Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Movie Review: 16 Blocks.

Broken-down, lush cop needs to transport a witness from lockup to the courthouse to testify against corrupt cops. Said corrupt cops try to gun down broken-down, lush cop and witness (in bus) before the witness can testify. Sound familiar?

You're right-it's precisely the same plot as 1977's The Gauntlet directed by (and starring) Clint Eastwood.

If 16 Blocks was not intended as an homage or tribute to the classic Eastwood film, then it's a cheap uncredited rip-off.

Directed by action-meister Richard Donner of the Lethal Weapon franchise and led by action hero Bruce Willis, this movie failed to live up their promise.

This purported action movie instead constituted lengthy, debilitating speeches punctuated by boring, pedestrian "shoot-outs". To compound the problems, many of the monologues were delivered by a character given to an affected speaking style that was more irritating than entertaining.

16 Blocks receives a "C-". It would have received a D, but the ending pulled the movie out of that abyss.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Theology and Film in Dialogue: The Butterfly Effect (DVD), Part III of III.

Final installment of three-part series.

III. Critical Interaction Between The Butterfly Effect and Ecclesiastes.

As discussed above, The Butterfly Effect explores broad issues of chance versus predetermination; free-will versus fate; and nature versus nurture. In does so in the context of the “chaos theory” whereby life is subject to random events leading to unpredicatable, chaotic ends. Treborn becomes so exasperated toiling to control uncontrollable events (and their effects) on his own that he ultimately gives up and pulls himself out of the equation through a harrowing suicide scene. Ecclesiastes has much to dialogue with these messages and issues.
Qoheleth saliently says in Ecclesiastes 9:11: “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.” (NRSV; emphasis supplied.) In this observation, we see that what ultimately destroyed Treborn was his failure to accept the reality that life’s events and its unpredictable effects cannot be controlled through human toil. “What is crooked cannot be straightened, and what is lacking cannot be counted.” (Eccl. 1:15; NASB.)

Even if they hypothetically could be controlled by human effort, Ecclesiastes questions the ultimate purpose of such an enterprise. Indeed, Qoheleth questions, “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” (Eccl. 2:22-23; NRSV.)

Illustrating this point, we see Treborn extremely burdened by the destructive consequences visited on his friends from the earlier events, and this squarely interferes with his open happiness. He is unable to relax, even on a date. His mind races with his worry and self-imposed need to toil to correct the underlying causes.

Ecclesiastes 5:15 provides a poignant metaphor: “As he came naked from his mother’s womb, so he will return as he came. He will take nothing from the fruit if his labor that he can carry in his hand.” (NASB; Cf. Eccl. 4:2 [“So I congratulated the dead who are already dead….’].) While this observation that we return as we came—naked and penniless--is undeniably true, it provides especial insight into Treborn’s selected remedy of suicide. Treborn evidently recognized the ultimate futility of his efforts by returning to his mother’s womb and ending before he could begin.

By doing so, he could save all of the pain of his futile efforts. The filmmakers might not have had this verse in mind when they crafted that ultimate scene, but it is imbued with particular power when considered in the context of the film and vice versa. In other words, this is a compelling example of the two-way dialogue that theology and film can enrich each other.

One of the prime factors that drove Treborn’s fervent desire to help and his resultant despair (when he couldn’t) was that he saw the righteous were being rewarded with wickedness, and the wicked prospering or at least not being punished, such as Kayleigh’s pedophilic father. “Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness, and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness.” (Eccl. 3:16; NASB.) Qoheleth echoes this theme a few chapters later: “[T]here is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness.” (Eccl. 7:15.)

For example, Kayleigh was presented as nothing short of an innocent and sweet child—until her father stole her innocence through his perversions. This soul robbery resulted, in one permutation, in her life’s circling the drain in a toxic cocktail of drugs, prostitution and other destructive behavior. However, after Evan reverses events to protect Kayleigh from her father’s exploitation (by confronting him), she becomes a well-adjusted, caring person (although Evan also changed--into a superficial simpleton).

While the movie ultimately concludes that there is no purpose in even trying to make life better as evidenced by Evan’s return to the womb to end his life, the beauty of the two-way conversation is that Ecclesiastes proffers an empathetic prescription, even after realizing the same futility that Treborn recognized. While the text underscores the absurdity of life, it simultaneously advocates that one hold on to the reality of life’s joy. (Johnston, Useless Beauty, p. 29.) This is the paradox of life, and the divine order. (Eccl. 3:13; 9:17 and 9:4.)

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Theology and Film in Dialogue: The Butterfly Effect (DVD), Part II of III.

