Sunday, June 10, 2007

Still the Best Movie Ever

I watched my favorite movie about two weeks ago and it hasn't lost a bit of its splendor. The movie is Unstrung Heroes, starring John Turturro, Michael Richards, Andie MacDowell and others. I first saw this film when it was released in theaters in 1995, bought it soon after it was released on video and have managed to watch it about once a year since then. I'll get to the main reason why I like it so much in a moment, but first I want to discuss a realization I had after this most recent viewing that has increased my appreciation for the film all the more.

When I watched the film for the first time, I was taken in by the stellar performances of all of the actors. I was, and still am, a huge Seinfeld fan and it was exciting to see Michael Richards do something great outside the confines of that show. The uniqueness of the storyline also grabbed me as I was, and still am, more prone to watch an action, sci-fi or comedy film than a drama. The affective message of the film missed me back then as my emotional retardation was at an all-time high in my early twenties. The more I watched it however, the more I began to understand what was going on in the film and to appreciate not just the good acting and unique story, but the emotional cord the movie strikes. After about 2000 or so, I've managed to shed a tear at every viewing (sometimes just a small tear, but sometimes I cry so much as to be embarrassed). Very few things do that to me, so Unstrung stays at #1 for that reason also.

But the main reason I like Unstrung so much is because of the worldview it advances. Despite the growing number of successful and excellent Christian films that are making it to the big screen, Hollywood continues to consistently present belief in God as a joke, an error, an offence or, ironically, as an evil. Pastors, priests, missionaries and Christians in general are often presented as exceptionally wicked or exceptionally stupid when, in fact, the exceptionally wicked are infinitesimal in comparison with the total membership of Christianity and the exceptionally stupid exist at every level of society, regardless of gender, race or religion. However, in this movie, which is set in a Jewish context, religion is seen as a vital part of life and a much-needed correction to the metaphysical and methodological naturalism of one of the characters. Admittedly, the religious characters are oddballs but in an endearing sense, not in the stereotypically negative sense as such characters are usually presented. The film's message is that it takes science and religion to make proper sense of life and that embracing one does not demand a rejection of the other.

Allow me to reproduce a dialog from the film that represents what it is trying to say. Four characters are involved: Sidney (the naturalist), Danny and Arthur (Sidney's religious brothers) and Steven a.k.a. Franz (Sidney's son who, after spending some extended time with Danny and Arthur, has begun to engage in some Jewish religious practices). The four are sitting around a table in a coffee shop where all but Sidney have just prayed for their food …

Arthur: May I have the salt, Franz?

Sidney: His name is Steven! And what are you doing teaching my son to pray? You have no right. Everything I stand for is to be able to have these kids to believe in their own abilities. Not some fairy story about God in Heaven. You know where Heaven is? In the minds of morons.

Danny: Well you're wrong Sidney.

Sidney: What?!?!

Danny: You're wrong! Because when you desert the beliefs of your father you are in Gehenna, Sidney. Now it happens, one day…

Sidney: Bullshit!

Steven/Franz: What's Gehenna?

Danny: It's the valley of lamentation, the valley of groaning!

Sidney: It's the valley south of Jerusalem where they burn their garbage!

(Arthur: It's not garbage, it’s junk.)

Sidney: Religion is a crutch! Only cripples need crutches!

Arthur: A crutch isn't bad, if you need it, Sidney.

Steven/Franz: Yeah.

Danny: All of us are cripples in some way.

Sidney: Well, I'm not! (Turning to Franz) Your mother and I have decided, you're coming home.

By film's end, Sidney's aggressively atheistic, overly scientific worldview is revealed as inadequate to deal with the complex and disastrous events in his life, while Arthur and Danny's religious fanaticism shows hopes of being tempered. One is left with the sense that as the family reconciles, Steven/Franz will grow up with a healthy and robust religious worldview, albeit without Christ, and with a properly balanced and informed notion of science. This is the kind of movie I'd love to see produced more often and I don't see myself tiring of it anytime soon. I highly recommend this movie to any who haven’t seen it, which, from my experience, is a lot of you. Watch and be encouraged that at least sometimes, even if ever so rarely, Hollywood can send out a positive religious message.


Trader Joel said...

i should rent it again...

eric O said...

Wrong, Joel. You should buy it!

Trader Joel said...

touche eric

dmartin10 said...

One of the most "different" movies we have ever seen - in a good way. I appreciate the explanation of why it is your favorite. Don't know how you find time to watch a movie these days. We are praying for you guys and the unanticipated increase in responsibility.