Thursday, March 29, 2007


Michael O. Sajbel - Director
Cheryl McKay - Screenplay
Jim Stovall - Book

Drew Fuller - Jason Stevens
James Garner - Red Stevens
Ali Hillis - Alexia
Abigail Breslin - Emily
Lee Meriwether - Miss Hastings
Brian Dennehy - Gus
Mircea Monroe - Caitlin
Donna Cherry - Sarah Stevens
D. David Morin - Jack Stephens
Bill Cobbs - Ted Hamilton

In trying to come up with the moral premise of The Ultimate Gift (TUG) I didn’t have to think very long. The dialogue wants to tell you, over, and over, and over, and over. If you like stories where you have to figure things out; if you like a mystery; if you want to see the protagonist learn things on his or her own the way you are forced to learn on your own, then TUG is not for you.


Jason Stevens is a trust fund baby, who has never worked a day in his life, and money has always been there for him. It is probably true that the rest of his aunts and uncles, all greedy, selfish people, were raised the same. Jason’s grandfather, Red Stevens, dies and leaves most of the aunts and uncles nothing. For a reason that comes off as manipulated, Red thinks that Jason is redeemable, whereas the rest of his related humanity is not. So, Red leaves a series of video messages and assignments for Jason to complete, hoping that Jason will learn to reject vanity and the self-absorbed playboy life, and become a charitable, generous, self-less community icon. And what happens? Just that. After the trailer there is nothing more to discover. Jason acts the brat, but his greed forces him to work, respect money, make a true friend, value learning, etc.-times 12, until at the end of the movie, his grandfather's attorney rewards him with control of the two-billion dollar estate.


It would be a good challenge to take just one of Christ’s parables (say the Rich Young Ruler) and make a good movie about how through natural, organic circumstances the Rich Young Ruler comes to learn the importance of giving and not hording his wealth. People change values slowly, VERY slowly, and it would take 120-minutes just to reveal, in a realistic, identifiable, organic way, how such a person would just BEGIN to change; yet, at the end, still have weaknesses and imperfections to work on, just as we all do.

But in TUG the writers take 12 parables, and in 114 minutes try to convince us that a 22 year old greedy, playboy can totally change from black to white in 12 different character traits, and at the end of the movie have no faults, no worries, all the money in the world, a beautiful wife, and have the respect of local banks and business authorities to demand that they will pro-bono their time and money to create his pet project…altruistic as the project may seem. If I hadn't been watching the movie for my radio program I would have turned it off and washed the dishes.

It is Jason’s vanity and greed that drives him to pursue his grandfather's will, but he's resentful and angry at having to play the game. Vanity, greed, and their natural consequencies of bitterness and anger, are also evident (overly so) in Jason's aunts and uncles. After having been motivated (by greed) to find a true friend, Jason recognizes (in a Moment of Grace, that occurs before a statue of Jesus’ outstretched arms) that his young friend, Emily, is dying of leukemia. From then on Jason tries to use the wealth he’s been given to help Emily and others survive their pain and suffering. So, the true moral premise of the movie can be stated this way:
Greed leads to resentment and disrespect; but
Generosity leads to love and honor.
So, here’s a movie, again with a true moral premise.


But TUG is an example of how a true moral premise cannot save a story from dismal performance at the box office, even though the book upon which it was based sold 3 million copies. Why? Because, as another reviewer mentioned, the one gift that the filmmakers did not get, was the gift of good narrative filmmaking.

First, however, there are some things the filmmakers did right. The photography is good, and they lined up an all star cast who do well in their roles.

But there are fundamental narrative problems with TUG. Let me describe three.

1. The first cardnial rule of narrative filmmaking is to show, don't tell. But TUG is nearly all words. It is an illustrated book. The sound track alone tells the story. The pictures are not needed. In a well conceived film the movie will allow the audience to experience what the protagonist experiences as both are led organically to some conclusion. But in dialogue, TUG tells the audience exactly what is to be understood and believed predominantly through the presence of Red Steven's video messages. It's a contrivance that works in the book because we have no visuals, and we need to explain motivations and things that cannot be shown. Novels are about thoughts -- plays are about words -- and movies are about pictures. When a movie uses too many words to tell the story, the visuals become impotent. Without the Red Stevens scenes we might have seen how Jason figures out the truth on his own, thus allowing the audience to make the message their own. Red's explanations were a little like having someone like me whispering into your ear all through a movie about what the movie is trying to say. You'd want to smack me in the puss, and tell me to shut up, and that's exactly what I wanted to tell the filmmakers.

2. There is a near absence of metaphors in this film, and metaphors are the lifeblood of visual story telling. There are two basic kinds of moral communications: visual tropes (narrative allegories and metaphors) and propositional statements (what you find in a catechism, e.g. "Do good unto others as you would have them do unto you"). A good film will give the protagonist a physical goal that is really a metaphor for what the movie, at a psychological level, is really about. Now, TUG does have one on-going analogy that sort of works—Red Stevens is analogous to God who teaches his children (i.e. "us" represented by Jason) hard lessons through trials and suffering. Jason, at first, rejects the lessons and tries to return to his bitterness and resentment. But finally he embraces the necessity of the trials for the sake of obtaining the "ultimate gift." In Jason's eyes that ultimate gift is initially the money, and eventually the gift is the love he needs to express by using the money for charitable purposes. But underlying that analogy, the real ultimate gift is the gift of God's charity that we receive in salvation and heaven provided we joyfully submit to God's trials and sufferings.

But I say the analogy only "sort of works." Analogies are figures of speech (in this case visual tropes) that parallel dissimilar story elements designed to help the reader or audience to organically internalize, synthesize and assimilate a truth. A analogy, simile or metaphor are the linguistic opposites of TUB's didactic delivery. Jason is continually being preached to. Thus, in TUB we are not allowed to "discover" truth, but rather we are hit over the head by it. Jason must be told several dozen times that the hard lessons he is learning are each gifts, designed to redeem him. He is rarely given a chance to figure this out by himself, and thus the message come off more like preaching than self-discovery.

