Why Maleficent is Morally Boring (and other spoilers)

I’m certainly glad I saw Maleficent in 3D in the theater. It allowed me to enjoy the best of what the movie has to offer; the visuals were enchanting. But otherwise, the movie is a bore. In particular, there was nothing morally compelling in the film, no ethical tension and therefore, no real plot to speak of.

Let’s start with the premise: The bad guy is actually the good guy or has good reasons for becoming so bad. In the post Severus Snape universe, this is not just a well recognized plot twist, it’s a tired one. What makes this reiteration particularly tiresome is that the narrative doesn’t extend the kindness of ambivalence to the other main character, Stefan. We meet him as a young boy, caught in the act of stealing. The narrative offers no moment of counter point to suggest that his character is other than avaricious. The ring flinging in the next scene doesn’t directly contrast (the ring belongs to Stefan) and is therefore ineffective. Additionally, when Stefan discovers that he can’t kill Maleficent to secure the crown, the moment of indecision is not depicted as internal conflict, but rather cowardice. Any regret he may have about maiming Maleficent is not sustained for longer than a scene. By the time Maleficent confronts him at the christening, Stefan is affronted by rather than (even slightly) apologetic at her unlooked for appearance. By the end of the film, Stefan runs completely off the rails, plunging into an abyss of madness and revenge. Meanwhile, Maleficent giveth curses and taketh curses away, asking us to believe that she is an essentially good person in a particularly challenging circumstance. Paired with the unmitigated condemnation of Stefan, the movie is not able make her character register on the Severus Snape Character Conflict Scale. Not even a tremor.

Equally disappointing, the movie does not offer believable motivations for decisions of conscience. As mentioned above, Stefan’s initial act of thievery is never challenged by a contrasting act. In the whole friends-to-more-than-friends montage, we are not given a single reason why we should believe that Maleficent should particularly trust Stefan. The narrative doesn’t endorse his character in any way. In fact, it continually reminds us what a bad person he is. Seeming as Maleficent is presented as more than an empty headed fairy, it seems less than plausible that Stephen would be able to secure her affections so easily. Then there is the relationship between Maleficent and Sleeping Beauty, Aurora. When Maleficent curses the baby princess, she is consumed with anger and revenge. However, within a couple of scenes, she’s saving the dizzy toddler from diving off a cliff. I realize that, within the film, a couple of years pass between these two scenes, but the movie gives us not even an inkling as to why our hero turned villain is suddenly waxing heroic again. Not even a “I did that so my plans can come to fruition, but no not really, Diablo don’t look at me with those knowing beady eyes.” We’re just supposed to accept it as a matter of course.

Contributing to the lack of motivation, the character of Sleeping Beauty is stunningly underwritten. I suppose this is understandable given that Aurora’s traditional function is to serve as an object of rescue, but it’s a really bad move in a movie claiming to be a non-traditional retelling of a classic story. But as Maleficent indulges in a relationship with her (Why? Ummm, we don’t really know why), we are asked to believe that the delight of watching Auora pet fairies and coo at pixies is enough to convince Maleficent to not only attempt to lift the curse, but undertake a dangerous attempt to break it. Aurora is nice. Maybe nice was all Maleficent needed, but the movie can’t get away with asking us to believe that Maleficent is at once morally complicated enough to handle the bad/good tension and the kind of girl that falls for puppy videos.

Lastly (and this is less an ethical gripe) like everyone else, we are still detoxing from Frozen overload in my household. I did enjoy the movie and I found the act of true love reveal completely believable and refreshing. Maybe Maleficent was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it’s own attempt to critique “true love” came off like a copy. If anyone is glad we are moving on from the Prince Charming model, it’s me. But coupled with the tiredness of the plot “twist” and the general lack of motivation, it was really hard to believe that Maleficent and Aurora are headed to happily ever after. Or maybe it was easy to believe, but only because that’s what happens at this part in those kinds of stories. You know, the kind of stories Maleficent wants us to believe it is reshaping.

A personal approach to the Lenten Fast

Every year around this time, my kids ask if they have to give up something for Lent. My answer, of course, is no. Fasting is a voluntary discipline. Non-voluntary fasting is called torture and is a human rights violation. So left to their own devices and in full exercise of their global citizenship, my kids usually choose not to fast.

However, I usually choose to do so.

During my journey from conservative Evangelical to agnostic Episcopal, I have had to make peace with the holiday calendar as I go. Even though the bigger events in the liturgical calendar enjoy a lot of secular support, I didn’t want to go trudging through as if nothing had changed for me. So many things have changed for me. I wanted my celebration to be honest. And I wanted to celebrate.

It’s interesting to me what traditions have waxed in importance as my faith has (at least comparatively) waned. For instance, Advent is much more meaningful to me now. The return of light and hope in the middle of winter is something that moves me deeply. Using the Christian traditions I grew up with to participate in that change feels natural to me. 

And now it’s Eastertide. Easter was always my most favorite time of the liturgical year. I’ve always loved the prolonged drama of it. So many special observances. So many beautiful rituals enacting the delicate balance between life and death.

