October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
May 20, 2015
And when the cynic reminds us that people fall off crags, get lost after sunset, and are drowned by waves and eaten by lions; when the cynic cautions that faces get old and lined and forms get pudgy and sick—then we Christians do not declare that it was all a mistake. We do not avail ourselves of Plato’s safety hatch and say that the real world is not a thing of space, time, and matter but another world into which we can escape. We say that the present world is the real one, and that it’s in bad shape but expecting to be repaired. We tell, in other words, the story . . . of a good Creator longing to put the world back into the good order for which it was designed. We tell the story of a God who does the two things which, some of the time at least, we know we all want and need: a God who completes what he has begun, a God who comes to the rescue of those who seem lost and enslaved in the world the way it now is.
—N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense
The mountains moved me first. The Sundance Film Festival unfolds in Park City, a resort town along the Wasatch Back of Utah. And so before I saw any movie screens—or the countless wonders, horrors, and curiosities that would unfold upon them—I was greeted by a ragged range that, to this native of the Illinois flatlands, resembled a bold intrusion, the sky being nudged aside by the earth.
It would become jarring, yet also rejuvenating, to be greeted by these rocks each time I blearily emerged from one of the eleven films I saw at Sundance. The contrast brought relief, something stolid on which to rest the films’ ephemeral images and ideas. The mountains were also a hulking reminder that if these movies were to matter, they had to matter outside of the box in which we viewed them, outside of our own little brains. If movies are to matter, they must connect to the immoveable object that is the world.
And they often do matter, in ways that sometimes supersede what their makers intend. For while movies are certainly, first and foremost, their own self-contained works of art that aim to tell their own stories and share their own ideas, they are often also echoes of God’s story, the one, in N. T. Wright’s words, of “a God who comes to the rescue of those who seem lost and enslaved in the world the way it now is.” In the particular ways that movies echo that story—through motion and light, color and sound—they are a form of revelation unlike any other. Not quite special, not quite general, they flicker in the dark, a mysterious in-breaking of glory on a gray screen.
This overarching story—the one that begins with creation, laments the fall, shudders with the shock of redemption, and savors the slow coming of restoration—could be glimpsed in many of the films I saw at Sundance. Not consistently or in one tidy package (not even Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life manages that), but rather in flashes that were sometimes as quick as a single frame. For those with eyes to see, this story was all around, truer than the smaller stories surrounding it, more real than the mountains making their physical claims outside.
God does not make junk, and we dishonor the Creator if we take a negative view of the work of his hands when he himself takes such a positive view. In fact, so positive a view did he take of what he had created that he refused to scrap it when mankind spoiled it, but determined instead, at the cost of his Son’s life, to make it new and good again. God does not make junk, and he does not junk what he has made.
—Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview
The Wasatch Back suggests age, as if it has been around since this story began. You can look at its mountains and imagine that they stood, stalwart, at the dawn of time, when things were right. When things were good, very good.
Films often recapture that goodness by turning to nature. Though not mountains, the elevated prairies and craggy badlands of South Dakota provide an epochal backdrop for Songs My Brothers Taught Me, a meditative family drama written and directed by Chloe Zhao. Set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and largely featuring a nonprofessional cast made up of the Oglala Lakota Native Americans living there, Songs centers on a teenager (John Reddy) who plans to flee for Los Angeles, even as he fears what his departure will mean for his younger, tagalong sister (Jashaun St. John).
Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which I saw on my third day at Sundance, lingers in my mind mostly for Joshua James Richards’ contemplative cinematography. Sober yet resistant to gloom, the images seem to recognize that even in the most hopeless of milieus—and this is a community ravaged by alcoholism and poverty—hints of beauty exist. The children of Pine Ridge may own rusty bikes and ride down sad barren streets, yet they still smile, weaving patterns of irrepressible joy. The brother and sister at the movie’s center often wander together through the grassy fields that lie beyond their dilapidated home, lightly teasing each other but mostly enjoying the serenity of each other’s company. Given the attention paid to flora and fauna and the placement of these two figures within it, it is not too difficult to imagine them as a platonic Adam and Eve.
