Archive for June, 2005
Note: This archive contains all of my posts for this month that are not included in some other series. I really don't have the time to save things in more than one place. If you're looking for a specific item, use the "Search" button in the upper left hand corner. Thanks.
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
The Faces of Cinderella Man
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Posted for Wednesday, June 8, 2005
I'm interrupting my series "No Holds Barred: Ruminations on Publishing and Prayer" to put up a few comments on the film Cinderella Man. I'll get back to the series in a couple of days, I imagine.
My wife and I saw Cinderella Man last night. It was a compelling film. I spent at least half of the movie's 144 minutes on the edge of my seat, largely because of the grueling fight sequences. These were not gratuitous, but absolutely integral to the story which is, after all, about a professional boxer. But the graphic nature of these scenes calls for a word of warning:
|Parents: This film is rated PG-13 for "intense boxing violence and some language." The boxing scenes are truly intense, often painful to watch, and sometimes bloody. I can't imagine too many 12 year olds (or younger) who would be okay seeing this film.
Now, back to the movie . . .
What makes Cinderella Man such a great film? Certain obvious characteristics come quickly to mind: a "Cinderella" story this is truly inspiration; solid screenwriting; tremendous performances by Russell Crowe and Paul Giamatti; movie storytelling that captures the desperate "feel" of the Depression; some of the most realistic and exciting boxing scenes ever.
But I would add something else that makes Cinderella Man such a fine movie: the faces. That's right, the faces. In fact I'd almost be willing to argue that the faces make this movie.
What do I mean? Well, most obviously there are the faces of Russell Crowe, who plays Jim Braddock, the "Cinderella Man." Crowe is an amazing actor. Even though I've seen him as a dominant character in a number of films (Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander, The Insider), I still find myself watching Jim Braddock, not Russell Crowe acting the part of Jim Braddock. In Cinderella Man we see many different faces of Russell Crowe/Jim Braddock: the face of athletic intensity; the face of a man taking a terrible beating in the ring; the face of a desperate, loving father, and many more.
The face of Renée Zellweger also figures prominently in Cinderella Man. She's got a trademarked pucker-pout face, and she uses it generously in this movie. She also has the "I'm pretty darn worried but I support you because you're my husband" face down pat.
Many of the faces in Cinderella Man are nameless. They're the faces of men caught in the web of the Great Depression: faces of fathers who can't provide for their children, of men who would love to work but can't find anything, of men who are willing to be in order to feed their families. These faces aren't merely the backdrop of Cinderella Man. In many ways they are the real story in which the fantastic tale of Jim Braddock is merely a chapter.
Perhaps one of the most refreshing and expressive faces in the film belongs to Paul Giamatti, who plays Jim Braddock's manager, Joe Gould. Whether shouting commands to Jim at ringside, or sharing in his desperation, or exulting in his victories, Giamatti's face expresses his soul. I'd say the chance to watch Giamatti in this movie is worth the price of admission.
My favorite faces in this movie are the faces of a family together, whether in desperation and fear, or in love and joy. Of course, as a husband and father, I'm easily a sucker for family scenes. But when they are well-drawn, as in Cinderella Man, I'm unashamed of my sentimentality.
Part of what makes all of this work, I would contend, is the fact that it's based on a true story. I want to reflect on this a bit in my next post.
Cinderella Man and the Power of Truth
Posted for Thursday, June 9, 2005
The recent hit film Cinderella Man portrays a fictionalized account of what is basically a true story. James J. Braddock was in fact a washed-up, down-on-his-luck boxer who was caught in the tailspin of the Great Depression. And he did indeed end up fighting again, ultimately winning the heavyweight championship to the utter amazement of the boxing establishment. (For more info on the real Braddock, check out the official website.)
The story of Braddock's astonishing comeback, told in Jeremy Schaap's recent book, is truly compelling. It grabs the heart, not only as a sports redemption story, but also as a tale of national proportions. Braddock's comeback touched the heart of a country that was itself being battered by the Depression. His victory over Max Baer for the title became, in the national psyche, a glorious moment of hope.
The film, Cinderella Man, was truly gripping. And, not surprisingly, the ending provided a Rocky-like high (well, Rocky II, III, IV, that is, since Rocky lost in the first film). As I enjoyed Braddock's victory, I realized that if the story had not been true, if it had been simply a creation of some clever writer, I wouldn't have enjoyed the movie nearly as much. Why? Because I would have felt jerked around by the unrealistic sentimentality of the predictable happy ending.
