Monday, May 29, 2006

Doc and Dustin

The other day, at a random impulse, I picked up the 1992 World Book Encyclopedia and flipped open to the "H's". I found a nice article, complete with picture, of Dustin Hoffman. Completely absent, however, was any entry on Doc Holliday. This, to me, says a lot about our society.

As big a fan as I am of popular culture, I confess to being a little disturbed when we hail actors as being worthy of greater mention than some of the most iconic figures of American history. There is simply no way that Dustin Hoffman, as fine an actor as he is, is anywhere near as cool as Doc Holliday. If you know a person by the praise given him or her by his or her peers, then consider this. Dustin's fellow actors hail him as the one of the finest performers of his generation, a "Jewish Deniro." Doc's fellow gun man, Wyatt Earp, called him "the most skillful gambler, and the nerviest, fastest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever saw." Case Closed. After all, how can you beat a southern gentleman DENTIST who suddenly decides he'd rather spend his days in knife fights and gun battles? (Although on second thought, I can imagine some dentists to whom that might appeal.)

Here's further evidence for your consideration: Dustin married respectable ladies named Anne and Lisa; Doc traveled with a loose woman known as "Big Nose" Kate. In I Heart Huckabees, Dustin played a man named Bernard. Doc Holliday killed people for having names like that.

In one of my earlier posts on The Da Vinci Code, I lamented the problem of people learning their history from fictional novels and films. Of course, fiction can be an accurate portrayer of historical events; however, the problem lies with people simply accepting what they are presented with at face value because they have no historical knowledge from which to assess it. They take it all in and it becomes a part of their historical framework without them knowing what is true and what is not. This results in people thinking that Mary Magdalene was actually at the Last Supper or that one of the highlights of WWII was when our boys saved Private Ryan.

Nevertheless, fiction can be a catalyst for historical investigation. In the 1990's, Hollywood produced two movies featuring Doc Holliday as a character, neither of which starred Dustin Hoffman. In the first, Tombstone, Doc was played to perfection by Val Kilmer in one of the shining moments of his career. In the second, Wyatt Earp, which came out shortly after, Dennis Quaid strapped on Doc's six-shooter. Although I love Kilmer's portrayal more, Dennis did a better job, I think, of capturing the physical look of Holliday, although it's close call (That's Doc first followed by Kilmer on the left and Quaid on the right).

After seeing these two fictionalized accounts of very real historical events, I was intrigued by the story and so checked out of the library a variety of books on Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp to learn what was fact and what was fiction in these films. Watching the two movies in close succession and comparing their differing portrayals of the same event can be very illuminating. For instance, they take very different approaches to the shootout at the OK Corral. In a sense, both capture different aspects of the event as eyewitnesses from the time gave several competing descriptions of what really happened. Although Tombstone is definitely the more Hollywoodized version, while Wyatt Earp presents the story in a seemingly more historical fashion, there were interesting moments where Tombstone was more historically accurate than the other.

Most intriguing is their portrayals of Doc Holliday. In Tombstone, Doc is played by Kilmer as a fun-loving, if fatalistic, killer, while Quaid's version is more morose. The wit remains, but it is more biting and dark. The tuberculosis, which gave Holliday his fatalistic outlook, is certainly present in Tombstone, although often under the surface, while in Quaid's portrayal it is never far from one's mind. He lost much weight for the role so that he looks like a dead man walking.

The two movies have very different sensibilities to them. They both present many of the same historical events, but Tombstone aims for a standard Hollywood blockbuster. The goal is to capture the attention of the audience and bring them along on a thrilling ride. It succeeds admirably. Wyatt Earp, by contrast, is a three-hour epic that attempts to address the topic of mythmaking. There is a scene at the end of the film where Wyatt Earp as an old man is approached by a kid who asks him about one of the famous events of his career. It is clear from the way he asks that the real event has already become colored over with the tint of legend. In short Wyatt Earp wants to show us how the man became the myth.

