Thursday, August 29, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -0; L -4; S/N-5 . Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

Jasmine with husband and son (far left) lived a lavish life
style in the Hamptons before fall into the impoverished class.
 (c) 2013 Sony Pictures Classics
 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
   for you have received your consolation. 
 ‘Woe to you who are full now,
   for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
   for you will mourn and weep.
            Luke 6:24-25

We hear much in op eds and political debates about America’s class warfare, about how the 1% of Americans who allegedly control as much wealth as the bottom 90% are imbued with a sense of entitlement and superiority. I can think of no better illustration of this than Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine, in which Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of a once wealthy wife is bound to earn her a Best Actress nomination.

Flower lovers will know that the title does not refer to the plant, the flower of which is usually white or blue, but to the mood of the character named after it. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and Ginger (Sally Hawkins) were raised together as adopted children from different sets of biological parents. Their parents showered more attention on beautiful Jasmine over the plain Ginger, so the latter left home as soon as she could to make her own way. She married working class Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), the two of them producing two boys, both of whom are destined to have weight problems. Then comes the day that they hit the California Lottery big time, winning $200,000. Intending to start his own business, Augie sees this as their way out of their life of living from paycheck to paycheck.

Meanwhile Jasmine has dropped out of college to marry the handsome and wealthy Hal (Alec Baldwin), a rich Wall Street schemer who is always using other people’s money to fund dubious new ventures. As evidence of her upward mobility drive she has changed her name from Janette to the more upscale name of the flower. They have one grown son Danny. Jasmine’s life of conspicuous consumption in the Hamptons is filled with Manhattan shopping sprees, lunches at elegant restaurants, and hosting parties and lavish charity events. They feel put upon when Ginger and Augie pay them a visit during their trip to New York City, but when they learn that the pair have just won a big sum of money, smooth-talking Hal seduces Augie into investing it in what turns out to be a Ponzi scheme. Ginger, who was not enthusiastic about this, becomes even more worried when she spies Hal lunching with and kissing a woman who is not her sister.

All the above is told in a series in intermittent flashbacks as Jasmine, now popping pills and taking frequent sips of vodka from her flask or glass, tries to cope with her new distasteful circumstances. Not only has she finally caught her philandering husband in one of his numerous affairs, but also she precipitates the series of events that leads to Hal’s arrest, conviction, and imprisonment. Unable to cope he has committed suicide. Jasmine’s survival plan involves her flying cross country and moving in with her sister, whose marriage had ended with divorce after they had lost their money. None of this may seem funny, but Allen’s wit is scattered throughout the film.

As has been pointed out by several reviewers, the plot is very much like that of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Ginger’s fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a lowly (to Jasmine) garage mechanic, quickly developing a passionate hatred for the one he calls “A phony!” Chili is upset that his plans to move in with Ginger have to be put on hold now that Jasmine is there. Ginger feels caught in the middle, her sister loyalty strong despite the way Jasmine has always looked down upon her. 

Jasmine wants to start life anew by finishing college and taking a computer course so she can obtain an interior decorator’s license, but has to find work to fund this, reluctantly following Chili’s tip to obtain a receptionist’s job at a dental office. However, this soon ends when Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to follow through on his lust for her. Then she meets the man who could restore her to the status she feels she deserves, the well-heeled wealthy diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). He has long range plans to enter politics and needs a trophy wife like Jasmine. But will her less than wholesome past marriage and tendency to dodge reality and deceive herself and others get in the way?

Every member of the ensemble cast performs well, but Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the once wealthy Jasmine is unforgettable, perhaps the only other portrayal of a Narcissistic neurotic     woman that compares being that of Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara (she also played Blanche!). Her character is so fully defined—nervous tics, almost incessant drinking, tendency to talk out loud inappropriately in public places, disdainful expressions, and elegant dress—that she emerges as a real person. And even though we see what a despicable person she is, we are still drawn to her and, if not root for her, wish that she might achieve a measure of self-understanding. This is a fascinating, detailed study of a woman whose worst enemy is herself. Her fate seems to bear out what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a far different situation, but which applies to Jasmine’s fate, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice” Although not intended as a social justice film, Mr. Allen’s revelation of the hollow lifestyle of “the rich and famous” as seen in Jasmine could be a midrash of Jesus’ denunciation of the uncaring rich, or of the equally harsh denunciation of the wealthy by the prophet Amos. One of Mr. Allen’s best films in years, this must not to be missed!

For Reflection/Discussion

Spoilers near the end.

1. Compare Jasmine to Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Or to Scarlett O’Hara. What does the opening sequence of Jasmine talking to a fellow plane passenger reveal about her?
2. How is Chili a good stand in for Stanley Kowalski? What insight does he have into Jasmine that her sister lacks?
3. Despite her many flaws, what did you find attractive about Jasmine? Was this mainly physical characteristics? From what you see of her relationship to her husband and to Dr. Flicker, how do you think that she is a victim of life’s circumstances?
4. What do you think of her efforts to develop the one skill she seems to possess—her sense of style and décor? Do you think that she could become successful as an interior decorator? What might get in the way of such success?
5. What fatal error does she make when she meets Dwight? Which of her many flaws do you think lead her to commit this mistake?
6, Although their story is secondary, how does Ginger and Chili’s story compare to that of their sister-in-law’s? How is his love close to agape love?
7. Why does her son Danny act toward her the way he does when Jasmine hunts him down? Do you think that the ending bears out the insight of Dr. King’s quotation?

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Spectacular Now

Rated R. Our ratings: V -0; L -4; S -5/N-1 . Running time: 1 hour 35 min.

Sutter and Aimee are from two different
worlds at their high school.
(c) 2013 A24

But when he came to himself 
Luke 15:17

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Phillipians 2:4

Based on the novel by Tim Tharp, director James Ponsoldt’s delightful coming of age film has been compared to those in which John Hughe’s so skillfully explored teenage angst for an earlier generation. The major difference is that most teenagers won’t be admitted to this film because of the film’s R-rating. The two love scenes depicted definitely earn this rating, but they are not milked for eroticism, there being little actual nudity involved. The title is interesting, at first sight perhaps suggesting teacher John Keating’s “Carpe diem” in Dead Poet’s Society, but as we listen to this film’s high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) talk about his wanting to stay in the now where he is enjoying himself so immensely, we perceive quite a touch of irony in it.

The film begins with Sutter at his computer desk trying to answer on a college entrance exam what hardship he has faced and overcome. This sets off a series of flashbacks in which we see that he is an under achiever who has always been the life of the party. Popular with his fellow students, he is not a jock, nor much of anything else—just a guy who can make friends laugh and enjoy themselves. He does hold down a part-time job at a clothing store, where he has a winning way with customers—though we worry over his frequent sips from the whiskey flask he always carries with him. His girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) is also popular, though we soon see, a lot more committed than he—I doubt very much that he has thought about their getting married. And he likes to spike his soft drinks with liquor that he finds easy to obtain through charm and guile.  Sutter’s best quality, one that makes us root for him, is that he likes to help people.

It is while helping his overly shy friend hook up with a girl that results in Cassidy dumping him. Sutter is so upset that he drinks himself to oblivion, waking up the early the next morning on a front lawn to find a worried Aimee (Shailene Woodley) standing over him. She is relieved that he is alive, but has no idea as to where his car is. She needs to move on to finish delivering newspapers for her irresponsible mother, who actually is in charge of the route. Sutter talks her into taking him along to help toss out the rolled up papers and to try to find where he left his car.

Aimee attends the same school, but Sutter cannot recall her name because they did not move in the same circles. He is drawn to the shy and thus a bit withdrawn girl not for romantic reasons—he still hopes to patch things up with Cassidy—but in order to help her come out of her shell. As they get to know each other, he admires her choice of science/fantasy literature. Learning of her dream of going to a Philadelphia college, a plan her mother’s opposes, he urges her to stand up to her. We learn that she, as well as Sutter, has grown up without the presence of a father.

