Tag Archives: movies

Tomorrowland, Mad Max and Liturgy


So Tomorrowland had a bad opening. Tomorrowland was the Disney produced move staring George Clooney that you can roughly guess the story from the title. (Admission, I also did not see it. I am going on reviews and trailers.) It has something to do with a rosy optimistic futurism that might be best captured by Walt himself and a nostalgic view of the race to the moon. The only troubles this futurism can admit to are either those of bad people holding back the future or speed-bumps on the way to greatness. Mad Max: Fury Road in its second week almost met Tomorrowland. Max of course is the flipside of Tomorrowland, a pessimistic futurism. A world where the sane are mad holding on to hope and escaping trouble today just means your road ends tomorrow.

As a liturgist one of our forgotten truths is that we embed our greatest truths in ritual. We all have ritual, even you atheists and Baptists. About a year ago our family took part in one of those rituals – the grandparents took us to Disneyworld. Disneyworld is the Vatican of that Tomorrowland futurism. It’s a great trip. Don’t take this as a complaint. Every American child really should go once – like on the Hajj. It is part of being American. Part of the American experience and birthright is the idea that we can do this. From the Pilgrims on the Mayflower to failure is not an option. Disneyland is the architectural realization of that ideal every bit as much as Chartres is of medieval Catholicism. But as my oldest child warmed my heart by saying when asked if she wanted to come back, “no, it’s all fake”. That might have been the harsh judgment of youth, but she parsed truth from a half-truth. The truth of we can do this in Disneyworld is hidden behind the half-truth of it is easy if we just clear the path and keep everything clean. Clearing the path and keeping everything clean in tomorrowland takes massive injections of outside funds. And even then “it’s all fake”.

I’ve been trying to think of the ritual expression of Mad Max and I think I know it now, the social welfare state. That state might have started out as an expression of Tomorrowland, but now it is simply an expression of power. When the sane observe that it doesn’t work and might have made things worse they are met with cries of cold-hearted bigot. The outcome of the ritual is not important. It is the fact of the ritual and our heart’s intentions. We mean to make life for the poor better. We have the right belief. Government is the only thing we do together, the ultimate ecumenical expression. Yes, we lost the war on poverty, but government goes on. Your road might end tomorrow, but the government will survive and keep on the fight. The gates of hell will not prevail against it. What are you, mad?

Tomorrowland and Mad Max are alternate expressions of the progressive worldview. And Satan could care less which rituals you want to take part in, because both are false and half-truths. He wins when you are led astray. What he doesn’t want you to see is the truth embedded in the church’s liturgy. I am, we all are, the bad people standing in the way of Tomorrowland. The bad people are not some others, but ourselves. I am “a poor, miserable sinner”. “I have sinned in thought, word and deed, by what I’ve done and what I’ve left undone.” The admission that we are by nature sinful and unclean takes care of that “it’s all fake” problem. We can still do great things, but it is going to take a massive injection from outside of us. Which we hear in the absolution. “Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for His sake God forgives us all of our sins.” That is not fake but as real as a cross.

Likewise contra Max, this road is going somewhere. “This is the feast of victory for our God. Worthy is Christ the lamb…the lamb who was slain has begun his reign.” We believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. The intersection of this life and death is found in that highest ritual, the Lord’s Supper. We admit the gritty reality a Max. It took flesh and blood. It took sacrifice. But that sacrifice was not madness. That was the sacrifice of a true innocent which covers us. In this supper we have a foretaste of the feast to come. We have a celebration of the marriage feast. We have a glimpse of the end of the road. We are not mad to persevere, because in our flesh we will see God.

We all have ritual or liturgies. And those liturgies form us and how we see the world. Be careful of the yeast of Tomorrowland or Mad Max.

A Quick DVD Review – Snowpiercer

snowpiercerposterI was initially intrigued about this film because of the highly unusual release it received. Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein wanted 20 mins cut and some other stuff inserted. The director, South Korean Bong Joon-ho, refused. So, Weinstein dumped the film in limited release and on Video on Demand the same day. That is the release pattern of very bad movies or high critical/low production value movies, i.e. art house. Snowpiercer has A-list talent, Chris Evans otherwise known as Captain America, and it has high production value, i.e. budget of $42M. For Mr. Weinstein to dump it this way would probably mean a loss. Say what you will about Hollywood, but money usually trumps ideology. When it doesn’t, hmmm. (Note, there are other answers that put forward other explanations, like this, but they all strike me as after the fact of the movie garnering attention.) So, I got myself a copy.

At a very basic level, Snowpiercer is an effective thriller. Someone looking for The Bourne Identity 10 could enjoy this film simply from an action standpoint. But to end it there doesn’t capture all the subtle differences. I say subtle because the differences are at the worldview level. This movie invites reflection that Jason Bourne just would never countenance. Even American “art house” flicks would not invite some of the contemplation of Snowpiercer. My guess is that it is exactly the type of interpretation I’m thinking of that caused the producer to first demand cuts and additions and then dump the film.

