Monthly Archives: October 2007

Halloween Special: The Ten Creepiest Films

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In honor of Halloween, everyone seems to make a list like this. As someone who never passes up a chance to compile a top ten list, of course I had to join in the fun! But rather than a top ten horror film list, I thought I’d broaden it to include films of other genres. Thus, my collection is of the creepiest or most insidiously disturbing films: less about blood and slashers than heart-pounding shock and awe.

10) The Last Wave (1977): The horror of this film comes not from blood or violence or other conventional thrills. Rather, Peter Weir’s feverish aboriginal nightmare of an Australian apocalypse provides psychotropic ambience of the most unsettling kind.

9) Freaks (1932): The creepiest thing about this film is its exploitative use of real dwarfs, midgets, Siamese twins, and other circus freaks… And when the maligned freaks get angry and rebel against the “normals,” watch out…

8) Three Women (1977): Though it’s not a typical horror film (some might even call it a comedy), Robert Altman’s serenely pagan study of identity is remarkably ballsy and deeply disturbing. Sissy Spacek is even creepier here than she is in Carrie.

7) Lost Highway (1997): David Lynch makes sick movies. He’s a twisted, tortured soul. Lost Highway is particularly creepy, however, mainly because of the image of Robert Blake’s ghost-white, alarmingly devilish face.

6) The Hitcher (1986): I haven’t seen the recent remake, but the 1986 original is a heartpounding thrill a minute. C. Thomas Howell plays a teen stalked by a madmen on the highways of the American West… a conventional setup that devolves into uncharted territories of nihilistic despair.

5) The Wicker Man (1973): This British film (not to be confused with the horrible Nicolas Cage remake) about a secluded island in Scotland populated by happy-go-lucky occultists (who like to sing cheerful songs while sacrificing goats) inspired parodies like Hot Fuzz, but it remains one of the most disturbing, shocking films of the 1970s. The last five minutes are unimaginably f*#$%d up.

4) Night of the Living Dead (1968): George Romero’s groundbreaking horror classic terrified audiences back in the already-tense late 60s, and it terrifies even today. The low-budget, black-and-white, “band of survivors in a farmhouse” setup turns into an unrelenting Cold War zombie hysteria by the end.

3) The Exorcist (1973): Demon movies are inherently disturbing, and this one takes the cake. The unrepentantly earnest realism of the film is its most frightening quality, as are the flash-frame images of indescribably scary demon faces (I dare you to pause it on those images!). The subliminal spiritual warfare of this film is intensely terrifying.

2) The Silence of the Lambs (1991):
In addition to the indelible horror that is Hannibal Lecter, this film features the most thrilling climax of any film I can think of. The “blackout” moment near the end is quiet nearly unbearable to watch.

1) The Shining (1980):
When I first saw this film for the first time, it was quite simply one of the most scarring moments of my young life. But the months of nightmares are worth it in retrospect, as Stanley Kubrick’s film (from a book by Stephen King) remains one of the most compelling, complex, skin-tingling thrillers of all time.

Next Ten: Pyscho, Carrie, Halloween, The Sixth Sense, Rosemary’s Baby, Zodiac, Scream, The Others, The Birds, Alien.

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Best “Christian” Albums of all Time

Yes, it is ridiculous that there is such a thing as “Christian music.” I am totally of the mind that the contemporary Christian music industry is something that never should have existed, and that most of its output has, in fact, been utterly forgettable. That said, however, I must admit that not ALL of so-called “Christian” music (and in my definition, it’s basically any music made with Christian spirituality in mind or in heart) is horrific bilge. Some of it is good, and some even great. I suppose that in any largely-crappy genre of anything, there are some standouts. In this case, I think that the following ten albums more than hold their own in the company of any other “best-of” list, secular or otherwise.

So, without further ado, here’s my list of the best “Christian” albums of all time (and when I say “all time,” I mean anything after 1990… which is when I started buying albums):

U2, The Joshua Tree (1987):
It might seem cheap and superficially obligatory to include this album on a list like this (b/c U2 has never and will never call themselves a “Christian” band), but there’s no denying: this album is the one of the most glisteningly spiritual creations in pop music history.

seven-swans.jpgSufjan Stevens, Seven Swans (2004): Again, not a traditionally CCM artist, but Sufjan Stevens can’t be left off of this list. I’m convinced that history will look back on Sufjan as a turning point in the musical trajectory of “spiritual” music. Perhaps now Christians who are into good music won’t feel ashamed if they care more about being true and artistic rather than obvious and didactic.

