The Ironic Vision of Salvation in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler [2008]

Was Newsweek intending to be ironic? I don't really think so...

Was Newsweek intending to be ironic? I don’t really think so…

Randy “The Ram” Robinson (AKA Robin Ramzinski) is a professional wrestler past his expiry date. Popular in the 80s, he continues to live for his former fame—wrestling on the weekends while he makes a living shoving boxes at the local grocery store. His best “friend” and confidant is a stripper, Cassidy—also past her prime and living in the past—for whose services he regularly pays. In the film we follow Randy through a crisis of identity when, because of heart problems, he can no longer wrestle. So he asks for more hours at the grocery store, seeks to amend his relations with his daughter, and attempts to advance his relationship with Cassidy. Randy, played superbly by Mickey Rourke, is eminently likeable; you earnestly yearn for him to succeed. But in the end all these efforts fail, and Randy, despite the danger, turns back to the one thing he knows and does well: he returns to the ring. In the final frame we are left to wonder if this choice has led to his death.

The Wrestler is a movie about professional wrestling, about aging, about identity, and about brokenness. It is also a movie about salvation. This is a connection—between professional wrestling and salvation—which may seem either strained or obvious, depending on your attentiveness to the images in the film. Let me see if I can make it explicit. Early on in the movie, after a night of wrestling, Rourke visits Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) in order to ‘relax.’ While she gyrates alluringly on his lap, they have a bizarre conversation—in fact, Rourke seems totally disinterested in her body; he mostly just wants to talk. At the end of her dance, Tomei re-clothes herself and, drawing close to Rourke, exclaims, “Oh Jesus, you’re bleeding” (he had cut himself wrestling earlier that night). This prompts Rourke to begin talking about and pointing to his various injuries in the wrestling ring, and in response, Tomei begins to quote, of all things, from Isaiah 53:

He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities.
The punishment that brought us peace was upon him;
And by his wounds we were healed.

This is an almost absurdly ‘on the nose’ moment—apparently, we are to think of “The Ram” as a Christ figure, working out our salvation in the ring, enduring suffering on our behalf and vicariously for us. When Rourke expresses confusion about what Tomei has just recited, she tells us that it’s from “The Passion of the Christ” and seals the deal further by commenting that Rourke “has the same hair”—that is, Jesus hair.The Wrestler: Jesus Hair

While this is the single most ‘on the nose’ Christ-figure moment in the film, there are other nods to the Christ motif as well. For example, “The Ram” has a tattoo of Jesus’ face in the upper middle of his back—one that is obscured most of the time by his long flowing Jesus-locks. Lastly, in the closing shot of the movie, when Rourke is once again taking the stage at great personal risk, ostensibly for the fans but also for himself, he stands, in obvious pain, upon the corner ropes and stretches out his arms in a semblance of the cross—his signature move—before jumping to what may be his death.

A cursory judgment about these images would lead us to conclude that Randy “The Ram” is a Christ figure and that the wrestling ring is a metaphor for suffering on behalf of others. But while the images seem to lead us there I’m not so sure that’s what director Darren Aronofsky has in mind. In fact, I think that he is making a far more subtle and ironic point, and while I still believe that The Wrestler is a film about salvation, it is a skewed vision of salvation—one that frames a corrupted and failed salvation. The Wrestler, in short, is about how we attempt to create our own salvation through escape, about how we miss the pervasive clues which point to real salvation, and ultimately, about how we fail.

From the start, then, wrestling and exotic dancing seem clearly to be metaphors for escape, and Rourke and Tomei are clearly images of people who have dwelt too long in the realm of their escapes. Professional wrestling is the escape into imitated violence, imitated drama; it is the vicarious experience of violent drama for the benefit of a testosterone-fueled audience. Exotic dancing is a sad parody of relationship. Both are paid experiences. Both ‘careers’ demand bodies which are sculpted and unrealistic. Both are boundaried and fabricated experiences. Both answer the longing for something far more real and more elusive, but at the same time both deceive us powerfully. And yet we are willing to be deceived. As Marisa Tomei gyrates alluringly above Mickey Rourke’s body, we are struck by the fact that she does not touch him in much the same way that he will fake his hits in the ring. A fake relationship, a fake fight, and both are escapes for which people eagerly pay.

The arc of the story, then, is to get both these characters out of their respective rings. Rourke must step out of the glamour of the 80s and into real life, and Tomei must leave her dancer’s den and care for her son. All this brings into particular focus one scene where Randy and Cassidy (whose real name is Pam) meet outside a thrift shop in daytime. They are both outside of their showcase workplaces. They are both ‘out of costume’ and are both, for the moment, real people. But what stands out remarkably is what is framed behind their heads during their conversation—that is, key words on the marquees behind them. Behind Mickey Rourke’s head are the words, in Spanish, “Jesus es el Señor”—translation, “Jesus is Lord.” Behind Marisa Tomei’s head are the words, “Clothing.” The words may be in the background, but their intention seems clear: both characters are shopping for something, and what they need is written for us to see.The Wrestler_Jesus is Lord

The Wrestler_ClothingBut, notably, the characters themselves cannot see it. Jesus is tattooed on Ram’s back, right when he’s always present but always invisible. It’s an interesting choice, and one that is reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s story Parker’s Back, in which the main character, although not religious, gets a tattoo of Jesus in the middle of his back. In that story, Jesus is present everywhere, giving order to chaos, but Parker refuses to submit. Misery drives him to Christ, but he refuses to see. Similarly, misery is driving Jesus-tattooed Rourke to a salvation outside of himself. We, the reader/viewer, can clearly see the grander story, but the characters within are blinded by their experiences.

In the end, “The Ram” goes back into the ring—he returns to his escape, to the fake world. He even claims that “The only place I get hurt is out there.” Real life is true pain, the wrestling arena is joy. Pam leaves her club and quits her job, coming to try and convince Randy to go away with her. He refuses, and she departs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the unspoken ending for her character, she doesn’t end up back in the strip club again.

