What Is the Movie Avatar About?


So what is the movie Avatar really about? Here are some possibilities:

  1. The obstacles to finding spiritual energy in the world around us
  2. The joys of flying a high-tech helicopter
  3. The dangers of the scientific enterprise, or of scientific knowledge
  4. The need for humans to find and explore life on other planets
  5. The vices of capitalism
  6. The honorable service of the United States Marines
  7. The virtues of a simple lifestyle
  8. The religious significance of trees
  9. The degrading effect of secularism in contemporary western civilization
  10. The color blue

Amazon link for Avatar

Speculative Fiction by and for Christians


Twitter led me to a blog called My Friend Amy, where there’s an interesting take on speculative fiction in today’s “Faith ‘n Fiction Saturdays” category. The post addresses several questions:

  1. What is speculative fiction?
  2. What is “Christian speculative fiction”?
  3. What are the standards for high quality Christian speculative fiction?

This short post got me thinking about these and related questions. The result is a longer post sketching some of my thoughts about the general topic.

What Is Speculative about ‘Speculative Fiction’?

My Friend Amy quotes Wikipedia for an answer to this question:

Speculative fiction is a fiction genre speculating about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history. (Click here for the complete Wikipedia entry for “Speculative fiction.)

The term is of relatively recent vintage. It doesn’t appear in any of the three handbooks I consult for such things:

  • Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 4th edition published in 1996. A new edition was published in 2008, and no doubt includes novel entries (no pun intended).
  • The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 2nd edition published in 1984. This edition was updated in 2002. Of the three books listed here, this is the best value—very affordable and reliable, with excellent coverage of authors, titles, literary movements, historical periods, terms and phrases.
  • Kathleen Morner and Ralph Rausch, From Absurd to Zeitgeist: The Compact Guide to Literary Terms (1997). I believe this book is out of print, but I see that (at the time of this post) one copy is in stock at Powell’s Books.

I once read an essay on speculative fiction that developed a convincing account of the form. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the author or where I came across the item. But I do remember thinking then that “speculative fiction” is an apt label for fiction that explores counterfactuals—ways things might have been but weren’t, or ways things might yet be but won’t. [FN: For more about counterfactuals at this website, “Run Lola Run—A Discussion Guide.”]

The interesting examples of counterfactuals are worlds very close to this, the actual world. “What if, instead of X happening at time t, something else that could easily have happened, Y, had happened at t? How would things have turned out then?” (One serious philosophical problem with speculation of this sort is that the sequel to any counterfactual at time t—the succession of events following Y, for example—may itself vary in numerous counterfactual ways. There may be many ways things might have turned out if Y had happened rather than X at t. And it’s puzzling to think that there is just one way things would have turned out in such a counterfactual setup. But I digress.)

The better fictional depictions of counterexamples would be at least minimally ‘literary.’ And they would explore themes of enduring human interest.

Could a Christian author write speculative fiction? Of course. The author at My Friend Amy’s blog alludes to several. The most obvious examples are ones that are most obviously ‘Christian.’ They broadcast a Christian message so overtly that it cannot be missed. For example, as noted in the blog post over at My Friend Amy, much Christian fiction depicts battles in the spirit world between angels and demons and the role of intercessory prayer by humans caught in the conflict. This kind of speculative fiction will appeal mostly to Christian readers, and then only to a certain kind of Christian reader. They don’t appeal to My Friend Amy for example. [FN: Some Christians, you may be surprised to hear, would argue that many such specimens of fiction are not properly Christian.]

C. S. Lewis and Others

It is interesting to me that C. S. Lewis is not mentioned. In addition to his cherished Narnia series of fantasy novels, Lewis wrote a very sophisticated series of three novels in what might be called the category of ‘space fiction.’ These are Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Lewis wrote with subtlty and grace. It’s well-known that he wrote from a Christian worldview. But these novels do not ‘preach.’

Lewis also wrote The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. These must surely count as paradigm cases of ‘speculative fiction.’ Next time you read them, consider this question: “What sort of ‘what-if’ question is Lewis endeavoring to answer in this book?”

I think that’s the question to put to any book if you want to be sure it counts as ‘speculative fiction.’ This opens the way for ostensive definition of the term. That is, it facilitates understanding of the term ‘speculative fiction’ by pointing to clear cases of it. Two examples that come immediately to mind are Shikasta, by Doris Lessing (1979), and The Children of Men, by P. D. James (1992).

