There Will Be Blood: Christianity in Film Shouldn’t Be About Miracles

[THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.]

While I grew up in a Christian household and still consider myself a Christian, I am also an artist, and I often find myself having to choose between my faith and creating art that is meaningful to me. I was urged to watch Christian films growing up, so I have seem my fair share of films like Fireproof and Ring the Bell, which often featured a protagonist who, by the end of the film, either had their life saved by a God-induced miracle, was brought to salvation in Christ by an intensely loving group of Christians, or some combination of the two. Partially as a result of this, I grew up believing there was a natural progression to faith where a sinner would break free of their temptation and fall in love with God forevermore. Of course, I knew I would never be completely free of temptation and sin, but with God by my side, I could overcome it all. When, inevitably, that did not come true in my own life, I began to question what the Christian faith was all about.

What I realized, as I got older, was that the influence of these films was, more often than not, negative, especially when it came to demonstrating the Christian faith to children. Rather than exploring the difficult realities of constantly pursuing God, they showed a world where Christians always overcame adversity and were the better for it. Thus, when I started recognizing the mistakes I was making–and kept making those mistakes–I began to wonder if I was even cut out to be a Christian.

This was reflected in the stories and screenplays I wrote throughout my youth. These compositions often worried my parents as they were often centered around death. This was not the beautiful death of an already saved Christian but, rather, contemplated what it meant to be die not having done anything good. They would often tell me to write something happier, but what I never told them was that these works were a reflection on unanswered questions I had about Christianity. To be clear, this is not meant to be a poor reflection on my parents, but instead, a representation of their experience with a distilled version of Christianity. Besides my parents, there are many Christians that are not open to Christian art that does not adhere to the Christian image of a desirable salvation and pleasant path to eternity. Art that does not conform to these rules is often shunned as sacrilegious or blasphemous, but instead of outrightly rejecting it, Christians should first view this art from a different perspective. At the very least, it is a way to understand how the world sees Christians and what Christians can do to change negative perceptions of themselves, but in addition to that, some of these works do a great job of presenting and analyzing the realities and struggles of the Christian faith. All Christians (and all people) have faults, but the more we try to present ourselves as perfect and others as imperfect, the more we will be chastised for our imperfection and our hypocritical rejection of others who do not abide by our standards.

Admittedly, my favorite film, There Will Be Blood, deals with this topic. It is written off by many as anti-Christian, but in my opinion, it does not reject the religion but the façade behind which many Christians hide. I’m not going to pretend that the film’s director is Christian, but if you seriously examine the film, it is clear that what he is not critiquing Christianity as a whole but Christians who tout their faith, only to abandon it when it becomes convenient to their livelihood.

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This idea is embodied by Paul Dano’s character, Eli Sunday, the pastor at the Church of the Third Revelation. His sermons are dramatic demonstrations of miracles and salvation. During one service, in order to rid an elderly woman of her arthritis, he touches the sides of her face and whispers for the ghost to leave. This quickly escalates to him yelling at the demon, “As long as I have teeth, I will bite you, and if I have no teeth, I will gum you!” The film’s main character and Eli’s foil, Daniel Plainview, watches skeptically, later saying to Eli, “That was one goddamn helluva show.”

In contrast to Eli, Plainview is an openly self-involved man. As he states in the film (and as can be seen in the featured image/GIF), he often sees “nothing worth liking” in other people, including his adopted son, H.W., who he uses more as a tool to convince others to sell him land on which he can drill for oil. It is obvious that Plainview is not a good man, but while Eli has questionable methods, some viewers might perceive his actions as well-meaning, if misguided. What Plainview has that Eli does not, however, is transparency about who he is, and while that does not make him a better person, it makes him–in an unfortunate way–more respectable. At the end of the film, when Eli approaches Plainview about helping him out of a rut, Plainview forces him to say that he is “a false prophet” and “God is a superstition,” demonstrating that all along it was power and wealth that motivated Eli rather than his love for the gospel.

