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Little Miss Sunshine

In Books, Movies and Television on December 25, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Little missThey are the Hoovers because they all pretty much suck.

At the dinner table–the symbol of familial unity–they eat chicken out of a bucket, off of paper plates and drink pop served in McDonald’s collectible glasses. The nutritive value of the meal is equal to the emotional and spiritual value of this communion. A message on the answering machine interrupts the dissonance of conflicting wills. The seven year old Olive has, by default, qualified tor the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. Reluctantly, the family must make the long trip from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California so that Olive can attempt to achieve her dream and become a beauty queen.

There are many reasons that Little Miss Sunshine is one of my favourite movies. The acting is brilliant and the screenplay works on all levels. It’s also funny, poignant, philosophical and redemptive.

This last term has produced shock in some. (SPOILER ALERT) If they’ve seen it, they point out that it includes a character that is homosexual and another that uses of heroine. It has strong language and a t-shirt that declares, “Jesus Was Wrong.” If that’s not enough, a seven year old girl dances, albeit naively, like a stripper. They often ask: “Even if there is something redemptive in this movie, is it worth seeing all the ‘garbage’ just to find that particle of truth?”

I find far more than a particle of truth in this film. Perhaps, part of the problem is that we have different approaches to understanding narrative. If the truth is a piece of a story that can be extracted from the whole and held up to be a true bit, then an argument could be made that there aren’t a lot or true bits in this movie and quite a few untrue bits. (This approach is rather like looking for the moral in a story.)

Implication is a more appropriate approach to narratives of any kind for it maintains the integrity of all elements of the story of which the “idea” is but one. The first definition for term implication in the Oxford English Dictionary is the one I have in mind: “The action of involving, entwining, or entangling; the condition of being involved, entangled, twisted together, intimately connected or combined.”
The truth of a narrative is communicated through the experience it expresses–the experience in which we are entangled. Viewers of Little Miss Sunshine will find themselves entangled in the story.
Every character has a dream, hope or driving motivation. Significantly, these motivations are completely individual and they tend to divide family members. Olive dreams of being beautiful; Richard wants to have success in his career; Duane want nothing more than be free from home and his means of escape is to become a test pilot; Grandpa seeks pleasure in his waning years; Cheryl dreams of a happy family; and Frank seeks recognition and love.

Which of these dreams do you not also, in part, share? If the Bible is right, most (all) people will have a longing for something. These dreams are consistent with the Biblical idea that we were created for more than what we experience in life (Link). This is the place where I become entangled in the story, for I am every character in this movie.

Each character is far from achieving his or her dream. Olive lacks poise and grace, and the sort of beauty that would win a beauty pageant. Richard will never sell his self-help plan because it is mostly empty cliché. The picture or a previous husband sitting on the entry table shows that Cheryl is divorced and her current family is far from harmonious. Duane hates everyone, especially his family–he has stopped speaking and will not until he is in flight school. Grandpa’s hedonism is self-destructive; his heroin use has gotten him thrown out of the nursing home. Frank has attempted suicide because he’s lost everything that he valued. Each character struggles with his or her own limitations as well as external circumstances.

It is very clear that, as individuals, they need something; as a family they need something; they need redemption. This too is consistent with the Biblical view of humanity. People were made to be in communion with each other. They began their journey seeking their own desires and their lives were dissonant and broken. They came together around a quest; they thought the quest was getting her into a stupid beauty contest, but it turned out the quest was the unification of their family around the protection of its most vulnerable.

If you are looking for the nugget of truth in this movie, there are many.

Here is a partial list:

  1. We all dream of being something more than we can possibly be, because we aren’t nearly the creatures we are supposed to be.
  2. We are limited by our sin and the effects of sin in the world.
  3. We do things out of love, but sometimes these things are not all that appropriate (Grandpa taught her the only dance he was familiar with); it’s a good thing that the love in our intentions is powerful enough to eclipse the inadequacy of the results.
  4. To be naïve is not the same as to be innocent.
  5. Even in our brokenness we can be a blessing to others.
  6. Actions are more powerful than words (the scene where Olive brings Duane back into the bus), and that’s why the Incarnation is so incredible.
  7. Human beings were made for community and within community we can transcend our individual weaknesses.
  8. Grace, forgiveness and LOVE are incredibly powerful.
  9. Self-sacrifice is fundamental to the expression of love.
  10. Suffering is important for growth.
  11. The world’s standard for winners and losers is completely wrong.
  12. There is a loving presence at the centre of the universe that orchestrates all things for out good.
  13. Life is tragic and beautiful and also pretty funny.
  14. Beauty pageants are stupid.

