Archive for April, 2010

Monday, April 26, 2010

Those of us who hang around church are familiar with the popular marketing strategy for “faith based films.”  It goes something like this: Up until now, Hollywood has not paid attention to us good Christians.  They’ve been peddling junk for years without regard to our moral sensitivities; until, of course, “The Passion of the Christ.” Now they (the producers of cinematic product) know they can make serious money serving the religious community with films that address their issues.   So, if you would like this sort of movie to be produced, and certainly you do, be sure to see the newest release and with your entertainment dollars, let Hollywood know, Christians buy movie tickets, too.

So, the argument goes.  You get in line, pay for your seat, mainly because you want more “faith based films” on the marquis and available on DVD.  Mobilize the churches!  Get ‘em to the theater!  This weekend!  Get those numbers up!  Send a message!

Sounds good; a noble investment of time a resource for people of faith; a positive way to engage in the culture wars.

But what if the movie is just plain good?  Might it be enough to buy the ticket for no other reason than it’s great entertainment?  That you walk out of the theater with tears in your eyes, with a new perspective on the world?  With motivation to carry on?

Tyler McGuire (age 9), just recently returned home from a brain surgery.  His head is shaved.  His mom, widowed not that many years before, struggles to keep things together.  She works at the hospital, but that is no advantage.  Her little boy, the youngest of two, has been diagnosed and treated for a serious metastasis from which few survive.  His best buddy, Sam, brings generous helpings of laughter and sunny optimism.  But she can only be a steady companion and protector – as her friend Tyler battles the dread disease.

Tyler’s older brother, Ben, tries.  But the disruption to family life becomes too much.  Not even Grandma, with her God sense and biblical wisdom, can keep the troubled days cheery.  The rage spills over.

So young Tyler escapes to the roof.  And there he pens letters simply addressed “To God.”

The drama is based on a true story.  The real cancer victim hid those letters in the back of his closet.  They were not discovered until after his death.  It became a priceless treasure to his grieving family.

But this screenplay for Letters To God takes a different tack.  Tyler, with a skin bald head and a winning smile, puts his letters in a plain envelope, places a stamp and puts them in the mailbox.  The mail carrier, Brady McDaniels, has a bag-load of his own personal problems.  A temporary, filling in while the regular takes a break, Brady picks up Tyler’s letters.  Back at the post office, the crew debates what to do with the “undeliverable” envelopes.  Brady takes them home.

But Brady’s home is a dark place.  Unlike Tyler’s, full of love and support, Brady has his own brand of cancer to deal with.  Alcohol has robbed him of his marriage, his young son and his dignity.  In a series of flashbacks, we learn that his afternoons with Jack Daniels got him arrested, suspended and served with divorce papers, a custody loss and a restraining order to boot.  Somehow, he manages to keep his government job.

He gets to reading those letters to God, handwritten by the little boy.  Tyler’s questions are his.  Why, God?  Why?  As Tyler journals a nine-year-old’s reflections on death and dying and purpose and family and pain and sickness, Brad sees his own.

They become friends.

Sam’s grandfather is the aging Mr. Perryfield (Ralph Waite, the quintessential father on The Waltons), who instills a sense of confidence and mission in the little boy, as only grandfathers can.  “You have been chosen to be a warrior,” he tells young Tyler.  “It’s an honor to know you.”

Letters to God will take you through the pain and loss and grief that accompanies this devastating illness.  But in those letters from a young boy, you will also find hope in a faith that transcends the darkness.  It is a letter to God.

It is also a love letter to all those who battle cancer.

A ticket well worth the purchase price.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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Monday, April 12, 2010

If relaxation is consistent with a commitment to Sabbath, then the Masters Tournament in high definition on a Sunday afternoon would be one of my favorite ways to comply with the fourth of those Ten Commandments.

Augusta in Springtime. It doesn’t get any better. Azaleas of every variety, from all over the world. Indica, Kurume, Satsuki, Glen Dale and Kaempferi. Every color of blossom against the deep green fairways and full live oaks and Augusta pines. The videographers understand depth of field, which allows for flowers in sharp focus in the foreground and fuzzy brush and branches and shrubs reflecting off the glassy surface of a clear pond; with the backdrop of deep blue skies and fluffy clouds floating by. A soothing sound track accompanies the stunning images.

