Friday, May 4, 2018

Darkest Hour 2017 and the Opposition of Evil

One of my new favorite pastimes post-graduate school is going to the movies. This year I went to see five of the nine films nominated for Best Picture this year: Darkest Hour, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Shape of Water, and The Post.

Of all of the films that were nominated for Best Picture that I saw this year, my personal favorite was Darkest Hour. I ended up going to see it on a whim with a friend on a Friday night this past winter. I remember listening to Oldman's delivery of Winston's famous speech, "We shall never surrender," my heart pounding in my chest, and feeling as though I was about to leap out of my seat and follow this bulldog of a man to the ends of the earth!

Gary Oldman's performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour was pure artistry, and Ben Mendelsohn's King George VI was the best portrayal of the most recent King of England that I have seen on film to date (which is saying a great deal as Colin Firth and Jared Harris each gave terrific performances of the role in The King's Speech and The Crown, respectively). While each actor had their own unique way of portraying the king's speech impediments and his strength of character, Ben has the advantage of very much looking the part. In fact, if one were to do a profile comparison of the two, the actor and the king himself are almost identical.

Left: Actor Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI in Darkest Hour 2017. Right: His Royal Highness, King George VI.
The movie unfolds over a matter of days, beginning with the appointment of Churchill as prime minister and following him into one of the most harrowing moments of the Second World War as the nation faces imminent invasion by Nazi Germany. Finding himself alone, Churchill must rally the  the nation to hold fast in its opposition to the Nazis rather than attempting to negotiate peace terms, even if it means the end of the British nation as they know it.


The film beautifully recreates the tension and desperation felt by many in those few days as the fate of Western civilization hung in the balance. As I watched the drama unfold, one couldn't help but wonder if one might have had Churchill's courage and clarity of mind if placed in his position. For it is a question worth considering: would it have been morally justifiable to submit to the Nazi regime, knowing about their obscene ideology, in exchange for the survival of what remained of the British nation, its culture, and its citizens? Was the evil of Nazism so profound that it had to be opposed at all costs?

Unlike many wars in the history of western civilization, the Second World War has the advantage of a clear delineation of good vs. evil, and in hindsight it is easy to say, "Of course, we must fight Nazism to the death," because we know what happened. But standing on the precipice of that defining moment in the history of the western world, not knowing the outcome, Churchill still had the courage to stand his ground and the foresight to realize that, in this case, there could be no compromise. In his own words:

"We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. ... We shall fight on the seas and oceans... We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!" -- Winston Churchill, "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" Speech, delivered on 4 June 1940 to the House of Commons. 

Darkest Hour serves as a beautiful and poignant reminder that death is not the worst thing that can happen to you, and that the good in this world is worth fighting for, even if it means you may lose.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Jim Hopper, Super Hero

We live in a time when the Harry Potter fandom is alive and well, and the fierce and salvific courage of Lily Potter, Mrs. Weasley, and so many other mothers and women in the Harry Potter world is a truth universally acknowledged. And rightfully so!

But I cannot help but ask: where are the fathers? If I were to make a list of smart, compassionate, fierce, and courageous dad and mom figures in current television shows and film, the latter would come to me much more quickly than the former. However, thanks to shows like Stranger Things and This is Us, I am happy to see a few father figures out there that can hold a candle to the strength and wisdom of iconic dad figures such as Mr. Walton, Mr. Ingalls, and Ben Cartwright.


*SPOILERS for Season 1 & 2*

I am speaking primarily of the junkie cop/troubled lawman, Police Chief Jim Hopper. From his stalwart courage as he brazenly breaks into Hawkins Lab to face the monsters lurking therein and his shrewd thinking as he slowly unravels the mystery of Will's disappearance to his fierce protection of Joyce and the kids of the Hawkins AV Club (especially Eleven), Hopper is certainly a force to be reckoned with in spite of his grumpy demeanor.

Now, I will certainly admit that in many respects Jim Hopper is at odds with the likes of Mr. Walton and Mr. Ingalls. While the latter are more akin to Odysseus, serving in many respects as examples of the 20th century "ideal man," Hopper is deeply flawed, from his drug and alcohol abuse to his raw, internal struggles with grief after the loss of his daughter.

Yet, Hopper quickly became one of my favorite heroes for that very reason. In the moment of crisis when his friends need him the most, Hopper overcomes his demons -- especially when he and Joyce venture into the Upside Down to find her son, and while he is having flashbacks of his daughter, he is there for her and helps to calm her fears in the face of uncertainty.

