The Florida Project: A Sad and Beautiful Slice of My Home

I’ve finally been able to see Sean Baker’s 2017 film The Florida Project, and wow, what a thumbnail_26723great film it is. The trailer caught my eye last year not only for its glorious use of color, but its nearness to my life in Orlando for over a decade. The film is set on that stretch of highway in Kissimmee that any Central Floridian knows as the brightly colored area with all sorts of road side kitsch, dive gift shops, and motels. The film showcases many of the most memorable locations: Orange World, the wizard gift shop, the mermaid gift shop, one of O-Town’s many Twistee Treats, and its setting at the very-purple (and real) Magic Castle Inn.

My childhood in Florida did not involve 1-star tourist hotel living or the moral squalor that the children have to battle with their imagination, but it did involve times of financial struggle throughout. We were blessed with the ability to frequent many of the major theme parks in better times, but we also had moments where we had to find the absolute cheapest food options in town and seek fun in other ways. While Disney provided some of the most exhilarating good times and joy I’ve had in my life, other attractions and cheap eats provided the backdrop to some of my many fond memories there (including Kissimmee’s Old Town, on the same road but not in the film).

The road the film is set on was one of my earliest memories of Florida. We visited Disney before we moved there when I was six years old, and I remember being wowed by some of the garish storefronts then. I thought of them again when I was told we were moving there. I was going to be living near the store with the giant wizard on it?

Fortunately, we didn’t live on that stretch and my life was much better than what’s depicted here. Still, the film is familiar in a way that feels nearly documentary-like if not for the artistry of its cinematography and acting. There’s many little moments in the film that sound that elusive ring of truth. One of my favorites is when Willem Dafoe shoos off a few ibis birds in the middle of the road. If that’s not a true Florida problem I don’t know what is.

The film wonders, does poverty fuel the imagination? What do we do in a society where a seven year old child is trying to take swimsuit picture selfies and twerking in accordance to the cultural norm? What is the fuel in her imagination, the activities of her destitute mother, or the wonder of the competition between the natural world and the cartoon tourist landscape that she lives in?

This is simply one of the most beautiful and compelling films I’ve seen in a while, one that balances the line between the soft glow of a childhood lived with verve and the harsh realities that threaten the kingdom of the mind. My idea of a film that looks at a realistic slice of life successfully is that it is full of sympathy and love for its subject, but is not without strong constructive criticism.

We could all use a reminder on what makes the true happiest place on earth.

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Is a Promise Actually Self-Deception?

Last night I watched Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane again as I’m wont to do, this timeCitizen-Kane-Declaration-of-Principles.jpg showing it to my youngest sister for the first time. Every time I see the film again I notice things about it that I hadn’t caught completely before. The thing that really stuck out to me this time was the running motif in the plot of promises. Near the beginning of the film, there’s a scene where Charles Kane, Jedediah Leland (his closest friend), and Mr. Bernstein (a close associate) are discussing the first newspaper they’re unleashing on New York the next day. Kane keeps refining what he wants on the front page, and ultimately decides to change it one last time. This time, he’s going to feature a “Declaration of Principles” that will outline his promises to the people of New York. Leland doesn’t trust Kane to actually keep these promises, so he asks to keep the original copy of the Declaration because he has a hunch it may “turn out to be something pretty important.”

His hunch is right, as Kane’s principles go off the deep end (to say the least) throughout the film. He abuses his power as a news tycoon to encourage wars and promote his own activities and interests, in comparison to his earnest and ambitious start where he boldly fought for truth. Mr. Bernstein warned Kane that “You don’t want to make any promises you don’t want to keep” as Kane simply retorted that “These will be kept.”

Kane continues to make promises that he breaks, and forsakes making any further ones (as he does in his gubernatorial campaign). He breaks his marriage vows to Emily by committing adultery with Susan Alexander. He breaks his promise to be honest to the people in his papers. His inability to keep his promises becomes a running joke with his friends. Kane’s word eventually means nothing, as Leland had already suspected would be the case.

Promises are a tricky business. People love to make them all the time, to the point that it becomes casual and expected. Have you ever heard two lovers talking to each other? It’s not long before they start making promises. I’ll always love you…. I’ll never leave you, etc.
Parents make promises to their children to appease them that they know they can’t really keep. In Jon Favreau’s Chef the main character promises his son that he’ll take him to New Orleans next month, but one can easily tell he has no intention to do so.
People make promises to their friends (or people they don’t like), that they know deep down somewhere, even with the best of intentions, are most likely to ever happen.

