From Happy Days to Revolutionary Road

If you wanted to demonstrate a change in the way people think about the world, you might compare Happy Days, the TV sitcom that ran from 1974-1984, to Revolutionary Road, the 2008 movie.

I watched Happy Days as a teenager. I watched Revolutionary Road on a plane yesterday evening. Both the sitcom and the movie are set in the 1950s.

Happy Days depicts the era as idyllic. You might guess as much from the title alone. Even Fonzie was portrayed as a nice guy — not the knife-wielding thug that he would have been in real life.

cast of Happy Days                                            All smiles!

Fast forward to 2008, and a fresh take on the 1950s. The era is now regarded as a kind of living hell.

Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprioFrank and April Wheeler, with whiskey

Kate Winslet plays a woman who loves her husband and her kids but who, nonetheless, is profoundly unsatisfied by life as a suburban housewife.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays her husband, mostly as a grade “A” asshole. Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler have several screaming fights during the movie. Frank often says cruel things to April, and comes very close to beating her on a couple of occasions. Meanwhile, Frank diddles a young woman from the secretarial pool, to enliven his own boring existence.

Or merely to remind himself that’s he’s still a man. Because April isn’t the only Wheeler who is bored and unfulfilled. We see footage of Frank catching the train into the city, with hundreds of other men dressed just like him (jacket and tie, plus a fedora), on the way to workplaces that are all indistinguishable from one another. On his 30th birthday, Frank bemoans the fact that he ended up in the same mindless office job as his father.

April remembers when Frank dreamt of bigger things. She proposes something radical — revolutionary, even. ("Revolutionary Road" is, ironically, the name of the very conventional suburban street the Wheelers live on.)

Quit your job, honey, April tells Frank. We’ll sell the house and move to Paris. I’ll work instead of you. We’ll live off my income plus our savings plus the proceeds from the sale of the house. You’ll study, and read, and think. You’ll have all the time you need to figure out what you want to do with your life.

It’s a crazy idea, and the viewer immediately thinks, This is going to end very badly.

Maybe. But the movie’s perspective is summed up by Frank, who describes suburban existence as “hopeless emptiness.”

Frank is talking to the only character in the movie who agrees with their scheme to bugger off to Paris. That character is on leave from a psychiatric hospital, where he has undergone dozens of electroshock therapy treatments. He responds, Lots of people recognize the emptiness, but it takes real courage to acknowledge the hopelessness.

Thus one lunatic encourages two other lunatics in their fantastic idea. Except — from the movie’s perspective, the lunatics are sane, and the sane people are lunatics.

But let’s return to our comparison. Happy Days represents one extreme:  the 1950s were 100% wholesome and everyone was happy all the time. Revolutionary Road represents the opposite extreme:  the 1950s consisted of people wasting their lives in unthinking toil, like ants. The move imagines that smart people (particularly women) were tormented to the point of madness because they saw the truth very clearly but could not escape their lot in life.

Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Now imagine that you had to choose between those two interpretations of the 50s:  which one is a closer approximation of historical reality?

The Reader

I went to see The Reader tonight. Oscar nominations include Kate Winslett for actress in a leading role; Chris Menges and Roger Deakins for cinematography; David Hare for his screenplay; Stephen Daldry for directing; and a nod for best picture.

In brief, I would describe the movie as gripping, intense, and thought-provoking. It certainly isn’t a feel-good movie; nonetheless, highly recommended.

The movie has three segments. In the first segment, we are introduced to the lead characters:  Hanna (Kate Winslett) and Michael (David Kross plays the teenaged Michael; Ralph Fiennes, the adult).

They begin an unlikely sexual affair:  unlikely because Michael is 15 and Hanna is in her late 30s — clearly old enough to be Michael’s mother.

Michael’s motivation is straightforward enough. It’s easy to understand the attraction to a young man, unsure of himself, of an older, experienced woman who is willing to introduce him to a smorgasbord of pleasures of the flesh.

Hanna’s motivation is less obvious; or maybe it’s just less obvious to me because I’m a guy. An older woman certainly might be turned on by a younger man’s body. Moreover, she might enjoy playing a role that is equal parts lover and teacher. “Slowly, slowly,” Hanna says to Michael in response to his first, overly zealous kiss.

