The Royal Tenenbaums

GeneralMovie Review

The faded family banner still flies atop the peak of the majestic Victorian homestead in which the family Tenenbaum grew up. Well, no. That’s not entirely correct. They never really grew up, and that’s the problem. Each member of the family realized notoriety, even fame and glimpses of glory. But this is no family, and they resemble no family among our acquaintances. They live lives cluttered by the elaborate ornamentation of isolated, self-centered existence. They fit themselves within the borders of a family portrait, yet the only thing they share is a mutual loathing of the family patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum. Yet, as we look into the stylized and eccentric lives of these sad, quirky, and silly people, we recognize a humanness that is common, a plight so ordinary we might miss it were it not drawn large for us upon the creative canvas of Wes Anderson.

This is the 3rd major film from Wes Anderson. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) follows Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998), both offbeat comedies that focus on precious young people who find themselves out of place in the world, who discover that the world is not ready for their genius. The Royal Tenenbaums was co-written by Anderson’s long-time friend, Owen Wilson, who also appears in the film as the Eli Cash. Cash is the life-long friend and neighbor of the Tenenbaum children–he’s a successful author of western-style fiction even though his talent is panned by the literary critics.

The father of the Tenenbaum family is Royal (Gene Hackman), the smirking, irresponsible, arrogant father who has not lived with or communicated with the family for many years. When we meet him, he is being evicted from the hotel in which he has been living–his credit has run out. The Tenenbaum matriarch is Etheline (Angelica Houston), once celebrated author of a book on parenting child prodigies–all 3 of the Tenebaum children were hailed as geniuses. She now works for the museum and plays contract bridge. The 3 children are Chas (Ben Stiller), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Richie (Luke Wilson)–they are all neurotic. Chas, the business whiz kid, made his fortune in real estate before he entered high school. He is now a widower, and the paranoid parent of 2 boys. Unable to cope with his fears, he moves back into the family house. Margot wrote a $50,000 prize-winning play when she was in the 9th grade, but locks herself away in the bathroom, alone with her secrets. She decides to move back into the family house. Richie, a world-class tennis player, suffered a meltdown at the finals of the US Open–since then, he’s been traveling the world on cargo ships, until he is summoned home by the news that Royal delivers to Etheline, “I’m dying of stomach cancer.”

He’s not, of course. Royal is lying again. He’s broke, and needs a place to stay. He’s alone and has no one to be the butt of his sarcasm. Nevertheless, the family is reunited, and therein is the question posed: Can these angry, wounded people be friends? Is it possible for them to be a family? As Royal says, “I want my family back.”

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that he does not deserve to get his family back, and that he is the root cause of the family’s dissolution and excessive dysfunction. He swindled Chas. Margot, not a Tenenbaum by birth, is always introduced by him as “my adopted daughter.” When he talks to his grandsons about their mother, he says, “I’m very sorry for your loss. Your mother was a terribly attractive woman.” Yet, even as we are convinced that Royal has been a terrible father and husband, that he has not yet experienced that deep transformation that will re-orient his attitudes and perspective, we know that he wants the right thing. We find ourselves pulling for him, hoping that somehow, some way, these individuals will find one another and learn how to love one another. There is a strong sympathy holding this story together, an urgency that breathes with frequent smiles and occasional outright laughter.

Anderson presents these characters to us–in a way, he shoves them in our face, and we see them as individuals, and we see through them. They each have their own room in the big house, rooms that are so different that each is like a private universe. They tell us their own private stories disconnected from those closest to them. They have all broken away from the home, have all been driven away from the home before the story begins. But now to find themselves they must pick up the threads back at the place where they were broken. As an ironic foil, Eli Cash, an outsider, wants the fame of the family and the talent that his friends possess. Consequently, his life has been spent trying to get into the family just as vigorously as the children have been trying to get out. He wants those impersonal superficial things that have driven the family apart. In the end, he gets what his friends are willing to give him: love.

Is redemption, reconciliation, and forgiveness possible? Royal stumbles forward in his own misguided way. As you watch this process unfold, watch how Royal begins to take his children out of the surreal existence under the roof of the old house and out into the real world. Observe how death plays a central role in the process of change. Each one of the characters must face death. In each character’s life, something must die. Anderson gives us some delightful and funny images that tease out the death theme. But don’t let the humor distract you from the important role it plays in the larger message of redemption. The uncomfortable sexual tension between Richie and Margot makes us feel how confused this family is about understanding, experiencing, and expressing love.

