Imagine a film that looks at a right wing home schooling ‘Christian’ family who live in the woods because they want to distance themselves from modern society. They are taught to hunt and kill, they don’t have much contact with people outside their own family, and the children can repeat verbatim what their parents have taught them. Worst of all their mother dies after committing suicide because of a mental illness that the father has not handled well. It would be a film that mocked and shocked, that confirmed all our prejudices about crazy right wing American redneck Christians and that left us feeling somewhat satisfied that we are not like them.
Captain Fantastic is such a film – with one major difference. The family who live in the wilds and are disconnected from modern society, are not right wing Christians but liberal ex-hippies. Ben (played by Viggo Mortenson), an idealistic hippy brings up his children in the wilds of Washington State. His wife dies and he and the children go to the funeral, where his in-laws, conservative wealthy Catholics, are trying to have a traditional funeral. His wife of course had wanted a Buddhist ceremony – her body to be burned in the wilds and her ashes flushed down a toilet.
Normally in a film review I would write about the cinematography (very good), or the acting (excellent – especially by the children and Mortenson), but this is one film that goes way beyond that. It’s a long time since I have been made so depressed and angry by a film. Why?
Shallow and Smug
I have seen more than a few superficial Disneyesque type films. Although this is up with the worst of them in terms of its shallowness, the reason for being so depressed and angry was not because of this alone. Rather it is because this is one of the most hateful films I have ever seen. It is crass, shallow, smug and discriminatory. Some of the people sitting around me loved it! Why not? It after all confirmed their prejudices and what they already ‘know’.
The hippies were cool, told it like it is, loved their kids, were free and open about sex and of course knew how to deal with death. On the other hand the Catholics were old, cold, institutional, rigid, dumb, heartless and hypocritical. Whilst the hippies of course had their quirks, by the end these are all worked out and everyone (apart from the mum who killed herself) lives happily ever after with the children now going to a real school – except the oldest who has rejected Harvard and gone to Namibia presumably to find himself.
The film is completely unrealistic – Buddhists don’t go round slaughtering deer with knives as though they are cavemen in the wilds and its highly unlikely that the dug up dead body of the mother would look so remarkably fresh and serene with no decomposition despite the passing of several days. But worse than these fantasies is the greatest error of all – the teaching that there really is no such thing as human sin (unless it is the corporate evils of fascists and capitalists). It’s fine for a man to walk around naked in front of his 8-year-old daughter. That’s natural and not open to abuse at all!
And then there was the mockery of death and indeed of humanity. Death is really just a laugh. We are nothing but ashes worthy only to be flushed down toilets. The last thing we need is to be buried under a gravestone which speaks of eternity. The film finishes with Dylan’s beautiful ‘I shall be released’
They say ev’rything can be replaced
Yet ev’ry distance is not near
So I remember ev’ry face
Of ev’ry man who put me here
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released
In this narrative death is release. But only in the sense that it is just one set of atoms returning to the great set of atoms. Your life is summed up as some kind of cosmic joke. Burn the dead, flush them down the toilet, dream about them and just get on with what ever you want.
The Christian Exception
Finally we have the open and blatant mocking of Christianity. The stand out line in the whole film is when the father tells the children (who are appalled at the fatness of ordinary Americans) that ‘we don’t mock or disrespect people’. To which the youngest child replies, ‘except Christians’. This witty piece of script writing was met with a guffaw by a couple behind us in the cinema. But sadly it is true. No right-on, in touch with the zeitgeist American or British movie maker would ever have made such a remark about Islam, or indeed any other religion or philosophy – but Christians are the scum of respectable society – so they are fair game. This is further reinforced in a scene where the family’s bus is stopped by a policeman who is frightened off by the children declaring they are Christian homeschoolers, quoting the bible and singing a Christian song! Hippie homeschoolers are cool…Christian homeschoolers are so freakish and frightening they even scare away the nasty American police!
My point in writing this is not to feed a Christian persecution complex. People mock us and call us names – as anyone who reads the psalms knows – it has ever been thus. Get over it. They hated Christ, they will hate his people. We are to follow him, not by fearing but by loving them. My point in writing is rather for those who are sceptics, newsmakers and news reporters, non-Christians and those for whom a film like this confirms their ‘reality’. I just simply want to ask – yes there are ‘Christians’ like the caricatures portrayed in Captain Fantastic but they are a tiny minority. However the view that this is what Christianity either is, or leads to, is not a minority view amongst those who consider themselves the great and good of our culture. I just simply want to question and challenge that prejudice.
Life is But a Joke
Another aspect of contemporary culture reflected in the film is the constant trivilisation of the serious. For example instead of Christmas the family celebrate Noam Chomsky day – Christmas is after all only about a mystical elf/religious figure. Noam Chomsky on the other hand has done a great deal for humanity. Quite what is never really explained, but the children get to celebrate it by being given an assortment of various weapons to kill things – as good Buddhists do! The eight-year-old girl is given The Joy of Sex as a kind of joke. Death, sex and God are all jokes in this Brave New World. Christ is replaced by Chomsky.
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is an Elton John song from my boyhood. I wonder whether the title of the film was deliberately taken from the song? If not it is an inspired co-incidence –
And all this talk of Jesus coming back to see us
Mmm mmm couldn’t fool us
For we were spinning out our lines walking on the wire
Hand in hand went music and the rhyme
The Captain and the Kid stepping in the ring
From here on sonny sonny sonny, it’s a long and lonely climb
This film is a revealing film because it shows the attitudes of the current cultural elites. It is a hateful film because it inspires and encourages ignorance, prejudice and hatred. It is an ignorant simplistic film because it seems to present only two ways to live – either as part of a fascistic, capitalistic, materialistic, hypocritical ‘Christian’ society, or as a liberated, freer, Buddhist ethic. It’s a false and fatal choice. There is a third, fourth, fifth and better way!
If you want to know the zeitgeist of our culture – or at least the narrative that the metro-elites continually feed us – then Captain Fantastic will give you the picture. If it is your zeitgeist it will confirm all your preconceptions and prejudices. Of course The Guardian loved it – “With its thrillingly life-affirming performances, it’s a shame that Captain Fantastic’s “strong language” has earned it a 15 certificate; there’s more here for adolescent audiences to enjoy and appreciate than in much 12-rated blockbuster fare. He may not be a superhero, but in terms of imagination, this captain really can fly.”
Life affirming?! It’s life affirming in the same way that Aladdin or Frozen is. In a fantasy world. Meanwhile in the real world, where most people can’t afford to take 15 years out to go and live in their own wood, Aleppo is being bombed to nonsense, Nigeria is facing famine, a report released today tells us that child trafficking has multiplied three times in Scotland, and I have to deal with cancer and death every week.
And the Churches response? Yes the joyless hard-hearted institutionalized bigots are for real…as are the crazy home-schoolers. Although a more nuanced and compassionate picture would recognize that some/most church institutions do a great deal of good and home schooling is not necessarily a pathological condition! But I think what worries me just as much as the hypocrites and the eccentrics is the gutless reaction of so many Christian leaders to this fantasy world being portrayed by the rich and powerful. I can already see the ‘life-affirming’ reviews from those who will see this as some kind of parable and way of connecting with contemporary life. Even good kind, wise evangelicals can sell the pass – witness the Archbishop of Canterbury’s latest caving into the culture – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/09/23/the-church-of-england-now-has-no-place-for-believers-in-the-trad/?WTmcid=tmgoff_soc_spf_fb&WT.mc_id=sf36797845
Today I dared to question Vicky Beeching’s endorsement of an article by a bi-sexual man and the forces of ‘Christian’ progressivism went wild. Apparently I don’t understand bi-sexuality. I was sent this by Rachel Held Evans – another one of the Christians who have just compromised totally with the culture – http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/bisexuality-christian-inclusive-eliel-cruz
What astounded me is how so many of those tweeting me, style themselves as artists and musicians. It seems as though the Christian art and music scene has a life of its own – one which closely mirrors the life of the general art and music scene. Christianity is just a style, a type of clothing to be put on or off, as one feels like. Its all so safe, and comfortable and culturally unchallenging.
Where are the radicals? Where are the prophets? What good is the salt if it has lost its saltiness – except to be thrown into the fire? What good is light if it is hidden under a jar? What good is a Christian being leader of a political party if on the one hand he can rightly rail against the injustice facing many refugees, whilst on the other defending a politician in his own party who argues that prostitution should be offered to school children as a career choice! http://metro.co.uk/2016/09/18/lib-dem-politician-says-schools-should-suggest-prostitution-as-a-career-6135362/?ITO=SendToAFriend
I read Psalm 12 this morning. It seems apposite:
Psa. 12:1 Help, LORD, for no one is faithful anymore;
those who are loyal have vanished from the human race.
2 Everyone lies to their neighbor;
they flatter with their lips
but harbor deception in their hearts.
3 May the LORD silence all flattering lips
and every boastful tongue—
4 those who say,
“By our tongues we will prevail;
our own lips will defend us—who is lord over us?”
5 “Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan,
I will now arise,” says the LORD.
“I will protect them from those who malign them.”
6 And the words of the LORD are flawless,
like silver purified in a crucible,
like gold refined seven times.
7 You, LORD, will keep the needy safe
and will protect us forever from the wicked,
8 who freely strut about
when what is vile is honored by the human race.