A different sort of Eden is depicted in The Wolfpack, a documentary profile of six brothers whose father forbade them from leaving their Lower East Side apartment for most of their childhood. In a sense, the father tried to create his own protective garden; one of the brothers even recalls his father’s claim that “he was God.” The tree of knowledge was somewhere beyond the apartment’s locked door, in the forbidden forest of New York City.
Or perhaps, by allowing his sons to watch Hollywood movies on a loop in order to pass the time, the father gave them a bite of the apple. Consider that the brothers respond to their imprisonment—indeed, survive it—via their own creative acts. Having imprinted the likes of Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight onto their brains with repeated viewings, they re-create these and other films by transcribing the entire scripts, designing their own costumes, and reenacting the narratives. One of the brothers says this about their homemade adaptations: “It’s kind of magical.” Most creative acts are, particularly in the way they echo the first creative act the world witnessed.
Such re-creations are limited, to be sure. After all, these brothers are not creating out of the “formless and empty” (Gen. 1:2 NIV) but out of the detritus of Hollywood. And while their art functions as a coping mechanism, it is not—as The Wolfpack at times seems to suggest—an act of flourishing. It is telling that the window to the apartment, the window that the brothers longingly gaze out of, watching the world go about its business far below, is both cracked and taped. It is a melancholy detail that registers as an ineffective gesture of repair.
There would be a strong argument for saying that much of the most powerful preaching of our time is the preaching of the poets, playwrights, novelists because it is often they better than the rest of us who speak with awful honesty about the absence of God in the world and about the storm of his absence, both without and within, which, because it is unendurable, unlivable, drives us to look to the eye of the storm.
—Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale
Sundance is heavy on the fall, on cracked windows and poor tape jobs. It is the crux of story, for one thing—some sort of conflict must be present—and a more natural fit for tragedy, which far outweighed comedy on the Sundance schedule. Like the independent film genre it helped popularize, Sundance favors the fallen, and it does not often stick around to watch its subjects get up.
And so my five days at the festival began with ’71, a jittery thriller set against the backdrop of the conflict in Northern Ireland between English loyalists and Irish nationalists. Jack O’Connell stars as a British soldier who gets left behind in a Belfast neighborhood after a riot has broken out. Caught between undercover British agents and IRA agitators, he becomes a pawn in an increasingly senseless cycle of violence.
In a post-screening Q&A, director Yann Demange said his film captured an “unfortunate tendency in human behavior”—which is an irreligious way of saying original sin, the innate condition that would keep us apart from God. An appropriate image from ’71 is the shit that’s thrown on the windshield of a British military vehicle by Irish protestors—the driver unwisely flips on the windshield wipers and, like Adam and Eve’s offspring outside of the garden, it just spreads.
The Witch goes back a few centuries from 1971 but not to a time that was any purer. An occult horror flick, the movie centers on an American colonial family who moves to the edge of the forest in order to avoid the sinfulness of their neighbors in the village. Bad decision. The Witch seems to understand that we can never fully flee sin because it is always there, in ourselves. Director Robert Eggers’ frequent habit of letting the screen go entirely black for seconds on end is a harrowing reminder of this human condition, one that had an especially eerie effect on the midnight screening I attended. When odd occurrences take place on the family farm, the father blames his oldest daughter, creating a vortex of suspicion and paranoia from which no one will survive unscathed.
Normality, instead of witches, is on display in I Smile Back, at least on the surface. Sarah Silverman stars as an upper-middle-class mother who seems to have it all, apart from the fact that she struggles with a crippling depression. The destructive choices she makes as a result—seeking healing, peace, and a presence to fill that absence, but doing so via impulsive sex and drug abuse—only leave her more anguished. “Don’t act like everything’s going to be OK when nothing’s going to be OK,” she tells her husband (Josh Charles) well before the dominoes begin to fall. Silverman, best known as a stand-up comic, has a startling forcefulness as a woman without hope, one who is standing on the edge of Eden, facing out.
