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January 31, 2007

Into the Moral Labyrinth
A Theological Review of Pan's Labyrinth


Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) is a new fairy tale, but it's also from the pre-Disney world of fairy tales. As such it is magical, brutal, gruesome, mysterious, and full of wonder. This movie is honest about its R rating and is definitely not for the faint of heart. It is also one of the best cinematic studies of dealing with violence I have seen in quite some time.

The film is set in 1944 Fascist Spain right after the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia, a young girl, and her pregnant mother go to stay at a military outpost to be with Ofelia's new stepfather and the father of her unborn sibling. Her new stepfather is a Captain charged with hunting down the remaining rebels hiding out in the woods and he does so brutally and without remorse.

Ofelia is entranced by fairy tales which she reads constantly. She finds an ancient labyrinth in the woods near the compound which she visits one night. At the center of the labyrinth she encounters a faun who tells her she is the long-lost daughter of the King of the Underworld and gives her three tasks to prove her royal lineage. These are also a test to make sure that her soul hasn't gone native to this realm and that she is still worthy of her royal title.

[Warning: Major spoilers follow. I completely give away the ending. Read on only if you've seen the film or never intend to do so. You've been warned.]

The bulk of the movie deals with one question: How does one contend with overwhelming, tyrranical violence? The Captain, Ofelia's stepfather, uses violence as a tool to achieve his goals, professional and personal, and he does it without apology or, apparently, feeling. Ofelia's labyrinthine winding path consists not only of doing the tasks assigned to her by the faun, but also trying to keep out of the way of her tyrranical stepfather.

Many people make hard choices regarding how to deal with the Captain's violence. The rebels, of course, engage in a deadly game of hide and seek with him. Mercedes, a housekeeper in the compound, secretly helps the rebels and tries to do her job without being found out as a spy. A doctor, likewise, is serving the Captain by helping out his new, ailing, pregnant wife and helping the rebels in the woods.

One of the most poignant moments in the film is when the doctor helps a torture victim die in defiance of the Captain's orders. When confronted by the Captain he calmly tells him that to "obey for obey's sake... That's something only people like you do." He then takes up his doctor's bag and walks away and is summarily executed by the Captain.

In the end Ofelia has a similar choice. She is told that she can enter the fairy realm and become a princess if she allows the faun to spill the blood of her newborn brother. She refuses, even with the knowledge that her bloodthirsty stepfather is pursuing her and choosing not to sacrifice her brother means her almost certain death. Indeed, she sacrifices herself for her brother.

The film concludes with wondrous ambiguity. Ofelia both reassumes her throne in the fairy realm exactly because of her selflessness and, simultaneously, lies dying in the arms of the bereaved Mercedes.

The movie's tag line - "Innocence has a power evil cannot imagine." - points directly to the core gospel message of the story. Evil cannot be overcome by evil, but only by good. Ofelia succeeds not because she succumbs to the violence around her, but because she will not be corrupted by it. In the end, like the doctor, she defies her stepfather with the knowledge he can kill her. But what he does not know is that he cannot take her life.

The comparisons to Jesus' contending with the powers of the world are almost too obvious. Like Ofelia, Jesus lives in a land that is tyrannized and occupied. Like Ofelia, Jesus believes that his true source, his true father, is not of this world. Like Ofelia, Jesus confronts those who wield violence brutally and without remorse and tells them that they have no power over him. Like Ofelia, Jesus is tempted many times to stray from the path.

One could watch this film and think it is an indictment of Christianity and a glorification of Paganism, but I think that would be a shallow reading. The outward church is treated with obvious contempt in the film by depicting clergy who collaborate with the powers of the time. Likewise the film lifts up many seemingly occult or pagan symbols in a more or less positive way. But at its core this film is a retelling of basic Christian principles.

While I flinched a lot at the violence of this film, I found the story, the message, and the imagery extremely compelling. I expect to see the faun and the labyrinth in my thoughts, my dreams, and my nightmares for weeks to come.

[The fantasy images from the film are very compelling. I'm currently using the image at the top of this post as my desktop.]