What The Wrestler brings into focus is the sad and disturbing fact that Jesus is everywhere present but rarely acknowledged; ubiquitous, but ignored. The marks of grace surround Randy “The Ram”—in his strip club, behind his head, on his very body, and even in his ‘signature’ move—but he himself is unable to see them. Instead, he returns to his old ways, his old patterns. He quits his job, fails at repairing his relationship with his daughter, and takes his life into his own hands by going back into the ring. He engages in a twisted parody of salvation–one that resembles Jesus, but isn’t him. In this way he is an anti-hero, an example not to be followed, and what he represents most clearly is our propensity to choose a ‘salvation’ within our own grasp, our own power, rather than receive a real salvation on Someone Else’s terms. The proverb is once again proved: “As a dog returns to his vomit”—so also “The Ram” returns to what is poison in his life. And like him we also are trapped by the blindness of our cheap and meagre expectations; Jesus on our backs and hovering above our heads but never before our eyes. We are ignorant of the salvation that surrounds and permeates our lives.

The Wrestler was a poignant and challenging film, but I believe its deepest poignancy lies in its ironic presentation of the salvation narrative in the anti-salvation figure of Randy “The Ram.” And perhaps a final comment is in order regarding Mickey Rourke’s presence in the film. Many people have felt that The Wrestler bore striking parallels to the real-life narrative of Rourke’s life, praising his performance (which was indeed sublime) as a comeback similar to the story-arc of the film. (Newsweek even called it Rourke’s “Resurrection”!) And this should give us pause—“The Ram” finds his escape in the vicarious world of the ring, and his rest in the vicarious world of the strip club. But what world is more pervasively vicarious, and more pervasively fake, than the world of cinema? And to what degree are we, through our choices of escape, seeking to work out a kind of vicarious salvation through each paid entry into the cinematic world? And to what degree do we miss the presence of Jesus in the cinema house because we’re looking for something else? Make no mistake–Jesus is as present in cinema as he is in real life. But if we seek only escape, if our ends are false, then we will be as blind as the anti-hero of The Wrestler. 

[NB: The Wrestler is a fine piece of cinema, but I in no way recommend it to the casual viewer—not least because it is replete with nudity.]

The Return of the King: Three Unforgivables

Ah, books. Glorious books!

When I left the theater after The Fellowship of the Ring, I remember thinking, and then announcing to some of my companions, “They took a good book and turned it into a good movie.” I still believe this—because while it is a truism that in every transfer from one media to another a measure of change is anticipated, and indeed inevitable, in the case of the first movie that change was positive. Of course positive change like this is not the norm in book-to-movie transfers (a point which is frequently lamented by booklovers the world over), because it seems that most often the book-to-movie butterfly that emerges from the screenwriter’s chrysalis undergoes a violently unrecognizable transformation. It is a rare film indeed that surpasses its source material in quality.

When it came to the Lord of the Rings films I was willing, and eager, to be as forgiving as possible to the necessary changes the production team would bring to the films. I came to the films with a willingness to go with the changes and evaluate them on their own merits apart from the original books. As I mentioned, with The Fellowship of the Ring I was pleasantly surprised. My eyes narrowed, however, as the changes became more drastic and warped with The Two Towers. I was downright infuriated with The Return of the King.

Why on earth does this happen? I don't get it.

Before I vent my fury, allow me to clarify just how far I was willing to accept the changes made to Tolkien’s material. I was okay with the battle of Helm’s Deep ending The Two Towers and Shelob’s lair moving to The Return. I was willing to forgive Saruman’s spikey falling-death from Orthanc. I graciously accepted the omission of the Scouring of the Shire from the end of the film. I understood why the army of the dead is brought to the battle of the Pellenor Fields. I was even willing to forgive (barely) the illogical breaking of Gandalf’s staff. And I was willing to overlook (and attempt to ignore) the absurd, badly written, and poorly delivered speech by Aragorn at the end of the film (complete with cloying and out-of-the-can applause—shudder!). I may not understand each of these cinematic choices, but I am willing to accept them as inevitable alterations in the transfer of media. But the following three changes to The Return of the King were, in my estimation, unforgivable. They ruined the film for me.

Unforgivable #1: Light and Darkness

A significant—if not essential—narrative motif in The Return of the King is the interplay of light and darkness (a motif that stretches deep into Tolkien’s mythology). Gollum, who loves what is secret, hidden, and dark, despises and is terrified of the light. Shelob the spider is a creature of darkness, dwelling in darkness. And the orcs, of course, are the opposites of the elves, hating and loathing all light (Saruman’s orcs the exception by way of mutation). It is a significant plot point that Mordor employs the power of darkness to facilitate despair—before the siege of Gondor, Mordor, by craft, causes the sun to be obscured so that darkness will reign. The darkness causes men to despair and gives power to Sauron’s army of orcs.

Why, it's a bright summer day! Why so gloomy, Gondor?

No particularly in-depth reading of Tolkien’s books is required to appreciate this motif—it is clearly on the surface of the books. And so I was startled, as I watched the movie, to notice the proliferation of light—bright, hot, oversaturated sunlight on key scenes. Gondor, apparently, isn’t in darkness, but enjoys bright summer sun. Orcs are quite content to hang out in what amounts (in a later scene) to a bright, if overcast, day. Frodo and Gollum, while in Mordor (or near enough) find themselves lit by mysterious, bright white lights. Even Shelob’s lair, meant to be the blackest place in Middle Earth, is quite luminous by any standards. It is not too much to observe that the lighting in The Return of the King, bright, hot, and oversaturated, was atrocious.

Just some orcs, hanging out on a rather bright, if slightly overcast, day.

You might object that the filmmakers couldn’t capture everything, that some details were bound to be lost in the transfer process. You might argue that my critique here is unreasonable. But I want to remind you that we’re discussing a design team that painstakingly learned an invented elvish script so they could write words in languages nobody knows on props that nobody would see, and that at the same time they ‘forgot’ that two thirds of the movie takes place in darkness. The individual trees are beautiful, but something’s fishy about this forest.

Sigh. A scene made worse because so very... almost.

