the month ended, he rang again. Would I be willing to become a permanent monthly film reviewer? he asked. Two free tickets and 500 words on the theology of film. Why not, I said. I enjoy going to movies. I teach in Gospel and film. Why not put words where my mouth is?

Every month since, I have turned out 500 words. In the 15 years, that is over 155 film reviews – 77,500 words – and counting. Once Touchstone is out in print, I am allowed to place them online and many are here. Despite shifting countries twice and once changing editors.

“You’re longest running job” commented one of my daughters earlier this year.

Some months it is fun. The film is one I want to watch and the words flow. Many months it is hard. The available films hold little appeal. Those that do are showing at awkward times. Or I’m travelling overseas and the selection is limited.

Over the years – through the fun and the hard – I’ve come to see it as a spiritual discipline. The monthly pattern forces me to pay attention. It might not suit – my interests, my travel schedule, my plans – but that’s the point. In the imposed, I am being disciplined, forced to think theologically. As I do, I am enriched spiritually. I watch things I would not normally watch. I find unexpected insights, gain new perspectives, see (an)other differently.

In 2019 I have reviewed

  • Cold War
  • Storm Boy
  • Celia
  • Daffodils
  • Merata
  • Tolkien
  • Summer in the forest
  • Andrei Rublev
  • For Sama
  • Joker
  • Jojo Rabbit

Some were gruelling – like For Sama and Joker. Some were once in a lifetime – like Andrei Rublev re-mastered on the big screen at the Regent Theatre. Others were delightful – like Storm Boy and Daffodils. In each was the discipline. Paying attention, seeking to approach film as film, and in that discipline become aware that God has yet more light and truth to break forth (to rift off an insight from John Robinson, from his farewell speech of 1620, as the pilgrims were about to set sail on the Mayflower).

Over the years, colleagues have suggested I take film reviewing more seriously. They note I am a missiologist, with an interest in popular culture. Write a book, they say.

I’ve always resisted. It’s just fun. A bit of play. I’m paid to play – paid to watch movies. Isn’t that enough! Besides, each film stands alone. How to turn 500 words into a cohesive narrative? That’s a tall order.

This year, upside down on the other side of the world, I woke with a title and a theological frame. It integrates a Theological Reflection class I teach, on God in the world. The class is 3 hours in length and would certainly provide a chapter or two of theoretical framing. Around the frame, the films could cluster. Importantly for me, the title and frame has liturgical dimensions. It would allow me to turn reviews into prayer, theology into spiritual practice.

It needs some work but it was a landmark moment. Almost like that first phone call in 2005. I sensed an energy. Who knows. Maybe 2020 will not only be my 16th year of film reviewing, but also the year of the book.

Posted by steve at 09:39 PM

Monday, May 20, 2019

Daffodils film review: crafting a Kiwi lectionary

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 140 plus films later, here is the review for May 2019.

Daffodils
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Daffodils packs an emotional punch, a Kiwi soundtrack in which the songs actually silence the words that sustain relationships. Daffodils began life as a play, created by Rochelle Bright in 2015. Returning from New York because she wanted to tell New Zealand stories, she starts close to home with the tale of her own parents falling in, then out, of love.

The plot is artfully constructed. Kiwi songs – Bic Runga’s Drive, the Mutton Birds’s Anchor Me, Dave Dobbyn’s Language and Crowded House’s Fall At Your Feet – are like pearls, each sung by Maisie (played by Kimbra) and her band in front of adoring fans. As Maisie polishes these well-known Kiwi pearls, her estranged father Eric (played by George Mason), dies alone in a hospital bed.

2019 is a year for movie musicals. Daffodils shows New Zealand can foot it with the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born. Songs carry emotion and narrate life.

Individual pearls shine brighter when strung together. Continuity comes in Daffodils with the story of Eric, meeting Rose beside the daffodils in Hamilton Gardens. We watch them fall in love, get married and have children. Yet as they mature, they can’t shake the immaturity of the lies they let themselves believe about each other’s lives.

One way to understand Daffodils is to turn academic. Tom Beaudoin, musician and theologian, touts contemporary popular culture as the amniotic fluid in which young adults become familiar with themselves (Virtual Faith : The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, 1998). We love, laugh and lament to the songs that define our generation. It makes sense of the story of growing up in Christchurch told by local lad, Roger Shepherdson. In Love With These Times (2016) is the story of the birth of Flying Nun Records and the creation of a distinctly New Zealand songbook, songs that define an era and thus a generation.

What is significant for church readers is that the Daffodils’ songbook comes devoid of religious hymns. The tunes from bygone Britain no longer evoke memory or stir emotion. Rose and Eric get married in a church. But when relationships get rocky, the hymns of the wedding and the rote learned vows have no reconciling power.

Yet neither do the Kiwi pearls. This is the ironic sadness of Daffodils. Kiwis might have a unique pop culture soundtrack, but the songs as sung actually silence the language needed to sustain relationships.

For preachers wanting to connect with a Kiwi culture, why not ditch the hymns. Instead take the songs from Daffodils and link them with a Gospel story:

• Bic Runga’s Drive with Mary’s haste to connect with Elizabeth in Luke 1:39-45;
• Dave Dobbyn’s Language in conversation with Jesus Heals a Deaf and Mute Man in Mark 7:31–37;
• Crowded House’s Fall At Your Feet in harmony with the events of the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:36-46;
• The Mutton Birds Anchor Me as a tune alongside Jesus’ reinstating of Peter in John 21:15-19.

In each of these Gospel stories people are living with and in silence. Yet through Divine encounter there are ways to face the lies they’ve let themselves believe.

Posted by steve at 09:01 AM

Monday, December 10, 2018

Film review: Yellow is forbidden

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 135 plus films later, here is the review for December 2018.