But Easter is also undeniably religious. Well, there’s the whole bunny thing, but if you’ve read my post on elf on the shelf you know I don’t go in for that sort of thing. How can I celebrate in a way that honors what I believe, but still lets me participate? Because, I really do still want to participate in my faith community and tradition. The Christian Church is still my home. And everyone wants to go home for the holidays.

Enter the Lenten fast. I’ve always participated in fasting for Lent (albeit when I was little it was mostly about scandalizing my protestant peers with my blatant Catholicism). Over the years my understanding of it has shifted significantly and I feel that it’s a tradition I can embrace whole heartedly this currently season.

For me, the most important part of fasting is not deciding what to “give up;”

it’s deciding what to “take up.” 

When I fast, I am choosing to eliminate something from my regular routine. It could be an activity, it could be a type of food. It doesn’t matter as long as it usually occupies a regular part of my life. It’s probably so regular that I don’t really give it much notice from day to day. 

Until it’s gone. And now I have this open space.

That open space is an opportunity to be mindful of something new. It could be a new book. It could be a new hobby. It could be a new exercise or spiritual discipline. It doesn’t really matter as long as my intent is to really give it my attention. To learn something about myself through the process.

So my question when considering what i should give up for Lent isn’t really about experiencing deprivation as much as it’s about creating the right space for the lesson I want to learn. For me, the most important part of fasting isn’t doggedly maintaining the fast; it’s retaining the new lesson as I reacquaint myself with my old habits once the fast is over. I think this keeps with the theme of rebirth that permeates Easter. I know it gives me an honest way to practice it.

Mothman Prophecies: My Christmas Movie

Every Christmas, I watch White Christmas, Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman, Muppet Christmas Carol, Elf and The Mothman Prophecies. While the other picks may seem more intuitive, The Mothman Prophecies is an important part of my holiday.

For those of you who may not know, The Mothman Prophecies is a fictionalized account of the supernatural experiences preceding the unexplained collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Previous to the accident, which claimed the lives of 46 people, there were several unsettling sightings of a black, winged creature with red, glowing eyes. The movie interprets these sightings as portents of death and violence.

I make no claims that this is a great film. However, it remains on my list of must-watch Christmas movies for the following reasons:

  1. It takes places at Christmas. So there.
  2. It was filmed in PA in a small town where one of my friends grew up. Richard Gere is also from PA and his mother was involved in church circles with my grandmother. My grandmother always referred to him as “Dicky Gere Didn’t He Become An Actor.” These trivia facts lend a homey feel to the movie for me.
  3. I find the inevitability of death– despite all interventions well-intended, supernatural or otherwise– intensely comforting.

In the end, the movie suggests that death will find all of us in time and that the best we can do with the time that we have is to spend it, not trying to ward off death, but in loving and living well. There exists no agency, human or supernatural, which can undo mortality. Accepting this fact is not a source of despair, but an incredible relief and an opportunity to embrace community tightly.

This is a point not far off from that of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, which is a ghost story above all else. In the story, Scrooge is invited, on the occasion of Christmas, to consider how well he has spent his life in the company of his neighbors in light of the fact that life will some day soon come to an end. Scrooge is offered the opportunity to amend the quality of his life, as opposed to being offered an excuse from the inevitability of death. Death is not the thing to be feared in A Christmas Carol; rather, the most haunting spectre is a life spent strangled in stingy loneliness.

I think this is the character of the season- be it Christmas or Solstice or Chanukah. In darkness, there is light– a light around which we should draw as many faces as we can. It is with our backs pressed flat to the cold, firm promise of a final day that we can best enjoy the warmth we share with one another now.

Have a wonderful season with those you love.

Overrun with Elves

This month, I’ve noticed an interesting concurrence. My social media feed has been increasingly populated with pictures of elves while my supernatural news has dwindled to next to nothing. I’m willing to dismiss it as coincidence, but not without some consideration.

First, although it’s not in my nature to be a killjoy, but I don’t get Elf on the Shelf. In fact, I never got the Santa thing either. While my children were still young and I was still stolidly religious, I didn’t pretend with them about Santa, not out of a perceived interference with the sacred character of the holiday, but because I didn’t want to ask my children to believe in invisible things that I knew to be imaginary when I knew I was also asking them to believe in invisible things I thought to be real.

Mind you, my girls both believed ardently in fairies. Whenever they asked me to weigh in on whether or not they might “really be real,” I would answer vaguely that the world was a big place and nature was a wonderful thing and what did they think. I made a space for their belief to flourish, because it had grown organically out of their own hearts and minds. I didn’t plant it myself. If my children had come to me with a belief in Santa, I would have supplied their requests for milk and cookies just like I filled their orders for fairy tea parties.

I don’t find provoking belief in your child to be anything like playing pretend together. When you are playing pirates and sailing the couch across the living room only to be attacked by octopedes (one of my girls’ favorite words btw), you are participating together in the suspension of disbelief. The Christmas Elf get-up is orchestrated by adults to initiate and sustain belief. I’m not judging anyone who finds these games charming and fun. I’m only pointing out that as someone who treats ineffable experiences seriously, I can’t in good conscience counterfeit one to my kids. The tradition seems especially out of place in a culture where a scientific worldview predominates.