Many films that depict historical events don't require truth to work. Titanic, for example, would have been a cinematic masterpiece if the main storyline had been fictitious. And Saving Private Ryan, though largely fictional after the opening scene, is not impoverished because the events depicted didn't really happen. But certain films, especially when they tell the story of some very unlikely overcoming of nearly insurmountable odds, rely upon their truthfulness for much of their power.
I know what I'm saying will bother some artistic purists, who would argue that any work of art, whether a movie or anything else, should stand on its own artistic merits. "Art doesn't have to represent reality," or so we are told. But I think some stories and movies work much better when the essential events are as depicted. Seabiscuit would offer another salient and relevant example.
So, my simple point is that Cinderella Man is a much more powerful movie because the story it tells is basically true.
Now this leads to a very curious and ironic true story. When I was watching Cinderella Man, I was bothered by the familiarity of the name "Max Baer." I was sure I knew this name, and knew it rather well, even though I'm no fan of boxing. When I got home from the film I sought to solve the mystery. Entering "Max Baer" into Google my puzzle was quickly solved. I did indeed know the name "Max Baer," though more accurately, I was familiar with "Max Baer, Jr." Why? Because he played Jethro Bodine, the unforgettable character on the television series The Beverly Hillbillies.
Now here's where this bit of historical irony become even more interesting. In Cinderella Man, Max Baer is portrayed as a vicious boxer and inveterate womanizer. The womaninzing part seems to have been true of the real Baer, but the vicious part was greatly overdone, at least according to Max Baer, Jr. In a headline that's worth remembering, the New York Daily News reports, "Jethro Says Opie Distorts Baer Facts." This alludes to the fact that Cinderella Man was directed by Ron Howard, who played Opie in the Andy Griffith Show. At any rate, Max Jr. insists that the portrayal of his father as an unrepentant murderer in the ring is wrong. According to Max Jr.: "My father cried about what happened to [Baer ring victim] Frankie Campbell. He had nightmares. He helped put Frankie's children through college."
A spokesperson for Ron Howard defended the film in this way: "The script was written from the point of view of the Braddock family. To them, Max Baer was a real threat. Ron felt that was how the character needed to be drafted." But Max Jr. lamented, "I have great respect for Ronny Howard. But he never called me for any factual information about my father. They distorted his character. They didn't have to make him an ogre to make Jimmy Braddock a hero."
Actually, I tend to go with Jethro over Opie this time. The story didn't need Max Baer to be so unpalatable. The fact was that he was an awesome puncher who had killed a man with his powerful swing. It seems that, in reality, Baer was so troubled by what had happened that he lost several succeeding fights because he didn't want to pummel his opponents as hard. Moreover, he gave a good chunk of his purses to the family of his deceased opponent, Frankie Campbell. (For more on the real Max Baer, Sr., check out the website describing his park in Livermore, California.)
The picture above shows Max Baer, Jr. (the one on the right), in a serious moment. You can see the family resemblance if you compare this picture with the one below, which shows Max Baer, Sr. in a boxing stance. Below this picture is a shot of Craig Bierko, who played Baer Sr. in Cinderella Man. Not a bad resemblance, if you ask me.
So, given my belief that Cinderella Man is so successful, partly because the story is basically true, does the exaggerated portray of Max Baer actually weaken the movie? It won't do this for the vast majority of moviegoers, who will have no idea that Jethro is mad at Opie. But for those of us who know the truth about Max Baer, I don't think Cinderella Man loses much of its glow. Why? Because the remorseless quality of Max Baer's character doesn't contribute all that much to the film. I do think, however, that moviegoers believed that Max Baer had in fact been exceedingly contrite about killing a man, this would have diminished the perceived threat to Braddock. So, to some extent I think Ron Howard was right.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from all of this is that we must always be careful about taking historical fiction as fully factual. It's just fine to see Cinderella Man, to enjoy the film, and to go about your business thereafter. But if you believe that all of what you saw in the movie was basically true, then you've got a problem. In the case of Cinderella Man, the damage is minor. But when the subject matter has profound historical or contemporary significance, then the risk of putting too much faith in a movie is more serious.
To this end, I am concerned about the Ron Howard film coming out a year from now (May 19, 2006). I'm talking about The Da Vinci Code, directed by Howard and starring Tom Hanks. I expect that this film, though based on a fictional novel, will lead many uncritical moviegoers to think that Jesus was in fact married to Mary Magdalene. Yet don't expect to see me on the Christian picket lines when this film comes out. I see it as a fantastic opportunity to set the record straight about Jesus. (I've done some writing on this topic already, which you can access in my series "Was Jesus Married?", or in my book, Jesus Revealed.)
