A Tale of Two Movies

Watching movies is one of my favorite activities. Today I had the rare pleasure of getting to watch two (usually that only happens when I'm dog-sick and stuck in bed). They provided a bizarre counterpoint for each other. The first was the upcoming adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Now, the last one out of the gates on this was No Country for Old Men, what I consider to be an almost pitch-perfect movie. Add to that Viggo Mortensen and Robert Duvall, two of my favorite actors, and I was pumped. The kicker: free passes for pastors, followed by a theological discussion of the movie led by a "noted theologian." Sold!

The movie was bleak - I expected that. And that was hard to watch. But it just wasn't that good. The Coen Brothers nailed No Country's pacing with the painfully drawn-out vista shots and the almost wordless dialogue. Here, there was some good cinematography, but it felt like they were trying to get through it too fast. I know it's unfair to compare relatively new-comer directors to the Coen Brothers, but this really didn't live up to the challenge at all. For a free movie, though, intriguing.

The noted theologian was Reg Grant, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. It was not that long ago that places like Dallas would have urged faithful Christians to run the other direction from such movies, so I am encouraged to see the evangelical mainstream willing to engage secular culture, not deny it out of hand. But what followed in discussion was frustrating. The film was full of Biblical and philosophical allusions, much like No Country. However, the discussion seemed to be hell-bent (pardon the expression) on shoe-horning the film into a Christian allegory. The relationship of the Father and the Son, the pronouncement that the Son is "the one," the only man in the film named is "Eli," sparse conversations about God and angels, all of that adds up to a lot of fodder for conversation. But to somehow assume that McCarthy's nihilistic worldview could be bent into a crypto-Catholic "hope in Christ" morality tale? Not quite...

I was reminded of the Ralph Wood article comparing the theologies of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, entitled Lewis & Tolkien in Tension. In it, Wood describes how Lewis' literature has no purpose if the allegorical interpretation is not there. In other words, if you don't get that Aslan is Jesus, then The Chronicles of Narnia aren't going to be of much use. Tolkien, on the other hand, seemed to prefer the uniqueness of Christ and therefore refused to have any Christ-figure in his masterworks. The themes of Scripture, however, are there: betrayal, trust, faith, transcendence, temptation, humility, etc. Allegorical, no. Rich, yes.

It was reading Wood's article that helped me understand the deep flaw I've never been able to articulate with dispensational readings of Revelation. A vision of the future? Yes. One in which the Whore of Babylon/seven seals/four horses means a specific person/entity/nation/enemy? Probably not.

And yet, that's exactly what this audience was trying to do with The Road, find the Christ-figure and how to use this as a preaching tool. One audience member went so far as to say that the end offers the possibility of hope in Christ and the "new heaven and new earth." First of all, there's a big difference between hope and optimism; hope is a lot more than "glass half full." You can have a bleak future and still have eschatological and soteriological hope. And second, folks, if the future looks anything like McCarthy's vision, then there is no cause for hopetimism.

Enough about the film I didn't enjoy. The second film was with guys who went on our OPC Men's Retreat in October. We watched Into the Wild, the story of Chris McCandless, the Emory student whose misanthropy causes him to abandon all for the solitude of an Alaskan winter only to discover the truth that "Happiness is real only when shared."

Sean Penn's directorial eye was exactly what The Road needed. The drawn out shots of mountains, whether bleak or beautiful, were well-executed. And there was enough fodder for theological/philosophical discussion, albeit in non-allegorical terms: loneliness, woundedness, community, limitation, success, dependence, independence, forgiveness, enlightenment, you name it. And if that weren't enough, there's far more religious conversation that actually occurs within the movie. From vague discussions about God to prominent quotes from Tolstoy (himself an intriguing Christian writer), McCandless' own search seems to have these eternal questions in mind. And the way Penn shapes the narrative only highlights these ideas.

And so for now, the balcony is closed. We'll see you next week at the movies. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbLgszfXTAY] (having watched the preview again, did we get a truncated version today? 'cuz half of the scenes in the preview were not in what we saw) [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LAuzT_x8Ek]