Three Billboards and a BAFTA

 

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Seen any good movies lately?  If you’re a cinephile like I am, there are a lot of reasons to love cinema now that it’s awards season and the English weather has been sensationally awful!  The red carpet rolls out for Oscar in Hollywood on Sunday, the 4th March.  But will he agree with his counterpart, the face of BAFTA?

The BAFTAS are the British Film Awards, usually held in London a few weeks prior to Hollywood’s Academy Awards night.  In recent years the BAFTAS have become increasingly more significant as pre-indicators of Oscar gold, probably because American and British film making are becoming more and more intertwined.  So, if BAFTA has anything to say about it, the leading contender for this year’s Big Win at the Oscars is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a thoroughly American film written and directed by Martin McDonagh who is Irish.  The film scooped all my favorites, including Best Picture,  Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor.

This year’s film nominations are very different to last year’s.  There are no dazzling blockbuster moneymakers in the 2018 line-up.  True, the romance between a mute and an amphibian sea creature in The Shape of Water  just doesn’t transport me to the stars like LaLaLand.  But there are still some very worthy films that while unfortunately aren’t making it big at the box office, definitely speak to current issues and none more so than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. 

When Frances McDormand came up to the London stage to receive her BAFTA for Best Actress in Three Billboards, she was wearing a rather strange dress with a red lips and lipstick print.  Everyone in the audience that night was wearing black as a symbol of solidarity with the “Me Too” movement against sexual harassment in Hollywood.   McDormand gestured towards her outfit and said, “I have trouble with compliance.”  Which is exactly the kind of person Mildred Hayes is, whom McDormand plays so brilliantly in the film.

You could say non-compliance is a strong theme that runs throughout all this year’s nominated performances, from Churchill’s refusal to do a deal with Hitler in Darkest Hour, to news publisher Katharine Graham refusing to comply with a president’s efforts to suppress the truth in The Post, to a problematic ice skating champion refusing to fit the mold in I, Tonya.  What could reflect the “Me Too” movement more than films about characters standing up to systems they feel have failed them.

There is nothing compliant about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  For one thing, it defies categorization so that one moment the audience is gasping with horror and disbelief and the next laughing out loud.  What is this film about?  On the surface, it appears to be a story about a woman who is determined to find out who raped and murdered her daughter.  Frustrated that the police have not brought in any suspects and have seemingly lost interest in the case, Mildred vents her anger by advertising their incompetence on three giant red billboards lined up on the road outside town.  In turn, they shout at all who pass by with the words:

RAPED WHILE DYING

NO ARRESTS MADE

HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

But the film is not a standard thriller in which a mother goes in search of her daughter’s killer.  It’s a film about what happens when a woman’s expectations of community support and compassion are seriously jeopardised by bigotry and hatred.  The results are both comic as well as tragic because human beings trying to make themselves understood in a dysfunctional society are as deeply ironic as they are pathetic.

There’s a lot of anger going on in the film industry at present.  Women are fed up with being forced into a Code of Silence in order to keep their careers on track.  The “Me Too” movement has become a way of billboarding their anger.  Three billboards outside Hollywood could read:

RAPED WHILE AUDITIONING

NO ARREST MADE

HOW COME, HARVEY WEINSTEIN?

As outrageous as Mildred Hayes’ actions are in Three Billboards, they are not hard to believe.  The violent American is nothing new but rather a well established stereotype.  Writer and director Martin McDonagh taps into the American writer Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic way of writing about a fallen world desperately in need of grace through characters whose disfigurements, both physical and spiritual, carry them towards shocking and often violent encounters.  McDonagh even introduces the billboard agent intently reading O’Connor’s classic  A Good Man is Hard to Find as a signal of what to expect from this particular story.   The three billboards that reflect Mildred Hayes’ rage take their cue from Flannery O’Connor’s own words, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”  

So, what does it take to catch a compliant, complacent world’s attention?  School shootings have become so commonplace now, it would seem the only solution is to arm the teachers??  What if the schoolteacher goes nuts?  Like Mildred Hayes when she starts firebombing the police station?  Thank goodness she doesn’t have a gun!

One of the best scenes in the film follows Mildred’s fiery meltdown outside the police station.  She thinks no one is in there, but while the flames gather momentum in the background,  sitting totally oblivious to the danger is Dixon, the disgraced deputy reading with great emotion his chief’s final letter to him telling him he can only become the good man he’s capable of being if he learns to replace his anger with love.  Of course, he’s not going to become anything at all if he doesn’t get out of the burning building.  Instinctively, we want to shout, “Get out, you idiot!  Are you deaf?  Are you blind?”