The blood pressure drops at the sight and sound of it all.

The quaint walking bridge between the green at the 12th and the tee box of the 13th holes is “Amen Corner,” where careers have been made since 1936. The Masters at Augusta is a major of majors, and this week’s tournament delivered as much inspiration and drama as the 2004 event when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were paired in the last group on the fourth and final Sunday afternoon round in a classic unforgettable match up. As defending champion, Tiger, in his own green jacket from the prior year, awarded Phil his in the Butler Cabin that year. Phil edged out Tiger in his first Masters title that day.

The global media trumpeted this year’s Masters mainly because it marked Tiger Woods’ return to golf after five deplorable months of tabloid frenzy. Nike weighed in with a risky ad campaign. There were press conferences and interviews and appearances from spurned women making sordid claims. Would the fans heckle? Could Tiger focus? Could he win? Would he melt down under golf’s unrelenting strain? Would Elin show?

The first two days, Tiger performed as though nothing happened. But then others emerged with spectacular, virtuoso flair. Freddie Couples, Lee Westwood, K.J. Choi, and then… there was Phil Mickelson.

Ten years ago, a good friend gave an eyewitness account of Phil’s performance from close range. He was appalled. Phil abused the fans; his language crude and obscene. My friend put a spin on Phil that was hard for me to shake. Phil was emerging back then as a major force, but he had a reputation for buckling under the pressure of that final fourth Sunday round. He would melt down. Miss short putts. Take inordinate risks, and end up in the woods. While he consistently finished in the top ten, there were few victories and no majors. It seemed like the young Tiger Woods intimidated the older, more experienced Phil. His game fell apart when Tiger came into view, on the prowl.

That 2004 Masters victory was a turning point. Phil won. And from all appearances, he’s been well coached. Now he smiles. He acknowledges his well-wishers up in the gallery. He banters with the other players. When he misses unexpectedly, he shakes his head and laughs. He no longer broods. He moves on to the next shot with confidence and focus.

Like his counterpart (the Number One Player in the World), Phil’s marriage has also been in the headlines. But for very different reasons. Both Tiger and Phil are married to strikingly beautiful blonds. They have children waiting at eighteen in the final round. Their wives wear classy sunglasses that gleam in the late afternoon sun. The camera likes to capture them both celebrating the final hole and the big win.

But for the Masters 2010, Tiger, who was in the hunt and expected to win at the beginning of the final round, struggled. The birdies were matched by corresponding bogeys. The wheels fell off.

All the while, Phil was in the zone. He produced magical shots. Out of the woods. Off the pine needles. But mostly, there were long straight drives. Steady chips. Precision putts. An impossible eagle. Solid golf, all the way to the finish.

And as he approached the 18th green, the Green Jacket was all but won. Crowds that more than matched record-breaking numbers welcomed him with wild enthusiasm as he walked, smiling and tipping the bill of his cap. No, it wasn’t Tiger. It was Phil. And there was the blond. No, it wasn’t Elin. It was Amy.

Amy Mickelson, who was diagnosed with breast cancer this year. Next to her, Phil’s mom, Mary Mickelson, who in tragic coincidence, was also diagnosed this same year. The two women watched on as Phil addressed his putt. While he did not need it to win, he sank one last birdie and as the ball dropped into the cup the massive crowd exploded with joy and Phil threw his head back and raised two hands toward the sky. Then the camera turned and caught it. Tears streamed down both Mary’s and Amy’s faces as the two women embraced while the crowd hooted and whistled and hollered.

Maybe it’s just me. Had Tiger won, there would be no Elin waiting to join him in the celebration.

But as Phil walked off the green and into the crowd, he found his wife. They wrapped their arms around each other. Phil held on to his Amy way longer than usual. Like they couldn’t let go. Like they wouldn’t let go. Like nothing can take this away. Nothing.

And as the global audience watched, tight throated with deep emotion welling up at the sight of these two, it was as though the whole world came to terms with what Tiger has lost. And that’s way more than a green jacket. Way more.

Yes, Phil has the 2010 Green Jacket. That’s a good thing. Even better – he has Amy.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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Time’s Fool

Monday, April 5, 2010

Is it age or is it just the DNA?  This irrepressible sentimentalism only gets worse with the passing of time.  It’s been awhile since Shakespeare lines got to me.  But Sonnet 116 bowled me over.

