“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Mission Abort: A Way of Interpreting "Gravity"

* My Mumford & Sons/Arcade Fire post will have to wait because I must write this now, spoilers and all.

Maybe it's because I was profoundly moved by the story of Gianna Jessen a few years ago. Maybe it's because I read "Angel in the Waters" to my son a thousand times when I was pregnant with his brother last year. Maybe it's because I untangled a Terrence Malick movie a few days ago. Maybe it's because I just talked to my mother who is praying outside an abortion clinic every single day this month. But apparently, I saw a different movie last night than everyone else. I thought that Gravity, a film starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney that is being hailed as a cinematic masterpiecewas about a failed abortion. Then I went home and did some Googling and found that no one else has seen it this way. Well, I've never let that stop me before, so here we go.

Before I saw this movie, a friend told me that it is "very pro-life" and that I would "get it." I expected that it would deal with end of life issues so I was prepared for a meditation on euthanasia. But as soon as I saw Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) curl up in the fetal position and go to sleep, I realized that we were inside a womb. Then I considered that every pregnancy magazine, 3-D ultrasound photo, and "inside the womb" YouTube video I have ever seen looked remarkably like this movie: the swimming motion, the umbilical cords everywhere, the parachute as a placenta...more and more keep occurring to me as I write this. Some reviewers have pointed out some of these elements, and the filmmaker himself, Alfonso CuarĂ³n, says that the film is about rebirth and evolution. But why all this distress in the womb, the safest place on earth?

Then, as I saw all that debris flying at the characters, I thought it looked like a spray of saline. And Matt Kowalski (Clooney) being pulled away from Dr. Stone seemed caught in a vacuum hose. And all of the huge pointed objects hurling at them were like the other tools used to procure abortions. I remembered my mom telling me about the film "Silent Scream" as I thought about the opening text of Gravity which tells us that there is no sound in space. Even Bullock's character's name, Stone, might as well be Clump Of Cells. Her first name, Ryan, is ambiguously gendered, just as we're usually not sure of the baby's sex until he or she is born. Piecing this together, outer space has become the inner sanctum of a woman who wishes to terminate her pregnancy, thus rendering the environment inhospitable. This realization gave new weight to the other piece of opening text, "Life in space is impossible."

Let me pause to make something clear: I'm not claiming that the filmmaker had all of this in mind, consciously anyway. One of the main points of this blog is that it gives me a place to work out the idea that our human aesthetic and moral sensitivities, when poured out sincerely in art, often echo God because we are made in his image and likeness. I think there are other ways of reading the moviesome of which seem quite complementaryand I hope moviegoers will take with them what they already have and leave with something more. Also, I'm not claiming that this is an exact allegory, so not all of the elements have to fit into the vision perfectly. I just see enough evidence to make a substantial claim. That said, let's keep going.

Think about the moment when Dr. Stone says she is worried that no one will pray for her soul. This is of course a deeply moving statement within the context of the film, but with this subtext we can imagine it as a cry of the unborn. She also says that she has no one on Earth looking up at her, and that she has never prayed because she has never been taught. It is almost as if she has never lived in the outside world at all. Seen in this way, the film works like a thought experiment for those people who choose not to see the fetus as a human being. What if the unwanted life inside were a fully formed adult? What if we could see her? What if she were beautiful and talentedan Oscar-winner, even? Think of the potential of that human life. One year at the March for Life in Washington, I held a sign that read "Equal Rights for Unborn Women" with a picture of the female symbol ♀ with another one (only tiny) floating inside the circle. This movie underscores all of the posters and prayers offered up by the marching masses each January.

