May 18, 2012

Recent Movies Explore Women's Spirituality

Three Movies Explore Women's Spirituality

 by John-Brian Paprock


As a modern man in 21st Century, like most modern men, I like to believe I am quite liberated. In my youth, I stood and watched my mother burn her bra and held an "ERA now" sign at our high school rally in the mid-1970s.  Many women could vouch for my progressive non-chauvinistic views, even if they do not understand how my religious and spiritual life in Eastern Christianity allows me to have them. Yet it is from my own deep spirituality and spiritual development that appreciation for differences balanced with the overwhelming amount in common we share regardless of gender.

Nevertheless, there is a mystique of women's spirituality that I often feel is beyond my experience as a man.  In these three recent independent films (all available on DVD and Blue Ray), I find three women in the depths of spiritual dilemma, struggles and even despair. And in that dramatized struggle, these films have helped me begin to understand some of the unique characteristics of women's spirituality.

In each of these stories, the main character, a woman, pushes beyond the boundaries of her life and reaches an epiphany of sorts, though not as romantic as it may sound. In fact, even though these three films examine women relationships with men, I would not classify them as romantic movies. The life problems and resolutions may not be as neat and tidy (or even complete!) as in more conventional male-dominated stories. Spirituality and humanity are entangled in these stories - as are cultural,  religious, and social dynamics. Yet, each of these movies brings to light the power of women's spirituality, despite the central character of religion and culture that have certainly been male-dominated.

Although some may not understand my choices of these movies as demonstrative of feminine spirituality.  There may be better movies that have been made or will be made on the topic. However, I believe that these three films will give, at the least, some clarity to women's spiritual struggles as different from men's struggles, yet, in relation to men. In addition, each of these films can give insight into an evolving spiritual ideal for women that may still be a mystery to many men, as well as to many women.

1. Shi (Poetry)
(2010) Unrated - 139 minutes - Kino International - Korean with English subtitles

Writer and director Chang-dong Lee put together an exceptional movie about a sixty-something Korean woman, faced with the discovery of a heinous family crime as she fights the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Yoon Jeong-hee stars in the leading role, which was her first role in a film since 1994. She is deserving of all the awards and accolades for her stunning performance that maintains all the nuance and humility of centuries-old cultural traditions and yet expressive of a modern life.

When she reaches out to find strength and purpose for the last portion of her life, she enrolls in a poetry class. And throughout the movie, her search for poetry in her life and surroundings alludes to a deep spiritual awakening. 

An awakening hoped for by all in the Buddhist and Confusionist culture of Korea.  I have had the honor of talking openly and honestly with some elders of Korea. They told me their fondest hope and desire would be to divest themselves of all their possessions and wander the hills and mountains and villages of their homeland, trusting in the compassion of others as they reach for a state of complete detachment in preparation for the next life. They were concerned that their adult children would only think they were being foolish.  One gentleman confided that his own father had taken that journey when he turned 60 years. He talked of it with pride.

Throughout this movie, I thought of that spiritual need to disentangle and be unecumbered at the end of life.  In Buddhism and other Eastern spirituality, the ideal is to have lived one's entire life with such detachment.  But detachment alone will not bring one to a better next life, rather it is the mixture of detachment and compassion that show one's advancement.  Although the elder seems to leave everything behind and ventures forward alone, they cannot go until they have taken care of their moral and family obligations. It is a moral, social, cultural and spiritual charge that brings one to that enlightened status.

In this beautifully crafted film, instead of the old male dominated stories of heroic detachment that are among some of the most ancient stories of humankind, we are given the real dilemmas of an urban woman called to her higher ideals.  The beauty of this film is in walking with her through her process of disentanglement and detachment, even as we share in her new found appreciation for the beauty always around her that she did not notice.




2. Martha Marcy May Marlene
(2011) Rate R - 102 minutes - Fox Seachlight
Billed as an American psychological thriller, this film is about one woman's journey back from an abusive cult in the rural Catskill Mountains.  It is in her struggles with the delusions and fears (paranoia is not too strong a word in this movie) that haunt her as she tries to return to a normal life with the help of her estranged sister and her brother-in-law.

It was written and directed by Sean Durkin, who won the Dramatic Directing Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival for his efforts. Together with star, Elizabeth Olsen (who in this, her debut screen peformance, was nominated for 30 acting awards and won 10 of them), they present a suspenseful and accurate portrayal of the psychological and spiritual damage from dangerous groups that espouse universal love and freedom but then take complete control of their members. 

Like in so many of these groups, the central character is given a "new" name and told that she is "a teacher and a leader," but, until she is no longer the newest member, does she find out the real meaning of such an esteemed title. The charismatic and creepy leader is expertly played by John Hawkes.

In her escape and subsequent attempts at returning to the non-cult world, she is confronted with the core of her beliefs in society, in family, in her self and, existentially, her relationship to everything. It is impossible not to be moved and intrigued by watching her internal conflicts played out in the film. They bring to bear the spiritual difficulties of a young woman's idealism and beliefs when they are played against her own best interests. Although there is violence in this movie (along with some sex and nudity), the real violence is in the growing understanding through this movie that a woman's inner gauge, her gut, her intuition, or whatever other name you would give the divine compass that guides her morals and ethics, has been nearly ripped out of her soul and yet she feels guilty for getting away, for seeking some healing and nurturance.

It is unfortunately true that most cults (and other destructive groups) are lead by charismatic men, not women. Although, as the film points out, women can play key roles in the maintenance and growth of such perverse and pathological groups. In this case, the movie does a very good job of not focusing on peculiar theologies and bizarre cosmologies that seem to pervade cults.  By not getting into the details of the leader's beliefs (which are presented as rather simplistic, not typical of even the smallest of cults), the movie is free to examine more of his characteristics, mannerisms and demands as well as the dynamics between cult members  The question is always asked about cults: how do intelligent and caring people end up part of a cult?  This movie also gives an insider view of how one can be hooked and initiated. 

