Monday, August 04, 2014

Gardening with soul film review: like a warm fire on a winters day

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for August 2014, of Gardening with Soul.

Gardening with Soul
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Gardening with Soul is like a warm log fire on a winter’s day. It offers comfort, evokes nostalgia, invites conversation and inspires for mission.

The movie is structured around one life and four seasons. The one life is Loyola Galvin, Catholic sister, turning ninety and thoroughly deserving of being the New Zealand 2008 Gardener of the year. As she weeds, prays, brushes her hair we hear her story of grace and grief amid a changing world. We hear of faith lived amid lost love, the practicalities of Susan Aubert’s mission and the pain visited upon the wider Catholic church by clerical sexual abuse.

Directed by Jess Feast, Gardening with Soul deservedly gained nomination in all four documentary categories at the 2013 New Zealand Film Awards. Feast excels in the art of gentle unraveling. Not religious herself, she is well able to locate a accessible warmth in the religious experience of another.

The four seasons begins with winter. Snow, surprisingly even in Wellington, gently carpets Galvin’s garden. Through, summer, spring and autumn, we follow the rhythms of the season, including the gathering of seaweed for compost, the drying of seeds for spring and the companion planting essential for pest resistance and soil health. In an age of fast food and flash in the pan garden shows, Gardening with Soul is a reminder of a different, more deeply dug, set of spiritual practices.

Gardening with Soul gained cinematic applause in New Zealand, with Simon Morris, film reviewer for Radio New Zealand, naming it one of his highlights for 2013. In 2014, it crossed the ditch to grace 30 screens across Australia, gaining four star reviews from the Herald Sun and applause from the Sydney Morning Herald.

Church goers might glimpse a number of opportunities for practical mission. First in the slow work, in which community gardens become community development. Galvin won New Zealand Gardener of the Year for her initiative in starting the Common Ground community garden scheme, turning lawn at her Home of Compassion into allotment-style gardens for apartment dwellers. In Gardening with Soul, we witness the final stages of community development, as Galvin hands over what she began to a younger generation.

Second, in the care for the dying, as Galvin returns to the memorial garden she created for stillborn children while chaplain at Hutt Hospital. We witness a practical love in which the dying are dignified.

Third, in the return visit of a now grown child, raised by the Sisters of Compassion after being left for dead at their doorstep. In this encounter, we are reminded of the gift of life given to children in the name of the Catholic church.

It is interesting to place Gardening with Soul alongside the recently written Soil and Sacrament (Free Press, 2013). Author Fred Bahnson visits four community gardens, over four seasons. Among different religious traditions (Catholic, Pentecostal, Jewish), whether growing mushrooms or roasting coffee, he finds a shared experience in which rituals of cultivation do indeed add soul. Young, male and religiously unsettled, Bahnson would find much to admire in the settled spiritual maturity of Sister Loyola Galvin.

Posted by steve at 06:21 PM

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Transcendence: a theological film review

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for June 2014, of Transcendence.

Transcendence
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level.

Transcendence. Defined in the dictionary as existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level. Seen at the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 11, in the Tower of Babel as the upward human quest to build toward the heavens.

Seen in the movie, Transcendence, as inward, as a technological quest. The building blocks become not bricks but brains, in an artificial computerised quest for existence beyond human limitations.

The movie begins with a flash forward, to a future devoid of technology. Armed soldiers patrol the streets. Cell phones are silent. Laptops have no use but to hold open shop doors. Such are the consequences of this search for transcendence.

The movie then moves backwards. Johnny Depp is Will Caster, Rebecca Hall his wife Evelyn. Deeply in love, fanatically committed to research into artificial intelligence, their scientific research is halted by a movement of Luddite terrorists.

Together they experiment on the dying Will. His brain is mapped onto a computer and in the wonders offered to us by modern science, a miracle! Will is regenerated as an artificial intelligence, his brain harnessed to the power of the world wide web. A rural town is purchased, in which Will-the-computer calculates his way toward his research dreams.

The vision is fantastic, a world in which cancer is no more, the planet healed and poverty alleviated. It is a modern telling of the Isaiah dream, a secular eschatology.

The results are far more sinister, a loss of human freedom as Rebecca finds herself less and less free to love and be loved, an army of hybrids saved from disease simply to serve Will’s growing empire.

It is an intriguing juxtaposition, as transcendence wrestles with free will. Both are dreams of the modern world, the belief in the power of science to exceed human potential and the priceless gift that is individual freedom.

Despite the philosophical and timely potential of these themes, Transcendence is a poor movie. The movie enlists plenty of star power, including the acting of Johnny Depp and the direction of Walter Pfister. The cinematography is artful, in a style reminiscent of Pfister’s work on the Dark Knight series.

