Movie review

The Artist: a Meditation

Besides being wonderfully crafted and thoroughly engrossing, The Artist is a thoughtful meditation on the value of people.

The movie tells the story of a 1920s silent film star, George Valentin, who knows he has value. The applause, big checks, and adoring fans tell him so; doesn’t go any deeper than that. He frolics in the designer pool of his ego, pushing costars away from the waterfall of adoration that cascades over him. Even Valentin’s faithful dog (best movie dog you will see in your lifetime) and his chauffeur have no relational value to him. They are fully functional and expendable.

The same is true of the beautiful girl, Peppy, who literally bumps into Valentin. Ah, another moon whose purpose is to simply reflect his dazzling value.

But a monster of a storm is brewing – a technological one: sound is coming to the movies. One development is going to change everything for an industry; it will swirl new people into the picture and suck others away.

In that tech shift, Valentin suddenly finds himself among the losers. His value drops like a body from a bridge. Broke, unemployed, drunk, and discarded (by his wife and his studio), he is forced to sell his furniture and other possessions (which, by the way, some call “valuables”) and move out to Humbleville.

Have you noticed that life’s crucibles have a way of revealing authentic value? When entire way of living explodes in flames, the first human reaction is to try to save ourselves and preserve the old way. But, eventually, the people, possessions, motivations, and false measurements all get reduced to mere kindling for the blaze. Old (and false) identities, hopes, and values perish in the fire. And then, after time in the grave (could be days or years), on a shimmering new resurrection morning, a new life steps out of the tomb.

In that note, The Artist tells a story we have not seen very often: the redemptive (“buying back”) power of pure love. And Peppy is a character we’ve not often seen. She is beautiful, but her real loveliness is, in words from the Bible, her “hidden person of the heart…the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.”

The Artist is also a discerning look at celebrity. I once asked a young woman who had just become engaged, “Tell me what you most respect about your fiancée.” She twirled her hair, giggled, closed her eyes, giggled some more and said, “Well…” She didn’t seem to know anything about his integrity, faith, family heritage or traditions, sense of purpose, protective instincts, personal dreams or anything else foundational to life. They married and divorced quickly.

Like her, we can’t seem to locate respect for those we adore.

So our celebrity-driven culture splashes exotic intangibles – like cool or awesomeness – on the big screen in our collective head. We don’t define, require, or examine; we applaud, gush, and swoon. Don’t underestimate that power; America elected a President on that. The Artist thoughtfully considers the emptiness of image and the futility of building a life on applause.

Finally, The Artist is a great artistic achievement. In a medium marked by decibels and explosive visuals, The Artist is a splendidly silent and gorgeously black and white movie. It is like walking away from the flash and roar of typical movie entertainment and into a silent and majestic high country meadow.

The Artist dares to present and permit a quiet contemplation of who and what and why we value.

Of Gods and Men

The French movie, Of Gods and Men, tells the true story of a small group of Trappist monks at a monastery in Algeria.

I do not remember ever seeing a movie that is such a perfect description of “The Church.” The monks are clearly “called out” of the “world.” But they also know they are inescapably related to the people of their time and place. As Catholics in a Muslim country, they do not proselytize. They respect and serve everyone; no “us” vs. “them” attitude at all.

And the time and place are being roiled by change. Poverty, government corruption, and terrorism threats are all growing. And they are acutely aware of their increasing age and infirmities. The men feel all kinds of contractions; they know they are being squeezed out of the womb of earth.

The contractions come faster when Islamic terrorists murder some migrant workers nearby. Then the terrorists arrive at the monastery. Decisions must be made. Will they remain at the monastery or will they seek a safe place?

The monks walk in a clear sense of place. They pray, sing, work, get sick, and play here. This furniture, these faces, this land, this village. No consideration of this place as a stepping stone to a better place. They don’t download monastery models that seem to “work” in the seminaries or cities. These men are possessed by a farm country kind of commitment to people and place.

When these devout men take counsel together, every line rings true. We do not hear one ounce of pietism, heroics, or drama. They grapple with real issues, they irritate (and rebuke) each other, they search for truth and direction. But, beyond it all, they rest in the depths of love. For Jesus and for one another.

Near the end, they gather for fellowship around a table. One brother brings wine, a small tape player, and a cassette tape of “Swan Lake.” Facing death, they know that Jesus is their safe place. Just to be with Him together is enough. Without a word of dialogue, we see all we need to know in their laughter and tears as the camera moves around the table. Because I have long known that kind of bond with men, that scene was one of the most resonant things I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Perhaps the most riveting truth of this movie is that the monks refuse to let external pressures mold, motivate, or define them. They are devoted to their Lord, to one another, and to their place. They will do what they do and do it where they live. Why should it be more complicated than that? Why should our role and purpose keep “reinventing” or “innovating” just because of change going on around us?

These men clearly see (and say) that to follow Jesus is to die. So, what is the big deal about facing death…like this afternoon? Wasn’t that bridge crossed long ago?

If anyone ever asks me to recommend a movie that accurately portrays Christian faith, I’ll be quick to point them to this film. Other movies — like A Man for All Seasons, Places in the Heart, or Dead Man Walking — have given brief (and quite wondrous) glimpses. But Of Gods and Men is a long and profound meditation on living by faith.

Of Gods and Men stands as great moviemaking and more. It is a grand portrait of how to live upon the earth: With Him. Here. Now. Together.

NOTE: The title comes from Psalm 82: 6-7: I said, “You are gods, And all of you are children of the Most High. But you shall die like men…”

Perhaps a better translation for the plural “gods” might be “judges” or even “my judges.” In other words, those called by God should live on earth as plumb lines in the midst of vertigo. But they will always be subject to the same rules and conditions as the “earthlings.” We will all die the same way.

The movie is available on DVD (English subtitles)

The Tree of Life

Most of what we see on movie screens follows the mythic structure of storytelling.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is the first movie I’ve seen that borrows from a different pattern. It is contemplative or devotional literature. While it is the most visually gripping movie I’ve ever seen, it is far more than breathtaking pictures. It pulls you into a serious consideration of God, the origins of life, death, grace, heaven, and the variegated textures and touches of life on earth.

Much of the dialogue is whispered. You hear characters thinking. Perhaps we hear God’s thoughts. My hearing is poor, but I think I heard a version of Romans 7:19 ~ “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.”

As a story, The Tree of Life leisurely serves vignettes of life in the middle of the 20th century, in the middle of America. We see the O’Brien family – father, mother (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain) and three sons. We see their tenderness and strict discipline, familial requirements and forgiveness, church services and family prayer. (I never did figure out why Sean Penn was in the movie. Apparently he didn’t either)

The way they cope with losing a child certainly rang true to me. I grew up with those people. They always seemed to view life on earth through a heaven-mounted telescope.

The dialogue is simply stunning (albeit difficult to hear). I’ve never seen a movie that handles such sweeping ideas in dialogue so well. Consider:

  • “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.”
  • “I didn’t know how to name You then. But I see it was You. Always You were calling me.”
  • “I wanted to be loved cause I was great, a Big Man. Now I’m nothing. Look. The glory around… trees, birds… I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.”

And, the Voice that starts the whole movie belongs to God: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” ~ Job 38:3,7

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