More Movies, a Play, a Poem, and a Sculpture

I don’t like “message” movies. In Love Story (1970), we are told that “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It comes from both the dying girl and her husband to his father, who had opposed the marriage and didn’t offer financial aid when he learned of her terminal illness. It was a box office hit and had a decent theme song “Where Do I Begin?” sung here by Andy Williams. Soaring violins and improbable lyrics (“She fills my heart with very special things/With angels’ songs, with wild imaginings”) send this into the schmalz-o-sphere. The word “schmalz” comes from Yiddish and means melted fat, which I didn’t know. But the message of love-not-saying-sorry is false anyway.

Another movie even more terrible with both message and presentation is Noah (2014). Visually stunning, the film takes a bit more than four chapters in Genesis and stretches them into 2:18 hours that completely subvert the few verses there. Yes, Noah lived to be 950, but the movie has, quite literally, nothing to do with the original other than the title, some giants (in stone, pretty cool), and a lot of water. That’s the subversion. It completely perverts the message as well. In Genesis, God cleanses the world of sin and covenants not to do that again. In Noah, our lead wants to cleanse the world of people: “You, Japheth, you will be the last man. And in time you, too, will return to the dust. Creation will be left alone, safe and beautiful.” It doesn’t happen, since obviously we are all here, but that’s just because twin granddaughters—whom he wanted to kill initially—soften his heart.

The movie for today is The Shift (2023). Produced by Angel Studios, it is a loose retelling of the Book of Job. I’d never heard of it until a friend told me she liked this “impossible to explain” version that Wikipedia describes as a “Christian science fiction thriller.” The shifting is between multiverses, of course, which reminds us of others like Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022). Wikipedia described that one as “an absurdist science fiction comedy-drama.” Perhaps we should just give up on categories. While the story of Noah takes 83 short verses, Job is a complex, sophisticated 42-chapter work. And the movie probably takes that “loosely based” too literally.

So what’s to like? The power of saying “No.” The main character, Kevin, has just lost his job and goes to a bar to break his years of sobriety when a woman comes over on a dare. They decide to go for tea instead, as she also is trying not to drink. But that’s not where the movie begins: We see Kevin struggling to get out of a lake, bleeding and distraught, only to watch him disappear inexplicably. The bar seems almost comforting after that. The two fall in love, marry, and lose a young son. Kevin is about to lose his job again when a car accident leaves him bloodied and confused. A slick rescuer who calls himself The Benefactor (Neal McDonough) then reveals Kevin has the opportunity to have everything—wealth, power, happiness—if he is willing to take the unenviable job of torturing others. The actual method also involves shifting, but it doesn’t really make much sense. The Benefactor lets Kevin do a trial run, and the waitress Tina gets zapped away to a reality where her parents never met so she doesn’t exist and will live in a mental health ward.

Kevin begins to pray and does not take the offer. Not unlike Harry Potter (‘’the boy who lived”), Kevin becomes the Kevin who said no. Most of the action is in a grim, post-apocalyptic nightmare where he’s sick and no one has enough food. Entertainment is the rare opportunity to see one’s self in other universes, sometimes happy, usually not. He wants his life back (spoiler alert) although that cannot happen because of statistically impossible reasons (I think). But because he said no to the devil (spoiler also—The Benefactor is clearly Satan), Kevin has power over him. Offered his old life back plus power and wealth and etc if he will torture others, same old offer, Kevin must not just reject the offer but choose between his old life altered to include that meanness or saving the waitress Tina from a life in an asylum, he articulates as clearly as I’ve ever seen the definition of evil: selfishness. It is wrenching, but when he says “Tina. Of course Tina,” we see the power of good prevail. Kevin is then back in a bar where he sees the woman he loves trying not to drink a beer. We then get flash forwards of his new, happy life.

So, it’s not a perfect movie. Too much talking, too little showing one critic wrote. Too many unexplained goings on. I found it empowering and uplifting. In explaining evil, Kevin must also explain that good isn’t just handing out a little food or money here and there. It’s much, much more.

Now for some asides. Years ago, I read an Archibald MacLeish play called J.B., also based on Job. Again, a loose adaptation, but as with Noah, hope is lost in anything beyond ourselves. Love prevails, but without context, without God. This excellent review in Commentary magazine from 1958 suggests that the poetry of the play (yes, it’s in verse) cannot compare to the language of Job, and the love that exists on its own cannot parallel the greatness of God, whom MacLeish allows to exist, but without power: “He does not love. He is.” The concluding speech is, simply, sad:

Blow on the coal of the heart.
The candles in churches are out.
The lights have gone out in the sky.
Blow on the coal of the heart
And we’ll see by and by. . . .

And the trivia: The name Kevin means “handsome” but there is also a St. Kevin. Perhaps you knew. Seamus Heaney, the famous Irish poet, has a little narrative about St. Kevin’s miracle that is also about doing the right thing. His famous fable was to hold his arm out his window where a blackbird landed, nested, hatched, and fledged her babies. You can hear Heaney read it here as you follow along. And as these things often happen, the sculptor of this St. Kevin is Timothy Schmalz.

Truncate: A Short Christmas Tale

Truncate: just a fancy word for “shorten.” Although I won’t get into a discussion of the physics of time—which many believe doesn’t even exist except as a construct—time does seem to go faster this time of year. Nothing much gets done in December, even though demands are made. I’ve spent four hours today researching and organizing (with significant help) a set of decorations for an event this Thursday. Little laundry work, a fascinating discussion about Love and Math by Edward Frenkel with people far brighter than I am, and other things I don’t remember filled the day. Well, shopping of course. Always shopping.

The topic is Christmas, though. When time goes by so fast, it doesn’t seem like there has been any time since last Christmas. All the not-yet-grown grandchildren grew taller, which one can’t observe except as a comparison. And they tend to think the matter is not worth mentioning. But should Christmas itself be shortened? Five years ago, I wrote a blog called “Happy Hallowthankmas.” Not an original phrase but as valid now. Valentine’s things aren’t out at Hobby Lobby but wait a week. On Facebook last week, I shared a minimalist decoration of a red clothespin, an evergreen sprig, and a small Christmas ball. It was very well received.

One famous Christmas poem often gets truncated. “In the bleak midwinter” by Christina Rossetti has five stanzas but we usually hear just the last:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

It’s also a carol, sung here by the Norwegian soprano known as Sissel. The album from which it came, Spirit of the Season, earned her and the (then-named) Mormon Tabernacle Choir a Grammy nomination.

It was just that bit of the song that prompted a bishop to ask Primary-aged children what they would give the Babe in the manger. Each answer is written in a gold star. One child says “Respect Is Key.” Another adds “Kindness.” One writes carefully in four arms of the star “Service Love Respect Chase” with the last word possibly meaning “chastity.” (A family story includes a 12-year-old being asked by his bishop what it means to be chaste. The reply had something to do with running.)

Let me direct your attention to the top left corner. A child named Russell has written “2Bil$” with perhaps “kindness” falling off the edge of the star. Of course, he is a grandchild who sparkles with wit and many good attributes. I guess I’m glad on one hand that he is an independent thinker. And he understands the importance of the hugeness that ought to be given.

A brief lesson: Money has no value intrinsic value. Another conversation for that. Here is a link for lesson planning to show kids how to conceptualize a billion. And our dear one offers two of that impossible figure. The only problem, of course, is that Russell only has the $5 his uncle gave him on Thanksgiving. I hope he’s included that in his magnanimous gift. Finally, our hearts are the only real things we can give anyway. And they are worth an infinitely higher amount than that $2bln.