The Demonic and the Stupid

In Books, Movies and Television on October 5, 2012 at 10:39 pm

I went to see Looper on opening night.

There’s plenty to talk about in this movie, but too many people haven’t seen it yet and I don’t want to spoil it for them.   But my experience in the theatre that night had me thinking that two more points should be added to the list that I started in the last post (Read “. . . Will We Watch?”).   There, I suggested that we might consider having two standards regarding Language, violence and sexual content in movies.   Movies that explore what it means to be human can have greater latitude for including this adult content; a film that is just for entertainment, less so.

The principle is: language, violence and sexual content can be a means to an end, but not an end in themselves.  To these I’d like to add the demonic and the stupid.

One of the films previewed before the feature presentation was Sinister.  The preview scared me spitless.  I cannot declare with certainty that this movie even has a demon in it, nor can I say with certainty that that this movie is using the demonic as entertainment.  But, I think, based on the trailer, it’s likely.

Even if it’s not, I know that this type of movie is not good for me to see.  This is a bit tangential, but an important point when it comes to movie viewing.  Not everyone can view everything.  For some, sexual content needs to be avoided as a matter of course.  For others, this isn’t an issue, but violence is.  For me, it’s the demonic.

Even though the demonic in The Exorcist is a means to an end, this type of content is something I avoid.  Dicerning movie viewer need to know themselves.

The Exocist (1973) is such a film in that it deals with important themes and in many ways it affirms Christian understanding of reality.   The presentation of the demonic was a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.  This is more than can be said of the flood of “supernatural thrillers” that followed.  Like sex, and violence, the demonic is not to be glorified or celebrated or simply exploited for entertainment purposes.

Nor is the stupid.  I was reminded of this by Jeff Daniels.

Jeff Daniels plays the role of Abe in Looper.   He also played Harry Dunne in Dumb and Dumber (1994).   I admit some parts were pretty funny and a little clever.  This is probably one of the best in the genre—but it spawned a long string of movies that celebrate utter stupidity.   Most fall far short of clever and don’t have the same level of talent (Daniel’s co-star was Jim Carrey).  These movies compensate for their lack of cleverness and comedic talent, with more stupidity and crudity.   I’m not sure if it’s even possible to have stupidity as a means to an end.  Maybe that’s why most of these movies are simply stupid, and because we can’t send them to their room for misbehaving, we can only ignore them and hope, that without an audience, they will stop.

Language, Sex, and Violence — Will We Watch?

In Books, Movies and Television, Christ and Culture, False Dichotomies - the lines between on October 2, 2012 at 5:00 pm

“If it’s not appropriate for children, it’s not appropriate for anyone.”

I’ve always had trouble with this idea, because if I took that approach, I’d no longer be able to read my Bible.

I have been told by those who can read the original languages in which the Bible has been written that some of the language is pretty course, especially in the prophets. And you don’t need to read the original language to find sexual content both the beautiful stuff, like The Song of Songs, and the repellant, the story of Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:30-36) comes to mind. There’s also plenty of violence. When I was young, my imagination played the tent peg story (Judges 4:21) and the murder of Eglon (Judges 3:12-30) clearly on the screen of my mind.

The good folks down at the Skeptics Annotated Bible give the following, tongue in cheek, review of the Bible using the same categories that some concerned Christian groups give to movies:

• Sex/Nudity: 197
• Drugs/Alcohol: no information
• Violence/Scariness: 957
• Objectionable Words/Phrases: 180

Their jibe does make a point.

Rather than using the MPAA rating system (Read Post “R Rated Movies”) or a misunderstanding of Philippians 4:8 (Read “Dog Poop in the Brownies”), I would like to suggest a new standard by which discerning parents, can determine what movies to watch with their older children or patronize themselves.

It is not the language, sexual content and violence in and of themselves that should keep us from reading the Bible. It is not the presence of Sex/Nudity, Drugs/Alcohol, Violence/Scariness or Objectionable words/Phrases that should prevent us from going to movies.

It is how they treat these things. If they treat them as the Bible does, then we can watch them. Or even OUGHT to watch them? You see, I’m not just looking for a loophole to get away with watching whatever movie I want. I believe that by encountering this art form makes us better neighbours.

