Since I first became interesting in storytelling and film, I have become more and more fascinated with the influence of stories on individuals. Over the last few years, I've come across a variety of publications detailing societal trends that are believed to have been a result of major motion pictures or other forms of story-based entertainment. To me, they represent something really important: the power of story to influence who we are and what we do. Here are a few examples:
What do you think? Am I taking it all too seriously? Let me know in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you! :)
“O Brother, Where Art Thou” isn’t necessarily a “Christian” movie, nor does it claim to be; however, I believe that it serves as a model for an artistic, high-quality, faith-themed film that sets a standard for the evolving Christian film industry. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is commonly considered to be a loose telling of the classic literary work “The Odyssey.” This rendition, however, abandons the use of ancient Greek gods and instead places the main characters in the heart of the American South. The three men, escaped convicts, embark on a search for a treasure, with the lead character Everett seeking to win back the heart of his wife who has decided to marry another man during the course of Everett’s incarceration.
Everett (George Clooney), a suave yet self-absorbed individual, is the leader of the threesome. His two dimwitted comrades, the ill-tempered Pete (John Turturro) and kind-hearted Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), both add unique and humorous presences to the film. The movie follows their journey across the Missouri countryside as they evade the police and interact with a number of memorable characters.
From an artistic standpoint, “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” directed by the creative Coen brothers, is a unique and engaging film. The acting, pacing, and script are delightful. The color palette of the film remains consistent throughout and adds to the story to serve as a reminder to the audience of the time period in which the film takes place. The music, though, remains as the preeminent memorable artistic quality. The soundtrack, consisting mostly of folk songs characteristic of the Depression era, is seamlessly interwoven into the story. Unlike many classic musicals where the musical numbers are often abrupt and interrupt the story, the Coen brothers manage to integrate the music so that each song occurs organically and serves to draw you into the story.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the film to me was the treatment of God, faith, and religion. As a Christian who remains frustrated with the current state of the “Christian movie industry,” which has produced films such as “God’s Not Dead” and “Fireproof,” I’m not used to seeing my faith well-represented in the medium. Christian films are generally preachy, often at the expense of a good story, well-developed characters, talented actors, creative cinematography, and the like. In my experience, I’ve found that Christian filmmakers often make a film based on a message that they want to communicate instead of merely endeavoring to tell a good story. Because of this, Christian films often feel more like propaganda pieces than works of art, and they end up just “preaching to the choir.”
I’m a Christian who has grown up in a conservative Christian household, so naturally I’ve been exposed to a lot of Christian films, many of which are poorly made. Perhaps that’s why I was so (pleasantly!) surprised to see how well the Coen brothers integrated themes of faith into their film. While the film is most definitely an allegory for “The Odyssey,” it also serves as an allegory for the spiritual journey of an individual, or in this case, individuals.
Pete and Delmar undergo similar character arcs during the film. Delmar is the first to undergo a spiritual transformation, which is initiated by his baptism surrounded by a choir of converts singing a strangely beautiful rendition of “Down to the River to Pray.” Pete quickly follows suit, much to the chagrin of a skeptical Everett. Their conversion plays a recurring part in the script during the rest of the story.
Throughout the story, the three men are being chased down by a ruthless sheriff, whose character serves as a representation of the devil. During the climax of the film, he catches up with them and is preparing to hang them all to satisfy his relentless pursuit of self-determined justice. Everett, the only one of the three who has yet to “make his peace with God,” delivers a touching soliloquy in which he prays to God for mercy and salvation. Unlike many of the Christian films formerly mentioned, Everett’s prayer doesn’t feel forced or removed from the context of the movie. As we’ve seen his character develop over the course of the film, we understand that his prayer is the natural response of his character, albeit a response driven by fear rather than a sincere change of heart.
There is an important event in the film that occurs as a result of either science or divine intervention (although it could be argued that both are simultaneously true), yet the film never directly answers that question for the audience. In fact, we see that the main characters represent two responses to the question of the reality of a divine being: Everett, having recently cried to God for mercy and salvation, reverts back to his skeptical nature after the danger of eminent death has been temporarily avoided while Pete and Delmar maintain that God Himself was responsible for the seemingly miraculous event. In this aspect, the film succeeded. It honored the intellectual capabilities of its audience and left one of the important messages of the film open to interpretation. This helps to initiate thought and dialogue about some important issues, further revealing the power of a good story to spark conversation.