This cult group is rather loose and rurally based, but it could have easily been a small bible church in the Appalachians or a small meditation group in a large city or a hundred other religious and psuedo-religious groups.  The dynamics are the same. Unfortunately, the escape, the exiting, is just as problematic and difficult as portrayed in this movie.

The film shows the power of a woman's devotion and how men of mischief and spiritual disease seek and desire that power.  Once taken, the film also shows the painful process a woman must endure to be healed of that soul killing spiritual violence.  Indeed, the film raises the question if anyone can fully recover from such destructive energies.


3. Higher Ground
(2011) Rated R - 109 minutes - Sony Classics

Even the title suggests a film about spirituality, but the title is more about a yearning rather than a destination. In Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, she has given us a powerful movie about a woman's lifelong struggle with faith in God. 

This movie could be considered a Christian movie by some. Perhaps, an anti-Christian film by others. It is, in Farmiga's own words, "a woman's search for safer footing, higher ground."

Higher Ground screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs based the screenplay on her published memoir, This Dark World, which is about her own struggles with belief, love, hope and trust - in human relationships as well as in God.  In struggling with an evangelical Christian faith, she was confronted with disenchantment, conflict and confusion.

Throughout the film, we seem to be asked the questions of faith that can entangle any of us. But, when asked  and dealt with by an honest woman, there are some surprising insights and unique difficulties that are explored in this movie.

Toward the beginning of the movie, a young Corinne Walker was walking on stilts and we are given the sense that she had always wanted to be higher, to be closer to God.  And yet throughout the movie, Corinne seemed instead to lean on everyone else's faith, looking to their reactions to faith to gauge her own.  At one point she demands, "Draw near to me God."  Then, immediately asks in a desparate tone, "Where are you?" 

The film follows Corinne, her intimate and familial relations from her youth to her adulthood, including a pregnancy-urged marriage and a troubling yet devout best friend, Annika (played with authenicity by Dagmara Dominczyk), whose faith seemed greater than her own. Corinne's love and envy of her friend leads to some of the most dramatic moments in the movie. (Another performance of note is John Hawkes as Corinne's father. It is amazing that this is the same actor mentioned in the review above!) 

The film ultimately doesn't answer questions of faith. Even though a Protestant Evangelical church and house church ministry is presented in the movie, Farminga avoids preachiness, or presenting squeaky-clean faith, or even attempting parody, as so many other faith based movies have done.

In the "making of" special feature of the DVD, Farmiga said about making this movie: "I have had a life long struggle with faith. I've struggled to define it; to make it clear; to make it real; to understand it."

Being such a well known and successful actress, Farminga was interviewed many times about her film choice for her directorial debut. Many times she was directly questioned about her own faith (she was raised Eastern - Ukrainian - Catholic) and what she was trying to accomplish by choosing a film about Christianity.  In many ways, she reveals that her involvement in this film was personal and purposeful.

In one of the interviews, with Mother Jones magazine, she eloquently explained her faith and her motivation in making this movie:

"My parents instilled in me the importance of defining God for yourself. Just because I'm telling a story about a woman losing faith is not my rebellion against what I grew up in. If anything, it really affected the way I approached the story, and in fact, approach everything. I don't judge my characters—or this community, which I came at without dukes up...


"Do I pray? Yes. Prayer is very important to me. You don't necessarily have to be religious to pray. I'm incredibly spiritual. There are like tens of thousands of denominations; I don't fit in any one of those denominations comfortably. But I have a very personal relationship with God. It's hard to talk about because it is so personal. I also have a lot of frustration with religion—organized religion—because it's man-made, because it's man-regulated. And it has nothing to do with my relationship with God....

"The depth of exploration of the male psyche and the female psyche [in film] is uneven. I see further, deeper renderings of what it means to be a man. And I think it's—well look, most of the central characters are male. And that's part of it....

"But my only job as an actress—as a storyteller—is to provoke discussion. Those are the best sermons. Not the ones that instill dogma."
from Mother Jones magazine - August 2011

Farmiga later admitted in the "making of" special feature of the DVD that the movie became a homage to the faith of her own father and, as she put it, "to keep affection for my heavenly Father."

In Higher Ground, Farminga has given us an honest look at the struggles of women's spirituality in a Christian setting. She has, in this film, also given a great sermon by provoking in depth discussion about the real issues of faith, hope and redemption that are both temporal and eternal.

March 7, 2012

Seeing the Divine in Humanity

Two Unique Films Reveal The Spirit of Humanity:
Cave of Forgotten Dreams & Life In A Day

Occasionally, in the course of watching films, I get lucky. I watched several films in close succession that seem to move me along a deeper understanding of our human condition, our common humanity - and they were delights of the craft of film-making.  Two documentary films moved me further along a deeper appreciation of the human spirit. At the same time, they had disturbing revelations of true and raw humanity. Even though I have been going through my own difficulties in life, these films seemed to bring me to a place of healing in my own humanity with all flaws and failures intact. If we are made in the image of God (as I believe we are), then these films also reveal something about God's image in us, or perhaps it is only a glimpse of divinity in us seen in the reflective medium of film.  See for yourself.

These two films were in theatrical release in 2011 and are currently available on DVD and Blue Ray.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

An amazing documentary of a slice of humanity from around 32,000 years ago by film-maker and cinematographer Werner Herzog.  He was given almost exclusive access to film inside the Chauvet caves of Southern France. In 1994, the caves were discovered on private property with Ice Age paintings that are the oldest known pictorial creations of humankind. The outstanding natural magnificent cave shadows and the lighting used for filming created haunting images of the cave and the ancient paintings. Many of the wall paintings in the cave are so beautiful and life-like they could be showcased among the greatest masterpiece paintings of any era.