Yellow is forbidden
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Documentary is a unique genre. There is no script writer, paid actors or shooting of multiple scenes. Instead there is the promise of true to life insights. But exclusivity comes with a price. The veil onto an authentic self is being lifted, but the gaze of camera and interviewer should be adoring. An overly prying eye or a critical interview could well result in the end of access, a film canned rather than in the can.

“Yellow is forbidden” is documentary. Kiwi director Pietra Brett-kelly follows Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei off the catwalk and into the dressing rooms and digital design studios of the global fashion industry. Several stories are cleverly embroidered together. First the career of China’s most famous designer, including a closeup of the “Magnificent Gold” dress, stunningly worn by Rihanna on the Met Gala red carpet. Made from gold, taking two years to make and weighing 25 kilograms with a five metre hand embroidered train, it placed Guo Pei on the global fashion map. Second, the complexity of a Chinese designer organising a fashion show in Paris, an outsider crossing boundaries of culture and taste. Finally, Guo Pei’s personal life including the backstitched story of her childhood, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, in which golds are the colour of the court and Guo Pei is forbidden to dress in yellow.

Yellow as colour is thus a central metaphor. The movie begins in darkness. A voice calls for a iphone to be turned on and the materials of a dress absorb the stark glare of spotlight. With the iphone then turned off the dress then shimmers with a ghostly radiance. It is a stunning visual reminder of the beauty of fashion and the way technology can be twinned with imagination. As a beginning, it has echoes of John 1. A light shines in the darkness, in order that all of humanity might absorb, then in shimmer in response to Divine Light in Christ.

Historically, religion has lived in an uneasy relationship with fashion. Pietism celebrates the unadorned and naturally human. Yet a rich set of images emerge if humans can shimmer with beauty in response to technology and imagination.

In Christian Scripture, God is a fashion designer. In Job 10:11-2, God is a dressmaker. In Ezekiel 16:9-1, God is a maker of designer clothes, a crafter of perfumes and accessories to adorn the nation of Israel. In Psalm 12:6, God is a jeweler crafting silver. One way to watch “Yellow is forbidden” is thus as an extended meditation on God the maker. The cinematic depictions of fabric being dyed, sequins being painstakingly sown and patterns woven in golden thread, are a window into the way God intends humans to participate in the creative fashioning of life together.

Drawing on the image of God the maker, theologian Paul Fiddes argues that being made in Gods’ image means humans are made to craft in delight, be open mouthed in wonder and practice perseverance. Such are the possibilities suggested by a theological conversation with the fashion in “Yellow is forbidden.”

Posted by steve at 08:49 PM

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Understanding conversion in light of the “Silence” of religious change

Some writing I’ve been doing over the last few days. I’m trying to knit together a conference paper delivered in August 2016 and a conference paper delivered in March, 2017, for a potential book chapter due mid-July 2018!

Both conference papers stand at around 2,000 words. Together, could the two pieces, make a whole, a chapter for a potential book publication? This will require one central idea and some clear editing. That begins with an introduction. So, can I find an introduction ….

Jesus comes announcing the Kingdom of God is near (Mark 1:15; Luke 10:9). This invites the possibility of conversion. Hence the relationship between conversion and Christian witness becomes an essential area of study for missiology.

The documents of the early church offer narratives in which the proclamation of the Good News is linked with life change and transformation. In Acts 2:41-47, three thousand experience a transformation into a church which practices a passionate spirituality, experiences the supernatural and outworks a radical egalitarianism. The book of Acts chronicles the expansion of Christianity, geographically from Jerusalem to Rome; ethnically, from Jews to Gentiles; numerically across the cities of the Roman empire. Soards argues that the speeches in Acts, of which he identifies thirty-six, are key to the unity and emphasis of Acts. In words, they present “the story of the early church’s bearing witness to God’s will and work in Jesus Christ.” (The Speeches in Acts: Their Content, Context, and Concerns, by Marion L. Soards. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 194). The relationship between Christian mission, conversion and expansion continue through the history of the church. Individuals stand in church to testify to finding faith in Christ and the transformations that result from conversion. Mission agencies draw on accounts of conversion in seeking prayer and financial support. In each case, the assumption is that conversion and transformation are intrinsically linked to Christian mission.

Equally, the historical record, in both Josephus and the Christian Gospels, is that Jesus’ announcing of the Kingdom was met with both receptivity and resistance (Luke 9:51-55). Essential to a non-coercive invitation is the freedom for conversion and transformation to be resisted. The theological challenges that result must be considered in constructing a missiology that is equal parts robust and realistic. Indeed, amidst the expansive narratives of Acts, is the reality that individuals resist the Gospel. It is easy to celebrate the thousands in Acts 2 and 4, but in many of the cities in which the Apostle Paul preaches, there is a refusal to convert and resistance to the transforming announcement of Good news of Christ. Hence study of the nature and dynamics of Christian witness must, in the search for truth, engage with the realities associated with resistance to conversion.

A robust and realistic missiology must include not only the possibilities that surround a lack of conversion. It must also examine the human desire to deconvert. In 2014, in the United Kingdom, National Secular Society supporter John Hunt made headlines when he sought to be “debaptised.”. Adams reports that over 100,000 Certificates of De-baptism were downloaded in five years from 2004 to 2009. While uncomfortable, it is an area that any study of conversion must consider. Who is God and how might conversion and transformation be understood, if there is no conversion? What is the nature of Christian mission given the reality of deconversion? How to narrate Christian witness when expansion is not the entirety of the Christian story?

In the writing on Tuesday, and the rewriting today, things become clearer. It is still draft. But in reaching for words, key points emerge.

Posted by steve at 06:04 PM