joy and sadness: a world turned Inside Out

Joy and SadnessI saw Inside Out last night. It is a remarkable work of cinematic art. I don’t have time at the moment to write the review I would like to, but Steven Greydanus has more than ably said many of the things I would want to mention, and some that had not occurred to me. As I began thinking about the movie’s themes this morning, a passage from Henri Nouwen came to mind, which I had written down in my journal some twenty-four years ago.

“I tell you most solemnly, you will be weeping and wailing while the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy. A woman in childbirth suffers, because her time has come; but when she has given birth to the child she forgets the suffering in her joy that a man has been born into the world. So it is with you: you are sad now, but I shall see you again, and your hearts will be full of joy, and that joy no one shall take from you.” (John 16:20-22)

Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life. It seems that there is no such thing as clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of its limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness.

Joy and sadness are as close to each other as the splendid colored leaves of a New England fall to the soberness of the barren trees. When you touch the hand of a returning friend, you already know that he will have to leave you again. When you are moved by the quiet vastness of a sun-covered ocean, you miss the friend who cannot see the same. Joy and sadness are born at the same time, both arising from such deep places in your heart that you can’t find words to capture your complex emotions. But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.

Henri J.M. Nouwen, Out of Solitude, “In Expectation”

A few further thoughts: Toward the end of the movie, there are moments that, while not in the least didactic, are instructive not just for children, but for all of us who share the human condition. Our lives are constantly marked by the reality of being in statu viae — “on the way”… In this life, we are never at home in the sense of a place of final rest. Our lives are shaped continually by hellos and goodbyes of various kinds — with other people, with places, and with places within.

While this is true of all people without exception, we sometimes feel isolated, believing that, while we can celebrate the hellos together, we cannot grieve the losses together (even with those we love and who love us). Yet sadness expressed can be isolation overcome. Paradoxically, grief shared can become sadness transformed and touched by joy, because our greatest need as humans is not to experience unqualified and perpetual joy, but to experience life in communion with others. If we understood this, and lived this, our relationship to the sick, dying, poor and elderly might be transformed. And with those relationships transformed, our world could be turned inside out, in the best possible sense.

for greater glory

Two weeks ago, I saw an advance screening of the newly-released movie For Greater Glory. Here’s my take on the film:

Andy Garcia delivers a solid performance as a man transformed by the mission that he takes up. In its best moments, the complex story of the Mexican Civil War travels alongside the narrative of the film’s main characters with a decent balance of nuance and sense of purpose. The dialogue, on the other hand, is so heavy on purpose as to exclude nearly all subtext.

The movie didn’t do a skilful job of letting the audience know whose story it was and why we should care in the first 30 minutes. There isn’t much work for the viewer to do — there’s a lot more telling than showing — other than the challenge of establishing who the minor characters are and how they relate to the rest of the cast. Many scenes feel more like set pieces for the stage than cinematic — quite a few scenes started too soon and lasted too long — and the over-long second act meanders without a strong narrative through-line. With some disciplined editing, it’s a story that could have been more compelling at 100 minutes than at its present 137.

That said, the movie does gain steam in the last 40 minutes as we finally know and care enough about the characters to feel authentically moved by the movie’s climax. A beautiful score by James Horner dominates most scenes, but its over-use means that, ultimately, it seems less purposeful and theme-driven than it might have otherwise.

I think the movie is definitely worth seeing for its presentation of an unfamiliar piece of Mexican-American history not far removed from our own day in either time or relevance.

It was better than There Be Dragons, and in a totally different league from Facing the Giants. In the moments when it wasn’t beautiful, it made me long for beauty. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder.) But enough of the back-handed praise….

I should probably see For Greater Glory again with consideration of its moral depth in mind, but as I think back on the narrative, I don’t think there was much complexity in it. Some of the conflicts were far too easily resolved; one that comes to mind is a scene between Peter O’Toole, who plays an elderly foreign-born priest, and the young protagonist. O’Toole’s character quickly determines what his role will be vis-a-vis the conflict without much deliberation or any kind of struggle. Even from a cinematic point-of-view, the lack of conflict becomes problematic. I felt carried along by the narrative, rather passively, without engaging difficult questions.