The French government immediately cut-off all access to the caves due to its cultural significance. They gave access to a few archaeologists and paleontologists... and Herzog...  before sealing the cave again to preserve its pristine condition.

Contemporary human visitors are no longer allowed to visit the cave and its paintings in person.  But, through the documentary, Herzog invites us into a place of ancient humanity. Asking scientists to explain what we are seeing, he realizes these paintings and this cave reach into our very soul and reflect the consciousness of our most ancient ancestors and of each of us.

It is clear that there are spiritual intentions in the life-like depictions. Those primitive artists are not painting for themselves, but for their brethren, for divinity, and, perhaps without intention, for us in the 21st Century.

In this cave, where cave bears lived for generations and humans only visited and painted, humans most likely worshipped.  There is a stunning image of a cave bear skull intentionally mounted on a rock facing the entrance.

In one of the interviews, an archeologist proclaims, "with this [Ice Age] evidence, we should not be called homo sapiens, but rather homo spiritualis."

Herzog tells of the footprints of an eight year old human along side the paw prints of a cave wolf.  He asks, "were they friends? was one stalking the other? or were they walking the same places thousands of years apart?"  We may never know, but Herzog, in asking questions, brings the spirit of the cave and the spirit of our most ancient ancestors into the contemporary existential search for understanding our own lives - but with 32,000 years of perspective. With such a long view, there are some things that become clear even as others are obscured, assigned to the mysteries of life that continue around us. 

Here is an official web page: http://www.wernerherzog.com/index.php?id=64

~o0o~
Life In A Day

(2011) Rated PG-13, 95 minutes, Documentary | Drama

An absolutely important film that clearly demonstrates the global reality of contemporary humanity.  Filmed during the 24 hours of July 24th, 2010,  80,000 submissions, 4500 hours of footage, from 192 countries were submitted to director Kevin MacDonald, who, with some help, put together a 95-minute documentary.

Not only was the project breath-taking in its scope, truly encompassing the entire world, the finished edit is an amazing compilation that flows from one family to the next, from one country to another, telling an amazing story of a single day of 21st Century humanity.  All that is important to our common humanity makes an appearance, including birth, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle-age, coupling, parenting, old-age, illness, death, career, occupation, eating, and worship - all with diversity, yet an underlying unity. 

At the end of the day's journey, one is in awe of the raw and honest presentation of humanity. The spirit of this venture will open minds and hearts to our common struggles, move us to tears AND make us giddy.

Although English is the main language throughout the film, there are moments in several different languages with subtitles.


National Geographic official web page:

January 22, 2012

Lingering at the Gate: The House is Black

Khanah siyah ast ~ The House is Black ~ 1962
Written, directed and edited by Forugh Farrokhzad
In Farsi with English subtitles

Leprosy. Even the word provokes images of deformity and isolation, ghoulish and horrific. In the bible, lepers are sinners cursed with obvious defects related to their sinfulness. They were among the unclean. To be in contact with them brought uncleanliness to you and the community of faithful. 


"There is no shortage of ugliness in the world," are the opening words of this short Persian film, "The House is Black." We see a disfigured woman staring into a mirror wearing a beautiful veil that barely covers her disfigurement.

To be cured of leprosy, to be cleansed, required an act of God, both in healing and cleansing.  It is hard to say whether the 20th Century disease of remote tropic areas is the same as the biblical disease, but it was feared well into the 20th Century.  In this movie, the Islamic devotion and worship is Shi-ite, but even religion succumbs to the spirit expressed.  Compassion and loving care for lepers became a Christian practice as early as the Second Century - a tradition maintained throughout the centuries that have passed. 

In the Syriac Orthodox Church Calendar that dates back to those first centuries of Christianity, there is a Sunday dedicated to leprosy in Lent. At least once each year the lepers are remembered in churches throughout the world, but one Sunday in a year seems a paltry offering of time and prayer in the light from this film.  The makers of "The House is Black" lived twelve days among the lepers in the colony in Tabriz, Iran during the filming. Forugh Farrokhzad fell in love with two of the children, adopting them shortly after the filming.

     Here are links to three sermon/articles about lepers and the Leprosy Sunday:
     Healing and Thanksgiving http://www.angelfire.com/wi/theosis/healing.html
     The Stigma of Our Disease http://frjohbrian.blogspot.com/2010/02/stigma-of-our-disease.html
     Spiritual Leprosy http://www.icon.org.in/dt/dtmessage.icon?method=readSermon&id=84

In the 21st Century, leprosy is a nearly curable illness if diagnosed early and there is quality treatment for those whose disease has advanced.  Very few remaining lepers live in isolated colonies. However, there is still rampant a spiritual leprosy that deforms a person's character and keeps one unclean. 

"The House is Black" is a profoundly deep and penetrating look at humanity and spirituality with beautiful black and white cinematography in documentary style by cinematographer Soleiman Minasian.  Despite the careful, honoring and respectful camera work, this is a movie that probably could not be made today without hearing criticisms of exploitation. 

Forugh Farrokhzad died in a car accident in 1967, a few years after this movie was made. The cinematic gem she left behind has already influenced other Persian film-makers. Her heavy editing style was decades ahead, so the short film does not have any sense of meandering as many foriegn films of the era seemed to do.  Writing these compliments, it is hard to imagine the immediate obstacles she encountered: the film's subject as well as the film-maker's gender.

However, after seeing this movie, I could not imagine a world without this amazing film.  It is a necessary journey into a leper colony in 1960s Iran, but you get the sense it could have been filmed a hundred years ago. The profound deformities may hide the loving and faith-filled humanity presented, but not for long. It is also a necessary journey into the viewer's heart.  We are left with a sense that it is not the lepers who are lacking love, faith, and joy. Rather it is we who are lacking.