And that is what movies are all about. They perpetuate myth -- an important enterprise that is not to be sneezed at, but it also makes the viewer's task of distinguishing truth from legend more of a challenge. But what a fun challenge it can be.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Necessity of Fiction

I mentioned that I was going to post on Doc Holliday next, but another thought popped into my head in response to a comment left by BW on the previous post. He talks about how fiction can work its way into the reality of our lives. Yesterday I was reading a book on C. S. Lewis that was discussing his connection to G. K. Chesterton. In one of Chesterton's early writings from 1901, he discusses the role of the sort of pop culture off his day versus high literature. Chesterton makes the intriguing statement that "literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity." That thought intrigues me. Fiction, paradoxically, is a necessary force for constructing and dealing with our reality. I'll have more to say on this in the future, but for now wanted to throw that thought out there.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Entertainment or Theology?

One final post on The Da Vinci Code and then I will shut up about it -- at least until I see the movie. A recent editorial dealt with the movie's treatment of history and concluded with the comment that we really shouldn't get too worked up over the issue because, after all, the movie is entertainment, not theology. I agree that debates over the historical claims of the work should be tempered in light of its obvious fictional nature, but to claim that The Da Vinci Code is not theology is misguided. Pop culture is all about communication. Any show, film, novel, or song, no matter how seemingly banal or vacant, is preaching a message of some kind, intentional or not. Despite being fiction, this movie is doing theology (although it may be doing it poorly) and until we take seriously the fact that every work of art to some degree grows out of a philosophical or theological worldview, we will fail to engage these works appropriately. Enough ranting -- next time I plan to talk about a real meaty subject: Doc Holliday.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Orthodoxy, Heresy, and The Da Vinci Code

A recent editorial in USA Today questioned why the media obsessed about the historical accuracy of The Passion of the Christ, yet seems largely uninterested in raising the issue of the historical accuracy of The Da Vinci Code. The author of the editorial does recognize that one purports to represent a historical event while the other is a fictional story, but nonetheless suggests that there is a double standard in how the mainstream media treats topics related to Christianity. There may be a valid point here. The media has a history of criticizing films that contain an overt or positive Christian connection (The Passion, Chronicles of Narnia), while giving a pass to films which themselves are critical of Christianity.

Although many factors are involved, I want to suggest one reason for this dichotomy. In 1934, a book came out in Germany that had a revolutionary impact on the study of early Christian history: Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity by Walter Bauer. This book altered the entire landscape of the study of early Christianity by arguing that great diversity of thought existed among the early Christians and many of these ideas were in comptetition with one another. Bauer argues that the ideas that eventually won the day and crystallized into our current orthodoxy (correct doctrine) did so not because they were the most correct or truthful ideas, but simply because the people who held to those views were in the majority and possessed the most political power. They thus suppressed competing versions of Christianity, like Gnosticism, and silenced their voices.

Implicit in Bauer's book is the suggestion that these suppressed, alternate versions of Christianity need to be allowed to speak anew and, if so allowed, might in fact reveal to us deeper truths than can be found in the "official" teachings of Christianity. This idea took hold in liberal circles of Christian scholarship and led to many embracing Gnosticism and other early Christian "heresies" as more true than the teachings of the canonical Scriptures. Essentially Bauer's work led to the belief for many that traditional Christian orthodoxy is in fact heresy and that which the Church identified as heresy is in fact orthodoxy.

Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, essentially works out of this radical reinterpretation of early Christianity. Where things have taken off in mainstream culture recently is that this radical stream of Christian scholarship has dovetailed nicely with our broader cultural emphasis on tolerance of competing voices, lifestyles, etc. The idea that truth is all relative and that any form of institutionalized "truth" (as in the church) is only a matter of power and suppression has dug its roots deep in contemporary American culture. Consequently, Christianity as a whole is viewed by many as an oppressive, power-hungry institution that still seeks to silence any alternate ideas or views.

I've heard many people wonder why those in our society who push for tolerance of all viewpoints and beliefs are often so intolerant of Christianity. I believe the reason lies in their belief that orthodox Christianity is the cause of most intolerance in society -- Christians appear intolerant of other religions, of differing viewpoints, of alternative moral choices, and of alternative lifestyles. In their way of thinking, traditional Christianity must be deprived of its cultural power or else it will only continue to suppress diversity. Consequently, they seek to defend all those whose voices have been supposedly silenced by the oppression of Christianity, while simultaneously chipping away at the perceived cultural hegemony that Christianity is believed to enjoy through its ungodly exercise of political power.

If we are aware of these historical currents, the actions of today's mainstream media should come as no surprise. Of course the media will seek to undermine The Passion of the Christ because it dares to present a version of the crucifixion that is in line with the official Gospel accounts, thus perpetuating Christianity's suppresssion of alternative interpretations of the cross.

