Thursday, December 28, 2006

PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS

PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (2006) - 112m
Director Gabriel Muccino
Written by: Steve Conrad
Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith
Inspired by true story of Chris Gardner

The Physical Premise


Let's correct some easy-to-come-by misconceptions about this movie. The protagonist's pursuit is not about the pursuit of money. The true story of the real Chris Gardner and how just a short time ago he sold his brokerage firm for millions of dollars can easily lead us to the assumption that the character Will Smith plays in the movie has, as his physical goal, the pursuit of money. But, in the movie, riches is never his goal. It is always about the happiness that being a responsible father will always bring.

This confusion about the pursuit of money is understandable because the movie's protagonist is struggling with financial indebtedness, and trying to earn money is one of his principle occupations. We must understand, however, that the movie is NOT saying money brings us happiness; although, I think the movie is saying that a secure income sure does make life less painful and more comfortable, and to that degree it can bring a level of happiness.

Even Misspellings Have Meaning



Yes, the spelling of happiness in the title of this movie is wrong. But it's wrong on purpose, so I guess that makes it right. Supposedly, in the true story of Chris Gardner, he saw happiness spelled that way on a wall of graffiti and it had an impact on his turnaround.


But there is a deeper meaning in its misspelling. First, the "y" makes us look twice at the word, and consider what is wrong. The misspelling causes us not to take happiness for granted.

Second, the misspelling signifies an element of what this movie is really about. Just as "happyness" is not spelled with a "y", so a man's happiness (who happens to be a father) is not pursued by abdicating his responsibilities of fatherhood. When things get rough. For whatever reason. Many fathers in America today don't know how to spell happiness. They reject the idea that happiness is spelled with an "i". That "i" in the context of this movie means that as a father "I" must take personal responsibility for my role if I am to be truly happy. It means "I" don't run away from difficulty. Happiness with an "i" means if it's "my" dream, it's up to "me."

Third, just as good spelling has to be pursued and often corrected, so good fatherhood has to be pursued and often corrected. This story is about a man who is determined to pursue the correct spelling of happiness, (as Chris' character attempts to do literally with the owner of the childcare center building on the side of which the misspelled word appears ... along with another word that begins with "F" and which describe the opposite of happiness). As the protagonist tries to get the word spelled correctly for the sake of his son's education, so he is determined to pursue the correct concept of fatherhood that will bring his character happiness. In short Chris Gardner, as a father, is determined to spell happiness correctly with the example of his life, no matter what difficulties he has to sustain.


The Moral Premise


Honing in on the story's moral premise statement has been difficult for me. I think this is because the turning points are so organic and naturally a part of the story. This also makes the act breaks less obvious, although there are a number of turning points where our protagonist makes difficult moral decisions, which drives the drama in a new direction. These are important, so let's look at a few.

Chris preserves in trying to sell a bad product to people who don't want it.


There are numerous times when Chris' decision is both responsible and disheartening. He has invested his life savings in these scanners, and only by selling them does he have any cash to live on. They are his livelihood, although they are not a very good supply of income. So, his loyalty to selling these scanners demonstrates perseverance and a certain level of stupidity.

Chris preserves in being the father to his son.


Many lesser fathers would have given up, much like Linda does in the movie. Unlike Chris, she is not dedicated to making the family work, even though she has scarified much. Chris' decision to be a father at all costs and subsequently buck advice to give up his child to social services, or to his wife, or to unknown women in a shelter, bring upon Chris many hardships that had he not had a son in tow would have made life easier. But Chris defines happiness as being a responsible father, and accepts with that moral decision the accompanying difficulties.

Chris pursues dreams outside his box.


The bus he rides everyday is a box that tries to, ah, ....box him in. Chris also carriers a cumbersome, and hard to dispose of box (the scanner). Both of these boxes have limited the possibilities for his life. The scanner has also boxed him into a pattern of work. It is hard for Chris to think about any other way to make money because he is so deeply committed to selling the dozens and dozens of scanners in which he invested all his money. So, when Chris gets off the bus with his box, and he sees the happy faces of stock brokers and the nice car, Chris makes a moral decision to think about a "convertible topped" box, and the "bigger box" building from which the stock brokers pour out for lunch. This moment occurs only 9 minutes into the movie, but it is clearly a moment of grace, although not the moment of grace for the movie. (More about this later.)

