Akira Kurosawa and His Sons

In one short span of time in the early 1980s I took my wife to see three movies in close succession. One was that year’s Academy Award winner for best movie, Terms of Endearment. One was a re-screening of the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born. The third was Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. In each, a main character dies, two of them by suicide.

I nearly lost my movie choosing privileges after that stretch. It was, however, my first exposure to Kurosawa. Years later, after watching two or three other Kurosawa movies, I watched The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and began to realize just how influential Kurosawa had been on modern movies. (One movie scholar has called Steven Spielberg a ‘son of Kurosawa’, a title apparently Spielberg is glad to bear.)

These days I have stepped into a gold mine of Kurosawa resources through a friendship with a lover of all things Japanese. My friend has recently supplied me with Seven Samurai, Ikiru, and Throne of Blood.

Seven Samurai I’ve seen before. Many others have as well, though they did not know it. Its American remake was a little thing called The Magnificent Seven. (That film is being remade for release in September of this year.)

Ikiru was a delight beyond measure. Translated it means ‘to live’ and it is a wonderful story of a man, pressed with the possibility of death, finding purpose in living. And yet, its ending is so dolefully Japanese.
I just recently had the opportunity to watch Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s retelling of the story of Macbeth. Of the movies I’ve seen, this one was the hardest for me to follow, and yet, I could not stop watching it. Striking was the performance of the main character’s wife, the one intended to fulfill the role that Lady Macbeth fills in Shakespeare’s play. She plays the role with a steady, unmoving posture, conveying a striking evil manipulation that is full of power and intrigue and, in the end, madness.

MifuneNevertheless, the part of the film that lingers is the ending. This is especially true when one realizes this film was shot in 1957 without any sophisticated special effects, no CGI, and no green screen shenanigans. Perhaps there is a notice in the Japanese credits that says, “No humans were harmed or killed in the making of this film.” If there isn’t, there should be. One wonders how Toshirô Mifune survived to film another movie. Those were real arrows shot by real archers at a real actor.

I spoke recently with an American film buff who had never heard of Kurosawa or seen his films. If you, like he, have not, do what you can to fix that soon.

[Note: Throne of Blood is available on Amazon to rent for $2.99, as is Ran, Kurosawa’s King Lear interpretation. The latter apparently can be watched for free under a special offer described here.

[Further note: embarrassingly I realized after this post went live that I had misspelled, consistently, at least, Kurosawa’s first name. That has been fixed (I think!), and the glow of my embarrassment has begun to slightly fade.]

Moral Order

I hope it was not implied in my previous post that because I thought that Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor was not a good memoir that I therefore thought any less of Peterson himself. Far from it. His voice is still a clear and meaningful one for those of us seeking to be pastors in the 21st century.

As such, I find that I resonate with him on many topics. One incidental comment made in his memoir has to do with detective fiction:

When I don’t know what to do, I read a murder mystery. Murder mysteries are the cleanest, least ambiguous moral writing that we have. All the while you are reading, no matter how confused you are about the motives or the significance of clues, you know that eventually the murderer will be identified and justice done. Just stay at it long enough and everything will be sorted out.”

Agreeing with this is Denis Haack as he quotes mystery author P. D. James:

“What the detective story is about,” author P. D. James says, “is not murder but the restoration of order.” …we yearn for order, prefer it, and instinctively know that disorder can blossom into a chaos that can be deadly. In such a world, when a detective solves the crime a bit of order is restored in a corner of our badly fragmented world. Even a fictional account can refresh our hope that against all odds order just might be able to be restored.

Haack goes on to commend a recently completed ten-year British detective show called Foyle’s War which exemplifies this point.
Foyle s War 1

We have watched some of the episodes multiple times, purely for the enjoyment of seeing them. At the end we are always satisfied, not simply because a measure of order has been restored, but because we feel edified, having watched a virtuous character bring law, justice, and mercy into his corner of a broken world.

I hope to have more to say about Foyle’s War, easily my favorite television series in recent memory. In the meantime, read P. D. James or sit on the couch and begin the 20 plus episodes of Foyle’s War. Well, well worth it.

