Saturday, March 07, 2015

Selma: a theological film review

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for February 2015, of Selma.

Selma
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

At the end of “Selma,” no one moved. As, the final credits rolled, those present remained seated, motionless and silent. Only as the cinema cleaner entered did people finally collect their belongings and begin to exit.

It was a fitting tribute to a moving story, powerfully told. “Selma” documents the American Civil Rights movement, in particular the period during 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr worked in the town of Selma, Alabama, to galvanise protest over the right to enrol to vote. We witness the tactics of non-violence, the hostility of Southern white response and the unfolding story, which resulted in the Voting Rights Act and the provision of Federal Government enforcement of voting fights for all minorities.

What is striking in “Selma” is how these acts of protest were shaped by a faith as political as it was domestic. In prison, pondering his decision to picket around voting rights rather than protesting poverty, King is reminded by his advisers of Scripture (Matthew 6:26-27). Needing courage, King calls a friend, seeking solace in the singing of an old Negro spiritual. Preaching in Selma, at the funeral of a protestor, King asks who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson?

“Every white lawman who abuses the law to terrorize. Every white politician who feeds on prejudice and hatred. Every white preacher who preaches the bible and stays silent before his white congregation.”

It is a powerful reminder that in the hands of the church, Bible study has at times magnified injustice, rather than worked to further God’s dreams of justice and liberation. “Selma” is a powerful reminder of how faith is political, both for good and bad.

The movie is well made, including the clever mix of actual black and white footage of protest along with the typewritten telegraph text documenting FBI surveillance. David Oyelowo is superb as Martin Luther King, as is Carmen Eiogo as King’s wife, Coretta. However, they are shaded by the standout performance of Henry G. Sanders as Cager Lee, mourning in the morgue his murdered grandson, Jimmie Lee Jackson.

It is a predominantly male cast, with King constantly surrounded by male leaders. It is a visual reminder that following the gaining of civil rights would need to come the struggle for gender equality.

This interweaves with another prominent theme, faith domestic as well as political. Time and again, Selma locates us, the viewer, in the ordinary. The movie begins with Luther worried about his tie and dreaming with Coretta of being a pastor somewhere small, with a house to call their own.

It is these domestic touches – the kitchen scenes of Southern hospitality, the putting out of the rubbish, the tucking the children into bed– that drive the humanity of the narrative. They create the empathy against which the violence that was the Civil Rights movement can be projected large.

This is “Selma” and this is why no one in the movie theatre moved. Faith, powerfully presented, with hope, that the eyes of all peoples in all of life may indeed see the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He is the author of The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change (Zondervan, 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 10:56 PM

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Water Diviner: 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 January 2015, of Water Diviner.

The Water Diviner
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“your sons … have become our sons as well.” Ataturk, 1934

One hundred years ago, New Zealand invaded another country. It was an unprovoked act of war that many argue gave our country the twentyfirst keys to nationhood. Soldiers went as the boys from Taihape, Clive or Ashburton. They returned as New Zealanders.

Perhaps it was the fact that war touched almost everyone. One in seventeen New Zealanders died or were wounded in WW1. Perhaps it was that sense of participation. Mate with mate in the trenches. Values of solidarity and loyalty and courage under fire.

Whatever the reasons, it was the nation we invaded that in time would show us how to remember. Ataturk, present at Gallipoli, who became leader of modern day Turkey, would inform us in 1934 that “your sons … have become our sons as well.” It remains a gracious and compelling way to respond to those who invade you.

In this centenary year, New Zealanders are invited to return to Gallipoli. Organisers have limited attendance to 10,500, a sign first of the enduring place that Gallipoli still holds in ANZAC memories and second, of the narrow beach and steep terrain on which so many died.

The Water Diviner provides a mature addition to the inevitable national discussion that continues to flow in regard to Gallipoli. Russell Crowe not only directs, but also acts as Connor, an Australian father who in 1919 journeys to Turkey, searching for his three sons, all reported lost at Gallipoli.

