'Brooklyn' and the Stories That Made America

Still from Brooklyn. Image via Brooklyn Movie on Facebook.

There are many reasons to recommend Brooklyn — its relatable story for one, its glowing visuals and performances for another. But Brooklyn’s commendable qualities go far beyond this, including the amount of respect writer Nick Hornby and director John Crowley give the movie’s female protagonist. Brooklyn is a movie about hard choices, and for the most part, Eilis makes those choices on her own. At different points in the film, she’s caught between romantic relationships, and familial and personal obligations. But in none of these situations does it feel like her hand is forced. The movie lets us know early that Eilis can take care of herself, and she’s never forced to compromise on that point, though she easily could have been.

Although politics aren’t really on Brooklyn’s agenda, the film also carries an unintentional point on that score worth considering. At a time when the United States is anxious about welcoming refugees and immigrants, this film reminds us that our country is made up largely of immigrants — some who look like Eilis, but also many who don’t.

5 Pop Culture Jesuses

The Jesus of pop culture is multiethnic and well-traveled, pious and irreverent, singing and silent. A fictional portrayal that is blasphemy to one viewer is sacred to another. The diversity of Jesus’ depictions reflects the diversity of the pop culture audience. Most recently, another fictional Jesus has appeared in Compton, smoking weed and promoting “black-Latin” reconciliation in the new comedy Black Jesus. The sitcom presents a Jesus who uses at times crude language to ultimately promote a consistent gospel message of love. While this Jesus “shares in the pleasures” of his largely poor, African-American community, “he also challenges their prejudices, violence, and self-seeking.” Read more in Danny Duncan Collum’s “The Christ of Compton” (Sojourners, November 2014).

Check out this list to read about five portrayals of Jesus in recent pop culture history.

1.      Lion Jesus

In The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis sets up a less than subtle allegory of Jesus in the form of a lion named Aslan. Aslan transforms a void into a world through song. He welcomes children. He dies and comes back to life. But still, he is a lion, fierce and elusive, helping to convey both the intimidating power and the radical love of Jesus.

“‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course [Aslan] isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’” –The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (1950)

2.      Black Jesus

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‘Left Behind’ and ‘The Good Lie’ Face Off During Hollywood’s Year of Faith-Based Films

“Left Behind” movie poster, photo courtesy of Stoney Lake Entertainment/RNS.

Two new movies that aim to attract a faith-based crowd join a glut of biblical films for 2014, testing the limits of Hollywood’s appetite for religion.

The two films, “The Good Lie” and “Left Behind,” both opening Oct. 3, reflect two different filmmaking strategies: One is geared for a wider audience that could attract Christians, while the other produces a movie clearly made for the Christian base.

With a number of films targeting a faith audience this year, it’s unclear whether Hollywood is oversaturating the market with faith-based films — a revolutionary idea 10 years after Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” shocked the industry by raking in $611.9 million worldwide.

“The Good Lie,” starring Reese Witherspoon helping four young “Lost Boys” from Sudan adjust to life in the U.S., has underlying faith themes. The refugees rely on their faith as they try to leave homeland strife behind, and Witherspoon’s character works closely with a faith-based agency to place refugees with families.

Are We the United States of Dystopia? The Politics of 'The Giver'

Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges star in “The Giver.” Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company

This Friday, a movie version of the classic novel “The Giver” opens in theaters with an impressive cast, including Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges. “The Giver,” originally written by Lois Lowry, explores a seemingly perfect world where all conflicts have been resolved and annoyances — such as bad weather and adolescent “stirrings” — have been eradicated, allowing this culture to achieve a beautiful state of “sameness.”

As you can imagine, this utopian society is not so utopian. “The Giver” focuses on young Jonas, who has been selected for a daunting task: to serve as society’s sole proprietor of memory and emotion. Jonas learns about pain and sadness, but also experiences beautiful colors, a thrilling sleigh ride and ultimately learns to feel love. In other words, Jonas learns what it means to be human — and that his world may not be so perfect after all.

“The Giver” is the latest in a wave of dystopian stories that have washed over America in recent years. From this summer’s “Purge” sequel and “Under the Dome” to the latest “Hunger Games” movie (due out in November), people can’t get enough of these apocalyptic fantasies, in which seemingly perfect worlds turn horrific.

Why such an appetite for dystopian stories now?

