Anirvan Chatterjee: September 2009 Archives

While traveling by sea from the US to Japan, we discovered the officers' pool of DVDs; unfortunately for us, most were in German, as might be expected for the primarily-German officers. Then one of the Filipino crew members shared with us his personal stash of English language movies. As we sometimes do while flying, we ended up watching movies that we wouldn't normally think of watching at home.

Among these was Fireproof, a drama about a man responding to a failing marriage, combining Lifetime Original Movie aesthetics with Christian right values. I came in expecting to see pure dreck, but was surprised to see that it wasn't as bad as I'd expected. (Hooray for low expectations.)

The movie

Big-time Christian right media guy Kirk Cameron plays Caleb, a firefighter who saves lives on the job, but can't make his marriage work at home. (Pause for groans.) Caleb's an effective leader at work, but at home, is an angry misogynist, unable to communicate or schedule, unwilling to help around the house, and stashing cash away to buy a boat instead of applying it to household needs. His wife, Catherine, spends weekends with her ailing mom, who needs $25,000 of medical supplies. Both husband and wife are culturally-Christian white Southerners, though neither are particularly devout.

Caleb pressures Catherine to seek a divorce, resisting a friend's suggestion to try counseling. Caleb's dad asks him to hold off on a divorce till he tries the "love dare," a 40-day plan on how to be nicer to your partner. Caleb reluctantly gives it a try, but after years of mistreatment, Catherine's not having any of the look-honey-I-made-you-coffee-please-don't-divorce-me routine, and starts flirting with a friendly doctor at the hospital where she works.

As Caleb's frustration grows, his born-again dad starts barraging him, insisting that he can't fix his relationship until he embraces Christianity. His best friend, also Christian, tries to convince him that marriage is for life, and that there's never a reason for divorce. Stressed and vulnerable, Caleb agrees to turn to Jesus, at which point his self-esteem and self-control shoot up. Catherine comes to trust the reformed Caleb again after she discovers that he's liquidated his Boat Fund to buy medical supplies for his mother-in-law. After apologies and hugging, they renew their marriage vows, reframed as a religious covenant marriage.

1. What the Christian Right and Communists have in common

Fireproof is a cultural product stemming from a larger Christian right concern about real family living. I appreciated seeing its emphasis on building stronger relationships. To the extent that I identify as being part of a relatively secular left, I don't see a lot of institutions around me focusing on the whole person, politically and personally. Instead, there's a patchwork quilt of organizations and institutions, whose ideologies may or may not match.

Compared to that, singular religio-political ideologies are certainly more effective at caring for a whole person. Maybe that's why the only left movement I can think of comparable to the Christian right is early- and mid-20th century socialist/communist spaces, with their own day care, night schools, newspapers, theater, etc. For those of us who don't want to live in a cultural bubble (either Communist or Christian-right), life's harder, though perhaps richer, for lack of ideologically-linked sets of institutions trying to take care of the whole person.

2. A progressive Fireproof

Here's my vision of what Fireproof might look like in my vision of a marginally more progressive America.

  • In the movie, Catherine's biggest stressor is being a caregiver to her aging and disabled parents, and the financial stress of being unable to buy her mother medical supplies like a wheelchair and better bed. I'd prefer to live in a more compassionate society where Catherine's mother has a higher standard of in-home care, and access to the medical supplies she needs. No senior citizen should have to wait for her son-in-law to find Jesus before regaining mobility.

  • Caleb and Catherine should have easy access to high-quality counseling services at free or low cost. It's not clear to me that Caleb would have taken it up, but Catherine, in particular, seems like the kind of person who'd make use of and hopefully benefit from it.

Now I'm not suggesting that institution of mainstream progressive health care policies would have meaningfully changed the arc of the story, or eliminated the difficulty of working through a tough spot in a marriage. But they would have removed some of the stress, helped make sure Catherine's family was being taken care of, addressed the hard financial realities, and hopefully made dealing with the situation a little easier.

