Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis

Well, I am proud to announce that for the first time in my life I have completely read through The Chronicles of Narnia. It took time (about four months) and occasionally quite a bit of effort (the first and last books). I read other books every now and then for a change of pace, but I always went back to it. And I enjoyed every minute of it. I’ll have more to say about my journey through Narnia a bit later, but for now I’m going to limit myself to The Last Battle.

As I said previously on this blog, I dreaded this book more than any of the others because I hate endings and goodbyes. But even though I knew that’s what this book essentially was, somehow it didn’t feel too painfully so until the very end. And even then, it wasn’t so much the pain of goodbye, as it was a kind of growing pain, like being stretched to fit something or to see something I had never seen before. Perhaps that’s because it wasn’t really an ending at all, but a beginning. As Lewis himself said, “Chapter One of the Great Story.

The story begins centuries if not millennia ahead in the future after The Silver Chair. A foolish ass and manipulating ape come together and set up a false Aslan in Narnia, an act that proves the undoing of Narnia and some of its inhabitants. Even after the King comes and unmasks the impostor, the Narnian dwarves do not respond as he expects.

This was the most terrifying and painful part of the entire book for me. Instead of repenting and returning to Aslan, they decide all Aslans must be false, tricks used by cruel men to attain power over fools. Granted, it didn’t help that the impostors borrowed Aslan and his people’s own phrase, “He is not a tame Lion.” The liars and truth-tellers had that much and that little in common, but it was enough to muddy the waters for those who did not want to see. But that is the way all lies work. Mix in just enough truth, and it always sounds better. The tricky part is not throwing out the truth with the lie, something many Narnian dwarves couldn’t master, something even I have trouble with sometimes. The cry of the dwarves became, in essence, “No God, No King. We need no one to rule over us, neither you nor your Aslan.”

Even sadder than the rebel dwarves, were the relatively innocent Narnians who fell for the false Aslan. So often they would start to question whether he was who he said he was. At each new violation of Aslan’s essential nature, they would become suspicious. “Would Aslan really do that? Would he really say that?” And then another cry of, “He is not a tame Lion” would arise, something they all believed, and they would close their mouths under the (accurate) belief that they could not judge what was right or wrong for Aslan to do. But the misguided Narnians’ problem was that they confused his not being tame with changeableness. Aslan is definitely not tame. Who can tell him what to do, or command and control him? But Aslan can never go against what he has said and done in the past. He can never contradict himself in word or deed. And I like to think that is the one way to always recognize a false Aslan.

This book was definitely the most intense of the series. I’m not sure I’ve read anything more terrifying and depressing than the phrase, “Narnia is no more.” I knew it was coming, but it still did not make it easy. I hate endings (have I said that before?) and there were many good reminders in The Last Battle that they are unavoidable, but are also frequently tempered with joy and sweetness.

…remember that all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.
But what became the highlight of the entire book for me, and quite probably the highlight of the entire series (although I need to think about that a bit more first) was The World Beyond The Door. The New Narnia. Endings are unpleasant for me, generally because there is No More. Just nothing. Or even worse, something that is even worse than nothing. If Lewis had simply ended Narnia, ended the characters, ended everything and not shown the New World, I would be spouting vitriol right now. The same would be true if he had written some insubstantial, ethereal realm where everyone sat on clouds playing harps and singing. But he didn’t. What he did was everything I wanted and didn’t know I wanted. It’s the opposite of everything that makes me uncomfortable or afraid when imagining what heaven is commonly thought to be. What he did was more powerful, encouraging, and comforting than anything I could’ve imagined. And it’s something you can’t understand or explain until you read it for yourself. Really, there is no higher recommendation I know how to give for this book. These last chapters (yes, chapters plural – Lewis takes his time showing the New Narnia) were, for me, view changing.

