Thursday, March 31, 2016

Major Barbara (1941)

This is the second time I’ve written about George Bernard Shaw’s work, Major Barbara. The first time, I was taking the Advanced Placement exam in my senior year of high school. The assignment was to write an essay on a literary work, and I figured that by the time the graders had read their thousandth paper on 1984, they’d be relieved to read about something different. And since I knew of no school that assigned Major Barbara as a part of the curriculum, they might grade it well. It worked. But that was an essay based on the play which I'd read. This post is about the film I watched.

The play made its debut in 1905 and was published with a preface by Shaw in 1907. The movie was released in 1941, and though Shaw is not credited with the adaptation (as he was in the film version of Pygmalion which came out three years earlier), it is quite faithful to the original work.

The central figure, the title figure, of the work is, of course, Major Barbara (played by Dame Wendy Hiller, who also played Eliza Doolittle on the screen). Barbara is an heiress who left behind the family riches to join the Salvation Army. She claims to be quite happy living a life of poverty in the Army. She preaches cheerfully to crowds in the streets, “God is with us always; ask Him into your life. You will experience his strength, guidance and forgiveness.”

But her allegiance to the Army is strained when the organization accepts money from her father,  arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft. She was convinced the Army would not take such filthy lucre, but she is proved wrong. The Army also takes money from Bodger, a whiskey manufacturer.  This is too much for Barbara; she leaves the Army.

Now whether a church or parachurch organization (and the Salvation Army** is an interesting combination of a church and a charity) should take "tainted" money is an interesting question.  I know that when my brother was raising support as a missionary, he didn’t want to take money from people who weren’t Christians, since they wouldn’t be able to understand and support his ministry of sharing the Gospel. There have been a number of interesting legal situations in which churches have taken illegally obtained funds and were required to return financial gifts.

But is it really possible for a large organization to know where funds come from or how they were obtained? Though Barbara seems quite self-righteously certain that it’s wrong to take money obtained by making weapons and alcohol, not everyone shares that view. After all, Jesus was a manufacturer of alcohol at the wedding in John 2 (and no, I don’t buy the view that was just grape juice). Why is Barbara so surprised that an organization called the Salvation ARMY is not offended by an arms manufacturer?

There are other things about the Salvation Army, as presented in the play and film, that bother me much more than taking gifts from disreputable sources*. For instance, early in the story, Adolphus Cusins (a philosopher, played by Rex Harrison, who would later play Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady), attends  a meeting and claims to be converted. But he soon freely admits he first converted to “your religion” when he was five and had since “swallowed twenty other religions whole.” Despite this rather startling admission, Barbara recruits Adolphus into the Salvation Army Band and, not long after that, becomes engaged to marry him. Both of these things would concern me -- a church leader should be concerned about marrying someone who considers Christianity just one object in a collection of religions.

I also was not impressed with how the mission in the film cares for the poor. Apparently, several con artists hang about the place, avoiding work and taking free food and shelter. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 makes it clear that those who choose not to work should not eat.

But most disturbing is the way a certain thug by the name of Bill is treated. Bill’s wife leaves him to join the Army and becomes romantically entangled to Major Todger Fairmile, a former champion boxer and wrestler. (Todger preaches, “The ring and prize money was too small compared to what God had to offer. Can you go eternity with the devil in the ring for no money at all?”) Bill tries to pick a fight with Todger and spits in his face. Todger resists striking Bill, which is commendable. But then, in front of a crowd, Todger forces Bill to his knees and brings his hands together as if he was praying. That doesn’t show a very high regard for free will.

On the other hand, the Salvation Army in the film does display a sign that reads, “He loves me with an everlasting love” and a picture of Jesus with the words, “The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanseth us.” Though we don’t hear Barbara talk about Jesus, the Army apparently does.

After Barbara leaves the Army, she adopts a philosophy closer to Shaw’s, saying she no longer is “offering the bribe of heaven” but will “lift man to God.” The Army continues to offer the promise of heaven and God’s stooping to save us.

So the Salvation Army in this film receives just Two Steeples (because it doesn’t live up to the Salvation Army of the real world. The real Salvation Army would surely earn four).

* In the preface to the play, Shaw wrote approvingly of a Salvation Army worker who said, “They would take money from the devil himself and be only too glad to get it out of his hands and into God’s.”