The cast is marvelous with crisp, thoughtful, nuanced performances by each one. Hackman is brilliant. The script and dialogue are understated so that the humor is wry not slapstick. The film is stylized – the episodes framed like portraits conveying the detached impersonal world of the characters. Each portrait is filled with the fascinating details that tell us something about the room occupied by each character. The clothes worn by the characters are like costumes or symbols. The tone of the film is gentle and sympathetic–it does not mock these characters for their troubles and their foibles, but it understands them. So will we if we listen, because these are people like us, people in need of grace, redemption, and healing. We are people who need to come home to find that for which our hearts have been longing. 

-Steve Froehlich  

 

Questions for discussion:

  • Why is the film titled, The Royal Tenenbaums?
  • Why have the characters left the homestead? From what are they running, or what are they unwilling to face?
  • How are the images and how is the theme of death used to advance the theme of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation?
  • How does the family home function as a metaphor for the lives of the people who live in that house?
  • What role does risk-taking play in the commentary of the story and in the transformation of the characters?
  • What significance do you place on the opening and closing image of Mordecai?
  • How does our discomfort at the sexual tension between Richie and Margot help us understand the film’s depiction of how love is recognized and expressed? Comment on the different ways Richie shows love to Royal, Margot, and Eli, as well as the other characters’ reaction to that demonstration.
  • Why is it meaningful for Richie to put the boar’s head back on the wall? (Note that the wall still has the marks of where it once hung, and remember the scene in which the boar’s head is discovered.)
  • How does Royal change, and how does his change influence the members of the family?
  • Is there forgiveness and healing? Is it experienced uniformly among the family? If it is experienced at all, is it warranted?
  • To what Bible passage or story does your reflection on this film take you? Why?

Unbreakable

GeneralMovie Review

Aristotle, in his Poetics, describes the classic literary hero falling from greatness when a tragic flaw is exposed. The story, then, is the struggle to reclaim the heights, wiser and nobler than before. This is the stuff of legends from Ulysses to Hamlet to Darth Vader.

Our appreciation for heroes in everyday life has been renewed by the tragedy suffered on 9/11. Many are singing praises and wreathing accolades to fire fighters, police officers, and ordinary Joes who have risked and given their lives in acts of impulsive courage and selfless daring.

Who are your heroes? What does it take to be a hero? Could you be a hero?

In Unbreakable M. Night Shyamalan takes this important, personal, and epic theme and tells a story much in the same style and tone of his blockbuster sensation, The Sixth Sense. David Dunn, thoughtfully and honestly portrayed by Bruce Willis, is a guard for a local security company. He is struggling to find his place in the world as a husband, father, and man. Elijah Price, played with riveting intensity by Samuel Jackson, is a collector of classic comic books. He is known as “Mr Glass” by those who know of his rare disease that makes bones fragile and brittle. The two men meet after David is the sole survivor of a commuter train derailment – he walks away from the heaps of steaming wreckage without a scratch. Yet both men are deeply broken, and long for a place to belong and call home.

The story unfolds as Elijah observes, “Real life doesn’t fit into little boxes that were drawn for it.” He muses intently about the possibility that our lives are connected to some larger reality, the greatness and the idealism that survives only in comic book heroes and villains. Shyamalan gives us a compelling and deliberate character study of flawed individuals with astonishing gifts. Superbly crafted and photographed, elegantly directly, subtle, refined, puzzling, personal, mysterious – Unbreakable invites us to think about what it means to be noble, to know the satisfaction of being valued by someone else, of donning even for a moment the mask and cape of our favorite superhero.

-Steve Froehlich

V for Vendetta

GeneralMovie Review

Remember, remember the fifth of November, The gunpowder, treason and plot, I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot.

