What Have They Done?

Let’s talk about the terrible.

Upon meeting someone, one of my go-to questions is, “What’s your favorite movie?” If my potential new friend doesn’t freeze, overwhelmed with the more than 500,000 choices in existence, based on their answer, I can get a pretty good feel for who they are.

The person who picks Gone with the Wind differs greatly from the one selecting Zombie Strippers. Does this mean one becomes my bestie while I kick the other to the curb? Certainly not! Might I have to work a bit harder to connect with one compared to the other? Most definitely, but I won’t hold their choice of Gone with the Wind against them. Sure, Scarlett is a terribly selfish person, and the movie drags on forever with a rare reprieve of her throwing up after eating radishes, and you’re like, “Yeah, doofus, you deserve that!” But I won’t split hairs.

Gone with the Wind is considered a cinematic classic, but I want the time back I spent watching it. My wife loves Castaway, but beyond the use of the line, “I have made fire,” it mostly gets a meh from me. I’ve never seen the Godfather series or Heat, but I love This is Spinal Tap and Stranger than Fiction. Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain are incredible, and I adore It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Art speaks to people, and discovering which specific piece speaks to someone reveals much about that person. Paintings aren’t widely distributed, and music is so accessible, when someone shares a favorite musician, my typical response is, “Who?”

That’s why movies are so great. Yeah, the market’s saturated with them, but because of their length and distribution, it limits our choices, which means we as a culture have a common vocabulary. Most everyone has Amazon Prime or Netflix, and even after traveling across the country, I found people looking forward to the latest release in the Fast and Furious series just like others back home.

For the most part, critics and audiences agree on which movies are worth seeing, and over time, certain movies will ascend the ladder of opinion to become considered classics. Therefore, if culture decides which movies are good, what about terrible movies? I’m not talking about cinematic masterpieces I just don’t understand. I’m talking about the ones critics rake over the coals or that bomb at the box office but are still loved years later — cult classics.

All over the country, fans dress up and fill theaters to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room year after year, reveling in all the aspects one would normally cite for making them bad movies, whether it be poor acting, terrible dialogue, low production value, etc.

Watching them, one’s brain struggles to comprehend how something so awful in so many ways actually exists. They’re so bad, these trash movies take on a mythic quality, because surviving suffering appeals to us. Eating spicy food or sucking sour candy is an unpleasant experience, yet we breed spicier peppers and up the levels of sourness because people can’t help themselves. These car accidents of cinema fascinate us with their mangled scripts, and we wonder if the careers of those involved made it out alive, but we drive away with a sense of relief knowing we weren’t involved.

You know how in the Producers, Bialystock and Bloom set out to put on the worst play ever, a guaranteed flop, so they can raise too much money for it and when it fails, profit? To that end, they do everything they can to ensure the awfulness of their endeavor, but it all backfires when instead of them creating a tragedy, audiences perceive it as a comedy, loving it. That audience’s reaction is the phenomena I’m talking about with these films. Not many set out to make terrible movies, Johnny Depp notwithstanding; however, terrible movies keep showing up in theaters. Did you see the Emoji Movie? Neither did I.

Terrible movies abound so much so that Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax, experiences where the audience watches a terrible movie but laughs all the way through because of the comedic commentary dubbed over the film’s soundtrack, are popular enough to provide their creators a good living. Sharknado (You know the movie where sharks get carried by a tornado up onto land so no one is safe?) has produced four sequels. Four! People can’t get enough, and neither can I.

Just in the past couple weeks, I’ve seen Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and The Dark Tower in theaters with friends knowing reviews weren’t good. In both cases, the critics were correct, but I enjoyed these movies flaws and all. John Carter ranks up there as one of my favorite bad movies, and I don’t even know why I love it.

My all time favorite terrible movie, though, is Flash Gordon. Yeah, the one with a ridiculous plot, terrible acting, weird choices in costuming and set decoration, bird men, Timothy Dalton, and an ending still left unresolved nearly 40 years later all set to a soundtrack provided by Queen.

Network execs showed that movie on broadcast television throughout my childhood often enough I fell in love with it. Some random Saturday afternoon, my father or I would be flipping through our five channels, there it would be, and there our flipping would stop. I love it even though I never saw the beginning until getting the movie on Blu-Ray a few years back.

