Movie review: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

I bought the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for one reason: the movie celebrates the city of Chicago. Other members of my family do not approve—not that they don’t love Chicago, but because they are involved in education. The depiction of high school, and especially of teachers and administrators, in the movie is insulting, no doubt. All the same, the movie is widely regarded as a reminder to enjoy life, to seize the day, and to make one’s life worth living.

Like many other John Hughes movies, Ferris Bueller involves high school students who are confronted with an adult world that they neither understand nor respect. Set in the 1980s (the time period in which these movies were made), Hughes’ work can be regarded as commentary upon the Baby Boomers, a generation that questioned authority and made their own rules in the 1960s, only to become every bit as rigid and authoritarian when they rose to positions of power. The youngsters in Hughes’ stories are not taking to the streets to protest, nor are they seeking Flower Power. In many ways they are conformists, even though they quietly resent the lives they are forced to live. Generally wealthy, well-dressed, even pampered, they lack a loving connection to their parents. As a result, they form their own tribal culture which grants them an identity which comes from themselves and not from the adults who make all the rules.

Ferris Bueller is supposed to be a likeable character. Even the school secretary reports that most students in the school like and admire Ferris—“They say he’s a righteous dude.” But Ferris is dishonest, manipulative, conniving, self-centered, and smug. Some reviewers have labeled him a psychopath. He breaks into the school’s computer system and changes his attendance record—probably also his grades, although that is not shown. He sets up an elaborate system of props and sound effects to cover his absence from his bedroom, should anyone check on him. He faces the camera and speaks to the audience (which is hardly new or clever; Woody Allen did it earlier, and far better, in Annie Hall). Ferris gives instructions about how to deceive one’s parents and be excused from school due to illness. Ferris’ sister Jeannie is not fooled by his ruse, and neither is the school principal. But the movie’s script demands that Ferris succeed at everything he tries. He is a prankster like Till Eulenspiegel; and, as with Till, the audience is expected to be on the side of Ferris Bueller.

Ferris has a friend, Cameron, who is also missing school due to illness. Ferris decides that Cameron’s illnesses are psychosomatic, a result of neglect from Cameron’s parents. Besides, Ferris does not have a car and Cameron does. In short order, Ferris browbeats Cameron into getting out of bed and getting dressed and driving to the Bueller house. He then forces Cameron to pose as the father of Ferris’ girlfriend Sloane, getting her released from school through the phony news of the death of a grandmother. Still manipulating Cameron, Ferris gets access to the prized possession of Cameron’s father, an expensive sportscar. With that vehicle, they escape into the city to enjoy a baseball game at Wrigley Field, lunch at a fancy restaurant, a German heritage parade, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Meanwhile, the school principal is determined to catch Ferris playing hooky. In a series of cartoonish events, Mr. Rooney attempts to visit the Bueller house, only to be struck by misfortune after misfortune. He is like Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner, except this time the Roadrunner has all the props from Acme. Mr. Rooney tangles repeatedly with a fierce dog. Then, when he finally gets into the house, he is attacked by Jeannie, who—not recognizing him—calls the police to report an intruder in the house.

In every story, something is supposed to happen to the main character that changes him or her. No such thing happens to Ferris Bueller on his day off. He catches a foul ball at Wrigley Field, he commandeers the sound system of a parade float to serenade his friends and the city in general, and he returns home in the nick of time to escape capture by his parents. Some people suggest that Ferris Bueller does not even exist in the movie. They suggest that Ferris is an imaginary character, created by Cameron to be all the things that Cameron cannot be. Although this explanation does not match all the events in the script, it does underline the key to the movie: nothing but good happens to Ferris, and he is unchanged at the end of the movie, but his day off does provide important changes in most of the other characters in the movie.

Sloane does not change. She is there mostly to stand next to Ferris and look pretty. Cameron admires her, and she shows warmth toward him, but she is definitely Ferris’ girl. They even speak lightly of becoming married.  This does not stop Ferris from flirting with young ladies on a parade float. Later, he interrupts a mad dash across the back yards of his neighborhood to introduce himself to two sunbathers. That’s how little respect he has for Sloane. At the same time, though, Cameron, Jeannie, and Mr. Rooney each experience important changes in the movie, changes that would not have happened without Ferris Bueller’s day off.

Cameron begins as a deeply troubled character. He is in bed with symptoms said to be brought on by neglect from his parents. As he prepares to heed Ferris’ call to drive to the Bueller house, Cameron suffers an anxiety attack, crying out and striking the seat of the car. Overcoming his rage, he then has a tussle with his best friend in the midst of his phone call to the school principal. The purloining of his father’s car weighs upon his spirits throughout the day off. Finally, when the group discovers that the garage attendants have taken the car for a spin (adding to the mileage recorded on the odometer, something Cameron’s father monitors carefully), Cameron drops into what appears to be a catatonic state. Even if he is faking it, his choice to respond to his problem in that way, and his success in holding the state for a good length of time, indicate severe emotional health problems. He ends his catanoia with the appearance of an attempted suicide by drowning—again, not an emotionally healthy choice.