Chris decides to pursue the broker training program even though his wife is leaving him.


Without the support of a spouse to help care for a child during schooling, makes life more difficult than it would otherwise be. But in Chris' case, to maintain his first dream, that of being a father, his decision to go to school is made even more difficult. On the virtuous side, the training offers him a path to a more comfortable life. But, on the vice side, the training threatens his basic ability to function as a father and a human being.

Chris decides to pursue the dream of being a stockbroker by not calling on the lower fund managers as he has been instructed, but calling the CEO instead.


This decision, which I think is the pivotal Moment of Grace in the movie, is the result of the worthiest definition of "pursuit." At this moment (64 minutes into a 112 minute film) Chris has the insight that if he continues to move up the list of names, calling on the lower echelon managers, it's going to be real easy for them to say no, because Chris has no credibility. But, by calling on the boss, and being just seen in his office, Chris recognizes: (a) that the CEO doesn't need the approval of all those people below him on the list, and (b) even if the CEO says no, just being associated with him -- and being able to use his name -- gives Chris credibility with all those on the list that haven't yet said no to him. The gambit works. The CEO, Walter Ribbon (Kurt Fuller) won't give Chris any business, but the other fund managers, who trust the association that Chris has established, jump on his band-wagon and do give him business.

A Note on Possibility vs. Probability


On their way to Walter Ribbon's house, where little Christopher hopes he and his Dad get to go to a football game with Mr. Ribbon, Chris explains the difference between "possibility" and "probability." Possibility means there is a chance of a clear Yes or No; whereas probability has to do with an increase or a decrease of the chance of a clear Yes or No. It occurred to me that there are two other "p" words associated with this movie that help to explain the relationship between possibility and probability -- and explain what the movie is really about, if you forgive the apparent redundancy:

Persevering pursuit increases the probability of a possibility.

Does that need explaining? Chris' perseverance, and his leap forward approach to the pursuit of happiness and the job at the brokerage house, increased the probability, that just possibly, he'd get the 1 in 20 job.

Getting Back to Our Pursuit of The Moral Premise

The concept of "pursuit" implies getting ahead. Pursuit does not mean following at some distance forever and an era. Pursuit involves making leaps and jumping chasms.
For Chris to go from the mundane life of riding busses and lugging a heavy scanner around to driving a Lamborghini and making million dollar trades, requires more than a giant step, a leap, or even a vault. It requires inspired insight, an "Ah-ha!" moment, or the epiphany of a new paradigm.

Chris has at least two of those epiphanies in the movie. The first is when he discovers what the driver of the sports car does. This first epiphany results in a moral decision on Chris' part. He decides to investigate the broker training program. A few scenes later he submits his application. But these decisions are not of much consequence for Chris. Neither getting the application nor submitting it commits him. And even his wife thinks less of him for doing so. He could back out. The next step is that Chris takes the interview for the internship. Still he does not commit himself, although when he's accepted as an intern and doesn't immediately accept it, his sponsor is upset.

Later, however, Chris makes his second epiphany and acts on it. This is his decision to call on the CEO of Pac Bell against the advice of his instructor, Alan Frakesh (Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson.) In making this decision and acting on it, Chris risks the internship. If he messes up his relationship with the CEO, Water Ribbon, Chris will have self destructed the entire list of managers at Pac Bell and his chances at being hired by the brokerage firm.

But it is this decision that becomes his true Moment of Grace, because it changes his otherwise status quo method of following sales leads to a new level. Up until this moment Chris was calling names on his lead list much the same way he was making scanner sales calls. One call at a time. But it is his association with Walter Ribbon that multiplies his results. One appearance with Mr. Ribbon and lower managers start handing Chris their business cards without his ever placing a telephone call. And it is his ability to sell so many new accounts that he gets the job at the brokerage house.

It is at this moment of grace that defines the concept of "pursuit" in its purest form. Pursuit isn't following at a distance. Pursuit is discovering how to leap ahead. In a certain sense, throughout the movie, you might say that Chris pursues his dream to be a father and support his family. But what he's doing up until the Moment of Grace is persevering. But at 64 minutes when he is failing to get anywhere with the first four calls on the list, he begins his pursuit. Up until that time he is in a pack of 20 racers, all hoping to finish first. But, at 64 minutes, Chris begins his sprint, his pursuit, and breaks out of the box, passes the pack, which eventually allows him to achieve his quest for happiness.