3. The flow of the story is mostly manipulative and not natural. Another cardinal rule of good storytelling is that the fiction writer can allow one overt jump in logic or break in the natural order of things, and not lose the audience. In the movie version of TUG there is more than one of these jumps and each seems coincidental for the convenience of the writer. The first is the introduction of Emily into Jason's life. It occurs as Jason is living on a park bench, and young Emily spontaneously (and without good motivation) engages him in pointed conversation. This happens again, in another scene, when Emily's mother, Alexia, sets up a picnic a few feet away from Jason's park bench. It happens a third time, when Jason finds Alexia's stolen purse in a park trash bin, and it just so happens that her unpaid bills are wadded up in the purse, and it just so happens that he goes to the hospital to look for them, instead of walking to her home, and ALL of this is wrapped up in the melodramatic coincidence that Emily is dying of leukemia. A similar sort of coincidence is that Jason's overly greedy and sexed-up girlfriend looks like trash when compared to the winsome and wholesome Alexia. There are many such situations in this story that play to the desire of the writer to paint a plot and protagonist that are without any blemish or need of on-going redemption. Altogether it will be hard for the audience to identify with Jason, root for his success, or feel any compassion for him. And, in the end, who really cares about a perfect young man who is given 2 billion dollars to control? It's far too close to the heretical "heath and wealth" Gospel.


All of this suggests to me a second moral premise that is laid on top of the first. In part it is reinforced by the riches his aunts and uncles who continue to live out their selfish lives without much natural negative consequence, except for a lot of bickering and jealousy. And in Jason's story arc, the more perfect he becomes, the richer he gets, setting up this moral premise:
Vanity and greed lead to wealth; but
Moral perfection leads to obscene riches.
This moral premise is false, although, unfortunately, a great many people, including so-called Christians, hope and believe it to be true.

Friday, March 23, 2007

300 (2007)

Freedom Comes at the Highest Cost of Blood

Zack Snyder - Director
Kurt Johnstad - Screenwriter
Michael Gordon - Screenwriter
Zack Snyder - Screenwriter
Frank Miller - Author
Gerard Butler - King Leonidas
Lena Headey - Queen Gorgo
David Wenham - Dilios
Andrew Tiernan - Ephialtes (nightmare)
Rodrigo Santoro - Xerxes I
Dominic West - Theron

Historical Connection

300 is the movie version of Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name, which is a fairly accurate retelling of the Battle of Thermophylae (ther-MO-pih-lee), a key event in the defense of Greece from invading Persians, although the movie borrows freely from fantasy genre pictures, with epic sized computer generated monsters and grotesque villains.

It is 480 BC when the Persians make this third attempt to conquer the Greeks, although this is the first campaign by Xerxes I, son of Darius I. The invasions came across the straits at Hellespont, just south of Istanbul, where Xerxes and his fleet of some 600 ships formed a land bridge for his troops that some estimate at 4-5 million, half of which provided logistical support. By land and by sea Xerxes forces moved South and converged on Athens.

Xerxes sent messengers ahead to tell the Greek cities to give him "earth and water" as a sign of their submission and pledge to pay tribute. But, clearly the Athenians and Spartans (former enemies) held the messengers accountable, and throw them into pits and wells, telling them to dig out the earth and water for themselves.

In the face of the encroaching army, King Leonidas of Sparta, rallies a small army of 300 highly trained men (who had sons to carry on their name), and with 700 volunteer and conscripted thespians set up their ranks at the narrow Thermophylae pass. They know however that they will only be able to slow down Xerxes advancing hordes. Although Leonidas and his troops die, they take a tremendous toll on Xerxes' army. One report suggests that in the first skirmish 10,000 of Xerxes forces died but only 3 Greeks. The delay and infliction on Xerxes forces provides enough time for the Athenians to put together a navy that will effectively stop Xerxes' European expansion off the island of Salamis. Then, the Greek states are able to put together an army that easily defeats Xerxes remaining land troops at Plataea (where the movie ends).

In Miller's book and the movie, the names of the main combatants, Leonidas, his wife Gorgo (not in the novel), and Xerxes, and the names of the conquered armies that Xerxes uses, such as the Immortals, are accurate. The movie is also accurate regarding the dress, manner of combat, fighting techniques, and troop numbers; even spoken lines are lifted from historical records.

One snippet of historical dialogue occurs when the emissary of Xerxes threatens the captain of Leonidas' force. The emissary says that unless the Spartans surrender, Persian arrows would be so numerous as to blot out the sun. The Spartan captain responds, "So much the better, we shall fight in the shade." Today that is the motto taken by the Greek 20th Armored Division.

It was against Spartan Law to surrender. If a Spartan warrior returned from battle without his shield, it is assumed he surrendered, and the penalty was death. Thus, the Spartan rallying cry: "Never Surrender, Never Retreat."

Today, a monument stone sits on a hill at Thermopylae where the majority of the Spartans died in the last hailstorm of Persian arrows (many which have been found at the site). One translation of the ancient Greek epitaph is: "Stranger, bear this message to the Spartans, that we lie here obedient to their laws."

Biblical References

In Daniel 11:2-3 we read the beginning of one of Daniel's visions:
Three kings of Persia are yet to come; and a fourth shall acquire the greatest riches of all. Strengthened by his riches, he shall rouse all the kingdom of Greece. But a powerful king shall appear and rule with great might, doing as he pleases.
In this passage, during the time of Cyrus the Great (559 BC-530 BC), reference is made of Dairus I (36 years, 522 BC - 486 BC), Xerxes I (20 years, 486 BC - 465 BC), and Alexander the Great (330 BC - 323 BC).