Getting Cassidy back proves more than problematic. At the party to which he takes Aimee he discovers that his former girlfriend has moved on, dating now a student who is a football star and a serious student. (I liked the fact that though this student is black, no one indicated that this was unusual or notable. Maybe we, or at least Hollywood, really are making some racial progress.) Sutter becomes more involved with Aimee, inviting her now to the prom, but it is obvious that she takes their relationship more seriously than he does. Again we worry about his drinking when the prom gift he gives her is a small silver flask.

Aimee, encouraged by Sutter stands up to her mom concerning going away to college. She returns the favor by helping Sutter with his concern to contact his absent father (Kyle Chandler). His mom Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a nurse, has always refused to tell him anything about the man, and his married sister Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has gone along with their mother’s refusal. He finally persuades Holly to give him the information, and Aimee agrees to accompany him on the three-hour drive. There follows the most poignant scene in the film, one which almost ends in disaster—and which leads at last to Sutter’s coming to himself.

Back to the title again: Sutter seems like a modern day Peter Pan in his clutching at “the spectacular now.” His initial total disregard for the future is appropriate for a hedonist, perhaps someone whose motto is “Eat, drink, and be merry”—and note the rest of that famous dictum is left off because his immersion in the Now blinds him to his mortality. On the other hand, Sutter’s Now is anything but spectacular. He is failing geometry, which threatens his graduation; girlfriend Cassidy has broken with him; his longing to connect with his absent father has been thwarted by his mother, whom he does not appreciate; and he is gradually sinking into the downward spiral of alcohol dependency, which in turn has led to his losing the job he enjoys. The film does a spectacular job of bringing us into the life of a teenager whose great potential might be destroyed, with the boy following in the hollow footsteps of a father whose knowledge of his failure is so painful that he must drown it in alcohol. To his credit, Sutter tries to break with Aimee, believing that he can only bring her down into his world. (Maybe he remembers the gift of the flask, something that Aimee also is now using too much.)

The writing (by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Brown) and acting are so good that this would have been an excellent film for church youth leaders to use, but there are those two sex scenes, this film like most Hollywood productions assuming “everybody’s doing it.” (At least we see Aimee supplying Sutter with a condom.) Thus, this is a dubious choice to show at the church when the film becomes available on DVD. Should you believe, as I do, that it is one of the best films to explore the teen experience since John Hughes was at work, be sure to bring in the parents and explain why you want to use it. In the meantime, simply enjoy it—or maybe, after careful explanation, even work up a theater party of parents and teens.

Note: the full version of this review with 8 discussion questions will appear in the Sept/Oct issue of Visual Parables. Also, I just realized that I have not explained on this blog VP's rating system, based on a scale of 0 (none) to 10 (highest--V = Violence; L = Language; and S/N = Sex/Nudity. This is more impressionist than scientific--I do not sit in the dar counting naugthy words or measure the amount of skin exposed.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lee Daniels The Butler

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-5; L-5 ; S/N-2 . Running time: 2 hours  12 min.

The Kennedys meet the black staff for the first time.
(c) 2013 Weinstein Pictures

I say to God, my rock,
   ‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
   because the enemy oppresses me?’
Psalm 42.9

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son and son against father…
Luke 12:49-53

But when he came to himself…
Luke 15:17a 

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

How propitious that this powerful drama, based on an article in the Washington Post was released during the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech! The film’s butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) may be a fictionalized version of the real Eugene Allen, but the events he witnessed, inside and outside the White House, are true, indeed historic, including Pres. Eisenhower’s sending in troops to protect the students integrating the Little Rock Central High School; the Kennedys and the Freedom Riders; the Selma March and Pres. John’s “We Shall Overcome” speech; the Mississippi Summer Feedom Project; the urban riots following the murder of Dr. King; the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, and much, much more. Some critics have mentioned Forest Gump in their reviews, but by means of juxtapositioning of scenes in the White House with those occuring outside its orderly interior, as well as by some telling conversations among black characters, Lee Daniels and scriptwriter  Danny Strong have created much more of a social justice film by comparison.

Cecil’s story begins in 1926 in a Georgia cotton field (not the Virginia of real-life Eugene Allen) where 8 year-old Cecil (Michael Rainey, Jr.) is upset to see Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) force his mother Hattie Pearl (Moriah Carey) into a barn. Knowing what has transpired there, the boy incites his father Earl (David Banner) to make a mild protest, whereupon the white overseer draws his pistol and shoots his field hand. This brutal scene, considered by some reviewers as injected for shock value, actually serves both not only to show how dangerous it was for a black to show even the slightest sign of resistance to white domination, but also to explain why, as years later the now elderly son says that he has always worn two faces, the outward, subservient one, and the private one. Had Cecil had any schooling, he might have used Paul Laurence Dunbar’s famous poem with its opening lines, “We wear the mask that grins and lies,/It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.” This powerful poem, addressed to blacks, describes what virtually every African American was forced to do during the Jim Crow era in order to survive in a racist society in which a white could kill a black with impunity. In its third stanza the poem reveals the pain of having to wear the mask, “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries/To thee from tortured souls arise.”

Ironically, it is his father’s murder that improves the boy’s work situation. The white matriarch Anabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on the father-deprived boy and takes him out of the sweltering cotton field to make him a “house Negro,” which means he is taught good manners and dress and how to set a table and serve the dishes. Above all, she gives him the order that will shape his life ever after, “A room should feel empty when you’re in it.” She means to be kind, and so is completely unaware of how dehumaizing is this custom of regarding servants as pieces of furniture. Later on Cecil will see that the attitude at the White House is little different. No wonder that African Americans read far more into the “White” of the Exceutive Mansion than whtes do.

When he is a teenager Cecil realizes that he cannot stay any longer on the plantation where his father’s killer is one of the heirs. His mother, suffering mentally ever since the murder of her husband, barely is aware of his leaving. Mrs. Westfall, obviously supportive of the lad’s decsision slips a book into his bosom as he bids her farewell. I wish more had been made of this—had she been like the white woman in the 1995 film Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored wherein an aristocratic white woman had encouraged a black boy to read her books? Anyway, away from the plantation young Cecil falls onto hard times, unable to find work, and thus reduced to trying to steal a cake to feed his starving body. The kindly black assistant at the shop helps get him hired on, and teaches the boy even more than about serving—at one point he orders the boy not to say “house nigger.” “It’s a white man’s word,” he says. From there Cecil goes to Washington to work at a posh hotel where the demands for decorum are even higher, and then when a White House staffer is impressed by him, he is taken on at the White House.

Eisenhower (Robin Williams) is the first of the Presidents that Cecil serves, and the episode depicts the days when Ike is agonizing about sending troops in to protect the black students integrating the Little Rock Central High School. He is extremely reluctant to do so, realizing how explosive the racial situation is, and how politically costly siding with the “Negores” would be. An almost spooky scene during his term is the visit to the kitchen by Vice President Nixon (a strangely cast John Cusack) in search of votes in the upcoming election. The discomfort is apparent on both sides, with the blacks reluctantly accepting (but not putting on) the “Elect Nixon” badges he passes out to them. Nixon asks what the men would like. When one of them says that pay equal to that of the white staff, Nixon promises that he will change that, but when he does move into the White House, rebuffs the request—of course, this is 8 years later after the promise, so we can assume that he did not remember the promise.

Of all the presidentail terms depicted, I was most impressed by the incidents unfolding during the all too brief Kennedy admininistration, and not just because of the sorrowful events of the assassination. In this sequence juxtaposition of scenes was used so powerfully, the camera shifting back and forth between guests being served at a White House dinner and scenes of Cecil’s son taking part in the civil rights movement despite his father’s orders. Other than in the TV film about the coming of the civil rights movement to a small Mississippi town, Daniels’ film does the best job of showing the training in discipline and courage of the college students—black and white—who intended to integrate a whites only lunch counter at a Nashville Woolworths dime store.

