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Diving into Poetry:

A Review of Bright Star

by S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.

Since my Ph.D. is in English literature, and John Keats is my favorite poet, I have been anxiously awaiting the release of Bright Star, a film about the romance between Keats and Fanny Brawne.   Keats, one of the most famous of the Romantic poets, (usually mentioned in the same breath with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley), met Fanny in 1818, but he died of tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of 25.  Though they were informally engaged, they were never married.

Directed by Jane Campion (The Piano, The Portrait of a Lady) Bright Star tells the story of the romance primarily from Fanny’s perspective.  Since Keats’ death, there has been much discussion about the actual nature of the relationship between Keats and Fanny Brawne.  For many years after his death, some painted Fanny as a heartless flirt who had no real affection for Keats and did not appreciate his poetic genius.   Since all of her letters to Keats were destroyed at his own request, we have little information about how she felt about him in her own words.  This scarcity of material describing Fanny’s feelings has led to the belief among some people that the love affair was one-sided on Keats’ part, Fanny not having the same kind of passion for him.  Others have maintained that the fervor revealed in Keats’ letters to her would not have been expressed if he did not think that she had some measure of strong feelings toward him.

In Bright Star, Campion offers her own interpretation of the nature of their romance, relying heavily on Andrew Motion’s 1997 biography of Keats.  In this biography, Andrew Motion presents Fanny as someone who was devoted to Keats, though Keats’ own ambivalence made it difficult for her to express her feelings for him.  After Keats’ death, Fanny cropped her hair and wore mourning for three years, just as if they had really been married, never taking off the ring he had given her (Motion 568).  She did eventually marry, but evidently rarely spoke of her relationship with Keats.  For many years after Keats’ death, most of the admirers of his poetry were unaware of Fanny’s identity. Thirteen years after her death in 1865, her family made public the letters that Keats had written to her.  Many of Keats’ admirers thought it was in bad taste for Fanny to have even kept the letters, much less that her family should allow them to be published.   In 1937, Fanny’s letters to Keats’ sister were published.  In one letter she writes of her continued feelings for Keats:   “They think I have [forgotten him].   But I have not got over it and never shall” (Motion 568).

Though Bright Star portrays her as the girl who has a reputation for flirting and having an obsession with fashion (Beau Brummel was her father’s cousin), Campion presents her as being very much in love with Keats, a girl who, though finding his poetry difficult, hangs on every word of his letters and becomes ill when he does not write to her. Bright Star depicts Fanny as a daring young woman who refused to conform to convention, in love with a dying, penniless poet.

The choice of the title Bright Star may indicate Campion’s opinion that Keats’ own attitude toward love and romance complicated the relationship.   The phrase Bright Star is from the opening line of one of Keats’ sonnets which begins, “Bright Star! Would I were steadfast as thou art—.”   In this poem, Keats expresses a frequent wish of his that his love and devotion could be as permanent as a star.  Yet, the sonnet reveals that the constancy of a star is not an adequate symbol, for though the star is steady, “unblinking,” it is alone, remote, and detached, almost like a religious hermit. Keats wants to be as steadfast as a star, but, at the same time, a living human being that can feel passion:

Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel forever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death. (Bright Star, 10-14)

If Campion’s film at times does not seem to present a sizzling romance that modern moviegoers are more used to seeing, it is probably because the actual relationship of Keats and Fanny was complicated by his ambivalence about romantic love.    He was torn between his love for poetry and his love for a woman, having a fear that a torrid romance would distract him from his work as a poet.  Keats’ friends, such as Charles Brown,  splendidly portrayed in this film by Paul Schneider, also feared that Fanny was a threat to Keats’ poetic genius.  Keats, and some of his closest friends like Brown, felt that the poet needed to be transcendent, like the bright star, standing apart from the world.  At the same time, Keats wanted to be involved in the passionate side of life, experiencing that “sweet unrest” that so often accompanies a passionate love affair.  This movie shows how Keats felt the need to withdraw from Fanny in order to write, and how these separations tormented him, often giving rise to suspicions, jealousies, and accusations.  Though Keats tried to keep away from Fanny as much as possible for the sake of his poetry, she did become, as Motion puts it, “the focus of his faith in Beauty…his whole universe in miniature” (470-1).

There was a period when Keats and Fanny lived in the same house, Keats and the Brawne family’s rooms being separated only by a wall.  There is a tender scene in Bright Star where Keats and Fanny, aware of the other’s presence on the other side, place their hands on the wall, reaching out, “touching” one another through the wall.   The wall between Keats and Fanny was composed of various materials:  Keats’ poverty and illness, 19th moral customs, Fanny’s reticence, and Keats’ own ambivalence.

But Bright Star is more than an attempt to depict the romance between Keats and Fanny Brawne.    It is also an effort to let us experience the poetry of Keats.  Whether or not this portrayal of the love affair is accurate,  Bright Star is a beautifully filmed representation of the romance, every scene a form of poetry itself.  One of the most famous of Keats’ poems, Endymion, begins with the lines:

A  thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing. (1-5)

Campion’s film is a thing of beauty, one that I hope will not pass into nothingness.

Though Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw do a wonderful job of portraying Fanny and Keats, I can’t help but believe that the real star of the movie is the poetry.  In an era where moviegoers favor action thrillers and horror, it would seem difficult to make a movie about a poet that would be interesting.  If the theme of a movie is romance, then we expect to see the couple giving way to their passionate desires, not holding back because of internal constraints.   Since the life of a poet like Keats would consist mainly of reading, meditating, and writing, it would be difficult to portray such activities in a dramatic fashion.  But Campion manages to interest us in the work of the poet by staging scenes where the composition of poetry is taking place in beautiful settings where he is seeking inspiration and where the lovers meet.  The way the film portrays nature in the splendor of the various seasons makes one wish that one had the gift of language that Keats  had to describe such beauty.  The interior scenes are also set with meticulous care:  those taking place in front of windows are stunning in their use of light and color.  Several of the scenes in Bright Star are reminiscent of a portrait by his friend and artist, Joseph Severn, of Keats reading beside an open window.  As a matter of fact, several scenes seem to make use of famous paintings of Keats, Ben Whishaw appearing  to deliberately strike some of the poses that we find in familiar portraits of Keats.  There are also scenes of rooms with books piled high on tables as the poet researches, looking for the exact word, phrase, or idea to construct his poems. Campion also chooses to let various characters read or recite various portions of Keats’ poetry, trying to integrate such recitations seamlessly into the film.    Weaving the poetry into beautiful and powerful images of the film allows us to experience Keats’ poetry in a new way.

I have been analyzing poetry for many years.  I have approached poetry in almost the same way I handle Scripture as I prepare a sermon–doing exegesis and trying to interpret the text.  Sometimes, when we handle poetry so long from an academic standpoint, we forget some of the basic elements of poetry, such as how compelling the imagery of poetry can be and the emotional impact that it can have upon a person.    No doubt, some viewers of Bright Star may get caught up in arguments concerning whether Fanny and Keats were really as passionately in love as the film depicts them to be.  Whether the film is historically accurate is beside the point.  The important thing is how the text of the film is interwoven with the poetry of Keats.  The haunting images in Keats’ poetry are juxtaposed with the provocative images of the film.  This mingling of film and poetry has, in effect, created a new text which opens entire new possibilities for examination of the poems, the text of the film and the text of Keats’ poetry providing a kind of intertextuality whereby the meaning of both texts is shaped by the other.  Just as the dramatic reading of a poem in a certain way can enhance or subvert the meaning of the text, film has the ability to do the same.   From now on, when I read La Belle Dame Sans Merci, perhaps I will see Abbie Cornish and  Ben Whishaw reciting it to one another.  When I read Ode to Nightingale, I will hear Ben Whishaw’s voice reading it the way he did as the closing credits rolled on a black screen.

Keats’ poetry, whether I’m reading, Lamia, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, The Eve of St. Agnes, or any of this other poems, always has the ability to move me emotionally.  But I must confess that I was never so stirred by Ode to a Nightingale as I was when hearing it read by Ben Whishaw at the end of this film.  Of course, that doesn’t mean much coming from me, because I am the most sentimental and emotional of moviegoers.   After sitting through a beautiful film for two hours, seeing the presentation of a tragic love affair, and watching  Abbie Cornish’s heart-wrenching performance when Fanny hears of Keats’ death,  we have a new experience of the poem when we hear Ben Whishaw read Keats’ words that he would like to fade away into the forest with the nightingale,

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs;
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow. (21-30).

Experiencing the imagery of the film combined with the imagery of the poem gives us a whole new set of emotions and interpretations.

At one point in the film, Fanny asks Keats to describe for her the craft of poetry.  Keats replies:  “A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out.  It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”  Far too often, when we read poetry such as that by Keats, we try to “work it out,” or examine it analytically and arrive at an interpretation of its meaning.  So much of the meaning of poetry must remain shrouded in mystery, but it moves us nonetheless.   In an article by Peter Keough, Jane Campion describes an experience she had in college with Keats’ poetry that may sound familiar to many people who take literature classes:  “I had this ridiculous professor who thought there were many different interpretations of a poem. I was fascistic and thought there was only one. That it was a puzzle to be cracked. Later, I learned that the experience of immersing oneself in beauty without the need for final answers was more rewarding.”  A film like Bright Star helps us to experience the sensation of poetry, allowing the poetry, with the help of powerful images, to experience poetry at a level beyond thought, not needing final answers about meaning.

Before viewing the film, I would suggest that you read the poems Bright Star, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and Ode to a Nightingale. (I have included them at the end of this review).  Don’t leave the theater when the final credits begin to roll.  Sit in the dark and listen as Ben Whishaw reads Ode to a Nightingale.  You may never experience the poem that way again.  Campion is quoted as saying in an article by Maria Garcia, “Poetry is like an object that you can constantly turn around in your mind….It’s a garden you can keep returning to. It allows you to have this really close relationship to people hundreds of years apart.”  Through Bright Star, we can return to the garden of Keats’ poetry and experience it afresh. We can dive into the lake of poetry, not trying to “work it out,” but simply allowing ourselves to be moved by its mystery.

