Archives For Stories

Have you ever noticed the relationship between Cast Away and Back to the Future? Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 classic might not look like Cast Away but, in fact, they share a unique motif. Clocks and other references to time pervade the earlier film – which is fitting since it’s about time travel. Marty McFly finds himself trapped in the past, trying to get back to the present in a classic race against time.

But references to time also saturate Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 film. The opening FedEx logo proclaims “the world on time.” And it’s Chuck Noland’s purpose as a FedEx analyst to invent ways to beat the clock. Like a package himself, he’s rushed around the world to ensure that the system only ever speeds up. Clocks loom over events. Music taps out a quick time. But then Chuck is marooned on a deserted island with his only timepiece stopped. From here, there’s no conversation. No musical score. Not even the sound of insect or bird. Alone in the silence, Chuck finds all the time in the world. It’s a contrast which is foreshadowed in this opening shot. Here the slogan “the world on time” is rushed to the truck but then retrieved upside down and moved at a more leisurely pace. The film’s main idea.

But the island also represents a different time. Chuck arrives, overdressed and overweight, still planning on delivering those packages. But when the surf batters his one hope of escape, he makes a cave his home and let’s go all but a single delivery. He then makes a friend in an object that resembles an idol. And just in case we haven’t recognized the makings of a caveman, he’s shown painting on his cavern wall. When, at last, he resorts to this extremely primitive surgery, the film jumps four years where his transformation into a native is complete.

Do you see it? Chuck has gone back in time. He’s eroded back to the timeless existence of ancient man. And perhaps nothing speaks to that timelessness more than his charting of the annual course of the sun. The figure eight that it makes is our sign for infinity – eternity. Chuck has come to know the world before our enslavement to the clock. And it’s this earliest view of time which is key to his escape and return. To get back to the present in Back to the Future, Marty McFly must connect his time machine’s mast to a precisely clocked bolt of lightning. And Chuck likewise must release his mast at a precise turn in the season to harness the power of the wind.

But Chuck’s return, while echoing back to the future, is also different from Marty’s. Marty finds his present better than the way he left it while Chuck finds it’s moved on without him. And here in the difference lies the why of Chuck’s symbolic journey back in time.

There’s a great deal about Cast Away worth taking the time to see. Why the allusions to the Back to the Future? How does Wilson fit in? And what’s the significance of these film’s ending reference to roads?

I’ll be back next time with a continuation of my take on Cast Away. In the mean time subscribe, comment, and share. And check out some of my other videos.

I’ve been thinking about No Country for Old Men (2007); a great film with an ending that, like most Coen brother films, is rather odd.

A couple years ago, I was struck by it’s similarities to the Seventh Seal, a 1957 film about the silence of God. After years spent in crusade, a knight returns to his homeland. The figure of death comes for the knight on the beach whereupon the knight challenges him to a game of chess. They make a deal. As long as the knight holds out, death will not take him and if the knight wins, death will let him live. For the rest of the film, the knight uses his reprieve to search for meaning and certainty. He wants to know, not just to believe, God exists. He fears the silence of God means God isn’t there and his life (mostly lived in crusade) was therefore meaningless.

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men also has a figure of death offering reprieve through contest. As with the classic depictions of death, No Country’s villain, Anton Chigurh, wears contrasting black attire with a kind of hood (his strange haircut covering his forehead and ears) and employs the use of a harvester (a cattle gun in place of a scythe). Chigurh is a clinical automaton of destruction. He casually stalks his prey, killing anyone else who takes note of him. He’s clean and principled. Not at all, as someone says in the film, like a man. And as with death, he operates by the invisible hand of chance. This is symbolized in the one reprieve he offers some victims – a coin toss. If they “call it.” he lets them live. And if they get it wrong… Well, you know. But one thing they cannot do is refuse to play. A refusal to play is an instant loss.

These life and death stakes along with the uncertainty in the coin toss is No Country’s defining metaphor. Just as in the Seventh Seal, No Country wrestles with the problem of knowledge and faith. Here’s why the film, with its shots of arid landscapes, men on horseback, wearing cowboy hats and boots etc., feels like a western; No Country in its depictions of amoral violence disabuses us of the classic westerns moral guarantee. The virtuous-man in the white hat does not necessarily defeat the corrupt man in black. In essence, No Country for Old Men calls to mind the good old days of the Hollywood western (good guy defeats bad guy) and in doing so offers our modern era as those days very own dystopia (good guy isn’t guaranteed to win and often doesn’t). Now it’s just the flip of a coin. Nothing in life is certain.

