Doctrines of Hope…

16-years-of-alcohol-poster-0.jpgI seem to be encountering a string of films that, on the surface, have loads of potential but, unfortunately, don’t quite live up to it. On first viewing 16 Years of Alcohol I thought this might be such a film; however, on further reflection in light of Jurgen Moltmann’s theology of hope, I realized that this is, in fact, a film about the difficulty of maintaining hope in a world where, “Sometimes, for some people, things don’t work out as they might have hoped.”

16 Years of Alcohol, directed by Richard Jobson, stars Kevin McKidd of Trainspotting fame as Frankie, a Scott with a tumultuous past that he can’t quite shake. Having craved love that he never received and having had his early ideals of love and relationships shattered at a young age, Frankie spends most of his adult life (un)intentionally revisiting his painful past through alcohol abuse, violent friendships, and unjustified jealousy. When Frankie meets Helen, an attractive artist, he believes that he might just be able to turn his life around. However, easily-aroused jealousy and a lack of self-esteem quickly ruin what could be a life-giving relationship for him. He ultimately pushes Helen away and returns to his normal life of boozing and fighting. After hitting what he feels is rock bottom, he begins to attend AA meetings where he meets Mary, a recovering alcoholic herself. They too develop a relatinoship until Frankie’s violent past rears its destructive head.

At the conclusion of the film, a friend who watched it with me lamented, “There’s a good film in there somewhere. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it.” The film and my friend’s criticism stuck with me, and as I reflected on them, I was reminded of Jurgen Moltmann’s In the End–The Beginning: The Life of Hope. I realized that placing the two in dialogue with one another would not only enhance my appreciation of the film, but provide a more vivid example of Moltmann’s thoughts as well.

The film opens with one of several monologues by Frankie. In the first one, he tells the audience, “This is a story about hope…hope and desire…a dream of an extraordinary world where angels watch over you as storm clouds gather.” As the title of his text implies, Moltmann’s work is a pastoral reflection on hope in which he exchanges his usual theological diction for more poetic descriptions of the role of hope in the Christian life. While Frankie’s reflections on hope may sound arbitrary at best and fatally nihilistic at worst, Moltmann links his hope, obviously, to the resurrected Christ. Moltmann’s hope, far from some pie-in-the-sky anticipation, is a force that, he argues, motivates us in the here and now, even in the midst of a violent, seemingly hopeless world. While I certainly do not want to impose Moltmann’s Christian view of hope onto Frankie’s a-religious perspective, I do believe that elements of the latter echo principles of the former. Moreover, we must also take very seriously Frankie’s criticisms of hope and love as sincere challenges to a religious (Christian) view of them as espoused by Moltmann and others.

Moltmann writes, “[…In] every end a new beginning lies hidden. Yet we shall only become capable of new beginnings if we are prepared to let go of the things that torment us, and the things we lack. If we search for the new beginning, it will find us” (ix). Frankie’s rejection of his friends (letting go of that which torments him) and his search for a new beginning, symbolized by his relationships with Helen and Mary, AA meetings, and acting classes, embody something of Moltmann’s description here. Frankie’s vascillations between a tormented past and a hopeful future reveal the difficulty of the processes of letting go and searching for newness about which Moltmann writes. Moreover, Frankie’s violent encounters with his past imply an inability to fully let go of our “demons” and prove William Faulkner’s quip, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”

Moltmann breaks down his doctrine of hope into three parts–birth, rebirth, and resurrection. In terms of this analysis, I am concerned with the second. Of his intentions for rebirth, he writes, “[I am concerned with] the courage for living which hope quickens in us, so that we can get up again out of failures, disappointments and defeats, and begin life afresh” (xi). Frankie’s life, like all of ours, is full of these little (as in not ultimate) endings and the “getting ups” that follow. Frankie experiences what he calls “the end of good” at an early age with an alcoholic, cheating father; yet he strives to “be around love” throughout his entire life. Unfortunately, even this desire is polluted by an early addiction to alcohol. What Frankie considers his father’s love/life to be–a charade–gradually characterizes his life as he strives to imitate his cinematic hero, Bruce Lee, and one of his favorite films, A Clockwork Orange. However, he recognizes the limits of his charade, broad though they may be. He knows that his “gang” can go too far in their violent outbursts against others, and perhaps his interventions signal a “getting up” or a serach, albeit a frail one, for a new beginning.

Moltmann writes of “the vital energy of hope and the deadly power of despair” (32). He adds, “There are two forms of hopelessness. The one is arrogance or presumption. The other is despair, the obliteration of every hope. […] All despair presupposes hope. […] When hope dies, the killing begins. Hopelessness and brutality are just two sides of the same sad coin” (94). Moltmann and Frankie continue to prove interesting conversation partners. Frankie counters, “Hope is a strange thing…a currency for people who know they’re losing. The more familiar you are with hope, the less beautiful it becomes.” Hope, for Frankie, might very well be a charade as well. Yet Frankie’s life mirrors Moltmann’s discussion of hope and despair, most explicitly in Frankie’s turn to a violent lifestyle. It may appear that Frankie’s life is one of utter despair, but if despair presupposes hope, as Moltmann asserts, then we might need to take a closer look. The close up of Frankie’s face at the violent conclusion of 16 Years of Alcohol (foreshadowed in the opening scene) does not betray this ambiguity but maintains the complexity of Frankie’s life and thoughts on hope.

This brief analysis only scratches the surface of the theological dialogue that could take place between Motlmann’s doctrine of hope and 16 Years of Alcohol, but should serve as an example of theology and film-watching enhancing one another yet again. Of course, the film is not without its weaknesses. It can be too wordy in places, creating an unnecessary tension between the monologues and the plot. The transitions between the film’s three acts (three stages of Frankie’s life) are a bit rough and the focus on two relationships feels like too heavy of a load. We do not meet Mary until 30 minutes left in the film, and her relationship with Frankie largely mirrors his and Helen’s. Perhaps the director could have been content with focusing on one relationship and mining it for greater effect.

16 Years of Alcohol (R, 102 mins.) is available on DVD.