The beautiful script in the Persian language of Farsi with original poetry, facts and quotes are mixed in a smooth manner so that the humanity and the spirit is not bogged down by the medical reality. The English subtitles are subtle - sometimes too subtle and hard to read, but do not distract from the images. The poetry read by poetress and film-maker Farrokhzad, using quotes of Rumi and other observations, brings the viewer to a place they have never been before nor could be imagined. The simple image of a leper on crutches walking into toward us through the natural light in a grove of trees is one of the most beautifully filmed moments in cinema.


Listening to a woman's voice in a language not my own, reading spiritual poetry over the powerful images of human faith and love despite the deformities of a devastating disease, is a must view for all who love film and all who love humanity.

When the movie ended, I was stunned with its power and changed forever.  At times, during the 22 minutes of the film, tears rolled down my cheeks. At other scenes, I could not smile broadly enough. I felt I had met God himself in "The House is Black." The film reminds all of us that physical disease and deformity are never constraints for the goodness and love in the human soul.  God is revealed in the least of our brethren.

Toward the end of the film, there is an image of the gates of the colony closing. I found that have been lingering at those gates since.

+ + +
The House is Black page on Facebook:

View the film on-line:
OR stream below:

House is Black
22 minutes - directed by Forough Farrokhzad
(Farrukhzad, Furugh ; Gulistan, Ibrahim ; Makhmalbaf, Muhsin, Gulistan Film Co.)
Facets Video; Facets Multimedia (Chicago, Ill.) 2005

The Facets DVD includes a 19 page booklet which includes essays by Chris Marker, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Susan Doll.  It also includes two short films directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who called "The House is Black - the most important Iranian film ever made."


1. Images from the Qajar Dynasty (1993, 18 min.)
A short documentary made while the filmmaker was preparing his feature Once upon a Time, Cinema. The Qajar (aka Ghajar) family ruled Iran from 1785-1925. The film shows rare photos and early films shot at the Shah's court, along with family portraits.


2. The school blown away by the wind (1996, 8 min.)
The school for nomad children seen in the film Gabbeh, is the subject of this drama. An old man visits the classroom, and at first mistaken for an inspector, eventually is revealed as a former teacher of nomad children who has stopped by to refresh his memories of this happy time in his life.

December 5, 2011

THE SEASON’S VERY BEST FILMS

MOVING PICTURES
THE SEASON’S VERY BEST FILMS
By Rev. John-Brian Paprock
Originally published in the 2010 Holiday Worship Guide
Capitol Newspapers - The Wisconsin State Journal
Sunday, December 19, 2010

Television has replaced the fireplace as the focal point for gatherings of family and friends. But meaningful holiday observations can happen there, too. Here are some conventional (and not-so-conventional) movies to watch during this holiday season.

These films were intentionally chosen for spiritual or moral challenges they pose. There are choices for the religious and non-religious viewer. All can deepen appreciation for the holiday season. The films are listed in alphabetic order not in order of quality or preference (my choice for the three best holiday classics have been separated at the end).

Every attempt was made to choose quality films, technically as well as artistically, so these can be considered the best. And all of the movies on this list are available through the South Central Library System which includes all public libraries in Madison and nearby communities. Enjoy.

LINKS TO THE MOVIE LISTS
Introduction (this page)

October 6, 2011

Summer of the Super Hero - Part 5: The Value of Strength

by John-Brian Paprock

This is a review of one of super hero movies during the summer of 2011.

Captain America:The First Avenger
Released July 22, 2011 , 2011 Runtime: 124 min
Rated PG-13 http://captainamerica.marvel.com/
DVD/Blue Ray release date: October 25, 2011


This is essentially the origin story of an ideal American hero of World War II in the 1940s - who starts as the fabled "98 pound weakling" of early comic book body-building advertisers.  In the advertisement, those "weaklings" usually had sand kicked in their face. The advertisers promised that they too could become big and strong so that they would no longer be the victim of bullies.

In many ways, Captain America is the ideal expression of what a "weakling" might do with the same strength of bullies.

The movie takes time to develop Steve Rogers' plight in weakling mode putting up a losing battle against bullies, trying to boldly stand up as he is knocked down over and over again.  It seems to be clear that violence is bad, even evil, and that whoever is stronger will use their strength to dominate the weak.     

However, the movie does not hide from the notion that strength is actually a neutral quality separate from the character, separate from morality.  But it also treads a thin line where violence is also neutral.

The story begins with Steve Rogers, in weakling mode in Brooklyn, wants to volunteer for the armed services duty in World War II.  Even though he is continually rebuffed and caught in his lies while trying to enlist, he keeps trying. His persistence is noticed by Doctor Abraham Erskine who is working on a covert "super-soldier" project that combines a special serum with "Vita-rays."  He picks Rogers for his experimental work.

The German Jewish Dr Abraham Erskine defected to America to give his support against the Nazis.  They, too, were working on a "super-soldier." 

In the movie, Dr. Abraham Erskine talks about his choice of the weakling Steve Rogers: 

     "Why someone weak? Because a weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power..."

Then, as if to clarify the underlying theme of Captain America, Dr. Erskine explains the intent and purpose of his research and experiments:

     "The serum amplifies the inner qualities of its taker, as well as their physical attributes. Good becomes great... bad becomes worse."

The making of a "super-soldier" sounds like the work of an alchemist working on a special talisman or exilir.  Alchemists, the predecessor of modern laboratory scientists, of ten combine the spiritual and mystical into the potions and processes of the Great Work - transforming lead into gold. Lead was recognized as the densest and darkest of all metals. Gold was seen as the brightest, capturing the sun itself in the metal.  So, alchemy, in its Great Work, was also a spiritual task of transmuting the densest and lowest qualities of humanity into the golden virtues of divinity.  It may be noted that many of these alchemists of the 15th and 16th Century were also familiar with the Jewish mystical teachings called Kabbalah. 

