Monthly Archives: January 2008

2007’s “Most Redeeming” Films

The coalition of film critics at Christianity Today (I’m one of them) has just voted for and posted its list of the “Top Ten Most Redeeming Films of 2007.” The list is pretty solid–and I’d agree with all the choices with the exception of maybe Freedom Writers (which I have not seen). I’d stick Once in there instead, because I felt that movie was just about as “holy” as they come…

Actually, I’m not quite sure what “redeeming film” even means. The website describes the criteria in this way:

Stories of redemption—sometimes blatantly, sometimes less so. Several of them literally have a character that represents a redeemer; all of them have characters who experience redemption to some degree—some quite clearly, some more subtly. Some are “feel-good” movies that leave a smile on your face; some are a bit more uncomfortable to watch. But the redemptive element is there in all of these films.

This seems pretty straightforward, but when you really think about “redemptive elements” I think it becomes a bit harder to categorize. Is it redemption in the sense of justice or justification? Is it redeemed in the sense of “making new” or “making pure”? Or can it simply be that something ugly is made beautiful or something wrong made right? In any of these cases, it’s not exactly a clear-cut criteria.

We critics at Christianity Today also voted for the “Critic’s Choice” top ten (i.e. our picks for the best films of 2007). That list will be unveiled next Tuesday (Feb. 5). But in my view, any film I would call one of the “top ten of the year” would necessarily also be one of the “most redeeming.” And I guess I should say that by “redeeming” I don’t mean Christian or even spiritual as much as “valuable” or “true” or “significant.” But those are broad words too… I guess I just mean films that bring some new understanding or insight into the human soul and circumstance, and in the process a glimpse of the Other-centered desire that churns within us all. That may not sound “redeeming,” but I think it is holy.

In lieu of a real posting…

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Do you ever have those moments when your mind is so utterly frenzied and unsettled and all-over-the-place that you couldn’t possibly articulate a coherent thought? Well I had a moment like that last night, and it was kind of wonderful.

I was sitting in church (the place I usually get all my blog post ideas… even about things that have nothing to do with church) and found myself in one of those totally involuntary mental overdrive moments. I tried and tried to think of a good topic to think and then write about, but too much else was in my mind. So in lieu of a real posting, I’ll just do what I tell my English 3 writing students at UCLA to do: freewrite.

So it’s been ridiculously rainy in L.A. all weekend. For like five days straight now. And cold. Tonight as I drove to church and the sun was setting, the clouds were ominous and I even saw lightning and what looked like a funnel cloud. Things were whirling and wispy and foggy and alive…

At church the sermon had something to do with Adam and Eve: the knowledge of good and evil, the tree, the serpent, the whole shebang. There was a good point about Othello and Desdemona (and Iago as the serpent)… and then there was some point about Martin Buber (who I love). He’s a Jewish theologian and not typically cited in protestant settings, but his I-It / I-Thou ideas are brilliant. Here’s one of my favorite Martin Buber quotes: “Spirit is not in the I but between I and You. It is not like the blood that circulates in you but like the air in which you breathe. Man lives in the spirit when he is able to respond to his You.”

The “You” is God I think, or perhaps the bit of God that we can touch and feel and “breathe,” as Buber writes.  And I think that the “You moments” are the key to some sort of Joy. Buber calls these moments “queer lyric-dramatic episodes”—which reminds me of Lost in Translation or Once or any of a number of Richard Linklater films.

But this is but one of the many things bouncing around my head during church. I was also thinking about the millions of things I have to do this week, and then self-consciously thinking about how unholy it was to be thinking about such trifles in a time of worship. And then all of a sudden I became totally mesmerized by the word “Jesus” that was up on the screen during some mediocre Matt Redman worship song.

Jesus. How odd that this massive collection of wealthy white people is passionately singing about a Jewish guy named “Jesus.” J-E-S-U-S. Have you ever taken a step back from words like that? It’s a trip.

But then there was something in the sermon about how we should never ask the question: Is God really a loving Being? After all, Satan tried to get Eve to question what she thought about God… and look how that turned out. Hmm… I don’t know. I’m not sure that questioning God’s relative benevolence or malevolence is even a question I’m qualified to ask. Isn’t God beyond those categories? Aren’t those just words, anyway? Oh, deconstructionism. Death to Derrida (who, incidentally, is already dead).

