Thursday, April 11, 2013

ruby sparks

It has been awhile since a movie has grabbed my theological imagination quite like Ruby Sparks. A sleepy midnight viewing on an airplane was quickly followed by a visit to United Video and a more engaged viewing on terra firma.

One synopsis of the movie goes like this: "Calvin is a genius novelist who begins to type a new novel on his manual typewriter about Ruby, his dream girl. He can't believe his eyes, because the next day, Ruby becomes a real person, and they begin to have a beautiful relationship together. If the relationship isn't perfect, all Calvin has to do is simply type the words on the page and Ruby's actions change to what he needs."

Now let me try and ruin the movie for you (!) by noting the ways in which I have enjoyed engaging with it theologically.
[NB: in doing so, I do not want to offend the sensibilities of those who will find aspects of the film offensive - allow my apologies to be over-realised in good eschatological fashion].


Firstly, take the image on the cover. The main character, the novelist, is lifting a person out of the written text. Or, as the line near the end of the movie expresses it, we have 'a human being created out of ink, paper and imagination'. In a world today where the word is being 'humiliated' (Ellul) and in a church where God thinks more highly of words than we do, I revelled in a movie which played with the power of words. Afterall God's creation of human beings was also by using words - and before that happened, 'in the beginning' (John 1.1), there was Jesus as Word.

Movies provide the opportunity to explore points of continuity and discontinuity with the gospel. For example, identify the Christ-figure in a movie and then ask how is the person like and unlike Jesus. These are the moments in our contemporary culture which provide us with 'Paul at Athens' evangelistic opportunities. And so, secondly, Ruby Sparks opens the way for a discussion on the relationship between creator and creation. The theology of God. The theology of humanity. While Calvin eschews the label 'genius' that people ascribe to him, he lives in a world of fame and glory that gives him a God-like status in the film. And in the early stages of the movie, his creation (Ruby) fills his heart with joy and love.

More specifically, this relationship invites a discussion on the way in which divine sovereignty and human responsibility relate to each other. When things sour in their relationship, Calvin is faced with the moral dilemma ('Is it moral?', his brother asks) of whether to use his sovereignty to fix what he finds wrong in Ruby. He does so - and it backfires badly. This is reminiscent of the desire which many have to see God fix all the suffering in our world. I suspect that if he did so, it might also backfire badly and create bigger problems than it solves. Calvin's abuse of his sovereignty provide the most intense moments in the film - making Ruby snap her fingers, crawl like a dog, strip and sing, and speak French. 'I am not writing about you, I am writing you' (into existence). Caught between controlling her and liberating her, Calvin is anguished and grieved by the decision to be made. He resolves this by offering Ruby a brand of free will. She leaves the house, 'no longer Calvin's creation, she was free'. It seems a long, long way from the hymn-writer: 'make me a captive, Lord - and then I shall be free'.



A third way in which the movie engaged me is the irony of Calvin, the God-figure, being surrounded by people speaking wisdom and/or reassurance into his life. A therapist. A dog. A teddy bear. A brother. A mother, a fan, a former girlfriend, Ruby herself etc.The God-figure becomes very human and requires hefty doses of Spirit-like activity. Ironic. On the opening page of her book, Hear and Be Wise, Alyce McKenzie writes of how our culture craves sages. The 1960s told us to be prophets. The 1970s focused on being therapists. The 1980s spawned church growth consultants. The 1990s celebrated coaches and CEOs. 'I am convinced that this is the era of the sage' (1). She is onto something. Calvin craves wisdom in this film. We must welcome the sage alongside the shepherd, the servant and the steward as integral to our theology of leadership.

One final fascination is the way the plotline echoes the biblical storyline. The plot of the Bible can be most easily expressed as being drawn from the good (Genesis 1 & 2), through the bad and the new, and on to the perfect (Revelation 21 & 22). I reckon there is an involuntary longing inside every human heart to indwell a story like this. And if it isn't this one, it will be a substitute one - like Ruby Sparks.


The good is there (around 15% of the movie). Soon after the start of the movie, there is a period of Edenic-like joy in the relationship between Calvin and Ruby. Blissful community prevails.

The bad (70%) is there too. Eden breaks down and many of the emerging issues are resonant with Genesis 3-11. They always are. Ruby says, 'I am such a mess'. To which Calvin responds, 'I love your mess' - but not for long. It starts to annoy him.Conflict and dis-ease infiltrates the relationship. Calvin withdraws into his books. Ruby becomes bored and wants to find fresh purpose in a job. Edenic equilibrium is lost. Rebellion. Separation. Loneliness. Independence. Jealousy. Drunkenness. Abuse. They are all there, conspiring together to create the need for a rescue plan.
[NB: there is a piece of luminous inter-textuality where, in the midst of the bad, Calvin and Ruby are watching an old Audrey Hepburn with the line, 'no man walks alone'. Brilliant. So satisfying for this movie-watcher...!]

The new (10%) enters the story in two stages. When the bad first creates a longing for rescue, Calvin decides to return to 'writing' Ruby again. But either he brings her too close to him (she becomes clingy, 'miserable without Calvin') or too far from him ('filled with the effervescent joy' without him) - before settling for 'Ruby was just Ruby, however she felt'. However it is a 'new' that doesn't really work (a bit like the efforts of the 'new' in the Old Testament?). The new in all its fullness comes, symbolically, as he trades in his typewriter for a Mac (one of the more pathetic examples of product placement, it must be said - but not surprisingly associating salvific status with technology). Now Calvin writes the story fully, truly and really, 'the true and impossible story of my great love'. And it commences with repentance: 'I am sorry for every word I wrote to change you'. The rescue has begun. The hope of 'can we start over?' is voiced and with it the hope that the new might seep into wherever the bad has reached and restore it.

The perfect (5%) receives little focus in terms of time, but that must not fool the viewer. It does garner the final scene, the place of 'end-stress' as the literary critics refer to it, and the very open-endedness with which it is raised transmits a greater significance than what those few moments might suggest.

While I hear echoes of the biblical storyline in the plotline of Ruby Sparks, I find indwelling the Bible's story to carry the ring of truth and authenticity. Give me Jesus every time. However I am grateful for the invitation in this movie to progress my theology of God, of humanity, of the word, and of leadership that little bit further.

nice chatting

Paul

4 comments:

binksie said...

Thanks Paul - well said! If I watch it I'll have your theological review to make sense of the movie. Blessings

Tash McGill said...

I also found this movie to be fascinating on so many levels - from a theological, ideological view. The perspective on human relationships and relationships with the soul, .. fascinating. Enjoyed reading your review.

Paul said...

Thanks, binksie - and good to hear from you as well, tash.

The movie cries out to be included as an assignment in a class on theology!

Paul

Dan Daigle said...

Calvin's plan for the perfect girl - write her to be as he thinks he wants her to be - is laughably short of God's plan - the real Ruby of the final scene.