Soren Kierkegaard said that “A no does not hide anything, but a yes very easily becomes an illusion, a self-deception, which of all difficulties is perhaps the most difficult to overcome.” No may be difficult, but it is true and does not obscure your real intentions or abilities. I love how Kierkegaard says that yes can so easily slip into a self deception or illusion. Saying yes to someone and disappointing them is rude and can have devastating effect based on the context, but above all saying yes begins as a self deception. You’re tricking yourself, contradicting what you know you’re capable of and what your truest principles are. You think you can hold the promise this time, but you know deep down it’s not going to happen.

We see all around us that one of the central deceptions humankind regularly employs is to make a promise. We see promises now as nonbinding statements of intention that can be reneged if we change our feelings on the matter, or if the timing just doesn’t seem right, or if it’s just to much of a hassle for us. God on the other hand, takes promises with the utmost seriousness. He always keeps His promises. “He who promised is faithful” according to the author of Hebrews (10:23). The Bible proclaims God’s faithfulness in superlative terms. “Your faithfulness reaches to the skies” (Psalm 36:5); “your faithfulness continues through all generations” (Ps 119:90); “great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:23).

“How does God’s faithfulness show itself? By his unfailing fulfillment of his promises. He is a covenant-keeping God; he never fails those who trust his word.”
– J.I. Packer, Knowing God

God does not make promise like we do. We fail to keep our word, as God never fails to keep his. We constantly deceive, while God never deceives.

“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
– Numbers 23:19

We think of some sins as being lesser than others, not as bad. As long as you’re not killing someone or sleeping with someone’s wife or doing drugs or something you’re just fine.
That’s not how God views it at all though.
As Jesus preached on the mount, he told the crowd to “let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything more than this is from the evil one” (Matt 5:37).
Saying yes or no and not really meaning it is deception, and what does the enemy do best? Deceive. Deceiving others and yourself is partaking in the nature of the evil one.

Learn how to control your yes and no. Whether it’s meeting up to grab some coffee sometime or taking someone in marriage, stand behind your yes. If you’re going to say it make every effort to make sure you will actually go through with it. If it’s no, tell the other person with the compassion Christ told others when he had to say no (Mk 5:19). Remember to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15).

It is not our role or place to try to please everyone and destroy our word and soul in the process.

A false promise can be a self-deception, but it will always be an attack on what is good and true. Solomon says in Proverbs that “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight” (12:22).

“These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace.” – Zechariah 8:16

Being More Like Charlie Brown: Finding Love in Complete Hopelessness

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“Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.” – Charlie Brown

Christmas isn’t always “the most wonderful time of the year.” In fact, for many it can be perhaps the most difficult time of year. It can remind you of loved ones you’ve lost, it can remind you of your lack of love, it can accentuate your poverty, it can frustrate you with its barren commercialism, it can show you how much you hate your job, it signals another year in which you failed to accomplish your goals, and it can make you feel like you’re isolated. Sometimes it can be disappointment in society, but generally it’s disappointment in yourself. You don’t feel the way you think you’re supposed to feel. Isn’t Christmas supposed to be good, or magical? Shouldn’t it make me happy despite how poorly my life is going?

If this is how you feel about the coming of Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas was made for you. If not, that’s wonderful! Praise God! But there’s still a lot you can learn from this unassuming little TV special from 1965.

There’s many articles on the internet that examine the fascinating history of the special. There will be even more in the next few days as the special celebrates its 50th anniversary! To summarize, it was produced on a shoestring budget with little to no expectation of it actually succeeding. It was completed ten days before it was due to be aired, and there was nary a person that thought it was a winner. As we know, they all turned out to be wrong, and now 50 years later the special is a staple of the American consciousness. It solidified the Peanuts gang as a worldwide phenomenon, used real child actors for the first time in animation, was an introduction to real jazz music for many, and its message and style spoke so deeply that for thousands of people it is still an annual tradition.

–  What makes the special so, well, special? And how does it speak to issues in my life? 

If you found yourself relating to that opening paragraph, you’ll probably find this opening sentence of the special remarkably accurate.

“Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.
I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.
I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess.
I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.
I always end up feeling depressed.” – Charlie Brown

philosophybrownTo have the opening line to what is assumably a show geared towards children deal so directly with themes of depression and anxiety in its very first piece of dialogue is nothing short of remarkable. The scene of the show is very clearly set at the get-go. It’s Christmas time. The kids and Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy are all enjoying the onset of the season. They’re skating around the frozen pond with abandonment singing the lyrically joyful “Christmas Time is Here.” Charlie Brown and Linus take a walk to their favorite philosophizing wall (it’s really the Peanuts version of the ancient Greek Agora), and Charlie Brown poignantly confesses his discontent with the supposed season of cheer.

