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Views & Reviews

No. 24 Copyright (c) 1994 Biblical Horizons November, 1994


Questions to Ask of Films

by John M. Frame

In my discussion of _lm and culture, I identi_ed the general thrust of modern secular liberalism and its antithesis with Christianity. My reviews will deal with those themes in general. Here I wish to be a bit more speci_c. What follows are certain questions that are always in my mind when I go to _lms. I recommend that other Christian viewers ask the same questions. I will not go through this whole list in each review; I will only discuss the ones I think most important to the particular _lm.

1. Who wrote the _lm? Who produced it? Who directed it? Do we know through the writings and previous work of these people anything about their philosophy of life? The previous works of actors are also important. Actors contribute much to the quality of a _lm, little to its fundamental conception. But actors do tend to sign on to projects with which they have some ideological a_nity (assuming _nancial rewards are not otherwise determinative). Mel Gibson almost never takes on _lms with a heavy sexual element; Mickey Rourke almost always does. The presence of certain actors, granting that they sometimes go "against type," can tell you something about the message of a _lm.

2. Is it well-made, aesthetically? Are the production and acting values of high quality? These factors may have little to do with the "message." But they do tend to determine the extent of the _lm’s cultural impact, and that is important for our purposes. If a _lm is well-made, it can have a large impact upon the culture for good or ill. (Of course some bad _lms also have a major impact!)

3. Is it honest, true to its own position? This is another mark of "quality." Generally speaking, an honest _lm, regardless of its point of view, will have a larger cultural impact than one which blunts its points.

4. What kind of _lm is it? Fantasy? Biography? Realistic drama? Comedy? Obviously each _lm must be judged according to its purpose and genre. We don’t demand of a fantasy the kind of historical accuracy we demand of a supposedly literal biography.

5. What is the world view of the _lm? Is it theistic or atheistic? Christian or non-Christian? If non-Christian, is its main thrust relativistic or dogmatic? How does it employ the theme of "equality?" Is there any role for providence, for God? Is the _lm pessimistic or optimistic? Does the action move in deterministic fashion, or is there a signi_cant role for human choice?

6. What is the plot? What problems do the characters face? Can these problems be correlated in some way with the Fall of mankind in Adam? Does the _lm in e_ect deny the Fall, or does it a_rm it in some way?

7. Are the problems soluble? If so, how? What methods are available to the characters so that they can _nd the answers they need?

8. What is the moral stance of the _lm? Is the _lm relativistic, dogmatic, or both in some combination? What are its attitudes toward sex, family, human life, property, truth, heart-attitudes? What is the source of moral norms, if any? Does justice prevail?

9. In comedy, what is it that is funny? What are the typical incongruities? Who is the butt of the jokes? (Christians? traditional values? the wicked? the righteous? God? Satan?) Is the humor anarchic? Is it rationality gone awry? Is it bitter or gentle? Does it rely on caricatures? If so, of whom?

10. Are there allusions to historical events, literary works, other _lms, famous people, Scripture, etc. that would give us some idea where the _lmmakers are coming from? We should remember, of course, that allusions may be negative, positive, ironic, or merely decorative. A biblical allusion does not necessarily indicate acceptance of biblical values.

11. What are the chief images of the _lm? Is there anything interesting about the lighting, the camera angles, the sound, the timing which would reinforce a particular theme? Are there signi_cant symbols?

12. Are there any explicit religious themes? Christ-_gures?1 Does the _lm express signi_cant attitudes toward Christ, the clergy, or the church? Does it distort Christianity or present it at its worst? Or does it present it with some insight and/or sympathy? Does it recognize the element of personal piety in people’s lives?2 If so, does it approve or disapprove of it? What about Satan, the demons, the occult? Does the _lm recognize their activity in some way? Is the devil taken seriously? If so, how is he dealt with?


1 Steven Spielberg’s "E.T." is, I think, a genuine Christ _gure: recall the themes of pre-existence, growth, teaching, miracle, healing, death, resurrection, ascension. Spielberg denied this parallel, but in my view it is objectively there, even if Spielberg was unconscious of it. The reason is that the human mind has a need for a gospel like that of the New Testament. Those who don’t accept that gospel often instinctively give to their idolatrous inventions powers parallel to those of Christ.

2 The character of Frank Burns in the original M*A*S*H was a pious fellow who kneeled to pray at his bedside, to the scorn of his fellow soldiers. Eventually, it turned out that he was an adulterer and hypocrite. That is fairly typical of the way Hollywood portrays Christian piety. There are exceptions.