The following is part II of a three-part dialogue between The Butterfly Effect and theology.

II. Methodological Understanding of the Integration of Film and Theology.

While the film The Butterfly Effect does not overtly discuss God or the Bible, it provides a treasure trove of issues to discuss within a theological understanding and otherwise. Accordingly, it is worthwhile to set out a methodological approach as to how the Bible (and more broadly theology) may be brought together with film.

Preliminarily, I believe that movies and theology (or the Bible) should be analyzed in the context of a two-way conversation. (See C. Marsh, Cinema & Sentiment: Film's Challenge to Theology (2005), p. ix.) As such, each discipline can learn from each other. I reject the conceit that those with theology have all the answers and need not consult the “world” for betterment. This lack of hubris and openness to learning from the power of film is a key to understanding films on their own terms.

Thus, starting with the film, it is useful to look at what the filmmakers are trying to present, and what they in fact have presented on the screen. “[A]uteur criticism helps on uncover the full significance of an individual film.” (R. Johnston, Reel Spirituality, p. 133.) In this regard, we have already explored “auteur criticism” in the context of The Butterfly Effect. In addition, to auteur criticism, genre criticism is also useful although I think it is secondary to auteur criticim for the simple reason that lines of demarkation are (and probably should be) blurred, as they were in The Butterfly Effect. In any event, this critical approach helps unpack the meaning of film because it provides context, which is key to understanding a film or any other text. For example, if the film emanates from a “horror” genre we can take the violence out of a literal interpretive rubric and place it into another more methaphorical or even comedic context. If one misses the context, one can grossly miss its meaning or purpose, and thereby grossly misinterpret it.

Once these interpretive tools are brought to bear, the viewer can intelligently uncover the film text’s meaning, if one is open to it. Many, however, are oppositional or confrontational when it comes to films. (R. Johnston, Reel Spirituality, p. 41.) This resistance must be identified and alleviated if one is to learn from the power of images, generally, and film specifically. Thus, there has to be self-introspection as to one’s approach. One must examine whether one’s posture toward film is of "avoidance”, “caution”, “dialogue”, “appropriation” or “divine encounter" or a combination thereof. (Id. at pp. 41-42.) If it is one of avoidance, there is not much integration or dialogue that can take place. By the same token, if one accepts the reality that movies can foment a “divine encounter”, and can do so through art produced by nonbelievers, this will allow the viewer a potential enriching and even worshipful experience as a child of God.

Only after interpreting film on its own terms, i.e. as a text, then the two-way conversation can take place. At this point, theology can be a worthy conversation partner. For example, Clive Marsh correctly argues that theology can interact with a film’s message by interacting with a film’s emotion and sentimentality in a theological framework. (Marsh, at pp. 71-72.) Marsh observes: “Theology is one important conversation partner in the task of structuring emotional responses by viewers to film.” (Id. at p. 94.)

Also, theology or the Biblical texts can provide context, greater understanding, or even responses to the issues that the films are presenting. It should be noted here that I am not advocating a reactionary approach to filmmaking where the Bible is marshalled as a tool to refute or oppose the film, as that does not reflect the true nature of a two-way conversation or dialogue. Marsh duly submits that theology has an analytical-evaluative role that must go beyond simply positing a religious “response to what ‘the world’ believes as presented through film.” (Id. at p. 112.) He observes that theology can offer much as it is “a multi-dimensional habit” encompassing the “aesthetic, affective, cognitive and ethical.” (Id. at p. 118.)

This broad nature of theology, and the need to connect it with everyday life, as advocated in Robert Banks’ Redeeming the Routines: Bringing Theology to Life (1993), underscores that theology has a crucial role to play in the conversation, especially since movies routinely touch on theological or philosophical issuses, such as The Butterfly Effect. Not having a conversation partner fully equipped to engage on these issues would be a shame.

The next post (Part III) will be an extended example of this two-way conversation.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Theology and Film in Dialogue: The Butterfly Effect (DVD), Part I of III.

The following post is the first of a three-part series placing The Butterfly Effect movie and theology in conversation.

I. Unpacking the Power and Meaning of The Butterfly Effect.

“It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway across the world.”
--Chaos Theory.

This quote sets the stage for The Butterfly Effect (d. Bress and Gruber, 2004) as its first frame. In this connection, it alerts the viewer to two (2) basic premises or themes. First, this view posits that there is a cause-and-effect relationship in the “real world” and the “reel world” that is to follow this quote.

In other words, one event, even a minor one, can cause unforeseen and wide-ranging repercussions. Second, by virtue of its attribution to “chaos theory”, this cause-and-effect operates chaotically—without predestination, plan or purpose.