After the episode at the swimming pool, the group returns to the garage holding the precious sports car. Once again Cameron suddenly strikes out in anger, kicking and flailing at his father’s car. Realizing that he has damaged the car, Cameron begins to assess his need to deal with his father, no longer to hide behind illnesses and silence. Before he can assimilate that reality, though, the car shoots out the rear of the garage and crashes below the house. “You killed the car,” Ferris observes. Although Ferris weakly offers to take blame for the incident, Cameron refuses. He is going to use the disaster involving the car to assert himself to his father. He is finally going to stand up for himself. This is the last we see of Cameron in the movie.

Meanwhile, Jeannie faces changes of her own. She begins the movie irritated with her brother and his ability to do as he chooses without any negative consequences. After she discovers students in the school hallway raising money to help with Ferris’ feigned illness, she tries to report his crime to the principal, but Mr. Rooney has already left the school in pursuit of Ferris. When Jeannie returns home, she senses the presence of an intruder in the house and calls the police for help. Waiting for them to arrive, she hears a noise in the kitchen. In self-defense she assaults the intruder, not recognizing him as Mr. Rooney. When the police arrive, they find no evidence of an intruder in the house, overlooking Mr. Rooney’s wallet, which he had dropped in the Bueller kitchen. (The police bumble as badly as every other adult figure of authority in the movie.)

Taking her to the police station to charge her with placing a false report, the police leave her for a few minutes sitting next to a drug-dazed Charlie Sheen. In their brief conversation, Sheen gives Jeannie a new outlook on life, beginning with the ability to let Ferris be Ferris without being bothered by whatever he does. Jeannie gets to act on this advice driving her mother home from the police station. Seeing her brother sneaking through the neighborhood, Jeannie begins to drive erratically, distracting her mother and delaying so Ferris can return home safely. He nearly makes it, but he finally is confronted by Mr. Rooney. At this point, Jeannie has found Mr. Rooney’s wallet in the house. She can vindicate herself before the police and still see Ferris suffer for his crimes. Instead, she uses the wallet to blackmail the principal and prevent her brother from the punishment he deserves. Is this turn against authority and responsibility a permanent change for Jeannie or only a temporary softening of her heart? We do not know; her part in the story is over.

This leaves Mr. Rooney. His car has been towed. His nice suit and shoes have been ruined. His body and his pride have been damaged. Now comes a final humiliation. A school bus, filled with students from his school, is ready to take him back to his office. Bedraggled like the Coyote after every attempt to catch the Roadrunner, Mr. Rooney walks down the aisle of the bus. The students stare vacantly at him; in their own way, they have faced a day as tough as his day. One girl takes sympathy upon the principal, offering him a seat and a piece of candy. Has Mr. Rooney learned his lesson? Will his bus ride help him to empathize with the students and care more about their lives? Again, we do not know. Mr. Rooney is left on the bus.

We do not learn about Cameron and his father, or about Jeannie and her new attitude, or about Mr. Rooney and his revelation. This is not their movie. It is Ferris Bueller’s day off. Because he does not care about these people, except for the parts they play in his own entertainment, we are not expected to care about them. Ferris underlines this attitude by addressing the audience one more time after the closing credits. Informing them that the movie is over and they should go home, he reinforces his point. He claimed a day off to enjoy himself, and the effect that has had on other people does not matter to him. In this, he completes his role as the merry prankster.

Moreover, Daylight Saving Time must be abolished. J.

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Movie review: Dr. Strangelove

With Vladimir Putin rattling the Russian sabers last week, it seemed time to watch again the classic Cold War movie Dr. Strangelove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Made in 1964, Dr. Strangelove depicts the possibility of the world’s superpowers going to war because of the belligerence of one United States general.

The movie opens with a comforting statement from the United States Air Force that the events depicted in the movie could not possibly happen in real life. Yet the rules and regulations used by Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper seem entirely reasonable and likely in the context of the film. Usually described as a black comedy, the script contains remarkably few laugh-out-loud lines. (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here—this is the War Room,” is one of the few.) The humor consists rather in situational comedy and irony bordering on parody: an Air Force pilot replaces his regulation helmet with a cowboy hat after receiving the order to bomb targets in the Soviet Union; a military officer with the code that can call off the attack attempts to reach the President and his advisors from a pay phone but does not have enough spare change to place the call.

Dr. Strangelove combines the extemporaneous comedy of Peter Sellers with the micromanaging direction of Stanley Kubrick. Sellers is one of the very few actors who has had a major role in more than one Kubrick film. This improbable pairing shows the enormous respect the two professionals held for one another. The cast also includes Sterling Hayden as General Ripper, George C. Scott as General Turgidson (a gung-ho, gum-chomping general who must explain to the President and his advisors what is happening and why—the gravely voice of Scott’s future portrayal of General Patton can be heard from time to time), Slim Pickens as the Air Force pilot, and James Earl Jones as a member of his crew. Sellers is given three roles: the title character, the American President, and a RAF officer assigned to General Ripper’s staff.

The title character, Dr. Strangelove, is meant to portray German scientists like Werner Von Braun, who were brought to the United States after World War II to assist the military and the space program. As portrayed by Sellers, he is uncannily reminiscent of a then-unknown Harvard Professor of Government named Henry Kissinger. Of his three characters, Sellers spends the least time on the screen as Strangelove. His portrayal of President Merkin Muffley—said to be based on unsuccessful presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson—makes the character a single voice of calm and reason surrounded by insanity, yet Sellers’ comedic genius shines in his telephone conversations (during which only his words are heard) with the Soviet Premier. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake is also, for Sellers, an understated character, played against the madness of General Ripper. Yet his efforts to wheedle the call-back code from the general, along with his scene in the telephone booth, are among the highlights of the movie.