This is why I believe that “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” should be a lesson for Christian filmmakers. The Coen brothers started out with a story (not a message) that they wanted to communicate, and they let any potential moral or spiritual themes happen organically. They practically created a “Christian” film, but they simultaneously created a film that has the potential to be enjoyed by nearly everyone from a wide variety of backgrounds and belief systems. That’s a really cool thing, and one I wish that today’s Christian filmmakers would consider.
“O Brother, Where Art Thou” is a beautiful, quirky, and comical film that tells a good story in a unique and engaging way. It uses music to draw in its audience, and it's supported by an assortment of eccentric characters played by a talented cast. I highly recommend it.
For a detailed review of this film (rated PG-13), check out the following link: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/o-brother-where-art-thou
This was not the post I had intended for this week, but my other review is still a work in progress. I dug this one up from my old blog and edited it a bit. I had forgotten how fascinating this film was, both in visuals and in themes. If you haven't seen it, I'd highly recommend checking it out!
Warning: The following post contains spoilers!
My sister and I grew up watching the Disney classic "The Jungle Book (1967)." We could sing all of the songs, quote the movie, and recite (word for word) our copy of The Little Golden Book version. Needless to say, The Jungle Book was an important part of my childhood, and admittedly I was skeptical when Disney announced a live-action version. But when the critic reviews started to pour in after the movie's initial release, I couldn't really believe it... Disney must have done the impossible, because The Jungle Book (2016) was killing it at the box office and among critics (two things that don't always correspond).
The Jungle Book is the story of Mowgli, a young orphaned boy who was raised in the Jungle by a pack of wolves. He has a variety of friends--his fellow wolf cubs, a happy-go-lucky bear named Baloo, and the wise panther Bagheera--but he has enemies too. After the malicious tiger Shere Khan gets injured in a fight with a man, he learns of Mowgli's existence and vows that there isn't a place in the Jungle for this "man-cub." So before Shere Khan can find the pack and make a snack out of Mowgli (and the wolves who have promised to protect him), the man-cub decides to leave. It is in his best interests, we learn, for the man-cub to go back to his own kind (the "man village"). But the Jungle is a dangerous place, so getting back to his own kind becomes a bit of a problem.
One of my favorite aspects of the movie was the way mankind was portrayed. While watching the film, I never got the sense that the filmmakers saw Mowgli as "just another animal." He was viewed as "above" the rest of the Jungle, especially in one major area: his creativity and ingenuity. One of the main ideas of the film is that the ingenuity of man sets him apart from the rest of creation. That's a great message...and one I didn't expect to find in a Disney movie.
The Jungle Book can also serve as an interesting parallel to the story of a Christian's faith journey on Earth. Like Mowgli, the Christian may live in this world (or in Mowgli's case, the Jungle), but he doesn't really belong here. There is something deep inside Mowgli that longs to be with his own kind, to fulfill his true purpose in life. As he journeys home, he meets various forms of opposition, ranging from the seductive snake Kaa or the violent Shere Khan. Even the happy-go-lucky Baloo turns out to be a "stumbling block." These forms of opposition are not unlike what many Christians encounter, ranging from the temptation of worldly pleasures to violent persecution to an "easy-going," self-centered lifestyle. This brings me to my only big issue with the film: the ending didn't really sit well with me. Maybe that's because Mowgli never actually made it home. He ended up staying in the world he had chosen to escape; and perhaps it's just me, but I found that to be rather sad.
One of the most blatant parallels in the movie is woven throughout the story. In the film, the wolves often unite themselves by reciting the "Law of the Jungle." We listen as wolves of every age reverently recite the law, with the older wolves teaching it to the younger wolves. With that picture in mind, take a look at Deuteronomy 11:18-19...
“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul,
and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets
between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when
you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you
lie down, and when you rise."