Dare I say it? Along with reruns of the original Star Trek and multiple viewings of the Star Wars movies, Flash Gordon helped form my entertainment palate, God help me; I’m a sucker for sci-fi.

There you have it. All this to confess I love a terrible film. Yes, I lost count of how many times I’ve seen Flash Gordon. Yes, I’ll probably watch it again soon. How could I not?

I’ll even bet there’s a terrible movie out there you love. You know, the one you’ve been thinking about as you’ve read this.

Do me a favor and watch it again.

Revel in it like you do when a stench assails your nostrils, almost causing you to retch, but then you take a second whiff to give yourself a bit of a thrill.

Better yet, watch that terrible movie with someone you love who has yet to see it. Show them who you are, scars and all.

“Hi, I’m Jake. I love Flash Gordon. What’s you favorite terrible movie?”

An Adult’s Letter to Saint Nick

Dear Santa,

As you’re aware, I am a 36-year-old man with a receding hairline, expanding waistline, two kids, as many mortgages, and no business whatsoever writing you this letter. First off, I don’t believe in you.

I eat the cookies and carrots my daughter leaves out. I ferry that infernal elf on the shelf from place to place each night. I even impersonated you the time the wife and I forgot to move that creepy little doll, texting everything was fine so our first-grader wouldn’t worry her little brother ruined Christmas by touching the naughtiness deterrent.

Look, I know you don’t deliver presents; that’s the realm of FedEx and UPS and the postal service. You’ve never made it magically snow on Christmas Eve; that only happens in the movies. You don’t hold eight tiny reindeer along with an entire race of elves captive to do your bidding; PETA and the UN would have been all over you like needles on a spruce tree decades ago.

You are nothing more than a once-historical Catholic saint mashed up with European pagan traditions Americanized, commercialized, and broadcast all over the world to such extent, you’re almost as well-known as Mickey Mouse. You, sir, are a myth; occupying the same plane of pretend-land as King Arthur, the Loch Ness monster, and economic stability.

That’s why I’m writing you this letter; I need something to believe in.

Taking my daughter to her school for Pancakes with Santa, I witnessed Magnolia’s giddiness when ushered into a strange man’s lap. Despite his fake beard and padding, our little girl was so overcome with awe, she couldn’t find the words when he inquired about her good behavior and desire for gifts. After their one-way conversation and obligatory picture, Maggie found her tongue and started wagging it nonstop, “I know he’s the real Santa because he asked what I wanted for Christmas, and when I couldn’t tell him, he said, ‘I’ll bet I know what you want: a tablet.’ And, Mom, that’s exactly what I want! It’s him; he knows!”

Maggie doesn’t question a reality where science meets magic, where those things we can’t see are just as important as those we do. Wonder is her worldview. Happenstance serves as teleological proof. Others may dismiss her as naive or simple, but I won’t begrudge my child’s instinctive faith. Disappointments haven’t worn her down, nor have people caused her callousness. She is an open book, coloring her pages with brilliant iridescence.

Santa, I want to see the world like my daughter does. I want to wonder at everyday occurrences and trust my future is an unwritten adventure. I’m tired of worrying what others think of me, of avoiding tough situations, and missing opportunities. I want to stop rehashing the past, overanalyzing the future, and ignoring the present.

Stress persists. As Maggie started first grade, my mother began a series of hospitalizations. She pulled a muscle in her back, for which they gave her medicine, but then she started throwing up, and they couldn’t figure out what was going on. The throwing up threw off her salt levels, which affected her reasoning, so she ended up back in the hospital over something minor. They found a problem with her gallbladder, so they scheduled surgery. Then Mom’s fear of the surgery upset her stomach, which led to more throwing up and further problems with her salt levels. Afraid of throwing up, Mom avoided eating, which put her back in the hospital. They removed her gallbladder, chock-full of gallstones. Mom didn’t recover from the surgery as expected, experiencing sharp pain in her abdomen, so she went back to the hospital. They discovered a single gallstone blocking a valve and asked her not to eat in preparation of eliminating the interloper. Not eating threw her system out of whack, and her body temperature plummeted.

