Category: film review

Nick Cave’s God: Reflections on 20,000 Days on Earth

‘I don’t believe in an interventionist god,’ begins Nick Cave’s most overplayed song.  A couple of years later, Q magazine asked him in an interview, ‘Why don’t you believe in an interventionist god?’. He gave a two word answer: ‘I do.’ I’ve always taken him seriously on that, and perhaps he was serious at that time. Anyone steeped in his music – and I have been, at times, obsessive about his music – would find God everywhere, saturating his world.

In the new quasi-documentary about him, 20,000 Days on Earth, nothing should be taken as the final word from Cave; everything is scripted and edging into the mythic or the surreal. But he surprised me, by telling a counsellor in an early scene that while God exists in the world Cave himself creates, God does not exist in the real world. The Cave of 20,000 Days is no theist, nor even a deist, but an atheist. His project as an artist is to create a world, and in that world, someone is watching, taking count, and that’s God. But maybe it’s really Cave. No-one’s ever accused him of humility.

He tells the story of how his deep interest in religion was a part of his drug habit, that he’d wake up desperate for a hit, and would go to church first, sit through it, before heading over to the dealers to buy drugs. That way he’d done one good thing before he did his bad thing. But his interest in religion has remained, even in this long period of him being clean. Perhaps he just likes the theatre or the symbolism of God and preachers and devils and hell. But it feels to me it goes deeper than that.

In one of my favourite songs of his, “Oh My Lord”, he walks the streets plagued by angst and the paparazzi, crying out:

Oh Lord Oh my Lord
Oh Lord
How have I offended thee?
Wrap your tender arms round me
Oh Lord Oh Lord
Oh My Lord

Does it matter to me whether Nick Cave believes in God or not? Well, yes – more than it should. If I’m honest, when so many of my literary and artistic heroes are atheists, I take comfort from those who aren’t. I know the existence of God is not decided by popular vote, or even by the vote of those I like. But I can’t help the ongoing torn-ness of living in a world which some experience as full of God, and others as absent of God.

An autobiographical reception history of the story of Noah

Nathan-Noah

In the 1980s, Noah was a kids’ story. Here is a photo of me as Noah, age five or so. I loved having a cotton wool beard and my own little ark on a trolley, my brother one of the animals. The story is a Sunday School favourite for its craft possibilities, rather than its theological meaning. I don’t remember feeling any concern for the people who perished in the flood; they were evil – the story explained this.

In the 1990s, Noah became a source of science. The glossy Creation magazine would arrive in the mail, and I would learn about how the global flood explained all sorts of things, from the existence of fossils to the extinction of the dinosaurs (the flood changed the climate, and the dinosaurs couldn’t cope). Significantly, Creation Science Foundation became Answers in Genesis, because it wasn’t just the creation stories which explained science and origins, but the whole of Genesis. (Except that I don’t remember many articles on the significance of the Joseph stories, or other later parts of Genesis. I’m sure this an undertapped part of Genesis when it comes to science.)

In the 2000s, I sat in the Life and Literature of Ancient Israel unit at university, and the Noah story became a touchpoint for source criticism and the claim that the editor of the Pentateuch wove together different traditions in this and other stories. I was confronted with the strange repetitions within the Noah story and the diverging details within it (how many animals? how many days?). I felt stupid for never noticing them before. Quixotically, I fought against source criticism, rallying together every scholarly objection or question mark over the theory. What was I trying to preserve? A particular view of the inspiration of the Bible.

In the 2010s, the Noah story was at the centre of theological problems with the Old Testament. I read Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior and wondered why I’d never been disturbed by the genocide of almost all the human race in the flood. How could it be a kids’ story? How could we not question this depiction of God? Is it consistent with the God we know in Jesus Christ?