I’m big on car chases and battle scenes; acts of bravery and conquering heroes.  Blasts and explosions lighting up the sky get me into the movie theater, just like most guys.  Life threatening moments, when our protagonist comes within a hare’s breath of horrific calamity; surprises that trigger a potent shot of adrenaline while sitting comfortably in an overstuffed chair, well, that’s my kind of entertainment.

Now that I’ve established my masculinity, I am ready to admit that I enjoy date-night movies, too.  Like when the marriage on the rocks finds its way into safe harbor.  Or the geeky guy wins the impossible girl.  I enjoy writers who put witty lines into the banter, and the dialog that spins set-ups and comebacks; the sort most of us can only imagine after the fact.  Too late, but oh so satisfying.  Then give me actors who can deliver those lines, and one more time – that’s entertainment.

So put a couple of high strung New Yorkers together in the Big Apple determined to make it there (if there, anywhere) and in spite of the upscale, uptown accoutrements oversized paychecks afford, they are exceedingly unhappy; at each others’ throats.  His indiscretion pushed them right over the edge, and their commitment is in freefall.  They’ve been aiming at perfection all their lives, and now that the perfection card has been trumped by reality, the whole house of cards is collapsing in slo-mo.  His efforts to bridge the infidelity gap fall hopelessly short of the mark.  “Don’t even think about it,” she cries.

So our scriptwriter (Marc Lawrence) puts the two estranged sophisticates in Wyoming, unwillingly, in a witness protection program, which would be a terrific get-away if Paul and Meryl Morgan were not resolutely separated.  The government keeps their first names on the phony identification documents, but changes their last – to Foster.  What ensues is a charming, if not predictable, series of Wild West adventures; and the guard drops.  Under the tutelage of a weathered pair of gun-toting, wood chopping, rodeo loving ranchers who also moonlight as Federal Government house parents, Paul and Meryl gradually uncover the magic that got them together in the first place.

So one starry night, reminiscent of our years out in the country with no city lights to dim the constellations, Meryl grabs Paul by the arm and pulls him outside to see for himself.  Before those days when we would sit in the bubbling hot spa on clear, chilly nights gazing at the heavens, I would not have noticed how the twin Dippers, Big and Little, trace the sky directly to Polaris, the North Star, the one fixed point in the sky.  It’s been there as long as Planet Earth has rotated on its axis and may well be responsible for most of history’s successful ocean crossings up until the invention of GPS.  Meryl looks at the sky, as young lovers do, with wonder and awe and memories of their wedding day when she quoted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 as her vow.  She repeated it again as Paul listened in.

Let me not to the marriage of two minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken,
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Since then, I looked it up myself.  Sonnet 116.  Line by line.  Made me wish I could read Shakespeare anywhere close to the way we heard it at the Royal Theater in Stratford Upon Avon.  When I read it out loud, you’d think my tongue swollen and my brain dyslexic.  But I plow through it anyway as Carolyn listens in.  Then I parse it, like a good preacher.  Love does not open the door to obstacles (impediments), or change when the other changes; when the intruder intrudes, with intent to diminish what’s there, love doesn’t bend.  It is, like Polaris, an “ever-fixed mark.”  Familiar with storms.  Wandering all around.  Love is not the victim of Time, or Aging.  It holds on, right up to the drop-off, the cliff, the sheer face that threatens utter calamity.  And then Shakespeare makes a wager – if you can prove me wrong, then I never wrote a line.  And no man ever loved.

Paul feigns ignorance.  “Shakespeare… was he at the wedding?”

Then Meryl smiles and asks if he remembers the vows he made that day.  No, he says.  She is so captured by the heavens and the lofty thoughts from the Bard that she is all right with his forgetfulness.  But then Paul begins as he did ten years before…

I promise never to take you for granted
Or utter a word unkind
Never allow my affections to be recanted
Or stop marveling at your behind
To also marvel at your warmth
Your wit, your refusal to condone animal slaughter
Your wisdom, your laugh, your inability to boil water
To be your best friend for the rest of my life
And to thank the God you are not sure about
For fooling you into being my wife.

And as these two Morgans (Have You Heard About the Morgans?), New Yorkers out there under the stars, recapture something that got lost in the tempest, right there on the edge of doom.

Call me an incurable, hopeless romantic.  It happens.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2010

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