Narnia is not dead. This is Narnia…That was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia…All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course ir is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream
This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.
Far from a misty cloud-filled realm, it is life and living. It is real reality, the original reality. And it is a whole world, even worlds within worlds, just beyond the door. Somehow this book helped me feel just a little more confident, a little more brave, and a little more able to “take the adventure that Aslan sends me.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Manic Monday XI

While I’m home from a vacation to the Pacific Northwest, I’m afraid I’m mentally not quite home yet. I’ve been unpacking for two days, and there may be another day or two of unpacking ahead. I had many boxes of things left up north from a prolonged (five month) vacation last summer, that were not able to come home with me until now. Mostly books. A lot of books. Books everywhere. Really though, I feel like that is quite a good problem to have. And it gives me a legitimate excuse to organize and reorganize my shelves, one of my favorite pastimes. There are few things I like to play with so much as books.

Vacation was full of fun times as usual. Friends, family, nature – everything I love. It also included my first trip to a pumpkin patch since I was three years old, and my first time through a corn maze ever, perfect fall pastimes.

As soon as the last four stacks of books are shelved and I have (partially) reclaimed my room from the rampaging horde, it’s back to life as usual, but hopefully moving forward in a better direction in one or two areas, particularly meal planning (the bane of my existence), time management (also known as “being an adult”), and general organization. Hopefully there will be personal improvement in all of these areas that will carry over to this blog as well.

It may take me a day or two to get back in the swing of things, but I hope to have some exciting travel posts and, as usual, book reviews coming up soon! And now I’m going to go play with my books.

Has everyone else been enjoying their fall?

Friday, October 9, 2015

Bernie (2011)

Often movie reviews can be difficult, especially if they’re somehow a more controversial film. What people watch, how they watch, and the way they come away feeling are all so relative that it can be very hard to know how to explain your view of a movie, when you know many other people view it differently. So many times, it’s simply a matter of perspective. If you happen to have a different perspective than mine, I understand and respect that, but as I’ve said in the past, I can only share my perspective.

The most important thing to know about Bernie going in, is that it is based on a true story. As such, if you want to get into a discussion about it, you have to draw from reality, as well as the screen presentation of the story. But let’s start with the film.

Here’s the summary as explained by Google:

Assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is one of the most-beloved residents in the small Texas town of Carthage. Sunday-school teacher, choir member and creator of spectacular funerals, Bernie is a friend to everyone, including Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a rich but nasty widow whom no one else likes. When Marjorie is found shot to death and stuffed in a freezer, Bernie is charged with the murder, and concerned Carthage citizens immediately spring to his defense.
Now let me just say up front, this is not a mystery at all. It is made perfectly clear that Bernie is indeed guilty. That is not in question at all. What is in question is whether he was semi-justified in his action, a premise that makes me laugh and despair at the same time. Unless it’s in self-defense at threat of danger, or in defense of another for the same reason is it ever justified to murder someone? Let alone the murder of an unarmed 81 year old woman by a 38 year old? And even if you don’t believe he was justified, the movie clearly aims (and for most people succeeds) at making you feel sorry for Bernie and feel that maybe he could still be a good person, a Christian even, who simply did a bad thing…rather like David with Bathsheba and Uriah.

I’d be the first person to say, “OF COURSE a Christian can sin, even egregiously, and still be a Christian.” But a film adaptation was not nearly enough to make me take Bernie Tiede at face value. A decision that proved wise when I looked deeper into reality and found much more than what the film let on. You read a few newspaper articles and find that Bernie really was a closeted homosexual, something that was glossed over in the film. You also find that the filmmaker Linklater was hoping to bring more sympathetic attention to Tiede’s case.

And it worked. After the film was released, a new defense attorney looked at his case, one thing led to another and Tiede’s sentence was reduced to time served. And when he was released on bail, he moved in with Linklater. Call me crazy, but it might seem like Linklater wasn’t exactly objective. Again, his guilt or innocence is not in question. He confessed. I don’t particularly want to get into the details of why his sentence was reduced here, but at the end of this review I’ll include links to two articles I found helpful in understanding this movie and story a bit better.