You can almost see the elevator pitch: global warming apocalypse creates Marxist class struggle in confined space – Hunger Games meets Aliens, hence the “Fight Your Way to the Front” tagline. The movie has that form, but it is actually quite subversive to it. First, the whole global warming part is a smoke screen. Fear of global warming leads to a human attempt to geo-engineer the climate. That double hubris leads to the planet freezing and the only survivors being the passengers on the super train. The trouble is what we think we know and what it causes us to do, not on an environmental screed. Likewise the Marxist class struggle is the form of the action, but the entire string of events is turned on its head by two revelations. The final meeting with the material “god” of the train and the immediately prior action spurred by the anti-hero form the basic choice – stay within the materialist universe or reach for transcendence. The final bit of subversiveness is the presence of an actual hero and a hero’s journey. The only heroes we get today are in Chris Evans’ Captain America spandex. Mr. Evans gets the chance to play a hero outside of the spandex. His journey even includes the rejection of comfort and the embrace of sacrifice.

Ultimately Snowpiercer is bound and limited by its genre, an apocalyptic thriller. It is a piece of pop-entertainment. But where the outcome of most such thrillers is how the anti-hero secures material comfort and security, how the world is made sane again. In this one the world, the entire rigged system, is rejected and transcendence in hope is chosen. It is not explicitly Christian, the transcendence is not even religious from the viewer’s perspective, but the themes are not ones allowed in pop entertainment. Snowpiercer is smart pop entertainment. Pop entertainment that instead of stoking materialist impulses asks questions of a new world and transcendence. No wonder Weinstein wanted to edit it. That is dangerous stuff for the American mind.

Noah – Why I’m Looking Forward to a Movie

Noah Movie PosterCan I admit something? Well, I don’t care if I can or can’t – I’m going to. I’m looking forward to seeing Noah. I might even bring my kids – which depends more upon family budget than it does upon what is on the screen.
Now I’ve got some purely secular reasons for wanting to go:

  1. I’ve never seen a Russell Crowe film that wasn’t worth the time. Never. Not even the Rom Coms. He is the highest performing actor of his generation. (Maybe Denzel Washington comes close.) The fact that he took this script says something.
  2. I like Hermione. Sorry, Emma Watson. Along with the rest of the cast. If I was casting a movie blind, these are the actors I’d want to see.
  3. The director is roughly my age and knows how to tell what are spiritual stories. Go look at the movies he’s done. Each is interesting and a couple are near classics. Add to that the spectacle budget and what is clearly a passion subject for the director, this is the equivalent of Nascar. Even if it wrecks it should still be exciting.
  4. This one starts to cross into the theological, but it is still more secular. I would like to see A-list talent treating biblical themes. We can kid about actors “phoning it in”, but that is probably what #1 is about. The best just don’t phone it in. Even if the material is crap (see Crowe’s Rom-Coms) he himself can still sparkle. And you don’t get A-list talent in a paint-by-numbers biblical story. If you did, something went very wrong because the source material is so rich.

So, that gets me to the theological reasons.

  1. The Noah story has been so overly sentimentalized – we put it on baby’s walls! – that any serious treatment of it should be meaningful. One of the most haunting lines in the bible is Luke 17:26-27 where Jesus says, “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.” This is a story about the death of everything and our natural blindness to it. If the director needs to use global warming to do so, ok, he’s speaking from his experience. We might be blind enough that we need a physical prompt to consider the spiritual.
  2. The Genesis stories are sparse in their telling. They are made to appeal to universal themes. For a people that is no longer the Children of Abraham, these Genesis stories are where Spiritual wrestling can start. American’s are no longer wrestling with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob revealed in Jesus Christ, but they might wrestle with the unknown and enigmatic God of Noah. And eventually when you wrestle with the unknown God, you need shelter, because the unknown God sends floods.
  3. One of the great strengths of the scriptures is their refusal to simplify. When you read most “sacred literature” what stands out is how simplistic most of it is. When you read the bible, the heroes are often like Noah who does this amazing task of building the ark on simply the word of God and almost the first thing he does when he stumbles out of it is get drunk and curse his sons. Even Jesus, who is dogmatically perfect, embodies the contradictions. All the glory of God is best revealed on the cross. Deal with it. Especially if you are following a prosperity preacher or happy sunshine rainbows Christianity. I trust Noah in this team’s hand to not be simplistic.
  4. And the big one. I said this is a story about the death of everything and our blindness to it. That is only half true. It is also a story about grace. God chose one man or one family from the midst of the wreckage and sealed them in an arc. God’s justice and God’s mercy on full display.  We Lutherans call that the law and the gospel.   The worst of us (sin) and the best of us (tenacious faith) portrayed. However you decide to fill in the blanks, those bones are truth.