Friday, February 8, 2008


As a seminarian, I of course have no life. Between classes, student ministry that feeds my spirit, my job that feeds my body, and various interviews and requirements, I don't get out to the movies often. But, since I am a huge Lost fan, and a lifelong addict of horror/monster movies, I had to go see J.J. Abrams new movie, Cloverfield. If you have not read any reviews yet, DON'T. Just go see the movie without any knowledge of what it is supposed to be about. If you have already read reviews, then try forget what everyone has said (I know that's like telling you to ignore the elephant in the middle of the room) and go see it.

Cloverfield is not a great movie. But, I think it is an interesting movie with real potential for teaching moments and coffee shop discussion. And, I believe that the film has Unitarian Universalist implications worthy of consideration.

First, let me respond to some of the criticisms being leveled at the film. (spoiler alert! From here on, I will assume that you have seen the movie and will discuss relevant details.)

The characters are two-dimensional/stereotyped -- At the beginning, the 20-somethings are presented as urban yuppies in standard stereotypes. But, after everything explodes, much happens against type. The "ice-queen" sacrifices herself to save someone whose advances she has been rejecting. The "dork" sacrifices himself to film for posterity the extraordinary events. The main character's epiphany, while seemingly sudden, is very real. Nothing really matters in life except true love.

The jarring film quality is annoying and unrealistic -- On the contrary, I thought the film looked exactly like a film would look shot under those conditions, taping over a previously taped set of events. If you have ever used a hand-held video camera, you will recognize its reality.

The story is nonexistent -- But, that is the point. There is not supposed to be a "story." This film is one tiny snippet of chaos in a world gone mad. There are no scientists or generals coming to save the day here. Will Smith or Bruce Willis does not dramatically defy the odds. Like most of our lives, when stuff happens, we don't really understand why. These are real people in an incredible situation. They have no super powers or specific expertise to help them.

The movie is insanely short -- You got me there. At barely 70 minutes without the credits, this hardly qualifies as a television episode. Still, it will have zero impact on the small screen.

So why did I like the film? I liked Cloverfield because it provides us some useful opportunities for discussion. For instance:
  • If you thought you only had hours to live, what would you try to do at all costs?
  • For what cause or action would you be willing to risk your safety, even your life?
  • How do you define yourself? Is it job or possessions, or is it the quality of your relationships and who you are as a person?
  • In a crisis, are you a leader or a follower? What drives you toward either?
  • As Unitarian Universalists, how would you assess the actions of the characters? Can you imagine any of them being UU?
I loved the fact that you never know anything about the events of the film beyond the first person experience of the main characters. The film meticulously refuses to sate our curiosity about where the monsters came from, why they are attacking the city, or what happens afterwards. I think the movie successfully avoids all of the typically cloying plot devices we have grown so used to in most popular films today.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that we tend to over-analyze movies. Analysis is not a bad thing, but can limit us if we start from a set of assumptions which do not fit the particular film. For instance, many people hated the 28 Days films because everyone knows that zombies can't run - George Romero taught us that. Who says? Why does a filmmaker have to explain anything to me? Why can't people act irrationally (they certainly do in real life!)

So, I say, give Cloverfield a chance. And, especially, try to avoid the standard "Oscar" questions and get to the more visceral meanings of the film.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Illusions in America Today #6

In the past day, I read two articles that characterize the state of health in our country today. One was an opinion letter from a doctor decrying schemes of socialized medicine that guarantee health care only by destroying the rights of physicians, hospitals and insurance companies. Another was a blog posting from discontinuous permafrost about toxic chemicals in common plastic bottles. If you are like me, you are so thoroughly sick of hearing about how everything in our lives causes some debilitating disease, that you do not even pay attention anymore. Unfortunately, that is exactly the reaction people who crave wealth at your expense hope for.

In America today, there are dedicated people who genuinely care about making your world healthier and safer for you and future generations. But, for every one of them, there is someone else who could not care less about your well being and whose number one priority is reporting the maximum possible quarterly profits for his or her corporation. And, for every one of them, there are hundreds of investors (including you and me if we have money in stock-based retirement plans) who want to get the biggest bang from their hard-earned investment dollar. Who wins? I think it is easy to see that the driving force of the American economy will win out over inconvenience, environmental degradation, and potential health risks most of the time.

You may be thinking, but what can I do? I am one person, and I do not have the time or energy to keep up with this mountain of threats. I am one person, so my little boycott or letter to a company cannot possibly make a difference. I am one person, so what can my $100 donation to the Sierra Club accomplish up against billion dollar corporations. And, you would be right. By yourself, there is little you can do. American citizens, lacking a comprehensive and purpose-driven structure, can do little but ride the waves of special interests who wield the power in this country.

But, as intentional communities, there is much that people can do. If we organize ourselves into neighborhoods that share the burden and act collectively, we could make a difference. At first, we would merely set an example for others to emulate. But, in time, hundreds of such communities, working together to make ethical choices, investing only in products that meet stringent codes of health and safety, and ensuring that everyone has fair access to health care, could make a difference.

Perhaps I am innocent...even naive about the way the world works. But, it seems to me that if even one child dies today because health care was not available to help them, then as a society we have failed. If one person develops cancer because of a toxin in plastic bottles who only purpose was to shave 1/10 of a cent off the cost of production, then as a society we have failed. The rights of doctors and the rights of patients are not mutually exclusive. The earning of fair profits and maintaining the health of our citizens are not mutually exclusive goals. But, it will take a new American Revolution if we the people are to reclaim this nation from those who do not share our goals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.