Fundamentals in Film: Groundhog Day

by the Night Writer

When I told the lads last week that we were going to watch a classic Bill Murray movie that featured a cute, furry animal they were all, “Cool – Caddyshack!”

“Oh yeah,” I replied, “And what positive message could I possibly squeeze out of that besides ‘Be the ball.'”

There were a number of reasons for me to choose “Groundhog Day“: 1) It’s February, 2) The story, and 3) Bill Murray is about the only actor to come out of Saturday Night Live who’s movies I like. As it turns out, the movie was timely for another reason as well, which I’ll get to.

I think most people know the plot of the movie. Murray is an egotistical, selfish jerk of a TV weatherman who literally gets stuck in Puxatawney, PA covering the annual Groundhog Day ceremonies. Not just stuck as in he can’t leave town, but stuck living the same day over and over again although he’s the only one who’s aware of what’s happening — everyone else in the town forgets what happened before when they live the day all over again. Why this particular jerk is singled out for this anomaly is hard to say, but just go with it. Murray soon discovers that no matter what he does — including getting locked in jail, kidnapping Puxatawney Phil or killing himself — will keep him from waking up at 6:00 a.m. the “next” morning to the exact same story.

When he first realizes there are “no consequences” he indulges in any and every thing he can think of to amuse himself, whether it’s stealing money, taking advantage of unsuspecting women, pigging out on fatty food, sweets and smoking…all while it’s clear that he’s coming apart trying to deal with this unique kind of Hell. He eventually sets his sights on seducing his new producer, played by Andie MacDowell, using his endless series of days to learn everything about her, what she likes, what she hopes for, what might impress her and then trying to use this knowledge to deceive her. She has a good heart and he’s very nearly successful again and again but each time her common sense and character undo his schemes. Thwarted in his quest and ultimately bored by his all his indulgences, Murray tries a number of inventive ways to kill himself, but always waking up back in his bed. At his lowest point he spends another day with MacDowell, not trying to scam her but trying to convince her of the absurd thing that is happening to him. She agrees to help him, and in the wee hours of the morning, exhausted, Murray realizes that what attracts him to her is her kindness, fairness and compassion even when dealing with a guy she knows only as a jerk.

At rock bottom, and from that revelation, Murray starts to change, using his unique situation and “omniscience” to help others. Strangely enough, he starts to have fun and begins enjoying himself by helping others, preventing accidents and becoming the most popular guy in town.

I first got the idea to show this movie this month back in November or December, but what makes it especially timely now is that it comes on the heels of the post I wrote earlier this week about the book Born to be Good and the “discovery” that humans have a built-in and measurable warm feeling and reaction to doing good or seeing good things done. Murray’s journey from bewilderment to dissipation, depression and ultimately redemption — though filmed 25 years before the book was written — demonstrates that premise in a funny and touching movie that is as fundamental as any film in this series. (See Sidebar Categories for other films).

Fundamentals in Film: Into the Woods

Fairy tales are one of the oldest ways mankind has used entertainment to teach the value of good behavior and consequences of bad. Most tales at heart tell of a central character who does either good or bad and either triumphs in the end or suffers gruesome retribution (especially in the original, non-sanitized versions of the tales — not for nothing were the most famous compilers known as the Brothers Grimm.) Pure hearts received happily ever after and malefactors suffered blindings, beheadings and bloody reprisals. What a great set-up for a musical comedy!

In Into The Woods, Stephen Sondheim mixes together several familiar tales, adds in his trade-mark clever wordplay and weaves it all together into a fast-paced, two-act, Tony-award-winning musical with a light touch that covers some fundamental values and moral dilemmas. The long-running Broadway show was filmed for television in 1991, featuring the spectacular Bernadette Peters in the pivotal role of The Witch. (The DVD of this production is available from Netflix).

In addition to The Witch, the central characters are Cinderella, Jack from “Jack in the Beanstalk”, a baker and his wife, and a couple of handsome-prince brothers. All have something they greatly desire, expressed in the all-purpose and all-powerful motto of the show: “I wish.” There is also a “Mysterious Man” who’s motives in the first act are not clear, though it turns out he is the one who’s first transgression sets all the other plot wheels into motion.

The movie version is a delightful, hilarious romp for the whole family though it is a bit ribald in places with a lot of cleavage and an anatomically-correct Wolf (Hello, Little Girl), as well as some adult themes that are deftly and creatively handled. The message is that wishes lead to actions and actions have consequences, some of which may not be immediately realized. The first act of the show weaves each character’s story together as they interact with each other in their pursuit of their respective wishes, wrapping up in a “happy ever after” — or so you might think. Act 2 then goes into just how happy “happy ever after” can be if you haven’t really resolved who you are and what is truly important to you and in life. The cleverness and humor continues throughout the second act, but profound revelations and morals are in store. Here’s a summary of the character of the main characters:

Cinderella: gentle and kind, she spends a great deal of her hard life wishing for better things but especially to be able to go to the king’s festival. Her inability to decide what it is she really wants, however, leads to a number of complications.

Jack: a simple-minded boy with no father on the scene and a nagging but protective other, he discovers a fabulous new world with giants but his almost-innocent greed and suddenly discovered desire for adventure means complications are most definitely in store!

