Tuesday, December 18, 2012

More Than "The Hobbit"

Gandalf the Grey: “Those are goblin Wargs! They will outrun you!
Radagast the Brown: “These are rhosgobel rabbits! I’d like to see them try.”
What kind of movie combines the epic music, breathtaking vistas, and heart-pounding fight scenes of a Hollywood blockbuster with the silly songs and antics of a children’s book?
This movie. And it works (Mostly. Almost entirely. Seriously, it’s reeeeaaaaally close, and I can’t think of a way they could have done it better).
But let’s get down to business. Netting a measly 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s evident that many reviewers have a beef (or mutton, if you’re a troll) with the film. Whether it’s the high frame rate (admittedly a horrible, horrible decision that does nothing to enhance the film and much to distract from it), or the slow, deliberate pacing, it’s evident that many reviewers were expecting something different, and were disappointed with the actual product.
And I will admit that the first 15 minutes filled me with a terrible sense that the reviewers might be right. The high frame rate (48 FPS as opposed to the standard 24) makes the opening minutes of the film seem amateurish and jerky, more like an extremely well-done fan video rather than something coming out of Hollywood. Some points in the “Fall of Erebor” sequence in the beginning reminded me most of the old Narnia movies (the good ones, not the new ones), while other points made me think more of what the video game is sure to be like, wondering when the “cut-scene graphics” would fade into the in-game graphics, and I would pick up the controller to cut my way free of the wreckage.
It was disconcerting and disheartening, to say the least. Nothing about the opening sequence captured the same realism and drama as the storming of Helm’s Deep, or even the many smaller battles of the LOTR trilogy. The high FPS practically screamed “fake” to my poor, indoctrinated eyes and brain. But just as the dwarves–consumed though they were by rage and sorrow at their lost homeland–shouldered their burdens and soldiered on, I, too, decided then and there that I was going to enjoy this film, darn it, and nothing could stop me.
And I have to say from that point on, the film did get progressively better. Although Frodo’s exchange with Bilbo struck me as slightly unnatural, there were some extremely nice touches connecting the story of the Hobbit to the events of the later trilogy: The remembrance/story-telling takes place early on the day of The Party with which the Fellowship opens, and after Frodo’s unnecessary (but thankfully brief) interlude, we witness him heading off “to wait for Gandalf,” holding his book. Bilbo, watching him go, blows a single smoke-ring… and with that, the “real” movie begins.
The dwarves? Brilliant. The dinner scene? Fantastic. The first song, in which the dwarves taunt Bilbo with threats of grievous crockery harm? The intro is a little forced, but the song itself is well-executed but verysilly (as, indeed, any adaptation seeking to preserve the spirit of the book must be). The second song, in which the dwarves lament their lost homeland? Haunting and breathtaking. Rivendell was wonderful, as usual, but Goblin-Town caused me to utter a quite audible “whoa-haha! Look at that!”, much to the amusement of my wife and the irritation of the other moviegoers.
To my surprise and joy, the movie retains many of The Hobbit’s particular quirks: A paragraph detailing the exploits of the rock giants, never again to be seen or mentioned, is transformed into a tense 10-minute interlude of mountains fighting other mountains, with the dwarves caught, quite literally, in between. The trolls are delightful (a term never before used about trolls, but certainly applicable here), and there are many chunks of dialogue lifted whole from the book itself and inserted, quite successfully, into the film.
But of course, no book gets transformed into a movie without somechanges, and a book that’s rather short to begin with  can expect even more transformation when turned into three movies. As someone who really, really hates the two latest Narnia movies for the many [too many negative adjectives to list] changes made to the story, this had me worried as I sat in the theater.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself not only accepting but actually nodding in approval at the vast majority of the changes. The book itself is isolated, and only a concerted effort after the fact can bring it into the larger Middle-Earth narrative. The movie attempts to eliminate that sense of isolation: this is, from the very first scene, a tale of Middle-Earth’s larger battle against the darkness.
Almost all of the changes and embellishments in the film can be traced back to this single motivating idea.  Thorin’s distrust and even hatred of the elves (even the elves of Rivendell) finds its roots not in The Hobbititself, but in the larger narrative that the movie reveals–and in that context, it fits extremely well. The same applies to the discovery of the Ring itself: The audience is never under the illusion that the ring Bilbo finds is anything less than the world-breaking Ring of the trilogy, whereas the book treats it as nothing more than an interesting and useful trinket. The re-taking of Erebor is important as a personal quest of the dwarves, but the quest is much more important as a means of defeating the great power of Smaug before it can be joined to the even greater power of the mysterious Necromancer.
The Necromancer! Discovered by Radagast, believed in by Gandalf and Galadriel (and maybe Elrond), scoffed at by Saruman… even though we only get a brief glimpse of this shadowy figure, accompanied by the characteristic scream of the Nazgul, we are appropriately terrified of him (as is Radagast). Although he merits but a handful of sentences in the book, we already know that he will play a much larger role in the next two films.
This first installment left me happy with the decision to expand the story. The movie (as I had hoped) is fantastic. The project is, thus far, a resounding success. The Hobbit is being transformed from an isolated and amusing tale into one more amazing and epic battle in the yet more amazing and epic war against the greater darkness of Middle-Earth.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The End of the Great Depression