Kubrick based the movie on a serious novel and only realized along the way that the movie would play better as a comedy than as a serious war film. The foolishness of a Mutually Assured Destruction policy, followed by both the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1960s, is skillfully portrayed in the film. This movie may have help lead to the turn toward détente that both governments attempted in the 1970s. Peter Sellers was the first actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for a film in which he portrayed more than one character. The movie was nominated for Best Picture (and remains the longest-titled movie to be so honored) along with Zorba the Greek, Becket, and Mary Poppins, but they all lost to My Fair Lady.

Much has changed in the world since 1964, but Putin’s boasts last week about Russian weaponry remind us that much has also stayed the same. It may be only the grace of God that has spared the world thus far from the incredible damage humanity is capable of causing, whether through a deliberate act of hate or through mere carelessness and stupidity. For this divine protection we should be thankful every day. J.

Three unrelated thoughts

Much of my spare time this week has been spent proof-reading (or “copy-editing,” as they say in The Biz) my book about the parables Jesus told. I am hoping for a March 1 publication deadline. Because I have updated to Word 2016 since my last big project, I am receiving more editing suggestions from Word. Some of them meet with my approval; in other cases I disagree with Word.

Word does not like the phrase “whether or not.” After further review, I agree with Word that “whether” is sufficient in most cases.

Word suggests a comma after introductory words or phrases such as “therefore,” “of course,” and “so.” Those pauses seem unnatural to me, so I am largely ignoring those suggestions. I find it helpful, though, that Word is underlining them for me; it helps me to see where I have used such phrases too frequently and should remove them or rephrase sentences to make them unnecessary.

As in previous editions, Word 2016 dislikes the passive voice and suggests shifting to an active voice. While this shift might be appropriate in most literature, it can be very inappropriate in theology. A redeemed sinner is entirely passive when it comes to salvation; a sinner’s actions contribute nothing to salvation before being saved, or while being saved, or after being saved. God does all the work to rescue sinners. Until Word produces an edition that is free from heretical tendencies, I plan to continue ignoring its suggestions about eliminating the passive voice.

I only recently became aware of the grammatical suggestion that strings of prepositional phrases be avoided. (The amusing wording of this rule is to ignore them except when one is being led “through the valley of the shadow of death.”) Word 2016 underlines cases where it thinks prepositions are too close together. Unfortunately, this tendency singles out entirely appropriate phrases including “in spite of.”

 

I used some Christmas gift money to buy a DVD of the movie 500 Days of Summer. I did so for two reasons: I enjoy Zooey Deschanel in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and thought I would like to see her star in a romantic comedy; and IMDB recommended 500 Days of Summer to people who liked Ruby Sparks. The movie is enjoyable as it covers a relationship between a young man and a young woman in a nonlinear fashion, more the way he might remember the episodes from a distance rather than experiencing them in order. As a narrator intones at the very beginning of the movie, it is “not a love story.” In fact, it is far more realistic than most love stories. Unfortunately, both 500 Days of Summer and Ruby Sparks seem incapable of depicting a romance without suggesting physical intimacy beginning very early in the relationship. I’d like to see a romantic comedy in which the main characters do not go beyond holding hands and an occasional brief kiss. Maybe Hollywood writers believe that such romances no longer happen in the twenty-first century. (If so, they’re wrong.) Maybe Hollywood writers are engaged in a deliberate conspiracy to undermine marriage and family. (It seems that way sometimes, but I suspect their motivations are more financial than centered on social engineering.) I hesitate to recommend any movie that I would be reluctant to show to my parents or my children, but I confess to enjoying 500 Days of Summer and expect to watch it again soon, to catch the details I missed at the first viewing.

 

This morning while I was driving to work, I saw a delivery truck (painted with the 7-UP logo) in the left lane of the street, signaling an attempt to merge into the right lane. Traffic was tight and other drivers were ignoring the truck driver’s signal, but I held back and made a space for the truck to change lanes. As a result, I missed out on a green light and had to wait through the entire cycle of lights at a busy intersection. Later, I left room for a car to enter the street from a side street. It seems as though such courtesies toward other drivers ought to be rewarded with an extra green light or two, but I guess things like that happen only in the karmic pages.

Ruby Sparks (movie review)

Five years ago the movie Ruby Sparks appeared briefly in theaters. Reading the newspaper reviews intrigued me and I wanted to view the movie, but it was gone again before I had a chance to see it. This summer, using birthday gift money, I was able to buy a DVD of the movie. It arrived in yesterday’s mail. I watched it last night, and I am pleased to report that it met and exceeded my expectations.

The central premise of the plot is that a novelist creates a character—the title character of the film—and then she suddenly becomes a real person. This story retells the Greek myth Pygmalion, in which a sculptor falls in love with a statue he has carved and a goddess transforms the statue into a living woman. Of course this story has been retold many times in a variety of settings. Ruby Sparks does a better than average job of making the main characters believable, set in a twenty-first century California city.