But the plot, Jack Paglen’s first major screen write, is jumbled. The inevitable gunfight at AI Corrall might make for spectacle but seems wooden if one really is fighting against a computer.

And Rebecca Hall is so composed she comes across as lacking emotion. The result is two cold characters, the computerised Will Caster, the emotionally distant Rebecca.

“Transcendence” has potential. The cinematography is artful. The themes are timely. The ethics are intriguing. Yet as a movie, Transcendence is unable to save itself.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 10:56 PM

Monday, May 12, 2014

Noah: a film review

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for May 2014, of Noah.

Noah
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“[The Bible] should be a living, breathing document. That’s what it should be.”
Director of Noah

The internet has been flooded with criticism of the Noah movie, with Christian, Jewish and Moslem commentators united in their condemnation of director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan and Pi) portrayal of Noah. Even before release, it was banned in Indonesia, accused of negatively portraying a person revered by Islam as a prophet. It is yet another indication of the complex relationships between faith and film.

The Noah story takes up four chapters and ninety seven verses between Genesis 6 and 9. In the Biblical narrative, Noah never speaks, a silent, obedient partner before an active, speaking God.

In contrast, the movie runs over two hours, with Noah (Russell Crowe) centre stage, righteous, determined, desperate to protect the world from evil. God becomes a background character, absent since creation, now speaking only occasionally, obliquely, through dream and prophet (Methuselah, played by Anthony Hopkins).

In the space between four chapters of writing and two hours of cinematography lies enormous potential for controversy to blossom. On one side stand the watchers of historical accuracy, on the other those intrigued by creative imagination.

The movie does good work in regard to some aspects of the Biblical narrative. The double Genesis stories, that of dominion in Genesis 1, is artfully set against that of creation care in Genesis 2. It is a tension that runs throughout the entire film. The telling of the creation story is a graphical feast, a scene that will undoubtedly become a regular introduction to readings of Genesis 1 in churches in the years to come. Another commendable feature is the portrayal of the power of blessing. This patriarchal act is central to the Genesis stories and to significant shifts in the Noah movie. These features show a commendable sensitivity to the Biblical narrative.

Equally commendable are the strong female roles played by Jennifer Connelly (Naameh, Noah’s wife) and Emma Watson (Ila, Noah’s adopted daughter). There is much imaginative work by Darren Aronofsky to insert humanity into the sparseness of the Biblical telling.

Simultaneously, the portrayal of the relationship between God and humanity invites question. The movie deals in casual cliché, offering a simple polarity between judgement and mercy. What sort of God would contemplate drowning all of humanity?

It is a stark reminder that Biblically, the Noah narrative is no Sunday school feel-good animal story. Instead, it is a searching examination of how to deal with the ever-present reality of human sin.

For Christians the question is never resolved by a white dove with a leaf in its mouth. Rather, the relationship between judgement and mercy is redefined by redemption. In the work of Jesus, both the optimistic belief in human goodness and the self-righteous search for purity are nailed to a cross. In the birth of a New Adam, the old has gone, a new is come.

In the end Noah, succeeds as art. It finds ways to engage the Bible as a living, breathing document. It honours a narrative committed to an uncompromising exploration of the complexity of being living, breathing humans located on a living, breathing earth in relationship to a living, breathing God.

Posted by steve at 08:44 AM

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Philomena: a film review

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for March 2014, of Philomena.

Philomena
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“I forgive you because I don’t want to remain angry.” Philomena

A few weeks ago I caught a taxi cab into inner city Melbourne. Weaving through rush hour, my host asked my occupation and the conversation quickly turned religious.

Taxi drivers offer unique insight on the cultural pulse. He was respectful. Religion was good for society, offering an ethical care for others essential for better communities.

But some churches have an image problem. Especially, said my taxi driver, the Catholic church.

Films like Philomena reinforce the stereotypes. Inspired by a true story (The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist Martin Sixsmith), it tells the story of an Irish Catholic mother’s (Judi Dench as Philomena) search for her son, separated as a four year old when the church forced her to give him up for adoption.

Over the years, her mother’s love continues to burn. A chance encounter with a suddenly unemployed government advisor, Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, offers hope of a mother and child reunion.

The plot twists and turns, the journalistic detective work of Steve Coogan a perfect foil for the emotional rollercoaster of a mother looking for her lost son.

There are some minor speedbumps. The reluctance of her son’s partner (Peter Hermann as Pete Olssen) to meet Philomena makes little sense. In the climatic graveside shots, Dench’s face remains too deeply tanned to effectively convey the bleakness of an Irish winter.

