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Jun 25 2009

Year One: Not Quite What I Expected

Alert: Spoilers are included in this article.

I have been working at my job pretty close to nonstop for several weeks and needed a break and some levity. I sometimes enjoy mindless humor and was interested in seeing either Land of the Lost or Year One. Since nobody I know is interested in seeing Year One, I decided that if I was going to see a film alone, that would be the one to see. So, I went to the local Alamo Drafthouse where someone else could cook dinner for a change and I could have a drink and watch something that required no thought. (I feel compelled to mention I parked right next to Matt D’s car, but I had no paper with me and was unable to leave a note. I didn’t ever see Matt, but just to say, “Hey Matt! I saw your car last night!”)

While I can’t say Year One actually prompted too much thought, and it was about what I expected from Jack Black and Harold Ramis, it was not what I expected overall. I thought it was going to be a confused film about an ancient man in the ancient world with a thin plot about whatever. What it was, was a statement about religion and belief (or more to the point, unbelief and the reasons for unbelief). Since I had not the slightest clue I would be writing about this film, I made no notes. Any quotes I offer are purely paraphrases to the best of my memory. And most likely I’ll have to visit IMDb to get the characters’ names.

The theme of the film was very reminiscent of Life of Brian: A man, confused as being god’s messenger, stumbles through a series of loosely written Bible tales, crossing paths with Old Testament legends and giving them a bit of a reinterpretation from an outsider’s perspective.

In the film, the main character Zed is a tribe member in a group of hunter gatherers who live in an unspecified forest region. He is no hunter. He is no gatherer. But he is charming and funny and sometimes lucky (but mostly unlucky with a lucky twist). He has a way of making lemonade from life’s lemons. His friend, Oh, may represent “Oh” in the “Eureka” sense. Of the two “Oh” is the one most likely to see the reality of what is actually happening or likely to happen; but what he can’t predict are the random twists of fate that consistently turn Zed’s harebrained plans into successes, even while things appear to get worse and worse for them.

Zed gets tired of the status quo and decides to shake things up. He can’t be the best “male” in this society where brawn and physical prowess are that standards of quality, but he can be the smartest guy–just not with his current level of intellect. So, Zed decides to eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. In the film, the tree is not about good and evil, but simply knowledge. Certainly the fruit looks magical enough, eerily florescent golden apple-like somethings. And Zed eats it despite the warnings of his friend, Oh, that it’s “forbidden.” Oh can’t answer Zed’s questions about why the fruit is forbidden–it’s simply forbidden. And you don’t eat forbidden things. That’s not good enough for Zed. Clue number one that there were going be to some things examined: Someone was immediately challenging the idea that “forbidding” things without any understanding of why, is not justified.

Zed believes the fruit endows him with super-knowledge, but in reality there is nothing to demonstrate he is any more intelligent than he was before he ate it. He asks Oh to test him and he pretty well fails in the capacity to wisely answer any question Oh throws at him. “Where does the sun go at night?” Zed replies with “Pass. Next question.”

Zed is found out and meets with the village shaman who tries to explain “forbidden,” unsuccessfully, as well. But in the end Zed is banished and Oh ends up going with him. Oh explains there is little point in walking anywhere, because they’ll only end up at the edge of the world–it’s “general knowledge.” When they come to the edge of a large canyon where they can see far out over the horizon, Oh realizes Zed was right to question the assumption about the world’s edge.

They first meet Caine and Abel, which is somewhat uneventful except that it is the guys’ first time seeing a “farmer” and someone who works in animal husbandry–forms of subsistence unfamiliar to them. And this is part of the film as well: As Zed travels, he begins to learn that there are many different views on topics thought to be “general knowledge.” Caine is a bit bi-polar and ends up killing Abel and “inviting” Zed and Oh to dinner with the family–including Adam and Lilith, a lesbian–who represents yet another new view Zed has never encountered.

Caine takes Zed and Oh away, explaining that when Abel is found, they will be suspected as the killers, since they are “two drifters.” They get their first ride on a cart and see, for the first time, a wheel. Caine is struck in the head by lightening, which leaves his famous “mark.” But rather than be disappointed, Caine is excited: “Wow! What are the odds of that?! It didn’t leave a mark, did it?”

Later Zed and Oh encounter “slavery” when they are sold by Caine as slaves. They run into some of the old villagers who have been taken as slaves as well, and Zed explains he has been chosen by god–referring to god as “He.” One of the women from the village asks “Why do you assume god is a ‘he’?” to which Zed gives Oh a condescending “do-you-believe-this-chick?” eye roll and says, “What do you even say to that!”