Okay, now, one good way to state the moral premise might be this:

Quitting responsibilities leads to despair; but
Pursuit of responsibilities leads to happiness.



A Few Other Observations


Music, especially lyrics that play "in the scene" are very important to the meaning of a movie, if the producers know what they're doing. In PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS, Chris and his son spend several nights in a mission's homeless shelter. In so doing, they attend a worship service where the music being sung by the choir is "Lord don't Move That Mountain". The lyrics, although we don't hear all of them in the movie, give further depth to the meaning of the suffering that our protagonist and many others sustain -- and it gives them, and us in our time of need, hope and faith in the unseen wholeness of Providence.
Lord Don't Move That Mountain
1. Lord here I am again, down on my knees in prayer
Lord you promised me that you would always meet me there
Now there's a mountain up ahead, that I can't seem to climb
So I'm begging for the strength to try it one more time.

2.
Now if there were no mountains, Lord I might forget to pray.
And if there were no trials, Lord I might even stray.
But I know the higher the mountain, the sweeter the victory.
Oh Lord ever remind that you will walk beside of me.

Chorus
Oh Lord don't move that mountain, just give me strength to climb.
For if you should move each mountain, I might grow weaker every time,
And just as your son Jesus, took the cross up Calvary's hill.
Oh Lord don't move that mountain, so I may better do your will.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

ERAGON

Eragon (2006, Theatrical, 96 minutes)

Here is a brief analysis of ERAGON and how the movie version incorporates a true moral premise allowing it to resonate with audiences.

The movie, of course, is based on Christopher Paolini's novel of the same name. Paolini was 15 years old when he began writing Eragon, having just graduated from high school and deciding to wait a while before entering college. It is written as a children and teenage fantasy, and draws heavily on other fantasy works such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Consequently, ERAGON is seen as a derivative work, and not an inspired original. But as a derivative work, Paolini has demonstrated "great talent," say literary reviewers.

Derivative Elements

The "rip-offs" are almost obvious from the start. Luke Skywalker is driven into the story's central conflict under the same pretense as Eragon's—their uncles, with whom they are living, are murdered. Both Luke and Eragon have special powers bequeathed them by fate. Neither choose their calling. Both are called, in part, by a single, attractive, and mysterious woman (Leia, and Arya) -- notice how similar their names are. But if you're into naming protagonist similar to earlier works, consider the similarity between the names Eragon, and Lord of the Rings' Aragorn. (geez!), both "savior legends" of their respective myths. But the similarities don't stop there, there are Orcs and there are Ra'zacs, and so on and so froth. Enough, already.

This analysis is based on viewing the movie and additional research into the world that Paolini creates.

In terms of the moral premise, the movie's promotional tags give us a hint of direction:

You are stronger than you realize.

Wiser than you know.

What was once your life is now your legend.

The tag lines beg the question. They encourage the audience to think about where the extra strength and wisdom come from, that we have but don't realize or can't access.

There are some themes in the movie that support the moral premise, but are not directly part of it. Recall that the moral premise should describe the psychological and physical arc through which the protagonist (Eragon) travels. Thus, the moral premise describes how the protagonist changes. Eragon (Edward Speleers) has certain virtues that are evident from the beginning to the end of the movie. In the words of his mentor, Brom (Jeremy Irons), Eragon is one part brave, and three parts foolish. We also discover that Eragon has a pure heart, and is not tempted to move toward the evil side. We also sense that although this is a coming of age story, Eragon retails a significant part of his innocence throughout the movie, right up to the last scene. All of these are virtues that endear us to the protagonist (that and his good looks...cue the young girls).

But there is one thing that Eragon learns in this tale. It is this, here stated in the form of a moral premise:

Self-reliance and a wicked heart lead to defeat;
but
Reliance on others and a pure heart lead to victory.

Now, recall that a moral premise must apply equally to all the main characters if the movie is to be about "one thing" which is illustrated by both sides of the tale.