“What exists now is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing truly new on earth. Is there anything about which someone can say, “Look at this! It is new!”? It was already done long ago, before our time… I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I decided to carefully and thoroughly examine all that has been accomplished on earth. I concluded: God has given people a burdensome task that keeps them occupied. I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile—like chasing the wind! What is bent cannot be straightened, and what is missing cannot be supplied.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9-10, 12-15

The world of Ecclesiastes is old, stale, and hopeless. Solomon, husband of many wives, victor of many battles, possessor of great wealth, wonders if any of it is worth it. If the wise die in the same way as the foolish, if the rich suffer the same fate as the poor, if the good man fares the same as the evil man, why even make an effort? Even his last words carry the same sense of melancholy and hopelessness. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Fear God and obey him, because it is your duty: it will not help you in life, it may not help you in death, you will still die the same as an evil man… but it is your duty nonetheless.

And that was the end of the matter. There was nothing more to said, nothing more to be heard, because even the words of the wise were vain and meaningless.

And then something happened that had never happened before. A new star appeared in the heavens and a company of angels sang to the shepherds of Bethlehem, because God had been wrapped in swaddling clothes and was lying in a manger. A living child had been born into a world of skeletons. Here, finally, was something new, something that that was not vanity and a chasing after the wind.

God was a child. He had friends, he played games with them, he skinned his knees, he was hungry and thirsty and tired. And then God grew up and was a man. He was sarcastic and biting towards some people and utterly kind and gentle towards others. He was enraged at the misuse of the temple and driven to tears by the death of a friend. He had friends and ate and drank and slept under the stars when he could have had an angelic canopy.

And as we think about these things we must remember one simple truth: God does not do meaningless things.

And this does not just apply to his “kingdom work.” The ultimate proof of this is his very first miracle in John 2, unplanned and spontaneous. This is evident from his response to Mary: “What does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Such a response indicates that the forthcoming miracle has nothing to do with “his hour,” his primary purpose. But he does it anyway. He has the jars filled with water and by the time the first cup reached the master of the feast, it is no longer water but the finest wine that had yet been served.

God does not do meaningless things. There were any number of ways to make his disciples believe in him, if that was his only goal. There were many ways to demonstrate his power, his authority, his deity. He could have made the water disappear: he could have turned it into grape juice (as some Christians fervently wish he had). But instead he chose to turn it into wine, and not  just any wine; he turned it into the finest wine of the feast, wine so good that it made all the other wine pale in comparison. We must acknowledge this amazing truth: that God did something not just to further his mission, not just to make his disciples believe in him, but to help people celebrate a wedding with the best wine of the feast, the ultimate example of extravagance.

God does not do meaningless things. And that means that the world of Ecclesiastes is gone forever.

Because of Christmas, everything is no longer vanity and meaningless: instead, everything assumes a colossal importance. Even “neutral” things like eating or sleeping become full of meaning when we consider that God himself has done these things as well. When we eat, even a snack, we are reminded that God has done the same. When we sleep, we are reminded that God did too. When we attend a wedding, we remember that in doing so we walk in the footsteps of Christ.

Life is full of meaning: I might even say full to bursting. Serving God is no longer a mere duty; it is instead a privilege, an honor, a gift, as we walk this new world and think of Christ taking his first steps in Bethlehem.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Great Depression

The Old Testament tells a lot of stories. Sad, heartbreaking stories; miraculous, uplifting stories; and stories of life, love, friendship, and epic heroism.  But behind all of the stories, behind the travels of Abraham, the trials of the Israelites, behind even the victories of David and the temple of Solomon lies what Blindside calls the Great Depression, what T.S. Eliot describes as the land of the hollow men. Behind all of the stories lie the sin of Adam, the wail of Ecclesiastes, and the Valley of Dry Bones.

The sin of Adam haunts everything. Every birth, every field, every death is a reminder that mankind and even the very ground itself is cursed: All men die eventually, and what then? Dust, mere motes of earth floating for a while in the breeze, waiting to be dispersed. The kingdoms of man, built with blood and sweat, will last but a little longer than those that built it. Everything fades.