Zed, in a cage-cart traveling to the home of his new masters, asserts “Nobody can own a human being–except, I guess, for the guy who bought us.” This brings up the question of moral rights versus the reality of a situation and reminded me of the scene in Life of Brian where one of the men rallies for the “right” of men to bear children.

The slave train is raided by Romans, and Zed and Oh escape and run up a sand dune. Later they decide to try to find the slaves, who are on their way to Sodom, and free them, since some of them were from their old tribe. They lose the caravan, and wander the desert, where Abraham comes into the story. It isn’t hard to make Abraham look like a nut job without deviating all that much from the actual Bible stories. We first meet him as he’s building a sacrificial pyre with son, Isaac. “Where is the sheep, dad?” Abraham replies, “The Lord will provide.”

As Abraham begins to bind Isaac’s wrists, Isaac says in a nervous voice, “What is this, dad? Is this some kind of magic trick?” When Abraham picks him up to put him atop the woodpile, Isaac begins to panic and says, “Is this about me not cleaning my tent last Thursday?! Because I’m really sorry!” Abraham insists god has commanded him to kill Isaac, to which Isaac rightly replies, “If god told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that?!”

The irony here is that we so often see the foolishness of what Isaac asserts–”would you jump off a bridge if so-and-so told you to?” But we, as a Christian culture, think nothing of idolizing a historic figure who would do far worse. Isaac’s example of jumping off a bridge is nothing compared to what Abraham is about to do. Obviously Abraham is mad, and, since he would murder his own son, it’s a safe bet he also would jump off a bridge for god.

Abraham raises a large knife and says some sacrificin’ words, and just then we hear “STOP!” It’s Zed and Oh. “What are you doing? Are you going to kill that kid?!”

Abraham looks embarrassed, half-heartedly tries to hide the knife, and says, “No. This is my son. We were just playing a game. It’s called burney-burney, knifey knifey.” Then he plucks up more courage and asserts god told him to sacrifice the boy, asking Zed, “Do you speak for the Lord?” To which Zed lights up and answers sincerely that he has been chosen by god, and that yes, he does speak for the Lord. Abraham accepts Zed’s claim and praises god for sending a messenger to stay his hand and save Isaac. He invites them to dinner where he regales them with stories of the wicked twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and warns them that god has promised to destroy the cities. They are cities where people eat, drink, engage in all manner of debauchery, and where the streets are filled with whores. “Which city has the most whores?” Zed asks, “Uh, just so we know which one to avoid the most.”

After a good feast and a lot of wine drinking, Abraham takes Zed and Oh and Isaac to a ridge where he announces that “all this land” has been given to him by god. Zed and Oh are impressed, but the cynical Isaac adds, as an aside to the strangers, “Yeah, but god forgot to tell anybody else about it–so, we’re constantly having to fight somebody over it.”

Abraham then announces that as a pact with god, he plans to circumcise all the males in his group, starting with himself, Isaac, Zed and Oh. “Circumcise? What is that?” Abraham describes what he intends, to which Zed and Oh are rightly appalled. But Zed, always rolling with the punches, says, “You know, Abe. We all had a lot to eat and drink tonight. And I’m sure this circumcision thing seems like a really cool idea to you right now. But why don’t we sleep on it? In the morning, you know, we can always cut it off then, if you still think that’s what you want to do…”

Zed and Oh escape, but hear poor Isaac screaming as they run off over the desert hills. Later Isaac catches up to them and leads them to Sodom if they promise to buy him drinks when they get there. Isaac explains that he and his buddies are always sneaking off to Sodom, loosely portrayed as an ancient Las Vegas, for a good time. Isaac abandons them at the gates and they are immediately arrested for disturbing the peace and find themselves facing a scary punishment at the hands of a particularly large, intimidating, and sadistic guard whom they continually encounter throughout the film.

They are saved by Caine, who has become a member of the Sodom guard and identifies them as his “brothers.” They also become members of the guard. And one day, Zed fails to kneel when the procession of a beautiful princess passes. She notices this and admires it. Her step-father is the king of Sodom. Sodom is suffering from a drought that the high priest, advisor, and king are all concerned with. And in order to end the drought they are sacrificing virgins left and right, a “waste of perfectly good virgins!” according to Zed and Oh. Zed and Oh try to understand the sacrifice, and they ask about it. “So, it hasn’t rained in a long time. And you need it to rain. So, you’re burning women who have never had sex to death? How does that work, exactly?” To this, one bystander complains, “Look, I’m just here to enjoy the sacrifice with my family.”