There are elements of the film (and graphic novel) that parallel Biblical themes:
  • Xerxes temptation of Leonidas is similar to Satan's temptation of Christ in the wilderness.
  • Leonidas is also a Christ figure in that he altruistically dies at the hand of evil for the future hope of the world.
  • One of Leonidas' last requests, like Christ's, is that he and his men be remembered as fulfilling the law, and bringing hope.
  • The movie also explicitly illustrates the grotesqueness of evil through many explicit images that could have been lifted from The Damned in Michelagnelo's Last Judgement above the altar of the Sistine chapel. (The pope looks at this stuff at Mass.)
Milestone of Western Civilization

Today the Battle of Thermopylae is pivotal to Western Civilization and its embrace of law, order, and democracy. While the battle was short, it accomplished four strategic goals:
  1. It imparted a significant physical and emotional toll on Xerxes' armies.
  2. It slowed down Xerxes army from reaching Athens (which had been evacuated).
  3. It demonstrated to Greece that Xerxes was a serious threat. Some reports have it that the Olympic games were in progress and no one wanted to stop them to fight a war.
  4. It gave the recently bonded together Greek states time to mount their army and navy for the final battles.
Thus, the 1,000 that died at Themoplyae, was a just sacrifice, for it allowed the Greeks to defeat the Persians, and allowed democracy to spread into Europe. Had Persians overrun Greek society, Western Civilization would be more likely modeled after the tyranny of the Medes and Persians. (e.g. Iran doesn't like the movie's implication about this. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the "Republic" of Iran is, by the way, the political descendant of Xerxes.)

The Battle of Thermopylae is still studied as a model of training, equipment, defense, and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. It is from this battle that modern warriors, when asked to surrender their weapons respond: "Come and get them."

In these ways, 300 reminds us that fighting tyranny in defense of democracy and freedom has a 2,500 year history of bloody conflict. The wars we fight today are nothing new, and the messages this film brings are uncanny in their connections to the current debate about America's involvement in the lands of ancient Persia. Indeed the political macerations in the film seem frightful contemporary.

The Evil of Tyranny

The physical goal of the film's protagonist and antagonist is make clear in this dialogue as Xerxes tries to persuade Leonidas to surrender.

XERXES: There will be no glory in your sacrifice. I will erase even the memory of Sparta from the histories. The world will never know you existed, at all.

Leonidas ponders that for a moment, then...

LEONIDAS: The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant, that few stood against many, and before this battle was over that even a god-king can bleed.
Trial Moral Premise

There are four characters on both sides of 300's moral premise.

King Leonidas, his captain, Queen Gorgo, and her political counselor all demonstrate selfless service to others and a generous giving of themselves for the safety of their country, which are virtues that lead honor, glory, remembrance, liberty, and hope.

On the other side of the equation we have Xerxes, his emissaries, and messengers, and Theron (the oily politician), Ephialtes (the hunchback traitor), and the Ephors (keepers of the Oracle). The vices each of these example are self-centeredness, service to themselves alone, taking from others, and vainglory that leads to enslavement, infamy, dishonor, and dread. Thus one way to articulate what this movie is really about could be this trail moral premise:

Vainglory in service of self leads to enslavement; but
Humility in service of others leads to freedom.

By the way, the glory that Ephialtes gains is that today his name means "nightmare", for it was his treachery at night that brought a quick end to the Spartans at Thermopylae.

Moment of Grace

As we center in on the film's real moral premise, we also are drawn to the central Moment of Grace. It's about half-way through the movie, as we might expect, and it comes after Leonidas meets with the Ephors, whom Miller portrays as lecherous lepers that control Sparta by interpreting the hallucinated mumblings of a drugged slave girl they claim is a divine oracle.

The King, attempting to follow Spartan law, must consult with them (and the Oracle) before taking any action, but he doesn't buy into their superstitions, lust, or greed. They first demand he give them gold, and, then their interpretation of the oracles mumblings tell Leonidas not to fight, to do nothing.

Thus, this good king, who has sworn to protect the country and up-hold the law is now prevented by the law to defend his country. As his political enemy, Theron, later tells Queen Gorgo, "This isn't about war, it's about politics." In the historical record, Leonidas compromises with the Ephors, but in the movie he defies them, and in the novel the gold is paid by Xerxes to compromise their influence.

Leonidas returns to his home and bed, but can't sleep or welcome his wife's embrace. He finds himself enslaved by political compromise. The queen interrogates him:

QG: Has the oracle robbed you of your desires as well?
KL: It would take more than the words of a drunken adolescent girl to rob me of my desire for you.
QG: Then why so distant?
KL: Because it seems that though a slave, captured by lecherous old men, the oracle's words can set fire to all that I love.
QG: And that is why my king loses sleep and is forced from the warmth of his bed?
KL: Then what must a king do to save his world, when the very laws he has sworn to protect force him to do nothing.
(The Queen's next line triggers the moment of grace, that the King embraces in several ways.)
QG: It is not a question about what a Spartan citizen should do, or a husband, or a king. Instead ask yourself, my dearest love, what should a free man do?
That's it!

He gets the truth of the moral premise, and after a moment of assimilation he again is a freeman and falls into her arms and they make love. It is what a free man is able to do. He is able to give of himself to his wife in love. Not just through sex, even as it is tender and respectful as sex between a married couple should be; but through the courage of facing death as they both seek freedom for their country.

(BTW: This sex scene should be read as a model of martial intimacy; it was romantic, sexy, chaste, good, true, and beautiful. It would be interesting to compare Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body with the sexual love we see in this movie. I suspect we'd find a good alignment.)

Before this Moment of Grace the King frets at fulfilling his duty because he has politically compromised his values. The law intruded on his ability to do what he feels is his ultimate responsibility of defending his country, and so he turns to a higher standard. Not what a politician or king would do, but what would a free man would do.

For King Leonidas, everything hinges on that moment in the story. And consistently we see that our other characters have similar Moments of Grace when they accept or reject this true moral premise:

Moral compromise, even if politically expedient,
leads to enslavement and dread; but

Executing justice, even if politically suicidal,
leads to liberty, and hope.
The Queens Lesson

Now, how the queen learns the moral premise, in her personal dealings, is even more dramatic than how the King has learned it.