Works Cited

  • Garcia, Maria.  “A Sweet Unrest: Jane Campion Recreates Love Affair between Poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne.”  Film Journal International. 21 Aug. 1999.  18 Oct. 2009.  Link here
  • Keats, John.  “Bright Star.”  John Keats:  The Complete Poems.  Ed. John Barnard.   New York: Penguin, 1988.
  • —.  “Endymion.”  John Keats:  The Complete Poems.  Ed. John Barnard.  New York: Penguin, 1988.
  • —.  “Ode to a Nightingale.”  John Keats.  The Complete Poems.  Ed. John Barnard.  New York:  Penguin, 1988.
  • Keough, Peter.  “True Romance:  Jane Campion Directs the Best Movie ever Made about John Keats.”  The Boston Phoenix.  23 Sept. 2009.  18 Oct. 2009. Link here
  • Motion, Andrew.   Keats.  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Bright Star

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said –
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide! –
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness, –
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain –
To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?



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Living through Our Machines: A Review of Surrogates
By Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph.D.

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

What if you could always be young, strong, attractive, and have any experience you wish without the possibility of personal injury? Considering our obsession, particularly in the United States, with health and beauty, most people would jump at the chance to have such a life. In the future world of Surrogates, advances in technology have made those dreams come true. A person can purchase a robot, or multiple robots if you are wealthy enough, that might bear a resemblance to your actual physical appearance, or no resemblance at all. If you would like to be a man or woman, it doesn’t matter what your actual gender is, you can be whatever you want. No one needs to worry about plastic surgery, makeovers, dieting, etc. After buying your ideal, robotic body, you can live and experience everything through it. Like Neo in The Matrix, trying to choose between the blue pill and the red one, fantasy or reality, we are faced with the choice of living through our own imperfect bodies, or flawless surrogates. Come on now! Be honest! Which would you choose? Think of the possibilities!

Ever since the concept of Virtual Reality began to grip our imaginations, people have dreamed of such a breakthrough. At the present time, Virtual Reality is largely a visual experience, though there have been developments in trying to engage some of the other senses. In the era of Surrogates, which is less that 10 years away (for those of you who may be trying to get your money together to place your order as soon as possible), you sit in the comfort of your home, hooked up to your surrogate in such a way that you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste everything through your robotic puppet. If you have a job, your surrogate goes to work for you, but it is your mind that actually does the thinking for the surrogate and directs its every activity. Though the surrogate can be damaged, the human host is never harmed in any way. The surrogate might be destroyed in a helicopter crash, but you would not be injured, though you would have had the thrilling sensation of what it is like to be going down to what would otherwise be certain death. While it may seem on the surface that some machine is living for you, remember that you are thinking for the surrogate, and you are experiencing everything the surrogate does. While these ideas about Virtual Reality may seem to cover much of the same ground covered by Total Recall and The Matrix, there are differences. The experiences of the host through the surrogates are not pure fantasy. The events are actually taking place. The use of a surrogate seems to be the ultimate form of vicarious living. You can really live your life through someone else, and that someone else is you. Could there possibly be any drawbacks or dangers to a style of life that seems to solve so many problems?

Surrogates, directed by Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), is loosely based on a series of comic books, The Surrogates written 2005-2006 by Robert Venditti. Though much darker than the film version, the comics explore the threats to a society that could occur when people become addicted to living through machines. In Mostow’s movie, Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is an FBI agent who does his work through a surrogate. He stays home all day, hooked up to the computer network that allows him through a Virtual Reality link to live through his surrogate. Though Tom and his wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike), live in the same house, they usually stay locked away in separate rooms, rarely seeing one another except through their surrogates. Since their surrogates are young and trim versions of their actual hosts, she prefers that all of their interactions take place through the surrogates. Yet Greer is not satisfied with living through a surrogate. He misses the actual flesh to flesh contact with his wife.

Another source of the Greer’s unhappiness is the lingering grief over the death of their little boy caused by a car accident. It may be that Tom feels guilty for not having provided a surrogate for his son. On one occasion, as Tom walks through the city he hears an advertisement for child surrogates, promising a childhood of safety without the risk of injury or disease. Since most parents want to shield their children from all the possible dangers in the world, wouldn’t it be tempting to keep them in the safety of their homes and let their surrogates go to school, or play sports, without the risk of exposing them to accidents, criminals, and life-threatening diseases that might be spread by “real” children?

Though Tom begins to question the benefits of surrogacy, there are a few in this society who never yielded to the temptation to live through a machine. Referred to as “Dreads” and “meatbags” by those in the surrogate society, they are living on a place referred to as “the Dread Reservation.” They are led by a quasi-religious leader known as “The Prophet,” played by Ving Rhames (Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction) who is constantly preaching about the evils of surrogacy. While the slogan for the world of surrogates is “Plug in…and Live,” the motto for those on the reservation is, “Unplug yourself.” These two groups have entered into a treaty not to intrude into each other’s space, but there is an uneasy peace between them.

To complicate matters further, as is the case with most technological utopias, someone figures out a way to ruin the technology. The hosts and the surrogates are connected through a massive computer network, and, naturally, one computer geek has found a way to disconnect the surrogate from the host. But the most terrifying threat is that someone has discovered a weapon that destroys not only the surrogate, but also the host at the same time. Tom Greer and his FBI partner, Peters (Radha Mitchell), who also works through her perfectly beautiful surrogate, are called upon to investigate the murder of a man whose brain was destroyed when the new weapon was used on his surrogate. Those in power must conceal this unpleasant development from the rest of the world, since the appeal of surrogacy is its guarantee of a safe life. If the surrogate itself becomes a risk of death to the host, then there would be little motivation to have one.

Initially, surrogacy sounded like a good idea. Surrogates were invented by a scientist, Dr. Canter (James Cromwell), a paraplegic, who wanted to give people in situations similar to his the opportunity to know what it was like to walk, run, jump, and live a “normal life.” But once Dr. Canter opened the door for the disabled to have a surrogate, why not allow all people to have one if they wish? As always, once science opens Pandora’s box, we must sort out a whole new set of moral and ethical dilemmas that we have never had to face. In an interview with John Hogan, Robert Venditti explained part of his purpose in writing the original comics: “I was trying to highlight the fact that we have a tendency to welcome technology into our lives without considering the impact it will have on us in the long run. Technology is a very seductive thing, and because of that, we don’t often look before we leap.” Though the surrogates in this film do not turn on their creators in the manner of a Frankenstein’s monster, their invention may ultimately result in the deaths of their users

This film depicts how we must grapple with the unintended consequences of technological advancement. The human hosts do not bother to exercise, put on make-up, or, in any other way, try to make themselves attractive. Why bother? No one ever sees your real body anyway. All that other people see is the surrogate. Though living through a surrogate might seem a pathway to immortality, the hosts look as though they are ready for an early death through lack of activity. When we finally are permitted a sight of the real Maggie, her physical appearance, demeanor, and the many prescription drugs on her table, reveal a depressed woman whose physical condition is rapidly declining. Like the passengers aboard the Axiom in Wall-E, we can imagine that eventually, the hosts of surrogates would become incapacitated through diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoporosis, and obesity. Zager and Evans, in their 1969 hit song, “In the Year 2525,” predicted that by the year 5555 our arms would hang limp at our sides since machines would be doing all the work for us. Surrogates points out that this dire prediction about the future may be realized far before 5555. Actually, aren’t we already having to deal with the health problems in children whose only activity is playing video games?

Films such as Blade Runner, Terminator, and The Island have explored the issue of what it means to be human. In Surrogates, the question seems to be, “What does it mean to really live?” At one point in this movie, The Prophet says, “We’re not meant to experience the world through a machine.” Though we may not yet have surrogates available for our use such as those in this film, we could ask ourselves if we are not already, to some degree, living our lives through machines. Is sitting in front of a television, living vicariously through our sport heroes and celebrities, really living?  Does living through our machines give us the same experience as reality? When we play golf on Wii, or play the guitar on Rock Band, do we really get the same satisfaction as we would have had if we had put in the hard work to actually learn and play the sport or the instrument?

Is the community we develop through the Internet real community? In the interview with Hogan, Vendetti recalls how the idea for The Surrogates originated:

In grad school, I read a book about people addicted to the Internet. The players would lose their jobs and sometimes even their marriages because they couldn’t tear themselves away from the personas they created for themselves online. It was a thought that kind of rattled around in my head for a while, until one day it dawned on me that if you were somehow able to create a persona and send it out into the real world—where it could go to work for you, and run your errands, and so on—then you would never have to go back to being yourself. What would that world be like?

 In Surrogates, people may have no idea of the actual identity (including such things as sex, age, occupation, etc.) of the actual host. Isn’t this similar to the games that people play with one another on the Internet, posing to be different than what they actually are? Are we becoming less authentic and honest the more we live through our machines? Are we even forgetting who we really are? In one of the scenes in Surrogates Tom is trying to convince his wife that he wants to see the real Maggie, but she argues that the surrogate is her real self. Tom knows that his real wife is actually hiding behind the façade of her surrogate. Kevin Stoehr, an assistant professor of humanities at Boston University, points out how relating to one another through machines without body to body contact may ultimately result in a nihilistic culture where we care less and less about one another:

 You might think here of the commitment-free, risk-free, hedonistic Web surfer, someone who sits in front of a computer screen and bounces mentally and whimsically from one Web site to another, without any ultimate passion or active engagement. Such a form of obsessive detachment from the natural world and from the experience of one’s own body can lead to nihilism, the belief that nothing matters, in the undermining of our commitments and concerns. We would become little more than passive and neutral spectators, gliding from one Internet portal to the next, and our daily lives would follow suit. (132).

In Surrogates, when we do get a few glimpses of the human hosts, they seem anything but happy and fulfilled. Though living through a surrogate might provide thrills, something is missing when our actual bodies are not interacting with others in a real environment.

