Thursday, June 14, 2012

Finding Jesus in Sin City

You have to come here to get the unedited version of my Courier articles, and with the proper final word...

The other day, a friend commented that I had poor taste in films. Well, in many ways I am guilty as charged, but I thought I'd say a few things on the subject. Firstly, let's hear from my favourite philosopher, who went to the cinema every week to relax (he especially liked Westerns):

"A typical American film, naive and silly, can - for all its silliness and even by means of it - be instructive. A fatuous, self-conscious English film can teach one nothing. I have often learnt a lesson from a silly American film."

So the first thing I'd want to say is that, like Wittgenstein, the majority of films I watch are primarily viewed for relaxation. I spend such a lot of my average day thinking and reflecting in one way or another that I precisely don't want to engage in intellectual analysis when I'm relaxing! So I very much enjoy what I call 'popcorn movies', which do not require me to exercise much in the way of brainpower, but have plenty of excitement and drama and loud explosions – James Bond movies are the classic example, The Avengers my most recent joy. But that isn't the end of the story, as Wittgenstein hints. The thing is, the analytical muscles only go quiescent, they never get fully turned off, and the films that I most enjoy are the ones which engage the muscles without ever taxing them too much, and that primarily means allowing the story itself to do the work.

Now I am fully aware of, and reasonably conversant with, the way in which film is an artistic form of its own; I am also well aware of the way in which film is 'sculpting in time', and has an essential aesthetic element (primarily through the cinematography). Those things I can understand and appreciate, and get me on a good day and I will happily discuss those more refined areas. Yet most of the time what I am interested in is a) story, and b) character development, ie the exploration of what it means to be human.

But the point I really want to make is about whether a film is edifying, in a Christian sense. For in that conversation with my friend, we also touched on the film Sin City, which is one of my all-time favourite films. Sin City is an extreme and highly stylised portrait of present society which doesn't flinch from the cruelties of contemporary life. Now ‘Sin City’ began as a sequence of graphic novels written and drawn by Frank Miller ('graphic novel' is the the ‘correct’ term for comics-read-by-adults) drawing on some of the staple noir elements – hard-bitten ex-cons, troubled cops, prostitutes with hearts of gold etc – but putting them through a particular stylisation which makes the contrasts incredibly stark, and which Miller sought to have reflected through a very spare visual vocabulary – lots of heavy black blocking, outline drawing of characters, almost no colour. And Robert Rodriguez has faithfully reproduced that style in his film; it was very effective.

At this point, there may be the question: is this something that a priest should be reading? (or watching?) Isn’t it anti-Christian in some way? (Heavens, if Harry Potter is considered anti-Christian, then Sin City is enough to make such maiden aunts have heart attacks…. But then, these are the people who want to restore the Levitical purity codes.) Obviously, it isn't something that might naturally be seen as Christian. Yet I would argue that it is thoroughly informed by a Biblical outlook, and it is, in the most important sense, orthodox.

To my mind, the issue about any work of art, from a Christian point of view, is whether it is orthodox or not. Now I use orthodox here in a particular way. I don’t mean ‘has it signed up to saying “Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Saviour”?’ I mean ‘is it informed by the resurrection’? Which I take to mean: are there signs of grace, forgiveness, redemption and hope? Or is it a work characterised by the opposite of the resurrection, which is nihilism, which is characterised by the absence of meaning, the denial of hope, the embrace of corruption and the elevation of inhumanity into a model to be emulated? Is death seen as the final evil, or are there ways in which death is overcome?

For it seems to me that the structures of the world, the principalities and powers (as St Paul describes them in Ephesians 6) to which we must forever be opposed are built upon the contention that death is the final evil which must be resisted. The resurrection is what demolishes those principalities and powers precisely because it says that we do not need to be quite so afraid of death; that there are things which death cannot touch; and that our life and our hope lie in the resistance, not necessarily the overcoming. To use the technical Christian term, this is what it means to live eschatologically, in the light of the end time.

Sin City seems to be a world where – to put it no more strongly – orthodoxy is possible. It is a portrait of a corrupt world, where the principalities and powers are overwhemingly present, and where the suffering that follows is rendered starkly. Yet in the face of these powers, there is redemption and love and self-sacrifice, rendered most obviously in the film through the character-arc of the Bruce Willis character, where any Christian will recognise a copy of the original Story: “An old man dies, a young girl lives. Fair trade.” Perhaps it’s the imaginative portrayal of reality in fantasy that makes the reality itself tolerable. The fantasy equips the mind with the tools that enable the reality to be digested, rendered meaningful. Is this not the shield of faith with which we can overcome the world? The link between imagination and faith is intimate, and the nurturing of our imaginations is a Christian task.

Two final points about Sin City. One: if Christians are not to spend time in Sin City, for fear of being corrupted by the violence and debauchery, then they must also close the pages of the Old Testament. Nothing in Sin City is as shocking as, for example, Ezekiel 16. Two: Sin City is the abode of those whom society has rejected. The sinners, the outcast, the prostitutes. I have no doubt that Jesus would choose to spend his time in Sin City. There live the ones who recognise Him for who He is.

That's what I most look for, when I am after an evening's entertainment. Something that will absorb me, take me somewhere away from my preoccupations for a little while, but, ultimately, something orthodox. After all, for me, at the end of the day, there is no rest or peace without Christ.

This article was based on two previous blogposts here and here.

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