My wife, Pam, would have me mention at this point, perhaps something significant. It is after his Moment of Grace that the King essentially renounces his political position (as King) to go on a "stroll" with his bodyguard (of 300). Where before the Moment of Grace he tries to listen to and show respect to the politicians, now he is simply nice but rebellious. To underscore that he is no longer King he turns to leave his wife and go to war, but she calls after him: "Spartan!"

Notice she does not call him "king" or "husband." Further reinforcing this moment, we recall the writing of a first century historian (not in the movie or novel), Plutarch, who "mentions in his Sayings of Spartan Women that, after encouraging him"...Gorgo asks Leonidas what she should do on his departure, to which he replies, "Marry a good man, and have good children." (

Back to the story, the battle is being waged, and Gorgo seeks to persuade the Spartan council to mass the entire army to defend their land. Her political foe is Theron, who she goes to to convince to be on her side. But he isn't interested, and informers her that the issue is not one of war but one of politics. What he means by that is, political power for himself, and he intends to grab it, now that the King has left.

As misogynist villains seem to want, and it is beyond my understanding, he asks her for sex. He reasons to her that if she loves her husband so much, she will be willing to compromise her values to gain political advantage to help her husband. In desperation, and because she has been told that Theron's political support is crucial, she pulls off her dress and bravery offers herself to him. As he begins to rape her he says with disdain and malevolence: "This will not be over quickly, and you will not enjoy it."

Is it a necessary scene? You bet it is. Because it shows us that the Queen has compromised her values, especially to be politically expedient. What happens soon, however, even more so elucidates the moral premise.

She is given opportunity to address the council, even as Theron hideously looks on.
QUEEN GORGO: I'm not here to represent Leonidas. His actions speak louder than my words ever could. I'm hear for all those voices that could never be heard. Mothers, daughters, fathers, sons. 300 families that bleed for our rights, and for the very principles this room was built upon. We are at war, gentlemen. We must send the entire Spartan army to air our King in the preservation of liberty, send it for justice. send it for law and order. Send it for reason. But most importantly, send it for hope. Hope that the king and his men have not been wasted in the pages of history. That their courage bonds us together. That we are made stronger by their actions. That your choices today reflect their bravery.
It's a moving speech that gets a positive reaction from the members (especially with Tyler Bates' original music — it must have sounded great in the council chamber.)

But oily snake that he is, Theron turns on the Queen, and in front of all, accuses her of adultery with her chaste and proper counselor who stands nearby. She angrily denies his accusations. He pours it on and tells the council that she even threw herself at him, Theron, to win his approval. He calls her a whore, and dismisses her as worthless, just as King Leonidas who has broken the law by going to war without their approval, is worthless. (Sound familiar?).

Enraged, and about ready to flee -- her attempts at political compromise having tapped and enslaved her -- she seizes upon the truth of the moral premise, and executes justice -- and righteous justice it is, as her husband awaits his certain death. She sees a saber in the sheath of someone near her. It takes but a moment to decide. She deftly grabs the deadly tool, turns to her accuser, and, as he raped her, now she sticks her weapon into him, deep, sure, strong and fatal. And as she turns the now-scarlet blade she reprises his venomous words: "This will not be over quickly, and you will not enjoy it."

No sooner does she back away, than a pile of gold coins cascade from Theron's robes. A council member picks up a coin and looks at the face pressed into its side. It is the image of Xerxes. Theron was a traitor. (Do you suppose there were 30 pieces of gold here?)

Miles away, as King Leonidas prepares to be buried under the darkening sky of arrows that will doom him and his loyally troops, he cries, "My Queen! My wife! My love!"

In such ways the characters of this movie have either rejected or embraced the truth of the moral premise, and because of their egotism or humility reap the natural results of this moral truth:

Moral compromise, even if politically expedient,
leads to enslavement and dread; but

Executing justice, even if politically suicidal,
leads to liberty, and hope.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


GABOR CSUPO - Director
JEFF STOCKWELL - Screenwriter
DAVID PATERSON - Screenwriter

ROBERT PATRICK - Jesse Aarons Sr
KATRINA CERIO (Kate Butler) - Nancy Aarons
BAILEE MADISON - Maybelle Aarons
JEN WOLFE - Mrs. Myers

Let me get into a discussion about this great movie by sharing a little about the author of the book upon which the screenplay was based.


Bridge to Terabithia was originally written as a book (1978 Newbery Medal for best children's novel) by Katherine Paterson, daughter of Presbyterian missionaries to China. She wrote the story to help her young son, David (co-screenwriter), understand his best friend's death — Lisa Hill was eight when she was struck by lightening. Understanding such an event requires a worldview that is cogent, and good writers write what they know.

In an on-line interview (, Paterson states:
I think it was C.S. Lewis who said something like: 'The book cannot be what the writer is not.' What you are will shape your book whether you want it to or not. I am Christian, so that conviction will pervade the book even when I make no conscious effort to teach or preach. Grace and hope will inform everything I write

Indeed, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA is a rich Christian myth filled with symbols of faith and grace that undergird the moral premise. Fortunately, Paterson is a gifted storyteller who understands the first rule of good communication: (1) Entertain. She has the second rule of communication down cold: (2) Tell the truth. And she practices the third rule of successful communication: (3) Respect your audience.

Employing those three rules results in classics like The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Bridge to Terabithia. In all of these classic stories, truth resonates with audiences, even as the propositional statements of religious faith are avoided.

I do not mean that propositional statements of faith (such as you find in a catechism or the direct teachings from a religion's bible) are wrong or unnecessary. To the contrary, do I believe (said Yoda). But communicating truth to the masses is the place and time for myth (storytelling about truths), leaving catechesis (explaining the truth propositionally) for another, more analytical time.