Also, this film raises the question of whether risk and danger are not essential in making life worthwhile and meaningful. While the surrogates may shield us from the risk of disease and injury, the end result could be unbearable boredom. Just as the fear that death could occur at any time is a spur to live fully in the present moment as though it may be our last, doesn’t risk and the threat of danger provide part of the joy and excitement of life? Sure, you could climb a mountain through the use of a surrogate and see all the beauty of the landscape through its eyes, but would it be the same as actually being there, knowing that one false move could result in injury or death?  Don’t we put ourselves in those situations because of the risk involved? You could ride a roller coaster through a surrogate. While it is true that the surrogate could be damaged if the cars derailed, you would always know that nothing bad could happen to you. Oddly enough, one of the reasons we get on the roller coaster is the thrill of the risk involved. All human relationships involve risk, as well. The attempt to live through machines, even as advanced as these surrogates, may be an unconscious attempt to eliminate risk from our dealings with other human beings.

In Surrogates, Dr. Canter becomes disillusioned with his invention and wants the world to go back to the way it was before he invented these perfect robots. Greer tells him that a return to the pre-surrogate past is impossible, though Greer will later decide, unilaterally, to force the world to accept life without surrogates. Like the world of Surrogates, we cannot turn back the clock to a time when we did not live through our machines. We are already living through surrogates. It remains to be seen how much more sophisticated our surrogates will be in the near future, how dependent on them we will become, and what effect they will have on our relationships. Even if we develop surrogates as sophisticated as those in this film, perhaps we will eventually might grow tired of them, the way we usually get bored with toys, and desire real contact with one another.

Works Cited

Hogan, John. “Surrogate Father.” Graphic Novel Reporter:            http://graphicnovelreporter.com/content/surrogate-father-interview

Stoehr, Kevin L. “2001: A Philosophical Odyssey.” The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film.
Ed. Steven M. Sanders. Lexington: The University of Kentucky P, 2008. 119-34.

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Is Religion the Greatest Hoax?

A Review of The Invention of Lying
by Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph.D.

 Warning:  This review contains spoilers

If you are looking for a film that would help you generate theological and philosophical discussions with both believers and nonbelievers, perhaps the best choice from among the movies that came out this week would be The Invention of Lying.  This film could be the springboard for conversations about the origin of religion, the nature of God, and the necessity of lies, or at least, the need to sometimes conceal the truth.  Though some might see parts of the film as blasphemous and sacrilegious, it is important to realize that the questions raised by this film are issues that Christians need to be aware of and ready to answer.  This is one of those films that a Christian can appreciate as a comedy (I laughed throughout most of the film), and yet disagree strongly with the message. The movie could have been entitled, The Invention of Religion, religion being synonymous with lying.

The Invention of Lying takes place in an alternate universe, still the modern United States, where no one has ever told a lie.  Not only do the people in this world never tell a lie, they always speak what is exactly on their minds, no matter how much they may hurt other people.  While we might think it would be a great thing to always speak the truth, the movie depicts how such a practice might lead to arrogance, depression, and hopelessness.  A nursing home is not called a retirement home, an assisted living facility, or any other of the euphemisms we use for such a place, but boldly declares on its marquee, “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.”  Though in our world we would inscribe epitaphs on gravestones that occasionally stretch the truth, in this alternate universe, one headstone reads, “She Lived an Average Life for a Woman of Her Time.”  In this alternate reality, the practice of always telling the truth has produced a very dull world where there is almost no such thing as love.  Potential mates are chosen because the prospective candidates are told up front that they are being considered because the combination of their genetic material would produce desirable offspring.  One of the chief forms of leisure is going to movies that are tedious, factual, historical lectures.  It has never occurred to anyone to write a piece of fiction, since such a work would be a form of lying, something they do not know how to do.  There is no religion in this world, no concept of God, and no hope of an afterlife.

Mark Bellison, played by Ricky Gervais who also wrote and directed the film along with Matthew Robinson, is a short, fat, man who would not stand a chance  to win the favor of  the girl with whom he is smitten, Anna (Jennifer Garner).  Mark is a loser, from a family of losers, and people never tire of telling him this truth.  He loses his job and is in danger of being evicted from his apartment because his rent is $800.00, and he has only $300.00 in the bank.  When Mark visits the bank to draw out his $300.00, he tells the clerk that he really has $800.00 in his account, telling the first lie in history.  Since no one has ever told a lie, the teller concludes the computer system, showing that he only has $300.00, must be wrong and gives him the $800.00.  After this first lie, Mark realizes that he can tell anyone anything, no matter how outrageous and inconceivable, and no one will ever question it, because no one has ever done anything but tell the truth.

One night, Mark is summoned to the bedside of his mother who has been told the cold, hard truth by her doctor that she will die that night.  As Mark’s mother tells him that she is so afraid to die and enter an eternity of nothingness, Mark, who now has the ability to say anything and know that people will believe him, tells her that death is not the entrance into eternal nothingness, but rather, the portal into a beautiful world where people are always happy, reunited with their loved ones, and everyone has a mansion.  Since no one has ever told a lie, the mother has no reason not to believe him.  But the doctors and nurses were listening to what Mark told his mother, and they spread the word throughout the city that Mark has information about life after death.  Overnight he becomes a cult figure, and everyone gathers to hear what else he has to say about the afterlife.  He doesn’t know what to say to them, but Anna convinces him that he must tell the people more. Mark stays up all night and, essentially, creates a new religion.  On two pieces of paper, he writes down 10 rules and beliefs to tell the people, places the papers on the back of two pizza boxes, and like Moses coming down from the mountain, he begins to tell the people about the afterlife and how these things were revealed to him by a man who lives in the sky.  At this point, The Invention of Lying, veers sharply from romantic comedy with real possibilities in that genre, and  attempts to become a piece of atheistic propaganda, resulting in two entirely movies.  The trailer I saw of the film a few weeks ago did not give a hint that this film was part of an atheist’s agenda to proselytize.


It is well-known that Ricky Gervais is an evangelist for the cause of atheism.  On his website is an article entitled, My Argument with God: How I Went from Jesus Loving Christian to Fun Loving Infidel…in One Afternoon.  In this article he explains how he became an atheist when he was 8 years old, and that he doesn’t need a belief in God in order to have a reason to live, since things like “imagination, free will, love, humor, music, sports, beer, and pizza” are sufficient.  Though Ricky Gervais has denied that his film is an attack on religion, and Christianity in particular, Kyle Smith of the New York Post writes, “Marketed as a romantic comedy, ‘The Invention of Lying’ turns out to be a dour, shouty atheist manifesto. With a change of scenery it could have been called “Godless in Seattle.”  I would not be so preachy in this review if this movie had not gone from romantic comedy to preachy, atheistic tract.

One of the immediate questions raised by the film is the origin of religion.  Many religious skeptics have argued that religion first developed as an attempt to deal with the fear of death.  The thought of life coming to an end was just too horrible for human beings to face, and they invented religions that promised an afterlife.  The Invention of Lying suggests that the biggest lie of all may be religion itself, especially that of a Judeo-Christian heritage.  Mark is a combination of Moses and Jesus (a Pizza-Hut-Moses and a drunken Jesus with a hangover, at that), but a Moses and Jesus fabricated by someone who was just trying to give hope to people in a hopeless world.

The god-like man in the sky that Mark invents is a totally sovereign god.  He is in control of everything that happens in the world, both good and bad.  When he tells them that the man in the sky causes cancer, death, and other terrible things, they immediately want to lead a rebellion against the man in the sky, but Mark consoles them by telling them that in the next life, if we have been good, the man in the sky will give us so many wonderful things it will make up for all the bad things that happened to us. 

It’s also interesting that the religion that Mark develops is essentially works-based.  We are rewarded with a beautiful afterlife if we are good.  The problem with a works-based religion is revealed immediately.  People want to know what constitutes “bad,” and which bad things would keep them from going to the good place after they die.  Essentially, Mark has to become a Roman Catholic distinguishing between mortal and venial sins.   For example, he explains that showing up late for work is a bad thing, but it is not bad enough to keep you out of the good place.  But then the question becomes, “How many bad things would a person have to commit in order to be kept out of the good place after death?”  For some reason, Mark comes up with a “three strikes and you’re out” program.    Three big sins would result in consignment to the bad place. 

The movie also points out, truthfully enough, how quickly people pervert the basic principles of a religion in ways that no one would have conceived.  While the words about an afterlife give hope to people, it is not long before people begin to take Mark’s words to dangerous conclusions.  Since there is an afterlife, many people decide to quit their jobs, do nothing, and just wait for their death so that they can move in to their mansion.  Whenever natural disasters happen, the headlines of the newspapers attribute these disasters to the man in the sky. 


The mistake that Gervais and other atheists make in their attacks upon religion, particularly the Christian faith, is that they prop up straw men and proceed to knock them down.  Though The Invention of Lying suggests that religions began simply as a means of comfort in the face of death, the religion that Mark Bellison develops bears little if any resemblance to Judaism or Christianity.  It bears a great deal of resemblance to the concept of God and religion that an inadequately instructed eight year old child would have.  Whether the arguments come from Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, or Ricky Gervais,  they have been easily and adequately hundreds of times by Christian scholars. 

As is often the case, the arguments of atheists often, inadvertently, result in reinforcing the faith of Christians.  One of the ways in which this film makes us glad that we are Christians is through showing the hopelessness of the atheist position.  At the end of the film, Mark admits that there is no man in the sky.  Perhaps in a way that is unintended, the movie suggests that if he retracts the lie, the world would go back to the dull, cold world that it had been.  The film points out how comfortless the atheist position is.  When an atheist is talking to a person who is about to die and tries to comfort the person in the face of eternal nothingness, what comfort can the atheist give?  Of course, the atheist could say, “Well, you’ve had a long, good life, filled with beer and pizza.”  But what if the person has not had a long, good life?  What if the person has had a very short life?  What if that life was filled with disease, pain, and poverty?  If the atheist were compelled to tell the truth, as in this alternate universe, he would have to say, “You are right.  There is nothing after life but nothingness.  Furthermore, you will soon be forgotten after you die, and no one will remember that you even lived.  I’m sorry that your life was filled with nothing but pain and suffering, but that’s just the way things happened and don’t expect anything better after this life.”  In the face of death, atheism provides cold comfort to affluent, healthy people who have lived the good life, and no comfort to those whose lives were filled with suffering. 

