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?”

Pen/sword

If asked about their favorite Star Wars movie, most would say Empire Strikes Back, because Hans Solo is a badass. When shit goes sideways, and Leia confesses her love, he responds, “I know.” But for me, Return of the Jedi is superior. Many hate the Ewoks, but I delight in the heroism they show when overcoming blaster-wielding stormtroopers with not much more than rocks and sticks. When you add in the speeder-bike chase on top of that? Mama mia!

What’s true of the original Star Wars trilogy holds true of the other trilogy in which Harrison Ford starred. Where most say Raiders of the Lost Ark reigns supreme for its iconic opening scene as well as the face-melting ending, I have to confess that for me Last Crusade trumps the other two. (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t count.) Many moments in Last Crusade elicit giggles and gasps from me despite numerous viewings, but there’s only one reason it’s my favorite Indiana Jones anything. The scene that makes the movie for me, where Indy sets out to rescue his father, Henry, and his father’s friend, Marcus Brody, is special not because Indy takes on a tank with nothing more than a horse and a rock. What sets it apart is the moment when Henry, fighting for control of the tank, uses a pen to squirt ink into the eyes of his attacker, and Marcus, ever the academic, pauses to point out, “Well don’t you see? The pen is mightier than the sword.” My mother explained to ten-year-old me Marcus’ line was more than just a nod to how Henry defeated the Nazi; it possessed deeper meaning. To this day, at 38 years of age, I’m still realizing the significance of the metonymic adage (Thanks, Wikipedia!), the pen is mightier than the sword.

As a middle school English teacher and husband, I know firsthand the power words possess. Just this month, one of my students threatened others via social media and is my student no longer, finishing out the year at an alternative school. The other week, I placed my wife, Laura, in a situation where in jest, a friend threw out the word ‘stupid,’ opening up a wound in Laura stemming back to childhood when her mother, frustrated when she felt Laura took too long to answer, demanded, “What’s the matter with you; are you stupid or something?” Realizing how upset Laura was, I helped resolve the issue and in so doing was reminded that while calling Laura ‘asshole’ will make her laugh, calling anyone ‘stupid’ in Laura’s presence will deconstruct her calm like dynamite razing a skyscraper.

Words can devastate, but unlike an explosive, words can also restore, building others up and healing psychological wounds. Mentors who birthed the greatest positive effects in me all produced growth through words of encouragement.

Flaming with pleasure, my face refused to lift to meet the eyes of my third grade teacher, Mrs. Mann, as she told me that in over thirty years of teaching, I was her favorite student. Hearing these words marked the first time an adult who wasn’t family helped determine my value, and over subsequent years, Mrs. Mann insisted on reiterating my worth again and again, much to my embarrassment and great delight.

The victim of bullies and inept in social interaction, the high school me viewed himself a good student and well-loved at home but felt few in the wider world would call him ‘friend,’ a self-fulfilling prophesy reinforced through seclusion. My one saving grace and the first place I experienced community with others my age, our church’s youth group allowed me to thrive in my faith, functioning as a forum where I could ask all the difficult questions I wanted and still express myself as the adolescent I was. That was the first place anyone called me ‘cool,’ a descriptor I thought reserved for those with the right clothes, the right attitude, and the right amount of money in their back pocket — three things I did not possess. Our pastor, Matt White, looked straight at me with a big smile and said, “Jake, you’re cool.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘You’re cool,’ Jake.” I can’t recall if Matt went on to explain, or if he left the compliment where it was, clapped me on the shoulder, grabbed some snacks, and headed back to the circle of teenagers. Shocked anyone would view me that way, I found it difficult staying upright. Even though Matt meant what he said, my brain refused to comprehend, but as the time he invested in us stretched from months to years, the more comfortable I became, and the more I grew into the person Matt perceived. As life continued, many others came alongside, saw something worthwhile, and named it. Their life-giving words empowered me to thrive, and because of that, I have the opportunity to encourage others and help them grow.

Traditions tell that words possess enough power to alter the physical world. The Ancient Egyptian creation myth holds that Ptah, the patron god of craftsmen, produced the gods and other things once he uttered the ideas developed within his heart. The Torah says God spoke all of creation into existence. He conceived it, uttered it, and it was. Because Wiccans believe in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe, it’s encouraged that spells should have verbal components, and when Jesus healed people or cast out demons, all it usually took was a word or two to transform the lives of the victimized. Though some words spoken affect great change, most of what is said drifts away like snow before a gale.

We are leaky vessels, only capable of holding so much, and much of what we do grasp ends up dribbling from between our fingers. Some spoken words we can’t contain; others just don’t penetrate as we are occupied by other matters. We forget and move on.

Where spoken words are wild and free, ideas incarnate flying forth on wings of expression, the written word matures, condensed ideas diced and blended together to create new experience. The written word endures. Even though it often exists as no more than stains on paper or bits of data uploaded to a server; it sets the course for culture as citizens consume it, evaluate it, ruminate on it, digest it, develop from it, and produce new written work springing from the old. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The written word moves and breathes, cutting to our very cores and changing us. That’s why the pen is mightier than the sword. Where the sword of war alters culture, bringing death and destruction, the pen develops and disseminates ideas, enabling civilization to thrive. If no one had written the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, America would never have been established, nor would it have long endured.

So I write, wielding my pen/sword as best I can. My words may not reach many, nor may they be as clever as others’ or as beautiful, but I live my life, making mistakes and learning from them. I have stories to tell and ideas to share. That’s why I’m traveling to Arizona for spring break. I go to gather stories of the cult my grandfather helped establish 50 years ago, to speak with those who left the church and those who still cling to the decades-old promises as dusty and empty as the bomb shelters below them. I go to discover why my grandfather left his family and to uncover the kind of life he led apart from us. By putting pen to paper, I hope to close the void my grandfather left in my life, and through the means of my healing, perhaps others will find healing as well. No matter the pain, I draw the sword of contention from my side and exchange it for the pen of understanding to write the best part of my life’s trilogy, a feat worthy of Harrison Ford armed with a rock.

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.