Three Reviews by John M. Frame:



The Mothers:

Suyuan Kieu Chinh

Lindo Tsai Chin

Ying Ying France Nuyen

An Mei Lisa Lu

The Daughters:

June Ming-Na Wen

Waverly Tamlyn Tomita

Lena Lauren Tom

Rose Rosalind Chao

Hollywood Pictures presents a _lm directed by Wayne Wang. Produced by Wang, Amy Tan, Ronald Bass, and Patrick Markey. Written by Tan and Bass. Based on the novel by Tan. Photographed by Amir Mokri. Edited by Maysie Hoy. Music by Rachel Portman. Running time: 135 minutes. Classi_ed: R (for strong depiction of thematic material).

In this long _lm, Amy Tan’s novel is skillfully realized. The acting, direction, and photography are _ne, and we get a good introduction to Chinese and Chinese-American culture, going back sixty years or so. The story concerns four Chinese women who ultimately emigrate to America, and their American daughters (the men are demons and cartoon _gures). The _lm also scrutinizes the mothers of the mothers. It is mainly a series of vignettes, by which we understand something of each woman’s background, her sacri_ces, her shame, her relations with her daughter, her hopes for the future.

There are a lot of obligatory feminist, generation-gap, and communication-gap cliches, but behind all of that there is something more substantial as well. The story recognizes and illustrates the biblical principle that sins of fathers (and mothers) are visited upon later generations. Mothers who are ashamed from early abuse and humiliation seek to redeem themselves by maintaining hope for their daughters: hope which the daughters see as impossibly high expectations. Eventually, broken down lines of communication are repaired and the women come to love one another despite past bitterness.

But as the title (based on a continuing meeting of the four immigrant women for Mah Jong and group therapy) suggests, much of the joy that takes place is just luck, attributed to ancestors, omens, accidental revelations. Murder, suicide, profane language (often glaringly at odds with the super-polite diction usually employed by the ladies), and divorce are among the tools these women have used to maintain their self-respect. The _lm treats traditional Chinese religious practices as something of a joke: on a couple of occasions, the woman protagonists cynically use the superstitions of their oppressors to gain victories over them. Essentially, the women accomplish their goals through their own cleverness and through sheer luck.

But what hope is there for these women that the cycle won’t continue, that their daughters, and daughters’ daughters, won’t go through the same heartbreak? Hope is evidently, in the _lmmakers’ minds, the main theme of the movie, as it is the major theme of some crucial speeches. But what basis for hope is there in a universe of chance? Although the movie conveys no sense of the reality of a personal God, it certainly presents the need for something more than luck as a basis for joy.





Le Ly Hiep Thi Le

Steve Butler Tommy Lee Jones

Mama   Joan Chen

Papa   Haing S. Ngor

Eugenia Debbie Reynolds

Warner Bros. presents a _lm written and directed by Oliver Stone. Produced by Stone, Arnon Milchan, Robert Kline, and A. Kitman Ho. Based on the books When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts, and Child of War, Woman of Peace by Le Ly Hayslip with James Hayslip. Photographed by Robert Richardson. Edited by David Brenner and Sally Menke. Music by Kitaro. Running time: 138 minutes. Classi_ed: R (for violence, language, and sexuality).

This is the third of Oliver Stone’s movies about the Viet Nam war and its aftermath, the others being "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July." This one is a true story, though I assume certain liberties have been taken, of a Vietnamese woman. During her childhood, the French destroy her village. Then in her teen years, the Viet Cong come, demanding the loyalty of the villagers, torturing and raping any (including Le Ly, on the basis of a mistake) who appear to give aid and comfort to the enemy. Then came the Americans, who transform everything. Now Viet Nam is a bog of prostitution, cigarettes, drugs, corruption, suspicions, hatreds. Le Ly is forced to go to the city and work for a Vietnamese man who fathers her _rst son to the angry response of his wife. Le Ly is reduced to begging and selling goods to soldiers in the streets.

At this point, Steve Butler appears, a Marine o_cer who seems to love and understand her genuinely. He makes her his wife, and the family _ees Viet Nam with the American pullout, settling in San Diego, at _rst with Butler’s family. Steve cannot make it _nancially, and his bitterness turns to viciousness and eventual suicide. In the course of events, Le Ly learns that his work in Viet Nam was to assassinate Vietnamese who collaborated with the Cong. What the _lm tells us is that he was in e_ect a serial killer, who after the war is wracked with guilt over it.

Le Ly herself prospers in the US. She visits her family in Viet Nam, and encounters more bitterness: family members resent her wealth while they have so little. But there is reconciliation.

Oliver Stone is, of course, one of the most deeply ideological of directors, and in many ways he expresses here his loathing for American values and culture. To his credit, he does not glamorize the Viet Cong: they are brutal. But their brutality is the brutality of self-defense, we are told, the brutality made necessary by people who want the freedom to govern themselves. The Americans are the real wreckers of the peaceful culture. Butler seems to typify the whole American war e_ort: sheer murder under the guise of nation-building.