Chewing on Spam
Posted for Saturday, June 11, 2005
I hate spam! Well, to be accurate, I hate the junk that fills the Internet and is called spam.
I get tons of e-mail spam each day: offers for cheap Viagra, invitations to meet women online, and the one that must be special for pastors: an offer from somebody in Africa to give millions of dollars to my church. I'm not even counting the devilish virus e-mails, or the e-mails that seem to be from e-bay and are really just "phishing" for my financial information. (A friend of mine responded to one of these and lost $8,000.)
It turns out, however, that there's more than just e-mail spam. There's also guestbook spam. Let me explain. A few months ago I put up a relatively simple guestbook on my website. I didn't write the code, but got it from my Internet service provider. It was a helpful way for my blog readers to communicate with me and others. But soon after I put up my guestbook I started getting seemingly innocuous notes that read something like this: "Great site. Keep it up." or "Nice site. I'm going to link to you for sure." At first I was flattered. Then I noticed that these kept on coming, many from commercial websites in Russian (identified by the .ru suffix on the URL). I did a little research and discovered that guestbook spam was becoming a huge problem on the Internet. For a while I tried simply to delete the spam entries. But they kept on coming in greater and greater numbers. Finally I decided to can my simple guestbook and put up a more complex bulletin board. Now folks who want to put up a comment have to register. I figure this will stop most of the spam at the door, so to speak. At least I hope this is true! (To check out my new guestbook, click here. Once again, I didn't write the code. I simply adapted a program offered through my Internet service provider.
Why, I wonder, do we call unwanted, junk e-mails and the like "spam"? The consensus of opinion is that the name is based, not on the luncheon meat, but on the song that was a part of a skit on Monty Python's Flying Circus. This song included a bunch of Vikings singing: "Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, lovely spam! Wonderful spam!" To hear this marvelous number, click here (.mov, 96 K). The point would seem to be that spam is a bothersome invasion into one's consciousness that keeps on going without end. That would describe Internet spam pretty accurately, I think.
Of course Spam is also and originally a luncheon meat. I remember eating Spam when I was a boy. It was usually fried, and often served with eggs (in place of bacon or ham). Sometimes we'd have Spam as the main course for dinner. My mother like Spam, I think, because it reminded her of her childhood. It was a common food during World War II.
What is Spam, really, you wonder? Well, there is a nifty Spam website with a FAQ page that will answer this question, and almost anything else you might wonder about Spam (if you wonder about Spam at all). Spam is a combination of pork shoulder and ham, along with "secret spices." The name "Spam" was thought up by Kenneth Daigneau, who won $100 in a Hormel "name this wonderful luncheon meat" contest.
Spam, by the way, debuted in 1937. Since that time Hormel has sold over 5 billion cans of Spam. Just think about it. That's just a little less than one can of Spam for every human being on earth.
If you'd like to learn more about Spam, you can always visit the Spam Museum. It's in Austin, Minnesota, near the Iowa state line. More fun, perhaps, would be an experience with the Spammobile. I wonder if you can rent one of these for a summer RV trek?
Above: an actual ad for Spam from the 1940s. Makes you hungry, right?
Below: the Spammobile
Below that: a Las Vegas slot machine
Last summer my family and I spent a day in Las Vegas. That was plenty. As I was wandering through the casino of my hotel, I spotted a slot machine that surprised me. I didn't play that slot, since I'm not inclined to gamble. But I must say I did wonder. If you hit the jackpot on this machine, what would you win? Money? Or Spam? Cans of Spam! "Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, lovely spam! Wonderful spam!"
May you have a spam free Saturday!
Begging Your Indulgence
Posted for Saturday, June 18, 2005
A Note to New Readers
If you're new to my blog, I should explain that I often use the weekends to take a break from heavy duty blogging. I tend to put up things that are funny, or inspirational, or sometimes even both. So, I'll get back to the "Christers" series in a day or two.
I wish to beg your indulgence today. You see, as I write this post, I'm not so much a blogger with lots of words to write, or a pastor with a mini-sermon, or a New Testament scholar with some biblical insights. Tonight I'm a father, a father who's trying to deal with the fact that his son is growing up . . . very, very fast.