 Louis, the oldest son of Cecil and Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), is one of many Fisk University students attracted to James Lawson (Jesse Williams), the young minister colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the workshop on nonviolence. After lecturing on Gandhi, each student in a role play is subjected to a harsh round of taunts and racial slurs from other students. A white lad tells Lawson that he cannot call the person he’s supposed to attack a “nigger,” that just isn’t something he can do. Lawson insists, pointing out that the role playing must be realistic. The student, tears rising in his eyes, complies. Adding to the realism are the mustard and catsup poured onto the heads of the trainees. The camera cuts away to Cecil and his colleagues, immaculately dressed in tuxedos preparing for a state dinner. The student action moves on to Woolworths where the white help and patrons are shocked that the mixed race group of students are transgressing the time honored system of Jim Crow seating. They are refused service, insulted, and soon, as toughs arrive, hateful words transpose into spiteful deeds. “Stand up!” the sit-in students are ordered. “Stand up,” the guests seated at the White House are told as the President and First Lady enter the room. The guests are served courteously by the black staff, whereas at Woolworths those aspiring to eat at the lunchcounter are not only refused service by the waitress, but are covered with condiments, knocked off their stools, and some of them beaten, and then hauled off to jail.

There is much more to tell of this excellent film, that strangely on the Imdb site has been accused by some viewers as boring and too one-sided. Cecil is castigated because he is so subservient, taking little part in the events around him. These posters forget that virtually all his mentors, from Anabeth at the plantation on have trained him to be what novelist Ralph Ellison called “the invisible man,” training that was reinforced by his superiors at the White House—there he was to hear nothing and say nothing—to “wear the mask,” as Dunbar wrote. Indeed, at that time the whole culture—literature, movies, radio, and degrading images of “Negroes” in advertising proclaimed that the Negro was an inferior who must be kept in his place!

Louis is important in the story because he represents the younger generation of blacks who refuse to accept their parents’ obsequious relationship to whites. We watch Louis himself develop from a believer in nonviolence to a period when, disillusioned by the perception of the  failure of nonviolence following the murder of Dr. King, he and his girlfriend  join the Black Pamther Party, leading to Cecil ordering them from the house during a dinner table quarrel. But when told that they must be ready to kill white men, Louis leaves, eventually finishing college and becoming a candidate for office in Tennessee. For many years he remains estranged from his father until…

Both Gloria and Cecil move away from their opposition to the civil rights movent. Gloria herself has  drawn back from an affair she had fallen into because Cecil’s long hours at the White House had left her alone most of the time. The change in Cecil must have begun when Pres. Kennedy asked him about Louis, showing that he already knew about the young man’s arrest record—16 times. Commenting on the Freedom Rides and sit-ins, the President says, “You know my brother says these kids changed his heart. They’ve changed mine too.” It will take a long time for Cecil’s heart to change, but by the time he quietly brings up to Pres. Reagon the matter (the second Presidnet he has approached) of the black staff’s unfair pay, he has come far enough to open up his heart again to Louis. It is a tender and moving scene. The film then returns to the scene which began the film, the retired Cecil sitting on a bench in the White House waiting to be ushered into the presence of the black President he never thought possible. When a black aide comes, expressing his admiration for him and saying that he will show him the way, the old man responds, “I know the way.”

Every person of faith should see this film and discuss it with others. White and African American pastors should seek each other out and see if their congregations are willing to meet together and talk about the issues raised. Some of the conversations the black characters have among themselves will surprise many whites about their assumptions and views, one example being how acclaimed actor Sidney Poittier is perceived by militant blacks. It is so good to see a film in which the story of blacks is told without bringing in on an equal basis a white character to share the star credits. Oh yes, the constellation of famous whites playing the supporting roles has garnered lots of attention, but essentially this is an African American story told by African Americans. It may be open to the charge of over simplifying a complex period in our nation’s history, but my response is, “This is a movie, not a history lecture. Lectures are good and necessary to cover the facts, but as a movie it does much more than a factual lecture can—by identifying with the characters we come to feel what they did and see the world through new eyes, their eyes that had welled up with tears so many times by the injustices committed against them.” Few films manage to accomplish so much in the minds and hearts of its audience. No wonder that the audience applauded at the matinee showing I attended.

For Reflection/Discission

1. What did you think of Anabeth Westfall’s  counsel to young Cecil, “A room should feel empty when you’re in it.” Compare this to the way some of the white women regarded their cooks and maids in The Help. How is this advice just the opposite of what motivational speakers say to their audiences?
2. Cecil speaks of wearing two faces? How was this necessary for survival? What price did Cecil’s father pay for forgetting this? To see and discuss Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” go to:
3. What does the teenaged Cecil’s mentor mean when he stops the boy from saying “house nigger” and declares that the last word is a white man’s word? How is this right, that is, how has it become a weapon when used by whites? Note that black comedian and social activist Dick Gregory daringly named his 1964 autobiography Nigger, turning the word around so that a black man could say the word without feeling shamed. In typical Gregory style, he writes in his introduction, “Dear Momma -- Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word “nigger” again, remember they are advertising my book.
4. How do we see at the White House that “white” has more than one meaning? Did you wonder why even the liberal presidents did not address the issue of unequal pay between white and black employees?
5. Which of the administrations were you most interested in?  Due to necessary time limitations each presidential sequence was brief, so were you satisfied with the few details that were covered? Were you surprised at Pres. Eisenhower’s hesitancy to send troops to control the angry mobs threatening the black students newly enrolled at the high school? What were his reasons?
6. Much had to be left out, but what was the glaring omission from the Kennedy era? Why do you think the “I Have a Dream Speech” was not covered?
7. What did you think of the nonviolent training session led by James Lawson? How were the teachings of Gandhi employed in the civil rights movement? What do you think of the discipline and courage required to be an activist? (As mentioned in the review, another good film showing this kind of training is the cable TV film Freedom Song ( )
For more on Lawson, who is still living, see the Wikipedia article on him at:
7. Did the Freedom Rider bus incident seem too dramatic or “Hollywood”? This was a tiny part of a long story that is wonderfully told in the PBS documentary Freedom Riders, a film as exciting as any Hollywood thriller. The entire almost two-hour film can be viewed at:
8. What did you think of Pres. Kennedy’s observation that the youth participating in the sit-ins and Freedom Rides changed their hearts? How is this a testimony to the power of nonviolence?
Here are two Gandhi quotes on the subject:
"Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man."
"Whenever you are confronted with an opponent. Conquer him with love."
These, along with many others, can be found at:
Dr. King also spoke much about nonviolence and love:
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
And the quote which begins the movie:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
― Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches
What do you think he means by “darkness” and “light”?
9. How does Cecil react to his son’s arrest? How was this typical of the black (and white, for that matter) community then? What changed this attitude for the younger generation so that arrest and jail time became a badge of honor? For discussion below are three quotes that helped shape this new attitude toward law and order:
“If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law”
― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays
“An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so. Now the law of nonviolence says that violence should be resisted not by counter-violence but by nonviolence. This I do by breaking the law and by peacefully submitting to arrest and imprisonment.”
― Mahatma Gandhi, Non-violence in Peace and War 1942-49
“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
These and many others can be found on:
10. How does Louis’s view of movie star Sidney Poitier differ from his parents’? For an example of this, think back to what kind of a character he played in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? How was the concept of “the Noble Negro” (Louis would say “White Man’s Negro”) important in order to get whites to go see the film? Note that author James Baldwin reported that in the Poitier-Tony Curtiss prison escape film The Fugitive that there were two different audience reactions to the scene in which Poitier reaches out to lift Curtis into the back of the truck as it speeds away from their pursuers. Whites expressed approval that Poitier would help the prejudiced man who had once scorned him, whereas black audiences hooted and yelled such things as, “Fool!”
11. In response to the jury’s verdict in the Trayvon Martin case Pres. Obama said, “I think it is important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t g away.” How does this relate to the above?
12. What do you think of the film’s Forest Gump-like scene in which Louis is present with Dr. King in his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis? When pressed about his father, Louis reluctantly says that he is a butler. What does Dr. King say that seeks to raise the son’s opinion of his father?
13. What do you think of the film’s depiction of the Black Panthers? What influenced Louis and so many other blacks (Stokely Carmichael being the most famous) to give up on nonviolence and embrace a more militant approach that could include violence? What was written on the blackboard in the scene of the Black Panther meeting? How did it suggest a different view of the Panthers from that promulgated by the media and the FBI (a vicious gang of killers)? And yet Black Panther ideology did embrace violence: what does Louis reveal about his values when he tells his girlfriend that he is leaving the group?
14. What do you think of the spiritual journey of Cecil? What influences him to move from his go-along-to-get-along viewpoint? How did you feel after the reconciliation scene? How has Louis grown as well as his father?
15. During the over 50-year period covered by the film how has the country grown? What has it cost for a black man to be able to become President of the USA? A good way to review this cost is to read, or if a group, to sing, what has been called “The Negro National Anthem,” James Weldon John’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It is included in many modern church hymnals, and its history, along with the words, can be accessed at:
Pay attention especially to the middle verse that begins with “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,/Felt in the days when hope unborn had died.”  How do you see God in all of this history? What societal/personal changes do you think we still have to make before the last lines of that stanza are met—“Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last/Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast”?
16. The Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election” c an be accessed at