Jars of Clay, Much Afraid (1997): Some might claim that Jars of Clay’s debut album (with that happily earthy feel) is their finest work. However, I’ve always contended that Much Afraid is their masterpiece. Subtle, subdued, and sonically rich (with gorgeously lingering songs like “Frail”), this sophomore album from a seminal CCM band is truly worthy of accolades.

Pedro the Lion, It’s Hard to Find a Friend (1998): When David Bazan (aka Pedro the Lion) emerged from the Seattle indie/emo scene in the late 90s, he was like the Christian version of Kurt Cobain (tortured, passionate, dark) with the mellow style of Eddie Vedder. His first full-length album remains his best, with quietly tragic (and catchy) tunes like “Big Trucks” and “When They Really Get to Know You They Will Run.”

overtherhine.jpgOver the Rhine, Ohio (2003): This could be my favorite album of all time. Certainly it’s the best album ever to come from blatantly Christian artists. The folky double-disc masterpiece from Cincinnati’s best kept secret is nothing short of magnificent, with its backwoods mystery and latter days prophetic gravitas (“Changes Come”). There are about six songs from this album that should be sung in churches every Sunday.

Sixpence None the Richer, Sixpence None the Richer (1998): Though the uber-catchy “Kiss Me” got all the press, the rest of this album is equally marvelous. Leigh Nash—the queen of CCM’s “indie” sound—gave beautiful form to Matt Slocum’s well-crafted classics on this album, which remains a rainyday staple and a major step into mainstream success for CCM.

Caedmon’s Call, Caedmon’s Call (1997): This is an album of the “college folk” movement in the late 90s in which “earthy” bands with world music leanings became “alternatives” for the over-18 set. Caedmon’s Call filled the Christian niche nicely with this album, which—among other things—launched the solo career of Derek Webb, who would later become the Martin Luther of CCM.

waterdeep.jpgWaterdeep, Everyone’s Beautiful (1999): Even more grassroots and folky than their contemporaries Caedmon’s Call, the Kansas City-based Waterdeep became something of a legend among Christian hipsters for a few years in the late 90s/early 00s. Everyone’s Beautiful is their most diverse, satisfying album, though their live shows are still this band’s strongest suit.

DC Talk, Jesus Freak (1995): Though it can’t be denied that this album is a two-year delayed derivative of the grunge craze, it also can’t be denied that Jesus Freak is a super catchy, well-crafted effort from CCM’s favorite boy band. Give the trio credit: they went from rap outfit to rock band in seamless fashion, reinventing the Christian music industry (and giving it license to rock!) along the way.

Switchfoot, New Way to be Human (1999): Though this San Diego surfer band has since fallen victim to “crossover” MTV irrelevance, their older stuff is actually quite good. I especially like this album for its beautiful ballads (“Sooner or Later,” “Let That Be Enough,” and “Only Hope”) which appeared all over teen media (Dawson’s Creek, Party of Five, A Walk to Remember) in the late 90s.

Honorable mention: Burlap to Cashmere, Anybody Out There? (1998), The Innocence Mission, Christ is My Hope (2000), Eisley, Room Noises (2005), Danielson, Ships (2006), Half-handed Cloud, Halos and Lassoes (2006), Rich Mullins, Songs (1996), Vigilantes of Love, Audible Sigh (1999), Damien Jurado, Rehearsals for Departure (1999), Relient K, The Anatomy of Tongue in Cheek (2001), Audio Adrenaline, Bloom (1996).

Football as American Sanctum

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Part three of a three-part post series on competition in the American psyche. Click here for part one and part two.

Every weekend in America, from August to January, there is a cultural phenomenon that binds millions of us in passionate spectatorship: football. On Friday nights it is high school, Saturday is when the colleges go at it, and then Sunday—the climactic moment in the pigskin orgy—we have wall-to-wall NFL action.