Steve Rogers is transformed by serum (a scientific term that sounds like a magical elixir) and the bombardment of "Vita Rays." Vita = life: so he is bombarded with intensified life force

But instead of going to war, he becomes a public relations gimick, "Captian America," to sell war bonds.  When he travels with the USO in Italy, he finally proves that he was destined to become an actual hero, a real super hero - although he maintains his gimick costume and shield.  The shield becomes his trademark. 

We discover that the Nazis have created their own super soldier, but, as so often happens, evil distorts the energy.  The recipient German officer Johann Schmidt is played especially well by the bad guy of the Matrix films, Hugo Weaving.  He takes the super-villian name "Red Skull."  We find out, like all evil, that this eveil wears a mask to hide his true face.

Although the movie does not have any overt occult notions, the evil Nazis and especially the archenemy super-soldier, the Red Skull, incorporate European pagan mythologies. Some of these emerge in the movie in the distorted notion of world domination from strange divinations. Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull, admires a wooden Norse carving in the movie, saying "Yggdrasil, the world tree... the fountain of knowledge... the giver of power." 
He, as a true believer in the pagan mysteries, finds a source of immeasurable power to fulfill his desire for world domination - even over Adolf Hitler's Nazi forces.

So the movie becomes a battle between the good and pure and the distorted and evil; the pride of evil and the humility of good. Even with equal strength, we are shown, good's qualities makes Captain America stronger or maybe just "luckier?"

During one mono a mono fighting sequence, we have this exchange:
Johann Schmidt: What makes you so special?
Steve Rogers: Nothing. I'm just a kid from Brooklyn.

Although the movies stresses a underlying science to super-powers, it leaves a distinct idea that science is not where the power truly resides.  The movie seems to ask: is there something intangible that give an edge to the side fo good? Is it in the timing, the choices, the hope, the righteousness? or something else? love?
Just before Steve Rogers is about to receive Dr Erskine's treatment and become Captain America, Dr. Erskine wants to be sure he has chosen the right person.  He asks, "Do you want to kill Nazis?"

Steve Rogers, in his 98-pound weakling body, responds "I don't want to kill anybody. I don't like bullies; I don't care where they're from."

Dr. Erskine pats him on the shoulder and smiles - and so do we.

September 30, 2011

Summer of the Super Hero - Part 4: Good Will Intended

by John-Brian Paprock

This is a review of one of super hero movies during the summer of 2011.

Green Lantern
Released June 17, 2011 Runtime: 114 min
Rated PG-13 http://greenlanternmovie.warnerbros.com/
DVD/Blue Ray release date: October 14, 2011

All heroes are borne of circumstance.  It is the synchronicity of timing and character that brings to light the potential inner qualities of mortal men. 

Often the circumstance of super hero origins are rather contrived, but when it involves the transformation of a mere  human being, the stories take on a mystical quality and seem to tap into the mythos of spiritual development.  This is sometimes intentional, but in early comic books (especially by the 1960s and 1970s) it was an uneasy incorporation of spiritual principles without the constraint of religion.

However, the age of aquarius and lunar travels inspired a cosmic view of humanity and the possibilty of other races on other worlds.  In most cases, more advanced technologically, socially, spiritually - often with ethics that include all sentient beings in the universe.  There are several comic books stories of "mere humans" becoming super hero born of that cosmic awakening in American culture.

Older comics left the source of these super powers mysterious, coming from another realm or spiritual reality.  Modern comics, starting in the early 1960s, tried to merge that older understanding with science fiction explanations.

The Green Lantern is the name for a hero that wears a ring with special powers. The 1940s Green Lantern has a ring with magical powers. In the movie version, the modern origin story includes a ring of advanced technology.  In both stories, a "mere human being" becomes a cosmic and mystical hero. 

Through the ages, rings have had mystical power.  Rings incorporate talismans, charms and gems, which were believed to hold spirits in obeyance.  Rings of power were the subject of superstition and intrigue.

A modern sect of Sufis, Nasqbandi, continues a teaching of wearing a ring of blessed power on the right hand of men. This ring, they teach, is a protection against enmity and evil, particularly the negativity of others.
 
     The Prophet Muhammad {s} taught that the use of the Ring on the Right Hand {Because of the Right are Ashab al Yamin people of the Right are Blessed, takes away Enmity.

Green is usually seen as a heroic and healing color.  In the alternative healing of Reiki, colors of auras correspond to charateristics of a person's energy.  A green aura color, in Reiki, is a very comfortable, healthy color of nature. When seen in the aura this usually represents growth and balance, and most of all, something that leads to change. Bright emerald green is evidence of a healer or a love-centered person.

So, we have a superhero given power by a rings of green light!  Rather than rely on religious or alternative spiritual teachings, the first lines of the Green Lantern movie explain the contrived context for the use of green.

Tomar-Re, a Green Lantern instructor of the planet Xudar, also narrates at the opening of the move and at the end. He begins: 

     Billions of years ago, a race of immortals harnessed the most powerful force in existence: the emerald energy of willpower.

Later, Hal Jordan, in training on the Green Lantern Corps home world of Oa, asks:

     What's with all the green?

Tomar-Re responds:

      Green is the color of will. The guardians harnessed will because it is the strongest source of energy in the universe.

In instructing Hal Jordan in Green Lantern ways, legend and lore, Tomar-Re, sets up the movie's climactic conflict that will, of course, be fought on Earth. 

     The greatest threat the Corps ever faced was Parallax, an entity that fed on the yellow energy of fear.

We, the audience, learn that the Green Lantern ring, with a mystical intelligence of its own, found Hal Jordan of earth after a deadly encounter with an escaped and growing Parallax in space that fatally wounded Hal's alien predecessor. Being human, Hal is unsure of his worthiness and the other races believe humans are too weak as a race and too young as a world to have its own Green Lantern.

In human mythology throughout history, humanity's strength seem to flow from perceived weakness and the greatest hero attributes and power needed at the time of crisis prove to be the most human qualities of them all.

