The moment I broke down at Brendon’s wake, of all moments, was when I saw our barber. When I saw him, my first thought was, I need to tell Bren that Dan came. Then a freight train blindsided me. I think it forced me to face the hard reality of everything. I wouldn’t be able to share this news with my friend; this thing that only meant something in the context of our friendship. Do you know that impulse to share with the only person who truly understands the significance of a thing? It’s the secret knowledge of close friends.
On October 16, 2016, Brendon would have turned 30. Just like me and most of my other friends, he would have taken this significant step further into adulthood. Instead, Bren will remain in our memories as a 28 year-old. To me, and I’m sure to some others as well, he’ll always be the friend of our youth. When we get old and wrinkly we’ll remember the old days with Bren. The days of hearty laughter, delicious and terrible food, movies and videogames and every manner of good times. These memories are a treasure.
There’s much more life to live yet, and I’m grateful for each day. There are families to raise, good friends to laugh with, and years of invaluable experiences ahead. Life will pull us in directions we never imagined. But it will come to an end at some point in time. My great hope is that death isn’t the end of life. My hope is that Jesus came back to life after they killed him two thousand years ago. Because if that happened, and I believe in my heart that it did, that means there is hope for my friend as well. There’s a hopeful expectation that I’ll see Brendon again. And someone needs to tell him that Dan came to see him.
If you’ve managed to avoid The Force Awakens, I strongly advise you to read no further. In other words, “Thar be spoilers ahead!” If you’re like me and you’ve seen the movie one or five times, welcome aboard. In related news, the Blu-Ray comes out on April 5th.
Who is Luke Skywalker?
That’s supposedly the question that got J.J. Abrams interested enough to direct Episode 7. In my opinion, that’s the right question to be asking as the story of our favorite far away galaxy is fleshed out. Luke is the main protagonist of the original trilogy. In a space opera heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell’s philosophy of myth and the hero quest, Luke is the hero. So even as we follow new characters on an original quest, there’s no escaping from the one true hero of the Star Wars saga. (An argument could be made that Luke’s father, Anakin, is the true hero of Star Wars, but I don’t accept that. Anakin’s a tragic hero, where Luke is the positive ideal and embodiment of hope. Here’s a great blog post that reinforces Luke’s hero status.) And even though Luke only appears for about a minute at the very end of The Force Awakens, his presence is palpable throughout. We need to know what has become of him, and what happened that caused his apprentice, Ben Solo, to turn to the Dark Side? Luke has experienced an intense and unresolved trauma, which demands a resolution.
When I was young, I didn’t think of Luke’s duel with Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back as a traumatic event. It was cool and exciting, and the big father reveal caught me by surprise, but I knew everything would be made right. Luke is a good guy and good guys win. Besides, he gets a fun new hand by the end of the movie and that solves his problem. As an adult, I look at this moment in Luke’s journey and see his lowest point and deepest trauma. This is the quintessential father wound. His father injures him physically by cutting off his hand and pummeling him with large objects. He simultaneously wounds Luke by revealing that his father is an evil tyrant who has embraced the Dark Side. It’s an assault on Luke’s identity. And it goes even deeper than that.
This is also a moment of tremendous personal failure. Luke disobeyed both Yoda and Obi-Wan, abandoning his training to rescue his friends. He took a huge risk and accomplished absolutely nothing. Han Solo is frozen and sold to Jabba the Hutt. Leia and Chewy escape with Lando, but this is only made possible because Luke is unintentionally acting as a diversion. Luke doesn’t actually help anyone. He just walks into a trap, gets his hand cut off and narrowly escapes with severe emotional trauma. Add to that his realization that Obi-Wan has been lying to him about his father all along. No matter what nonsense Ben Kenobi says about “points of view”, Luke has been betrayed by his most respected father figure. And it goes even deeper than this.
In the Star Wars universe, the Force is a metaphysical entity that breeds life and directly influences people and events. It is the god of that world. Luke is the last Jedi. He’s the last hope for the Light Side of the Force. Certainly, he must have some sense of purpose as the torch bearer. In that moment, gripping the platform with one hand as Darth Vader reveals his true identity, Luke most likely feels betrayed by the Force itself. After all, the Force didn’t help him in his fight against Vader. It didn’t preserve his hand. It didn’t help him save his friends. What it did do was turn his father into Darth Vader and lead him to this agonizing place where his best option is to jump into a mile deep pit. Luke is wounded by the Force itself.
We know that in the years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens Luke began to train a new generation of Jedi. At some point, his nephew Ben turned to the Dark Side as Kylo Ren, and likely killed the rest of the students. This mirrors the path that Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader took in the prequels. Han Solo says that Luke blamed himself for what happened and chose to seclude himself as he searched for the first Jedi temple. Surely, this fresh trauma opened up the old wounds that Luke experienced in Empire. Again, he is faced with an inability to protect those he cares about. And the legacy of Darth Vader has been revived in Kylo Ren. Luke has failed again, and perhaps the Force has betrayed him again. Shouldn’t it be the will of the Force to raise up a new generation of Jedi? How could this be allowed to happen? Luke’s choice to seclude himself is similar to his choice to jump off the platform. Just as Luke fell through space and ended up alone under Cloud City, he traveled through space to end up alone on that island. Again, Luke has been deeply wounded.
When Rey walks up the hill to find Luke Skywalker, she reaches into her bag and pulls out the lightsaber that was lost. The last time Luke saw that weapon was when his father sliced off his hand. For Luke, that lightsaber had intense negative associations. It represented his failure, and even a betrayal by the Force itself. I am sure he believed he would never see it again. But there it is, in the hands of a young girl who represents a great hope for the future of the Jedi. Somehow, the Force has orchestrated events to bring the lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker, his father, back to him. In this moment of catharsis, the Force is reaching out to say, you haven’t been forsaken. It’s telling Luke that he still has a purpose and redemption is at hand.
I’d like to take some movies that I enjoy and identify the one moment in each of them that stands out to me as “the best”.
