Monthly Archives: July 2008

Best of the Blog’s First Year: Part One

My one-year anniversary of being a blogger happens next week, and in honor of that fact (and the fact that blogging is by nature a very self-indulgent act) I’m going to spend the next week revisiting some of my most controversial and popular posts, as well as my own personal favorites.

It’s great that blogs can archive all posts, comments, etc, but the truth is that most blog posts have relatively short life spans. The blogosphere—like the Internet in general—thrives on new content, new posts, and bite-sized pontificating. If there’s a downside to blogging, it is that sometimes I feel like the things I want to say can’t properly be said in this format, and that the energy I spend writing it down isn’t worthwhile when in a matter of days it might fade into the digital graveyard of well-intentioned ideas.

Nevertheless, I’ve found it all a very worthwhile endeavor, and when I look back to the second post that I wrote, entitled “The Search” (July 19), I find that the principles and motivations with which I started this blog have more or less carried through and sustained me over the past year.

In any case, the following is an annotated list of fifteen of my personal favorite blog posts from my first twelve months of blogging. Next week I will post a list of the top ten most-viewed posts and top ten by number-of-comments posts, just in case you missed them the first time.

Harry Potter and the Christian Fear of Imagination: A post from last summer when the final book came out, and a treatise against the ridiculous Christian antagonism towards our beloved Harry Potter.

Memories of a Recent October: This was a therapeutic one to write, and captured numerous of my autumnal thoughts and feelings. Plus it was a chance to plug the White Sox!

No Country For Old Men: My thoughts on the Academy Award-winning film, from when it came out back in November. The Miramax website actually linked to this post in their “for your consideration” Oscar campaign site.

The Commodification of Experience: Inspired by The Darjeeling Limited, this post allowed me to articulate some things I’d been thinking about and writing about at UCLA the past year.

Mii, Myself, and My Online Identity: Inspired by a paper I wrote for a Videogame Theory class at UCLA, this post was one of many semi-meta examinations of online/blog identity.

The Case for Criticism: Not a Lee Strobel book! Rather, this is my attempt to legitimate the art of true, productive criticism at a time when everyone seems to be adopting the “critic” title.

Quarterlife Crisis: My thoughts upon turning 25; one of the rare times I wrote about myself and my thoughts in any sort of transparent way.

Incomprehensible Incarnation (Merry Christmas): My attempt to be as poetic as Linford Detweiler in describing what Christmas actually means. (Note that I quote Linford extensively in the article).

Does Jesse James Know Who He Is?: This is another article about—you guessed it—identity. This time it was inspired by the beautiful Assassination of Jesse James film from last fall.

Top-Down Populism: This one got me into some trouble with colleagues at UCLA, or at least sparked a discussion with them. But I stand by what I wrote, and I think it reveals a lot of my foundational political ideology.

In lieu of a real posting: An attempt at a free-written blog post; a thoroughly refreshing, existential exercise that may or may not reveal anything significant about life.

The Hills Are Alive With Confused Identity: There’s that “i” word again… This time it’s with respect to the MTV show, The Hills.

Paranoid Park: My favorite film of the year so far, and one of the most pleasurable reviews to write. I also like this one because I think there was some exceptionally productive dialogue in the comments section.

Saturday Art: In many ways this post captures my fundamental approach to the arts and to beauty.

Flight of the Red Balloon: A gorgeous film and another review I really loved writing. Films like this afford a critic the best opportunities to sound off on the things about cinema they really love: in my case, transcendental aesthetics.

Best Movie Marketing Ever?

My prediction for The Dark Knight is that it will break the all time opening weekend box office numbers when it releases on July 18. If not that, then it will at least take the prize for the summer and the year. And why? Three reasons: 1) It’s a sequel, 2) It’s a comic book movie, and 3) It’s had the coolest marketing of any movie ever. Everytime I drive down Hollywood Blvd and see the latest 10 story spectacular ad (most recently the image on the left below), I’m just in awe of how sick this movie looks.

