Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: The Great Dictator

During the rise of Nazi Germany, two famous filmmakers watched Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will at a special showing in New York. One, the innovative Frenchman René Clair, was horrified, believing that unless the film was censored, Western democracy would be lost. His British-born colleague, however, could not help laughing, and even found it inspiring. Thus, Charlie Chaplin went ahead to produce The Great Dictator.

Chaplin was not known as a political satirist. His comedy was very physical, cultivated in British burlesque and refined by his experimentations with film. Yet he was also adept enough to weave the two together, such as in this famous scene in the film:

He succeeded in skewering Hitler and the Nazis, while simultaneously entertaining his audience, framing a very serious discussion with comedic mastery. And it is Chaplin’s ability to stretch his capacities that is the reason why I’ve included The Great Dictator on this list. One of the great human foibles is to neglect or ignore our adaptability, to cling to past patterns rather than exploring innovation. Chaplin was an innovator from the beginning, filming his own physical routines and watching them so that he could refine his performances. Likewise, Unitarian Universalists have been innovative in the past, and continue to do so now. And let's not forget the value of laughter, including parody and satire, to get our message across.

Another reason why UUs would like this film is its ending. Chaplin plays two characters – a nameless Jewish Barber, and the dictator “Adenoid Hynkel”. When the Barber is mistaken for Hynkel and given the microphone to speak to a large gathering, he gives an unexpected speech, the contents of which would resonate with our principles and vision:

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Only the Lonely

Not every great film is an instant success. When Only the Lonely was first released in 1991, it received mixed reviews and was only moderately successful at the box office. But it’s considered a hidden gem by many movie buffs, myself included, which is why I’ve included it in this list.

The story starts off slow, which is probably why it wasn’t more successful. But a patient viewer will eventually find not only brilliant performances from the main actors – John Candy, Ally Sheedy, and the legendary Maureen O’Hara (who came out of retirement to do the picture) – plus the chemistry between them, but an intriguing tale of a quirky romance. Danny Muldoon is a middle-aged Chicago police officer who still lives with his domineering mother Rose. When he meets Theresa Luna, an extremely shy woman who works in her father’s funeral home, they begin to date and fall in love. Rose, however, continues her overbearing and bigoted ways, causing friction among them all. Danny finally stands up to his mother, and decides to marry Theresa. While she initially accepts, and Rose softens and welcomes her warmly, Danny’s constant worrying about his mother gives Theresa second thoughts. And then there’s the Greek fellow who’s sweet on Rose. Well, I won’t spoil the ending for you, so …

Rose is clearly the antagonist, from her bullying and narrow-mindedness. But the real conflict rests in Danny’s desire to “be a good son” to his mother. He does this by trying to avoid confrontation with her, even if it means being embarrassed or making excuses. It is Theresa, and his desire to be with her, which leads him to finally let loose and tell her how he feels, that her arrogance and guilt-tripping have made others miserable, and that he will no longer let her stand in the way of happiness. Even after this confrontation, however, he still feels dread about his mother as a result of the years of manipulative emotional abuse she had heaped upon him. Only when he’s able to imagine a better future for her, as well as himself, is he able to move on.

Danny’s perception of what it means to “be a good son” resembles what I see among some Unitarian Universalists in terms of avoiding conflict and glossing over problems. Unfortunately, avoidance is not resolution. So, just as Danny blows up at his mother over her treatment of Theresa and other people, long-simmering issues among UUs likewise come to a head. What a pity that we only have people to help us resolve these issues once a year – the Right Relationship Teams during General Assembly.

Granted, it’s not that easy to summon the strength to make such changes in ourselves and our communities, compared to a character in a movie. Then again, we have an advantage over that character. We don’t have to wait for a screenwriter or director to tell us when and how to begin the process of change.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Watership Down

This is a tough movie for most people to watch. When we think of an animated film featuring rabbits, our minds gravitate to "cute-and-fluffy". But Watership Down has many episodes of violence, bloodshed and death.