There is a second quirk to the relationship:  Hanna likes it when Michael reads to her. Indeed, it soon becomes their foreplay. He reads for a while, and then they have sex.

“Slowly, slowly,” indeed.

Kate Winslett

This first segment of the movie is interesting in its own right:  sexy and even poignant at times. (The relationship is doomed from the outset because Hanna and Michael are at such different stages in life.) But the sexual affair is merely a prelude to the real point of the movie. The story really takes off in Act II, when it radically shifts tone.

(I discuss more details about the plot after the jump. This isn’t quite a spoiler alert, since I don’t give away the ending of the movie. But you might prefer to let the movie unfold the details of the story instead of reading about it here.)

Sex and Violence

Sex and violence are often linked together as “adult” realities. Responsible adults don’t let children see such things.

As a pro-life kinda guy, I find it troubling that society conventionally links these two things together. Violence results in suffering and death. Sex results in pleasure and new life.

Violence is an evil (even if sometimes, arguably, it is a necessary evil); sex is a good (even if sometimes it leads to mistakes and regrets).

Yes, I understand why we shield children from things sexual. Children are relatively innocent, and that state of innocence passes all too quickly. We don’t want to rush children headlong toward a knowledge of adult matters.

As a wise woman once instructed me, we should enjoy each experience in life for what it is. We shouldn’t be always longing for and rushing on toward some other experience, around the next corner or over the next hill. Be. Here. Now.

Nonetheless, I insist that sex and violence are not morally equivalent realities. I think society should be more concerned than we are about not exposing children to violence and less concerned than we are about not exposing children to sex.

OK, let me clarify that:  I agree that graphic sex should be out of sight of children. But society could stand to ease up a little about nudity and sexually suggestive situations.

Children are exposed to enormous levels of violence on TV and in the movies. But my God, just let Janet Jackson’s nipple be exposed on TV for a fraction of a section and people react as if America’s children will be scarred for life. The horror! The horror!

You might be wondering what has started me down the path of this rant. Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”, and the ludicrous overreaction to it, is old news. So here’s my story.

[A]+[Be] Critics: The Dark Knight

Rating: A cautionary *****

The newest installment in the Batman saga is everything it was cracked up to be. It has action sequences that outshine Iron Man and Hulk. It has characterization that is frighteningly acute. But mostly, it is dark, bringing the series full-circle since the days of Tim Burton’s cartoonish portrayal of the Joker. And because of this last fact, it is necessary to qualify the high rating that this movie deserves. Because, despite the fact that The Dark Knight was indeed the most intense ride of this summer, it is not a super-hero movie. It is a thriller. And the mis-packaging of this film may lead one to make the terrible mistake of taking the movie lightly and, God forbid, even taking one’s kids to see it.


[A]+[Be] Critics: WALL-E

Rating* * * * *

One of the luxuries of being off of school is that I’m able to enjoy some quality summer films. Ideally, movies offer something new and inriguing to chew on for the audience, but in the summer, often “entertaining” is enough.

Fortunately, Wall-E is of the former category.

Though not a film that will “revolutionize” the industry or anything, Wall-E was easily my favorite Pixar/Disney film in ages… probably since the much-vaunted Finding Nemo, in fact.


Juno: a study in wisdom

I finally saw the movie Juno this week — on a plane as I was flying from Ottawa to Winnipeg. I liked it, of course. Kudos to Director Jason Reitman (born in Montreal, Quebec, the son of Ivan Reitman).

In this post, I will use Juno to illustrate the use of wisdom as a substitute for conventional ethical constructs. If my meaning is not clear at this point, read on. The idea was inspired by Roger Ebert’s review of Juno.

Spoiler alert:  if you plan to see the movie but you haven’t yet, you probably won’t want to read my post.

At one point in the movie, Juno (who is sixteen years old and pregnant) seems to be headed for a romantic relationship with Mark. Mark is a married adult:  indeed, he is the would-be adoptive father of Juno’s baby. Roger Ebert comments:

We are led, but not too far, into wondering if Mark and Juno might possibly develop unwise feelings about one another.