Matt Kowalski became the guardian angel for the baby inside the womb. (If you haven't seen and read this book, I highly recommend it.) Matt is clearly some kind of supernatural or paranormal entity the last time that we see him. As Ryan loses oxygen and is dying, he comes to the rescueto light, to guard, to rule, and to guide, as the prayer says. He tells her about the world on the other side, just like the angel in the book. But the difference is that she may choose whether to die or go on struggling to survive. This reminds me of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity when he talks about the crisis of birth:
Until we rise and follow Christ we are still parts of Nature, still in the womb of our great mother. Her pregnancy has been long and painful and anxious, but it has reached its climax. The great moment has come. Everything is ready. The Doctor has arrived. Will the birth "go off all right"? But of course it differs from an ordinary birth in one important respect. In an ordinary birth the baby has not much choice: here it has. I wonder what an ordinary baby would do if it had the choice. It might prefer to stay in the dark and warmth and safety of the womb. For of course it would think the womb meant safety. That would be just where it was wrong; for if it stays there it will die.
 Dr. Stone chooses to live. She is then born, and thus reborn. As her pod enters the Earth's atmosphere it looks like a head moving into the birth canal. The scene of reentry made me weep heavily with both memory and anticipation. I recalled vividly the moment when my son was crowningthe ring of fire, it is so aptly called by we mothers who've experience natural child birth. Ryan says, "Houston, I'm either gong to make down in one piece, or I'm gonna burn up in 10 minutes; either way, no harm no foul." Not the best bit of dialogue ever but it did remind me of how I felt pushing out a 9 pound baby: "I might die right now." She's screaming, I'm screaming (into my scarf), babies everywhere being born right now screamingwhat a shocking and terrible and bizarre way we come into the world. And then, suddenly, the plunge into the water. I didn't think I could take any more obstacles at that point, but birth is that way, too. Will the baby be able to breath on its own? Will the cord be wrapped around its neck? Will the heart rate plummet or skyrocket? Then, at last, she surfaces and takes in that precious oxygen. I half-expected a giant bulb syringe to appear and clear away the mucous as she coughs and sputters. Then, with the weakness of a newborn, she drags herself onto the shore. She grips the earth and releases it like Mary in The Passion delivering her Son into His Father's Kingdom. She presses her forehead to the ground, and whispers, "Thank you," like all of the thousands of unwanted babies who are unintentionally and despite all odds born alive.

The film runs 91 minutes, like 9 months plus 1 year as we get to witness not only the birth but the first breath, first pushup, first crawl and first step. I had the privilege of attending it with a dear friend who is five-months pregnant. There just a foot away from me was the real thing teeming within. A 3-D ultrasound could have shown us just how that baby reacted to all of those loud noises, just as the 3-D photography heightened our own experience of the movie. What an age we live in.

It's worth pointing out that this director also made the film, Children of Men, which also features a profound commentary on pregnancy and hope. The director of photography for that film and this one also made The Tree of Life, a soul-stirring beauty-fest on all levels. May God grant that these people come into the fullness of faith, and along with them, many from the viewing audience.

If you'd like a few more essays with religious interpretations of this movie, you might enjoy this from Patheos, this from Barbara Nicolosi (who first got me excited to see this movie), and this from Fr. Barron. 

What do you think? Can you fit any of the other scenes or images from the film into this framework? Feel free to argue with me if you think I'm dead wrong or crazy. That's what I'm here for. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Bad Man is Hard to Break: Revelation and Redemption in "Breaking Bad"

*If you want to make the most of this post, I encourage you to take the time to read the four links in the second paragraph. It'll be worth it. Oh, and there are spoilers all over the place so watch out.

NOTE: If you are one of the many people who were curious about all of the Breaking Bad hype, watched the pilot, and then ran away in disgust, I have a few important things to tell you: 1) at first, the creator of the show did not know which network would pick it up, and it seems he leaned in a more HBO direction; then, AMC grabbed it and the whole thing became PG-13-ish instead of R-ish; 2) you have to get through the third episode in order to really have a sense of what the show is about. If you're not hooked by then, you probably never will be.

A few days before I started my blog, I read this by Kendra of "Catholic All Year." It made me talk to (plead with?) my computer screen like never before, because I LOVE Flannery O'Connor and Breaking Bad, and part of my mission in life is to defend them. That's why I want to start a blog, I thought—so someone might actually hear the stuff I'm saying out loud when I have no one around but my napping infant to convince. As I began to dig around to see what has already been said, I found this fantastic response by Haley over at "Carrots for Michaelmas." And Kendra is responding to a brilliant post by Jennifer Fulwiler of "Conversion Diary." Also, I found a very good essay called, "The Theology of Breaking Bad" and you can find it right here. There's great stuff out there already. Yet I feel that there is still more to be said, so let's see what I can cook up with this post.

