Sunday, October 22, 2006

All the Little Animals

Hi all:

Last night --yesterday afternoon, really...I saw a small indie film called "All the little animals." What a lovely story! Christian Bale, when he was younger. It revitalized me in a way art can revitalize a person and set you on a straight path, reminding you of what is important for you in your own life.

I don't know if it's a YA story or not because the protag is 24 but it's about a man-boy named Bobby who was hit by a car when he was about ten so he's not quite right in the head. Nothing super odd, mind you...but a kind of youthfulness. His mother owns a family department store, PLATTS, that's been in her family for generations and then his mom marries a man whom Bobby calls The Fat. A really evil character who is scheming, malicious, and dangerous, and who wants Bobby's inheritance.

When the story starts it starts with a great hook. I love stories that just take the ball and run. Bobby's narrating and it goes something like: "I suppose I should tell you that my mother died and The Fat murdered her. She started getting thinner and thinner and then she died. To understand me better you must know that I had an accident when I was a boyr and I haven't been right in the head since."

And then of course we're off and running. The plot is off and running.. a straight line. We go to the funeral of his mom and we see Bobby, the skeevy nurse, and The FAT arrive back at the mansion that Fat has taken over and the Fat tells Bobby that if Bobby doesn't want to be sent to an institution, Bobby has to turn the family department store over to him. Bobby refuses because his mother told him to and The Fat -- who has taken away the good therapist doctor Bobby had and given him a doc who keeps him on drugs all day-- tells him he has until 4:00 the next day. Then Bobby goes upstairs to get away and is looking for his pet mouse. The Fat arrives in his room and throws the dead mouse at him and tells him to sign the paper.

So we know who the baddy is. But the passion, the anger, the terror, the stake is all present within the first ten minutes of the story and there's no rambling around. The story follows a straight line and never veers. And it races to its theme with absolutely no shame. Bobby escapes the house and keeps walking and although he doesn't know much about traveling he tells them he's determined to go to Cornwall to his grandfather. We don't know if he even has a grandfather but he just walks and walks. He meets a flaky family of travellers (UK version of gypsies) and they take him along and are very kind to him. Then they have to part and they drop him off at a truck stop. He meets a truck driver who is going to cornwall. The guy's nice enough but tries to kill a fox on the road and accidentally kills himself when he and his truck tumble down hill.

Down the hill is a Mr of the looniest, most wounded, thematic characters I've seen in a while. Played by the actor John Hurt. He's a hermit and travels up and down the Cornwall roads burying little animals. He doesn't want to take Bobby in but he does. Anyway, long story short...the story just became an instant favorite with me. The theme is about all the little animals and creatures who are destroyed by more powerful people, people with power. And I totally understood it. I wanted to write a story that gripped me with as much hurt and fear for the wounded as this story did. But I'd have to live through it...and I'm not sure I can deal with it. YA can be so heart-wrenching and American stories are often so good at soft-pedalling that I was literally surprised at the visceral cruelty and righteous anger in the story. If I write a story, though, I think I'd write a story about a little autistic kid who is treated majorly cruelly. And I'd have to have as sharp and as piercing a plot. It really was a good movie, and yet so gently rambling. No super guns or chases. Just evil at a human level. And yet there was something so mythic about it. I just fell in love with justice...and Christian Bale. And when you're watching a movie waiting for the good guy to murder the bad guy, well, you know you're caught up.

I've always liked stories about people who don't fit in, people who are different and who have no shame about it, people in short who don't think much about the systems in this world. I mean one of my favorite films is the Danish film FESTEN (Celebration) And when I saw this film I was so reminded again of who I was. Of what I consider important, of my discomfort with normal people and normal life. I had forgotten that. And I had forgotten how peaceful I felt when I was surrounded by people -- even if they are only literary characters-- who truly did not value the norms of the world.

At the same time, it made me really see into the virtues of creating novels populated by people I truly like and love and respect, and my characters with terrible needs. It kinda reminded me of Glendon Swarthout's BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN, but worked better I think because the main character wasn't out to save animals from an evil government. (The American fixation with thinking that one is well and one must help others from the evil powers-that-be.) But the main character was in need and needed saving from the cruel world. It just was lovely.

The film really blessed my heart and I'd recommend it to anyone who can get ahold of it. Even if you don't like stories about wounded people, as writers, you will love the way the story is told.

Incidentally, I saw clearly that in my novel Wind Follower is the life I would've wanted to live. The society I would have liked, and I saw that in many ways my husband Luke is like the main character Loic. It is absolutely wonderful to be a writer, and to be able to create worlds that heal the heart of others, and even our own hearts.