It’s interesting to consider these examples in connection with questions raised by My Friend Amy. My view is that speculative fiction is a particularly congenial form for writing from a distinctive worldview, be it Christian or otherwise. It is congenial in part because it permits experimentation with the implications of a worldview without wearing that worldview on its sleeve. Doris Lessing and P. D. James both write with religious sensibilities—Lessing with the perspective of Sufism, James with a Christian worldview. [FN: Lessing was once offered the honorific title of “Dame” by Queen  of England. Lessing declined the honor. James was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991.] The guiding perspective in each case, though often discernible, is subtly layered into the narrative. This is akin to what the great authors Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene accomplished in their more ‘realist fiction.’ [FN: See for example, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.]

For many readers of this post, the film adaptation of The Children of Men will be better known than the book. While watching the first few scenes, I thought about how this darkly apocalyptic film might render the religious component of the human condition when humanity is faced with extinction. My guess was that it would represent society as completely secular, and that any portrayal of religious people would characterize them as the kind who stand on street corners warning passersby of imminent divine judgment, in a tone that betrays their conviction that ‘none who hear will convert, and it’s just as well anyway, since they deserve to go to hell.’ That pretty much is how religion was ‘treated’ in the film.

That last statement needs qualification. What I should say is that religion, imagined under the conditions described in the film, is presented a certain way. This may be a commentary on how religion is manifest in the world today. But it’s pretty striking that no one I would call a ‘serious believer’ shows up in the movie. I imagine they don’t exist, or, if they do, they are marginally significant to the storyline. But then what would account for their nonexistence? Or what would explain their insignificance to the unfolding story? It is precisely the apocalyptic character of the story that makes their absence conspicuous. And that is interesting.

So a film or a novel may have something to say about religion even when it makes no direct reference to anything explicitly religious.

Vampires

The Amy post also asks whether fiction featuring vampires might be a venue for developing Christian themes. I’ve thought about this myself. That would be an excellent question for Anne Rice, the bestselling author of vampire fiction, and an adult convert to Christianity. Books in her newer series based on the gospel narratives has not been quite as successful as Interview with the Vampire. They are, to be sure, friendly presentations of the life and influence of Jesus. I suspect they have generated a new set of fans.

Susan Howatch

Another contemporary author known for her Christian worldview is Susan Howatch. Also a bestselling author (and British), Howatch composes stories with a realist cast. They take place in our world, you might say. See, for example, her acclaimed series beginning with the novel Glittering Images. One of her best is The High Flyer, which can be recommended to any reader with a taste for literary fiction set in the contemporary context.

* * *

A blog permits the expression of random thoughts during idle moments. I’ve exploited that opportunity here. As often happens, the flood of thoughts swelled to the point of necessary expression because of a bit of reading. This time I happened to be reading another blogger who reads.

Thank you, Amy my friend—whoever you are.

Related Posts by Doug Geivett:

Adam Sandler Rides Again


bedtime_storiesHe rides a red horse, a motorcycle, a chariot, and (almost) drives a red Ferrari. Adam Sandler is in fine form with his usual lack of finesse as comic hero Skeeter Bronson in Bedtime Stories (distributed by Walt Disney Pictures). Sandler’s basic costume is a handyman uniform. But the actor is kept busy changing in and out of cowboy chaps and gladiator garb for period performances of his imagination.

As children, Skeeter and his sister, Wendy, had helped their father run a splendidly modest motel. Marty Bronson had been a wonderful father, indicated especially by his storytelling powers. But, as fate would have it, he was a lousy businessman. Of economic necessity, Marty signed his cherished family business over to a charmer named Barry Nottingham. Young Skeeter was witness to this unfortunate transaction, and the insincere promise from Nottingham that the boy would run the place, if he chose to, once he was old enough.

The story gets going some years later, when Nottingham emerges as an unscrupulous tycoon with an odd aversion to ordinary germs and a bad-girl daughter who is inexplicably chased about by admiring paparazzi. (Think Paris Hilton.) Nottingham retains Skeeter, not to run the company as promised, but as chief fix-it man. Responsibility for managing the firm is left to a conniving fellow named Kendall, who courts Nottingham’s daughter, Violet, in a scheme to succeed the aging tycoon.

