Monday, August 09, 2010
Things have been a bit slow here at Light Within Light due to busy contributors. My wife and I recently welcomed a beautiful baby boy into the world, which has, needless to say, taken up most of my free time. But we'll try to get things back up to speed here as quickly as we can. The plan is to have a minimum of two updates per week. We're also close to starting our podcast, having acquired the necessary hardware (a professional quality microphone and a bottle of Tullamore's Dew Irish whiskey).
I recently watched the Hughes Brothers' film The Book of Eli, their first in over 9 years. Though I won't go into as much detail and depth as Reid did in his recent Inception review (The Book of Eli doesn't quite merit such an analysis, culturally or cinematically) I'd still like to share a few thoughts on the film, especially one extremely surprising (at least to me) aspect. Since the element in question is kept as something as a surprise in the film, at least up until the 40 minute mark, those who want to see the film without knowing anything of the plot should probably avert their eyes.
The film follows many of the classic tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre. A lone warrior/hero travels a deserted, arid, windswept landscape populated mostly by leather-clad freaks and horrifyingly distorted specimens of what remains of humanity. Eli, played by Denzel Washington with gallons of movie-star charm and Fred Astaire ease, is a spiritual prophet of some sort whose main purpose in life is to protect a sacred book of which he has the only copy. Washington spends a great deal of the film's early screen-time alone without much chance of dialogue and his performance is wonderfully assured and evocative. In the film's best scene, Eli has an old ipod that he recharges with a battery he carries with him. At night, taking refuge from the horrors around him, he listens to music and reads from his sacred book.
These early scenes are strangely beautiful and much more effective than the standard displays of violence and action that are required fare in such films. The post-apocalyptic genre in both literature and film is a deep and philosophical one because it suggests how distorted our priorities have become in a culture dominated by consumerism, leisure and comfort. The ipod is a wonderful symbol of this, a device that can hold thousands of songs accessible to us at the click of a button. But to what extent do we appreciate the beauty contained within? To what extent can we truly hear music anymore when our lives are so saturated with it, just like with all other media? What if you could only listen to one song each day, as Eli must? What if you held the last copy of Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues" or The Beatles "Let it Be"? How much poorer the world would be without songs, without art, and Eli's ritual of listening to his ipod at night takes on a religious significance, a kind of Eucharistic (thanksgiving) celebration.
These quiet scenes soon give way to more obvious material as Eli must fight his way through the charred landscape on his mystical quest to reach "the West." Eli is an incredibly adept warrior, laying waste to hordes of evildoers who seek to harm him and steal his book and Washington performs these scenes with grace and astounding physicality. He manages to invoke the same sense of awe one gets from watching Clint Eastwood in Leone's Dollars Trilogy. From the first time we lay eyes on Eli we reckon he is not to be messed with and our suspicions are quickly proven true as limbs fly through the air and blood flows through the desert. The Hughes brothers offer a much more interesting visual schema for these scenes than is usual these days, opting to hold the camera steady to observe Eli's awesome display of power rather than going for the now-default nausea-inducing shaky cam. The art design of the film is very good but the cinematography leaves one wanting, relying on irritating post-production filters rather than innovative use of light and shadows.
The meat of the film revolves around Eli getting mixed up with the corrupt "mayor" of a small community in the middle of the desert. The mayor, named Carnegie and played by Gary Oldman doing a Gary Oldman impression, has been seeking the book in Eli's possession for years as he thinks it will give him untold power over people. Carnegie is a rather interesting villain for the fact that he doesn't seek destruction or violence but wants rather to restore order and a semblance of normalcy to people's lives. The problem is that he wants to do this at any cost and the Hughes Brothers sadly refrain from making him a bit more ambigious and interesting by resorting to having Oldman go through a whole cornucopia of villainous cliches, including beating up women and shooting his own henchmen (classic!). The beautifully bland Mila Kunis also gets involved, though her role is a thankless and unnecessary one, and Tom Waits shows up as a shopkeeper, turning what would have been completely pedestrian scenes into a total riot.
It's at this point that the film plays its card and reveals the identity of the book in question. As it turns out Eli is in possession of (perhaps) the last Bible on earth, a beautiful edition of the King James to be precise. Eli is revealed to be a kind of mythic Christian warrior-prophet, seeking guidance and spiritual strength through scripture and prayer. Carnegie seeks the book because he "knows its power," the power to control people's minds. Eli, on the other hand, wants to make sure the book is safe because he believes that it can free peoples' minds.
Aside from the interesting subtext of the power of religion and the ways in which it can be corrupted and misused (a theme which is sadly left largely unexamined) what struck me as strange and rather wonderful about this development in the film is that the revelation of Eli as a Christian and his devotion to God is done in such a surehanded and confident way. Hollywood is usually so terrified of even touching on religious subjects, especially Christian, unless it is done in completely obvious or exploitative ways (this includes supposedly "Christian" directors, like that auteur of insanity Mel Gibson) that I found myself surprisingly affected by this plot development in the film. Since converting to Christianity I've often thought how cool it would be if filmmakers were as apt to use Christian mythology, symbolism, poetry and images as inspiration in fantasy and sci-fi films as they are in using that of Oriental religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The fact that spiritual warriors and heroes in Hollywood are usually inspired by Oriental religions is of course fine and good in and of itself but it is rather strange that the Abrahamic religions, with their wealth of mysticism and symbolism, tend to be entirely ignored in this context. The reason for this may in large part be the fact that large strands of these traditions have devolved into fundamentalism completely lacking in symbolism and beauty. Yet all of those traditions, be it Islam, Judaism or Christianity, in their orthodox form, could provide filmmakers with a great deal of interesting source material.
What gladdens my heart about this film, filled as it is with problems and mediocre elements, is the fact that Eli is a very cool and fun Christian hero. I will definitely greatly enjoy showing this film to my son, when he's old enough, in the context of seeing a very slick, big-budget sci-fi movie with a Christian hero. So much of what falls under the label "Christian" in our culture (especially in the US) is so horrifiyingly kitschy and pathetic that it's a wonder people aren't converting to atheism at a quicker pace. This is not to say that the film is necessarily a good representation of Christian spirituality or philosophy (just like most warrior-gurus in martial arts films who are vaguely Buddhist are not a good representation of that great tradition) - Eli is not exactly a turn-the-other-cheek kind of guy - but the fact that the film is so overtly Christian, without losing its cool, makes it exciting and strange in ways that similar films of this ilk are not. If the book that Eli guards had turned out to be some made-up text instead of the Bible the film would have lost a lot of its edge.