Friday, January 06, 2006

Who Among us Lives in Dogville

Finally saw Dogville last night. Didn’t sleep. Tossing and turning, gripped by its incredible power, and yet wondering exactly, what’s it all about.

Has anyone been in those kids’ playgrounds where all the imitation leather bags hang down, and you have to run around bumping into them, and finding the other kids in the maze of it all? The movie felt a bit like that – I kept brushing against pleather strips redolent of gospel stories, especially parable, feeling their sensation on my arms, prickling the skin, and yet the meaning eluding me because it is not obvious, and like parables it does not hit you over the head with the moral. We either have eyes to see and ears to hear, or we do not.

But it is also universally human – how do we act, sinful human that we are, when grace comes among us? Do we choose to embrace it and be changed by it, or do we say no to it? Everyone in Dogville is at once drawn to Grace’s purity, mercy, forgiving nature, and yet they come to despise her for it. Her beauty, both physical (which often signals inner beauty) and spiritual, shows their (and our) ugliness all the more.

Grace’s intrusion also shatters the cocoon of Dogville because it exposes them (and us) to something much bigger. Dogville, for all intents and purposes, is a “city” on a hill, and its residents are gripped in a grim puritanical existence, left to scratch like chickens in the earth. There is no joy, not much celebration, except when Grace first arrives. It believes itself impervious to the outside world, and yet it can be invaded, both by gangsters and thugs, and by Grace.

Her innocence, forgiveness, light and softness is there for all to partake of, and the townspeople of Dogville do just that. For the first few days they become changed, enlightened and cheered, on the verge of becoming an authentically caring community. And then something happens; mistrust sets in, they feel threatened by her, because they are afraid of the letter of the law. Instead of being transformed by Grace, they sink lower into their slum of the soul, end up attacking grace because they cannot view her as the spirit of the law.

(Some critics have accused Triers of hating women, but I don’t agree. Rape illumines the depths of degradation to which we can sink, that is to distort love by the use of force and power is the worst distortion of love possible.)

For most of the movie, I expected Grace was another “holy fool” like Bess in Breaking the Waves, and I struggled a lot with the ending where she diverges from that. The big difference between the movies, though, is Bess was driven by love, for her husband, and for his healing. Grace, on the other hand, may have such a driving force at first but not toward the end because what she thought was love, was only self-interest (Tom Edison wants to think and feel in order to write about it, but not to live it).

This morning, my bible reading was Luke, chapter 6. It was unbelievably apropos. How the crowd sought to touch Jesus for power that came out of him, and how those who were sick and filled with unclean spirits were healed; How the Pharisees were “filled with fury” when Jesus did something good on the Sabbath; this is also the chapter that deals with loving those who hate you, giving to those who beg from you, and blessing those who curse you, all of which Grace does. It’s also the chapter that talks about no good tree bearing bad fruit, nor a bad tree bearing good fruit.

There is an overriding sense of the gospels in this movie, though it’s impossible to pin down, and say this symbol stands for this, and so on. But Grace must make a choice at the end, as God did when Abraham begged him to save Sodom and Gomorrah; God agrees, providing there are ten good men, then three, then one in the city. When none can be found, the city is destroyed.

While Grace does make a beautiful and impassioned plea at the end about mercy and forgiveness, she must decide if this town is worth mercy. (By the way, Nicole Kidman is remarkable in this role.) Thomas Edison, Grace’s amour in the movie, who might possibly have been that one good man, turns out to be just as selfish and sinful as the rest of them, as distorted by life in Dogville. I’m not sure if Triers is also saying that culture will rub off on you (probably he is – after all Lot and Abraham made very different choices when they took up their land outside of Sodom and Gomorrah, with Lot choosing to be close to the city of sin, and Abraham preferring to reside a little outside its reach.)

But I do think he is saying a lot about the choices we make, particularly about whether we choose to accept grace or not.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

More Narnia

Just when it looked as though I'd finally stop going on about this Narnia movie, the review I did for the Anglican Planet has come out.

Here's the link:

And if anyone out there is reading this blog, I'd love to hear your comments on it.

When is God Present?

Over the past few days I've been suffering from a vague dis-ease about the whole Christmas thing. While I tried to retain as much of the religious content as possible, it feels flat in my memory. Someone somewhere said he was going to embrace the commercialism even more in coming years because he liked going shopping and buying things for people he loves. Maybe that is a more appropriate way to celebrate. At least there's some joy to it which may be what's missing in my own approach.

It almost feels in retrospect as if God was not even present.

But I also know that God's sovereignty means just that -- He is present regardless of what we do. That's why ritual and sacrament are so important. In behavioural terms, feelings follow actions, not the other way around. If we continue to pray and have our devotions, and go to communion, God is present, and eventually our feelings will catch up.

I am reading in the Magnificat devotions that my friend Janine gave me a few months ago, and Father Richard Veras writes that the Mass is centred around the Presence of Christ. If I find myself distracted during Mass, does that stop Christ from coming? No!

Although I'm Anglican, I do believe in Jesus's presence at Communion. What form He takes is beyond my comprehension. I cannot say that He isn't in the bread, although I prefer to think of Him as beside, around, above me. Perhaps ingesting Jesus isn't such a bad idea after all. I think it was Janine who once said that taking Communion was a little like being pregnant -- it's inside you and changes you but it has a life of its own.

How you approach the Eucharist, though, doesn't limit whether God is present or not. If I do not have a complete understanding (given my metaphysical-philosophical shortcomings) of His presence, I am assured that He is there, nonetheless.

That is why I cannot countenance the Catholic claim that only during Catholic mass is Jesus present, really and truly. If that is so, then presence would depend on our abilities, and not His grace. If that's so, then you have to throw out infant baptism -- and baptising the mentally challenged -- because those baptised aren't cognizant of God's presence.

I just now checked today's quotations ( and see it's about this topic of the body and blood. It's amazing how often I will be struggling with something and have the cquod pop up with an insight or two along the same lines.

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 (ESV)

And a comment by Evelyn Underhill:

Two movements merge in the real act of communion. First, the creature's profound sense of need, of incompleteness: its steadfast desire... Next, a humble and loving acceptance of God’s answer to that prayer of desire, however startling, disappointing, and unappetizing it may be.