I recently showed the film to a Christian friend of mine, who enjoyed the film but was concerned about how to perceive evangelicals after watching it.  He had recently read a book that had told stories about the lives and practices of various evangelicals and told me that many of the things described in the book were similar to the things acted out by Eli Sunday in the film. The question he posed was interesting: is it inherently wrong to share the gospel the way that Eli does?

In my opinion, the answer is no. While people need to be careful about the way they interpret the gospel–and while many of the things Eli does are wrong–what the film is telling us to do is examine the person behind the mask. What are their intentions and to what are they actually committed? Is it what they are preaching and the people they are preaching to or themselves? And if it is the latter, how can they be seen as better than a man like Daniel Plainview?

Films like these are not meant to suggest that Christianity and all its followers are constantly doing wrong, and neither are they in support of Christianity. However, just because they do not necessarily portray the religion a completely positive light, does not mean that they should be written off as anti-Christian. I am not suggesting that Christians should add these films to an anthology of Christian media, but rather that films and other works of art like this one deserve to be watched closely by the Christian community, so we can examine how these critiques can better Christians and, by extension, Christianity as a whole.

Post-Script: While I won’t write extensively on it, another good work that is great to view from a critical perspective is Paolo Sorrentino’s limited series The Young Pope. It tells an eccentric story of a young American who becomes Pope and how his unconventional approach to the position opens the eyes of those working inside the Vatican.

 

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Manchester by the Sea

About a week ago, I watched Kenny Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, a potential Oscar contender, which is–by a long shot–the saddest film I have ever watched. The story of Manchester is a beautifully constructed contemplation on the issues of guardianship, following an uncle and his nephew as the uncle decides, after his brother’s death, whether or not he is fit to raise his nephew.

Casey Affleck, the film’s star, has been slowly rising from the shadows, straying from his brother’s footsteps by taking roles in more independent films like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (a movie I highly recommend) and his own documentary, I’m Still HereManchester by the Sea, however, is arguably the best of his films thus far, and Affleck’s acting has much to do with that.

He perfectly embodies the quiet brooder whose mystique people are often drawn to understand; this is the personality of Lee Chandler, the film’s uncle, who struggles to decide what to do with his nephew. Overall, the film questions why this decision is such a struggle for Chandler as his nephew only has 2 more years before he turns 18. In perfectly timed and emotionally jarring flashbacks, the film answers this question, exploring the responsibilities and difficulties of parenting and how one decision can change the progression and choices of your future.

[MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD]

My favorite technique used in the film was the limiting of dialogue, which allowed for the incorporation of and emphasis on smaller sounds. It demonstrated the intensity noises, which you might give no attention to normally, can have in times of stress or intense emotional burden. In one scene, for example, Lee is in the kitchen on the phone with the funeral home when his nephew’s girlfriend comes in to make cereal. The sounds of the plastic cereal bag as she grabs it and the cereal pouring into her bowl begins to intrude on Lee’s conversation, which is particularly annoying to him and even more so to the viewer as their investment in the conversation is interrupted.

[END OF MINOR SPOILERS]

Through moments like this, Lonergan puts emphasis on the emotion of a moment–the small things that we would notice, that would bother us, if we were in Chandler’s position–and as a result of this, the audience begins to feel the weight of Chandler’s struggle as if they were experiencing the pain alongside him.

What exactly it is that Manchester by the Sea taught me, I cannot yet say. It’s possible that I have been given a heightened sense of emotional awareness, but possibly, more than that, I think it has opened my eyes to the complications of life and the necessity of sympathy when these complications get the best of those around us. It demonstrates the beauty of camaraderie–of true friends–but also the horror of not being able to escape a past you did not mean to create.

I wouldn’t suggest this film to everyone, though I think there is something for everyone to attain from it. The subject matter may be too heavy for some or brushed off by others; however, Manchester by the Sea will give you back all that you invest in it.

La La Land: A Film About My Love/Hate Relationship with Los Angeles

Yesterday, my cousin and I went to watch the Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. The theater allotted one of the larger auditoriums for the film, which I attribute to the media buzz that has been surrounding the film, but when we arrived, we found this unnecessary as there were only six other people in the theater, a strange turnout for a Saturday afternoon.