Twister is a ridiculous disaster movie that’s also a lot of fun. In May of 1996, just a few months ahead of another bad/good favorite of many, Independence Day, Twister tore through the box office and collected nearly $500 million from audiences worldwide. These special effects were impressive for the day. Remember, at this time iPods weren’t even a thing and cell phones were just becoming a thing, sort of. CGI cows were noteworthy in this year.
Beyond the effects, Twister is essentially about the reconciliation of a nearly divorced couple amidst their harrowing attempt to learn more about tornadoes. Bill (Bill Paxton) and Jo(Helen Hunt…remember Helen Hunt?) learn to love each other again while driving around in an indestructible truck (which would ultimately be put to shame by the truck in 1997’s Dante’s Peak, but that’s for another day). Anyway, it’s all well and good for everyone except Bill’s lame fiancée, who’s lame because she prefers to avoid tornadoes.
So which moment is the best?
In the minutes before the twister chasing crew embarks on their main mission, they make a pit stop at a diner. Stepping away from the others, Bill looks to the horizon where the clouds are gathering. He picks up some dirt in his hand and lets it slowly fall. He observes the way the wind moves it. Somehow this will give him the knowledge he needs to make a wise move. Like a Native American of old, reading the signs of the natural world, Bill looks to nature to understand nature. It’s a silent standoff with the coming storm. Then, because Bill is the best, he makes his decision to move and everyone follows. This is the best scene in the movie. Dusty shares a story later in the film in which he identifies Bill as “the extreme.” He’s the craziest storm chaser there is. But he’s also the one who has a special connection with the weather. They are both wild and unpredictable. Bill gets it.
This is my favorite moment in Twister.
Now watch this Youtube video that takes the intro to Twister the Ride at Universal Studios and makes it even more hilarious.
There’s this idea that’s been floating around our society for some time now that Keanu Reeves is a bad actor. I’d be lying if I told you that I haven’t participated in the propagation of this belief. After all, outside of a Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Award for best actor in his role as Neo in The Matrix, Keanu hasn’t received much of any recognition from the Hollywood establishment. He hasn’t had a Sandra Bullock or Matthew McConaughey-esque turnaround. There’s no Keanu equivalent to The Blindside or Dallas Buyers Club, at least not yet. Some might claim that he gets by on his looks, and similar to an incompetent politician or Miley Cyrus, remains employed due to name recognition. As the Oracle says in The Matrix, “You’re cuter than I thought. I can see why she likes you.” Only, replace “she” with the moviegoers of the world. But is that the end of the matter? Is Keanu Reeves in movies despite his acting chops, or are we missing something? What if there was something brilliant about this man that we’ve overlooked? Allow me to present a case for the misunderstood brilliance of Keanu Reeves. Whoa!
As a fan of the Zelda video game series it didn’t take long for me to question why the main character, Link, never (almost never) says a word. You play through 30+ hours with the same character and never get his input about the unfolding events. This is certainly odd, but upon analysis it’s actually quite ingenious. As you’re accompanying the hero on his quest you are allowed to imprint yourself onto his character. What might appear to some as a hollow shell is actually a ready vessel through which we can fill our own selves. In the same way, this most common critique of Keanu, that he’s a hollow shell of an actor, is actually a trait pointing to his brilliance. Stories of all kinds are meant to connect with an audience, and that is achieved through suspension of belief by way of approachable heroes. In other words, since we are ultimately reading ourselves into these stories (because what’s more interesting than yourself?) it is more readily achieved in a soft-spoken everyman persona, primed for relatability.
On the same note, Keanu’s “hollowness” and what some might deem as a lack of charisma is perfectly centered to connect with the maximum number of moviegoers. Let me explain using this professional scale.
Imagine that this scale measures two extremes of personality. The closer you get to 10, the more positive and cheerful you become. The closer you get to 0, the more negative and depressed you become. Now suppose that between these two extremes are the 7 billion people in the world today. Which number do you think is the closest to the majority of people? I’d say it is 5. Not only is it right in the middle, it’s the perfect balance between 2 extremes. Keanu Reeves is a 5, able to reach the multitudes.
The final way Keanu has showcased his brilliance is through the art of lowered expectations. By not peaking early in his career, or amassing a pile of accolades, he has left us vulnerable to the shock and awe effect of receiving a performance greater than mediocre. Like a lioness humbling herself in the grass, Keanu Reeves is waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting world. One great performance will bring down the gazelle of unfavorable public opinion.
As I eagerly await the release of Keanu’s next film, John Wick, I hope that the world will finally understand the genius of his craft. He isn’t a bad actor who got a few lucky breaks. He’s a brilliant actor, perfectly positioned to impact the greatest number of people by exceeding their diminished expectations.
In honor of the greatness that is How to Train Your Dragon 2 I’ve decided to make a list of my top 5 favorite animated films. As a qualifier let me say that I have not chosen these because I believe them to be the best animated films of all time. No, I’ve chosen these 5 as my favorites. Do I think they’re well made? Of course, but I’m not going to argue that they’re the finest artistic masterpieces ever produced. There are no Hayao Miyazaki films to be found here. So let’s begin.
#5 Monsters Inc.
This makes the list for the originality of its premise. The concept of monsters harvesting the screams of children for energy is brilliant, and the twist at the end is even better. It’s a simple message, that love and joy are ultimately more powerful than fear and despair, but wrapping such a profound truth in such a funny and interesting package makes it hit home. The relationship between the little girl Boo, and Sully, the “scariest” monster in the world, offers a lesson in the power of contrasts. There’s humor in how frightened a big monster is in the presence of a small child, and there is meaning in the fact that the small child’s effortless laughter is more powerful than all the screams the big monster could force. It’s original, funny, and touching. Also, I have a soft spot for Billy Crystal that probably came from watching the Oscars as a kid.
