Monthly Archives: March 2008

The Hills Are Alive With Confused Identity


If you’ve ever seen the MTV show, The Hills, you know how utterly unique, interesting, and, well, odd it is. On one level, The Hills is just another MTV teen drama-fest with all the usual trimmings: hot twentysomethings, vacuous dialogue, an orgy of product placement… But there is something very different about the form of the Hills-type shows, and it strikes me as one of the more intriguing “experiments” of post-network T.V.

Essentially The Hills, like its groundbreaking predecessor/model, Laguna Beach, is a “faux reality” docudrama that is equal parts Melrose Place, The Real World, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The plots are simple: rich, beautiful white kids living the jet-set scene in Hollywood and beyond. The Hills centers around Lauren Conrad (who also starred in Laguna) as she pursues a career at Teen Vogue magazine in Los Angeles. The drama of the show comes from Lauren’s various romantic entanglements, friendship/feuds (most notably with Heidi Montag), and mini-crises of the “I ruined my dress” or “what should I wear?” variety…

It sounds trite and passé, right? Well, yes, but something about it is definitely resonating with the youth culture zeitgeist, because it’s the highest rated program on cable television. Season Three just resumed last week, and the premiere episode was 2008’s highest-rated cable telecast—with 4.7 million viewers. Clearly there is something alluring and addictive about this show, which also streams online to an average audience of another 1-2 million viewers each week.

I can only take so much of it, but when I do watch an episode (and I watched last Monday’s “Paris Changes Everything” episode), I am struck anew by the curiosity that is The Hills. It’s such a strange thing to watch “real” people interacting in such a staged/performed/fake (pick your word) way. One could argue that this is what all “reality TV” is, but The Hills takes it to a new level. They flaunt the uber-constructed, un-reality of it all. These kids are living out fantasies and movie scripts and E! adventures in Hollywood, arranged and financed by the world’s biggest pop culture pimp: MTV. It’s about as unreal as it can get—and the MTV producers know it. Question is: do the audiences know it? And more intriguingly: do the stars of the show know it?

Does Lauren Conrad know that any value her “career” at Teen Vogue might hold pales in comparison to the value she—as an iconic commodity of flighty pop-culture fluff—offers the MTV/Madison Ave advertising behemoth? Do Heidi and Spencer know that their “relationship”—its survival or failure—is only important as a plot point or dramatic foil for the ongoing soap opera that is their publicized twentysomething lives? In short: as these “characters” live out their “real” lives, how much of it are they playing for the camera vs. living for their lives? Or perhaps those two have become indistinguishable?

When you watch any given interaction on The Hills, you can see two things very clearly: 1) scenes are setup and scripted, just like anything you see on TV, and 2) there exists some reality, somewhere—some measure of truth to every interaction, expression, and plot development. For example, in last week’s episode, Spencer tracks down Heidi at her picturesque Crested Butte cabin where she is “working on herself” in the comfort of her parents’ comfy abode. I was struck by one scene with Heidi and Spencer at dinner with Heidi’s parents. The scene was clearly setup by the producers to be a high-water mark of awkwardness—and several things Heidi and Spencer say are very suspiciously “straight from a movie.” But in watching the scene you can see—in Spencer’s eyes, in Heidi’s blank stare—that there is some truth to their relationship; they are really going through this tension and awkwardness, on some level. But herein lies the fascinating thing about this show: it fuses reality and fiction on a very cerebral, intrinsic level.

The stars of The Hills are performed characters. But they are performances of real people. “Lauren,” “Heidi,” “Audrina,” and all the rest are avatars for some real girls who are also called Lauren, Heidi, and Audrina. They are the performed selves of some actual selves (and, interestingly, there are also virtual selves at play here in “The Virtual Hills“). But in the end, are they necessarily different?

In this digital, second-life, avatar age, are our public constructions of self who we really are? The girls on The Hills seem to think so. Audrina told TV Guide, “Who I am on the show is who I am in real life.” And why wouldn’t she want to think this? On the show she is a rich, glamorous covergirl who can get into any club in L.A. If she is or ever was someone else in her life outside of MTV, that “self” is now no longer relevant and certainly no longer desired. When you become a character that millions across the world want to be like, who cares who you really are? The glossy, costumed, makeup’d character is who you want to be.