Monday, August 19, 2013

How Dr. King Almost Got Me Fired

This week’s observance of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s great speech climaxing the March on Washington brought back many memories. 1963 was the year I graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary and accepted my first call to serve a three-church parish in North Dakota. When I heard that summer of the plans for the great civil rights gathering in the nation’s capital, I wanted badly to join the throng. I had long admired Dr. King and had heard him speak in person (more on that in a moment). I was certain that his speech would be the highlight of the event. But Washington was a long way off, My wife and I had little spare money, and, most important, I was just beginning my pastorate and had no time off coming. So, like many other Americans, I listened and watched as much of the proceedings as possible on TV.

A little over four years earlier it was Dr. King who in a way almost got me fired from my first church job. While a college student at Butler University I was hired by an inner city Presbyterian church to help start and lead an after school program for children and youth, even though I was a Methodist. The church’s pastor and the church session (governing board for you non-Presbyterians) had a vision for using their building as a means of serving young people who had no place to go except the unsupervised streets for recreation after school. I was a serious reader since my childhood, in high school having been introduced to Gandhi and his writings, so when the Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful, leading to the publication of Dr. King’s book Stride Toward Freedom, I eagerly bought and read it.

 Thrilled by the book, I longed to be engaged in some meaningful resistance to racial segregation. That opportunity came sooner than expected when a call was sent out (I think by the N.A.A.C.P.) for “people of good will” to walk a picket line at the Galyans Supermarket on the west side of Indianapolis. Galyans was a local chain with grocery stores in all sections of Indianapolis. This particular Galyans was located in an “all-Negro” area, but its management had refused to hire any blacks as cashiers or clerks, other than for menial jobs of sweeping and carrying out the garbage. The picket line was part of a boycott—the message being, if you won’t hire blacks, then we will not buy your groceries. So, filled with a romantic view of fighting for the right, I drove over to the store on the day of the event.

Walking that line with a sign demanding equal employment in my hands was perhaps the scariest thing I had done up till then, my romantic feelings quickly giving way to fear. None of my friends went. I had not told my mother and step dad, with whom I was still living while going to college.  So, walking back and forth with mostly black strangers, I felt alone and vulnerable. People, most of them also black, came and went. The press took pictures. And then I heard a loud thumping on the store window. It took me a moment to realize that the person doing the thumping was trying to get my attention. His face, contorted by anger, looked familiar. Suddenly I realized it was D. J. He belonged to the church where I worked as youth director. His pleasant tenor voice was an important part of the choir, to which I also belonged. We had exchanged pleasantries many times at choir practice and on Sunday mornings. He gestured toward the door, so I walked over to it where he met me. How dare I do such a thing as picket his store, he declared, among many other things. Turns out he was the assistant manager of the store. He promised to call the minister and the members of session. Either he or I would soon be leaving the church!

D.J. kept his promise, and the pastor called the session to meet with me—and also representatives from the Presbytery, the governing body for all Presbyterian churches in Indianapolis. This was the late Fifties, a couple of years before the national leaders of the Presbyterian church (led by Eugene Carson Blake) began to take part in demonstrations demanding the integration of facilities, so none of my interrogators had any precedent for dealing with my participation in the protest at Galyans. I had been very close to the minister—indeed, he had convinced me to leave the Methodist Church and become a Presbyterian—but he was largely silent during the meeting, though it did become obvious that he did not accept D. J.’s demand that I be fired.

The head of the Presbytery assumed leadership of the meeting, asking why I would do such a thing? His tone implied that walking a picket line with a protest sign in the “Negro side of town” was not the sort of thing a good Presbyterian should do. I replied that I was an admirer of Dr. King and the freedom movement he was leading, that it was wrong for a store to sell to blacks but refuse to hire them, and that I could not in good conscience teach and lead the youth of the church if I had refused the invitation to picket. I would have felt like a hypocrite.

There was more said, but I recall little of it, something like a haze descending on me as I sat in the hot seat, and never a word of encouragement issuing from these local leaders of my denomination whom I considered my mentors. I wish I could say now that challenging, prophetic words shot forth from my mouth—later I thought that I should have said, “Why weren’t you there if you really believe in equality and justice?”--or that I turned down their offer that if I would not go back the next day to the demonstration, there would be no further repercussions—but I didn’t. I stayed, and D.J. left the church. I had gone through a mild form of what the New Testament calls a baptism or trial by fire but had not been very heroic.

Just a few months later Dr. King came to Indianapolis and spoke to a large crowd at the old Cadle Tabernacle where for several generations preachers had proclaimed a very different message than the black leader’s social justice brand of the gospel. My then fiancé Sandra was with me, both of us inspired by his message, and privileged to go up and meet him at the end of the event. I have wondered if I had heard him in person first before my meager attempt to follow his teachings of resistance to injustice, I might have felt and acted more bravely. A few years after this, in August of 1964, I had an opportunity to find out, answering, with my wife’s agreement and support, the call to travel south with a colleague to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Project, an ambitious attack on Jim Crow in the nation’s “most segregated state.” But that, as they say, is another story.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Way Way Back

Rated PG-13.  Our ratings: V -1; L-3; S/N -3. Running time: 1 hour 43 min.

And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; 
you are of more value than many sparrows.
Matthew 10:30-31

Duncan meets the man who will change his outlook on life.
(c) 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures

One of the best comedy-dramas of the year involves poor 14 year-old Duncan (Liam James) and his newly divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette) invited to spend the summer at the seaside cottage of her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). It is very symbolic that in Trent’s station wagon the shy Duncan sits in the very back seat that faces backward. Trent is one of those cocksure guys who’s convinced he’s a blessing to everyone else, so he asks Trent how he would rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. Flustered, the boy answers, “6.” Trent yells back, “3,” leaving he boy humiliated and enraged.

What a way for a potential step dad to start off with his lover’s son! Trent’s disdainful daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) is just as difficult, snubbing the slightly younger boy. And Pam, asleep up front misses this putdown, but later when she hears others, keeps silent, obviously not wanting to spoil her first serious relationship since her divorce. Several times she realizes that a caustic remark by Trent her son has hurt her son, but she seems powerless to come to his aid, other than by a wistful glance in his direction.

When they arrive at the cabin their neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) almost overwhelms them with her gushy welcome and gossip about the other summer residents. Her daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), about a year older than Duncan, tries to strike up a conversation with Duncan, but the withdrawn boy barely responds. He would much rather be with his dad, but the latter claims his circumstances do not allow this.