The Baker and his Wife: These are the characters on whom the story truly turns. A childless couple due to a curse the Witch put on the Baker’s household as a result of his father stealing beans from the Witch’s garden both ties the other stories together and carries the most complete moral dilemmas. The Baker also grew up without a father, and while his instincts are good and decent, he is easily swayed by his practical, ends-justifies-the-means (or beans) wife who’s situational ethics and strong personality add momentum to the causes and effects initiated by others. Ultimately, she is undone by another who’s situational ethics outmaneuver hers. The Baker, however, ultimately overcomes his timidity and realizes his weakness, ultimately leading to him becoming a better man.

The Witch: Somewhere I once heard someone use the line, “I’m not evil, I’m just efficient.” While that isn’t in this show, it describes the Witch. Ruthless, practical and powerful she has her weaknesses and is the character you can’t stop watching.

Little Red Riding Hood: a young girl, not as simple-minded as Jack, but immature and easily controlled by her own desires and indulgent impulses, she learns a hard lesson when she encounters the older, wiser Wolf but after her rescue has one of the most poignant songs in singing “I Know Things Now.” The last line of that song is that “Nice is different from Good.” Keep that in mind as this review continues.

Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince. Two royal brothers and the apparent romantic ideal of any story, they are in fact driven by their competition with each other and their love of the quest and of obtaining that which appears out of reach. Once obtained, they lose interest, leading to heartbreak and devastation, though not necessarily for themselves. As one says when confronted with his faults, “I’m sorry, I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”

My favorite scene in the movie is in act two when the Baker, overcome by tragedy and fear, leaves his baby son with Cinderella and runs away, intending to abandon his son just as his father had abandoned him. In the woods, however, he encounters the ghost of his father (the Mysterious Man from act one) and gains an important perspective that helps move him past his own selfishness (click on the video below).

I like everything about that scene and the way it is handled, but I’m especially drawn to the father’s rationalization, as he confesses to the original theft of the beans that set everything into motion, “How was I to know? How are we ever to know?” Exactly — that’s the excuse just about everyone in the show and in real life uses at some point, but as I pointed out to the Fundamentals in Film class when we watched this, is that really true? Don’t we really know that certain behaviors are not going to turn out well, yet we blind ourselves to them anyway?

Another key lesson comes from the Witch in act two when the cast is confronted with a huge (literally) consequence for their actions and they try to establish the blame for what has befallen them, learning that they’ve each played a part in bringing this turn of events to pass. One way out is a ruthless and cold-blooded “for the greater good” decision, and of course the Witch is ready to act, to the horror of the others. Her response in the song “The Last Midnight” is apt, both for the situation and the lesson of the story:

You’re so nice.
You’re not good,
You’re not bad,
You’re just nice.
I’m not good,
I’m not nice,
I’m just right.
I’m the Witch.
You’re the world.

Ultimately, most debts are paid and lessons are learned and the surviving characters start a new life, not necessarily happier, but definitely smarter ever after.

Fundamentals in Film: lessons from history

I haven’t pulled back from the monthly movie classes with the boys and this month I took us even deeper and darker than where we’ve gone of late (The Dark Knight and The Ghost and the Darkness). Last week we watched two segments of an excellent BBC documentary entitled The Nazis: A Warning From History.

It’s a six-part series (available through Netflix) that looks at the social and political turmoil in post-WWI Germany that gave rise to the National Socialist Party, the intimidation and co-option of the church and citizenry leading up to the war, the atrocities of the war itself and the fall of Hitler and the aftermath of the war. The two episodes I focused on were “The Wild East” and “The Road to Treblinka.” The first described the dividing of Poland between Germany and Russia and the “Germanization” or ethnic cleansing of the German-held Polish territories which included the forced resettlement of the Polish and Slavic peoples. “The Road to Treblinka,” obviously, dealt with the events leading up to the persecution and “ultimate solution” regarding the Jews in Europe. Both episodes were grim, gritty and explicit.

My purpose for showing them was I didn’t want the boys to fall into the easy belief that the Nazis were generic boogey-men taken out of the Hollywood props closet whenever a handy bad guy was needed. Neither were they cartoon caricatures as in the old Hogan’s Heroes TV shows where Sgt. Schult’s signature”I know notthhink!” line was really a macabre parody of the German people willfully ignorant of the horrors going on around them. Actual footage from the relocation and concentration camps, clips of hangings and other executions and interviews with survivors — and with soldiers, townspeople and others that took part in the midnight raids, the extortion and outright theft. It was amazing that these let themselves be interviewed and compelling to watch as they tried to explain the rationalizations they used to justify their actions, or to let themselves sleep more or less peacefully.

Afterwards we talked about how surreal it must have seemed to the people at thetime, living in civilized Europe, to be rousted from their homes in the middle of the night and loaded on trucks, to see their neighbors herded through the streets and to wonder what the world was coming to. We also discussed the possibility that that kind of evil wasn’t necessarily destroyed in 1945, but continued in the killing fields of Cambodia, Bosnia and Africa, and twitches like a restless leg beneath the flannel trousers in Russia, Georgia and the Ukraine today.

“What would you do?” I asked the boys, if given the opportunity to move into a Jewish merchant’s home, or had the opportunity to sell black-market bread to those starving in the Lodz or Warsaw ghettoes, or put in charge of sorting the people that came off the trains at Treblinka and directing them to the hygiene procedures or medical center? What standard would you use, what rationalization would come most easily?