The story that unfolds provides a rich intercultural study of the impact of war. The plot is helped by character: the pairing of Connor with Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), a Turkish widow and also with Hassan (Yilmaz Erdogan), a Turkish soldier. This provides a Turkish perspective on the events of Gallipoli, including their death toll (70,000 in comparison to 10,000 Anzacs) and their descent into civil war in the years following our invasion of Gallipoli.

While the plot was compellingly mature, the acting is limited at times. One reunion scene in particular, involving Russell Crowe, was strangely wooden.

From a theological perspective, three threads intrigue. First, the comment made of Connor’s search, that “the father looks.” It is one way to understand God, as One who looks. Connor’s actions through the movie can thus be read as a contemporisation of Luke 15; the shepherd who looks for lost sheep, the housewife who looks for the lost coin.

Secondly, the role of the church. Connor’s priest (played by Damon Herriman) portrays, in contrast to Connor, a religion more intent on doctrinal precision than pastoral care. The heartlessness of the priest is accentuated by a masterful moment of cinema, in which the sound of the grave being dug outside carries forward the plot, rather than what is happening onscreen in the church. Sound is the generator of action, rather than dialogue or visual symbolism.

Third, the comment made by Hassan, that it is not forgiveness or redemption that is needed after Gallipoli. Rather it is truthful memory. In that sense, it is fitting that The Water Diviner was released not only on ANZAC soils, but also in Turkey (titled Son Umut which means “The Last Hope”)

For surely all sons, yours and ours, Turkish and ANZAC, deserve to be remembered rightly. Such is the work of The Water Diviner.

For more Anzac Day resources, including worship, sermons and others of my writings, go here.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He is the author of 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 04:54 PM

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Interstellar: a Christmas reading

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 Dececmber 2014, of Interstellar. In particular I play with Dr Mann and Christ as the new Adam.

Interstellar
A film review by Steve Taylor

Interstellar begins on earth, in order to send us to space. Human love becomes a fifth dimension, able to guide the human heart through the final frontier. So suggests Interstellar, which offers a visually stunning, but emotionally overbalanced meditation on the perils of climate change.

The film begins in rural America. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), once an astronaut, is now grounded. He farms an ever-decreasing crop of corn, bitten by blight, shredded by dust. Facing starvation, the only hope for earth becomes the finding of another planet. Cooper is sent spaceward, the one pilot able to guide earth’s last hope through a wormhole, in the search for a new earth.

Interstellar is great entertainment. Directed by Christopher Nolan, the sights and sounds are simply stunning. The multiple dimensions of space, digitally manipulated, become objects of stark and starlit beauty.

The cast is similarly star, including Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, Jessica Chastain as Murph (Cooper’s adult daughter), Anne Hathaway as fellow astronaut Brand and Michael Caine as her scientist father.

In order to enable an emotional intensity through the voids that are outer space, Christopher Nolan uses the opening scenes to establishes a depth of relationship between father (Cooper) and his adolescent daughter Murph (McKenzie Foy). While this provides emotional intensity, it reduces the other characters to cardboard cutouts. This includes the role played by Cooper’s son, Tom (Timothy Chalamet). It also makes cold the movies’ other father and daughter relationship, between Hathaway and Michael Caine.

The film seeks an intellectual sophistication. Symbolic meanings abound. The space ship Cooper will pilot is named Endurance. He will seek a Dr Mann (Matt Damon), who has gone before, and if found, might offer hope of a better place. The dialogue references Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and name drops Lazarus. The dust storms that blow through Cooper’s rural cornfields echo John Steinbeek’s Oaklhoma dustbowl.

Theologically, the move in Interstellar from earth to heaven invites some rich reflection on the opposite move in Christianity from heaven to earth.

A central character in Interstellar is the mysterious Dr Mann, sent from earth to heaven, in the hope of saving humanity. It provides a contrast to the development in the New Testament of Jesus as the new Adam, sent from heaven to earth, a new human through whom humanity will be saved.

