Finding connections to the gospel
Every now and then I take a look at recent film, TV, books and popular culture, to see how Christians can think about the underlying values depicted and make connections to the gospel. Here’s my latest scout around the world of entertainment.
The Power of the Dog (Netflix)
This emotionally loaded western won its director Jane Campion the Academy Award for Best Director this year. Note the very modern themes at the heart of the film: hidden homosexuality and addiction. There is revenge and resolution, salvation (up to a point) but no redemption. As with Campion’s previous film The Piano, the film celebrates the beauty of creation and lingers over its wonderful landscapes. You could argue that the characters are all reaching for something which they can’t find in themselves – in short, they are in desperate need of a saviour!
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Netflix)
Another beautifully constructed western, this time an anthology of loosely connected short stories delivered with the Coen brothers’ trademark wit and lightness of touch, and a terrific cast. There is eccentricity, fun and variety in the rich storytelling and plenty to catch the eye: a dog that won’t stop barking, a travelling Shakespearian actor with no legs, an elderly prospector who strikes gold. The characters embrace life in all its fragility and colour; there is rough justice, violence, occasional tenderness and a thin line between life and death. It’s worth reflecting on who the heroes and villains are, what they do and how this is portrayed. The film portrays the hope of a better life which propelled the wild west, and the hard work which goes with it.
Don’t Look Up (Netflix)
A thoroughly enjoyable disaster movie with an all-star cast including Leonardo Di Caprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett. A planet-destroying meteor is spotted hurtling towards Earth, propelling the scientists who spot it into celebrity, even as the governments of the world do a lot of talking and little doing. The film takes aim at many of the features of our culture: virtue signalling, social media, instant celebrity, cynicism about government; with obvious parallels to the climate crisis. Again, the question at its heart is, ‘Who will save us?’ and the film concludes that it is beyond humanity’s power to save ourselves.
Gentleman Jack (BBC1)
Costume drama gets a modern twist in this adaptation of the nineteenth-century diaries of Anne Lister, one of the first women to write frankly about her lesbianism. Now in its second series, the show majors on very current themes of identity and sexuality, the message at its heart being a celebration of ‘Gentleman Jack’, as Lister was nicknamed. Viewers are encouraged to embrace who you are, to live without shame and to follow your own path. As the Industrial Revolution takes off, the forces of tradition are seen as negative and reactionary: the fusty old men who get it wrong, pitted against the witty woman who gets it right. You could reflect on the real-life implications of some of this thinking (the celebration of the self, the rejection of the old-fashioned), and the extent to which this drama is a true reflection of the events of the time.
How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie (Borough Press)
A thoroughly entertaining, darkly comic revenge story of a young woman, the abandoned love child of a prominent businessman, who sets out to kill his whole family. The characters and dialogue ring true and it’s a thumping good read. At its heart are themes of identity, justice and retribution; it’s worth reflecting on the choices our heroine makes and how she justifies herself. Where do these take her and what alternatives does she have?
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (Penguin)
An unusual novel, in that it is not a single narrative but a set of different ones, where each lead character is connected to the others. It tackles a wide variety of issues around modern femininity: identity, sexuality, sexism, transgender, race, education, feminism and more, without feeling worthy or preachy. The characters are wonderfully well-written and the way it all folds together is ingenious. Readers may like to think about the assumptions behind the characters; who is portrayed positively and who negatively? Who do you find yourself rooting for and why? Again, what alternative choices are available?
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze)
Another cracking read centred around strong female characters. Reading it made me realise how little mainstream fiction has a young, female, black voice; this may account for its rapturous critical response. It’s not for the fainthearted, with some strong sexual and violent content. The journey of the main character is interesting: her gradual path towards understanding herself is explored sensitively. It’s worth thinking about how Queenie experiences herself and the actions of the men in the novel. Is her journey rather idealised given where she starts off? How might a Christian character make a difference (say, a Christian friend)?
Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV (BBC Sounds)
I binge-listened the ten hours of this podcast – it’s absolutely fascinating and well worth it if you want to understand how reality TV has shaped our popular culture and society. The presenters do a deep dive into everything from Big Brother to Love Island, the Kardashians, What Not to Wear and The Only Way is Essex. Don’t underestimate how influential this genre has been, as it affects young people’s expectations of life, helped to create our fame culture and holds out often unrealistic portrayals of what is an ideal body or lifestyle. It’s worth reflecting on how absent the Christian voice is in this world; what difference might whole-hearted engagement with our mass media make for our churches? Is it time for a different approach from just avoiding the perceived immorality of some of these shows?
Teach Me a Lesson (BBC Sounds)
Bella Mackie’s been busy; as well as writing, she’s done a podcast with her husband, DJ and broadcaster Greg James. This irresistible listen sees them getting lessons in every school subject from a real teacher on subjects as varied as the manipulation of images (computing), whether a human being could actually get super powers (biology) and whether advertising can be art (er…art). The BBC’s traditional mission statement is to educate, entertain and inform; this is a great example of one programme doing all three things. Christian thinking gets a look-in too. Our presenters are models of what it means to be teachable: open to new ideas, positive and fun. Churchgoing Christians can take a leaf out of their book!
The Joker (Warner Bros)
A violent, gritty but also thought-provoking portrayal of a man on the edge in a city on the edge. It evokes its setting very well (effectively 1970s New York) and Joaquin Phoenix gives an extraordinary performance. You could consider who might provide a light in the dark places the film portrays – what might a more positive approach to mental illness look like, when the state is limited by funds and personnel? Are we prisoners of our past or can it be redeemed?
The Batman (Warner Bros)
The latest version of the DC Comics hero sees Robert Pattinson battling the Riddler in a very dark Gotham City – literally dark throughout – I was desperate for someone to turn the lights on by the end! Long but gripping, with a variety of interesting actors in supporting roles. There are themes of what it means to follow the crowd or stand out, power, responsibility and choice. What is Batman’s code and how does he conduct himself? Who is Jesus in this story?