The film is carried by Philomena’s gentle humour, her refereshing candour a perfect antidote to Coogan’s world weary cynicism. The use of historic video footage is clever, allowing the plot to move easily both forward and back in time. Poignantly, some of this footage is from real life, her son growing up in America.

Intriguingly, it is not only the Catholic church that is judged harshly in Philomena. The secular cynicism of hardbitten journalism is also portrayed as equally lacking in humanity, with little to offer those hurt by injustice.

The alternative, quietly compelling, is the faith of Philomena. It is a common cliché – I’m spiritual, not religious. In Philomena, it is devastatingly turned back against the church, her embrace of forgiveness a striking contrast to the coldness at the core of a church frozen in denial.

In real life, Philomena Lee found forgiveness in her work among the psychiatric community. Interviewed by The Atlantic in February 2014, she spoke of “nursing the patients, sitting down and talking with them, helping them with their problems—it made my own slide into the background. I’ve seen so much hurt caused through anger. And I thought, “I couldn’t go through my whole life being angry.””

It seems an approach to life worth repeating to my Melbourne taxi driver and all his passengers. Staying angry takes effort. Forgiveness is a way of life that helps us all move on. A truth for those with faith. And without.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 08:35 AM

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The book thief: an exercise in imaginative futility

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for February, of The Book Thief.

The Book Thief
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

I stole away from work to watch The Book Thief. With temperatures touching 45 degrees Celsius, I found myself stepping into a somewhat chilling cinematic meditation on imagination in dark times.

The words of death (the voice of Roger Allam) begin and end The Book Thief. A constant presence, they serve as a chilling reminder of life in Germany during World War 2. Leisel (Sophie Nelisse) is a child growing up through Germany’s descent into its darkness. Adopted by a family living in a small German town, she witnesses the smashing of Jewish shop fronts,the impact of conscription on German neighbours and the helpless fear palpable in night time bomb shelters.

The Book Thief is based on a novel of the same name by Markus Zusak. I live in a house of admirers. Unable to thieve their precious copy, leaves me unable to provide any sustained comparison between original text and cinematic portrayal.

While the acting is solid, the faux-German accents present a stumbing block. Geoffrey Rush plays Hans, a playful father, a strong moral centre in Liesel’s growing world. Emily Watson plays Rosa, a mother sternly covering her fear. Nico Liersch plays Rudy, a loyal childhood friend.

A central metaphor holding together The Book Thief is that of words. Words inhabit the books that fascinate Liesel and cover the walls of the cellar in which her imagination is nurtured. It is words that are painted out of an old book, Hitler’s Mein Kampf and given as a gift to Liesel, inviting her to be a writer, as well as a reader, of fine words.

All of which sets up an interesting philosophical dilemma. What is the place of words – poetic, imaginative – in war? Are they actually a way to avoid reality, a book something to clutch while Jews sadly shuffle through your town? Or are they a pattern of resistance, a way to cultivate a world more beautiful, a humanity more noble, no matter how meanly pragmatic and helpless your times?

Intriguingly similar questions are often pointed at church. Are they, like the cellar in The Book Thief, a retreat place in order to listen to words as other worldly as the ghost stories Liesel creates in the night shelter as Allied bombs fall?

The role of the church is limited in The Book Thief. By way of introduction, we see an anonymous minister burying Liesel’s brother. Interestingly, he too is speaking words from a book. Later in the movie, a panoramic shot of the German town in which Liesel is lived includes a spire, dominant and centre.

It raises the inevitable question regarding the words uttered by the church as Nazi Germany rose to power. What happened to sentences like “Blessed are the peace makers” or phrases such as “Love your enemies”? Perhaps it is that at some times, in some place, words, no matter how powerful, simply fail.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 07:44 AM

Thursday, December 05, 2013

gravity: an earthed theology

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for December, of Gravity.

Gravity
“Gravity” is a shooting star in the cinematic universe. From the opening sounds of silence, to the beauty possible when planet earth becomes a visual backdrop, “Gravity” blazes across our screens, a reminder of the immersive potential possible when sounds and visuals collide.

A medical researcher (Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone) and an astronaut (George Clooney as Matt Kowalski) find themselves adrift in space, their routine mission torn apart by exploding debris. Alone, radio contact lost, they traverse space’s inky weightlessness, from shuttle to station to re-entry rocket, seeking life.

While “Gravity” is undoubtedly enhanced by the star power that is Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, it is the five year search for perfection from director, Alfonso Cuaron, that makes “Gravity” the movie of the year, if not the decade.