Because of this colossal, overarching, indeed epic, error, my favorite moment from Tolkien’s trilogy was flubbed. The riders of Rohan, completing their long journey, arrive at Minas Tirith to rescue the people of Gondor. With their arrival three things happen at once—first, the wind changes. A light breeze comes from over the sea which begins to turn the clouds of Sauron’s darkening magic back. With the breeze comes the dawn, ending the darkness and signaling the renewed hope for the men who fight Sauron, and lastly, with both the breeze and the dawn, the army of Rohan sounds their horns and rides into battle. Now, that moment of arrival is the critical, tide-turning moment in the battle. But in the film, since it’s already daylight, since the orcs are fighting in bright sun, since there is no culmination of events to highlight what is happening, the moment passes with all the fury of a mewing kitten. What had the potential to be, and ought to have been, the most cinematically stunning moment in all three films, was a complete flub. Unforgivable.

Unforgivable #2: Eowyn’s Feminist Utterance


So there’s this proverb in Tolkien’s universe that the Witch-King of Angmar (that is, the black-clad, black-crowned ringwraith riding that crazy dragon thing) cannot be killed by any man. This is a phrase the Witch-King has taken to heart, and he now fights with particular confidence against the men of Middle Earth. The problem, of course, is that he hasn’t accounted for either Hobbits or Irony—hence his death at the hands of Merry and Eowyn. Eowyn, who feels slighted by her gender and hungers for the glory of battle, has hidden herself among the riders of Rohan, riding to battle against the will of her uncle and brother. Brought face to face with the cruel ringwraith, he announces that no man can kill him, and she, removing her helmet and revealing her long blond locks, utters, defiantly, “I am no man.” She might as well have thumped her chest and grunted, “I am woman, hear me roar.”

Why should this be unforgivable? Because death, dying, and how you face those realities may be the central purpose of the entire Lord of the Rings. The real question which confronts each character is, “What will you do with death?” The ring represents the possibility of a kind of deathlessness—to cheat destiny and change our fortunes. Galadriel, remember, ‘passes the test’ because in refusing the ring she agrees to fade into the West. To reject the ring—to reject its power—is to accept the death which is destined for you. What that means for Eowyn, as a vignette in this symphony, is that her battlefield presence and cry is a rhapsody on death. To make it a feminist battle cry is to celebrate where Tolkien would have us weep. It is, in short, one of the most appalling alterations in the film.

Here then stands Eowyn, where in the books she is written to be at her most tragic, feminine, and beautiful, and instead she is shouting what has been turned into a feminist slogan. Her death song has been hijacked by a modernist agenda; cheapened to appeal to modern sensibilities. Feminism, let me be clear, is not in view here. Her cry of “I am no man” is not a challenge to masculinity, but rather the bitter acceptance of death, a despairing utterance of a woman with a great heart, now bitterly aware of the cost of battle to which her brother warned her. Eowyn has come to battle to die, not to live, and her cry is the suicide-cry of a soul despairing. Her beauty, then, stems from the pity we ought to feel at her disregard for her own life. Hers is not a heroism we should desire to emulate, which the feminist cry tempts us, but one that we should pity.

It is so easy, today, to cater to the expectations of your audience. After all, how do reach the other 50% of the population when the primary audience for your films are middle-aged and somewhat nerdy men? The need for stronger female characters than those Tolkien wrote is culturally evident. I have no problem with the films accenting the roles of Eowyn and Arwen, but when those accents are inimical to the underlying purpose of the books themselves, I have problems. In this case, instead of transcending and indeed transforming a culture with something poignant and deep, Eowyn’s cry becomes the cheap appeal to modern sensibilities. In the most tragic sense, here is an episode where the filmmakers have traded the real good for a false one (which I have written about elsewhere).

Unforgivable #3: The Deaths of Théoden and Denethor

I have said already that how one faces death is one of Tolkien’s central motifs in The Lord of the Rings, and within the series arguably the two brightest instances of this motif are in the character portraits of King Théoden and Denethor the Steward. Their portraits shine more brightly, in fact, because their deaths are directly contrasted.

When Eowyn says, "I'm going to save you," and Theoden replies, "You already did," I laughed out loud in the theater. Why? The obvious Star Wars Darth Vader/Luke moment.

Both men are aged, both lead nations. Both have been deceived by the enemy (Théoden by Saruman, Denethor by Sauron). Both must make a decision about how to respond to the enemy’s threat on behalf of their nation. Théoden, rescued from Saruman’s spell by Gandalf, takes up his sword and, from the moment of his healing, chooses to lay his life on the line. He chooses battle for the greater cause, rather than retreat and temporary safety. Théoden is one of the noblest characters in the whole book because of this choice—a choice which is utterly obscured by the film’s interpretation. In the end, Théoden’s death loses all its poetry because it had been stripped of its significance.

I scratched my head here. Really, I did.

Denethor’s case is similar. He refuses Gandalf’s advice, and, we learn, trusts instead in the council of Sauron via a seeing stone. His death is not a death given for others, as was Théoden’s, but is a tragic suicide in the rejection of all hope. The farthest thing I can imagine from Denethor’s death is being a) smacked by Gandalf into a fire, b) igniting by accident, then c) running and jumping off a cliff. This is an interpretation that belongs in another universe. Denethor, instead, retreats inward, his self-immolating hatred of the living revealing itself in the embrace of death, but Théoden presents the life-lived outward—he indeed embraces death, but he does so for others, not for himself. Théoden dies a hero, while Denethor dies, not accidentally, but through the bitter and hellish inwardness that is born from a refusal to embrace noble death. Nothing could be further from this central element in Tolkien’s books than the utterly deviant depictions created by the filmmakers here.

Closing Thought

In reflection back on these films, I wonder that perhaps never before has a source material been so exhaustively mined and consequently applied to purposes so alien, and indeed inimical, to its original intention. Where Tolkien’s original works evoke a timelessness, a poetry, a deep and refreshing sensibility, Jackson’s auterial interpretation evokes only what is temporary and populist. The result is, in short, one of the greatest disappointments in film history.