I'm fascinated that good Christians can have such widely disparate reactions to these two things. I'll never forget the first time I encountered O'Connor in my public high school English class. We were assigned "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." It was violent, shocking, and disturbingand yet it moved me profoundly. My teacher's presentation of the story didn't help at all. She didn't mention that Flannery was a devout Catholic who had intended her stories to depict the action of God's grace. In search of something akin to Jen's piece which might have been called, "Why a story about a grandma getting shot in the chest made me feel closer to God," I asked my dad to read it hoping for a good discussion. He reached the end, looked at me with open mouth and slanted eye as if he were picturing his daughter transforming into one of those goth kids and said, "I hate it." It wasn't until I took a short story class in college that I came across O'Connor again; and that time, I had my Catholic stuff together. At last I was able to see and articulate what made her so great. Then, I began to read her essays, which I think explain perfectly what she is doing as she marries her faith with her art. (I actually think that she will be canonized eventually, and I pray that it happen in my lifetime.)

For me, the experience of watching an episode of Breaking Bad is remarkably similar to the experience of reading an O'Connor short story. It feels like an intense workoutmentally, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically (I ran around the couch like an excited dog during the Tuco shootout). I admit that I resisted the show for many months just because I was put off by the premise. Crystal meth is just something that I don't want to be a part of my life in any form, I thought. Then, a friend of mine whose opinion I value highly said something very dramatic: "I would pay ten thousand dollars to have never seen a single episode and then start right now." Ok. I'm there. Right away, I found the show utterly captivating, in much the same way Flannery O'Connor has always been. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, was born and raised Catholic. Sadly, he's not practicing now; but I really believe that those baptismal graces are still churning within him, for his show is a spectacular exploration of the corrosive effects of Pride. Pride is the root of all evil and certainly the root of all of Walter White's badness. He has chance after chance to break out of the cycle of lies, corruption, and violence but pride keeps his hand to the grindstone at every turn. There is a full theology underpinning the storyline, as one of the above links lays out. Here I will focus on the theme of redemption using the Christian sense of the term, salvation from sin.

 Almost all of the articles I've read on Breaking Bad say that Walter White is an irredeemable villain. Phrases like "pure evil" and "heading straight to hell" are peppered everywhere. I find this troubling. The Christian Tradition holds that the possibility for redemption exists until the last second of one's life. I love the image in the Purgatorio of the man who lived a horrible life but then was saved by a single tear at the moment of his death. The tear signifies repentancefull repentancenot just fear of hell but love of God, which for Dante means also an abhorrence of the wrong that one has done, precisely because it is wrong and not merely because it is damnable. No human being can be 100% evil because of his or her inherent dignity as a child of God made in His image and likeness. The inherent dignity means we have a will that can turn towards the goodthat was made for the good. It also means we are made for God, who works to turn us. Unfortunately, Walter White himself has never been taught any of this before. He says to his partner Jesse, "If you believe that there’s a hell...we’re already pretty much going there. But I’m not gonna lie down until I get there." This a moment of despair. He doesn't believe it's possible for him to be turned back to the good, or at least he has decided not to. Walt has a sort of Faustian sold-myself-to-the-devil attitude through much of the story. The big question for me leading up to the finale was whether or not he would be swallowed up by Hell Mouth like Dr. Faustus. The final shot of him laying on the floor while the camera pulls back through the rafters was reminiscent of that, I thought. But while the images convey some of the meaning, the songs that plays over those images cover the rest:
Guess I got what I deserved
Kept you waiting there too long, my love
All that time without a word
Didn't know you'd think that I'd forget or I'd regret
The special love I had for you, my baby blue.
 The "baby blue" that has been "kept waiting" is his signature brand of crystal meth with which he has been painfully estranged for many months. Walt spends his last moments on earth gently patting the cooking equipment, quietly smiling, taking in his achievement. Vince Gilligan said Walt is like Gollum and the blue meth is the One Ringhe dies clutching his "Precioussssss." His cancer-induced coughing even sounds like the phlegmy "gollum, gollum" sound. I'm still processing the finale and I'm tempted to just keep typing about it forever; but I'll try to restrain myself for the sake of making a few good points. 