To make “Gravity” Cuaron had to remaster the laws of physics. The behind the scenes technological innovations are breathtaking. They include a camera fitted with 4,096 LED’s, all separately controllable, to capture the divergent sources of light in space. Further, a guitar was submerged in water to capture the vibrations emitted by a breathing body as it panics, trapped in plastic space suit. Actors were rotated like puppets, hanging in a wire rig, in order to capture the out of control spin generated by a space disaster.

Together these innovations make possible the long, complex, tracking shots, a signature motif of Alfonso Cuaron. The Mexican director has sought previously, in movies like “Children of Men” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” to generate elaborate continuous sequences over large and shifting distances. In “Gravity,” such techniques are enhanced and elongated. We spiral with Bullock as she spins out of control through a weightless space, slowly drawn ever closer to the terror scrolling across her face. As an audience we find ourselves immersed, transformed by technical innovation from observer to participant.

Space has always invited divine pondering. Perhaps it is the primal human impulse to experience mystery in the starward gaze. Or the medieval notion that God is up. Whatever the impulse, something prompted Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut in space, to reputedly make note of his inability to find God beyond the pull of earth’s gravity.

In concert with Gagarin, some have claimed that “Gravity” is thus the perfect movie for a godless age, offering an empty universe in which the only hope is our human salvation.

Intriguingly, it is in space that Ryan Stone utters her first prayer. Her words lack a religious beginning and a holy Amen. Nevertheless, they stand as her honest, albiet stumbling, cry to the unknown. They mark a turning point. Like all prayer should, they galvanise her into a determined demand for life and ignite her reentry.

It is a heaven to earthbound trajectory that evokes Incarnation, God grounded with us. Viewed in this light, Stone’s final words, her heartfelt “Thank you” becomes a benediction. It is an affirmation of life. Through space, from the heavens above, she has learnt to pray, learnt to walk, learnt to say “Thank you” for life.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 06:36 AM

Sunday, December 01, 2013

a haunted culture

The presence of Christianity continues to haunt our culture. Like above, in this 2013 poster advertising an Adelaide film festival. Or the lingering presence of “ritual” in very small type (Rewarding the ritual) in this October 2013 advertisement, fused with some fascinating reflection on male identity. Playful, irreverent, but still present.

Or this piece of theology, in a local coffee shop in June 2013, in which God is entwined with a creation narrative and mission. Once again, playful, irreverent, but still present.

Mieke Bal, the Dutch cultural theorist suggests three ways to understand these ongoing traces within western society.

  • Christianity is present, making it impossible to think about cultural analysis without acknowledging the theological underpinning of the western world (and so the visual rifting of red-robed religious beings).
  • Christianity is a cultural structure, informing the cultural imaginary whether people believe or not (and so words like ritual and worship remain)
  • Christianity is just one of the structures, it is not the only cultural structure, nor the only religious structure that underpins who we are or have come to be (and so the work that people do with “God” will vary).

I’m reading and thinking about this in a more focused way, given I’m part of teaching a topic, Bible and culture, on the Flinders University campus this summer. The course is inviting us to explain the ongoing appropriation of Christian imagery in contemporary culture, the religious presence on film posters, the Bible references in movies as bizarre as Pulp Fiction, the fascination with church in the David Bowie Next day video.

A course for which we will need some accessories – prizes for the person who finds the most pop cultural references to Psalm 137 or O come, O come Emmanuel – prizes like Pulp Fiction Ezekiel reference Tshirts, buddy Jesus fridge magnets and God is a DJ henna tattoos.

Posted by steve at 10:46 PM

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

the pain and peril of living in exile: a theological film review of White Lies

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for November, of New Zealand film, White Lies.

White Lies
“White Lies” has the same producer (John Barnett) and original writer (Witi Ihimaera) as the now celebrated New Zealand film “Whale Rider.” Yet “White Lies” offers a far darker exploration of New Zealand’s bi-cultural identity.

The era is early twentieth century and Maori medicine woman, Paraiti (Whirikamako Black) gathers native herbs and provides medical care for her people, scattered throughout Te Urewera wilderness.

On a rare trip to the city, she is furtively asked by Maori housekeeper, Maraea (Rebecca House), to help her wealthy mistress, Rebecca Vickers (Antonia Prebble), keep a secret. Together, these three women generate the emotional heart of the movie, an interwoven pairing of life with death and death with life.

Initially, Paraiti refuses to help, chilled by the alien whiteness of the world in which Maraea and Rebecca live. Her mind is changed by subsequent events, a child birth gone wrong, during which Pakeha display a callous disdain for Maori patterns and practices. All of which is history, for in 1907 the New Zealand Government passed the Tohunga Suppression Act, which limited the services Maori could provide to their communities. For Paraiti, her actions will be an act of resistance, a way of restoring some justice.