Viewing Community

THERE ARE apparently 2,000 film festivals around the world, so the format of red carpet arrivals, gala screenings, and Q&A sessions that appear all but scripted in advance have become well and truly entrenched. The best festivals recognize that their purpose is to cast a spell over filmgoers and filmmakers alike, inviting them into a spacious place where the heart of the dream that led to the film being made and the audience’s reason for watching it can beat in a community of people who thirst for art that gives life. Unsurprisingly, the biggest festivals find it hardest to pull this off—asking for contemplative mutuality at Cannes or Sundance is like looking for a Buddhist tea garden at Disney World.

Yet film festivals can be places where small is indeed beautiful. It’s only the movies that need to be big—or at least their capacity to alchemize with the viewer’s autobiographical narrative. The trappings of VIP lounges, paparazzi, and celebrity gossip are just that: They trap the aesthetic air, creating distance between people and art. Smaller festivals may be more capable of nurturing something that really feels like community.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman's Invaluable Gift: Revealing Our Humanity

Philip Seymour Hoffman at a football game in 2011, Debby Wong /

Philip Seymour Hoffman at a football game in 2011, Debby Wong /

Tom Junod of Esquire wrote an insightful piece about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman titled “ Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Final Secret: The cost of holding up a mirror to those who could barely stand to look at themselves .” The whole article is worth reading, but these words are especially important:

"There was no actor, in our time, who more ably suggested that each of us is the sum of our secrets … no actor who better let us know what he knew, which is that when each of us returns alone to our room, all bets are off. He used his approachability to play people who are unacceptable, especially to themselves; indeed, his whole career might be construed as a pre-emptive plea for forgiveness to those with the unfortunate job of cleaning up what he — and we — might leave behind."

In his roles, Hoffman played unacceptable, despicable, and broken characters. In other words, he played our cultural scapegoats. But the beauty of Hoffman’s work is that he humanized our scapegoats. Of course, his characters were unacceptable because they were guilty of being repellent jerks, underserving of love or sympathy, which is exactly why they made good scapegoats. The function of a scapegoat is to unite us in hatred against them, so the scapegoat who seems to us to be completely guilty, like a cartoon villain, the better sense of unity we can form against them. The best scapegoat is one who even agrees with us about just how terrible he is. As Junod writes, Hoffman “used his approachability to play people who are unacceptable, especially to themselves.”

The Prophets of Sundance

Dick Staub is author of “About You: Fully Human and Fully Alive.” Photo by Karen Mason-Blair. Via RNS.

In days of old, God used a burning bush to get Moses’ attention. Today’s prophets are often the truth-telling artists, singers, songwriters, and filmmakers whose modern version of “Thus sayeth the Lord” bursts forth in a stunning, sensual explosion of sight, sound, and touch.

They get our attention, and their prophetic word is visceral. It often goes beneath the rational radar and it can disturb more than it comforts. The annual Sundance Film Festival is like a tribe huddled around a campfire listening to the stories. These stories function like burning bushes, as prophetic calls to action. These films are meant not just to be watched, but to change us and, through us, to change the world.

Here are some of the messages I heard at Sundance 2014.

Gareth Higgins on Peace, Politics, and Our Nation's 'Cinematic States'

Courtesy of Burnside Books

'Cinematic States' explores fifty films that help define something about each state. Courtesy of Burnside Books

Lots of people like movies; Gareth Higgins loves movies. But the founding director of the Wild Goose Festival and long-time peace activist engages popular culture with a different eye than most of us. And he’s used that keen eye for deeper meaning to create his latest book.

I asked Gareth about his new book on American film, his peace work, and what it’s like considering American culture both as an insider and as a non-native. Here’s what he had to say.

‘Gravity’ and the Unanswered Questions of Unbelief

Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in  'Gravity.' Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in 'Gravity.' Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Reviews of the new hit movie Gravity note that it’s an unusually fine science fiction film. What they don’t mention is that the main character represents an increasingly common theme in American religion: The spiritual “none of the above.”

Yes, the special effects are splendid. And I’ll take the word of astronauts who say the visuals capture amazingly well what it’s like to work in the microgravity of near-Earth orbit.

But there are moments where spiritual and philosophical themes take center stage.

(Spoiler alert: I’ll give no more away than I’ve seen in most reviews, but if you really want to know nothing about the movie, see it first.)