Right after the series ended, I listened to an interview by Terry Gross of NPR's "Fresh Air" with two of the writers of Breaking Bad. I will quote it at length since my treatment of this topic is largely based on the following two excerpts:
GROSS: Well, let's start with the very ending and the clip that we just played. Why was it important at the end to have Walt say yeah, yeah, you were right, it wasn't really about the family, it was about me, I liked it, I liked doing this?
GOULD: We had talked over and over again over the years about when is Walt going to see himself the way we see him? When is he going to have, like, a revelation of what he's done and who he really is? Sometimes there would be a big episode, you know, he let Jane die or something else, and we'd play with the idea of having him start to see himself, and it never felt right. And we came to the realization that once he really sees himself, once he has a full idea of who he is and what he's done, the show's over.
 This immediately made me think of Flannery O'Connor. We find in most if not all of her stories is that violence is paired with illumination; or, something violent happens and then the character finally sees. She even titled one story "Revelation" in which an obnoxious woman is mentally criticizing all of the people around her in a waiting room when she is suddenly stuck in the face by a textbook and told, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog." Shortly thereafter, the woman has a vision of all of the souls who are closer to heaven than she is. In the story I mentioned above, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," an elderly woman has a revelation when she sees the humanity of the "Misfit" who holds a gun up to her head. This single moment of compassion is her salvation. Walter White has a few instances of revelation in the series but he is usually on some inhibition-loosening substance and he doesn't die after any of them. He keeps picking himself up and returning to the well of Pride.

The very next thing said in the Fresh Air interview was this:
GROSS: Well, he had a much more honorable and redemptive end than I was expecting. You know, he tells Skyler he knows it wasn't about family, it was about him, implying that he's been selfish. He makes the police think that she was a victim and never went along with anything involving the meth business. He figures out a way to get money to his family. He kills the white supremacists, and he liberates Jesse.
GOULD: And then he dies, but of course like he has to die at the end, either of the cancer or of a bullet. I was expecting something closer to, like, a Shakespearian tragedy where, like, everyone on the stage is dead, you know.
GOULD: We talked about it. We talked about every possible ending, I think, and that was - I think that was also a favorite I would have really enjoyed if Walt was the last man standing, but it just felt right for him to go out in the end like he did.
SCHNAUZ: You know, it's interesting, I don't really see him redeemed. I just the fact that he sort of accepts what he's done and who he is, that's not redemption to me. I mean, I think ultimately - you know, we all, we talked about the morality of the show a lot while we were working on it, and to me, you know, he's - the actions he's taken are beyond redemption.
There may be some lightening or some understanding that he has, but I think I would distinguish between self-understanding and any kind of redemption.
Even the writers are saying that Walt is "beyond redemption"; but again, this is theologically unsound. The whole concept of redemption is infinitely more incredible and beautiful than Terry Gross's understanding. Schnauz is saying that Walt can't make up for his own sins with a few good deeds. But that is true of all of us. We're all beyond redemption if you count up our sins. That's the whole point of Jesus' death of the cross.

As Schnauz said, there is certainly a distinction to be made between revelation and redemption. Revelation is simply a step that must be taken for redemption to be possible. Once we sinners see ourselves clearly, we should be moved to repentance; and it is from there that we merit redemption. Like Walter White, O'Connor's characters experience revelations about their true natures; but the difference is that they don't stop there. Because they are repentant, the moment at which they are shocked by violence they are also purged and restored by grace. Humility brings them to their knees as they finally look beyond themselves for their salvation. As I watched the final scenes of Breaking Bad, I wondered what it would look like if he suddenly repented. Maybe he'll finally try the blue meth. Maybe it will affect him the way that beer and that sleeping pill did when he tearfully but enigmatically confessed his sins to his son and to Jesse earlier in the series. Maybe he'll double over heaving sobs laced with violent coughing until he collapses. Well, he doesn't. It's not surprising that he doesn't, just tragic. 

But there is a silver lining to this gruesome tale: we have plenty of reason to hope that Jesse Pinkman will be savedthat he will embrace full repentance and live a good life, even the life of the world to come. And interestingly, that might not have been true if not for his relationship with Walt. I imagine that if Jesse had been killed after season one as the writers originally intended, he probably would have gone out like Combo or Victortaken like a thief in the night and missing the higher goodthe something beyond, the transcendent meaning in light of which to re-order one's life. Had he never reunited with his former chemistry teacher at all, he might have lived out the rest of his days just like Badger and Skinny Pete, who've never murdered anyone, but whose souls can be bought for one hundred thousand dollars:

