Josh Gotwalt

Josh Gotwalt is happy to have found his niche teaching autistic children in Brooklyn New, York. Josh was born and raised in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but he's not Amish.

Marriage (and Black Holes)

Portraying the life of celebrated cosmologist Stephen Hawking, the new biopic, The Theory of Everything, raises questions about the age-old conundrum of how to reconcile science and religion. Almost entirely paralyzed, Hawking has ALS—a disease that typically condemns the sufferer to gradual muscle degeneration and ultimate respiratory failure in an average timeframe of 39 months. Hawking, however, has outlived his prognosis by 50 years, powerfully contributing to the fields of general relativity and quantum gravity despite his illness.

The film is directed by James Marsh, director of the Academy Award-winning documentary Man on a Wire, and stars Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking, his wife of 25 years. Marsh’s wonderfully sensitive Man on a Wire chronicled the irrepressible Phillipe Petit’s mission to tightrope walk between the twin towers. Marsh stays true to his interest in depicting the striving of the human spirit in all its wonderful variety with the The Theory of Everything, directing a script adapted from Jane Hawking’s memoirs Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. In contrast to other depictions of Hawking’s life and work, The Theory of Everything is distinctive for giving equal weight to the Hawking marriage, Jane’s struggles in caring for Stephen, and maintaining her belief in God against his increasingly strident atheism.

However, in portraying the dynamics of the Hawking household and the issue of faith—and also charting Stephen’s illness and elucidating Stephen’s very abstruse work in astrophysics—the film suffers from its own ambition, taking on more than any movie can be expected to satisfactorily accomplish in 123 minutes. But ambition is never wholly a bad thing. Despite being stretched  thin, the film does succeed in balancing Stephen’s scientific triumphs with the story of Jane’s quiet love and sacrifice, all while providing a thought-provoking domestic microcosm of the fraught intersections of faith and science.

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In her memoir Jane affirms that the schism between science and religion cut across their married life. Before they were married Jane remained convinced that there had to be more to the meaning of life “than was contained in Stephen’s cold philosophy.” The film, however, is only able to give a superficial account of this clash in worldviews. We find out that Jane is “busy on Sundays.” She joins a church choir to find relief from the burden of her domestic duties and comes to have a tense ménage à trois with the choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer. This unconventional relationship is a central focus of the film. At first the relationship was platonic. Jonathan, a recent widower, found solace in helping to care for Stephen and the Hawking family. But as the relationship becomes romantic the film suggests it is their shared faith in God that gives Jane’s relationship with Jonathan an ease that her relationship with Hawking lacks.

Similar to the one-dimensional portrayal of Jane’s faith, the NYT has complained that the depiction of the scientific process in The Theory of Everything is rather muddled. Complex theorems are given superficial explanations and Hawking’s work seems to proceed by a series of inspirations. Although the film sketches the clash between scientific and religious worldviews, the narrative is too driven by biography to deliver a thoughtful treatment of this theme. The Theory of Everything will, however, prompt conversations about the clash between science and religion. It is interesting then, to attempt to push this discussion a bit farther to gain a clearer picture of the intersections of science and faith in Hawking’s life and work.

Stephen Hawking as played by Eddie Redmayne

Stephen Hawking as played by Eddie Redmayne

Hawking’s work has indeed struck right at the heart of the debate between the roles of faith and science. His early work caused a great stir in the scientific community by upsetting the dearly held Steady State Theory, which maintained that the universe had no beginning or end. Hawking’s postgraduate work provided the theoretical basis for the then nascent Big Bang Theory. In part, because of Stephen’s work, the theory that the universe began from a singularity 15 billion years ago has become scientific gospel. Although, he suffered quite a few lecture walkouts in the process of overturning the scientific status quo. It is not difficult to understand why many physicists were reluctant to surrender the Steady State Theory—any theory that suggested the universe had a beginning opened the door to speculations about nonmaterial causes of the universe.

Science has been left to flounder for a material explanation for the origin of the universe since the discovery of cosmic background radiation provided proof for the Big Bang Theory. Remarkably Professor Hawking was among the first to refute the idea that the Big Band Theory required the universe to have a beginning. He has since thrown his support behind Superstring Theory, which appears to be gaining precedence in physics circles, although it has a purely mathematical basis and has not provided a prediction that can be experimentally verified. Superstring Theory predicts that space-time has 11 dimensions and further development of the theory, known as M Theory, makes the remarkable prediction that ours is not the only universe. There may be an infinite number of universes each with it’s own physics. The implication for the beginning of the universe is that space-time, although appearing to be finite, has no boundaries. Hawking writes: “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end, it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?”

