300, Awesome Ancient Women, and the Perils of Historical Fiction

Here’s what I just posted on Huffington Post… and then, here’s the problem with it.

Now if only there were about three hundred more 300‘s. Maybe not in blood and gore but movies with kick-ass women from ancient Persia and Greece. Artemisia Movie 300Then, more people would get what has so captivated me about Amytis, Cassandane, and Atossa. Um… who, you ask?

Bible at the Movies… Again

Job and Proverbs. Texts from those (very different) biblical books launch the two movies that I’ve seen most recently — Secretariat and True Grit. Stories about determination and perseverance, success in the face of misfortune and seemingly impossibilities. But this wee post isn’t about the movies so much as to note how they begin — with biblical texts, both from the Old Testament, yet opposite in sense. The character Job in the Bible is described as a righteous man who nevertheless suffers tremendously. He challenges the accepted theology that he must have done something to deserve this corrective punishment from God. (We readers know that he has do nothing wrong.) The whole book questions this situation of undeserved suffering and God’s role in it. When God finally answers, it’s not an answer per se (though some find an answer in it). Rather, God goes on and on about the intricacies of the natural world. It’s a strange response with some intriguing implications, which I explore a bit in Bible Babel. And it’s frankly quite beautiful. The poetry is exquisite and the images evocative. Among them, praise for the graceful, strong, and swift horse. So that’s how Secretariat begins. True Grit begins with a pithy saying from Proverbs, a book full of pithy sayings. What those proverbial sayings have in common is a solid sensibleness — that everything follows as it should. So, live responsibly, work hard, be decent, and you’ll enjoy good reputation, health, and material success. Quite the opposite of Job. But “the wicked flee when none pursueth” is a fitting beginning to the story that True Grit tells. (Interesting: a Coen brothers film; the Coens also made A Serious Man, based on the book of Job.)  It also lends the whole a kind of biblical righteousness patina… and so invites faith-based interpretations and contemplation such as http://spiritualpopcorn.blogspot.com/2011/01/true-grit.html and http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/film/reviews/23934-true-grit but doesn’t require Bible-based religious faith to appreciate. And I’ve been thinking: how about a True Grits restaurant? Love the grit(s).

Biblical Imagination and the Creative Process

If most people don’t get the biblical references, why do the creators of popular tv, movies, music and lit still use them so much? Pondering this question over iced tea with a novelist, Ph.D.-candidate friend, we decided: it’s tough to say. Here are a couple of ideas that we bounced around:

1) Audiences do recognize the biblical language, themes or characters and that’s enough because the Bible continues to resonate or at least suggest something greater than what immediatley meets the eye.

Legion — the paradox of obedience

Given its title, I figured that the movie would have something to do with demons — a whole, well, legion of them… in full-on “possession” mode. After all, “Legion” is the name of a biblical demoniac, according to the stories in Mark and Luke, because many demons were involved. But in the movie, Michael (our hero-angel gone rogue) actually goes to some trouble to explain explicitly that the troops of zombie-like murderers are not possessed by demons but rather are angels fulfilling the command of God. And yet. Here the movie suggests that the line between angels and demons frays as God’s patience wears thin. That’s just one thing among many that I found intriguing about this movie. Another (and I admit I loved this) is the paradox of obedience. [spoiler alert!] Michael is finally deemed a better servant of God than the hyper-obedient Gabriel, set on fulfilling God’s command to kill off the human race. Precisely by disobeying, Michael satisfies the “need” (vs. “want” hmmm) of God. That part’s a little silly (God as some adolescent to the angels’ maturity?!). But hope for a future unwritten (no theological fatalism, here), and mercy at the hint of goodness… I like that.

Book of Eli — My God

Did you know that “Eli” means “my God,” in Hebrew? Yup. In one form, anyway. So, even if you’d missed all the previews, reviews, and commentary in between on the movie “The Book of Eli,” you still might guess that the book in question is the Bible. The English translation King James Version, to be precise. I’m no film critic, so I’ll leave that to the pros. But I can say that the movie gives viewers some interesting Bible things to think about, like: Is Washington’s character somehow protected supernaturally in his quest to bring the Bible west — protected by God, or by the Bible itself? If he is, what does that make of God, of the Bible? And: the KJV is undeniably a valuable literary artifact, even if one doesn’t believe in it at all. So it would make sense to include in that post-apocalyptic library on the west coast. But does the movie suggest that that particular version is The (one and only) Bible? And do you think that a person knows the Bible if he or she has memorized a particular version? [Me? I think yes… and no…] Then of course there’s all the violence. Our Bible-toting hero is no turn-the-other-cheek kind of guy. Timeless question: when should one and when should one not be such a radical pacifist? Finally, how about the evil megalomaniac, certain that if he had that book, his power to control and manipulate toward his own twisted aims would be complete? Does he know the Bible so well? Questions to contemplate, debate…. 