See the similarities? And it gets even cooler! It is this "law of the Jungle" which plays a key role in uniting the wolves against Shere Khan during the climax of the film. The wolves' "law of the Jungle," is not unlike the Word of God, which teaches, directs, and unifies believers.
The Jungle Book is a delightful film with a surprisingly spiritual message. Its pro-man ideas and allegorical plot give it depth, the effects are breathtaking, and it made some independent and creative choices while still staying true to the spirit of the original. As a fan of the original, I couldn't have asked for much more than that.
Hi friends! Thanks to everyone who has dropped by after listening to The Bargain Bin Movie Podcast! I should have a new post coming out later next week. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, I've included a link below. I had an opportunity to discuss the film "Inception" on the podcast of a friend of mine. It was a fun discussion! I'd love to hear your thoughts as well!
**Warning: Spoilers for the season finale of "Sherlock" are contained in the following post!**
A week ago today Sherlock season 4, and possibly the entire show, came to a riveting close. It was quite the season, filled with mind-bending twists and turns, intriguing character development, and despicable (and I mean it in the true sense of the word) villains. The final episode of the season, appropriately titled "The Final Problem," was an intense, uncomfortably dark story that tested the series' heroes more than any episode so far. In it, we are acquainted with Euros Holmes, Sherlock's brilliant, insane, desperately evil sister. She has been, as we come to find out, the real mind behind the evils that have plagued Sherlock Holmes, even going back to his early childhood. She has had her hand on almost every heartbreak, every terrible, tortuous event that happens to Sherlock during the course of the series, and in this episode we get to see her work up close.
Euros manages to lure Sherlock, his best friend John, and brilliant older brother Mycroft to the prison in which she has been held (or, as we learn, has come to control) for the majority of her life. Once trapped, she puts them through a series of tests, sadistic games, for reasons not completely clear. Insanity? Yes. Hatred? Probably. Revenge? Maybe. But its also pretty clear that she just enjoys it. She has finally met people who have a chance of standing up to her intellectually, but they are limited by morality, by love for each other, and by a regard for human life. And her goal is to exploit those so-called "weaknesses," and to test the power it gives her over them.
This episode of Sherlock explored, perhaps more than any other episode up until this point, the fundamental differences between the "good guys" and the "bad guys." Never before in this show have we seen so evidently two radically different types of characters and what it looks like when they clash. Their fundamental differences lie, I believe, in one key area: their value of human life.
To Euros, human life is of no value. She sees men as tools, playthings even, to be used until they're worn out. She is, in her own mind, a god--and probably not just a god, but the god. Her intellectual capabilities give her the means to use, abuse, and control; and in her own godless universe, why should that change?
Sherlock and his companions, on the other hand, see human life in a completely different light. When faced with the gut-wrenching choice to shoot one man to save the life of another, neither John nor Mycroft can do it. And when Sherlock must choose which of his companions to murder to get to the next segment of Euros' "game," he threatens, to his sister's shock and dismay, to end his own life instead.
So why does Sherlock, who, in this version of the classic stories, is a self-proclaimed atheist, put such immense value on the life of another human being? Because, from an evolutionary standpoint, shouldn't the life of a human have just as much value as that of a dog, horse, or monkey? What kept John from pulling the trigger, even when he had a man literally begging John to shoot him to save the life of his captive wife? I believe the answer is this: as humans created in the image of God, we are created with a subconscious understanding that human life has value. And, I would argue, the reason it has value is that God gives it value.
One of the earliest decrees given by God in Scripture can be found in Genesis 9:1-7. In it, the Creator gives humankind dominion over all other creation. He sets them apart, per say. He goes on to declare: "Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind."
From the beginning, God has chosen to give men value. And, as creatures all created by God, we have engrained in our consciences an understanding, an instinct, that we don't have the right or authority to take something of such incredible value as human life.
So while Sherlock might claim to not believe in a higher power, his actions indicate that he subconsciously answers to one. He recognizes that mankind has a special place in creation, and I doubt that he could provide a solid explanation on why that is. But I believe, as Christians, that we can. Our worth as humans can only be found in one thing, and that's through a loving Creator who has chosen to give us immense value for the glory of His name.