(Related Post: The Two Towers (Film) Revisited)

The Two Towers (Film) Revisited

On the night, years ago, when my fiancée and I watched Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers I picked a fight with her after the film.  As it turns out, I was frustrated, not with her, but with the movie, and it’s taken me more than seven years to really figure out what it was bothered me about the experience.

At several critical junctures of Tolkien’s book, each of the main characters—Aragorn, Merry, Pippin, Frodo and Sam—from within their separate stories finds what I call ‘unexpected help’.  King Theoden of Rohan provides unexpected help without delay to Aragorn and company after he is freed from Wormtongue’s spell.  He puts his full trust in Gandalf’s counsel, and when a Gondorian messenger arrives to plead for Theoden’s help, the good king acts immediately.  Treebeard provides unexpected help to Merry and Pippin, not requiring rhetoric or complaint to make him fight Saruman, but making his ‘hasty’ decision and working steadily to convince the other ents to fight as well.  Most amazing of them all, Faramir, unlike his brother, when confronted with the One Ring refuses it outright and provides a loyal and much needed ally to Sam and Frodo on their journey.

The movie’s interpretation of these events is in stark contrast to the book.  Theoden refuses to help, turning inward and ‘defending his people’, until, after nearly three hours of argument, he is finally convinced to come to Gondor. Treebeard resists the hobbits’ pleas, turning back and refusing outright to assist the free peoples.  It is only when he sees some burnt trees that he becomes ‘angry’ and (completely out of entish character) does something truly hasty in rushing off to war.  Faramir is not a heroic helper—instead, he threatens and kidnaps the heroes, then assists them only reluctantly at the end.

What do these episodes point to? The fact that, and in addition to these three clear examples, at every major junction of Peter Jackson’s films tension is increased and drama enhanced.

This may not seem like a big deal to you.  You may have enjoyed the epic-battle rush of Jackson’s interpretation of Lord of the Rings.  Perhaps you’ve never even read the books and think that I’m just one of those pedantic complainers who think the book is always better than the movie (which, in principle, and excepting these two cases, is almost always true). And yet Jackson’s changes typify a real problem, because in their own subtle way they distort and obscure the very essence that makes Lord of the Rings such a compelling piece of literature.

That central change is the shift from zest to excitement, and while the books are full of zest; the films are replete with excitement.  (Note: I’ve written about this distinction elsewhere.) The Lord of the Rings is a compelling piece of literature because it creates zest in its readers.  There is a warm, rich, undercurrent to the books.  People, when they read them, describe feeling wholesome, refreshed, and ‘palate cleansed.’ This zest that one gets from the books makes the reader hungry for life.  And as a result, many people (myself included) read and reread the books because of this zest that is included in it.  This is the property of Lord of the Rings that refreshes Christians and appeals to ‘pagans’.

The problem, then, is that the films appeal to excitement, rather than zest.  And while zest enriches, excitement titillates.  Zest’s pleasure is in a slow and steady plod, but excitement always searches for the novel and different.  This not-so-subtle change epitomizes the difference between the fantastic good and the real good.

To get at this I am reminded of something Simone Weil once said, and I paraphrase her here: there is nothing more boring than fantastic good, and nothing more exciting than fantastic evil; and yet, nothing is more satisfying than real good, and nothing more destructive than real evil.  And the wisdom of her remark is easily verifiable—especially in the realm of cinema, real good is always boring, stupid, and inept, while evil is made to be compelling, charming, and exciting.  In transposing The Lord of the Rings to film, the filmmakers found the real good to be cinematically boring and exchanged it for the cinematically exciting.  But the effect of the newly ‘spiced’ version is that it renders the true good boring, old, and ineffective.  A reader who picked up the book after watching the movies is liable to find it slow and dull, since it lacks all the excitement of the epic battles and rousing music (you mean those twenty minutes of film were only one sentence?).  Since the books lack the tensions on which the movies focus, such a reader will miss the subtle beauty of what Tolkien accomplished.  Searching for excitement, he will never find the zest.

At the end of Return of the King a chap sitting near me in the theatre lamented loudly, “Why didn’t they just end the movie after Aragorn was crowned?”  The reason why a person in the theater would fail to understand why the film followed the hobbits back to Hobbiton was because of this shift from zest to excitement.  To the lover of the book, Sam’s “Well, I’m back” is the only way it could have ended (perhaps the best, most wholesome ending ever).  To the moviegoer who has viewed a distorted vision of this world, the true good ending, the true happy ending, is a letdown.  Give them the climax and the action of the battle, but a hobbit with a baby girl sitting by his fire is boring.  The book is not nearly so much about the great battle as it is about coming home afterwards.  I’ll take the hobbit and the fire.

The Lord of the Rings is not the only case of this cinematic distortion, and the Narnia movies operate equally under the same principle.  In exchange for the true and subtle good of Lewis’ books (their zest), a false, action-packed, and exciting version is made—one that likewise will render the books ‘boring’.

I remember hearing once that Tolkien himself predicted that his books, if ever filmed, would become one large battle.  In this he foresaw that cinema’s natural proclivity toward excitement was at odds with the purposes of his books.  And this brings us to the subtlest and most treacherous danger of all: that the distortion of good and evil, between zest and excitement, in cinema, has the effect of poisoning rather than enlivening our real lives.  In the fantasy world, good is boring and evil is compelling; and by translation we turn from the cinematic fiction to find that our real lives have paled in comparison.  We come away hungry for an evil which is treacherous (but exciting) and spurning the good which we so desperately need (zest).

Fiction, and our entertainment choices in general, has great power in our lives.  But we must ask ourselves as we take media in whether our entertainment is zest filled, or merely exciting.  Does this feature that I’m watching reflect the true good, or the fictional good?  Is there any hint of the fantastic evil in it, which distorts reality for me?  Do I want to live my own life more after this, or do I wish I was living someone else’s life? Is the real world more real, or more boring? St. Augustine, long ago, wondered how it was that he could feel sorrow for the actor on the stage yet ignore the real need to feel sorrow for the real suffering around him.  He saw entertainment’s ability to distort, rather than enrich, reality, which is the height of fiction’s danger.  His question still challenges us today.