#4 How to Train Your Dragon 2
I know it’s rather soon to put this movie on a top 5 list, but let me explain my reasoning. I would have placed the original on this list, and in the #4 spot, but the sequel is better than the original. The characters are more developed and the world feels larger with more possibilities. The core relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is tested past the breaking point and then reinforced ten fold. When I find myself caring more for these animated characters than any live action characters I’ve seen in a long time, that tells me I’m watching something good. It’s moving, exciting, and full of lessons about life and family and sacrifice and human nature. I recommend it to everyone with a beating heart.
#3 The Lion King
When I was a kid they were pumping out Disney animated feature films that became instant classics. The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty & the Beast etc were in regular VHS circulation in my house. But really, and I mean really now, can we all agree that The Lion King is the best of these? It’s based directly on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, after all. I’m fairly certain that an entire park at Disney World wouldn’t exist without this movie. It’s epic, it’s funny, it has the best sidekicks and memorable songs. Also, Ferris Bueller is in it.
#2 Toy Story 3
The original Toy Story is an all-time classic. I remember going to Burger King immediately after seeing it and getting a Whopper Jr. and a Woody doll. Anyway, we should all be on the same page when it comes to the goodness and significance of the first Toy Story. The immediate sequel wasn’t all that great, in my opinion. Jesse the Cowgirl was a little whiny and melodramatic, that penguin was a jerk, and the heart just wasn’t there as the plot wrestled with abandonment issues. Toy Story 3 turned that around in a big way. Instead of being about abandonment, this one tackled the issue of letting go even before that Frozen song got stuck in your head forever. If Toy Story 2 asked the questions, “Does the master care about me and does life have a purpose?”, Toy Story 3 answered, “Yes of course the master cares, but that purpose involves painful self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.” You see, that evil bear couldn’t let go. He couldn’t forgive and move on so he got strapped to a garbage truck. The other toys recognized that their master loved them and that he had a purpose in leaving them with the little girl. This is all profound stuff about the nature of existence and I love it.
#1 The Iron Giant
Heart, heart, heart! This is about identity and purpose. The Giant was clearly created as a weapon by some aliens far away. He happened to find a boy who taught him that he could be a good guy, and not just a gun that kills. Violence begets violence but love saves the day. The characters are real and funny. The Giant is a reflection of the battle within each of our souls. “You are who you choose to be.” Will we destroy ourselves out of fear and give into our baser instincts of self-preservation? Or will we choose something greater than ourselves, and enrich the lives around us? The Giant makes his choice and it gets me every time.
The Brave Little Toaster
The Land Before Time
Have you ever heard a politician accuse someone of being, “on the wrong side of history”? It’s a figure of speech, a cliché, that is meant to label an opponent as backward or ignorant in the face of inevitable social change. In other words, the passage of time will vindicate the views of the one and prove that the other was an enemy of progress. Since we recently marked the day in which Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross, and since today is the day we celebrate his resurrection, I thought it would be appropriate to ask the question, “Was Jesus on the wrong side of history?” After all, we’ve had 2,000 years to consider the question.
At the time of his crucifixion, Jesus lost the support of everyone. Jewish religious leaders believed he was a blasphemer for comparing himself to God and threatening their power, so they tried to kill him. The Roman authorities desired to keep their subjects in check, so killing this instigator of the people and enemy of the Jewish authorities made sense. Even Jesus’ closest followers scattered in those dark hours. The one who was meant to be Christ’s rock-solid representative, Peter, verbally declared that he had never known Jesus on three occasions. But far more damning than the loss of his people, had to have been the loss of God, his father.
The night before his crucifixion, Jesus asked God, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) The cup he’s referring to is his horrific death. It’s a death that Jesus saw coming because the prophets of old foretold it. Isaiah, who lived 600 years before Christ came, wrote, “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God,stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions,he was crushed for our iniquities…he was led like a lamb to the slaughter.” (Isaiah 53:4-5,7) King David wrote 1,000 years before Jesus was born, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?…All who see me mock me;they hurl insults, shaking their heads.“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,“let the Lord rescue him.“…a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet” (Psalm 22: 1,7,8,16) Jesus understood that these prophecies referred to him. God declared the nature of his son’s death centuries before he ever walked the earth.
According to the Bible, Jesus was on the right side of history even when everyone forsook him as he experienced an excruciating death. In the hour of his death it must have seemed to the world that Jesus had made some tragic mistake, or perhaps he had done something terrible to deserve the judgement of God (like if he had been claiming to be God’s son if it weren’t true). But looking back, and looking through the pages of the Bible, it’s clear that this was all part of God’s plan to save his people. Isaiah the prophet even declares that it was God’s will to crush him. It was God’s will to sacrifice his beloved son to save us out of love. (Why this is so is for another blog post)
His resurrection three days later, his ascension into Heaven, and the subsequent spread of his church all strongly favor the idea that Jesus was on the right side of progress and an unmatched force for social change. But this all hinges on the truth of his resurrection. Anyone can die, but who can rise again?
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 1 Corinthians 15: 14-19
Paul is saying, essentially, that if Jesus is still dead, he was a pitiful fool, and so are we. Christ would be on the wrong side of history and so would all of his followers.
In the final analysis, the answer to the question of whether Jesus falls on the right or wrong side of history rests entirely on the reality of his resurrection. If he did in fact rise from the dead, we can trust all of his claims about being the son of God and the exclusive savior of mankind. But if he died on the cross and stayed dead, we must dismiss him entirely and judge him as an enemy of progress. The basis of his whole teaching is that he can save people from their sins. If he can’t even save himself, how can he save anyone else? If the crucifixion killed God incarnate, God incarnate rose from the dead in three days. If the crucifixion killed a delusional yet well-intentioned man, a delusional yet well-intentioned man is dust and ashes. It’s one or the other. History knows no neutrality.
Jesus once asked two blind men, “Do you believe that I am able do this?” He asked them if they believed he had the authority and power to restore life to their eyes: if he had power over death and decay.
Today, on Easter Sunday, I join them in saying, “Yes, Lord!”
