No matter what I try, I cannot find a way to sleep on a plane. And this is a bad thing, especially when you are flying from Portland to Delhi (seventeen hours). Even the purchase of a Cabeau Evolution Pillow at REI provides little relief. Thankfully, I can get a lot of reading and other work done, as well as catch up on the latest movies.
Somewhere over the Atlantic, I choose to watch Manchester-by-the Sea. Have you seen it? It is rated as one of the best films of 2016, receiving positive reviews (“the funniest movie about grief ever made”-Ebert). The person seated next to me tells me I will love it. I don’t. As the movie progresses, I hate it more and more. When will it end? I’m trying to figure out why I feel this way.
Maybe it is the unresolved tension. I love movies with conflict, but this movie has no intention of working things out. It’s like saying—“Life sucks. Deal with it.” The main character is Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck). Lee is a brooding, irritable, self-punishing loner—a repair person who does everything from unplugging toilets to taking people’s garbage out. It’s all domestic and mundane. The setting is the dreary, grayish town of Quincy at the tail end of a long winter. Not exactly a mesmerizing opening. A phone call suddenly changes everything. Lee’s brother has died, and Lee must go back to Manchester-by-the Sea, where his past failures renew his shame and deepen his sense of guilt.
Perhaps it is the pace. The movie progresses at an agonizing speed. I find myself increasingly annoyed. Where is this going? Maybe it’s the music that is competing with the dialogue (which happens when you try to watch movies on a plane). But it is more—far more. Every character, beginning with Lee, is deeply flawed. There is little evidence of real love. Lee is “emotionally constipated” and occasionally releases his rage in barroom fights; his nephew Patrick is a typical teenager with raging hormones; Patrick’s mom is an addict who becomes estranged from everyone; Lee’s ex-wife is portrayed as a woman you would not want to come home to; and the kids are cute until they are consumed in a house fire. Like I said–a film to lift your spirits before training pastors.
If there is any redemptive moment, it comes when Patrick’s mom finds religion and sobriety. She invites Patrick over to meet her Christian fiancé, but even this scene goes badly, beginning with the stereotypical painting of Jesus in the dining area. She cannot deal with Patrick’s failure to engage in any meaningful conversation and leaves the table. Worse, in a typical Hollywood way, the film portrays this new couple as mild mannered and dull. Faith is nice, but it is ill equipped to deal with life’s challenges.
It is as if the writers and producers and directors and actors got together and said—“Let’s make a picture that portrays life under a closed heaven. Life is morose, God is irrelevant, and Christianity is merely an antiseptic. The search for personal gratification drives people to reckless impulses, leading to stupid—even tragic—outcomes. Guilt will be a driving theme, the kind that blocks any hope of reconciliation. Let’s make it so raw reviewers will say things like, ‘Life in all of its realness.’ Or, ‘A moving piece of art.’ Or maybe, ‘This is a movie with the kind of sadness that makes you more alive to the preciousness of things.’ Something inane like that.”
Imagine if they said—“Let’s create a movie that demonstrates what life under an open heaven can look like. Let’s take deeply flawed people, show what the cross can really accomplish when people recognize they have died to sin and are alive to God. Let’s picture a resurrected life, living under a new kingdom, where the Spirit indwells. Let’s portray a transformation so profound it radically impacts all lives within earshot. Let’s write a scene where characters find sex before marriage to be offensive. In this script, the power of the Spirit trumps all drives for personal gratification. A man’s deep craving is to protect a woman’s purity, and a woman’s desire is to protect a man’s honor. And marriage is a life-long covenant. Let’s portray work, no matter how mundane, as a divine calling. Oh, and let’s replace guilt with forgiveness. Let’s show the power of people set free of any shame. Let’s picture past failures as things forgotten. Let’s make a movie that pulses, where reviewers will say things like, ‘This is a movie that so lifts the spirits you do not want it to end.’ We’ll call it, Manchester-under-the Heavens.”