However, one of the things that I find endlessly fascinating about our most recent obsession with the paranormal is its quasi-scientific character. We are not merely giving social credence to experiences with the invisible, but we are attempting to document them with a sophisticated range of technological equipment. On the surface, this might just seem like a preference for evidence based verification. We prefer objective truth to subjective stories. However, watching how these stories play out, I think the technological investigation, which, although conducted carefully, still remains on the fringes of accepted science, has become a replacement ritual.  When watching shows like Paranormal State or Ghost Hunters, it is clear that, completely aside from the quality of the evidence collected and whether it is judged to confirm or disconfirm the presence of paranormal activity, the participants find the process comforting. I don’t think it’s unlike leaving a bowl of milk out for the brownies. And this is not to demean superstition and superstitious practices, but rather to put them culturally in their place regardless of their technological trappings.

In fact, some years ago, I read an article (anyone remember Omni Magazine?) asserting that accounts of alien abductions filled the same cultural space as stories of elves, brownies, and fairies. There were similarities not only in the descriptions of the creatures involved (small, androgynous, green and glittering), but also in the accounts of interactions (time lost, directional confusion, imprisonment). Stories of alien abductions might be technologically current adaptation of stories we have been telling for centuries.

So I just wonder, looking at my newsfeed, if some of the cultural energy we usually direct at bumps in the night and shadowy visages isn’t suddenly and seasonally being channelled into staging holiday hauntings for our children’s delight. As human beings, I feel we will always have a need to frame culturally our experiences of the invisible, regardless or even because of our technological savvy. More importantly, the things that we choose to believe together remain a potent source of community no matter what the time of year.

Jesus the Teenage Exorcist

My internet alerts have been lighting up with reports that the History Channel is developing a new series dramatizing Jesus’s life as a teenage exorcist.

Very interesting.

To begin with, the series is reportedly the brain child of horror film pros, including Eli Roth and Eric Newman of The Last Exorcism films. Although I chose not to see the sequel, the first film in the series was a standout in my mind.

First, it positively portrays a main character making utilitarian ethical decisions. American films almost always favor narratives that are based on a virtue ethics model. In other words, we prefer stories that tell us how good character prevails against all circumstances and all odds. On the other hand, people who make decision based primarily on the consequences of their actions are depicted as self-serving and calculating. I completely appreciate the sympathetic depiction of Rev. Cotton Marcus as a man who has lost his faith in God, but continues to perform exorcisms to support his disabled son until he is confronted with the possibility that his actions and the actions of other exorcists might actually be putting vulnerable children in danger.  This is not only rare storytelling, but suggests a subtlety in the subject matter that goes beyond a strict faith lost/faith restored dichotomy native to most exorcism films. It admits officiating religious ceremonies is a job prone to professional decisions. Caring for those that suffer is a task that sometimes pushes beyond previously demarcated, black and white lines.

In addition, I thought the film compellingly depicted the afflictions experienced by the young girl, Nell Sweetzer. Negative, invasive spiritual experiences have characteristics similar to, and may be therefore confused with, other negative, invasive experiences (e.g. sexual abuse, violent assault, severe illness). While firmly testifying to the sincerity of her sufferings, the film’s careful portrayal of those sufferings lead to a healthy ambiguity about their source. The result is an unapologetic emphasis on the credibility of her personal experience over any theological or religious context. I think this is at the heart of my own exploration of negative, invasive spiritual experiences. People experience something, the real question is not what they are suffering but how. 

This leads me to my final point– for the moment –because I am well aware that if this thing actually hits the airwaves we’ll be talking about it for a while. Paired with the utilitarian perspective mentioned above, a primary emphasis on the unquestionable sincerity of suffering might lend to a portrayal of the young Jesus as a man interested in healing hurts rather than driving out demons (the article announcing the project indicates as much). This would not amount to a new reading of the exorcism accounts that litter the New Testament. However, in my experience, the reading that dismisses demonic suffering as a misdiagnosis often comes close of stripping the experience of its credentials in calling out naiveté. In other words, it doesn’t seem to take seriously that the experience of suffering a medical illness as possession might be a profoundly different experience than experiencing medical complications alone (although likely more closely aligned in Jesus’s time than ours).

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum you have Christians who insist that every kind of affliction and accident should be addressed as a demonic attack (a quick search will reveal how disturbingly prevalent this approach is). This perspective leads to praxis that, at the very least, unnecessarily entangles effective intervention and, at worst, saddles suffering with spiritual condemnation. Saying everything is demonic is no more helpful than dismissing all demonic experiences.

All this to say, I think Christians have a lot of unease with the prevalence of demonic experience within the tradition. I’m sure the series likely will take historical liberties (the name History Channel notwithstanding), but all the same it is also likely to flush out some of those fears and hopefully result in some serious conversation.