January 29, 2007

Half Glass

halfglassfull.jpgToday in an interview with NPR's Juan Williams President Bush defended Vice-President Cheney's continued optimism about Iraq because he has a "half glass full mentality." This totally makes sense to me as the whole Iraqi campaign has been a half glass operation from the start.

When they were planning (and I use the term loosely) the invasion of Iraq they half glassed it by predicting we would be greeted as liberators. When we were figuring out how we would pay for this thing they half glassed it by saying that the oil revenues would more than take care of it. When they defended our continued presence there they half glassed it saying we were leading an international contingent consisting of us, Great Britain, and, oh, lots of folks really! Let's face it. Timelines, strategies, world opinion, everything this administration does in Iraq is half glassed.

Oh, and it doesn't stop there. Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina? Half glassed. After all, wasn't Brownie doing a hell of a job?

Bush's health care plan? Half glassed. It is the only health care proposal that has ever united labor and business in opposition.

Bush's economic policy? Half glassed. Not only does he cut revenue by slashing taxes for the rich, he grows government spending more so than any president since FDR supposing that the next generation will be rich enough to pay for it.

And thanks to this interview we finally understand the underlying principle behind these policies. They are all half glassed.

January 23, 2007

Random Rules - What's on your iPod?

randomshuffle.gifThe Onion regularly interviews celebrities by taking their mp3 player, setting it to shuffle, and having them respond to the first 10 songs that show up. I'm a big fan of randomness, so I'll post mine, whatever may fall out, and I invite you to post your own. I may do this periodically just because it will turn out different all the time. So, out of the 2696 songs on my iPod, the first 10 to come out are:

1 A Safe Place | Carrie Newcomer | An Angel at My Shoulder
I knew Carrie back when I was attending Purdue. She's gone on to produce a multitude of albums and some very fine music.

2 I'm Having a Heart Attack | They Might Be Giants | Apollo 18
This 22 second beauty is from a host of microsongs. TMBG puts these songs on their album specifically for shuffle play so that there would be little songlets that would just randomly appear between their longer songs.

3 The UFO Mystery | Jim Richardson | Gonzo Science
Jim Richardson is a Duluthian Gonzo Scientist. This album takes some of his essays, sets them to music, and goes over the top. It's spoken word jazz and rap and, well, somewhat indefinable. This particular song tries to explain the UFO phenomenon through ball lightning.

4 I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) | The Proclaimers | Sunshine on Leith
I love this song. Remember it? "I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more, just to be the man who walks 1000 miles to fall down at your door." May be one of the best love songs ever.

5 Intonent hodie | Anonymous 4 | Legends of St. Nicholas
Anonymous 4 are four women who sing early polyphonic music. Very evocative and atmospheric. Good music to get lost to.

6 Love Shack | The B-52s | Cosmic Thing
From the soundtrack of the early 90s. It's probably the most popular song from this album, though not my favorite. Ah, memories.

7 In the Middle, In the Middle | They Might Be Giants | No!
TMBG comes up again! Not surprising, I love this band. This is a cover of an old safety song sung by Robin Goldwasser.

8 Sleepwalkers | They Might Be Giants | No!
Okay, this is just weird. Is this random? I think the Johns got in and fixed my iPod. This is another song off of TMBG's very wonderful children's album about children walking in their sleep. Marimba, baby!

9 Linger | The Cranberries | Everbody Else Is Doing It
This song reminds me of long summer evenings, kicking back in the back yard or at the beach. Don't ask me why.

10 Bandwagon | R.E.M. | Dead Letter Office
Not a very familiar R.E.M. song. I had to check twice to make sure it was in fact R.E.M. Lot more twang to it than I'm used to with the boys from Athens, Georgia.

Well, that's it for now. Submit your own Random Ten list.

January 19, 2007

My Photogenic Award Winning Daughter


When this picture taken by Amanda Odeski of my daughter Emma (right) and her good friend, Emily, appeared in the Duluth News Tribune I got a lot of clippings from people.

What I didn't know until just now was that it was entered into running in the Minnesota News Photographers Association Picture of the Year 2005 competition and it came in third in the Features category.

We who know Emma are not surprised.