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. – Proverbs 13:12
You need to see It’s A Wonderful Life and you need to see it immediately. It’s difficult for me to understand how an American citizen can successfully dodge this most classic of films. What heroic lengths one must go to avoid their television during the Christmas season. This is a film that receives near universal praise from the viewing public, and is a staple of the American Christmas tradition. Every year, NBC ritualistically plays It’s A Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve night to be shared by all in the land. If you haven’t seen it, do so at your nearest convenience and don’t bother reading any further.
Today I’m writing to my old Building & Loan pals about a subject that I personally haven’t seen addressed in my perusing of internet articles and discussion boards. Everyone knows that George Bailey wanted to leave Bedford Falls to see the world. Walking home after the high school dance George says to Mary:
I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…
Of course, we know that George never does any of those things. And as far as we’re told, George never even leaves town. It’s like he’s living his own version of The Truman Show where forces have worked to keep him from stepping foot outside the borders of his little bubble. A man with strong desires to move up and out from his place of origin is destined to stay put indefinitely. How can this be? If George Bailey wants out so badly, what’s preventing him from getting his wish? Time and time again he has an opportunity to leave, but extenuating circumstances seem to beat him back like a pebble getting pushed onto shore by relentless crashing waves. Poor George, right? Well, maybe not. And that is what I want to talk about. Did George Bailey have to stay in Bedford Falls, and what do his actions reveal about the deeper desires of his heart?
The way I see it, there are 7 critical moments where George could have chosen a different path, allowing him to leave town to pursue his dreams. I’ll cover them quickly for you.
- Pa Bailey’s Death: When George’s father dies he chooses to forgo a trip to Europe in favor of taking care of his father’s business.
- Potter Moves to Dissolve the Building & Loan: Mr. Potter tries to convince the board that Bedford Falls no longer needs the B&L. George gives an impassioned speech about his father’s character and the reasons why his fellow citizens need the B&L to continue. The board decides that if George stays on they will keep the business alive. George chooses to give up college and lets his brother Harry go in his stead.
- Harry Gets Married & Breaks His Promise: When Harry returns from college, George learns that he has a wife and a new career. Unfortunately, the plan was that Harry would take over for George, giving him the chance to get an education and leave Bedford Falls. George chooses not to make a fuss and, though we don’t see the exchange, it appears that he doesn’t hold Harry to his original agreement.
- The Ground Floor in Plastics: This one is easily overshadowed by the loving embrace that follows, but when Sam Wainwright offers George an opportunity to get in on plastics, he effectively misses an opportunity to make a fortune. Sam even acknowledges that George turned him down in a later scene for the sake of sticking by the B&L.
- George Marries Mary: Now, this might be somewhat controversial for lovers of the film, but I see George’s marriage as another choice that results in him staying in town. Consider how fiercely he tries to resist his attraction to her. He knows that marrying Mary is another tie to Bedford Falls and another step away from the free life he wanted to live.
- The Bank Run: During the Great Depression, the citizens of Bedford Falls panic and rush to the bank to withdraw their funds. Those who have money at the B&L want George to give them everything they have, but George reminds them that it doesn’t work that way. He sacrifices his honeymoon and $2,000 of his own money to keep the B&L open. He could have ignored it all and went on his honeymoon, or he could have let the B&L collapse. But he fought to keep it open, choosing to stay tied down to it.
- Potter Offers George A Job: If you can’t beat ’em join ’em. Mr. Potter realizes that he would be better off paying George Bailey a fortune (about $300,000 a year in today’s money) than competing with him any longer. George quickly realizes that he can’t accept this deal with the Devil and storms out of the building. He chooses to stay with the B&L, giving up his last chance to be a rich world traveler.
You could look at all of these things as external factors that prevent George from pursuing his dreams, but at the end of the day it’s critical to realize that George made a choice at every critical juncture. If he wanted to get out more than anything else he would have left to visit Europe after attending his father’s funeral. Even if he stayed a while, he could have let the board dissolve the B&L. He could have fought with Harry to keep him in Bedford Falls, and so on and so forth. Yet, George Bailey stays in a town he wants to leave and works at a job that robs him of his dreams. There must be something greater below the surface.
Above all else, George Bailey is driven by the love he has for his father. Consider every major choice he makes. Every choice he makes reflects a desire to uphold his father’s “high ideals” and image. His whole life plays out in his shadow. He has the same job, co-workers, passion to serve his community, and even the same enemy in Mr. Potter. George wants to live his own life, but he ends up living his father’s life. He lives for his father. Before facing the frightened and angry crowd, George takes a moment to look at his father’s picture. Underneath it says, “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” This is the core belief of George’s father, and the core belief that George adopts throughout the film.
The reason George almost kills himself is that he has lived according to his father’s ideals without experiencing the gratification promised by them. George has given himself away: his dreams, his money, his pride. But when he is faced with jail-time and scandal and ruin, he looks back at a life lived for others as a complete waste. Not only has he wasted his life, he has come to believe that his father was wrong. Perhaps that terrible belief, the belief that his father was a fool who led him to a life of ruin, is what really made him want to jump into that icy water. The man who taught him right from wrong becomes unreliable. Mr. Potter, who tells George that he’s worth more dead than alive, now has more credibility. Mr. Potter tells George what he already fears, that his life of sacrifice for the benefit of others was in vain. All evidence points to the falsehood that his father now represents.
If not for divine intervention, George would have killed himself, and Mr. Potter would have viewed the whole affair as an affirmation of his warped worldview. The true turning point comes when George turns to another father for help.
Clarence, a guardian angel, is sent to show him the value of his life by giving him a glimpse of what the world would be like without him. George is brought to a point where he desperately wants to live again, and God gives George his life back, but not as it was before. All of the people that he sacrificed for, all of the hope deferred to give hope to others finally comes back in a joyous celebration of George’s worth within the community. Now it’s clear that his life was not a waste, and that his father is worthy of all the love and respect George lived to give.
