The first movie I remember going to the theater to see was Back to the Future II. I had seen the first one already on VHS and when I heard that my neighbor was going to see the sequel, I insisted he take me – before even asking my parents permission. Though it may sound trite, it was a memorable occasion because the film created all kinds of questions in my young mind. There, in Slidell, Louisiana, I saw a vision of the future together – hoverboards and 3D sequels to Jaws, flying cars and ridiculous fashion – grounded in serious questions about the ways that small, seemingly insignificant decisions can affect the rest of our lives. If we were able to rewrite the choices we make, would be really be all that different? And as the film concludes, with Marty McFly receiving a package meant to arrive at that moment but dated years previous, are there ways that history calls us to something more meaningful? Can we escape destiny? Is time linear?
Again, trite as it may sound, the film left a deep and abiding impression. My mother tells me that Back to the Future II was not, in fact, the first movie I saw in the theaters, though. There was “some Disney movie, or was it Dick Tracy? Whatever it was, you had been to the movies before that.” If this were so, I cannot recall. Whatever it may have been, this was the film that sparked my imagination. I became fixated with time travel movies (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, for example) and the questions “underneath the surface” of film. Around this time, a male cousins forced me to watch Nightmare on Elm Street with him. I say this not offhandedly, as he was later diagnosed with mental and social difficulties. Forcing me to watch the film with him terrorized me, and I have always had an aversion to horror movies since. A few summers later, my female cousins invited me to watch The Abyss and Star Wars with them.
Though I remember imaging myself as Luke Skywalker for years after that, I paid attention to the questions lingering under these films, questions about how blame and presumptions cause great danger (ex: the crew of the U.S.S. Montana and the threat of alien life), the importance of friends during trying times (ex: Han & Leia, Chewbacca and Lando), and what it means to be set apart (ex: what it means to be a Jedi). Much later, I would be mesmerized by Baz Luhrmann’s revision of Shakespeare, Romeo + Juliet and the ways set design could tell a story itself, but it was two films, Cast Away and The Fountain that influenced my understanding of film the most.
When Cast Away came out, virtually no one I knew enjoyed it. Despite their criticisms and mockery, I was terribly moved by the theology of the film – what do when the world as we know it stops? What do we do when we are left alone and forgotten? And what sort of beliefs can keep us alive and inspire us, even as they also demand us to make something of the wreckage of our lives? This was the first film to showcase a rich understanding of humanity, love, hope – key expressions of the divine – and their ability to move us forward, to cause us to ask for forgiveness, and to start over. The film involves Chuck (Tom Hanks) as a FedEx executive. When he called out on assignment, his plane crashes. Stranded as the only survivor of the crash, he must find a way to survive – training himself to forget his previous life and learn basic survival skills. Over the course of time, he gives us hope of being rescued. His only connection to his previous life is a small portrait of his fiancé, Kelly (Helen Hunt) and his “friend” and the imaginary friend he makes with a softball. The softball, “Wilson,” tethers him to reality. It works as an externalized expression of his former life, subtly compelling him to do something – anything – other than give up. When ocean drift washes up on shore, “Wilson” compels Chuck to create a raft and leave the island. He returns home to find the world as he knew it entirely gone. Though he never gave up his love for Kelly, she has since moved on with her life, married, and had children. He finds her changed, and though he tells her that his love for her is what kept him alive, kept him hoping, he lets her go, resolved that they cannot return to the love they once knew. The film ends with Chuck literally at a crossroads, unsure of what to do next with his life.
The film lacks a broad cast or the usual amount of dialogue, forcing the reader to go through the sense of abandonment and isolation with Chuck. We come to see Wilson is not comedic relief, but Chuck’s only grip on reality. When he eventually loses Wilson, his only friend for the entire ordeal and in some way the very thing that has compelled Chuck to return to civilization, Chuck wails in brutal agony. Having now lost his last memory of the former life (other than his love for Kelly), what will keep him sane? We find no answer. Wilson’s “death” reminds us of the ways in which we hold on to certain aspects of life that cannot be controlled, the parts of ourselves that must die for us to survive. And while this is a significant aspect of the film, Wilson’s “death” – the “death” of a volleyball – is so emotionally wrenching that we intuitively understand it to be more than that. Wilson is a symbol of hope. Love may keep us alive, but hope keeps us moving forward. When Wilson “dies”, Chuck gives up trying. He dies too, allowing grief to consume him. He will always love Kelly (as he states in the final scene with her), but their love cannot be expressed now that she has gotten married and had children. Her life moved on and evolved, while his came to a traumatic end. Put another way, Wilson’s death was the final connection to his former life. But, love having resuscitated him, what now?