Professor Hawking had an intimate relationship with at least one other person with a robust faith in God. Don N. Page, now a theoretical physicist at the University of Alberta, lived with the Hawkings from 1976-1979 while a doctoral student at Cambridge. The way Don was able to reconcile his beliefs with an interest in physics appeared paradoxical to many onlookers. Don addresses this apparent paradox in the conclusion to a paper entitled Scientific and Philosophical Challenges to Theism:

“As finite beings, we should not expect to understand everything, though it is good to seek as much understanding as possible. We can wrestle with the problems, but in the end we have to live life with the limited knowledge that we do have. Let me close with an aphorism that I coined to summarize my thoughts as a scientist and as a Christian: Science reveals the intelligence of the universe; the Bible reveals the Intelligence behind the universe.”

Physicists do not often make this distinction. Rather they often conflate the “intelligence of the universe” with the “Intelligence behind the universe.” When Einstein said “god doesn’t play dice with the universe” he was voicing opposition to the apparent randomness of quantum theory by, in effect, saying that “God” (the intelligence of the universe) is not like that. Similarly, Professor Hawking ends his first book, the record-breaking best seller A Brief History of Time, with the line, “…if we discover a theory of everything,”… “then we should know the mind of God.”

Nikita Khrushchev also conflated the idea of a God of the universe and a God behind the universe in a 1961 speech given after the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. Khrushchev said: “Gagarin went into the heavens and he did not see God.” C.S. Lewis was still alive at the time and he penned an essay responding to this statement entitled The Seeing Eye. In it he writes, “If God exists, he is not a man in the attic, but the Playwright. That means we won’t be able to find him like we would find a passive object with the powers of empirical investigation.” Lewis points out that the expectation that we can discover God or know the mind of God through empirical investigation is mistaken. If a creator God exists then trying to find Him empirically is like Hamlet trying to find Shakespeare by looking in the rafters of the theater.

It’s impossible to watch The Theory of Everything and not feel a tremendous amount of compassion and admiration for a man who has suffered so resolutely through such a horrifying disease. However, it’s also troubling that, although he has been able to intellectually explore the furthest reaches of the universe, the beginning of time and the places where time and space stop, he has confined himself to the limits of the universe, never allowing his imagination to consider what might lie beyond the rafters of the theater.

A Broken Person Taking Care of Broken People

In an early scene of the new documentary The Overnighters, a young man with bloodshot eyes describes how he ended up jobless and homeless in the fracking boomtown of Williston, North Dakota. After a fruitless job search in his Indiana hometown, he read an article claiming there was “boatloads” of work in the oil fields of North Dakota. Desperate, he borrowed money from his grandmother and bought a one-way ticket to Williston. At this point, he leans back in his chair, saying: “It’s been trial after trial and I’m at the end of my rope.” Unconsciously, his hands grip his throat as he leans forward again.

Through this man and others like him, The Overnighters reveals a hidden dark side of American energy production. Beyond environmental concerns, the film adds the fear that this voracious industry treats human beings as expendable in ways reminiscent of the social novels of John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, and Upton Sinclair. However, as stark as they are, neither the human nor the environmental costs of fracking are the main focus of The Overnighters. Rather they provide the ominous background to the more singular story of human desperation found in the film’s subject: Pastor Jay Reinke.

Pastor Reinke

Pastor Reinke

Curious about life in an oil boomtown, San Francisco based filmmaker Jesse Moss began reading the Williston Herald in 2011. His curiosity was kindled by Pastor Jay Reinke’s column, which called on the community to welcome the men traveling to Williston hoping for jobs. Moss noted this as an unusual sentiment in Williston, especially following the kidnapping and murder of Montana schoolteacher Sherry Arnold by men looking for oil work. Moss called Reinke and the pastor explained how he allowed out-of-work newcomers to sleep on the floor of his church. Reinke invited Moss to come see what was happening. Traveling alone, camera in tow, Moss ended up living among the homeless men and women in the church for periods as long as six months, filming this exercise in charity on a daily basis.

There was no noble beginning to the “overnighter” program. A man came into Reinke’s office saying that he had been sleeping in his car for three weeks and couldn’t take it anymore. The pastor offered him the floor of the church. Word spread and Reinke continued saying yes to the desperate men and women who came into his office until the church was housing dozens each night.

Perhaps because of a natural screen presence or because, as a pastor, he is practiced in living a public life, the story irresistibly gravitates toward Reinke. Reinke comes across as energetic and forthright with a compassion born of equal parts idealism and pragmatism. He recites the simple rationale for his work: “I can’t save the world. But there is a man standing in my office. I can help this man.” He hugs the men who unburden their pain on him and begins his days striding cheerfully through his church, gently but insistently waking the sleeping men by singing hymns. The burdens of the desperate men he has befriended become his own and he prays with them: “Oh God. Please. Where we are tempted to despair. Give us hope.” For stretches of the movie the audience is almost willing to believe that he might embody this hope. Almost.