In the end, the chaos in my brain gave way to a strange sort of epiphany. Most epiphanies, I think, might also be called “moments of clarity,” but in this case it was the opposite of clarity. But it was clarity, in a sense, because for a brief flutter of a moment I saw—or imagined—some large-scale meta connection in my life and the world and the weather and the cross. In and through the fragments and puzzles pieces of my schizophrenic cognition a truth revealed itself, though I couldn’t tell you what it was exactly .  It was like a Picasso or Kandinsky painting or something—a thoroughly messy tapestry of colors and lines and ideas that somehow, inexplicably, coheres.  You might not “get it” in the sense that you think you should, but it nevertheless brings you into a mysterious communion that transcends labels and categories and rationality. 

Bono-fied Controversy

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Okay, so I thought we were through with this controversy… but with the release of the new IMAX film, U23D, we apparently are not.

What is the controversy, you might ask? Well, for a brief refresher, you can peruse the now infamous article by Tara Leigh Cobble from several years ago. It was an article that ignited a firestorm of debate on the Relevant magazine comment boards—probably the single most debated article Relevant has ever published. Why? Because Bono is a touchy subject among Christians.

Progressive, culturally-savvy Christians (let’s call them the “progs”) embrace Bono as the brave and fearless leader of their socially-conscious brand of Christianity. They’re the ones who do “U2-charist” services, for example. The other side are the Christians who maybe like U2 (maybe even LOVE them), but are not so thrilled with Bono and his somewhat shaky “Christianity.” The two sides have been at war for several years now over a few lines Bono uttered during concerts on the Vertigo tour… and the debate only goes on with the release of U23D.

But what’s it all about? For a full rundown and context, read my Christianity Today review of U23D, specifically paragraph five. Essentially it comes down to a semantic issue in one phrase that Bono repeats during “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Here’s the phrase as I heard it during the film:

“Jesus, Jew, Mohammed, is true. All sons of Abraham.”

Here’s how others have interpreted the line:

“Jesus, Jew, Mohammed. It’s true. All sons of Abraham.”

And here’s how Tara Leigh Cobble heard it:

“Jesus, Jew, Mohammed—all true. All sons of Abraham.”

Now we can debate all day about the various meanings that might come out of the minor semantic shifts and differences between these lines. Fine. But to my mind, they are all alluding to a sentiment that is equally disturbing, regardless of is or it’s or all… And the fact that so many of us—regardless of how we heard it—are riled up about it says something about Bono and his methodological provocation. I doubt he’s a raving Universalist (or maybe he is?) as much as he is a proven provocateur.

In making such vague and rabble-rousing statements, Bono is trying to have it both ways: playing the rebel rock star but also the “world activist/champion for all people.” I wonder if he has ever considered that one might be undermining the other? And at least in terms of the “Jesus, Jew, Mohammed” line—that he might be making more enemies than friends?

In any case, I still love U2 and Bono (who is currently off in Switzerland warning the world of climate doom alongside Al Gore). And on some level I believe him when he says he’s a Christian. But whatever he meant to say on stage that night (and even whatever he did say) makes little difference in the long run. Because it’s all about what the audience hears, and what we heard was confused, pandering, probably well-intentioned gobbledygook. Note to Bono: if you are ballsy enough to make Universalist claims, please do so clearly so we can all understand.

My Oscar Nominations

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So the Oscar nominations came out yesterday, and you can view them here. Now notwithstanding the fact that the ceremony might not actually happen this year, the Academy Awards are still the most prestigious, desired trophy in Hollywood. Unfortunately the Academy tends to get things right only about half the time with who they nominate and award… And this year is no different. The following is how I would have narrowed the field of nominees for the eight major categories:

Best Actor:
Daniel Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Viggo Mortenson, Eastern Promises
Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl
Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild
Christian Bale, Rescue Dawn

Best Actress
Julie Christie, Away From Her
Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose
Keri Russell, Waitress
Amy Adams, Enchanted
Laura Linney, Jindabyne

Best Supporting Actor
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James…
John Carroll Lynch, Zodiac
Steve Zahn, Rescue Dawn
Paul Schneider, Lars and the Real Girl

Best Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Catherine Keener, Into the Wild
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
Charlotte Gainsbourgh, I’m Not There

Best Director
David Fincher, Zodiac
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Todd Haynes, I’m Not There
Richard Kelly, Southland Tales