In that regard, Paterson says in the same interview:
The challenge for those of us who care about our faith and about a hurting world is to tell stories which will carry the words of grace and hope in their bones and sinews and not wear them like a fancy dress.
In other words, tell the story with humility and joy, and don't preach with arrogance a pomp de fear.

A final quote from Paterson's quiver is this arrow of encouragement to all of us who are drawn to create:
Unless I was willing to risk mediocrity, I would never accomplish anything. There are simply no guarantees. It takes courage to lay your insides out for people to examine and sneer over.
Ah, yes, the drakes of mediocrity, we know thee well. (God, how I hate mediocrity, especially when I produce it myself -- see Addicted to Mediocrity by Franky Schaeffer and Kurt Mitchell.)


BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA tells the story of tween Jesse Aarons, whose goal is to break free of the mediocrity of fifth grade. A nice boy with a great but stifled imagination, he turns to running and practices for a foot race at school. When the big race comes, he pulls into the lead against his bully nemesises, only to be passed by the friendly, new girl in school, Leslie Burke. That he got beat by a girl is bad enough, but it turns out they are neighbors, and in time develop a friendship.

The darkness in Jesse's life comes from several sources. We discover that Jesse's family is poor and a cloud of poverty and dullness hangs over his large family of five sisters, and a loving, stern father who works hard but without satisfaction. Their family seems to be on the edge of emotional and fiscal depression. Jesse is also the brunt of jokes and ridicule at school for being a little different— he's introverted, and not given to the cruelty of his "peers." Although we are introduced to Jesse's imaginary world through his drawing, it is a closeted imagination than lacks vitality and hope.

Leslie, on the other hand is a bright, confident, outgoing girl with a streak of compassion that is never-ending. She befriends Jesse out of a genuine respect for the dignity of another person and his drawings, which he tries to keep to himself. Leslie quickly makes friends with Maybelle, Jesse's younger sister, by offering Maybelle her collection of Barbies when Jesse rudely rejects Maybelle's tagging along. Where Jesse is good at drawing, Leslie is good with words. When Mrs. Myers (their English teacher) asks Leslie to read her essay on SCUBA diving, Jesse imagines air-bubbles coming from Leslie's mouth, and is further engaged when she tells him afterwards that she just made it up —out of her imagination — she's never been SCUBA diving before.

We are not introduced to Leslie's parents until later, but when we are we discover that they too, like Mr. Aarons, work hard, but their lives are alive with imagination, and are richer on several levels. One of the movie's moments of grace is when Leslie's father, after he and his wife complete their book and re-painting the dinning room (a family project in which Jesse' helps) -- happily quotes Theodore Roosevelt:
Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.
As the story progresses that attitude is adopted by Jesse who proudly delivers it to his dad, when once again Jesse is told to do his chores.


To escape the occasional persecution that both Jesse and Leslie endure at school, and because they are next-door neighbors in a rural setting, they run into the woods to play. Leslie is the leader here, and freely engages her vivid play imagination, inviting, and coaching Jesse to play along. She knows he has it in him (from his drawings). But to Jesse his imaginary world is something to escape to and keep private, and not something to exhibit by swinging from trees, or to yell about from mountaintops. But that is what Leslie teaches him.

When they find a rope that swings across a small river, she encourages him to give it a try. She does and freely enjoys the freedom of looking up into the clouds. He's afraid that the rope will break, but she tells him it won't. He swings, and listening to her exuberant hope, throws his head back and looks at the clouds above. It's a rush of excitement he's rarely felt.

On the other side of the river, they establish their own imaginary land—Terabithia she calls it. A place where they can be King and Queen, and where their imagination conjures up a land of the supernatural.

Now, in the supernatural world, we are closer to what the movie is really about — the need for hope, a virtue that allows us to see what naturally is invisible. In a Christian context, the key ingredient is "faith." And it plays significantly in the story. Hope results from understanding who we were meant to be, and seeing a way to express it in the larger world.

Early during their creation of Terabithia, Leslie challenges Jesse: "Close your eyes, but keep your mind wide open." They are surrounded by creatures of the imagination. She asks him "Do you see them?" He says "yes" but he sees only the natural world of birds and squirrels. She asks again, "Do you REALLY see them?" And then he sees the supernatural world of squogres and giant bats that only hope and their imagination can bring...what the movie is REALLY about.

Shortly thereafter, Leslie raises her arms in a prelude to the movie's triumph and announces:
"Prisoners of the Dark Master, we've come to free you."
And the wind blows, like the Holy Spirit entering the Upper Room where the Apostles huddled in fear of the dark forces that surrounded them. But in our movie, the proclamation by our Terabithia Queen is aimed directly at the Terabithia King, Jesse, who is a prisoner of the dark master, of which she's come to free him.


Terabithia comes from the name of the Terebinth tree found in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, and the Old Testament. The Terebinth is mentioned in Sirach 24:
Like a Terebinth I spread out my branches, and my branches are glorious and graceful. Like the vine I bud forth delights, and my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit" (16-17).
The on-line Jewish encyclopedia states that:
Both the oak and the Terebinth offered favorite resorts for religious practices (Isa. i. 29, lvii. 5; Ezek. vi. 13; Hos. iv. 13), and are employed as emblems of strength and durability (Amos ii. 9; Isa. lxi. 3).
When life is difficult we gather strength and durability from hope and our imagination to see what could and will be. Thus our ability to imagine becomes a key component of Catholic sacramentality, where we experience the presence of God in all creation, in our contemplation, and in the Mass. Specifically, imagination is necessary to understand the Mass, its connection with eternity (where there is no time), and the meaning of life. Only then are we able to embrace hope for a better tomorrow.


In Bridge To Terabithia we see the beginning of that kind of sacramental, supernatural imagination in Jesse Aarons' life. For Jesse Aarons is a special person called to that imagination and hope. Jesse is our everyman, the person we identify with. Jesse is us. And as Jesse has a special role in the movie's story, so we have a special role in our personal story. This becomes a story of the priesthood of all believers, and perhaps a little about how someone is called to the vocation of the sacramental priesthood. Thus, it is not insignificant that our protagonist is Jesse Aarons.

