Friday, June 14, 2013

The Son of Man and the 'Man of Steel'

So when did Superman convert?

That's the question that some are asking after the premiere of "Man of Steel." Within a few hours of the film's premiere, some news sites were already pointing to allusions to the Christ story in the latest take on the 75-year-old superhero. Others pointed out that Warner Bros. was using subtle marketing to make the connection. It isn't something the director Zack Synder is shying away from either. In an interview, he is quoted as saying:

"Making him Jesus is a mistake, but allowing people to have a conversation about whatever relationship they have with the Jesus story through the movie is undeniable in the material, and if you don't include it in the film, then you're really sort of denying the mythology that is Superman."

1978's "Superman: The Movie" was the child of many screenwriters - Mario Puzo, Robert Benton, Leslie and David Newman, but traditionally Tom Mankiewicz bears most of the credit for shaping what director Richard Donner called an unfilmable script into what became the first two Superman pictures. It was Donner's film that was the first to tie the Superman legend to the Christ story, and Mankiewicz's decision to do so.

The pivotal scene in the 1978 movie comes when Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve), for reasons he cannot explain, has traveled to the North Pole, heeding the call of the mysterious green crystal that was within the spaceship that brought him to earth. Clark hurls the crystal into the water, and it creates the Fortress of Solitude. Inside, Clark converses with a recording of his long-dead father, Jor-El (Marlon Brando).

For his journey to earth, Jor-El prepared lessons for his son on the laws of space and time, on earth culture, philosophy, physics, etc. Within the Fortress, this ghostly presence begins to instruct Clark on his true identity as Kal-El, the only survivor of the destroyed planet Krypton. Just prior to Clark's return to humanity, Jor-El warns him that he is "forbidden" to interfere with human history, but that his leadership should stir humans to do so. He then reveals his ultimate aim for his son:

"Live as one of them, and discover where your strength and your power will lead you...They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason, above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you - my only son." 

I remember the thrill - and the simultaneous feeling that something had been violated - that ran through me when I sat in the theater at the age of eight and recognized immediately who we were really talking about here. Where Christ had walked as one of us, was one of us, Superman was meant to lead human beings to find the good within themselves. But Christ leads us to seek within ourselves Himself, though we cannot find Him without His action, not ours. I had a feeling that both Jesus - and Superman - had been taken in an unexpected direction. It was my first, and not my last exposure, to the Christ figure outside of church.

In Gerard Jones' "Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book." the author states how Superman, indeed most of the iconic comic characters of the thirties and forties, were the brainchildren of Jewish boys and men. Superman's co-creator, Jerry Siegel, lost his father in a murder. So the picture of a man invulnerable to bullets was more than fantasy for him. And the evolving story of Superman's complicated identity - his being the inheritor of a vast, ancient civilization, a traveler representing a disappeared way of life, indestructible, a man of tomorrow who carries within his blood the remnants of the past - all of that sounds very Jewish. And also, very much like Christ.

Synder's "Man of Steel" carries on this part of the Superman mythos, and in a much better way than Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns." The movie is, for the first hour-and-a-half, very clever and very visually breathtaking. The Kryptonian sequences and the evoking of its culture are wonderful, and the device of Clark's emerging consciousness of his past and his destiny are told well in a manner much like Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins." (Nolan conceived the story along with David Goyer and produced the movie.) The movie suffers from an, at times, overly serious tone, and lacks the sense of easy humor and "aw shucks" entertainment that made the Donner film so enjoyable. The ability to destroy an entire city in CGI, or depict epic fistfights between superpowered beings, has become so obligatory in summer movies that the last thirty minutes play in a loud blur and lack a certain satisfaction. Knowing it took 12 years to build Freedom Tower after the 9/11 attacks, I silently calculated how many centuries it would have taken for the city of Metropolis to rebuild itself after General Zod's attack before Clark comes looking for a job at the Daily Planet.

But Snyder's Superman doesn't stray far from the Metropolis Gospel. Once again, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) entrusts his son to earth as his planet dies. And he has safely recorded enough of himself so that his son, at the proper time, will discover his identity and his mission. When Kal-El (Henry Cavill) does stumble on the truth, he must deal with the conflicting sense of mission - honoring the Kryptonian father who sent him, and the human father (Kevin Costner) who knows that the moment humanity discovers Clark Kent, both it and he will change.

When General Zod (Michael Shannon) emerges from his exile and wandering the universe, he demands Earth turn over Kal-El to him. This presents the Kryptonian son of Kansas with a problem - does he reveal himself at last, to face whatever happens from that moment forward? Once this is done, he can never drift back into anonymity. This isn't a small problem. After all, we learn that Clark lost his earthly father as Jonathan died trying to prevent him from revealing himself.

