You wouldn’t hit a man with glasses would ya?
No, of course not. I’d hit him with a bat.
In our culture of frivolity it is tempting for Christians to think that solemnity should be our defining attribute. The coarseness of the world impedes us from enjoying any sort of sexual or bodily function jokes because we do not want to be guilty of approving that which is sinful. Even though we know that the bed is undefiled and the body is good, and are therefore free to enjoy those aspects of life in humor, we are stunted in our ability to appreciate them due to the folly and poor taste of our age.
So while we are not to be characterized by coarse jesting, we must learn to distinguish jokes that laud wickedness (the ribaldry forbidden in Ephesians) from those jokes that merely highlight the glorious and comedic world. We cannot merely clam up and play it safe, throwing out the good jokes with the bad. If we are to be characterized by joy then we must be be leaders in laughter, but Humor is not a tame lion. It is invasive, subversive and mysterious. It is hard to determine where it is anchored, whether it mocks or praises, and what it is standing with or against. For this reason many hedge their laughter, guard their mirth like an untrustworthy servant. There is a temerity that would rather not laugh at something funny than to laugh at something sinful. So how can we train our minds to laugh wisely?
First, we must recognize sinful humor, and the way you recognize something is to see it. We should not object to sinful humor in our movies because we do not object to sinners in our movies. The fool gets a lot of screentime in the Bible. These negative examples are valuable. Certainly care for the young must be considered, but this is one of the great strengths of watching films or reading stories with children is the ability to demonstrate spurning foolish talk to them. While we would practice discernment in exposing impressionable minds to the coarseness of the world, there is a time and place to include them in this exercise. It is difficult to resist profane talk in public surrounded by peers, but all the more so if one hasn’t exercised that ability at home.
So the first step is to not shy away from movies or stories that includes sinful humor, humor that assaults righteousness and spurns God. Obviously a full diet of such fare would be unhealthy. The body would be beaten to pieces if someone jogs all day long or muscles would tear if weights are lifted everyday. Engaging doubt is an important role in the Christian life, but to exist solely in doubt would be deadly. In the same way, exercising our resistance to evil should be brief, intense and with an experienced counsellor.
Comedy is tricky, protean, and often what is discovered when we examine it is that our first impression is wrong. Comedy is a mirror, but it is a convex mirror. Consider the joke of Bart Simpson’s prayer: “God, we paid for all this ourselves so thanks for nothing.” Perhaps on first blush you were offended, as I was. On the surface it seems to being arrogantly dismissive to God, but consider: 1) Bart is not presented as a rolemodel 2) Bart didn’t pay for that food and is therefore revealed as an ingrate, and most importantly 3) it is a joke and is therefore meant to be funny. That last point might seem tautological, but if it was true that we do not owe God thanks since we pay for food ourselves then it would be a fact and therefore not funny. If the joke was intended to mean there is no god or that we do not owe him gratitude then it is an absolute failure. If there is no god then you do not address him. A recitation of facts isn’t funny. However, if there is a God then as the creator and sustainer of all he is owed gratitude and such a blithe and ignorant attitude is funny; to laugh at it is to affirm the world of a creative and generous God.
To laugh at a joke is not a blanket approval of every element within it. Consider the joke that begins this article. To laugh at it is not to praise the hitting of people with bats, but is acknowledging the wordplay. Laughter can be inspired by absurdity, surprise, agreement, mockery, bitterness, sadness, fear and anger. The key is to train ourselves to laugh in gratitude and to reflect on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent and praiseworthy even when the mode of expression is crude.
Secondly, since we are the joyous people we should not suppress our laughter for fear of abusing it. Part of the charge against Israel was that they did not serve the Lord with joyfulness and gladness of heart (Deut. 28:47). What does it matter that a man laughs at no wickedness and yet does not serve the Lord with joy? We cannot bury the talent of our laughter simply because the master is a hard man. Once we’ve grappled with the fool’s mouth and honed our sense of the obscene, then we may be free to laugh in order to learn. Humor is supra-intellectual and difficult to parse, therefore it is important to laugh first, to stake a claim in its world, and then to unpack it. This is not a careless “laugh and let God sort it out” mindset, but an acknowledgement that words often are food that must be tasted before they can be understood. To ponder a joke from a distance is to think a casserole can be judged by its selfies. Plus to invest yourself in something gives you footing to think through it.