Thank God, Mom’s been fine for months, that is, until this week. Crazy what a stomach bug can do. She returned home from the hospital today, and we will celebrate Christmas at my parents’ house, but you can understand how whenever my sister contacts me, something inside catches in anticipation of more bad news. Experience changed me from a fresh-faced kid with a song on my lips and a spring in my step to a weathered coot mumbling to myself as I limp along.

All the skin cream in the world can’t transform who I am on the inside. It may erase fine lines and wrinkles, but it won’t wipe away the resentment I hold against those I envy. Beautiful, successful, confident, deft — perceiving these qualities in others elicits judgement in me. Because of my lack, I believe they’ll see me as inferior, so I sit in judgement first, hoping to waylay my exposure as less than worthy. Firing this first mental salvo feels harmless, but it negates my interactions with others, isolating.

Santa, I need a new heart. Mine’s two sizes too small. You may not exist, but someone out there does, and though cracked, I can be repaired.

Heed the cry of a man bent and broken. Stand me tall and set me straight. Restore my spirit of wonder. Exchange the stinginess for generosity, the judgement for love. I want to be Charlie Brown and Ralphie and George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge and Phil Davis and Clark W. Griswold all rolled into one.

All I want for Christmas is restoration. Is that too much to ask?

Enjoy the cookies,

Jake Lees

Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hope

Looks like Vader left his mask on the floor again…

If I’ve told that Sith once, I’ve told him a thousand times to not leave his mask lying around. I get that he feels claustrophobic behind that thing, anybody would, but his asthma gets to be a real problem without that mask.

That’s it, I’m sending him to his pod!

My son knows who Darth Vader is. Asher is three years old, and he knows who Darth Vader is. Well, not really. Whenever he pushes the button on the side of the mask and James Earl Jones announces, “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Asher laughs, repeating what he hears, “I find your face is dirty.”

My son isn’t the only one who has a thin grasp on Vader mythology. My cousin shared how his boys got into a debate at school over whether or not Darth Vader died, and Mark educated them by pulling up the climactic scene from Return of the Jedi where Vader laid down his life to save Luke. Mark and I joked about how he now has to further spoil the original trilogy for his sons by showing them the scene when Vader tells Luke, “I am your Father,” or when Luke realizes he’s Leia’s brother.

Having grown up sleeping on Star Wars bedsheets and playing with pretty much all the original action figures and playsets, Mark had to do something. He tried years ago to sit with his sons and watch Star Wars, but the boys were too young and had too much energy to make it through even the first film. As a teenager, Mark collected the toys that came out in connection to the prequels, and his entire family has pre-purchased around 20 tickets to see the Force Awakens together.

Tickets in hand, Mark’s inviting his three sons to experience a cultural milestone, and he doesn’t want them missing out on the full experience, so he plans on watching at least the original trilogy as a family in the next few weeks.

According to Deadline Hollywood, analysts project the Force Awakens will earn $185 – $210 million opening weekend alone, and scuttlebutt says Episode VII will break Avatar‘s $2.7 billion box office record.

What is it about Star Wars that has people clamoring to see the new movie?

It’s about hope.

Upon its release in 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope revitalized the sci-fi genre. Audiences were used to seeing dystopian futures on film such as prior years’ Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Westworld, Rollerball, and the Planet of the Apes series.

Watergate disenchanted the American public, breaking our faith in an infallible President. If we couldn’t believe our elected officials held our best interests, what future could we expect? So we wallowed in stories confirming our worst fears until Star Wars showed us something different: even the poorest orphan has the power to face down the unknown. Light will overcome darkness. We are not alone; the Force is with us.

There is hope.

We wanted to hear that story of hope again with Episodes I, II, and III of the Star Wars franchise, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, but were sadly disappointed to see computer-generated, digitally-shot stories about how the future was set in stone and things will go wrong despite the best efforts of the most powerful Jedi.

Especially after the Paris attacks and shootings in schools and ISIS and violence and murder and rape, we want to hear that it’s going to be okay. We want to have hope for the future. We want to place our faith in the fact that we are not alone in this world, that even the poorest orphan has the power to overcome the unknown. I want to know that I’m going to make it, that my uncle facing radiation and chemotherapy will be cured of his cancer. I want to know that my seven-year-old daughter will never be sexually assaulted. I want my marriage to last a lifetime and that friends will not leave me.