So Clark, in needing to talk to someone, goes to a church. He consults a young priest, revealing himself as the object of the planet's concern. Is it the right time to do this? The priest tells him simply that he will have to have faith to move forward. In case the point is lost, the camera reveals, right over Clark's shoulder, the stained-glass portrait of the Son of Man.

And so, at last, we see Superman revealed, in cape and suit, surrendering to the U.S. Army in order to preserve the human race. This is Christ's sacrifice, though without a crucifixion once Superman steps onto Zod's spacecraft. When Superman calmly informs the military and scientific observers that their drugs and weapons cannot harm him, how can we not be reminded of Christ's words to Pilate before the Cross: "You would have no power over me if it had not been given you from above."

It is only in sacrificing himself that Superman discovers his destiny, as we expect him to. And that too is a Christian motif, since how else can we identify with the Savior unless we are willing to sacrifice who we are, and for those who do not know Him?

Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises," for .99 cents here. Available in all e-formats.
Buy my book, "The Uncanny Valley," for $5.99 here. Available in all e-formats.  

The NSA Scandal and Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation"

News recently revealed that the National Security Agency may be listening to our cellphones, viewing our text messages and compiling information from our social media sites reminded me of one of the best movies of the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation." Made between the first two Godfather pictures, it captures the paranoia of seventies-era cinema but still has lasting resonance in the age of the Internet.

The movie opens at 1 p.m. on Dec. 2, 1973, which happens to be the birthday of the movie's main character, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman). Caul, of course, sounds like "call," but the word caul can mean a membrane, a tight-fitting cap, or a spider's web. All of these apply to Harry, for he is a wire-tapper, a professional eavesdropper. As the movie reveals, he is by turns moody, tense, quiet, suspicious, private and restless.

As the film begins, our first image is of Union Square in San Francisco, where a lunch-time crowd is gathered. There are street musicians, mimes, and people who work in the various office buildings around the block who have gathered to eat their lunches and enjoy the atmosphere. We hear music, but we also hear electronic sounds and the effect is disquieting as the camera slow focuses down into the action. In a moment, our eyes are drawn to a mime (Robert Shields), who then begins to "shadow" Harry Caul. We understand, as an audience, that we are looking at these things at a great distance.

Our next image appears threatening - a man in a high-place sitting behind what looks like a rifle, aiming down, looking through the sights. It turns out this is a "shot-gun microphone," looking for the face of a subject to isolate. Soon, the camera begins following a young couple, played by Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams. They are walking in the square, talking, chatting pleasantly perhaps, but we don't know anything about them. Soon, it becomes apparent that the two are the subject of Harry's interest.

"The Conversation" was written in the mid-1960s, but had the artistic luck of appearing on the American scene simultaneously with the Watergate Scandal, when operatives of President Richard Nixon attempted to bug the Democratic National Committee's office. Later, it was revealed that Nixon had bugged the Oval Office, and the tapes of conversations there ultimately proved his downfall. Coppola was inspired by Michaelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up," and he used several techniques to tell his story of the day-to-day work of eavesdropping.

One is repetition. Over the course of the movie, we hear and see the conversation between Forrest and Williams several times, but occasionally words are obscured. As Harry uses his technology to bring out the words of the conversation, we begin to wonder what the association between this man and woman is. Who are they? Why has Harry been hired to listen? Why do they seem on edge, and who are they afraid of? As Harry's assistant Stan (John Cazale) says, it's just human curiosity to wonder. And by hearing the conversation many times, we begin not only to have the same questions, but to give each word new meanings and new possibilities.

Coppola's other technique is more subtle. At several moments in the picture, the camera becomes part of the act of surveillance. When Harry enters his apartment, the camera remains flat and dead, and Harry even walks out of frame while talking on the phone. The camera then moves mechanically over and we see him sitting on the sofa. At the film's beginning, the camera very slowly comes in, moving down into the square to look for a subject. This is Coppola mimicking the action of security cameras, which occasionally catch action and sometimes don't. It also underlines a recurring theme in the movie - even those paid to watch us are themselves watched.

Harry leads a very controlled life. He has a girlfriend (Terri Garr), though he keeps her in an apartment and won't even answer her most basic questions about his life, leading her to cut him off. She is surprised to learn it is his birthday, and when he gets into bed with her, he is fully-clothed, including his transparent raincoat. His assistant Stan becomes so frustrated he leaves to work for another bugger. And Harry is adamant that he does not care about the subjects of the contracts he fulfills, or the clients who hire him. There are hints at his humanity - Harry sits alone in his apartment, playing his saxophone to jazz records at night. He goes to confession, and seems troubled when he or someone else "takes the Lord's name in vain." Why? Because there is both comfort and fear in the idea that God is watching your every move.