In addition to having a crazy good poster and billboard campaign, Knight has also broken new ground in post-Cloverfield viral marketing. The viral network of websites associated with Knight is substantial—almost mind-boggling. And the more you go digging around on one site, the deeper the rabbit hole goes. For example, this spring Warner Brothers unveiled the site, which consisted solely of a campaign ad for the politician character Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). A few days later came the follow-up: This site featured a scribbled-out version of the same campaign ad, apparently the defacing work of the Joker himself. At the bottom of this page you could input your e-mail address, and those who did received a message apparently from the Joker himself which read: “I always say, you never know what a man is truly made of until you peel the skin off his face one piece at a time.” It gave a unique X and Y coordinate, and if you followed a link that took you back to the site, you could “peel off” one pixel of the Harvey Dent campaign ad. Behind all the pixels was this horrifyingly scary countenance:

And apparently if you then sent an e-mail back to the e-mail that was sent to you, you immediately got this extremely cryptic reply back from the joker: “People always ask me about my charming boyish smile. Jessica used to love it. She was the loneliest girl in high school, and my first big kiss…”

But this is just one example of the massive, intricate marketing web Warner Brothers has woven. I’m sure there are many more than this, but I was able to track down ten unique urls associated with the marketing of the film: some associated with the Joker (here and here), some with Harvey Dent and Harvey Dent’s rival DA candidates (here and here), and countless sites about Gotham city newspapers, news channels, infrastructure, churches, etc.

Like all great marketing campaigns, the one for Knight proceeded in stages. Last year it started with a focus on the Joker, and then this spring it transitioned to a focus on Harvey Dent. Fittingly for an election year—and perhaps as a parody of American electoral politics—the Harvey Dent campaign has consisted of faux political rallies, campaign ads, downloadable widgets and banners, and various “I Believe in Harvey Dent” paraphernalia.

The websites have also been remarkable in their ability to tap in to that most crucial of all 21st-century marketing techniques: user-generated content. Websites allow fans to make their own videos or create their own “Batman sighting” photographs, for example. The viral nature of the whole operation also gives privileged status to those “most active users” who spend the time decoding riddles, finding easter eggs, etc. But it also builds intrigue for the casual users who just happen to see a “Why So Serious?” or “I Believe in Harvey Dent” poster.

With such an entertaining and beautiful marketing campaign, the actual release of the film threatens to be a letdown. But somehow I don’t think it will be. Not at all.

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog is at the top of his game this year. Catapulted by the unexpected success of Grizzly Man a few years ago, Herzog has regained some of the filmmaking prestige he had back in the 80s with films like Fitzcarraldo. Last summer’s Rescue Dawn was one of my favorite films of the year (I gave it four stars in my CT review) and featured a stunning and grievously underrated performance by Christian Bale. Then a few months ago, Herzog showed up as an actor (playing an eccentric priest) in Harmony Korine’s gorgeous Mister Lonely. But his latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, might take the cake. It’s certainly the best documentary I’ve seen this year.

Like many of Herzog’s films, Encounters is a thing of spellbinding beauty, intrigue, and wonderment. Commissioned by the Discovery Channel, Herzog’s film is unlike most other documentaries about Antarctica. First of all, it’s not about penguins (though “deranged penguins” do make a cameo). Rather than focusing solely on the natural environment or breathtaking photography (though it certainly has its fair share of these things), Encounters is a sort of travelogue that examines the humans who inhabit the seventh continent. More specifically, it asks the typical Herzogian questions: what draws man to live among such a harsh environment? Who are humans in the face of such awesome natural forces?

Herzog interviews a motley crew of scientists, engineers, wayfaring travelers, and otherwise eccentrics from all over the world, who inhabit the “town” of McMurdo Station during Antarctica’s summer months. Herzog’s sardonic voiceovers (in his memorable German accent) frame each interview with editorial commentaries, and as usual his personality adds much flavor to the tonally rich film.

For the scientific junkies among us, there is plenty of amazing stuff here: volcanoes, icebergs, microbiology, otherworldly underwater footage, speculation about the nature of neutrinos, and more. And Herzog manages to make it all utterly compelling, almost holy. Indeed, Herzog is never too afraid to insinuate spirituality into his examinations of nature. He frequently inserts language like “other-worldly,” “cathedral,” and “god” in his reckonings with a nature he continues to be utterly drawn in to and baffled by.