In Sodom there is a temple with a “Holy of Holies,” which, in the Bible is actually part of the Hebrew temple. But like the temple in the Bible, anyone who enters the Holy of Holies will die. Zed’s first introduction to the room is when the princess explains that she knew when he did not kneel that he was a man chosen by god who could enter the temple, without dying, and plead for an end to the drought–and that god will certainly hear him. Oh’s first encounter is from the high priest who tells him that anyone, but the high priest, will die upon entering the room.

Oh: “Wow, so, you kinda hafta wonder whether the guys who finished building it died then, right? I mean, did they get like a grace-period second to get out of there or did they just die instantly as soon as they laid the last brick?”

The priest in perfect apologetic style answers, as though he knows, that “There was a four-second grace period.”

Oh: “So, does it just kill people or does it kill animals as well? Like, if a fly gets in, would it just drop dead on the floor the second it enters?”

The priest confirms that it kills even animals.

Oh: “So, there are just dead bugs all over the floor in there?”

No, the priest explains, because they are “vaporized.” They are vaporized, apparently by a “deadly vapory vapor thing that turns them to vapor.”

It reminded me so much of my discussions with many theists.

Young Oh ends up in the temple hiding from the oppressive and gay high priest. Zed ends up in there at the prompting of the princess who feeds into his belief that he is special and chosen, and who promises to help free his friends if he will help her end the drought.

Zed takes it very seriously. Finally, the moment for which he was chosen has arrived–to meet and speak to god. He did not die upon entering the room. Clearly, he is the chosen one. Until he sees Oh hiding behind a pillar. Zed reasons that Oh is not dead because he is a friend of the chosen one. Oh, alternately, suggests he is alive because, perhaps there is actually “nothing” in the temple. And a serious, and loud, argument ensues.

They are caught and sentenced to be stoned to death. But Zed saves them when it dawns on him to ask the king, who is present at the stoning, a clever question: “Why didn’t I die in the Holy of Holies? Because I’m the chosen one!” He manages to whip up the crowd so that the king is advised not to kill Zed and Oh, but they are sentenced to hard labor instead–which is portrayed unmistakeably as a scene right out of the classic film, Ten Commandments. Oh stomps mud in a pit, ala Charlton Heston, with another man who explains he’s not a slave, but a “volunteer.” This was reminiscent of the apologetic that slavery was so much nicer back in the day. Yes, I’m sure people were falling all over themselves to sign up!

Volunteer: “The mud is really great for your skin. Look how great my skin is. Ask me why I have such great skin. Go on, ask me.”

Oh (in a tired, uninterested voice): “Why do you have such great skin?”

Volunteer: “The mud!”

Oh: “Yeah. I knew you were going to say that.”

The volunteer then stretches and adds, “Man, gotta love bein’ outside!”

The king then decides to sacrifice the princess and her two handmaids (fellow villagers of Zed’s and Oh’s), and Zed tries to save them. In a series of mishaps, he brings down a huge scaffolding, and Oh sees his opportunity, “A sign! It’s a sign!” In the mayhem that follows, eventually none of the women is thrust into the fire (a firey bull’s head), but the high priest ends up falling in covered in oil. A huge fireball results. The crowd is stunned and there is a moment of shock that Zed takes advantage of: “How about that by the high priest?! What a sacrifice he just made! Let’s hear it for the high priest!” And he begins to clap. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the idea of “sacrifice” and what it meant to be a high priest in days of yore when your “sacrifice” consisted of someone else’s life! But tossing yourself into the fire? Now that would be a real sacrifice.

I can’t promise everyone would like this movie. If you can’t stomach Jack Black, don’t even try. I can’t claim it’s deep or offers anything you probably haven’t already considered. But I do think it offers a second look at some events that seem too familiar to too many. Christians who idolize Abraham for trying to kill his son should take note of what they might think, or have thought, if they had encountered this act as Zed did. Would they intervene or let this take place? “Well, I mean, if god said ‘do it,
‘ I guess, go for it…?”

I have a feeling the film won’t play long. But there is nothing visual about it that won’t translate perfectly well to small screen. You won’t lose anything by waiting for DVD release if you think you might like it. And, if you’re up for a lighthearted view of religious history, you might find it entertaining.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    BeamStalk

    Tracie your review makes me want to see it. I don't mind Jack Black so I think I can handle it.