We begin to learn that Harry has been asked to bug this couple's conversation by the nameless Director of a corporation (Robert Duvall), and his assistant (Harrison Ford) attempts to get the tapes Harry made. But Harry insists he hand over the tapes personally, beginning the film's heightening of tension. The assistant's manner inspires Harry to go back over the conversation and isolate one portion of it. Suddenly he becomes curious about this moment.

It should be noted that most of the conversations we engage in during our lives aren't even worth remembering, let alone recording. One of the reasons millions of Americans are outraged at the idea that their own government may be spying on them is that many of us want desperately to believe in our own importance. The notion of the NSA bugging our phones, watching our Facebook statuses, looking at our tweets, trolling our Instagram pictures, invests us with an importance, and those who resist are suddenly transformed into Sons of Liberty. Otherwise, who else would care about the pictures we snap of our lunches? But there is also the paradox of the age of social media - that we are growing more alone even as we share our lives with our closest friends and people we have never personally met.

Harry Caul evokes this in his loneliness, because in the middle of unlocking the secrets of this one conversation we see him suddenly connect with people he has never met. This couple is afraid of a man. They care about each other. They plan on meeting at a certain hotel on a certain date and time in a specific room. They feel for each other. The turning point of the film comes when Harry, after several attempts to isolate the words, hears Forrest say to Williams on the recording, "He'd kill us if he had the chance." Now Harry is afraid to turn the tapes over, afraid of what the information will inspire in someone else.

Why? Because we later find out that Harry feels responsible for the deaths of three people based on one of his previous bugging jobs. One of the reasons Harry works on the West Coast, we come to understand, is that he bugged a conversation back East so well that someone in organized crime suspected another of informing, which inspired an act of retribution. Harry's manner when this is revealed shows that it haunts him, even as he gratefully and modestly shrinks from a colleague's designation as "the best there is." In a dream, we hear him admit, "I'm not afraid of death. I am afraid of murder." Not his own, but another person's.

The movie leaves several impressions. It is the nature of bugging that we don't know the whole picture. We make suppositions based on what we hear and see. Because of this, we begin to construct a rough plot in our heads about the principals in this story. We think Cindy Williams is Robert Duvall's wife or lover. We think she is having an affair with Frederic Forrest's character, whom we discover at least lurking in the hallways of the nameless corporation. We think that Harry has developed some kind of romantic attachment to Cindy Williams through the tapes and photographs. These questions are never fully answered for us. But like Harry, we think at this moment in the movie that the fear the two feel because of Robert Duvall is genuine and justified.

But when Harry has his one encounter with Robert Duvall, he walks in to discover Duvall and Harrison Ford listening to the tapes. "You want it to be true!" the Director shouts. "No, I don't. I just want you to know what you need to know." Harry asks the question, "What will you do to her?" He receives no answer.

The second half of "The Conversation" is interesting in that for a movie on the surface about eavesdropping, there is very little dialogue for the audience to seize on. In a film about the science of listening, we instead are treated to visuals, and we realize that our assumptions about the couple, their conversation and what has been going on have been just as wrong as Harry's. In listening at a distance, it becomes easier to misconstrue what someone means, or just specifically how someone means it. Which brings in the other reason for public outrage at the idea of widespread surveillance - the possibility that our lives could be upended by a mistake. A joke, a misconstrued phrase, the lack of a shared past, and strangers may see us revealed as something we aren't, or worse, as what we truly are but cannot admit to ourselves. As Coppola himself observed, "The sins a man performs are not the same as the ones he thinks he has performed."

"The Conversation" functions as a thriller and a character study, and Hackman's controlled and sympathetic performance makes it stick in our minds. He did the job so well that he was asked to reprise the performance, more or less, for Tony Scott's 1998 action thriller "Enemy of the State," starring Will Smith. But that movie dealt with surveillance in the modern age, when computers have replaced human beings listening and watching. Automated systems, we think, listen without prejudice, or perhaps, only the prejudices we give them. "The Conversation" at least gives us the possibility that we haven't lost our humanity if we can still care about the people we are shadowing. It also reminds us of how mistaken we can be, at a great distance.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Joyland by Stephen King

"Joyland" is Stephen King's second contribution to the Hard Case Crime series of noir paperbacks, and it's more of a true noir than his previous contribution, "The Colorado Kid." I've written about Stephen King's work before, here and here.