For countless Americans, the Sunday ritual of church in the morning and then NFL all afternoon is one of the most treasured rites of seasonal passage. Sure, there’s a lot to be disgusted by in the whole rigmarole: excessive TV watching is not good, and neither is the emphasis on bad beer, scantily-clad cheerleaders, inflated egos, etc. For these reasons, I often prefer the college football scene—which has some semblance of that “love of the game” fidelity that make movies like Rudy oh-so-moving.

But regardless of its good and bad qualities, football is unquestionably a HUGE part of American culture. I, for one, am smitten, and unashamedly so. But what is it that’s so attractive?

In the September issue of Christianity Today, Eric Miller attacks this question head on in his cover story, “Why We Love Football.” He argues that when we watch football we “see our world far more roundly than we ever see it on CNN. Many of us feel it as fully as we feel it anywhere. The NFL is us.” But what is in football that is a microcosm of real life? Miller thinks there is plenty:

The phenomenon of professional football—with its relentless specialization, its inordinately complex ‘strategic planning,’ its rapid assimilation of new technologies… it’s rhythm of quick bursts and pregnant pauses, its gleaming sensuality of (safe!) violence and sex, its worship of the youthful body, its intense drive for the jolting climax—spits our way of life back on us in neat three-hour packages.

I think this is all true, but I also think there are more rudimentary levels at which our attraction to football is forged. It has to do with our human impulse (highly encouraged in America) to be psychologically preoccupied with competition—with the separation of every human activity into winners and losers, victory and defeat.

Football is the poster-child for competition as product, as commodity. Many sports and games are similar in this way, but football is especially so. It’s a site where people can do (and must do) things totally taboo in the real world: like smashing into each other with all the rage and force one can muster. It’s a place where the consequences for losing are less severe than in our real life battles, and yet the glories of winning are doubly as sweet.

We might think of our everyday human lives as an assemblage of battles and struggles—to make money, to find food, shelter, a mate, etc… Everyday we face the stresses and traumas of battles lost and won. Sometimes we get knocked down and have a hard time getting up. It’s a constant uphill battle, and the consequences are life and death. It’s no wonder we spend so much of our free time invested in sports—where the battles of our everyday lives are condensed, lightened, and made entertaining. Watching sports like football offers us a time to live in a high-intensity game (which we can relate to) without the fear of personal defeat or real-life consequences.

In game theory there is a term called the “magic circle”—the space within which a game takes place, as differentiated from “real life” outside the circle. But why do we enter in to and spend so much of our lives within the artificial sphere or “magic circle” of games? I think it is probably because of the control we have over it via the consciousness which allows us to establish and maintain the circle in the first place. We are the creators of things like football, and we determine the rules—what is or is not allowed. In our real-life struggles we often have no control over the rules—and yet we must still live under and work through them. Games, however, are our created spaces of agency and escape—where we empower ourselves to feel in control, to feel strong and victorious: something in life that is much harder to experience.

Life on the Precipice

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Every day in Los Angeles is another disaster waiting to happen. Whether it’s a massive semi-pileup in a tunnel or a wildfire consuming much of Malibu, some calamity is always befalling this idyllic city. The other night I was driving on Santa Monica Blvd and had to swerve to miss two trees that had been blown over by the wind and were now splayed out across two lanes of the road. Just another routine life-threatening obstacle on the roadways of SoCal!

Indeed, it’s a pretty remarkable thing to survive even a day in this loose-cannon of a city. It’s only by the grace of God that any of us get through. And it’s not just L.A. Life is pretty catastrophic anywhere you live… and at any moment we are all equally at risk of being attacked, crashed into, exploded, derailed, poisoned, maimed, or burgled (it’s happened to me!).

Okay, so this is all very macabre and dour. Yes. But the point is that life is lived continually on the brink. Ours is an existence of a precarious balance between life and death, mortality and immortality, good and bad, etc. But it’s a situation that should not be feared; because it cannot be avoided. Perhaps we should embrace it in a way: tune our personal pulse to the dynamic dualism of a damaged, yet redeemable, world.

Part of the reason why I love the films of Terrence Malick is because I feel that he articulately expresses this dualism through a uniquely poetic mode of artistry. In each of his films there is both beauty and ugliness, joy and tragedy—the best and worst of man, and the best and worst of nature.

In his film Days of Heaven, which releases today on Criterion Collection (click here for an essay I recently wrote about the film), this “precarious balance” idea is gorgeously embodied. This is a film that pulsates with the warring forces that rage beneath the surface in man and nature, even while evoking a quiet, painterly, elegiac mood.