As Interstellar unfolds, Mann’s character flaws put in stark relief the sacrificial life and love of Christ. Dr Mann will end his life in selfish pursuit of his own ends. In contrast, Christ ends his life praying not my will but yours be done.

Such is the Interstellar Christ of Christmas, revealing the love of God in every dimension, whether first or fifth, of human reality.

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 07:09 AM

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Boyhood: 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 November 2014, of Boyhood.

Boyhood
A film review by Steve Taylor

“The good news is that you’re feeling stuff.”
Father to son in Boyhood

We have either all had one or observed one.

I refer to boyhood: that process by which a child grows into an adult. “Boyhood” the movie follows Mason from age five to eighteen. Through his eyes we experience broken marriages, domestic violence, bullying and various male rites of passage deemed essential to contemporary Western cultural life. We face the pain and potential of becoming adult.

“Boyhood” was twelve years in the making, twelve short stories, each written over the shooting period. It was collaboratively, director and actors together shaping the narrative direction.

Director Richard Linklater is known for movies including “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight.” Each of the three “Before” movies focused on one twenty-four hour period.

Each explored generational rites, earning Linklater a reputation as the definitive cinematic capturer of 20-something contemporary culture, a visual Douglas Coupland.

In “Boyhood,” that one day becomes thirteen years. Academics call it longitudinal studies, repeated observations of the same variables over long periods of time. They also call it particularity, in which the focus on the singularity makes accessible what is universal. It’s impossible to watch “Boyhood” without thinking of your own becoming of age.

Each of the “Before” trilogy also features Ethan Hawke, who in “Boyhood” faces his own need to grow, from 20-something to father of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). She is also Linklater’s daughter. After the first three years of filming, she wanted out, asking her director father to find a way to kill her “Boyhood” character.

If Linklater is master of the capture of contemporary culture, then what are we seeing as we look in the “Boyhood” mirror? Reflected back are images of developing technology, the seduction of education, the corrosive power of alcohol, the potential of parents no matter life’s circumstances.

The theological notes are intriguing. Good news, a phrase rendered cliché and clunky by so many Christian churches, becomes in “Boyhood” the appreciation “that you’re feeling stuff.” It sets up the final scene in which Mason asks if we seize the moment? Or do the moments seize us? Hence good news becomes feeling the experiences of the now.

It is an intriguing attempt at theology, given that growth over time, grasped through a sense of unfolding memory lies at the movie’s core. This is best depicted by Mason and Samantha’s mother (Patricia Arquette), as she faces the adulthood of her children.

“This is the worst day of my life. I knew this day would come, except why is it happening now? First I get married, have kids, end up with two ex-husbands, go back to school, get my degree, get my masters, send both my kids off to college. What’s next? My own funeral?”

For her to experience the now is news more bad than good. Which perhaps is the real message of “Boyhood.” That growing up is for adults.

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 08:51 PM

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Giver 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 October 2014, of The Giver. This one is extra special, given I got to write it with my teenage daughter.

The Giver
A film review by K and S Taylor

“Out of great suffering came a solution; Communities.”

The Giver was a book and is now a movie. It might yet be a secular Christmas story. It begins with 18-year-old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), surrounded by best friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan). Together they are assigned lifelong tasks by the Elders of their Community.

For Jonas, he is to become the Receiver of Memory. Sent to the Community’s edge, he encounters a mysterious old man (Jeff Bridges), called The Giver. Jonas finds himself the recipient of the memories of what life used to be like before the Community.

The memories Jonas receives include both the best and worst of times, each laced with colour and feeling. Snow and sled offer hope and freedom, a life truly alive. Yet war and death suggest the human ability to create conflict and inflict pain.

The Giver forces us to consider the world we live within. How does a community deal with the worst of their history? How could a community take the best from the past and allow that to shape the choices their children will make?

Intriguingly, this movie set in the future begins in black and white. Colour is used to develop both plot and character. Through the memories The Giver gives, Jonas experiences reds, yellows and greens. With each memory, these colours increase. Gradually Jonas realises he can see beyond what is, and into what could be.

