Faith and Film (prt. 3): Rocky

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By Joe LaGuardia

Watching Rocky was a family affair growing up in the LaGuardia household. Not only did we watch every Rocky movie as a family, we literally saw our family in the series reflected back to us.

There was Rocky, a metaphoric character for my father. He, like Rocky, lacked certain social graces and came from a middle class neighborhood not too different from Philadelphia (he was from Brooklyn).

He came from a family of boxers, and he managed to woo my mother with the gift of gab: Legend has it that he walked up to my mother in a club and said, “See this place? I own this place! Wanna’ dance?”

Adrian is very much like my mother. Shy and mild-mannered, my mother worked hard to get beyond my father’s big personality and shadow.

Micky is my grandfather. I don’t say, “Like my grandfather,” because he practically is my grandfather. Micky (Burgess Meredith) and my grandfather talk the same, sound the same, have the same mannerisms, share the same punch-drunk broken-flat nose, and echo similar “boxer” colloquials: Grandpa’s favorite line of advice was (in Burgess Meredith brough), “Hit ’em low! Sweet and low!”

My grandfather taught self-defense and boxing in the Navy in World War 2, and he went on to train boxers in the Brooklyn neighborhood he lived all his life. He was a part of the Police Athletic League (PAL) and helped keep kids off the streets by focusing on family and fitness (sound familiar?).

I would say that Paulie resembles one of my sisters (Gina), but that wouldn’t be fair. Or nice, although she and Paulie do share a certain restless energy. (And I think both my sisters would make intimidating and frightening loan sharks, or assassins like Alicia Keys and Tereji Hensen in Smokin’ Aces.)

Where am I in all this? I’m Butkiss the dog, merely observing all the action swirling around me…

I write all of this for the fact that I am not quite sure how the Rocky franchise has shaped my faith. It’s like trying to ask whether my faith is a product of nature or nurture–it just is so intertwined in my life as a cult film that I have no doubt it contributed to my upbringing in a major, albeit subtle way.

Perhaps the greatest contribution comes from the first Rocky installment. There, Rocky has a coming of age journey in which he meets Adrian, realizes he is not cut out for life in the mob, and gains prestige not by winning the “big fight”, but by staying on his feet.

That is a mirror of my life in so many ways! I’ve never been a winner in big things: I never held a job that made lots of money, and I was never the popular kid in school. I’ve never gone against big shots, but I like to think that I have been able to stay on my feet to the fifteenth round. I believe that dedication, determination, and faithfulness—not some flashy pitch or manipulative marketing–is what gets you through the next round.

I have come of age facing a fork in the road: One road, the wide road was that of living into an Italian stereotype of being a tough guy, muscling my way to destruction. The second road was the narrow way of giving up my familial identity and surrendering everything to the non-violent Christ, including the tough guy vibe.

I must admit that my wife was a little upset when I turned in the sleeveless shirt and Camaro for Oxford shirts and a Honda, something she reminds me of every wedding anniversary (“You remember, when I met you, you were…”).

Thanks to Netflix streaming service, my son and I began to watch the Rocky series–his first time through it. I wondered what things he might pick up from the series. My father passed away when my son was young, but my son wears my father’s boxing trousers and glittering boxing shirt around the house sometimes in his honor.

My son never knew his great-grandfather, so Micky doesn’t hold the same hypnotic sway over him, and he wasn’t raised to be a tough guy, so that is not one of the “coming of age” conflicts that confronts him.

He left me half-way through the first film because he was bored.

Tonight we started watching Rocky II, and my son is giving another go at it. As we sat together, however, I felt myself falling into some of the attitudes I haven’t faced in a long time, including that dastardly fork.

I am finding it hard to stop the film and move into the real world of my life now. Nostalgia works that way sometimes, threatening to hold us down to the point of drowning us in the past.

That is the difficulty of the thing. Dad and Grandpa are gone. Mom has found her voice in a second marriage upon living independently (and doing an amazing job of it) in the last six years. I can’t afford a Camaro because I have big-boy bills to pay. And my wife complains more of my eating habits than the shirts I wear (or don’t wear, rather). The last time I went to Brooklyn was for my grandpa’s funeral over a decade ago. When I preach, I keep the tough-guy, New York lingo to a minimum–only when I’m cracking a joke (a “wise crack!”) now and then.

Rocky presents for me a conundrum whereby I am introducing my son to a life he’ll never know and saying goodbye once and for all to a life that has slipped out of my fingers and no longer exists. Perhaps the movie moves me to grief more than anything else. It is a letting go…and a letting God.

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Faith and Film (prt. 2): The Mission

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By Joe LaGuardia

When I was in high school, my sister Gina and brother-in-law Frank invited me to join them for dinner in Manhattan with one of Frank’s clients. Frank was a personal trainer and this client had meant a great deal to him; the client, a Jesuit priest whose name I’ve since lost, had become a sort of mentor and father figure to Frank.

I don’t remember the fine details of our conversation over dinner, but I do remember enjoying the priest’s explanation of Catholicism and the Society of Brothers, commonly known as the Jesuits. I, an evangelical mostly reared in the south, had certain assumptions of Catholics that this particular Brother sought to correct. He did a good job, and I’ve respected Catholics in general and Jesuits specifically ever since.