In our Facebook/Myspace/blog culture, who we are to ourselves (our “inner” or “ultimate” Self) is less important than the image we present to the world. Or rather, perhaps who we are to ourselves becomes the self we project to others. In either case, it is clear that our culture is characterized by identity confusion—and The Hills is cashing in on it.

Obama’s Smart Speech


If you have not heard or read Barack Obama’s much-discussed “race speech” from a few weeks ago, I urge you to do so. You can read the transcript here (warning: it’s lengthy).

Now I am far from an apologist for Barack Obama. I have many reservations about him, as I do for the other candidates vying for the presidency. But one area in which I think Obama does exceed Hillary Clinton and John McCain is in rhetorical capability—the command of the spoken, well-articulated word.

Quite simply, Obama’s speeches blow the doors off of any of Clinton’s or McCain’s. Case in point: the “race speech.” Ostensibly delivered as a damage-control oration (to tranquilize the understandably damaging Rev. Wright controversy), the speech turned out to be one of the most complex, nuanced, unexpectedly brilliant bits of prose uttered by an American politician in the last two decades.

The speech was so striking because it did not sound political; it sounded intellectual. It did not pander to the lowest common denominator, but instead demanded a high level of cerebral engagement on the part of the audience. This is all very shocking and uncharacteristic of politics in the 21st century.

Even conservative intellectuals have noted the uncommon intelligence of Obama’s speech. Here’s an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal editorial by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan:

“The speech assumed the audience was intelligent. This was a compliment, and I suspect was received as a gift. It also assumed many in the audience were educated. I was grateful for this, as the educated are not much addressed in American politics.

Here I point out an aspect of the speech that may have a beneficial impact on current rhetoric. It is assumed now that a candidate must say a silly, boring line—”And families in Michigan matter!” or “What I stand for is affordable quality health care!”—and the audience will clap. The line and the applause make, together, the eight-second soundbite that will be used tonight on the news, and seen by the people. This has been standard politico-journalistic procedure for 20 years.

Mr. Obama subverted this in his speech. He didn’t have applause lines. He didn’t give you eight seconds of a line followed by clapping. He spoke in full and longish paragraphs that didn’t summon applause. This left TV producers having to use longer-than-usual soundbites in order to capture his meaning. And so the cuts of the speech you heard on the news were more substantial and interesting than usual, which made the coverage of the speech better. People who didn’t hear it but only saw parts on the news got a real sense of what he’d said.

If Hillary or John McCain said something interesting, they’d get more than an eight-second cut too. But it works only if you don’t write an applause-line speech. It works only if you write a thinking speech.

They should try it.”

Indeed, I think the reason Obama is so appealing to many of my generation is because he is so very counter to the cable news soundbite/infotainment zeitgeist. He is smart, serious, and eschews political stupidity. After eight years of an “I feel your pain” amoral politico and then eight more years of an anti-intellectual cowboy in the oval office, Americans are aching for something new—something as far from the “establishment” as possible. We don’t want a trigger-happy maverick in the White House; we want an educated visionary. We don’t want a politician in control of the free world; we want a professor.

Obama’s speech was more akin to a lecture by a college professor than it was a policy speech by a politician. It requires more than a thirty second Fox News soundbite to process and inspires us to rediscover the art of thinking through the issues. It recognizes that complicated problems can’t be solved in campaign speeches—but campaign speeches can at least get us thinking productively and critically about what and why these problems are.

Buzzword R.I.P. – “Emerging”


Can we please dispense with using the phrase “emerging church”? I’ve never been a fan of the term, for the following reasons: 1) What does “emerging” mean in reference to the church? Isn’t the church always in transition? 2) Why do we need a label to define something so broad and fluid? Defining “emerging church” is almost as futile as defining “postmodern.” 3) Labels like this scream “buzzword to sell books!” to me. How many gullible pastors, youth pastors, and otherwise interested Christians have bought “emerging church” books just to see what all the edgy fuss was all about?

Now, before I am attacked for any of this, you must understand: I am a fan of much of what we might call “emerging.” I love Rob Bell, prefer liturgical worship (candles too!), and generally agree with the admittance of “mystery” into the epistemological discourse of Christianity. But I do not like the fact that “emerging” or “Emergent” is a thing. I don’t like the fact that suddenly there is this debate about whether emerging is a good or bad thing (as if there are two clear cut sides on the issue!). I don’t like that we’ve elevated the last ten years of history to be some revolutionary epoch of massive church change. There have always been shifts in how Christianity is understood and contextualized. Why are we getting so worked up about it now?