Just when old man Nottingham has announced that Kendall is to be promoted, and Skeeter concludes that life’s true stories have no good endings, Wendy, now single mother of two, has a favor to ask. She needs Skeeter to be night-time sitter for the children while she’s away for several days to interview for a job. Skeeter has no natural affinity for Bobbi and Patrick, and no idea how he’s supposed to keep them entertained when they’ve lived in a protective bubble—without television, camping experiences, and the like.

One of the best scenes of the film captures the first night Skeeter has charge of the children. They ship off to bed happily enough. But Skeeter, they tell him, must read them a bedtime story. He samples the titles of books in their bedroom collection. The titles humorously reveal the uptight habits of their mother, obviously stricken with politically correct inhibitions about the environment and personal safety. To avoid rehearsing this “communist” propaganda with niece and nephew, Skeeter proposes that he make up a story, like his old man did when he was a kid.

Naturally, the movie revolves around these bedtime stories. Instantly warming to the idea, the children insist on modified endings to Skeeter’s tales, which are told with gusto and feature himself as the conspicuous hero. Amazingly (and this we know already from the previews for the film), events during the next day parallel the story line, conclusion and all, of the previous night’s tale.

It’s never sorted out how these daily coincidences are fated to occur. The family guinea pig, a recurring presence in the film, has something to do with it, apparently. What that is, you might say, is a lacuna in the story. At any rate, the coincidence is plain, and once he catches on, Skeeter takes pains to arrange for a day that will turn to his advantage with the lovely Violet Nottingham and the graces of her doddering dad. Adventures ensue, but never with the blessed results eagerly anticipated by Skeeter.

Meanwhile, the children are tended during the day by a wholesome female friend of Wendy’s. Jill harbors understandable misgivings about Skeeter, whose sensibilities tend toward the reckless and irresponsible. The moderate tension that defines their relationship is one of several plot twists that must be resolved for the movie to come to a complete and satisfying ending. (This probably makes the movie sound more subtle and sophisticated than it is.)

While watching this movie, you may be reminded, as I was, of two other fabulous movies (by “fabulous” I mean having no basis in reality)—The Princess Bride and Night at the Museum. For one scene in particular, and a good one at that, you may recall the classic film Ben Hur (which was loosely based on a true story of some significance).

With two exceptions, the characters are interesting enough. There’s Violet Nottingham—nice on the eyes, but not nice—and Jill—easy on the eyes, and very nice. Violet is played by Teresa Palmer, 22-year-old Australian starlet with the possibility of a future in film. Kerry Russell, who plays Jill, will be recognized as the more experienced actress with significant roles in more substantial movies: as Lyla Novacek in August Rush (2007), the waitress, Jenna Hunterson, in Waitress (2007), and lead character Katie Armstrong in Rohtenburg (also known as Grimm Love) (2006)—recognized, that is, if you’ve seen any of these films. Russell is probably best known as the empathetic victim of a horrible explosion early in the film Mission: Impossible III (2006). Her performance in that role was brief, but very compelling.

British actor Richard Griffiths (b. 1947) is pleasing as Barry Nottingham. The comic lilt of his performance was, I’m sure, enhanced for me by my acquaintance with someone who is rather Nottingham-esque. Griffiths’ claim to fame is as Uncle Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter series. (An interesting fact about Griffiths is that his parents were both deaf; but in Bedtime Stories there’s no obvious evidence that this contributed to his acting repertoire.)

The children, Bobbi and Patrick, are played by Laura Ann Kesling and Jonathan Morgan Heit, respectively. Both do a swell job. Kesling, for whom this is her film debut, I believe, is better than swell and doubtless has a future in acting. Her apparently spontaneous peels of bemused laughter are endearing. They may well be truly spontaneous, which would be a credit to Adam Sandler as a demonstrated laugh-maker by nature.

adam_sandlerSandler has more movies to his credit than I’ve seen. But of those I’ve seen, he’s at his best in Bedtime Stories. (It should be noted that he is also producer of this film, which may account for much of its comic genius.) Here, Sandler isn’t slapstick funny. He isn’t funny for funny’s sake. Funny seems to come naturally to his character as a means of dealing with the pain of loneliness and ignominy. But the almost incessant playfulness has understated moments, and in general it doesn’t betray the deep bitterness many would feel in his situation. There are worse ways of dealing with disappointments in life than to make light of their occurrence. I like this complexity about the character, even if the effect was utterly serendipitous.