Most of the group were engaged enough to come back this week for a special encore that was really the main thing I wanted them to see: Martin Doblmeier’s excellent documentary, Bonhoeffer. It is the story of a man who acted on his deepest faith and principals in the face of the darkest times. I wanted them — and you — to know who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, what he did and why. To frame it for you, here’s what I wrote on this blog about Bonhoeffer on April 9 of 2005, the 60th anniversary of his death:

“This is the end — but for me, the beginning of life.”

Those were not the words of Pope John Paul II, but of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed 60 years ago today by the Nazis in the closing days of World War II.

I thought of these words this week as the world honored the Pope and I listened to commentators in every media try to put their political spin on what a life of faith should look like. And when I thought of their words in the context of this anniversary, I could only shake my head at the subtleties of God and offer a bitter smile. Bitter at the foolishness and presumption, but a smile nonetheless in order to share in the laugh God must have been having.

Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes. Supremely talented and perceptive, he saw spiritual truth in a clear light and threw himself into writing it down and vigorously living it out in total commitment to the lives of those around him, yet he was also capable of the loneliest touch of inner doubt. He was one of the earliest and most unyielding voices in opposition to Hitler as far back as 1933 and struggled to shine a light on Hitler’s co-opting of the German church and to reconstruct Christian ethics.

Fearing for Bonhoeffer’s life, his friends arranged a position for him in America ahead of the coming war, only to have him turn around and return to Germany almost immediately, saying:

I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.

A pacifist, he ultimately saw the need to try and throw a spoke into the wheel of the Nazi war machine and was arrested in 1943 and accused of being part of a plot to kill Hitler. Over the next two years Bonhoeffer wrote prodigiously and powerfully, cramming each paragraph with stunning clarity and revelation almost as if he sensed his time was short (he was 39 – younger than I am now – when he died). As he watched the German church crumble around him and embrace the unbiblical tenets of Nazism, he exhorted his followers and his country that obedience and belief were bound together, saying “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who obeys, believes.”

You can find out much more about his incredible and courageous story here on the pages hosted by the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, but let me return to the present and the spirit of our age so much in evidence the past few weeks, and what Bonhoeffer might wryly refer to as another example of:

…the vigilant religious instinct of man for the place where grace is to be obtained at the cheapest price.

What he meant was that we all too easily fall into iniquity by trying to determine for ourselves and by our own standards what pleases God. Today there is a lot of easy talk about spirituality as we boomers age and find that our first commandment – “Love thyself” – doesn’t sustain. Christian or otherwise we seek to set our own standards for what is “good enough,” forgetting what it cost those who came before us to raise God’s standard. Journalist David Brooks calls it “building a house of obligation on a foundation of choice,” or, “orthodoxy without obedience.”

You can be thought to be spiritual merely for acknowledging there is a need for spirituality without admitting that you have any responsibility to live up to it in any way. It is a spirituality that honors teachers but not a Messiah. It is what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” and described as being the greatest threat to the Church. The threat, however, wasn’t from the world but rather from within the Church.

The complacency of cheap grace allowed Nazism to subvert the gospel in the German church, and the spiritual complacency of America in the 50s and 60s germinated the seeds that bear so much bitter fruit in our culture today. (Btw, you might find it an interesting study to compare the origins, thinking and actions of the original Nazis with the origins, thinking and actions of those who are the first to label others as Nazis today.) It is this “cheap grace” with which we try to cover a multitude of sins while projecting a rich aura of tolerance and enlightenment. As Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic, “The Cost of Discipleship”:

This is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without contrition. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

In what I have read of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and – though I am not a Catholic – what I have seen in the life of Pope John Paul II, I sense they both understood that their own lives were not too dear a price to pay for the sake of future generations. As Bonhoeffer wrote in one of his letters from prison:

The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.

I would not have the coming generation live in ignorance, complacency and hopelessness.

Fundamentals in Film: Khartoum

I’ve always been on the lookout for films with strong messages dealing with honor and character in this series for teen-age boys, and the stories can be fictional, factual or a bit of both. It’s a bonus, however, when we have a chance to see something of a historical nature that can also help us learn something about the world today. Last month our movie was The Wind and the Lion, a mostly historical story with some movie-making embellishments that provided a useful sketch of early 20th century geo-politics while still offering a rip-roaring adventure.

Afterwards the young men seemed to be interested in the Middle Eastern dynamics of that time and how these were still resonating today. Our next class is Thursday night and I’ve decided to follow up on that with a film I happened to catch on AMC right after Charlton Heston died: Khartoum. It’s an amazing and reliably accurate telling of Islamic jihad in the late 1800s that has striking, and sobering, parallels to today.

Here’s the set-up for the story: It’s the 1880s and most countries in the Middle East are under the influence, if not outright control, of one or another of the European nations. Egypt, supported by England, controls the Sudan, including the capital city of Khartoum. A few years earlier a British officer, Charles George “Chinese” Gordon, had been Governor-General of the Sudan and largely stamped out the slave trade in the country. As this had been the major industry in the land, the economy had subsequently tanked and in the hard times a religious leader, Muhammad Ahmad, proclaimed himself the Mahdi (Expected One) and rallied thousands to holy war to drive out the Egyptians and Europeans. He has early successes and England sends 10,000 men under General Hicks to put down the insurgency (Gordon had been recalled to England a few years earlier), but the Mahdi lures them into the dessert and then wipes out the entire command. This disaster is not well-received back in England where the government of Prime Minister William Gladstone is on shaky ground and the public is outraged at the loss of the expedition but also weary of foreign entanglements, especially on behalf of their Egyptian allies. While England and Gladstone want little to do with the Sudan, they need the Egyptians and especially the Suez Canal.

