August 29, 2010 § 2 Comments

This summer’s biggest movie was Inception. Christopher Nolan’s big-budget spectacular focused on one thing that continues to evade human understanding: dreams. Dreams capture our interest because they are mysterious and as much as we understand the mechanics or physiology behind them, we never really grasp what they are all about. Most of them are fleeting, gone with the morning sun, but some stay with us and we don’t know why. Sometimes they mean something, but most of the time they mean nothing, and yet we continue to dream.

Dreams are the jumping off point of a movie I watched recently called Ink (Jamin Winans, 2009). But unlike Inception, Ink wants its dreams to count for more. Winans uses dreams as a way to describe the presence of things unseen, veering into deeper territory than Nolan mined in Inception. Ink centers around a business man, John (Chris Kelly), and his relationship with his daughter, Emma (Quinn Hunchar). This, the main thrust of the film, is surrounded by two groups of unseen characters, The Storytellers and the Incubi (plural of Incubus).

The Storytellers come to you while you are sleeping and give you good dreams, while the Incubi come with nightmares. The film really begins when a mysterious character named Ink kidnaps Emma in her dreams, which means she can’t wake up in the real world. We follow Ink and Emma through the dream world, as in the real world John is facing a big business deal that could destroy his career if it doesn’t come through. When John refuses to come see his daughter, now in a coma, we know that truly lives for himself and no one else. This is confirmed later as we John followed by an Incubus who whispers in his ear day and night.

This sets in motion a chain of reactions that would be unfair for me to disclose, because this independent movie truly is a treat to watch and ponder. Its small budget for a film of this genre doesn’t stop it from being visually interesting, as Winans employs several filters and color schemes to bring out different parts of the dream worlds. And occasionally the script tries a little too hard, but I would rather a script that tries to provoke thought and does it poorly at times than one that never attempts it at all. The thing, however, that stood out most to me as I watched, was the conviction that Winans invests in these unseen characters.

They are every bit as real as John and Emma. The movie doesn’t conclude with Emma and John both waking up and having dreamed of the Storytellers and Incubi, but continues to posit them as real beings. We are forced to take them seriously as they struggle against each other, and by doing so are made to consider the possibility that in our world there may be things like this happening. There may be more than we see on the surface. As a Christian, it’s a vibrant picture of spiritual warfare, especially in some of the film’s impressive fight sequences.

Ink succeeds by creating a world that is believable that evokes thought. For as much as I liked Inception and the many things it did well, it barely scraped the surface of deeper issues. This is what Ink does well and with a measure of creativity that far exceeds its budget. Highly recommended.

Filmwell‘s very insightful review of Ink can be found here.


Glory in The Thin Red Line

August 10, 2010 § 1 Comment

What is “glory”? We often associate it with fame or a person having achieved a specific position or status in life. Limiting glory to only this seems to leave out some of the more impressive definitions that it also embodies such as: “resplendent beauty or magnificence” or “a state of absolute happiness, gratification, contentment, etc.” The only times I normally ever utter the word “glory” is in church when reading the Bible or singing hymns and even doing so I don’t often have a well-rounded definition of what I’m even saying. Recently I watched The Thin Red Line again and was struck by how Terrence Malick seems to grasp this notion that glory is something big and important to how we live. After watching the movie I re-read C.S. Lewis’ great essay “The Weight of Glory” and was struck by the similar emphases brought out by both Lewis and Malick when speaking of “glory”.

For Lewis, glory seems to have two main ideas that play a part in the Christian’s life. The first is, quite literally, having a good fame or report with God and the other is that there is an otherworldly sense of magnificence and splendor that permeates our everyday world. Knowing this, the Christian should seek to magnify it wherever it is found and work on creating it with his life. This glory is, in fact, all around us if we are willing to look for it. It’s in the sunset setting the clouds on fire, the innocence of a small child’s smile and the laughter of good friends. It’s everywhere, in God’s Creation, and shockingly it is even dispersed through sinful humanity at times.

Lewis says this in reference to glory and humanity, “When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather the greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch…We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects.” This glory shines through Nature and also shines through us everyday, even though we often fail to see it. There are certain people who manage to see the glory easier than others and Malick is one of these people.

