North by Northwest (1959)—Up from Action

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

In watching North by Northwest, I was struck by how well society functions. At least, society as portrayed in this film.

In the course of this film’s events, we encounter porters, telegrams, comfortable trains, and visitors enjoying a pleasant time in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. Protagonist Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) wears a gray flannel suit all through the movie and does so happily, a model of conformity to this system that hums along so well.

The film is a thriller based on mistaken identity. Thornhill, a thriving advertising executive, is mistaken for “George Kaplan” by two men looking for this person in a hotel bar. Thornhill simply raises his hand to summon a waiter in seeming response to the waiter calling out Kaplan’s name. The mistake proves harrowing, as “Kaplan” (an identity later found to be fictional, a ruse advanced by U.S. government agents) is the object of the machinations of international spies. Roger Thornhill is kidnapped by the thugs and swept into a drama that his captors and pursuers throughout the movie assume he understands.

Grant’s character is interesting for what he does not do, for the role I have been conditioned by modern movies to expect that he will take, but to which he never succumbs. Within this action movie, which features explosions (well, one explosion), a chase scene on the very faces of Mount Rushmore, and the pursuit of a running man by an airplane in the movie's signature scene—through all of this, Roger Thornhill never becomes an action hero. The character never embraces the action of the events, never relishes it or becomes excited by it as an encouragement to our excitement. Thornhill stands up to his captors more out of indignation than out of becoming a heroic adversary to their aims. There is nothing brash, combative, or dynamic about him. He keeps that gray suit practically all through the movie, shedding it at one point only to get it laundered.

And he does not fight. Today, the routine convention of the action movie has the hero discovering some previously unknown skill or inclination for fighting his antagonists. By contrast, in this movie, we have a scene with Grant in which he judges that he can’t overcome his captors and refuses even to try. The message of the modern action movie is that physical action is a better way, the transcendent way, and the ending of such a movie typically has its hero transformed into discovering he is better and more powerful than the banal and conforming way of his workaday society. Cary Grant discovers no such thing. To the contrary, he doubles down on his everyday world in the end. Once the villain is defeated and his character is free, he not only returns to his old life, but he pulls spy and female lead Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) into that life with him by marrying her.

It wouldn’t last. The time of this movie’s release was just 17 years away from Taxi Driver’s portrayal of the same society as something festering, something in decay. Maybe either portrayal is exaggerated and maybe both are, but why these two portrayals? Why the change, across less than two decades? What did the moviegoers of 1959 believe, or what did they know?

I wrote in a previous post about how World War II casts a long shadow over the films I have been watching.

When North by Northwest was made, did people hold their society in higher regard? Did they appreciate society more than Taxi Driver’s audience did and more than we do now?

It would seem they did. And with reason: In the real world in which this movie was made, as recently as 14 years prior to the movie, the chance to move forward peacefully and flourish by wit within a smoothly humming society was denied to most. Families were separated and careers put on hold as soldiers and sailors served far away. Thus, our action heroes of today—including the violent protagonist of a version of this movie if it had been made today—would offer a transparent fiction to the audience of 1959. Presented with such a character, those viewers would have seen right through him.

For that audience, fighting was not transcendent. Fighting would not have made the movie interesting. The people then knew all about fighting. They knew what fighting looked like and what it could and could not accomplish. Violent action was not exotic, not drama.

Instead, strikingly, the theme of this movie, the predicament that apparently spoke to them and captured their attention, had to do with how to resist action being forced upon them.

The drama of North by Northwest turned on this question: Can the man brought into a dangerous situation against his will—in a way, drafted into that situation—find his way back home safely? And more than that, can he find his way up out of that action into living peacefully and living nobly once again? Living and thriving in society once again? Compared to these questions, the aspirations of our modern fantasies unfortunately point downward, point southerly, aiming the opposite way from this film’s direction.

From Here to Eternity (1953)—Our Principles Fall

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

I neither believe in nor expect a coming apocalypse, an ending of the world by God. Our faith does not require this. The prophecies of the New Testament, whether spoken by Jesus or written by John, do not have to be understood this way. When Jesus hanging on the cross said, “It is finished,” it was truly so. God and humanity would be reconciled, and the new creation was underway from that point forward. We are living—just as the title of the famous movie would have it—from here to eternity.

In the movie From Here to Eternity, two men are stuck in the “here.” They are stuck in the positions in which they find themselves in the Army, at their posting at a not-yet-famous location in the Hawaiian islands just before the United States has entered World War II. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), who has recently transferred to this base, finds that his reputation has transferred ahead of him. A talented middleweight boxer, he refuses to join the company boxing team—the pride and passion of the commander, Captain Holmes (Philip Ober)—because of Prewitt’s determination not to risk repeating a tragedy, his once blinding a man by injuring him in the boxing ring. The private’s refusal to add his talents to the company team brings the ire of Holmes and his boxers, who inflict punishments on him including forced marches and menial duty.