**You may have noticed that this is our second movie this month about a woman serving in the Salvation Army. Women in leadership have been a part of the Army since its beginning.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Georgia films on the small and big screen

On the small screen
I'm afraid the film I chose for Georgia is set in Georgia but was actually filmed in Oregon. But what 1926's The General  does have going for it is being listed on lists of the greatest films of all time. Buster Keaton, a rival with Charlie Chaplin for the best clown in silent films, wrote, directed and starred in this comedy based on a true story of a Confederate train engine stolen by Union spies during the Civil War.

The story was retold by Disney in 1956 as The Great Locomotive Chase with Fess Parker and added color and sound but not nearly as many laughs and can't really be compared to the silent classic.

Of course, when most people think of a Georgian Civil War film, they think of Gone with the Wind, another movie that gets mentioned in greatest of all time lists. And a few scenes from that film were filmed in Georgia, but most of it was filmed in California. Both of these films, sadly, root for the losing side in the Civil War. Glory, on the other hand, was set and filmed in Georgia and features the winners in the war. Not just Union soldiers, but black Union soldiers fighting for the freedom of their people. It's a great film.

Gone with the Wind is problematic for the way it deals with slavery and race. But another film, Disney's Song ofthe South, hasn't even received an American video or DVD release because of its presentation of the life of black sharecroppers in Georgia as cheerful and carefree. Oddly, we did see a copy of the DVD for sale at the Uncle Remus Museum in Eatonton, GA. (Song of the South was filmed in California and Arizona.)

Things have changed some in the world of film in Georgia. One of the most successful independent writers and directors is an African American, Tyler Perry, whose Medea character consistently opens films such as Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

Another consistent money making production company in Georgia is a surprising one, a church. Sherwood Pictures, the production company begun by Sherwood Baptist Church, is responsible for big box office. Flywheel was their first film, but Facing the Giants surprised Hollywood and Firewood did even more. Courageous proved it wasn't a fluke. (Though these films aren't critically beloved, they at least are better theologically than a Hollywood church film like Joyful Noise.)

In fact, there are a remarkable number of Movie Churches in films set or filmed in Georgia, including one of the three great Christians made about faith which features Robert Duvall, Get Low. Based on the perhaps true story of a man who wanted to view his own funeral, it also features a laidback performance by Bill Murray as a funeral director.

If you want to see a truly great Christian film set and filmed in Georgia, see John Huston's 1979 dark comedy, Wise Blood, based on the novel by Georgia's very own Flannery O'Connor. It's the story of the "Holy Church of Christ without Christ," but the audience can't hide from Jesus any better the preacher Hazel Motes.

By my estimation, though, the best film ever set and filmed in Georgia is Deliverance about a canoe trip in the wilderness that goes terribly wrong. The film did for banjo music what Psycho did for showers.

Our last day in Georgia, we went to a Regal Cinema in Savannah. It was the first show of the day. No popcorn was popping yet, but they were selling popcorn from the night before. When the previews began for show, there was sound but no pictures. I reported it to someone at the snack bar who told me it was probably just the preshow. I assured him it was not and eventually convinced him. And I noticed that the doors hadn't been closed in another theater, allowing the Cloverfield monster from that film to loudly roam the hallways.

Sorry, Regal, not royal treatment of your customers.

On the big screen
The film we saw, Miracles fromHeaven, was set in Texas but actually filmed in Georgia. It is a story about faith, but though it's called a Christian film, Jesus doesn't get mentioned much. Based on the book by Christy Beam, it tells the true story Beam's daughter who was miraculously healed from a fatal disease. It is probably studio pressure that kept the minister in the film from ever quoting Scripture but it was still strange to see a minister confronted by a child's illness and who never mentions the pain God the Father went through when His Son died. But the church does have Third Day as their worship team, so that's impressive.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

An Easter Film that Continues to Premiere

Guinness has recorded some rather obscure records; such as the number of wooden toilet seats broken over a head in a minute. (The answer is 46. You're welcome.) But some of the records are more relevant to life. Such as the record for the feature film recorded into the most languages. The film that ranks in at number 2 is Frozen (if you know any girls between the ages of 2 and 16, you've heard of it). But the film translated into the most languages is 1979's Jesus. It has been translated into 1405 languages, as of last Monday when we visited the Jesus Film Project in Orlando,Florida.

The Jesus Film Project is just one of over seventy ministries of Cru (formally Campus Crusade for Christ) but it is the only one of the ministries that has a tour open to the public and a quite interesting one at that. We learned about how a Jesus Film Project team (often composed of just two people) goes to a community and recruits the 21 cast members needed to dub in the speaking roles in the film using the target language. Obviously, Jesus is often the toughest to cast, with by far the most dialogue. A "recording studio" is often a rented motel room with blankets and mattresses lining the walls to mute the outside noise.