And so, I find that the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings distort the essential heart of Tolkien’s work.  In exchanging zest for excitement—in their inability to communicate zest on film (which is not impossible, merely difficult)—they have exchanged the truth of Tolkien for a lie.  That’s what bothered me about the movies.  And it only took me seven years to say it.

(NB: This piece has been adapted from an article I wrote several years ago for my seminary paper, The Et Cetera)

Related Post–The Return of the King: Three Unforgivables

Inception’s Deception

I didn’t like Inception.  There, I’ve said it.  And I realize that this sets me apart from the vast swaths of people who raved about the movie, who were enamored of its conceptualization and effects.  But I am as convinced now as I was when I walked out of the theatre that the effects and concept of Inception were nothing more than a flashy veneer on a frail and impoverished film.

To begin, and to be fair, there are lots of nice things we can say about Inception.  The effects were stellar.  The design was imaginative.  The execution of effects and design was both seamless and slick.  The cast was superb—DiCaprio and Watanabe are actors I truly enjoy watching perform.  And the concept itself was imaginative and innovative—people who sleuth through the dreams of others to gather information.  I was excited, given all these factors, when I walked into the theater.  I was bored and frustrated when I left.

[Be warned, spoilers ahead.]

Why was I bored? Well, I was bored with Inception because I felt that the movie completely lacked jeopardy.  The climax of the film is three sets of actions that have to occur at the same moment within three separate dream realities (the dream, within a dream, within a dream).  We watch as a van careens toward the water.  We watch as a group of people float in an elevator shaft.  We watch as a group infiltrates a sealed compound.  And what happened for me, while watching these three things unfold (in degrees of slow motion), was that suddenly I stopped caring about what happened for the characters.  Suddenly, I felt like I was observing a watch unwind, rather than a story unfold.  And an unwinding watch, though interesting in its complexity, is not a very good story.  Because I knew what was going to happen all the tension of the film drained from it in a flash.  It was as if the movie attained a critical mass of complexity and, as an aftereffect of its own climax, suddenly lost the tension it so desperately needed to keep its audience enrapt.  It was like watching a Rube Goldberg machine that had gone on for about one-and-a-half hours too long.  Mind you, now, a Rube Goldberg machine is utterly fascinating to watch, but after a couple of hours even the most avid fan of them is going to grow weary.  And in weariness the viewer is going to lose interest in the novelty of the thing and start waiting for it to end.  How fascinating the mechanics are is largely irrelevant.  Consider, as an example, other movies that fall into the same trap, such as Transformers 2, which was certainly ‘interesting’ to watch, but nobody thought it was a good movie.  Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3 were ‘interesting’ to watch, but nobody thought those were good movies either.  A preponderance of effects do not make a movie good, and this is because the more a film focuses on effects and complexity—that is, the more like a watch or a Rube Goldberg machine it becomes—the more the story seems to suffer along with it.

If you are bristling in your seat right now, reading this, muttering to yourself something like: “But the story was awesome!” then I have to ask you this.  What was the story of Inception? A group of men are hired to invade the dreams of a young man to convince him to break up his father’s financial empire.  Did you care, at any point, if they succeeded? Did it matter in any way whether or not the story was accomplished? Did you really care if DiCaprio escaped or not? Or was the story merely an excuse to share the idea of ‘inception’? The latter question hints at the truth, because there was no meaningful story in Inception—just a great deal of smoke and mirrors.  Did it look cool? Of course.  Did it matter or, more importantly, was it meaningful? Not at all.

This brings me to why I was frustrated with Inception, and this criticism is (to me) far more serious.  Most of the people who exited the theatre and raved about Inception sung very similar songs about what they liked—they thought the movie was ‘smart’ and ‘intelligent’; people talked about how they went to see it more than once, maybe twice more, in order to ‘get’ it.  Ask them further what they liked about it, saying something like, “What made it such a good movie to you?” and they would respond by saying, “It was about dreams“—with special emphasis on the word ‘dreams’ as if it signified deeper ramifications of meaning than could be imagined, and as if to say that it was about ‘dreams’ was an answer to the question of the intelligence of the film itself.

I suspect, in fact, that a significant portion of the popularity of Inception is based upon its self-styled intelligence.  It presents itself as a smart movie, and then creates the impression that ‘smart’ people will ‘get’ the movie.  If you want to feel smart—to join the elite, smart-club—then you need to see Inception.  If you saw it and didn’t get it, you need to go and see it again.  The problem, if there is one, isn’t with the movie, but with you as the viewer.

My deep concern here has to do with the belief, seemingly so prevalent, that intelligent things are also confusing; that people who watched Inception were confused, and deduced not that Inception was confusing, but rather that the film was more intelligent than they were; that if only they watched it again they would be better able to understand it.  But this is clearly a flawed epistemology, because we each know that the best, and most intelligent, teachers are not the people who confuse all their students, but the people who instruct their students best.  And in the same way, intelligence in any media—be it cinema, literary, musical, theatrical—is in no way coequal with being confusing.  Quite the opposite, the most intelligent art of all communicates easily to a broad range of people and on a broad range of levels.

Let me put this another way: if a movie were truly brilliant, you would ‘get’ it on the first run through.  Then you would want to watch it again, not because it was unclear the first time, but because by watching again you would see and appreciate things you hadn’t seen before—you would pick up nuance, and parallels, and depth, and a host of brilliant things that were there already.  I believe firmly that a second watching in film should never be necessary to understand a film, while it may be completely warranted to better appreciate a film.  And in the end, the viewer who returns to Inception for a second viewing may appreciate the Rube Goldberg—design, execution, and whatnot else—but ultimately what he is returning chiefly to find, what the cultural impulse it teaching him to return for, that is, understanding, is a thing he will never attain.  Ultimately, when it comes to Inception there was nothing to understand at all.

