179: Readers Across the U.S. Help Us See the Spiritual Side of Cinema

e call what we’re doing: ‘Reading the book
of the world,'” Fred Brussat told me in a telephone conversation yesterday. “We’re reading contemporary culture in the world, looking for the spiritual themes.”
    Fred is a United Church of Christ minister writing full time
for many years now about spiritual themes in books and movies.
Based in New York City, he works with his wife Mary Ann as producers of  Spirituality and Practice, a Web site that we heartily recommend.

    Their work is similar to ReadTheSpirit with a few exceptions. We
feature in-depth interviews and quizzes — and the Brussats don’t do
much of that themselves. They mainly do reviews and offer materials for classes. So, in the cooperative world of the Web, they’re planning to start linking some of
our ReadTheSpirit interviews into their pages.
    At their Web site, they cover even more
books and movies than we do — so their site is a huge, intriguing
place to explore. Both of our sites cover a diverse religious spectrum, so you’ll feel at home there.
    And, this is interesting: We both hear from
readers that you like us to surprise you with unusual recommendations
in books and films that you might not find on your own.
    I asked Fred for his overall impression of this summer’s crop of Hollywood blockbusters and he said, “I’m
actually disappointed. The thing that bothers me is that most of
these movies coming out this summer about heroes and superheroes
emphasize dualism — the idea that the world is made up of good guys
and bad guys and we have to go out and beat the bad guys. I think that
sort of thinking is morally bankrupt in our culture.”

    He argued that life and faith are more
complex than that. There are too many battles raging around our world, already. Rather, we need more spiritual insights into the value of each human life — and insights into how to build healthier communities.
    “Instead of recommending a lot of the new
movies coming out, we’re finding ourselves telling readers about foreign films and independent-release films, because that’s the best
of what’s coming out these days,” Fred said.
    Once again: Bingo! That’s our
thinking, as well.

     I mentioned to Fred both of the films we’re
recommending today (both foreign releases with powerful
spiritual themes — great for groups). And Fred said they’re not titles
he had run across, yet — but he said both sounded quite intriguing.

    In other words: It’s a great big world out there and there’s a
whole lot for all of us to explore as we look for hopeful, helpful spiritual
themes. There are thousands of new books and films released each year
— an ocean of spiritual connections we can make.
    We recommend
the Brussats’ site and welcome anyone from their site who may visit
us here — especially if you Tell Us What You Think. We love hearing
from readers!

    Among our favorite readers is the Buddhist writer Geri Larkin,
who lives in the Pacific Northwest and has been intrigued by the movie,
“Iron Man.” We featured her thoughts on the movie in an earlier story. Then, this past week, Geri Emailed to say that she went back and saw the movie a second time to check out her assumptions
about its spiritual themes.

    She was especially intrigued by the meaning of the film’s final line. In that final moment of the film, Robert Downey Jr., who plays industrialist Tony Stark, stands before a press conference and announces: “I am Iron Man.”
    Some have argued that this is a moment of selfishness. They say he’s bragging. Others, including Geri, have argued it’s a bold and almost Zen-like spiritual affirmation about his true vocation.
    After a second viewing, Geri said she’s even more convinced of that: “He just couldn’t keep his mouth closed because the truth was too outrageous and delightful not to share. Oh, that Truth!”
    She also was struck by a much earlier scene in the film: “Early in the movie, when his friend inside that cave was dying, he told him, ‘Don’t waste your life.’ Downey’s eyes told me that he was really hearing the words — both the actor and the man. … This movie is better the second time, I swear. If Downey doesn’t get an Oscar, I’ll know the awards are rigged.”