Paul Dano plays the writer, Calvin, and Zoe Kazan plays the title character. (Kazan also wrote the script for the movie.) Brief appearances by Elliott Gould, Annette Bening, and Antonio Banderas add texture to the film. Calvin is approaching his thirtieth birthday, having written the Great American Novel while still a teenager. Like many prodigies, Calvin struggles to meet the high expectations triggered by his early success. Early in the movie he is shown in a counseling session in which his self-doubt and fear of failure are clearly revealed. A girl he first meets in two separate dreams, coupled with a suggestion by his counselor, ignites Calvin’s imagination and sends him into a writing frenzy, creating a romantic novel starring his dream girl, Ruby Sparks.

The character of Calvin is well established when the appearance of the real Ruby Sparks begins to be foreshadowed. Her sudden manifestation in his kitchen causes Calvin to doubt his sanity, a verdict in which his brother concurs. Two revelations follow: other people can see Ruby and interact with her, and Calvin can cause Ruby to speak fluent French by adding a sentence to his novel. Calvin soberly locks the text of the novel in a desk drawer, and then he and Ruby establish a beautiful romance.

Of course the magic relationship does not last forever. Ruby wants more excitement than Calvin’s reclusive life offers. She increases her independence until Calvin begins trying to manipulate her through his writing. His own emotional problems are magnified in her behavior, until an ugly and inevitable confrontation between author and character occurs, vividly depicted by Dano and Kazan.

The pace of the movie follows the inner life of the author. His emotional disorders are subtly portrayed in a variety of ways without becoming distracting or insulting. His eccentricities—such as using an obsolete typewriter for his work—are important to the story. Yet many of the reviews I have read this morning miss the point, treating the pace, the actor’s work, and the details—such as the typewriter—as flaws.

Ruby Sparks covers far more than emotional disorders. It delves into the relationship between artists and the products of their art. A creator wants to be in control, yet the creator must also allow the art to develop in its own way. Characters find their own voice, begin to make their own decisions, and even force changes in the plot of the work. I am sure that painters, sculptors, and composers of music can share similar stories of the ways their creations overpowered them and forced them to change the work they were doing.

That said, Ruby Sparks is not a flawless movie. The characters are foul-mouthed and have no respect for the marriage bed (although fornication is not depicted on-screen). The ending tries to be both charming and ambiguous and instead is unsatisfying. One cannot be certain whether Calvin has learned from his experiences or if he is doomed to repeat his mistakes again. Like many good movies, though, Ruby Sparks manages the little nuances which carry the story of the movie without relying solely on dialogue and action. It is more than a romantic comedy; it is a thoughtful approach to creativity and the loneliness of the artist. For that reason alone, I recommend it. J.

First Friday Fiction–Susanna, part four

Tony was still doing his best to give Susanna a hard time at work. He had updated his song selection to “Wake Up, Little Suzie” and “Susie-Q.” Every day he criticized her wardrobe selections, saying, “Mighty colorful today—are you trying to catch someone’s attention?” and, “How can you keep your balance on heels that high? And why would you even bother to try?” Conrad actually agreed with Tony about the heels, but he would never confront a woman about her clothing, especially not in front of other people. Susanna did not show any irritation at Tony’s ribbing. Sometimes she forced a small giggle at one of his comments. Usually she waved her hand at him or simply ignored him.

Conrad was also not bold enough to rise to Susanna’s defense. He wanted to tell Tony to leave her alone, to stop being such a bully, but instead he suffered in silence.

He tried to find ways to start little conversations with Susanna, but most days “Good morning” was as far as they got. On Mondays he would try, “How was your weekend?” but Susanna replied with one-word answers such as “fine” or “OK.” She wasn’t unfriendly toward him; it was clear that she just didn’t want to talk.

She opened up to Tina, though. The two of them conversed about Netflix and recipes and their cats. With his back to the conversation, Conrad was able to listen while he appeared to be working. He loved the timbre of Susanna’s alto voice and the jingle of her laugh when it was sincere, not forced. He resented the Saturdays and Sundays when he didn’t see her or hear her voice. Constantly he waited for the clue that she was ready to accept the offer of a date.

Then, one Friday morning as the women were visiting, Tina said, “Oh, by the way, how was dinner last night?”

“The food was just OK,” Susanna answered. “The company was not as bad as I feared. He can be decent and polite and gentlemanly when he tries; he just doesn’t seem to want to try too often.”

Conrad tried not to jump to conclusions. Susanna might have gone out to eat with her father or brother or some other family member. But in his heart he was convinced that she had had her first date in a long time, and obviously that date had not included him.

About a week later, Tina asked a similar question—“How was the movie?”

“It seemed long,” Susanna admitted. “I guess I’m just not into car chases and explosions and ten minute fights that devastate an entire city.” Conrad knew which movie she was describing. It was new to the theaters that month.

Tony happened to be walked toward the door when Susanna spoke. He stopped and looked at her. “I’m sure that when you choose the movie,” he said, “it’s going to be some girly romance with mushy music and long gazes into each other’s eyes, and I’ll be bored stiff.”

She looked up at him, a twinkle in her eye. “I hadn’t planned on such a movie,” she said, “but if that’s how you feel, then that’s what I’m going to choose.”