The completed film can then tour throughout the region of the given language using a carrying case that only weighs about forty pounds. In some countries where Christianity is outlawed there are obviously only clandestine indoor screenings. But in other places, portable translucent screens are used that can be viewed from either side.

Part of the tour was a short documentary of the Jesus film being screened for the first time in the Gamo language in Southern Ethiopia. As a large crowd watched, there were Oohs and Ahs at the miracles of Jesus; then quite moving tears and wails during the flogging of Jesus and His crucifixion; and finally loud cheers at the scene of Jesus' resurrection. This story was new and fresh to these people and many desired to know the Savior of the film.

Best of all, they continue to break their own Guinness record of translated languages every week and you could join in the Project. You can help the story of Easter reach the ends of the earth.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Joyful Noise (2012)

Perhaps you're familiar with the Great Commission Jesus gave His disciples, found in Matthew 28: "Go into the world and win that Big Singing Competition!"

Oh, you might have thought the Great Commission was about making disciples, and that Jesus was more concerned with healing and feeding and, you know, saving people. But in the film Joyful Noise about a church choir starring Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah, we learn that God has other priorities.

The film opens with the Pacashau, Georgia, Sacred Divinity Church* choir singing, Not Enough Love, which might be more aptly named, Not Enough Content. The song is filled with such profundities as "Why can't we try harder? Why can't we see farther? Why can't we do better? Love's a good starter!" The theological content pretty much consists of wondering what God must be thinking, "He'd have to be sad." This song doesn'tt exactly have Charles Wesley caliber lyrics, but the teens in the choir think of such songs as "stodgy old church music."

I wasn't that impressed with that first song, but apparently it was killer. The choir director, played by Kris Kristofferson, gets tingly in the arm. Dolly Parton helps him off the stage, then we see everyone at the funeral.

Pastor Dale (played by Courtney B. Vance, who was also a pastor in The Preacher's Wife and Eye See You) conducts the funeral saying, "God judges a man by two things; faith and the contents of his heart." I would think faith would be one of the contents in a man's heart, and the Bible does talk some about God judging people by their actions. As a Christian pastor, it seems like he would talk about where a man puts his faith. Pastor Dale makes no mention of salvation coming from faith in the death of Christ on the cross, but again, theological content doesn't seem to be an emphasis in this church.

What seems to be really important in this church is how the choir places in regional choir competitions. Immediately after the funeral, the pastor invites the choir director's widow (Dolly) into his office. She tells him the service was perfect. He disagrees and says it would have been perfect if the choir has been part of it.  He then tells her he thinks the choir should go on to the Regional Semi-Finals as planned, and that's why the church council has appointed Vi Rose (Queen Latifah) -- not the widow -- as the choir director. That's some grief counseling.

So the choir prepares for the next big competition, knowing they'll be facing their big rivals, Taylor Sikes and the Holy Spirit Church of Detroit. Vi's daughter thinks they need to modernize their music, so she suggests singing Michael Jackson's Man in the Mirror (circa 1988). The choir must also decide on the big risk of whether to recruit musical talents like Dolly's thug grandson and the tuff kid from the local music shop. It doesn't seem to matter to the choir leadership if the people in the choir and band actually believe the things they're singing about.

Even the regulars in the choir don't seem to value the teachings of Scripture or holy living very highly. After on choir practice, a man and the woman in the choir start chatting about how long it's been since they slept with anyone, and then they start making out on the steps of the church. Then they go to her house for a one night stand.

The reason it's a one night stand is that the guy dies after sex. The circumstances don't seem to bother Pastor Dale, as he tells the woman, "You should cherish the brief time you and Mr. Su had together." (Referring to the man by his last name; really?) The woman tells the pastor she's concerned no man will want to go out with her because she's killed a man with sex. The pastor, with his typically great grief counseling agrees it will be a real problem and offers no hope.

So the choir goes to the Semi-Meta-Regional-Amateur-Divisional Sing-off and gets beaten by the church from Detroit. The pastor says that since they can't win, they should disband the choir. The money could be spent better in another way than on entry fees and travel expenses. After all, the town they live in is suffering great economic woes. Almost everyone in town is out of work and hurting. The church does run a soup kitchen, so good for them on that.