Hal Jordan, when confronting a human who has become distorted with the "yellow" fear power of Parallax, says:

      You know... there is a saying in my planet, we say 'I am only human'. We say it because we are vulnerable, we say it because we are afraid, but that does not mean that we are weak.

Hal Jordan succeeds through human courage that boldly acts in the face of fear - through the human ability to take the next step with blind faith, trusting that there is some reason and rationale - somewhere. 

Tomar-Re ends the movie as he would the legend of the Green Lantern Corps for a new batch of Green Lantern trainees:
   
      Of all the Lanterns who have ever worn the ring, there was one whose light shined brightest. At first his humanity was thought to be a weakness, and yet it proved to be his greatest strength.

Just before the credits, Hal Jordan, in a bright green light, charges his Green Lantern ring, activating the special lantern with his oath:


In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil's might,
Beware my power... Green Lantern's light!

The movie does a very good job with creating the Green Lantern Corps with all the special ring effects as well as the corps' diversity of races. The backgrounds of space and alien worlds is of an expected good quality.  The special effects are able to give the Green Lantern a viable screen appearance.  However, the script and story are rather simple for such a complex scenario.  At the same time, the dialogue is true to the comic books of the 1970s, with updated 21st Century references.

It was a pleasure to see one of the staples of the DC comic book universe on the screen in a CGI live action mixture that really brought the Green Lantern to life.  As a first effort with this hero and the cosmic magnitude  the superhero represents, it suffices and worthy of any superhore fan's time.  It may be lost to the challenge of such a complex source of powers and a rather mundane earthly script, even with its cosmic overtones.

As a study of the inherent conflict within each of us between our will that can propel progress and the fears that divert can divert us from our goals, the movie can work as a beginning place for conversation. That conversation could have happened in the movie, but it did not - at least not in a provocative manner that could lead viewers toward higher aspirations, whether they own a power ring or not.

Nevertheless, Hal Jordan, our Green Lantern, echoes a fan's hope for future movies and adventures when he says: "No matter how bad things get, something good is out there, just over the horizon..."



==== Special Addendum =====
For comic boook fans, the DVD/Blue Ray includes the digital version of best selling printed comic book of 2011: Justice League #1 - see the story:

DC's 'Justice League' #1 Is Top-Selling Comic Book of 2011 
 http://www.comicsalliance.com/2011/09/12/justice-league-1-best-seller/








September 24, 2011

Fade to black: ‘The Tree of Life’

"Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation ... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"

– Job 38:7

I have never been compelled to scratch notes on the back of a receipt in a dark movie theater, and I have never shushed my husband on the way home to make sure his opinions of a film didn’t contaminate my own before I had a chance to write about it. I did both tonight upon viewing Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”

Watching the trailer will give you some indication of the exquisitely beautiful and mysterious cinematography of the film, which has so far taken honors at both Cannes and San Sebasti├ín, and is generating Oscar buzz. Malick (“Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line”) literally spent decades working on “Tree,” which missed release dates in 2009 and 2010 due to a variety of complications.

Although it features Hollywood superstars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, it’s safe to say that this film will never be particularly “popular” (though it may well develop a cult following). It’s the kind of film a viewer will either love or hate; in fact, audiences nationwide have both applauded it and booed it.

That’s because onscreen ambiguity tends to foster either love or contempt. Maybe because when I was 4 years old, my mother brought me to “2001: A Space Odyssey” repeatedly in an attempt to “understand” it, I deeply appreciated “The Tree of Life” – a film that owes a great deal to Stanley Kubrick’s ethereal masterpiece.

What is “The Tree of Life” about? If I had to choose a single word, I would say “paradox.” In the Biblical Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden with everything they would ever desire, and with two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

While eating from the Tree of Life would offer them immortality, Adam and Eve paradoxically choose instead to eat from the other tree, from which they’ve been forbidden. Thus our spiritual ancestors brought death and suffering to the world – but also childbirth, work, and pretty much everything that makes us human: another paradox.

These kinds of almost nonsensical polar opposites underlie both the film’s plot and its stunning visual imagery. Ostensibly, the story is simple: Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receive the news that one of their three sons has died suddenly, at age 19. They grieve. Years later, Jack (Penn) – another of their sons, now a successful architect, continues to recall his beloved brother and reflects upon their childhood in small-town Texas.

That’s really it. And yet, there is so much more. Everything in “The Tree of Life” is both mundane and deeply significant. “Tree” is about both birth and death … adoration and hatred … the sacred and the profane … tenderness and sadism … the micro and the macro.

This is a film to be savored on the big screen, as the camera captures – with almost unbearable intimacy – scenes of the O’Brien family’s daily life. The three young brothers (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and R.L. Tye) behave so authentically, it’s hard to believe a camera is present. And the lens is so close you can almost smell the dirt and perspiration on their skin.

At first, the O’Briens seem like the idyllic 1950s family, but like everything in “Tree,” the reality is not so clear. As the plot continues, the suggestion of something ugly under the surface begins to develop.

But it’s like a Rorschach inkblot test. I don’t think the film contains a take more than three or four seconds long, and each glimpse is more symbolic than literal. What’s really going on here? Is Father simply a strict perfectionist? Or is he abusing his boys? And if he is abusing them, what is the nature of the abuse? Emotional…? Physical…? Sexual…?

The answer to the question might depend upon the childhood memories of the viewer.

But Malek is not content to let you remain with the O’Brien family, nor in the ‘50s, nor in Texas. Instead, he takes you deep into the atom, and then to outer space. He shows you the wonders of nature and the power of the city. He shows you the origins of life on Earth, and then fast-forwards to show you our planet’s eventual fate.

And after dozens of fade-to-blacks in the film, it fades to black a final time – leaving you with more questions than answers.

Very much like life.


September 15, 2011

Summer of the Super Hero - Part 3: Survival of the Fittest

by John-Brian Paprock

Here is a review of one of this summer's crop of superhero movies that is currently available on DVD/Blue Ray.

