Dreaming of an Etch-a-Sketch brain

This week’s Movie of the Week–in honour of my sister’s birthday–is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

It was a grey autumn morning in rural New Brunsick and I was heading to a nursing home with two teenagers. This was a special “ministry day” where we were going to serve our community. It was a small youth group so five went to the soup kitchen in Saint John and two were with me. They’d never been to a facility like this and it was about to rock their world. As soon as we walked in we saw a woman in a wheelchair who could’ve been 80 or 90–no way of telling. She was buckled into the seat and kept crying out in a desperate but weak voice, “Somebody help me! I need to go home!” Her woeful, helpless voice stirred a sympathy and compassion in us but we knew there was nothing we could do for her. Finally an orderly came by and reminded the woman, “You are home. You live here. We will bring you to your room soon.” At that point I hoped that did the trick. It didn’t. The orderly left and not even two minutes later the poor old girl started again.

As U2 puts it, she was stuck in a moment. Is this what Joel and Clementine were like in a way? They wish to erase the memory of someone who meant a lot to them because of the awful pain associated with them. But then that causes a struggle. The struggle in this movie makes you think long and hard. When you are stuck in the past you are stuck in a moment. But erasing the past in an effort to erase the pain, does that get us stuck just as bad?

There are so many regrets in life. So many things we wish we could forget. If we really did have the ability, would we shake our heads like an Etch-a-Sketch or hook ourselves up to a machine and just have it all go away? Would it be worth it? If we were to delete things out of our minds that were painful, could we simply be taking some of our own selves away and leaving an empty void?

I admit, I have often wondered what to do with memories of bad things. They don’t go away. “Looking on the bright side” is as much help as drying yourself off with a square of toilet paper after a hot shower. These memories can seize any moment, and in doing so perhaps ruin an entire day. Or week. Or lifetime?

I will never forget the professor who taught a course I took in seminary called “Storytelling.” He said that even though bad things happen in your life, the one thing (perhaps the only thing) positive you can say about those things is that they are yours. I didn’t get this at first, but in my life I find that this is true.Kate

Before our son Luke was born my wife and I had a miscarriage. We were both heartbroken. After a long day of being tended to in the hospital we both lay on the single hospital bed and slept. I fell asleep with one thought going around and around my head: “I didn’t even get to find out the sex of the baby!” The next morning I remember going to get breakfast at McDonald’s. I looked at the teenage girl across the counter and wanting to tell her what I’d just been through and about Joy who was back at the hospital. I can’t explain all of the thoughts, emotions and heartache we experienced that day, and since that day. I can, however, say this: It was a bad experience. I don’t wish it on anyone. But that experience is mine and no one can do anything to change that. It’s a part of my story. It’s awful, it’s tender, it’s mine.

Maybe you can’t change the past, but you can own it, face it, and move on.

Congratulations, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This is your week.

And Happy Birthday Jenn. You’re an awesome sister. Let’s go see a movie sometime soon.

And the Oscar goes to…
Best actress: Kate Winslet. She is one of my absolute favourite actresses and I think she stands out amoungst her peers as much as Meryl Streep does.
Best actor: I’ve name Jim Carrey best actor before and he certainly deserves it now. But since he’s already had the honour (And what a high honour! Such a widely read blog.) I’d like to award this one to Dev Patel. He was awesome in Slumdog Millionaire.
Best quote: “What a loss to spend that much time with someone, only to find out that she’s a stranger.” – Joel in ESOTSM.

One last little bit of trivia–Slumdog Millionaire and Schindler’s List share the distinction of being the only films to win Best Picture, Director and Screenplay at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and the Oscars. They also share the distinction of having a scene involving a young boy jumping into human excrement under a toilet. Kinda wish I could’ve stood in for the Slumdog Millionaire kid for that scene. What he jumped in was actually a combination of chocolate and peanut butter.

Was slavery that bad?

This week’s movie of the week is… 12 Years a Slave!

I just watched 12 Years a Slave tonight with Joy and it was just as powerful as I expected it to be. I have heard movies like 12YAS referred to as “Oscar bait.” They say that if a movie involves certain topics (namely WWII, the Holocaust and the African slave trade) and certain actors/actresses (Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, etc.) then it fits in this category. I really don’t care for this phrase. It takes away from the performers for starters. The reason these actors and actresses have multiple awards and nominations is simple: they’re that good. But more than that, I hate this phrase for what it steals from the stories. The reason that these topics are so popular in movies is also simple: they matter to us. Deeply.