This, then, is the deception of Inception, because in its complexity, the movie created the impression that it was doing something very intelligent, that there was something ‘worth understanding’ about it.  But this is the trick of the magician, who diverts your eyes to one place while he does something with the coin somewhere else. And Inception diverted our attention in its Goldbergian complexity; it diverted our attention by making us think that its subject matter of ‘dreams’ was somehow meaningful—an implication without basis.  And then, just to top things off, Inception concluded with an ambiguous ending that makes us leave the theatre asking: “Did DiCaprio escape, or not?” But this final flair of the magician was like the flash of light and smoke we watch while the magician escapes with our money; by making us muse about the ending (what amounts to an act of authorial laziness), we’re no longer thinking about what didn’t just happen in the film.  The deception is complete.

In the end, the need—the cultural impulse—to view Inception more than once in order to ‘get’ it doesn’t signal that it was a good movie, but rather that it had communicated poorly.  If you were confused, it wasn’t because Inception was smart, but because it was a bad movie.  And as a last word it is terribly important that I tell you that I don’t think all films need to be meaningful to be entertaining—far from it.  But when a movie markets itself as both intelligent and meaningful, then it better have meaning to back up its claims.  After all, if you go to a film which has been billed as an action movie, but it turns out to be mostly romantic comedy, you’ll be frustrated.  Inception’s payments on the promises it makes are utterly flimsy and, in the end, as meaningless as most dreams.

Raise the Red Lantern: A Study of Hell on Earth

In chapter 14 of C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost he documents four demonic responses to the reality of being trapped in hell; one demon advises pure rage as a way to cope, another advises complete inaction, a third advises imitating heaven within hell, and the fourth, Satan himself, advises the hurting of others; if our own existence is trapped, he reasons, then perhaps we can drag a few others down with us.  And this, I might add, is a perfect picture of envy.

Curiously, there could hardly be a more apt foil to examine Zhang Yimou’s 1991 film, Raise the Red Lantern.  And yet, while I don’t propose that Zhang Yimou or Su Tong (author of the source material) had read Lewis—or Milton for that matter—I do suspect that Milton, Lewis, and Tong have tapped into something common to the human experience.  Rage, inaction, imitation, and envy are four extremely human recourses to the experience of hell on earth.

Raise the Red Lantern is the story of four ‘sister’ wives who struggle for petty power within a home controlled by a set of mysterious, traditional rules.  Among these, and the source of the film’s title, is the tradition that each night the master chooses the bed of the wife with whom he will sleep.  When she has been chosen, red lanterns are lit in her room for the household to see; a consequence of the lit lanterns is that the ‘chosen’ wife wields the greatest influence in the house.  We are introduced to this world by Songlian, the household master’s new fourth wife, played superbly by Gong Li.  Four ‘seasonal’ periods in the film unveil both the characters and motives of the wives as well as the rules and their terrible consequences.

It would be easy to short-circuit the deeper implications of the film by focusing on the gender differences—that is, by reading this story as a war between the wives and the male master.  Yimou, I believe, is at pains to direct us away from this.  The master’s face is always obscured; he is shown from behind, or at a distance, or through a veil.  He is an important player in the household, yet his life is not the focus of the film in the slightest.  In fact, his facelessness renders him more a part of the scenery of the house than an active member; he is as much a part of this household prison as the cold stone walls.

The house itself is a potent screen against which Yimou casts his events.  Bleakness is the overarching visual motif.  The house, though large, shows signs of decaying age.  Colorless stone abounds.  And upon this cold, hard canvas Yimou causes two things to be highlighted.  First, in the daily ceremony of choosing and elaborate lighting of the lanterns that follows, the vibrant red casts the powerful glow of favoritism against the bleak walls of the house.  We are made to feel both the warmth of the master’s choice and the chill of his neglect.  Second, Yimou’s staging keenly draws our attention to the four women.  Elaborate sets and costumes would have drawn our attention away from the four women themselves, but as it stands we are compelled to gaze upon their faces and consider their characters.

Furthermore, within the world of Raise the Red Lantern suggestion is the storytelling method of choice.  Things are not shown so much as they are implied, and this is one of the great strengths of the film.  We do not need to see inside the mysterious tower where disobedient wives find their demise to know what goes on there—and, in fact, our imaginations are far better sources of material than anything that Yimou could have contrived.  Suggestion is not limited to the visual, however.  When a wife is chosen for the evening one of her ‘perks’ is that she is given a curious foot massage—her feet are pounded by miniature hammers that have bells in them.  The bells ring loud enough for the sound to be heard throughout the house.  On her first night in the house, Songlian, like us, finds this phenomenon strange.  But as the movie progresses we come to see that the pleasure of the foot massage is not in the massage, but in the knowledge that the other wives are not receiving it.  We experience Songlian’s discomfort when she, like us, must hear the sound of favoritism in the bells coming from a sister wife’s chamber, and we later witness her delicious enjoyment as she relishes in the fact that she has been chosen.

Truly, the greatest pleasure in this household is the taking of pleasure from others.  It is, in Miltonic language, the Satanic response to an existential hell.  And in fact, I believe that this house in Raise the Red Lantern seems to stand for that very existential helplessness experienced by much of humanity.  Within it, the world is seen as an inescapable prison of mysterious rules and painful consequences.  The house is our world, closed; we inhabit this home throughout the many seasons of life.  There are rules in our universe which we break at our own risk.  And the wives, though taking particular pleasure in envy, embody the various responses to which we have recourse.

The first and eldest wife is a picture of inaction.  The lanterns in her home are never lit because of her age, and she has seemingly resigned herself to her fate.  Accustomed to her position of powerlessness, she is barely a participant in the household goings on.  The third wife is a picture of imitation—a former opera singer, she (also the image of the caged songbird) fills the house with her songs, fills her room with images of the opera, and is the only wife who seeks to bring some of the outside world into the home with her.  She even does this through her illicit relationship with the family doctor.  Her way of coping with hell is to try and recreate a little heaven within it.