As portrayed in the movie, Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) wants to wash his hands of the Sudan but is experiencing pressure to rescue the Egyptian and European citizens in the city before it is overwhelmed by the Mahdi’s (Laurence Olivier) army. There is no way he wants to commit an army to that cause, however, so he charts a canny course of sending the hero Gordon (Heston) back, alone, to Khartoum to organize an evacuation. Gordon, a national hero with a string of successes in China as well as Africa, is known to be a difficult person to control because of his deep Christian faith and what some described as arrogance and mysticism. He nevertheless accepts the apparently hopeless mission, knowing that he’s being sent as a political gesture but also having an agenda of his own. It turns out he grew to love the Sudan and its people during his earlier duty and he couldn’t abide the thought of abandoning his city, or of England abandoning its allies, to the foreseen slaughter of the Mahdi.

Upon arriving in Khartoum he does evacuate some of the Europeans, but also sets about rallying the Egyptian troops and the citizenry to defend the city, while playing a brilliant but dangerous game of military, administrative and political chicken, simultaneously keeping the Mahdi at bay while hoping to hold out long enough for Gladstone to change his mind and send relief. While the movie sets up the primary conflict between Gordon and the Mahdi, it really is a 3-way battle with Gladstone showing his own determination and tactical abilities. The Mahdi, despite his own mysticism, recognizes the danger of turning Gordon into a martyr, as does Gladstone but for different reasons. Gordon knows that this is where he has them both. One of the great lines in the movie is when Gordon says, “Every man has a final weapon: his own life. If he’s afraid to lose it, he throws the weapon away.”

Both the Mahdi and Gladstone, again for their own reasons, try different ways to induce Gordon to leave. By this time, English public opinion is pressuring Gladstone to send a relief column to Gordon’s rescue. Ultimately Gladstone makes a big show of doing just that, marching a regiment through London to take ship for Africa, ostensibly to support Gordon but secretly ordered to move slowly in the hopes that Gordon will ultimately “see reason” and abandon his quest. I won’t offer a spoiler here on how it comes out (go to your history books if you want that), but the ensuing battle of wills between the three men, plus lots of real battles between armies, makes this a tense and gripping story with some interesting perspectives on the nature of power, the power of belief, and the designs of destiny.

The history is pretty solid in this story and the movie hews pretty closely to what is recorded. There are a lot of resources for historians to refer to, including the newspapers of the time, Gordon’s own writings during the 10-months of the siege, and the writings of Colonel Sir Rudolph Slatin, a contemporary and friend of Gordon’s who got to spend several years as the “guest” of the Mahdi himself.

Great Quotes:
William Gladstone: “I don’t trust any man who consults God before he consults me.”

Gen. Charles Gordon: “Every man has a final weapon: his own life. If he’s afraid to lose it he throws the weapon away.”

Gordon: “I’m known to be a religious man, yet I’m a member of no church. I’ve been introduced to hundreds of women, yet I’ve never married. I daresay that no one’s ever been able to talk me into anything.”

Gordon: “While I may die of your miracle, you will surely die of mine.”

About Fundamentals in Film: this series began as a class I taught to junior high and high school boys as a way to use the entertainment media to explore concepts of honor, honesty, duty and accountability. The movies were selected to demonstrate these themes and as a contrast to television that typically either portrays men as Homer Simpsons or professional wrestlers, with little in between those extremes. I wrote questions and points to ponder for each movie to stimulate discussion and to get the boys to articulate their thoughts and reactions to each movie. I offer this series here on this blog for the benefit of parents or others looking for a fun but challenging way to reinforce these concepts in their own families or groups. I’m also always open to suggestions for other movies that can be added to the series. You can browse the entire series by clicking on the “Fundamentals in Film” category in the right sidebar of this blog.

Out with the boys

Tonight was “Fundamentals in Film” Night with the teen-age boys and a couple of the dads. We watched a movie, as usual, but first I had to interject some real life — much to the lads’ chagrin.

I haven’t blogged about our movie nights for awhile but we’ve been getting together regularly for two years now, cutting back to just once a month since last fall. I’ve wanted to use the movies we’ve watched and the discussions afterwards to illustrate proper manly behavior and character. Originally the movies we watched were pretty black and white about good guys and bad guys but since the first of the year I’ve begun mixing in movies where the “hero” of the story might not really be such a good guy; my purpose being to show the young men how their emotions can be manipulated and their perceptions bent by the prism of the craft. The first such movie was John Wayne’s “The Shootist”, and since then we’ve watched “Patton”, the remake of “3:10 to Yuma” and some others.

The other day, however, I heard that several of these young men had been together discussing another movie that some of them had seen; a movie with graphic sexuality and they were regaling each other with explicit details. Bad enough that they should be so coarse, but they also happened to be doing so in the presence of my daughter — and without a second thought.

Tonight, before the movie and before I had the food brought in (so I could be sure of having their attention) I stood in front of the room and asked them what they thought the objective was of these sessions. “To teach us morals,” one said. “To build our character,” said another. “To be gentlemen,” said a third. “To show us how to break out of prison,” said another, remembering a previous movie.