On the Fifth of November, 1605, Guy Fawkes, the Catholic vigilante failed in his attempt to blow up the British King and Parliament. On the Fifth of November, 2010, the man know only as “V” and masquerading as Guy Fawkes, begins his year-long campaign to overthrow the totalitarian government of Britain. To the thunderous strains of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” V conducts the overture, the pyrotechnic destruction of The Old Bailey, and the first movement of his orchestrated crusade to liberate the lives and minds of a society that has given away its freedom. 

V for Vendetta is a creation of the Wachowski brothers (who brought us the Matrix triology) loosely based on the 1989 graphic novel by Alan Moore, which skewered the British government and policies led by Margaret Thatcher. Moore, however, has had his name removed from the credits of the film. The film, deftly directed by James McTeigue, resets the story in a futuristic England ruled by Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), who ruthlessly preserves order by any means. When V, branded as a terrorist by the government, eludes capture, Sutler snarls his justification for his own brand of terrorism: “I want this country to realize that we stand on the edge of oblivion. I want everyone to remember why they need us!”

The faceless V (Hugo Weaving) offers his own vindication for his own version of vigilante vengeance, a verdict “held as a votive not in vain”: “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” V enlists Evey (Natalie Portman), whose family has been victimized by Sutler’s vicious regime, in his systematic plan to overthrow the government and to “hold accountable” those who by dehumanizing him, transformed him into a super-human idea (“Ideas are bullet-proof” he informs the final evil-doer he executes, strangling him with his gloved hands).

V for Vendetta’s iconographic visuals are as bold (and obvious) as its political moralizing. Sutler preaches from his looming Big Brother-like video pulpit, and V sermonizes while he plots and executes. Unlike V, the film wears no masks as it parades before us an unflinching and impudent commentary on recent history, the current world scene, and political leadership. From one of V’s homilies: “Violence can be used for good…. A building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it. Symbols are given power by people. A symbol, in and of itself is powerless, but with enough people behind it, blowing up a building can change the world.” Symbols are as vital to the style of the film as they are to its message, and the disturbing connection between the film’s symbols of power and still-incomprehensible horror of 911 is unmistakable.

At the center of the film, between Sutler and V each playing God, Evey struggles to find herself and discover if there is an idea or a truth, larger than herself, to which she can commit herself. Whom should she trust; what should she fear? V believes that “there are no coincidences, only the illusion of coincidence.” He means that each person must act willfully and not play the victim. On that basis he holds Sutler and all those who brutalized him responsible for their actions–they cannot excuse their actions by appealing to their good intentions or the crisis of history. He holds God similarly accountable for the way things are: “I, like God, do not play with dice and do not believe in coincidence.” 

The film is a thrilling, swash-buckling, sensational political rant against an Orwellian caricature of all that’s evil in the world–of the bureaucracies of state, religion, and corporate greed; of the abuse of power eviscerating with fascist vehemence art and sexuality. But the irony is that it is no mere idea that overthrows totalitarianism and oppression–it is the actions of humans who use power for their own ends that accomplish these things.

“Is V a terrorist leader or a freedom fighter? Or merely a poor, wronged soul, out for vengeance?” (Jason Korsner, UK Screen) The brothers Wachowski do not answer that question for us. But about this they are unambiguous: we must not be passive or uninformed about the evil and injustice that is a pervasive presence in the world. Their hope is in the power of truth and ideas, and it is this hope that launches the film with Evey’s narration: “I’ve witnessed first hand the power of ideas, I’ve seen people kill in the name of them, and die defending them… but you cannot kiss an idea, cannot touch it, or hold it… ideas do not bleed, they do not feel pain, they do not love…. And it is not an idea that I miss, it is a man…. A man that made me remember the Fifth of November. A man that I will never forget.”

The faceless and impersonal relentlessness of V, in the end, cannot mask the reality that it is human to act, to believe, to hope, and to fight. V is a man, he is a human, and he loves. 

-Steve Froehlich

Citizen Kane

GeneralMovie Review

 

Most essays and reviews of “Citizen Kane” begin with either a haunting question or a bold statement: “Is Citizen Kane the greatest movie ever made?” or “Citizen Kane is undoubtedly the triumph of the American cinema, the greatest American film ever made!”