I was struck by Ebert’s use of the phrase unwise feelings in this context. Shouldn’t he have said, “… wondering if Mark and Juno might possibly start an immoral relationship“, or “an inappropriate relationship“? Ebert could even have said illegal relationship, given Juno’s age.

In effect, Ebert substitutes unwise feelings for conventional ethical constructs — which I find intriguing.

I think the idea has merit. We live in what is sometimes described as a post-Christian era. I know, there are many conservative Christians in the U.S.A. (relatively few here in Canada), but there are also a great many secular people and adherents of other religions. The result is a lack of consensus on values and mores. The question is, what shall we substitute for the moral framework of the Bible?

We can refuse to substitute anything, of course; but the result would be a highly fragmented society, which may not be a desirable outcome.

Christians will continue to uphold biblical ethics. But what of the broader society? To what extent can wisdom function as a substitute for God’s commandments and the ethical example of Christ?

At this point I should introduce a distinction between wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is the mastery of facts; wisdom describes superior judgement with respect to actions. Knowledgeable people sometimes act unwisely.

Juno is a study in wisdom. (Once again — spoiler alert. I’m about to summarize the whole movie.)

  • Juno wisely decides to put her baby up for adoption, rather than raise it herself at the age of sixteen.
  • She wisely tells her parents that she’s pregnant (instead of hiding it from them as long as possible), thereby gaining the support of adults with valuable experience and resources. (Think of Juno’s mother rebuking the ultrasound technician.)
  • She wisely steers clear of an entanglement with Mark.
  • She wisely decides to let Vanessa adopt the baby, even though Vanessa and Mark have separated. (When Juno saw Vanessa at the mall, she understood that Vanessa really would make a good mother.)
  • Finally, she wisely decides that Bleeker is suitable boyfriend material. (As her father put it — without understanding that he was describing Bleeker — someone who thinks the sun shines out of your butt. Definitely a desireable attribute in a boyfriend.)

I don’t think we can describe Juno as knowledgeable, but she certainly demonstrates wisdom — superior judgement with respect to her actions.

I think a Christian and a secularist could discuss Juno’s options and agree that the above decisions were wise, and therefore commendable.

Ellen Page as Juno
(Ellen Page as Juno)

But there are two events that I have passed over in silence. First, Juno got pregnant the first time she had sex. Oops! Definitely not wise. [Update — Ilona corrects me on this point:  it was Bleeker’s first time, but not Juno’s.]

Second, Juno opted not to get an abortion. And here we see the limits of wisdom as a substitute for conventional ethical constructs. I doubt that wisdom is an adequate standard to guide us when it comes to abortion.

A person is wise when her actions spare her unnecessary trouble. Getting pregnant at age sixteen is unwise insofar as it generates turmoil and lots of practical problems. The decision to put the baby up for adoption is wise insofar as it transfers some of the practical problems to a third party, who is better positioned to cope with them.

Returning to abortion — if avoiding unnecessary trouble is our sole criterion, abortion is wise. But the Christian may not concede that avoiding trouble is the only relevant consideration here.

Even people who are pro-choice cannot reduce the issue to avoiding trouble. A woman might decide to go through with a pregnancy, knowing that it’s going to interrupt her school studies or her career, or cost her a relationship, or otherwise disrupt her life.

Is it nonetheless a wise decision? The pro-choice individual would say it isn’t our place to pass judgement one way or the other. In any event, there’s some other consideration at work here — some value other than the desire to avoid trouble.

In sum:  to some extent, wisdom could provide a useful substitute for conventional ethical reasoning. It provides a utilitarian standard by which to evaluate one’s options:  a standard that the Christian, the secularist, and the adherent of a non-Christian religion may be able to agree on.

But something inside of us rebels at a purely utilitarian analysis of a scenario such as abortion. Other considerations get dragged into the decision, unbidden.

The Christian would see this as evidence of a transcendent realm. A spark of the divine inhabiting the human breast; a God in whom the material universe coheres.