Still, it is an epic adventure in its own right – not just the main story of a group of rabbits finding a new home, but the rich detail of lapine culture, language and folklore drawn from Richard Adam’s book. The rabbits worship the creator-god Frith, represented by the sun, and revere their mythical progenitor El-ahrairah. Fiver, the younger brother of the chief protagonist Hazel, is a seer with powerful instincts. Rabbit warrens are structured societies, complete with a police force called an owsla.

The journey to their new home is not an easy one. First, Hazel and Fiver must convince other rabbits that their home warren is in danger. Then the small band they assemble must find their way to a new home, guided by Fiver's visions and Hazel's cunning. They are welcomed into another warren, only to find that the farmer in the area routinely catches them. Finally, they reach the hill of Fiver's visions – only now they have no females, so they must figure out where to recruit some. Another rabbit joins them, and tells them of a totalitarian warren called Efrafra, run by the ruthless General Woundwort. A plan is devised to infiltrate the Efrafrans and recruit some of its members to join them, leading to a confrontation.

It's long been debated whether this movie is suitable for children to watch. I personally think that it's better for older kids, not just because of the violence, but the complexity of the story. And yes, I think it's an important film for Unitarian Universalists to watch.

This is a story about risk, and specifically about the need of communities to take risks in order to survive and thrive. Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and other rabbits decide indeed to take the risk – based on their knowledge of how reliable Fiver's visions and instincts have been – to find a new home, and even to fight for its safety. Their opposite is found in the rabbit Cowslip, preferring the easy life of feeding on a farmer's plenty while turning a blind eye to his warren's members being killed by the farmer’s snares.

The early Unitarians and Universalists were risk-takers. It took risk to assert the radical stances in theology and social ethics that they did, to form new religious communities, and eventually to merge under one association. Affirming GLBT equality was also risky, but in the long run changed not only our own faith communities but our nation for the better. And yet … How many congregations, ministers and others cling to old ways of doing things because they seem safe? How many times do we observe abuses in leadership, yet refuse to speak up for fear of being labeled a troublemaker?

Like Hazel's warren, we’re a small scrappy band, our members drawn from many places. But our vision of beloved community may offer hope and guidance – if we are willing to accept that achieving such a vision requires taking a risky journey. Even standing still, while seemingly comfortable, entails a number of inevitable risks. Thus the question is not simply whether we’re willing to risk, but what is truly worthy of taking risks.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Casablanca

While most of the films I listed earlier are at least critically acclaimed, not many are considered iconic classics. Truth be told, even this film was only a moderate success when it was first released. Yet it has risen in popularity to be regarded as one of the best films ever produced (if not the best by some, including yours truly).

One could say it's because Casablanca "has it all" – romance, intrigue, suspense, adventure, an all-star cast and much more. But I would argue that it is also a spiritual story of redemption, centered around Rick Blaine.

Putting the flashbacks ahead of the main story, Rick was active against the forces of fascism, running guns in Ethiopia and fighting in Spain with the Republican forces. He was living in Paris at the beginning of World War II when he met and fell in love with Ilsa Lund. As the Germans made their advance, the couple and Rick's friend Sam make plans to flee south, but Ilsa has a note delivered to Rick, saying that she will not be coming with them.

Now in Casablanca under Vichy control, Rick owns and runs the "Café Americain" nightclub and casino. He is withdrawn and seemingly cynical, frequently telling friends like corrupt police official Louis Renault: "I stick my neck out for nobody." Yet even beneath that façade, his earlier sense of commitment peeks through – denying a German banker credit in the casino, allowing a desperate couple to win enough money for passage to a neutral country, mocking attempts by visiting Nazis to intimidate him.

Things get more complicated when Ilsa arrives with her husband Victor Laszlo. Ilsa's presence alone is enough to unsettle Rick emotionally, but Laszlo’s notoriety as a fervent opponent of the Nazis shakes things up even more …

That scene, in my opinion, is the most pivotal of the film. Rick, having crafted an image of neutrality for himself and his café, must suddenly make a choice. Eventually he helps Ilsa and Victor escape, and flees with Louis to join the Free French in Brazzaville. One might see this as a sign of nobility in Rick, but I think this is also about inevitability, in that Rick realizes that the desire for freedom is too great to be squashed by the Nazis or anyone else.