Duncan soon finds escape from the cabin via a bicycle (a girl’s bike, a pink one at that!) that he discovers in the cluttered garage. During his rides around the town and its environs he comes upon the Water Wizz Park where the crazy-talking Owen (Sam Rockwell) works as a jack of all trades. His humor at first falls flat on Duncan and at times almost gets him fired by his long-suffering boss. However, as Duncan returns day after day, the boy finds he has a father figure, an adult who actually listens to him because he cares about him. The sober boy even begins to get Owen’s humor as his mood lightens up. Duncan hires on, finding a supportive group of fellow employees that are in stark contrast to Trent and the others back at the cabin—with Susanna, to whom Duncan slowly opens up, being the exception. He even gains the nickname "Pop 'n' Lock” when he awkwardly attempts to break dance.
None of Duncan’s exploits are known to Pam or Trent, this to me being the weak point in the plot—how could a boy stay out all night or get a job without his mother’s knowledge and consent? Pam does ask him where he’s been or what he’s been doing when he returns at the end of the day, but his generalized answers would never satisfy a real mother: all the ones I know would have been all over him or gone out during the day to find him. Despite this, director Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have given us a good coming-of-age film. The campfire scene in which the transformed Duncan blurts out to his mother the truth about Trent’s philandering, is powerful drama, especially when Trent lashes back with the truth about Duncan’s father, that the man is too busy with his new family for Duncan to come and spend time with him.
This is one of those films that stand out when compared to the usual inane summer comedy. It is mostly devoid of the juvenile anal humor of so many Holly wood films about teens. There are adults who are jerks, but also some who have the wisdom of experience to impart, and the compassion to pass it on. The ending also resists our desire that Pam dump Trent and link up to Owen so that they can “live happily ever after,” the ending being somewhat ambiguous. Even Trent (and I think Steve Carell deserves great credit for playing this less than likable guy) might have learned something from this vacation, cut short by events of the night on the beach.

Note:The complete review with a set of discussion questions is included in the Sep/Oct. issue of Visual Parables.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

Rated PG. Our ratings: V-4; L -0; S/N -1. Running time: 1 hour 46 Min.

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.’ 
Joshua 1.9

Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others.
1 Corinthians 10.24

(c) 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures

This film version of Rick Riordan’s book, second in the Percy Jackson series, is much better than the critics would have us believe. True, the series is far beneath the quality of the revered Harry Potter, but there are plenty of neat touches that, as I walked out of the theater, made me feel good. There is plenty of action for children (mid school age I would recommend because some knowledge of Greek mythology is a must to understand the story and characters) and a lot of wit in the dialogue for adults. A good example of the latter is what the camp manager Mr. D. (Stanley Tucci) says. The D stands for Dionysus, Greek god of wine, who in a twist of irony was put under a curse by Zeus, king of gods, so that D’s wine turns into water when he drinks it. He says to a centaur, "You know the Christians have a guy who can do this in reverse.” You gotta like a film that includes such comments!

To go back to the beginning of the story, Percy and three other half bloods (as the children of a god and a mortal are called) were being chased through the forest as they attempted to make their way to the safety of Camp Half Blood. As their pursuers gain on them, Thalia stops, telling the others that she will hold off their enemies while they get away. Percy (Leven Rambin), son of the sea god Poseidon, and his two friends, Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, and Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), a satyr, reluctantly press on to the camp. Thalia is killed, but even in death she serves her friends by turning into a mighty tree that sheds a barrier around the camp, protecting it from intruders.

Seven years go by, and the self appointed leader among the young demigods is Clarisse La Rue (Leven Rambin) who enjoys taunting Percy, especially when unexpectedly his previously unknown half brother Tyson (Douglas Smith) shows up. It’s hard to tell whether Percy is more shocked by discovering he has a sibling or that Tyson is a Cyclops. In the outer world these one-eyed creatures are regarded as vicious monsters, so Clarisse and her friends ostracize and taunt Tyson whenever they can.

There are lots of adventures ahead for them all, including a quest for the famous Golden Fleece, to be found somewhere in the Sea of Monsters, a.k.a The Bermuda Triangle. This is reached by a long taxi ride with a stop over in Washington D.C. where the UPS store is really the Olympus Parcel Service run by the messenger god Hermes. He asks them to speak with his estranged son Luke who is on the opposing side of the Quest. It seems that with the Fleece Luke, angry that his father had always neglected him, can awaken from his tomb the Father of the Gods Kronos, and…well, it all gets complicated, but lots of excitement.
Going into the film I was not too keen on the idea of glorifying old pagan gods and their offspring, but when it became obvious early on that these demigods had values—beginning with Thalia’s sacrificing her life, and then Percy during a training game making a smaller but similar sacrifice for the sake of another--I was won over. The characters might be pagans, but their values and deeds are very much like those taught by Christ. With its emphasis upon teamwork and friendship, as well as toleration of those who are different, this is a good film for young and old.

For Reflection/Discussion
These questions are to help caregivers discuss the film with young viewers. They should not be all used at once, but worked into a discussion that might begin with, “Tell me what you think of this movie…” Note that question 5 contains spoilers.

1. Which of the ancient Greek demigods does Percy represent? What did he do in the first film that Perseus did in the myth? (Yes, kill Medusa whose stare could turn a person into stone.)
2. This is a film that takes old gods and goddesses and makes them heroes today. How were the old gods very different from the God whom Christians (as well as Jews and Muslims) worship? How are the old stories—myths we call them—more like fairy tales?
3. Who in the film thinks of others and makes a sacrifice for them?
Thalia—how does she give everything for her three friends?
Percy—On the tower in the race to the top what does he do when a camper is in
Tyson—When a villain shoots at Percy, what does Tyson do?
4. Why do you think Clarissa and her followers are so mean to Tyson? Do you know someone who was treated badly because they were different? In what way were they not like others—a dark skin; could not speak well; dressed differently; were handicapped in some way; or---?
5. In the fight against Luke and his zombie crew in the Sea of Monsters Percy and his rival Clarissa grow to respect, and then to like, each other. How do you think Percy’s refusal to hold a grudge against her help them become friends? What do you think of Percy’s letting her take the Golden Fleece back to Half Blood Camp and receive the honor of bringing it back? Who really deserved the most credit? How is what Percy does an act of true friendship?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Elysium: a Review

Rated R. Our ratings: V -7; L -6; S/N -2.  Running time: 1 hour 49 min.

O LORD, you will hear the desire of the meek;
   you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear 
to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
   so that those from earth may strike terror no more.
Psalm 10:17-18

 ... learn to do good;
seek justice,
   rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
   plead for the widow. 
Isaiah 1:17

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free… 
Luke 4.18:

Max must reach Elysium if he is to save his life and that
of others as well.
(c) 2013 TriStar Pictures
I remember from my boyhood the definition of science fiction as the extrapolation of present trends or developments into the future. (I think this was from either influential editor John W. Campbell or an author such as Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov.) South Africa-born director/writer Neill Blomkamp obviously understands this, as evidenced by his second film in this genre. Set in a Los Angeles that in 2154 looks more like a Third World metropolis with its overcrowdedness, clogged streets, and befouled air, this dystopia is the  result of today’s trend of the 1 % becoming more and more richer—reportedly they now control 32% of the wealth—at the expense of the middle class and poor. Earth has become so over-populated, diseased, polluted, and overcome by crime that those with the means have retreated into a huge donut-like satellite named after the Greek Elysian Fields, where all is fair and bright. A semblance of order is enforced on Earth by robot cops programmed to deal harshly with anyone on Earth who even looks like he/she might resist the strict laws imposed from above.

Max (Matt Damon) had been raised at a Catholic orphanage where a nun had often assured him that he was special, created for a worthy task. This inspires him to look up toward Elysium and vow to reach it one day. That must seem long ago to him now, working at a factory run by Armadyne, a defense company that planned and built Elysium and all of the robots serving it and enforcing its laws. At this sweatshop-like factory he is brow beaten by a harsh foreman. Once a car thief, Max is trying to put his criminal past behind him, but then comes the day when he is exposed to a high dose of radiation on the job.

Given just five days to live, Max contacts old crime associate Spider (Wagner Moura), who is similar to the coyotes of today’s Mexico in that he sends off ships loaded with desperate people trying to reach Elysium where every lavish home is equipped with a healing bay. Equipped with a MRI-like scanner, a bay can quickly cure virtually any ailment known to mankind. But only citizens of Elysium have access to it: not one of Earth’s hospitals is so equipped. In a poignant scene we see Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) coldly order three approaching ships filled with illegal immigrants (who paid dearly for their berths) to be shot down. Apparently word of the fate of those trying to escape their wretchedness has not reached the masses of others clamoring to leave Earth.