And worst of all, nothing can be done about it. It’s possible to forget about it, for a time. It’s possible to lose sight of it in battle, in worship, in life. But it is always there, waiting to be remembered again. And that’s what Ecclesiastes is: Ecclesiastes is the book that the wisest man in the world wrote when he ran out of distractions. Ecclesiastes is what happens when war, women, and wine lose their novelty, and the greatest intellect in the world is forced to look, really look at the world, and ask what good it all is.

And  he comes up empty. He searches all the world–wisdom and folly, indulgent pleasure and productive work, righteousness and sinfulness–and finds nothing but a huge, terrifying void. Mankind throws everything it has into life and fails to make a single dent in the ever-looming Nothingness. The sun rises on hopeless humanity toiling away at their meaningless existence and by the time it sets, there has been no change. Well, no change save one: everyone is now one day closer to death, to Sheol, to the place where good and evil alike must inevitably go, never to be seen again. Almost all of Ecclesiastes can be summed up in one verse: “What is bent cannot be straightened, and what is missing cannot be supplied.”

The wisest man in the world sets out to find meaning, and he comes to the conclusion that there is none. Existence is a dull, bleak thing, not to be thought of because the thinking of it is too terrible.  And Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of Israel offers a similarly bleak diagnosis. “The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and placed me in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones. He made me walk all around among them. I realized there were a great many bones in the valley and they were very dry… Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are all the house of Israel. Look, they are saying, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope has perished; we are cut off.’”  Israel, the Chosen People of God, the singularly blessed nation, is no more than dusty bones. Their hope has perished, and they are utterly cut off.

Skeletons, going through life hoping to one day not be skeletons… but knowing, at the bottom of where their hearts should be, that such a thing is entirely impossible. Skeletons chasing the wind, clutching at it with bony fingers, collapsing into the dust into which, with a little patience, they will soon dissolve. This is the state of the entire world before the first Christmas. This is the state of every man, woman, and child before Something New came into the dead, never-changing world and changed it forever.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

“Mystical, Profound, and Truly Wonderful”

“The mystery of Christ runs the risk of being disbelieved precisely because it is so incredibly wonderful. For God was in humanity. He who was above all creation was in our human condition; the invisible one was made visible in the flesh; he who is from the heavens and from on high was in the likeness of earthly things; the immaterial one could be touched; he who is free in his own nature came in the form of a slave; he who blesses all creation became accursed; he who is all righteousness was numbered among transgressors; life itself came in the appearance of death.”
-St. Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ
Cyril calls the Incarnation many things: “Mysterious,” “truly wonderful,” “incomprehensible,” “profound,” a “strange and rare paradox.” Turn to almost any page in his treatise and you will find him extolling the many and varied virtues of Christ’s “holy, wonderful, and truly amazing birth and life.”  And the reason for this rampant rejoicing, this extravagant ecstasy, this passionate, persistent, poetic praise? Simply this: “he who is and exists from all eternity, as he is God, underwent birth from a woman according to the flesh;” in the Incarnation, “God was in humanity.”
To Cyril, the Christian faith hangs on the fact that the being named Jesus, who was born into a dirty stable from a human mother, who walked with dusty feet along the paths of Judea, who was hungry, and thirsty, and tired, was and is utterly and completely God and utterly and completely man. In the being named Jesus of Nazareth we see God and man in one person
And the picture of God painted by the Old Testament demonstrates how stunning, how incomprehensible, how graceful and marvelous such a union is.  God laid the foundations of the world. He determined its measurements. He has commanded the morning since there was a morning to command. He has created marvelous things, including man from the dust of the ground. He speaks out of the whirlwind, out of the storm, out of a blinding, radiant cloud.
His arm is strong, his voice is thunderous, his place is on high. He is a pillar of fire that lights up the dark. He is waited on by seraphim who eternally sing his praise. He is All-Sufficient, Lord of Hosts, the Holy One of Israel. His very name is so holy that it cannot even be spoken. He is God, and not a man.
And then the Most High God is born in a cave, below even the ground. The God that spoke out of the whirlwind cries out from an empty feeding trough. The Shepherd of Israel is chided by his parents. The creator of heaven and earth learns to help his father craft chairs and tables. The All-Sufficient One hungers and thirsts, and falls from weariness. The Lord of Hosts is a wanderer, with nowhere to lay his head. One of his names is spoken with scornful familiarity by those who dare not utter the other.
“God was in humanity.” Every word here is vitally important to the Christian faith. God, in the full sense of the term, in all majesty, power, and divinity, fully entered into humanity in a way that had never happened before. God was born of a woman. God was truly human.