  2. 2
    felix

    Many Christians will probably never see it because someone will spread the word on 'Christian Movies Weekly' or whatever subcultural service they've set up that it's not 'family friendly' and 'blasphemous'. I mean, people speaking in The Lord's name who really aren't, as if they made it up? Sheesh, can't let my kids see that. A woman announcing she's a lesbian and nothing happens to her, and she doesn't corrupt any children or make anyone else gay? Can't have that, it's not what I want my kids to think of them gays.Would I be right expecting the film to basically contain the message that 'yeah, God might exist we wouldn't dare to say otherwise but it's all those stupid people and their religions who are distorting the Truth if it exists which we wouldn't really want to dispute because we need the audience'?Black was in that great Prop8 short musical right? Kudos to him.Since Maher got some emphatic criticism onto the big screen, hopefully more people will dare to in the nearer future.

  3. 3
    tracieh

    felix:Hard to say. At the end, after Black does his routine with the high priest's sacrifice, it starts to rain, and everyone cheers. But the shower only lasts a couple seconds, and stops. And everyone gets immediately bummed. Black says, "OK, well, that was a little confusing, right? Was it a sign from god? I guess, you all figure that since I'm the chosen one, I should know."Black gives a big speech about being the chosen one and the people are cheering him on about how they'd follow him anywhere and do whatever he tells them to. But then he tells them "don't."Ala Life of Brian, he tells them to think for themselves and not follow someone else–not because the chosen one says so, but because they're independent people who can work their own destinies.I think Oh is the one who comes closest to coming right out and saying there is no god, in the Holy of Holies. However, he stops before he leaves the room and says, "If you do exist, it would be nice if you could make Ima love me…If you _do_ exist."Later he ends up with Ima; but you don't get any sense of him recalling or crediting the comment in the temple for the result.So, I don't know…?

  4. 4
    tracieh

    I should add that after Black makes his speech about not following, there is a legitimate downpour that begins, thus ending the drought. Whether someone would take that as a sign that god approves of the speech or the filmmakers are validating the speech about independence over the sacrifice (which resulted in just the small downpour), I don't know?

  5. 5
    The Invisible Pink Unicorn

    I thought this movie was hilarious. I liked the overall tone and theme but the ad libs were the best. I think improving is Michael Cera's strong suit. Tracie, spot on review.

  6. 6
    cipher

    How do they go from Cain and Abel to Abraham to the Romans in the span of one lifetime?

  7. 7
    felix

    cipher,I guess they make shit up. Because they can. And because two thousand years from now nobody will know the difference.I liked that one line in the game 'Fallout 3', where the archivist/museum keeper speaks about how the Declaration of Independence was sent to Britain, probably by airplane. Made me think. History can be distorted very easily.Yesterday I saw a program on tv about the Exodus myth. Theologians and archaeologists agreed that there is lots of evidence that the author of Exodus conflated numerous tribal superstitions, Canaanite, Egyptian and Hyksos history, several kings and tribal leaders into the person of Moses and his people. The whole thing was an effort to give a weak tribe which had managed to form a small kingdom a history to look back upon in pride – even though almost all of it was made up from a fragmentary and plagiarized mythology. It helped that the king of Juda, whose tribal/clan god happened to be the weather god today called Yahwe, made sure that worship and idols of others was purged. Under his rule, the first written 'Old Testament' was created – which happened to purport the idea that there had been only one real god all along. Except that archaeologists today know that others existed and were worshipped from the Egyptian records that the Hebrews (which is also a word of Egyptian origin) couldn't destroy, and from numerous idols found that were hidden away from the Hebrew Taliban.I can't say if this is the majority opinion of critical historians, but they certainly made a solid case, supporting this account with actual evidence, in contrast to the absence of evidence apologists like to show around to support their gap-filling theology.

  8. 8
    cipher

    Yeah, I believe the consensus now is that the Hebrews were an underclass within Canaanite society who rose to power, and cobbled together a bunch of available Near Eastern myths along with the Exodus story to validate their position.If, two thousand years from now, Jack Black's oeuvre is the only thing from our era to survive, we don't deserve to have anyone know the difference!

  9. 9
    Ing

    Oddly Black's version DOES clear up some problems (such as who the hell did Cain have to fear that he needed the mark's protection) and the like.

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