This loss of his youthful certainty and meaning weighs on the aged Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the film’s main character. Bell remembers the good-old days and is himself an embodiment of the good old days. His occupation, southern accident, small town location, goofy deputy, and his clear reluctance to use a gun, point to Sheriff Andy from the Andy Griffith Show who likewise typified classic Hollywood’s moral guarantee. Like an aged Andy Griffith, confronting the heinous crimes committed in our world, Sheriff Bell finds himself an exile from those simpler black and white days.

In this chaotic new world, Bell becomes increasingly averse to risk. His opening monologue says it all.

“The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, “O.K., I’ll be part of this world.”

In the end, Bell quits, undone by fear of losing his life for nothing. His last straw comes when he is forced to “call it.” In returning to the scene of a murder, Bell finds the door’s lock punched out, evidence that Chigurh has also returned to the scene. Bell looks into the circle. In the reflection, the film shows Chigurh standing on the other side of the door, waiting for him to make his move. Bell hesitates, considering what to do. This is in essence the western dual or Chigurh’s coin toss. Will it be heads or tails? Will he enter or turn tails and run? Is Chigurh there or not? Bell chooses to enter and confront Chigurh. But Chigurh is no longer in the room. On the floor, Bell sees a dime showing heads. Bell has called it. He can live another day. But he sits down in the dark a broken man. This risk was too much. He won’t risk again.

In the end, he sits at home, pondering with his wife the emptiness of his dreams.

“Two of ’em. Both had my father in ’em… The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin’ through the mountains of a night… It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin’… and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it… And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up…”

Given that he’s quit the fight, waking up from his dreams refers to Bell’s loss of faith in the reality of some good place where his father has gone before him.
Is Bell right to give up? Does the film agree with him? Given life’s uncertainty it could very well be that he’ll never find security with his father. Heaven may not exist. This disordered world may never be put right. But is uncertainty a reason to give up on the dream? To lose faith?

I think the film actually condemns his decision to quit. The film, appears to me, to be alluding to pascal’s wager. Not as a pragmatic reason to believe in God, per say, but as a pragmatic reason to risk. Given the certainty of death, a failure to “call it” is an instant loss. Given the inevitability of death the only option is to bet it all on hope of that better day.

Life has always been uncertain. Young men live by risk because they don’t know what they can lose while old men die for fear of losing. There is No Country for Old Men.

It’s time to take a closer look at Mark’s arrangement of scenes! So throw out graphic divisions, like chapter and verse, as indications of the book’s plan and listen instead to what Mark says! Mark wrote specifically for hearers and weaves his organization into the very words of his story.

Let’s start by reading Mark 1:1-15. Hear any repeated words?

“Gospel” and or “good news”
“Messenger” or angelos in Greek, which is the same word for Angel.
Wilderness
The phrase “baptized by him (John) in the Jordan”
Spirit

Now consider where they occur!

The words in the first section are repeated in the last. And the ones in the second are repeated in a third. It’s A-B-B-A sequence. Though on the surface the story unfolds in a linear progression, the repetition creates an underlying pattern which packages these scenes together and, in turn, point to the start of a new unit.

Do you hear more repetitions in the scenes that follow? Mention of Jesus preaching in Galilee and the naming of Peter, Andrew, James and John? Where do they occur? Concentrically around Jesus’ ministry in the synagogue. It’s an A-B-C-B-A pattern. Once again, the echoes signal to a listening audience the units beginning and end.

Mark creates still a third sequence in the five stories after that. Echoes appear at the outer limits, in Jesus’ cleansing of the leper and his healing of the man with the withered hand. In both stories we find the phrase “stretched out his (your) hand” and the mention of Jesus becoming “angry.” Now most translations of Jesus encounter with the leper still say Jesus was moved with compassion. But the majority of scholars today have come to the conclusion that Mark originally said angry. And that incidentally finds a correspondence in the later scene when Jesus becomes angry at the religious leaders. Echoes within these five accounts also occur in the second and fourth stories, the story of Jesus forgiving the paralytic and the account of the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. In both scenes, Jesus uniquely cites his authority as the Son of Man. Again these echoes appear concentrically around a center, Jesus’ calling of Levi, and are packaged together in A-B-C-B-A sequence.