Hopper also has the courage to admit when he makes mistakes, and confesses when he is wrong -- as is the case with his mishandling of the protection of Eleven in season two. Similarly, in season two when Mike is angry at him for concealing Eleven, Hopper doesn't retaliate. Instead, he lets Mike be angry with him and lets him feel his (justified) emotion of betrayal. There is also a scene soon after Joyce has lost her boyfriend Bob (Bob Newbie, Super Hero!!!), and Hopper goes and sits with her. He doesn't say a word -- he comforts her simply with his presence.

In short, in the words of Haley from Carrots for Michaelmas, we need to remember that you don't have to be a saint to be a hero, and conquering your internal demons is just as noble and brave as fighting stranger beasts from alternate dimensions.

While I will always love the idealism of Mr.s Walton, Ingalls, and Cartwright, the honest, flawed courage of Jim Hopper serves as a comforting reminder that we are all imperfect but we are all called to heroism as spiritual fathers and mothers (even if we are not all called to literal fatherhood and motherhood in the sacrament of marriage). I hope that characters like Hopper and the Dad figures from This is Us signal the start of a trend in television where dads may have their demons, but they do not let these demons define them as they strive to fight for the good and protect those they love, flawed and valiant.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Beauty & the Beast 2017: The Great Lesson Revealed

(*Disclaimer: this is not a review of the 2017 film, but an rather an essay on the value of the story as portrayed in both Disney films.)

Last year, my friend and I were arguing about the story of Beauty & the Beast as portrayed in the Disney classic: “I hate the faulty logic behind the curse, that he [the Beast] must make someone else fall in love with him in order to prove that he has become truly selfless. It really ought to be the other way around, that his simple ability to love without expecting anything in return is what should free him.”

 I believe that G.K. Chesterton (pictured left) has the answer to his quibble with the story line: “There is the great lesson of Beauty and the Beast, that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.” However, like many brilliant Chesterton quotes, his words require a little unpacking. The first thing that came to mind when I encountered this quote was a passage from I John 4:19, “We love because He first loved us.” In other words, we fallen human beings are only able to love selflessly because Beauty Himself showed us the example of unconditional love. We were created by and for a God who is Love itself, and this Love became incarnate and died upon the cross to show us what real Love looks like. But how does this pertain to the story of Beauty and the Beast?

THE PROLOGUE GOT IT WRONG

First of all, to be fair to my friend, the conditions for breaking the curse as described in the prologue are misleading. According to the narrator, “If [the Beast] could learn to love another, and earn her love in return before the last petal fell, the spell would be broken.” A more accurate description might read, “If he could learn to love by BEING LOVED by another, the spell would be broken.” Human beings are not born knowing how to love — it is something that we must be taught through knowledge and experience. In the new Disney 2017 adaptation, it becomes clear that the Beast’s selfishness and unkindness stem largely from his upbringing by his cruel father and from the neglect of the loving but fearful castle staff. What little the Beast had learned of sacrificial love from his mother was long forgotten on the fateful night when the enchantress cast her curse.



BELLE IS THE NATURE OF LOVE

From the beginning, Belle represents the nature of love: she cannot help but love. This is apparent from the first time the audience meets her in her little village. Even though Belle is misunderstood and disliked by many of the locals, she is kind towards them and does what she can to help those in need — such as teaching a young girl to read, or giving a few coins to the mysterious beggar woman, Agatha.

After her imprisonment, Belle is the first to selflessly reach out to the Beast. This moment takes place after the Beast has fought off the pack of wolves and lays wounded and helpless in the snow. Belle has the chance to escape and regain her freedom. Instead, she brings the Beast safely home to the castle where she subsequently nurses him back to health.*

*Now, one might argue that it was the Beast who went after her first. This is true, but the Beast had everything and nothing to lose. His motives were still tainted by selfishness: Belle may have been the only chance he had to break the curse (it’s not as though women were just stumbling into the enchanted castle on a regular basis). If he died in the attempt, his life of misery would simply end.

THE BEAST LOVES BECAUSE BELLE FIRST LOVES HIM

It is in being loved by Belle that the Beast begins to learn to love selflessly. However, unconditional love is twofold, for it includes both the ability to love others and to love one’s self. According to C.S. Lewis, we all have an unloveable aspect within us, and we must learn to love even that (see Lewis’ The Four Loves). This is what is lacking in the Beast’s transformation. This is why the curse remains unbroken after he releases Belle at the end of the famous dance scene.  Although the staff exclaim “It’s because she doesn’t love him!” this is clearly not true, for only moments ago we all saw the tears of sorrow and gratitude in Belle’s eyes as she says goodbye to him. The Beast has learned to love selflessly, but he has to embrace his own self-worth in order to break the curse.