The Giver began life as a book for teenagers by popular author Lois Lowry. Adapted for the big screen by Michael Mitnick and directed by Australian born, Philip Noyce, the acting is excellent. These include standout performances from Jeff Bridges, as The Giver, Meryl Streep as Chief Elder and Brenton Thwaites as Jonas. Mitnick’s adaptation provides a more definitive ending and introduces the thoughtprovoking final scene.

Jonas’s first received memory has involved sliding down a mountain on a sled, surrounded by soft snow. In the final scene, this memory becomes his present reality. As Jonas slides down the hills, he is surrounded by the sounds of a family singing Silent Night. Together, his first received memory and this present reality perfectly completes the plot. A silent night is over, as Jonas and his people enter into a new dawn, one filled with colour and emotion, song and memory.

Jonas’s journey acts as a trigger, releasing all the memories back into his Community. He has grown from Receiver into Giver. Through his suffering comes the solution, a new community, one of unique personalities, emotions, colour and life.

In this scene Jonas is carrying a young child. When linked with the sounds of Silent Night drifting through the snow, this triggers in the viewer a biblical memory. Could this be interpreted as a Christmas story, with a new calm merging from beyond the edge?

Silent Night, Holy Night.
All is calm, All is bright.

Kayli Taylor is a high school student, and an excessive doodler, procrastinator, budding gypsy and musician. She enjoys travelling, Autumn and good books.

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 08:00 PM

Friday, September 05, 2014

A cross to carry: Calvary 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 September 2014, of Calvary.

Calvary
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.” Jack Brennan, Village butcher

Calvary is, according to the Christian faith, the place where Jesus met death. It stands at the end of his Passion, the final resting place in a final week of suffering. “Calvary” is also a film, in which a respected Catholic priest in a remote Irish village is invited, unexpectedly, to face his death.

One Saturday, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) in the act of offering a routine round of confession, hears an unknown man recount his story of childhood abuse. The actions of a certain “bad priest”, now dead, deserve punishment. Father James, has been chosen, because he is a “good priest”, to atone for the sins on another by meeting his death Sunday week. It is a bitter take on the Christian interpretation of Calvary, in which one innocent man is invited to suffer for the sins of another.

It is a clever move, both theologically and technically. It provides a way to cast a darkening shadow over James daily life as a priest. At mass on Sunday, through pastoral visitation on Monday, at the pub on Wednesday, James encounters a host of multiple minor characters. An angry mechanic (Isaach De Bankole), a cynical surgeon (Aidan Gillen), a dying novelist (M. Emmet Walsh), each amplify the opening confession.

It builds suspense. Which one of the males James encounters is the unknown man in the confessional? Together these multiple characters become a rising crescendo of sustained outrage. The road to James’ Calvary becomes a suffering not only for the sins of a “bad priest”, but for the acts of a “bad church”, enmeshed in a perceived history of colonisation, injustice and oppression.

Brendan Gleeson as Father James is superb. Entering the priesthood following the death of his wife, he towers over the windswept heather of this bleak Irish coastline. Intelligent, deadpan, he seems, like a sponge, to absorb the hostility that surrounds him. He is delightfully humanised by the appearance of his daughter (Kelly Reilly).

Her appearance introduces a further challenge to the Christian narrative of Calvary. If Christ’s crucifixion is preordained, is it actually a suicide?

In “Calvary”, as in the Gospel accounts of Calvary, the Christ light of devotion and faith are held most clearly by assorted women. We met Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze), whose husband dies in a car accident on the last day of their long planned holiday. She meets this tragedy with grace and acceptance. It is a welcome foil to the bitterness of the village and a source of sustenance for James as he contemplates whether his cup of suffering should be taken from him.

In the end, “Calvary” is one man against a village. It is hard to imagine in real life a priest so isolated. Or perhaps this is the message of the movie? That today, the Church in the West is isolated. Alone it needs to suffer, in atonement for the sins of it’s past.

If so, then it might find aid in the faith of many a Teresa as it prays through the agony of Gethsemane and the suffering of Calvary.

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 11:43 PM

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