Especially in the early moments of the film, there were moments that were supposed to be emotionally engaging, but because one didn’t know the characters well enough, or what was at stake for them, I experienced something I can only call an emotional Doppler effect: one only understood the significance of the moments after they had passed. The audience wasn’t allowed into the fray of the moral dilemmas, but left a spectator… and the drama of history carried the story forward without really inviting the audience in. I’m not describing it well, but it was a story problem, to my way of thinking.

Also, the antagonists in the film were broadly drawn scapegoats, with little sense of their motivation (with the exception, perhaps, of Calles himself at certain moments).

In my mind, it is at once the most opportune and inopportune time for this movie’s message about religious freedom. Having listened to the objections of many people to religious freedom concerns vis-a-vis public policy in recent months, I can safely say that the movie does not answer any of the objections, which in a sense is no fault of its own, since it was produced long before the battle lines of the present year had really been drawn. But it adds nothing really thoughtful to that conversation.

I am ready to admit I wanted too much from this movie. Given the hostility to religious liberty currently on display in America, by many in the culture, and no small number of Catholics (including the Secretary of Health and Human Services), I wanted something that would trouble people out of their complacency… I wanted an awakening for those most glib about the need for religion to go back behind its closed doors and stop bothering the secularist vision of progress. I just don’t think that anyone without sympathies for the cause of religious liberty would come out of the theater with anything resembling a change of heart on this issue. Instead, people could come away feeling even more smug about the destructive power of religious fervor.

The movie does not so much carry a theme as it does a bumper sticker. A bumper sticker is a cheer raised on behalf of a cause it already believes in. A theme is something that has to be argued, and makes an appeal to the mind to work through a paradox and thus can speak to both the believer and the doubtful, along lines that are truly universal. And so, in that sense, I think the movie has limited audience. Although the action sequences (and in particular the sound design… bullets never sounded so good passing from one ear to the other) may cover a multitude of other considerations for audiences already primed to cheer.

Bumper sticker: Religious freedom is good.

Theme: Religious freedom protects the deepest core of what it means to be human.

For Greater Glory offered the bumper sticker, but wasn’t prepared for the hard work of delivering the theme. And so the glory of this film will not be so great: it will not be able to earn artistic credibility with the non-convinced. (See this review, for instance.)

Any Catholic defenders of religious liberty who might interpret this half-hearted review as a sign that I am a traitor to the cause of religious liberty, I will ask you this: Will you please spare an hour sometime to watch this YouTube presentation  by Barbara Nicolosi? Many thanks.

the Boomers and the redemption of culture

Barbara Nicolosi has written an essay entitled “Save the Boomers, Save the World: Redeeming Culture” as part of a collection of essays on the future of the Church… her focus is on art as it relates to this future.  You can read it here.

Here’s a short excerpt in which she highlights the challenge facing the Church in reaching out to artists born after 1975:

The Church must use all media to reach these new cultural power brokers, and to penetrate the commanding subconscious voices of their parents; she must teach them that the breakdown of the Boomers will require patience, heroism, and long-suffering.

Lots O Huggin' - icon of the Baby Boomers

As I read this, I immediately thought of  Toy Story 3. In the film, Pixar seems to have cast Lots-O-Huggin’ Bear as a cynical Boomer. Rather than simply letting the character be destroyed in the garbage dump—which would have been cathartic, given Lots-O’s betrayal of the rest of the group—Woody comes to his rescue. A wise story choice… patience, heroism, long-suffering.

More discussion of Barbara’s article over at First Things.

Avatar

I recently saw Avatar, which was — from a visual point-of-view — stunning in 3D. Part of the visual genius of the film is the ability to create a world that is incredible / fantastic but which becomes credible to the viewer… the visual effects did not distract or call attention to themselves.

From the perspective of story, however, and especially from the perspective of spirituality, I found Avatar much less impressive. The highly caricatured portrayals of good (Navi) and evil (human) provided a simplistic moral universe very unlike the elaborate and complex visual universe of the movie.

Sure, there were a few human characters who showed an interest in the Navi’s world/culture, but in response the solution was to attack the humans, and, in the case of the main character (hero?) Jake, to abandon his human life. He was not some sort of Christ-like mediator figure, but instead one who “switched sides.”

Fr. Robert Barron makes some acute observations about the movie’s “Hollywood-approved spirituality” and how it differs from a Biblical spirituality. See the YouTube video below: