Tuesday, December 19, 2006

When The Legions Withdraw

Interesting Orson Scott Card essay. The first half is about the history of the fall of Rome. The second half is about the risks today if the Pax Americana is lost. I don't buy everything he says in the second half, especially about us just rolling over as oil supplies are disrupted. But it is still a good read.

Also, he reviews The Nativity Story:

The Nativity Story is a very good movie; it's also a very good presentation of one of the core stories of Christianity. I heartily recommend it to all Christians -- adults and children (though adults will experience it quite differently from children).

As we left the Carousel Theater, my twelve-year-old said, "This movie made all the people seem real to me." That's what it was trying to do, and it succeeded -- tenderly sometimes, powerfully other times.

All the publicity has been about the talented (but personally rather foolish) young actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, but the movie absolutely belongs to Oscar Isaac in the role of Joseph. This is primarily because the script gives him so much more to do.

Because of the worshipful respect that some branches of Christianity have for the Holy Virgin, the filmmakers had no choice but to make her, after the Annunciation, more beatific than human. Thus she is given very little emotional range -- as if someone told her, "Think of yourself as the Mona Lisa." Thus she seems more observer than participant in the events of the film.

Joseph, though, is wonderfully envisioned, so that Isaac has something to do in every scene. Though there is no scriptural reason to suppose they had not packed enough food for the journey, it's still quite affecting to see him giving up his food, not just to feed his wife, but also to feed the donkey so it will have the strength to bear her.

So when the Child is born, I found myself more emotionally connected to Joseph than to Mary, who, after all, had to look as much as possible like everybody's favorite Creche.

In fact, that's the one drawback of this film: They followed the popular conception of the Nativity scene rather than the scriptural account. In the scriptures, the Wise Men come only after the baby has been circumcised and presented at the temple -- at least eight days after his birth.

Thus they would not have been present on the same night as the shepherds, and would undoubtedly have found Joseph and Mary and the baby at a house in Bethlehem, or an inn.

But that would have bothered a lot of people who have rich guys with camels in their manger scenes. What do you do, stop the movie and have a priest, minister, or scholar explain why the Wise Men couldn't have arrived until later? So they went with the popular conception and, as with A Christmas Carol, made it all happen in one night.

The real loss is that we don't get the scene at the temple, where Simeon and Anna recognize and bless the baby. The writer, Marty Bowen, tried to make up for this by giving Simeon's role to an old shepherd -- and it was a good strategy, because the old shepherd became a memorable character.

I also wish they could have been a bit more realistic when everybody shows up to worship the child. Even with their awe, somebody would have talked. Joseph would have conversed with people. There would have been human connection.

But, again, I can't argue with the filmmakers' decision: What dialogue could they possibly come up with that wouldn't feel anticlimactic? In fact, as a writer, I would use the dialogue precisely to be anticlimactic, to bring my audience to realize that life goes on, that worship comes in the midst of day-to-day concerns.

You'll notice, though, that nobody hired me to write this film. They made their choices and the film works -- superbly.

I'm especially pleased at how they handled the Innocents of Bethlehem. The film begins with that cruelty, so it remains in our minds as we then watch the story leading up to that terrible moment. Then, at the end, we are merely reminded that it happened, not forced to experience it in grim and terrifying detail; we can keep the mood of exaltation that the nativity itself inspired.

There have been a lot of lousy, over-mystical treatments of Christ in films over the decades, and a lot of even lousier de-mythologizing treatments. It is refreshing to have one that makes everyone human, without being disrespectful to or doubtful of the divine mission of the Savior. The baby is a baby, born in flesh and blood to a woman who passes, as the scripture says, through the shadow of death to give birth. That is as much as we can ask for.

This movie opened relatively small, so let me talk about money for a moment. The Christian audience that showed up for Passion of the Christ did so in part because of the controversy surrounding the film and the curiosity it raised. There has been no such controversy about The Nativity Story, so there hasn't been the same kind of buzz and urgency to see the film.

But let me lay it on the line for you, folks. In Hollywood, the only votes that count are ticket purchases. If Christians don't come out in droves to see this movie, then the Hollywood decision-makers will conclude that Passion of the Christ was, indeed, a fluke, and you will find that nobody makes any more of these films -- not with enough of a budget to make them so real, anyway.

The Christmas season is busy. You may be planning to spend your entertainment dollars on Deck the Halls or some other bit of fluff. Nothing wrong with that. But if, as a Christian, you want to see more films that treat Christian beliefs and Christian values with artistic and moral respect, then now is the time to invest some of your Christmas entertainment money on an excellent film that brings to life the story of the birth of Christ.

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