Monthly Archives: November 2007

No Country For Old Men

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Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film, No Country For Old Men, is not an easy film to watch. It is desperately nihilistic and almost apocalyptic, in the way that Cormac McCarthy is so apt at capturing. It’s an anachronistic Texas western in look and mood—with great action scenes, shootouts, and dead desert imagery. But it is a world-weary, existential western as well: somewhere between Unforgiven and 3:10 to Yuma.

However you might classify this film, one thing is certain: it is a great, great movie. Certainly one of the best of the year, and an Oscar nominee for sure.

What I appreciate most about this film is the way that it gradually moves from being a conventional (and conventionally graphic) thriller to a deeply ambivalent, almost lethargic elegy in the course of its two-hour running time. Don’t get me wrong—the film is incredibly engaging and well-paced throughout. But the visceral power of the violence in its first half is matched by the strikingly obvious avoidance of blood in its second half.

This is not to say that there is no violence in the film’s second half—just that it is rarely seen. What starts with clever camera evasions of illustrating violence soon becomes avoidance of entire scenes (important scenes) altogether. In most movies the violence escalates and climaxes in a bang-up conclusion. In No Country‘s final 45 minutes, we mostly see the effects of violent acts: the police tape, the scars, the funerals, the spiritual emptiness and desolate landscapes. By hiding from us what we know is there, the film’s thematic resolve becomes crystallized. This is not so much a film about violence (the culture of it, its cyclical nature, etc) as it is about our psychological responses to it: specifically, how we as pulp-consumers become desensitized to it and disengaged from the moral inexactitudes beneath it.

The reverse-momentum style of this film (which unemotionally kills off major characters with little more than a passing comment) reminded me of Paul Schrader’s discussion of abundant-to-sparse stylistic trajectories in his concept of transcendental cinema.

Schrader writes about “abundant” and “sparse” methods of filmmaking, with abundant referring to the idea that film as a medium can easily fulfill the dreams and desires of the audience, giving them abundant images of what they want or expect to see (and with the technology available today, the limits of what can be shown are almost nill). Sparse means, on the other hand, work against the abundant means, using purposeful restraint to keep the objects of desire hidden, “gradually robbing the abundant means of their potential.” In the case of this film, we desire or expect a one on one showdown between protagonist (Josh Brolin) and villain (Javier Bardem)—or at least some justice (any justice) to be served in the end. But the film denies us all of that, leaving us instead with a haunting, rambling soliloquy by a dazed Tommy Lee Jones. And it works.

Schrader believes that transcendental style “must use the given abundant means to sustain audience interest, and it must simultaneously reject the empathetic rationale for that interest in order to set up a new priority.” Stasis (when the image simply stops) is the embodiment of the spare: when abundant means are shown to have little purpose and the sparse means, now dominant, give way to the end of the film.

This is essentially the structure of No Country For Old Men. It lures us in with a classic noir-western plot and cat-and-mouse setup (hapless cowboy stumbles upon drug money, takes it, and must continually evade the pursuant villains) but then gradually re-orients the film away from this “plot” and more toward the point of view of a seemingly peripheral character (Jones). By the end we come to realize that the heart-pounding chase that makes up most of this film is just a part of the larger, ongoing chase in all of our lives: between past, present, and a future that invites mortality and assumes an inevitable reckoning.

Green is Universal Trendy

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This week marks a first in sweeps gimmicks: a major conglomerate network is “going green.” As anyone who has watched any shows on NBC, Bravo, MSNBC, CNBC, USA, or Sci-Fi Channel this week will know, the peacock corporation (NBC-Universal) has made it clear that “Green is Universal” (a clever way of saying “Universal is Green… or at least greener than our competing networks”).

This week-long stunt has resulted in (among other things) green network logos, on-screen graphics with tips for reducing carbon emissions, and reportedly 150 hours of green-themed programming across the NBC network family.

Specific show iterations of the “Green is Universal” theme include a task on The Biggest Loser where contestants learn how to exercise without electricity, a character on E.R. buying an energy-efficient car, and a plotline in Bionic Woman set at an environmental conference in Paris. The culmination comes tonight in 30 Rock—in what promises to be a hilariously self-reflexive episode—which features an Al Gore cameo and Alec Baldwin’s character concocting a catchy green mascot for NBC he calls “Greenzo.”