Herzog’s prevailing cinematic conflict is that of man vs. nature, and that is certainly the case in Encounters—a film that concludes rather nonchalantly that human life is reaching its inevitable conclusion on planet earth. He addresses global warming but treats it almost as a convenient sheet over our eyes—blinding us from the obvious truth that nature is winning, will win, and humanity’s days are numbered. Nevertheless, Herzog’s film is not in the least a somber or apocalyptic polemic (like An Inconvenient Truth or something), but rather a jubilant, child-like exploration of a totally fascinating topic.

There are moments in this film that are so beautiful, so true, that one doesn’t mind that the point of the film is to show us how tiny and powerless and, well, stupid we humans are. But I’ve always thought it a valuable thing to be reminded of: that the creation we are a part of is utterly beyond our comprehension and, to an extent, control. Sure, we are changing the climate with our massive pollutants, but there are bigger things going on in nature that we cannot account for.

In this way, Herzog’s analysis of the natural world is both eco-friendly and eco-ambivalent. His relationship to nature is similar to many Christians’ relationship to God: he fears it, loves it, and is totally dependent on it. Indeed, nature is Herzog’s god, and the passion and reverence with which he artfully approaches it is something we all might learn from.

Emmy Finalists Revealed

Last week the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences revealed the top ten vote-getters for outstanding drama series and outstanding comedy series, which will be whittled down to the final five in each category when Emmy nominations are announced later this month. They are:

Comedy: Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, Family Guy, Flight of the Conchords, The Office, Pushing Daisies, 30 Rock, Two and a Half Men, Ugly Betty, & Weeds.

Drama: Boston Legal, Damages, Dexter, Friday Night Lights, Grey’s Anatomy, House, Lost, Mad Men, The Tudors, & The Wire.

Three words: Friday. Night. Lights. It simply HAS to be one of the final five nominees this year, making up for its unconscionable snub last year.

If I had my way, the chips will fall this way come July 17:

Outstanding Comedy Series nominees: Entourage, Flight of the Conchords, 30 Rock, The Office, Pushing Daisies.

Outstanding Drama Series nominees: Dexter, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, Lost, The Wire.

But honestly, all I really care about is FNL getting a nomination. Emmy voters, if you’re reading this: give the show some love!!!

30 Great Things About America

It’s in vogue to hate on America these days and to pretend not to be proud to be an American, but this is just silly. On this Independence Day weekend, I think it’s important to take stock of the good things we have in this country… and here are just a few authentically American things that I’m thankful for:

  • Apple pie ala mode
  • Visits to an ice cream parlor on hot summer evening
  • The Kansas prairie… especially in the hours between a late afternoon thunderstorm and a humid sunset.
  • Sweet Iowa corn
  • Drive-in movies: combining two American favorites—movies and cars.
  • Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, actually most all of the old colonial cities…
  • Barbecues: dad at the grill, mom pouring lemonade, kids playing with water balloons
  • Mount Rushmore: how deliciously kitschy and American to turn a mountain into a postcard
  • Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Harrison Ford: between the three of them we have Saving Private Ryan, Forrest Gump, Apollo Thirteen, Band of Brothers, Indiana Jones, Air Force One, Patriot Games, and countless other quintessentially American films.
  • Baseball. Whether a little league game in rural Idaho or a sold out game at Wrigley Field, baseball is a gorgeous articulation of the American spirit.
  • Disneyland and Disneyworld: the crowds, the idealistic nostalgia, the capitalism, the innocence…
  • Extreme diversity. Living in L.A. has driven the point home: America is truly the most diverse country in the world, and it’s a great thing.
  • The National Park System. There’s nothing like it in the world.
  • College sports: do other countries even have something so great as the NCAA?
  • Ken Burns documentaries: Baseball, Jazz, The Civil War, The War… they’re all so exceedingly American.
  • The Oregon Trail: the computer game AND the actual trail.
  • Wilderness: there actually is some left, in remote corners of the American West.
  • Cowboys and Indians
  • Our great poets: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allen Poe, etc
  • Our great novelists: Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Walker Percy, etc.
  • Western films: John Ford, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Monument Valley.
  • The Gold Rush
  • The Gilded Age
  • Woodstock: the lasting iconic moment of that most iconic of all American decades, the 60s.
  • Prohibition and the Jazz Age: if only because it gave birth to the best American book of the 20th century (see next item).
  • The Great Gatsby: No words have ever captured the complex beauty and dream of America as Fitzgerald’s in this book.
  • New York and Chicago-style pizza
  • Art deco skyscrapers
  • Our shared national love of kitsch (see towns like Las Vegas, Pigeon Forge, and Branson)
  • The Super Bowl
  • Charlie Brown