One other thing I remember clearly is that the priest recommended I watch the 1986 movie The Mission, staring Robert DeNiro. He thought it might be a good historical primer on the work that Jesuits had accomplished over the centuries.

In The Mission DeNiro, a Portuguese conquistador and slave trader, warred with the Jesuits and their work in converting South American Guarani natives. DeNiro ends up killing his brother over a love triangle and runs away to the Jesuits. Father Gabriel, played by Jeremy Irons, takes him in as a sort of disciple.

Much of the movie focuses on DeNiro’s transformation from warrior to wounded servant. The journey he takes is one of redemption, and–as any good epic goes–a discovery that his biggest enemy is himself. God forgives him, but he cannot receive it because he cannot forgive himself.

In one of the most powerful scenes of the movie, DeNiro made a long climb up a waterfall to reach the mission with a band of priests and natives. He is hauling his armor in a sort of net knapsack, and after climbing all the way he falls in exhaustion and pain. A native grabs a knife and cuts the chords to the knapsack, and the armor plummets down the mountain. DeNiro finds liberation. His past, now behind him, no longer enslaves him. The natives accept him as one of their own.

For years and years, I have spent much of my Christian walk trying to figure out what baggage I keep bringing along with me in my ascension towards Christ. What is it that I am holding onto? Where do I need the fresh waters of the mountains and the salty tears of my soul to bless and baptize me? Where do I need Christ’s liberation and permission to forgive myself for all of the stupid things I’ve done and continue to do?

These questions haunt me, and the images of The Mission still ring in my imagination. Its amazing how one Manhattan dinner with a stranger who happened to be a priest made such an impact on my life. I can see–as I realized back then–why this man was so important to Frank’s life.

The last I checked, Frank lost contact with the priest, so I am unable to contact the priest and tell him how much that conversation meant to me. I am unable to convey (on this side of heaven, at least) how his wisdom, grace, and movie recommendation changed my life.

I was a born again evangelical when I met with Gina, Frank, and that priest over dinner so long ago; and I feel I was born again a second time after I walked away from that dinner.

Approach movie season with Christian lens

By the looks of recent television commercials, we are in for a summer full of movies funny and sad, bombastic and thoughtful.  With blockbuster season right around the corner, perhaps we should take note now–and discuss with our families–how to watch movies from a Christian point-of-view.

On set of Transformers 3: Director Michael Bay with actors Shia LaBeouf (foreground) and Josh Duhamel

Watching a movie through a Christian “lens” is decidedly different than, say, watching a movie for watching sake.   We assume that since Christ is Lord and that we are to take every thought captive, we should ask questions about a film’s lessons for faith and for society.

Our Christian lens allows us to engage the underlying moral and ethical themes in the movies we watch, as well as analyze them with an eye towards God’s redemptive work in the midst of artistic expression.

It is important to approach movies cautiously.  Families with small children can peruse websites that “grade” movies based on violence, language, and sexual content.  Those with older children or teens can watch a movie together, and then discuss how the movie makes an audiences come to conclusions related to faith and morality.

Check out some of these thematic elements that can inform a family discussion as it relates to faith:

We have a whole new line of hero-based movies hitting the big screen, from Thor to Captain America.  Many of these movies help us recognize that honor and courage are important attributes in life.  Yet, they usually glorify violence and revenge, so-called virtues that conflict with God’s word.

It will help families to recall that Jesus explicitly opposed violence as a means of revenge.  Violent content in comic-book movies are usually entertaining, but not very redeeming.

Another unfortunate thematic element found in most movies is sexual exploitation.  I’m looking forward to watching the third installment of the Transformers franchise next month, but I know that director, Michael Bay, has a shallow approach to how he portrays his female characters in his films.

Bay’s movies often degrade women to the status of sex objects or “boy toys.”   Morphing cars are cool, but we may need to discuss how this movie among others mistreat women in general.

Other, more nuanced movies will reach for Academy Award status by portraying humanity in all its candor.  These movies usually have deeper messages than do action flicks, but they too can become important conversation pieces in Christian circles.  Many times these films explore the tensions between faith and science, fate and destiny, hope and grief, and lostness and redemption.

These films can actually become resources to point others to Christ.  Remember last year’s Academy contender, “Up in the Air,” starring George Clooney?  The film’s theme centered around an executive who had no real relational connections and very little meaning in his life.  The movie ends on a depressing note.  The movie made me wonder: What if Christ were to take all of the Clooneys of the world and show them that an abundant life is possible only when one relates to God?

Company Men has a star-studded cast, including Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Affleck

I’m looking forward to “Company Men,” which explores the lives of a half-dozen executives who lose jobs during the recession.  It is timely, but it is an important film that echoes “Up in the Air” because it reminds us that family and relationships are more important than prestige and social status.

Despite the downturn of the economy, we can be sure that movies are still cash cows.  As Christians, however, we are called to engage movies with a critical eye towards faith and art from a uniquely Christian perspective.