Best Picture
Into the Wild
Zodiac
There Will Be Blood
No Country for Old Men
I’m Not There

Best Original Screenplay
Juno
Lars and the Real Girl
I’m Not There
The Savages
Once

Best Adapted Screenplay
No Country For Old Men
Zodiac
There Will Be Blood
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Into the Wild

Meet My New Avatar →

In honor of the six-month anniversary of the founding of this blog, I’ve decided that in the spirit of peeling back another layer of the avatarial onion, I’d put a new picture of myself on the sidebar. Faithful visitors to The Search will remember the initial avatar picture: a “Brett McCracken” looking dramatically off into the distance, heavily mediated (with iPod ear phones) and hidden from the world (behind faux Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses). That picture was—I think—an appropriate first glimpse at the mystery man behind this blog. It was intentionally mysterious, totally constructed, and suitably pretentious.

Now, please meet the new “me”—or at least the newest blog version of myself. I think this version says a lot of things. First, the homeless/beachbum/scruffy/redbeard aspect seems to indicate a slightly more earnest blogger… willing to get down and dirty, Hemingway style, with the meaty existential issues confronting us all. Secondly, the fact that I’m now looking directly at the camera and my sunglasses are slightly less opaque reveals a certain “yeah… this is what I think… take it or leave it” sort of attitude. By the way, what do you think of the beard?

Okay, so clearly I’m having a bit of fun here. It’s just that I’m fascinated by the freedom and manipulative power that comes with an “online identity.” Those who don’t know Brett McCracken the person have no idea if this picture is really of him… or if so, whether it looks anything like who he really is. For all we know, that picture could be some random dude and everything made up in the “About Brett McCracken” bio could be entirely fabricated. Who even knows if Brett McCracken exists? This whole thing could be ghostwritten by some intern at NBC publicity for all we know…

The point is: everything written on the Internet—heck, even most things not written on the Internet—are suspect to doubt. The truth of anything we read, if we are excluded from any trustworthy knowledge about its author, is measured insofar as it rings true when we read it. The text and its meaning are king. If it works it works. If not, click away…

The Search has never been chiefly about me or my perspective (because how could I expect anyone to trust that?) but rather the content of ideas as my fingers translate them from abstraction to text. As Samuel Beckett once said in a very deconstructionist book: “What matter who’s speaking, someone said, what matter who’s speaking?” Translation: Authors are not as important as what they write.

From my perspective, the purpose this blog has served—and hopefully will continue to serve—is to elevate critical discourse and inspire productive considerations of art, culture, religion and ideas. Maybe one day I’ll take the shades off and reveal the “real me” to the digital world, but for now, let the words do the talking.

Godzilla for the YouTube Age

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There is something really frightening about Cloverfield, and I don’t think it has much to do with the giant lizard-esque monster that destroys Manhattan. To be sure, Cloverfield is a top-notch thriller/horror/disaster/monster movie. It’s Godzilla meets Blair Witch meets 9/11 with some Independence Day mixed in. Most of all it’s a thoroughly 21st-century movie. This is the first classic of the YouTube era: a film that references YouTube in subject, style, and marketing. Which brings me to the “really frightening” thing about this movie. Why does it feel so enticingly real?

For a movie that is about a mutant beast that sheds bug-like minions all over midtown Manhattan, you’d think it’d be a fairly easy film to write off as fanciful popcorn bombast. But I was totally engrossed in the film in a way that goes beyond “suspension of disbelief for the sake of fun.” I got sucked in and felt—against all my mechanisms of logic—that this might actually happen. But how in the world could I think that?

Perhaps it is the same reason why scores of office workers, fratboys, and otherwise bored computer users can be so utterly enthralled by “amateur” videos on YouTube. Whether it’s a tasing caught on cellphone camera or a safari-cam capturing a three-way battle between lions, buffalo and crocodiles (this was viewed more than 24 millions times), we are totally in love with the “stumbled upon” aesthetic of “stuff Hollywood can’t make up.”

Thus, even when what we see on screen is stuff Hollywood can, and often does, make up (destructive monsters in Manhattan), the fact that it is seen through a trustworthy “one of us” lends the whole thing a compelling layer of authenticity. Even if we know deep down that this is a fake film shot just like other fiction films, we still feel it to be more believable (or at least I did).

