Once again, Richard Lindsay and I have compiled our list of ten spiritually or theologically significant films from 2010. Of course we have not seen every film released this year (from what I’ve read about it, Blue Valentine might well have made the list). In fact, we don’t necessarily agree on every one on the list; however, of the films we have seen, these are the ones that have stuck with us. We’re not listing these in any particular order nor are we suggesting that these are “the best” films of 2010. You’ll see that we’ve left out a lot of films that have made numerous critics’ “Best of” lists. On the other hand, quite a few of these have made those lists and would most likely make our own were we to make one. We’d love to hear your thoughts on not necessarily what we left off our lists, but what would have made it on your lists. Happy New Year from Pop Theology!
THE SOCIAL NETWORK
Few films released this year cut to the heart of a generation as accurately as David Fincher’s The Social Network. Whether or not the film’s portrayal of these real life people are factually true is irrelevant. As characters in a film they are completely believable, fully realized, consistent and therefore present deeper, larger truths. The common theme behind Mark Zuckerberg’s (Aaron Rosenberg) creation of Facebook, the Winklevoss twins’ (Armie Hammer) desire to take it from him, and Sean Parker’s (Justin Timberlake) attempts to weasel his way in is a desire for notoriety, fame, and social impact. However, we might argue that all of these are symptoms of a deeper longing…a desire to be in community, to be in relationship with another person/other people. The truth behind The Social Network is that we are social beings and that we crave networks, be they digital or real and that, ironically, we might even undertake destructive means to attain that end. Parker creates Napster to get a girl, and Zuckerberg creates Facebook to get back at one. People join and “live” on Facebook for these and a host of other reasons. The Social Network embodies the generation from which it emerges better than most of its cinematic peers. This is a generation of know-it-all’s and do-it-all’s who can know and do it all because of the networked culture in which they live. As such, it seems that there is a strong dichotomy between independence and interdependence. That one person can land a billion dollars by getting back at a scorned lover is as much a sign of the times as it is the person. In a way, Zuckerberg bumbles his way to billionairehood, but though the film doesn’t make of it what it should, he doesn’t do it alone. He needed co-workers like Dustin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello) to be wired in, high on cocaine or Mountain Dew, writing thousands of lines of computer code. The Winklevoss twins needed Zuckerberg and offered him the very thing that he craved, but he spurned them. Zuckerberg’s nose-thumbing simultaneously leads to the development of Facebook and further complexifies this character. And make no mistake about it, the old ways of doing business, of running to the university president or hiding behind a harvard.edu email address when things don’t go your way, are long gone. Yes Winklevoss twins, it’s just that easy…go out and come up with a new idea. The Social Network also shows just how quickly those new ideas could change the world.
Though this might not be the best film of the year in terms of direction or aesthetics, it certainly provided one of the most invigorating experiences that I (Ryan) have had at the theater in quite some time. Like The Fighter, it triumphant ending had me wanting to stand up and cheer, a rare feeling that I have in the theater these days. In the process, it reveals the triumph of the human spirit and manages to convince us that we would all have done the same thing were we in Aron Ralston’s position. What makes Boyle’s adaptation of Ralston’s story so successful (I have not read Ralston’s book) is that it becomes a surprising meditation on human connectedness and our need for it. This is, to put it lightly, a more ecological version of The Social Network. Apparently, Ralston finds himself in this position because of his selfish, loner personality. He never let anyone know where he was going, and it is clear that he was alone well before he was trapped by the boulder. What Ralston realizes is what Boyle shows in the opening credits and in the hallucinations that Ralston has while trapped…we are a social animal. Ralston’s recognition of this is just as touching and moving as the amputation is gruesome. Many viewers might have flocked to the film to watch a man cut off his own arm, but they no doubt left with their spirits lifted.