The movie explores “chaos theory” through the story of Evan Treborn, ably played by Ashton Kutcher. Simply summarized, Kutcher’s character is seen in three (3) basic time-periods. The audience first observes him and his friends Kayleigh, Tommy and Lenny at age 7; again at age 13; and also in a modern-day setting where they are college-aged.

At each of the “flashback” stages something traumatic happens to Kutcher and/or his friends. Such events include a teenage prank to merely destroy a mailbox turning into an unspeakable tragedy when an infant and her mom are accidentally killed by it. Another “cause” is unfurled when viewers witness the sickness of a father who tries to cast his 7-year-old daughter Kayleigh and Evan into one of his child porn movies. The movie then returns to the modern day and presents what “effect” these earlier causes might have had.

In one permutation, we see Kayleigh as a drug-addled prostitute. In another, we see Lenny residing in a mental institution because he is unable to cope with the effect—the deaths of the mom and her infant—visited upon them as a result of his placement of dynamite in the mailbox.

Enter the protagonist into this morass. Evan Treborn, we learn, has a special ability to go back in time, and then to adjust these events or “causes”. His apparent hope is that when he returns to the present he will see that by changing a cause, the later effect will be remedied. His changes of the “causes” lead to effects he did not anticipate, when he returns to the modern day. For example, Lenny’s insolence in one setting becomes even worse in another where he is utterly incapacitated—despite Treborn’s best efforts. Nothing Evan does by tweaking the past seems to lead to the effect he wanted or planned. Through a series of failures, Evan becomes wearied and troubled by his inability to right the course for his friends.

In the director’s cut ending, which I vastly preferred to the theatrical release’s, Ashton’s character goes far back into his existence. In fact, he returns to the womb. The viewer is then treated to a shot inside the womb--of a fetus representing Treborn. We see Evan fixing the umbilical cord around his neck so as to choke the life out of himself. His “solution”, therefore, is to remove himself from the equation since he concludes that his presence in the lives of his friends is the one constant “cause” that is leading to the deleterious “effects” in their lives. Since he was unable to fix their circumstances by adjusting events, he concluded that he was the germinal problem that needed fixing and since his Herculean efforts were futile (and perhaps harmful) it would be better not to even live.

Treborn comes to this fatalistic conclusion through another strand of the plot weaved through the overall story. At the outset, the film alludes to Evan’s father and how he is absent. Further information is eventually disclosed whereby we learn that the elder Treborn has been hospitalized for a mental disorder. Nearly simultaneously, the viewer observes Evan himself being placed into a machine for what appears to be CAT scan. We hear Evan’s mother telling his doctor with words to the effect of “Tell me that he did not inherit his father’s illness”, which is unspecified.

However, later in the film, the mother implies to Evan that the father thought he could change events in the past or at least see them. Evan is, of course, enraptured by this discussion because he is learning that he has a similar ability. Nevertheless, his mother stops short from providing a complete explanation, and appears reluctant to talk about it. She does not seem to believe that the father possessed any such ability, and does not want to burden Evan with the prospect that his father was “ill” and hence could have passed on this “illness” genetically (in light of her prior conversation with the doctor).

At this point, Evan is unable to ask his father about it because the audience has been shown a disturbing scene from a flashback where Evan visited his father in the mental hospital. This visit ended badly—the father verbally and physically attacked Evan, and was killed by the staff seeking to protect little Evan (at age 7).

This injection of the “nature” aspect of the nature-versus-nurture debate into a film exploring the “chaos theory” is telling and poignant. While the film generally posits that events are not predetermined, but rather the product of random events or chance, i.e. chaos, the filmmakers intelligently incorporate at least this issue for the viewer to ponder. Is life predetermined, or at bottom, influenced by one’s nature or genetics? Wisely and subtly, they do not provide the answer, instead they are content to leave the viewer to explore the ambiguity.

While the foregoing generally represents a thematic critique or analysis of the movie, the following critical approaches should also be brought to the film.

A. Genre Criticism.

This film has been categorized as a science-fiction thriller. (See, e.g., While I think the time-travel aspect certainly falls under the general sci-fi rubric, I think this characterization is a bit unfair. The movie is more psychological thriller than sci-fi. The filmmakers even show the college-aged Evan in a psychology class in a university, and suggest that he is a prime student interested in the study of memory appropriation. By so doing, they reinforce the psychological underpinning of the “time-travel” and the issues Evan is facing.