The film is done almost in a docu-drama style - "mock-umentary" I believe it's called. Large portions of the story are acted out normally, but interspersed throughout are “interviews” with members of the community, concerning Bernie, Marjorie, and all the happenings. This style wouldn’t normally appeal to me, but they captured the attitude and spirit of a small rural town so perfectly, that it was positively hilarious. Oh, did I mention that? This entire movie, dealing with the brutal murder of a widow is a comedy. I have to say, they pulled off the dark comedy perfectly, if you like that kind of thing. I do. The interviews with all the little old ladies and the codger-ly  farmers were hysterical, or at least they are when you’ve spent time in towns like that.

But as funny as it was, I did not all appreciate the purpose and slant of this film. It was clearly biased to make you excuse Bernie’s actions, and to make you take him as a wonderful, sweet, Christian man, active in his town, and beloved by all. On top of that, Christianity is very subtly mocked in this film. Not openly or insultingly. More like a kind of condescending big-brother type of mockery. They poke fun at the Christianity in the town, and in such a manner that it really is funny, rather than offensive. Which almost annoys me more than if it had been an open assault.

Bernie is a very interesting film, and absolutely guaranteed to spark conversations, even debates afterward. But before you get into arguments over it, look into the true story, and you’ll be armed to separate fact from fiction – a completely necessary task for this film. It is quite funny, and generally pretty enjoyable to watch. Jack Black is as spectacular as always in the title role, but almost equally hilarious was Matthew McConaughey as prosecutor Danny Buck. But it is not in any way a family film. Depending on your family’s watching habits older children could probably enjoy it. Be warned that there is discussion of whether Bernie is homosexual, a few other innuendoes, and two or three strong profanities.

And after watching it, if you’re interested in understanding what really happened, what’s true and what's not, I found these two articles very helpful in understanding it, both for myself and for discussing it with others:

At the same time, it may be fun just to write off any discussions or analyzing and simply take it at face value - a snarky dark comedy, in which case, it really is quite satisfying.

Have any of you seen this? Think you’re interested? Comment below!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Serendipity (2001)

All chick flicks are basically flawed, in that they are feel-good films designed to make the impossible seem possible. This is part of their charm, but when it’s not done quite right, it can be extremely obnoxious. I have to say, I do enjoy many chick flicks. I’m picky about them, but some of my very favorite films are chick flicks, and the more straightforward they are, the more I will enjoy it.

Serendipity was not straightforward. It was extremely circular, full of mumbo-jumbo, and continual near-misses at happiness. You know the kind of scene I’m talking about, where two characters are trying to find each other, and as soon as one of them gets near the other, the other leaves and they’ve lost each other again. An Affair to Remember is a good example of this kind of thing, but no spoilers here. Now An Affair to Remember is one of my favorite classic films, but the near-miss only happens one time. In Serendipity it happens over. And over. And over. Until I was even more thoroughly frustrated than I was in the first several minutes of the movie.

Let’s backtrack a little bit. Serendipity starts out with two strangers, Jonathan and Sara, meeting each other by accident while Christmas shopping in New York City. They laugh, they talk, they seem to hit it off, so they go for a coffee together, and decide they’re perfect for each other. Or rather, Jonathan feels they’re perfect for each other, and Sara believes only fate can decide their…well, fate. She keeps insisting they need “a sign” that they’re supposed to be together, they need to allow fate to work. Now, this wasn’t just an attempt to get rid of an annoying guy. She genuinely likes him, and he is head over heels for her. But her head is so stuffed full of nonsense she refuses to do anything. Instead she chooses passivity, saying “Fate will bring us together.” She sends her phone number out into the world hidden inside a copy of a book, and if fate brings him the book, they will find each other and live happily ever after. And then after playing many games with him, trying to find “signs” from fate (“you push an elevator button, and if I press the same one in a different elevator, we’re meant to be together”), she leaves.