I preferred the empty theater; I’ve found it makes my laughs and tears more genuine when they’re not prompted by the responses. With this meager audience, it was all the more true. My cousin and I seemed to be the only ones that found parts of the movie funny, sad or upsetting. There was little more than silence from everyone else.

When Whiplash, Chazelle’s last film, was released in 2014, I couldn’t wait to watch it, and I can’t say my sentiments were the same when I first heard about La La Land. Despite its stress-inducing visuals, Whiplash seemed incredibly engaging from the release of its first trailer. I was surprised when I heard Chazelle’s next film would be a lighthearted L.A.-based musical and even more surprised with the first trailer. No amount of buzz got me to the point of obsession I reached leading up to Whiplash‘s release. However, now that I’ve seen it, I admit that La La Land was a surprisingly enjoyable experience.

As Crazy, Stupid Love taught us, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling make a great on-screen couple, and La La Land confirms this as the two sing and dance themselves into an uplifting relationship. Their banter, which continues into the film’s musical numbers, keeps the film moving forward and the film’s plot never stops to let its audience’s minds wander at any point. It’s a simple film telling a simple story, but despite its predictable end, it was, ultimately, refreshing to be shown the struggle of living the artist’s life in L.A. and told that, if you’re a certain kind of someone, it might even be worth it.

[Minor spoilers ahead]

My cousin and I were both overwhelmed by sadness as the credits rolled on screen–not only because the film was at an end but because the consequences of the characters’ decisions were not the fairy tale for which we had naively hoped. When the lights began to raise with the credits,  the film was nicely summarized by one of the older audience members as she rose from her seat. “That’s life,” she laughed to her friend, as they walked out of their aisle. And I would have to agree.

La La Land provides a vision of the life of dreamers in Los Angeles–a life, I’ve personally chosen not to live. But I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t, for a second, convince me to continue dreaming. The story is so uplifting that, until the end, dreams almost become more realistic than romantic, and reminds the retired dreamers in the audience that even when after choosing a stabler life, we never stop dreaming.

To Kill Those Who Kill: A Meditation on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

When I was in early high school, I impulsively bought a DVD copy of the Bennett Miller film Capote from a Half Price Books store. Shortly after, I watched the film with my father, who found it beautiful and engaging; it was the first time I remember him complimenting a film I had chosen for its important moral and intellectual content.

I eventually returned the same store and bought the book on which the film was based, Capote’s In Cold Blood. Little did I know, it would be close to seven years before I actually read that book, and it wouldn’t even be the same copy. (I ended up lending the book to a friend, who never returned it.)

I finally committed to reading the book this semester. It took close to two months, as I had to force myself to read in the late hours after I had finished poorly composed counterpoint assignments from my music theory class and weekend filming for my senior documentary project, but it did not take long for the book to get me invested in its subject matter and prose.

I am honestly nervous to write about In Cold Blood. It’s already been written about in so many different ways. I’m sure just as many–if not more–conversations have been had about it that have said even more. A short while before I finished the book, I actually had a friend discuss it with me, saying he had read it for a class on crime & punishment (the acts of, not the novel) three years ago.

This essentially is what Capote was writing about. In an quasi-revolutionary way for the time in which the book was written, he humanized men that, in my opinion, we would still find difficult to sympathize with today, if we were as invested in the case as those in the story (and possibly, even if we were not). He questioned the death penalty and asked whether we could truly consider ourselves “the better people” for killing men who had killed.

In this age of social media, I imagine myself scrolling down my Facebook Newsfeed and happening upon a short video on the death of the Clutters. I’d watch it momentarily before thinking, How could anyone do such a thing? and continue down the feed, almost forgetting about it before someone else, who had seen the same video, would bring it up to me later that day. We’d talk about it and agree that These were horrible men, and maybe why do they still get to live when that poor family was dead. (Side note: I feel that I should say that I am–and always have been–against the death penalty.)