Lancaster and Clift
Prewitt’s commitment to his principles and his endurance in the face of suffering draw the attention of First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), who competently runs the Army base on Oahu in the vacuum left by the neglect of the boxing-obsessed (and philandering-obsessed) commander. Warden falls in love with the commander’s neglected wife Karen (Deborah Kerr), who promises to divorce her husband and marry Warden if he will become an officer. But in this she has come to the point of Warden’s principles. Whatever his gifts, whatever his leadership, the sergeant is determined that he is an enlisted man. Remaining true to himself and his dignity requires this. He refuses to repudiate his status for the sake of becoming an officer and obtaining authority over other men.

The wonderful thing about this movie, and the profound truth it expresses that gives the viewer pause, is found in the way the story has no care for the principles of either man. Our principles do not necessarily matter, in part because our principles do not necessarily express a commitment to morality or truth, even when we find high-sounding ideals to attach to them. Our principles can express our pride even when they are wearing morality or truth as raiment. The conceit of both of these men in the movie who are standing on their principles is that they are making a claim to know the future. They insist they know exactly what effect their decisions will have and where their choices might take them.

The most brilliant scene in this movie is not the iconic scene of Lancaster and Kerr kissing on the beach as the tide comes in. That scene was just a special effect, a trick of timing. The most brilliant scene in the movie is when Lancaster’s Sergeant Warden walks out from behind his desk, the desk at which we have seen him sitting from the viewpoint of only one camera angle throughout the movie so far. As he leaves his desk, the camera pivots for the first time to follow him, and thus we learn something about the office we have never seen before. The office has a calendar on the wall facing the desk. Perhaps illogically (the detail only bothered me when I thought about it later), it is a daily calendar like one that might be used in a bank. A single large number announces the day’s date. Lancaster’s character walks over to this calendar as he is speaking on the phone and, still talking into the receiver, he happens to lean on the wall beside it. Though he is naturally oblivious to the date, we see it and cannot help but take note. We learn that the day’s date, for these two men who are stuck, for everyone else at this base on Oahu, is December 6, 1941.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor comes the next day. Warden is surprised, Prewitt is surprised, the entire base is surprised and thrown into confusion, until the soldiers begin to understand, begin to rally, and even begin to fight back, thanks in no small part to the leadership of Warden.

The base’s new commander (Captain Holmes’ abuses having been found out by this point) is not to be found at the moment of the attack. Events therefore give no regard to Warden’s principles; he is thrust into the role of an officer even if he does not formally hold the rank. It is he to whom the men look, it is Warden who hastily organizes resistance against the Japanese, and it is even he who has the ammunition storage shed torn open when he is told that an officer’s key is needed to unlock it.

The events are equally callous toward Prewitt’s principles. He could have joined the boxing team anyway. Because of this attack and because of the war it will bring, there would never have been any intracompany boxing championship for him, or even a single match to fight. All of that would have been abandoned.

It is a surprising moral, but one the story invites us to contemplate. Our principles are our pride, or they might as well be. Our principles—the codes we write for ourselves—are not necessarily the codes to which we are called.

An error we make in choosing these principles, or choosing these boxes that we dignify to be principles, is that events are not constant. The time and the season are not constant. Things change, as you know. The circumstances around us will shift or dissolve, and the next instance of this dissolution could happen any moment. It could happen tomorrow. (What is today’s date?)

I neither believe in nor expect a coming apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean much. It might come anyway. At the very least, God has all manner of small apocalypses in store. They are terrible and total while they are happening, and the pain and loss are consequences of the fact that Death still has its way. Yet the work of Jesus is finished, and one consequence of this is that Death has been routed and its rule has been deposed. Thus, life awakens past every such apocalypse. The new creation brings freedom, including shedding the shackles of what we thought would happen, and dropping the burden of that person we had thought ourselves to be.

The Wild Bunch (1969)—Tactics Alone Provide Nothing

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

“Let the dead bury their own dead,” said Jesus.

A scene from the 1969 western The Wild Bunch portrayed a perverse caricature of this very principle. Fleeing on horseback after their attempted railroad office robbery had turned into a gun battle, a group of outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) are slowed by the members of their band who had been wounded in the fight. One rider falls and can no longer continue. Bishop shoots him dead. Another senior member of the outlaw gang, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) looks on. When two others in the band want to pause to bury their fallen companion, Engstrom objects to the risky and unnecessary delay, saying:

“I think the boys are right. I’d like to say a few words for the dear, dead departed. And maybe a few hymns’d be in order. Followed by a church supper. With a choir!”

Engstrom’s mocking rejection advocates the same action and logic as the call from Jesus, though of course the parallels end there. Jesus’ command had to do with letting go of the burdens of obedience to this world for the sake of the kingdom already moving and transforming the world. “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and spread the news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). By contrast, the bandits wanted to get away with their loot. (And fitting to the comparison I am making here, that loot in this story proved illusory. The thieves stole a decoy cash box full of steel washers rather than coins.)