I love analyzing film, or anything else that tells a story. I've found that stories are amazing things that hold so much power and influence over us...they can change our moods, give us purpose, help us understand a variety of different concepts, draw us closer to other people, etc. In a way, stories set us apart from the rest of creation. The ability to create and communicate ideas intentionally is a really unique, cool thing.
The influence that stories can have is what makes them important, but it can also make them potentially harmful. That's why I believe they should be taken seriously, and not just observed, but also interacted with. In other words, I think we need to be really careful about falling prey to engaging in "blind entertainment"-- entertainment for the sole sake of entertainment. Instead, we should be aware of the stories that are told to us, and not just the stories themselves, but the motivations behind them, the worldviews they promote, and the values they uphold (or don't, for that matter).
That's why I created WWAP. I wanted a creative outlet that would challenge me to not see entertainment as purely entertainment, and maybe encourage some other people to do the same. I want to watch films with a purpose. I want to learn and grow from the stories that are told to me, and discern how the messages line up with biblical values. I want to be aware of how stories influence myself, my heart attitudes, my values, beliefs, and even actions. Because, like it or not, stories change us; and to me, that's both an exciting and terrifying thing.
I still remember watching The Avengers for the first time back when it was originally released on DVD. It was one of my first superhero films, and I had very mixed feelings about it. The Avengers marked my first exposure to the popular character known as Tony Stark (aka Iron Man). At first, I couldn’t stand him. To me, this “superhero” didn’t deserve to be called a hero at all. Since my first viewing of The Avengers, my enjoyment of Marvel films has increased exponentially.
When I first took an interest in film and Christian media-discernment, I had practically promised myself that I’d loathe Iron Man for eternity. To me, he didn’t seem deserving of the enormous fandom he had acquired. He was a womanizing, fowl-mouthed, arrogant man that honestly really annoyed me. But the more I watched the Iron Man films, and the more I understood the character of Tony Stark, I began to warm up to the character really quickly. Why was this? I finally came to this conclusion: Tony Stark is real. Not in the context of being an actual living, breathing person on the planet, but Tony Stark seems to provide a picture of an incredibly flawed individual trying to make the world a better place one step (or explosion) at a time. As I watched the films, I was surprised by how much Tony Stark reminded me of King Solomon in the Bible.
King Solomon had it all-- riches, glory, a kingdom, women, soldiers, horses, chariots, and anything else that money and power could help him obtain; he even had Jehovah God on his side! Unfortunately for Solomon, he was an imperfect, sinful, and wretched human being. He had a God-shaped void in his heart that he attempted to fill with every pleasure he could ask for. After all, if he could have it, why shouldn't he? As he grew older, he continued to push God aside and tried to replace Him with worldly pleasures. Scholars believe that it was towards the end of his life when he began to look back and think, "What a waste." That's when he wrote Ecclesiastes. For those of you who haven't read Ecclesiastes recently, let me sum it up for you in three words: everything is meaningless. Solomon looked back on his life and realized that only God could have given him the contentment that he had searched for his entire life.
And that brings us to a fictional man named Tony Stark. Like Solomon, Tony seems to have it all. He's practically the richest man on Earth, he’s a living genius, and he could basically give himself anything money and fame could buy: cars, mansions, women...the list goes on and on. But for some reason, Tony doesn't find it fulfilling. Like Solomon, Tony has regrets. When his friend gets ruthlessly gunned down by an enemy in the first movie, he is able to share one last piece of advice with Tony before he dies: “Don’t waste your life.” Those words have a profound affect on Tony Stark, and we watch as Tony struggles to discover the meaning of life. When he looks at how the mistakes in his past have hurt countless others, he resolves to change. He resolves to do good.
Solomon had one advantage over Tony Stark…Solomon knew God and had a personal relationship with Him. Even so, I found it immensely encouraging that the creative minds behind the Iron Man movies realized (even if it was just a little bit) that pursuing oneself does not bring fulfillment. Both Solomon and Tony Stark had to face this realization over the course of their lives. I truly hope that we as an audience can learn as well that there is so much more to life than filling it with stuff that can only bring temporary happiness.