Act 1 (Fade Up)


In Eragon's life, before much of anything happens, we find a farm boy who's learning to hunt -- when a smooth, shiny stone stolen from the evil King King Galbatorix (John Malkovich) by the elf Arya (Sienna Guillory) is mystically passed into Eragon's care. The King sends his demonically-possessed-with-dark-magic minon Durza to retrieve it the egg and/or kill Eragon. From this situation arrives the one truly funny and original line in the whole movie.

KING GALBATORIX

(to Durza)


I suffer without my stone.

Eragon is told by his dragon, Saphira (Rachel Weisz's voice) that he is her rider. He doesn't know what this means, but goes to investigate and learn from and older village storyteller Brom, who happens to be an old dragon rider in hiding from the King. In a playful fight with his cousin, we see the Eragon is fearless, brave, and confident.

Act 1 (Turning Point) (27min. - times are approx.)

Eragon discovers his uncle is killed.

Eragon is drawn into the conflict, but rejects the larger physical goal of being a dragon rider for the sake of helping the Varden (the good resistance) defeat the evil King. But, both Galbatorix and Brom see this as Eragon's fate. As revealed later, and as we see and recognize even now, Eragon is chosen to be the new dragon rider because of his purity of heart, as if only pure goodness can defeat pure wickedness.

Act 1 (Climax) (36m)

A near death encounter with the Ra'zar looking for Eragon's egg, and the pleadings of Brom convince Eragon to accept the physical goal. We also see a hint of Eragon's over-confidence in fighting the Ra'zar on his own. He is warned against it by Brom and Saphira who seems to have inherited an encyclopedia knowledge of the human condition and the situation confront them.

Act 2 (Begins)

Eragon begins to learn to ride from Saphira and with Brom on horseback the three venture toward Varden's fortress, hidden deep within the Beor Mountains. Eragon thinks he can do battle and kill the Ra'zac's without the help of others and relies only himself. Brom tries to convince him otherwise. It is not until he becomes aware first that the journey ahead of him and his fate may be greater than he anticipated (via the witch Angela foretells his future) and then...

Act 2 (Moment of Grace - 48 min into a 96m movie -- exactly half-way)

...a direct run in with more Ra'zac that Eragon's innate magic saves him. It is the warning of his friends, and now the realization that without the magic he is doomed.

Eragon begins to believe what Brom and Saphira have been telling him, and their warnings of being over-confident. Eragon accepts the importance of the moral premise and embraces his need of others to attain his goal, not only Saphira but the magic bequeathed to him as well.

Now he can see things different, especially through Saphira's eyes...and through the use of the Elven language also referred to as the 'Language of Power', with which it is impossible to lie, he begins to learn how to use the source of magical power. But, there is a responsibility with the magic and he must also work to be physically strong enough to use the language or it will kill him.

But Eragon's "over confidence" is not over come. Now, with only a beginner's level of magical skill (which gives him added boldness), Eragon answers a recurring dream and decides that he needs to rescue Arya from Durza, at all costs, with or without Brom. It is this foolishness that has not yet be trained, and his over confidence, now with the magic that sends him into danger.

Act 2 Climax (59m-63m)

As a result of Eragon's decision to rescue Arya, he confronts Durza and minions (entering their lair) and in the fight risks Saphira -- and Brom is fatally wounded. But if it wasn't for all of them working together, including a newcomer, Murtagh, and Eragon's magic of truth, Eragon, would have been killed.

After they create a monument and honor Brom's life, Murtagh leads Eragon to the Varden hidden in the distant mountains, where they prepare for battle with Durza, the Ar'zac's and the huge Urgal army.

It is the death of his mentor Brom, and the admonition of Arya and Saphira, that Eragon seems to finally rally with the truth of the moral premise, even as he now prepare for the final battle.

Act 3 Begins (79m)

Eragon and Murtagh enter the Varden's fortress that will become the lair of the great battle.

Saphira tells Eragon that without fear there cannot be courage, although Eragon never truly seems afraid, but always brave -- perhaps foolishly so. He is simply never afraid. Again we are reminded of Brom's comment that Eragon has 1 part bravery and 3 parts foolishness, which both need to be tempered with wisdom and the strength and skills of others. We begin to see that another possible way to articulate the movie's moral premise:

Foolishness and falsity lead to self-sufficiency defeat;
but
Wisdom and truth lead to reliance on others and victory.