This is an acting debut for well-known Maori singer, Whirikamako Black and she is superbly paired with Antonia Prebble, best known for her portrayal of Loretta West in TV drama, “Outrageous Fortune.”

Plaudits are also due to other New Zealand artists. The house in which Rebecca lives is a triumph for film designer, Tracey Collins, while the forests in which Paraiti gathers herbs and the room in which Rebecca gives birth, allow the well-honed atmospheric skills of Alun Bollinger to unfold in all their gloomy cinematographic glory.

Written and directed by Mexican born Dana Rotberg, “White Lies” significantly reworks Ihimaera’s novella, “Medicine Woman.” Maori carvers return to their work, reasoned Ihimaera, so why not writers? Despite the re-carving of words, the early scenes of the movie lack pace, failing to provide momentum the emotional centre deserves.

What unfolds in “White Lies” are three contrasting approaches to dominant Pakeha culture, each embodied in the three women: marginality in Paraiti, accommodation in Maraea, ultimate assimilation in Rebecca.

What is thought provoking is to then lay “White Lies” alongside the First Testament. Israel’s experience of exile offers another perspective on how minority communities activate resistance. We see marginality in the return of Nehemiah to a Jerusalem destroyed. We see accommodation in the book of Esther, her willingness to parlay her sexuality in exchange for influence. We see assimilation in Jeremiah’s injunction to build houses, plant gardens and take wives.

“White Lies” a century on offers little hope. Rebecca’s final decisions are chillingly bleak, while the forest gathering ways of Pariati are, in twentyfirst century New Zealand, long gone.

All that remains, as the movie tagline declares, is the reality that redemption comes at a price. Christians will ponder the crucial birthing scene, in which Rebecca hangs in a crucifix position, arms spread wide, supported by a watching woman, in the painful journey through which new life will eventually be won.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 08:22 AM

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Blue Jasmine: theological film review

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for October, of Woody Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine.

Blue Jasmine

It sounds eerily post GFC. A rich New York socialite (Jasmine as Cate Blanchett) is bankrupted onto struggle street. She turns to her San Francisco-based sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in an attempt to rebuild her seeming shattered life.

But like all good stories, the plot will twist and turn. The result is Woody Allen at his best, a master of a movie as character-drenched as it is plot-driven.

How to process the pain when one’s world begins to collapse? Through character, Woody Allen offers us various possibilities. For Jasmine’s step son, it is to wipe the slate clean in order to start again. For Jasmine’s husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), it is to respond to shame by taking his own life. In Augie, Ginger’s former husband, financially ruined by Hal’s fraud, it is to nurse revenge. For Jasmine, it is to hide from reality on a lonely park bench, trapped by her romantic delusions.

“Blue Jasmine” is worth watching for the performance of Cate Blanchett alone. She is the plot pivot that binds together two stories, from two worlds. Blanchett is mesmerising, her descent into mental breakdown captured by the merest twist of a hand gesture.

Director Woody Allen is an international treasure of the film industry, with a career spanning six decades, and forty-five movies. Winner of four Academy Awards, nominated twenty three times, he has given us movies including “Manhattan” (1979), “Hannah and her Sisters” (1986) and “Midnight in Paris” (2011).

Allen is known for his creative movement between reel life and real life, and his use of film and music from the past. “Blue Jasmine” continues these motifs. The film hints at Tennessee Williams’ classic movie “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The movie references in title and in plot beginning and ending, the Lorenz Hart-Richard Rodgers song, “Blue Moon.”

A romantic number penned in 1934, it offers, for those with a nose for religion, an interesting way to read “Blue Jasmine.”

The original song by Rodgers was titled “Prayer”. The lyrics included the following:

“Oh Lord, If you ain’t busy up there,
I ask for help with a prayer
So please don’t give me the air”

Over time, the original words penned by Rodgers were rewritten.

“Oh lord, What is the matter with me?

I’m just permitted to see
the bad in every man”

Performed in “Manhattan Melodrama” it was rewritten yet again, to become the romantic tune hummed by Jasmine on her lonely park bench, as she remembers the romantic beginnings of her New York high life.

It becomes an intriguing way to read “Blue Jasmine.” The words by which a society prays have been rewritten, yet the tune remains.

What is more important, words or tunes, in the human religious impulse? What are the words of faith the church might say if it were to find itself seated beside Jasmine, in her disillusioned post-GFC world, on that lonely park bench?