The point I am offering in describing the scene this way is this: The tactics contained within the commands of Christ have power and efficacy apart from the way of Christ. That way—the way of “Take up your cross and follow me,” the way of “If you love me, obey my commands”—consists of something other than effective tactics or wise strategies. Improvements to tactics can come to anyone over time. Wisdom will also come over time, and a clarifying of values or purpose might come as well. But a life or a mind that sees changes such as these, that becomes more mature and effective, might still be a life or a mind that is directed toward futility. The tactics of Jesus’ teachings about living for him can also be applied to aims that are pointless and deathly, so without him, we might resemble Jesus now and again as we are heading all the more effectively toward oblivion.

The Wild Bunch is the story of a group of characters who are appealing to us in their fellowship to one another, and in the fact that the story offers them as protagonists, but who otherwise do not merit our sympathy. The robbery in the opening scene was confounded by an ambush by bounty hunters, leading to a shootout in which not only robbers and bounty hunters were lost, but also innocents caught in the crossfire. We see no remorse; the movie is about the aging Holden and Borgnine’s desperate attempt to pull off one more daring and lucrative robbery to overcome the failure of this attempt before the end of their luck or abilities brings an end to their career.

I said fellowship. There is a certain code this group of bandits lives by. Or, at the very least, they believe there is such a code. Confronting a warlord general who brutally rules a small community in Mexico, Borgnine declares, “We’re not like him.... We don't hang people!” But as the viewer of this scene, I don’t know whether I am being asked to take his word for this. Borgnine’s character had never been in a position of autocratic power. Given the distance he had already gone in his chosen work to rationalize violent death, wouldn’t he be able to go farther still to rationalize hanging as well? (Indeed, how much of any of our success at adhering to a code is the result of simply the opportunities we have been given? Not for nothing does the prayer say, “Lead us not into temptation.”) We then see the same murkiness around the men’s seeming loyalty to a companion—their seeming fellowship—in their attempt to assuage the general’s anger over a murder this companion committed. The men end up not rescuing their companion from this enemy, but accepting a job in the general’s service.

The one clear aspect of the men’s code to which they remain committed is what drives the story of the movie: determination toward the goal. Bishop, Engstrom, and the remaining survivors of their wild bunch will not relent in their pursuit of gold. “These are men,” says Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of their crew who pursues them throughout the movie, having been caught and turned by the authorities. These are men, he says, meaning they have the strength that comes from mature self-knowledge, even character. Yet all of that power is directed toward an elusive aim that can only come to nothing.

At the start of the movie, we see children watching a scene on the earth at their feet: a swarm of ants overwhelming and devouring a pair of scorpions. The scorpions are more powerful, but the ants are ravenous, and in the end numerous enough to destroy them. The children watching this scene from above are watching with—God’s viewpoint? The children choose no winners in this particular contest, they just watch the event unfold. And at the end of the movie, we are given something like the same view. The general kills the member of the gang who has angered him, and the gang kills the general. Mexicans authorities who had been under the command of the fallen general overwhelm the gang. It becomes clear in this fight that there is no outcome for the Wild Bunch except for their lives to end. Which, it needs to be said, was their predicament all along.


I sometimes experience remembered joy as a source of pain.

The memory of the joy provokes an indictment in my mind. There is a wincing self-infliction. Its source is an irrational fear. Its source is the fear of scarcity. Upon remembering joy, I feel the fear that joy is finite, that joy is scarce. I suffer under the false belief that as my life advances, more of the share of joy allotted to me is being lost into the past. The pain comes from the sense that I somehow ought to have been wiser about experiencing the joy better or holding onto it more tightly so that I could drag it a little farther with me into the future.

Example: One Saturday morning I ended up skipping stones with my younger daughter at the river not far from our house. This moment was, I now realize without much difficulty, one of joy. The moment was soulfully nourishing in a way that happiness is not. (More on that distinction in a bit.) The stone-skipping interlude is still so recent that I do not yet encounter my memory of it as pain, but I know from long experience that the memory has the potential to come to that. Right now, accurately or not, I still feel as though the exact magic of that moment could be recaptured. But this daughter of mine will grow, she will become more complex, she will no longer be as open to visiting the river with her dad, and I will naturally be tempted to look back on that moment as something lost. I will miss having the chance to go skip stones with a 10-year-old. I will feel this memory as an avenue no longer open. Yet the falseness of that feeling is found here: It fails to account for other avenues of joy that will have opened within that future time when I will feel this. Changes over time are not always losses, even though we are biased toward thinking this way. We have this bias simply because we know what has been, but we do not know what is coming. In my ignorance over what is to come, I pine over the known joys of the past rather than anticipating the joys before me that as yet are only known by God.

Joy and happiness are different. I’ve written about this, most recently here. What is joy, and how does it differ? The bible gives clues to a definition. According to Galatians 5:22-23, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control.” The significant detail within this passage is “fruit,” the word being singular rather than plural. That is, these qualities are not “fruits” of the outflow of the Spirit, like a basket of varied and different fruits. There is one “fruit” and it is all these things. Joy, whatever it is, is the state that is also marked by the presence of rising and outflowing love, peace, patience, and the rest, all at the same time. What is joy? Joy is that thing that has love, peace, and patience in the mix as inherent parts of the very same thing.