The Bible and Sherlock Holmes

I wish I’d had the presence of mind to bring a notebook with me to “Sherlock Holmes.” I should know better — that the Bible shows up everywhere. This movie was no exception. A fun flick — a little cerebral, lots of action, and a sobering reminder that what may seem to be convincing magic is sophisticated manipulation of the physical world. (And its seductive agent may be a malicious liar.) The movie has several biblical references that I just can’t remember in detail. In addition to the evil Blackwood’s overt associations with Jesus (busting out of his tomb after 3 days, eucharist-like ritual, and address as “Lord”), was it Revelation 1:18 that Blackwood cites? (And does the movie make the common mistake of identifying the book as “Revelations,” with an “s” on the end?) Also, I remember being startled to see several Hebrew Bible/Old Testament references in the iconography of Blackwood’s estate. For example, was it an altar or a kind of throne-like structure that was flanked by golden winged creatures (like descriptions of the biblical ark of the covenant… which serves in the temple as a kind of divine ottoman)? And what’s with the Hebrew shin, lamed, mem, vav, tav writing underneath some structure (again, was it a different scene with Blackwood on a throne)? In the Hebrew Bible that word appears as such as a proper name. It also appears as a word modifying “stones” in a couple of references to building an altar of “unhewn” stones (so translated because the word is based on the root shin, lamed, mem which can mean “whole”; that’s where the word shalom “peace” comes from, too). I still don’t quite “get” why it would be in that scene, though, unless it’s meant to mark an altar where a sacrifice would be perfomed (as in Deut 27:6 and Josh 8:31). Whatever the case, does this association of Hebrew with the occult have anti-Semitic implications? While I don’t think that that the movie is anti-Jewish (after all, the guy manipulating these symbols and appealing to New Testament texts is obviously mis-directed… to say the least), such associations can be problematic, given the long Christian suspicion of Jewish rituals and traditions. Overall, the movie was good, entertaining fun and gives astute viewers some intriguing things to think about. 

Bible in Sci Fi

As I work my way through the Buffy tv series (“work” is too severe a word here — I’m having a blast), I’m struck by how bilbical themes, language, and images lend themselves to the science fiction imagination. This isn’t earth-shattering news, I know. What’s striking is how the Bible is translated into this medium. Appreciating the wild and wacky symbolism of biblical apocalyptic — including gargantuan bad guys battling the supernatural good in a world that seems like ours but is nevertheless radically transformed — one expects that to have some carrying power into our cultural sci fi milieu. And it does dominate, but that’s not the only biblical genre to make the leap from ancient page to postmodern screen. Themes of journey, home, love, and faith washed with the biblical brush of narrative and poetry show up right regularly, too. I’m going to be following Dr. James McGrath’s blog “Exploring Our Matrix” as he preps to teach a course next semester on the topic of religion and science fiction.

Invention of Lying, or the Invention of Faith?

I saw the movie, “The Invention of Lying” last night, not expecting to find any biblical or religious associations or messages in it. Hah. I should know better! They’re everywhere. It’s really quite a sweet story in which the main character becomes a kind of Moses, even standing before an expectant crowd with two tablets (pizza boxes, actually) of written info from “the man in the sky.” If I could hang out with you in person, at a cozy coffee shop for some post-movie conversation, here are some of what I’d want you to tell me and to talk about: How do you think the effects of the movie character’s declarations are like or unlike the effect of Moses’ great Sinai moment? In some ways, the main character seems modeled also on Jesus — his knowledge of things greater than what anyone else can see, the sacrifices that he makes out of what can only be a kind of love… Yes? No? And most general: what about this character is like (or not) any religion’s founder, or (person aside) what circumstances does the movie share with the founding of a religion?

The Jesus of Gran Torino

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t yet seen Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, don’t read any more here.

Clint was all Clint in his latest, Gran Torino, but he did a mighty fine Jesus, too. I’m assuming, given the spoiler alert above, that you’ve already seen the movie. I loved it, especially for its ending. But of course the power of that ending would be nothing without the story and character development that led to it.

By the end, we long for a dramatic blood-letting, a great ass-whooping of the nasty thugs, and we know that Clint is just the guy to do it.