Of course the media will knowingly hint that The Chronicles of Narnia are nothing but Christian propaganda because C. S. Lewis is a torch-bearing representative of orthodox Christianity.

Of course the media will gleefully trumpet The Gospel of Judas because it represents one of those early strands of Christianity (Gnosticism) supposedly silenced by the established church and so it must now be allowed to speak loudly and clearly.

Of course the media will feed the Da Vinci Code frenzy because Dan Brown is fighting the good fight in suggesting that the church has used its political power to suppress what was really at the center of early Christianity: the sacred feminine. It is the church's characteristic oppression of women, according to Brown, that obscured the truth about Mary Magdalene.

The problem with this is not Walter Bauer's claim for the diversity of early Christianity. This was in fact one of the benefits of his work. Furthermore, acknowledging that early Christianity was very diverse in its teaching and practice should come as no surprise, since the writings of the New Testament are themselves a witness to the great diversity of thought and practice in early Christianity. In short, the church canonized diversity. The problem is Bauer's reconstruction of the development of early Christian history. Orthodox Christianity won out not because of the strength of its political position but because of the power of its beliefs.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Da Vinci Dementia

I've stayed on the sidelines during the whole Da Vinci Code furor. I haven't read the book. I will probably see the movie if only to be able to discuss it intelligently with my students and others. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by the reaction it is causing among Christians.

There seems to be great confusion over how to respond to this phenomenon. Some view Dan Brown as the pen name of Satan and would burn every book and frame of film they could get their hands on. Others counsel boycotts of the film or similar strategies designed to "send a message" to Hollywood. Still more, realizing that such "messages" rarely get through and often only serve to garner more attention for a film, suggest we just ignore the whole thing altogether. Then there are those who feel we should embrace it as an opportunity for dialogue with others about the Christian faith.

What's the best approach? I don't know. A case can be made for each option, some stronger than others. What bothers me the most about the whole ordeal is simply that this book/movie is even an issue to begin with. I don't understand people who think they are getting accurate history out of a fictional novel. From what I do know about the book, the factual and historical errors that undergird Brown's story are so blatant and obvious to anyone with a minimal knowledge of ancient history that he makes Oliver Stone look like a paragon of historical responsibility. This book/movie's claims about Christianity are so far off-base historically that it poses no threat to authentic Christian faith. Unfortunately, we live in a society in which most people consider ancient history to be synonymous with the events of the 1950's. And frankly, this historical ignorance extends as much to Christians as to others. As Keith Huey, Rochester College's church historican, has noted, most Christians don't know how the Bible was formulated or who the early Church Fathers are or what other gospels were written beyond those in our canon. For Christians, perhaps the real battle here should not be against the Da Vinci Code, but against our own apathy towards in-depth historical and theological study.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Lost Spirituality, Part 2

[SPOILER ALERT: If you have not yet seen this week's episode of Lost, be forewarned that the following comments reveal important plot points. Proceed at your own risk.]
This week's episode of Lost effectively revealed the double edge of the title. The poor souls stranded on this island are not so much lost geographically as they are lost spiritually. All of the crash survivors have dark secrets, character flaws, or difficult struggles from their past that they need either to atone for or overcome. They appear to have lost their way in some form or another.

Previous episodes have hinted at the idea that these people are on the island in order to find some measure of redemption or healing (literal or figurative as the case may be). As Sara noted in an earlier comment, it is interesting that the mysterious "Others" only kidnap those survivors who they deem to be "good" -- in whatever way they define the term.

The most recent episode made me think about the function of death on the show. I wonder if, whenever a main character dies on the show, they do so after first achieving some form of redemption. For instance, Shannon, whose primary flaw was a deep and abiding self-centeredness died shortly after genuinely learning to care for others in a selfless way. The apparent death of Ana Lucia in this past week's episode (assuming the death holds true) follows a similar pattern. Henry Gale, one of the Others, informed her earlier in the episode that one of his number saw in her the potential to become one of the "good" ones they seek. Ana Lucia's dark secret was that she had once killed a man in cold blood who had early tried to kill her. After Henry Gale attempts to kill her, she finds herself reliving the past. With a gun in her hand, she stands prepared to kill another man in cold blood in retaliation for his atttempt on her life. This time she chooses not to kill. Shortly after, she dies. I don't know if this pattern holds true for Boone (I haven't thought enough about him), but I find it intriguing food for thought.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Walden Media and the Moral Story