This seems also to be true and an even clearer understanding of what the movie is about, and so as the story prepares for Act 3, the protagonist enters the lair of conflict and hand-to-hand combat with the antagonist.

Act 3 (turning point) (82m)

Eragon riding upon Saphira confront Durza and and his dark dragon. It's hand-to-hand combat.

Act 3 Climax (85m)

Eragon stabs Durza through the heart with the dragon-sword and Durza and the dark dragon dissolve...but not before sending Eragon and Saphira to earth in a terrible crash. Saphira seemingly dies.

Denouement (88)

Eragon and Saphira live on. Eragon is now a legend, and he and Arya hope to meet again.

Finally we are introduced to the Kings wrath and his scary dark dragon which alert us to the inevitable sequel.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Real Meaning of Christmas in Movies


The Real Meaning of Christmas

This topic was discussed in-brief on Gus Lloyd's Seize the Day radio program (The Catholic Channel - Sirius 159), Friday, December 22, 2006. On this blog, beginning with this post, you'll find four descriptions of four DVD movies, and how each, in different ways, explains the real meaning of Christmas.

This time of year, just before Christmas, we are inundated with messages that purportedly are about the Christmas season. Oft times, however, these messages have little to do with the real meaning of Christmas, and a great deal to do with greed, materialism, and money.

This may also be true of movies that claim to be about the real meaning of Christmas, which on closer inspection appear to have nothing at all to do with Christmas. The movie may contain background Christmas carols, tinsel, lights, snow, and decorated trees, and a multitude of Christmas shoppers, amazingly with purchases popping out of sacks already wrapped and ribboned—but no mention of Jesus, Mary, the Wise Men, angels or shepherds. Could these movies possibly be about Christmas at all?

Indeed they could be.

The explanation as how they can be significantly about Christmas has everything to do with what movies are really about as I discuss in my book, The Moral Premise. There is the explicit or outward story, that which is conspicuously evident through sight and sound (what movies are simply about). But then there is the implicit or inward story, that which is subconsciously supporting the character's motivations (what movies are really about).

Let me summarize for you four Christmas themed movies (see the other related posts), and why each is about the true meaning of Christmas, although two of them never mention Jesus. Each of these films are available on DVD through Netflix, and often are aired on television. Each of these can provide meaningful viewing opportunities with your family.

The four movies that are discussed in separate posts are:
A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (1965, TV-Animated, 30 min)

THE FOURTH WISE MAN (1985, TV-Live Action, 72 min)

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946, Theatrical-Live Action, 72 min)

MIRACLE ON 34th STREET (1994, Theatrical-Live Action, 114 min)

A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS


The Real Meaning of Christmas in

A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS
(1965, TV-Animated, 30 min)

This is an example of the real meaning of Christmas being made explicit. In the short story Charlie Brown is recruited to direct the Christmas pageant at his school. He goes with Linus to buy a big shiny aluminum Christmas tree (they were all the rage in the 60s with a rotating colored light beneath flashing colors all over the room), but returns with a miserable, even scrawny real tree. Don't miss the simile. We go out looking for the King of Kings arrayed as a colorful, bright, and flashy royalty -- sequins even; but instead Christ was born into poverty and lived among the bales of hay in an obscure, smelly stable.

The explicitness takes two forms, one visual (the pageant) and two, in dialogue. In Charlie's search, Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14

And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid ... And the angel said unto them,

"Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."

And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.

That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
The moral premise of A Charlie Brown Christmas might be stated like this:

Looking forward to getting leads to ambiguity; but
Looking to forward to giving leads to significance.


THE FOURTH WISE MAN

The Real Meaning of Christmas in
THE FOURTH WISE MAN
(1985, TV-Live Action, 72 min)

This is an example of the real meaning of Christmas being made partly explicit, but mostly implicit. It is the story of ARTABAN (Martin Sheen) supposedly the fourth Magi, and his servant ORONTES (Alan Arkin). Artaban sells all that he has in exchange for three rare gems, which he plans to give to the Messiah. The duo plan to travel with the other three wise men to find the Promised One, but are unable to connect with them. Artaban then spends the next 33 years searching for the Messiah, yet misses him at every turn. Along the way Artaban uses the gems (and his skills as a doctor and learned man) to save lives of those in trouble and to feed and help the destitute. At the end of his life Artaban is near Jerusalem and sees Christ in the distance being crucified. A short time later, heartbroken Artaban slumps over near death in the street. At that moment the resurrected Christ appears to Artaban, and in their dialogue the true meaning of Christmas is explained:
ARTABAN: Ah, Master, I have longed sought you. Forgive me. Once I had precious gifts to give. Now I have nothing.
JESUS: Artaban, you've already given your gifts to me

ARTABAN: I don't understand, my God.

