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Lemming Legends

July 8, 2014 — 16 Comments

lemmingThe closest camaraderie I ever experienced in my life, was on the staff of the USAF Chaplain School. A sign of our esprit de corps was seen in the nicknames we gave one another. Mine was Lemming. (Not too dashing, I know, but read on and you’ll see why it was bestowed with affection and respect.)

Those of us who worked on “Air Staff” projects (for the Chief of Chaplains) were in the Resource Division. Probably because we were always rushing (scurrying?) around responding to emergencies, the other chaplains called us the “Resource Rats.” We were close indeed, and our energies and creativity was magnified by our synergy . . . just like the Inklings.

We embraced the label, and before we knew it each of us had been identified as a particular member of the rodent family. We had a rabbit, hamster, beaver, squirrel and fudged a bit with a ferret and a weasel. Among assorted other “rats,” I was nicknamed—you didn’t choose your identity, your friends awarded it to you—Lemming.

They called me Lemming because I had a unique duty on the team. One of my duties was to do a little bit of “ghostwriting” for the Chief of Chaplains. Some would consider it an honor, but trust me, due to the general for whom I wrote the first year, it was anything but.

Why a Lemming? Well, because whenever a tasking came down I would dutifully march off in obedience . . . even if it meant marching right off of a cliff. Like the humble Lemming, I accepted my fate, and made the best of it.

We all know their tragic story. When the Lemming burrows become overcrowded, a large number of them will sacrificially gather together and march to the sea. There, those who did not perish in catastrophic falls, nobly swim out to sea so that their relatives back in the warren can once again devote themselves to overpopulating their habitat.

I was proud of the appellation. I wore the name (literally, on the shirt logo pictured above) as a badge of honor. Until . . . until I discovered it was all based on a lie.

Lemmings, we have learned, do not suffer from periodic mass suicidal impulses. The common myth is based on an insidious 1958 “nature film” made by Disney. I have no idea why they would compromise their flawless reputation for scientific accuracy in their naturalist media, but in White Wilderness, they cast all integrity aside. (And now I know why C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were wary of the machinations and shadowy motives of Walt Disney Studios.)

With utter disregard to the reputation of these clever arctic creatures, the film showed (supposed) members of the Scandinavian clans eagerly casting themselves to their deaths. However, their bizarre behavior was manipulated by cinematic chicanery.

It turns out that not only did Disney pull the lemmings out of their normal habitat for filming—since they were too intelligent to voluntarily leap to their death, they were thrown off of the cliff from a modified turntable! Ghastly.

Learning that lemmings will not march knowingly (and stupidly) to their own demise has actually made me a bit prouder to bear the title. I mean, it’s one thing as a member of the armed forces to risk your life in the defense of your nation. It’s quite another to commit suicide because a general thought one of your commas was in the wrong place. But that’s a story for another day.

Words of Death

April 10, 2014 — 20 Comments

joseyOne of the cinema’s most powerful scenes occurs in a film many might disregard due to its genre. In “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” a man trying to rebuild his war-shattered life, rides out to face a Comanche chieftain.

Josey: You be Ten Bears?

Ten Bears: I am Ten Bears.

Josey: I’m Josey Wales.

Ten Bears: I have heard. You’re the Gray Rider. You would not make peace with the Blue Coats. You may go in peace.

Josey: I reckon not. Got nowhere to go.

Ten Bears: Then you will die.

Josey: I came here to die with you. Or, live with you. Dying ain’t so hard for men like you and me, it’s living that’s hard; when all you ever cared about has been butchered or raped. Governments don’t live together, people live together. With governments you don’t always get a fair word or a fair fight. Well I’ve come here to give you either one, or get either one from you. I came here like this so you’ll know my word of death is true. And that my word of life is then true. The bear lives here, the wolf, the antelope, the Comanche. And so will we. Now, we’ll only hunt what we need to live on, same as the Comanche does. And every spring when the grass turns green and the Comanche moves north, he can rest here in peace, butcher some of our cattle and jerk beef for the journey. The sign of the Comanche, that will be on our lodge. That’s my word of life.

Ten Bears: And your word of death?

Josey: It’s here in my pistols, there in your rifles . . . I’m here for either one.

Ten Bears: These things you say we will have, we already have.

Josey: That’s true. I ain’t promising you nothing extra. I’m just giving you life and you’re giving me life. And I’m saying that men can live together without butchering one another.

Ten Bears: It’s sad that governments are chiefed by the double-tongues. There is iron in your word of death for all Comanche to see. And so there is iron in your word of life. No signed paper can hold the iron, it must come from men. The word of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life . . . or death. It shall be life.

This conversation has always caused me to stop and think—even as I typed it out now. It contains many profound thoughts about honesty, commitment, respect and even peace. Most captivating to my thoughts, though, is the contrast between words of death and words of life.

“There is iron in your word of death . . . And so, there is iron in your word of life.”

People say all sorts of things, often without much regard as to whether or not they are true. They often speak without thinking about the words before they leave their lips. Most daily conversation is superficial, and immediately forgotten.

That changes, when we speak of death. Sure, comedians joke about it, but when people discuss actual death—often in the wake of someone’s passing—our words become more measured, our tempo slows, and we more consciously ponder what we are saying.