“No,” I said to the last speaker, “but if you pay attention here it just might keep you out of prison in the first place.”

“Snap!” said another boy.

Since we all seemed to be on the same page I asked them where on the scale of good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate, would talking about sex fall — and especially in front of women. “Uhhh…real bad?” one offered.

I then told them I had heard of a recent instance where some of them had done exactly that. I also said that since they had felt free to do that in public then I, too, would talk about the incident in public. I added that I hadn’t pressed for specific names, so I wouldn’t mention specific names, but that I would address them all for the correction of those involved and the edification of those who weren’t. The squirm factor in the room was now about 7.5.

Among the things I told them was that people have always misbehaved regarding sex but that there have been times when the culture at least held out an ideal that humans could control themselves, or should at least try to. Today everything — TV, movies, commercials, billboards, radio, you name it — treats us like animals that can be lead about by our appetites and that women get no support from the culture to sustain an ideal of purity. In fact, they get a double whammy: men are encouraged to act like animals without restraint while the message to women is that they are the crazy ones if they don’t go along. Then I told the guys that if they didn’t get the proper understanding of the value and worth of a woman then their best days were already behind them because nothing they were being “sold” was anything like reality and they would never be satisfied chasing after some pornographic ideal of sex, beauty and what constitutes a relationship.

Sure, they could go along with the system that seems set up all to their advantage, buy into the stereotype that they’re just hounds, call each other “Dog” and spend their life running around with their tongues hanging out and sniffing butts. And dog they will be, if they are content to let themselves be led about as if there were a large fish-hook in their gonads. The squirm factor was suddenly up past 9, and I was about to kick it to 11.

The movie we watched last month was “The Shawshank Redemption.” It wasn’t one that I particularly wanted to teach because of some of its grittier aspects, but it was a favorite of one of the fathers and of his son and they wanted to show the movie and expound upon the lessons they saw in it so I agreed, albeit with some reservation. Afterward we had had a pretty good discussion about justice and injustice, hypocrisy, perseverance and the importance and indomitability of hope, and how systems are designed to steal hope from you. We didn’t get into the prison rape scenes then, but as this week went on I saw that those gave me an opportunity to make a point.

Tonight I asked the boys what their reactions had been during those scenes last month. “Gross” and “sick to my stomach” were the responses. “What you need to realize,” I said, “is that that is the same reaction God has to any sex outside of marriage.” We talked about 1 Corinthians 6 a bit, and I told them that, yes indeed, sex is a fabulous thing, but there’s nothing that compares to being with a woman who gives herself to you in total trust and security, knowing that she is loved, respected and honored — and that is what happens in the best marriages. “Just getting married won’t make it so,” I said, “If you still have the wrong attitude it’s not going to be a very happy marriage.

“If you want that, then – even now – you have to be thinking not about how you can get what you want from a woman, but on what it is you have to do to make yourself marriageable.” I also suggested that they begin to treat each woman as if she were someone else’s wife, even if the woman is single. “Your wife, should you be so lucky, is out there somewhere now. How do you want other guys to be treating her?”

There are other things we talked about along that line, but I won’t go into them here. Some of these may show up in another post I’ve been working on. I only spoke for about 20 minutes, and it was probably the most rapt audience I’ve ever had but I wasn’t going to push it.

It was time to order pizza and start this month’s movie, “The Wind and the Lion.”This is a great flick, by the way, with the great Sean Connery and a superb performance by Brian Keith as President Teddy Roosevelt. The movie is based fairly closely on a true story from the Middle East in 1904, and features a lot of great action and some very important (and manly) monologues from Connery and Keith that also seemed to fit our discussion topic.

I can’t wait to see who shows up for next month’s movie!

The end of the war

No, I haven’t set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, but the Fundamentals in Film class finally completed the Band of Brothers mini-series last week.

There were 10 episodes, plus the documentary “We Stand Alone Together”, in the mostly true-to-life story of E company, paratroopers of the 101st Airborne in World War II. With our bi-weekly schedule it took awhile to get through them all, even with watching two episodes each time. The boys were very excited to begin the series and were generally pretty riveted throughout with lots of questions and commentary. I don’t know yet what impressions it made on them (and I’m fully resigned that I may never know) but I know it will stick with me for a long time.

I debated with myself for some time before introducing the series to the class, and spoke with the fathers a couple of times about it. The language in the series is frequently extreme, and the violence is often sudden and explicit. On the other hand, it was a chance to feature some history lessons, introduce a more realistic and human sense of the “up close and personal” nature of war to a video game generation raised on “Halo” and “Doom”, and to impart some lessons in leadership and grace under pressure.

I dealt with the language issue right up front with the guys, explaining how it became a form of bonding for the soldiers who were undergoing severe hardships together, but even at that the men were aware that it wasn’t appropriate in general society and were careful of their language around women – a distinction commonly disregarded these days. I also reminded the young men that “out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks” – whatever comes out of their mouths communicates a lot more than just the words themselves. Finally, I directed them to pay attention to Dick Winters, the main character in the ensemble cast, and the way he controlled his words (even when wounded) and swore only for effect in getting his men moving again when they froze while out in the open and under fire.