So, is Tony Stark a character who doesn’t deserve the fandom that he has acquired? Well, he is a sinful, reckless individual, but his desire to fix his mistakes and make the world a better place is something I can definitely cheer for.
Sometimes I procrastinate in doing things. Like, for example, I've been "working" on a blog post for over a month, but haven't gotten to a point where I've deemed it worthy to publish. I also waited until last night to watch Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. I know...what self-proclaimed Marvel fan waits over two years to watch one of Marvel's more popular flicks? Better late than never though, right?
I'm going to be upfront with you and get this out of the way quickly: I thought Guardians of the Galaxy was a terrible movie. The only part remotely soul-stirring was the opening scene with Peter's mom (which did, in fact, make me promptly begin to cry), but that was the extent of my emotional involvement in this film. It wasn't funny, there was barely any character development, and it was really hard for me to cheer for anyone considering the complete lack of a moral compass from any of the main characters. I ended up giving the film a 3/10 because at least it had a good soundtrack.
But this post isn't intended to be a review. My sister and I were talking (...during the movie, actually, because we were that bored...) about how similar this film felt to a Star Wars flick. Let me explain in pictures:
The similar character types...
The whole scene where the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Nova Corps lead the attack on Dark Aster felt almost identical to the Rebel Alliance attacking the Death Star...
So if they're really so similar, then why did Star Wars work for me but not Guardians of the Galaxy? I think it comes down the classic "good vs evil" storyline. Star Wars made it clear who the good guys were, and it was easy to cheer for them and what they stood for. GOTG? Not so much. The film's creators wanted us to cheer for heroes who spent more time on screen killing people than the actual bad guys did, and that just didn't work for me.
What were your thoughts on the film? I'd love to hear them! Feel free to leave a comment below!
A few days ago I was on Twitter when the hashtag “#RespectTylerJoseph” was trending. For those of you who don’t know, Tyler Joseph is the lead singer of the popular band “twenty one pilots.” Naturally, because I like to keep up with pop-culture, I checked it out. You can read a version of the story here for yourself:
Now, regardless of whose fault it was, it's obvious that the fans took it too far—far enough that Tyler just stopped the show right then, and may possibly have even been injured. But regardless of whose fault it was, the story got me thinking about celebrities and how easy it is for us to objectify them, and forget that, like ourselves, they are people too.
There were some poor decisions (perhaps even by Tyler Joseph) and mob-frenzy involved during that TØP concert, but I do believe that the #RespectTylerJoseph story is a reflection of our society's view of celebrities in general. When we stop thinking of celebrities as real people, and only think of them as “entertainers” for our personal benefit, things can go South pretty quickly.
I think that so often we see celebrities as these “superhumans” who live perfect (however you want to define the word) lives. But have we ever stopped to think that these same "superhumans" have the same fears, passions, desires, and needs as “ordinary” people?
I’ve also thought a lot about this in respect to entertainers like Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. Now, I’ve never been a fan of their content, but I’ve been on the internet enough to see two different groups of people. On one side we have the screaming fangirls who may or may not have thrown common sense out the window a long time ago. They practically worship the celebrity regardless of any poor choices he or she might have made. On the other hand we have the skeptical, angry people who hate the celebrity for their immoral choices and bad behaviors. They complain, argue, and share open disgust about our morally declining culture, and personally attack him or her on various fronts.
Both parties, I believe, are guilty of objectifying the celebrity. The screaming fangirls might make him out to be this perfect human being who they love, but their actions reflect that they see him as an entertainer for their own benefit. I’m not sure the crowd was thinking of Tyler’s well-being when they stole his mask, shirt, and shoes, while preventing him from getting back on his platform. And the angry, hateful crowd? It appears to me that they treat the celebrity as merely a "societal blemish," not as a lost human being in need of a Savior.
And since when is it ok to gossip about celebrities, but not our personal friends and acquaintances? I’ve found that in many Christian circles, we try not to gossip about people in our own lives, but when someone brings up the next “dirty secret” about a celebrity, we laugh, joke, or rant about them in ways that make us believe the lie that they aren’t real people.