On the Today Show earlier this week, Ann Curry broadcast live from Antarctica, Matt Lauer from the Arctic Circle, and Al Roker from the equator. Cable is also getting in on the parent company’s campaign, with Bravo’s Real Housewives of Orange County featuring eco pop-ups on how to “live with less bling and with more green” and USA’s logo changing from “Characters Welcome” to “Environmentalists Welcome.”

But what is this green onslaught really about? Why is it conveniently happening during sweeps month?

Lauren Zalaznick, president of Bravo Media and head of the NBC Universal Green Council, has argued that NBC’s green campaign is less about good PR or sweeps than it is about actually trying to make the world better: ”For a very cynical world, this is a very earnest effort… We have to leave our world more sustainable than it is right now. If we can use our power as media to do that, and take a whole lot of consumers along for the ride, why wouldn’t we?” NBC-Universal CEO Jeff Zucker added that “Green is good for the world and good for the bottom line.”

Zucker is probably more honest than anyone with his acknowledgement that green is “good for the bottom line.” This is true both in terms of conservation activities lowering overhead costs, but also (perhaps more significantly in Zucker’s mind) in terms of building up the brand of NBC-Universal: as a high class, socially-conscious, forward-thinking company that is hip to current cultural concerns and political trends.

But herein is the problem. “Green” is obviously the cause célèbre right now. Outside my apartment in L.A. there was recently installed a huge billboard for Barney’s (a super high-end department store just down the street in Beverly Hills) that says “Have a Green Holiday” in a festive green font. The billboard includes a seductive picture of a model with luscious red lips and a gold mistletoe tree necklace hanging on her forehead. C’mon!

This sort of “green is sexy” notion has—of course—trickled down from highly-publicized celebrity involvement in environmental issues (led by folks like Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore) and is now the fad du jour. Everyone who is anyone is “going green”… whether with hybrid cars or $1,720 dollar Louis Vuitton re-usable grocery bags (Scarlett Johansson has one!).

Don’t get me wrong. It is GREAT that reusable canvas totes are trendy right now and designer plastic bags are not. But if Scarlett is going to drop two grand in a socially-conscious way, wouldn’t it be put to better use helping some kids in Africa than saving a tree or two? I feel like “green” is such an easy, comfortable, fashionable trend/cause to plug into for celebs or any company looking for some good PR. It’d be much less marketable, for example, if NBC pronounced November “Save Darfur” month or something.

Furthermore, I’m not sure that green really is universal. Being “green” is still very class-determined in the sense that low-income groups cannot afford to buy reusable or eco-friendly products, let alone a hybrid car. And frankly, if you’re in Darfur (or Iraq, or Pakistan, or 80% of the world), “going green” is the least of your concerns. Surviving is hard enough.

That said, I hope my cynicism about NBC’s “green” commitment doesn’t take away from the fact that the net result of the whole thing is definitely more good than it is bad. The environment is something we should be concerned about—even if its cooptation by the culture industry seems a tad problematic.

Christianity 101: Exclusivity

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I have had several conversations and encounters in recent months that have made me worried about the extent to which the world—including Christians—does not understand what Christianity really means. In June I attended a panel discussion on the film A Mighty Heart, which featured representatives from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim backgrounds. The major theme throughout the discussion was the increasingly popular sentiment of collective goodwill/hope: that all major religions—regardless of who is being worshipped—are chiefly about love and peace. We must stop viewing each other as different or wrong… just diverse paths to a similar end.

More recently (this weekend), I attended a screening of a new documentary produced by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me). The film, entitled What Would Jesus Buy?, uses the forms and traditions of Christianity to mount an argument against out-of-control consumerism, though it never really offers Christianity or Christ as an alternative or solution. The film (which I will write about in more depth soon) follows “Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping”—a performance art/activist group that looks like a gospel choir but makes no claims of believing in the gospel. Following the screening of the film, I interviewed Spurlock and asked him about how Christianity fits into the message of the film. He said that the film’s theme reflects the true meaning of Christmas—the arrival of a man who would revolutionize the world and shake things up through his radical message of peace, love, and equality.