Speaking of perseverance, Winter’s Bone has it in spades. This is one of the most flawless, unflinching films of the year that also involves gruesome amputation(s). The film tells the story of a teenage girl, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) searching for her deadbeat father. If he doesn’t show up for his court date, the bail bondsmen will claim her home and property, the only things that allow her to care for her mother and younger brother and sister. Born into a poor family that turned to crystal meth production, Ree Dolly’s (Jennifer Lawrence) situation reveals the very harsh times in which many young teenagers find themselves through no fault of their own. It also shows the lengths to which they will go to persevere through them and their ability to care for their loved ones along the way. The film’s otherworldly portrayal of poor, rural America run by something akin to white-trash royalty presents a side of America that most viewers would rather not see. In the process it reveals both the individual and systemic failures that allow these communities to develop.
The film’s limited glimpses of the hereafter, hazy visions of a dimly lit horizon populated with blurred figures, suggest not a certainty about its existence but, if we can put it this way, a hopeful uncertainty. Marie (Cecile de France), a character who endures a near-death experience, has feelings of weightlessness confirmed by others who have shared similar experiences. The deceased Jason tells his brother Marcus (played by twin brothers Frankie and George McLaren), through George (Matt Damon) the psychic, that you can be everything at once and that it’s really awesome. These statements are interesting because none of the characters appear to be explicitly Christian or religious. No violent, tormenting hell awaits them, and this, I believe, is one of the film’s strengths. Hereafter reminds us of what we often forget, namely that for many people the human experience on earth is hell enough. From tsunamis to childhood deaths to betrayed relationships to sexual abuse to terrorist attacks, director Clint Eastwood conveys the brokenness of the human experience in vivid and painful ways. He seems to understand, like C. S. Lewis, that compared to the hereafter (if there is one), everything else is sorely lacking. Another strength of Hereafter is its willingness to doubt. Through the character of Marcus, the film is skeptical of religious, New Age psychic, and nihilistic views of the afterlife, particularly ones that provide quick and easy answers to what is one of life’s more taxing questions. Marcus sees through everyone who says that they “know” what lies beyond this life until he meets George. George tells him things that no one else could possibly know, yet when he begins to lose his connection with Jason, Marcus panics. George tells him that he has lost his connection with Jason and that he doesn’t know where he has gone. When Marcus presses him, reminding him of the countless readings that he has conducted, George tells him, “Yeah, but I still don’t know.” This type of uncertain humility is exactly was is needed in an age of violent (physically and verbally) religious extremism.
LET ME IN
Like most vampire films, Let Me In is about desire, craving, and repression. It is about human beings and the other. Like Twilight, it is also about sexuality, yet on a more complex level. Finally, it is about good and evil, and this is perhaps where, given the high religiosity of its American setting, Let Me In works better than Let the Right One In, the Swedish vampire film of which it is a remake. Director Matt Reeves understands how to exploit this aspect of the film’s setting for thematic value. In a hospital waiting room, we hear Ronald Reagan give a speech in which he quotes Alexis de Toqueville talking about the goodness of America. Reagan says something to the effect of, “When America ceases to be good, the world is in trouble,” but the scene fades out before he can finish. Owen’s mom prays at mealtimes for God to protect them from evil, but she passes out drunk to televangelists and is oblivious to the evil surrounding her son on a daily basis. She and President Reagan fail to realize that evil is not something wholly other, whether outside a country or a person, and here, the school bullies evidence as much. Compared to Kenny and his crew, it is difficult to regard the vampire Abby (Chloe Moretz) as purely evil. We never learn, after all, how she became a vampire? Compared to Abby, who must physically harm others to live, the bullies who torment Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are far more senselessly brutal. Abby regrets her existence, but the bullies embrace theirs, finding joy in the torture. When Owen finally strikes back at his oppressors, he hits hard. Of course, viewers might quickly blame Abby for telling him to hit back in the first place, but had he not, he could have very well died or suffered permanent physical (not to mention psychological and emotional) damage from his oppressors’ abuse. Once again, as with all great vampire and horror films, Let Me In reminds us that we’re often just as monstrous as the monsters we fear.