Happiness does not have this quality. Happiness is more the state of a void being filled with the activity or attainment that can temporarily fill it. I may feel happy while cliff diving or eating ice cream. I may feel happy watching a particular TV show. I may feel happy if people are saying nice things about me because I have just done something they like. But none of these experiences comes with peace, patience, or love. Happiness is a pursuit, an activity positively performed or an object positively achieved. Joy, by contrast, is found in the negative space or the passive space, the air around and among these pursuits. Where happiness is an attainment, joy is that which is allowed to come when the obstacles to joy clear away.

Obstacles such as fear. As in my fear of scarcity. Let me make a vow, then: I will refuse to engage with such fear. (Can I make that refusal stick?)

Or obstacles such as hurt. A commitment, then: I will refuse to accept this hurt. (Is that choice available to me?)

Or obstacles such as isolation, which is often self-imposed. Or obstacles such as plans, which multiply with my ego’s assertion of all that I can or must do.

The time spent throwing stones happened because it was allowed to happen, and because it was the right thing to happen in the moment when it was allowed. The time spent throwing stones happened because I was blessed enough that all those obstacles fell away.

Let me not be mystical, however. In all this discussion of joy as a spiritual state, there is a real physical component. Right now, as I draft these words, I am strong enough not to engage with the fear that might find me, strong enough to avoid this obstacle to joy, largely for the simple reason that I slept well last night. I do not often do this. And the reasons I don’t sleep well often have to do with feeding fears or overfilling plans. Thus, the lack of joy actually follows a feedback loop bigger than just the quality of my attention or spirituality in a given moment or a decision I make right now. If I feed fear enough, or feed pride enough regarding all that I imagine I should do, then I can make my very brain and body too restless for joy to take root in my mind. I might be joyless simply because I have cultivated that state. That is, I might be helpless in my joylessness, because the obstacles to joy have already been raised against it.

Discovering this, there is nothing to do. There is nothing to do when this has happened, except the Spirit will find the way back. Or no.

No, that’s not quite the right way to express it. The Spirit will not find the way back, because the Spirit has no way back to find. The Spirit is not the party that became lost.

And here we come to an important point: Joy is fixed within the world. Joy is constant. Again, joy is altogether different from happiness in this regard. As we have seen, joy is an outflow of the Creator. Joy is the sun at the center of world’s system, and like the sun it relentlessly exerts its gravity.

It is we who lose our way. Defining the universe as being no bigger than our selves, we find no joy within it and despair. We then muscle through, doing without joy, perceiving that joy seemingly has spilled entirely away from what this universe contains.

But if we admit that joy is constant and it is bigger than us, if we accept this, then we can stop. We can stop as best we are able.

We stop, and we wait for the gravity of the sun to overcome the inertia of our failed attempt to throw ourselves into some other orbit that, instead of being higher up, is actually just farther out into the dark. We stop and we wait—we wait perhaps quite a while—until that inertia plays itself out and the arc of our trajectory brings us dropping like a stone back into joy’s orbit again. There is no sin in waiting for joy in this way.

I mentioned scarcity, my fear that joy is limited and I am spending my share.  The scarcity mentality is actually a particularly painful fallacy because it not only turns memories to pain, but also makes the prospect of the future painful. According to this fear, the future is a place that will have less and less joy in it.

However, if God is love (I John 4:8) and if love is joy (Galatians 5:22, as explained above), then by the nature of equivalency, God is joy.

God is joy. Which means that joy is not scarce at all, but is as infinite as God is.

There will always be joy. There will always be plenty. There will always be more joy to come. And when it comes to joy—not the case with happiness, but when it comes to joy—it is we who will always be too scarce to contain it all.

The Third Man (1949)—Fewer Words

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

The Third Man tells the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an American writer visiting Vienna just after World War II when it is carved among the occupying Americans, British, French and Soviets. Though he is there at the invitation of his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), he arrives in the city to discover that this friend has just died—or so it would seem.

The movie is eerie, capturing the out-of-sorts feeling of being an outsider who is trying to move against the wearying riptide of a culture that doesn’t accept you. The moviemakers employ this distant historical context to produce a feeling that is enervating and familiar.

The movie is also modern. I’ve just recently watched other 1940s movies. This one has discovered a trick those other films don’t know. Namely, the actors in a film—where we can see the speaker’s face and thereby pick up nonverbal cues—need not speak in the overfull statements and completed sentences of the live stage. Back then, people were not really so verbal or prosaic as they were presented in the era’s films. It is simply that in the first couple of decades of audible film, we had not yet figured out how to use this medium to accurately depict our world.