But to do so, he has to give up not only Ilsa, but the safety and security of his life in Casablanca. And it is that willingness to sacrifice for something greater that we could learn from. Most of the time, we hope to make a difference in little ways, just as Rick did early in the story. But Laszlo's arrival reminds him – and us – that ultimately what is good and right demands that we let go of our transient comforts. That doesn't necessarily mean quitting our jobs or living in tents, but it does mean a willingness to stick our necks out for someone now and again. And that in turn means realizing we're not as powerless as we think, that our capacity to change doesn't depend upon how we earn our paychecks or how big those checks might be. Change occurs all around us, often sweeping us up into events bigger than what goes on in our day-to-day lives. But each of us also has the capacity to bring about change, and not just wait for some pivotal moment.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Babette's Feast

When Gabriel Axel chose to adapt Isak Dinesen’s story Babettes Gaestebud to the screen, he moved the hamlet where it was located from Norway to western Jutland. The Norwegian coastal towns he saw were too colorful and idyllic, and he thought the bleak fishing village he selected better conveyed the sense of physical and spiritual isolation essential to the story.

The town is the home of a small pietistic sect, its founding pastor assisted by two lovely daughters named Martine and Philippa. While the sisters have many suitors, their father turns them away. Two men in particular would be taken with them, one a French opera singer drawn to Philippa, the other a Swedish cavalry officer visiting his aunt nearby. Each fails to win over the woman they have fallen for, and yet they would remain forever touched by them.

Flash forward thirty-five years, and a French woman arrives at the village with a note, introducing her as Babette Hersant, a friend of the baritone who has had to flee the bloodshed of the Paris Commune. She offers her services as a housekeeper, and for the next fourteen years assists the sisters in caring for the aged members of their dwindling flock. Her only remaining connection to home is an annual lottery ticket.

One day, she receives word that she has hit the jackpot of ten thousand francs. Grateful to the sisters, she offers to cook a full-course French dinner for the congregation, on the founding pastor's hundredth birthday. They had thought originally of a simple meal, but happily accept her offer. Babette commissions a relative to obtain the ingredients – along with fine china, silverware and lines appropriate for such a feast – and their arrival by boat shocks the austere congregants. Not wishing to offend, they covenant to behave as though they were eating the plainest of foods, rather than succumb to the temptations of such exotic and sensual fare.

Joining the congregants for the memorial dinner is the lady of the manor nearby, and her nephew – the cavalry officer from years past, now a decorated general. While still sympathetic to the pietism of his hosts, he is still a man of the world who appreciates the feast set before him, gushing with compliments and reminiscences of each dish and glass of wine, unaware of the pledge made by the others. Yet even the stoic villagers are unable to resist the charms of Babette's culinary gifts, and the bitter division that had built up over the years melt away, as the pleasures of the table cultivate the joys of conviviality. They end the evening joining hands under the stars and singing a hymn, all smiles. The general, having never lost affection for Martine, spends a final moment with her.

And Babette? The former chef de cuisine of the famous Café Anglais of Paris has spent her entire lottery winnings on the feast, without regret or concern. As her friend the opera star had told her: "Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of an artist: Give me the chance to do my very best."

Babette's Feast is not just a story about one woman’s effect on the small village where she finds refuge. It is about the spiritual gifts of pleasure, creativity and abundance. Too often religious movements have told us to distrust our senses and deny our desires. But how else do we appreciate the world about us, and feel bonds of affection for one another? As George Santayana said: "Love would never take so high a flight unless it sprung from something profound and elementary."

I'm sure many Unitarian Universalists will be reading this and thinking: "Well, duh!" Yet I've also seen people who are as imprisoned by worry as any puritanical fundamentalist. Just as the villagers in this film worried about the temptations of sensuality, and religious conservatives frequently worry about eternal damnation, many religious liberals worry about achieving our vision of a better world.