The origins of “Citizen Kane” are well known. In 1941, Orson Welles, the boy wonder of radio and stage, was given freedom by RKO Radio Pictures to make any picture he wished. Herman Mankiewicz, an experienced screenwriter, collaborated with him on a screenplay originally called “The American.” Its inspiration was the life of William Randolph Hearst, who had put together an empire of newspapers, radio stations, magazines and news services, and then built to himself the flamboyant monument of San Simeon, a castle furnished by rummaging the remains of nations. Hearst was Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates rolled up into an enigma.

At the center of the film’s technical brilliance is the cinematography of Gregg Toland, who on John Ford’s “The Long Voyage Home” (1940) had experimented with deep focus photography–with shots where everything was in focus, from the front to the back, so that composition and movement determined where the eye looked first.

The film opens with the death of newspaper magnate, Charles Foster Kane — he slumps over and utters a single final word, “Rosebud.” After a dizzying newsreel overview of Kane’s life and accomplishments, the story of his life is told through the eyes of those who knew him, a series of flashback remembrances. “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life,” says one of the searchers through the warehouse of treasures which Kane left behind. Yet, the single word, “Rosebud” becomes the one word that unlocks the private world of a larger-than-life citizen. Kane’s business partner explains it this way: “All he really wanted out of life was love. That’s Charlie’s story–how he lost it.”

Roger Ebert (film critic for the Chicago Sun Times) describes the journey the story takes this way: “Citizen Kane” knows the sled is not the answer. It explains what Rosebud is, but not what Rosebud means. The film’s construction shows how our lives, after we are gone, survive only in the memories of others, and those memories butt up against the walls we erect and the roles we play. There is the Kane who made shadow figures with his fingers, and the Kane who hated the traction trust; the Kane who chose his mistress over his marriage and political career, the Kane who entertained millions, the Kane who died alone.

Now more than 60 years since it’s first release, the movie still arrests us by its stark honesty. It dares to preach to us about the human condition, that fame and power do not change what we are at the deepest part of our being, that a life glutted with success and prestige does not answer the lonely longing of a little boy lost within the faade created by media manipulation. Citizen Kane forces us to listen to the plaintive cry of every human soul, “Who will love me?

-Steve Froehlich

Crash

GeneralMovie Review

 

Crash is a parable, a morality tale. As such it is terse with respect to narrative style, and it is focused with respect to theme. But the film and the subject it tackles are far from simplistic.

Paul Haggis (screenplay for Million Dollar Baby) has assembled a remarkable cast for his directorial debut. His screenplay, co-written with Bobby Moresco, gives us well-defined characters whose dialogue sounds totally believable in displaying for us the many faces of racism.

The film is like Hamlet’s play within a play—the film as a device is itself a lens, a window through which we see the world. But the view through this particular lens is of a whole society of people who have jaded attitudes toward the people all around them.

Racism. Roger Ebert comments: “All are victims of it, and all are guilty it. Sometimes, yes, they rise above it, although it is never that simple.”

How do you look at the people you pass every day, see coming toward you on the sidewalk, in the grocery store, standing on the corner? Do you think of yourself as a racist? Do you pride yourself for treating all people the same? Is it possible to live with that kind of impartiality and lack of prejudice? Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) offers this observation, “You think you know who you are. You have no idea.”

There is a cruelty and an ordinariness to the way the characters behave. We think we recognize them sometimes by stereotype, sometimes because we see ourselves, yet each one surprises us. No one is entirely what we expect, even though each one is hauntingly familiar. Even for those characters we think we understand there is a dark twist that unsettles us and conflicts our thinking. With each new character introduced, the “hot potato” (Ken Tucker, New York Magazine) gets passed along to move the film forward. But the forward movement is not a narrative development, but a panoramic sweep that quite literally comes full circle.

The film is stylish, simple, and symbolic. Don’t be surprised by its rather shameless use of conventions. “Some critics have criticized Crash for its reliance on coincidence. Which, given it’s a deliberately structured modern parable, is a bit like damning War of the Worlds for having aliens” (Andy Jacobs, BBC).

While the film’s presentation is a bit obvious (come critics call it “preachy”) in places, it’s not a film that plays “hard-to-get.” The parable begins with a clear statement of what the film sets out to accomplish. Detective Graham Walters (Don Cheadle) narrates: “It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.”