I wonder if atheists, at the time of their own deaths, or the deaths of those close to them, are tempted to believe or tell the lie. It is said that Mae West once quipped, “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”  But what about those who were prevented from “doing it right.”  Mark Bellison seems to think that even if the afterlife is a lie, in the face of death, it’s better than the truth.  In an interview with Dominic Cavendish, Ricky Gervais admits, “‘there are so many reasons to believe in God – the biggest one is: If there is no God what happens to me when I die? That’s belief through necessity. The alternative is unthinkable. Now I wish I was taller, but it’s not going to happen. And if truth be told, I wish there was a God. Of course, I don’t want to live for 80 years and then be worm’s meat. It would be brilliant but it’s not going to happen, it’s impossible. When I’m dying I probably will go ‘I wish there was a God’, but it doesn’t mean there is. Wishing for something doesn’t mean it’s possible.”  To that statement, Christians would have to say, “Amen.”I have read similar statements in the writings of other atheists, and I wish that Christians would point out to them that hope for an afterlife is not a reason to believe in God.  Atheists are under the mistaken impression that our belief in God is the result of the longing for an afterlife.  They think we reason something like this:  I wish there was an after life.  For there to be an afterlife, there must be a god.  Therefore, I will choose to believe in a god because I want there to be an afterlife.  Christians can see fallacy in that kind of reasoning just as well as atheists.  We are not living in the alternate reality where no one has ever told us a lie.  Unlike the gullible people in The Invention of Lying, promises of an afterlife, in and of themselves, are not sufficient to make us swallow the first tale that promises such a hope.  We have examined the alternatives, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” vs. the claims of Christ that he is the Son of God, and we have determined that belief in him is the only rational response, apart from any thoughts about eternal life.  While the hope for eternal life provides comfort, it is not a reason to believe in God, much less “the biggest one.”  We would be compelled to believe in him whether he offered hope of an afterlife or not.  As one of our hymns, translated from the Spanish by Edward Caswall puts it:

My God, I love thee; not because I hope for heav’n thereby,
Nor yet for fear that loving not, I might for ever die;
But for that thou didst all mankind upon the cross embrace;
For us didst bear the nails and spear, and manifold disgrace.
Then why, most loving Jesus Christ, should I not love thee well,
Not for the sake of winning heav’n, nor any fear of hell.
Not with the hope of gaining aught, not seeking a reward;
But as thyself has loved me, O ever-loving Lord!
E’en so I love thee, and will love, and in thy praise will sing,
Solely because thou art my God and my eternal king.

To suggest that the love, worship, and obedience of the Christian are merely out of a mercenary hope of eternal reward is the invention of a lie about Christianity.

Perhaps someone should make a film about a world in which all people did not question the existence of God because the evidence for his existence was too strong to deny.  People loved God and worshiped him, not out of hope for reward, but because of the excellence of his attributes.  People loved and obeyed the laws of God because they loved him.  But one day, someone said, “I don’t like obeying all these rules, and worshiping God is boring, no fun at all.  I know! I’ll tell people that God doesn’t exist and that all these rules were invented by people who wanted to control and oppress us.”  Of course, the title of the film will be The Invention of Lying, or The Invention of Atheism.  But there is no need for us to make that film, for these lies occur every day, not in an alternate world, but this one.   

Works Cited

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Stitchpunk Saviors: A Review of Shane Acker’s 9

by Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph.D.

Warning:  This review contains spoilers.

One of the most popular film genres of the last 30 years has been the dystopia, those movies that depict apocalyptic disasters and nightmarish societies of the future.  Though religions, politicians, and various philosophies promise that adherence to their beliefs and theories would produce future utopias, the popularity of depictions of dystopias seems to indicate that many people have pessimistic outlooks concerning the future.    Director Shane Acker’s CG animated film, 9, joins the growing ranks of post-apocalyptic films that depict the annihilation of humanity.   The reasons for the destruction of the earth or civilization vary from film to film, ranging from collisions with asteroids, to deadly viruses, to genetic mutations, to global warming, and to alien invasions.  One of the more popular causes of these future dystopias is the rise of machines (think of the Terminator series of films) that have developed a kind of artificial intelligence, enabling them to rebel against their human creators and eventually enslave (The Matrix), or eliminate them.

Some movie-goers might not be excited about seeing 9, yet another dystopia about the evils of technology.    Though the film covers familiar territory, the main attraction of 9 is not the plot, the characters, or the philosophical questions raised by the film.  The primary reason to watch this movie is to marvel at the CG animation and direction of a Shane Acker film produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (director of Wanted, with Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman).  Though Burton did not direct the film, one cannot help but see the influence of his movies such as Beetlejuice, A Nightmare before Christmas, and especially, Edward Scissorhands.  

The concept of 9 began as Acker’s student  project at UCLA which produced an 11 minute CG film of the same title, nominated for a 2005 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.      Acker and Burton’s 9 is basically Acker’s original short film, lengthened by various plot devices in order to make a feature-length movie.    Though some critics feel that the major weakness of this expansion of the film is the screenplay, written by Pamela Pettler (Monster House and The Corpse Bride),   9 offers some interesting points of discussion as we contemplate the possibilities of a future destruction of humanity and search for solutions to prevent such a catastrophe.  Please forgive a rather long summary of the movie, but for the benefit of those of you who may have not seen the film, I need to explain some of the action in detail in order to help you understand the points I wish to make at the conclusion of the article.

As the film begins, a scientist drops dead in his chaotic, jumbled laboratory.  Immediately after his death, a little rag doll creature that Acker refers to as a “stitchpunk,” seemingly made of burlap and a zipper, comes to life.    On its back is the number “9”.    9 (voiced by Elijah “Frodo” Wood) doesn’t realize that the scientist lying dead on the floor is his creator.  He has no idea who or what he is, or his reason for existence.  Immediately, we are reminded of  how Edward Scissorhands’ creator, played by the legendary Vincent Price, dies after the creation of Edward, leaving him alone in a hostile world for which he has few skills or preparation for assimilation or survival.   9 notices a talisman, a small, semi-spherical object on the floor with strange inscriptions.  He doesn’t know what the object is, but he decides to take it with him.   As 9 first looks at the world outside, it is littered with the ruins of what was once human civilization, now void of all animal and plant life.  Some critics have suggested that the scene of the world resembles either London or Dresden after the World War II bombings.  The hazy atmosphere does not seem to permit the full penetration of sunlight. 

9, a totally new being, goes out to meet the world and finds a creature similar to himself, another stitchpunk with the number “2” on his back, who appears to be an intelligent kind of inventor who can take various parts of the objects littered around him and combine them  to form useful instruments.  But after a few moments of acquaintance, 2 and the talisman are taken by the robotic  Cat Beast,  composed partly of metal and bone.  Shortly afterward, 9, encounters other creatures like himself, all of them rag doll stitchpunks with numbers of their backs, including 1, 5, 6, and 8, hiding in an abandoned church from a creature they call “The Beast.”  1 (voiced by Christopher Plummer)  is a strict authoritarian who even wears a hat resembling a bishop’s miter, and carries a staff.  9 tries to persuade 1 and the others to search for and rescue 2,  but 1 maintains strict control of the other dolls, not allowing anyone to venture into the unknown where the beasts live.  Like Dr. Zaius, keeper of the faith in The Planet of the Apes (another film associated with Tim Burton), 1 does not even seem to want the other dolls to discover the truth about themselves

But 9 convinces 5 to venture into the wasteland, and they leave the “safety” of the church and track 2 to an abandoned factory.  They find 2 and the Cat Beast, who seems to be trying to figure out the proper placement of the talisman in some kind of device. 9 and 5 try to save 2, but they are attacked by  the Cat Beast who is killed by the sudden arrival of 7, a female, warrior stitchpunk voiced by Jennifer Connelly.   9 recovers the talisman, but notices  a device that has a socket which looks as though it was made for the talisman.  When he inserts the talisman into the socket, he brings to life the Fabrication Machine that had been dormant for a long while.  Later we discover that the Fabrication Machine, which has the ability to create other machines, had been invented by the same scientist who later created the stitchpunks, not realizing that ultimately his Machine would later enslave and destroy the human race.  The Fabrication Machine, along with all the machines it had produced,  had been invented to bring the world peace and prosperity.  When 9 brings the Fabrication Machine to life, it sets out to destroy the stitchpunks by extracting the animating force from them, which we find out later to be parts of a human soul.  

9 believes that in order to survive, they must discover how the stitchpunks came into being and why the machines want to destroy them.  He is taken to 3 and 4, librarian scholars, who show him the records in newspapers and videos of how the machines rose to power and created a fascist state, with all the characteristics of Hitler’s Germany.  The records do not, however, tell the story of the talisman, or why and how the stitchpunks were brought to life.  9 believes that they must go back to the source, the laboratory of the scientist to discover their origins.  1 is against this plan, believing that it will only endanger the lives of others.  As they are debating the issue, the Winged Beast, another robotic creature,  attacks them.   Through a united effort, the stitchpunks prevail, but the church where they are hiding burns down.  As they are trying to find another place to hide, they are attacked by the Seamstress, a truly horrific creature who captures it prey and literally “sews them up.”   The Seamstress captures 7 and 8.  9 rescues 7, but the machine steals the soul of 8.  Later, the Fabrication Machine steals the souls of 5 and 6, but not before 6 has told 9 that the souls of the stitchpunks are trapped inside the Fabrication Machine.  1, 3, 4, and 7 want to destroy the Fabrication Machine, but 9 begs them not to do it, believing that if the machine is destroyed, the souls will be lost forever.  9 believes that if he can get back to the laboratory, he can uncover the secret that will perhaps enable him to destroy the machine and at the same time, save the souls of those who have been captured.

When 9 arrives at the laboratory of the scientist, we see scattered papers composed of drawings and plans, detailing the construction of the stitchpunks, again reminding us of the drawings that were used in the invention of Edward Scissorhands.  On one of the papers we see the name of the famous alchemist “Paracelsus.”  This clue lets us know that the man who brought the stitchpunks to life was not only a scientist, but an alchemist.  The name Paracelsus is a hint that the stitchpunks are homunculi.  “Homunculus” is a Latin word meaning “little human.”  Some alchemists believed that it was possible to create “little humans” in the laboratory.   In the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius shows his former student, Victor Frankenstein, his collection of homunculi, tiny humanoids that he keeps in jars, one of whom happens to be a bishop.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the many works of literature and film inspired by it, have always dealt with the issue of how our creations, especially our machines, will one day seek to destroy their creators.    Frankenstein’s monster is, in one sense, one of the most famous homunculi.  