Saturday, October 14, 2006


You might not have heard this but another religious movie has made it into theaters. This one is being made by a Christian production company and is called "One night with the king" and it’s based on the story of Esther. Already I dislike the title. I shouldn’t, of course, but the title is so dang romantic. And Esther, which is a great story of God’s protection and timing, is not romantic. Therefore, this is a movie I have determined not to see.
Somewhere along the way, though, we Christians have begun thinking of it as a great love story, and of Esther herself as the perfect symbol of submissive wifeliness. Perhaps the story has been in the hands of too many male ministers. We need to hear a woman minister tackle the story.

Let’s start with the king: Xerxes or (as the name is transliterated into Hebrew/English) Ahauserus. Xerxes was a braggart. Sure he had conquered more than his fair share of kingdoms and certainly had a right to brag. We Christians accept this because arrogance is perfectly normal for a king and certainly an arrogant male needing to be enlightened is considered a fairly popular romantic theme. After all, the woman who tames such a guy...well, it’s the old good girl/bad guy thing. This kind of pairing happens so often in Christian romances that one wonders why Christian women would want to read stories about women taming workaholic braggarts. We should be a bit more enlightened than to be attracted to guys like that, I think.

As the story goes, Xerxes gives a great dinner party, lasting 180 days, in order to show off. And in the middle of all his showing off, he suddenly gets the very drunken idea that he wants to show off his wife. Basically, he wants a veiled Arabian woman from whatever century that was to put herself on display for all his drunk friends. Vashti, his wife, (rightly, I think) refuses, giving him a snide answer. The men in the palace become quite upset about this and convince the king that if the women in the kingdom hear about how uppity Vashti has been to the king, the women will all start back-talking their husbands. And in that neck of the world (then as now) women’s equality with men is the offense par excellence! We don’t seem to realize that this is one of the reasons why the Christian-influenced West is so feared (in addition to other historical factors): the men in power fear the western world will upset the sexual status quo. Kid you not.

Christians have written tomes about how horribly unsubmissive Vashti was to do this. I think they’re wrong. I understand that when Esther enters the story we all want to be on her side, but does this mean we have to demonize Vashti. After all, maybe Vashti wasn’t so proud as all that. Maybe God used her integrity to get her to lose her place as queen. Yes, let’s think about that one for a moment. And for another moment.
Enter Esther. Raised by her uncle Mordechai, she is already shown to be a wounded soul who owes a male authority figure very much. Raise the stakes: she is beautiful. Is this not the perfect trophy wife for a king such as Xerxes? She will never question him, and she is perfect for a king who regards the external. So, she is perfect for him...but is this the perfect guy for her?

Of course not! Esther probably wanted a husband and a house in her neighborhood. instead of all that palace intrigue. Who wants to live among foreigners and away from one’s people? Who wants a husband who has five hundred concubines and secondary wives? Who wants a husband whom one can only see when it please him...or else? And remember, Vashti, the former queen is still in the harem. She’s demoted, mind you. She’s not out of the picture. What gets me is that many Christians seem to think that this story is a love story and that Esther actually falls in love with the king. Where does it say this in the Bible? Alas, nowhere. But films are replete with it. We really must try to see the Bible as it is...and not put cultural romantic ideas into a story. When we add our cultural dime-store romantic notions to a Bible story we miss the point entirely. Needless to say, I’m not going to waste my time seeing the film...should it arrive at a theater near me.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Mr Christmas

Mr Christmas
Genre: Family
MPAA rating: G
UPC: 858154001004
ISBN: 0-9773287-0-8
56 Minutes
DVD SRP: $14.98
Street Date: 10/24/06
Distributor: Pro-Active Entertainment
Distributor email:
Distributor tel# 818-632-4200
Winner "Best Feature Film for Kids" 2006 Moondance Film Festival, Los Angeles

My Ratings: Fair

I really hate giving bad reviews. I especially hate giving bad reviews to Christian films. And I really hate giving bad reviews to Christian films which the heartland simply adores. (Yes, I was one of the few Christians who thought Mel's "Passion of the Christ" was not that good a film. Anyway, notwithstanding the fact that Mr Christmas won "Best Feature Film for Kids" at the 2006 Moondance Film Festival, this is not a film I would recommend for anyone over the age of five. And the problem is that any story or sermon that depicts young children there is often a great probability of sentimentality. Mix that sentimentality with poverty and Christmas and well, one has a sentimental mess. In this case, we have a story which purports to teach us about the true meaning of Christmas but which is pretty much about supporting the belief in Santa and the gooey notion of the magic of Christmas.