Stop All the Clocks

clockmidnight.jpgThe last time I had been in that living room was a few weeks earlier. Some members of my church and I had come caroling. The elderly couple positively beamed at the visit. Evelyn grinned from ear to ear. After we had finished singing she rushed about to make sure all the carolers had some treat or another, paying special attention to the children.

I looked around the quiet room now. Once filled with song it was now void of the jolly Christmas lights. Needlepoint was framed and hung on the walls and symmetrically placed portraits of grandchildren had a place of honor. Arnold, a small man, filled the room with his barely suppressed emotions. He had a smile that didn’t quite extend to his eyes. He pointed to a clock on the other side of the room. “It stopped last night when she died,” he said matter-of-factly.

I nodded, amazed but not really surprised. So much of Evelyn was in this place. Why should the house that she called home, that she made home, be denied its mourning?

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W. H. Auden

January 18, 2007

Night at the Museum Review-o-Rama

You know, it's interesting what people decide to blog on. My daughter, my son, and I all went to see Night at the Museum and we all independently decided to blog on it. Go fig.

Emma's Review
Simon's Review
My Review

January 13, 2007

The Funeral Lady

rhspic_funeral.jpgOut in the sanctuary sits the funeral lady in her fake fur coat and garish head scarf. She is old and I only see her at funerals. In the last three years I've been here she's been at almost every funeral I've presided over. She's not a member of the church. I've heard her name, but it has slipped from memory. She always lets me know how much the deceased meant to her and how she knew the whole family, but that's an act. She's just the funeral lady. Like a grim reaper with bad fashion sense I can trust her to show up on the scene.

I'm not sure what her motivation is. Maybe it's the food, as funerals are always at least decently catered affairs. Maybe it's the company. Maybe it's a way of showing respect to the dead, even the anonymous dead. Maybe it's just something for an old woman to do. Maybe she just likes the words of solace and hope associated with funerals. Maybe I'll never know.

I imagine her sitting at home with cats mewling as she drinks her instant coffee and scans the obituaries to plan her social agenda for the week. On her formica kitchen table are little porcelain salt and pepper shakers in the shape of a little boy and a little girl, chipped here and there revealing the white interior. On a corner shelf, among painted plates on display, is a picture of her in her younger years full of hope and plans for the future. She sits, lithe and young, on the hood of a car her skirt pulled over her knees. Next to her sits her husband-to-be back in the day when love and lust meant the same thing. Full of hormones they pause to pose for the camera, holding hands, placing their libidos in check for a brief instant as the shutter clicks and captures the image. Later there will be tears and shouting, but that moment of happiness and chemistry is captured for all time.

What does she think about as she sits in the pew? Does she worry about being found out as a funeral crasher? Does she concoct stories of how she knew the deceased spinning plausible lies in her head? Does she convince herself that she really knew these people that she mourns now? Or do these countless funerals stand in for her own loss? What is her own personal liturgy as she hears Amazing Grace sung for the ten thousandth time? What do the well worn words of the twenty third psalm mean to her as she recites them again and again?

She is a mystery. She is the funeral lady.

January 9, 2007

It's not my watch you're holding, it's my heart

Green%2BDay.JPGI love the geeky cool people of Duluth, Minnesota. Debbie hand knit this wonder and a cream pie as well. She said on her blog that she was also working on a brain, a Ferrari, and the digestive system, but I didn't see photos of them. Debbie, I salute you.

January 5, 2007

Don't be fooled...


Sure, she looks innocent enough, but that's what she wants you to think.

This is my daugther Emma modeling some fairyware for my friend Maria.

January 2, 2007

Happy 007!

bond_martini.jpgSince this is the dawning of the year of 007 I thought I'd make some New Year Resolutions to match. So, with James Bond as my role model, I do resolve:

  • to drink more martinis, shaken, not stirred
  • to introduce myself by my last name first
  • to do whatever I do imagining what the accompanying soundtrack might be
  • to wear a tux more often, even while jetskiing
  • to always deal with authority with gentle contempt and a crooked smile
  • to trust my wits more than I trust gadgets
  • to get an Aston Martin before year's end, flamethrower optional
What are your James Bond resolutions?