Film

'It Follows' Explores the Spirituality of Horror

Screenshot from 'It Follows' trailer.

Screenshot from 'It Follows' trailer.

Should Christians like horror movies?

It’s a question that many a Christ-following cinema junkie has had to ask themselves. It’s hard not to feel a bit conflicted enjoying a zombie apocalypse or a masked maniac when peace and tolerance are core parts of your belief system. If we’re going to be discerning consumers of culture, what value is there in horror?

I could pose one of a dozen different possible answers, each with their own set of arguments — for example, how the collective act of yelling in the dark at a dumb teen NOT TO GO IN THE CABIN transcends race, politics, and gender. Or how horror can help us embrace the inherently supernatural elements of faith. Or how it does the important job of reminding us that evil exists in the world, and can take on any number of forms.

But the argument that truly separates the wheat from the tares is that great horror, going all the way back to its roots in gothic literature, offers some of the best social commentary there is. Truly iconic horror films (and horror stories, for that matter) allow us to go below the surface of your basic spine-chiller, and think about everything from racism to gender politics to the afterlife.

Horror is at its best when it gives you something to think about along with your creeps. The new film It Follows, out this weekend, fits that bill quite well. It also happens to be one of the scariest movies this year.

The plot feels like classic urban legend. Teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) is dating the slightly older Hugh (Jake Weary), and decides one night to go all the way with him. Once it’s over, however, Hugh informs Jay that he’s cursed by a demon, a demon he’s now passed on to her. The demon will follow Jay, slowly and consistently, until it catches up with her and kills her, unless she first passes it on to someone else through sexual contact. If the demon kills her, it will then return to stalk and kill Hugh. Only Jay can see the demon, and it can look like anyone, be it a stranger, friend, or beloved family member.

This premise could easily be turned into something silly and gratuitous, and were it a studio venture instead of a smaller independent film, It Follows might have been just that. But although writer-director David Robert Mitchell has made a movie in which sex plays a pivotal role, he’s more interested in the consequences of it than the act itself. It Follows is packed with symbolism that represents loss of innocence, the onset of adulthood, and reminders of mortality — the ever-approaching darkness that none of us escape. Grim, yes, but also pretty impressive in a genre more commonly associated with objectification and cheap thrills.

Shooting in a Moral Vacuum

CLINT EASTWOOD has made films about the sorrow and repeating pointlessness of war, as seen through the eyes of both aggressor and aggressed-against, with empathic performances and unbearably moving impact. His American Sniper, about the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, bloodied in Iraq and struggling at home, is not one of those films. At best it’s a valuable character study of a confused warrior, revealing the traumatic effect of his service. At worst it’s a jingoistic and xenophobic attempt to put varnish on a terrible national response to the horror of 9/11, a response that became a self-inflicted wound creating untold collateral damage.

A decade ago, Eastwood made Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, which saw World War II soldiers as propaganda fodder and had the moral imagination to show both sides as courageous and broken without denying the difference between attacker and defender. These films are respectful and thoughtful, but American Sniper is arguably a work born in vengeance. Its reception (becoming one of the biggest January box office weekends ever, and a quick right-wing favorite) is part of the failure to deal in an integrated way with the wounds of 9/11, or to even begin to face the reality of the war in Iraq: an imperial conquest using the cover of national trauma as a justification.

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Dissecting the 'House of Cards' Church Scene

Kevin Spacey in Season 3 of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Photo by David Giesbrech

Kevin Spacey in Season 3 of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Photo by David Giesbrecht, courtesy of Netflix

All presidents beseech God to bless the United States of America. Many pray for divine aid for themselves or their policies. Some can only wonder at the inscrutable ways of the Almighty.

Then there’s Frank Underwood, who spits in God’s face.

Underwood is fictional, of course, the power-grabbing president and central character in the hit Netflix series House of Cards. And Underwood is a notoriously amoral — criminal, actually — practitioner of a realpolitik so brutal that nothing he does should be surprising.

Indeed, in the show’s first season, a frustrated Underwood stopped by a church and looked heavenward to speak to God, then down to address Satan. Finding no satisfying answer from either, he concluded:

“There is no solace above or below. Only us, small, solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.”

Still, it is almost jarring when, in the third and most recent season of the political thriller, Underwood — again stymied in his schemes — meets with a bishop late at night in a darkened sanctuary and engages in an extended debate on divine justice, power and love.

Moved, or Moved to Act?