X-Men: The First Class
Released June 3, 2011 Runtime: 132 min
Rated PG-13 http://www.x-menfirstclassmovie.com/ 
DVD/Blue Ray release date September 9, 2011


Can there be humanistic superheroes who are not quite human? What if they consider themselves better than human? 

X-Men: The First Class is an origin story of a team of superheroes whose powers come from significant mutations of genetic code. They have innate powers, not of choice but due to an inherited potential caused by a force of nature known as mutation.  They seem human enough, until their special uniqueness and power emerges. 

As the one that takes the monicker, "Magneto," due to his unique ability to manipulate the power of magnetism, he deems these mutants as a new species, "Homo superior."  The term actually goes back to 1935 Science Fiction writers who coined the phrase to describe "the species that will evolve or be developed from Homo sapiens, with greater intellect or physical abilities, and often possessing paranormal powers," according to the  Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (Oxford University Press Inc, 2007), which also gives the following references:
  • 1935 O. Stapledon Odd John № 271: Homo Superior faced the little mob of Homo Sapiens, and it was immediately evident that Homo Superior was indeed the better man.
  • 1943 J.W. Campbell, Jr. Astounding SF (Feb.) № 158/1: How do you decide whether a man is an abnormally brilliant homo sapiens or a low‐grade homo superior, anyway?
  • 1955 F. Donovan Short Life Astounding SF (Feb.) № 48/2: Now you see why I dared not go even farther and release [...] the true Homo superior, the transcendent man.
  • 1973 J.R. Gregory & R. Price Visitor № 23: When the three returned to Earth, they had wondered what to call themselves. Homo superior sounded [...] well, too superior.
  • 1996 D. Pringle, et al. Ultimate Ency. of SF № 51/1: Sf writers [...] have been most interested in the advantageous mutations which might produce the first specimen of Homo superior.
Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/homo-superior#ixzz1Y1NluMlQ 

In this movie (and other X-Men movies as well as the very popular comic books), these mutations allow for diverse abilities. Some of these abilities are particularly powerful. The X-Men are a team of some of the most powerful, put together by a benevolent leader Professor Charles Xavier.  This movie takes place in the early 1960s and reaches back into the 1940s.

There is an underlying back story about the "human problem:" exploitation of the powerful mutants who can be used as weapons or intruments of espionage and blatant prejudice against those with more obvious mutations like wings or scales and more subtle hatred when unobvious abilities are revealed.  The X-Men story focuses on two divergent ways that two powerful mutants deal with that "human problem."  And in the Greek tragedy tradition, these two started in wildly different environments and experiences, become close friends and allies, but the tension of their respective views eventually forces them down different paths.

There is a third way of dealing with the "human problem" that is only alluded in this movie - isolation from "homo sapiens." This is explored in the Marvel comic book universe initially in a comic book series, "The Inhumans."  There is no movie about these mutants in the works. Of course, the X-Men saga has always been one of the most popular comic book series and it remains popular in diverse printed and digital movie forms.

As a story about human values, morals and ethics, the movie X-Men: The First Class dramatically plays out the realness of human evil that is at the core of the "human problem."  But in this movie, the struggle is much more personal as we learn the origins of Magneto's distrust and disdain for homo sapiens as well as core convictions of Professor Xavier, from whom the X-Men have derived their team name.

It starts, without shame or subtlety, in Nazi Germany and ends with an alternative reality for the Cuban Missile Crisis.  In between, some of the most powerful mutants find each other in hopes of being of mutual benefit. They meet in their struggles.  It helps, of course, that Professor Xavier's mutant ablity is enhanced mental abilities, especially strong telepathic abilities.  It helps Magneto hone and develop his powers as well. Xavier learns that he can help mutants learn to use their abilities and sees them as blessings for the entire world.  So, he opens a school for teen mutants, when at the age of puberty, mutants have particular - and many times peculiar - awkwardness.  He creates a home for those that don't seem to belong anywhere else. Magneto, once a lone revenger against the Nazis that killed his parents, learns that the company of fellow mutants is important, but he has great difficulty forgiving "Homo sapiens" for their humanness which he sees as a constant reminder of the ugly underside of human history - before its evolution into the superior species.

X-Men seems to have progressive and humanist teachings rather than overt spiritual or religious teachings.  It incorporates the fantastic along side the mundane, honoring the ideas of science over that of superstitution.  It champions diversity among the mutants, but the rest of humanity seems nearly monolithic.  Mutants, in general, seem to reject much of regular human spiritual teachings, particularly among these mutants.  There is an eclecticism in this movie reminescient of the liberal religious tradition of Unitarian-Universalism, but more likely the feeling is born of the diverse roles of mutants with diverse appearances and even more diverse super abilities rather than being influenced by any religious tradition in particularly.  One can imagine Martin Luther King Junior's dream including hand-holding with mutants as well.

What appeals to modern society in this movie is the common understanding of being rejected for our uniqueness; of not quite fitting in, and of even being overtly harassed for being different. In addition, in this new global society, we all struggle with the humantarian use of individual and collective power inherent in our diverse gifts, skills and abilities. We identify with the dilemma of being exploited if we have desired abilities or completely rejected if our unique qualities are not popular either in appearance or in practice.  This is an intensely spiritual struggle, and one that transcends race, culture and religion.

One of the main issues among mutants is in the control and the improvement of their unique abilities. In spiritual development programs, there is an acquisition of spiritual awareness and certain insights that can be seen in a similar way.  One wholistic program of spiritual and physical discipline is the martial arts of the east. In X-Men, this is mostly encouraged and developed with mental functions like focus of will and clearing the mind. The teachings in X-Men come from the Eastern Traditions of Buddhism, Taoism and Vedic meditative practices.  In the center of these schools of spiritual wisdom, there is the teacher, wise and helpful, who uses his own life force and experience, his special gifts, to assist his students learn control.  All to come into a certain harmony with the people and world around us and unlock the unique potentiality within each of us.