“Have you met any monsters in the Palace?”
“No. Just me.”
That exchange, the one in the epigraph, is between Don, a counselor, and Tracy, a convicted sex offender, in the documentary Pervert Park, easily the most affecting film I saw at Sundance. Tracy is one of a few dozen offenders now living in a Florida trailer park populated by individuals who have served out their sentences. The film was a 10-a.m. punch in the gut, though I cannot imagine it being an easy watch at any time of the day.
By introducing us to Tracy and her neighbors after confession has come and a turning about is being attempted, Pervert Park inherently assumes redemption, even if it also tests our understanding of the doctrine. If Christ’s work truly brings us back into God’s presence—once and for all—it does so not only for the well-mannered Christian who breaks the speed limit now and then but also for Tracy, who agonizingly admits to committing abhorrent acts against her own son.
This sense of exoneration can be felt in the film’s emphasis on sunlight. Directors Frida and Lasse Barkfors hardly shy away from the broken-down trailers in the park or the broken stories being shared within them, yet that Florida sunshine finds its way into the frame, occasionally honeying a distraught, tear-stained face. Thematically anachronistic given the subject matter, it is nonetheless a reminder that God’s grace shines on us all.
What wrecked me about Pervert Park was Tracy’s unwillingness to see it shining on her. Although she lives among other offenders, she knows only one monster. Yet in her moments of confession we sense that redemption’s light is beginning to dawn, even for her. This is why her repentance is sometimes followed by an expression of relief, as when she describes how she felt after being arrested: “I could breathe.” Even if she has not fully embraced it by the film’s end, we know that redemption is the source of this precious breath of air.
With its emphasis on counseling and group therapy, Pervert Park has a bit of a self-help feel. Yet redemption is ultimately Christ’s work, not ours, even if our struggles and participation are part of the process. This tenet came to mind while watching Stockholm, Pennsylvania. Written and directed by Nikole Beckwith, the movie dramatizes the reunion of a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) with her family after having lived with her abductor since she was five years old. Her parents (Cynthia Nixon and David Warshofsky) do their best to repair things—to bring her back into the fold—but their efforts are undone, partly by their own failings and partly by the fact that Leia, their daughter, isn’t convinced she needed rescuing at all.
Working with cinematographer Arnaud Potier, Beckwith emphasizes dimly lit interior scenes throughout the film. At first, it is as if the family is rationing light bulbs, and eventually their suburban home comes to resemble a cave, hardly different than the hidden basement in which Leia was raised. Turning from an old life to a new one will always be messy, but when we take it solely upon ourselves to do the work of redemption, Stockholm, Pennsylvania suggests, our striving often looks like so much fumbling in the dark.
It is no blasphemy to say that every man creates the God creating him. We are facets of a work whose finished form we cannot imagine, though our imaginations, aided by grace, are the means—or at least one means—of its completion.
—Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss
What does restoration look like, then, if we’re unable to fully bring it about ourselves? Even with the hints given in Scripture—and the explications of someone like N. T. Wright, whose Simply Christian envisions the new creation as beauty reborn—we (and the movies) have a hard time imagining it. But there are glimpses, some of which were found at Sundance.
Perhaps they are most easily found in comedy— Frederick Buechner, whose Telling the Truth is subtitled “The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale,” might agree. And while Sundance is notoriously light on laughs, it did offer Don Verdean, a biblical archaeology comedy (not quite a thriving genre) from the filmmakers behind Nacho Libre and Napoleon Dynamite.