There are larger questions about trends in Christianity that we might be concerned about (and that probably implicate the “emerging church”): namely, the trendification of the faith. If anything really worries me about “emerging” things, it is that it has tended to make Christianity “hip” (in the “I’m not a fundamentalist, anti-environment, gay-hating prude!” sort of way). I’m not so sure “hip” is a thing Christianity should be… or can be. There is much more to say about this, and much more I will say about this. Stay tuned.

Thoughts on Holy Week


Growing up, Easter was Cadbury eggs and pastel ties. It was The Ten Commandments on TV. It was hymns like “Low in the Grave He Lay” and “In the Garden.” It was Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the grave. And it was Cadbury eggs.

Luckily I’m older now, and I’m beginning to see the full meaning of this holiday, this ultimate remembrance. And it’s kind of a headtrip.

These events—these shocking historical events about one Jewish prophet’s brutal death and resurrection as recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and others—truly reoriented the trajectory of the world, something even nonbelievers can concede.

But for those of us who believe not just that Jesus Christ was real but that he spoke the truth (for example, that he was the Son of God and the savior of all humanity), the events of Easter did more than change history; they ripped open the fabric of the cosmos. When Jesus rode that donkey triumphantly into Jerusalem and then was systematically butchered less than a week later, he was living the most significant week the world has ever seen.

It’s hard to grasp the magnitude and meaning of this moment—this apex of history. But symbolism has always helped us understand the incomprehensible, and there are some really great symbols in this story.

My favorite has always been the image of the temple veil being ripped completely down the middle at the moment of Christ’s death. Matthew 27: 50-51 records it in this way: “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom…”

Holy #&*$. Can you imagine being in the Temple when this happened? This, after all, was the veil separating God’s house (the Holy of Holies) from where men could go (the rest of the Temple). It was the ultimate symbol of man’s separation from God by sin (Isaiah 59:1-2). Only the High Priest, once a year, could pass through the veil and enter into God’s presence for all of Israel, making atonement for their sins (Leviticus 16). The rending of the veil at the moment Christ sacrificed himself, then, gives us some idea of what the cross meant: Christ’s own blood was a sufficient atonement for sins forever. The way into the Holy of Holies was now open and accessible, for all people, for all time, both Jew and gentile. Jesus made God personal.

I’ve been doing a small-group bible study of Luke over the course of Lent, and the theme of our studies has been the various “meals/communions” Jesus had throughout his ministry (dining with Pharisees, the feeding of the five thousand, etc). The last example we are looking at, appropriately for Holy Week, is the Last Supper. Here again we can see the presence of symbolism in Christ explaining the meaning of his impending sacrifice to his followers. Here’s the Luke version (22: 14-20):

When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

What an absolutely bizarre, dumbfounding thing that would have been to witness! I can’t imagine what the disciples were thinking. I mean, what does one do with “This cup is the new covenant in my blood”? The audacity! Thousands of years of Jewish covenantal tradition usurped in a few moments around a dinner table…

Still, within hours the disciples would see all too clearly that Jesus was serious. Sadly, beautifully, graciously: Jesus’s words proved all too literal. He was the new sacrifice: the once, future, and final sacrifice. And it was for everybody.

Here is the truly radical, mind-blowing thing about Easter and what it represents: it means that everyone—even the most despicable, lowly sinners among us—can enter into communion with God. It means that our imperfect notions of worth and value and conditional love are rendered moot and passé. His love (thankfully) has nothing to do with our deserving it. C.S. Lewis clarifies this revolutionary idea when he says, in his essay “Membership”:

“God did not die for man because of some value He perceived in him. The value of each human soul considered simply in itself, out of relation to God, is zero. As St. Paul writes, to have died for valuable men would have been not divine but merely heroic; but God died for sinners. He loved us not because we were lovable, but because He is Love. It may be that He loves all equally—He certainly loved all to the death—and I am not certain what the expression means. If there is equality, it is in His love, not in us.”

I can’t admit to fully understanding the mind-blowing mysteries of Easter and all that it means, but I do know this much: we are all invited to the celebration.