JESUS: When I was hungry you gave me to eat, when I was thirsty you gave me to drink. When I was naked you clothed me. When I was homeless, you took me in.

ARTABAN: O, not so my Savior, I never saw you hungry, no thirsty, I never clothed you. I never brought you into my home. I've never seen you until now.

JESUS: When ever you did these things for the least of my brothers -- you did them for me.

ARTABAN: Orontes! Did you hear -- Jesus say? We have found the King. We found him, Orontes, and he has accepted all my gifts.
Now during the entire story, Orontes is trying to win his freedom from being a slave. Orontes did not want to go on this journey, but Artaban's father, whose property Orontes is, has promised Orontes' freedom upon Artaban's safe return. Therefore, Orontes cares very little for Artaban's physical goal of finding the Messiah, and only about getting Artaban back safely to his father. As a result, every decision that Artaban makes to give away his wealth, or stay in one place for years to help others, further delay's Orontes freedom. This puts Orontes at odds with Artaban and reveals Orontes innate selfishness and prejudice, and Artaban's selflessness and love. Near the end, too late for Orontes to enjoy his freedom, if he was to return to Araban's father, Artaban becomes frustrated with Orontes' selfishness and releases him, giving him his freedom. But now, because it is so late in life, Orontes realizes that such an act does give him freedom but only abandons him. There is nothing for Orontes to do. His life is over, and because he has focused entirely on himself, there is nothing much left for him to do.

In these two characters then, we are able to see the moral premise of The Fourth Wiseman; it may be stated like this:

Seeking to serve self leads to abandonment; but
Seeking to serve others leads to fulfillment.


IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE

The Real Meaning of Christmas in
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE
(1946, Theatrical-Live Action, 72 min)

This is an example of the real meaning of Christmas being made implicit, without any mention of Jesus. It is the story of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) who wants to leave the small town where he grew up, get a college education, and travel the world on great adventures. His father Peter Bailey (Samuel S. Hinds) is the president of a small mortgage and loan company. Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) wants to buy out Bailey's loan company and control it to the detriment of the entire town.

Each time George tries to leave town and pursue his adventurous dream, something happens to threaten the town or his dad's business, and good-hearted George sticks around to help out. Even his honeymoon with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) is vetoed with a run on the bank and their loan company at the start of the Great Depression. To save the business, Mary offers up the $2,000 George has saved for their honeymoon, and George carefully gives it away as loans to save the company and the townspeople's homes.

But, Potter mercilessly keeps after George for control of the loan company. When one of George's partners looses $8,000 of the company's assets (into the sneaky hands of Potter) George falls into his own personal depression. He comes to think that life would be better if he had never been born, and tries to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge.

But God has other plans for George Bailey and sends Clarence (Henry Travers)—an angel, hoping to earn his wings—to rescue George and lead him out of his depression. Clarence lights on the idea of showing George what life would be like in the town if George had not been around. It's a fallback to Dickens' Christmas Carol and the three spirits who take Scourge on a similar journey. But here, rather than showing George what actually happened in the past (as in Dickens' tale) Clarence shows George what would have happened had George never been born.

The consequences would have been catastrophic with death, disease, corruption, and poverty the result. Clarence's what-would-have-been tour reveals to George and to the audience, that personal sacrifice for the greater good (which is what George's life had been about (a plot that is the opposite of Scrooge's tale) mattered a great deal, even if George didn't see it. George Bailey's lifetime of willing sacrifice had made life wonderful for everyone, compared to what would have happened had George Bailey never been born.

The Moral premise of this story can be stated like this:

Selfish hording leads to a miserable life; but
Sacrificial giving leads to a wonderful life.