Tony imitated Susanna’s way of waving away an insult and went on his way. Conrad sat stiff in his chair, staring at the monitor. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Susanna dart a guilty glance in his direction, but he might have imagined it. He tried to focus on his work, but his mouth was dry and his heart was dancing in the middle of his chest. “Why Tony?” he asked himself again and again. “What could she possibly see in him?”

A few minutes later, Susanna grabbed her coffee mug and headed to the break room. A few seconds later, Conrad followed. He was relieved to see that no one else was in the room when he got there.

“I know it’s none of my business,” Conrad began, and a truer statement had never left his mouth. “But I have to know… did I just overhear that you and Tony went to a movie together?”

“Well, yes,” she said, and she looked down at the floor. Her cheeks were beginning to turn rosy.

“Didn’t you tell me a couple weeks ago that you aren’t ready yet for that sort of thing?”

“I didn’t want you to know,” she admitted. “I’m sorry you overheard. Honestly, I would never want to hurt your feelings.”

“I just don’t understand. How can you be ready to see a movie with Tony but not ready to see one with me?”

“I don’t want to have to answer that—please,” she begged. Her rosy cheeks were now glowing bright red, and a tear welled out of her right eye.

Conrad knew that he was probably making a big mistake, but he persisted. “I think I have a right to know.”

Susanna set her mug on the counter next to the coffeemaker. “Look,” she said, “It’s this way. I accepted a date with Tony because I knew what to expect—a night out on the town, nothing more. For that, yes, I’m ready. And if he wanted anything more, it would be easy to tell him no.

“But with you…” she shook her head. “With you it’s different. I’m not ready to get involved quite yet, not ready for a serious relationship.” She looked up at him, “When I’m ready for a man in my life, a real man, I promise to let you know.” She turned, filled her mug, and went back to her desk.

Conrad stood in the middle of the break room for several minutes, staring out the window.

 

Romantic comedies

“Boys only want pork if it’s kosher” is a mishearing of a line from a Taylor Swift song. It makes just as much sense as the real line, though. We live in a culture that is confused and misinformed about love. For generations, poems, books, songs, and movies have distorted the meaning of love. No wonder our culture is trying to redefine marriage, when we cannot distinguish true love from infatuation, romance, or just plain selfishness.

That said, I actually enjoy watching romantic comedies. The late Nora Ephron is one of my favorite movie-makers in the genre, largely because her distortions of love are so over-the-top that they practically serve as satires rather than portrayals of romance. I must add, though, that I would not want my children to watch her movies without a clear warning that true love is nothing like what they will see in Ephron’s movies.

When Harry Met Sally (1989) was written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner. It follows two shallow and shabby characters through several years of their lives. The wit of Billy Crystal and the charm of Meg Ryan make the movie entertaining. The most telling quote from the movie comes from the wedding reception of Jess and Marie. Harry and Sally had tried to arrange a blind date in which Harry was matched with Sally’s best friend Marie, and Sally is matched with Harry’s best friend, Jess. Instead, the two best friends become attracted to each other, ignoring Harry and Sally. At the reception, Jess, the groom offers this toast: “To Harry and Sally. If Marie or I had found either of them remotely attractive we would not be here today.” As in all Nora Ephron’s movies, the main characters practice serial fornication without shame, although Sally is affronted by Harry’s casual attitude about his behavior. The movie is packed with clever lines and convincing portrayals of the characters. The interviews with married couples between acts of the story are a nice touch, showing diverse ways that a man and a woman can become a couple. As a love story, though, the movie is sadly lacking any other positive portrayals of true love.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993) was both written and directed by Nora Ephron. Tom Hanks plays a man who was happily and faithfully married, but then his wife dies. Hanks’ portrayal makes Sam likeable and vulnerable, but Sam boasts of fornication with eight different women during his college days, and he seems inclined to return to that lifestyle. Meg Ryan’s Annie is already living with her fiancé, but when she hears Sam’s voice on the radio, she suddenly becomes a stalker who pursues him from across the country and arranges to meet him in New York City on Valentines’ Day (because she and her fiancé will be registering for wedding gifts at the time). Annie’s pursuit of “magic” in a romantic relationship reveals exactly what is wrong with our culture’s understanding of love.

You’ve Got Mail (1998) brings back Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as a romantic team. Nora Ephron wrote, directed, and produced this story, in which Ryan’s Kathleen owns and manages a small book store, specializing in children’s books, while Hanks’ Joe Fox is part of a family which owns and runs a large chain of book stores, the kind of chain that puts stores like Kathleen’s out of business. While the two compete professionally, they are also becoming friends in anonymous email exchanges. (At the same time, they are both living with partners to whom they are not married.) In the latter part of the movie, after Joe has realized that his email partner and business competitor are the same person (and after her shop has closed), he begins a crafty and manipulative pursuit of Kathleen which leads to the expected happy ending. If one of my daughters became involved with a man like Joe Fox, I would urge her to run the opposite direction as quickly as possible.