The name is significant. Aaron is the name of Moses' brother who becomes Israel's first high priest, who is the first to venture into the Old Testament Tabernacle's Holy of Holies. In that sacred place he confronts God, and brings Yahweh's grace and hope back to the people. And that is what Jesse learns to do in this movie. He enters Terabithia, a sacred and magical place, and brings back hope for his sister, Maybelle, and his Dad.

But that's not all, consider our protagonist's first name: Jesse. In Isaiah 1:11 it says, "And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse..." That is, from Jesse's blood we get King David and Jesus Christ, both Kings. Jesse Aarons is the King of Terabithia and called to be a priest to bring hope to the kingdom of man.

Leslie Burke, for me, is an angel, if not the Christ figure, that is sent to Jesse to teach him and prepare him for his role to change his world view. Until Leslie suddenly shows up, Jesse is being crushed — by his stern but loving father, by Mrs. Myers his good English teacher ("If you down load this essay, you'll be downloaded into detention"), by the bullies at school, by his family's financial situation, and by not having any hope for his future. But Leslie brings to Jesse the gift of faith in the imagination and the hope that is suppressed within him. Leslie also brings that hope to others in the story by showing them compassion.

And once Leslie has firmly established those virtues of faith, hope and compassion in Jesse, the story transitions. Ms. Edmonds takes him to an art museum, which he has never seen before. He's awed -- and sees the world in a new way. When he's caught the vision of his calling, Ms. Edmonds proclaims over him like a prophet: "You can change the world."

The next thing we know, Leslie and her parents are gone from the scene, leaving behind a pile of lumber.

Now it is up to Jesse to find work that is worth doing and change the world. After a short period of grief and mourning for Leslie, Jesse wastes little time.

The first thing he does is asks his little sister, Maybelle, for forgiveness. On numerous occasions he's been rude and excluded her from following Leslie and him into Terabithia. Then, he works toward a grand restitution, and builds a wooden bridge to Terabithia, and in the arch over the entrance, he hangs a coat of arms that reprises one of Leslie's proclamations, "Nothing Crushes Us." When it's done, Jesse becomes the priest that ushers his little sister into the land of hope; and as they enter crowns appear on their heads, the wooden bridge behind them glistens with gold, and beautiful and clever mythic creatures, including Janice as a Giant, greet them.


In retrospect we see that Jesse has a calling to faith, a faith so great that it can change the world. It's a calling to the "real" world. For Terabithia is more real than the dark world he comes from. This harkens back to C. S. Lewis' "reality" in THE GREAT DIVORCE where the natural world is no longer as real as the supernatural experience of heaven.

We identify with Jesse, because we all have gifts that God has given us, but until we are encouraged to trust the Old Swinging Rope ("The Old Rugged Cross" is sung in the one church scene) that dangles across the river, we cannot swing across the river of baptism to the supernatural land where squirrels becomes squogres, and dark despair becomes a gold covered bridge to hope.

Leslie teaches Jesse Aarons to have faith, cross over the river, and enter the world of imagination, and hope. As Jesse embraces that lesson, his eyes are open (he's blind no more) and he discovers who he was truly meant to be—a person of hope, a person of vision, and a person of compassion.

Likewise, we are blinded until someone leads us to faith on that rope, and into the land of imagination and hope on the other side of the waters of baptism.


At the end of the movie, it is implied that it is the breaking of the rope that leads to Leslie's death. But, isn't it interesting that it is the rope again that brings her to the "other side" and assists in the transcendence from the natural world to the eternal world of the supernatural. And it is in the image of the broken rope that results in a physical death that reminds us of the Old Rugged Cross that resulted in another physical death, and gives us all hope of eternal life in the realm of the supernatural.

Terabithia, then becomes a sacred place. It's a place of imagination that can only be brought about by faith, hope, and charity.


Bridge to Terabithia has dual moral premises that support each other.

The first is seen significantly in the arc of Janice, the 8th-grade bully who forces kids to pay money or give up their lunch treats in order to use the playground bathroom. She also plays dirty tricks to get Jesse in trouble. But later when Leslie shows Janice uncommon compassion during a dark time, Janice's meanness is turned around, and then shows compassion toward Jesse. It is shortly after that show of compassion that it is Janice who becomes the inspiration for Terabithia's gentle and protective giant.

In this way, the sub-moral premise can be stated like this:
Meanness leads to a curse of rejection; but
Compassion leads to the grace of acceptance.
We see the meanness (and sternness) of Janice, Scott, Gary, Mrs. Myers, and Mr. Aarons converted or challenged by compassion, and when compassion (which is charity motivated by confident hope) is promulgated, grace and acceptance are the result.

But more importantly the movie is about how meanness is related to skepticism, which embraces the dark forces in our lives. Remember Leslie's call: "Prisoners of the dark master, we have come to free you!" That freedom from meanness, which is the result of skepticism, can be relieved only by hope that comes through faith, in the Old Rugged Rope to carry us to the other side. The broken rope gives transcendence to the story's arc, and motivates Jesse. It is because of what Leslie has taught Jesse that he is able to build a more substantial Bridge to Terabithia, and begin to usher others across it

So the more significant moral premise, about which the entire movie is really about, can be stated like this:
Skepticism leads to dread of a dark tomorrow; but
Faith leads to the hope of a bright future.
And the last shot of the movies, we peer into Jesse's eyes. He sees now, that which before he was blind to, now he sees clearly a vision for what the world can be. He doesn't know what he'll do next, but he'll think of something with his eyes wide open and full of hope.


