Monday, April 27, 2015

A Movie with Rockwellian sensibilities

The makers of "Little Boy" say that their movie has a Norman Rockwell sensibility.  I've wondered before now whether Rockwell's work itself is really all that "Rockwellian," but I'll leave that issue aside for today.  I will also have to leave aside any questions about the merits of "Little Boy," or whether I think it is Rockwellian in any sensible way or what have you.  I haven't seen it.

This post is prompted by Michael O'Sullivan's Washington Post review of the movie.

I'm of two minds about the review.  On the plus side, O'Sullivan apparently really sees and unapologetically states that Rockwell's work resonates with viewers because it is genuinely grounded in human nature.

"Set during World War II in a small California town populated by characters who seemingly have nothing better to do than to look photogenically cornball, the movie is, like a Rockwell painting, a formally well-crafted thing. It’s also pretty much full of baloney. Unlike Rockwell’s art, whose old-fashioned themes — family, faith, patriotism, community — were expressed via the ground truth of human nature, 'Little Boy' traffics in cartoonish caricature."

And then he adds at the end of the review:

"But unlike Rockwell, whose staged pictures nevertheless expressed universal truths, “Little Boy” is a as phony as a game of three-card monte."

Since people are so often so quick to say that Rockwell's work is phony or hopelessly caricatured or what have you, it's very refreshing to see a critic avoid falling for that.

One complication here is that I'm not sure what to make of the line "it's also full of baloney" in the top quotation above.  At first blush, I'd have said that O'Sullivan is saying that Rockwell's art and also "Little Boy" are full of baloney.  (But Rockwell's baloney is grounded in the truth of human nature?)  But the overall thrust of the passage seems to suggest rather that O'Sullivan meant to say that "Little Boy" is a formally well-crafted thing (like a Rockwell painting) but also that it's full of baloney (unlike a Rockwell painting).  I'd say this is a minor editorial failure, though the second reading here seems by far the most probable on reflection.

But that's not my worry about the review.  The worry about the review isn't anything to do with Rockwell at all, in fact.  The worry has to do with O'Sullivan's major criticism of the movie.  First, the set-up:

When his father (Michael Rapaport) goes off to fight the Japanese, Pepper [the "Little Boy" of the film's title] calls upon various powers — prayer, faith, willpower, good deeds and, at one point, magic — to ensure that his dad comes back safe. In the film’s muddy vision, it is some combination of these powers that influences that outcome.

And apparently it works,  I mean, it works within the movie.  But it doesn't work for O'Sullivan:

The problem with “Little Boy” ... is this: For every Pepper who is praying that the U.S. defeats Japan, there is almost certainly another child in Japan asking for the opposite. It’s the locker-room conundrum: When opposing sports teams are both praying for the win, to whom will God listen?

The minor problem with this is that according to O'Sullivan, Pepper was not praying for victory over the Japanese, but for his father to return home safely.  Those are quite distinct--after all, many Japanese fathers did return home safely from the war, despite Japan's defeat.  (Many did not.   But many did.)

The major problem here is that wars aren't (always) like sporting events where it's really a matter of indifference who wins.  When an imperialistic power launches a war of conquest, for example, that cause is unjust.  God is not "on their side."  That doesn't mean they will not prevail.  All too often, they do.  But we don't have a case where God may as well toss a coin to decide which side ought (in justice) to be victorious.

It sounds (just from the reviews) like the film's theological weakness is its failure to realize that even the prayers of a child for the safety of his father (in pursuit of a just cause) may go unanswered.  (Unanswered, anyway, in the way in which the child would like them to be answered.)  In short, many, many children prayed for the safe return of their fathers from that war, but did not receive their fathers back safely.  Did these children just not have enough faith?  Nonsense.  The issue is that Providence doesn't run things the way we would: God's ways are not our ways.  (In this sense, perhaps "The Book Thief" gets the theology much closer to correct than "Little Boy" does.)

Christianity Today has a longer review of "Little Boy," which is worth reading if you're interested in the movie.

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