Selma, Ferguson, Madison: Thoughts and links on the film

I had the chance to watch Selma over the weekend. It’s a powerful film that has aroused controversy over its depiction of the events surrounding the Selma marches. There has been an outcry over its depiction of conflict between LBJ and MLK. As the first attempt at a biopic of MLK (itself something of a shock given his iconic status in 21st-century America), it may open the door for other cinematic treatments of him and the Civil Rights movement. Given that Hollywood’s focus i such films is too often on the “white savior,” telling the story from an African-American perspective is important.

In addition to the strong performances and breathtaking photography, I was moved by the powerful resonances between Selma and our own day. It was eerie, given the GOP’s relentless attacks on voting rights, to watch as African-Americans fought for the right to vote. The tactics may have changed but the effort to disenfranchise is as strong as ever. In addition, events over the last year, from Ferguson to Eric Garner, continue to show that even with civil rights, African-Americans are treated differently by the justice system and their lives mean little to political and economic elites.

There’s still something shocking about the overt racism and violence depicted in the film. While watching, it’s easy to demonize George Wallace and Jim Clark and others who opposed the efforts to end segregation and gain voting rights. Such outward displays of racism have become anathema in our culture. Still, racism is insidious, the challenges African-Americans face in our society are as great as ever, and we need to face the reality that we are as far from a color-blind society and achieving King’s dream today as we were fifty years ago.

A fairly nuanced look at the historical debate surrounding the film (it distorts the relationship between MLK and LBJ) from the New York Times.

Representative John Lewis has this to say

And “Selma” does more than bring history to life, it enlightens our understanding of our lives today. It proves the efficacy of nonviolent action and civic engagement, especially when government seems unresponsive. With poignant grace, it demonstrates that Occupy, inconvenient protests and die-ins that disturb our daily routine reflect a legacy of resistance that led many to struggle and die for justice, not centuries ago, but in our lifetimes. It reminds us that the day could be approaching when that price will be required again.

But now this movie is being weighed down with a responsibility it cannot possibly bear. It’s portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the Selma marches has been called into question. And yet one two-hour movie cannot tell all the stories encompassed in three years of history — the true scope of the Selma campaign. It does not portray every element of my story, Bloody Sunday, or even the life of Martin Luther King Jr. We do not demand completeness of other historical dramas, so why is it required of this film?

My former professor Harvey Cox was interviewed about his friendship with MLK. Harvey used to talk about his participation in the Selma marches in class (including photographs) but there’s a great deal in this interview I had never heard before.

Peter Dreier writes about Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who is not portrayed in the film, but was at Selma, made important contributions to the Civil Rights movement, and was an important interpreter of Judaism to Christian America in the decades after World War II.

Noah: I’m going to go see it!

So, after reading a bunch of stuff about Noah, I’ve decided to go see it. Although I’ve not seen all of Darren Aronofsky’s movies, I have found his work thoughtful, challenging, and entertaining (especially The Wrestler and Pi). Among the most interesting reviews and writing about Noah are these:

Noah: A Jewish perspective:

Noah is not a hero in Jewish lore. The Bible says that Noah was a righteous man “in his generation.” He was only a righteous man compared to the others who were far worse than he.

Now, why wasn’t he righteous? Because righteousness is all about what you do for your fellow man. And Noah does NOTHING for his fellow man. He doesn’t care, he has no compassion. He executes God’s commandment to the letter. So when God says “I’m going to kill everybody,” Noah says, “will you save my skin? Oh, I get an Ark? Okay, fine.”

From Christianity Today:

Rather, it’s a movie that approaches the level of “good art.” It asks big questions. It explores concepts like grace, justice, pride, guilt, and love. It respects its source material and respects the power of human imagination. It takes a sober look at the evil in the human heart.

An interview with Aronofsky and Ari Handel, his co-writer from Christianity Today

Tony Jones:

From the New York Times:

“Noah” is occasionally clumsy, ridiculous and unconvincing, but it is almost never dull, and very little of it has the careful, by-the-numbers quality that characterizes big-studio action-fantasy entertainment. The riskiest thing about this movie is its sincerity: Mr. Aronofsky, while not exactly pious, takes the narrative and its implications seriously. He tries not only to explore what the story of the flood might mean in the present age of environmental anxiety and apocalyptic religion, but also, more radically, to imagine what it might have felt like to live in a newly created, already-ruined world, and to scan the skies for clues about what its creator might be thinking.

Andrew O’Hehir (Salon):

“Noah” is a grandiose and baffling journey that’s almost worth taking, a free-form adaptation of one of the world’s most famous myths that halfheartedly tries to appease those who long to take it literally. When it connects it’s awesome, and when it doesn’t it’s awesomely silly. If it’s a bad idea, at least it’s a bad idea on a grand scale, and a better bad idea than 90 percent of the ones that reach the screen from Hollywood.