Friday, March 9, 2007

WILD HOGS (2007)

Walt Becker .... Director

Brad Copeland .... Screenwriter

Tim Allen - Doug Madsen
John Travolta - Woody Stevens
Martin Lawrence - Bobby Davis
William H Macy - Dudley Frank
Ray Liotta - Jack
Marisa Tomei - Maggie
Peter Fonda - Damien Blade
Ty Pennington - Himself

Wild Hogs is the slap-stick, road-trip comedy about four middle aged men, each saddled with fears and stress that have arisen from their jobs and families, who decide to saddle up their Harley's for a cross-country road trip to escape the fears and frustrations that have bogged down their life. Doug is an over stressed, workaholic with a less than perfect relationship with his wife and son. Woody is married to a super model who's left him, and his business affairs have unraveled to the point of bankruptcy. Bobby is married to a woman who has decided to wear the pants in their family, only because Bobby won't. And Dudley, a computer nerd, is so preoccupied with the artificial world of computers that he's lost touch with the real world, and especially women, whom he cannot talk to.

(Gus pointed out during our radio show that in this movie Tim Allen got to play across from a Woody again with some of the same attitudes. Allen who voiced Buzz Lightyear in TOY STORY (Disney/Pixar 1995, 1999), played across from a toy cowboy named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks).

As the four prepare for the open road, they give up their cell phones and GPS locators in a slapstick ritual of angst, and then head off down the road to parts unknown, willing to let their wilderness experience bring something good, true, and beautiful back into their lives.

Like many other pastimes, strapping on a bike and riding across country with the wind in your face, occasional bugs in the eye, and an occasional crow in the mouth, is like going on a spiritual retreat. (Really??? Ah, yeah.) They are about confronting our fears, reconnecting with our soul, with God, with nature, with friends and brining balance and perspective back into our lives. It's not unlike what Lent is supposed to do.

As WILD HOGS unfolds, and the true antagonists are introduced, our four riding buddies discover the importance of confronting our fears, going to confession, being humbled, and sacrificially standing together against injustice.

The morning after watching the movie, my wife, Pam picked up a copy of The Michigan Catholic, the weekly paper form the Archdiocese of Detroit and began reading the feature article by our bishop, Adam Cardinal Maida about how we should be observing Lent. (As I write this we're in week 2.) She noticed that Cardinal Maida's meditation explained a great deal about, not only Lent, but also Wild Hogs, although I doubt he's seen the movie. So, thanks to the Cardinal (I've actually lifted some of his lines), here are some of the many parallels, and reminders of how important this season is.

1. To begin his article on Lent, the Cardinal quotes Hosea 2:16-17 that speaks of the Children of Israel, and compares it to our Lenten experience. God through the prophet declares:
"I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart...She shall respond there, as in the day of her youth..."
In Wild Hogs, our four "mild hogs" are led by the filmmakers out into their own wilderness, in an effort to regain their youth.

2. For Lent we voluntarily give up things on which we've relied, we turn our focus on others instead of ourselves, and in so doing confront our fears.

In the movie the four friends give up their cell phones and many of life's conveniences, learn to focus on each other, and confront the fears that a road trip always brings, whether it's rain, bird dung, gay cops, no gas, no water, or mean bikers.

3. During Lent we enter a spiritual desert where we are removed from all the normal noise and distractions that can so easily prevent us from being available to God and others.

In the movie, the Wild Hogs enter a wilderness that removes them from their normal noisy lives and distractions that had prevented them from being available to others they way they should.

4. Lent takes us to a place where we are put in new surroundings and see new horizons. Lent broadens our lives and gives us a deeper understanding of who we are in the world.

Like all road trips, the Wild Hogs are introduced to new surroundings, new horizons and situations. The broadening Western landscapes we see in the film metaphors the broadening of the Wild Hogs' lives and the new vision they gain about who they are in relationship to the world.

5. Lent, through alms giving and prayer, is suppose to force us to think of others, and not so much about ourselves.

The Wild Hogs are forced to give of themselves to their friends, and the townsfolk of Madrid, and be willing to sacrifice themselves for each other and what is right.

6. Lent is a critical formation time with testing, trials, and temptations, just as the Children of Israel and Jesus were both formed through their wilderness experiences.

For the Wild Hogs, their road trip is a time for formation with temptations, trials, and lessons learned.

7. Lent is a time when we rekindle our loving communion with God. In short, the desert becomes a place of "romance."

For the Wild Hogs, riding through the countryside rekindles their friendship with each other, for two of them rekindles their love for their wives, and creates, literally, a romance for the Dudley.

8. Jesus' Lenten experience during his 40 days in the wilderness was where he came to terms with how he would use his power. It was a place of testing or temptation, a place of struggle and purification.

During their road trip, our Wild Hogs, came to terms with how they should use their power and influence to help each other and the people around them. It was a time of testing or temptation, and a time of struggle and purification.

9. Lent, can be about coming to terms with our fears, and knowing how to face them. Oft times during Lent, or other times of testing, we are strengthened so that our everyday frustrations are easier to handle because they're put into the perspective of larger and more significant concerns.

The Wild Hogs, came to terms about the fears in their life, and learned better how to handle their everyday frustrations. Doug learns to have fun (which turns his wife on...regaining his youth), Bobby takes the pants-of-the-family back from his wife who is glad to give them up, Dudley learns to talk-to and court a woman, and Woody confesses his false bravado.

10. Alone in the desert of lent, we come to appreciate the gift and blessing companionship and our need for each other.

Our WILD HOGS, in their desert, come to appreciate the gift and blessing of each other.

11. During lent we fast, and thus identify with the hungry and poor. Fasting also helps us to better appreciate the common grace of the food we eat the rest of the year; and fasting allows us to better appreciate the blessing and our connection with our community and the universe.

In the Wild Hogs, our four-some run out of gas, and soon they are without water, in the hot desert. When they enter the town of Madrid, their entry a local diner in a mad rush for a drink of water, something the community and the universe of nature can provide.

12. Lent also teaches us humility, our need for confession, and encourages us to remove the mask of self-reliance, and become once again our authentic self.