If only our day-to-day dealings with omnipresent chaos could be so elegant…

The Commodification of Experience

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In Wes Anderson’s new film, The Darjeeling Limited, three brothers from an aristocratic family meet in India to go on a “spiritual journey.” Loaded down with designer luggage, laminated trip itineraries, and a hired staffer (“Brendan”) with an albino disease, the dysfunctional trio embarks on a train ride through the richly spiritual terrain of India.

It is clear from the outset that the brothers—or at least Francis (Owen Wilson)—are here to experience something: something deep, profound, and hopefully life changing. And they are oh-so methodical about maximizing the “spirituality” of it all. Francis stuffs every spare moment of their schedule with a temple visit or some sort of feather prayer ritual. It might be odd and a little offensive that these three rich white guys—decked out in fitted flannel suits by Marc Jacobs—are prancing around such squalor, making light (by juxtaposition) of the decidedly exotic culture that surrounds them… But this is what makes the film funny. It’s a comedy.

But it also rings very true. These guys are swimming in things (designer sunglasses, clothes, trinkets, keychains, etc), but what they really want is to feel. And because acquiring commodities is in their DNA, they assume that these types of immaterial experiences can be collected too. Thus, their exotic pilgrimage to India.

The film made me think a lot about my own life, and how I increasingly feel drawn to experiences rather than things. It’s all about seeking those magic moments—whether on a vacation abroad or on a sunset walk on the beach—when we feel something more. And of course, it helps to have an appropriate song pumping through your iPod to fit whatever mood or genre of life you are living at that moment. In Darjeeling, the “iPod as soundtrack to a nicely enacted existential episode” is given new meaning.

In his book The Age of Access, Jeremy Rifkin applies this all very neatly to economic theory, pointing out that our post-industrial society is moving away from the physical production of material goods to the harnessing of lived experience as a primary economic value. For Rifkin, the challenge facing capitalism is that there is nothing left to buy, so consumers are “casting about for new lived experiences, just as their bourgeois parents and grandparents were continually in search of making new acquisitions.” Rifkin believes that the “new self” is less concerned with having “good character” or “personality” than in being a creative performer whose personal life is an unfolding drama built around accumulated episodes and experiences that fit into a larger narrative. Rifkin keenly articulates how this user orientation toward theatricalized existence creates a new economic frontier:

There are millions of personal dramas that need to be scripted and acted out. Each represents a lifelong market with vast commercial potential… For the thespian men and women of the new era, purchasing continuous access to the scripts, stages, other actors, and audiences provided by the commercial sphere will be critical to the nourishing of their multiple personas.

And so as we (the spoiled, affluent westerners among us, at least) become more and more dissatisfied with all the physical goods we’ve amassed, and begin to seek lived experiences and dramatic interaction as a new life pursuit, we must not delude ourselves that this is some higher goal, untainted by commercialism.

On the contrary, the economy is shifting to be ready for the “new selves” of this ever more de-physicalized era. The question is: are we prepared to allow our experiences to become commodities? Are we okay with the fact that our “to-buy” wishlists are now being replaced by “to do” lists, of equal or greater value to the marketplace? What happens when every moment of our lives becomes just another commodity—something we collect and amass to fill the showcase mantles of our memories?

Christian (Fill in the Blank)

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Two summers ago, I heard Rick Warren speak at a conference. Pastor Warren (God bless him) uttered a line in his speech that gave me particular pause: “There is no such thing as Christian music, only Christian lyrics.” It’s a significant line in his theology, and it also appears throughout the Purpose-Driven book empire.

It’s a line that goes to the heart of the crisis in Christian identity.

Essentially, Warren is suggesting that something is made Christian when it is clearly labeled as such. Song lyrics (words) are easy to recognize as Christian: do they contain the words God, Jesus, praise? If so, wham! They’re Christian! Instrumental music cannot be “Christian,” in Warren’s view, because how could we ever tell what it is about? If the song itself doesn’t proclaim itself verbally as such, it is not Christian (even if its composer is Christian).

This way of thinking turns the essence of Christianity into a cheap adjective. Slap it onto anything, and voila! You have redeemed the regular and made it holy! But wait—isn’t Christianity more complicated than that?