But Christians, as I pointed out to Spurlock, would argue that Christmas represents more than peace and goodwill and love. It represents the Answer to our dissatisfaction in the arrival of a person who becomes a savior. True satisfaction, the Christian argues, comes not simply from the message of Jesus Christ (which if it is only peace/love/equality is not unique to him), but through his person. The sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus—and through that alone—provides our redemption and ultimate happiness. Spurlock (who was incredibly nice and easy to talk to) responded by saying that yes, happiness can be found in Jesus Christ, but also in Allah or Buddha or whoever it might be. All of us are essentially about the same business: which is to try to make a change in the world.

It seems that the Christianity being invoked in What Would Jesus Buy?—and which is cooperating ecumenically for social justice and political causes (a good thing)—is increasingly being stripped of its claims of exclusivity. It is pretty clear in the scriptures that Jesus Christ was not of the mind that his way was just “one of many.” Rather, he said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). C.S. Lewis articulates the vital importance of Christ’s claims of exclusivity also in his famous “Lord, liar, or lunatic” reasoning in Mere Christianity:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said
would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic –
on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.

In other words, Jesus Christ cannot merely be a teacher, or prophet, or rhetorical genius (all of which he is). His message of love/peace/equality is great, yes, but part of his message is also that “my way is the only way.” Thus, to accept him as a peace advocate or political revolutionary but reject his claims of divinity is to undermine his whole legacy and legitimacy.

Christians today are struggling with the exclusive nature of our faith. It’s the hardest thing for people to get past, for sure. We don’t want to come across as condemnatory of every other religion. We hate having to tell others that our faith necessarily excludes other faiths as valid alternatives. We want to work together with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc without judgment or tension. And we can.

It is possible to live and work amongst other faiths, because we do have some common ground and shared concerns for peace and justice and a better world. But ultimately we cannot equate ourselves, because the final solution, in Christianity’s view, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. Not just the general, social reform causes he championed, but Jesus Christ the man: God incarnate. He offers himself to all—no matter where you were born or what you have done—and in that way he is the most inclusive.

Mii, Myself, and My Online Identity

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Recently I’ve been fascinated with the notion of the avatar—whether our Facebook picture or our IM Buddy icon or our actual videogame avatars. I’ve been playing on the Nintendo Wii and having way too much fun creating Miis… little cartoonish avatars that I can make from scratch and then play in games. But it’s a pretty interesting thing to consider on a deeper level—the attraction and increased ubiquity of avatars in a digital age.

In his essay, “Hyperidentities: Postmodern Identity Patterns in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games,” Miroslaw Filiciak argues that “on the Internet … we have full control over our own image—other people see us in the way we want to be seen.”

My question is this: To what extent are these avatars or online identities really “identities,” insofar as we recognize them as being in some way “us”? Do we see them as extensions of ourselves, or substitutes, or “one of many” variant, circumstantial identities? Do we empathize with our avatar as a function of being its creator and controller? Or as a result of its being our digital likeness and online persona?

“Identity” as an idea is complicated enough, but “postmodern identity” is another ball game entirely. Filiciak attempts to grasp the postmodern identity in his essay, citing people like Jean Baudrillard (identity is the “label of existence”), Michel Foucault (“self” is only a temporary construct), and Zygmunt Bauman, “the leading sociologist of postmodernism,” who argues that the postmodern identity “is not quite definite, its final form is never reached, and it can be manipulated.” This latter notion seems to be the crux of the matter—the idea that identity in this networked world is not fixed but fluid, ever and often malleable in our multitudinous postmodern existence.

Filiciak cites social psychologist Kenneth Gergen, who writes about how we exist “in the state of continuous construction and deconstruction.” While this is not a new idea (psychologist Erving Goffman argued, in his 1959 classic, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, that the presentation of self is a daily ongoing process of negotiation and information management, with the individual constantly trying to “perform” the image of themselves that they want others to see), it is nonetheless an idea which does seem ever more appropriate in this DIY, user-generated, “massively multiplayer” society.