I have three vivid memories concerning slavery. First was seeing a preview on tv of a show that would air brand new that fall called Roots. I watched as a white man viciously beat a black man in order to force him to reject his name, Kunta Kinte, and accept his new one, Toby. I couldn’t sleep that night.

The second memory happened when I was a 20-something and met for the first time someone who didn’t like “Hollywood’s portrayal” of the African slave trade.
“I don’t think a white master on a horse cracking a whip at black slaves picking cotton is an accurate depiction of what was reality at the time,” he said. “I am definitely against slavery, but I think it was much more common for slaves to have good relationships with their masters and were treated well.” I made a point to try and see this from his perspective. I wasn’t sure why, if this was true, it would bother someone. I figured anyone would be happy that such a terrible things have come to an end as well as the whole practice of people not having freedom nor basic human rights. On top of that, aren’t there enough first hand stories, court documents, and witness testimonies to put such a person at east?

This brings me to the third memory. In a seminary class I attended in Kentucky a teacher shared with all of us his first-hand experiences with racism, prejudice, and a history of slavery in his own family line. The next day the topic came up and a fellow student had appeared to have enough. “I am tired of being made to feel guilty for being white!”
It’s hard to imagine why even now, more than two centuries after abolition (not to mention more than 140 years since the 5th Amendment in the US and more than 50 years since the civil rights movement) that there are still those who have a hard time coming to terms with what happened. Like most of you reading this I’m sure you can relate to a frustration with such individuals for their sympathy for oppressors as and angst towards the oppressed.

This is one of the many reasons why I love the movies. I love movies and even TV at times for the same reason: they make us ponder. They make us feel.  12 Years a Slave is another movie–and one of the greatest–that compel us to think and feel about this terrible atrocity. At one point in the movie there is almost 90 seconds of a single shot of a character thinking. That’s it. We see him from shoulders up and he’s looking around and thinking. For 15 painful seconds during that time he looks right at you. To watch this movie you must face the reality and do something with it. I don’t think movies like this are asking us to go and “do” something physical necessarily. It simply invites us to stare this issue in the face and allow it to challenge, maybe even change, us.

Congratulations 12 Years a Slave. This is your week.

And the Oscar goes to…
Best actress: Maybe I’m just still under her spell, but I definitely think Lupita Nyong’o gets this week’s award. Remarkable and unforgetable!
Best actor: Ummmmm… ok I admit I’m just still flying high from watching this movie. Best actor is Chiwetel Ejiofor. At least I’m not giving it to Brad Pitt. He was awesome in this one, not surprisingly.
Best quote: “Thanks for stopping by and for the, uh, the breast-hat…” — Hiccup (from How to Train Your Dragon)

Many times in my life I’ve heard people who lived in the 50’s or 60’s being asked, “How could people do that?” And I’ve seen them answer honestly with subtle incredulity, sometimes saying things like, “That’s just the way things were.” So here’s a question for you: In 25 years what will people ask you this question about? Maybe you could answer it now.

Take a picture! It’d last longer!

Movie of the week: Rear Window (April 11-17/14)


I wasn’t prepared to see what I was about to see. It was a spring day just like this one when I visited the Blacks Harbour Health Centre in 1994. I tried to think of what I could do to serve this community as a new minister and this seemed like a good place to start. Checking in with one of the nurses on duty I asked if there was any patients who could use a visit and she suggested a teenage girl whose name I can’t recall. Let’s call her Jill. That nurse did try to prepare me as she told me that Jill had a certain condition or disease, but seeing as people in the medical field and the rest of us speak two different languages, her words didn’t register. I walked into a hospital room in the west side of this mini-hospital. There were two nurses already tending to this girl, one by her side and another at the foot of her bed. They were talking to her lovingly. But I have to say, at first, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing.