Also, in America, we see scenes of huge refrigerators and supermarket shelves _lled with all sorts of food, to the amazement of Le Ly. And we see shovels of it being emptied into the sink disposal unit, after mass quantities have been conspicuously consumed by Steve’s fat female relatives.

Nevertheless, Stone does not hide the fact that Le Ly does eventually _nd happiness in America and through her prosperity is able to help the poor of her own country, doubtless far more than if she had stayed there. Nor does he hide the fact that the Communist rule puts Le Ly’s family into a state of constant poverty and su_ering. Yet it is not clear how these inconvenient facts have modi_ed Stone’s value judgments.

It is a very beautiful movie. Hiep Thi Le and Tommy Lee Jones give wonderful performances, as do the others in the cast. Stone’s critiques of American materialism are certainly not entirely wrong, though they come across to me as rather heavy-handed.

The _lm has a deeply Buddhist sensibility. Repentance and reconciliation inhibit bad karma. But is that not, in the end, a form of sel_shness just as much as that which Stone has been quick to condemn in the American culture? Would that Christ had been allowed to speak his Word of peace, so truly to lift the burdens of these a_icted people.





Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon Denzel Washington

Benedick, of Padua Kenneth Branagh

Claudio, of Florence   Robert Sean Leonard

Beatrice, an orphan   Emma Thompson

Hero Kate Beckinsale

Don John   Keanu Reeves

Dogberry Michael Keaton

Borachio Gerald Horan

Conrade Richard Cli_ord

Samuel Goldwyn presents a _lm written, produced, and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Also produced by David Par_tt and Stephen Evans. Photographed by Roger Lanser. Edited by Andrew Marcus. Music by Patrick Doyle. Running time: 111 minutes. Classi_ed: PG-13 (for momentary sensuality).

Kenneth Branagh’s _lm of Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing" is a wonderful treat. All production, direction, and acting values were great. It really communicated the play to a modern viewer. I have never been so wonderfully amused and moved (simultaneously) in a long time. I kept in mind Jim Jordan’s case that Shakespeare was a Christian playwright, and I saw all kinds of parallels to the gospel. It begins as a wonderful, happy party (Edenic) (so Edenic that – in a modern touch – no one seems to notice that the revered leader of the army is black, played by Denzel Washington; even though his brother is white!), except for wicked Don John, whose jealousy leads him to slander one of the two heroines. He is the Satan _gure, and as played in the movie, he also reminds me of the older brother in the prodigal son parable: unable to enjoy the festivities, because of some imagined injustice. He is the only dour _gure, the devil-as-Pharisee.

The slandered girl undergoes symbolic death and resurrection. Her _ance, who believed the false charges, and therefore is himself liable to death (the Branagh character challenges him to a duel), repents, and forgiveness wonderfully abounds. Sin is not ignored; the _ance must pay a price which appears somewhat ominous to him; but the price, accepted voluntarily, turns out to be the consummation of joy. In the "risen" girl’s arms he is symbolically raised with her to newness of life, and the party begins again. She is the Christ _gure.

Meanwhile, there is wonderful comic dialogue, good natured put-downs between the other couple, Benedick and Beatrice, played by Branagh and his wife Emma Thompson. Even in her most wicked comments, her good heart shows through. Could she ever play a really evil person? That would be hard to conceive. Eventually, she and Benedick discover their love for one another under their cynical facades. Essentially, what happens is that each is deceived by third parties into thinking he/she is loved by the other. That hypothesis puts a new "perspective" on the data, whereby each is able to discover his/her love for the other. Each learns to love by being persuaded that he/she has _rst been beloved. The parallel with God’s grace is remarkable.

The music is rich, wonderful, and appropriate. Shakespeare’s songs have never been arranged so beautifully.

The Satan _gure and his cohorts get their just deserts, but most everyone else rejoices at the end, so that the wicked simply disappear from the picture. Not a bad representation of the biblical eschatology: far from being glamorized as in this world, the wicked are not even missed.

Do reformed people really understand "the kingdom of God as a party," to quote Tony Campolo? I think not very often. Shakespeare’s portrayal of the kingdom (I really think that’s what it is) is far more compelling than the usual sour Reformed picture of the Christian life. I think of Jordan’s comment about people who think that God sits up in heaven waiting to pounce on us for making a liturgical or theological mistake. That seems to be the theological mentality of many Reformed people.

I took courses in Shakespeare in college. It was a chore then, understanding the Elizabethan English and sorting out all the professor’s ideas about the "deeper meanings." But now, especially after Branagh’s "Henry V" and this one, I have come to love Shakespeare and to _nd in him a kindred spirit.