Within all of us is this conflict between our desires and beliefs. George wanted to see the world and do great big things, but his beliefs about his father and the work he did caused George to deny his dreams. He served his community through the Building & Loan, all the while keeping Mr. Potter from harming the town. When it appeared that he had denied himself for no good reason, George despaired at the thought of a wasted life lived in the shadow of a fool. But the reality of God, the ultimate source of the meaning both George and his father lived for, redeemed the whole story. The focal point of George Bailey’s life is his father, and the linchpin of It’s A Wonderful Life is God the Father.
So Merry Christmas you wonderful old Building & Loan!
I haven’t written anything like this in a long time. I used to write about philosophical topics on a regular basis, and it seemed to flow naturally, but for some reason I lost that flow. Now I’m attempting to pick it up again, if just for this one post. What I’m about to write has come out of much thinking and first-hand experience. There were many factors that brought me to this realization, and I think I’ve let it stew quite long enough. I have to say, I feel like an athlete who hasn’t worked out in months, so forgive me if this reads like a torn ligament. Gee, I haven’t even really started yet.
How often have you heard of this business about relative truth? You know, the idea that there is no one absolute Truth (capital T) about life, therefore each of us is left to come up with our own truth (lower case t) based on our limited perceptions. I’ve heard it many times in my life, and I can share one instance with you now. In a college class I sat in a lecture hall with over 100 students. One day the professor asked, “Who out there believes in absolute Truth?” Of the 100 students, I counted 3 hands, including mine. Later on, during a smaller discussion class, I was asked to explain myself. I shared my beliefs about the world and God, and then I figured I got them when I said that everyone dies. Clearly it’s true that everyone dies! You’d think I would have converted the whole lot of them, but instead I ended up arguing with a girl who was offended by my truth claims. Isn’t that the way? Anyway, I want you to consider this concept and to accept that it is a real belief held by many. Maybe it’s not a fully formed belief, like a religious or political doctrine, but it appears to exist as a modern default perception about the world: at least for many. Remember, 97 out of 100 college students didn’t raise their hands.
Since the last presidential election, I have been experiencing a minor identity crisis. You see, I got pretty passionate about that election as I focused intensely on my own political perceptions about the world. I figuratively saw red, taking a steady dose of talk radio and Fox News. In the end, everyone I voted for lost and I went to bed physically ill. I had lost myself in politics, and it took crushing defeat to shake me loose again. Since then I have had to reflect on what it means to define myself as a conservative, and, more importantly, I have had to reflect on what it means to be a Christian. The experience makes me think of this scene in The Dark Knight Rises.
It’s the futile battle that I was fighting. Each punch(argument or way of reasoning) that I threw came back with greater force until I was inevitably knocked down and defeated by what had become the bane of my existence. I know this sounds very dramatic, but remember that I was so invested in politics that I literally developed a cold when Barack Obama won re-election. I perceived the world through a political lens that made it nearly impossible to see the truth of my situation. By the time I realized that I had made politics into an idol, I was flat on my back, wallowing in defeat. I found the truth, but only after I was broken.
The truth that I found came out of a more humble position. During the election cycle, I had become prideful of my “rightness” to the point where I lost sight of the truth of my folly. My folly was my obsession with politics, and particularly the faith I was misplacing in my conservative candidates. Certainly this must have been clear to those who knew me well, and I can say that at least one of my friends tried to show me the truth. Once again, I didn’t see things clearly until I was broken (humbled) by defeat.
The Bible is quite clear on this subject of pride and humility when it comes to one’s proximity to the truth. Wise King Solomon, who lived about three-thousand years ago, wrote down many proverbs that are recorded in the Bible. One of his most famous proverbs is:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:17)
This might seem like an odd thing to say, but at the heart of it is an understanding of pride and humility. To fear the Lord is to live with the perspective that you are not the highest authority in your life. Imagine if a child acted as if their parents didn’t exist. Do you see any way in which that child grows up healthy and well-adjusted? No, if a child chooses to go his or her own way, they will live with an ever-increasing pride that will blind them from any truths that don’t fit their particular desires or inflated self-image. It’s a child who views his or her parents with reverence, who acts with an understanding that they probably don’t know better than their mother or father, that learns to see the world outside of their desires. If you are your own best authority for truth, can’t you see how much harder it will be to see and accept any truth that challenges your pride? How much truth is outside of the small space between our heads? Solomon also wrote, “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” (Proverbs 21:2) The principle is simple, humility allows us to see the truth outside of ourselves, while pride keeps us stuck in ourselves, and limited to our own perceptions.
There are billions of truths (lower-case t) in the world, but there is only one Truth. What I have seen time and time again in my life is that the humble are usually much closer to Truth than the proud. The proud are slaves to themselves, and they can’t see past their own feelings and beliefs. The humble have learned, often through difficult circumstances, that they are not the greatest authority on what is true. They understand that the world is more than what they may feel, and the world is more than a canvas to be painted by their own experiences.
To apply this to politics in America, just ask yourself where you see pride. Is there pride on the far-left and the far right? is there pride in Washington? Is there pride on MSNBC and Fox News? Are people seeking to stroke their own egos by conflating faith and politics and forming an American identity based on pride? Where do you see humility? Where do you see it? Honestly, the first thing that comes to mind is Pope Francis. He has defined the beginning of his time in the Catholic Church’s highest position by going low, focusing on service and poverty. He has denied himself many of the luxuries afforded by his office in order to connect with the people. That is humility. He is closer to the Truth, isn’t he?
Finally, I will return to the example I started with The Dark Knight Rises. After Bruce Wayne is broken by Bane, he is cast into a hopeless prison and doomed to watch the destruction of his city. He builds his body and tries desperately to climb out of the prison. Each time, he ties a rope around himself and can’t make the final jump onto a ledge that would lead to freedom. Lost in a dream, Bruce sees a time in his life where he fell down a well and his father came to lift him up. His father asks, “Why do we fall, Bruce?” He wakes up in a cold sweat and receives a word from a blind man in a nearby cell. The prisoner tells Bruce that he lacks the fear necessary to make the climb. He tells him he must climb “as the child did. Without the rope. Then fear will find you again.” Fear, in this case, and when it comes to the fear of the Lord, is about having a right perspective: a humble perspective. Without humility, the climb is impossible. Without becoming like a child, and recognizing the higher authority — the Truth outside yourself — you will be weighed down by your own pride. Bruce didn’t have to listen to the blind man. Climbing without a rope is probably suicide. But he was desperate to get out, and humbled by his inability to do so. He was ready to listen, and to begin the climb of faith.