BADGER: You know, I don't exactly know how to feel about all this.
SKINNY PETE: For real, yo. Whole thing felt kind of shady, you know, like morality-wise?
BADGER: Totally.
(Walt holds up the money)
WALT: How do you feel now?
(They take the money)
BADGER: Yeah, definitely improving.
 I saw Richard III recently with my husband and he reminded me of this very similar interchange:
FIRST MURDER: Remember our reward when the deed's done.
SECOND MURDERER: Zounds, he dies! I had forgotten the reward.
FIRST MURDERER: Where's thy conscience now?
SECOND MURDERER: O, in the Duke of Glouchester's purse.
FIRST MURDERER:  So, when he opens his purse to give us our reward, thy conscience flies out.
SECOND MURDERER: (my paraphrasing) Yeah, basically.  
Jesse could have easily ended up one of those guys. But thanks to his misadventures with Walt, he realizes that he can and must resist the temptation of blood money and thus has many opportunities for lightening and self-understanding. Those moments move him to repent of the bad deeds that he commits. His conscience rips him open, filling him with shame and regret. His heart is not hardened like Walt's, or blinded like Badger's and Skinny Pete's, but is instead wrapped in barbed wire. That boy needs Confession so hard. Thank God he knows it on some level.

Did anyone but me notice that some of the imagery from the last episode seemed to identify Jesse with Jesus? That flashback scene of him woodworking to render his cherished box was remarkably similar to the scene in The Passion of the Christ where Jesus is making a table. The cinematography matches so wellthe lighting, the camera movement, and especially the dramatic cut to Jesse chained up in the lab which  lined up with the cut to Jesus chained up in the custody of the Sanhedrin. Just look at this


and tell me it's not crazy-similar to this

In the key of Jesse, "Right?! Yo?!" In both scenes, two different forms of self-gift are expressed: Jesus and Jesse freely using their talents to work and create art juxtaposed with imprisonment for the love of another (the whole human race/Brock). I can't be sure if Vince Gilliagan had this in mind. But what he has made is good art, and so it participates in the Paschal Mystery even despite intentionally. I love being a Christian.

A bad man is hard to break, but not impossible. This is what Flannery O'Connor teaches so well and what Vince Gilligan shows us in part. God can overcome even the worst criminals if only allowed in, like the Good Thief hanging next to Jesus. There are always opportunities for repentance in light of a higher good (i.e. God)opportunities to withdraw one's will from past acts. But Walter White embraces darkness by indulging in self-worship, thus hardening himself against love. His self-knowledge leads to less and less regret, and never leads to repentance. Grace cannot enter into Walt's soul he clings to his brokenness, even when he sees it. It's the best thing he thinks he has: he is good at the empire business. He has been called an Everyman because the viewing audience can really sympathize with him in the beginning of the story. But Jesse is also an Everymana sinner, made in the image and likeness of God, called to repentance. We just have to pray that we follow a path more like Jesse's than Walt's by the end.

One of best things about Breaking Bad and Flannery O'Connor's work is summed up in this excerpt from the Fresh Air interview:
GOULD: What's interesting, Terry, though, is that in storytelling - [...] so much of it is what you leave out, the choices of what you decide not to show. I remember in season one, one of the moments that we were always talking about is, you know, Emilio - the character Emilio gets melted in acid. And then later in the episode, Crazy Eight is dead. And what are they going to do with the body?
And what we decided to do was just have Jesse show up, go into his basement, and have everything perfectly clean. Because we know that Walt knows how to dispose of bodies using acid at that point in the story. And we thought it was sort of - it was more interesting to give the audience just a few pieces, and let them put it together.
There's a quote from Billy Wilder - I'm probably misquoting him - that we would often talk about in the writer's room, which is give the audience two and two, let them make four, and they'll love you forever.
SCHNAUZ: Mm-hmm.
GOULD: And the storytelling is really a collaboration between all of us on the side of making the show and what's going on in the audience's head. And so sometimes we like to keep things a little ambiguous and let people be smart.
O'Connor employs this very same technique, which is why it can be difficult to interpret her motives and meaning. But if you already love Flannery O'Connor (like you, Haley!), you have a really good chance of loving Breaking Bad. And if you already love Breaking Bad (like you, Dad!), I'm confident you'll love O'Connor, too. Let's talk about it, yo.

If you want more on Flannery's faith, I hope you enjoy this paper I wrote.

Next topics: The movie Gravity. Then, Grammy-winners Mumford & Sons and Arcade Fire