The breakthroughs are obvious only in retrospect. Perhaps there is some medium today—I think of e-books—that we are still employing according to dated conventions, no longer valid, so that the medium’s full potential for authenticity and impact have not yet been found.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)—The Laughter Bought with Failure

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Reflecting upon The Treasure of the Sierra Madre brought my thoughts to another movie I had seen, Ocean’s Eleven. The first version, not the remake.

Originally, both films explored a similar theme. Both told stories of men bound together in a scheme to pursue material riches, only to have those riches evaporate in the end, with the men (those who survived) instead enriched in the less sought-after way of being shaped by an experience. I say “originally,” because Ocean’s Eleven changed. In the 2001 remake of the 1960 movie, the grand scheme to obtain wealth grandly succeeds. The sadness in this is the moviemakers’ apparent decision that the original story no longer provided a satisfying ending. The testing and forging of a man’s soul are no longer adequate to resolve a story. Spectacular riches are needed in order to do that.

Thus, I fear a remake of Sierra Madre. I fear the falseness of the ending it would have. In the modern retelling I imagine, the man overcome by avarice is not done in by it, but rather manages to emotionally bootstrap his way into a greater strength of character at the last minute. Wretched bandits do not kill him in the remake, but instead he overpowers those bandits, rushes back to find the companions he betrayed, and redeems himself to them by saving them from peril and saving everyone’s gold. (But all of this is only my imagining. I googled “treasure of the sierra madre remake” and it looks like we are safe.)

Huston, Holt, and Bogart
In the real movie, Humphrey Bogart gives a gripping performance as Dobbs, a man who descends ever deeper into greed, eventually consumed by it. Dobbs and Curtin (Tim Holt) are two impoverished Americans living in Mexico. Meeting an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston), they persuade him to lead them into the mountains looking for gold. Unfortunately for Dobbs, they find it. He ultimately betrays his two companions and takes all the gold they had worked to obtain. Then, on his solo flight from them, he is found and overpowered by trio of bandits, a weakened and desperate group that the original three companions could have fended off if they had still been together. The bandits do not even know the dust in the bags on Dobbs’ burros is gold, so they discard it. Much later, Curtin and Howard find these bags torn open in the desert, the strong winds already having blown their contents away.

Howard, the old man, laughs at this. His laugh is joy squeezed through pain, as it dawns on him that the winds are taking the gold back to the very mountains from which the men had worked so hard to extract it. Laughing ever stronger, he says it was worth the ten months of hard labor they spent in the mountains to see this happen and have that experience.

His reaction is shocking, and yet his reaction is the one that this existence calls upon each of us to have, this existence in which nothing is ours to keep. It is the response the new version of Ocean’s Eleven and the remade Sierra Madre of my imagination both do not have the courage to offer, or do not expect their audiences to have the courage to embrace.

With that remade film I keep mentioning, what did happen? Why was there one ending for Ocean’s Eleven at first, then the concession to a less challenging ending when the story was told later? The reason might be something small, such as the changing demographics of moviegoers. Maybe movies today are written for younger people.

Or maybe society today is more infantile than it was, with all of us more dependent on the comforts we enjoy. As our American society has become wealthier, have we undergone the very same transformation as Bogart’s character? A story that acknowledges the value to be found on the other side of the loss of wealth no longer connects with us, because the very thing that this story would have us imagine losing is something to which we now cling with greater fervor.

Then again, the message of the movie may have been just as shocking and powerful back then as it is now. Maybe that’s why it lasted. Indeed, the message of Sierra Madre is about even more than avarice. It is about that only for Dobbs, who is lost and ultimately slain because of the enslavement to his hoard. For the other two men, this story is about failure.

Thankfully, Curtin was not alone when he discovered the empty bags. He had the old prospector there with him in that instant of their comprehension of the loss. The prospector was a guide for him then after all, guiding him by means of laughter through this moment of confusion and pain.

The gold dust blew away. But here is the thing: What if it hadn’t? What if they had kept the gold, brought it home, and spent the money on a sheltered, luxurious life? There still would have been sadness in that life, there still would have been discontentment, and the gold would have blown away simply by a slower means.

This way, Curtin and the prospector would always have the impact of the loss, would always have souls shaped by the intensity of the experience of seeing the riches blown away all at once. As the prospector said, this was worth ten months.

Our great aims and pursuits have value whether or not they bring riches, whether or not they end in the success we sought. Those aims and pursuits might even deliver a greater value if riches or success are not the result. They deliver a greater valueand they deliver a scarier valueif they can somehow bring us to the foot of a realization well beyond what our timid imagination had originally set out to grasp.

Taxi Driver (1976)—Scenes from the Last Transition

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

If I could travel back in time, visiting any period of time, one period I would want to visit, walk in, and try to experience is the 1970s.

I was there, sort of. I was a young child, with no awareness of the extent to which American society was suffering through turmoil then. Thus it would be personally meaningful to understand what I barely missed, or what barely missed me. It would be interesting to relive that time as an adult instead of a child, to know what the particular color and chaos of that time felt like while it was happening.

