(Why Were These Movies Chosen? Part Three)
A different type of hope
In parts one and two, we observed how Oscar nominees” The Artist, Moneyball, and The Descendants gave viewers a portrayal of hope, each in their own particular way. Given life’s random and difficult circumstances, a new paradigm was called for.
Turning now to Hugo, a big-budget, 3D, children’s adventure for grown-ups directed by Martin Scorsese, we observe a different type of hope, given life’s unpredictable circumstances. The film celebrates the forgotten genius of George Meliás (played by Ben Kingsley), who was the first to make use of imaginative stories in film. This celebration on film takes place indirectly through Scorsese’s technical genius as a filmmaker (the opening, sweeping shot of Paris takes one’s breathe away as it plunges viewers into the bustle of Hugo’s world in the Montparnasse train station). But the celebration also takes place more directly as the storyline helps viewers recall Meliás’s singular contribution to the history of cinema. Scorsese knows himself to be in a long line of filmmakers who stand on the shoulders of those like George Meliás. And he wants viewers also to know.
As depicted in Hugo, after Meliás went bankrupt, having to burn many of his movies for the money the minerals in the celluloid would fetch, George became a bitter small shop owner in the same Montparnasse train station where Hugo winds the clocks and pilfers food to eat from food stalls. Hugo also steals parts from George’s toy shop to re-build the “automaton” he and his father had left unfinished when his father unexpectedly died. George’s life was not much of a life, until Hugo became his god-daughter Isabelle’s play-partner. A magician by training, Meliás had found in the silver screen a new forum for his craft. But bankruptcy destroyed life’s magic for him, even as it took away quite literally the magic of the silver screen. It was only when the two children unlocked, both figuratively and literally, the secret to Melias’s past that the wonder of the human imagination again became evident. In the process, they helped him (and us as viewers) appreciate once again his real achievement.
In times like this, when change seems our constant, we rightly fear we will simply be forgotten as George seemed destined to be. Most of us in Scorsese’s audience wonder at times with Meliás, “Do our efforts matter?” “Does anyone care that what we once did proved useful, perhaps even important?” Is the book I published in 1979 worth anything? I think of a former youth pastor who has taken a job at a private high school in order to better care for his family. He misses his former job, still seeing himself as a pastor in our denomination and wanting to be serving a congregation. Will what he did for the last twenty five years simply be forgotten? Was it all for naught? It is natural to wonder.
George was sure that his efforts were simply futile. Those who came after him would no longer remember or care. “What does the worker gain from his toil?” “Meaningless! Meaningless! ...Utterly meaninglessness!” is the judgment made about life by the writer of Ecclesiastes (Eccles. 1:2). And many of us can identify with these words; certainly George could. But through the actions of two children, George’s magical creations are rediscovered; his work is found to have a continuing significance after all. Hope is re-discovered.
Hugo is a delightful movie, a captivating, wonder-filled history lesson that also allows viewers to find hope. Though our work, like Meliás’s, might seem no longer to be valued or valuable, perhaps there is meaning after all.
Choosing the way of grace
The Tree of Life might well have been the most controversial of the Academy’s choices for best film. The most recent work of reclusive Terrence Malick, an iconic filmmaker in his own time, this Palm D’Or prizewinner at the Cannes Film Festival is revered by some, while being dismissed as boring and incomprehensible by others. The movie is surely Malick’s most personal to date. Rooted in Malick’s own life and several decades in the making, The Tree of Life shows viewers a family seeking to come to terms with the death of one of their sons. In this way it proves similar in theme to The Descendants. Narrated by Jack O’Brian, one of the dead son’s brothers and now a successful Houston architect, the movie makes palpable his parents’ agony. Not wanting so much to tell the family’s story as to understand the seeming senselessness of that life that was theirs, we hear from them questions we also might voice: “Where were you God?” “Did you know? I believed you.” “I want to see what you see.” “What was it that you were showing me?”
As the family seeks to process this “slaughter of an innocent,” Jack’s mother reflects that there were “two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace.” While the father chooses the way of law which when applied to life might be characterized as the survival of the fittest, the mother, instead, chooses the way of grace as the paradigm by which she will live. Seeking to find images that might express to his viewers Jack’s mother’s nurturing presence, Malick films Jack’s mother dancing in the street, only for a butterfly to serendipitously land on her (the event was unplanned, but powerful in its impact on the viewer). Yet given his mother’s continuing grief over the loss of her son, we find Jack continuing to ask how he might get beyond this barrier of his mother's pain.
How does one embrace a hoped for future, given such a past? How does such a tree of life blossom? The director, Terrence Malick, suggests that creation itself -- with all its pain, yet wonder -- provides perspective on life, a perspective that allows each of us to embrace both life’s joys and sorrows. In doing this, The Tree of Life explicitly references the Book of Job, the divine being both questioned and questioning us. The movie opens with a quotation from Job 38: 4,7. Though there is no answer given to this grievous loss, there is an “Answerer,” the Creator of Life, present in all his divine mystery. And that is enough for hope to be rekindled.
Unable to reconcile such inconsolable loss with life here and now, the movie ends with Jack’s dead brother leading him into a reverie about heaven. There his family will again be reunited. Much like the final Eucharistic scene in Places in the Heart, Malick gives his viewers a “dramatic curtain call.” Pain and sorrow have ceased. Young Jack is again riding on his father’s shoulders. As Berlioz’s Agnes Dei (Lamb of God) plays, we see Jack’s mother finally able to release her son into the arms of a loving Father, saying, “I give him to you.” The movie ends as we look out over the beauty of creation-this time, a field of sunflowers. As Job himself said, “Surely I (have spoken) of things I did not understand, things to wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3).
Robert K. Johnston is Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and the author of such books as Reel Spirituality, Finding God in the Movies (with Catherine Barsotti), and Life is Not Work/Work is Not Life.
Read Part One, Part Two of Why Were These Movies Chosen?
Rent one of the films reviewed here and invite some friends over to discuss the subject of hope. What is hope? How does it function in our lives? What is the Christian’s hope? How can Christians be a more hope-full people in the world?
For more insight to the question of hope, order the book, Hope, by J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom, from our online store. In preparation for meeting with your friends, you might also read the article, “From Glory to Glory,” by T. M. Moore.