The story takes place in December of 1941 when Joel, a father more interested in giving in his daughter’s happiness than in his wife’s, his long-suffering must-keep-up-with-the-Joneses wife, and their two daughters are going through some financial disciplines. The children are young so they don’t understand that money is hard to come by. But it doesn’t seem as if they understand much about generosity or self-sacrifice either. These kids are typical American children who have been trained to believe that Christmas is about receiving what they want. Their parents, never seen praying to God, but whose wholesomeness we are to believe in because the story is told in a nostalgic haze when God was taken for Granted, are avidly supporting the cult of Santa Claus. Indeed, the need to support the children’s belief in Santa Claus is so important to this family that the only time we even see Joel vaguely praying – very vaguely– it is because he is afraid his children will be disappointed by the Santa mythos. He even grows self-righteously angry at God at if God owes him.

It is fairly common – though uncomprehensible to me– to set faith/Christmas stories in a nostalgic place and time in the heartland. The perfunctory good black person is of course shown, and I suppose I should be happy for that bit of multiculturalism but somehow the why-is-it-there scenes showing the family’s reaction to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor made me wonder if the filmmakers were trying to echo/link to the Iraqi War. Indeed, this film is so soaked in Americana that it coats Christmas with too much of the worst of the American dream. One of the most telling scenes of the film shows the scary subtext of the film. When Joel and Carolee go out to chop down a tree for Christmas, she chooses the largest tree. He informs her that they cannot fit it inside the house. She assures him that they can. He therefore agrees to do it. I suspect the scene is supposed to show the exuberance of childlike faith, but it just made me think that the kid was imbued with childlike selfishness and needed to think of giving instead of taking. Throughout the film, I found myself waiting for the moment when the sacrificial father stopped giving in to this daughter.

It is strange when a film seems to be saying one thing but in its subtext seems to be saying something else. At the end when the surprise occurs which, we assume, teaches the family the true meaning of Christmas, the analytical viewer leaves the film feeling a bit uneasy. We have been treated to a film about a family divided, where the father considers the wife’s need less important than the child’s, where a child’s desire to receive is satisfied, where God – Santa– comes through for people who hardly acknowledge him except in anger because he has not given. We hardly care that she receives a "better" gift– all we wanted was for her to learn how to give.

All this, plus the nostalgia, makes this film a sad and noble failure but a masterpiece of sentimental kitsch which shows more of the American mentality than the true idea of sacrifice which, I suspect, is the true meaning of Christmas.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Wounded Missionary

Some Christian fiction and secular films often share something in common: a missionary complex. In the one, the Christian book, a missionary (actual or symbolic) goes forth to preach the gospel. In the other, a well-meaning upper-middle class white liberal attempts to save a child from the ghetto. It’s not always this pat of course. Sometimes the do-gooder is a well-meaning middle-class black who wants to "give back" to the neighborhood. Notwithstanding race and other incidentals, the aims are usually pretty clear: someone needs saving, and someone else with the right spiritual or political outlook on life is sacrificial and well-meaning enough to save them. One soul at a time.

Of course, the missionary usually has a little problem himself. A very little problem. It is usually the temptation to give up and the questioning of his calling. But that’s about it. The missionary himself is usually as sane, noble, and emotionally-competent as the God he represents. The do-gooder in the film Half-Nelson, however, is no such symbol of virtue and piety. He, Dan (Ryan Gosling), a white teacher, is not a sinner, but he does engage in illegal activities. He is a crack-addict. And although we don’t quite know who has wounded him and why he would turn to crack, we are faced with his woundedness at every turn of the film, as well as his need to be delivered from it, and to prevent at least one of his students, Dray (Shareeka Epps) a black girl with family problems of her own, from being swallowed up by the industrious-but-illegal machine that is ghetto life...especially the drug industry which brings money, friendship, and respect. Unlike the straight and narrow path.

Throughout the Bible, we are told to be careful of evil because it can contaminate and corrupt us. But we are also told to lift up the weak. This is a see-saw that the average Christian doesn’t usually ride. But the average Christian in a bad neighborhood might very well encounter it everyday. The trouble, of course, is that most Christian fiction doesn’t create a heroic missionary-minded character as self-destructive as this. The baddies might be in deep spiritual morass, but the heroes rarely are. And who is the wounded savior to befriend when all the other saviors are so gosh-darn perfect?