The scientist who created the stitchpunks, 1-9, through a mixture of science and alchemy, has created a series of homunculi, but has found a way to invest them with parts of his own soul.  The scientist has left behind a holographic video that explains to 9 that he created the stitchpunks in order to impart to them a human soul in order that there might be something good and human in the world, now that it was dominated by machines.  The scientist also tells him how to use the talisman to free the souls that have been captured by the Fabrication Machine.  When 9 returns, he finds that the other stitchpunks are trying to fight the Fabrication Machine.  He volunteers to sacrifice himself and his soul so that they can retrieve the talisman, but 1 decides to sacrifice himself, and 9 gets the talisman and frees the souls of the stitchpunks.  At the end of the movie, 3, 4, 7, and 9 have a memorial service at the site where the remains of 1, 2, 5, 6, and 8 have been buried.  9 presses the symbols of the talisman in their proper sequence and the souls of 1, 2, 5, 6, and 8 ascend to heaven.  By some miracle, as their souls reach the clouds, a thunderstorm erupts, and rain begins to fall, each raindrop bringing back to earth parts of the souls that had ascended.

A movie with so many allusions to religion, souls, and alchemy will be open to many interpretations.  In an interview with Emru Townsend for Frames Per Second,  Shane Acker  expressed his view of how films should be interpreted:

Allow people to read into it what they want to read into it. So leave it open to metaphor and to allow people to see what they want to see in it. But first it’s about telling a good story, an interesting story, and then it’s about starting to layer on these different ideas that might not impact the movie, the narrative that’s there, but adds another layer of meaning on top of that….  So I think upon repeat viewings of the film, other things begin to come into light, and other readings can start to come into the film as well.

As with all good films, 9 offers many possible interpretations.    There are so many layers of meaning in this film that I am sure many articles will be written in the future offering plausible understandings.  I think the movie offers several different allegorical interpretations from a religious perspective.  For example, we can see 9 as asking the most fundamental of human questions:  who are we and why are we here?  At the beginning of the film, all 9 really knows is that he is living in a very dangerous  world.  Furthermore,  the stitchphunks are made of  fragile material that can be ripped apart quite easily by their enemies.  Like the stitchpunks, human beings are physically vulnerable,  seemingly  ill-equipped to survive in a world of germs, disease, animals, and other hostile beings.    Humans have often sought an answer to the question, “Why are we living in a world that is so hostile to us.”  As 9 seeks the answers to these kinds of questions, he instinctively realizes that he has to go back to “the source,” back to the place where he was given life.  These questions take him back to his creator to find the reasons for existence.  He is told by the scientist that he was invested with the soul of his creator, much as we are created in the image of God.    The scientist tells him that he wanted to put what was best about humanity into the little humanoids he has created.  Like 9, human beings have often gone back to the source, back to God, back to Holy Scripture to discover that they were created with meaning and purpose.

            The idea of putting parts of a soul into these creatures may seem strange, but some philosophers, such as Plato, often thought of the soul as composed of various elements, each  carrying out a specific function.  Unfortunately, in some people, one aspect of the soul may dominate the person.   Each stitchpunk seems to be governed by a particular characteristic.  1, appropriately named, wants to control and be obeyed, though he argues that he is only thinking of the safety of others.   2 is an inventor.  3 and 4 are scholars.   7 is a warrior. Though 1 is a kind of bishop, he does not seem to possess the kind of love that would inspire him to give his life for others, until, at the end of the film, he has matured to the degree that he now sees the necessity of sacrifice.  9 contains what I think is a thinly veiled criticism of the Church and institutionalized religion.  1 and other stitchpunks are trying to hide behind the walls of the church.   As 9 enters the church for the first time, his eyes scan the stained glass windows and we see a depiction of a kind-looking Jesus.  Like Christ, 9 wants to rescue those who have been taken by the beast, something like the devil, who, like a roaring lion seeks whom he may devour.  But 1, the bishop, is not interested in saving  a fellow creature.  He thinks it is better, for the safety of all concerned,  to hide in fear.  Soon, with the arrival of the Winged Beast,  it becomes obvious that not even the walls of the church can provide a permanent safety.  As the church burns to the ground, there is a scene of 1, looking wistfully over his shoulder, realizing that his hiding place is no more.  But as the rest of the film reveals, it was only by leaving the safe confines of the church that the machines could be defeated.  Outside the walls of the church, 1 is no longer dominated by the authoritarian, safety-seeking aspect of the soul.  When he sees others in danger and that the  only possibility of saving them is by giving himself as a sacrifice, he becomes a living embodiment of the Christ depicted in the stained glass of the church.

            This film suggests that hope for the future resides in the human soul.  Machines, even those possessing artificial intelligence, are interested only in domination.   Yet, one of the puzzles in the film is that these machines were created by human beings.  While the human soul is a wonderful thing, it was human beings who invented the machines that led to their own destruction.  Doesn’t this suggest that there is some flaw in the human soul?  Though the  raindrops bring  parts of the human soul back to earth, will  the new creation, invested with the human soul, repeat the same mistakes in the future?   In Shane Acker’s interview with Townsend, alluded to earlier, he stated that his film deals with this propensity human beings have to keep trying to destroy themselves:  “I think a lot of interest that I’m having as this film is developing now is speaking about these war-torn landscapes and the tragedy of war and how history is just—we constantly repeat ourselves, and we don’t learn. And I think it’s in some sense instinctual in humanity itself to sort of self-destruct or to try to destroy itself.”  If all we have at the end of 9 is just the same old human soul, one that  instinctively self-destructs, giving life to the world again, how do we know that we are not headed for yet another dystopia? 

But the film seems to suggest that the problem is not with the human soul itself, but with allowing one aspect of the soul to dominate.  1, for example, is dominated by the desire to lead.  The world needs leaders, but when the desire to lead becomes more important than love and sacrifice, the result is tyranny.   If all the parts of the soul were thoroughly integrated, a kind of balance would be achieved so that the various parts of the soul would teach us how to behave appropriately in various situations.  9,  the last of the dolls to which the scientist imparted something of his soul,  seems to be the culmination, the pinnacle of  his creator’s work, a kind of “last Adam” as Paul refers to Jesus in I Cor. 15:45.    9  is curious, courageous, and caring.  He is willing to put himself in danger, even sacrifice himself for the good of others.  In some mystical and religious writings, since  the number “9” is the last of the single digits in our numerical system, it represents conclusion.  Thus, 9 signifies what a fully mature human being should be, perhaps filled with the wisdom that could only be imparted by the scientist who fully understood what had led to the destruction of humanity.  9 is a leader, inventor, scholar, warrior, and sacrificial friend .   In this sense, 9 is a fully rounded Christ figure who teaches all the other dolls what it means to be human, even the selfish, self-centered 1 eventually becoming like the caring and giving 9. In writing about Edward Scissorshands, Peter Malone observes:  “Edward Scissorhands is a ‘composite creature,….a creature who is like us and yet not like us—a creature who can show human beings how to be their better selves.  He has been programmed by his father-creator so that he can communicate with people” (61-2).  9, like Edward, is also a creature like us and not like us, but he is able to teach us what it is to be human and truly Christlike.

9 shows us that hope for the future does not reside in our machines and our technology, but in our ability to love and care for one another, even if it means sacrificing our lives so that others might live.  It is, in fact, this reluctance to be fully human, that causes us to become machines whose sole purpose is an unfeeling domination.  In an article entitled, “The Terminator Movies;  Hi-Tech Holiness and the Human Condition,” Gaye Ortiz and Maggie Roux write, “Jesus taught that to be truly human is to be liberated:  we are allowed to make mistakes and be frail.  The danger is not in that, but rather in assuming that we can do anything.  In act of giving one’s self there is a promise, in the very act of surrender, of becoming fully human” (154).  Like Pinocchio, it seems that 9 and the other stitchpunks have become truly human.  There is always the danger that if we increasingly rely on machines, we may become machinelike or enslaved by our machines.  Whether we are living in  a world of soulless machines, or soulless human beings, the only way this frightening dystopia can be reversed is through actions of redemptive love performed by people as frail as stitchpunks.

Works Cited

  1. Malone, Peter.  “Edward Scissorhands:  Christology from a Suburban Fairy-tale.”  Explorations in Theology and Film:  Movies and Meaning.  Malden, MA:  Blackwell P, 1997.  73-86.
  2. Ortiz, Gaye and Maggie Roux.  “The Terminator Moves;  Hi-Tech Holiness and the Human Condition.”  Explorations in Theology and Film:  Movies and Meaning.  Malden, MA:  Blackwell P, 1997.  141-154.
  3. Townsend, Emru.  “Interview:   Shane Acker.”  Frames Per Second
  4. http://www.fpsmagazine.com/feature/050929 acker.php

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Another Failed Utopia


A Review of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village” by S. Randall Toms


Warning:  This review contains “spoilers,” so you may want to watch the movie before you read this review.

 When one watches a movie by M. Night Shyamalan, one expects an incredibly surprising twist at the end, such as the conclusion of one of his other hit movies, The Sixth Sense.  His latest movies, both Signs and The Village do not contain twists that overpower us the way The Sixth Sense did.  As one watches The Village, one is aware that there are a few ways that the movie can end.  When it does end in one of those ways, we just say, “I thought so.”   Shyamalan, in some ways, is a victim of his own success.  Everybody expects all of his movies to be another episode of The Twilight Zone.   The Village is beautifully shot, well-acted, and has a great story.  Just don’t expect another Sixth Sense.  Though The Village does not surprise us a great deal, it does contain an interesting theme that I would like to pursue for this review.