Say I have a friend in my life who has made some really terrible choices. Do I hate her and go off to talk about her misdeeds with others so I can feel better about myself? No! As a Christian and her friend, I pray for her and hope that her life can get back on track. But when we find out that Miley Cyrus has had another “accidental” wardrobe misfunction, or Justin Bieber has been arrested again, we don’t respond with love and prayer, we often respond with scorn and contempt.
Here’s the truth: celebrities are people too, and they deserve respect as human beings. And when they make mistakes, let’s not respond like complete jerks. Instead, let’s decide in our hearts to pray for them as people, because they are loved by God just as much as any of the rest of us.
What are your thoughts on the topic? Feel free to leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you!
A while back I wrote a post discussing my thoughts on the popular podcast Serial. While the story might be “old news” now, I still believe it has value as we look into its popularity and success. In addition to this, a simple google search will reveal that the story of Adnan Syed isn’t finished yet (check out this recent article). In keeping with my goals for this blog, I’ve edited the post and updated it a bit, but I’ve kept the message of my original draft the same. Let me know what you think!
On January 13, 1999, high school student Hae Min Lee went missing in the crime-ridden community of Baltimore, Maryland. Her body, which was buried in a wooded park near the city, was discovered nearly a month later. Suspicion eventually fell on the victim’s ex-boyfriend, a seventeen-year-old named Adnan Syed. Even after being convicted and sentenced to life in prison, Syed still claimed he was innocent. Years later in 2014, Sarah Koenig, a journalist and reporter, began to take an interest in Syed’s case; she documented her findings publicly on a podcast called Serial that became popular all over the nation.
If you are at all interested in podcasting or pop culture, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Maybe you even listened to the story in real-time as it unfolded on a week-to-week basis. In many ways, Serial Season 1 revolutionized the podcasting world. Even though it’s been at least a year and a half since the season’s conclusion, fans are still devouring every new piece of gossip about the case as it becomes available. Currently, (due in part to the success of the series) Syed has been ordered a retrial, but his guilt is still heavily-disputed and remains undetermined.
I was required to listen to Serial Season 1 for a college-level English class I took last year, and I must admit, I wasn’t too happy about it. For one thing, I didn’t see that it had much academic value (truthfully, my personal preferences lie with works by authors like Hawthorne and Shakespeare), and I also felt that the podcast’s subject matter wasn’t appropriate for the classroom setting. On top of this, the series also contains occasionally graphic descriptions of the murder and unnecessary foul language.
Looking back on it now, I realize that the thing that bothered me most about Serial wasn’t the language. It wasn’t necessarily even the unsettling descriptions of a high school murder victim. Instead, I discovered that my distaste for the series was found in one issue: Serial tells a story that lacks redemption.
I love stories. So often they serve as a mirror, though admittedly sometimes quite dim, for the greatest story ever told: The Gospel. So when I’m confronted with a true story, one without any apparent redemption for either our heroes or the antagonists, it can make me a little uncomfortable. Each episode of Serial left me feeling empty, and yet I always came back for more. Why was this? Perhaps it was a subconscious desire—a desire for the true murderer to be found and for justice to be served—even though I knew in my head it wouldn’t happen. You see, even to this day, we still do not know who murdered Hae Min Lee. Furthermore, we don’t even know if the man spending life in prison for the crime was even involved.
When I learned of the popularity of Serial, admittedly I was confused. Why would such a dismal story be followed so closely by millions of people around the world? But then I realized that maybe we don’t love Serial for what it is—empty, depressing, devoid of redemption. Maybe instead we love it for what we want it to be—a story of justice and redemption, a story where the good guy comes out on top. After all, we were created with a desire for justice; we all love to see evil punished and good triumph. Maybe that’s why each episode up until the finale of Serial received over 1,000,000 downloads. We all wanted answers; we wanted to see justice served.
There is so much about Serial that merits deep thought and discussion. Is it right for us to listen to a story like Serial purely for entertainment purposes? Is the podcast’s occasionally casual treatment of murder harmful to the way we ourselves think about and view murder? In addition to these questions, the podcast also merits discussion about important themes like morality, truth, and the consequences of our sin. So while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this podcast to others, I believe that listening to it with discernment can be healthy as we seek to understand the motivations and world-views behind its surprising success.