Reinke’s charm is accentuated by his openness and self-consciousness. His positivity is peppered with asides like: “No one has pure motives. Maybe my motivation is that I don’t say ‘no’ very easily and it’s better to say ‘yes’ and live with the consequences.” However, as Reinke’s story unfolds, these comments seem less like reflective self-deprecation and more like the cries of a burdened conscience. As Reinke’s program balloons, accommodating 50 men every night in the church, cracks begin to show in his persona and in the congregation of Concordia Lutheran Church. Belying the etymology of their name (Concordia: of one heart), Reinke’s flock begins to balk at his open-armed stance toward the needy out-of-towners, several of whom have felony convictions. Made uneasy by the men inhabiting their church and dubious of a pastor they perceive as incautious, congregants begin to leave the church. Here, too, Reinke is transparent, acknowledging that just as his faith prompts him to love and serve the overnighters, he is called to love and serve those who don’t want them there.

Handout photo of Reinke is shown in this film production still addressing oil-patch workers from his church pulpit in Drafthouse Films' "The Overnighters" in Williston

This tension builds to a dramatic third act revelation that requires a rethinking of Jay Reinke’s work and motivations. The intimacy of this portion of the film is almost off-putting. It includes a conversation between Reinke and his wife in which he reveals something so personal it is almost too uncomfortable to watch. It is helpful to know that initially Pastor Reinke protested the inclusion of this portion of the film, fearing that it detracted from the message of hope the overnighters program represented. However, director Jesse Moss convinced Reinke and his family that their willingness to be open about their lives was a powerful message and would not obscure the message of the film. Reinke has supported the film, helping to present it at Sundance and other festivals.

The opening scene of the film foreshadows the disintegration that Reinke’s persona will undergo. In shadowy twilight, Reinke, facing away from the camera, contemplates how “it is easy to become a facade, maybe especially when you are a pastor.” Only after witnessing Reinke’s personal disintegration does it become possible to understand the depth of torment in these words.

With all of its complexity, it is difficult to know what Reinke’s story means. What does it mean that, even at their best, human beings do good for very complex and sometimes conflicting reasons? Certainly, if we look this closely at anyone’s life, cracks will begin to show. Perhaps Reinke summarizes the meaning best when he states that even in the generous act of welcoming the homeless, he was just “a broken person helping to take care of other broken people.”

Quotidian Magic

It’s a wonder that Richard Linkater’s new movie Boyhood ever got funded, because on paper the story must have sounded really boring: a brother and sister complain about moving, go bowling, go to school.  They go to a baseball game with their dad. They jump on a trampoline. They have lots of walk-and-talks.  Not to mention the fact that Linklater was also asking for a 4,207 day shooting schedule. But thank goodness for the plucky executive who gave the gutsy green light, because Boyhood is a film that is much bigger than the sum of its mundane parts.

In his essay, which Emily Belz cited in her review for WORLD,  “E Unibus Pluram” David Foster Wallace critiques the stylized conceits of contemporary cinema and television as meretriciously catering to our desire to transcend our average daily lives. These hysterical collages are, in his words, “unsubtle in their whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting … more lively.”  We leave these films dazzled, punching the air, ready to do combat with a gang of bad guys or lose a pursuer in a car chase, but we enjoy none of the edifying potential that Leo Tolstoy and other early theorizers of cinema’s potential saw in the fledgling art form.

Contemporary independent cinema often works in stubborn self-conscious contrast to the transcendence aesthetic, but too often the results are aimless, dreary, overly abstract, and riddled with dead points.  It is only once in a great while that a film eschews the comparatively easy luster of dreams and manages to turn the stuff of our average daily lives into something magical. Boyhood is one of these rare films.

In the late 1990s Linklater began to process a specific inclination to depict the 12 years of public school that is the average American childhood.  His conception of this work, however, repeatedly ran aground against the problem of time limitations imposed by the physicality of actors.  He meditated on the problem for two years until, like Archimedes in his bathtub, an elegantly simple solution presented itself—provide time for the actors to age along with their characters.

 

boyhood-end

 

Boyhood focuses on the lives of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), father Masor Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) over the course Mason’s rather ordinary childhood. What makes the film remarkable is that Linklater shot the film in short annual increments over a period of 12 years. He then collapsed this collection of segments seamlessly into a 3 hour feature. Thus the film not only depicts a story arc, but also the actual physical and emotional maturation of the characters (and actors) as they age. The effect, like human time-lapse photography, is breathtaking.

If great art, like science, advances through problem solving, then Linklater is the ‘scientist’ to make this breakthrough.  This latest temporal experiment is the culmination of an increasingly sophisticated body of work preoccupied with the subject of time.  These films include Tape (2001), which unfolds in real time, Waking Life (2001), which evokes the experience of a continuous dreamlike present, and most notably his Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight trilogy. These three films—chronicling love and marriage, spanning 18 years, and shot in fictional 6 year increments—come closest to the formal experimentation and thematic concerns of Boyhood.