March is the Fairest Month


T.S. Eliot once said “April is the cruelest month.” I don’t know about that, but I do know that March is one of the best months there is. We have Spring Break vacations, St. Patrick’s Day, and, most importantly, the NCAA Basketball Tournament. For college basketball fans, March is one big, energy-filled party. It’s madness. And hopefully this year it’ll be Jayhawk madness.

The NCAA tournament is three weeks of raw, “expect the unexpected” amateur athletics at its best. Rankings, hype, politics, bracketology, office pools, endless ads for sucky CBS sitcoms … it all means little during the glorious processional of 64, then 32, 16, 8, and finally four teams giving it all to feel the inexplicable joy of being on top.

What does it mean that so many people go absolutely nuts for this tournament? Congregating around TVs, packing into sweaty auditoriums, cheering on ten players running back and forth throwing a ball around? Why do we schedule our lives—and often our discretionary incomes—around what all of us would probably willingly refer to as “just a game?” Sure, we could write it off as mere entertainment, but that is an empty term in referring to what something “entertaining” actually means in our lives. Why are sports like basketball so attractive as activities to fill our diminishing spare time?

All of our choices of entertainment are, I think, on one level an attempt to escape “everyday life” but also an attempt to reinforce it. It’s an interesting dichotomy actually. Seeing a movie, for example, is obviously “escapism,” but think about the movies you like the best and why… They are the ones that reinforce what you know of the world, of reality, of existence. Not the ones that seem alien or ring false.

Likewise, attending a basketball game is a fun escape and diversion from our everyday lives. But we wouldn’t go—we wouldn’t pay hundreds of dollars for two hours of spectatorship—if mere diversion is all it was. No, I think basketball is so popular, so intensely followed, because it reflects things about our own lives and existence on this planet that we don’t often think about or correlate. I know this sounds extremely convoluted, but follow me here…

Basketball, and all sports, are competitions. That is the first and most basic point of connection with real life. We live lives of competition—in the workplace, in the dating world, in everything we buy or sell, etc… And basketball is one example of a heightened form of competition where the stakes are lower for us but the instincts are still as strong. We resonate with and cheer so hard for our team to win because, quite frankly, fighting to win is what life is all about.

The thrill of victory is worth the price of admission, but what about the agony of defeat? When this is an all-too-ready option in any given sporting event, why do we still attend, game after game? Well, this is where the uniqueness of sport vs. life comes in to play. Losing in sports is tough, don’t get me wrong, but it is part of the game. Losing in life is a lot more unforgiving. Basketball is 50% losing in point of fact (all games everywhere have exactly one winner and one loser), but the heart of the game is in winning. In our real lives we also relate to both winning and losing, but losing seems to get all the attention. Thus, we are attracted to something that focuses our minds and hearts on that still-small reality of life that is within everyone’s grasp—the transcendent glory.

You know the moment in a basketball game when your team is down by a dozen or so points, but makes a run and brings it to within two? And then the crowd rises to its feet, loudly cheering, and the team gets a new bounce in its step, hitting a long three to take the lead? That moment, with the deafening noise and dispirited opponents losing control—is a moment when you can touch the glory, where you glimpse—dare I say it—the divine. You get goosebumps, you slap a stranger’s hand, and you raise your voice to the rafters for the glory to continue.

In these moments I envision God smiling at us humans and thinking, they are feeling it in small doses—the wholeness, purity, redemption, and triumph that is My gift. Unfortunately, many of us leave these sporting “highs” without thinking that maybe they point to something greater that surrounds us. What if sport really is a gift from God? What if the blessings of sport are only a fraction of what is available to us? I think it probably saddens God when the good things in life—sports, natural beauty, art, etc—are cheapened and seen only as ends unto themselves; not as the signposts to a greater grace that exists in the world.

And so we should not cheapen basketball by writing off its “trivial” place in the grand scheme of things. Instead we should realize that the small wonders and momentary blessings matter in life. Why? Because the existence of rays of light implies a vast sun, and if we ever want to comprehend something that vivid, we should start by taking the light in small doses, wherever we can find it.