Its here at the end of the third sequence where we encounter Mark’s inciting incident, the first indication of a plot to destroy Jesus. But Mark further emphasizes this narrative turn by packaging these three sequences together, revealing in this turn a termination to this larger unit.

We see this in the expressed parallels between the beginning of the first sequence and the end of the third. In chapter 3, Mark summarizes the effects of Jesus ministry, stating that people came from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Three of these place names (Jerusalem, Judea, and Jordan) appear in a remarkably similar summary of the Baptist’s ministry at the beginning of the gospel, though we don’t hear them mentioned elsewhere together. And it’s here we find another parallel. Immediately before Mark introduces John the Baptist, he tells us that Jesus is “the Son of God.” A title which we’ve already seen is extremely significant though its only repeated three times in this form. The first is here in Mark 1:1 and the last, the centurion’s climatic statement in Mark 15. Which leaves the summary of Jesus’ ministry in Mark 3, as the only other instance. Which further suggests a connection between this summary and Mark’s beginning. Though these parallels, Mark has packaged these sequences together and brought this section to a close.

The termination of these three sequences simultaneous with the first mention of a plot to destroy Jesus marks this point as major turning in the narrative. In the next episode, we’ll explore where the turn leads and how Mark builds his story to the next major point.

See you then.

Mark is Like a Movie

February 23, 2016  1 Comment

So I’ve hinted at this over the last few episodes, but it’s time I come out and say it. Mark is the first-century equivalent of a modern day movie. By that, I don’t mean fiction. I mean Mark recounts Jesus’ ministry in the same way today’s filmmakers typically tell true stories. Working in a remarkably similar venue (something we touched on in Episode 3), Mark has, in fact, stretched historic events over the same structural canvas still used today.

Think of what you know about movies. While characters and settings change, movies share a sequencing of events which is remarkably similar; Five basic plot points divide three structural acts.

We can refer to these points as the inciting incident, the lock-in, the midpoint or first culmination, the second culmination and the third act twist.

When a film opens, we’re introduced to a status quo. But an incident soon occurs which challenges a hero and sets the plot in motion. Within several film minutes, the challenge grows to a point where the hero can no longer ignore it. The hero takes on the problem, setting a new course of action.

This new course of action makes up the second act. Here, the hero faces one obstacle after another, the struggle mounting until the midpoint where they seem about to achieve their goal. But then everything falls apart. And they’re forced to start over again.

Act 2 ends with a hero’s major success or failure. This propels them to a new goal and creates a new tension for the final act. Here the story reaches its maximum tension between forces in opposition. And the hero faces their ultimate test. Finally, in the third act twist, the story is resolved, leading to a brief period of peace at the films end.

Now let’s look at what we’ve learned about Mark so far. In the last episode, I noted the parallels between Jesus baptism, transfiguration, and crucifixion. These three scenes act as signposts to Mark’s larger organization and message. The links between the baptism and crucifixion make up Mark’s major sandwich, tieing the story’s end to its beginning. While their connection to the transfiguration, in the middle, bisects the book into two major halves.

It’s not by accident that the transfiguration follows so closely after Jesus’ partial healing of the blind man (an incident we looked at in Episode 2). This is Mark’s midpoint, not only in terms of length but in structural plot design. It’s the point at which the growing tension between Jesus and the disciples seems to break before it sets in once again. The disciples finally see that Jesus as the Christ but then refuse to accept his declaration that he’s going to suffer and die.

What about the other points?

Mark’s inciting incident occurs at the beginning of chapter 3. While Jesus has done many remarkable things up to this point, It’s here that we first learn of the plot to destroy him. This introduces the challenge and sets the plot in motion.

Mark’s lock-in occurs at the beginning of chapter 6. Jesus returns to his hometown and is promptly rejected by his own clan. This represents the ultimate rejection in a series which has grown only more pronounced since the inciting incident. Jesus engages the problem, by turning his focus to his disciples and a broader mission to the outside world.

Mark’s final culmination occurs in chapter 11 when Jesus enters Jerusalem to the shouts of royal acclaim from the people. Jesus has taken his fight to the very den of religious authority. And he’s winning!