(And how do you pay for that? Personal taxes are possibly part of the mix, so maybe in my scenario, it'd be harder for Caleb to save up for a boat. Me? I'm willing to inconvenience boat owners a bit to see senior citizens taken care of. Caleb's a government official who performs heroic work saving lives. If we can come together to have collective fire protection, we can do the same for medical supplies and mental health services.)

3. Why God?

Taking the premise of the movie as-is, I'm still puzzled as to why the movie needed to be about God, and why the characters couldn't have come to a similar outcome (resolution of long-standing marital problems) in an religiously agnostic context.

  • Caleb wasn't particularly religious through much of the film. While Caleb's born-again father's advice was Biblically-based, Caleb explicitly ignored the Biblical basis for much of the movie. It's not clear to me why he couldn't have done that for just a bit longer, through the end of the film.

  • At a low point, Caleb's father pressured him to accept Jesus. This seems like a low blow, and a bit cult-ish, preying on his son's weaknesses at his time of need. I don't see how a couple of really good conversations couldn't have gotten Caleb out of his funk, instead of dad lecturing his stressed-out son about how "you've been spitting at Jesus."

  • Catherine seems to have signed up for Caleb's Christian program only after declaring that whatever it was that was making him a better husband, she wanted to share in that too. That's not a religious conversion. If Caleb had told her that he'd been helped by therapy, the movie might have ended with the two of them hugging at the therapist's office, instead of doing a public religious covenant ceremony. Heck, if Caleb had been inspired by Islam instead of Christianity, one gets the sense that Catherine may have been tolerant of that as well, as long as it got the job done.

4. In defense of divorce

Caleb's best friend's insistence that marriage is for life is creepy. I'm very happily married, hopefully for life, but feel better knowing that being together is a happy choice, not an oppressive religious obligation. Divorce can be a healthy and appropriate option. I fear that Caleb's best friend would be anti-divorce even in the face of deeply abusive relationships ("your husband beats you up? try some counseling, and pray harder -- divorce is sinful").

5. The Suburban South

I don't see a lot of movies set in an integrated contemporary suburban South. For all I know, that where the plurality of Fireproof's American viewers live. I still enjoyed the setting, as a reminder of our country's diversity.

6. Separation of church and state

One of the aspects of the movie I liked best was the way that it showed sympathetic characters operating within a Christian right frame in a world where there's a separation of church and state, and yet the characters seem to do just fine, never needing to resort to theocratic solutions.

Caleb's workplace includes Christians and atheists, who get along very well. A few of the firefighters discuss religion and values in their personal time, but without feeling any need to institutionalize it. Catherine's coworkers never explicitly out their religious affiliations or discuss issues of faith, and yet they're portrayed as perfectly reasonable people.

At the end of the movie, Caleb and Catherine choose to get a re-commitment ceremony, framed as a covenant marriage, layering their personal religious beliefs on top of the basic marriage document. This is very significant, indicating that the characters want something beyond the legal institution of marriage, and are able to celebrate that cultural and religious meaning without trying to redefine everyone else's marriages by making divorce harder to access legally. Caleb and Catherine's world may be consistent with same-sex marriage, no-fault divorce, community property, and equal legal rights for men and women. Where their views deviate from minimum legal norms, they ultimately seem able to take responsibility for themselves, living in a pluralistic society without demanding special rights for themselves, or asking others to give up theirs.

Written aboard the MV Hanjin Madrid, part of our Year of No Flying

Almost every day of our trip from Seattle to Yokohama by sea lasted 25 hours. Traveling westwards, we gained an extra hour every time we traveled a time zone, 1/24th of the planet. We'd head down to dinner at the mess, and there would be a big sign on the door: "RETARD 1 HOUR TONIGHT."

I made a practice of setting back our clocks every night at 10:00 pm. In fact, I even set an alarm to do it. It beeped at 10:00 pm, and I changed the clocks back to 9:00 pm. An hour later, it beeped again -- it was 10:00 pm again. I quickly learned to delete the automated alarm after I'd reached it the first time.