More recent movies from Nora Ephron include Hanging Up (2000) which she wrote and produced (and which again stars Meg Ryan), and Julie & Julia (2009) which Ephron wrote, directed, and produced. In both movies, the romance in the plot takes second place to other happenings. Hanging Up is about three daughters and their relationship with their aging father. It speaks on several levels about life and death, love and families, and our dependence upon technology. Julie & Julia, starring Amy Adams, is based on a true story of a woman who chooses to blog about her attempt to cook every recipe from a book by Julia Child (portrayed by Meryl Streep) in one year. Both movies benefit from the same clever dialogue and convincing acting as in the other three I have mentioned.

I enjoy Nora Ephron’s movies for their cleverness. I also enjoy the way she portrays holidays with genuine affection for their flavor. Harry and Sally’s Christmas decorations and New Year’s Eve revelation, Sam and Annie’s meeting on Valentines’ Day at the top of the Empire State building, and Kathleen and Joe’s contrasting celebrations of Thanksgiving (both involving singing) are all nice touches in each movie. In fact, the friendships depicted in all of these movies are frequently healthier relationships than the romantic relationships at the center of each plot. J.

It’s a Wonderful Life

My plan to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with my family this weekend was delayed as my daughters ran from one Christmas party to another. I hope we will be able to squeeze the movie in one evening in the next two weeks, because the uplifting story of kindness and generosity returned in a time of need suits the holiday spirit of Christmas.

I love this movie despite its errors. I am not talking about continuity errors or character errors. (You can read about those on IMDB if you are interested.) The movie contains some significant theological errors, some of which are even essential to the plot.

First, people do not become angels when they die. Human beings remain human, even when their spirits are separated from their bodies. Angels have always been angels. Just as cats never turn into dogs, so people never turn into angels. If Clarence is an angel, then he has always been an angel.

Second, the conversation between Clarence and Joseph, prompted by prayers to God on behalf of George Bailey, totally fails to mention God. True angels serve God and do his will. They do not answer prayers or step into the lives of God’s people without a direct command from God to do so. Perhaps the makers of the movie were afraid that a portrayal of God would offend some people. If so, they were probably right. Still, the omission of God from the heavenly counsel is also problematic.

Third, angels do not need to earn their wings. The wings of angels are rarely mentioned in the Bible, although the prophet Isaiah saw angels surrounding the throne of God–they each had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two wings they covered their feet, and with two wings they flew. Also, the angels depicted on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant and in Solomon’s Temple had wings. Angels do not need wings to fly. They are spiritual beings, not physical beings. They do not take up space or reflect light. When angels become visible, they generally do so to deliver a message from God. (The word “angel” actually means “messenger.”) Instead of reflecting light, they emit light, which is probably why they often begin conversations with human beings by saying, “Don’t be afraid.”

Fourth, the Bible does not mention first-class angels and second-class angels. The angels Isaiah saw were called seraphim (“burning ones”); other angels are called cherubim (“near ones,” perhaps because they remain close to God). There is also an archangel (“head angel”) named Michael. Medieval theologians speculated that there are nine ranks of angels, including thrones, dominions, virtues, and powers. There is no evidence that angels can be promoted from one rank to another by doing good deeds.

Why do I love a movie that is so wrong about angels? The movie is really about people, not about angels. Its hero, George Bailey, cares about people, especially the poor and the working class. His nemesis, Mr. Potter, cares only about money and power. In a run on the town’s bank during the Great Depression, George Bailey uses his personal funds (saved to finance his honeymoon–the run occurs the day he is married) to help others, while Mr. Potter takes advantage of the run to take over the bank. Even though George Bailey is a hero, he is not unflawed. Under stress he verbally abuses his wife and children, then self-medicates with alcohol. His religious beliefs are never stated, but it appears that he prays only as a last resort, not faithfully. Christmas provides a reason to decorate the home and the office, but its significance for George Bailey seems less than the significance of an approaching party to be held for his younger brother, a war hero.

For the Christian, It’s a Wonderful Life might be experienced like the book of Esther. God is never mentioned by name in Esther, although he is clearly the moving force protecting the Jewish people. Like Queen Esther, George Bailey acts in a godly way to help others; like Esther, he receives help when he needs it most. In Esther’s case, she needs the approval and support of the emperor; George Bailey needs the support of his friends and neighbors. Both of them receive what they need because God is in charge of their lives.

In short, Clarence is not the answer to the prayers prayed by and for George Bailey. The answer to prayers comes by way of the hearts of the residents of Bedford Falls. The ironic use of the hymn “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”–meant in the movie only to underline Clarence’s role–can instead remind Christians of the true meaning of Christmas: “Glory to the newborn King, peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” J.

Lucas

My favorite back-to-school movie is Lucas. Filmed in the Chicago area in 1985, it was released in 1986 to generally favorable reviews. The movie stars Corey Haim in the title role and includes Kerri Green, Winona Ryder, and Charlie Sheen. This discussion of Lucas will contain **many spoilers** so, if you haven’t seen the film, you might want to stop reading now.

Lucas Bly is a high school student with much intelligence and a deep interest in nature. He is smaller than his classmates, perhaps because he was accelerated a year or two in elementary school. He scorns the superficial aspects of high school social life, including football and cheerleading. During the summer he befriends a girl, Maggie, who is new to the area. She likes Lucas and appreciates his attention, but once school begins she wants to fit in with her surroundings. She joins the cheerleading squad and, by the middle of the movie, she is dating a football player, Cappie, who happens to be the only athlete in the school who does not either bully or ignore Lucas.