The Village concerns a group of people living in rural, communal setting.  On festive occasions, or even to mourn the passing away of a loved one, all of the villagers take their  meals together, outdoors, at long tables.  The people are dressed in what would appear to be nineteenth century dress.  The community is governed by a council of elders, although there is no hint that this is a religious sect.  The name of God is mentioned only once in this movie in a vague and nebulous sense.  Prayer is mentioned twice.   Though the film frequently confronts us with images of an idyllic setting, the movie opens on a somber note with a father weeping over the coffin of a child.  Immediately, we know that all is not well in the village.  Not far into the movie, we find that the people live in fear of “those we do not speak of.”  We do not know what these beings might be, but there are certain rules that the people must obey concerning them.  No one must venture into the forest surrounding the village.  Thus, no one is ever to leave the village.  The people in the village know that there are towns outside the village, but they must never go there for they would have to pass through the woods to get to the towns.  There must be no color red in the village, because red attracts those that they must not speak of.  There is a watchtower at the edge of the forest to alert people in case these creatures come to the village. 

As the movie progresses, there are signs that these creatures may be on the verge of attacking the village.  The people are terrified when they find some of their animals killed and skinned.  One night, all of the doors are marked with red.  Supposedly these warnings are given because some of the young people have dared to venture into the woods.  Also, Lucius Hunt, played by Joaquin Phoenix, has asked for permission to go to the towns to get medical supplies to prevent further deaths. After Lucius’ request, we are given a glimpse of one of these beings.  It is dressed in a red cloak, appears to have something like porcupine quills coming out of its back, and has long claws, or perhaps, talons.

One of the important subplots of the movie is the love relationship between Ivy Walker, a blind girl, played by Bryce Dallas Howard (director Ron Howard’s daughter), and Lucius Hunt.  Bryce Dallas Howard really steals the show with her first performance in a starring role.  Another character, Noah Percy (played by academy award winner Adrien Brody), a young man who is mentally deranged in some way, is a very good friend of Ivy’s.  Noah is not mentally retarded.  He seems to be incredibly hyperactive, but he has a good vocabulary when he can calm himself down enough to speak, once remarking, “Capital idea!”   When Noah finds that Ivy is about to marry Lucius, he stabs Lucius out of jealousy.  Ivy wants to go to the towns to buy medicine to save Lucius.  Ivy’s father,  Edward Walker (played by Willaim Hurt),  one of the elders, decides to let her go.  Before she leaves, Ivy’s father decides to show her the truth about those they do not speak of.  He takes her into a shed and shows her one of these creatures.  Of course, since Ivy is blind, she has to touch this creature.  When she turns away hysterically, her father tells her that is a farce.  There are no such creatures.  The elders of the village have made this elaborate costume to wear from time to time in order to frighten the people.  The elders invented them to keep the people from ever trying to leave the village. Thus, the elders have created a myth, a very fearful one, to keep the people in the village.    Since the elders know the truth about these creatures, the creation of the myth is strictly for the benefit of the young, so that they will never try to stray.  The elders of the village appear to have no religion, so they do not have an established religion, such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, to use as a means of control.   In the course of time, the elders realized that they had to create a fearful myth in order to keep their children from ever leaving the village to be corrupted by the towns.  They have done what Joseph Campbell advocated for the modern world. 

Campbell believed that we had outgrown the old myths (he considered Christianity to be one of those), and there was a need to create a new myth.  The elders in The Village have done exactly that.  The myth is so effective in the lives of their children, that when two of the young men try to accompany Ivy through the woods, they turn back and leave her alone to fend for herself, because they are so afraid of these mythical creatures.  The elders have, in effect, created “the boogeyman” to threaten their children.

The elders have created a quasi-religious community.  The young people are assigned duties in the watchtowers.  Though the elders know that there are no creatures, the young spend fearful nights waiting for them to come.  When one of the “creatures” does make an appearance, the children huddle in fear in basements.  It seems cruel that the elders would allow the children to be so horribly frightened by a lie, but the elders have convinced themselves that this creation of fear is for a good cause.  This religion also has taboos.  They are not to speak of these creatures.  They are to avoid the color red.    They even have a “ceremony of meat” in which they offer an animal at the edge of the woods to appease the wrath of these creatures for the “sin” of venturing into the forbidden forest.  The elders have also created a myth concerning time.  The headstone for the recently deceased Daniel Nicholson, has the date of death as 1897.  But it is not 1897.  When Ivy crosses the fence, a vehicle arrives which has an inspection sticker that will expire 12/04.  It seems that for this community, the 20th century was an evil time, filled with violence.  The 19th century was a time of greater innocence, before the modern world had been corrupted by all the horrors of crime and two world wars.

Though this creation of a fearful myth may seem cruel, the elders are convinced that they have done it for the good of their children.  They have left the modern world, and created the myth to protect their young.  One of the young people speaks of the town as being “wicked places where wicked people live.”   Sadly, the elders find that they find that they cannot create the utopia that will shield the children.  Children still die, and they are still subject to violence.   Toward the end of the movie, we find that the elders all left the modern world, because they had experienced some kind of tragedy in their lives due to the violence of the towns.  They are trying to shield their children from these things.  Ivy’s father tells her that all the elders had experienced a terrible loss in their lives, and he wanted to shield her from the darkness of that experience.  Thus, what we have in The Village is the portrayal of another attempt to establish a utopian community that will shield themselves and their children from the tragedies encountered in the modern world.  All of the elders in the village have met great tragedies because of the violence of the modern world.  They keep pictures, newspapers, and other reminders of this violence in locked boxes in each of their homes.  Alice Hunt (played by Sigourney Weaver) says that she keeps them as a reminder of her past.  She is afraid that if she forgets these horrible events, they may be born again in another form.  Each elder keeps such a box as a reminder of why they are there.

Like all utopian schemes, this community cannot shield its members from the tragedies of life.  As I mentioned earlier, the movie opens with one of the elders, August Nicholson, burying one of his children.  He later tells Lucius that there is no way to escape the sorrow–“it can smell you.”  The people in the village try to escape the violence of the modern world, yet Noah tries to murder another person for no other reason than jealousy.  The interesting point of Noah being the bringer of violence to the community is that, since he is mentally handicapped, he is considered to be “an innocent.”  Yet, it is this “innocent” that is guilty of attempted murder.  From the beginning, we find that Noah has a penchant for violence.  He likes playing games where he hits other boys with sticks.  Ivy threatens to put him in “the quiet room” if he doesn’t stop hitting people.  Also, Noah seems to want an invasion from “those whom we do not speak of.” 

Whenever it seems that the creatures are going to appear, he gets very excited, laughs, and claps his hands.  Toward the end of the film, we find that it is Noah who has discovered one of the creature costumes, and that he has been the one skinning the animals.  Giving this character the name “Noah” was a great touch by Shyamalan.    During the days of the Biblical Noah, the book of Genesis tells us, “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11).  After all the people in the world were killed during the flood, except for Noah and his family, the world had a chance to start anew.  But as we all know, violence came back to the world.  In The Village, in an ironic twist, it is Noah that brings back violence to the new world the elders have tried to create.  He brings back the dread red color, the color of blood.  At the end of the movie, Noah dies while trying to kill Ivy.  Thus, Noah, the innocent, moves from jealousy, to an attempt to murder his rival, and finally to an attempt to murder the one he loves.  When Edward Walker explains why he has allowed Ivy to go to the towns, he says that if he hadn’t done so, the community would never have been able to maintain its innocence.  He argues that the one thing this community has is innocence.  But is this community innocent?  Some of the deaths in the village could have been prevented if they had been willing to go to the towns to get medical attention.  Their control of the children is based on lies and deception.  Furthermore, Noah’s actions indicate that innocence cannot be totally maintained.  This utopian community finds that jealousy, envy, greed, and covetousness are not only in the towns, but within themselves and the children who have been reared in the village.  In spite of these facts, the elders persist in trying to perpetuate the myth.  When Noah dies, they decide to tell the rest of the people in the village that this is what the creatures will try to do to those who go into the woods.  Edward Walker tells Noah’s parents, “Your son has made our stories true.  Noah has given us a chance to continue in this place.”  Like Noah of old, this new Noah has given them a chance to start again, but this new start is built once again on deception.

Another irony in this separatist village is that though they try to separate themselves from the modern world, they can never entirely escape their need of the towns.  Ivy must go to the towns to get the medical supplies that are needed to save Lucius’ life.  The village faces the dilemma of all separatist communities:  Can we reach back into the modern world to take out of it what is good?  Ivy’s father tells her that when she finally went blind, he was so ashamed?  Why was he ashamed?  Was it because Ivy’s blindness could have been prevented if he had gone to the towns to get medical help for her?  Finally, he gives permission for Ivy to go to the town’s to save Lucius.  His wife talks him out of going to the towns himself, because he has taken an oath that he never would go back.  When he gives permission for Ivy to go, some of the other elders fear that he has endangered their entire project, for other people may find their location.

Shyamalan’s The Village is a commentary on our utopian schemes, especially those that advocate a withdrawal from the world.  The Village reveals that such schemes never ultimately deliver us from the sorrows and tragedies we try to escape.  From a Christian perspective we can say that The Village is an example of Jesus’ words, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies”(Matthew 15:18).  No matter how far we retreat from the modern world, these evils are present with us, inside of us.  Jesus said that he wanted his followers to be in the world, but not of the world.  All those who try to escape the temptations and tragedies of life by a retreat from the world will find their efforts to be futile.  Even the creation of a new myth, a myth without God, will not result in a better world.  Furthermore, as ? says, “We cannot escape the heartaches of life.  We know that now.”  Like most utopian communities, people thinking that they can make a better world find that what they have tried to leave behind has only followed them to a new location.

Christians often have utopian schemes, but we fail to take into account the heart of man.  The Christian must not retreat from the world, but function as salt and light.  Escapist illusions, whether Christian or secular, have always met with similar fates—either abandonment of the project, or the creation of lies to sustain an illusion.

Copyright c 2004 by Stephan R. Toms 

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Shut Up the Box and the Puppets

A Review of Mira Nair’s Film, Vanity Fair


Some people like to read the book before they see the movie, but I prefer the opposite. After I’ve read a book, especially a masterpiece such as William Thackeray’s 1848 novel, Vanity Fair, I always have the feeling that everything in the film version is rushed and chopped to pieces.  Thackeray’s huge novel, covering 30 years, is difficult to condense into two hours.  After having read the novel, one is always aware of what is missing in the movie.