The second wife plays the Satanic role in the film—through false pretence she makes it her goal to hurt others.  She despises the first wife because of the son that she had given to the master, despises the third wife for the same reason, and sees in Gong Li a threat as she herself ages.  She is the silent power player in the film, working through envy to destroy the others around her.

And Gong Li, the fourth wife and our guide, is a picture of rage.  She comes to loathe the household rules and the members of the house.  She becomes petty in her rage, hurting her serving girl, squabbling with the other wives unnecessarily, and ultimately bringing about two deaths by her actions.  In the end, her uncontrolled rage is the very cause of her demise.

Raise the Red Lantern is a bleak but beautiful film that explores human responses to despairing captivity.  It is beautiful in its storytelling, cinematography, editing, and performance, but bleak and terrible in it’s portrayal of human despair and sin—which, I might add, is a perfectly appropriate marriage.

Seven Things Wrong with Invictus

I came into Invictus (2009) with high hopes; I enjoy inspirational sports films.  I enjoy the genre of films whose plot arc is the overcoming of injustice.  And I especially enjoy them even more when they are true stories.  By all appearances, Invictus—portraying the true story of Nelson Mandela and the South African Rugby team—promised to be such a film.  I was disappointed. Therefore let me give you seven reasons why I didn’t like Invictus:

1. Bad Accents: I’ve got a decent ear for accents, and while I’m not always perfect at performing them, I’m pretty quick to recognize slip ups in others.  With every slip-up of an accent during a performance, suspension of disbelief is shattered.  I am constantly reminded by the actor on screen that he is acting, which is the very thing I ought not to be thinking about.  Suffice it to say that I was let down by both Damon and Freeman in this film, and found myself watching their lips and listening to their accents rather than the dialogue.

2. Average Acting: There were moments, looking at Morgan Freeman, where I thought to myself, “Wow! He really looks like Nelson Mandela!” Even my wife remarked to me, “I’ve always thought Morgan Freeman would play Nelson Mandela.”  The stars seemed aligned for this performance.  However, in addition to the bad accent, all I could see for much of the time was Morgan Freeman desperately restraining himself from infusing some of his normal passion into Mandela’s inspired words.  It looked like hard work being so bland.  Unlike, say, Meryl Streep’s performance as Julia Child, where I completely forgot that Meryl Streep was on screen, I was almost continuously reminded that this was Morgan Freeman.

3. Cheesy Song Montage: In the middle of the movie there was a song montage where the team played, Mandela politicked, the people watched Rugby while drinking, and all the while a male voice crooned in the background.  Of course, when well done (as I reflect I realize that it’s a fixture of all inspirational sports movies) it’s an exceptionally powerful technique for advancing the story.  But the tone of the song must capture the drive of the film, and in this instance it robbed Invictus of the momentum it so desperately needed at that point.  Here we are, building towards a political, social, and rugby climax, while a white male sings a gentle ballad in the background.  I was nonplussed.  In fact, I rolled my eyes as soon as he started singing, because I felt that instead of inspiring me I was experiencing an artless plea for emotional response.  And the further effect of this song was that it ripped me from the context of the movie, and I found myself asking, “Am I watching a film, or a music video?”

4. Too Many Stories: The story of Nelson Mandela’s presidency is fascinating.  The story of a Rugby teams rise to success is compelling.  Put the two together and I can easily imagine the studio’s eyes lighting up with pleasure.  If Invictus had attempted only to tell these two stories, I think the movie would have been stronger.  However, in the midst of these two arcs we also learn about Mandela’s bodyguards and their struggles, the rugby team captain’s family and their racial struggles, and some slum children and their story as well.  The multiplicity of stories robbed Invictus of momentum, and fed directly into complaint number 5.

5. Underdeveloped Conflict: Because the film tried to do too much, it failed to develop the conflict of the story.  The richness of an inspirational sports film is in witnessing characters you care about overcome adversity—both personal and social.  What did Damon’s character have to accomplish? He had a little conflict with his team, but it was never threatening to his leadership.  What did Mandela have to accomplish? It was hinted that people might not ‘like’ him at first, but where did this go? Near the beginning, people boo him on the rugby pitch; at the end, they chant his name, but the progression between the two was shrouded in mystery.  Did Mandela really overcome any adversity in the story? In fact, I suspect that the additionally story lines were added as a means of representing this conflict and its progression.  Alas, it did not succeed.

6. Insufficient Explanation of Rugby: I still don’t know anything about rugby.  I still don’t care about rugby.  At the very least, I was hoping that this movie would better introduce me to the sport, since many of my friends are rugby fans.  But no.  All I know about rugby is what I knew beforehand—pass the ball laterally or backwards, and rugby players like to drink after their matches.  Oh yes, and that little phrase, “Soccer is a gentleman’s sport played by thugs, and rugby is a thug’s sport played by gentlemen.” To which the guard in the film appropriately says, “Yes, I’ve heard that before, and it wasn’t funny the first time.”  I agreed with him wholeheartedly.

7. No Jeopardy: It is impossible to be invested in the risk and jeopardy of a sports film if you have no concept of what it takes to win the game.  See, in addition to introducing us to Mandela, the rugby team captain, the issues of South Africa, Mandela’s guards, and the other stories in this film, Invictus also had to introduce us to rugby.  And the cumulative effect is of these many stories, the lack of rugby explanation, and underdeveloped conflict meant that when it came down to the climax of the film there was no jeopardy.  I, as an audience member, did not feel that anything was at stake in the movie.  And that’s the saddest thing for me, because usually even bad movies ramp up their efforts at the end to try and impress you, and here’s where Invictus drifted listlessly into the sunset.  I just didn’t care what happened.  And for that, I blame Clint Eastwood.

Below are some my favorite films from the sports/social action genre:

Powerful Movies About Social Change: Gandhi (1982), The Power of One (1992).

Inspirational Sports Films (incidentally, each of these is also a film about social change): Remember the Titans (2000), Glory Road (2006), Coach Carter (2005).

Note: with the exception of The Power of One, all are true stories.