Charlie Brown is quickly rebuked by Linus, who complains that Charlie is the only person he knows “who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.” Unfortunately, Linus mistakenly emphasizes Charlie Brown’s isolation by agreeing with his manipulative sister Lucy’s judgment: “Of all the Charlie Brown’s in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.” Just like every human being, Linus is no perfect example. He makes an enormous mistake here. He could have carefully and thoughtfully addressed Charlie Brown’s concerns with Christmas, but instead he foolishly dismisses the issues with an ill-conceived putdown. While we see later that Linus is capable of intellectualizing his faith, he disappoints when he had a chance to put it into action here.

I almost wish there weren’t a holiday season.
I know nobody likes me.
Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it? –
Charlie Brown

peanutsAfter Linus’s missed opportunity, we see Charlie Brown continue to wax philosophic on his seasonal depression. He checks the mailbox to see if anyone sent him a Christmas card this year. No one has, of course. He eventually seeks out the assistance of the town’s self-made child psychiatrist, Lucy.

After pre-paying for her services, he summarizes his problem for her. She proceeds to imitate the psychiatrists she’s seen on TV by trying to “pin-point” the fear so that they’ll be able to “label it.” She’s not as interested in actually helping out Charlie Brown as she is in feeling pride in her ability to correctly label his fears scientifically. This scene is quite funny since it satirizes the modern urge to correctly “label” an issue, or to point it out, rather than to actually just help when you see a problem. Not to mention that when Lucy finally says she sympathizes with Charlie Brown, she says her depression is due to getting toys or bicycles for Christmas instead of the real estate she really wants. Good grief.

Lucy does have one suggestion for Charlie that he decides to try out. The school needs someone to direct the Christmas play, and what better way to get into the spirit than to “get involved in some real Christmas project”? As Charlie Brown makes his way to the school to direct his play, he discovers that even his own dog and sister have both sold out to the commercialism of Christmas. All Snoopy and Sally want this year is “money, money, money.” This disgusts Charlie Brown and furthers his increasing isolation.

Charlie finally makes it to the school to direct the play, and it goes disastrously. Charlie thinks it’s his inability to do anything right, but it’s really the fault of his crew. His direction is clearly superb, but no one is willing to respect him or stay disciplined. They goof around and complain about their parts or their lines. Charlie is clearly losing the battle, and Lucy reminds him that “Christmas is a big commercial racket” anyway (run by an eastern syndicate, no less). But Charlie is determined for his play to not be commercial. He decides that what they need is a tree, so he takes a break from the play to go find one with Linus, not without being instructed to “do something right for a change” from one of his cast members.

treepicking.pngThe following scene where Charlie Brown chooses the Christmas tree is at the center of the thematic crux of the show. The rest has been a build up to this moment. Charlie Brown has been consistently failing to succeed, and this is his big chance to prove himself to his friends and family. He’s been instructed to get “the biggest” aluminum tree with the brightest pink paint, but his convictions are pulling him elsewhere. To bring some Dante Alighieri into this, Charlie Brown could be seen as the Dante figure (the hero undergoing salvation) here with Linus being his Virgil (guide). They descend into the underworld of the most brash commercialism. The lights are bright and the beauty of the Christmas trees surrounding them are literally hollow and fake. Linus taps the aluminum tree and sarcastically quips:
“This really brings Christmas close to a person.”

Charlie Brown isn’t having any of this, and slowly we see the camera pan over the sea of artificiality to finally rest on the sole wood tree of the lot. “Gee, do they still make wooden Christmas trees?” Linus asks with sincere surprise. The rest of the dialogue is worth quoting:

Charlie: This little green one here seems to need a home.
Linus: I don’t know, Charlie Brown. Remember what Lucy said? This doesn’t seem to fit the modern spirit.
Charlie: I don’t care. We’ll decorate it, and it’ll be just right for our play.
Besides, I think it needs me.

Charlie Brown already understood the real meaning of Christmas right here, simply on a general revelation (an understanding of God from nature). After feeling confused and disillusioned with the commercial nature of the season, Charlie sought truth and meaning in the Christmas season. When no one was willing to support him and all of his friends and family had turned against him, Charlie Brown still made the right choice and saved the lost and helpless. Charlie Brown became a Christ-figure in this scene. He was surrounded by the temptation of not fulfilling the duty he knew he needed to perform deep down, but he triumphantly rescued the real tree from its helpless isolation. He willingly sacrificed the approval of the world he so desired in favor of performing the compassionate action that no one else he knew would be capable of making. Not only was he willing to buy the most undesirable tree, but he saw immense value in it! He didn’t care that it didn’t fit what his friends expected, he knew with the proper care that it would be “just right.”

