Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Review and Defense of Sucker Punch

A defense of Sucker Punch? Really? How could anyone defend that movie? Critics have lambasted the movie as being all about sexual provocation and/or having a confusing or incoherent plot. As for the critics who said the former, I have to question their qualifications to be movie critics. If anything the point of the movie is the opposite. As for the charge of incoherence, this is a bit more understandable, but if you're willing to think hard and pull away the layers of the movie, a stunning coherence and plot emerge. Here I have to give credit to my friend Heath, with whom I attended the movie. I initially thought it was incoherent too, until he forced me to think it through.

Before you write me off, let me say this too. I am not a Snyder fanboy. I've never seen one of his movies before. I've never written a move review before and my never again, but the pure injustice of the reviews of this movie force me to write in defense of Snyder and this movie. Not only is this film not bad, from a technical standpoint it's one of the best films I've seen in some time.

Before I spoil the plot, let me urge you to see it, in the theater (preferably in IMAX). The way the scenes are shot is critical to understanding the story, and to get the full effect you have to see it on the big screen. The other key to the movie is seeing parallelism. There are four sets of parallel characters. If you don't see that, you can't understand the plot. As an aside, I think that interpreting this movie is a wonderful, fun exercise of exegesis.

SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!! Please don't read further if you intend to see the movie and haven't yet done so. It will completely ruin your experience. Just take my word that it's worthwhile and go watch it then come back and read.

The title Sucker Punch is a spoiler. The movie is a sucker punch in at least three different ways. First, early on the movie seems to be all about the display of the female anatomy. From about ten minutes on until about the halfway mark of the movie, almost every shot in the movie except the action sequences is framed in a way to showcase a girl in the foreground or background. The early action scenes also showcase the girls, primarily Baby Doll, on several occasions, especially noting the fact that she's wearing high heels in her fights. Thus the movie is setting you up to 'enjoy' the skin. As the movie progresses, however. You begin to understand that these girls are being sexually exploited (one character claims to own them) and treated like objects and you start to feel bad for them. Also, as Baby Doll feels more and more empowered, the sexual nature of the scenes dramatically diminishes. Here's the first Sucker Punch. You're intended to enjoy the eye candy (isn't the movie marketed as being eye candy?), only to be chastised for treating the girls like objects and placing you in the position of the abusers. Next we will see how the storyline en toto provides not one, but two additional sucker punches.

The seeming basic plot of the movie is that there is a young girl, who we know as Baby Doll whose mother dies and was sexually abused by her step-dad, and in her grief attempts to kill her step-dad, but ends up killing her sister. She's put into a mental institution where she has a series of fantasies through which she ends up being able to liberate a friend, named Sweet Pea. The Sucker Punch at this level is that Baby Doll whom you've fallen in love with doesn't get freed, but gets lobotomized, though in the process she exposes the pervasive sexual and physical abuse of the mental institution. Sweet Pea, whom you like the least of the protagonists because she resists the plan to escape, goes free. The movie ends with a black screen and a voice-over talking about our ability and need to create our own reality when reality sucks. This is a sucker punch and makes you leave the movie theater not only rebuked, but jilted. You didn't even get a happy ending.

Everything I wrote above is wrong. That's not the plot at all. Except for the voice-over at the end. You've been Sucker Punched a third time. This review is already quite long so I won't go into the full details, which are difficult to pick apart anyways (and I want to leave some fun for you). Instead I will provide the framework for understanding the movie.

Baby Doll doesn't exist. There was no sexually abusive step-father. In fact, I don't believe that a single scene in the movie accurately represents reality. The closest is the first scene in the 'theater' where Baby Doll's father 'sells' her to the orderly and we learn that Dr. Gorsky uses unusual methods to treat her patients, but tellingly, Baby Doll won't be treated by her. The movie is about her letting go of her painful reality in the mental institution. Baby Doll is an idealized projection of Sweet Pea's self. In that scene Dr. Gorsky is treating Sweet Pea. Part of the treatment is to convince Sweet Pea that the treatment itself isn't happening. The entire fake plot of the movie is a construct of Dr. Gorsky to help Sweet Pea escape her misery and willingly go to her lobotomy. The lobotomy scene and what follows is a projection of Sweet Pea's imagination. Dr. Gorsky did order it, even though Sweet Pea believes otherwise. The sexual abuse is not exposed, but, Sweet Pea is free and happy in her new reality.

While this isn't a totally satisfying message in my opinion, I do think that Snyder was very effective in getting it across if you're willing to stop and think about the movie. When you review any book or work of art you always need to ask, did the author succeed in what they were attempting to accomplish? The answer here is a resounding yes. The direction and cinematography are exquisite. They tell the story more than the plot does. The music, especially the choice of Sweet Dreams in the opening scene (I can't shake the eeriness of the song and scene, now three days removed from seeing the movie) also aids in the comprehension of the story. The point of the movie is the perlocutionary effect, and oh what an effect it has!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Building a Library

I've been working on putting together a nice base for my theological library for the past few years (I still have a long way to go). I've put a lot of time and thought into its composition (and my wife says a lot of money too). Along the way I've learned a few things so I wanted to put a post together to provide some suggestions on how to build one from scratch or improve an existing library.