Yes, the hard of hearing do need to be shouted at.  Unless, of course, their hearing is gone altogether.  In which case, they need rescuing.  Dixon and Mildred both need rescuing from themselves.  We watch in horror as Dixon also goes berserk and throws the billboard agent out the window.  When Dixon survives the fire and ends up in the same hospital room as the traumatised agent, there is perhaps the most singular act of grace in the entire film when the billboard agent reaches out to his attacker to try to give him a drink.

It is such acts of grace that ultimately lead to redemption.  Whether Dixon and Mildred actually find redemption is unclear.  But there is a slight hint they may be on the right path when they begin to acknowledge their own complicit guilt instead of blaming everyone else.    I can’t help but wonder what Flannery O’Connor would have thought, for although Dixon and Mildred inhabit a similar world to the one she created in her fiction, the resolution of absolution and redemption is largely missing.   Mildred Hayes is a woman who longs to be free but doesn’t quite get there.   Perhaps that is as far as the writer of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was able to take her.  There are many, many people like her.  Redemption requires something greater than ourselves.  I wonder how many “Me Too” supporters will be able to take such a journey?  If more films like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri lead to such questions, then awards from the Academies are well deserved indeed.

 

Remember

Remembrance Day

Do you wonder why you think about what you think about?  It’s a good question.  Part of the answer could lie in another question–Why do you remember what you remember?

November is Remember Month here in the UK.  It’s an apt time of the year, remembering all that has now become part of a waning year.  It is summer’s true end, the closing down and sweeping up of memories like scattered leaves.   Daylight recedes along with the earth’s warmth and we are eager for the glow of a fire and the telling of a story.  Remembrance in a story is as old as time itself.

November Remembrance is usually associated with those who died in battle.  But this year’s November remembrances actually began on the 31st October, All Hallow’s Eve.  It was the 500th anniversary celebration of the official beginning of the Reformation when Martin Luther boldly posted his 95 theses.  We remember all that followed, the Bible made available to the common man in his own language, the suffering of those who died for their faith in grace alone, and the price still paid in lives today where Christian faith is a dangerous thing.

The story of the Church in Europe is so bloody and so horrific it’s hard to fathom the celebratory nature of Bonfire Night.  Remember, remember the 5th of November, Gunpowder, treason, and plot…  On this day around 400 years ago, a guy named Guy and his Catholic co-conspirators attempted to blow up Parliament and kill the Protestant James I in the process.  Tables had been turned and it was now the Catholics who were being hunted down, tortured and murdered.  Depending on what side of the religious fence ruled the day, anyone on the opposite side was considered a traitor.  Guy was caught, of course, charged with treason, and subjected to disembowelling among other things.  Did he really think he was going to get away with it?  I am continually amazed at how many of these rebels risked–and got–this brutal form of execution.  On the 5th of November, we are reminded of it every year in the UK.  I was horrified to find out Ian’s classroom was given all the graphic gory details–when he was seven years old!  With delight then, effigies referred to as “guys” are burned in blazing bonfires while fireworks, representing those that never carried off the king and the House of Parliament, explode fabulously across the country.

Why do we remember a failed terrorist named Guy Fawkes among so many others?  Is it the spectacular audacity of his plan?  Or just an excuse for something to brighten up an otherwise cold, dark November night?  I rather suspect it is the latter.  But there is something of the anti-establishment celebration in it, knowing it’s all legal and nobody’s going to be hanged, drawn and quartered for it!

Remembering gives us parameters–supposedly.  If we remember the wrongs of the past, then hopefully we will prevent them from happening again.  That is the poignancy and heartbreak of Remembrance Day.  Today, the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour nearly a century ago, the Armistice was signed to end “the war to end all wars.”  The senseless loss of an entire generation of young men barely out of their teens to the chaos of the First World War was never to be repeated.  But a mere generation later, it was.  Dunkirk and D-Day replaced the Battle of the Somme and Paschendaele.  And a generation after that, Americans sent their young to die in the jungles of Viet Nam in a war as senseless as the trenches of WWI.

We remember, but we do not change.