I attended high school in the Chicago area, and I can affirm that Lucas shows what life was really like at that time and place. Bullies were bullies, the student body was divided into cliques, and school life seemed more oriented around sports than around scholastic achievement or the fine arts. My high school expected to win football and basketball games until we were overpowered by much bigger and wealthier school districts (represented in the movie by Rockford High School). Along with the scenes inside the school, the outdoor scenes also ring true, especially those set by the tracks of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad.

Lucas attempts the hopeless quest of joining the football team, dreaming that he can win Maggie’s affection away from Cappie. Of course the coach has no intention of allowing Lucas onto the team. When Lucas insists upon his legal right to be allowed to participate in school athletics, he is sent to the principal, who demands a note from Lucas’ father giving permission for Lucas to try out for football. Lucas is stymied, since his father will have nothing to do with the school. However, on the Saturday of the home game against Rockford, Lucas sneaks into the locker room after the game has started, suits up, and trots out to the field. When Lucas badmouths the coach (whose team is already losing badly), the coach decides to teach Lucas a lesson—he sends him out to the field for one play. Lucas is of course knocked to the ground, but he is determined and will not leave the field. The next play develops badly, Lucas runs alone downfield, and he has an opportunity to become the hero of the game.

Some people complain about the key scene, which is that one football play. Their complaints overlook the fact that everything that is wrong about that play fits the rest of the movie’s plot. The football coach is incompetent—he probably has not drilled into the quarterback that one football play cannot have two forward passes. The referees probably did whistle the play dead when the second, illegal, pass was thrown, but given the crowd noise, the whistles are not heard, especially downfield. Lucas drops the pass—even if it were a legal pass, it would be incomplete, and the play should be whistled dead. One of Rockford’s players grabs the loose ball and runs with it, which is exactly what good defenses are trained to do. Lucas has never been taught the rules of football, so naturally he tries to tackle the opposing player with the ball. In the pile-up that results, Lucas is knocked unconscious.

He recovers in the hospital, with Maggie sitting by his side. No, she is not his girlfriend now, but as a friend she is concerned for him. A few days later, Lucas is able to return to school. He is uncomfortable at first, as his fellow students are all staring at him. When he opens his locker, he finds a school jacket hanging inside. The football players who once bullied him now lead the other students in the hallway in applauding Lucas for his strong if pointless determination.

I first saw this movie in a one-dollar theater in the summer of 1986. I was in the Chicago area at the time. The Chicago Bears had won the Superbowl in January of 1986—after the movie was filmed, but before it was released. Football fans will remember that Chicago had a rookie defensive lineman named William Perry, nicknamed the Refrigerator because of his size and weight. The Bears’ defense coach called Perry “a wasted draft pick,” but Perry unexpectedly became an offensive star for the Bears. Coach Ditka used him late in one game as a running back, intending only to maintain possession of the ball without risking his star backs. Instead, Perry showed that, because of his size, he could advance the ball against the defense. Soon Coach Ditka was sending Perry into the game on goal-line situations, and the “wasted draft pick” was scoring touchdowns. He became a hero, along with his more experienced and more talented teammates. His jersey, number 72, was a best-selling item in Chicago area stores all that season and through 1986.

When Lucas snuck into the locker room and suited up, he happened to choose jersey number 72. (Remember, this was filmed before the Bears’ football season had started.) The Chicago area residents in the theater laughed and applauded when undersized Lucas trotted onto the field with William Perry’s number on his back. That remains one of my most vivid memories of watching a film in a movie theater. J.

Movies helpful to history students

As a history teacher, I often mention movies in the classroom to help the students gain some perspective on events and experiences that might be foreign to them. I’ve found that we cannot discuss the Greek and Persian wars without the movie 300 entering the conversation. To explain the events before and after that battle in light of what they think they know from the movie is beneficial. Once I led a before-class discussion of which war movies were truest to life. Since many of my students have military backgrounds, their perspective of war movies is probably more useful than that of the general population. Recently I recommended 1776 as a way to learn the issues and personalities surrounding the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Although Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and the rest did not sporadically burst into song in Philadelphia that summer, the movie script successfully reproduces the conversations that happened during that key historic event.

In the coming week, I will be mentioning three more movies to the students. When we are at this part of the book, I frequently want to watch all three movies, even though generally I don’t have enough time for even one of them. Besides, I’ve already seen each of them enough times that I probably could speak much of the dialogue along with the characters on the screen.

Evita (1996) tells the story of Eva Peron, wife of the caudillo Juan Peron. She was part of his message to Argentina that he supported the common people and their goals. (After all, he married one of them.) The movie comes from a musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, first performed on Broadway in 1979. (The soundtrack album was recorded and released in 1976.) As is the case with 1776, Evita depicts the principle characters singing rather than talking. In fact, there are very few spoken words in the entire movie. Casting Madonna in the title role was extremely controversial in the 1990s, but it worked. While the movie condenses history and combines events, it reflects the emotions of the time and place in a way that a classroom lecture and discussion cannot replicate. The movie runs two hours and 15 minutes.