But from this video, I would have gained as little understanding of the defendants as many of the people who called for their deaths in Kansas. That is not to say anything they did was right, but what Capote wanted, I think, was not to absolve them of their guilt but, rather, to make their accusers understand, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it many years before in The Great Gatsby:

‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one’… ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’

Despite their crimes, Perry Smith & Richard Hickock were still people. Both of them came from a life that none of the jurors–not even the judge–knew about. Whether or not this information would have made them more sympathetic, I do not know, but Capote argues that without it, they were not in a place to ‘criticize’ (read: ‘judge’) the defendants.

[SORT OF SPOILER ALERT] The part of the book that, in my opinion, most powerfully conveyed this, was the questioning of the psychiatrist Dr. Jones. Limited to answering each question with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without elaboration, Jones was not allowed to share his more detailed findings, which may have gotten both men out of their death sentences on cases of mental instability. [END OF SPOILER]

I think Capote’s message is timeless. Whether it is deciding someone’s life during a trial or simply treating a person differently  because of your perception of who they might be, we all need to remember that there are facts we will always be missing about that person’s life and where they come from, so we must always question when and if ever it is our place to judge.

Self-Indulgence in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette”

A couple nights ago, some of my flatmates and I sat down to watch Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, a period piece about the infamous French Queen. We had been shown a clip from the film (below) by our screenwriting teacher as an explanation of the importance of aligning form and content.

While I was aware of the film before my professor showed the clip, I had never read anything about it and never really had the desire to watch it. (Granted, I was only in the 6th grade when the film was first released, so Marie Antoinette [the person] was not high on my interest list.) But one of my flatmates expressed interest in watching the film, so we decided to sit down and have a go at it. Having seen Coppola’s brilliant Lost in Translation before, I had hope that Antoinette would be an equally inspiring film, but boy, was I wrong.

If you know anything about Sofia Coppola, you’ll know that she’s the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather trilogy. She is cousins with Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman. She’s basically part of a filmmaking dynasty and has a net worth of $20 million, according to the Internet. So it’s safe to say she is not far removed from the decadent Hollywood lifestyle, which is what her film attempts and fails to critique.

It’s hard to critique something in which you’re so deeply immersed, but it’s not impossible. It’s been done before–my favorite example being F. Scott Fitzgerald and his similar indulgences in the 1920s. Taking part in a lifestyle does not necessarily mean you agree with it; those who face this problem understand that after too many years in certain environments, you become reliant on it. (For example: society & technology today) However, if you’re going to critique it, you have to put a lot of effort into the way your story is told because otherwise, as is the case with Marie Antoinette, your story will fall flat.

There is only plot to Coppola’s film–no story. If you’re a writer, you understand what this means. In short, story is the “what” of a narrative–the thing(s) you are trying to express by telling it–and the plot is the how–the things that progress the elaboration of the “what.”

Most people know general facts about Marie Antoinette–her sexually inept husband, her frivolous lifestyle, and her eventual beheading. There’s also the famous line (most likely) falsely attributed to her: “Let them eat cake,”  which was supposedly uttered when she was told that the peasants had no bread.

All these highlights of Antoinette’s life were present in the plot of Coppola’s film, but in the film’s attempts to critique the decadence of the French Queen–and indirectly, that of Hollywood–it only succeeded in embracing the self-indulgence rather than rejecting it. For the period piece, Coppola gathered elegant costumes and grandiose filming locations, including the Château de Fontainebleau in France and the Belvedere in Austria. Her budget was estimated at $40 million, which (I am willing to admit) was not excessive for a film made in 2006, but I always feel that the money spent on a film must be justified by the product–and Marie Antoinette did nothing of the sort.

The film feels wrong for many reasons–Antoinette speaks English like an American, the French people are all British, the music jumps between Classical, Ambient and Pop; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But more than anything, what I couldn’t get over was the feeling that Coppola was being as self-indulgent as Antoinette. It feels more like she wanted to create a period piece just for the sake of having created a period piece with much less thought on her critique of decadence. The excessive costumes and locations and props only accentuated this feeling. The only scenes I felt any sort of critique on the lifestyle were the “I Want Candy” scene (above), which is actually diminished by its context in the film, and the “Let Them Eat Cake” line.

Regarding the latter: I think Coppola did a fine job of accentuating Antoinette brushing off the problems of the lower classes as she continues to self-indulge, but the fact is this part of the film is a mere 14 seconds of a 123 minute long film.