    What’s especially interesting about Geri’s latest note is that, while the “4 Last Words” discussion emerged right away after the movie opened as a fascinating spiritual discussion about the film — what’s emerging on further reflection are these other deeper questions.
    On Facebook, Manuela Grace Yim of Berkley said that the most memorable spiritual theme she picked up revolved around Tony Stark learning “to appreciate those around him, when before, he simply
used them or ignored those beneath him. He learns to be responsible for
not only his own actions, but of others as well. Essentially, i think
by the end of the movie, Tony Stark learns to love and gets connected
to a deeper side of life.”
    On Facebook, Alie Hunter added to Manuela’s comments by pointing out Tony’s relationship to his executive assistant Pepper, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. He regards her almost as less than human, in the beginning, but as Alie points out: “We, at least the girls, are
always looking for a romanic relationship, but their love is so sincere
and unconditional. I wouldn’t compare it to a brother sister
relationship, but she was more than just legs and boobs to him. I liked
the way they ended the movie because they weren’t a couple yet, but we
all know it will happen. I’m guessing in the next movie when he starts
to struggle with alcohol she is the one that gets him through it — so
I imagine. I love seeing movies that have a good story, great characters and lots of exciting scenes, yet they have good underlying morals.”

    Also on Facebook, Christian Smith responded to our requests for comments on upcoming movies — saying he’s looking ahead to spiritual issues in “The Incredible Hulk,” starring Edward Norton as the scientist who turns into a green behemoth. The film opens in a couple of weeks. The story is all about “internal conflict,” Smith said. “It shows that not being in control of our emotions can create conflict within ourselves that may have an explosive effect — and, in this case, the effect is The Hulk.”

    This week, I also talked with a southern-California-based Blogger, a pastor and writer who produces the Web site FilmNut. We crossed paths, reflecting on our Indiana Jones coverage.
    Jump to FilmNut’s site and scroll down a little way to read his complete review, but interestingly FilmNut was drawn to themes related to the aging process. In our review of the Indy Jones movie, we said, “You’re never too old — or too young — to make the world a better place.”
    FilmNut pointed to an even more basic, poignant reflection on the aging process. He wrote: “Paramount pulled off a difficult feat -– playing to the older audience
who loves Harrison Ford, playing him as it should be -– an aging
professor, still capable of heroic exploits, but a little older. As
he’s looking at pictures on his desk of his father and a friend no
longer with him, a fellow-faculty member says, ‘We’re at that point in
time when life no longer gives us things, but takes them away.’
    “I wish I had said that.”

    Those are just a few of the comments that popped up this week from readers.

    Finally, just like our friends at Spirituality and Practice, I want to leave you with a couple of movie options that aren’t Hollywood blockbusters. Both of these films are excellent choices for small-group study, if your small group enjoys exploring global issues and world cultures.
    You can click on either DVD title (or cover) and jump to our reviews of these films — and you can order copies via Amazon, if you wish.

    First is “Long Live Pakistan (Pakistan Zindabad),” a documentary by Pascale Lamche.
    As a journalist for more 30 years, I know how incredibly difficult it is for Americans to find a good, concise, compelling history of countries outside North America and Europe. Pakistan’s story is incredibly complex — and, given its central role in the so-called War on Terrorism — it’s a vital corner of the world for Americans to understand.
    This two-hour documentary was produced for the 60th anniversary of the creation of Pakistan, so it was completed in 2007 and is the most up-to-date documentary overview of this region that you’re likely to find. Nearly all of it is in English and it’s powerful footage — produced at the level of a History Channel or a National Geographic Channel special.
    If you’re part of a small group that talks about global cultures and issues — this is a great choice.

    Second is a drama from Iran, “Fireworks Wednesday,” which is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of men and women living in contemporary Iran. It’s the story of an idealistic young woman from a working-class background who is on the verge of getting married — and takes on a job as a cleaning woman for an up-scale family to make some extra money.
    She shows up in the midst of disaster. The husband seems to be a brute, there’s broken glass strewn across the floor and the man’s wife shows up soon — full of upper-class biases and in the midst of an emotional crisis over her husband’s behavior. It’s not entirely clear, at first, what has happened in the household — but watching this drama is an amazing window in the lives of everyday Iranian families.
    One of the enormous challenges in our world today is seeing the humanity in distant nations — especially nations like Iran with which our nation’s leaders seem to be crossing swords. Spending a couple of hours with this Iranian melodrama puts sympathetic human faces on people half a world away. And we’re all in favor of that.

    Once again, if you’re interested in global culture, this could be a great choice for individual viewing or for small-group discussion.

    Please, Keep Telling Us What You Think
about any of our stories, reviews, quizzes, interviews — or about
other spiritual connections you see out there in our culture. In fact, in Thursday’s story, we listed all sorts of ways you can reach us.

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