It is possible to get closer to Truth, but it only begins with the letting go of pride. Difficult circumstances can forcefully strip us of pride, but it is up to us whether that is the beginning of our humble climb or the beginning of an endless search at the bottom of the pit for any shred of our former glory. The first step toward Truth is a step down.
(The following contains Spoilers for: Man of Steel, Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness)
I’m about to say something that should be obvious to everyone. Now, when you read it I want you to keep in mind that there are plenty of obvious things in this world that people seem to forget all of the time. Things like “play fair” and “try your best” and “treat people the way you want to be treated” are pretty obvious to most of us, but how quickly we can forget them when the moment comes to put them into practice. I make this point, in all honesty, to validate the very simple statement I’m about to make. That statement is this: relatable characters matter more than anything when telling a story. Perhaps you disagree with that statement or have come up with a quick one or two exceptions to the rule (something artsy and abstract), but know that the stories I’m referring to are the ones that the general public will potentially invest themselves in. I’m talking about the stories that impact our culture and capture the hearts and minds of millions (billions).
Every summer we are exposed to a fresh batch of films. The biggest ones get to be called blockbusters. Yes, summer is open season for the movie lovers, and our game of choice is original spectacle. We want to see something new and awesome. Show me something that will fill me with awe, and give it a massive budget. I’m thinking of Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Terminator 2 (1991), Independence Day (1996), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Avengers (2012), just to name a few. These movies were loved by the people who couldn’t help but throw millions of dollars back at them. But what makes these, and many other blockbuster movies so influential in our popular culture is not their massive budgets. Big budgets can make a good movie look better, but they are powerless to transform a bad movie into a good one. It’s similar to the way technology can improve a good business, but it can’t make up for the shortcomings of a bad one. Summer blockbusters can be as loud and big as they want to be, but if the characters don’t come alive or impact us within the story, we’ll be zoning out halfway through the first explosion.
So far, in the summer 2013 blockbuster season, I’ve been largely disappointed by a lack of relatable characters. Iron Man: 3 was really the only exception, with Robert Downey Jr. playing the well-developed and deeply flawed character of Tony Stark. Director Shane Black seemed to understand the importance of character, as seen most clearly in Tony’s interactions with a scientifically gifted kid who shares the same dark and sarcastic sense of humor. In the middle of this super hero blockbuster film we watched Tony Stark talk and joke with a kid in the middle of a small town, and it was one of the more memorable parts. They were characters acting like people, and I cared because I could relate.
After Iron Man came Star Trek: Into Darkness, which was a just fine movie, but I couldn’t seem to invest in the characters beyond what I’ve already invested as a fan of the Star Trek universe. The Wrath of Kahn will remain a more significant film within our pop- culture consciousness because we enjoy the characters more. Ricardo Montalban has a certain charm to him that was lacking in Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal. And Kirk was just another non-hero with a lot of issues that made him more irritating than charming. Worst of all, when many people are killed in the end, none of the characters seem moved by the tragedy. That apparent lack of compassion makes already unappealing characters into heartless monsters, which is unfortunately a perfect transition into Man of Steel.
I’m a big fan of the character of Superman. One of my favorite films is Superman:The Movie (1978) starring Christopher Reeve. In that film we see a Superman/Clark Kent who genuinely wants to help people. He does some big things to help, like stop California from falling into the ocean, but he also does some small things. I believe it is the small things that make Reeve’s Superman so relatable. He certainly has a genuine nice guy quality to him, but beyond that he portrays a level of compassion and societal awareness in every scene. This Superman talks to authority figures with respect, and goes out of his way to help them out. He is an inspiration to people, and isn’t too important to rescue a cat out of a tree. You just feel glad to watch him be so good to people. You want to be that good. I feel good just writing about it! Anyway, I came into Man of Steel with the hope that Henry Cavill’s portrayal of the character would reflect the same heart for service and compassion for humanity. You can imagine my horror when I watched him carelessly punch villains into skyscrapers full of people and destroy property like a child knocking over his Lincoln Logs. I understand that the filmmakers were trying to make a more realistic and gritty Superman, but they sacrificed his heart to do so. Even a tiny indication that he cared about the hundreds of thousands that were dying all around him would have gone a long way for me. Instead, it’s all about him finding his identity while punching bad guys through skyscrapers, and the little people in paper houses are objects to be used as fodder for explosions. Heck, all of these people are dead or trapped in rubble, and Superman’s more concerned with making out with Lois Lane (while making some random comment about being better than humans when it comes to romance) and finding new creative ways to punch down buildings. Even with that ending where he makes a huge sacrifice to save a few people, it was too little too late. He saves people when it doesn’t interfere with punching villains into crowded areas. Every life should matter to Superman, and because this Superman showed a disregard for the sanctity of life and property, I cannot embrace him. I can’t let this character matter to me, because he doesn’t care about what matters. He’s a false Superman, in direct conflict with the character I’ve been relating to for years.
So that was my overview of what has been a mostly disappointing summer blockbuster season. I’m sure many will disagree with my analysis, but I am confident that time will reveal these films to be insignificant within our popular culture because the characters in them weren’t relatable or particularly enjoyable. It is important to mention that all of these characters that I’ve mentioned have already existed for decades, and I’m confident that plays a role in reducing their cultural impact. Superman and Captain Kirk are especially troublesome, as they are associated with specific actors who no longer play them. But hey, I don’t want to end on a negative note…
There’s still hope for this summer. Pacific Rim comes out July 12, and from what I’ve seen, this thing has the potential for some original and relatable characters with heart. If all we get are big monsters and big mechs fighting each other amidst a sea of destruction, the movie will fall flat and lose any chance for cultural resonance. But if the characters controlling the big mechs are interesting and we can find a little of ourselves in them, this summer blockbuster could become a part of the larger conversation for years.