Watching and Reading

Art or literature or music or movies are community possessions. They are meant to be experienced and then discussed in community and conversation. Finding those people with whom these can be discussed and experienced can be a difficult thing, especially if ones tastes are as eclectic as mine.

The other day a friend and I were sitting at Starbucks when I flagged down a man who had been seated next to us and was beginning to leave. I had seen him reading there before and so I stopped him and asked what for him would be his ‘go to’ books, books or authors he loved to read and to which he often returns. He pulled up a chair and we talked for 15 minutes or more. It was not even until the end of the conversation when I realized that I did not even know his name.

A few days later he passed my table at Starbucks to ask me about a couple more books, and we found out that after the previous conversation, I had ordered a book he had recommended and he had ordered one I had recommended. This is the way, it seems to me, art of whatever variety is meant to be appreciated.

Notes for those who must know details:

He favors mature, classic authors – George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky. He managed to get Middlemarch back onto my ‘must read’ list.

He mentioned a passing interest in the Kennedy assassination, and so I recommended to him Stephen King’s 11/22/63. He found out I was a Presbyterian pastor (we both had read and loved Gilead by Marilyn Robinson) and he recommended, and I ordered, Amazing Grace by Kathleen Norris.

And, I should add, that the friend with whom I was sitting was a passing acquaintance until the day I saw him at Starbucks reading King’s On Writing. We bonded immediately.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

I’ll never quite know why and how it is that a particular actor becomes one whose death I lament – but hearing that Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an overdose of heroin yesterday struck me as very sad. I feel I’ve lost something that was valuable. A face, a voice, a presence that I’ll never experience again.

Hoffman Magnolia 300x201

The best and most reflective tribute I’ve read is this from critic and author Jeffrey Overstreet.

In a way, we mourn the death of actors because we love the characters they played, not because we knew who they were as individuals. And it’s plain to see that Hoffman was fighting a terrible battle behind closed doors, while audiences enjoyed what he could do to bring other personalities to life.

We don’t know them, and what the average observer might not know is that Hoffman was fascinated with the character of Christ, and considered himself a believer. This was sparked by the genuine faith of his sister and the vigor of her evangelical community.

The idea that a young person could be sane, generous, intelligent and Christian held out great appeal for him. So did the palpable sense of community he felt with his sister and her friends.

The whole piece is worth reading, and pondering. Soberly, he concludes:

Moreover, I am inspired to remember that even if all of my worldly dreams come true and I gain riches and fame and respect, I am still vulnerable. I have no place to speak any words of judgment over the circumstances of Hoffman’s death. In my moments of clear-thinking, I know that I have my own addictions. I have my own secrets that exist in direct contradiction to what I profess and what I long to be. By grace, I’ve been spared all kinds of devastating consequences. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner, and upon us all.


There is the story of the baseball umpire who would not stay in place, but wandered all over the field during a game. Before his superiors could correct this behavior, he was struck by a line drive, knocked out cold, and removed from the field on a stretcher. And that marked the Fall of the Roamin’ Umpire.

I’m not an umpire, but I’ve been roamin’ widely through the holiday period. I’m not yet ‘fallen’ but I’ve had to grow silent until such time as a normal rhythm returns.

In the meantime, over the weekend a few posts crossed in front of me capturing two of my passions, movies and the church, which I felt merit passing on.

The first comes from Scot McNight, responding to the all too common “I love Jesus; I have no room for the church” sentiment. He suggests that those espousing such ideas need to hear Bonhoeffer reminding us

that we must, must, must surrender our ideals of the church and learn to live with its brokenness and the brokenness of all those connected to it. The fundamental problem is that the person who thinks this way thinks more highly of himself or herself than of others, sets himself or herself apart, and acts if he or she is superior. There is a communion table at the front of the church for a reason — because that’s what brings us together, not our competence in Christian living.

Well put.

Also concerning the church, or at least Christian culture, is the helpful attempt by Mike Osborne of University Presbyterian Church to correct the strange vocabulary of contemporary Christians.

I continue to believe that one of the strangest things about us Christians is our specialized vocabulary. Surely it accounts for at least some of the disconnect between us and our non-believing neighbors.

He takes on a number of phrases, some of which may be your favorites. Curious what you think.