But the choir just won't quit. And when they find out that the Detroit choir was disqualified for using professionals, the choir, as runner up, can go on to the finals. But they're going to use those modern arrangements and young thugs, so Pastor Dale threatens to withdraw the church's sponsorship for the competition. Since church sponsorship is required to enter, Dolly suggests that her grandson could get an internet ordination so they could have a phony church sponsorship. (Cheating seems to be widespread in the world of church choir competition.)

Anyhoo, the choir goes off for the national choir competition, and they discover that their big rival a children's choir. But Vi seems to be pretty good with smashing the dreams of small children, 'cause though Jesus loved kids, they're pretty resilient.

So they're in the big competition. They use secular songs like Sign, Sealed, Delivered, strip off their choir robes, and most importantly, sexualize their appearance and dance moves. As Vi says, it's all about "giving glory to God." They even seem to have some kind of miracle technology that allows their voices to be amplified without visible mikes as they dance around the whole auditorium.

It's all worth it, because they win the national competition, which is an inspiration to their financially devastated small town. They are greeted as conquering heroes. I would think the people of this small town would be better off moving someplace where they could get jobs, but really, Choir Competition Uber Alles.

Pacashau Sacred Divinity Church gets One Steeple for that Soup Kitchen, but that's it.

*Although we happen to be in Georgia this week on our attempt to visit a church and a bar in every state, we couldn't visit this church due to its blessedly fictional status.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Florida films on the small and large screen

On the small screen
When you watch Joe Dante's Matinee you get two movies for price of one. (But since we were watching the movie on a DVD collection with ten films which we bought for five dollars, the math is more complex than that.) Mant is a silly science fiction film about a "part man, part ant" and Matinee is about a movie producer bringing that film to a small town in Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Dante (best known for Gremlins) captures the period and place quite well in this sweet little film with a fun performance by John Goodman as a cut-rate AlfredHitchcock.

The film also features kids dealing with the fear of nuclear apocalypse, giant ants, and perhaps most frightening of all, the opposite sex. It's a great little film that not many people remember. It doesn't work well for a church film, but it is a great Florida film.

There are tons of Florida films, so I won't even pretend to cover them all. There even a ton of Miami films. There is the 1941 Don Ameche, Bette Grable musical, Moon Over Miami, which was actually filmed in Florida -- which was unusual back in the day. Miami Blues is a dark but intriguing noir, also filmed in Miami, with a young Alec Baldwin. And I should mention Michael Mann's feature film of his TV show, Miami Vice, though I didn't enjoy the movie as much as the show.

There are many crime films set in Florida, contrasting the dark world with the bright sunshine. Humphrey Bogart's Key Largo (1948) is set and filmed (partly) in Key West, Florida. Scarface, directed by Brian DePalma and starring Al Pacino, is incredibly violent but over three decades after its release is still a powerful cultural phenomenon. Night Moves, a detective noir with a fine Gene Hackman performance, is partly set and filmed in Florida. A contender for the best prison film ever made, Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman, was set and filmed in Florida.

There are some family friendly Florida films. Because of Wynn-Dixie is a sweet film about a little girl and her dog, and it actually is a Movie Church film because the girl's father is a preacher. But though the film is set in Florida, it was filmed in Louisiana. Ernest Saves Christmas is the one Ernest film I can stand, and it was set and filmed in Florida. Hoot is based on a rare children's novel by Carl Haiisen with an environmental focus, set and filmed in Florida. And, finally, there's the classic 1946 dear deer drama, The Yearling, set and filmed in Florida.

sign for Tree House Cinema
On the large screen
We were intrigued by the name of a theater in Gulf Breeze, Florida --  Tree House Cinema. I think in my heart of hearts I was really hoping to need to climb a rope ladder to see our film. But no, it's just a normal movie theater in a strip mall. We asked an employee why the theater had that name, and he replied it was because the owner of the theater really loves tree houses. There were tree decorations in the place, including some schematics for tree houses. There were also posters of comic books that were there for no apparent reason.

exterior of Tree House Cinema
Besides the intriguing name for the place, we went there because they were playing Charlie Kaufman's adult animated feature, Anomalisa. If you are wondering if you should see this film, you should probably see several other films by Charlie Kaufman first. Watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovitch, Synecdoche, New York, and then, if you're still interested, watch Anomalisa. 