Penny Marshall’s 1988 comedy Big is about a boy who wishes he were grown up and the next morning wakes up as Tom Hanks. He is forced to run away, lest his parents discover a stranger in their house, he finds a job and, in the parlance of the day, hijinx ensue. In the scene depicted above Hanks is on a date and Susan, the woman, is expecting a far more lascivious encounter than what she gets. The humor of the situation is that they are both using similar words, but in very different ways. Her understanding of what it means to “be on top” flies in the face of his innocence. Certainly someone could delight in this joke for the illicit sex, just like someone can abuse anything, but to truly submit to the joke is to be delighted in the subversion of wickedness. Surprised by innocence, like the woman at the well in the Gospel of John looking for a temporary husband and finding the eternal husband, we are delighted when Susan’s expectations are turned pure. The final punchline is only funny if we are relieved that Josh and Susan avoided sin. If someone was enjoying evil then the sight of them in separate beds would be disappointing. So whether they love righteousness or not, their laughter turns them toward the affirmation of purity.
In researching for this article I found that the root meaning of Bawdy is Joyous. The shift in meaning from Joyous to Lewd is easy to trace. In old French Baudie (elation, high spirits) was connected to Fole Baudie to mean Shamelessness. Fole is from Follis meaning Mad. Therefore bawdiness in the modern sense is Mad Joy, which is perfectly emblematic of those who delight in cruel humor, who chortle over filthiness and corruption. Too often our conscience is warped and we exhibit the same mirthlessness as the bawdy, but His laughter is easy and his burden is light.
You get good at what you practice. If you practice not laughing because you are fearful of illicit jokes then you get good at not laughing. If, however, you laugh and combine that with a pursuit of righteousness, then you get good at laughing and better at discerning those things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good reputation, virtuous and praiseworthy.
Furthermore, there is something prideful about refraining from laughter until you’ve given your intellectual stamp of approval. Take yourself less seriously. Admit that joy is better than your solemnity and laugh. For while it might be true that the master is a hard man, he also reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he did not seed. While the joke might have been intended for evil, God has subverted their humor. The one who rules in heaven laughs. God upturns the wicked and though they may seek to deride him, they are often found flipped into the dunghill of their own attempts.
I’m not a fan of rating movies on a ten point scale, but my writing for the FilmFisher webside requires it as well as the film journal site I’m using (Letterboxd) so for the sake of consistency I’m going to use the below scale:
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (10) : Perfect
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2 (9) : Brilliant
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (8) : Full of Depth
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2 (7) : Enjoyed with some Depth
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (6) : Enjoyed
⭐ ⭐ 1/2 (5) : Enjoyed but Flawed
⭐ ⭐ (4) : Okay, I guess
⭐ 1/2 (3) : Not good
⭐ (2) : Terrible
1/2 (1) : Hate and Terrible
The end of this poem is fairly confounding and each translation I’ve seen is different, but here’s my rendering:
Once I was as tender as young wheat,
but you, O Wild One, were able to
rouse the heart held out to you,
so now it’s boiling like a lion’s heart.
What a mouth commanded you in me;
at that time, I was hardly a boy:
it was a wound: now it bleeds
year by year disastrously.
Each day I rang with new needs
which you devised, Ravener,
but they could not deaden my mouth;
see to it, how you will quench it
when we, who grind and wreck,
are lost and scattered far
and are passed by danger:
for then amidst the ruin
finally I’ll hear my voice again
which from the beginning was a roar.
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Remy Wilkins
For comparison, here’s Edward Snow’s translation:
Once I was as tender as young wheat,
yet you, you raging one, were able
to inflame the heart held out to you
so that now it boils like a lion’s.
What a mouth you demanded of me,
back then when I was almost a boy;
it became a wound; out of it now
bleeds year after doom-pronounced year.
Each day I sounded with new afflictions
which you, insatiate one, devised,
and none of them could kill my mouth;
consider now how you will quiet it
when those we devastate and crush
are finally lost and driven far away
and have perished in the danger:
for I want then amidst the rubble-heaps
finally to hear my own voice again —
which from its first moments was a howling.
- Any movie viewed this year that I haven’t seen before qualifies for the list.
- I do twelve top movies. Consider it cinema calendrics.
- I never agree with my rankings three months down the road, but this list is at least a first impression ranking.
1. Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)
Plenty of films show the difficulty of marriage, but few depict such a tenacious fight for the life of a marriage, particularly one stricken with such legitimate and longstanding problems. A charming and vital film.
2. All Is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor)
In this minimalist tale, a man’s arrogance is stripped away and he is driven to repentance. J.C. Chandor is a superstar in the making. Read my in depth analysis and comparison with Cast Away at the FilmFisher.
3. 12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)
A devastating film that will grind you to dust. As Solomon Northup’s situation deteriorated I found myself also bargaining away my dignities as they were stripped from him.
4. Enemy/Prisoners (2014, Denis Villeneuve)
Both films, by Denis Villeneuve, are topsy-turvy morality tales, bleak and challenging. Each in their own way they question identity while highlighting wrongs and ambiguities. Here is my full review of Enemy.