Winters was also an example of leadership – a quiet man of faith, committed to the well-being of his men but also able to order them into harm’s way when needed, but with the tactical skills to keep the men alive as well. While not flashy or self-promoting, he quickly gained the universal respect and admiration of his men and his superior officers and his example was a model for men like Sgt. Carwood Lipton and in stark contrast to the “leadership” of Easy Company’s first CO, Captain Sobel, and to the company’s CO during the siege of Bastogne, Lt. Dike. Lipton’s leadership during the Battle of the Bulge — his focus on the men and the mission — gave the class a lot to talk about after we watched the Bastogne episode (a particularly gory and challenging episode that saw a lot of the men we’d come to know get killed or seriously wounded). That particular chapter also showed how it was possible for a group of men to do more than they thought was possible while under the harshest conditions.

It was also interesting for the class to see just how screwed up so many of the military operations became, from the errors on D-Day that led to so many of the paratroopers being dropped in the wrong place, without much of their equipment and groggy from the air-sickness pills they were ordered to take (for the first time), to the Allied High Command being caught by surprise at the Bulge and the 101st being sent in to Bastogne, again without proper equipment, winter clothing or even enough weapons and ammunition. Despite the almost catastrophic errors and miscalculations, the men on the ground succeeded thanks to their training, their character and the bond between them that allowed them to function as a highly-effective team. The mini-series often made me wonder how today’s media would have focused on the blundering (without acknowledging how massive and complicated the D-Day invasion was or the logistics of maneuvering several hundred thousand men in a short period of time in Belgium) and overlooked the successes.

Today the Battle of the Bulge would be the German equivalent of the Tet Offensive, and though the Viet Cong and the Germans both ultimately lost these battles decisively, the end result was dramatically different. Back then General McAuliffe was celebrated for his bold response of “Nuts!” when the Germans sent their surrender demands to his besieged forces; today he’d be criticized as a blood-thirsty maniac unconcerned about the soldiers he was keeping in harm’s way in the Belgian quagmire.

That’s not to say that Band of Brothers glorified the war. The series did an excellent job of portraying the hardships and sacrifices — and sometimes all-too-human failings and frustrations — of the men of Easy Company and the 101st Airborne. Especially in the later episodes when it was clear that the war was winding down and that the surviving members might just live through it after all, the loss of their friends and the apparent futility of the war weighed heavily on the men and, to some extent, on our film class. While there was little action in the episode where Easy discovers the Landsberg concentration camp (“Why We Fight”), it was one of the most powerful and affecting in the series. Combined with the last episode (“Points”) where Easy takes and occupies Berchtesgaden, these concluding segments did a good job of showing the costs, personally and nationally, of war for even the winners.

After we finished episode 10 and then watched the documentary “We Stand Alone Together” featuring interviews with the real Easy Company survivors (a very moving experience after having come to “know” their actor counterparts over the past few months), it indeed felt to me as if a long war was over. I was left with a deeper appreciation and admiration for what the men had sacrificed and achieved and knew that I would have a hard time measuring up under the same circumstances. I don’t know what the young men of the class got out of it, or even if I or they will be able to measure its affects over the next few weeks, months and years, but I don’t think any of us will be the same.

Fundamentals in Film: Black History Month

I’ve been leading the bi-weekly “Fundamentals in Film” class for the current group of teenage boys for about a year now, and my focus has been to feature movies with strong, positive male role models demonstrating character, honor, courage and grace under fire (physical, mental, spiritual fire) and especially an ability to put others ahead of themselves. Many of the movies we’ve watched also opened a door for our group to discuss the larger social and historical context of the events depicted in the movie.

The movie that probably had the most profound affect on our young men was Glory, the story of the first all-black regiment in the Civil War. The discussion following the film drew the strongest reactions and the most spontaneous questions from the guys of any that we’ve had. Some months later we watched The Tuskegee Airmen, a similar story but brought “four-score” years into the future with the first U.S. squadron of black fighter pilots. Back at the beginning of the football season we also watched the original TV-movie version of Brian’s Song (gotta love Netflix!), the Gale Sayers/Brian Piccolo story, set in the late 1960s against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement.

All three films were based on true events (with some dramatic license) and as we bumped through the century or so that the movies spanned it was useful and interesting to see what things had changed, and what things remained the same, in our society and in the lives of the men profiled. I believe this has been especially beneficial for my group of young men who have grown up with little knowledge or exposure to the events that have led up to today and helped them to get a sense that, while it seems like certain events happened a long time ago, they really represent a relatively short and intense period in history (and it isn’t over yet). While the movies have been useful in describing and discussing this time, the history of the struggle wasn’t my main reason for introducing these films into the series.

For me, the essence of these movies still comes down to bedrock issues of honor, duty, respect and being willing to do the hard thing even at great personal cost for the greater good. The lessons of being a man that can be counted on, of being a man that can be a true friend, are universal and go beyond race.

The thing I’ve stressed with our group is that fear and hate are also universal and that no matter who you are or what “group” you belong to, there are always going to be those who have a degree of power and authority over your life that are going to look down upon and even hate you because of the way you look, the way you talk, the things that you believe or, especially for these young men, their age. Lynching and flogging may not be part of their lives but they are still going to be judged and dismissed because of what they appear to be. Their challenge, like those faced by the men in these movies, will still be to live their lives with courage and integrity and not give in to (and live down to) the lower expectations that others might have of them.

If they can do that I am confident that they will have little trouble in extending the consideration to others they meet, even if they appear to be different from them.

Friday Fundamentals in Film: Gene Kelly

I’m going to take a little bit of a different approach with this FiF entry in that I’m not going to delve so much into the character themes in a particular movie, but I do want to call your attention to some treasures you might be overlooking.