That’s too much pressure to put on one movie. Sure, the Force Awakens will utilize practical effects and be shot on film and J. J. Abrams proved with Star Trek that he can revitalize a space-faring series, showing us through lens flares that anything is possible, but one movie cannot guarantee anyone’s future. Only a self-sacrificing god can do that.

Look at Jesus, a poor man of questionable parentage, who shook the political and religious leaders of his day with selfless answers and self-sacrifice. He exercised power to heal the sick and raise the dead. He spent time with children and touched lepers. His greatest teachings were about humility and self-denial. He showed us how to love the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and betrayers. He laid down his life for his friends and took it back up again. He died so that we may live.

I put my hope in Jesus, knowing he has a plan for my life, and if my uncle dies of cancer or my daughter is assaulted, if my marriage falls apart or my friends abandon me, even if my worst fears come true, Jesus will not leave me desolate. He is ever-present; his Spirit lives in me, which means he can work through me in power. I prayed for the sick, and they were healed. I was laid off with no prospects and got a better job. I was so overwhelmed with fear, I couldn’t make it through a day at school, and now I teach school. I messed up my leg so badly, I couldn’t walk without crutches, and now I run faster and farther than I ever could before.

Do I plan on taking my family to see the Force Awakens? We wouldn’t miss it, especially since we’ve sat down and watched the original trilogy together. I hope it affirms the story that light overcomes darkness, that we are not alone. Darth Vader may have died, but he laid down his life so his son would live, and he continues to live on.

I have hope for the future.

The Stories We Change

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

– George Santayana

What’s your favorite story?

Why do you favor it?

Mine would involve Jesus and a lightsaber. C’mon. The Son of God. With a sword. A laser sword. So much justice…

If they ever make more, you can find a t-shirt of it here: http://www.threadless.com/product/311/employ-thy-force/tab,guys/style,shirt

I wants it.

Stories are important. They tell us what’s come before, what is, and predict what has yet to be. They take the wisdom and experiences of previous generations and deliver it in chewable form. They evoke emotions, entertain, enlighten, and encompass our hopes and fears.

That’s why we tell stories, to communicate hope. When we need encouragement, good leaders tell stories of others overcoming obstacles, letting us know we can anticipate resolution. Parents equip their children by telling stories. Many of us know the Three Little Pigs, not only because it’s a tale we tell again and again, but because the swine who built his house out of bricks survived. Despite his vulnerability, that remaining porker planned ahead, keeping out the dark, hairy, overwhelming situation hammering his front door. Sharing that story builds hope that we too can overcome the big, bad wolves of this world.

Do all stories provide hope? What about the tales of the child soldiers of Africa? Young boys forced to commit unspeakable acts of violence against other innocents. Where is justice? Why hasn’t Jesus shown up with his lightsaber, hacking limbs and taking names?

Death and disease and famine and horror ride across our land. We read the articles; we watch movies like Machine Gun Preacher and Blood Diamond. We know evil crouches outside our door. We watch horror movies to raise our pulses, reminding us we’re alive. When we stare at the face of real horror, we draw a shuddering breath and make a choice. We can lose courage, distract ourselves, or become vessels of hope. Even though it’s the end of the article or the credits roll or 100 more died in the Sudan, the story continues. As we encounter its narrative, we become part of the tale. I can despair, do nothing, or alleviate the suffering in Africa.

Nelson Mandela heard the stories of his fellow South Africans and wove himself into their tale, changing it. Even when locked away for 27 years, Mandela fought for the rights of his fellow men and women. He became the vessel of hope and led his people to a surprise twist no one expected: a free South Africa.

Some stories have no effect, good stories elicit an emotional response, but the best stories elicit action, pushing forward their own conclusions. You know when an author’s spinning a really good yarn, and you can’t put the book down, not wanting the story to end? The best ones never do. Former listeners become new characters, making their way through plot lines, providing arcs the original storyteller never expected.

How bad would Cinderella’s fairy tale have been if her godmother never showed up? Even without a magic wand, I can be the character that bippity-boppity-boos a tragedy to comedy, so I’ll research which organizations rescue boy solders in Africa and give my time and money to fill the holes with hope. I may not be Lightsaber Jesus, I may not even own a sword, but I can do the work he’d do, so if you smell singed hair or note new sandals when next we meet, you’ll know I’ve entered the tale.