How does that related to the real meaning of Christmas? In this way: The real purpose (or meaning) of why Jesus was born, was not so we'd talk about his birth, or the Three Wise Men, but so he would serve others, and literally sacrifice his life for the good of all mankind. That is what we see so clearly in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. George Bailey's life was on of utter selfless sacrifice for the good, and temporal salvation, of others.

MIRACLE ON 34th STREET - 1994

The Real Meaning of Christmas in
MIRACLE ON 34th STREET
(1994, Theatrical, 114 min)


This is an example of the real meaning of Christmas being made implicit, without any mention of Jesus. Please note that I am writing about the 1994 version, which is a remake of the perennial classic by the same name from 1947.

MIRACLE on 34th (1994) is the story of Dorey Walker (Elizabeth Perkins) who is a sad, single mom and the all-business (nearly humbugish) director of special projects for Coles, a large Manhattan department store. Years ago Dorey's husband left her and precocious daughter Susan (scene stealing Mara Wilson) which has precipitated Dorey's skepticism about life in general, and resulted in teaching Susan that there is really no Santa Claus.

In preparation for Cole's large Thanksgiving Day parade, Dorey fires the regular Santa Claus for his drunkenness, and hires a by-stander who just happens to be the real Kris Kringle (Richard Attenborough). Kris does a marvelous job during the parade and during the next month in the department store leading up to Christmas Eve, when he plans to be plenty busy. So marvelous does he do, in fact, that the president of Shoppers Express, Coles' competition, dispatches his minions to trip Kris up and put the kibosh on Coles' turn around success. In short, Kris ends up getting arrested and then put in a stark, cell-like room at Bellevue the local asylum for nuts. Dorey's boyfriend Bryan Bedford (Dylan McDermott) defends Kris in court in an attempt to save Cole's from embarrassment and save the decency of every child in the city who believes in Santa Claus.

At first blush of the above synopsis it appears that this movie (much like the original) has very little to do with the real meaning of Christmas -- and a whole lot to do with the Santa Claus myth. To many parents of Christian faith, this may be disappointing. But, although I've told you what the movie is about (it's physical plot), I've not told you what the movie is really about (it's psychological plot) -- and in that implicit story is the real meaning of Christmas.

The story sets up opposing characters. There are the skeptics (Dorey, Susan, and prosecuting attorney, Ed Colins (J.T. Walsh). And there are the believers (Bryan, Kris, and seemingly every mother and child in Manhattan.) From the beginning it is very clear that the skeptics are sad, grumpy people, and the believers are generally joyful.

The movie also establishes a metaphor that is consistently developed visually and aurally. Believing in Santa Claus in a metaphor for believing in God. Remember from my book, metaphors are the physical representation of the psychological truth; and in this story it is clear that what this story is really about what is "invisible" (i.e. God) -- so we need something visible (i.e. Santa Claus) as the metaphor. In case we miss it, the screenwriter has made this relationship clear as you'll soon read. You should also note that those in the story who have faith in God are generally happy, and those that reject faith (the skeptics) are sad. There is also a recurring emphasis that those that have faith are with respect to money and things of value are overly generous, and the skeptics are overly concerned with the almighty dollar. So, we have the classic religious elements of faith vs. skepticism, the invisible vs. the visible, generosity vs. greed, and for good measure protection of self vs. love of others.

I won't bore you with the details, although they may end up in the second edition of The Moral Premise, if there ever is one. For now, let me end with the film's final soliloquy. (Spoiler follows.)