Don Verdean is mostly a farce about false prophets, charting as it does the increasingly suspect efforts of the eponymous archeologist (Sam Rockwell) to procure artifacts proving the historicity of the Bible. With the financial backing of an aggressive megachurch pastor (Danny McBride), Verdean begins stretching the truth, until truth means robbing the grave of a famous wrestler in order to find something big enough to pass for Goliath’s skull. Biblical literalism, excessive evangelism, and church competition are all gleefully skewered, until the verse Verdean references on his trailer—James 1:8, which describes the “double-minded and unstable”—applies not to those doubters he is trying to convert but to himself.
For all this, Don Verdean ends on an oddly restorative note, with hope of a new way forward. Imprisoned for fraud, Verdean finds himself sharing a cafeteria table with the wayward son of his former assistant. Forcibly removed from the religion industry, he is given a chance to relationally minister. It took a comic fall from grace and a trip to jail for him to truly join the work of restoration.
If Don Verdean suggests restoration happens through community rather than individual accomplishment, Tig was a celebration of what such community might look like in a comedy club. Another Sundance documentary and a profile of comedian Tig Notaro, Tig is anchored on her viral 2012 stand-up performance, which began with this jostling statement: “Hello. I have cancer. How are you? Everyone having a good time? I have cancer.”
Rather than alienate the audience, Notaro’s frank and funny set created an unlikely atmosphere of honesty and empathy. For an art form that often runs (hilariously) on self-absorption and ego, stand-up comedy here pointed to a way the world should (and one day will) be. As Notaro described the experience, “It’s a roomful of, ‘Oh, I get you.’ I get them. They get me. They get the person next to them.”
“Getting” each other—no matter where we are from or what we have done—is one promise of the new creation. This is, in a way, the miracle of Pervert Park, which depicts the sort of restorative community that can come in redemption’s wake. “People stop in the street and talk about what they’re going through,” one offender says of his new home. And in that talk is hope.
I will confess I did not have much hope walking out of Pervert Park and into the midday light of Park City. The movie’s realities were too harsh and fresh to allow for much more, at that moment, than despair. Yet those mountains were there, as they had been throughout the week, as they were before Tracy’s crimes, as they were before any of our failings. Brazen and perennial, they reminded me of a time when all things were good and of the erupting impingement of Christ on the cross, paving the way for all things to be good once again.
Film as Revelation
The arts are not the pretty but irrelevant bits around the border of reality. They are highways into the center of a reality which cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way. The present world is good, but broken and in any case incomplete; art of all kinds enables us to understand that paradox in its many dimensions. But the present world is also designed for something which has not yet happened. . . . Perhaps art can help us to look beyond the immediate beauty with all its puzzles, and to glimpse that new creation which makes sense not only of beauty but of the world as a whole, and ourselves within it.
—N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense
If there is a fundamental reason why Christian films or faith-based movies rarely work, at least for those beyond the specialized demographic to which they are marketed, it is because cinema does not function well as special revelation. It is not Scripture, and it is certainly not Christ. To give the movies that sort of authority is misguided. And yet film is not quite general revelation either, which witnesses to God’s grandeur, his providence, his nature as seen in nature. According to N. T. Wright, art serves two imaginative functions: expressing our broken existence and envisioning the new creation. If movies are distinctive then, in terms of revelation, it is in the way they stoke our imaginations, for understanding both the not yet and the yet to come.
What, then, did the films of Sundance reveal to me in imaginative ways? The power of confession (Pervert Park), the miracle of community (Tig), and the necessity of forgiveness (I Smile Back), among other things. What is more, by tracing a narrative from the idylls of Songs My Brothers Taught Me to the brutality of ’71, then from the salvation of Pervert Park to the reconciliation of Don Verdean, Sundance enabled me to see God’s great story not as some ancient tale, but as a living, breathing, moving thing.
 Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (Nashville, TN: Harper Collins, 2009), 46.
 Wright, Simply Christian, 235.
Josh Larsen is editor of Think Christian, an online magazine exploring the intersection of faith and culture. He also writes about movies at LarsenOnFilm.com and is the cohost of the Filmspotting podcast.