Get Low, like Big Fish (2003), focuses on the importance of telling our story and the occasional necessity of helping others tell theirs. The rumors and lies about Felix (Robert Duvall), along with his friends’ genuine concern for him, ask us whether we can ever really know anyone or not. Felix has kept his story bottled up inside him for over forty years…he has imprisoned it, much like he has imprisoned himself. As such, Felix’s first funeral is a transformation from a burdened life into a liberated one that results from the act of telling his story. In a sense, this first funeral is one for a broken spirit. The film also calls into question our relationship to time and how we live our lives in the face of tragedy and loss. In one scene, Felix talks to Mattie (Sissy Spacek) about days gone by and their lives now. Mattie says that it seems as if all her old friends are dying off and that she’s just waiting for her name to be called. Felix tells her that we’re never really waiting…we’re always moving forward, even when we are standing or sitting still. The world moves under as and, as a result, we move along with it. Felix’s words are wise and ironic, given that he has sat just as still, or more so, as Mattie. This first funeral for his story allows him to move forward and eventually make way for his second, and final, death.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
Richard and I were talking about reviews of mainstream films that feature gay and lesbian couples in lead roles and how reviewers often argue that these films aren’t about homosexuality or homosexuals but rather about human beings. These reviews clearly hope to allay potential viewers’ fears about these films being “too gay.” In the process, however, their emphasis on the humanness of their gay or lesbian characters becomes somewhat condescending. So we’ll say this straight away, The Kids are All Right is about lesbians. There, we said it. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules’ (Julianne Moore) marriage is at the center of this film along with all of the ups, downs, and difficulties they face, some of which may be familiar to everyone who has ever been in a long-term relationship and many of which won’t. There is no mention of any homophobia that they may have faced in their paths towards and with each other, although their son Laser’s (Josh Hutcherson) friend constantly calling him a faggot reveals something of the wider environment in which this family exists. Nic and Jules do face a host of questions about their relationship from their children, the likes of which most straight couples will never have to answer. Laser asks them why they watch gay male porn…as if he and is friends have never watched two women getting it on online. On the other hand, the scene in which Nic and Jules first meet their sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo) and tell him how they met provides one of the film’s funniest scenes and, perhaps, one of the funniest moments in film this year. Towards the end of the film, Nic’s impassioned description of what it means to be in a committed relationship with another person cuts to the heart of the matter and transcends all the idealistic portrayals of it in which so many films, be they secular or Christian, traffic. The Kids are All Right is one of those few films that shows that marriage might be all about love and good times, but it’s just as often about slogging through the shit.
What got to me (Richard) about the film and still gets to me about the poem is its daring combination of the erotic and the spiritual. Borrowing language from mystical strains of Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism, combined with the heretical poetic eroticism of Blake and Whitman, Allen Ginsberg broke through the shame and paranoia of the 1950’s in language that still breaks through our shame and paranoia today. He considered the poem, “Howl,” a prophesy not just for his generation but for subsequent generations. The secret to the continued relevance of his prophesy is naked honesty. In the film, Ginsberg explains that when we’re talking to friends, especially close ones, we don’t edit our conversation. We go on about politics, drugs, neuroses, sex—whatever crosses our minds. His idea of poetry is to break down the wall between the conversation of everyday life and the “conversation with your muse.” The line leaves me imagining poets before Ginsberg awkwardly editing their conversations with their muse, leaving out the tasty bits. A lot of people seem to be trying to pull the same thing with God—like if there is a being so intimate to life as to construct our bodies from the dust of the earth and give us breath and spirit, that being somehow doesn’t know we think about sex or use the toilet. We seem to think when we show up on Sunday morning to sing hymns, our clean-scrubbed faces hide the notion that we could ever have “howled on [our] knees in the subway” and be “dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts.” Well the hiding game’s not working. It’s not working for God or for us, and it’s not working for religion. What—in God’s name—are we doing as religious people if we can’t bring our whole selves before God as an act of faith? For Christians, if the idea of incarnation means anything, it’s that God gets us. God gets our hunger, our anger, our lust, our hopelessness, our cowardice, our laziness in the face of injustice. God gets the thrill of creation, God gets the pleasure we take in our bodies, God gets the meeting of two or more souls in deep conversation. God gets the howl of fear and death, moaning forth in an “eli eli lamma lamma sabachthani saxophone cry.” God gets us, and loves us. There is nothing we can hide, or need to hide.