And now, in 2014, I’ve just watched Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. It is a strange and fascinating film; its landscape and naive quest structure (and rock people) reminded me of The Never Ending Story more than anything, but it has a dark edge, and owes as much to the old-fashioned biblical epics. Here we are forced to question religious certainty, because Noah truly does some despicable things in his pursuit of what he believes to be his mission from the Creator. We see some of the realities of a global flood which kills thousands; the screams of the dying heard by Noah and his family within the ark are truly harrowing. (The scene felt to me something like what most evangelicals imagine the judgement of non-Christians at the return of Christ, while they are safe in their ‘ark’.) The story takes themes from elsewhere in the Bible – child sacrifice, barrenness, father and son arguments – and thickens the Noah story with them. It gives the Noah story the mythic sense which Genesis demands; this is something like our world, but it is certainly not our world as we know it. The Noah story is strange, and this new film captures some of that strangeness, closer to the origins of the Earth and of us.

[film review #2] The American:killing in no name

Many films work hard in their opening scenes to establish sympathy with their central character. Not The American – we witness Jack (George Clooney) shoot dead his lover when she witnesses him dispatch a would-be assassin. What sort of man are we dealing with here? We see very little sign of moral anguish in Jack – although late in the film, he has a flashback to the scene, perhaps a sign that he has changed.

Jack constructs weapons, but he wants out. He accepts one last job, and moves to a small Italian town to build the weapon to the right specifications. He is befriended by a prostitute and a priest, both of whom want to help him, and both of whom think the first step is for him to confess his secret. Jack is constantly looking over his shoulder – who is going to try to kill him, the unexplained Swedes, the priest, the prostitute or the woman assassin he is building the weapon for?

It is never made clear who Jack is working for. Mainstream films will tend to justify the violence of a hero. The justness of their cause is established; good and evil are clearly defined. But the absolute absence of motives or reasons makes the violence seem meaningless. It’s like the black spy versus the white spy in Mad Magazine – who’s the goodie? There isn’t one! The rejection of the myth of redemptive-violence makes it a film closer to an Anabaptist’s understanding of the nature of violence and its effect on humans.

The other interesting angle for Christians is the redemption offered to Jack by the priest and the prostitute. Both want to draw him out of his solitude, to bring him to a point where he can trust another human. The priest tells Jack that Jack knows hell is real – he isliving in it, because he is living in his unconfessed sin.

[Spoiler alert]

The prostitute genuinely cares for him, and pursues him as a lover rather than a client. But he illustrates so clearly that if you are not trustworthy, you cannot trust others. She has a small gun in her handbag to protect herself against clients; he assumes she is trying to kill him. There is small redemption at the end of the film, where he decides to make a new life with her, even though it proves to be too late.

[film review #1] Dead Calm: Hospitality and the Stranger

Philip Noyce’s 1989 Dead Calm is a classic thriller set-up superbly executed, without achieving anything beyond its genre confines. In the initial scenes, a young mother, Rae (Nicole Kidman), crashes her car, killing her toddler. Her husband John (Sam Neill), an experienced naval officer, takes her on a yacht off the Great Barrier Reef to recover.

Into their idyllic holiday comes the lone survivor from a sinking ship, Hughie (Billy Zane). Hughie is a manic, charming and strong man. Suspicious of his story that the rest of the crew died of food poisoning, John rows over to the foundering ship, leaving the sleeping Hughie with Rae. John discovers the rest of the crew murdered and frantically tries to return to Rae, but Hughie has already taken control of the yacht. For the rest of the film, Rae negotiates with Hughie while John pursues them in the sinking ship.

The question raised for me from a Christian perspective is one of hospitality and neighbourliness. Bearing in mind the film is not meant to be typical of life, it still reinforces an anxiety that lurks in the collective mind: the stranger in need of help may actually be a dangerous psychopath. Even in a Christian family regularly telling Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, I was brought up with this fear. ‘Be careful who you help’; ‘there’s certain people you just can’t risk stopping to help’.

It would have been good if Jesus had prepared us more thoroughly for this anxiety – or maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. Was one of the men hurrying past the injured traveller actually scared he might attack him if he helped? Would Jesus stop to help anyone he saw in need of help? He probably would have, even today. Yet again, the question brings home to me the cost of discipleship, the call to a life I fall short of.

But perhaps John in the film actually has the right response – he offers Hughie hospitality, but he’s not stupid; he checks out the story. He even takes precautions, locking Hughie in the cabin. It’s just not enough when you are facing a murderous psychopath. On the other hand, perhaps John’s response to Hughie in the final scene, when he shoots him through the head with a flare gun, falls short of Jesus’s call to nonviolence.