5. Locke (2014, Steven Knight)
It doesn’t seem possible that a man driving around for 85 minutes talking on the phone would be a compelling and dramatic film, but that would mistake Tom Hardy for a mere mortal.
6. Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)
In an industry driven by spectacle and special effects it is a marvel that the most impressive feat this year is watching actor Ellar Coltrane age twelve years over the course of the film. Touching as much as it is depressing, but a stark call to love your loved ones. Here’s my full review.
7. Beyond the Hills (2013, Cristian Mungiu)
Cristian Mungiu is a crafty director and once again he’s proved himself too subtle for the critics. A movie about faith, calling for higher faith while eviscerating modern society.
8. Like Father, Like Son (2014, Hirokazu Koreeda)
Childlikeness is the forte of Koreeda and he once again nails the plight and delight of parenthood.
9. Le Passe (2013, Asghar Farhadi)
The Past continues Farhadi’s exploration of broken marriages. A Separation showed the dissolution, The Past shows the fallout. Here’s hoping he makes a third film showing reunion.
10. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Steven Spielberg)
Richard Dreyfuss is a revelation. A unique alien film and the origin story of J.J. Abram.
11. Under the Skin (2014, Jonathan Glazer)
An alien invasion film crossed with the Book of Proverbs. Do not let your heart turn to her ways or stray into her paths. Many are the victims she has brought down.
12. Noah (2014, Darren Aronofsky)
More original screenplay than adaption of the Flood narrative, but one that is exciting and bizarre and rich.
My Wife’s (rapidly composed)
- She did not watch all of the movies on my list.
- She did not obsess or agonize about order hardly at all.
- Grand Hotel Budapest
- 12 Years a Slave
- Under the Skin
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Cafe de Flore
- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
- All Is Lost
- Beyond the Hills
- Before Midnight
Encountering a double, or doppelganger, is an ancient fear with long literary credentials. There’s something primeval about it, the pagan myths are replete with twins, both evil and otherwise, and the Bible has some very famous twins of its own (Jacob and Esau being the primary example), but perhaps the one that connects most readily to the ancient fear of duplicity, two-faced and double-tongue-edness, is the redoubtable Thomas. The Apostle, whose name means Twin and whose surname, Didymus, means Double, was famous for his doubting that the risen Jesus was who he said he was and not just a lying two-timer.
Enemy, directed by Denis Villeneuve and adapted from José Saramago’s novel The Double by Javier Gullón, deals with just this horror. Denis Villeneuve had an industrious year last year, releasing Prisoners and Enemy, both starring Jake Gyllenhaal, two the the darkest and most unsettling films of the year by far. Enemy, shot in sickly yellows and organ-failure browns, feels as if the whole movie is a fever dream induced by cirrhosis of the liver. By titling it Enemy instead of The Double he puts the audience on its toes, beginning with a brooding tension.
On the surface it is about someone who discovers a man that looks just like him (both played by Gyllenhaal). He stalks him, they meet, and then their lives are entwined further and more sinisterly. It is a taut and puzzling film and one that requires spoilers to be unwound, but the fun of it is lost if spoilt, so please read responsibly.
The film begins with Gyllenhaal’s character in some perverse underground sex-show. Lechers are enjoying the lewdness of a woman on a stage and then a silver tray is brought out. Beneath its dome is a fat spider. As the spider crawls off the platter a woman wearing heels holds her foot over its prodigious abdomen. The lechers hush, the drama seems unbearable, some attempt to avert their eyes, others gather their fingers in a mask, but watch with bated breath. A jumpcut takes us to the bedroom of a pregnant woman, her own tremendousness echoing the abdomen of the spider. Thus the film connects spiders and women, both dangerous and alluring, mothering and throttling. This connection is developed through spirally cracked windshields, crisscross weblike wires, visions of skyscraping arachnids lumbering past buildings and the proverbial tangled web woven by the men in order to keep their women in the dark.
The film then moves on to introduce Adam Bell, a history professor pronouncing upon totalitarianism to a class full docile students. He returns to his lonely apartment and has lonely sex with his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). His days elide without import, each day looking like the last until a co-worker recommends a film. In the background, caught initially by his subconscious, is the man who looks like him. After some deft googling he finds that the actor’s name is Anthony Claire. Further stalking reveals that Anthony is married and expecting a child. Adam calls Anthony’s home and they agree to meet, but their similitude is so unnerving to Adam that he attempts to cut off all connection to Anthony. The Anthony coerces Adam into allowing a more perverse blending of their lives, which causes Adam to find his own weak method of revenge.
