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Volume 13, Issue 3: Ex Imagibus


Girlfight. Dir. Karyn Kusama. Screen Gems, 2000.
Billy Elliot.Dir. Stephen Daldry. Universal Pictures, 2000.
Chocolat. Dir. Lasse Hallstrom. Miramax, 2000.
Bamboozled. Dir. Spike Lee. New Line Cinema, 2000.

Reviewed by Douglas Jones

Unitarianism has no stomach for the diversity of the Trinity. Unitarianism's highest god is one, and everything must conform to that pristine simplicity. Less religious unitarians get rid of any hint of divinity but keep the demand for a oneness that scowls at any distinction. To them, all differences are false. To blaspheme is to believe that a distinction is real, to slight the god of blandest unity. Two recent films, Girlfight and Billy Elliot, are tracts for this sort of unitarianism.

Girlfight is set in the grays of the inner city, where tough teenage Diane "discovers herself through a passion for boxing." She faces the predictable heavy-handed flack from male blasphemers (especially dad) who dare suggest that boxing isn't for women. But Diane overcomes the evil defenders of diversity and kicks her boyfriend's butt in the ring. Girl meets and beats boy. Reality is one; there are no distinctions. But though the film talks the talk of unity and doing away with distinctions, the antithesis between good and evil is always there. Unitarians are good; opponents of blandness are evil. In the end, cultural unitarians can never tolerate those who think there is a fascinating glory in the differences between female/male.
Billy Elliot plays a similar unitarian tune in reverse. This time the boy-hero, Billy, abandons boxing for ballet. Needless to say, dad and other "soulless" heretics once again aim to stop Billy's struggle to achieve blandness. The film is obsessed with boundary-breaking symbolism, as if this were the height of creativity and life. At one point, Billy dances in a glorious frenzy down the street only to run into a tin police barricade stretching across the road. Later Billy learns to submerge sexual boundaries and embrace his transvestite friend, a patron saint of oneness. Dad is a proud and violent coal-striker, mocking the scabs. But, you guessed it, dad becomes so desperate for money that he himself almost has to cross the boundary of the strike line. But he turns back at the last moment, humbled but determined to help his son break similar "artificial" barriers. Dad soon races Billy off for the big ballet audition, and one of the impressed judges asks Billy, "What do you feel like when you dance?" Billy answers in a unitarian blend: "I sorta disappear."
Nonetheless, dance is a grand moral highground. Until Christians embrace the riches of dance, its expression of joy at life, we'll always lose aesthetic battles.
Instead of Unitarian ethics, Spike Lee's Bamboozled uses old-fashioned Kantian morality to oppose using blacks as instruments for white entertainment. It would be too easy to write this film off as another propagandistic morality tale. It is that, of course; idea stories always suffocate characters. But read as a documentary, it's more interesting.
The movie is mostly a shaming of black entertainers who have allowed themselves to be dehumanized via the black minstrel tradition, which Lee traces into modern TV and even gangsta rap. In the director's commentary on the DVD, Lee emphasizes that ego often blinds executive blacks to the fact that they are puppets. The lead character, played by Damon Wayans, is the main expression of this idea. To keep his job, he produces the most racially offensive show imaginable—a revival of minstrelsy complete with blackface—but it backfires. The executives love it, buy it, and its ratings soar.
Lee also uses much of this film to mock whites who want to be black ("wiggers"), especially those who claim to know more about blacks than blacks do. He also satirizes black radicals who want to blow it all up. The interactions of all these idea-characters are actually often surprising and unpredictable. In the end, it's all about respect. Lee wants humans to be ends not means, sacred, not blasphemable. At least Lee assumes blasphemy is real; some things are sacred. But the introspection Lee demands of blacks to get there is so ultimately suffocating and weakening that no respect can survive. Morbid introspection and constant self-consiousness can only leave one in a net of guilt and anxiety, and these cripple courage. Lee undermines his own goals.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Dir. Joel Coen. Touchstone Pictures, 2000.

Postmodernism's only gift is humor, because its only tenant is absurdity. A postmodern movie watched through Christian eyes can be funny. Watched with conistency it is as serious as a funeral, and the funeral becomes funny.

Set in 1937 Mississippi, this film tells the story of three men escaping from a chain gang. Occasionally based on The Odyssey, the story takes them through chaos and back. From cutting an album, raiding a KKK meeting, getting "redeemed," or being seduced by Sirens, Ulysses Everett McGill, Pete, and Delmar see it all, as is prophesied that they will.
The movie is a lot of fun, and approaches good story-telling. Postmodernism is rampant throughout the film, but that is only to be expected. What is unexpected is where postmodernism is absent. In otherwords, it is signigicant what this movie does not mock. It does not mock baptism, prophecy and gospel music.
While there is no true arrival at resolution, the story is surprisingly redemptive.

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