In Wild Hogs each of the guys has a moment where, they confess their short-comings to someone they love and remove their mask of pride. Doug calls his wife and confesses that he's learned the importance of having fun, again. Dudley tells Maggie, before they get serious, that he's not a real biker. Bobby tells his wife he loves her and he's not going to be a wimp anymore. And the most dramatic of the four is Woody's confession that he's been lying to his friends about his wife (who left him), his business (he's bankrupt), and what he did to get the Harley Sportser back from the Del Fuegos, the mean biker gang. Out of Woody's confession, the group decides to do penance, and confront the Del Fuegos who have been terrorizing Madrid. Their courage to not be afraid of what is right recruits the entire down...and even persuades Peter Fonda to walk-on from Easy Rider and set the world straight, again.

All of that then leads us to the story's true moral premise:

Avoiding the wilderness and ignoring our fears
leads to insecurity and stress; but
Venturing into the wilderness and confronting our fears
leads to confidence and peace.

Have a rewarding Lent.

P.S. Gus Lloyd enjoyed the movie because twice a year he and a few buddies rent Harley's and go for a week-end road trip. "This movie is my life," he laughs.

Although I don't ride, I liked the movie because I spent 5 years as creative director of the annual Harley-Davidson dealer training conference (HD University), and spend a lot of time around bikes at rallies and in stores. I came to appreciate a good deal of the Harley culture, but never took up riding because to Harley, my brain was more valuable to them, when it was inside my head.

Thursday, March 1, 2007


Directed by: Michael Apted

Written by: Steven Knight

Study Guide by Walden Media

IOAN GRUFFUDD - William Wilberforce
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH - Pitt the Younger (Prime Minister)
SYLVESTRA LE TOUZEL - Marianne Thornton
MICHAEL GAMBON - Lord Charles Fox
ROMOLA GARAI - Barbara Wilberforce
GEORGIE GLEN - Hannah More
TOBY JONES - Duke of Clarence
YOUSSOU N'DOUR - Oloudaqh Equiano
RUFUS SEWELL - Thomas Clarkson

"Amazing Grace" is the story of philanthropist William Wilberforce's 20-year British political career to raise the salience of slavery and its immorality. When pure debate in Parliament made little progress, Wilberforce's anti-slavery coalition takes the issue to the people with books, news reports, protests, party tricks, medallions, speeches, song and petitions. His task was immense because slavery was an important part of Britain's economy. Money, not ethics, drove the British colony system.

Elected to Parliament at a young age, Wilberforce, a fast-witted and persuasive speaker, suddenly experiences Christian conversion. He decides to leave government and become a churchman. But his friend, William Pitt (the younger) who will soon become the youngest Prime Minister in British history, challenges Wilberforce by asking him if he could better use his voice to praise God or to change the world. It doesn't take much to convince Wilberforce that the alternatives indeed can be the same thing.

In February 1807, after a 20-year struggle interrupted by Wilberforce's chronic illness and war, Parliament passes a bill that will abolish the slave trade. But slave ownership is grandfathered in, and slavery in the colonies is still legal. For 26 years Wilberforce continues to speak against slavery. Then, in 1833, Parliament outlaws all forms of slavery, throughout the British Empire. Three days later, Wilberforce dies. He lived to see his dream fulfilled.

Of a person's and a nation's conscience we might say that the moral premise of AMAZING GRACE could be stated like this:
Ambivalence and greed leads to injustice and slavery; but
Courage and generosity leads to justice and freedom.
But there's a better way to explain what this movie is really about and what kind of person Wilberforce's character suggests we be about today.

First, the name William Wilberforce could have been chosen by a master fiction writer who give names to his characters that reflect the essence of their soul. William means "protector," and in our story William is a protector of the disenfranchised; not just slaves, but prisoners, the poor, women, and children. And the name Wilberforce suggests a persevering force of the will that comes as second nature.

Second, Wilberforce wants to give up his fight many times. It is long, tedious, he has few followers, and he is chronically ill. He needs a muse, a soul mate, and so Henry and Marianne Thornton introduce him to his future wife -- like-minded, and equally witty (at least in the movie) -- Barbara Spooner.

The film's Moment of Grace comes when Wilberforce is ready to give up his battle. As he strolls through a garden with Barbara their banter is focused on finding something this disagree on, so they will have an excuse to not become the romantic item that the Thornton's envision. Every political or social topic is broached, and no matter how opinionated one or the other pretends, the other reluctantly agrees. Until Wilberforce off-handedly comments that it is time to stop talking about the abolition of slaves. He's tired and he sees no progress. To which Barbara, responds:
Well, then, we have found something to disagree about. I believe we should continue to talk about slavery.
Although they have found something to disagree on, it is this one thing that firmly unites them. To put an exclamation point on their discussion she says:
If there's a bad taste in your mouth, you spit it out; you don't swallow it.
And thus the story takes a turn, as Wilberforce, with Barbara as his muse, begins to think more cleverly about ways of turning parliament against slavery. Where before the moment of grace he was content with debating the issue within the confines of government, now, after Barbara's challenge to "spit out the distaste" he recruits public opinion with books of eyewitness accounts, tours of slave ships, medallions minted by the china maker Wedgwood, petitions, and the personal testimony of outsiders who have witnessed the gross atrocities committed against slaves throughout the British Empire. One of those witnesses comes from the diary account of former slave trader John Newton (wonderfully played by Finney), who is William's pastor. It is Newton, of course, that wrote the song Amazing Grace.

In this context the Moral Premise of this great film creates a challenge and motivation for all of us, even today as we face injustice of many kinds, including modern slavery.
Hiding evil by the darkness of ignorance leads to
injustice and a society's enslavement;
Revealing evil by the light of knowledge leads
to justice and society's freedom.
Such is the call to all of us who are concerned about what is wrong in our lives, our families, our communities, and our world.

Congratulations to Walden Media's excellent job creating the free down-loadable educational certified study guide.