Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Tag: Josh Larsen

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-poster-header-700x300.jpgJosh Larsen posted my response to his middling-to-negative review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in his Why I’m Wrong feature. I wanted to post it here as well, along with follow-up thoughts about how the movie reminded me of his great new book Movies Are Prayers.

My defense of GOTG2

What I won’t defend: the glorified carnage, yet another “blow up the glowing thing in order to save the universe” superhero movie ending, or the strange casting of Sylvester Stallone.

What I will defend: Chris Pratt’s ongoing ability to surprise with his acting; how they maintained a healthy mix of irreverent humor, action, and obligatory MCU service; and how these maladjusted Guardian misfits learn to love each other and themselves in a surprisingly uncheesy way. The subplots of Nebula, Yondu, and Mantis hardly drag the focus away from the Guardians. On the contrary, they enhance each of them by calling attention to the compelling parts (or defects) in the Guardians’ personalities, and propelling them toward the reconciliation and peace (however temporary) they crave. The Yondu and Nebula storylines were especially affecting, both on their own and how they affected Quill and Gamora respectively.

How can the antagonism between Quill and Rocket be “forced” given their very believable insecurities and irrepressible need to be the wittiest, most tough-guy fighter of the group? And did you fall asleep during the scenes between Rocket and Baby Groot? They contained the same delightful rapport from the first film, altered for the new, infantilized version of Groot. You must have missed those and the other “grace notes” that peppered the entire film, including the best Zune joke of all time.

No doubt the plot goes a little haywire once Kurt Russell enters the picture. (What was up with his castle and all those porcelain dioramas? Demigod hobby I guess.) It pretty quickly didn’t smell right, so I spent most of the second act waiting for The Turn. But since I’ve lowered my expectations considerably for Marvel villains, my larger concern was enjoying the laughs and unexpected poignant moments along the way.

You insist it’s a small movie trying on big-boy blockbuster pants, but I saw it as putting on one of those clear, gelled spacesuits that Quill wears at one point: the spectacle fits snugly around the human core. I’ll put up with an explosion or 17 for that.

Further thoughts on reconciliation

I wanted to follow-up about how it acts as a prayer of reconciliation. Starting in Vol. 1, each of the Guardians (sans Groot) had crippling insecurities and self-esteem issues that they masked with sarcasm (Quill), steeliness (Gamora), pugnacity (Rocket), or a vengeful spirit (Drax). Insecurities make for great cinema: they compel characters to act for or against things. And when they are paired with comedy and great cast chemistry, you get movies like this, which are fun to watch because the characters aren’t as noble and upright as the Avengers.

But insecurity also signals a hole wanting to be filled, which is where reconciliation comes in. It became clear in Vol. 1 that Quill ached for the love of a real family. He thought he had it in Vol. 2 when Ego came along, but then realized it was counterfeit and downright deadly, causing him to see his relationship with Yondu in a different and profound way. (How beautiful was that line “He may have been your father, boy, but he wasn’t your daddy”?) Yondu was able to redeem himself in the end, sacrificing his life for his son and bringing people together for his funeral. (Yes, it was saccharine; no, I don’t care.)

Gamora wasn’t looking for reconciliation, but it nevertheless came for her in a fury. Nebula’s rage, we found out, was yet another cloak to hide deep childhood trauma and pain of not having a sister to love and confide in. When we find this out after their Sister Fight to End All Sister Fights, Gamora is shocked. But later, humbled, she initiates the process of reconciliation, however uneasy, in another small but beautiful moment toward restoration.

Yondu has another great moment with Rocket, telling him who Rocket is and therefore who Yondu is by extension. Deep down, Rocket wants to be seen and accepted for who he is beneath his hardened yet furry exterior. This bit of reconciliation isn’t between Rocket and Yonda, though, but within Rocket, who struggles with the notion that you have to believe you deserve love if you’re ever going to be able to love someone else. You mentioned the chemistry between Rocket and Groot was lacking. It was certainly different, but remember: Groot technically died in the first movie. Rocket lost his best friend and guardian. Thus I assume his character in Vol. 2 is simply grieving.

For Drax, companionship has been a key desire after losing his family. He achieved some peace about it at the end of Vol. 1, but now his budding relationship with Mantis taps into that lost aspect of his life. A man who doesn’t understand emotions paired with someone who only understands them? That’s the basis of a sitcom. Drax & Mantis, coming to Netflix tomorrow.