A Polite Bribe: Provocative Documentary about St. Paul

On January 29 at 7:00pm at Union South, there will be a screening of the new documentary Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe. More information about the screening is here. It’s an innovative documentary in that it avoids the usual techniques of biblical and historical films. There no shots of intrepid scholars walking through ancient ruins and no actors in bathrobes and sandals depicting scenes from the New Testament.

Instead, film-maker Robert Orlando makes effective use of animation to tell the story but much of the narrative is carried by New Testament scholars. What’s perhaps most interesting is that he weaves together the words of scholars from very different perspectives to create a coherent story.

It’s a story that rarely is given a central place in the scholarly treatment of Paul (although I remember that when I took an undergraduate course on Paul many years ago, we began with the collection). In his letters, Paul mentions a collection he is taking up for the church in Jerusalem (eg I Cor. 16:1-4). In Acts, Paul brings the collection to Jerusalem where he is arrested. Orlando interprets the story of the collection that Paul brings to Jerusalem as an attempt to preserve the unity within earliest Christianity, his effort to maintain relations between the predominantly Jewish Christian community of Jerusalem, and the communities of largely Gentile Christians that Paul was creating in Asia Minor and Greece.

Mark Goodacre, Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School reviews it here. He writes:

I was impressed by the way that the film manages to weave a story that scholars know well into a narrative that would be comprehensible and compelling to those with no knowledge of the field.  It’s certainly something I would enjoy using in the classroom, but I suspect that those who will enjoy it most will be those who are unaccustomed to reflecting critically on Paul’s biography.

David Mays offers what he likes and doesn’t like about the film, concluding that it is well-worth watching.

James McGrath writes:

I honestly cannot think of another single documentary film about the Bible which has such a wide array of the very best and best-known scholars from around the world in it. The movie would be worth watching just to hear those scholars speak, even if they only spoke in the proportion that is common in documentaries. But scholars speaking makes up the vast majority of the film’s verbal component. And in addition to hearing scholars speak clearly and compellingly about Paul, you’ll also get to hear Ben Witherington do an impression of a mafia godfather.

I had a chance to watch it a couple of months ago and I was struck by the wide range of scholars who were interviewed, by the depth of the scholarship behind the film and conveyed by it as well. I was also intrigued by the film’s overall perspective. Having taught Paul in Intro to Bible and Intro to NT classes many times over the years, I know that the collection never played a significant role in the story of Paul that I taught even if it had in my own undergraduate introduction to Paul. Was it a bribe? Who knows? Was it at least partly Paul’s attempt to smooth over relations with the Jerusalem community? Undoubtedly.

The evening at UW a talk by Orlando, a panel discussion by UW faculty, as well as the screening. I hope a lot of people turn out. More information is available here.

The Banality of Evil

I saw Hannah Arendt over the weekend. It’s a very good film directed by Margaretha von Trotta with Barbara Sukowa in the title role (The two have collaborated often before, most recently in the bio-pic of Hildegard of Bingen Vision).

I was as excited when I heard about this movie as I had been when I heard about Vision. There was a period in my life when I was very engaged with the history, religion, and culture of Germany of the first half of the twentieth century. Long ago I had read Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. I was also familiar with the biography and thought of Martin Heidegger who appears in the film and with Karl Jaspers who directed Arendt’s dissertation.

I’m interested in the nature of evil, both intellectually and as a pastor and was curious to see how von Trotta and Sukowa would tell the story.

Hannah Arendt was the Jewish-German-American philosopher and political theorist who coined the phrase “banality of evil” in her work Eichmann in Jerusalem. The movie gives us a little bit of background about Arendt, including her relationship as a student with Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, but its focus is on the trial of Adolf Eichmann and on Arendt’s efforts to make sense of the evil of the Holocaust and the evil of Eichmann.

It’s a movie about thinking, a theme Arendt first brings up with Heidegger as a gangly student. She wants him to teach her to think. Throughout the film, we see her thinking, almost always with a cigarette in her hand. She may be staring out the window, staring at her typewriter, or lying on her day bed avoiding the calls from William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker who had contracted with her for a series of articles about the trial.

We also learn about the controversy her articles and then book unleashed. Her interpretation of Eichmann was widely condemned in Israel and in the US for letting him off the hook. Even more controversial was her charge that Jewish officials in the Third Reich (die Judenräte) collaborated with the Nazis.

Von Trotta made the decision to use footage from the trial in her film. Although a number of reviewers have criticized her for it, I found the scenes from the trial especially powerful and unsettling. Eichmann is shown to be a little man, perfectly ordinary, just as Arendt described, on display in a glass cage. He doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on around him and the fact that he had a cold during the proceedings makes him seem even more pathetic.

It’s sometimes said that Arendt got the philosophy right but history wrong–in other words that she was correct in claiming that the horrors of the Holocaust were often perpetrated by ordinary people following orders, but that in the case of Eichmann, he was in fact a committed Nazi and Anti-Semite. There’s evidence on both sides of this issue though I find Roger Berkowitz’s defense of Arendt in the New York Times convincing:

Arendt concluded that evil in the modern world is done neither by monsters nor by bureaucrats, but by joiners.