A bonus when we went to the film was that we were the only ones in the theater, so we could say aloud, "He really could pick up the pace here," or "I think that puppet nudity was entirely gratuitous" without disturbing anyone else.
Tree House Cinema interior

One more thing about the Tree House Theater: the names for their snack packs are awesome.
Tree House Cinema snacks

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Nun's Story (1959)

I admit having a problem right off with the title of this movie. After all, who is THE NUN? I think common consensus would be that if you're talking about THE NUN it would have to be Mother Teresa. If not her then --I don't know, Maria von Trapp (though, I guess, she didn't achieve full nunnage) How about Heloise and her infamous romance? Or that nun who talks about paintings on public television?

Instead we have this story of A NUN; it's a fictionalized story at that.  The Nun's Story was based on a novel, based on the experiences of author Kathryn Hulme's friend (Marie Louise Habets), a nun who served as a nurse in the Belgian Congo.

Audrey Hepburn plays a young Belgian woman named Gabby who takes her vows in the 1930's. The specific name of the order is never given, though the order in the novel is based on the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, which was founded in Belgium. But we'll call this fictional order, Order X.

When Gabby's father takes her to the order, he expresses concern for her. He isn't worried about her keeping her vows of chastity or poverty, but is concerned she will have trouble keeping her vows of obedience, of answering the bells when they ring. Upon entering the convent, the father is awkwardly asked to hand over Gabby's dowry, and he complies.

Gabby is given a new name when she takes her vows, Sister Luke, which complies with her skills and duties as a nurse. She is surprised by the vows of "outward and inward silence" which greatly limit her interactions. Gabby's superiors constantly berate her for her pride. In fact, one of her superiors tells her she should intentionally fail her nursing exam to show her humility.

Intentional failing a test, saying you don't know what you do know, seems quite dishonest to me, and Gabby doesn't follow those instructions. But her superior takes Gabby's success in testing as an issue of pride and doesn't, initially, give Gabby the assignment to the Congo she desires. Gabby serves instead in a mental institution Order X runs, but eventually does go to the Congo.

There, the doctor Gabby serves with is not a believer. He appreciates Gabby's spirit and intelligence, but tells she won't last in her order because of those qualities. (That may be the case in Order X, but Mother Teresa and many other illustrious nuns were certainly not known for a lack of independent spirit and thinking.

The nuns of Order X are beloved in the Congo, Gabby especially. Sadly, the Congolese in the film are, for the most part, presented with about the same depth as the "natives" on Disney's Jungle Boat Cruise. At one point, a man kills a nun upon the instructions of his witch doctor. The nuns of Order X respond with love and forgiveness, which proves to be the highlight of their ministry in the film.

Gabby returns to Belgium (against her wishes) when World War II breaks out. Order X decides to maintain a position of neutrality when the Nazis take Belgium, in order to maintain their hospital ministry. Gabby can't go along with this. She is unable to forgive the Nazis for killing her father.  She says she can't wear the cross of Christ on her chest when she has hate in her heart. This kind of service is certainly a challenge, but it is not a unique challenge in Christian history. It's sad no one in the order can give her counsel on the issue.

Throughout the film, the order is presented as a rather Pharisaical institution. Forgiveness comes only with much penance and groveling (literally prostrating oneself on the floor before the cross), and the cross of Christ seems to have limited power. When Gabby is ministering to a patient, she is expected to leave the patient, no matter what, when the bell rings for chapel.

I don't know if Order X is an accurate representation of an actual Belgian order of the past. But I very much doubt it represents all women's orders in the Catholic Church, which makes the definite article of the title highly suspect. As usual, we are not reviewing the film itself, but the religious institution in the film, so Order X gets two steeples.


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Alabama films on the small and large screens

On the small screen
I've eaten grits now. I had them for the first time when they were served as part of the buffet breakfast at a motel in Alabama. I could have eaten them earlier on this trip, but I saved them in anticipation of the wonderful 1992 comedy, My Cousin Vinny Grits, or more specifically the preparation of grits, provide an important clue in the courtroom murder mystery in the film.

It's a fish out of water story, as an untried New York lawyer comes to a small town in Alabama to defend his cousin, who's accused of killing a  "good old boy." The movie has fun with stereotypes of New Yorkers and Southerners, but isn't mean spirited toward either. Differences in class and race are also subtlety played with, but not religion. At the time, Joe Pesci was one of the most unlikely movie stars, but he's quite good in the film. So is Marisa Tomei, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in this film (a time the Academy got it right).

The film, rated R for lots of language, was not only set in Alabama but also filmed there --
unlike the Reese Witherspoon comedy I've never seen, Sweet Home Alabama, which was mainly filmed in Georgia. Another comedy I've avoided, Crazy in Alabama starring Melanie Griffith, was filmed in LA and LA (Los Angeles and Louisiana). I have seen the dramedy Fried Green Tomatoes, based on the Fannie Flagg novel, which is also set in Alabama but was filmed in Georgia.