Jill was on her stomach, but she was propped up on her hands. Imagine someone doing a push-up but their legs are not working. Her back was arched in what looked like a dangerous angle. Like it would be a lot of pain to be pushing your body into that position. Not only that, her neck was bent back as if she was trying desperately to touch her heels with the top of her head. She didn’t have the look of a normal teenage girl. She looked deformed. My mind was swirling with questions. Why is she bent into that position? Is she comfortable? Shouldn’t someone help her?…

The two nurses saw me, smiled, moved away from the bed and told me to come on over. I stood to Jill’s right and didn’t know what to do or say. I smiled at her and kept saying, “Hi. How are you?” She wasn’t answering so I felt weird, like I was incapable of helping this poor soul or even communicating with her. I asked her if she’d like me to read to her. Now I felt stupid. “She obviously can’t talk and she’s not even looking at you. Why did you just ask her that you dummy!” But then she looked over at me. Her eyes were bulging and I couldn’t for the life of me read what she could be possibly thinking or wanting to say to me.
The nurses were grinning widely at each other and I would find out in a few minutes why.

I read a Psalm to her–probably 103, an old faithful I would pull out often when visiting the sick and shut-in–and then prayed with her. I put my hand on her arm and patted her slightly. Nervously. When I left I felt that feeling of helplessness. Thankfully the nurses were, as nurses always are, very gracious and graceful. They thanked me continuously for this small gesture and apparently it was a pretty big deal that Jill looked over at me. They told me my deep voice must have drawn her to me. I was shocked to hear this and glad that I had that opportunity.

Since that day I’ve had many other experiences like it. Sometimes I was at the forefront like then, and other times I was watching or at least present and trying not to stare. I shared this story with my wife this week and told her about how when our children were younger I’d get nervous with them in public places whenever someone who looked different from what might be considered normal was near. Kids are shameful gawkers. A man with long hair, a woman with no hair, a large tattoo–just little things like that and they’ll stare like a deer stuck in headlights. If someone has a missing an appendage, well you can just forget it. You can’t pry their eyes away with a crowbar.

And really, we all start out in life like that, staring when we see something different. Sometimes we keep this immaturity with us for too long. I remember being on a trip to the southern US with a church youth group. When passing through a street whose pedestrians were mostly African-American, several teens jumped across the bus aisle and stared out the window, one girl yelling, “Oh wow! I love black people!” Thankfully that was a learning time for all of us and we left a good chunk of that immaturity behind. Really, the more we see the more we get that out of our system.

Jimmy Stewart’s character in Rear Window could almost be seen as a peeping tom, but when watching the movie you don’t get that feeling. He is someone we can relate to. He is “people watching” and has similar thoughts and feelings we all do when we find ourselves in a situation like his: stuck in one place with nothing but time on our hands. Therefore we relate to him.

I believe the things we see and experience in life that involve our fellow human beings, things that are new and especially those that make us uncomfortable are good for our bodies, minds and souls. The more we get it out of our system the better we can be with each other and be there for each other.

Congratulations Rear Window. This is your week.

And the Oscar goes to…
Best Actress: This is the hardest decision yet for best actress. Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint and Kim Novak are all present here and they were all great in their respective movies. And of course we can’t forget Miss Torso! I think I’m going to go with Kim Novak, however. Of all of these, her performance was the most memorable to me. Even Miss Torso is a distant second.
Best Actor: Even though James Stewart is in two of these movies and even though he is the most represented actor in the IMDb top 250, I’m going to declare Cary Grant the best this week. I have always loved watching him in movies. At first he appeared to me to be a bit more robotic and a deep-voiced stereotypical 50’s leading man, but there was a reason he was in so many movies back then. He’s good. Really good.
Best quote: These old movies are just rich in great quotes, It’s a shame we don’t say them more often, like we do with “I’ll be back” and “May the force be with you.” So here are a collection from all three:
“I don’t like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.” (North by Northwest)
“When two people love each other, they come together – WHAM – like two taxis on Broadway.” (Rear Window)
“Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.” (Vertigo)

“So horribly sad. How is it I feel like laughing?” (North by Northwest)

It would be a terrible mistake to not acknowledge the one director who stands out amoung the rest, even to this day. Some of the greatest movie experiences I’ve ever had were because of his vision and creativity. If you’ve never watched any of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies or if you’ve only seen a few, you will do well for yourself to watch more. In my own book, the above three movies, Psycho, Dial M for Murderand Rope are all must sees for anyone who enjoys a good movie. Stare at that screen and enjoy.