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 11:55 AM

Monday, September 23, 2013

spiritualities of magic: theological film review of Now You See Me

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for September, of Now you see me and the place of magic in culture today.

Now you see
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Recent years have given us a thrilling world of wands, spells and castles. Think Harry Potter (and here), Snow White and the Huntsman, Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit. All movies recently reviewed in Touchstone, all sprinkling our imagination with fairy dust. Movies seem ideally able to usher in the worlds of once upon a time make believe.

A friend recently told of encountering a six year old, who confided a belief in make believe. Followed by the shocking statement. Adults kill fairies.

The six year old had realised, painfully, that grown up logic would inevitably challenge the childlike world of once upon a time. Adult rationality was hard to work breaking the wands of childhood.

Which is certainly true of a second strand in the magic movie genre. A number of recent movies have sought to expose the magic of the magician. Sherlock Holmes uncovers the dark arts of Moriarty. The Illusionist showcases a magician using his craft to secure love above his station. Prestige pits magician against magician. Each focuses not only on magic, but on the magician, on this worldly pursuits in which logic and rationality triumph over make believe. For truth is surely explainable.

Which brings us to Now You See It. Directed by Louis Leterrier, like many a magic show, the plot relies on multiple suspensions of belief. Partial redemption comes through the lights of Hollywood, an A-list cast that includes Jesse Eisenberg as J Daniel Atlas, Woody Harrelson as Merritt McKinney, Morgan Freeman as Thaddeus Bradley and Michael Caine Arthur Tressler.

Now You See It straddles both magic and magician. We meet the fabled “Eye”, a mysterious collective of elite power, into which four struggling magicians, including J Daniel Atlas and Merritt McKinney, are mysteriously gathered. As the fame of the four grows, they begin to shower their audiences with money.

First, bank notes, robbed from a French Bank. Second, audience bank accounts, magically enhanced by routing dollars from a spendthrift insurance company. Third, the fortune of an investment company.

First, bank notes rain down, robbed from a French Bank. Second, audience bank accounts are magically enhanced by routing dollars from a spendthrift insurance company. Third, the fortune of an investment company, disappears as if by magic, from a guarded vault.

Is their magic real? Or is it simply a modern rehash of an ancient two card trick hiding a “truth is harsher than magic” world of crime?

It remains a challenge to the religious among us. How might one maintain a faith in angels and demons, miracles and resurrection, in a world with no Santa, wizard or wand?

For many, the six year old included, Christianity stands as yet another brand of fairy killer. We have found ourselves trading in a faith so rational that imagination has lost its magic and saints their sparkle.

The Christian tradition is no stranger to magic and magicians. In Acts 8, Philip performs miracles, which attract the attention of a local magician. Much like The Illusionist or Prestige, the complex motives by which power is sought and brought are sifted, if not spent.

Philip will have none of it. He walks a complex line, convinced that miracles are neither make believe nor for sale.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 08:53 AM

Monday, August 12, 2013

lone ranger: a post-colonial cowboys and indians

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 80 plus films later, here is the review for July, of Lone Ranger.

Lone Ranger
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

I confess to a sheltered childhood. Somehow a masked man and his cry of “Hi-Ho, Silver! Away!” passed me by. Which is strange, given that the Lone Ranger occupies a significant place in contemporary popular culture, including 18 novels, 2,956 radio episodes and 221 half-hour television episodes.

Come 2013, the Disney remake of “The Lone Ranger” is able to draw on an extensive cultural arsenal. But this is the 21st century. Thus the way we tell stories of cowboys and Indians is certainly open to a re-make.

Much of this film deals with stereotype. It begins with a child wandering a theme park. It is a clever plot device, inviting us to cross times and cultures through the eyes of a child.

As we do, we encounter a Western side show, read a sign that says “noble savage,” and find ourselves startled by the appearance of an elderly Tonto (Johnny Depp), with a story to share with us.

The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer as John Reid) is also battling with stereotype. He is a young city lawyer returning to the wild West. He is living in the shadow of his older brother (James Badge Dale as Dan Reid), a real Ranger living on the dry and dusty borders between railroad expansion and Comanche lands.

In storytelling one way to deal with stereotype is through character development. Take for instance the character of Tonto. He is introduced as Indian, imprisoned both in sideshow and in a railway carriage with convicted outlaw Butch Cassidy (William Fichtner). Rapidly he becomes mystical saviour, escaping prison, then restoring an injured Lone Ranger from a Butch Cassidy ambush in which his older brother is tortured and killed. As the plot twists, Tonto becomes village idiot, damaged as a child by the greed of Western imperialism.