Villeneuve tantalizes his audience with all the pieces, but is so confoundingly elliptic that many have walked away with all manner of interpretations, my favorite oddball analysis being that it is a subtle retelling of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. The movie begins with a quote: “Chaos is order yet undeciphered” and the undeciphering can only come at the end when the terror of his mistreatment of the women is made real to Adam.
Adam, far from being the innocent party swept up in a twin-faced deceit, is the architect of the suffering and exploitation of two women. He is not a man so curiously similar to another man that they align in scars, freckles and birthdays, he is a guilt-stricken man of two minds.
Earlier Anthony’s wife (Sarah Gadon) accuses him of “seeing her again” and later Adam’s mother references his difficulties to fidelity as well. Adam’s mother also tells him that he has a good job and to stop chasing a career as a bit actor; a job, we find out, that Anthony hasn’t worked at in six months, the amount of time his wife has been pregnant. Their characters are conflated so deftly that the subconscious is the first to catch it and the higher mind left grasping for aliens.
Villeneuve describes the story as simple saying that it is about “a man leaving his mistress to go back to his wife.” But as Adam says to his class, “History repeats itself twice. The first time is a tragedy, the second time is a farce.” At the end Adam acquires the key to the next gathering of the den of lechery. He palms it, his eyes alight in wickedness, and we see that though he has gained/regained a wife, like a dog returning to vomit, he ingests the temptation again.
Jake Gyllenhaal is outstanding in the bifurcation of Adam/Anthony. Coloring Adam with a temerity and giving Anthony a slight heft without resorting to overwrought markers signalling their characters. And Sarah Gadon is perfect as the forlorn wife, suspicious, confused and frightened by the changes in her husband. Denis Villeneuve has established himself as a director to pay attention to:Prisoners is a wicked little movie, an Ahab crying in the wilderness, and Enemy is a careful depiction (and condemnation) of the madness and destruction of immorality.
I occasionally write about or review films for Film Fisher. Here is a list of all that I’ve written so far:
Boyhood is one of the most highly reviewed film this year. Enemy and To the Wonder are two difficult films and in my reviews I tried to put away some common misunderstandings. Million Dollar Arm reveals a troubling aspect of American films. Marvel doesn’t think Captain America is interesting and that’s a pity. Wall-E is my favorite Pixar film. Nebraska is entertaining. Dallas Buyers Club fails entirely. The Truman Show is a modern classic. Junebug is a little known gem. I manage to talk about what I like about Woody Allen in my review of Blue Jasmine.
Gattaca is one of the most rigorously envisioned futures of all time. Aaron Sorkin is really good at dialogue and David Fincher is a talented director. The Rodeo appears three times in Dallas Buyers Club and it says something different each time. 24 Questions are helpful exercises for film clubs in studying and understanding films.
“One day many years ago a man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean on a cold sunless shore and said, ‘we need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships; I’ll make one. I’ll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was; I’ll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and hearths will seem warmer, and being inside will seem better to all who hear it in the distant towns. I’ll make me a sound and an apparatus and they’ll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.’”
“I’m a rodeo!”
Every movie tells its story using symbols. At the very least a movie will invoke cultural symbols and tropes, but a more attentive filmmaker will build new symbols specifically tailored to the story through repetition. These symbols embody the underlying themes of a movie and will shape the attentive viewer to subtle shifts while giving weight to the narrative. To simplify: a symbol is any word, phrase, event or object that gains meaning through repetition. One ready example are the names in Inception: there is a theme of mazes, spiderwebs, weaving and dreams hinted at in the names of Ariadne (mistress of the labyrinth), Cobb (meaning spider, hence cobweb), Saito (Japanese for Website), and Yusef (see Joseph the Dream Interpreter of the Bible). Any time an object reappears or an event or expression is repeated this is a clue to the viewer to pay attention.
In the Oscar nominated film Dallas Buyers Club, written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, the rodeo reappears three times and the protagonist of the film, Ron Woodroof, identifies himself with the rodeo lifestyle. There is some narrative signalling here, since the rodeo bookends the film as well as appears midway through, that requires examination.
The movie begins in medias rodeo, seeing a cowboy flailing atop a bull and hearing the roar of the crowd and the gutturals of illicit sex. Looking through the slats of a bull stall, as the rider is roughly tossed to the dirt, we see a grunting and heaving Ron Woodroof in carnal throes. There is a ringing in the air. Another woman snorts a line of coke and exchanges places with Woodroof’s partner, the animal thrusting resumes and the thrown rider gets stomped by the bull. The ringing grows louder. In the ring we see the cowboy dragged off by the rodeo clowns. Woodroof gasps and staggers, he braces himself. Something is wrong.