Perhaps that is the point of remembering–lest we forget how fallen we are, how war and acts of violence will always be a part of us, and how badly we are in need of grace and redemption.  We remember sacrifice because there is no greater gift than the laying down of a life.  It humbles us and out of that humbling should come a sheer, colossal gratitude.  We live in an era of unparalleled freedom in the Western world.  We are free to worship on whatever side of the fence we choose.  Our sons are not being shipped off by the thousands to die in wars not of their choosing.  We can voice disapproval of our government without being thrown into prison for it.  After all, remember that childhood taunt, “It’s a free country!”

Grace and gratitude go hand in hand.  For Americans, November is also the month of Thanksgiving.  I love that it comes at the end of the month, just before the Advent of Christmas.  It’s a day meant for gathering together and remembering the cornucopia of blessings we live with throughout the year before asking for more blessings under the Christmas tree.  Now, Thanksgiving is almost a blip with stores competing for Christmas shoppers weeks ahead.  Do we even know why we are remembering to be thankful?

The gospel tells the story of ten lepers who came to Jesus for healing, but only one remembered to turn back and thank him.  Perhaps the others wanted to put as much distance between their clean selves and their broken selves as possible.  But if we mainly remember because of fear and suffering,  or even just obligation, we miss out on remembering in the spirit of gratitude.   Thankfulness is meant to be a source of healing and even joy.

Jesus said to the tenth leper, who was a despised Samaritan, ” ‘Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’  Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’ 

I love that I have so many special friends who have November birthdays.  In remembering them all,  I realise how each of them has had to face personal battles of various kinds.  So to all of you, Marie, Leslie, Ann, Janie, and Cathy, I would say, “Thank you for the light of your friendship, past and present.  Remember Jesus’ words, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’  When you remember to praise Him for His faithfulness, you are well indeed.

Finally, this November 19th, the baby boy I thought I would never have, turns 21.  My thanks for the gift of this beloved son knows no bounds.  “I thank my God every time I remember you.”

Remembrance which is constant in praise overcomes all that is lost and painful and keeps us close to the heart of God.

Remembrance

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Today is Remembrance Day in Great Britain.  On the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour, 1918, World War I came to an end in Europe.  Eleven million were killed on the battlefields of that Great War in what was one of the bloodiest, most horrific wars of all time.  This day honors those who gave their lives in that war and every other war since then.  The symbol worn and displayed is a red poppy, the flower of “Flanders Fields” which was once saturated with English blood.  It is a day to reflect and remember what should never be forgotten, that the price paid for one’s life and freedom is often another’s life and freedom.  At 11:00 a.m., a minute’s silence is observed throughout the country.  One minute, one life.

The longer I live in England, which has now been twenty-one years, the more Remembrance Day means to me.  I have never lost a loved one in a war.  But anyone living in Great Britain for any length of time will inevitably be impressed with the enormous impact the two World Wars have on British society.  Every town and village has a memorial inscribed with the names of the local “boys” killed in World War I and II.  The list for WWI is always much longer, and most of them were just “boys,” straight out of school, dying by the thousands at 18 and 19 years of age.  That is my son’s age.  In the chapel of his old school at Uppingham, there are entire walls inscribed with the names of boys who left school between 1914-1918 and went immediately to a war they never returned from.  There are millions of these boys’ names inscribed all over Britain.

Today, I went to visit a village near Cambridge called Godmanchester.  A special remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme was happening there.  Fourteen soldiers from this one little village alone died in this battle.  Their names are displayed on silhouettes on the houses near or where they lived.  Cascades of red poppies adorn the door frames and windows.  They strangely bring to mind the blood on the doorposts of Israel that was supposed to safeguard against the angel of death striking down the firstborn sons of Egypt.

One of the fourteen villagers was an eldest son named William Sneesby.  He was 19 years old.  Probably nothing remarkable ever happened in his short life.  He worked on a farm before enlisting.  Then he got on a train and went to France along with millions of other young men who never came back.

Yet, a hundred years later, there is his name on a house covered in red poppies.  I stop to read about him.  He was a son who was loved and mourned.  One hundred years later, William Sneesby still matters.  One minute, one life.

At eleven o’clock, I went into St Mary’s church and listened to the chimes tolling the hour before the silence.  Then, I thanked God I did not have to watch my 19-year old son get on a train and go off to fight in a war beyond all imagining.  One minute, one precious life.

It is good to remember what wars have cost us and what they are costing still.  That’s what the poppies are for.  They have a way of changing your perspective.  The repercussions of this election week may have long lasting consequences, leaving us all in a state of uncertainty about the future.  But I am grateful for the importance of the past and the opportunity to pause and consider what it stands for.  It will not be forgotten nor the loss of so many young lives.  We will remember them.