Besides, I think it needs me.”

I remember being floored by this selfless act of love when I was young and I would obsessively watch this special. In fact, it made me feel horribly convicted even then! I remember thinking to myself: “If it had been me, would I have bought the ugly little tree instead of the bigger beautiful aluminum ones I was pressured to get?” My answer to that was essentially a disappointed “no.” I felt like I would have sacrificed my convictions in favor of worldly approval, which deeply bothered me. Charlie Brown made me feel like it was me who didn’t understand the true meaning of Christmas!

Charlie Brown returns from his greatest moment to these words.

Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown.
What kind of a tree is that?
You were supposed to get a good tree. Can’t you even tell a good tree from a poor tree?
I told you he’d goof it up. He’s not the kind you can depend on to do anything right.
You’re hopeless, Charlie Brown.
Completely hopeless.

When you go against the wisdom of the world, the world kicks you down.
This cacophony of lies causes Charlie to seriously doubt his decision. He mistakenly believes he’s once again caused a disaster. He’s gone from his greatest moment of triumph to his darkest all in one fell swoop. He finally bursts out in agonized frustration, begging for an answer.

Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

After being more or less a neutral deterrent for the majority of the episode, Linus speaks up with what he should have said at the very beginning.

Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.

PeanutsChristmasWhat follows is without a doubt one of the most transcendent moments in television history, because Linus answers that question with nothing short of perfection. Instead of systematically explaining the reason for Christmas, he tells the story of a boy not too unlike Charlie Brown. A boy who was born into a world where He was more isolated than any person ever has been. The world hated Him, in fact, they attempted to kill Him on multiple occasions! But instead of bringing sadness, He brought great joy and love. This boy is the answer that Charlie Brown is seeking. Not only is He as authentic and uncommercialized as anything can conceivably get, but He saves the isolated and hated from their misery, and brings them the greatest possible joy. He is everything that Charlie Brown is looking for, and more.

Charlie Brown thus receives his special revelation (an understanding of God through the supernatural) of what the Christmas season truly means through hearing the Word of God. Its meaning is a celebration of the birth of the world’s Savior: Jesus Christ the Lord. What Linus recites is Luke 2:8-14, the scene where the angels tell the shepherds of the Messiah’s birth: “And the angel said unto them: ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Charlie Brown is rejuvenated by this discovery of Christmas’s true meaning, and he sets out into the night to show everybody just how great his little tree can look. He discovers that Snoopy won the first prize in the contest which promised oodles of money, but he refuses to let this lavish commercialism impede him. He takes one of Snoopy’s ornaments and attempts to dress the tree with it. When this causes the tree to completely droop over, he thinks he’s “killed it” and that “everything he touches gets ruined.” He runs away in shame.

When all his friends come back, they find Charlie’s tree and begin to appreciate it. “It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”
They take Snoopy’s first-prize-winning decorations and dress the tree up into a magnificent piece of art. Charlie Brown returns, and is stunned. His friends wish him a Merry Christmas, and they all join together to sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

“I know nobody likes me.
Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?”

This is the point of the holiday season, Charlie Brown. It’s there because of the one person who will always love you even when the world hates you. Just like a little bald boy loved a sad looking tree in the middle of a lot when no one else wanted it, this person completely sacrificed everything out of His deepest love to save the smallest and ugliest trees. He doesn’t want to see you waste away in a lot where you don’t belong, feeling unloved and forgotten. That’s precisely why He was born on that Christmas day long ago, so that He could come down and rescue you from your death: your loneliness and alienation: your fear and anxiety.
In His love, these things are no more.
You’re not completely hopeless after all, Charlie Brown.

 Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!” 

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Thank you so much for reading all the way through this post! It’s a bit longer than I was expecting, but I felt like I needed to make all the points I did. I hope it encourages you to be more like Charlie Brown this season. Not by feeling depressed due to whatever may be going on in your life, but by seeking the answer that will make all of your problems null. Charlie Brown actively seeks answers to the things in life that bother him, and he takes radical action in showing the love for others like him that he seeks for himself. I pray we can be more like that this season.

This is the second post I’ve done surrounding Christmas this month, and I’m planning on doing a few more (my next one I’m planning is about my favorite Christmas book that barely anyone has read). If you have any topics or questions that interest you about Christmas, send them to me, and I might turn my answer to you into a post!

Thanks again for reading, and I pray that this Christmas is one of discovery of true meaning for you.

Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”

Molded From Clay: How Love in “Shaun the Sheep Movie” Shapes Hearts and Minds

Shaun-The-Sheep-Movie Art that is made to be appealing to children shapes the underlying worldviews and values of any who participate in its experience, young or old. Films such as Shaun the Sheep Movie may come off to some as an escapist fairy tale for those wishing to escape the terrifying speed of their plodding existence, but as always there is something more to be said about the way these films affect their audience.

C.S. Lewis, one of the most famous and greatest apologists not only for Christianity but also for the fairy tale, once said that “sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.” It is precisely great children’s films like Shaun the Sheep Movie that speak so closely to the hearts of everyone, because they affirm empirical (that is to say, experiential) truths that sometimes only stories can fully provide. There is much more to be said on the edifying qualities of the fantastic in art, and for more on that I refer the reader to an excellent work titled: From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy.

To speak of Shaun the Sheep Movie specifically, I must warn readers as always that there are plot spoilers for the entire film in my analysis, but if you understand the way great stories work you’ll have the plot figured out in the first ten minutes.
The general plot of the film follows a band of farm animals who are attempting to retrieve their father figure (The Farmer) from the big city after they (through a series of complicated and hilarious events) rebelled against him and caused him to have an amnesia-inducing accident.

In the beginning, we are shown that the Farmer is highly involved in loving his animals (mainly his sheep) and takes good care of them. As the years go by, he ages and so do the animals. He gets into a rut of doing the same boring schedule every day and generally seems aloof, while the animals fight the banality of their existence day by day in the face of this. Shaun, the cleverest of the sheep, decides he’s had enough and starts to concoct a scheme to make the Farmer sleep so that the animals can temporarily do whatever they please. Their plan initially succeeds, and they begin to try enjoying the fruits of their quest for fun. This is quickly ended by the Farmer’s dog, who forces them to help him awaken the Farmer. In their attempt to do so, they accidentally send the Farmer in a runaway trailer to the big city. The dog chases after the Farmer, while the sheep remain behind and decide what to do.

In viewing this film as an example of our own lives, this moment is a turning point. Shaun has succeeded in his plan to have the day off not by creating one day off, but potentially every day off! Now the sheep are faced with a choice. They can either stay at home and hedonistically party it up like their neighbors, the Pigs (notice that not-so subtle commentary!), or they can undertake an arduous quest to seek their Father figure and restore the bond that was broken in their relationship. Metaphorically speaking, this could be seen as a Pilgrim’s Progress style journey towards completeness. The choice that the sheep make here is crucial, they decided to reject the vacuous existence of their neighbors and pursue the glory of love they could share with the Farmer (Father) instead. The sheep realize that they simply cannot provide for themselves and that their existence would be meaningless without the Farmer, and thus the only option truly available is to seek him. Blaise Pascal would enjoy this film’s philosophy!

Now you might argue here that I’m reading too much of my Christianity into this, and if I were trying simply to determine the exact philosophy of the film’s creators you would probably be right. But what the creators specifically intended is not the point here. The point is how these plots affect our hearts and minds. What Shaun the Sheep Movie did was show that true love is worth fighting for even when it’s extraordinarily difficult. I don’t mean specifically the eros (romantic) love, I mean the storge (familial) and agape (selfless) love.

The sheep were disappointed by how the Farmer was acting in his daily life. He seemed to have forgotten how much he loved the animals, and in turn they began to forget as well. But as the immeasurably wise G.K. Chesterton once said, “The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.” Once the sheep lost the Farmer, they realized how much they loved him and needed him. In tune with the theme of forgetfulness, the Farmer literally loses all memory in an accident that makes his recovery much more difficult for the sheep. But the sheep work against all odds to bring the Farmer home and restore his memory, and eventually he remembers. In their darkest moment, the animals all hug on the Farmer for their last vestige, he sees their reflection in a glass and is finally reminded of his love for them. He defeats the evil force threatening them and restores laughter and love back to their little farm. The restrictive daily schedule is duly tossed into the open mouth of the nearest goat.

Since this film is not allegorical in nature, the Farmer does not always represent God, nor do the sheep always represent wayward followers of God. Both are broken beings who need each other for support and love. But the values that the film teaches offer an utterly Christian worldview to all of its young or old viewers. Love, forgiveness, and sacrificial devotion are placed on the highest of Shaun-The-Sheep-Moviepedestals. The sheep repent of their wayward actions and sacrifice the comforts of a hedonistic life at home to pursue the greatest good, and the Farmer sacrifices his time in life to providing the utmost care and love to his family of sheep. The viewer should come away from the film with a new sense of devotion to what matters, and an understanding of the importance of humbly accepting that you’ve done wrong and repenting in the name of the redeeming agape.