And finally, on a different note, there is this well written review of the movie Her. I found the trailer for this movie creepy, and its premise disturbing. But the review leads me to want to see it. The reviewer, Lauren Wilford, says the central question the movie confronts is not the technological question, but rather, “What is it like to share your life with someone?”

What unfolds as we realize this is a poignant exploration of the questions that come in the middle of any thoughtful relationship. How do you grow without growing apart? Which differences between people are workable, and which are too fundamental to ignore? How do you reveal yourself to someone without scaring that person? And how do you offer grace in the midst of a love you’re losing, a love you’ve lost?

These seem to be the kinds of questions that are good to talk about.

And, as a side piece of the movie, Scarlett Johansson is making quite an impression as a star in a movie in which you never see her. As the reviewer notes:

Yes, my favorite Scarlett Johansson performance occurs in a film where you never see her body. The implication is not lost on me.

This one will have to go on my list.

Nostalgia and the Kingdom

To get me to ignore your message, frame it in crisis terms. I’ve become immune to any appeal suggesting that avoiding this movement or embracing that practice is ushering in the collapse of all the we (generally white Americans) find culturally precious. The claims may be accurate. The sky may be falling. But I’ve grown immune to the screaming.

We see cultural collapse when we are gripped with an unhealthy sense of nostalgia. We are persuaded that the 1950s was the height of safe Christian culture (or, for me for a time, 1860) – conclusions which for obvious reasons will be shared by white men far more than others.

Nostalgia links to our sense of shalom. We long for shalom, and sentiment for a time lost is easier to embrace than hope for a time yet unforeseen. Anything which seems to threaten that nostalgic longing is a portent of imminent social collapse. And for many, the harbinger and possible cause of this collapse is pop culture (rivaled only by, and often seen hand in hand with, the ‘other’ political party). The movies and music and media of our day are eroding our national strength and if not stopped or countered will lead to inevitable loss. So goes the argument meant to make me feel guilty if I don’t buy a ticket to Fireproof.

To argue the case one way or the other seems a bit fruitless to me. Lives are won or lost one at a time through old fashioned love and discipleship. Micro-ministry holds greater hope for the kingdom of God than macro-movements.

That said, pop culture does play a role, but it is not universally negative as some too easily assume.Magnolia melora walters john c reilly Signs that pop-culture can SERVE the kingdom and not degrade it are not hard to find. The 1999 movie Magnolia could be seen as evidence of our cultural fall with its sex and drug use and gay lead character. But the biblical themes of judgment are rich and the Christian character is the only one who is not coming undone. There is much positive here.

In 2005 Steven Spielberg directed a version of the H. G. Wells classic War of the Worlds. It was not a particularly good movie, but that’s not what matters here. In an interview Spielberg compared this movie with his earlier Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Both involved families. Both involved aliens. The difference, he lamented, was that in his earlier movie, crisis tore families apart. In this newer movie, crisis took families which were apart and pulled them back together.

Progression toward shalom, and not away from it, should be celebrated. Not all ‘progress’ is retrograde.

Nostalgia can fix our eyes on the past and blind us to the progress of God’s work in the present. Perhaps it is better to fix our eyes on the kingdom and celebrate it wherever we see its fingerprints, in the present, in the past, and especially in our hopes for the future.

Moonrise Sex

There is a title that’s bound to attract some search engines. But that’s not why I chose it.

I have friends who are big fans of the movies of Wes Anderson. Like the Coen brothers, I find that he is an acquired taste, one which I, after seeing Rushmore, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom am still working to acquire. Out of respect for my friends, and Anderson’s three Oscar nominations, and the fact that Moonrise Kingdom was nominated for the top prize at Cannes, I’m willing at most points to say that my lack of appreciation is a problem with me. I often simply don’t get Wes Anderson, but I’m willing to admit that that is my problem.

So I may not be the right person to address the question that Moonrise Kingdom raised for me. There is a scene in the film which probably made me, and many others, squirm. It made me ask, “When does a filmmaker’s reputation allow him to get a pass where he should not get a pass?”

The scene in question captures two child actors in a highly sexualized context. The scene itself is not distasteful. What is distasteful to me is the fact that two children were asked to enact it.