As David Frum described in his book, How We Got Here: The 70’s: The Decade that Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse), this was the decade in which many of the building blocks of the experience of the decades that followed all appeared. Computers as commonplace elements of the workplace started here. ATMs began training consumers to make transactions directly with automation. Wage stagnation began then, though no one knew it at the time. One generation after the end of World War II, its combatant nations recovered to become global business competitors. None of these things were features of the landscape in 1969, but they were present by 1979. No one would argue that the years from 1980 forward were stable, but for better or worse (as Frum says), a different status quo took hold during the 1970s and it prevailed through the decades to follow. This decade was thus a time of transition. But of course, while it was happening, the decade must have felt like a time of unraveling.

The 1976 film Taxi Driver is a reaction to the unraveling. Of all the movies I have watched so far as part of my 20th Century Film Project, this one is the most embedded into its period. For a 21st-century viewer, the plot touches so many of our own modern pain points that just to summarize the plot is to induce wincing (a reaction that became more pronounced for me when I just recently learned—I hadn’t known this—that the film held a fascination for attempted presidential assassin John Hinckley). Here is a synopsis:

An emotionally troubled man who deals with his insomnia by working as a taxi driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) becomes romantically drawn to Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a woman who works for the campaign of a senator running for president. Bickle also experiences a moment when a juvenile prostitute (Jodie Foster) flees into his cab to try to escape her pimp (Harvey Keitel), but the pimp captures her and lures her back. Betsy rebuffs Bickle, and in his distress and loneliness combined with his conviction that crime has become rampant, he purchases various firearms from a black market dealer, and works to become proficient not only at using them but at concealing them. The viewer assumes he might be plotting against the presidential candidate. But ultimately he makes a solo raid on the hotel serving as the pimp’s headquarters, killing various people in a bloody gauntlet that ultimately results in his being able to liberate the child prostitute. Letters from this girl’s parents later tell us she has been restored to them and has returned to a stable, safe and healthy life. Hearing about the taxi driver’s victory, Betsy comes to visit him as a passenger in his cab, clearly now favoring him over the candidate as one able to respond to the problems she has been working to address. In some sense, though, Bickle has found peace, a peace independent of her, and he lets her out of the cab and drives away without pursuing a relationship.

From our perspective four decades later, a number of objections to this plot seem obvious, related to problems with the story’s premises that apparently were not noticeable to the moviemakers or the audience at the time. All of the following statements are so obvious (it seems to me) that it feels absurd to present them in the way that I am about to, in a numbered list. For us, this movie disagrees with what the sad tragedies of commonplace news events have taught us in all of the following ways:

1. Dealing with depression by obtaining firearms and pursuing a violent plan is the work of a dangerous man, not a potential hero.

2. For lone individuals to unilaterally choose the enemies of society and act to dispense with them is the way of horror, not justice.

3. The runaway trapped in the life she had come to (no doubt trapped in drug abuse as well) would have faced a fight to resist being drawn back into the world that had captured her the first time. The people who love her would face this fight, too. A letter in essence saying, “Everything is OK,” seems too pat as an ending to the problems of this tragic character.

4. A man known to have carried out multiple killings could not simply return to his life without consequences, as Bickle did in the movie. Hopefully the justice system would haunt him to establish whether the killing was justified. Presumably emotional consequences would haunt him even if it was.

Perhaps the most disagreeable point of all is Bickle’s peace and contentment within that resumed life. The implication is that an episode of righteous mass killing was the therapy this troubled soul needed to end his pain.

Yet this illogical movie apparently made perfect sense against its illogical time. The escalating crime rate then seemed as though it would continue escalating. Extreme solutions must have seemed a sane response to the prospect of society-wide insanity.

That escalation did not indefinitely continue. Certain types of violent crime would go on to crest in frequency and now have been in decline. But then again, the level to which the national violent crime rate has now fallen is not that much lower than the level to which it had risen in Bickle’s time. It might be argued that we have acclimated to that crime rate now, accepted it as another element of what is normal, and moved on to other concerns. If so, then the kind of street crime portrayed in this movie (making parts of the city “an open sewer,” says Bickle) is another element appearing between 1969 and 1980 that became an established feature of the world to come.

We have our own society-wide problems to loom before us now. Indeed, what this movie makes clear with its very datedness is that we ourselves, right now, are living through another time of transition. If the 1970s were the period in America bringing social turmoil and instability on a level that had not been seen since the 1930s, then the period we are in right now is the next great time of turmoil after this. The movie is dated because it deals exclusively and entirely with the social issues of the previous transition.

Today, it is not the safety of the streets but the effectiveness or relevance of institutions that has come undone. The abilities of the public and private sectors to carry out their most basic expected roles related to preparing citizens and providing for them seem in question. In fact, we see a measure of what has changed in the very first scene of the movie. Bickle does something in the movie’s opening scene that the movie takes for granted as a possibility not in question. That is, Bickle walks into a place of employment seeking a job—a full-time job able to comfortably provide for his needs—and the employer has this to offer, and chooses to give Bickle the opportunity he is prepared for and the one he seeks.