All the time, the cultural gap is immense. In the original 1903‘s radio play, the character of Tonto was introduced so the Lone Ranger would have someone to talk. By 2013, Tonto is a window into a very different world. In Comanche culture, knowledge is treasure, exchange is mutual, while communication is primarily symbolic. In wild Western culture, knowledge is commodified, exchange is earned through gun and greed, while communication is primarily verbal.

Except that Tonto is Johnny Deep. Which cleverly makes obvious yet another stereotype, that of the audience. When we see Johnny Deep, we might be a child, but we are still expecting Captain Jack Sparrow, lawless buffoon from the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Who are we really seeing? What is the real story?

The answer, in “The Lone Ranger,” is partnership, a growing, and increasingly equal discovery of difference between cowboy and Indian. As those very first radio shows used to announce: “a masked man and an Indian rode the plains, searching for truth and justice.”

All of which invites us to consider a final stereotype. The credits of Hollywood roll. And all the time Tonto walks. Away from the sideshow and into his land. Home for Comanche? Or empty desert, waiting to be colonised with greed by gun? One picture. Can it include two peoples. Or must cowboys always end up killing Indians?

Posted by steve at 04:46 PM

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: to boldly go where no superpower has gone before

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 80 plus films later, here is the review for June, of Star Trek Into Darkness.

Star Trek Into Darkness
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Into Darkness is entertainment, a high-paced, non-stop journey from space’s final frontier, through earth’s orbit, to probe the darkness we call evil. The result is an adrenaline laden few hours, that combines action, special effects and a complex weaving narrative.

Earth is under threat. Initially it appears to be a lone criminal, masterminding a series of terrorist attacks against the Federation. Enterprise and her crew chase the fugitive into Klingon territory, risking a war, uncovering an evil that is found to lie neither in the lone bomber, nor in an alien species, but within Star Fleet itself.

This is the second installment in a re-fit of the Star Trek cinematic enterprise (puns intended). In reprising Star Trek, director J.J.Abrams (Mission Impossible III and Star Trek (2009)), is able to draw on a long history, a wealth of material, from multiple TV series to eleven full length feature films.

This includes a familiar cast, household names of Kirk, Spock, Sulu, Uhura, Bones and Scotty. They provide a continuity around which new characters – Carol (Alice Eve), her father, Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and the fleeing criminal (Benedict Cumberbatch) – can be easily introduced. The result is a richer narrative, one that is familiar, faithful, yet fresh.

This history also allows Into Darkness to offer a series of narrative puzzles. It is here that genuine can Trekies linger, pondering the references to the birth of Khan (referencing the Wrath of Khan), the death (also the Wrath of Khan) and resurrection of Spock (The Search for Spock).

Going back to the future requires finding a new cast. We meet a young Kirk (Chris Pine), struggling to understand a young Spock (Zachary Quinto). This provides one theological lens, the potential richness of the cross-cultural journey. Into Darkness explores how relationships can bloom as time is invested and action encountered together. The temptation is always for what is dominant to demand change. Yet Kirk is a much reduced leader without the emotional passion of Bones or the logic of Spock.

Another theological lens is the exploring of terror. Into Darkness allows the Star Trek franchise, which began in 1966, to provide a mirror, a contemporary commentary on the politics of life post-9/11. The Federation response in the movie is typically militaristic, the aggressive embrace of new technology in response to terrorist violence.

Intriguingly, in the off-screen life of director J.J.Abrams another response is being explored. In real life, Abrams, is involved with The Mission Continues, a charity begun to encourage veterans into community service. Into Darkness is dedicated to America’s war veterans and the founder of The Mission Continues, Eric Greitens, appears in the film’s finale.

Imagine if community service rather than military aggression was the response to terror? Might this in fact be humanities ultimate final frontier? A way of moving out of darkness rather than into darkness, a very different way of boldly going where no super power has gone before.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal, Uniting College, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 07:38 PM

Monday, May 20, 2013

a theology of temptations: Goddess film review

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 80 plus films later, here is the review for April, of Australian film (Goddess).

Goddess
A film review by Steve Taylor

Goddess is fun.

Elspeth Dickens (Laura Michelle Kelly) is a young mother, raising an energetic child in the farmlands of rural Tasmania. Her husband James (Ronan Keating) is a marine scientist, absent for long periods chasing whales in the Southern Ocean.

Recently moved from London, their downunder dream of the rural idyll is eroded by his increasing absence and the growing isolation of raising children in a foreign land.