Max and Spider have a plan—to equip the former with a cyborg frame that will greatly enhance his strength, and to kidnap Armadyne’s CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner).  Carlyle has a chip embedded in his brain that has all the information about Elysium and the program that controls the robot police. Max is to link to the kidnapped CEO’s brain and download all the information into his own modified brain; travel to Elysium; and overcome its defenses with Carlyle’s computerized information. Along the way Max meets Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse whom he had known as a child back at the orphanage. She has a daughter dying of leukemia, a disease easily cured by a few minutes in a healing bay, so there are now three reasons to accomplish his mission—for himself, for the mother and her girl, and for the oppressed of the Earth.

Matters of course do not go smoothly, one of his chief obstacles being the vicious mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Cople), employed by the Defense Secretary as an undercover agent on Earth to ferret out any opposition to her plans. There is an overly violent series of fights and battles before any kind of a victory can emerge for the poor. Indeed, the ending is very simplistic; so it is best not to think too much about this, except to rejoice that the good guys win.

While reflecting upon the film I not only thought of the director’s excellent District 9, also a dystopian film, set in the director’s own country South Africa, still suffering from the effects of apartheid, but also of Tsotsi, the 2005 film directed by Gavin Hood. Mr. Hood, also born in South Africa, shows that even though apartheid has legally been destroyed, its effects still infuse a society terribly divided between the wealth and the poor. His film chronicles six days in the life of a gang leader named Tsotsi who accidentally kidnaps a baby during his car jacking of a wealthy white couple’s RV. Tsotsi and his friends often sleep in drainage pipes and such places, while the whites live in splendor behind their high walls and gates. Tsotsi can touch the walls that separated him from wealth, whereas Max must look up to see the gated satellite, and yet it is just 19 minutes away by space shuttle.

Elysium thus resonates with issues currently being debated—the growing separation between the rich and the less well off; the desperate desire of the poor to cross illegally into America and the attempts of defenders of the status quo to keep them out; the lack of access to health care that plagues so many; and more. This is a film well worth seeing and discussing, though the convener might have to reign in the passions of some members. It is refreshing to find at last a summer blockbuster that is not all CGI-enhanced sound and fury, but has a little more substance to it, even a recognition that the church has a contribution to make to the lives of  “the least of these.” However, I would have loved the film more if there had been shown a church or its leaders working with the poor. Indeed, wouldn’t have been good if the nun had been given a name and more screen time, interacting with Max as he grew older. Wim Wenders made the church an important factor in his post 9/11 film Land of Plenty: his young heroine works in an inner city church that feeds and houses street people. Surely there will be such churches still around 140 years from now.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. What do you think of director/writer Neill Blomkamp’s projection of current trends into the future? How does science fiction often serve a prophet role? Along with 1984, Solyent Green, and Farenheit 451, what other such films can you recall?
2. How must the loving nun have affected Max? How important is her admonition, "Never forget where you come from and never forget how beautiful it is here"? Given what has happened to Earth and its society, what does this reveal about her?
3. In this film cops are robots programmed to deal harshly with dissenters and disturbers of the peace: how do some present day police, even though they are humans, act like robots in their dealings with members of the underclass? Check out the last scenes in the film Fruitvale Station.
3. How is the name of the space station fitting, based as it is on Greek mythology? For those trapped on the polluted Earth, how does the old phrase “pie in the sky” take on new meaning?
4. The film, unlike most sci-fi ones, does acknowledge the church and its ministry. How might the church be functioning 140 years from now?
5. What do you think of the film’s way of overcoming oppression? How is this typical of most films? How might the Christ of the above Lukan passage have resisted—or Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.? Now wouldn’t that make for an interesting sci-fi film? (Eric Frank Russell provided the perfect text in his 1951 satirical story published in Astounding Science Fiction, “And The There Were None,” which later became the third part of his novel The Great Explosion. No fights or battles or chases, just a people resisting intruders in their own non-violent way. I liked the story so much that I have saved the magazine over the years. For a delightful read you can find the entire text at:

6. Unashamed commercial: my new book Blessed Are the Filmmakers, due out in the fall of 2013, has guides for numerous films that depict non-violent resistance—Amazing Grace & Chuck; The Buttercream Gang; Freedom Riders; Gandhi; Jesus: the Miniseries; King; The Long Walk Home; and The War, to name but a few of the 40 films (specific scenes of non-violence are identified). The group might watch several of these scenes at the conclusion of the discussion of Elysium..

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Hunt

("Jagten" in Danish & English)
Rated R. Our ratings: V-5 ; L-5 ; S-5/N-1 . Running time: 1 hour 33 min.

My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction,
   and my neighbors stand far off. 
Psalm 38.11

He was despised and rejected by others;
   a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces--
   he was despised, and we held him of no account. 
Isaiah 53:3

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 
                                                                           James 3.5

Lucas is a gentle kindgarten who is plunged into a nightmare
world when a little girl accuses him of exposing his privates to her.
(c) 2012 Magnolia Pictures

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, who also wrote the screenplay with Tobias Lindholm, this film, set in a small Danish town, unfolds between the months leading up to Christmas, ending sometime in the following year at the beginning of hunting season. There is a crucial church scene on Christmas Eve that is a masterful combination of the Nativity and crucifixion, making this a marvelous film for people of faith to discuss.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a middle-aged schoolteacher frequently battling over his cell phone with his divorced wife about the custody of their teenaged son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom). Unhappy with his mother, the boy badly wants to live with Lucas. Although the messy divorce cost him his teaching position, Lucas has been able to find work at the local kindergarten where the children adore him. When he arrives they enjoy hiding and then attacking him en mass, clinging to his legs and arms, and piling atop him when he falls to the ground and plays ”dead.” One of the assistant teachers also adores him, the Polish immigrant Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), the two soon entering an affair initiated by her.

Lucas has a circle of hunting buddies with whom he enjoys drinking, though he is the one who stays sober enough to take the inebriated home. His best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) is one of these, the man’s wife Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing), gratefully appreciating this. In another scene Lucas rescues a friend from drowning when the man develops a cramp while swimming in a cold pond (it is November). Thus it is no wonder that Lucas is popular with adults as well as children.

Little Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), a kindergarten pupil and daughter of Theo and Agnes, develops a crush on Lucas, often showing up at his house so he can walk her home. During one of the pile-ups at kindergarten, he rebuffs her when she kisses him on the lips. Miffed by this, she repeats to head teacher Grethe (Susse Wold) some pornographic penis talk she has overheard on her older brother’s iPad.  She lies that Lucas exposed himself before her. Shocked at what she hears, Grethe, without informing him of all the details, including the child’s name, orders Lucas to take a leave while she brings up the matter with the other staff, with Theo and Agnes, and then that night, at a scheduled meeting with the all the parents.

Thus, as James observed, the little tongue, or we should say the tongue of a little one, starts a fire that blazes out of control, ruining the reputation of a good and kind man. Only Nadja and Brunn (Lars Ranthe), the godfather of his son Marcus, stand by him—and of course, Marcus also, although his alarmed mother tries to break off the boy’s contact with his father. Also, little Klara, becoming aware that what she now calls “a stupid” remark has caused Lucas much pain, tries to see him, showing up at his door to ask if she can walk his faithful dog. He sends her back home, all too aware that her parents would be very upset at any further contact between them.

Klara recants her story, but Grethe and the others believing in the innate goodness of children will not accept this. Lucas is banned from the kindergarten and also from the local supermarket (even Marcus is ordered not to come back when he shops for his father—the boy refusing to stay away from his dad). The staff at the supermarket beats up Lucas when he keeps coming back demanding to buy groceries; someone hurls a rock through Lucas’s window, injuring him; and worst of all, his constant companion, his gentle dog loved by all the children is killed. The police do arrest and interrogate Lucas, but they have to release him. You will enjoy the reason because it is part of the group hysteria that seems to envelop most of the characters.