The symbol of a butterfly (which appears on a parcel early in the film and reappears, years later, at the film’s end) reminds us of small and beautiful things, but so what? Where are the Christ figures? The obvious presence of providence or the Spirit of God? Unfortunately, the film is not as simple as that. There are no easy answers. Having given up the “god” of time and having committed the self-proclaimed “sin” of not being on time, what kind of salvation can Chuck find in returning the parcel to it’s recipient at the film’s end – years after it was supposed to be delivered? Indeed, we are denied seeing the reaction of the recipient when Chuck delivers the parcel, or even what the parcel contained. Answers about the parcel, or the appearance of God, are subjective for indeed, there are mysteries in the world. Whether those mysteries appear as a mail package and butterfly, or a whale acknowledging us in a clear reference to Jonah tale, we have a film driven by the desire of humanity to find order… and finding that desire denied. Cast Away is a film that points us to the great disappointments and losses in life and asks of us, What’s Next? What now? What will you do, having lost everything? It is a question that comes up in the story of Job as well. Having lost everything, what do we have left? What defines us? Is it a reliance on our god (time)? A sense of hope that compels us to go home and repent? Will love find a way, or will we at the end of our odyssey find that providence was tucked against our heart the whole time? These are the questions that the power of film puts to us – who are we? What kind of person are we? And are we okay with the direction our lives are headed?
The Fountain is another powerful film that influenced me. Confronted with death, to what lengths will a man go for love? Evoking the myth of Adam and Eve, director and writer Darren Aronofsky tells three stories, a trinity of sorts – past, present, and future about a man searching through time to make his lover immortal.
When The Fountain came out, I insisted my friends watch it with me. I loved Aronofsky’s work on Requiem for a Dream, even if it was – and remains – both the single most depressing movie and the most accurate depiction of using drugs of all time. The cinematography is… breathtaking. But the story itself is so far from a “typical” Hollywood film that few understand the film’s meaning. Something about it is moving, but few have tried to dissect it. It is one of those rare masterpieces of cinema which leave you moved in deep ways for years, if you allow it to enter your heart. Naturally, when my friends saw it at my insistence, no one “got it” and made fun of it for weeks. I suppose at that time I was sensitive, or rather attentive to the subtle movement of strings in my heart, but the film explores both the depth of love and our intentions. When we love someone, or seek to save them, is it for out lover? Or for us, to resolve some fear of loneliness?
Neither film has a simple resolution, and this makes me question the power of film and what exactly we are looking for in our entertainment sources. Do we want the tripartite three acts, or are we looking to be unsettled? For many, the former is preferred. We go to the movies to be entertained and to escape from reality for a short while. Perhaps we are able to live vicariously, to save children from a burning bus, or party all night long with our friends before getting the girl, to work out our own family issues, or maybe even enjoy the sensuality of another lover on screen. But other times, as in the case of Cast Away and The Fountain, something we have locked away is moved. In the absence of answers, we must create our own. Was that ending just a dream? A hallucination of a heavily drugged mind? Or was it a transcendent journey to the existential for which no real solution can be found?
I suppose I put this forward not just because I have been thinking about the power of film, but also the ways that we come to our respective faith traditions. For some of the people I grew up with… for former lovers… It is enough to be entertained, or even post the occasional link on their social media venues, accepting the “likes” of their friends as indicative that they are, indeed, “good” people making the “right” choices in like. Their choices are popular and never stray too far from what is expected. Dallas is a perfect example of this. Most people I know from Dallas, or who live in Dallas, fall into this “safe” category. Perhaps they were sheltered as a child and obeyed their parents like a dutiful daughter, always seeking the “right” accessory of a man, to move in with him at the right time, and marry on schedule before a safe and happy life of bike rides, yoga, and a few pets.
Their film choices as much as their life choices are predictable.
I was never one of those.
For me, reading James Joyce in the corner of the library at the age of ten, I knew life was not like that. The “safe” answers were never fulfilling for I knew, intuitively, that they were not true. There was no safety in the world except the comfort that the illusion of safety might bring. For me, the power of these curious (and unpopular) films was more fulfilling for indeed, we had to make sense of the world, to work out our own faith with fear and trembling. It was never a criticism as much as a difference in worldview. And, as I grow older, I come to know people and the script their lives have followed by way of the films they enjoy. I come to know whether they are seeking to escape their world, their illusionary world, or whether they have come to know intimately, as I have, that the answers and life choices and films that are the most true are those we must work to figure out on our own. Put another way, it is like Frost once wrote. Two paths diverged in the wood. I took the one less traveled and ever since I…