OVERCOMING SHAME/LOVING YOURSELF

To illustrate my point, let’s turn to another literary example. In Sigrid Undset’s novel Kristin Lavransdatter, we meet the married couple Ragnfrid and Lavrans. Lavrans is a charismatic leader, a virtuous man, and a loving husband. In many ways, he is an ideal match, yet Ragnfrid often comes across as cold and bitter towards him as well as her children.

Later on *SPOILER ALERT* the author reveals that Ragnfrid was unfaithful to her husband in the early years of their marriage. Ragnfrid regrets her sin, but her sense of shame is so great that she is unable to love/forgive herself, hence her bitterness. She cannot understand how someone like Lavrans (or even her children) can love her. She cannot see any redeeming quality within herself. This is particularly evident when Lavrans shows her any kind of gesture of love. These gestures make Ragnfrid feel uncomfortable, because in them she has to feel or experience his love, a love which she has yet to understand.

UNCONDITIONAL LOVE INCLUDES ACKNOWLEDGING YOUR OWN VALUE

The Beast is similar to Ragnfrid: although he does not behave coldly towards Belle’s kindness, he has yet to forgive himself. He has repented, but he does not understand how someone could love him because of the wretchedness of his past life and his current state. For this reason, he falls into despair as soon as Belle leaves the castle. When Plumette proposes that Belle may return, he rejects the idea, saying, “No. I set her free.” In his mind her departure confirms that he is unloveable. For this reason, his transformation is incomplete as he has yet to learn the power of unconditional love: the ability to see both the beauty and the ugliness within others and one’s self and to love both in spite of the ugliness. (Of course, the magic of unconditional love is that the ugliness of past sins vanishes in its transformative power!)

However, the Beast’s transformation is completed during Gaston’s attack. It is only when Belle returns that he begins to defend himself, as he realizes that he is worth saving. The live action film brings home this transformation more so than the original film: when the Beast traps Gaston, the villain begs, “Don’t hurt me, Beast!” The Beast responds, “I am not a Beast,” reaffirming that he has embraced his own value. His transformation is reinforced by his treatment of Gaston: instead of imprisoning him or killing him, he tells Gaston to leave and never come back. Even though Gaston just attempted to murder him, the Beast chooses love over hatred, sending his enemy away rather than taking his life.

The transformation for the Beast is not that Belle loves him but rather that the Beast can — and does — unconditionally love himself and others.

BELLE: I LOVE YOU

Does this undermine Belle’s profession of love in the pivotal moment of the film? Not necessarily. The Disney adaptation of Beauty & the Beast is among the first fairytale films to portray its heroine as a three-dimensional character, meaning that the allegory component of Beauty & the Beast is somewhat compromised. For this reason, Belle is portrayed as imperfect and even somewhat prideful. She, too, undergoes her own transformation over the course of the story, giving up her life plans to save her father and subsequently befriending the Beast and his enchanted companions. At the end of the film, it is clear by her actions that she reciprocates the Beast’s love (the audience has watched their relationship progress from friendship to romance throughout the second half of the film). However, love demands expression in actions and words, and while not pivotal, it is significant that Belle declare her love in words moments before the Beast’s transformation. For it is then that the grotesque, wintry castle and his fellow enchanted companions, exchange their mechanical and grotesque forms for their true selves. (Also, fun literary tangent/parallel: The castle is to the Beast what the portrait is to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, only the Beast has a happy ending).

This truth is portrayed in both the original Disney classic and in the 2017 remake. However, while I agree that the remake is imperfect, controversial, and sadly tainted by political agenda, I argue that it still possesses truth and beauty. Furthermore, the 2017 adaptation is far more successful than its predecessor in fleshing out the personal journey of the Beast over the course of the film. While the movie may require parental discretion, I believe that the remake of this beloved classic is worth watching and enjoying.



New Year's Resolution 2018: Resurgam


Well, I'm back.

I know, it's been a long time. Okay, a VERY long time. Sorry, blog. Sorry, readers.

But life throws things at you and dissertations had to be written, recitals performed, jobs obtained, relocations accomplished... you get the picture. But it's a new year, and I am resolved to resurrect this blog and post at least once a month. There are so many  things I want to write about... Beauty & the Beast 2017, Stranger Things, The Last Jedi, Catholicism & magical wardrobes, what outdoor hiking reveals to us about our need for God (thanks to my sister's travels on Appalachian Trail and Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life), and life post-grad school such as my new friend group, Tea Cozies of Doom... the list goes on... 

So, here's to a year of new beginnings, more adventures, and becoming better people along the way. And remember, to misquote Christopher Robin, you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think, for you can do all things in Christ who strengthens you.