I don’t know what the secularist would say about this issue — I write as a Christian. But it seems that the principle of utilitarianism — wisdom — sometimes fails to provide us with adequate guidance.

Rev. Billy decries Christmas consumption

Yesterday was one of the biggest shopping extravaganzas of the year. Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on a Thursday, and most of them take the Friday off work, too. En masse, they head to the shopping malls to begin buying, getting, consuming:  spending themselves into massive debt to commemorate the birth of the baby Jesus.

baby Jesus Christmas presents losing balancing

Rev. Billy doesn’t like it. Not one little bit!

We’re trying to get people to back away from the Walmart; back away from the Target; back away from the Home Depot! … Backing away from the product, slowing down your consumption is a spiritual act. … Stop shopping, children! Amen!

Rev. Billy is a persona created by performance artist and activist Bill Talen. He is featured in a movie, What Would Jesus Buy?, which is produced by Morgan Spurlock (who scored big with Super Size Me).

What Would Jesus Buy? is built around a 2005 documentary of Rev. Billy’s activist hi-jinks. The original documentary was made by Rob VanAlkemade, the director of What Would Jesus Buy?. Footage from the original documentary alternates with interviews and commentaries from experts and everyday consumers.

According to SignOnSanDiego, the movie’s message makes it a tough sell to potential distributors:

“Major distributors have backed away because Wal-Mart pushes half of their DVDs,” VanAlkemade said after a sold-out screening of the movie Sunday at the Silverdocs documentary festival near Washington.

Starbucks — a frequent target of Rev. Billy which got a court order to keep him out of its California stores — pulled out as a sponsor of Silverdocs. The festival is presented by the American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel.

Festival spokeswoman Jody Arlington said Starbucks expressed discomfort with the movie and raised security issues, but it let Silverdocs keep the sponsorship money even as it withdrew its logo. Starbucks Mid-Atlantic manager Carter Bentzel denied the decision was linked to the movie.

This is a good illustration of the potential negative impact when enormous, multinational stores like Walmart control the lion’s share of a particular market. So much for supply and demand as the sole regulatory principle of a free market! If Walmart doesn’t like your movie, they can pretty much turn the lights out on you.

Rev. Billy comments, “The multinational corporations have got as much control over us as the Roman Catholic Church in the 1300s.” Then again, there’s always the democratic power of the World Wide Web:

VanAlkemade pledged that the movie will find its way to audiences despite the marketing challenges. … “Maybe someone shot this screening today and we’ll see it on YouTube tonight. It’s worldwide distribution. It’s instantaneous.”

How will Christians respond to the movie? I haven’t seen it; but as I watched the Youtube clip, I alternated between laughter, cringing, and shouts of “Hallelujah! God bless Rev. Billy!” Christianity Today offers a generally positive take on the movie:

Aside from a few more serious, melancholy scenes, WWJB is more or less a comedy. It’s hard not to laugh at the confused faces of holiday shoppers as a robed choir marches through Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret stores, singing about the impending shopocalypse as hovering security guards call for reinforcements. It’s classic agit-prop theater — using humor and stagy gimmicks to shake things up, entertain, and provoke. It’s a creative brand of protest, certainly, and according to the choir director (and Rev. Billy’s wife) Savitri D, it’s a protest grounded in Christian tradition: “Jesus was preaching within a tradition of theater as activism.”

… Some critics have noted that the film’s playfully sacrilege use of Christian forms and traditions may alienate some audiences. Rev. Billy’s character is clearly modeled after a sweaty, breathy, over-the-top southern televangelist (Billy name drops Jimmy Swaggart) who prances around in polyester suits and occasionally “speaks in tongues” or is “slain by the Spirit.” Catholics might also take offense at some of Rev. Billy’s antics, whether he’s in a makeshift confession booth on a city sidewalk (taking “confessions of shopping sins”) or “baptizing” a baby outside of a Staples.

Yes, it’s condescending. Yes, it cheapens Christianity. But the whole argument of the film is that our commodity culture has already cheapened Christianity.

Aint that the truth! Amen! Amen!

But would it be appropriate if I bought copies of the DVD for everyone I know, as Christmas presents?

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