I wish I could say that we did something amazing with that extra hour every day, but we didn't. Sadly, it just blended into the copious quantities of free time we had. For those who don't have it, an extra hour of free time every day is an unimaginable luxury; but for us, on a ship for a week and a half without hard scheduled tasks, it made no difference at all.

Unfortunately, you only get 25 hours a day going westwards. Coming back the other way, you end up advancing your clock as you go, losing as hour at each step, leaving just 23 hours a day. The difference between 25 and 23 hours may not have made much difference to us, but according to crew members we spoke to, they definitely noticed the difference.

I've read that it takes the body about a full day to catch up with an hour's time difference. Fly from San Francisco to New York on Monday, and your body will have adjusted to New York time by Thursday. When it comes to minimizing jet lag, ships beat planes hands down, by traveling at the speed of the body's natural adjustment to time differences.

And then Friday disappeared. On a Wednesday afternoon, an officer informed us that, by the way, Friday would not exist. We'd just skip ahead from Thursday to Saturday, losing a day as we headed toward the International Date Line. Oddly enough, we'd be losing our day some ways before we actually hit the date line. It turns out that we'd normally have lost Saturday, instead of Friday -- but the crew works a shorter day Saturday, and would be unhappy seeing their day of (relative) rest suddenly vanish. Shipboard time would be modified accordingly.

This was my first experience with shipboard time, an idiosyncratic timezone floating through space, applying only to a tiny band of sailors (and us). Officers on the bridge were incredibly aware of time at local ports and UTC, but shipboard time ruled every important part of our lives -- work times, meal times, and occasionally, social event times. So far away from everything else, it made little sense to hew religiously to arbitrary external requirements. Time is ultimately for the people.


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Written aboard the MV Hanjin Madrid, part of our Year of No Flying

I wake up at night. Pitch black. The bed moves, as if I'm in the beginnings of an earthquake. I'm on a ship. In the middle of the Pacific. And I need to pee.

I feel around, find a wall, make my way to the bathroom, do the needful. Why is it so dark? I can't see my hand in front of my nose. B and I fully closed the shades at night in our cabin, before going to bed. I didn't realize how effective those shades would be. It's been a long time since I've been in such total darkness. I feel around, trying to find the clothes I hung to dry in the bathroom. My pants have mostly dried, but my thick cotton socks are still sopping.

I head back to bed, thirsty. We left a water bottle on the table; where is it? I slowly sweep my arm around several inches above the table, hoping to make contact with the bottle. Failure. I find only the book I was reading last night, and my glasses.

The male line of my family is prone to poor vision. There was a time when I had a -5 prescription, my dad had a -10, and my grandfather had -15, My grandfather slowly went blind over the years, the soda-bottle lenses of his glasses increasingly unable to compensate against the effects of diabetes. What would he have done in my situation?

I feel around on the table, very carefully. My grandfather was incredibly organized, with or without sightedness. At his home, he'd navigate back to his room, open a drawer, and find a small item exactly where he remembered leaving it years ago. Sight makes us lazy, forgiving sloppiness. It's like the way cell phones have changed the way we make plans with others, making us more comfortable with half-made plans we hope to flesh out along the way.

Some time after my grandfather lost his sight, he and my father were heading to a small corner market a few blocks from the family home in Kolkata. My dad held his father's arm, as they wended their way through the streets. Then the power went out. Everything flickered and disappeared -- street lights, lights from homes, the sound of televisions. Pitch black. My father must have exclaimed. His father didn't. He just continued on, leading his son through the dark to the corner store. "Two more steps, then take a very large step," he told my father, guiding him over a gap in the sidewalk. My grandfather led my father safely to the store, and back home. In the land of darkness, the blind man is king.

I spend another minute, trying to find the water bottle, my hand running across every manner of unfamiliar shape except the one I'm looking for. Finally, I get up, find the shades, and pull them open a tad. Light streams in. There's the water bottle, right in front of me, mocking my sense of space and touch. I take a drink, and climb back into bed, falling asleep to the ship's slow rocking.


Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.


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