The guy behind the camcorder in this film is a hapless fratguy named “Hud,” clueless about most things but, interestingly, completely devoted to documenting everything that goes on (because “people will want to know how it all went down”). Maybe it’s instinct. Maybe it’s narcissism. Maybe he’s nervous and needs something to do. But what I really think it is—and what really gives this film a creepy resonance—is that Hud thinks his camera can shield himself from the reality of the situation. As long as the camera is rolling, Hud is directing a dramatic story that is “just a movie” (he even composes shots and “directs” emotional dialogue scenes like a pro might). As the chaotic events unfold all around him and his friends, everyone feels like they are in a movie. Their first instinct is to make it so.

As the decapitated head of Lady Liberty crashes into a crowd of confused New Yorkers standing out in the street… everyone does what we all are now conditioned to do: take cell phone pictures. Some horrific stuff is going down… but it might make the news if we get a good picture.

Cloverfield is very 9/11-inspired, not just in the NYC disaster sort of way, but in the way the horror feels so very mediated. Some of the most striking imagery of the film heavily references 9/11, especially the 9/11 as seen on TV or through the amateur lenses of people running on the streets. One scene in particular—of victims fleeing a wall of ash after a tall building collapses—is a direct quote of the now famous 9/11 footage from the Naudet brothers (the French filmmakers who happened to have a camera rolling when the first plane hit the North Tower… and kept it rolling for the rest of the day). At other points in Cloverfield there are surreal moments when looters or dazed bystanders crowd around TVs to watch the live news coverage of the mayhem happening just blocks away. Perhaps it is a comfort to see the monster framed in a 42 inch plasma screen—even while the ground rumbles and screams echo throughout the city.

Cloverfield packs a wallop, in part because it takes our media-obsessed curiosity and slaps it in our face. We are increasingly prone to gawk, to see what the fuss is about, to be “in on” whatever gruesome or unlikely anomaly is out there to be recorded. This is why Cloverfield’s cryptic “what is this about” marketing campaign worked so well. We have to know. We have to look. We must be a witness. People will want to see how it all went down… It’s entertainment.

The Simple Way of Shane Claiborne

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It was quite the sight to see Shane Claiborne speak at my church Tuesday night. Here’s a guy wearing a homemade monk’s robe, bandana and dreadlocks (his everywhere outfit), standing on the stage of Bel Air Presbyterian Church. That’s Bel Air… as in Fresh Prince. We are a wealthy, comfortable church, looking majestically over the Valley from our pristine perch atop the Hollywood Hills. It’s not a church Shane Claiborne probably feels that comfortable in… but that’s exactly why he needed to be there—to ruffle our feathers.

As Claiborne likes to say, his message (i.e. the message of Jesus) is meant to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. And it certainly did that Tuesday night.

Speaking to a crowd of about five or six hundred young people (the combined junior high, high school, college, and young adult ministries at the church), Claiborne recounted his conversion from the Christianity of his youth (alter calls, chubby bunny youth group games, televangelists) to the “simple way” that he now follows. He’s been written up in Christianity Today under the headline “The New Monasticism,” portrayed as the leading edge of a new movement of younger evangelicals committed to re-visioning the gospel through the eyes of the poor. Another one of his quips falls along these lines: “Christianity is not about gaining better vision” (i.e. faith healers/prosperity gospel), “but seeing with new eyes.”

Claiborne is a radical guy, and if he wasn’t so earnest and joyful and rhetorically sincere, his radical ideas might be easily written off. Obviously not everyone can (or should) sell everything and start a commune on the north side of Philadelphia (as Claiborne did). Not everyone can take off ten weeks to work alongside Mother Theresa in Calcutta (as Claiborne did). And few have the guts to live and work with maimed children in Baghdad while a war is going on outside (as Claiborne did). But as unthinkable as it all sounds on paper for us practical-minded suburbanites, Claiborne makes it sound not only doable, but desirable.

Claiborne is fashioning a new kind of Christian—in the lineage of Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa—that is radically different than the sort of deep-pockets, high-powered political machine that gets all the headlines these days. This is a Christianity uninterested in all forms of power except that of love… and community in Christ. Though it’s maybe not perfect as an all-encompassing rhetoric of new-school Christianity, it’s definitely provocative, inspiring, and quietly revolutionary.