Crash has hints of redemption but does not offer substantial resolution to so great a distortion of our perspective and so deep a problem which pollutes the human condition. The film is diagnostic and descriptive, and that is a good place to begin exploring how we can live differently, how our view of people and of our relationship to all we touch can change.

-Steve Froehlich

Crimes and Misdemeanors

GeneralMovie Review

 

Woody Allen (writer and director of Crimes and Misdemeanors), notorious for doing some things badly, does at least two things well: he asks good questions, and he creates interesting characters to ask those questions.

Much of Allen’s work is painfully autobiographical. The questions he asks appear to be his own, and he himself is one of the characters of his creation. So his own neuroses and quirks fill the story and the screen. But underneath the tragi-comic idiosyncrasies, he’s really not such an odd duck.

Crimes and Misdemeanors plays on some of Allen’s favorite themes: the unfairness of life, frustrated desire, unfulfilled ambition, conflicted conscience, honesty, mediocrity, and humorous ironies that spin out of human imperfections and flawed choices.

Allen effectively weaves together a cast of complex characters made up of Martin Landau, Angelica Huston, Sam Watterson, Mia Farrow, Claire Bloom, Alan Alda, and of course, himself, all of whom give very fine performances. Crimes and Misdemeanors plays like a thriller, like a classic film noire. But its darkness emanates not from ominous people and situations, but from the human heart.

Yet Allen gives us something different in this film. His style of realism gives each of us watching the story unfold full knowledge of the situations, and thereby invites us to ask the questions with the characters as each situation develops. Exactly how selfish are we? How far would we go to protect our happiness and reputation? Is our comfort worth another person’s life?

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that Allen offers answers to the questions he raises.

-Steve Froehlich

The Decalogue

GeneralMovie Review

Ten Commandments. Ten Films.

One work of art. One masterpiece. 

The Decalogue is a masterpiece of film-making written and directed by the Polish film genius, Krzysztof Kieslowski. I know, you’re thinking, All the Chesterton House Movie Night films are great. But, truly (verily, verily) all the critics agree – every one of the 30 whose review of The Decologue I read agree: The Decalogue is magnificent cinema.

You remember the Ten Commandents, surely. We can recite them in classic King James prose:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Honour thy father and thy mother.

Thou shalt not kill.

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Thou shalt not steal.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

Thou shalt not covet.

So, 1 film about each commandment? Not exactly. Kieslowski gives us 10 stories that play with what it means to keep or understand the Commandments. All 10 stories take place in the same Warsaw apartment complex, and we see characters from the different stories passing through in the background. Kieslowski gives us a universe in which the lives of men and women, boys and girls, are intertwined in their common struggle. Keeping or breaking the Laws of God impacts the way they (and we) live together. But how are we helped by keeping God’s Laws? How are we hurt by breaking them? Is it as easy to keep these Laws as it is to quote them? Does keeping them bring understanding to the struggle of life? Does breaking them bring freedom and joy in the escape of God’s tyranny? And who can break only one at a time – if we steal are we not also coveting, if we murder are we not also taking to ourselves another god?

We will watch 2 of the 10 films this Friday night. Each film is about 1 hour in length. The series was initially produced for Polish television, so each segments fits the television time format… more or less. Then we will discuss what Kieslowski has presented to us in his amazing creation, The Decalogue.

-Steve Froehlich

Dr. Strangelove

GeneralMovie Review

 

“Dimitri, we have a little problem.” That’s the President of the United States talking to the Soviet Premiere.

“He went and did a funny thing, Dimitri.” That’s the President explaining to the Premiere that General Jack D. Ripper has launched a nuclear strike because he’s convinced that the Commies are poisoning “the purity and essence of our natural fluids” by adding fluoride to the water supply.

“I think I’d like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in… I don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn the whole program because of a single slip up, sir.” That’s General Buck Turgidson, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urging the President not to condemn the nuclear defense system simply because they had not foreseen the possibility of Gen’l Ripper unilaterally initiating Armageddon.

Dr. Stranglove is Stanley Kubrick’s breakthrough comedy about the plausible absurdity of nuclear deterrence, a Cold War satire showing machines at the mercy of lunatic generals. The influence and role of technology is a theme to which Kubrick returns in his other masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Dr. Strangelove is consistently heralded as one of the great films of the 20th century. It features brilliant performances by Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Peter Sellers, Slim Pickens, Peter Sellers, and the debut film role of James Earl Jones. (Did I mention PeterSellers? Sellers plays three roles.)

As we face a culture even more densely saturated by technology, Dr. Strangelove remains “remarkably fresh and undated – a clear-eyed, irreverent and dangerous satire” (so says Roger Ebert). Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Frankenstein

GeneralMovie Review

It was a dark and stormy night. Really. It was the summer of 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, a site previously visited by literary giants like Milton, Rousseau, and Voltaire and a retreat to which another generation of literary greats had gathered for what some have called the most famous house party in literary history. Among the friends were Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley (Percy’s wife). In response to a mutual dare to write a ghost story, Mary Shelley wrote the legendary novel, Frankenstein (published 1818). She was only 19.

The novel was an immediate success. Ironically, almost anticipating the transformation that the story would undergo in the 20th century, the first dramatic production of the tale, Presumption, was produced on stage in 1823 and the first parody version was produced in 1825 as Frank and Steam. In 1910, it was first adapted for the screen in a silent short produced by Thomas Edison. 

The most famous film version of Frankenstein is, of course, James Whale’s 1931 production, which made Boris Karloff an international star and gave the viewing public an imposing image that cast a shadow across the 20th century. The meticulous craftsmanship of the film’s composition and storytelling launched the career of Whale as a major director. The classic film is important in the chronology of visual arts — City Lights, the Charlie Chaplin silent masterpiece, was released the same year, and the sound effects incorporated into the film created an audio revolution. The visual effects of the film were the creation of makeup master, Jack Pierce. Pierce explained that he “built an artificial square-shaped skull, like that of a man whose brain had been taken from the head of another man.” He fixed wire clamps over Karloff’s lips, painted his face blue-green, which photographed a corpse-like grey, and glued two electrodes to Karloff’s neck. The wax on his eyelids was Karloff’s idea. “We found the eyes were too bright, seemed too understanding, where dumb bewilderment was so essential. So I waxed my eyes to make them heavy, half-seeing”, Karloff explained. The entire monster’s costume weighed over 40 pounds.

“It was on a dreary night in November.” So begins chapter 4 of the novel, and this marks the starting point for most of the film adaptations of the story. With the exception of the 1994 film by Kenneth Branagh, all the Frankenstein movies focus on the creation of the monster rather than the reflections of the creator on what he has done as he faces the consequences resulting from his creation. However, even as the film sensationalizes the horror of a creature, assembled from body parts robbed from graves, animated by the raw power of natural energy harnessed by the cleverness of scientific machinery, a central theme from the novel cannot entirely be masked.

Shelley deliberately parallels Victor Frankenstein as creator with God as Creator. As we watch the creature jolted to reanimated life, we ask not only: Is this possible? but: Should this be done? Frankenstein offers these words of warning in the novel: Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”

Frankenstein is indeed a myth for modern times. The science hinted at in the novel and caricatured in the film seems to be a looming possibility in our present generation. Certainly the ethical questions are still with us: To what end should scientific knowledge be used? The film depicts the all-too-common reality that our good intentions in justifying our bold and reckless use of power and knowledge often go awry, resulting not in the good we had anticipated but the evil that we feared.

The story inescapably poses another question: Is the monster human? Each of the several Frankenstein films struggle with the degree of humanness and subsequent empathy that a humanized monster would evoke. What is the source of his evil? It’s interesting to note that the novel and the film deal with these questions quite differently. Shelley’s Romantic ideals frame the monster’s evil as the result of his cruel treatment (not his nature, but his nurture) — even though hideous externally, he could have been good if he had been treated with compassion. The film versions, however, make the monster intrinsically evil — he is corrupt because his very parts are corrupt, and as an irredeemable beast he can only be destroyed. 

Frankenstein’s creation is nameless. But the corruption and evil that we face in our real lives is not nameless. Perhaps one of the questions that the movie invites us to ask is: What name will we give to the things of life, even the things of our own creation, that have gone horribly wrong? Those things that we have attempted with noble and sincere aspiration, but in the end are not what we had hoped they would be? Dare we ask: Who is the monster?

-Steve Froehlich

Chesterton House Painting