The two fiends in the film are Guy Pearce as Kendall, the scheming hotel general manager, and Lucy Lawless as Aspen, co-conspirator and manager on duty. Pearce and Lawless (how apropos is that pair of names?) have the look of simpleton villains who are utterly unsympathetic. The name “Aspen” speaks with loud innuendo; I haven’t the foggiest association to make with “Kendall.”

Guy Pearce starred in the very dark film Memento (2000), and was cast as a drag queen in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994). So he is, you might say, “versatile.” In Bedtime Stories, he looks and acts pathetic, as I imagine he’s supposed to. But during screenwriting I would have suggested a different permutation of pathetic. He looks, sounds, and acts silly in a way that loses the scent of funny most dominant in the movie.

Lucy Lawless’s liability is her casting alongside Pearce qua Kendall-permutation-of-pathetic. I want to say that the inane visual and verbal exchanges between Aspen and Kendall insult the capacity of today’s audience to take the bad guys a little more seriously. But this isn’t a serious film, so that, in itself, isn’t a serious criticism. Still, something’s not quite right about the style of humor attempted in the portions of the script assigned to these unfortunate actors. I do think it’s a problem with the script. (Note: Lucy Lawless played D’Anna Biers, Number 3 in Battlestar Gallactica.)

On the whole, though, the script is a good specimen of its type. Audiences still appreciate the kind of humor executed here. And what they like best, from the response I heard in the theater, is comic acting and dialogue that presupposes a reasonably intelligent audience—that is to say, an audience that can discern the referents of subtle allusions and modulate their laugh response to the shifting characteristics of comedic elements in a film.

This film has something else going for it in the comedic category: plot twist and artistic conceit. Nah, forget plot twist. That refers to the threads of the story and their connections. Artistic conceit is something else. It has to do with the vehicle used for conveying the plot and its various twists. Here the conceit is creative and naturally conducive to comedic rendition—the fulfillment in real life of stories told on the eve of their occurrence. The technique sometimes buys two laughs for the price of one, as when Skeeter resuscitates the “big harry guy on the beach.” Eavesdropping on Skeeter’s bedtime stories, you try to imagine how their fulfillment will play out, and usually you’re mistaken about some relevant detail. For someone with an uncanny ability to see what’s coming, for almost any genre of film, that’s a plus.

Bedtime Stories gets off to a promising start by cutting quickly to the grownup stage of Skeeter’s life and establishing his character with a three-way conversation at the hotel registration desk—between Skeeter, Aspen, and an aging alcoholic guest who swears that the mini bar in her room was raided by a Leprechaun. Here we’re introduced to the primary tension, the predominant tone of humor, and Skeeter’s affability despite painful exploitation.

There are quirky moments and unaccountable details to be noted. I’ve already mentioned the metaphysically curious causal function of the family guinea pig. The narrative emphasis given to the creature’s bulging eyes is a bit peculiar, too. The timetable for events is highly compressed; events it would take months, if not years, to unfold transpire in the span of a few days. This may be necessary to ensure that Wendy hasn’t abandoned her children indefinitely. But this sort of fabulosity is out of sync with the central conceit of the movie.

Some of the dialogue is a little offbeat. When Skeeter asks Jill, during what is supposed to be a magical moment, and as if in a trance, “Are you the fairest maiden of the land?” she replies with self-effacing candor, “Do you mean, like, the fairest in checkers?” (or something to that effect). Huh?

Another oddment of the film: it begins and ends with a narrator, who happens to be Skeeter’s father, Marty (played and voiced by Jonathan Pryce). But Marty has gone to his reward, so how is this possible? This, too, is fabulous. But, again, it’s fabulosity is of a different cut than is realized fairly effectively with the bedtime story “fulfillments.” If Marty Bronson’s narrative role makes intentional sense on some subtle level, it’s lost on me.

More important to the story line, but not high profile, is the part played by Courtney Cox. It’s nice to see Ms. Cox in a wholesome role, as Wendy, the politically correct single mom. In the end, Wendy has a private moment with Skeeter, when she’s repentant about her stiffness as the older sister who couldn’t let her hair down. I suppose it’s a fantasy, but I like to think there’s a latent message here that the whole  politically-correct-environmentalist-zeal-and-health-craze-thing is a tad overdone these days.

I almost forgot to mention Mickey, played by Russell Brand. This good-natured good buddy of Skeeter’s is exotically inept. He suffers from “sleep panic disorder”—among other things, apparently. But his “translation skills” come in handy at a crucial moment when Skeeter must impress Mr. Nottingham with a superior plan to take the dynasty to the next level of success. And Russell Brands’ costumes are among the most interesting.