That evil, Arendt argued, originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. It is the meaning Eichmann finds as part of the Nazi movement that leads him to do anything and sacrifice everything. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.

Fr. Robert Barron points out the Augustinian background of Arendt’s position. He quotes her:

In a text written during the heat of bitter controversy surrounding her book, Arendt tried to explain in greater detail what she meant by calling evil banal: “Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension, yet — and this is its horror! — it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world.”

Arendt’s dissertation was on the concept of love in Augustine. Augustine finally began to move toward Christianity when he came to understand that evil is non-existent, in-substantial. Arendt’s contrast between radical and extreme could be traced back to Augustine.

The film left me with some unsettled questions, specifically about the relevance of Arendt’s analysis to the present. We have seen some horrific deeds in the last decade or a little more. The images from Abu Ghraib, the revelations that the CIA and other US agencies used torture, the ongoing use of drones, and most recently the examples of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Peter Ludlow makes the connections between them and “the banality of evil” here.

Roger Ebert–Let light perpetual shine upon him

I suppose I am not alone in saying that Roger Ebert taught me how to watch movies. I was a huge fan of “Siskel and Ebert” from the first time I saw it back in the seventies. As a kid from a small town without a movie theater and limited to whatever came to the small towns near us, or if we were really adventurous, to the early multiplexes in Toledo, Siskel and Ebert gave me a critical lens through which to think about the films I did see. I don’t know when I fell in love with the movies; it was probably in Boston in the early eighties, with the wonderful series at the Janus cinema, and the great double features at the old Harvard Square theater. Ebert remained my guide after the arrival of the vcr and video rentals. His paperback guide to the movies helped me negotiate the vast catalog of foreign films and Hollywood films from before the seventies that I had never seen.

For a few years, I was an amateur movie critic as well. That was well after the emergence of the internet. Ebert’s reviews were a crucial first-read when dealing with movies that I’d never seen but had to write about.

I always found his insights into the spiritual and religious aspects of film enlightening. Although not a conventional believer in any sense of the term, he had a keen sense of the deeper meaning of movies and the deeper questions that human beings ask, and he could write eloquently about both.

In 2011, he wrote about his own death here in the essay, “I do not fear death

A few weeks ago, he wrote about Cathoiicism on the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation:

I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God. I refuse to call myself an atheist, however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable. My beliefs were formed long ago from good-hearted Dominican sisters, and many better-qualified RCs might disagree.

His review of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life is beautiful, insightful and self-revelatory.

 

Torture and Zero Dark Thirty

I won’t see the film but I’m interested in the debate over its depiction of torture. In the New York Review of Books, Steve Coll writes:

Official torture is not an anathema in much of the United States; it is a credible policy choice. In public opinion polling, a bare majority of Americans opposes torturing prisoners in the struggle against terrorism, but public support for torture has risen significantly during the last several years, a change that the Stanford University intelligence scholar Amy Zegart has attributed in part to the influence of “spy-themed entertainment.”

Even if torture worked, it could never be justified because it is immoral. Yet state-sanctioned, formally organized forms of torture recur even in developed democracies because some public leaders have been willing to attach their prestige to an argument that in circumstances of national emergency, torture may be necessary because it will extract timely intelligence relevant to public safety when more humane methods of interrogation will not.

There is no empirical evidence to support this argument. Among other things, no responsible social scientist would condone peer-reviewed experiments to compare torture’s results to those from less coercive questioning. Defenders of torture in the United States therefore argue by issuing a flawed syllogism: the CIA tortured al-Qaeda suspects; those suspects provided information that helped to protect the public; therefore, torture was justified and even essential.

Andrew Sullivan is relentless in exploring the film’s perspective on torture. Here’s what he says about the filmmakers’ choice not to depict the debate over the morality and efficacy of torture, even within the Bush administration, and between the CIA and FBI:

One has to wonder whether any morally serious director would have chosen a morally-neutral approach to torture if she were portraying torture practiced by, say, the Iranian terror state, or by Nazis or Communists? The techniques are exactly the same. Is not taking a stand as you present such evil itself an endorsement? My sense is that Bigelow and Boal talked to some of those war criminals who did the torture and since torturers have to find some way to justify their acts, and because they are modern Americans fighting terror, the director simply did not have the courage to confront them with the fact that they belong in jail and hell for what they did.

From Jane Mayer:

I had trouble enjoying the movie. I’ve interviewed Khaled El-Masri, the German citizen whose suit the E.C.H.R. adjudicated. He turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, an innocent car salesman whom the C.I.A. kidnapped and held in a black-site prison for four months, and who was “severely beaten, sodomized, shackled, and hooded.” What Masri lived through was so harrowing that, when I had a cup of coffee with him, a few years ago, he couldn’t describe it to me without crying. Maybe I care too much about all of this to enjoy it with popcorn. But maybe the creators of “Zero Dark Thirty” should care a little bit more.