Keep your eye on Walden Media, an up and coming power player in the Hollywood business, as noted recently by Entertainment Weekly (America's magazine of choice). The story of this company's rise is an interesting one, and one that illustrates how many Christians fail to grasp what a "moral" story really is. In our constant attempt to wring all complexity or ambiguity out of stories, we have traditionally defined moral stories solely with reference to the amount of sex, violence, and profanity present. This despite the fact that the Bible contains sex, violence, and even vulgarities, thus demonstrating that such things can be present in the telling of "moral" stories. We have largely ignored the most central element of a "moral" story, which is the overall perspective or moral vision that the story communicates. Failing to recognize this has led to many Christians embracing shows as wholesome (due to the lack of sex, violence, and profanity) that are in fact communicating immoral messages. On the flip side, it also leads to rejecting shows with a sound moral vision because of certain undesirable content elements (Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes to mind, as I argue in my book).

Walden Media is run by a man with the awesome name of Cary Granat. Formerly, Granat was the President of Dimension Films where he produced the Scream and Scary Movie franchises. He left that company to create Walden Media, which specializes in turning great children's literature into film: Charlotte's Web, Holes, The Chronicles of Narnia. Why the change? He became disillusioned with the messages that were being communicated through his prior films. What bothered him, however, was not the sex, violence, and profanity that characterizes the Scream and Scary Movie franchises; it was the cynicism that such movies promote.

A movie may be quite pristine in content, yet loaded with cynicism or other unhealthy perspectives. Because Christians have naively equated "good" and "bad" media with either the absence or presence of sex and violence, we have missed out on much in popular culture that is beneficial and embraced much that is not.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Movie Marathon

In my college and graduate school days, a perfect weekend was getting together with a couple friends, stockpiling pizza, ice cream, and other assorted junk foods, and then settling in for a mini movie marathon. I've decided that the right length of a mini movie marathon is three movies. Anyone can do two, four is right out, and with five the nervous system begins to shut down. So three is the magic number.

However, these days I find precious few opportunities for such frivolity. Most of my movie-watching buddies now live in other states from me and having young children pretty much means that six-hour blocks of uninterrupted time are now non-existent. Yet, I often find myself getting nostalgic about such times. One such period of reminiscing led me to imagine ideal movie groupings. Typically, our movie selections for these marathons were eclectic and random, with little to no forethought involved. This often led to combinations like Face Off, JFK, and Tommy Boy, thus creating a form of cinematic whiplash. So I began to devise my own list of movie trilogies that would be fitting for juvenile movie sessions (I use "juvenile" here in the sense of lack of maturity, not lack of age).

I created a few ground rules, though. First, sequels do not count. Watching Die Hard 1, 2, and 3 lacks creativity. Second, there must be a unifying theme to the movies that has more depth or oddity to it than something like all Adam Sandler movies (not to say that such a collection would not produce a fine night indeed). I'm thinking more along the lines of comedies that involve fruit.

I'll share three of the trilogies I've devised over the years. One would be "Movies Involving the Classic Monsters from Universal Films Starring Respected Hollywood Actors in the Titular Roles." This night would kick off with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Robert Deniro), followed by Wolf (Jack Nicholson), and concluding with Bram Stoker's Dracula (Gary Oldman). My second trilogy would be "Recent B-Movies of the Horror Genre Invovling Unnaturally Large or Genetically Enhanced Creatures." This set includes Lake Placid (gargantuan crocodiles), Deep Blue Sea (gargantuan, genetically smartened sharks), and Anaconda (gargantuan, well, anacondas). My final entry in this trilogy of trilogies is "Thrillers on Air Planes Involving Deranged, Self-Absorbed Criminal Types," such as Air Force One, Flight Plan, and Red Eye. However, I suspect that in the near future I will need to substitute Air Force One with a new cinematic tour de force coming this August to a theater near you: Snakes On a Plane. In fact, if the filmmaker could see fit to make these gargantuan, genetically-smartened snakes on a plane, I could neatly overlap two of my categories.

Now I only need to find some new buddies to watch them with.