Tron: Legacy is one of the best trips you’ll ever take without drugs. The best casting in this film was the music of Daft Punk. The music positions the film as what it truly is: a techno-rave and special effects extravaganza. As you watch this imaginary world swoon and shatter in 3D, homages to all film spectaculars, from Metropolis, to The Wizard of Oz, Ben Hur, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Blade Runner, and, if I’m not mistaken, several Lady Gaga videos, spool off through the cyber universe at the speed of light. People who complain about such trifles as “story” and “character,” are missing the point. That’s not what this film is about. But something about Tron the original, and Tron the sequel on cyber-steroids, keeps making my theo-sense tingle. There’s a lot here about incarnation—creators entering “the Grid” they’ve developed, and trying to fix bugs in the system. In the original, the liberation theology was evident, as the programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) entered the universe he’d created and sacrificed himself for it—only to be “resurrected” back into the real world. In Tron: Legacy, there’s a lot of juicy possibilities in the son of the programmer, Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlun) entering the world created by his father. The father Flynn has made a creature, a program named C.L.U. (also Bridges, but computer morphed into his younger self). As Flynn himself says, C.L.U. was “made in my own image,” but the creature’s gone bad in his self-aggrandizing pursuit of perfection. All very orthodox from a Christian perspective. There’s even a wonderful “Son of Man” moment, where the son sees the younger program of his father, but then realizes it’s C.L.U., not his dad. But we already know that C.L.U. is made in the image of the father. So the son is both “user” and “program,” both divine and human. But that’s where the orthodoxy ends. The movie plot tells us Flynn the elder has been “captured” in this world. And when we find him, he’s meditating, kind of withdrawn; he’s stopped trying to perfect things, just sort of “Zenned-out.” The son is there as much as anything to save him, and if you’re into process theology, this is not a shocking turn. There’s some implication, even biblically, that the Christ event could be seen as a correction of an error in God’s creation: A Crisis in the Life of God, as Jack Miles put it. The “apocalyptic” in this film is the usual sci-fi calculation of a world thrown out of whack, with “heaven” being a restoration of the world to “normal.” The world is heaven if you just realize it, and perfection can be found in a child’s eyes. Unfortunately, this is pure Hollywood tripe. Hollywood never seems to be able to come up with an apocalyptic fantasy beyond this formula where the whole world is destroyed so some white people can see anew the value of their heterosexual nuclear family.
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 1
A theme that has been present in the Harry Potter series since the beginning is an embrace of death as an inevitability, and indeed, part of what gives life value. As Dumbledore says in the first Potter book, “After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Furthermore, over the course of the story arc, it becomes clear that Voldemort’s Achilles heel is not simply a lack of love but an egomaniacal drive to conquer death—both out of fear and a desire to become the most powerful force on earth. This is why he splits his soul into the evil “horcruxes” that Harry, Hermione, and Ron must search out and destroy in these last episodes. As long as one horcrux remains, Voldemort cannot fully die. The film and book versions of Deathly Hallows resonate with Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be. Tillich was influenced by the existentialists, and particularly the idea of angst—the crisis of the human being, who can imagine infinity, but is also painfully aware of his own finite nature. In Tillich’s view, one cannot even begin to have faith–in God, or Jesus, or heaven, or anything–until one has experienced the angst of mortality. Despair is the precursor to faith. In the book, Harry also rightly identifies that “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” could also be taken as a grasping after life and an egomaniacal desire never to die. The Death Eaters in the film are followers of Voldemort after all. Unfortunately, this also captures the essence of many Christians’ belief in heaven and “the rapture”— a refusal to believe that, as the chosen of Christ, we shall ever have to suffer the indignity of death. For the record, I do believe in some kind of continuation of the soul after death, but the glib assurance of heaven spoon-fed to so many Christians is profoundly different from the example of Christ who chose the cross, knowing the great cost of mortality. Christ was one who lived and loved fully, drank deeply from life’s joy and grief, and placed his life on the line for his friends. He understood both the cost and the value of letting go of his life. Harry not only understands this but, as we will see, lives it too.