I recall a conversation with a fellow chaplain who described his father’s dying. He contracted a terminal disease, which would take some time to extinguish his life, and he told his children: “As you have grown up, I’ve done my best to teach you how to live. Now I will do my best to teach you how to die.”

It doesn’t require faith in God to die with dignity, but those of us who know the resurrected Jesus, face death with a confidence that death does not have the final word.

The truly wise live all of their days in the knowledge that we all will someday (barring the parousia) experience physical death. In light of that, our words should not be careless, or even frivolous. That’s true for our life words, as well as our death words.

By this I do not mean that we should not play with language or engage in humor. After all, humor is inarguably one of God’s most precious gifts to us. Nor should we allow the cloud of death that hangs over all mortal flesh rob us of the many joys life brings.

C.S. Lewis would have understood the essence of the conversation quoted above. (The movie was made thirteen years after his own death.) When grieving the death of his wife, Lewis wrote:

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it? . . . Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief. (A Grief Observed).

What I am trying to capture is more than simply the notion that our words of life, our day to day conversations, should be just as sincere and thoughtful as our words of death. It’s more in line with what Lewis was referring to. That our words, thoughts, and hopes have been tested and proven true . . . because they are based not on the fancy of the moment, but on the final, concluding whole of the testimony of our lives.

In other words, it is precisely because one’s word of death (ultimate, naked honesty) is true, that you can trust their word of life.

That’s a message that echoes both the sound of a hammer driving nails on a Judean hill, and a heavy stone rolling away from the entrance to a sealed tomb, two days later.

Lengthening Good Stories

January 15, 2013 — 8 Comments

bayeuxWe’re all familiar with the saying “too much of a good thing.” Because it’s a cliché, most reviewers wisely avoid the phrase, but in reading a fair number of reviews of The Hobbit, I’ve heard this very thought expressed in a number of ways.

Everyone is familiar with Director Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning trilogy of The Lord of the Rings. Most fans were thrilled when it was announced he would also film J.R.R. Tolkien’s much “smaller” tale of The Hobbit. Some were surprised when they learned he would divide it into two parts. Still, the general sentiment was “the more the better” (another tired phrase). However, when it was ultimately announced that Jackson intended to stretch the modest novel into a trilogy of its own, many fans were incredulous.

There is a tad of irony in transforming Tolkien’s beloved adventure of a hobbit assisting dwarves in a regional quest into an epic to rival the high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings with its conflict enmeshing every corner of Middle Earth.

As I write this column, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is doing well. It is ranked sixth at the box office, and held the number one position for three full weeks, against tough competition.

In order to discover sufficient content to expand the story, Jackson has incorporated a number of Middle Earth tales Tolkien had written about its history in other sources. The primary sourcebook was The Silmarillion, a collection published posthumously by Tolkien’s son Christopher in 1977. Some regard the importing of these elements as a sort of corruption of the simpler story of the single volume. Others welcome the elaboration on the essential story, since the additions are certainly “genuine Tolkien,” and they provide a more elaborate portrayal of Middle Earth.

The reactions to the expansion have been mixed. I don’t have strong feelings either way, but I treasure my time in Middle Earth so highly, that I would likely pitch my tent in the camp of those who approve of the increase. (Not to the point, of course, where I would behead those who objected, as we see on the fragment from the Bayeux Tapestry above.)

In the energetic conversation about the expansion of the saga, people frequently interject the name of the author, and offer suppositions about how he would have reacted. I find this interesting, but somewhat futile. Frankly, there is far too much that we simply don’t know about Middle Earth to authoritatively render Tolkien’s judgment on these things. Yes, we know that he was reluctant to see his work on the screen, but he did sell those rights to his creations. Of course we are aware of his lack of confidence in material originating in the colonies.

In a 1937 letter he writes about a possible publisher in the United States: “As for the illustrations: I am divided between knowledge of my own inability and fear of what American artists (doubtless of admirable skill) might produce.” It is in this same letter that he offers his criticism about a Disneyesque presentation: “It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do as seems good to them—as long as it was possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartful loathing).”

In an essay entitled “On Criticism,” C.S. Lewis described the limitations of outsiders attempting to discern the intent of authors.

Nearly all reviewers assume that your books were written in the same order in which they were published and all shortly before publication. There was a very good instance of this lately in the reviews of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Most critics assumed (this illustrates a different vice) that it must be a political allegory and a good many thought that the master Ring must “be” the atomic bomb.

Anyone who knew the real history of the composition knew that this was not only erroneous, but impossible; chronologically impossible. Others assumed that the mythology of his romance had grown out of his children’s story The Hobbit. This, again, he and his friends knew to be mainly false. Now of course nobody blames the critics for not knowing these things: how should they? The trouble is that they don’t know they don’t know. A guess leaps into their minds and they write it down without even noticing that it is a guess.

Learning from Lewis, I won’t hazard a guess about Tolkien’s ultimate attitude towards the cinematic portrayals of his works—which will now, I assume, come to carry greater weight in the public psyche than the novels themselves. Well, at least until the current mode of motion pictures becomes obsolete. Then, once again, the words as Tolkien wrote them will reign supreme.

For those who are interested, I created the faux Bayeux Tapestry scrap at the top of the column using a program that allows manipulation of a variety of the hand-stitched images. Then I simply added the text in a simple graphics program. The Historic Tale Construction Kit is available here.

There is also a more sophisticated software interface that I haven’t tried called the “interactive” Bayeux Tapestry.