Some critically acclaimed films have been both set and filmed in Alabama: Tim Burton's 2003 Big Fish with Albert Finney, John Sayles' 2007 Honeydripper with Danny Glover, Walter Matthau's 1996 The Grass Harp with Walter Matthau, and 1994's Blue Sky which won Jessica Lange an Oscar. Bob Rafelson (who directed episodes of The Monkees) set and filmed Stay Hungry in Alabama. The film was about body building and introduced audiences to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A couple of Christian films in the last couple of years were set and filmed in Alabama: 2013's Grace Unplugged (which was reviewed here at Movie Churches), and 2015's Woodlawn. Far from a Christian film, Will Ferrell's 2006 comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby filmed scenes at the Talladega race track and has a bizarre discussion about whether one should pray to "the Baby Jesus."

A number of films about the Civil Rights movement have been set and filmed in Alabama, including a film about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1990's The Long Walk Home, with Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg, and a film about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Selma, which played a large part in triggering a debate about race and the Oscars.

Lillian Hellman's plays about her native state have been made into films: 1948's Another Part of the Forest with Fredric March and 1941's The Little Foxes. Neither of these movies were filmed in Alabama.

The most famous Alabama novel and film is probably Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Though it is, of course, a greatly beloved film, I was amused by a recent take on the film from the San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle that argued that Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch just isn't a very good lawyer. The movie was filmed in Alabama and Los Angeles.

On the big screen
In Mobile, we went to see the Disney animated film, Zootopia, at Wynnsong Cinemas (part of the Carmike Theater chain). It was our first time at a theater in the chain, and it was good to see they are continuing the trend of the last five to ten years of comfortable seats and quality sound and projection.

Wynnsong seems to have policies to encourage a polite and comfortable environment, though in high school I would not have been at all thrilled with the rule that after 8:00 pm those under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

As we were taking pictures of theater, we were approached by one of the managers, Andy, and we told him about our project. He had suggestions for theaters in future states (and bar suggestions for our Dean and Mindy walk into a bar blog. Thanks, Andy!).

Zootopia, not surprisingly, wasn't packed with spiritual references, but there were a couple. A rural fox character refers to "speaking in tongues," and another fox says that for a train to work would be "a miracle." When it does start, he says, "Hallelujah!"

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Guys and Dolls (1955)

There are people who complain about musicals by saying that in real life, people just don’t break out into song. I guess being a churchgoer makes me view musicals in a more kindly way. For at least an hour a week, I’m surrounded by people breaking out in song, so it doesn’t seem so strange.

Now, street gangs dancing ballet in West Side Story? That might be pressing things. Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood as serenading prospectors in Paint Your Wagon might be pressing it further. Guys and Dolls might be stretching credibility even further with singing and dancing  gangsters and gamblers, but you won’t hear me complaining. The songs are hummable, and Damon Runyon’s jokes (adapted by Ben Hecht and Joseph Mankiewicz) are funny.

But how is the church in the film?

Or is there a church in the film? According to Sister Sarah Brown (played by Jean Simmons) , who runs it, the “Save a Soul Mission,” is a mission, not a church. But like many Salvation Army Missions, it sure seems like a church. And Sister Sarah preaches, so we’ll consider her clergy. So what are the pros and cons of the mission?
It gets points for locating in a neighborhood of New York where crooks and thieves are plentiful (Salvation Army General Cartwright says they’ve located among the Devil’s first line troops). Sarah is willing to go on the streets along with her band to take on all comers, but a con man selling $1.00 solid gold watches seems to attract more attention.

Another positive element about the mission is found in their signs. I’m not referring to the signs that proclaim Scripture, because, as gambler Sky Masterson notes, the references are wrong. (He correctly notes that “There is no peace for the wicked” comes from Isaiah, though the sign says it’s from Proverbs.) But the sign offering free donuts is a pretty great sign.

The mission eventually opens their doors to the most notorious gamblers of the neighborhood and makes a convert of a gambler named Nicely-Nicely Johnson (though how big a challenge it is to convert someone named “Nicely” is another story).

So there’s a lot to be said in favor of the Save A Soul Mission.

My problems are found in the person of Sister Sarah Brown.