Mira Nair’s film version of Vanity Fair has the beautiful sets and costumes that we have come to expect from such period pieces.  In this film we see the opulence of the rich in 19th century England along with the squalor of Victorian poverty.  Seeing something of the foul atmosphere that the lower classes had to endure, helps us to understand why a clever young woman such as Becky Sharp, played by Reese Witherspoon, would try anything to escape her station in life and become a social climber, or “mountaineer” as one character describes her. 

Thackeray’s novel was a satire designed to show the hypocrisy, foibles, and cruelty of the rich and aristocratic.  Thackeray personifies the rich as “Dives”(205), the traditional name given to that wealthy person  in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man.  At one point, Thackeray’s narrator sermonizes:  …do you ever step down from your prosperity, and wash the feet of these poor wearied beggars?  The very thought of them is odious and low.  ‘There must be classes—there must be rich and poor,’ Dives says, smacking his claret—(it is well if he even sends the broken meat out to Lazarus sitting under the window).  Very true; but think how mysterious and often unaccountable it is—that lottery of life which gives to this man the purple and fine linen, and sends to the other rags for garments and dogs for comforters.” (662)

Yet, it is this world of Vanity Fair, that the main character, Rebecca Sharp, desires to enter at all costs. Becky is determined to break into this world despite her impoverished origins.  While we may understand her zeal, we cannot countenance her methods.  For the narrator of Vanity Fair, Rebecca Sharp is a dangerous woman.  Miss Pinkerton, Rebecca’s school mistress thought of her as “this rebel, this monster, this serpent, this firebrand” (52).  The analogy of monster and serpent is used frequently to describe Becky.  She is also called Delilah (204), and truly, she emasculates her Samson.  She is a “dauntless worldling” (365), a “wretched woman” (620), a “hardened little reprobate” (763), “the little devil” (766), “the little Circe” (767).  Becky’s hypocrisy abounds as she will pretend concern for her immortal soul if she might profit monetarily by such a show around the wealthy religious (491).  While in the film version, we may be left wondering if Becky did, in actuality, care for her husband, Rawdon, the book leaves us in no doubt. When they are separated, we read, “Indeed, she did not miss him or anybody.  She looked upon him as her errand-man and humble slave.  He might be ever so depressed or sulky, and she did not mark his demeanour, or only treated it with a sneer.  She was busy thinking about her position, or her pleasures, or her advancement in society” (605).

One of the most common metaphors used in Victorian art and literature to describe the dangerous woman is that of the siren.  Thackeray’s narrator makes abundant use of this analogy throughout the novel to described Becky Sharp. For example:

In describing this siren, singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster’s hideous tale above water?  No!  Those who like may peep down under waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, or curling round corpses; but above the water-line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish immoralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie?  When, however, the siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labour lost to look into it ever so curiously.  They look pretty enough when they sit upon a rock, twangling their harps and combing their hair, and sing, and beckon to you to come hold the looking glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, reveling and feasting on their wretched pickled victims.  (738)

The film calls frequent attention to Becky’s singing.  It is through her singing that she lures men to her, and even wins women to her side.  In Nair’s film, perhaps by design, we love Becky’s singing just as those foolish sailors who were lured to their deaths by other sirens.  Thackeray’s Becky feeds on men, and leaves nothing but their bones.  Thackeray leaves a strong hint in the novel that Becky murdered Joseph  Sedley for his insurance money.  The ending of this film does not leave us with that impression of what Becky has in store for Jos.

Some critics have maligned this film as not being vicious enough in its satire.  While Reese Witherspoon gives an admirable performance in her role as Becky Sharp, the script makes her a little nicer than Thackeray’s Becky.  Granted, Witherspoon’s Rebecca Sharp is a conniving, hard-hearted woman, but in Nair’s film she comes across almost affable, almost a failed hero to be pitied.  The subtitle of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is:  A Novel without a Hero.  Truly, there are no heroes or heroines in his book.  All of the characters are held up as flawed, foolish, and selfish.  One of the major criticisms of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair when it was first published was that the characters had no good qualities mixed in with the bad.  Most of the characters in this new film version come across as pretty likeable—proud, silly, and manipulative, but in the long run, not too bad.  It does seem to me that the novel is more of a biting satire than this film.  Nair’s film is funny, but it doesn’t carry the heavy irony of Thackeray’s work.

The major missing piece of this film version of Vanity Fair is Thackeray’s narrator, who is a character as important as any other in the novel.  Vanity Fair’s narrator preaches, moralizes, spoofs, and lampoons.  The reader is never quite sure what to make of this narrator.  Does he have a true, moral message he is trying to convey, or does Thackeray hold up even the moralizing and preaching for ridicule as well? 

The very title, Vanity Fair, implies a moral message:  the temptations of the world (Vanity Fair) lure us to disaster.  The title is taken from that section of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in which Christian and Faithful journey through the town of Vanity Fair, described as a fair wherein should be sold all sorts of vanity… therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not. 

And, moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be seen juggling, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind.

Here are to be seen too, and that for nothing, thefts, murders, adulteries, false swearers, and that of a blood-red color.  (127)

Almost every item on this list of merchandise in Vanity Fair is sought after by the characters of Thackeray’s work.  The names of the jurymen in Bunyan’s Vanity Fair, Mr. Blind-man, Mr. No-good, Mr. Malice, Mr. Love-lust, Mr. Live-loose, Mr. Heady, Mr. High-mind, Mr. Enmity, Mr. Liar, Mr. Cruelty, Mr. Hate-light, and Mr. Implacable, are echoed in Thackeray’s character names, such as: Pitt Crawley, Mungo Binkie, Lord Binkie, Old Miss Toady, Mrs. Briefless, Mr. Hammerdown, Mr. Stubble, Ensign Spooney, Lady Blanche Thistlewood, and Sir Huddlestone Fuddlestone, Thackeray seems to share Bunyan’s view of his own 19th century Vanity Fair:  “But my kind reader will please to remember that this history has ‘Vanity Fair’ for a title, and that Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions” (117).  One of the purposes of Thackeray’s novel is to show that the people who have rank and position are the least qualified to hold those places of adulation and authority.  Describing Sir Pitt Crawley, he writes:

“Vanity Fair—Vanity Fair!  Here was a man, who could not spell, and did not care to read—who had the habits and cunning of a boor:  whose aim in life was pettifogging; who never had a taste, or emotion, or enjoyment, but what was sordid and foul; and yet he had rank, and honours, and power, somehow:  and was a dignitary of the land, and a pillar of the state.  He was high sheriff and rode in a golden coach.  Great ministers and statesmen courted him; and in Vanity Fair he had a higher place than the most brilliant genius or spotless virtue.  (123)

It is this kind of piercing satire that we never quite get from this new film version.

Nair’s film does an excellent job of portraying loveless marriages, echoing Thackeray’s narrator’s opinion that love itself is a mask for greed.  For Thackeray’s narrator, brotherly love and romantic love are actually pretenses for the love of money:  “These money transactions—these speculations in life and death—these battles for reversionary spoil—make brothers very loving towards each other in Vanity Fair. I, for my part, have known a five-pound note to interpose and knock up a half-century’s attachment between two brethren; and can’t but admire, as I think what a fine and durable thing Love is among worldly people” (132).  The narrator’s heavy irony shows that love among the rich lasts as long as there is a possibility of gaining or inheriting money by such love.  Nair’s film succeeds in presenting the shallow forms of love in Vanity Fair, especially those involving the displays of affection toward those who are about to die in order that these “affectionate people”  might inherit a fortune.  For Thackeray’s narrator, “nobody does anything for nothing” (176).  “Love” lives or dies according to the possession or lack of money:

Perhaps in Vanity Fair there are no better satires than letters.  Take a bundle of your dear friend’s of ten years back—your dear friend whom you hate now.  Look at a file of your sister’s!  how you clung to each other till you quarreled about the twenty-pound legacy!  Get down the round-hand scrawls of your son who has half broken your heart with selfish undutifulness since; or a parcel of your own, breathing endless ardour and love eternal, which were sent back by your mistress when she married the Nabob—your mistresss for whom you now care no more than for Queen Elizabeth.  Vows, love, pomises, confidences, gratitude, how queerly they read after a while!  There ought to be a law in Vanity Fair ordering the destruction of every written document (except receipted tradesmen’s bills) after a certain brief and proper interval.  Those quacks and misanthropes who advertise indelible Japan ink should be made to perish along with their wicked discoveries.  The best ink for Vanity Fair use would be one that faded utterly in a couple of days, and the left the paper clean and blank, so that you might write on it to somebody else.  (231)

In Vanity Fair, all love is selfish.  The narrator observes: “Which of us is there can tell how much vanity lurks in our warmest regard for others, and how selfish our love is?” (421).