Like most thrillers, the power of the movie is rooted in the way that the movie unfolds in a nonlinear and mysterious fashion. Information is parceled out to the viewer, and in a nonsequential way, so that he or she yearns to learn what the “real” facts are, and what might happen to the people it is asked to care about—especially Evan and Kayleigh. This approach heightens the tension and drama, making it a thriller on the par with The Fugitive (d. Davis, 1993).

B. Auteur Criticism.

Dr. Robert Johnston (one of my theology professors) astutely writes in Reel Spirituality (2000) that auteur criticism is often difficult given the collaborative nature of the process. (p. 133.) Given this collaboration, the fingerprints of many are left on the film, including “producers, writers, directors, camera crew, editors, actors, lighting and sound people, composers, costumers, casting agents, and more.” (Id.) However, auteur criticism is aided here by the fact that The Butterfly Effect’s two writers and directors are the same two men, Eric Bruss and J. Mackye Gruber. As Dr. Johnson correctly posits that “the dominant personality in the making of a movie is usually the director” (id.), this dominance is more pronounced where, as here, the directors are also the writers-another dominant contributor in filmmaking.

Moreover, they provide their insights (along with a complex presentation of “chaos theory” from scientists and philosophers) on the DVD , so as to understand their purpose and message with this film. There can be no mistake that they were heavily influenced by “chaos theory” in making this film, and that they wanted to explore the randomness and chaos of life, by showing how even the slightest permutations can lead off into disparate trajectories. These two filmmakers have worked together on a similar project, The Final Destination 2 (2003), which is also a thriller. Notably, TFD franchise also explores the questions about whether events can be changed before they occur. However, TFD2 comes at it from the reverse direction—a premonition. Both movies, nevertheless, cause the audience to question what is “real” or “reel” in their manipulation of reality or events. (As Dr. Johnston notes this basic structure has been explored in Sliding Doors, Blind Chance, and Run Lola Run. (Johnson, Useless Beauty, p. 96.).)

Given these similarities in approach in the auteur’s last two movies and their explication for the message behind their work, it especially aids the viewer in unpacking its meaning and power.

Next post will be part two of this series.

Part II:
Part III:

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Credit where credit's due.

On UCLAW Prof. Stephen Bainbridge's fervent recommendation, I am reading Imposter: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy (2006) by Bruce Bartlett.

A money quote:

"I think it is telling that Bush's Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, was far better on the budget than he [Bush] has been. Clinton vetoed bills because they spent too much. Bush never does. Clinton not only reduced the deficit, but he actually cut spending. Bush has increased both. Clinton abolished an entitlement program. Bush created an extremely expensive new one. One can still argue about whether Clinton was a better president or a better man than Bush, but on this budget there is no ambiguity. Clinton was much better." (p. 18.)

Facts are stubborn things, and this fact is obstinate. What's remarkable about this critique (and endorsement of Clinton's budget policy) is that it comes not from the left, but the right. Bartlett worked in the Reagan White House and has impressive conservative credentials. As much as it probably pained him to pen this words, this reality cannot be caviled with.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


I was in a Borders perusing the DVD shelves. Directly under a sign entitled "Western" was the film, American History X.

Folks, that AHX was set in West LA (Venice) does not make it a Western.

Monday, March 13, 2006


Time recently interviewed Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park, Baseketball and Team America: World Police fame.

"TP: We still believe that all people are born bad and are made good by society, rather than the opposite."

"MS: Actually, I think that's where we are conservative."

(Time, March 13, 2006, p. 8.)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


It's probably a good idea to file briefs judges can comprehend. Example:

"Before the court is a motion entitled “Defendant’s Motion to Discharge Response to Plaintiff’s Response to Defendant’s Response Opposing Objection to Discharge.” As background, this adversary was commenced on December 14, 2005 with the filing of the plaintiff’s complaint objecting to the debtor’s discharge. Defendant answered the complaint on January 12, 2006. Plaintiff responded to the Defendant’s answer on January 26, 2006. On February 3, 2006, Defendant filed the above entitled motion. The court cannot determine the substance, if any, of the Defendant’s legal argument, nor can the court even ascertain the relief that the Defendant is requesting. The Defendant’s motion is accordingly denied for being incomprehensible." (Emphasis supplied.)

This is not a legal innovation to deny a motion as "incomprehensible." I handled a case some years ago where a pro per or pro se plaintiff (one representing himself) filed lengthy screeds that might as well as been written in Greek. He would cut and paste legal treatises that might or might not have any relation to the general topic area at issue. I remember one hearing where the Judge said to him as charitably as possible: "I can hear that words are coming out of your mouth. I perceive they are English. However, I don't have the slightest idea what you are talking about. Denied."

(Via (TM). Note: both the full order and the underlying motion are linked to the good professor's site.)