Sunday Reflections: Film Noir

We really are made in His image, we really can see and experience everything that exists between good and evil, and there aren't a lot of limits on that.

On Sunday morning I went to a church service at Heritage Presbyterian Church in Warrenton, Virginia where I thoroughly enjoyed the service and being with God's people. Later in the evening I went to see a film noir called "Nightmare Alley", which turned out to be the best film noir I have ever seen. Both of these were very singular experiences, and I really enjoyed them – and isn't that just bizarre?

How can the same person find it enjoyable to have a Sunday service which is the exact opposite of everything film noir represents, one would think, and then later on the very same day enjoy its opposite? It seems totally contradictory that the same person could enjoy both.

It turns out that that there are similarities between Sunday service and film noir. They aren't exactly polar opposites to each other. One of the biggest similarities has to do, surprisingly, with morality. The whole aesthetic of film noir is to pull back the curtain to show the seedy side of life, to cynically expose the rubes and dupes who are so easily cheated and tricked. Nevertheless, the underpinnings of film noir are deeply moralistic. There is a moral to the story – and it turns out that it's the same moral that you'd get on a Sunday morning.

Sunday Morning Light

I was traveling out of town during my visit, so at the service I found myself sitting on a pew with another family. Unexpectedly, I found myself being deeply comforted by the presence of a little girl who happened to be sitting on my right. She was about 6 or 7 years old. It's not anything she did or said, we didn't have any interaction at all. Nevertheless, in just sitting there with her I felt such a peace.

It occurred to me that here was a person who was doing me a real service in the sense of providing this comfort, but since she was just this kid, she surely didn't have any choice about where she was going to be that morning. She was there because her parents decided she would be. And it wasn't anything in particular she was doing, it was just the fact that she was there that was comforting.

And isn't that interesting? Just showing up, just being together, that's the comfort. Being together is enough; you don't have to do anything more. And even if you have to show up when it's not your choice, once you are there, if you choose to enter into it, go with it, then that's all the "work" you need do.

Isn't that a surprising thing? We keep thinking that the benefit we get by being together in the Body is that we get to take advantage of what we do for each other, but that really isn't it at all. The big benefit is just being together.

I'm reminded of that passage , I believe it's in Isaiah, where God talks about "I am He": I am it, I am God, there's no one beside me, there's no one before me, there won't be anyone after me, there's no one who can change anything that I declare. It's an essential statement of being-ness. The most foundational and important thing about God is simply that God is.

And because God is, that means we are never alone. Never! We are always sitting in a pew where God is by our side. He is always present, and that's our true comfort. There's a psalm of David where he talks about how being in the temple, being on your way up the mount, being in the group that's doing the singing and the dancing up to the sanctuary, that is what it means to experience the joy of His presence. It's not a quid pro quo, there's nothing "transactional" about it, it's purely relational.

After the church service, several old friends stopped by to talk. All the things we shared were just the ordinary things that people could share. Yes, there were some Christian-y things, but not really, just mainly the ordinary, human things. That also struck me. Yes, the body of Christ is gathered together "in His name", but it's not like we're there just for the purposes of doing Christian-y things, religious-y things. We're there to just be with one another. That's the main benefit.

Sunday Evening Darkness

The film I saw later that day, "Nightmare Alley", was directed by Guillmero del Toro. It's based on a 1947 book. Going with the original story was an excellent decision. Modern writers as a rule have little understanding of how to tell a story and how to introduce characters. All the acting was A-list, even the bit parts were played by people who were very much at the top of their game. There are still actors out there who can really act well, who can really dig into a part. That's quite a skill, and it deserves praise.

Because this was a del Toro movie, however, the main thing that he focuses on are crafting these stunning visuals, scenes that are so intense that they become like another character in the story. This was the first film noir I'd seen where you really have to see it in color, where color was actually better than black and white. (Film noir is almost always shot in B&W because it gives it just that extra grittiness.) This was a period piece, set in the 1930s, and takes place in a seedy carnival and in a majestic mansion. The costumes, the set pieces, the incredible colors and even the weather (!) all become essential story elements.

The big theme of film noir is the seediness of life, but it's important to realize that this seediness comes from the heart, it comes from within. It doesn't come from your circumstances of life. When your heart is dark, it's easy to look down on people as mere "marks", to take advantage of them, to lie, cheat and steal from them. After all, they "deserve it" by being so naive, or unintelligent, or not paying attention, or just so willing to believe.

This film is a story about lying. It's about how you fool people. But the moral is, in the end, you can't evade truth. You can try to burn and bury it, hide it, slide it, trick it, stick it, but in the end, "When a man believes his own lies, starts believing that he has the power, he's got shut eye. Because now he believes it's all true."

If you are a murderer at heart, if you live by the sword, you will die by the sword – not because the sword will come and "get you" in some silly supernatural way, no, but because that's what swords do. If you live your life by certain principles, by those principles you will live and die. This movie is deeply, deeply concerned with what it would call "karma", but what we believers know is moral justice.

God does have a moral economy for the world, and His justice will prevail.

The Bible is likewise very concerned with evil vs. good. It teaches that evil seems to prosper, but it's superficial. Underneath, it withers. I'm thinking of that Scripture where the writer says, "those who meditate on the law, they are like a tree planted by streams of water, and they flourish in their season; but not so the wicked, they're like chaff, they dry up and blow away". This film couldn't be a more perfect explication of that teaching.

One Man, Both Good and Evil

Both of these experiences were equally interesting  to me. But one of those was lovely and I can't wait to experience it again, while the other gave me a nightmare, literally waking me up in the middle of the night.  What does that mean about me? What can it mean that I "enjoyed" both?

I think what it means is that God has made us such that we continually live in the space between both extremes. It means we really are made in His image, we really can see and experience everything that exists between good and evil, and there aren't a lot of limits on that.

I've often thought about this, that Christ became incarnate. Since God can in fact be incarnated in human form, then that must mean that being human does not have the kinds of limits on it that we perhaps think. There must be something in the human form that is obviously very remarkable if it can bear the image of God Himself.

What I think God desires of us is chiefly a relationship. He made us to be like He is, and what He is like is family.

Image credit: "Families at Mass",


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