Adam Shankman directed. This is one talented guy. He directed and choreographed Hairspray (2007), and is doing the same for a sequel. Box Office Mojo lists Hairspray fourth in gross receipts (nearly $120 million) among live action musicals produced since 1974. He’s said to be working up a Sarah Palin inspired TV series about the female mayor of a small town (in development at Fox and tentatively titled “Cadillac Ranch”).

dont-stop-believingI have no recollection of the musical score, which is film-speak that seems a little highbrow for this kind of movie. I did pay attention to the music that accompanies the closing credits. It’s the 80s hit song by rock band Journey, “Don’t Stop Believing.”

As for the editing, it’s critical to what I’ve been calling the conceit of the film, and it’s handled pretty well. Bicyclists decked in racing gear are smoothly morphed into cowboys galloping on stallions, for example, while our hero and his girl race the opposite direction, alternately on motorcycle and horseback. The composite sequence that completes “the arc of the story” (something that would have been appreciated by Mickey, the brainless buddy) is a clever resumé of the bedtime stories. It moves toward a predictable but fitting victory for the good guys.

Bottom Line:

On the downside, the villains lack that special je-ne-sais-quoi, the narrator has inexplicable talents for telling stories from the grave, and events happen in fast-forward. The end of the movie is very nearly ruined by a reprise of the Kendall-Aspen theme that overstates their humiliation. But there’s more upside than downside to Bedtime Stories. It’s hard for a movie to be this kind of funny today. If memory serves, Night at the Museum (2006) scampered after the same funny bone, but I think with less success. Movies in this genre (some would say “of this ilk”) don’t generally fare well with critics. But if you laugh pretty consistently and groan only occasionally for one hour and thirty-five minutes, the movie fulfills its objective.

Army of Shadows: A Film Discussion Guide


army_of_shadows_1shThe French film L’Armée des Ombres (“Army of Shadows”) is an adaptation of the 1943 book (same title) by Joseph Kessel, who participated in the French Resistance. Whether you know little or much about the Resistance, if you want a realistic film portrayal of a critical aspect of the Second World War, this is a film to rent or buy. I can’t imagine a more effective vehicle for presenting an insider’s view of the movement.

The film is expertly cast and paced with precision. But the action is subdued, so don’t expect a Jason-Bourne-meets-James-Bond kind of experience. Army of Shadows offers a tight shot of espionage—plotting with limited resources, the paltry odds of success, endless psychological misgivings, and complex interpersonal dynamics.

The movie is filled with tension. But it’s the kind of tension that invites serious consideration of difficult questions:

  • What does it really mean to be courageous?
  • Is it possible to exercise genuine freedom of self-determination in the very moment you are about to be executed by a firing squad?
  • Can a cause be so just that killing an innocent co-belligerent is justified if letting her live could compromise the mission?
  • On what basis can you entrust your life to someone you’ve never met?
  • Should a woman with the skills needed to execute a tactically sophisticated and personally dangerous mission be enlisted if she has a husband and children who know nothing of her activities?
  • Does it ever make sense to engage in a fatal rescue operation if no one will know of your valor?
  • Why does the simple offer of a cigarette enable some men to face certain death with dignity?
  • Was the French Resistance a prudent response to the Nazi occupation of France?

This film churns the emotions and the mind. The Resistance is testimony to the indomitable spirit of human beings guided by commitment to a high ideal. I saw  Army of Shadows soon after seeing the Angelina Jolie film Changling. The similarities are unmistakable. Both are based on actual events. In both cases individuals pursuing righteous causes suffer terrible indignities. In both, success seems humanly impossible. Hope wells up from a secret place and keeps men and women in the game, even when the game is almost certainly lost. These are remarkable parallels, parallels I would have missed if I had not seen the two films in the same week.

As these films end and the credits roll, some viewers will be stuck to their seats with feelings of sadness mixed with cheer. The sadness explains itself. The cheer is unexpected. But the cheer is solidly grounded. It rises in response to the failed heroism of Christine Collins, the mother in Changling, and of Phillipe Gerbier, the head of a Resistance network in L’Armée des Ombres. Because the heroism is real, though it is not rewarded with complete success (or perhaps because it is not rewarded with complete success), our own dignity is affirmed.

