The Monthly Catch: ‘Vertigo,’ ‘A.I.,’ ‘O.J.,’ Evolution and Sarah Bessey

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Every month, I sit  and plan out the blog posts I hope to write over the next 30 days. Some of these are fairly easy; as a film critic, I know when new releases are and can plan toward those. Other times, I have pieces I’ve committed to writing for Patheos. But mostly, I plan out 2-3 pieces a week that I want to tackle about something I’m reading, catching up with or thinking about. Of course, it never works out quite the way I intend. Time gets away from me, responsibilities at home and with my day job push some pieces back, and new issues and interests crop up that I spend time writing about instead. So here’s a new feature: at the end of each month, I’ll tackle some of the things I’m enjoying that I haven’t had the chance to write about yet. 

  • vertigo-coverAwhile back, I said that a monthly feature I wanted to incorporate was a look at a classic movie that I have, to my shame, not seen. I still hope that turns into a standalone thing down the road, but time didn’t allow for it this month. A shame, because my catch-up movie in June was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I’ve had the Alfred Hitchcock Essentials Collection Blu-ray set for a few years now, and while I love every other film in it, I’ve put off “Vertigo” because of its intimidating reputation. And the truth is, that reputation might have held me back for the film’s first hour, when the film is basically a handsomely crafted but-slow burning mystery. But it all pays off in the second half (spoiler alert), after Scottie (James Stewart) thinks Madeleine has fallen to her death and obsesses over Judy (both played by Kim Novak), who looks enough like Madeleine that he can mold her to his image (unaware she’s the same person). My wife and I were both a bit creeped out by the age difference between Stewart and Novak early in the film, especially as it builds into a romance. But as Scottie grows more controlling, the age difference adds to the unsettling feel of the relationship. It’s as creepy as I’ve seen Stewart play, and it speaks volumes about his inherent likability that he still manages to make Scottie sympathetic (when will Tom Hanks — this generation’s Jimmy Stewart — find a director to bring out his darker side?). The scene in the hotel where Judy comes out dressed as Madeleine is one of the most dizzying I’ve ever watched (Roger Ebert called it Hitchcock’s greatest shot); it’s at once unnerving because of the control Scottie’s exhibited, dreamlike because of Judy/Madeleine’s willingness to go along out of love and mind-warping because you realize it’s a man trying to bring back a woman he fell in love who never existed in the first place. I still prefer “Rear Window,” but I love this film as an exploration of obsession, grief, fetish and control, and I hope to write something longer about it sometime down the road. Also, a tip: if you get the chance, pick up these Hitchcock Blu-Rays; the Technicolor pops so beautifully on each film (except, obviously, “Psycho”).

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  • Another feature I hope to make more regular here is a column in which I revisit a film. This month, that was to be “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” Steven Spielberg’s science fiction fairy tale, celebrated its 15th anniversary this week. I was actually hoping to do a whole Spielberg week to coincide with the release of “The BFG,” but issues at home kept me from the screening (I’ve heard I was lucky). But I’ve been wanting to revisit “A.I.” for years. I think it’s better than the reviews back in 2001 gave it credit for. The big complaint back then was that Spielberg’s warmth didn’t mesh with Stanley Kubrick’s chilliness. But I think that’s intentional. This is a film that is, on the one hand, a fable about creating a being who loves unconditionally. But that crashes up against the truth about humans: we’re bad at loving back. If we create something whose sole purpose is to love us, what happens when it becomes more convenient for us to abandon it?  There are many references to humans playing God and how the scientists in his film mirror what God did with Adam. But God loves back perfectly; humans don’t. This all plays out amid the subtext of a futuristic fairy tale; the allusions to “Pinocchio” are everywhere, but like most true fairy tales, it has a dark side. I think audiences back then weren’t used to Spielberg taking on this tone; his fantastical pieces were largely optimistic and his serious films had a more historical bent to them. I’m sure people were shocked when they didn’t get “E.T.”; I know I was. But after we’ve seen Spielberg do “Minority Report” and “War of the Worlds,” I think this is less of an outlier and more of a transition. It’s Spielberg growing up. It’s one of his most thematically complex and troubling films, and possibly his most visually breathtaking. Haley Joel Osment is even better here than he was in “The Sixth Sense” — he nails the thin line between perfect and robotic — and Jude Law’s a lot of fun as Gigolo Joe. The final 30 minutes still seem a bit off, but they sit better with me than they did 15 years ago. It’s what a happy ending might look like in a robotic fairy tale, but I still think the better ending is for David to pray to the Blue Fairy for the rest of time.

