Two days in to week two at Sundance and I am detecting a theme, at least in the films that I selected to see at this, the nations premiere independent film festival: we are lost. I am sure that there are plenty of feel-good films here in Park City, but for some reason, I have not seen them. Over the span of 48 hours I have watched as filmmakers shared their vision with festival-goers, and that vision is bleak. What a great opportunity for the faith community.
Some people go to the movies to escape. They gravitate toward formula romantic comedies, something safe and familiar. Sundance understands that films do much more than merely entertain. They can, and should, make you think, challenging the status quo, exhibiting the pain of the human condition, and trying to offer – if not some kind of solution – at least a chance to evoke conversation that might lead to one. So far, I have encountered visions of a declining west that does not know where it is, what it’s doing, or what people are worth. These filmmakers represent a significant cross-section of American culture that is dangerously adrift.
An American cartographer, mapping the Armenian countryside for corporate interests, meets an Armenian photographer, and offers to transport her to a dangerous section of the country in exchange for her abilities as a translator and guide. Will Shepherd, the map maker, has made a habit since youth of wandering off in an effort to lose himself, to run up to the edge of the earth. Gadarine, the photographer, feels smothered by her small-town Armenian family, who refers to her as “the prodigal daughter” – though she has little interest in returning home. Will’s project is failing – he cannot pin down his maps, a metaphor for his own condition. Despite her modern morality (it doesn’t take long for the two of them to have sex), Gadarine is drawn to photograph traditional architecture and pastoral scenes from her country. But she does not want to land. Neither one of them is ever “here.”
This film powerfully speaks to the modern, mobile west. Able to be anywhere, we are actually nowhere. We find it hard to commit, preferring to keep our options open just in case a better deal comes along. And it matters little if that potential upgrade is a job, a home, or a person. There are no easy answers offered in the film. Things are the way they are, and unless our presuppositions change, there is little hope that anything will get better. We long for belonging, yet we actively pursue lives that militate against us ever finding it. We are culturally schizophrenic.
In this story, pitched as a teen comedy, George Zinevoy is a budding nihilist who cannot understand why everyone is so concerned about his future. He knows his future. He, like everyone else on the planet, is going to die. Why bother with homework, college applications, dating, or family life when, ultimately, it is all going to end in death? But when he rescues Sally Howe from detention by taking the blame for a minor infraction, the stirrings of meaning he feels are hard to deny.
Unfortunately, George does not have any models of love and commitment in his life. His mother and stepfather appear headed for divorce. She is obsessed with George’s academic success while ignoring his impressive artistic abilities (which even George calls “doodles”). Dad is a hypocrite. When George first meets Sally’s newly-single mother, mom invites him in for a beer and makes a pass at him. Everywhere he looks he finds evidence that the rat race, or even the mating game, is every bit as meaningless as his personal philosophy suggests.
Glaring by its absence is any suggestion that George’s problems might have their root in spiritual darkness. No adult ever confronts George’s nihilism with anything but stock American success speeches. He has significant questions. No one has meaningful answers. When the film takes a more commercial turn at mid-point it is a little jarring. In the Q and A that followed the screening, I asked the director, Gavin Wieson, what in George’s life would motivate him to take a chance on love with Sally? It seemed to stump him a bit, and the answer he gave, that George was moved by a life-changing problem faced by his mom, did not make much sense given George’s philosophical presuppositions.
It is the first part of the film, not the commercial third act, that rings true. Young people, in particular, are adrift. After decades of educational indoctrination that argues that there is no transcendent meaning in life, Nickelback’s lyrics, “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals” gains traction. C.S. Lewis, in the 1940s, argued, “We laugh at honor, and are surprise to find traitors in our midst” could easily be translated, “We told our children that they are nothing more than beasts, and then are surprised when they lose all motivation to seek the triumph of the human spirit.” Our abandonment of a spiritual center has played a role in creating this generation of young people without the equipment to make sense of their own lives.
How to Die in Oregon
When we do not know where we are from or, ultimately, where we are going; when our lives are no longer firmly grounded in a transcendent view of reality, the only thing left for people to rely upon is themselves. Unwilling or unable to surrender their lives to a benevolent God because they have forgotten or ignored Him for so long, micro-managing is the only alternative.
How to Die in Oregon chronicles the lives of a number of people who choose to end their own lives. The narrative focuses on two women: one, Cody, is a cancer victim trying to determine when to end her life, and another who is campaigning to extend Oregon’s right to die law to Washington in fulfillment of a deathbed promise she made to her husband.
It is impossible not to have sympathy for these people as they are processing a tremendous amount of physical and emotional pain. As we witness their journey, we find these folks likeable and sincere. But the film, made in association with HBO, more honestly falls into the category of advocacy cinema, and very little time is spent examining cogent counter-arguments to the right to die agenda.
My greatest fear is that people will see this film and will choose to prematurely end their own lives. The film opens with a man using a poisonous drink that he says tastes like wood, then lying down to die. As he slips away, he says, “Tell them that it’s easy.” I found it interesting that in the final scenes in the film, as Cody chooses to take her own life, she also says how easy it all is. By book-ending the film in this way, the director is sending a clear message: Natural death is messy, painful and difficult. Assisted suicide is the easy way out.
About 30 years ago, my close friend, Guy, was diagnosed with leukemia. He was an accomplished musician, engaged to be married, with is whole life ahead of him. Great strides have been made in the treatment of leukemia over the years, but back then leukemia could be a painful, daunting disease with an overwhelming treatment regimine. It isn’t hard for people to choose to give up. The doctors gave Guy only even odds of survival. I spoke with him today – still alive after all these years, married, with a great son — about How to Die in Oregon, wanting to know how he would feel about a similar campaign in California. He said he would be opposed, recognizing how easily such a law could be abused and how it might lure people who still had many important days, weeks, months or years ahead of them to prematurely end their lives.
These lives have dignity. We do not get dignity from what we are able to do, we have dignity as a result of our being created in the image of Almighty God. We are not animals that need to be “put down,” but human beings who can find significance in every part of life, even those that are painful and difficult.
To See or Not to See
Watching a sequence of films like these can be a daunting, demoralizing experience. One might be tempted to ask, “Why would anyone want to do it?”
These films wrestle with significant moral and spiritual issues in the lives of our neighbors. Filmmakers make such movies because they are working through their own process. Whether or not some of these films get picked up by distributors and get into wide release is not the issue. That people in the audience relate to the works these filmmakers create indicates that they are not alone. They are joined by many others who feel the same way, even if they haven’t experienced a film that brought those thoughts and feelings to the fore.
We live in a lost and dying world filled with confusion, doubt, pain, and death. These films highlight what many of us would wish to hide. They are important movies because they remove the mask that says, “everything’s going to be fine.” And once we recognize our truly lost condition, we can begin to honestly seek for answers. It’s a good starting place.
©2011 Marc T. Newman, PH.D.