The society down whose streets I walk seems to have lost the trick of this matchmaking. Stores, restaurants, and other businesses show help-wanted signs in abundance, while the ranks of unemployed swell with the uncounted many who are unemployed chronically or long-term, and somehow one is not a match for the other. The citizen with no job and the job with no prospective hire somehow do not see what they need in one another.

To be sure, Bickle had to prove himself to the employer. He had to reassure him he is available to work as needed. “Anytime, anywhere,” he accommodatingly says. But the employer in this scene was readily looking to employ, and on terms they both understood and agreed upon. Perhaps the streets of the 1970s were as miserable as the movie’s main character claims, but the scripting of this opening scene seems to assume that people were walking in off those streets seeking jobs and finding jobs—jobs they could do, jobs that followed the logic they expected, jobs they had been prepared for, jobs that paid their way. Is that assumption still valid?

We are going through a time of change, and the nature of jobs and work is a part of what is changing. The basic elements of what will be the new status quo are appearing now, and likely have already appeared, whether we yet recognize them or not. New people are among us who don’t fit the old roles. New roles have appeared even though we are not yet the people to fill them. Could Travis Bickle’s story make sense in this world that is coming into being; could it make sense from the very opening scene? That is, in a world of Uber, could he have found work as a taxi driver?

Patton (1970)—And Yet Also Joy

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

“There’s one big difference between you and me, George. I do this job because I’ve been trained to do it. You do it because you love it.” —Karl Malden as General Omar Bradley to George C. Scott as General George Patton

Joy and happiness are two different things. I’ve written about this. The film Patton portrays the difference vividly in one particular passage of the movie. Relieved from active command of combat troops in the midst of World War II, sidelined from the events leading up to the D-Day invasion, General Patton (George C. Scott) is left to drift in luxury through the mansion in Sicily his staff is using as his headquarters. He looks awkward in a robe. Denied the chance to pursue or follow in his calling, he is without joy. So his men try to give him happiness instead. They try to console him, offering, “I thought you might like a sip of wine,” “I thought you might like some milk or a hot bath.” But luxury is a consolation for others. What he needs is fulfillment of purpose. He regains joy in that moment—we see the moment later in the movie—when he is leading soldiers who are cold and without a hot meal as they move quickly out of one battle toward another where they have been sent. The 19th century general William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, “War is hell” (or “War is all hell”—accounts vary). The General Patton of this movie would not have disagreed. Yet for him war is also the context his purpose needs, the one context in which he might fully and truly find joy. In the midst of the march, we see him fall in among the glumly advancing men he is leading, talking to them freely in a way he was unable to talk to his staff members earlier who were trying to comfort him.

The pain of unfulfilled purpose is a part of life in this world. The book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, is partly about this. The “outliers” his title refers to are the ones who, largely by accident, have actually found their way into doing what they were seemingly born to do. They are outliers because there are far more people in our world who do not find their way into a full expression of their gifts. For example, just consider the ordinary misfortune of gifted people born into poverty whom our society has no way to identify or to channel into their gifts’ fulfillment. Lives such as theirs are lived against a backdrop of unfulfilled purpose, which is an altogether commonplace pain.

Jesus said his joy will be in us and our joy will be complete (John 15:11). I think it must be that the provision for the fulfillment of our purpose is part of what is bound up in this promise. Each of us was made unique and each of us was made for a purpose, if not various purposes. This broken and incomplete world keeps us from finding the fulfillment of those purposes, but now God has begun remaking the world. Those who are called by him, called into faith, have purposes within his plan for this remaking. We frequently do not recognize these purposes, because none of us can claim to know God’s plan well enough to see our own small place within it. Yet by means of the Spirit that fills them and the circumstances created around them, God is now moving people into places of purpose, places of joy.

Is it okay that I just used a war general as the illustration by which to convey this point about Jesus’ promise of joy? It is okay. Generals are part of creation, even an intended part. At present, we know there is an insurrection even in heaven—a war. In some fashion, there must be generals in this conflict as well. God is bringing not just a new earth but a new heaven along with it (Revelation 21:1), and presumably strife will be brought to an end in both. But still, everything we see here on earth is a veiled hint at the form God intends, the true form waiting beyond. If there are generals here and arguably generals also in heaven, there must be something comparable in the world to come, even after the wars on earth and the war in heaven are over. Somehow, there will be figures who organize and lead others through endeavors of great cost and striving, even if the outcome of those endeavors is no longer to be the worldly hell that General Sherman knew.

I don’t know if the moviemakers responsible for Patton were mocking General Patton in the opening scene of the film, that famous scene in which he is standing alone before a big American flag. This movie would have been filmed during the Vietnam War; perhaps there was an undercurrent flowing through this film’s creation, a mood of questioning or recoiling from admiration for generalship. In that famous opening scene, a huge flag surrounds a man who is small by comparison. But then in the movie’s final scene, we see something different. We see Patton walking out of the story by walking across a battlefield now empty because the war is over. The purpose he was given to pursue by his Creator is ultimately bigger than the tiny war in which this calling was given expression. 