The film, as a whole, failed to take the tone of the clip above. Instead, it displayed the decadence in the progression of Marie Antoinette’s life without any sort of opinion on it. None of the characters were interesting, which is amazing considering the world’s wide knowledge of Antoinette as a personality, and as a result, it was impossible to become attached to and hope, follow, and learn from any of the characters.

I spent the whole film harboring a hope that the film might get better–that it might, in one moment, redeem itself. But that hope never came true. If there’s anything I’d take away from Marie Antoinette, it is that if you are going to make a period piece, especially a biopic, it is important to know what you want to say and that you are capable of adequately saying it. There are many films that have accomplished it before and since Coppola’s film was released. I’ve given you some examples below.

Chef’s Table: Insight into Inspiration

David Gelb became a documentary directing sensation with the provocative Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a film that uses low depth of field shots of sushi and inspirational quotes from their chef, the famous Jiro, to create a thoughtful piece on what it means to dedicate your life to something. (The film is leaving Netflix instant in a bit over a week, so I’d suggest that you watch it there while you still can.) Since then, he has teamed up with Netflix to create the equally beautiful documentary series Chef’s Table. Gelb has only directed one of the six episodes in the series’ first season, featuring Italian chef Massimo Bottura, but they’re all brilliant portrayals of the struggles of the craft. His episode is my favorite so far (though I’ve only watched four) because it so closely resembles Jiro in its cinematography (though Gelb was the cinematographer on Jiro whereas Bottura’s episode done by Will Basanta) and the beautifully slow pacing of its storytelling.

Unlike many shows about chefs and cooking, this series focuses more on the background and thought process of the chef in question. Every episode features a different chef, ranging in location and type of food from traditional, fire-roasted Argentinian cuisine in Patagonia to Japanese kaiseki in Los Angeles. What I love most about Chef’s Table is that it isn’t a show just for foodies. While the gastronomical images will give you what is technically known as a food-gasm, the series also hits many of the problems we face as a result of the human condition by showing how these chefs had to struggle through life and their craft in order to reach where they are now.

Honestly, I am the type of person who makes themselves a PB&J for lunch every day and makes barely seasoned baked chicken and tofu & spinach soup for dinner (this is not to say that I don’t enjoy good food as well). And I still love what I’ve gotten out of Gelb’s series. As with Jiro, each episode imparts to us the knowledge of how to work toward our best self while also demonstrating the importance of stepping back from the world and taking things at a slower pace. Great things are not accomplished through entitlement, we learn, but through years of hard work that define us as individuals.

Something beautiful that I’ve learned from both Jiro and this series is that we will never reach our best self–and that’s okay. It is more important that we recognize there will always be room for improvement and continuously strive to be better. Jiro, for example, lives the life of a “shokunin.” Literally, this means “craftsman” or “artisan,” but as author Tasio Orate clarifies, being a shokunin “means not only having technical skills but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people.” This understanding of the word suggests that constantly becoming better is not about being the best. Developing your craft, then, is not done for momentary awards, which are ultimately unfulfilling, but about contributing to society–a trait visible in Massimo Bottura. (You can see how much I love this guy.)

Bottura’s episode begins on him discussing how he saved Modena, the city in which his restaurant is run, by creating a parmigiano-based risotto after an earthquake hit in order to sell the cheese that would have otherwise been useless. (The practice of making such a risotto, as a learned from one of my foodie friends, is so common now it is not considered strange, but back then, it was revolutionary.) His attitude as he tells the story is in no way cocky and it is clear that he seeks no praise for his actions, but it is important to note that his pursuit to become a great chef led him to accomplish this social service. He does not discuss his accolades–there are only short, noninflected references to their existence–but rather makes a point of telling a story of how working with food can positively impact society.

This, rather than the mouthwatering images that linger on the screen, is what we need to take from watching Gelb’s documentaries: developing our crafts–whatever they may be–is not about gaining recognition or awards; though those things may come, what we really should be focused on is the impact of what we do on society.

If you haven’t seen Jiro or Chef’s Table, I suggest you watch them as soon as possible.