FOR TWO YEARS in a row we have seen significant films about oppression and struggle nurture public consciousness. Selma and 12 Years a Slave invite us to reimagine iconic moments closer than we usually think, their protagonists more like us. Slavery had not been portrayed in such visceral fashion in a mainstream film before 12 Years. Before Selma, images of Martin Luther King Jr. had never quite transcended the almost superhuman projections that accrue from his martyrdom and decades of being co-opted by cultural mavens from Apple to Glenn Beck.

These films create new benchmarks for the mainstream depiction of black history, black struggle, and wider perceptions. But entertaining portrayals of inspiration contain a powerfully dangerous substance that needs to be handled with care. The cathartic tears shed at a film about other people’s suffering and heroism can also be a narcotic, implying that the work has been done. Think of all the talk about freedom struggles after Braveheart, or challenging the principalities and powers after The Matrix. The problem was, most of it was just that. Talk.

Countercultural critic Armond White suggests that the danger of such films is that viewers “are encouraged to profess an inheritance they do not earn”—watching Selma is not the same thing as participation in social struggle. This is a problem, not just for the personal integrity of audiences, but for the world, because feeling something is not the same thing as doing something. Schindler’s List swept the Oscars in 1994, where speeches invoked the plea that “never again” should genocide be permitted. It was only days before the Rwandan genocide began.

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For the Love of ‘Paddington:’ A Movie Review

'Paddington' film still. Via Paddington Movie on Facebook

'Paddington' film still. Via Paddington Movie on Facebook

I loved Paddington, the new movie based on the Michael Bonds books about an immigrant bear who arrives in London from darkest Peru. Paddington has no resources other than his faith that he will be welcomed with open arms. Sadly, his experience begins like that of most undocumented immigrants to the European or American shores – he is rejected and ignored. But this is a playful movie with a happy ending that celebrates what wonderful things happen to the Brown family when they allow Paddington into their hearts and home.

Admittedly, Paddington is a handful – a wild animal unfamiliar with modern conveniences, whose commitment to being polite does not prevent unfortunate accidents that fulfill the nervous Mr. Brown’s worst fears. As the family learns to love this accident-prone bear, however, their love for each other is renewed. The villain (yes, of course, there’s a villain!) is defeated, Paddington finds a home, and the Brown’s problems are cured by loving the alien in their midst.

Does this fictional account of immigration with a happy ending have any bearing (pun intended!) on our real world immigration crisis? This movie invites us to wonder whether our fears of the changes that immigration brings are unfounded. After all, many European and American citizens fear the waves of legal and illegal immigration in Europe and the United States. We know all too well that these uninvited guests are radically changing racial, religious, and cultural demographics. Immigrants disrupt labor patterns, burden welfare systems, and tax the criminal justice system. And unlike the movie’s cartoon explosions, floods, and fires, the violence in our world that seems fomented in and among immigrant communities is all too real a threat.

Or so the story goes that stokes our fears. But is the story true?

‘American Sniper’ or ‘Selma’ — How Christian Is Your Movie Choice?

Images via 'American Sniper' and 'Selma Movie' on Facebook.

It’s no surprise when we talk about the influential power of the Christian pocketbook when it comes to politics, culture, or any other part of the social fabric in the United States. The conversation has been evolving for quite a while now, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its standout moments. One such moment was the unexpected box office power of The Passion of the Christ. Large numbers from various faith communities urged their members to buy tickets in an effort to send a message with their purchase. They wanted the box office numbers to speak for Christian influence in the notably secular realm that was, and is, Hollywood. They wanted their money to talk.

I don’t see it as much of a coincidence that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, American Sniper finished its four-day debut on Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — with a historic $107.3 million take. The previous best for a non-Hollywood-tentpole drama? The Passion of the Christ with $83.8 million.

Now, these two openings aren’t directly comparable. There are obviously different sets of circumstances surrounding the two films, including star-actor power, Hollywood support, and (for the purpose of our discussion) how much Christianized effort was involved. The buzz around American Sniper isn’t the same as when people purchased tickets to show support for The Passion of the Christ, even if they didn’t plan on seeing the film. Still, American Sniper brings us face to face with the issue Americans can’t escape in our modern society: the conflation of faith and patriotism.

A week ago, Sojourners ran an article from Religion News Service highlighting the role of Christian faith for Chris Kyle, the sniper and main character played by Bradley Cooper in the Clint Eastwood film. Several quotes from his book were used to call attention to the prominence of faith for Kyle in real life versus the lighter take on it shown in the movie. The article ends with one such quote:

“I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation. … But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”

Even if such language is patriotic for those who defend a black-and-white, us-versus-them ideology when it comes to combat, it is disturbing at best in a Christian context.