In a world without friends, one cannot be too choosey. When one finds an understanding heart with whom one can communicate, that person may not fall into an acceptable category. A male teacher is not supposed to be hanging around with a female student. A student should not know a teacher’s secret. But Heavens, things often get so lonely and hard in life that even a Maine fisherman could befriend a New York gay photographer if that healing relationship came at the right time!

If there is one thing I don’t like it’s nihilistic movies. I watched this movie with a deep dread rising frequently in my heart and repeated often, "This better not end without hope." Okay, that’s my Christian upbringing. Besides, C S Lewis said a good story should never have a sad ending. When the black moment of the film arrives, and we see a transaction taking place that we hadn’t even dreamed of, I was about to give up. I kept remembering Al Pacino’s character in The Panic in Needle Park. But, yay, hope and truth wins out. And we feel that wounded though he was, this missionary has succeeded in saving someone. Yes, in spite of – and perhaps because of– his shortcomings. Recommended. But not for those who can’t deal with a few harrowing moments.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Although Little Miss Sunshine has many flaws, it belongs to the categories of movies I love, movies Christian film-maker would never make. And I’m not talking about the compassionate portrayal of homosexual, although it would be interesting to see...a film about the life of Julien Green for instance.

But what Little Miss Sunshine exults in is the flakiness of a family. Christian movies exult in normalcy, and in propriety. And in most Christian fiction and film, normalcy is the thing one aims to return to. Perhaps because the typical Christian novel is often a slice-of-life story about a lost confused soul who, through the help of a knowing wiser Christian, returns to the joys of a normal life. And this return to normalcy – the rural homestead, the happy suburban lifestyle, the nuclear family– is often seen as a kind of return to the Edenic state. But this very addiction to normalcy is what makes Christian movies so unfulfilling for those of us who have flaky abnormal families.

Little Miss Sunshine is the story of a dysfunctional family which contains a sexual minority (a gay brother who is suicidal) an ethnic minority (Jews), a depressed son, a too-sexually-open old man, and a workaholic dad whose commitment to perseverance and excellence probably hides a wounded soul...the kind of woundedness the average man doesn’t speak about. Although Jesus called us to walk in truth, this kind of truthfulness is not discussed in American Christian movies. And if it is discussed, the people involved in these situations are seen as needing to return to the fellowship of normalcy, common decency, middle-class behavior, racial expectations, and the American ideal of emotional and familial success.

The story is about a contest, the Little Miss Sunshine, which is a little girl beauty pageant dedicated to all that is American. One might even call it a pageant whose very purpose is to show the utter wonderfulness of Purity, Joy, and the various masks of perfection. A true American, in short. By some odd luck, Olive the beloved daughter of the family, has made it into the finals of this contest. The family is not in a good financial position – and they’re none too happy with each other. (And being a good little ethnic family, they don’t have that American trait of keeping quiet.) But because of little Olive, they decide to take the trip to the pageant in their beaten up van. Of course a lot happens on the trip.

Little Miss Sunshine is pleasant, and it is not as funny as it could be. It contains some profane languages and some shots of pornographic materials. This is not a film a Christian should take her family to. And yet it is so much about family values. Those saved Christians who do fit into categories rarely seen in films or novels will like it. It is about accepting one’s family as they are, accepting one’s own oddball behavior, and rejecting those values the American society has trained us to see as the right and true values...those values which we try to fit into but which we inately know to be wrong or at the very least...not for us.

Christian novels and films often equate sanity with holiness, and returning to societal norms as true repentance. In such a state, how can the flaky individual thrive or accept herself or her family? Isn’t there a danger of cookie-cutter Christians and cookie-cutter arts which train people to clamp down on the personality God gave them. No, I’m not saying that God makes people gay. And as I said, there are some things in this movie that a Bible-believing Christian will find offensive. But we should remember that John the Baptist stayed in the wilderness. Far from fellowship. And that Jonah didn’t like the Ninevites, and didn’t seem to like humanity in general, liking only animals and nature.

Little Miss Sunshine is about the dangers of democratizating our souls, about the dangers of trying to belong to a community where a false ideal is raised as the ideal for everyone. It tells us that people are truly quite different in interests, tastes, skills, and education. Again, it addresses elements of earthly pain that Christian art just doesn't: isolation, for one. And the isolation is never healed or judged but understood.
Rated three stars. Many instances of profanity and a frank discussion of homosexuality.

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