Curious what my friends thought, I asked their opinion of the movie. This led to a specific debate with them concerning the scene in question which I preserve below. I think that even for those of you who have NOT seen the film there may be some value in raising and considering the questions the scene raises.

Correspondent #1: I saw Moonrise Kingdom at the local ‘indie’ theater when it opened last May. As always with Wes Anderson, I love taking in the aesthetics – the sets, the costumes, the attention to detail, the soundtracks, the original scores, the cinematography. All those things alone do not a good movie make! I don’t remember being particularly impressed with the story or the characters. I remember a time or two feeling uncomfortable at the pre-teen romance. In general I found it entertaining enough, but it didn’t really ‘stick’ with me, I haven’t looked back at it since.

RRG: All you say about MK is on the money: quirky, visually intriguing, etc.

But here is what bothered me, not only for its troubling nature, but also that so many others, and particularly Christians, were not bothered by it. I can’t say what the definition of child pornography is, but would not filming children involved in sexual activity for the entertainment of others qualify? If that is accepted, then the question becomes ‘what is sexual activity’. When a 12 year old male actor is invited to and does place his hand on a female actor’s breast in the company of sexually oriented conversation, is that not close to, if not actual, child pornography (albeit of a mild sort)? These are not 20 year old actors playing 12 year olds; these are actual 12 year olds. Does it get a pass because it is Wes Anderson? Or am I revealing a level of latent prudishness?

Correspondent #2: Agreed about Moonrise for the most part. Only saw it once and thought that it was a little disturbing. Probably Wes Anderson’s weakest to date. He’s always fascinated by young lust, and those early awkward moments may have gotten the best of him in this film. Cinematography, acting, etc. was great as always, but the story didn’t do much for me. The letter writing back and forth and man/nature aspect could have been interesting if developed more…but as a whole…..eh.

RRG: See – this is my struggle! We ask a 12 year old to fondle another, and the worst we can say is that this ‘must have gotten the best of him’! We can’t bring ourselves to say that that was wrong? Maybe it’s just me enjoying a bit of my own self-righteousness here.

Correspondent #2: Ok…I would imagine you’ve enjoyed some movies with “worse” subject matter, no? And if not, if indeed this is the most offensive I would be curious as to why. They are peers in the movie, and they are both curious, so if in the abuse/fondling aspect I would definitely put it on the lighter end of that spectrum. Again, not condoning, just sayin’. And for what it’s worth, that scene did not bother my wife much who is VERY sensitive to sexual stuff on screen. There are many different trajectories he could have gone with it, but he leaves it there. No further. Still, curious as to why that got to you so much. I’ll continue thinking about this…..and if you’re self righteous, well I’m that plus desensitized. So you might need another opinion altogether.

RRG: There is difference between what I watch and what is appropriate behavior for actors. We would agree that for one actor to actually KILL another actor for entertainment purposes would be wrong. Right? So, we simulate that. I can watch a naked man and woman, within reason, on screen, but at least assume that these are adults who have been naked before and they somehow have figured out how to make this merely a professional engagement. Would I want my wife stripping naked for a camera? No… but I get that it is done and that those who do it are in some measure able to treat it as a job. However, we draw the line at actual intercourse, don’t we? That is reserved for the pornographic, xxx videos. Right? We still preserve a line there which legitimate cinema does not need to cross. Like killing, it is simulated. It does not need to be shown.

But in this movie, it is not the watching of the act that bothers me. It is that for the sake of entertainment, an actual 12 year old is asked to do what he would not ordinarily do (we hope): put his hand on the budding breast of another child actor. Is it okay for us to ask a child to violate another child like that? In actuality an act occurred – not simulated, but really. Anderson may have a fascination with young lust, but at this point his fascination verges into voyeurism which I think wrongly violates two children.

So does that help explain my issue?

Correspondent #2: Yea, it does. I heard a similar argument from a friend regarding people (women primarily) being nude on screen or on a stage, etc. His argument was it should never be done because the actor or actress has crossed the line of “acting” immodestly (if portraying sex or someone scantily clad or something) to being immodest. I get that. For Moonrise, from what I would say is a safe assumption, in the world of prepubescent youths, simply doing what they did is pretty tame and not all that uncommon – at least from what all is out there in the world.