Gandhi (1982) won many awards for its biographical portrayal of Mohandas Gandhi, known in India as the Mahatma. Like Evita, it condenses history, combines some events, and skips others entirely. Unlike Evita, the film Gandhi is not a musical. The key events of Gandhi’s life and career are shown within the proper historical and geographical setting. Again, a sense of the flavor of India during the first half of the twentieth century cannot be reproduced in the classroom. The movie runs three hours and 11 minutes.

The Last Emperor (1987) shows Chinese history during the first half of the twentieth century from the point of view of the final Qing emperor, who was only a boy when the rise of the Republic threw him out of power. Later, he naively cooperated with Japanese officials in an attempt to regain some of his lost power. He then is captured by Communist forces, who retrain him to be like everyone else in China. Once again, the film gives context to the historic events, dramatically depicting the way real people dealt with the changes that were happening in China during those decades. The movie runs two hours and 43 minutes.

An odd similarity among these movies is that all of them begin at the end of the life of the title characters (in the case of Evita and Gandhi, with their funerals) and then treat their lives and histories as flashbacks. This allows the moviemakers to make dramatic jumps in time between two events, omitting the portions of history that are less relevant or interesting for the script and the audience.

These three movies are vastly superior to the large number of movies that use history only as inspiration for the story the moviemakers want to tell. Most movies of historical fiction (and even some that pretend to be documentaries) consist of more fiction than history. This phenomenon is not new—Shakespeare’s historical plays were more imagination and propaganda than they were historical truth. (This may be as close as Oliver Stone will come to being compared to Shakespeare.) When I can point to a few helpful movies, though, it may assist at least one student to gain more appreciation of history than can be imparted in the classroom. J.

The privilege of genius

Last weekend I saw Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining for the first time. Two nights later I saw it for the second time. I’ve also done some reading on the Internet about this movie and how it was made, as well as biographical information about Kubrick.

I’ve seen about half of the movies Kubrick made, and I’d like to see the rest, except for maybe his earliest work. Kubrick is acknowledged a genius in the making of movies, with classics such as Spartacus and 2001: Space Odyssey to his credit. He is famous for shooting each scene dozens of times to achieve the best possible result; also, he is famous for detailed and meticulous planning of his filming, so that everything in each frame contributes to the story that the movie is depicting.

For example, in one of his movies, two characters are having dinner, and they are seen from various angles while they eat and drink. Yet the amount of food and wine in front of them fluctuate irregularly rather than disappearing steadily, as one would expect during a meal. Any other director would have been accused of continuity errors, but Kubrick says that he mangled the continuity purposely to make viewers share the feeling of disorientation that the main character was feeling.

The Shining has similar distortions of continuity which Kubrick’s fans consider deliberate and meaningful. During one conversation, Jack pulls a sheet of paper out of his typewriter and rips it to pieces; minutes later he is typing again—paper is in the typewriter, even though he never added another sheet. In the same conversation a chair is seen behind Jack at first, but it has disappeared later. In the pantry cans of food appear mid-scene on shelves that were previously emptier. In other scenes items are rearranged from moment to moment without ever being touched. Even light switches and electrical outlets appear and disappear during the course of the movie.

One might assume that all these distortions are simply continuity errors, but with Kubrick’s reputation for genius and for meticulous planning, his fans are certain that every one of these distortions was done for a reason. Because The Shining is about haunting and supernatural abilities, some viewers assume that moving chairs and lamps reveal telekinetic abilities of the characters. Others think that the hotel itself is inhabited by malignant spirits that steal light switches and provide paper for Jack’s typewriter. Because the cans of food which appear out of nowhere have a Native American as their logo, some viewers think that the entire movie contains a message about Native Americans.

Of course it is also possible that by filming each scene dozens of times, Kubrick left himself vulnerable to continuity errors. Maybe after filming the conversation five or six times, Kubrick decided he didn’t like the chairs behind Jack and had them moved, but when he edited the footage he found that Jack’s best delivery of a certain line happened before the chairs had been taken out of the set. Perhaps he rearranged props in the pantry, not to make a point about Native Americans, but to achieve a certain proportion of shape and color in the background. Since the light switches and outlets were props, perhaps they were installed after some scenes had already been filmed.

Stanley Kubrick was a genius. Therefore, what would be a mistake for any other director is part of his deliberate plan to film a masterpiece. People have tried to make maps of the Overlook Hotel, the setting for The Shining, only to discover that the layout seen in the movie is impossible. Interior and exterior windows do not match, interior rooms have windows that show outdoor scenes, stairways lead to dead ends, and journeys through the passageways are inconsistent from scene to scene. Of course the movie was filmed on a group of sets, not in an actual hotel. Other directors would have been blamed for these inconsistencies, but Kubrick is assumed to have created an impossible hotel for dramatic purposes.

The privilege of genius is that mistakes don’t happen. A good explanation can be found for everything a genius does, even if it looks like a mistake. Of course people study the work of geniuses far more carefully than the work of average people—most movies set in a hotel don’t compel viewers to draw maps of the hotel. Ordinary people make ordinary mistakes that most of us don’t even notice. Only geniuses can make what seems to be a mistake and send people searching for its meaning.

By the way, the thought that Stanley Kubrick made The Shining to confess that he helped fake film footage of Apollo 11’s trip to the moon is ridiculous. J.