Art—and movies are art—is a dialogue about what it means to be human. It explores the good and beautiful; it also explores the evil and sin; and it explores the need and longing for redemption. Experiencing art broadens and deepens our experience and, therefore our understanding of our neighbours. Understanding the language of film, and how to talk about it, makes us better able to attend to, and even contribute to, the dialogue and, thus, be more effective servants to God and neighbour as we partake in Christ’s redemption of creation.

Art has this serious purpose, but it can also be fun. This distinction is important when we talk about movies and some of the more adult content they often contain.

Movies have two functions that occupy points on a continuum. On one side are movies which are made to provide consumers with pleasure or entertainment. Commercial success is the primary goal so these movies are designed to help large numbers of people to escape the tedium or stress of their ordinary lives. This is not in itself a bad thing. Because they want to attract as many viewers as possible, they have to provide a good product, and they need a PG rating, so they don’t have strong language, nudity, or realistic violence.—if successful, everybody wins. I would classify The Avengers (2012) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as a film that occupies this end of the spectrum.

On the other end are movies that are made in the hopes that it may broaden, deepen or sharpen our awareness of the human experience; these bring us into reality, rather than provide an escape from reality. These have a more artistic purpose and they demand more from us in that they attempt to bring us more deeply into life’s joys and struggles, while they and often produce empathy in the audience. Precious (2009) or Ordinary People (1980) perhaps fit into this category.

Because this is a continuum, movies usually occupy some point between the two ends of the spectrum. Some lean toward the entertainment side, but still tell us something about life—Finding Nemo. Others tell us something serious about live, but while they do it, they entertain—Little Miss Sunshine.

How much language, sexual content and violence we are willing to tolerate in a film has something to do with where it is on the continuum. Movies that are on the entertainment side of the continuum ought to have a minimum of language, sexual content and realistic violence. These things are a means to an end, and they ought not to be an end in themselves. If they are presented as such, discerning viewers will avoid them.

But because language, sexuality and violence are a part of the human experience, they can be in the sorts of films that bring us into reality. Context matters a great deal here. The nudity presented in Spielberg’s, Schindler’s List (1993) is much different than the nudity presented in American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile (2006). The first shows the humiliation and abuse of women in a very dark time in human history, and the other objectifies women for the viewing pleasure of its male audience.

I have never been impacted by a scene of violence as much as the opening scenes of A Time to Kill (1993). 10-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally attacked by two rednecks. These two white racists are caught boasting about what they did to Tonya. Her father, played by Samuel L. Jackson is understandably distraught and, recalling an incident a year previous when four white men were acquitted after raping an African-American girl in a nearby town. He is determined that justice will be done. So he shoots and kills the smirking rednecks as they leave the arraignment.

The violence of the initial attack is intense, but it was necessary for us to share some of the horror and violation of the act, so that we could empathize with the distraught father who killed the men who attacked his daughter. The rest of the film involves his trial for murder. There is no doubt that he is guilty, but we understand his actions because we watched the event that motivated his decision to kill. Had you read this story in the newspaper, you’d likely be able to offer a flippant opinion about who’s right in this case, but by your participation in the violence, the issue is at least more complicated and your empathy makes you a better neighbour.

The violence in this movie is not the end, it is the means to an end, and that end is the honest exploration of the human condition.

There are some movies that seem to say something significant about life and human experience, but are really presenting sentimental and over simplistic views of life. One such movie is Remember the Titans, which the filmmakers would have you believe is a realistic representation of how a football team overcame issues of racism and hatred to win the state championship. Although, based on a true story, racism in the real world is not so easily dealt with and movies that tell us that it is are not doing us any good.

The following analogy might be helpful.
• The movies which are just for entertainment are like home-made apple pie with a scoop of good quality ice cream a la mode; they are really good, but you oughtn’t have a steady diet of the stuff.
• The artistic film that bring us into reality is like a well-balanced meal—I’m thinking turkey dinner here—they are good for the soul.
• Then there’s the TV-dinner type movies that pretend to be saying something about life, they got turkey and vegetables, but they are really giving us such a simplified version of reality that we’re better off eating the pie.
• The ones that are full of sex, violence, or base humour are analogous to chocolate covered dog poop—they might look good in the trailers, but you won’t like the taste it leaves in your mouth.