Elspeth turns to the internet, having a webcam installed, setting up a website, entering key words in search engines. She uploads her songs, original and quirky, that showcase her domestic realities. Her ditties of raising kids and washing dishes go viral. This attracts the interest of media magnate Cassandra Wolfe (Magda Szubanski), who flies Elspeth to Sydney to be the face of “Goddess,” a laptop – “for all the women you are.”

Directed by Mark Lamprell (Babe: Pig in the City) this Australian film is shot with an international eye. There can be little other explanation for the inclusion of global sing star, Ronan Keating. He acts, passably, yet strangely does not sing until the popcorn is well and truly eaten (the 75th minute to be precise).

Part musical, part comedy, part romance, Goddess seeks to emulate the success last year (reviewed in the October 2012 edition of Touchstone) of Australian musical comedy The Sapphires. While scenes of rural Tasmania are sure to turn international viewers green with envy, at times the movie tries to hard. The use of whale song and melting ice cream to embody shifting human relationships are more banal than funny.

Like Les Miserables (reviewed in the March 2013 edition of Touchstone) Goddess is adapted for the screen from a musical, Sinksongs. Unlike Les Miserables, the songs in Goddess are interspersed between enough dialogue, surrounded by enough comedy, to provide a surprisingly enjoyable movie experience.

In many ways Goddess functions as a contemporary temptation of Christ. Watching with two teenage daughters, the movie offered a thought provoking exploration of growing up female. These include the tensions around raising children, having a career and responding to the relentless sexualised commodification of the female body.

Under the media glare, Elspeth sifts a range of modern challenges. Not the temple, but the splendor of international fame. Not angels, but the persistent attention of the male gaze. Not bread for the body, but the sexualisation essential to modern media.

The film turns the humour of potty training into a serious exploration of being human, being family, being female. The scene in which Elspeth is told that she is simply another in a long line of pretty girls waiting to be discovered (exploited?) is a reminder of the disposability inherent in contemporary culture.

Goddess provides no easy answers, simply a feel good finale, in which faithfulness trumps fame.

Posted by steve at 10:34 AM

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Les Miserables – father daughter team review

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 80 plus films later, here is the review for March. It’s a team effort with my daughter

Les Miserables
A film review by S(hannon) and S(teve) Taylor.

Les Miserables needs little introduction. It is a book, written by Victor Hugo, set during the French Revolution, a tale of courage, hope and redemptive love amidst poverty and power. It is a film, of at least ten versions, stretching back to 1934. It is a musical, first staged in 1985, now one of the world’s longest running, which has given us the timeless tunes, including “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

All of this means that Les Miserables (2012) a film of the musical of the book, carries a considerable burden, a weight of expectation carried by both audience and cast.

For the audience, musicals are an acquired taste. Les Miserables (2012) is “sung-through.” No line of dialogue is spoken. Songs allow a long and lengthy story to be woven in ways that offer continuity yet introduce complexity. The opening chorus “Look down” suggests subservience when sung convicts. The same line when latter sung by beggars in Paris becomes a cry for justice. However, such advantages are based on a suspension of reality, a willingness to take seriously a tightly uniformed Javert exercising authority (“You are a thief”) through melody. One S Taylor went hesitant, a musical agnostic. The other S Taylor went expectant, a lover of song.

For the cast, could the Hollywood A-listers, the likes of Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine) and Hugh Jackman (Valjean), sing as well as they have been seen to act?

The answer is no. Which, apparently is deliberate. Russell Crowe responded to one vocal critic (American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert), that the goal was a performance that was “raw and real”. The cast refused any tweaking at a latter date in the studio editing suite, rejected any offers of overdubbing by professional singers.

At times these flaws, all ‘raw and real’, worked. They pointed to humanity, reminded us of reality, increase the intensity of emotion.

But only sometimes. Some performances deepened the emotional intensity (Marius’ (Eddie Raymond) “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” a case in point). In other songs the intensity leaked, the arrogant melody of Javert’s “You are a thief” diluted by a voice more ordinary than operatic.

The attempt at the twisting of genre, the filming of a score of songs, has gained mixed critical reception. Well known film critic Anthony Lane, panned it with the memorable line: “I screamed a scream as time went by.” Yet the Academy awarded Anne Hathaway Best Supporting Actress for her heart wrenching rendition of this very song, while the film also achieved Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Sound Mixing. 

Those with a theological ear will find a wealth of material in Les Miserables, whether in book, film or musical. God is with the poor. The poor are grace bearers. Prayer is preferable to violence.

These themes remain as radical in the 21st century as in the 19th when Victor Hugo dreamed his final dream: “I leave 50 000 francs to the poor … I believe in God.” (Victor Hugo’s official will).

Posted by steve at 09:31 PM