As a single woman running the mission, she makes the dubious decision of accompanying Sky Masterson on a trip to Cuba, though she is, to some extent, tricked into it. I wouldn’t think it wise of a male clergyman to join a woman of reputation on a date in a foreign land. Then she gets herself into a drunken brawl (though, again, the drunkenness is the result of trickery). You know if that happened today, that fight would be on YouTube, and Sarah would have to be explaining herself to the general and press tout de suite.

My real problem with Sarah is something she says about the gamblers who sneak into the missions for a craps game. After the police chase them out, Sarah refers to those who were in the mission as “trash.” I think it’s safe to say that one isn’t who thinks of potential converts in this way is not following the example of Jesus, the Friend of sinners.

Eventually, she does look a bit more kindly to the gentlemen of the neighborhood. Even noted criminal Big Julie from Chicago calls her “a right broad.” (Julie had earlier stated, “If they hear back in Chicago I went to a prayer meeting, no decent people will talk to me.”)

And the Mission needs to expand their musical repertoire. Their only song seems to be an insipid piece called “Follow the Fold.”

Another worker in the Mission, Sarah’s Uncle Arvid seems to be a “right guy;” though I was puzzled when he concluded a wedding citing the authority of the city, county and state of New York, but not God.

So we’re giving the Mission Two Steeples. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Mississippi films on the small and big screens

On the small screen
On our cross country trip this year, we've brought along a black DVD folder. Before we began the trip we made labels with state names and went through our collection of DVDs to fill the slots. For some states, like California, New York, Illinois, etc., there were a multitude of films to choose from. For a few states, we could find nothing (we're looking at you, Delaware).

For a few other states, like Mississippi, we only had one film in our collection that would work. We hadn't watched My Dog Skip for years, when our kids were, you know, kids. A period film, set during World War II in the Mississippi town of Yazoo City, the movie was actually made in Mississippi (though it wasn't actually made during WWII). It starrs Frankie Muniz (of Malcolm in the Middle) as a lonely little boy who grows to manhood with the help of a brave little dog.
There were no churches in the film, not much in the way of spiritual content, but there are certainly admirable people with values of courage, honesty and integrity. So thumbs up for that.

There are a number of films with Mississippi in the title. Mississippi Masala features a very young Denzel Washington as an American who falls in love with an Asian Indian immigrant; it examines the interactions between their respective families. Mississippi Burning is an exciting Gene Hackman study of the Civil Rights Movement which offers the strange historical interpretation that the real heroes of the time were in the FBI.

Tennessee Williams' childhood home
In our travels through Mississippi, we were able to visit the childhood home of Tennessee Williams in Columbus, MS. Baby Doll, a steamy story based on a short play by Williams and directed by Elia Kazan with Carroll Baker in the title role and This Property is Condemned, one of Robert Redford's first films, were both set and filmed in Mississippi. But two other films based on Williams work, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , featuring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, and Summer and Smoke, featuring Laurence Harvey and Geraldine Page, are set in Mississippi but actually filmed in other places.

We also visited Oxford, the home of bestselling writer John Grisham. Grisham has written about a variety of places in the South, but his first novel, which was made into a film with Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, and Samuel L. Jackson, was set and filmed in Mississippi.

Faulkner's home in Oxford
Oxford is also the hometown of another more critically acclaimed writer, William Faulkner. The Reivers, a comedy starring Steve McQueen and based on a novel of Faulkner's, was set and filmed in Mississippi. A wonderful low budget film scripted by Horton Foote and starring Robert Duvall, Tomorrow,  is based on a short story by Faulkner and is set and filmed in Mississippi. The Long Hot Summer with Paul Newman and Orson Welles, based on some of Faulkner's short stories, was set in Mississippi but not filmed there.

And finally, a film set and filmed in Mississippi: the Coen Brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou will be featured later this year in Movie Churches during Depression Month. We have to pace ourselves.

On the big screen
stars on the doors, stars on the walls
Our first day in Mississippi was also the last day of Black History Month. We went to the Cinemark Theater in Pearl, Mississippi, to see Race, a film about the Olympic exploits of Jesse Owens. There is a reference to the church in the film: when Jesse proposes to Minnie, the mother of his young child, they wonder if a Christian clergyman will perform the ceremony. Apparently, one did.

Dean outside the Pearl Cinemark
Owens was the star who outshone the Nazis in the 1936 Olympics. At the Cinemark, far less impressive stars were functioning as door handles.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Dead Man Walking (1995)

When we first look at Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, many of us feel we can pat ourselves on the back. Acts of charity: Feeding the hungry and giving water to the thirsty? Oh, sure, I’ve given to World Vision and water projects. Befriending a stranger? Yes, I’m the friendliest person to be found in our church greeting time. Clothing the naked? Goodwill gets my every garment when they go out of fashion. But visiting the prisoner? That stops many of us short.