It’s all about characters we can relate to.
End of the Line
by David Lavallee
Illustrations by Nathan King
He had been standing in line for what seemed like ages. Looking at his watch, he was reminded that it had died. Checking the time was a nervous tick, and no matter how often he looked, it would always be three thirty-three. The park was flooded with people, and their raised voices mixed inharmoniously in the scorching August air. From time to time he would attempt to eavesdrop on a nearby conversation, but it demanded too much concentration. His focus was elsewhere. The slide captured his attention.
Adamson’s Water Park attracted hoards of customers during the summer season. It housed a wave pool with an artificial white sand beach. People from all walks of life fought for a spot along the fake shore. Most days, young men and women dominated the landscape, driven by a primal need to showcase their bodies. Families and older couples retreated to the picnic tables. Circling the park, a slow-moving river carried laid-back patrons who rested on tubes. It served as an escape for anyone wishing to dodge the crowds. A number of small water slides attracted children, and anyone looking for a safe thrill. A step up from those, Adamson’s provided larger slides for the more adventurous. They each scored a seven on the ride intensity scale established by the Society of Amusement Park Standards (SAPS). But none of these rides compared to Free Fall. Free Fall scored a ten plus, which is the highest intensity rating in the world. Riders disappeared into a dark tunnel, dropping so fast that the name of the slide became terribly appropriate. It was impossible to tell where they came out on the other side. Free Fall towered over the park, casting a long shadow from entrance to exit.
“Let’s just forget it, Tom. The line’s too long. We’ve been waiting forever, and my stomach’s upset.” Mary rubbed her exposed mid-section. Tom checked his watch again. “Stop that! Why’d you even wear that thing?” Mary asked.
“I…I guess I didn’t think. Force of habit,” Tom replied. For a moment, he considered Mary’s plea to give up waiting. Just for a moment. “We’ve waited this long. The choice was made back there.” He pointed past hundreds of people. Mary scowled.
They were at least a couple of hours away, and they had already waited for one. Free Fall only allows for one rider every thirty seconds, and that is when everything operates smoothly. Some people decide in the final moment that they want to turn back, but that is not an option. Once the Point of No Return is crossed, all riders enter into a contract with the park that says they have to go down the slide. If they panic and cause a disturbance, the slide operators have the authority to force them down. The park depends on a steady flow of bodies. This is the reason minors are forbidden from Free Fall. Only adults with the power to choose for themselves are allowed to cross the final threshold.
“I don’t think I can go through with it. My stomach is really starting to turn over,” Mary said.
“I think it’s in your head. You don’t want to go down the slide. I get it. Wait until we reach the Point of No Return, and then leave if you have to.” Tom wiped the sweat from his forehead and felt the radiating burn of a distant sun. Then he looked at his watch again.
Mary often faced the accusation from Tom that she never seemed to follow anything through to completion. She always had an excuse to give up. When Tom first proposed, she claimed that she needed more time to decide. A year later, when he proposed again, she told him that she no longer believed in the institution of marriage. “Can’t we love each other without wearing shackles?” She protested. Tom heartily disagreed with her newfound philosophy. “There’s freedom in binding,” he assured her. But all she could say was, “That makes no sense!”
During the next half hour, Tom and Mary observed their surroundings. A pigeon pecked at a dropped pretzel, and Tom wondered if it was true that birds were unable to pass gas. He recalled a conversation from his youth in which another boy claimed to have fed a seagull some Alka-Seltzer. The boy stuffed it in some bait and watched the bird eat without a care. He laughed with delight to see the bird crash into the ocean, dying from the inside. Mary watched a little girl eat a strawberry ice cream cone. The ice cream dribbled down the cone and covered the girl’s hands. Why doesn’t she wipe it up? Mary thought. The girl ate, showing little concern for the sticky pink fluid that flowed down her sleeve. An old clown caught their attention when he accidentally popped a balloon animal. Neither Tom nor Mary had ever seen a clown fail at such a simple trick, and though they despised clowns, it made them feel sorry for the elderly man behind the red nose. They felt worse when his audience of captivated children began to sob. One girl screamed, “It’s dead! He killed it!” The clown fled the scene, forgetting his bag.
The couple moved closer to the Point of No Return. No one could mistake it. The park went to great lengths to ensure that their customers knew the arrangement. In bold blue letters it read, NO TURNING BACK. MUST GO FORWARD. ABSOLUTELY NO EXCEPTIONS. Along the way, they posted many smaller signs describing their ride policy. Tom read one of them aloud to Mary. “Free Fall is the most thrilling water slide in the world. Because of this, it attracts hundreds of thousands of committed riders. Adamson’s Water Park is focused on providing the most people with the most fun. We created the Point of No Return as a means to maximize fun. We understand that many would reconsider riding Free Fall once they reached the top. This would create massive delays and much disturbance, which would severely tarnish the experience of the other riders. The Point of No Return is exactly that. If you cannot commit, please consider any of our other fun water slides. If you are serious about having a good time, pass the Point of No Return and prepare to have a blast.”
“What did you eat that made your stomach upset?” Tom asked.
“Nothing but an egg and some toast. I eat it all the time,” Mary said.
“Maybe it was a bad egg. We’re only a few minutes away. Are you in or out?” Mary held her stomach. Tom moved close to her face, as if to kiss her, and whispered, “I want you to go up with me.”
Adamson’s used to station low-level employees at the threshold, but found that they were often too lenient with riders. They lacked the authority to prevent people from breaking their contract to ride. Once people had discovered that the Point of No Return was less than it claimed to be, the occurrence of disruptions skyrocketed. Free Fall experienced massive ride delays, which forced the park to get more serious. The entrance is now guarded by a park manager and a member of the security unit. Since the change, only one person has come back through the threshold: a sixty-three year old woman who dropped dead of a heart attack.