Photo #11

Malick has an eye for glory in all his films, but it seems to be a special focus in The Thin Red Line. His other films (Badlands (72), Days of Heaven (78) and The New World (05)) show us such spectacles of beauty and grace that we can’t help but be jarred into noticing the glory. The Thin Red Line is no different, but instead of just showing us, Malick seems intent on drawing us into an actual conversation about this elusive “glory”. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) often muses about glory fractured by war and how mankind always manages to mask his glory. In many ways he is the main character amidst a star-studded ensemble cast, which makes me believe that Witt’s struggles and thoughts about glory may be the most important of the myriad of points that Malick is seeking to make.

How’d we lose the good that was given to us? Let is slip away. Scattered it, careless. What’s keeping us from reaching out, touching the glory?“-Private Witt

Why does mankind seem to forfeit his glory so easily, even sometime denying it exists? Perhaps it’s because with an admission that all men have a spark of divine splendor in them it would force us to change how we act. It would change the way we look at other people and the world at large. Lewis says, “It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Malick tries to force us to see this, giving us glory and horror in his characters, often in the same frame. But he raises the same question: can we still see the glory?

TheThinRedLine-NewLife.jpg image by tomasutpen

Private Train (John Dee Smith) delivers one of the film’s most important lines near its conclusion, “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. That death’s got the final word, it’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird — and feels the glory — feels something smiling through it.” Malick illustrates the man who sees the glory through Witt and gives him opposition in the form of Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn). Witt sees the glory and Welsh doesn’t. Welsh has been beat down by the horrors of war and can no longer see the glory that shines through man every once in a while. It’s understandable, but clearly not the way life is best lived.

So the question now remains, how do we become people who see glory instead of death? How do we remind ourselves that there are no ordinary people?

All around us, everyday, there is glory to be seen. God’s Creation, despite its sin-damaged state, is still good. To see the world in this way may require a drastic mentality shift. It’s not easy, but if you look for the good and true, it is there to be found. Lewis and Malick know this and it is evident in their respective work. Nothing is ordinary and glory abounds all around us. Are we people who can see it?

Further Reading:

Brett McCracken’s insightful write-up of The Thin Red Line at The Search.

The Weight of Glory and The Hold Steady at Adventures in Living a Good Story.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

August 4, 2010 § 2 Comments

The only reason I know about Jonathan Safran Foer is because I saw Everything is Illuminated with a friend at college last semester. It’s a shame that I hadn’t heard of Foer before. Although I’ve yet to read Everything is Illuminated the movie sold me on Foer’s creative characters and unique style. If it came through in a movie, it screams in your ear in his writing.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a novel, but it’s also so much more. Foer seems to sneer at typical literary conventions and introduces a myriad of clever, hyperactive ways to move the story along. There are illustrations, and a series of pages marked by a red pen to show the mistakes in a letter sent to one of the characters. There is color and life. Foer switches narrators every chapter, just to keep things interesting. The interesting thing about this is that it all feels so necessary as the characters try to make sense of what is happening in their world.

The novel takes place after and deals specifically with September 11th so in a way it’s not just the characters in the story trying to make sense of life, but all of us Americans. Foer’s writing plumbs the depths of a young boy Oskar, whose father died in the attacks, as he tries to cope with his father’s death. Even though I don’t often think about 9-11, Oskar’s story brought it all back to me. On two separate occasions I was near tears, which for me are almost never elicited by the written word. The story is so personal, yet so universal to all of us who witnessed those attacks.

Foer does an excellent job of bringing the memories back, but he doesn’t sugarcoat them or romanticize them. They are real things that carry real weight, not only for the characters in his story but for all of us. He deals with the real questions of life and death here. But more impressively, he does it with such tenderness that they don’t seem forced upon the story in some haphazard way of drawing a moral from his fable.

For a story about death it’s bursting full of life, from Oskar’s unrelenting quest to find the lock to the key he found in his father’s closet to the old man he befriends whose bed has so many nails in it that it has become a magnet. I can’t say much more about this book. It has everything you could want in a story without simplifying the hard questions. At the end, we still might not be better equipped to die, but we are better equipped to live.

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