The facts are simple. My son, Nathan, is getting ready to graduate from sixth grade, which in Irvine means that he's leaving elementary school for junior high school. Now the graduation itself isn't a terribly big deal to me because: 1) I've always been certain that Nathan would graduate from elementary school, and 2) I'm actually hopeful that this will be only the first of several graduations. Rather, the "big deal" part for me has to do with the realization that my "little boy" is about to leave "little boyhood" forever. And about this I have very mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I am sad. It's seems like only yesterday I would strap Nathan into the seat on the back of my bike so we could go explore the play equipment of some nearby park. Yet that yesterday is long gone. It lives on only in cherished memories. There is a part of me, I confess, that would love to jump back twelve years and do it all over again. Yes, even the late night crying and the diapers.
On the other hand, I love the man Nathan is becoming, and I love the opportunity to have a man-to-man friendship with him. For example, last night Nathan and I went to Batman Begins together. Not only did we enjoy a couple of hours of parallel play while watching the movie, but also we got to talk about it afterwards. Our conversation was the kind that I would have had with any of my close friends. It was a blast to talk with Nathan as if he and I were buddies who had just enjoyed a fine film together.
So I don't know whether to be sad or happy. In truth, I suppose I get to be both at once.
I'm well aware that I can't turn back the clock. There's really no point pining away after days long gone. But the memory of such times, and the feeling of sadness in their passing, reminds me to cherish the moment . . . this moment, this precious time. And this is a reminder I need. I find it so easy to forget about now and to focus on tomorrow, if not yesterday. So as I'm sitting in the movie theatre sharing a giant bucket of popcorn with my son, I need to step back and delight in the moment, to say to myself, "I'm sitting in this theatre, eating popcorn with my son, and enjoying Batman Begins with him. I am the most blessed of men!" Of course other dads can say the same thing. And mom's too. Here's where a bit of hyperbole is just fine.
All of these feelings were stirred up tonight because I attended the first of what I hope to be many graduation and promotion ceremonies for Nathan. Tonight's affair was at church. We who gathered celebrated the twenty or so sixth graders who were leaving elementary school to move on to junior high. Part of this celebration involved a slide show. Parents of the students had turned in a few pictures of their children, from infancy through the present time. These were gathered together for a seventeen-minute presentation. I expect many parents in the room had to choke back a few tears as we remembered what our children were look not too long ago, and as we realized that those times are gone forever.
I thought I'd share with you seven pictures from tonight's presentation. Four of them include my son. The other three are baby pictures that are priceless, even though I'm not related to the person pictured.
Nathan (2nd from left) and his friends "thinking" at Legoland
Nathan (left) and a couple of buddies a few years ago
Nathan and me on our first backpacking trip together.
Yes, this is my son.
One of Nathan's friends, many years ago. Don't you think this picture could be on the cover of some magazine?
One cute kid!
Don't you love the hat?
Thanks for indulging me a bit. I hope these pictures helped you to smile, or even to treasure for a moment the blessedness of life.
In Praise of Teachers
Posted for Sunday, June 26, 2005
In this post I want to offer some words of praise for teachers.
I've been thinking a lot about teachers recently, partly because it's the end of the year, partly because my son just graduated from sixth grade, and partly because we're celebrating my brother-in-law's 40th birthday today. Bob is a fantastic teacher. But he's not alone in this rank. His wife (my sister) joins him, as to myriads of teachers throughout our country.
As we come to the end of my son's elementary school experience, I find myself extraordinarily thankful for his teachers. Every single teacher he had was committed, hard-working, caring, and supportive. Every one was willing to work with us on areas where Nathan needed to grow. Every one welcomed our involvement in the classroom. Every one was a person of the utmost personal integrity.
Over the years I have helped in the classroom quite a bit (though recently I've been so busy with other things – like blogging! – that my participation in school has been rather pathetic). Each time I did this I was amazed at what teachers do. I'd spend a couple of hours helping a few students and come away exhausted. Teachers did three times a much, with many more students, with much greater responsibility. They did this every day, five days a week, forty weeks a year. And this doesn't even begin to take into consideration what they did outside of the classroom: grading, preparing, conferring with parents, honing their skills, etc.
People don't go into teaching for selfish motives. Sure, they may find what they're doing interesting, or they might enjoy their particular subject. But, for the most part, people become teachers because they want to help students learn and grow. Often they see their contribution as some small part of making the world a better place, and I'd tend to agree with this vision. I know for a fact that my children's teachers have helped them, not only to be better students, but also to be better people.