“I don’t know, I don’t think I should do this,” Mary said. Tom rolled his eyes and looked away. They were only a few paces away from the final threshold. “I really can’t.”
“And why can’t you? Is it because your stomach hurts, or because you’re afraid?” Tom asked sternly. He stood at the entrance of the Point of No Return. The two park officials looked at him, arms folded. “Just come with me!” Tom yelled.
“I can’t! Go, but I’m not. I shouldn’t,” Mary said as tears formed in her eyes.
“Sir, are you riding Free Fall, or are you turning around? You have to decide immediately,” said the park manager. Tom peered back at Mary, who now had tears streaming down her face, and then took the final step through the threshold.
“Ma’am, are you going to join him?” asked the security guard. The couple gazed at each other, separated by an impassable gulf.
“No,” Mary said. “I’m pregnant.”
Tom pressed on the gate that divided them, but it would not budge. “Mary! Mary! Why didn’t you tell me? I can’t ride this. You have to let me go!” Tom pleaded with the guards.
“Sir, you know our policy. We can’t let you through. You have no choice but to go down the slide,” said the park manager. Mary raised her hand and motioned for Tom to go. Then she held her stomach and walked away with her eyes toward the sky. Tom watched her disappear into the crowd, from behind bars. “Please, sir, I need you to move forward.”
Twenty minutes of steady upward flow left Tom alone with his thoughts, and that much closer to the top of the slide. At first, he tried looking for Mary through the barricades. All of his cares were on her, and more specifically, her news. His misconceptions about her refusal to join him had washed away in a moment of truth, leaving behind only anxiety and endless questions. But with each step up, each step nearer the mouth of Free Fall, Tom’s concerns drifted toward himself. So by the time he had spent twenty minutes on the other side of the Point of No Return, Tom had all but forgotten about the unborn.
A bald man with a muscular build stood ahead of Tom. The back of his head was red, and beads of sweat took turns trying to cool his scorched skin. Tom stared, and probably knew this man’s head better than anyone else in the world. It was something for his eyes while he waded in his emotions.
Behind Tom, a young woman whistled the tune of Oh My Darling, Clementine.
“Maybe you shouldn’t whistle that song,” Tom said.
“Excuse me?’ She replied.
“Don’t you know what happens to Clementine?” He asked.
“Who cares? Geez, if it’s bothering you, I’ll stop,” she said, with the slightest hint of sarcasm. “It’s just a tune to a song no one knows, anyway.”
“I’m sorry if I upset you. Please, keep whistling,” Tom said. The young woman shook her head.
“You kind of spoiled the mood. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We’re almost there.” She pointed past the bald man’s head and to the final stretch of the climb.
The summit of Free Fall can only be accessed by a gondola lift. Three passengers at a time are transported the remaining distance. Hovering hundreds of feet in the air, they are provided with a spectacular view of the entire park. When Tom stepped into the gondola, the heavy stench of rotten eggs assaulted him. The odor was so terrible that it nearly prevented him from imagining the cables snapping and the box dropping forever. He wondered if the water slide would smell the same.
The young woman clung to the metal bar lining the inside while the bald man knocked on the windows.
“This is it!” yelled the bald man.
“It’s almost over,” said the woman.
Tom said nothing, but thought of Mary somewhere distant.
Finally, and with a screech, the door opened. Tom’s nostrils burned.
The bald man burst out of the gondola and jumped head first into the black abyss that was Free Fall. For only a moment, the others heard his deep voice until it faded into nothing.
“That’s ill advised.” Tom hadn’t noticed the old man, or his southern twang, until he spoke. He wore an unbuttoned plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up past his elbows. A half-smoked cigar rested on his gums, and he twirled it with slender, gray fingers. His silver hair fell to his shoulders and waved in the breeze. He looked out through sunglasses that were darker than death at night, and motioned for the young woman.
“I’m having second thoughts!” She yelled. The old man blew smoke out of his nostrils and smiled from ear to ear.
“The time for chosin’ is over, little lady. Now you lay down there and that’ll be that,” said the old man.
“What if I don’t want to?” She asked.
“Well, then we have us a problem.” The old man stepped toward the young woman. “Most people want out. It’s plain old-fashioned human nature. I know it. You know it. But we’re beyond that nonsense now.”
When the young woman tried to jump back into the gondola, the doors shut and the cables took it away. Tom saw her eyes widen as she shivered and shuffled toward the entrance of Free Fall.
“That’s right. Remember, you’re supposed to enjoy this,” said the old man. He helped her get into the proper position, with arms folded across the chest. Ash fell on her forehead. She didn’t make a sound when he pushed her down.
“Alright, last of all, it’s you. Step up here, and that’ll be the end of it,” said the old man.
Tom didn’t move. He simply gazed into the old man’s crackled complexion. Deep lines crisscrossed his face, disappearing down into his sunken chest. If he wasn’t dressed like a man, Tom thought, he would be only a wrinkled thing. A great terror rippled out of his heart, filling his veins with despair and washing his mind in dread. All wrong. It’s all wrong, Tom repeated to himself. He was a child, huddled in a dark corner.
“I’m sorry. Please let me go back,” Tom said.
“Son, I don’t have the patience for this. It’s time for you to go down the slide, so let’s go,” said the old man.
“No,” Tom said breathlessly. The old man threw his cigar to the ground.
“I have all authority to throw you down this slide! Now come here!”
The old man reached out his long arms to grab Tom. Tom wrapped his hands around the old man’s wrists and tried to toss him back, but he could not resist the forward momentum. The old man wrapped his hands around Tom’s neck and opened his mouth, as if to swallow him whole. Tom desperately swiped at the old man’s sunglasses. Two empty sockets glared back at him, and the old man smiled as his grip tightened. Locked together, they both fell into the dark pit of the slide. Tom let go of the old man, and everything else, as he plummeted without ever touching the sides.
A twisted figure splashed down at the bottom. He stood up in shallow water and turned around. There he waited, a long time, for the other one to come out. Reaching blindly, he found something. It was a watch — ticking away.