I’m ususally content to see a movie once, even a very good movie. But soon I’ll be downloading L’Armée des Ombres from Amazon to my TiVo. This one is worth owning and re-viewing.

Amazon DVD

Amazon DVD

Amazon Video on Demand

Amazon Video on Demand

The Book by Joseph Kessel

The Book by Joseph Kessel

The Truman Show: A Discussion Guide


The Truman Show (USA, 1998); directed by Peter Weir

Chapter 4 of my book, Faith, Film and Philosophy, is titled “Escaping Into Reality: What We Can Learn from The Truman Show about the Knowledge Enterprise.” Here are discussion questions for the film The Truman Show that I’ve used in conjunction with this chapter.

  1. What is Christof’s purpose in “designing” a life for Truman? What kind of life does he want for Truman? And what is Christof’s purpose in televising Truman’s life?
  2. There’s The Truman Show that is the TV show the movie is about, and there’s the movie called The Truman Show that we see in the theatre or on DVD. We’ll call the TV show TS-1 and the movie TS-2. In TS-2, viewers of TS-1 are depicted in various ways. Presumably, they enjoy watching TS-1. What is it about TS-1 that keeps them watching? Why do they like watching? What does this say about them?
  3. Those watching TS-1 seem to have opinions about the quality of life Truman has on “Seahaven.” What are they supposed to think about Truman and his quality of life? How does this compare with Christof’s attitude about Truman’s quality of life? Now think about how we are supposed to regard Truman’s life as we view the film, TS-2. Is there a difference between what we’re supposed to think or feel as we watch the movie and what the TV viewers are supposed to think and feel as they watch the TV show? Describe whatever differences you think of.
  4. Truman falls in love with Sylvia, who is kicked off the show (TS-1). Later she calls in to speak with Christof during a rare interview on television. What is her thesis about what Christof is doing? Do you agree with her? Are we supposed to agree with her? Does she make a good argument? Can you think of ways to strengthen her argument?
  5. What is this movie about? Do you think the filmmakers are making an argument? If so, what is that argument? What is the thesis and what evidence is presented in support of that thesis?
  6. What kinds of freedom does Truman exercise while living in Seahaven? What kinds of freedom is he lacking? How is he presented from exercising these freedoms?
  7. Are you more free than Truman? In what ways? Are you sure about this? Can you be sure? [This question was suggested to me by David Hunt, a contributor to Faith, Film and Philosophy.]
  8. Some critics see Christof as a god-figure in this film and suggest that the film is actually a critique of the Christian worldview. If that’s true, what do the filmmakers assume about the Christian worldview, and especially about the Christian or biblical conception of divine sovereignty and human freedom? Based on your understanding of what the Bible teaches about such things, how is Truman’s life in Seahaven like, and how is it unlike, human existence in the actual world? Support your answer from the Bible and from evidence in the film.
  9. In his chapter in Faith, Film and Philosophy, Geivett claims that this film illustrates how a person may be able to acquire knowledge that is important, even when much of his community is determined to deceive him or her. Is this a plausible claim about the film? How could this claim be challenged?
  10. What does this film “say” about the responsibilities people have toward each other when it comes to seeking the truth and tracking the evidence? Can you describe some contemporary attitudes about truth, the objectivity of truth, and the possibility of knowing truth? How are these attitudes reinforced socially?

Run Lola Run: A Discussion Guide


Run Lola Run (Germany, 1998); directed by Tom Tykwer

Chapter 7 of my book, Faith, Film and Philosophy, is titled “What Would Have Been and What Could Be: Counterfactuals in It’s a Wonderful Life and Run Lola Run. The author is Jim Spiegel. Here are discussion questions for the film Run Lola Run that I’ve used in conjunction with his chapter.