Like many others of my generation, it's hard to remember a time when there wasn't a new Stephen King book on the horizon, or a movie based on one of his many novels or short stories. I've probably read more of his books than any other author, and one has to admire the sheer output and work ethic of the man. "Joyland" is an enjoyable tale, showing the author, I believe, having a good time in one of his more favorite settings - the recent past.

In this regard, "Joyland" belongs with some of the best of Stephen King's work, such as "The Body," (which became the basis for the movie "Stand By Me") or "It," or the recent "11/22/63." For King, the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s usually mean a simpler, more Norman Rockwell-esque time, where the usual meanness and evil that dwells in his work hides just beneath the surface of each person's familiar greeting on the town square. (It's interesting that this book takes place just prior to the moment when King's career took off with the publication of "Carrie.") He does this in spite of certain details that feel anachronistic - even though we're in the summer of 1973, I'm not sure how prevalent microwave ovens were, or fruit smoothies, and I think the advertising slogan "Is it live or is it Memorex?" was still a few years away.

Devin Jones is our narrator, a boy in college who is struggling to get over the aftermath of his first real relationship. Even before his time with Wendy Keegan is over, he secures for himself a summer job at a small-time, old-time amusement park on the North Carolina coast called Joyland. This isn't Disney World, or even a Six Flags park - this is a throwback to the old traveling carnival and its world of intrigue and twilight drifters who man the rides and serve the popcorn. This removes the patina of the modern corporate world of amusement and instead invests it with a homespun magic all its own. And it isn't long before Devin discovers that four years before, a woman named Linda Gray met her end in the Funhouse at the hands of a man who hasn't yet been caught.

As the story of Linda Gray reminds us, there is more going on here than an amusing ride. Joyland is situated near Heaven Beach, and is presided over by a largely absent and impossibly old owner, Bradley Easterbrook, a man whom one character refers to as "The Jesus of Fun." He schools his young charges in learning "the talk" - the carny code that distinguishes those who run the park from those who merely pass through, a language that "can't be explained, but only learned."

You don't have to have read many Stephen King novels to recognize Easterbrook as a stand-in for the Almighty, and Joyland for a more exalted location. And then there's Mr. Easterbrook's address to the new employees:

"This is a badly broken world, full of wars and cruelty and senseless tragedy. Every human being who inhabits it is served his or her portion of unhappiness and wakeful nights. Those of you who don't already know that will come to know it. Given such sad and undeniable facts of the human condition, you have been given a priceless gift this summer: you are here to sell fun. In exchange for the hard-earned dollars of your customers, you will parcel out happiness. Children will go home and dream of what they saw here and what they did here..."

The longing for a perfect world of happiness is deep, and needs satisfying. Devin finds himself leading a charmed life, as events begin to make him forget the nagging ache that remains for his lost love. "God put you in the right place at the right time," one character tells him, while the park's fortune teller, who seems to have some kind of gift, announces that "there's a shadow" over him.

A few more familiar characters from the King pantheon show up - the wise but doomed child with the gift of second sight, and a character living in the shadow of a fanatical religious parent. When Devin meets Mike, a boy trying to fly a kite at the beach, Devin notices that the kite is adorned with the image of Christ. But the kite won't fly, won't hang in the air, until Devin takes it, and the kite "won't feel like it's alive" unless it's in the sky. "As long as it's up there, where it was made to be, it really is" alive. Whether King is make a statement about a kite, or the nature of faith and the Incarnation, is left to the reader. If it's the later, he seems to be saying that Jesus only makes sense when you're looking up at Him, that He won't fly unless you allow Him to, in your own life.

But this isn't a religious allegory, but functionally a murder mystery, and the killer of Linda Gray is unmasked in ways that may be supernatural. The killer also turned out to be much closer than Devin could have expected, a nice noir touch that King handles with style. And because this is a Stephen King story, he reminds us that what we believe about the nature of life and death has no real bearing on its actual reality. When one character sees what he thinks is the ghost of Linda Gray in the Funhouse, he knows that something exists beyond this life. But he doesn't "know if it's good or bad."

"Joyland" offers a nice quick jaunt back to the past, much like a trip to the amusement park, where entertainment is served up in brash, bold colors, with exuberant music and enough of a thrill to send your quickened pulse home satisfied. But the past is always more complicated than we want to remember or care to admit, as King reminds us through one character - "When it comes to the past, everybody writes fiction."

Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises," for .99 cents here. Available in all e-formats.
Buy my book, "The Uncanny Valley," for $5.99 here. Available in all e-formats.