1. Preview before you buy

Books, especially commentaries, are expensive. Try to preview them in some way before you buy them. This will save you money and disappointment. There are a few ways you can do this. If you live near a good local theological library, spend a few hours there reading. Even your local public library may have what you're looking for. Also, follow publishers' blogs. They often have previews of a chapter or two of forthcoming books. Another way to get a look inside a book is Google Books, which has previews or the full text of some books available.

2. Think about it

There are so many good books to buy. So many! Often times I've learned about a book and gotten really excited about a book and wanted to buy it only to have my initial excitement wear off a few days later. To combat this, I've instituted a waiting period before I buy anything to guard myself against impulse purchases. When I find the book I like I put it on my amazon wish list, then several days later I go back and compare it to other books on my wish list. If I still want it more than any other book on my wish list (which I keep up to date and use their priority rankings) in the same price range, then I'll pull the trigger.

3. You need more than commentaries

A good theological library should contain commentaries, bible dictionaries, introductory books covering portions of Scripture (NT, OT, Paul, the Gospels, the prophets, etc.) both of the historical critical type and the theological type, systematic theology texts, books of historical theology, lexicons and grammars, books on church history, and some basic references on the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and the Apostolic Fathers. You also should buy important monographs within each of these fields that provide in-depth studies on various matters.

4. Don't buy it just because...

it's cheap or it's by an author you like. I've seen the former mistake made often, especially related to commentaries. You have a lacuna in your library so when you see a book or series on sale that addresses your need you jump on it. Hold your horses, especially if you don't know much about the book/series you're buying. Series in particular tend to be very uneven (thus I don't recommend buying a whole commentary series unless you already have a very deep library and have lots of money) so your great deal may not end up solving your problem. As I mentioned too, not all works by the same author are of equal quality, especially if they're churning books out at record pace.

5. Be diverse

No tradition gets everything right and there's great benefit to seeing Scripture from different angles. Especially when buying commentaries, try to buy books from several different positions. Buy Reformed and Arminiain; Evangelical, Mainline Protestant, and Catholic. Be very, very intentional about this. For example, if you're reformed and you want to buy four commentaries on Romans, avoid the temptation of buying Morris, Moo, Schreiner, and Cranfield. They're great commentaries, but you'll only be looking at Romans from one general perspective. Consider going with Moo, Jewett, Wright, and Fitzmyer; or Cranfield, Dunn, Schreiner, and Keener.

In addition to buying from a variety of theological perspectives, vary the style of commentary that you purchase. You need at least one commentary written within the last twenty years that comments on the original language. I also think that buying a commentary that takes a more theological approach is a necessity as well. Two commentary series, the Two Horizons and the Brazos Theological Commentary series are provide rich theological exegesis. They're new kids on the block, so many books of the Bible aren't covered by either of these series.

Also consider the approach taken to study the text. For example, on the gospels you don't a bunch of commentaries that focus heavily on form and redaction criticism, even if you're a big fan of it. Look at some that do narrative criticism, or that are written by scholars who focus on the oral traditions behind the text.

6. Don't neglect older works

There are a lot of good works out there by dead guys. Read them! IVP and Crossway in particular have been helpful in bringing the resources of the past to today's readers. Crossway has a series of commentaries (Crossway Classic Commentaries) written by the greats of the Reformation tradition. IVP, as of late, has been publishing a lot of texts from the early church, under the label 'Ancient Christian.' These include their Ancient Christian Commentary Series, which cobbles together quotes from various early church commentators, to full single author commentaries and books on various doctrinal topics. Hopefully someone will fill in the gap and produce English translations of Medieval works. There also is a lot of good stuff out there in the area of theology, whether it be Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, Wesley, Augustine, or others. Get your hands on their stuff and read it!

7. Buy more than you think you need because you'll never know when you need it

I know that good reference books are expensive but you need to have enough books on your shelf that when you have a question about a particular passage or a significant topic you have a place or two to start looking for answers. You never know when that question will pop up, so it's best to be prepared in advance. A short story to illustrate. This past Fall, I taught a class in my church on Daniel. I wanted to spend a little time studying the Additions to Daniel in the Apocrypha. It just so happened that six months prior I had purchased Invitation to the Apocrypha. It gave me a helpful resource for my study.

8. It's not just about you

When building your library, try to be other focused. Encourage people to borrow from you. Don't be afraid to give away a book that has been helpful to you. Possessions can lead to covetousness and hoarding, and this certainly includes books. Don't let your library oppress you, but use it to its fullest for God's glory by helping those who aren't so fortunate to have such an awesome library!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Final Four

Ohio St.
St. Johns

I like Ohio St. over Kansas 71-68 in the championship. Who do you like?