  1. Are there any elements in the film that you didn’t understand or can’t explain? Write down what comes to mind?
  2. How would you explain the following: (a) the red hair, (b) the use of black and white, (c) the use of animation, (d) the rapid-fire photo shoots of people Lola encounters, (c) the breaking glass when she screams at different times
  3. The film depicts three possible scenarios. Between the first scenario and the second is a scene when Lola asks Manni a series of questions. She begins with the question, “Do you love me?” What is funny about this scene? What is the logic of her questioning? How does Manni respond? Do you think he should have answered her differently?
  4. Who are the people that Lola encounters during her race to catch up with Manni? What technique is used to portray their respective futures? Why are they portrayed in different ways from one scenario to another? What bearing does this have on the message of the film?
  5. Is there humor in this film? If so, what is its significance, if any, for the message of the film? Is this a comedy? If not, is the humor accidental (not intended by the producers or director) or incidental (not salient to the main message of the film)? Explain your answer.
  6. Between the second scenario and the third, Manni asks Lola, “What would you do if I died?” She thinks his question is stupid. Do you agree with Lola? Why would Manni ask such a thing? How is this bit of dialogue appropriate to the film? Is there anything significant about placing this scene here, rather than between the first and second scenarios?
  7. Does the fact that this movie is in German make the movie more enjoyable, or less? Explain your answer. What would be lost, if anything, if it was in English? Do you think you would enjoy it more, or understand it better, if you understood German?
  8. In the last scenario, while Lola is running with her eyes closed, and she doesn’t have the money, what is she saying? Whom is she addressing? Think about what happens next. Is this supposed to be related to her plea while running? If so, how?
  9. At the Casino, Lola gets incredibly lucky. At this point in the film, is that a surprise? Why or why not?
  10. There are places in the film where a group audience tends to respond with laughter. It’s as if there are cues in the film to laugh at these moments, and most people respond on cue. How does experience of a film in a group situation help in the process of understanding what a film is about, or what a viewer is supposed to believe or feel in response to a scene?

Legends of the Fall: A Discussion Guide


Legends of the Fall (USA, 1994); directed by Edward Zwick

Chapter 4 of my book, Faith, Film and Philosophy, is titled “Defining Love through the Eye of the Lens: Romance, Sex, and the Human Condition in Pretty Woman, Legends of the Fall, and The Bridges of Madison County.” The author is Greg Jesson. Here are discussion questions for the film Legends of the Fall that I’ve used in conjunction with his chapter.

  1. A native American named Stab, an elder of the Cree Nation, narrates the beginning of the film. How would you explain the director’s choice in beginning the film this way?
  2. In a letter to his mother, Alfred writes, “I pray every night for the grace to forgive Tristan.” Do you agree that Tristan has sinned against his brother, Alfred? Explain your answer. Does Alfred ever forgive Tristan? Why or why not? If you believe he doesn’t, what would it have taken for him to forgive Tristan?
  3. When visited by a committee of citizens who want Alfred to be elected to Congress, he shouts at them, “What do you want for yourselves if you get my son elected?” What does this say about his view of politics? What does it say about his view of people, in general?
  4. Alfred says, in response to his father’s accusation that the U.S. government has yet to regain its wisdom, common sense, and humanity: “I will consider it my absolute duty to bring both wisdom and humanity to the United States Congress.” This may ring a bell. Compare Alfred’s vow with the similar promise made by Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. How are they alike? Different?
  5. Following his argument with the Colonel, Alfred says, tenderly, “Susanna, you deserve to be happy.” Is this true? What is Alfred’s conception of happiness? How does this compare with your conception of happiness?
  6. Does the Colonel have a favorite son? If so, who is it? What accounts for this? How are the others affected?
  7. What happens when Susanna’s name comes up, after Tristan returns home? Is Susanna over Tristan? Is Tristan over Susanna? What is your evidence?
  8. What do you think of Anthony Hopkins’s performance as a stroke victim? Is his stroke supposed to mean anything that ties into the story line of the film? (Is it symbolic?)
  9. One Stab repeatedly speaks of “the bear inside” of Tristan. What is the point of this metaphor? What does it say about Tristan and One Stab’s evaluation of him as a person?
  10. At a public meeting, Alfred and Tristan meet. Alfred asks, “How’s father? Is he well?” Tristan answers, “As well as can be expected.” What does this mean? What can be expected? Why?
  11. In explanation of the accidental death of Isabel, Alfred says to Tristan, “It was a terrible, tragic, accident.” What does this say about Alfred? Has he changed as a person?
  12. Whose faults are greater? Tristan’s, or Susanna’s? Support your answer.
  13. At Susanna’s grave, Alfred says to Tristan, “I followed all the rules . . . . And you, you followed none of them. And they all loved you more.” What does this say about Alfred’s view of love? What does it say about his view of doing the right thing? Is there a sense in which he isn’t any different than Tristan?
  14. Tristan’s father says to him, “You are not damned, Tristan. I won’t allow that.” Any comments?
  15. How are things resolved in the end? Does this change anything?
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