Now, I’m going to be totally honest. I feel like only an absolute certifiable psycho would behave like that. Or if not a psycho, a player. From a different perspective, you could say it’s sweet and romantic. But I couldn’t separate this film from reality. In reality, if any girl pulled that on a guy, most of us would advise him to run for his life. I feel this way, because I’ve seen it happen. So many times, we expect guys to move heaven and earth for us, to jump through any hoop we put in front of them. I’m sorry, but that’s not love. Love is two-sided. Love means you both work for each other, you work together, and you both do what it will take. It is not asking your partner to perform great feats to prove something to you. If you want a real relationship, don’t waste time playing games like that. Spend your time building each other, and building together.

Aside from the game-playing side of things, I was also really frustrated by the sunshine-and-lollipops side of fatalism. The idea that we don’t have to do anything but sit back and let our lives be lived for us. We don’t have to choose to work for a relationship, because it will magically happen for us. But choosing not to make choices, choosing not to work is still an active choice. There is no such thing as true passivity. Only cowardice. We don’t get to sit back and blindly trust fate, God, etc., to work everything out, and say we don’t have to do anything. Yes, God works all things for our good, but we are also told to work out our own lives as well. We don’t get to hide behind fate, behind our parents, or even behind God, and say they get to live our lives for us. We are to live in the light of wisdom, trust, and knowledge, not sit back on our haunches saying, “What will be will be, so I don’t have to do anything.”

I’m sure you can tell by now, this was not a movie I enjoyed at all. Sara annoyed me for the above reasons. Jonathan annoyed me for how hotly he pursued such a psycho woman who wasn’t even willing to be with him when they both claimed they wanted to be together; how he mooned over her for ten years. Ten years, that she had inflicted on him unnecessarily, simply to satisfy her own notions of fate and destiny.

This was another point I disagreed with Sara on. Now this quote, I actually agree with. It's a wonderful, beautiful quote, and I love it by itself. Life is a kind of tapestry. It has a plan, forms a picture that maybe we cannot see when you look at one or two threads. But in context in the movie, Sara makes it clear that culmination of this plan, in her view, is the finding of one’s soulmate. That is the entire point of life’s plan. See any problems here? Like, when you find your “soulmate”…what then? Your life no longer has a plan and purpose? What if you don’t have a destined soulmate? Maybe I’m taking this film too seriously, but that’s how I tend to watch most films…consciously and analytically, and I can only write about my perspective of them.

Yes, in the end as in every chick flick ever made (spoiler alert) they all live happily after. Fate brings everyone together. The realist best friends (who were the only aspect of this film I enjoyed) were proven wrong and also embraced the romanticized view of life, and the excessive optimism. But that’s not how it works in real life. Sometimes when you walk away from a relationship, that’s it. You don’t get second chances. Sometimes goodbye is goodbye, and sometimes you don’t even get a goodbye. Life isn’t neat and tidy, tied up in lovely little packages.

I suppose that’s the charm of chick flicks, but it’s also their biggest flaw. We like to think the lovely little packages are possible. I don’t object to that, per se. Sometimes it’s nice to see something work out so perfectly. But sometimes the message behind the lovely little package is more than I can handle. That was the case with this one. I believe our lives and experiences color the way we view things, even films. And I’ve known one too many Saras, and I’ve seen one too many Jonathan’s get hurt by game-players. So that colored my view.

Other people may be able to look at it simply as a nice fluffy fairy tale, and take it lightly. If so, I’m happy for you, because I can tell it really would be a fun film, if you can get past and ignore the bizarre fatalistic philosophies. As I’ve said in the past, I’m a major overthinker. I analyze everything, and movies are no different. If anything I analyze them more. (It's a family thing.) Sometimes that brings me more enjoyment, sometimes, as with this, it brings me less, but most other people would probably enjoy the romantic side of it. Really, when they started looking for each other, even I was able to enjoy the treasure-hunt aspect of it, even though the series of near-misses started to grate on me after awhile.

As far as content, there are no sex scenes, very little language, and a small amount of innuendo. Parts of it are quite hilarious, and the best friends of the main couple, made the entire film almost worth it, even to me, especially Jonathan’s friend Dean. If you give it a try, or if you have already watched it, how about posting comment below letting me know your view of it?