So amid the frenzied bracketology of this year’s March Madness, don’t expect God to favor one team over another. Because even though 64 teams will leave defeated and only one will carry the trophy, there will still be plenty of “holy moments” to go around. The upsets, the clutch three-pointers, the roar of a crowd brought to their feet by a showy dunk, the nasally exclamation of a Dick Vitale baby!!!… these are the moments that can enliven our weary souls. Fun to watch? You bet. … And so much more.

100 Greatest Worship Songs of All Time

…In my opinion. To me. Subjectively… These are the 100 most worshipful songs of all time. Now, before you start reading, recognize a few things:

  • I am defining “worship songs” VERY broadly. Essentially this includes hymns and contemporary praise music, but also ancient classical music, arias, jazz, secular rock, etc…
  • This list is not limited to songs that make me think about God and Jesus (though obviously a lot of them do). No, these are simply the songs that pack the biggest holiness punch when I listen to them. They are the songs that you can’t help but close your eyes to—the songs that are so beautiful, so alive, so longing, so emotional, that you feel the true transcendent power of art: what George Steiner calls “the most ‘ingressive’, trans-formative summons available to human experiencing.”
  • After I compiled this list I looked over it to see what—if anything—these songs had in common. I found that a large number of them deal with topics of home—of “homelands” or “homelessness”—and also of memory/nostalgia/loss. A lot of them are sad and melancholy, reflecting upon the pain of unfound peace. These are the songs that make longing visceral—that point to the holy other and the heavens. To quote Steiner again, these are the songs “which inform us of the visitor’s visa in place and in time which defines our status as transients in a house of being whose foundations, whose future history, whose rationale—if any—lie wholly outside our will and comprehension.” (Note: Updated list, 2012)

jesus_icon.jpg100) Jesus was a Crossmaker – The Hollies
99) Someone to Watch Over Me – Ella Fitzgerald
98) Spirit in the Sky – Norman Greenbaum
97) From the Inside Out – Hillsong
96) Grandma Mary – Denison Witmer
95) Vincent – Don McLean
94) Welcome, Ghosts – Explosions in the Sky
93) ‘Round Midnight – Miles Davis
92) All for Jesus – Robin Mark
91) Lead Me to the Cross – Hillsong United
90) This Road – Jars of Clay
89) These Are My Mountains – Scottish traditional
88) Draw Me Close To You – Kelly Carpenter
87) I’ll Fly Away – Albert Brumley
86) (That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace – Low
85) God Only Knows – The Beach Boys
84) Lead of Love – Caedmon’s Call
83) And Can it Be That I Should Gain? – Charles Wesley
82) Das Rheingold – Wagner
81) Blessed Assurance – Fanny Crosby
80) Nothing But the Blood – Robert Lowry
79) Death in His Grave – John Mark McMillan
78) Exit Music (For A Film) – Radiohead
77) Stardust – Nat King Cole
76) Everlasting God – Lincoln Brewster
windowslivewritericonpaintingasaspiritualpath-7e37clip-image0081.jpg 75) People Get Ready – Curtis Mayfield
74) Our Great God – Fernando Ortega
73) Both Sides Now – Joni Mitchell
72) Lilac Wine – Jeff Buckley
71) Orphan Girl – Gillian Welch
70) Long Lost Brother – Over the Rhine
69) What a Friend We Have in Jesus – Joseph Scriven
68) The King of Love My Shepherd Is – Irish traditional
67) Heysatan – Sigur Ros
66) Claire De Lune – Debussy
65) Danny Boy – Irish traditional
64) 40 – U2
63) The Four Seasons – Vivaldi
62) Down to the River to Pray – Alison Krauss
61) The Trumpet Child – Over the Rhine
60) Fantasia on Theme by Thomas Tallis – Ralph Vaughn Williams
59) Carry Me Home – Hem
58) Hymn – Jars of Clay
57) Knocking On Heaven’s Door – Bob Dylan
56) What Wondrous Love is This – traditional
55) Psalm 131 – Waterdeep
54) A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
53) Give Me Jesus – Fernando Ortega
52) A Mighty Fortress Is Our God – Martin Luther
51) I’ve Been High – REM
50) You Are Holy (Prince of Peace) – Michael W. Smith
49) Intervention – The Arcade Fire
48) You Are So Good to Me – Waterdeep
47) Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon & Garfunkel
46) Mothers of the Disappeared – U2
45) If I Stand – Rich Mullins
44) All Creatures of Our God and King – Francis of Assisi
43) Yesterday – The Beatles
42) Piano Sonata No. 8 – Beethoven
41) Come to Jesus – Mindy Smith
40) What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
39) In the Garden – C. Austin Miles
38) Song to the Moon – Dvorak
37) This Is My Father’s World – Maltbie Babcock
36) How Great Thou Art – Carl Boberg
35) O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing – Charles Wesley
34) Vapour Trail – Trespassers William
33) Holland – Sufjan Stevens
32) God of Wonders – Marc Byrd and Steve Hindalong
31) Jesus Paid it All – Elvina Hall
30) Clocks – Coldplay
29) Oh Praise Him – David Crowder
28) Unchained Melody – The Righteous Brothers
27) O Sacred Head Now Wounded – Bernard of Clairvaux
26) Requiem – Mozart
25) Let it Be – The Beatles
24) Great is Thy Faithfulness – Thomas Chisholm
23) How Deep the Father’s Love for Us – Stuart Townend
22) In Christ Alone – Keith Getty and Stuart Townand
21) You’re Hand in Mine – Explosions in the Sky
20) Ave Maria – Schubert
19) It is Well With My Soul – Horatio Spafford
18) Changes Come – Over the Rhine
17) Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen
16) Nessun Dorma – Puccini
15) The Lord’s Prayer – Albert Hay Malotte
14) Messiah – Handel
13) Where the Streets Have No Name – U2
12) Amazing Grace – John Newton
11) When I Survey the Wondrous Cross – Isaac Watts
10) My Jesus I Love Thee –William Featherstone
9) Oh the Deep Deep Love of Jesus –Samuel Francis
8) Seven Swans – Sufjan Stevens
7) Take My Life (And Let it Be) – Francis Havergal
6) Untitled #8 – Sigur Ros
5) Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing – Robert Robinson
4) Doxology – traditional
3) Symphony No. 9 – Beethoven
2) Holy, Holy, Holy – Reginald Heber
1) Be Thou My Vision – Irish traditional