The type of “self” we construct and deconstruct in everyday life, however, seems to me to be a subtly different thing than what we can and often do in videogame avatar creation. A primary attraction of avatar creation, I think, is that it allows us to create “selves” that are both our creation and our plaything, something that can be as near or far from us as we want. We can and often do construct “identities” that are far from who we are or would ever want to be in the “real” world. Why do we do this? Because we can. Where else can I create a detailed character—complete with eyes, nose, hair, lips, eyebrows, all proportioned to my curious heart’s content—who I not only have authored but can now control and “act as” in a simulated, interactive space?

I find it interesting that when I began to create my first Mii, my initial instinct was not to carefully craft a Mii in my image (I did do this later on, and found it rather boring), but rather to play around with the tools and manipulations at my disposal and create the weirdest looking, side-ponytail-wearing freak I could come up with. Given the opportunity to create any type of Mii, I had no inclination—and I never have, really—to create an avatar that is remotely like who I am (or who I think I am). Thus it strikes me as questionable whether avatars are primarily something that we are to empathize with, at least in the visual sense.

In a sense, my attraction to an avatar is not so much the ability to portray and empathize with a digital alternate to my self, as it is an empathy or affinity towards the ability to create and control this being. To create the avatar is—to me—the most enjoyable part of having one. Of all the things I’ve played on the Wii (sports, Mario Paper), Mii creating was definitely my favorite part. There is something very attractive to the idea of formulating a person from scratch—assembling features in bizarre and unnatural ways with no penalty for cruelty or ugliness. As Filiciak writes of the avatar creation of MMORPGs:

There is no need for strict diets, exhausting exercise programs, or cosmetic surgeries—a dozen or so mouse clicks is enough to adapt one’s ‘self’ to expectations. Thus, we have an opportunity to painlessly manipulate our identity, to create situations that we could never experience in the real world because of social, sex-, or race-related restrictions.

Indeed, if we view avatars as a sort of extension of our identity, then here is one case in which we truly can be anything we want to be.

We can also do anything we want to do, or at least things that are taboo or unthinkable in our real lives (play Grand Theft Auto for a good example of this). Here again we see that our empathy with the avatar occurs not just in what the avatar is, but perhaps more in what the avatar does, or is able to do at our command. Filiciak believes the freedom we have with the avatar “minimizes the control that social institutions wield over human beings,” and results not in chaos but liberation: “avatars are not an escape from our ‘self,’ they are, rather a longed-for chance of expressing ourselves beyond physical limitations … a postmodern dream being materialized.”

It’s an interesting notion, to be sure: the vaguely Freudian idea that who we really are (our true identity) can be realized only when the many limitations of everyday life are removed (as in a game). Gonzalo Frasco, in his essay “Simulation versus Narrative,” makes a similar point about how videogames allow for a place where “change is possible”—a form of entertainment providing “a subversive way of contesting the inalterability of our lives.”

I think that the ability to transgress the limitations and inalterability of our real lives is an especially important attraction of the avatar. But within this ability of the avatar (to be and do things that are beyond the scope of our real lives), I think, lies the very limitations of our identification with it. It seems that what draws us to the avatar is the very thing which ultimately alienates us from it. If true empathy is possible with the user and his avatar, he must first get past the fact that this digital incarnation of “self” can do (and is really meant to be) substantively different than we are—unbound by the many limitations (physical, emotional, cultural, etc) which mark our existence.

The pleasure we derive from our relation to an avatar, then, seems to be less about empathy or identification than creative control and interactivity. With my Mii creations, for example, my enjoyment came from the ability to create in any way I wanted—to play God in some small way. There was little in the Miis that I could relate to my own identity; little I could really empathize with. But I still enjoyed creating, changing, and controlling them. This reflects a tension that is, in my mind, central to the videogame experience. It is the tension between the “anything is possible” freedom of virtual worlds and the user’s desire for empathy. The former may produce the higher levels of fun and gameplay, but the latter is a fundamental human longing. And I believe the two are negatively correlated: as “anything is possible” increases, the opportunity for empathy decreases, simply because limitation—as opposed to unbounded freedom—is what we know. It’s our human frame of reference.