Would you have been okay with the scene if they were shot from the neck up, the words were the same – whatever they were…”I’m going to touch your breasts now” or something like that explaining what he was doing, but it did not show said act OR the act was not actually done, just acted out in that sense? Just curious.

RRG: I understand the nudity issue, but have managed to somehow put that aside. I’ve lost too many arguments with artists who paint from live models. It’s too hard to make an ‘always wrong’ or ‘always right’ case in that regard. But I want to say that it IS always wrong to ask children to act in this way for the sake of entertainment. And perhaps it is mild, but I still think it is wrong to ask them to do it on screen for our entertainment. (And, as a side note, an article written about the film did note that their kiss was their absolute first, which, I suspect, suggests that they have not been out there feeling breasts either.)

And yes, if the words were the same, but they as children were not asked to do the act, I would not be as troubled. I’m troubled with 12 year olds losing their sexual purity, but I know that it happens. But I would not want to be one to encourage that.

Well, there it is. Comment away.

Merry Christmas

Surely someone, somewhere has made a Christmas card out of this quote:

I shall be taking you to Old London town in the country of UK, ruled over by Good King Wenceslas. Now human beings worship the great god Santa, a creature with fearsome claws and his wife Mary. And every Christmas Eve, the people of UK go to war with the country of Turkey. They then eat the Turkey people for Christmas dinner, like savages!

To the uninitiated, this quote comes from an episode of the British TV drama Doctor Who. In the episode, a group of alien tourists are on a cruise ship in orbit around earth. An excursion to the surface is arranged, and these words are those of the cruise director who, with a shady degree in “Earthonomics”, proves to be something of an unreliable guide.

It all makes me wonder, however, in this less than biblical age, if this description, or something like it, might not be closer to the common understanding of Christmas (or of other aspects of Christian orthodoxy) than we might think.

The History Channel Bible II

Much is being said and written about the success of the pilot for the Bible mini-series. Most reports are stating that it was watched by 13.1 million viewers, a stunning number when ordinarily successful shows draw 2 or 3 million.

But assessment of popularity and assessment of quality are not at all related. Members of a nearby mega-church were being urged to watch whether they were inclined to do so or not in order to boost the ratings and therefore encourage more productions like this. Numbers were inflated as well by the curious. By the time the sixth or seventh in the series rolls around, I wonder how many of those 13.1 million will still be around. My gut says not many.

The History Channel Bible

I heard about the History Channel’s broadcast of a Bible mini-series through predictable channels – the buzz through evangelical church culture that we should all watch this so that major media outlets would produce more like it.

I’m not moved by such marketing ploys. I did feel some sense that I SHOULD watch the first installment so as to be able to responsibly review what I believed others would be watching. But I didn’t even do that.

However, my friend Bill is a much more fair and honest critic of culture and of the contemporary religious scene than I. He has done us a favor and issued a generally favorable review of the first segment of this series. Bill has the background and grace to do this well. His wisest point was his reminder that we live in a biblically illiterate age, so that ANYTHING that in a reasonably accurate way tells the bible’s stories is going to be a helpful thing.

Much more critical was a review published in the NY Times. Interesting to me was that this review did not, as we might expect, take shots at the series’ attempt to be biblically faithful. Rather, the reviewer felt that the series falls short of really capturing the grand flow and passion of the whole bible. The series gives snapshots of biblically reported events but fails to root them in an overall narrative. That seems like a fair critique, as Bill as well compares the series to the bible story books of our collective youth.

The NY Times reviewer notes that

By taking on the entire Bible, even at 10 hours in length, Mr. Burnett and Ms. Downey force themselves into a clumsy “Bible’s greatest hits” approach. This doesn’t serve the source material — so rich in interconnections across time — very well, and it doesn’t make for very involving television.

and then suggests

Those looking for something that makes them feel the power of the Bible would do better to find a good production of “Godspell” or “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Well, in my mind, perhaps not. Rather those looking for something that makes them feel the power of the bible arising from is marvelous interconnections across time would do better to find a good church and a faithful pastor/preacher whose goal it is to do just that.