And Groot just wants to dance, man.

It seems kinda silly to devote this much attention to a movie that would probably just laugh at any suggestion of deep thought. And you’re right that the grace the Guardians extend to each other did not extend to the hordes of henchmen killed without a second’s thought, an unfortunately typical feature of many American action movies. But I’m a sucker for moments like these in any kind of movie, let alone in one you wouldn’t expect.

Movies Are Prayers

Tangerine as an opportunity for reconciliation. Top Hat as a jump for joy. 12 Years A Slave as a song of lament. In his new book Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings, Josh Larsen performs what he calls “cultural refraction,” revealing how the many colors of prayer match quite comfortably with movies of all kinds. I got an early copy of the book to review, but as is the case with many of the books I review as a librarian, this was one I’d be reading no matter what.

As with movies, there are many genres of prayer, and Larsen dwells on nine of them: praise, yearning, lament, anger, confession, reconciliation, obedience, meditation, and joy. Each of these chapters could be books in themselves, given how many movies are out there and how rich and layered the concept of prayer is. But Larsen, taking a specifically Christian tack, focuses on how those types of prayer and their analogous movies speak to the creation-fall-redemption-restoration trajectory of the Bible and the Christian faith it inspires. Through this prism, the central miracle in Children of Men provokes an awe-inducing response to incarnation. The violent anger of Fight Club is a primal scream against a fallen world. And the “holy nonsense” of The Muppets shows that sometimes joy manifests itself in silly and inexplicable ways.

“I can offer lament to God, and often do,” Larsen writes. “But sometimes the movies do it for me.” How true this is, and not only for laments. When I find myself unable to articulate a feeling or grasp at a deep truth, I often reach for a movie (or album or book) to act as a kind of semiconductor, allowing that electric feeling I get from something meaningful to flow freely and charge me up.

But not only do films, like prayer, “voice our deepest longings”, they both also demand thoughtful response, Larsen writes, whether in a sanctuary or theater:

In both instances, we’ve set aside our time and our space to gather in community and join our concentration. Often the intention is simply to escape the world (and don’t forget, church serves this function too), but frequently we gather to apply our intellectual, emotional, and artistic prowess toward considering the world and our purpose within it.

I first encountered Larsen in his role as editor of Think Christian, where I’ve written a few articles over the years. From there I learned that he co-hosts Filmspotting, a weekly film podcast that now automatically goes to the top of my queue. Having been a regular Filmspotting listener for several years now, it was especially rewarding to read about films that I encountered along with him and Adam through the podcast, like the Apu trilogy and Tangerine.

Larsen puts forward one film that he believes encompasses each of the prayer modes and embodies the entire journey from creation to fall to redemption and restoration. (Read the book to find out which one.) It got me thinking about which other movies could qualify. There are probably many that fit this mold in some way, but I think Toy Story is a good one. Larsen mentions it in the chapter on prayers of confession, but I think it fits in the creation-restoration arc nicely. Not only does the film begin within Andy’s imaginative creation story, but there follows a literal fall (with style) and banishment from the toys’ Eden. (Woody/Buzz gets very Jacob/Esau for a while there.) Woody goes through a process of yearning, lament, and anger as he deals with Buzz’s incursion into his previously idyllic existence, just as Buzz endures his “not a flying toy” existential crisis. Both humbled after moments of confession, they reconcile and work together to return to their rightful place in Andy’s life.

Too often when “Christian” and “movies” come together, a didactic censoriousness and disordered view of art follow. Larsen takes the opposite approach. You’ll see no mention of Left Behind or God’s Not Dead, but you will see George Bailey struggling to be obedient in It’s a Wonderful Life and Alvin’s motorized meditations in The Straight Story and hushed yearning in In the Mood for Love. As his true in his reviews, he brings a generous, exploratory spirit to cinema, seeing the form’s good and beautiful and attempting to understand the bad and ugly. This generosity comes out in the book’s benediction:

As we watch films, then, let’s enter the theater as we would a sanctuary where a prayer is about to be offered. Let’s listen to the prayer carefully and graciously before we add our own words. Let’s be a congregation, not a censor board. Let’s be open to the possibility that as movie watchers, we’re privileged eavesdroppers on a dialogue between God and the creative beings he made.

So rare it is that ardent believers and dedicated cinephiles can bond over the same book that Movies Are Prayers should be considered a minor miracle.

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