The last paragraph of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair begins, “Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum!” which is the Latin translation of Ecclesiastes 1:2:  “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”  In many ways, Thackeray’s narrator resembles the cynicism of Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes.  Like Solomon, Thackeray’s narrator believes that those things which we pursue so ardently, do not last long, not even love and friendship.  After Rawdon Crawley marries Becky, the narrator remarks that he no longer went to the places where he used to drink and gamble, but he was not missed:  “They asked about him once or twice at his clubs, but did not miss him much; in those booths of Vanity Fair people seldom do miss each other” (211).  In another section of the novel, the narrator remarks,  “…in this vast town one has not the time to go and seek one’s friends; if they drop out of the rank they disappear, and we march on without them.  Who is ever missed in Vanity Fair?” (712).   As Solomon observed in Ecclesiastes, the dead are soon forgotten. When Pitt Crawley dies, the narrator of Vanity Fair remarks, “Could the best and kindest of us who depart from the earth, have an opportunity of revisiting it, I suppose he or she (assuming that any Vanity Fair feelings subsist in the sphere whither we are bound) would have a pang of mortification at finding how soon our survivors were consoled.  And so Sir Pitt was forgotten—like the kindest and best of us—only a few weeks sooner” (493).  Even Becky comes to realize that her ambitious life has led to a kind of emptiness: 

She thought of her long past life, and all the dismal incidents of it.  Ah, how dreary it seemed, how miserable, lonely, and profitless!  Should she take laudanum, and end it, to—have done with all hopes, schemes, debts, and triumphs?  The French maid found her in this position—sitting in the midst of her miserable ruins with clasped hands and dry eyes….  All her lies and her schemes, all her selfishness and her wiles, all her wit and genius had come to this bankruptcy.   (622)

As far as characters within the story, this cynicism toward society is displayed most often by Lord Steyne, played by Gabriel Byrne in the film version.  Gabriel Byrne, while probably too handsome to be Thackeray’s Lord Steyne,  does a great job of playing the part of a world-weary Solomon type.  Lord Steyne is admired by Becky as having everything that anyone could want, but he is neither happy nor content: 

So there was splendour and wealth, but no great happiness perchance, behind the tall carved portals of Gaunt House with its smoky coronets and ciphers.  The feats there were of the grandest in London, but there was not over-much content therewith, except among the guest who sate at my lord’s table.  Had he not been so great a Prince very few possibly would have visited him; but in Vanity Fair the sins of very great personages are looked at indulgently. (552)

Lord Steyne warns Becky, “Well,…you are bent on becoming a fine lady.  You pester my poor old life out to get you into the world.  You won’t be able to hold your own there, you silly little fool….  You’ve got no money, and you want to compete with those who have….  All women are alike.  Everybody is striving what is not worth the having!” (562-3).  Of course, Solomon’s message in Ecclesiastes is, that after bitter personal experience, he and the rest of world pursue “vanity,” “things of no value.” 

As I pointed out earlier, even during the narrator’s sermonizing, it is difficult to distinguish sincerity from satire.  One of the long narrative lectures on death could have been delivered by a conservative, evangelical clergyman:

But, without preaching, the truth may surely be borne in mind, that the bustle, and triumph, and laughter, and the gaiety which Vanity Fair exhibits in public, do not always pursue the performer into private life, and that the most dreary depression of spirits and dismal repentances sometimes overcome him.  Recollection of the best ordained banquets will scarcely cheer sick epicures.  Reminiscences of the most becoming dresses and brilliant ball-triumphs will go very little way to console faded beauties.  Perhaps statesmen, at a particular period of existence, are not much gratified at thinking over the most triumphant divisions; and the success of the pleasure of yesterday becomes of very small account when a certain (albeit uncertain) morrow is in view., about which all of us must some day or other be speculating.  O brother wearers of motley!  Are there not moments when one grows sick of grinning and tumbling, and the jingling of cap and bells?  This dear friends and companions, is my amiable object—to walk you through the Fair, to examine the shops and the shows there; and that we should all come home after the flare, and the noise, and the gaiety, and be perfectly miserable in private.  (229)

Yet, we are not sure how to take this moralizing about the emptiness of Vanity Fair.  The narrator is so cynical, we don’t know when we can trust his sermonic asides. Imagine David Letterman delivering a sermon.  We are so used to his cynicism, if he preached a sermon, we would think, “He’s pulling our leg even now.”

Vanity Fair does seem to be a sermon against the vanities of the world, but we also find that the narrator is sometimes sympathetic toward those who live in Vanity Fair and toward those who want to be a part of it:

It is all vanity to be sure:  but who will not own to liking a little of it?  I should like to know what well-constituted mind, merely because it is transitory, dislikes roast beef?  That is a vanity; but may every man who reads this have a wholesome portion of it through life, I beg:  aye, though my readers were five hundred thousand.  Sit down, gentlemen, and fall to, with a good hearty appetite; the fat, the lean, the gravy, the horseradish as you like it—don’t spare it.  Another glass of wine, Jones, my boy—a little bit of the Sunday side.  Yet, let us eat our fill of the vain thing, and be thankful therefor.  And let us make the best of Becky’s aristocratic pleasures likewise—for these too, like all other mortal delights, were but transitory.   (584)

Again, we are reminded of Solomon who said, “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his laboour.  This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God…. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity:  for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.  Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave whither thou goest” (Eccl. 2:24; 9:10-1).  Thackeray and Solomon appear to be saying that though these things may be transitory, let us enjoy them while we can.

 So, what was Vanity Fair designed to be?  Was it a secular sermon to be taken seriously in all its parts?  The narrator, at times, seems to rant and rave against Vanity Fair, and then, admit that there are pleasures in Vanity Fair which we should not scorn altogether. 

Perhaps the theme of Vanity Fair could be described best by the words of the narrator as Miss Crawley is about to die:  “The last scene of her dismal Vanity Fair comedy was fast approaching.”  Vanity Fair was designed to be a comedy, but it is a dismal comedy.  It is here where I think the film fails most.  Thackeray calls his work a “comic history” (575).  Nair’s film portrays the comic aspect, but we don’t see Thackeray’s dismal viewpoint.  Gabriel Byrne’s Lord Steyne says at one point, “The chief benefit of being born into society is one learns early what a tawdry puppet play it is.”  Thackeray’s novel ends with the words, “Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out” (797).  Thackeray’s dismal comic history is an account of how the people of Vanity Fair are puppets, manipulated by greed, selfishness, and the incompetent rulers and trend-setters of a decadent society.  Mira Nair’s film lacks that quality of cynicism that should make us despise Vanity Fair, and at the same time, cause us to laugh at ourselves for being so foolish as to want to be a part of it. 

Works Cited


Thackeray, William Makepeace.  Vanity Fair.  1848. New York:  Penguin, 1987.


Copyright © 2004 by Stephan R. Toms 

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Is the Sword the Only Answer?

A Review of Zhang Yimou’s Hero

by S. Randall Toms 

This film is rated PG-13 for violence and a scene of sensuality.            

Hero is one of the most visually stunning films I have seen in quite a while.  The cinematography, with its changing color schemes, incredible Chinese landscapes, cast of thousands, and martial arts sequences provides a feast for the eyes.  The few minutes of one martial arts sequence fought in a Fall setting drenched in brilliant reds and yellows remind one of why we love the beauty of excellent filmmaking.   Also, the soundtrack contains violin strains by Itzhak Perlman, and  haunting, Eastern, melodies played on traditional Chinese instruments. 

In China, Hero has attracted larger audiences than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Zhang Ziyi, who plays the character “Moon” in this film, also starred in Crouching Tiger. The films are similar in their martial arts scenes, complete with warriors flying and gliding through buildings and over treetops, but Hero has a story of its own, one particularly relevant as we contemplate the justifications, benefits, and tragedies of war. 

Hero tells the story of an attempt to assassinate the King of Qin, Chin Shi Huang Di, the man who would eventually become the first emperor to unite all of China in the third century B. C.  The King of Qin is particularly afraid of three assassins, Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow,  who are out to kill him; but the king learns of a warrior, Nameless, played by Jet Li, who has defeated the king’s three would-be assassins.  Now that the King can rest in peace, he invites Nameless to his court so that he can hear the story of how Nameless defeated the three greatest assassins in China.  After Nameless tells his story, the king is not convinced of the truth of the tale, so the story is retold several times to clarify, if possible, what actually happened.           

The martial arts scenes depicting the fights between Nameless, Sky, Broken, Sword, and Flying Snow contain many of the standard martial arts movements, but the colors, backgrounds, and props prevent us from thinking that we are seeing something we have watched in other films of this genre.  Some of the scenes are obviously based on the two dimensional quality of Chinese landscape painting, rather than the three dimensional landscape painting we are accustomed to in the West.             

Hero explores the issue, “What are people willing to sacrifice in order to have peace?”  At this point in history, China is divided into seven kingdoms.  The King of Qin is trying to unite the kingdoms so that there will be only one.  One of the graphics at the beginning of the film tells us that people give up their lives for many reasons, and they kill for the same reasons.  The King of Qin has an idea to end all wars.  But as the graphic tells us, “It was an idea soaked in the blood of his enemies.”  It is always easy to justify “the war to end all wars.”  Again, we are faced with the age-old paradox of shedding blood in order to stop the shedding of blood.  Nameless and Flying Snow, motivated by hatred and vengeance, are determined to assassinate  the King of Qin because they have had family members killed by the Qin army.  The question dealt with throughout the film is, “Is it best to let the King of Qin wage his wars against the other kingdoms, kill thousands in the process, for the greater good of uniting the kingdom in order that there might be peace?”  At one crucial point in the film, a character asks the question, “Is the sword the only answer?”             

Related to the theme of the benefits of war is the question, “What is a hero?”  Is the hero one who fights with the sword, or one who lays down his sword?  In this film, we see the stereotypical hero who is the most skilled swordsman; but we are also allowed to see the consequences of the sword.  In this film, there is no way to watch it without hearing the words of Jesus, “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matt. 26:52).  Also, watch for the manner in which Nameless becomes a Christ figure.  The parallels become fascinating by the end of the film.           

Despite all of the amazing battle scenes and martial arts sequences, Hero includes  a yearning for peace.  The King of Qin sees in Broken Sword’s calligraphy a condition in the warrior where the desire to kill no longer exists, but only peace remains.  Flying Snow promises to take Broken Sword, the true spokesman for peace in the film, to her ancestral home where there are no swords and no swordsmen.  Hero suggests that many sacrifices must be made, many wars fought, and many lives lost for the sake of peace.  Throughout the film, there seems to be an undercurrent of Chinese nationalism which suggests that some suffering and death is necessary for the sake of “Our Land” (the key phrase in Hero).  The movie also proposes that sometimes, love can be shown only by making the ultimate sacrifice of laying down one’s life, or laying down one’s sword.  There may be occasions in which it is necessary to die by the sword in order to make people understand the futility of swords.           

The cinematography and philosophical questions surrounding war and heroism make Hero one of the best films released in the
U. S. this year (the film was nominated for an Academy Award last year.  It is just now being released in the states).  I’m looking forward to obtaining the DVD so that I can analyze the film a little closer.  The film is in Chinese with English subtitles, and at times, one must read the subtitles very quickly before they are taken off the screen. Since I was taking notes, I missed some of the dialogue, but I am looking forward to catching it all on DVD, and writing a more detailed review.

Copyright © 2004, by Stephan R. Toms

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