This is played out when two powerful mutants come together - one (Xavier) to help the other (Magneto) heal his painful memories and anger so that he can access his personal mutant power more effectively. Here are several quotes of Xavier when he is speaking with Magneto from the movie X-Men: The First Class.

Professor Charles Xavier: You know, I believe the true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity.

Professor Xavier: There is so much more to you than you know, not just pain and anger, there's good too, I felt it. When you can access all that, you'll possess a power no one can match, not even me.

Professor Xavier: You have a chance to become a part of something much bigger than yourself.
Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto): What do you know about me?
Professor Xavier: Everything.

This is the best overall film of this Summer of Superheroes, from its writing to its direction to its consistent and blended special effects.  It bears the burden of being a prequel to a trilogy of the hugely successful X-Men movies very well. It also reminds us of true friendship and the lasting effects of our decisions, that even with super mental faculties and superior physical abilities we may not be able to help everyone.  But, regardless of the odds, some of us will still try.



September 3, 2011

Summer of the Super Hero - Part 2: Hero in Two Worlds

by John-Brian Paprock

Here is a review of one of this summer's crop of super hero movies that is now available on DVD/Blue Ray.




Thor
Released May 6, 2011 Runtime: 115 min
Rated PG-13 http://thor.marvel.com/
DVD/Blue Ray release September 13, 2011


There are many hero stories in mythology that have striking similarities.  Joseph Campbell's popular book, "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" explores the human need for heros and hero story-telling. One of the highest accollades of a hero is in his (yes, most of the heroes are male) capacity to save us.  These saviors' stories are told over and over again emphasizing the deeds and the drama of their saving and heroic deeds.

Where heroes come from in mythology is as diverse as the cultures from which herioes are born, but supernatural ability is always godly and, therefore, in a world of limited technologies (like ours only a few hundred years ago), these ablities must come from a divine source.  The divine ones, the gods, have always resided either symbolically or literally "above" us - in a mythical country or world (Asgaard or Valhalla among the Vikings), or atop mountain (Mount Olympus of the Greeks).  These are also drawn in the night skies with constellations of stars. Anyone coming from "above" or having an ability to communicate with that heavenly abode was at least touched with divinity, blessed and sanctified as bridges to the people of the stories and their interpretations.

In this modern world, with its rational sciences, we do not hold the same things in awe and wonder, but we still look to the heavens for heroic figures to come to our aid in times of distress, in times of turmoil, in times of great need; especially and particularly if the threats to our well-being happen due to a war among the divine ones; between the good and the evil; the benevolent ones and the malevolent ones.  From our mere mortal standing, the good come to our rescue in opposition to the evil that wishes to destroy us.  

In 21st Century film-making, the grand story-tellers of our contemporary society, utilizing the complexities brewed in comic books, the modern re-interpretation of mythology reflects our underlying insecurities even as we have advanced in scientific knowledge and skill.  We still want and need a hero.  And why not choose one proven in another world, another place - a mythological world that is actually a world with humanoid aliens?  And why not take a hero from that world and make him a hero in ours?  Well, why not?    

Thor is an origin story movie of an alien hero from a world that apparently inspired the Norse and Viking mythology.  He who literally crashes into our present world becomes a hero in two worlds.  It does seem that when times are difficult and we cannot seem to save ourselves, hero stories give us hope by having a hero literally drop out of the sky.  And so Thor, waking up after falling into the middle of the southwest desert in America, asks, "Oh, no... this is Earth... isn't it?"


Initially, he is reluctant to help us, obsessed with his own predicament, and, from his perspective, our problems are insignificant. Although, it is not clear we have any real problems except that some scientists don't have enough money for their research. Thor, as an alien, presents some problems for the powers that be, whether they be of a government, a corporation or a shadow government.  They obviously want to exploit, control and gain from this alien.  The <sigh> normal scientists, including one very attractive woman, only want to understand how he may fit into their research and study of deep space.

But Thor comes from an advanced noble race that is lead by Thor's father, Odin the king. This a throne that Thor has been born and bred for. Throughout the beginning of the movie, we are shown how Thor's morality is shaped by his father's ethics and standards, his spirituality. At one point Odin has harsh words for Thor's immaturity as a leader: "I have sacrificed much to achieve peace. So too must a new generation sacrifice to maintain that peace. Responsibility! Duty! Honour! These are not mere virtues to which we must aspire! They are essential to every soldier, to every king!"


Thor truly becomes a superhero for Earth and humanity when he protects us from a mechanical destroyer sent to hurt those humans that were helping him.  That seems rather self serving on the surface, but, as he is beginning to fight this powerful robot, he says to those that sent it, "Forgive me for whatever I did to you. But these lives are innocent, taking their lives will change nothing. So take mine. "  In this statement, Thor echoes the heroes of times past, especially the hero-martyr-saints of the Early Christian Church like Saint George and Saint Demetrios. 


As if to emphasize a spiritual understanding of superheroes, expecially those drawn from historic mythologies, there is a re-separation of our hero from our planet.  But with the advanced technology of Thor's homeworld, he is able to gaze upon the Earth from the distance without a sure way to return (I assure you this is not a spoiler).  As he is looking out toward the chasm of interstellar space separating he from our world, Thor says to his companion, Heimdall:


Thor: So Earth is lost to us...
Heimdall: No. There is always hope.


... And so there is ...

Thor is a delightful excursion into Marvel superherodom and adds excitement as another prequel for the highly anticipated "Avengers" movie that is due in 2012.  "Avengers" is a team of superheros that are brought together to save us from great cosmic and domestic threats that no ONE superhero can defeat.  Thor also stands alone as a decent movie about a fantastic story of mythology come to life with a hero of two worlds.