Christians are way too slaphappy with the name “Christian.” We cavalierly attach it to the most trivial of things. Let’s consider just some of the “Christian” things that populate our culture: Christian bookstores, Christian music, movies, videogames, radio, magazines, publishing houses, Christian Youtube (“Godtube”), Christian MySpace (“MyPraize”), Christian clothes, shoes, socks, paintings, mousepads, cooking utensils, crockpots, you name it….

But what makes any of this “Christian”? What makes one crockpot more suitable for Christians than another? Do we really need “Christian” alternatives in cutlery?

Long ago, Christians decided that rather than trying to influence mass culture from within, they’d take the more passive route and define themselves as a “subculture.” One more subculture among many. There are many reasons why they did this: 1) it’s easier, 2) niche markets make more money faster, and 3) modernity gave rise to the combative, defensive posture of “us vs. them”—an attitude that has defined pop-Christianity ever since.

As a result, “Christian” seemed to become a word best defined by what it wasn’t (i.e. liberal, gay, postmodern, pro-choice, etc…). Somewhere in there we lost our sense of history and tradition and identity—we lost our idea of what “Christian” really means. And if we don’t know what it means, how will anyone else?

The problem is that our society has convinced us that “Christian” is merely an adjective—a descriptive word that usually connotes a conservative, prudish, bigoted fundamentalist diametrically opposed to everything fun under the sun.

But the truth is that “Christian” is much better fit as a noun, or even better—a verb. To be a Christian it to live in pursuit of Christ—to not be satisfied with who you are, but to strive for who you might be. It’s an action-oriented life; it’s a process.

We need to stop demeaning Christianity by treating it like a just another attribute. “Christian” is not like “red” or “tall.” It’s not just a word to describe. It’s a living, breathing way of being.

Why You Should Watch Commercials

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Last week in my Network T.V. Management class at UCLA, our guest speaker was a high level executive at ABC Primetime. He spoke to us about the business side of broadcast television–how the audience of any given show is basically “sold” to the advertisers who then invest in a show for its guaranteed spectatorship. If a show is getting good ratings in the 18-49 demographic, for example, the network will then be able to charge more for the increasingly sought-after commercial ad space. As we all know (or should know), advertising via audience “labor” is the bread and butter of T.V. financing.

A massive spoiler appeared on the horizon a few years ago, however, and its name is DVR. Tivo and friends have altered the industry’s economic landscape in striking ways, and T.V. executives are scrambling to figure out what to do about it. The problem is that with DVR technology, people are able to fast-forward through commercials. And they do. I do. Advertisers notice this and are increasingly demanding that the networks do something about it. Consequently, ABC Primetime has taken the revolutionary step this fall season of being the first network to sell ad space based solely on commercial ratings.

In a nutshell, this striking shift means that ABC (and perhaps the other networks soon) will measure a show’s economic feasibility based only on who is watching the commercials—not the show itself. What does this mean for you? It means that if you use DVR to fast-forward through the commercials of your favorite show, you might as well not be watching (at least in the eyes of the networks, who are always looking for excuses to dump underperforming shows). This may be a bitter pill to swallow, but I’m afraid it is true: your favorite television shows are in danger if you do not watch their commercials.

More generally, however, this shift represents the frantic defensive maneuvers being undertaken by beleaguered media industries in the face of technology and changing audience patterns. Hollywood is trying to adapt its old framework to withstand the erosion that things like DVR, on-demand, video iPod and other technologies are causing. Their worst fear is to become the lame-duck recording industry, which is all but dead now because of its blatant refusal to work with and through new technologies.

It remains to be seen whether or not the ad-based network T.V. model will survive the digital age, and maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe we should be even more purposeful about fast-forwarding through commercials on our Tivos. Maybe we should send the message that the days of “commercial breaks” are over—that we will no longer tolerate being passive ratings demographics or dollar-sign statistics in the ugly ratings wars. Of course, we’d have to concede a trade-off in some way—most likely the acceptance of brand-integration and product placement within our favorite shows. After all, these shows need to be financed somehow.

All I know is that the future of television is completely up in the air (as are the futures of most other media industries), and we the audience will have an ever larger role to play. I have much more to say about it all, so stay tuned…