The Karate Kid II: A Story of Forgiveness

The key to a successful sequel (as I’ve written elsewhere) is a focus on character rather than action; by this criteria, The Karate Kid Part II is an exceptional sequel.  Consider, for a moment, that the heart of the original movie was not karate—it was the relationship between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi.  We fell in love with The Karate Kid because Ralph Macchio was so endearing, earnest and fresh as the heartfelt but lost soul in a new city, and because Pat Morita was so compelling as the aphoristic and wise instructor whose lessons have far more to do with life than martial arts.  Karate was merely an excuse—the playing field of Daniel-san’s right-of-passage—which allowed us to spend time with these interesting characters.  The effect of their relationship left the viewer wishing for a Miyagi of his or her own, to guide and channel the energy of youth toward positive ends.  In these ways, all the energy, power, and momentum of the original film are worked into what becomes a powerful story of forgiveness in the second.

In the sequel, then, this relationship is rightly preserved as the soul and starting point of this film, and once again karate is the excuse and playing field of their story.  In Karate Kid II Daniel and Miyagi must together face a major life problem—in this case the blinding rage of Miyagi’s former best friend, Sato.  The brilliant effectiveness of this plot is worth some comment.  Consider, for a moment, how a poorer script would have chosen to place some sort of block between Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi, making the arc of the story their reconciliation.  Daniel, the adolescent, would have been disobedient to Miyagi and then we would have needed to reconcile their relationship together. (This, if I remember rightly, was actually the plot of the third film.)  The problem is that such a plot nullifies very the teacher-student relationship which is the central strength of the franchise (hence, in my estimation, the general failure of the third movie).

Why should this be the case? I believe that watching characters we love struggle with one another creates anxiety in the viewer; we want our friends to get along and take no pleasure when they are at odds.  However, watching those same friends face issues together and become stronger in the process creates hope.  And as far as I can tell, most people prefer hope to anxiety.  The result is that Karate Kid II, by preserving the Daniel and Mr. Miyagi relationship so that we never have to worry about them, gives the audience permission to enter fully into the conflict between Sato and Miyagi.

It is the portrayal of this broken relationship and its reconciliation that makes Karate Kid II truly shine.  The opening scene sets the tone for the story.  In it we step back into the last frames of the previous film; there Daniel beats the Cobra Kai student with his crane kick, everyone cheers, and after the fight we shift to a new scene where Daniel and Miyagi are outside the arena discussing the match.  Nearby, the enraged and misguided teacher of the Cobra Kais begins to strangle the student who lost the fight.  Miyagi steps in to save the student, and the evil teacher smashes both his hands into car windows as Miyagi dodges his punches.  Miyagi then takes the teacher in hand, cocks his arm back for a killing blow, and then, instead of striking him, comically honks the teacher’s nose.  This leaves him in humiliation on the ground.  Daniel asks Mr. Miyagi, “You could have killed him, right?” And Miyagi agrees that he could have.  Daniel asks why he didn’t, and Miyagi’s response tunes our ears to the heart of the movie, “Because Daniel, for man with no forgiveness in heart, life worse punishment than death.”  We now know that this is a movie about forgiveness, and the viewer is left to ponder this truth as the film unfolds.

In the movie, Miyagi must return to his home in Okinawa to visit his dying father.  We learn that 30 years previously Miyagi had left in unpleasant circumstances.  When a relationship breaks down, it is always because some issue comes between the parties of the relationship, swelling to the degree that it eclipses the other person.  We come to ‘see’ the problem and no longer the person.  In Miyagi’s case, he had fallen in love with a girl in his village, but that girl ended up betrothed to his best friend, Sato.  In passion, Miyagi declared his intention to marry the girl no matter what.  Sato, insulted, challenged Miyagi to a fight to the death.  But rather than fight his best friend, Miyagi left town forever.  We learn that while Miyagi had left the past and mellowed over time, Sato’s rage at the ‘thing’ between them had only grown.

Miyagi would happily reconcile with Sato—he would rather have his friend than the block between them—but Sato has come to believe, blinded by his rage, that the only acceptable resolution is a fight to the death.  The tension between them ratchets throughout the film, and Sato finally succeeds in pressuring Miyagi to fight by threatening the village.  But on the night of their scheduled fight a sudden and fierce storm sweeps upon the village (symbolic of the tension? probably).  Sato, inside a prayer chapel, is trapped under a giant beam when it collapses.  Miyagi rushes in with Daniel to save him, and even as Miyagi’s hand is raised above the beam to strike it, Sato believes that Miyagi is going to kill him.  Instead, Miyagi breaks the beam (notably, a task Sato is unable to perform), and in breaking it symbolically breaks the beam that had hardened Sato’s heart.  It is this act of merciful force that finally opens Sato’s eyes to see that their friendship is of more value to him than his rage.

Sato is transformed.  In the place of his grudge, he once again chooses his friend.  They are reconciled, fully, and not only Miyagi and Sato, but Sato and the village are reconciled as well.  The whole landscape is transformed because of Miyagi’s mercy.  This is the power of reconciliation on display.

Does The Karate Kid II have great cinematography? No.  Are moments in the film, for example some of the acting and situations, cheesy? Yes.  Is the fight choreography top-of-the-line? Far from it.   But those aren’t really the criteria we use for judging a Karate Kid film.  In the end, these movies are enjoyable because, for the two hours we watch them, we get to be Daniel, learning lessons from Mr. Miyagi.  We expect these movies to teach us something—a valuable life lesson is what we expect from this movie.  And the lesson at the heart of this film is that reconciliation is better—infinitely better—than revenge.  A scene near the climax of the film clearly expresses this point.  Miyagi is preparing his last will and testament in the event that he dies in the fight against Sato.  Bringing the will to Daniel he announces that Daniel will get the house and truck back in California.  Daniel’s immediate response is telling: “I don’t want that stuff,” he cries, “I want you!”  My relationship with you, Daniel claims, is of far more value to me than any other thing.  I would rather have you than any thing in this life.  Daniel, the good student, our example, learns his lesson well.  Sato will learn his lesson by the end of the film.  And we are challenged to do the same.