What is America, Anyway?

Every Fourth of July I get a little nostalgic. I also get patriotic, but mostly it’s just nostalgic. Can you relate? I think most of us can. This grand holiday is at once a momentous celebration of American independence, a celebration of American history and culture, but also a day of memories. In fact I’d say that more than 50% of my day this Fourth of July will be spent thinking fondly back to the various Independence Days of my youth, and this is not in the least a sad or pathetic thing.

I’ll be thinking back to the summers in Oklahoma when the neighborhood kids would get together and set off fireworks on someone’s driveway, when we’d prance around under the humid summer moon, sparkler in one hand and melting popsicle in the other.

Or I might recall the various summers I spent at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Colorado, when the whole family was there, eating homemade vanilla ice cream and apple pie, waiting for me and my cousins to perform Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be An American” (complete with hand motions!).

Then there was the Fourth of July my family and I spent in San Francisco, watching fireworks explode over the Golden Gate bridge, or the year I was in Boston, watching fireworks on the banks of the Charles River, Boston Pops playing in the background. Or the insanely hot Fourth of July my family and I spent in New York City, watching an afternoon ballgame at Yankees Stadium, baking in the upper deck as peanuts and hot dogs and beer sizzled in the July heat.

And I remember one time, the summer after the Persian Gulf War (I think it was 1991), we neighborhood kids in Broken Arrow (Oklahoma) marveled as a local war veteran shot off some special “scud missile” firework. That was such a quick, clean, wonderful war. It was one we could name fireworks for.

I’m not sure Fourth of Julys are ever really about patriotism, at least not as much as they are about family, and the glory of summer, and the making of memories. And perhaps above all it is a holiday about time… It’s a day that celebrates America’s past, which is a rarity for a country that so thrills in the future. But it’s also a day that lets us stop what we’re doing and sink into the present, losing ourselves in the mesmerizing flashes in the sky, the Sousa marches, the barbecues.

It’s a day that captures what is ineffably American, and it has nothing to do with trite slogans (“United We Stand!”) or Gap flag shirts. It has much more to do with the sorts of complexities pointed out by people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who described in The Great Gatsby how the “fresh, green breast of the new world … pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the first time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

It has to do with Melville’s whale, or Hawthorne’s letter “A,” or Bob Dylan’s harmonica. It is crystallized in Citizen Kane’s Rosebud sled, or the moment in Badlands when Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen dance in the cold prairie darkness to Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell.”

It has to do with loss, and grace, and all that is good and bad about man’s ambition in the world. And perhaps Jack Kerouac captures it most clearly in his drug-addled prose in On the Road:

“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old…”

I’m not really sure what any of this means, just like I’m not really sure what America means—especially these days. But I do know that things don’t have to be crystal clear or black and white (or red, white and blue) in order to be beautiful. We can and should be thankful for this country, for our place in it, even if we don’t always understand it.

Desperately Seeking Evangelicals

It seems that everyday there is a new story in the news about how evangelical Christians are “up for grabs” in this year’s election. On Sunday there was this article on about Shane Claiborne’s “Jesus For President” tour, in which the dreadlocked neo-monk said, “With the respectability and the power of the church comes the temptation to prostitute our identity for every political agenda.” Well said.

Then on Tuesday there was a story about Obama “reaching out” to evangelicals–a story that featured quotes from who else but Emergent guru Brian McLaren, who claimed that “there’s a very, very sizable percentage — I think between a third and half — of evangelicals, especially younger [evangelicals], who are very open to somebody with a new vision.” I wonder who he means?