Stepping back and allowing ourselves enjoyment is not merely a means of "taking a break" from our efforts at social justice and self-improvement. They are also a reminder of why we do such things – a glimpse, if you will, of the vision we hope to fulfill – and that our means are inextricably tied to the ends we desire. We need not sacrifice savoring our world in order to save it, and indeed we're better able to do so.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Ten Films That UU Should Watch: Amélie

I’ve always considered the French approach to filmmaking to be radically different from what typically comes out of Hollywood – and, perhaps, more suited to the mindset of Unitarian Universalists. Images predominates in American films, so much so that the most common critique tends to be: “Looks great, but not much substance.” French films, on the other hand, are incredibly dense with dialogue and narrative and character; the image merely accentuates the story, and the best French movies seem to me an elegantly crafted sequence of tableaux vivants composed and arranged to highlight the story one is hearing.

That’s definitely true with Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, created by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and known more commonly by just the first name of its titular main character. Originally, Jeunet had intended for Emily Watson (of Harry Potter fame) to play Amélie, but circumstances led him to cast Audrey Tatou – and a good thing, too. Tatou is totally believable as the quirky, introverted waitress who embraces a mission of making others happy in imaginative ways.

In a sense, this is a “manic pixie dream girl” movie with greater substance. For one thing, we get to see what motivates Amélie Poulin to go out and make the world better, one stranger or couple at a time. She is thus no longer a zany plot device, but an actual person with background and depth. Nor do we see her focusing on just one stiff sap – she returns some treasured toys to their original owner, reunites an estranged couple, comforts an abandoned widow, gives a blind man a magical tour of Paris, et cetera. And we delight in every episode, as though we are accessories in her happy conspiracy.

But there’s another reason why Amélie goes beyond the standard manic-pixie-dream-girl trope, and it is the reason why I especially recommend it to UUs. As Amélie goes about making people happy, it is her neighbor Raymond Dufayel who reminds her of the need to cultivate her own bliss, which she does (and no, I’m not going to spoil it by telling you how). Often I’ve seen UUs and other progressives striving so very hard to make the world better somehow, while neglecting their own souls. If this film tells us anything, it is the importance of self-care and self-affirmation, and from that the reminder that our efforts are not merely for one cause or another, but for people like ourselves, and ultimately ourselves as well.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Harold and Maude

An experiment was once done in which a screenwriter submitted a script titled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” to over two hundred agencies, of which only three considered it “commercially viable”. In fact, the script was a slightly altered version of Casablanca - and not one agent who bothered to read it recognized it as such.

So imagine the response of agents and film producers now if they had read the screenplay for the cult classic Harold and Maude.

Harold Chasen is seventeen years old, living with his wealthy mother in luxurious yet suffocating conformity. Two of his favorite pastimes are staging fake suicides and attending the funerals of total strangers. At one of these funerals, he meets a free-spirited elderly woman named Maude, and they become friends. Maude’s cheerful yet eccentric behavior not only appeals to Harold, but teaches him to embrace life more fully, and in time their friendship becomes a love affair – much to the shock of the more conventional folks around him.

Harold and Maude seems to defy convention by being both dark and light in its comedy, while also mixing in poignant moments in its dialogue and visual symbolism to provide some serious commentary on how our society appears to repress individuality. The character of Maude has been compared to the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, yet I would refute this – Maude may bubble over with youthful exuberance, but she also possesses genuine wisdom and insight, such as in this excerpt:

Not to mention the fact that Harold actually grows as a result of Maude’s encouragement, finally moving beyond his morbid antics into a full embrace of life, still quirky yet very much in tune with his true self, and indeed healing. The ending leaves it open where he’s going, but we feel assured that he’s finally on a path that will lead him forward.

Many have commented that Harold and Maude is deeply existential, with Harold representing alienated nihilism, and Maude the response of living with purpose and free choice. Yet I would contend that it is about how our society ignores, marginalizes and attempts to control those who don’t “fit in” – including and especially youth (Harold) and elders (Maude) – and attempts to address how we might respond. I believe this motif is best expressed in this pivotal scene:

As the above scene shows, there are spiritual consequences to how we deal with difference in our society – and in our UU congregations. How best do we respond to that? This film, I believe, gives us insights into doing so. We need not march in picket lines or steal cars, nor retreat into obsession over the dark side of human nature, but instead embrace with joy our capacity to change and grow each day, and encourage those around us to do the same.