Sister Helen Prejean, the nun whose life is portrayed in the film Dead Man Walking, didn’t initially have a ministry focused on prisoners. We see her working with the poor, teaching children in an institution called Hope House. We learn that though she came from a somewhat privileged background, this white woman choose to live in a poor, African American community in Louisiana. But a letter she received from an inmate changed the course of her life.

Death row convict Matthew Poncelet (played by Sean Penn) wrote Sister Helen and asked for legal aid, and, if not that, at least some company. She asks around in her order for advice, and someone said, “Sounds like he could use some encouragement”.

When the sister (played by Susan Sarandon) comes to the prison, her cross sets off the metal detector. Before seeing the prisoner, she's required to speak with the priest in charge of visitation. He is concerned by her casual dress (she's not wearing a habit), afraid it might indicated a tone of rebellion. He wants to know her motives for coming, “Morbid fascination? Liberal sympathy?”  He makes it clear to her that these prisoners “aren’t Jimmy Cagneys wrongly accused.”

But when she sees Matthew, he insists on his innocence and begs her to help him file legal papers. He tells her, “You’re all I’ve got.” She seeks out legal aid and finds a lawyer who will help Matthew with an upcoming parole hearing. The lawyer thinks it would be good for Matthew’s mother to testify in the trial.

Sister Helen goes to visit Matthew’s family and learns of the great suffering they’ve gone through on account of Matthew. His brothers are taunted at school, and his mother is shunned in the community.

Sister Helen goes to the parole hearing, which is also attended by the parents of the murdered couple, a teenaged boy and girl. The father of the murdered boy confronts Sister Helen. He tells her he’s a Catholic and asks why she hasn’t been concerned with bringing him comfort. She offers her phone number, and he responds, “Me, call you? Think about that, sister. Think about how arrogant that is.”

Helen’s parents also question Helen’s choice to minister to a convicted killer. They ask if there aren’t more “decent folk” she could be helping.

She responds, “No one else cares about him.”

Her mother says, “Your heart is large, I just don’t want to see others taking advantage of you.”

Helen continues to visit Matthew, who doesn’t always make her visits easy. He asks her about sex and whether she wants to be with a man. He makes racist statements. And he continues to proclaim his innocence, though his guilt seems certain. He makes public statements about his embracing Aryan philosophy, which leads to Sister Helen being shunned by some in her predominantly black neighborhood.

The legal process does not work in Matthew’s favor, and he is given only a week to prepare for his death by lethal injection. He asks Sister Helen to provide spiritual comfort as he faces death. She agrees to do so.

But she also goes to visit the family of the murdered girl. They assume by her kindness that she is on “their side” and seeking the death of Matthew. They kick her out of their home when they learn she is still ministering to Matthew.

Sister Helen tells Matthew that Jesus experienced what he now faces. He was condemned as a prisoner to die, and He cares for him. But she tells Matthew that to be right with God he must confess his sin. She asks him to tell about the night of the murder.

Matthew admits to killing the boy. Sister Helen asks him, "Do you take responsibility for both of their deaths? There is a place of sorrow only God can touch. You are a son of God, Matthew. No one can take that from you."

"No one's called me a son of God before,” Matthew tells her,”They've called me a son of you- know-what before, but never a son of God. Who figured I'd have to die to find love? Thank you for loving me."

Sister Helen tells Matthew he can look at her when he dies, and the love he sees on her face will be the love of Jesus. Before his execution, she assures Matthew of his redemption on the basis of Christ’s death for him. Before he dies, Matthew expresses sorrow to the parents of the murdered children.

In one of the last scenes of the film, we see Sister Helen praying in a small country church alongside the father of the murdered boy. They agree that, “Forgiveness is work. Maybe we could help each other find our way out of the hate.”

The ministry of Sister Helen as portrayed in this film, visiting the prisoner, would be enough to get this movie church our highest rating of 4 Steeples. But as a bonus we see a Sunday Service with a wonderful gospel choir singing “This is the day the Lord has made” that would make me give the film a bonus steeple, if I could.

(The film is rated R for harsh language, primarily from Matthew, and for violent images. If you're a fan of the TV show Justified, you should look for the actors who played Arlo and Mags. They do look a bit younger here.)