The third act twist, however, occurs when, in chapter 14, the religious authorities hatch a plot to put Jesus to death, a plot which proves successful when Judas agrees to be their inside man.

Mark stresses these points in the way he has arranged the scenes between them. Through repetition and the patterns they reveal, Mark has packaged these scenes into complete units. Over the next five episodes, we’re going to zoom in on these units and see how Mark’s arrangement of scenes ties these plot points together.

See you next time.

Repeating a pattern three times is a common storytelling technique and Mark uses it to great effect. Through it, he ties his book together and highlights his message that Jesus is the Son of God.

Have you noticed the parallels between Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration?

If you haven’t read Mark, take the next hour and read it all in one sitting, just like you’d watch a movie. Finding these parallels and patterns is just part of the fun of a good story’s game.

Let’s start with the transfiguration in chapter 9. Jesus goes up on a mountain with some of his disciples and there, his clothing begins to glow. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear! And the disciples are utterly terrified. Then a cloud envelops them and we hear God say, “this is my son…”

Sound familiar? Well, that’s almost identical to what we heard in Mark 1. When Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn open and God says, “You are my son…”

Do you see the others?

In both scenes, there’s a major shift in the heavens. The enveloping cloud in chapter nine and the ripped sky in chapter one.

And then there’s Elijah. He appears at the Transfiguration and yes, also in the Baptism. You might have missed this one! But Mark implicitly describes John as Elijah when he tells us that he wore a garment of hair with a leather belt around his waist. If you know the Old Testament, like Mark’s original audience, you’ll know that it’s this same description which leads a king in 2 Kings 1:8 to identify the person so dressed as Elijah.

So in the baptism and transfiguration, we have these three parallels. Elijah, Movement in the Heavens, And the identification of Jesus as God’s Son.

Pretty cool! Right?

Now think of Mark’s description of the crucifixion. Darkness covers the land! And Jesus cries out in Aramaic, “Eloi, Eloi…” which means “My God, my God…” But the bystanders think he’s calling for Elijah. Then Jesus breathes his last and the temple curtain is torn in two, from top to bottom. And the centurion remarks, “truly this man was the Son of God.”

There it is, again! The pattern is in fact repeated three times.

What’s Mark doing?

Well if you think about the whole book of Mark, you’ll remember that stories told in threes happen quite regularly. There’s Jesus’ three passion predictions, the three times he wakes his sleeping disciples, and the three times Peter denies him.

Three is huge! And not just for Mark. This is, in fact, the way we tell stories. Think of Goldilocks and the three bears (bowls, chairs, beds) or Charles Dickens Christmas Carol (Ghosts of Past, Present, Future). It’s a common literary device.

Three shows completeness. Emphasis. It’s the smallest number that forms a pattern. The first instance is chance. The second a coincidence. But three times reveals a design.

And this is what Mark is doing in some of these triads. In telling us three times, he stresses to his listening audience the disciples inability to change. And at the same time, drives home the point to his hearers. Don’t be like them! Don’t miss the point!

Mark is for sure creating emphasis in the parallels between the baptism, transfiguration, and crucifixion but he’s also at the same time doing something more.

This too is common in storytelling: because twice suggests a pattern, we naturally anticipate its continuation at the partial appearance of a third. Which allows the storyteller to hit us with the twist.

Think of the way jokes are told. Three guys walk into a bar. The first guy says something. The second guy says something similar. But the third guy takes it in a whole new direction. But the twist isn’t only found in punchlines. We find it in the third part of three little Pigs and the boy who cried wolf. We even see it in longer films like the Shawshank Redemption. Remember Red’s third parole hearing?

Mark, having built a pattern in the baptism and transfiguration, hits his audience in the crucifixion with a twist. This time, it’s not God’s voice declaring Jesus His Son. It’s a person. The first person, in fact, in of all of Mark’s story to express this idea.

Now think of the progression in these three scenes. In the baptism, it’s Jesus alone who hears God say “You are my Son.” It’s a private experience. No one else seems to know what’s going on. But in the second instance, that experience is repeated for others, God tells a few of the disciples “This is my Son.” But in the crucifixion, we find this idea finally taking hold and being repeated at last by a person. And what’s really remarkable, it’s not one of the disciples. It’s not even a Jew. he’s a Roman soldier. The enemy! The person, we least suspect. Declaring it, at the point we least suspect it.

See you next time.