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  • I’m hoping to do a list this weekend about some of the best films about America. Were it not so recent, ESPN’s documentary “O.J.: Made in America” might make that list. Its story of murder, racism, fame and media obsession really encapsulates all that’s rancid about American culture. What’s fascinating about this documentary is how even though the story dominated national news for years and we just sat through a fantastic 10-hour miniseries on the trial for FX, director Ezra Edelman still finds new insights and revelations in this five-part, seven-hour documentary. I’m four episodes in and I don’t feel like this is a rehash. Rather, Edelman takes his time establishing O.J. Simpson’s popularity and telling the story of racial conflict between the LAPD and the city’s black culture over decades; it’s only a matter of time before the two collide. The doc captures the over-the-top media circus, but it never forgets the racial strife that pulled at the story or the two lives lost that put it into motion. You leave convinced that O.J. did the crime, but you also emphasize with jurors who were tired of giving the LAPD a win. This is fascinating, dynamic cinema.

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  • A few months ago, when I was blogging about the “Story of God” miniseries on National Geographic, I mentioned that my beliefs on the Creation account had shifted since I was a kid. I no longer believe in a seven-day Creation, and I’ve come to believe that while I don’t know the specifics (and God doesn’t owe them to me), my belief is that the scientific teachings on evolution best explain the origin of our planet and don’t contradict the Biblical accounts. I’ve actually come to the convictions not from the writings of atheists, but from respected Christian scientists, professors and scholars. Many of their works are now collected in fantastic little book I’m reading called How I Changed My Mind on Evolution,” put out by the organization BioLogos. One of the hardest things about going public with my beliefs in that post is learning how few Christians I know share them. I don’t need people to change their minds, but it does make me feel a bit isolated. So reading this book — which doesn’t just talk about how people learned to reconcile evolution and faith, but also talks repeatedly about how evolution has made God even more amazing to them (as has been my experience) — makes me feel less alone, and helps me realize just how diverse our beliefs can be on non-essentials in the Body of Chris. I highly recommend this for anyone starting to questions their beliefs on origins or for those who, like me, want to feel a little less alone.

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  • In a similar vein, that “Story of God” really cracked something open in me that’s been needed for awhile. I’ve entered a bit of a period of deconstruction/reconstruction in my faith. As I heard Derek Webb say once, I’m in a process of tearing my faith down to the studs, seeing which studs are essential, and then rebuilding from there. It’s healthy, but it’s hard. And thankfully, I’m not alone. I’ve found a lot of hope and solace in podcasts like “Sons and Doubters” and “The Deconstructionists Podcast,” which is where I first heard author Sarah BesseyI was so impressed by her discussion about her own period of questioning that I went to Amazon and ordered both of her books, “Jesus Feminist” and “Out of Sorts.” I haven’t read the former yet (my wife is making her way through it and loves it), but I’m making my way through “Out of Sorts,” and I feel like Bessey has been eavesdropping on my life. She captures the disconnect we can feel when we start questioning and re-examining what we’ve grown up believing, and the emotional struggle that can come into our relationships wen we start looking at our theology and the Bible from different angles. But at the center of all of it, she keeps coming back to the beauty of Jesus, as the One to pursue through all of our questioning. I’m glad to have this as a guidebook on this journey.

There’s more that I’ve been finishing up this month, including A.O. Scott’s wonderful “Better Living Through Criticism,” season 2 of “Ricky and Morty” on Hulu, and a doubling down on my “Hamilton” obsession. But these were the big ones. It’s been a busy month, and July’s looking to be even busier! Can’t wait! 

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