Teachers certainly don't go into their line of work for the money. Most of them could earn a whole lot more doing other things. Every now and then I've heard someone speak of teaching as a cushy job. The critic sees teachers as working only seven hours a day and getting three months a year off for vacation. I wish this critic could be sentenced to shadow a teacher for a week, to see the immense amount of creativity and energy teaching requires, to see all of the work that happens outside of normal school hours, to listen to the complaints and demands of parents, to marvel at the wisdom it takes to exercise appropriate discipline in class, to feel the pressures that come from more and more government tests, and so on, and so on. The facts would speak for themselves. After one week of watching a teacher the harshest critic would soon be a staunch lobbyist for salary increases for teachers.
Now you might want to remind me that I live in a city with an exceptional school district. This is true. The public schools in Irvine are outstanding, and the teachers are surely among the best. But I have known lots of teachers over the years in lots of different places, in my own experience as a student, in my work as a pastor, among my friends, and in my own family. From my personal experience, I would say that teachers are, in general, some of the finest people in the world.
My brother-in-law Bob and sister Nancy, two great teachers. Happy 40th Birthday, Bob!
My daughter and her fourth grade teacher on the last day of school.
My son and his sixth grade teacher on the last day of school.
Now I'm sure there are some bad teachers out there, folks who shouldn't be teaching in the first place because they're just not very good at it, or people who once were fine teachers but, over the years, got exhausted and lost heart for teaching. But these are the exceptions to the rule.
One of the common complaints against teachers these days is that they use their classrooms as a bully pulpit to preach their particular religious or political dogmas. Conservatives get upset when teachers foist a liberal agenda upon their students. Similarly, liberals get mad when teachers sound too religious or speak too glowingly of President Bush. Now I'm quite sure that some teachers go over the line in these matters. (I hear things get worse in this regard in secondary schools, so I'll get to see this firsthand.) But I must say that I've been impressed by the efforts made by my kids' teachers to be fair and balanced when discussing political or religious matters. I don't actually know the political persuasions of several of my kids' teachers, but I do know that a couple have quite strong political views (one conservative, one liberal). Yet I have watched these teachers deal with political issues in class in a way that exudes professionalism and fairness. If I didn't know from our personal relationships what these teachers think about politics, I wouldn't have been able to figure it out from what they said in class.
Yes, yes, I know there are exceptions to what I've just said. I hear horror stories from friends and, every now and then, read them in the news. These exceptions are wrong and need to be dealt with appropriately. But I believe that the vast number of teachers in America go the second mile, and usually the third and fourth, in an effort to be fair, balanced, and respectful. I hope we remember this when the exceptional situations make headlines that make us mad. Let's be sure not to tar all teachers with the same brush.
In the last week I spent quite a bit of time around my kids' school for year-end events. I saw things that impressed me profoundly (hence this praise of teachers). What things? For example:
• I watched with fascination as my daughter's fourth grade teacher presented special achievement awards to the students in her class. These are the kinds of awards that have been outlawed in some settings because "they hurt the feelings of the students who don't get them." My daughter's teacher wants to award those who have excelled, yet she is also aware of the feelings of those who do not receive such recognition. I was deeply impressed by the way this teacher talked about what was happening, praising those who had worked hard and done well, yet encouraging those who were not receiving special awards. I can't begin to do justice to her effort here. What I saw was an astounding combination of professionalism, compassion, and wisdom. And this was just fifteen minutes in one seven-hour day in one forty-week year.
• I saw a teacher presenting a special award to a student who had succeeded in the face of extraordinary personal challenges. This teacher got completely choked up when reading the name of her student in the assembly of parents and students. What I saw in that moment wasn't just commitment or excellence, but love and compassion.
• Similarly, I watched my son's sixth grade teacher's eyes fill with tears as she talked about how much her class had meant to her and how much she would miss here students. Once again, here was love and devotion piled on top of top-notch professionalism.
Love . . . that may well be one of the most common and most commonly overlooked characteristics of excellent teachers. Yes, they have strong intellectual skills. Yes, they're well trained. Yes, they are effective communicators. But the best teachers, I think, are people who love their students, and not just the ones who are easily lovable.
So to the teachers who have made such a great difference in my life and in the lives of my children, I want to offer my heartfelt thanks. And to those who are my relatives, my friends, my neighbors, members of my church – and to all teachers everywhere – I want to honor your efforts today. And to those of us who aren't teachers, let me urge you to find a teacher today and say "Thank you!"