Meanwhile McCain continues to all but ignore evangelicals, adding fuel to the “up for grabs” fire that is so eagerly announced by the mainstream press. He did muster a meeting with Billy Graham last weekend, which seemed more symbolic than anything. I love Billy Graham very much, but is the 89-year-old really the best person McCain should tap to get some evangelical momentum on his side? While McCain continues to cater to the over-80 set, Obama is busy inspiring the formation of young Christian political action committees, like the Matthew 25 Network.

But is anyone else a little weary of all this “seeking the evangelical vote” spiritual gerrymandering? Obama plays his evangelical card with characteristic finesse, but ten years ago would he be caught dead with the e-word label? I doubt it. And McCain… well at least he isn’t trying to pretend he is or ever was a card-carrying evangelical. He straight-up flaunts his ambivalence to the Dobsons of the world… and that earns him more than a little respect in my book. He’s not trying to be someone he isn’t.

I’m not saying Obama is lying through his teeth; I honestly do think he is sincere in his Christian faith. But in the terms with which evangelicals historically define themselves, Obama clearly does not fit the bill. And that is fine. Christians: it IS okay to vote for someone who is not exactly like you! We should be voting on the issues and qualifications of the candidates, not their church-going practices.

I guess I’m just fatigued by the whole idea that I—as an evangelical—am part of some monolithic group that will sway the election. Am I not free to vote for the person I think will be a better president for us? Do I really have to be “courted” and convinced by the candidates that my Christian point of view will be reinforced by them as president? That’s what happened when George W. Bush ran for president in 2000. And did everything become Christian and wonderful in America? Far from it.

Mechanical Love

I saw a fascinating, wonderfully made documentary film this weekend at the L.A. Film Festival. Called Mechanical Love, this film is directed by Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo and examines the interrelationship between robots and humans.

A lot of the film takes place in Japan, where most robots are researched and developed. A main character in the film is Hiroshi Ishiguro, a Japanese professor trying to build a robot that looks just like him. His research concerns are less about making a functional robot as with creating a “substitute human” who can fulfill the social and emotional needs of an interpersonal dynamic. His robot (which does look creepily like him) can talk and move, but only as an extension of himself—controlled remotely by Ishiguro at a computer. He dreams of the day when robots can live and work on our behalf—like a clone, providing the illusion of our presence even when we are absent.

But are we really, seriously thinking something mechanical could ever compensate for a human touch, a human love? The people in this documentary seem to think so. Some of the most compelling scenes in the film focus on how “therapeutic robots” can be used in places like nursing homes to provide companionship to the lonely elderly. Frau Körner, a nursing home resident in Germany, owns a pet Paro, a Japanese-made mechanical baby seal. She quickly comes to love this robo-pet, which responds to voices and touch. Frau Körner has few human friends in the nursing home and her family rarely visits her, so naturally she is thrilled to have this “pet” to love and be loved by.

Mechanical Love is a hilarious film (and who else but Jack Black was in the audience with me, laughing away), but it’s also quite creepy and profoundly sad. Is this where we are as a human civilization—that we are so sick of each other that we’d prefer mechanical love?

It strikes me as interesting that this very weekend, the biggest movie in the country was also about mechanical love: Wall E. Here’s another film that takes a future of sentient artificial intelligence for granted. Is there something in our collective consciousness that is just tiring of human interaction so much that robots (loving each other, loving us, and saving everyone from their own self-induced apocalypse) are becoming our only hope?

Perhaps this is just an outgrowth of the ongoing android trend in culture: humans becoming more machine-like and vice versa. Our technologies have always been extensions of our person, but never more so than now (am I really “me” without my computer? Without my cell phone?). Just look at what I’m doing now: expressing myself via a blog. I could be talking to you (well, maybe) in person, being truly present, sharing my opinions. But it feels just as appropriate (or more appropriate) to do it remotely, using a technological intermediary to evoke my sonzai-kan (the Japanese word that Ishiguro uses to describe the uncanny sense of presence he hopes his robot-clone will provide to those it interacts with). Maybe one day I can be digitally or robotically as real as I am humanly. There are already times when it feels that way.