Although set in a modern Danish town, the story reminds me of the Massachusetts town of Salem in the 17th century. The Salem girls who initiate the mass hysteria are older than Klara and the effects of their delusions and lies about their neighbors being witches are far more deadly. At least the Danish authorities do not convict and hang Lucas, but the persecution he suffers is severe by 20th century standards. A likeable guy respected by all becomes in the eyes of almost everyone the ultimate outsider of the 21st century, a child molester. Lucas becomes so stressed out that he drives away Nadja when she tries to stand by him, and he even tells Bruun to leave him alone.

Matters come to an explosive head on Christmas Eve, just as much a cultural event centering on children in Denmark as it is on this side of the Atlantic. Most of the congregation has gathered for the service when Lucas shambles in, finding the only pew with room for him almost at the front of the sanctuary. The woman sitting there gets up and moves to another pew. All disapproving eyes are focused on the outcast, including Agnes and Theo. The pastor offers a warm welcome, and this time we gather that the “welcome to all” is not ceremonial----after all, this is a small city and the pastor must know something of what has transpired. The kindergarten children have been formed into a choir, and as they file in we see the radiant little Klara. She spots Lucas and is obviously pleased.

As the children lead the people in a carol about the birth of the Child, the crucifixion of a good man stands in juxtaposition. Theo, fixing his gaze upon his erstwhile friend, remarks to Agnes, “I can see it in his face,” indicating that he now is aware of the innocence of the friend he has abandoned—at that moment I thought of the disciples at Gethsemane who during Jesus’ prayer could not stay awake to watch with him, and then ran away when their master was arrested. The anguished Lucas breaks down. Rising from his pew, he walks back toward Theo, and---.

I don’t know how much director Thomas Vinterberg knows of the church fathers who never sentimentalized Christmas, treating it as we do as a Hallmark moment to glorify children. They never separated the Nativity from Good Friday, often asking in their sermons and their writings, “Why did God become man in order to die?” Medieval artists also sometimes combined themes of Nativity and Crucifixion in their paintings. An artist in Cincinnati a few years ago did this in a mural that he created on the wall of the fellowship hall of his church, as you can see below.

Fred Burnett's "Holy Night"

There is in this film not only the Nativity and the crucifixion (of Lucas); there is also a type of resurrection. I will leave this for you to see, though this is perhaps not as convincing as the depiction of crucifixion, with Lucas obviously welcomed back into his circle of friends. I am not suggesting that Lucas is a complete Christ figure, as in such movies as Cool Hand Luke or Babette’s Feast, because Lucas does not seek crucifixion, it is imposed on him. In the four gospels Jesus is not just the victim, but also the victor who, apparently inspired by the Suffering Servant poem in Isaiah 52 & 53, voluntarily lays down his life. By no stretch of the imagination does Lucas, who is struggling just to get by with his life, seek out the opprobrium he suffers. His suffering is for himself, but it is still a type of crucifixion.

The film’s title comes from the next to the last scene depicting a ritual in which Marcus is now initiated into his father and Bruun’s group of male hunters, a sign of his “becoming a man.” The film ends on a jarring note, which calls into question what seems to be a movie “happy ending.” Maybe “all that ends well is well” doesn’t apply after all here.

The full review that includes 12 discussion questions will be included in the Sept/Oct issue of Visual Parables, available on September 9.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Attack: A Review

 (Arabic with English subtitles)

Rated R. Our ratings: V -5 ; L-1 ; S/N-1 . Running time: 1 hour 42 min.

Secular Arabs Shamin and Amin seemed like
a happy couple accepted b Israeli society.
(c) 2012 Cohen Media Goup

The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful,
    a puzzle that no one can figure out.
               Jeremiah 17:9 (The Message)

In this adaptation of the novel by Yasmina Khadra (pen name of Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul) filmmaker Ziad Doueiri’s immerses us in an alien culture, leaving us at the end pondering why someone unexpectedly does the inexplicable. Co-written with Joelle Touma, this is a dark and troubling film about a dark and troubling situation—the hostile relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.
Dr. Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) is a Palestinian surgeon who has chosen to live and work in Tel Aviv because there are greater opportunities there than in his Arab homeland. He has put aside his Muslim heritage, so he feels very much integrated into Israeli society. Most of his friends are secular Jews. He is about to be given the highest honor for a surgeon, but he is disappointed that his wife Siham (Reymond Amsalem), a secular Arab Christian, is not with him on the night of the award ceremony, she insisting instead on visiting her grandfather in Nazareth.

In the darkened auditorium, moments before the presenter calls out his name, his cell phone rings. Annoyed at the intrusion, he says that he cannot talk, and hangs up. In his acceptance speech he points out that he is the first Israeli Arab to be so honored, proof that integration of the two hostile cultures is possible.
The next day he and his colleagues, hearing a bomb blast at a near by café spring into action when the victims are brought into their hospital.  One bloodied man insists on a Jewish doctor when he sees Amin standing over him. Seventeen people, most of them children attending a birthday celebration, are killed, and even more are wounded and maimed.

In the wee hours of the morning, summoned back to the hospital, Amin is shocked when he is told that his wife was killed in the attack—and that she is accused of being the bomber. Already devastated by the sight of her half-blown away body in the hospital morgue, he collapses for a moment. He refuses to believe that such a loving woman could have blown up herself and so many children and adults. He is certain, he tells Captain Moshe, his harsh Shin Bet interrogator, that she kept no secrets from him—and she is a Christian, not a fanatical Muslim. He himself neither practices his religion nor is engaged in any political cause.

However, the relentless policeman marshals the evidence, while at the same time interrogating the doctor as if he were a part of the plot. After the suspicious police confirm that he was not involved, Amin is released but quickly finds his life up-ended.  Dismissed from the hospital where he had been so recently honored, now only two friends stand by him, Kim Yehuda (Evgenia Dodina), a hospital colleague and Raveed (Dvir Benedek), a police official. The vandalization of his apartment is symbolic of his new status. Then comes the letter written to him and posted from Nablus in Palestine by his wife the day before the bombing.
As a result of that letter Amin sets forth on his parallel spiritual and physical journeys back briefly to his wife’s hometown of Nazareth where he learns that she had not gone there after all. He then pays an unannounced call on his family in Nablus where he intends to confront the person responsible for convincing his wife to commit her terrible deed. The taxi driver transporting him disturbs him by playing a cassette tape containing a tirade of anti-Jewish hate by a Nablus Moslem cleric. Arriving in the Arab city, Amin is disturbed to learn that Siham is considered by the people as a heroic martyr to their cause of liberation from the Israeli occupation. Large posters with her picture are plastered on all the walls, and children are selling postcard-size pictures of her.

His sister is glad to see him, though she reminds him that it has been a long time since he has visited or written to the family. His brother-in-law at the supper table says he is very proud of Siham, and his niece wonders what it is like to live among “them.” His elusive nephew Adel, who admits to being with Sahim on her last night, says, “Something snapped in her head.” They and others whom Amin subsequently meets think that he might be working with Israel’s Shin Bet. Thus Amin is a stranger in his own land, caught between the conflict between the two peoples. In between all this there are flashbacks to happier days with Sahim. In one of these they are on a motorcycle, she sitting behind him in her white wedding dress clutching his waist. He is all the more puzzled at how this seemingly loving woman could have committed such a hateful act.
At the local mosque he tries to talk with the Moslem cleric whose diatribe he had heard on the taxi radio/cassette player, but the security guards stop him. Later in the night, when he manages to catch the sheikh on the street, the man says, "We are a ravaged people fighting for our dignity with whatever we have." He also warns him to leave town.

Amin expects that from a Muslim radical, but even an Orthodox Christian priest, admiring Sahim’s deed and wishing that he had met her, tells him, "We're not Islamists and we're not fundamentalists, either. We are only the children of a ravaged, despised people, fighting with whatever means we can to recover our homeland and our dignity." Even his visit to the ruins of Jenin, a Palestinian refugee camp where the Israeli Defense Forces in 2002 fought a bloody battle with PLO militants, resulting in rumors and claims of “a massacre,” does not explain Siham’s double life that he now realizes she had led. She had never talked about politics or expressed criticism of their Jewish friends.