I was doing some channel surfing the other night and came across Singin’ in the Rain on the Turner Classics channel. It was close to the beginning of the movie and I’d only ever seen snippets of the film, so I put the remote down and the Mall Diva and I settled in to watch. I’ve always liked Gene Kelly’s athletic dancing style and good-guy persona so I expected to enjoy the movie. What I didn’t anticipate was how much the Mall Diva would like it!

The phrase, “they don’t make them like they used to” definitely applies to Singin’ in the Rain and similar movies of that era that used the story mainly to create a link between one singing and dancing number and the next. For that matter, the singing and dancing didn’t even have to have much to go with the movie or the story at all and this is especially true with Singin’ in the Rain (even the title of this movie has very little to do with the story itself; I think it mainly serves to let you know that this is the movie with the great sequence of Gene Kelly dancing down a city street in a rainstorm). That just serves to make the movie even more of a refreshing change of pace from today’s films. Of course, it helps a great deal that the singing and dancing itself is exceptional.

They don’t make them like that anymore — and they don’t need to because they did it right the first time.

Kelly, as I’ve said, is brilliant but SitR also features a young Debbie Reynolds and a truly amazing performance by Donald O’Connor. I didn’t have much of a conception of O’Connor other than his later “Frances the Talking Mule” movies so it was an unexpected delight to see what gifted singer, dancer and physical comedian he was. The Diva and I laughed outloud at several of his antics, especially in his tour-de-force performance of “Make ‘Em Laugh”. While the plot of the movie is a puffy confection, the entertainment value is very high. If you haven’t seen SitR, don’t dismiss it as being an “old” movie; I think you’ll be as delighted in the experience as my daughter and I were.

Also, I referenced Kelly’s good-guy persona earlier. I’ve watched several of his movies and always liked his characters (though they were usually just variations on the same). He always played a decent, honorable guy that you couldn’t help but root for. Also, from what I’ve read about him, it sounds as if Kelly was a decent and stand-up guy in real life as well. One of the pleasures of watching some of these old movies is that they could (and did) feature nice guy heroes without feeling an obligation to add some character flaw to make him “real”. Okay, that may be necessary in dramas, but I can appreciate good schmaltz, too (which reminds me of the “Schmaltz Waltz” number in Kelly’s An American in Paris. In fact, a Gene Kelly trilogy of Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris and Brigadoon would be a nice collection for a film fan’s shelf (tough as it is to leave out Anchors Aweigh or On the Town).

I’m not saying that all old movies are great and all new movies are crap; there’s good and bad in every era. Truly good things, however, transcend eras and hold up. If you want an entertaining and uplifting diversion that leaves you feeling good about yourself and others then I highly recommend these three films.

Friday Fundamentals in Film: Secondhand Lions

Secondhand Lions is both a great addition to this blog series and a well-received film by the young men in our bi-weekly viewing group. The viewing group has largely followed the order of the original class I taught a few years ago while the blog series has gone on to feature additional movies. This week I decided to overlap the two and feature the same movie in both. As such it was a change of pace for the class in that it’s not a war movie or a western, but a comedy. Even the movie makes many important points about honor, honesty and “what a boy needs to know to be a man.”

The story is about a young teenage boy, Walter (Haley Joe Osment), who has grown up without a father – and with a never-ending series of lies from his irresponsible and self-serving mother. In her latest scheme she dumps him for the summer with his eccentric great uncles, Hub (Robert Duval) and Garth (Michael Caine) McCann, about whom many local rumors and legends have circulated about their supposed wealth — and how they came by it. Walter’s mother has two objectives; get some time away without the responsibility of having Walter around, and the hope that Walter might find out where the brothers hide their money.

Garth and Hub don’t appear to be especially upright examples of virtuous men as they live in a poorly maintained house on a remote farm or ranch in the wilds of Texas and their main form of entertainment is taking potshots at the series of opportunistic traveling salesmen that come their way. As the days and nights go on, however, Walter starts to hear an amazing tale of adventure, courage, romance and justice spun out that almost sounds too good to be true, especially after his experiences with his mother. While Walter fears being abaondoned, his uncles (especially Hub) fear becoming useless. While Garth appears willing to settle down and act his age, Hub is still restless for his lost love and not ready to surrender to the expectations of old age. As Garth explains it to Walter, “A man’s body can grow old but the spirit inside of him doesn’t.”

Naturally their fears are mutually answered in each other, especially as Walter gets curious about the mysterious speech Garth says that Hub gives to young men on what they need to know to be good men. It could all get pretty syrupy but for a brisk plot and a series of great scenes that advance the story and message. In particular, the scene were Hub, Garth and Walter stop for barbeque at a roadhouse and have their meal interrupted by a young ruffian and his gang who decide to have a little sport with the “old men.” Viewing the youth as no more of a bother than a mosquito, Hub continues his discussion, telling Garth and Walter:

Here’s a perfect example of what I’ve been talking about. Since this boy was suckling on his momma’s tit, he’s been given everything but discipline. And now his idea of courage and manhood is to get together with a bunch of punk friends and ride around irritating folks too good natured to put a stop to it.