Although similar in structure and concept, the impression of time created in the Before Trilogy is distinct from Boyhood.  The Before films are remarkable for tracking the vicissitudes of a relationship—the longing, romance, frustration, and disappointments—over an 18-year period. But taken together, the films play as a series of vignettes, suggesting that, rather than a continuous progression, time moves in fits and starts, in sprawling years punctuated by intensely dramatic moments. Boyhood, because of its tighter narrative arc and shooting schedule, creates a markedly new sense of the progression of time. Just as time-lapse photography allows for normally imperceptible phenomena to be observed (plants growing, for example), Boyhood reveals the interstices between the dramatic events of childhood, in which memories are made and real life is lived.

It is not only the unconventionally long shooting schedule of Boyhood that captures this resonant experience of time and memory, but also Linklater’s choice to keep the momentous and melodramatic events of childhood at the periphery of the film. The film functions like a subjective memory of childhood, where the big events often take second-tier status to quieter moments and memories that remain embedded in our consciousness and puzzle us by their lack of significance.

 

boyhood sitting

 

In an early scene in the movie, a young Harry Potter-reading Mason asks his father: “Is there any real magic in the world?” His father answers:

“…. what if I told you a story about how underneath the ocean there is this giant sea mammal that can use sonar and sing songs and it was so big that it’s heart was as big as a car and you could crawl through it’s arteries. You would think that’s pretty magical right?”

In the same way, by skirting the momentous events of childhood and allowing its gaze to rest gracefully on the quotidian, Boyhood evokes what is wondrous and memorable in everyday life.

 

patricia arquette

 

As late as the editing process, Linklater and his team were considering titling the movie “Always Now.” The final bit of dialogue in the film expresses this dominant theme of the passage of time. Mason and a friend muse that rather than the platitude “seize the moment” being true, the moment seizes us. “The moments are constant. It is always right now,” says Mason.

In choosing the title Boyhood, though, Linklater acknowledges that there is more to the film than a meditation on the passage of time. The film’s pathos resides there.

Part of the film’s pathos resides in the tension between the thrill and potential of the future and the persistent sense that the march of time is relentless and the past is irretrievable.  There is hope and excitement as we see Mason realize potential and independence, but also tragedy.  Upon sending her son to college, Mason’s mother weeps and holds her head in her hands considering the series of milestones that has been her life and the fact that her funeral is the next to come, she laments: “I just thought there would be more.”

This chafing for something more in the face of one’s mortality is an articulation of what the modernist poet Wallace Stevens called “the need of some imperishable bliss.”  It is a desire for transcendence more fundamental than the desire to escape from our lives through entertainment that David Foster Wallace so aptly identifies.  It is the hope of coming into contact with something bigger than ourselves, something “more,” something outside of time. In Escape From Evil, Ernest Becker calls this man’s desire “to know that his life has somehow counted,” but, “in order for anything once alive to have meaning, its effects must remain alive in eternity in some way.”

“…in order for anything once alive to have meaning, its effects must remain alive in eternity in some way.”

For all of its intelligence and sensitivity, like much of contemporary narrative, Boyhood vividly traces the contours of this desire for the transcendent at the center of the modern psyche but offers little insight into how it might be healed. Because the making of the film not only spanned 12 years in the lives of its actors but also 12 years in Linklater’s own life and career, the viewer cannot help but think about how the director has changed over the period.

 

linklater

 

In contrast, Linklater’s early, and granted, less mature, films are doggedly concerned with questioning the possibility of encountering the transcendent. Near the end of Waking Life, Linklater himself addresses the camera with a spiel about his favorite topic:

“There’s only one instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity. And it’s an instant in which God is posing a question, and that question is basically, ‘Do you want to, you know, be one with eternity? Do you want to be in heaven?’ And we’re all saying, ‘No thank you. Not just yet.’ And so time is actually just this constant saying ‘No’ to God’s invitation.  And there’s just this one instant, and that’s what we’re always in. And actually this is the narrative of everyone’s life. That, you know, behind the phenomenal difference, there is but one story, and that’s the story of moving from the ‘no’ to the ‘yes.’ All of life is like, ‘No thank you. No thank you. No thank you.’ Then ultimately it’s, ‘Yes, I give in. Yes, I accept. Yes, I embrace.'”

Although Boyhood is a cinematic achievement that won’t soon be eclipsed, it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic for the more impetuous and philosophically adventurous Linklater of 13-years ago, an artist who seemed open to a magic beyond the quotidian. Regardless, it’s impossible to be a movie lover and not feel excited to see what this innovative director does next.