Amin confronts a truth so terrible that it will scar him forever, making him an outsider to both Israelis and to his Arab family. His fall from grace with his Jewish friends—even Kim is exasperated because he will not go and tell the Shin Bet what he has learned in Nablus—and his anguish that he did not really know the person whom he loved the most will haunt him forever. Did his obsession with his career lead him to neglect his wife and thus caused her not to confide in him her deep concern for their people? Or could his apolitical withdrawal from the conflict raging around him have prevented her from raising her concern over the suffering of their people at the hands of the Israelis?

One of the most spiritually challenging films of the year, Lebanese-born Ziad Doueiri’s film is as helpful for understanding the Palestinian viewpoint as was the 2005 film about two friends preparing to become suicide bombers, Paradise Now, a film in which Ali Suliman co-starred as one of a pair of friends volunteering to become suicide bombers. It would seem that the conclusion of Jeremiah and of our searching surgeon is the same; the human heart is a puzzle with no answer sheet. The film is somewhat like Steven Spielberg’s Munich in that its maker tries to be even-handed, condemning neither one side nor the other—and yet is attacked by both sides. The Arab League was so upset that Doueiri shot the opening scenes in Tel Aviv that the members banned the film in all 22 of its member nations. Thus the tragic conflict goes on and on, with not even the movies able to bring the two sides together. (We will have to see if Secretary of State Kerry’ peace efforts can begin to bridge a gap wider than the Grand Canyon.)

For Reflection/Discussion
1. Most Americans know only the Israeli version of the birth of Israeli, so movingly told in the novel and its movie version Exodus. It is well known that a coalition of Arab countries attacked Israel as soon as it became independent in 1947, but less known are the terrorist acts of Zionist groups against the British occupiers in the 1930s and 40s, as well as against Palestinians. For more information on the troubled past go to: and
Also for an article on Zionist terrorism directed at the British during their Palestine Mandate from 19222 to 1948 see “Kidnappings, Beatings, Murders and Hangings: Attacks by the Irgun and Stern Gang.” This is part of a site called Exodus and Outrage dedicated to telling the story of British soldiers in Palestine and many other nations.
2. As an Arab living in Israel what has Amin had to do in order to be successful? How might this not have set well with his wife? In what ways is this another tale of an outsider?
3. How does he view his journey back to his hometown? How could it be considered a journey into darkness?
4. Were you surprised that the people of Nablus considered his wife a heroine? What suggestions are there for her reason for deceiving her husband?
5. Amin visits the site of the Jenin Refugee Camp where many people, Arabs and Jews, were killed by both sides in April 2002 when the Israeli Army moved in and put it under a round-the-clock curfew. Given all the biased, exaggerated reporting by Palestinians as to the number of casualties, how might this have affected Siham? For a report on the camp and the fighting see the UNRWA report at:
6. Do you think there can be a rational explanation for Siham’s behavior? What about Amin’s friend Raveed’s statement: "It can fall on you like a tile or grow in you like a worm. Then you don't see the world in the same way. You're just waiting for the moment to cross the threshold."
7. There is more to the Jeremiah quote. Reflect upon it in regard to the film:
But I, GOD, search the heart
    and examine the mind.
I get to the heart of the human.
    I get to the root of things.
I treat them as they really are,
    not as they pretend to be.”
8. The impasse between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland once seemed as intractable as that between Israelis and Palestinians: what happened there that led to the cessation of terrorist attacks by the IRA and the brutal reaction of the British forces? Do you think that can happen in the Middle East? What do you know about the peace movement, among Jews and among Palestinians? (Note that in the documentary film The Power of Forgiveness and its accompanying book there are several sections exploring this.)
9. There is a video of Charlie Rose’s good interview of the director at:

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Fruitvale Station: A Review

Rated R. Our ratings: V-5; L-5 ; S/N-2 . Running time: 1 hour 25 min.

The Weinstein Company

I say to God, my rock,
   ‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
   because the enemy oppresses me?’
                                  Psalm 40:9

Even though the opening cell phone video shows us the tragic outcome of a scuffle with San Francisco transit police, director/writer Ryan Coogler’s film, based on a true story, is a fascinating study of the last day in the life of 22-year-old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan). We are taken back twelve hours earlier when Oscar and his wife (or girl friend?) Sophina (Melonie Diaz), are in their apartment at the beginning of New Year’s Eve 2009.  Burdened with a history of run-ins with the law, Oscar is trying to turn his life around—although in this scene he is trying to placate her because she is upset that he has had an affair with another woman. Obviously adoring their  4-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), he is able to convince Sophina that he will not betray her again.

We follow Oscar through a series of ups and downs. He takes Tatiana to school; meets friends; shops for food for the party his mother will host that night; helps a clueless young woman at the supermarket with a recipe by connecting her to his grandmother; tries but fails to get his job back at the grocery from the manager, who had fired him for being late too often; texts his friends about getting together that night; talked over the phone with his sister who badly needed some cash; been tempted to acquire money by selling the bag of weed he had hidden away, but, genuinely wanting to go straight, dumps it into the Bay. Interspersed are flashbacks to his prison days, two low points being his fight with another prisoner and the day his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) tells him she cannot bear to come and visit him any more.

That night at his mother’s house in Hayward, a suburb, everyone, young and old has a great time. When he is about to set out with Sophina and their friends to go out to celebrate the New Year by watching the waterfront fireworks, his mother suggests they take the BART instead. She is worried that their drinking would impair Oscar driving. It is a suggestion that will haunt her all her days.

The group has an enjoyable time, even when the train stalls, delaying their arrival for the fireworks display. In the crowded train car an inter-racial harmony prevails—whites, Latinos, and blacks all laugh and exchange greetings together as the New Year. But this is soon swallowed up in the mayhem that ensues when Oscar’s prison past catches up with him.

The film leaves viewers saddened and upset that even though we have elected a black president, racism is still a strong force in our society. It is bad enough when it exists among the general population, but among police officers it can be deadly, as we see by the way in which the young blacks are treated when they are dragged off the train following Oscar’s attack by a man he had known in prison. It would, of course, have been wise if the ill-treated black men had not protested their abuse, but it would have taken more discipline than any of them possessed to have suffered in silence.

As the aftermath of the  Trayvon Martin shooting lingers, this film will add fuel to the debate over the way blacks are viewed and treated around the nation. The film makes clear that even in the 21st century we are far from Martin Luther King Jr.;s vision of the “beloved community.” If black males in America accept the faith of their mothers, well might they recite the words of the anguished psalmist any time they venture beyond their ‘hood, “Why must I walk about mournfully/because the enemy oppresses me?”

For Reflection/Discussion 
1. Despite claims that this is a nation of “equal opportunities,” what burdens does Oscar carry that few white males his age do? How do we see that he is trying to overcome them? What do you think of the claims of some that he is pictured in too positive of a way?
2. Had he not met with such an untimely end, what hope do you see that he might have been successful going straight—especially in light of his family needs and his lack of employment?
3. What do you think of the manager’s turning down Oscar’s request to get his job back? How is his firing the consequence of his own behavior? And yet how is the matter of punctuality also a difference in cultures?
4. What do you think of the blended black and Latino families? How well do we see them getting along?
5. In what scenes do you see grace in operation? (Sophina’s acceptance of Oscar despite his betrayal; Oscar helping the woman at the supermarket;
6. How is the moment of celebrating the New Year on the subway train a foretaste of the kingdom of God (or MLK’s “beloved community”)?
7. How did you feel in the sequence when the BART police officers took the black men off the train? Did they look for the white man who started the fight? Was there any sign of the officers listening to either the blacks or the passengers? Do you think this is because their minds were closed, accepting the basis of racial profiling, facts be damned?
8. Have you or someone you know seen such treatment? What does this suggest that Americans need to do to eliminate such treatment? What similarities, if any, do you see between Oscar and Trayvon Martin? What have you and/or your church done to foment racial understanding?