Monday, September 26, 2011

Taking A Leap Of Faith

Some movies are never meant to go very far or make much of a splash, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t make you think about their message long after you leave the theatre. I have a soft spot for films that can do that in spite of any lack of critical support.

I must admit I felt some trepidation about seeing The Ledge because I didn’t want it to be a movie that I regretted seeing and sharing with friends. I’ve chosen a few of those gems in the past year (“Skyline” comes to mind and, boy, was that a stinker.) When it happens, all you can hope is that it’s so horrible that you will giggle time and again when someone reminds you of your awful pick.

“The Ledge” did seem like a gamble and, in fact, I suspect a few friends didn’t go because they anticipated it would be as bad as the reviews seemed to imply. “If it had been a great movie, wouldn’t it have been given a lot more coverage?” queried a close friend. That’s a logical assumption to make. But in my case, at least, the gamble paid off and it’s worth explaining why.

On the way to the theater, I read a very hopeful review by atheist blogger, Greta Christina, and she laid out a reasonable and decent summary that made me aware of the expected faults and how the story still offered something for non-believers and believers alike. Christina felt this would open a door for discussion of the myths that society has about atheism in general and might lead to our own cultural acceptance, much like what has happened over the years in films dealing with the LGBT movement. It’s a start no less.

What intrigued me most is how scathingly dismissive many of the reviews have been. It’s almost as if the film we saw, and really liked for the most part, is not the same one seen by the majority of reviewers. My honest experience was this movie is not nearly as dreadful as we’ve been led to believe. Yes, there were moments of clunky dialogue. Yes, there were some contrived plot points. But many movies with what I would consider to be heftier amounts of clumsiness and contrivance have gotten less withering reviews than “The Ledge.”

What resonated for me was that everything about this film felt authentic in many small ways and that was fascinating when so much of the reviews frothed at the mouth about how overly “dramatic” or overly “stale” the production was (on and on and on the negativity flowed.) I even found the sex scenes to be quite compelling, which at my age is quite an achievement for any Hollywood movie. The audience does have to accept a few clich├ęd storylines in order to let the story flow, but then movies in general have that in common, even good ones sometimes.

First, the actors were sincere in their performances, and I was prepared to do a lot of eye rolling. I’m not even a lukewarm fan of any of the actors in fact, but I have seen most of them in excellent films, so I assumed they would be more than sufficient for a small film like this.

The protagonist, Gavin, portrayed by Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”), could pass for a younger, blonder-locked brother of Heath Ledger. He provided some of the most laughable dialogue early on, but he redeemed the character by the end, thankfully. His good looks and long hair may also not be as believable as a mid-level manager of a hotel (in Baton Rouge), but what he lacks in a perfect fit professionally, he more than makes up for as one of us when he’s on the prophetic ledge. And Liv Tyler was at her best as the vulnerable, pale and unsophisticated neighbor wife, Shanna. In fact, I can’t imagine Tyler playing any role other than a female lead who oozes helplessness and compassion. Her voice and demeanor was simply spot on for this kind of woman. Somehow, they tap into her plainness which makes her that much more real. (Is that another miracle?)

Patrick Wilson was the real shocker for me. Wilson has always played the everyman, the good guy, and has been somewhat forgettable only because he is the never the main course, always the supporting friend or lover. And I can understand if the filmmakers are criticized a little for making him slightly one dimensional with the predictable Christian hang ups. However, his Joe hits a major home run in a confrontational scene with Gavin. You can’t help but feel for him deeply and his pain is heartfelt. Several of us commented on how moving his scenes were and we’re all major non-believers. Needless to say, no one was phoning it in and it shows.

The central idea I took from this film was that atheism wasn’t necessary for the story to challenge the audience. In fact, not being religious isn’t necessary to drive home the point in this story. The question our hero must answer is what would you do for another human being? What would you be willing to sacrifice? It is what disturbed me the most and stuck with me well into a sleepless night.

I simply can’t imagine facing that question in the way that Gavin does. And perhaps that may derail it for someone not in the mood for this film. I always do that in a movie like this: solve the problem magically in a different way than the protagonist. Then it would have been much shorter and more mundane, which may be how the reviewers saw it and that’s a real shame. So, it figures that if you don’t allow yourself to be swept up in the story, you may indeed miss the central message.

Do I think there were a few of the reviewers who may have allowed their dislike of the A-word or their religious beliefs to color their potential appreciation of the film? Possibly, because it follows that we can’t expunge our fundamental viewpoints from our personalities (and anyone who tells differently is usually the worst offender). But I don’t think it was a theistic conspiracy either. Perhaps, atheists simply find the questions in this film more gripping than a typical movie reviewer, so we had a totally different frame of reference than judging the merits alone.

Do I think some of the reviews were overly harsh? Most definitely, which is why I pushed myself to compose these thoughts so you just might give it a chance.

In the end, sometimes you have to go out on a ledge and trust yourself.

"The Ledge" was directed by Matthew Chapman, the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin. It was filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and released in the summer of 2011.

You can see The Ledge right now through Video on Demand (your cable service), through the iTunes Store, or on the Internet at Sundance Now

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Freethinker In The Mirror

Rusty, a friend of mine from our secular humanist group, wrote an interesting piece that several people think is a pretty good challenge to non-believers:
"Are you a Freethinker?

A Freethinker is a person who thinks free from delusion, deception, misperception, fantasy, fiction and religious, political, cultural and even familial bias. For the sake of this discussion we will simplify it to freedom from religious philosophy.

There are two primary Christian philosophical concepts:

1. The obsessive and debilitating fear of Yahweh and Hell.

2. The unrelenting, defensive and blind obedience to the church that created Yahweh and Hell.

The church recruits and controls its members by brainwashing, lying, deception, guilt, shame, and fear. In order to maintain the loyalty of its followers in a world filled with intelligent, rational, secular minded people, the church has to instill in the believers these philosophical and behavioral mandates: arrogance, self righteousness, closed mindedness, argumentative, anger, divisiveness and unfair judgment, name calling, disregard for logic, reason and even facts over fiction and myth.

There are probably several more destructive human vices that haven't come to mind that have been incorporated into social philosophy for thousands of years in service of the church and undermining the progress and development of society; and many of the so-called freethinking atheists I have come to know over the past 20 months are controlled by at least some or many of these Christian-mandated self and socially destructive philosophical beliefs.

Rejecting God and religious dogma is the beginning of free thinking; recognizing this in yourself and eliminating these destructive, mind-crippling habits is the path to true freethinking, happiness and prosperity."

I think what inspired him was some of the recent posts at our NOSHA Facebook page (and maybe some other experiences as well), but he makes some very good points. Freethinkers who accept evolution and who are skeptical of belief in a supreme being aren't immune to other ideas that are a little on the less scientific side. I've met some non-believers who still believe in astrology and some who believe in fate and karma. Add to that people who support national conspiracies and you have a similar mindset who will argue for their own nonsensical flavor of the month.

I even find myself falling into the habit occasionally of thinking how some things happen "for a reason." When I catch this thought welling up, I feel silly for a minute, but I try to analyze why it happened and what would make me consider it. I usually think this to console myself after something disappointing happens, so I think it is reasonable that we try to make life less rough on ourselves. If things happen for a reason that is beyond our control, then it's even better that we figured that it was "meant to happen" that way. If shit just happens, however, it can happen again. And again. And we need a reason that doesn't make us feel so damn unlucky.

So, Rusty makes a good point that we as freethinkers and non-believers need to examine our own biases and be willing to look at what we hold dear and tear it down if need be. It isn't enough that we demand this of the religious, but we should be willing to do it ourselves.