Tiny? You might object; it was a world war, the biggest in history. Of course that’s true. However, it was a world war limited to just this world, which is finite and finished. We will have work to do and victories to win within the world that is to come.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)—The Religion of I Don’t Know

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

In the story of the Joads, unlike the story of Job, the whirlwind comes at the beginning.

The Grapes of Wrath (the film based on the John Steinbeck novel) tells the story of a poor Oklahoma family whose way of life is literally blown away by the winds of the Dust Bowl. The combination natural/manmade disaster of the plains in the 1930s resulted from unsustainable farming practices that left the soil no longer able to withstand wind erosion during drought. Dust storms left farms no longer productive in the Oklahoma panhandle and elsewhere, forcing sharecropper “Okies” to flee the land they knew in search of better prospects somewhere else in Depression America. The name Joad is a barely veiled allusion that the suddenness and totality of the losses befalling this family find their comparison in the losses inflicted upon the character from the Bible.

Except that this film also echoes another ancient work, because Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is Job on an Odyssey. Holding together a nearly destitute family that includes elderly, children, and his pregnant sister, he drives them all across country by jalopy in a quest not toward home or even a new home, but toward the hope (a hope that decreases as they proceed toward it and learn more along the way) of wage-paying manual labor in California. But this story does indeed involve Job on the Odyssey-like quest, not Odysseus, because in this quest there is no sense of adventure or valor, just the desperation of declining options. Answering a remark about his bravery in setting out with failing truck across the southwestern desert, Tom says: “Takes no nerve to do something, ain’t nothin’ else you can do.”

The spiritual guide for this journey is Jim Casy (John Carradine), a former preacher who “lost the spirit,” by which he means he lost the feeling of conviction that what he was preaching has any worth. We first encounter Casy contentedly singing a song with the refrain, “He’s my savior.” It’s just that Casy no longer considers himself knowledgeable about that savior, nor about the Creator’s desire for him or others in this world. Late in the film, he says, “Tom, you gotta learn like I’m learnin’. I don’t know it right yet myself. That’s why I can’t ever be a preacher again. Preachers gotta know. I don’t know. I gotta ask.” I loved this character. I loved him because the soft-spoken Carradine plays him gracefully, but also because “I gotta ask” is where I find myself. In matters related to my Christian faith, I gotta ask, and in the face of those possessed of a feeling of conviction, the questions can come off as impertinent.

Carradine and Fonda as Casy and Joad
The Joads ultimately go the way of Jim Casy in regard to their hope about their own destiny. This is the victory the story gives them—freedom from the investment of desire and expectation in a particular outcome, meaning freedom from fear about that outcome, and freedom from despair if the hoped-for outcome doesn’t come. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) proves to be the strength of the family after Tom has gone. She sees him off when he must flee because he has become a fugitive after killing a man in self-defense. On their way without Tom to another job opportunity, reacting to other family members’ excitement over the promise of 20 days of work picking cotton, she says: “Maybe 20 days’ work and maybe no days work. We aint got it ’til we get it.” But there is no despair in this, only acceptance. She goes on:

“Pa, a woman can change better’n a man. A man lives sorta—well, in jerks. Baby’s born or somebody dies, and that’s a jerk. He gets a farm or loses it, and that’s a jerk. With a woman, it’s all in one flow, like a stream—little eddies and waterfalls—but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it thata way.” 

She is contrasting a man and a woman, but she is describing just as much the arrival at a faith like Casy’s, a faith of “I don’t know.”

This, too, is reminiscent of the biblical book of Job. I’ve been writing about Job in previous posts. The book of Job is most significantly a book about a change in religion—a change in human understanding and expectations regarding God. The friends of Job in this book view God through the lens of earthly reward and retribution. God rewards those who are faithful to him, and God brings loss and hardship to those who displease him—that is their view. But the problem is: Job has been faithful to God, and Job is suffering. The religion of Job’s friends ultimately fails.

God appearing in a whirlwind at the end of the book of Job reveals a different religion to them. He asks 66 questions about the nature of the world and the means of its creation, to not one of which is Job or anyone present able to give an answer.

In the whirlwind, there is God. The religion of “I don’t know” has mystery at its heart, but not absence. Casy still sang of his savior. The religion of “I don’t know” finds its solace in the faith that God does know.

Job Has a Christian Message

Job was rich and healthy when he was obedient to God. God then allowed his health and his riches to be taken away.

Later, in the gospels, Jesus would make clear, “In this world, you will have trouble.” He said this to his disciples, the ones following him. In short, following Jesus does nothing to take trouble away.

Many who doubt God bring attention to the problem of suffering. They are missing the bigger problem: prosperity. If God allows someone who believes in him to do well, then what is the basis for belief?

God himself ought to be the motive for obeying God. God himself ought to be the reward for seeking God.

Job’s life was pruned down to get to this very point, to show this. We do not live within a rewards system. We live within a cosmos at the heart of which is our Creator.