Naturally this means the rumpus is soon on, and the leader of the group asks Hub who he thinks he is. Suddenly taking the young man by the throat, Hub stares down into his eyes and delivers the second-best monologue in the movie:

I’m Hub McCann. I fought in two world wars and countless smaller ones on three continents. I’ve led thousands of men into battle with everything from horses to swords to artillery and tanks. I’ve seen the headwaters of the Nile, and tribes of natives no white man had ever seen before. I’ve won and lost a dozen fortunes, killed many men and loved only one woman, with a passion a flea like you could never begin to understand. That’s who I am.

After administering a thrashing to the gang Hub brings them back to the farm to tend their wounds and they listen raptly (in sight of, but out of the hearing of, Walter and us) as he ultimately gives them “the speech” that Walter so longs to hear, but is still excluded from hearing. Later, after being confronted by Walter, Hub agrees to give the boy “just a piece” of the speech, promising to deliver the rest when he’s older. The part he shares is the number one monologue in the movie:

Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil. And I want you to remember this, that love…true love…never dies. You remember that, boy. Doesn’t matter if they’re true or not because those are the things worth believing in.

Ultimately Walter’s mother returns, accompanied by an unsavory new boyfriend. When the boyfriend outrageously steps over the line, Walter has to draw upon the seeds of courage and self-respect that have been planted over the past few months to face her (and get her to face herself) as he makes his case that his best hope for the quality of the rest of his life is to stay with his uncles instead of following her to Las Vegas. Since the movie is told as a flashback, Walter obviously stays with his uncles and grows up. We can assume that he ultimately hears the rest of the speech from Hub on “what a boy needs to know to be a man” but this is never shared with the audience except for the excerpt above.

Typically in this series I include a series of questions and points to ponder for readers to consider or share with others. There were some questions I asked the boys last night about the underlying themes of the movie (including some of the plot elements I haven’t covered here), but I think I will leave you with the same “homework” I gave to them. I told them the next time we get together they need to come back to me with at least one thing they think went into the rest of the speech we didn’t hear. If you want to help us out, leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday Fundamentals in Film: Boys’ Night Out #5 – Glory

I had a coach and gym teacher back in junior high school that used to call us guys a bunch of “Yo-yos”. We knew that wasn’t a good thing, but it also seemed like kind of a silly insult. Now that I’m about the age he was, and have deliberately subjected myself to the company of 13-to-15 year old boys, I know exactly what he meant by the term.

These kids can’t sit still, and bounce around mentally just as much and as fast as they do physically. You can get their attention, but it’s like having it on a string; it constantly goes off in different directions and has to be pulled back. Similarly my own experiences with them are up and down. I’ve gotten involved because I want the lads to be of future benefit to society, but there are times when I think society might be best served by me drowning them in the river. Then there are times…

Last night we got together to watch Glory, the movie about the black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, during the Civil War. The movie quickly got their attention (exploding heads in the opening scene will do that) and it appeared they were soon caught up in the story, even taking the unusual steps of raising their hands to ask questions about what was going on at different times in the movie. I’d stop the movie and answer the questions, giving them additional history about the Civil War and the politics of that time and using the opportunity to point out contrasts between different characters and how the actions of various men reflected their thoughts, assumptions and expectations (good and bad) of their fellow soldiers.

The boys became so engrossed in the story that they started offering exclamations and commentary when certain things happened on the screen, showing their own frustration with what the men in the movie were experiencing. When the 54th arrived in the South and was put to work felling and hauling timber one of our young men made the observation that, “They’re still just like slaves!” At the end of the movie when the written epilogue revealed that the fort the men had sacrificed themselves to storm was never taken, another young man exclaimed, “What a waste!”

This was an excellent opening into discussing the movie, because I could ask him why he thought it was a waste. His response was because they had been killed with nothing to show for it; I asked the rest of the group if that was true, which led to some good responses as they started to grasp the significance of the “blood sacrifice” the regiment had made toward earning the respect of the nation for themselves and for their people. We also spent a long time talking about the dynamics of the flogging that one character received in the movie and whether or not it was “just”, what it “cost” different people in the movie and whether it served a greater good. It was a very interesting discussion with some saying it was a racist act, while others saw the need for discipline to be enforced for the benefit of the regiment.

The boys were energized by the movie, and I was energized by their interest and the quality of their questions and answers and by the way they listened to the observations from the dads in the group. Before the movie started I had told them to watch for how different people had different expectations about the soldiers (even among the soldiers themselves) and how these expectations were reflected in different actions…and led to different results. A key thing I wanted them to understand is that “hard” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad” and that “no pain, no gain” doesn’t just apply to one person at a time. (Click on the link earlier in this post to see the original study guide and questions I use with this movie if you want to know more).

It was a good for me to review the lesson on expectations as well. Both the men in the movie and the boys in the class have to deal with the expectations — positive and negative — of others. Whether the boys made the connection or not, they, too, are judged by others simply because of their age and the “expectation” of their behavior. Sometimes they are dismissed as uncontrollable and barely human; other times they are held to an idealized and unrealistic standard; often the person holding both of those attitudes is myself.

What the men of the 54th needed, and what these boys who will be men are needing, is to be seen for the value that they have and for what they will be. Training can be hard and unpleasant for all concerned, but training exercises are a piece of cake compared to the real-life lessons that await. We do them no favors by thinking of them as just so much fodder to be thrown away, or by cutting them slack now out of mis-placed pity for how tough things are going to be for them later. Thinking back to my own days as a “yo-yo”, I can see the difference others have made in my life.