Thursday, January 11, 2007

little mr. cloudy

Julie and I watched Little Miss Sunshine last night. I think we both agreed it had a similar feel to Garden State (and wouldn't you know it--there was a preview on the DVD for the latter film), which we liked enough to buy. (I should clarify that most of the DVDs we own are because Julie likes them. Not that I don't watch my fair share of TV and movies, but I rarely want to own them--we belong to Netflix anyway, so I figure if I really want to see it again, I can just put it back on the list.) Thinking of it as entertainment and as art, I would also have to agree with Julie that LMS is quite good, and probably at least as worthwhile to own as most of our collection. But that wasn't my fundamental reaction when we finished watching it.

I have to be careful here, because I have always tended to criticize stuff (thinking mostly here of movies, but also sermons, commercials, etc.), even though the kind of criticism hasn't always been the same. It might be a wrong use of "there" for "they're" in a printed advertisement. It might be a fallacious equation of PCs with Microsoft in a Mac commercial (which leads me to make judgments about the intelligence of the target audience). It might be an inconsistent treatment of time travel in a sci-fi movie. I guess inconsistencies are a big thing for me; it particularly annoys Julie when I point them out in TV shows or movies that obviously are not designed to be "think-pieces." I've also always been big on themes--especially religious themes--in entertainment. For instance, ask me why I like Rage against the Machine so much, and I'll tell you it's because of the substance in their lyrics--agree with it or disagree with it, most of today's music lacks conviction about anything. (This is also one of the reasons I've generally been torn over rap as a genre. I respect the political type, but when it drifts too much into the cruder elements of "gangsta" life, or gets downright sexual, I lose interest.)

Now, once upon a time, I probably would have appreciated the message of Little Miss Sunshine. Like all great literature, it addresses the problems of life in their stark reality. There's a messed-up family of messed-up people living messed-up lives, and by the end, they've learned to accept each other and themselves, as they are, and drawn some sense of community from their shared marginal existence. They learn to prioritize relationships, reject conformity, and not get too hung up on worldly success. Sounds good so far, right? And as far as all that goes, I do appreciate the message. But there's a darker side. The hedonist grandfather never stops being a hedonist. The homosexual uncle never stops being homosexual. The family rejects the superficial world of child beauty pageants, but in doing so they bond over the young daughter's striptease routine, which her grandfather had helped her prepare.

In short, the film articulates that core Western value--everyone is OK, no one needs to change. The only ideal to pursue, the only goal to strive for, is learning to accept how messed up we all are, and how normal and real that truly is. We've rejected external conformity, putting on a good show, upholding social norms on the outside, because we recognize that externals without internals are fake and meaningless. But instead of shifting our focus to bettering what we are on the inside, truly, deep down, we've settled for accepting ourselves as broken beyond repair. In fact, we revel in our brokenness. We fight for our rights to be broken, and to stay broken, and not to have anyone call it broken, because that's just imposing some societal norm.

So the message of the film at first glance is a good one--we're all broken people, so we need to love each other as we are. The danger is in the underlying message, which is dangerous because it is not right out on the surface. While we rejoice at the end over this family learning to love and support each other, we subtly buy into the lie that lurks underneath--that we're all just warped in different ways, and universal tolerance is the only reasonable answer, because there is no actual standard beyond societal norms. I don't want to seem judgmental here, because I'm not. I'm as broken as the next person. And yes--we need to love each other in the midst of our brokenness. But there is a standard, there is right and wrong, and there is hope and a way to become better.

Maybe I'm just tired of seeing the same message repeated over and over again. Maybe I'm just frustrated that this is the message coming from a culture that somewhere in the recesses of its past knew the Gospel. Maybe I just feel less sympathetic than I used to, because in Orthodoxy the hope is more tangible. I don't want to say that Protestants have no hope. That would be unfair. But it seems to me that the hope for real change is diminished in Protestantism. It settles for positional justification, positional sanctification, and the barest minimum of faith in Christ as the critical elements in our salvation. It emphasizes the fallenness of humanity, including the biblical heroes (it does not call them "saints" for that very reason). It diminishes the humanity of Christ with its iconoclasm (when it doesn't diminish his deity with its "historical Jesus") and rejects the divinity of redeemed mankind. It thereby creates a gap between God and man that should have been bridged--that was bridged--in the incarnation. As the saying goes, what Christ did not assume he does not redeem; and in Protestantism, the hope that our lives can truly change--that we can become saints--is seriously weakened.

Again, these are subtle things. There is no overt denial of the core teachings about Christ (at least, not among most Evangelicals), but the implications have been whittled away, and the overall structure has weakened. Protestant Christology lacks the power to infuse its culture with a lasting hope of redemption in real life, and over time, Western culture has lost whatever hope it had. It retains its honesty about our present condition--and that is an important foundation to start from. But it rejects anything that can be called a gospel--good news of a better way.

So I criticize. I guess I feel like, if I can identify the wrong message that's there, if I can name it and describe it, I will not unconsciously accept it. Maybe I should just keep my criticisms to myself, so I'm not raining on anyone's parade, but I'm not sure I can do that. I'm not sure it would be right to do it. As I told Julie last night when she asked why I criticized, "Someone has to." Otherwise, the message just slips right in with everything else, and what seemed like just a fun bit of entertainment becomes a subtle retraining of how we think about things. I'm not sure it's such a good idea to let that happen to the people around me.

1 comment:

Roland said...

Thanks, Trevor. I had a similar gut reaction to "Little Miss Sunshine," but I was never able to articulate why - apart from the obvious problem of the film's climaxing in a striptease by a young, relatively innocent girl.

Okay, I did have one other problem - one similar to the sorts of nitpicking that you routinely do. When the nurse tried to make them fill out the death certificate, I was unable to suspend my disbelief. I work with data from death certificates, and I know that only a doctor can fill one out. After that, the whole scene seemed contrived for melodrama, and I could not stay engaged.