At the movie's climax, it seems that Judge Harper (Robert Prosky) is going to have Kris committed to the asylum. At that moment, courageous Susan leaves the gallery and walks to the judge's bench and gives him a Christmas card. Looking for a miracle that would excuse his inevitable decision, the judge opens the card. Inside is a dollar bill, and on the back of the bill we notice that a color marker has circled the words "In God We Trust". (If we've been paying close attention the visual inserts earlier in the film, we've seen this particular close up before.) Judge Harper stares at this for several beats. Suddenly he smiles, deliberately takes Kris' commitment papers, scrunches them up, and tosses them to the side, saying: "We won't be needing this." Then the judge delivers this eloquent soliloquy that explains the movie's metaphor of what belief and faith in Santa Claus should be reminding us all about. He says:
The young lady that just approached the bench presented me with this Christmas card, and this. It's a one dollar bill. It's gonna be returned to her shortly. But by presenting me with this bill she reminded me of the fact that it is issued by the Treasury of the United States of America. And it's backed by the government -- and the people of the United States of America. -- Upon inspection of the article you will see the words: "In God We Trust." Now, we're not here to prove that God exists, but we are here to prove that a being just as invisible and yet just as present exists. The Federal Government puts it's trust in God. It does so on faith and faith alone. It's the will of the people that guides the government, and it is and was their collective faith in a greater being that gave and gives cause to the inscription on this bill. Now if the government of the United States can issue its currency bearing a declaration of trust in God without demanding physical evidence of the existence or the non-existence of a greater being, then the state of New York by a similar demonstration of the collective faith of its people can accept and acknowledge that Santa Claus does exists and he exists in the person of Kris Kringle. (Cheering!) Case dismissed.
Now the movie ends with Susan getting her Christmas wish. I won't tell you what it is, but I will tell you this -- it begins in a beautiful Catholic cathedral immediately following The Christ-Mass on Christmas Eve. But how that happens I'll leave up to your imagination, or for when you rent this beautifully directed, cast, and photographed movie on DVD and enjoy its charm with your family.

Oh, almost forgot. The moral premise for MIRACLE on 34th Street (1994) can be stated like this:
Skepticism leads to sadness; but
Faith leads to joy.

Merry Christmas -- see you at the Christ Mass.

P.S. I like this version of Miracle on 34th better than the 1947 version for a number of reasons. First, this is more consistent in portraying a true moral premise. The 1947 version wanders.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

APOCALYPTO

The Moral Premise in
APOCALYPTO
(2006, Theatrical, 139 min.)

What is the moral premise of APOCALYPTO and how is it articulated in the story's turning points and most importantly, the Moment of Grace? I'll give you my take, then feel free to add your comments and disagree. Figuring these things out is easier as a group. For instance, on this movie my wife was the first to point out the Moment of Grace (I didn't see it at first, although I knew right where it was), and during my weekly radio conversation with Gus Lloyd (Sirius 159- The Catholic Channel, Friday mornings), Gus refined the virtue wording that you see below. So, let me take a crack at this, and please feel free to chime in.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW. You can't talk about a film's moral premise without engaging the spoilers.


APOCALYPTO's Moral Premise: (Take 1)
Succumbing to fear leads to destruction; but
Chasing courage leads to a new beginning.

Discussion: First I'm going to assume Apocalypto will be a success at connecting with audiences. That says the moral premise is consistently imbued into the story (and film) and is true. At first I was put off by the violence and blood. But Gibson, being a Catholic who takes his religion seriously, understands the importance that blood plays in the sacrifice of the Mass. Catholics, in a supernatural sense, drink blood every Sunday.

Gibson also is making an important statement about the rise and fall of civilizations, especially his own. The move begins with a quote from Will Durant that one source says he wrote about the fall of the Roman Empire: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." That's an important hint. It is not the moral premise, but it points strongly to it.

The moral premise makes itself known early on. We are introduced to Jaguar Paw's village first through its hunters, who are fearless as they trap, kill, and share the organs of a tapir. But a chance encounter with another village's refugees who have succumbed to fear sets Jaguar Paw down a path of fear that his father, a wise village elder, tells him is a sickness, a disease, and it that must be kept out of the village (e.g. civilization).

Soon Paw's village is overrun by fierce warriors who rape, pillage, burn, and take Paw and others captive, hauling them off to a Mayan culture that in many ways reminds us of modern Western society with its images of warfare, societal breakdowns, abject poverty, corrupt riches, superstitious evangelists, rejection of the elderly, and human sacrifice. These are people that have succumbed to fear that has escalated them through stages of selfish neglect, deep-seated greed, unquenchable thirst for power -- all culminating in a culture of death.

We experience all of this through Paw's eyes and he slowly gives in to the temptation of nearly uncontrolled fear as his captives have feared. Or, will he recall not only his father's warnings, but his father's courage and peace when his throat was slit in front of Paw?

So, let me open this up for discussion? What is Jaguar Paw's physical goal? When is the Moment of Grace in this movie? And what psychological and physical change does the protagonist, Jaguar Paw, make and experience at his moment of grace?