Snow Angels


If there is one word that describes David Gordon Green’s new film, Snow Angels, it is challenging. If there are five words, they are “challenging in a good way.”

The same words could be used to describe any of Green’s films, which have been consistently complex, beautiful, and multilayered. If you have not seen his stunning first feature, 2000’s George Washington (made for a paltry 40k), or 2003’s lush All the Real Girls, you should definitely check them out. His gorgeously gothic third film, Undertow (which was produced and co-written by Green’s inspiration Terrence Malick), is also a must-see.

Green’s fourth film and first adaptation (based on the novel by Stewart O’Nan), Angels is an ensemble drama about a chain of shattering events in one wintry Pennsylvania town. Like Green’s other films, Angels focuses on the complexities of interpersonal, familial, and intergenerational relationships. The film centers upon Annie and Glenn (Kate Beckinsdale and Sam Rockwell), a recently separated couple with a young daughter and a lot of issues to work out. Annie is having an affair with a man (Nicky Katt) who is married to her closest friend and coworker (Amy Sedaris). Glenn—an unstable, unemployed loser who has recently turned firebrand evangelical Christian—refuses to let Annie go, and a series of poor choices by all parties results in tragic consequences. On the lighter side, the second major relationship of the film is a budding high school romance between band-nerd Arthur (Michael Angarano) and new-girl Lila (Olivia Thirlby). Arthur’s parents are divorcing and his friend (and former babysitter) Annie is suffering, but his innocent and awkward relationship with Lila gives an otherwise cold film a hearty, curiously nostalgic warmth.

Snow Angels (opening March 14 in NY and LA) divided audiences at Sundance last year, and it’s easy to see why. This is not an easy film. I have seen David Gordon Green speak about his films on several occasions (and I met him in person three years ago), and he always reiterates that his goal in filmmaking is to “do things differently” than conventional Hollywood. He eschews the traditional three-act structure, preferring a “two-halves” form, and privileges moments over coherent narrative. He foregrounds odd little character moments and curious visual details not to service the plot but rather to add texture and color to his extremely unique, realist/phenomenological cinematic aesthetic.

Photographed by Green’s film school comrade Tim Orr, Angels beautifully captures the slightly-antiquated, worn-down material and heavily naturalistic settings that have come to define his films. The film’s post-rock instrumental music (including songs from Mono, Uno Dose, