Idol Chatter

Boston Globe reporter Hiawatha Bray probes the moral core of “Left Behind: Eternal Forces,” the video game version of the popular apocalyptic book series by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. (See fellow blogger Paul O’Donnell’s post about the game’s pre-2005-Christmas debut for more information.)

Bray’s interest was apparently sparked by Rob Corddry’s satirical “report” inspired by the game, “This Week in God: God Kills Pt. 1,” which aired a few months ago on “The Daily Show” (do watch it–it’s very, very funny). Though “Eternal Forces” is a Christian video game (set in New York city–that city of hedonistic evil–18 months post-rapture), players contend with a surprising amount of violence in their attempts to stay alive amid the reigning chaos, according to Bray. Most shocking of all, players can take lives as they protect their own. You can fight evil forces with prayer, which “really enters in this whole new dimension called ‘spiritual warfare,’ said Troy Lyndon , CEO of Left Behind Games. “You can actually play the entire game without firing a shot.'” But Bray reports that you can also:

[C]reate a band of soldiers who’ll protect Tribulation Force territory from Carpathian incursions. But they’re supposed to use minimal force. Every time they kill, even if it’s justified, it weakens their moral fiber. Force them to kill too often, and they’ll fall away from the faith and move to the Dark Side.

The game’s ambivalent attitude to violence comes naturally to Lyndon, whose son has served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The more I’ve talked to my son, the more passionate it’s made me about understanding the realities of war,” said Lyndon. “When our kids are coming back from overseas, their hearts are affected. Their hearts are harder…. It’s a horrible thing.”

Lyndon agrees that something had to be done to put the Taliban and Saddam Hussein out of business, but he doesn’t like the way the conflict has morphed into an endless cycle of atrocities. “I don’t know what the answer is,” he said. And Lyndon has injected that same moral ambiguity into the game.”

Moral ambiguity is apparently what sets “Left Behind: Eternal Forces” apart from other, non-Christian video games for Bray: “It’s easy to jeer at a group of Christians seeking to make their mark in an industry that so often celebrates amoral savagery. Yet you can’t help respecting the effort that went into Left Behind: Eternal Forces. Like Ned Flanders, the absurdly pious neighbor on “The Simpsons,” the game is odd and sometimes annoying, but with a good heart.”

Though watch Rob Corddry’s report and, in addition to a laugh, you might instead find yourself rather disturbed, despite all the satire.

Okay, this summer’s drunken anti-Semitic rant was a P.R. faux-pas. But just as Mel Gibson overcame his more veiled anti-Semitic reading of the Gospel in “The Passion of the Christ” by coaxing support for the deeply Catholic film among evangelicals, he’s determined to overcome his Cuervo Nacht jabbering by showing his new film, “Apocalypto,” to minority audiences.

So far, to the wondering surprise of National Public Radio and the perturbation of The Los Angeles Times, his campaign is working. The Latino Business Association, a Los Angeles group, gave Gibson its Chairman’s Visionary Award. “If that’s all it takes to overlook its honoree’s notorious anti-Semitic ramblings this summer,” the Times’ editorial page announced, “the group is clearly a cheap date.”

The Times followed that crack, however, with an account of how much time and effort Gibson is willing to put in. Currying favor with Native Americans as well as Latinos, the director has done Q&A sessions at small screenings as far afield as Oklahoma City and Austin, Texas. Sure, Gibson has a habit of digging himself a deep hole. But it may not matter when you’re the hardest wooing man in show business.

The basis for the new film “Zen Noir” is a kind of funny concept. A noir-style detective investigates a murder in a Buddhist temple. When he asks questions, he gets slippery, koan-type answers. “My name isn’t me,” says one Buddhist. When pressed, the robed man says, “Articulate Lotus Flowing From the Source,” which later turns into “call me Ed.”

The dame the detective inevitably falls for is a bald American Buddhist swathed in dark robes who meditates on death—”So what are you, anyway? Some kind of nun?” he asks. And there’s an old Asian man who enigmatically throws around small oranges, wields a green foam bat, and repeatedly asks, “What murder?” when questioned. Early on, the detective reads his notes in noir-y voice-over, “Cushions, candles, incense, bells. Suspect possible cult activity.”

But like a typical latter-day “Saturday Night Live” skit, the joke could have been contained within the first few minutes. To keep it going, though, writer, director, and producer Marc Rosenbush—who was encouraged to make this debut feature film by friend David Mamet—sees the pork-pie-hat-wearing, tough-talking (“It’s time to kick some bald, Buddhist ass”) detective through a spiritual transformation.

It starts with a chat with the old man, “I’m not like you people,” says the P.I. The teacher starts to differ, and then, off comes the pork-pie hat. We see for the first time that he does, in fact, have something in common with these meditators—he’s bald too! The teacher reaches up and rubs both of their heads, nodding.

Entirely shot in what looks like a single loft space, “Zen Noir” gives new meaning to low-budget. In lieu of changes of scenery, the camera often rests contentedly for long moments on a potted orchid in the temple—or those oranges—presumably to lull us into a meditative state. It’s so low budget that the first DVD screener we received didn’t work. And about a half an hour into the second, it too pixilated and froze.

Instead of being relieved, though—as I would have been in the first 15 arm-chewing minutes—I was surprisingly frustrated. Spoiler Alert: See, the detective had just gotten Jane, the bald, meditating dame (apparently not a nun), out of her robes and onto a massage table. And during the moment when, had this been a regular noir, they would have shared a smoke, she says that he asks a lot of questions, and that she has one for him: “What’s your name?” He laughs and is about to answer when his face clouds over and he says, “I forget.” We are to assume that he is having a pre-enlightened moment in a Buddhisty, leave-your-mind sort of way.

That’s when my DVD died. Though I managed to skip to the beginning of another chapter for a quick, blurry moment to see our P.I., in robes of his own, eyes closed, meditating—on the nature death, murder, love?

Since I couldn’t watch the rest, I wasn’t able to find out whether his transformation was long-lasting, or if the end justified the verrrry slow means. But I can see this so-bad-it’s-good film climbing to cult status. A kind of “What the Bleep” for noir-loving spiritualists.

Zen Noir is now available on DVD:

The HBO documentary “Thin” aired last night, telling the story of four women struggling with anorexia and bulimia. A film directed by Laura Greenfield (also the author of “Girl Culture”), “Thin” introduces viewers to Shelly, a nurse who has been in and out of clinics many times; Polly, a photographer also with many prior experiences as an in-patient; Brittany, the youngest, at 15; and Alisa, a mother of two–all of whom are so broken by their struggle with eating disorders that the audience will sense they are at the point of life and death. In fact, Alisa says flat out that being thin is more important than anything else in her life, including her children, and Brittany’s fear of becoming “fat” is so utterly potent that she regularly expresses the wish to die in lieu of gaining any weight.

These are four women who have lost all faith in themselves. It’s awful to encounter the severity of their brokenness.

“Thin” is ultra-heavy on the drama, the intense emotion, the “I’m being watched by cameras” over-reactions by the women featured. (Though, granted, living with an eating disorder is dramatic by nature.) Regardless of this, for those unfamiliar with eating disorders, “Thin” is sure to prove eye-opening about the sad realities of the distorted body images so many women live with, which drive them to desperate measures in their eating, exercising, and purging. Ideally, this set of viewers will decide to look beyond the documentary’s melodrama to see the story that needs to be heard, and the terrible reality of women crushed by societal pressures to fit a certain body type.

For those who know eating disorders all too well, however, I am not sure that watching “Thin” is a good idea. Yes, it could serve as a cautionary tale, a “this could happen to you” warning to get off a destructive path if you are already headed down this particular road. But “Thin” lacks hope overall–it sends a message, and perhaps truthfully so, that it is almost impossible to conquer an eating disorder, that next to no one recovers fully to live a normal life, and that once broken, the bodies of these women are broken forever.

If you still have hope for yourself or your child, if you still have faith that it is possible to conquer this struggle, you might consider skipping “Thin” when it re-airs or comes out on DVD. It could shatter your faith in the possibility of recovery. It is really the story of four women at the end of their ropes–and it does little to show that any of them find a way out of this deepest of dark places.

To HBO’s and the director’s credit, the official site for “Thin” has links on its page for “Recognizing and Dealing with Eating Disorders” and resource listings for “Getting Help and Learning More,” which include hotlines and help centers for parents and specifically Dads as well.