Here’s the Faith in the ‘American Sniper’ You Won’t See in the Film

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures / RNS

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in 'American Sniper.' Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures / RNS

Chris Kyle, often described as the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, wrote in his autobiography that he prioritized his life in the following order: God, country, family.

But God doesn’t make a central appearance in the film American Sniper, which opens nationwide on Jan. 16. The film offers a few similarities to Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s recent World War II epic about POW Louis Zamperini.

Both stories focus on the dramatic stories of warriors who died before the movie versions of their lives came out. Both American Sniper and Unbroken include an early scene of their families sitting in church. Both men struggle with substance abuse after returning from war.

And both films largely skirt the faith that Kyle and Zamperini said were key to their identity — and their survival.

As a Navy SEAL, Kyle reportedly recorded 160 kill shots during his four tours in Iraq. His story drew national attention after the release of his 2012 autobiography American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, which enjoyed a 37-week run on The New York Times’ best-seller list.

The Clint Eastwood-directed biopic starring Bradley Cooper debuted with a limited release on Christmas Day, the same day Unbroken opened nationwide.

Kyle opened his book by probing the ethics of combat as he wrote about his first sniper shot, when he had to kill an Iraqi woman holding a grenade.

Top 5 Resources for Community Dialogue on 'Selma'

Via Selma movie on Facebook

Via Selma movie on Facebook

Just as Selma opened in wide-release I began to receive requests for advice on how to lead churches and faith communities through discussions of the film. Years ago, I used to lead these kinds of dialogues in my capacity as the Greater Los Angeles director of racial reconciliation for a college-based parachurch ministry. Some of our most fruitful conversations came after we saw films like Selma or read a book together or had a common experience of racial injustice that we needed to process.

The film Selma is an incredibly helpful dialogue centerpiece at the moment. But like all things, other dialogue opportunities will rise and take center stage in the coming weeks and months. Other films will be released, helpful books will be published, and public events will provoke us to need to dialogue again. When those opportunities surface, I recommend using the format below as a template for similar dialogues moving forward. I’ve collected my Top 5 recommended resources to help guide your community dialogue on racial justice and Selma.

A Year of Great Films

THIS PAST MOVIE year I’ve been delighted by, among other things, nonviolent resolutions, a guy talking in a car, an Irish priest trying to do the right thing, and a five-dimensional bookcase. Here’s my list of the 10 best films of 2014 (many more are worthy, but 10 are all that will fit).

10. Pride. A delightful and stirring celebration of marginalized people turning their woundedness into helping others, as LGBTQ activists support the Thatcher-era British coal miners’ strike.

9. The Lego Movie. This turned out to be both the most unpredictably fun and one of the wisest films of the year. A brilliant critique of consumerism and political tyranny, with an ending that inverts the myth of redemptive violence.

8. Love Is Strange. A lovely, mournful romance, as a couple forced apart by prejudice teaches us the meaning of commitment. John Lithgow soars.

7. Interstellar. Extravagant adventure cinema, misunderstood as sentimental. Looked at more closely, the exploration of time is an intelligent grappling with not just how things work, but what God might be—a transcendently loving consciousness wooing us into a rescued future.

6. Ida. A beautiful, aching film about the post-Holocaust transitional generation and the meaning of religion.

5. Birdman. Crazy and deep, Michael Keaton’s finest hour, and a wild ride into the soul of an artist: The vocation that causes its stewards to fly, or crash, or fly while crashing.

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The Long March from ‘Exodus’ to ‘Selma’

Photo via Paramount Pictures / RNS

David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma." Photo via Paramount Pictures / RNS.

Here is one of 2014’s most enduring tips for budding filmmakers: Do not make films that are going to make developing countries angry.

First, North Korea went ballistic over “The Interview,” which contained a farcical plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un. And then, Egypt, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates decided to ban the new Ridley Scott biblical epic, “Exodus: Gods And Kings.”

Why? Egypt, in particular, is angry at the film’s historical inaccuracies. “Exodus” shows the ancient Egyptians hanging recalcitrant Hebrew slaves; hanging was never used as a punishment in ancient Egypt. Moreover, the Egyptians are upset because the film depicts the ancient Hebrews laboring on the Great Sphinx and the pyramids. They also object to the depiction of an armed Hebrew insurrection, which does not appear in the ancient biblical text.

The official statement claimed the film includes “intentional gross historical fallacies that offend Egypt and its pharaonic ancient history in yet another attempt to Judaize Egyptian civilization, which confirms the international Zionist fingerprints all over the film.”

Guess what? The Egyptians are right.

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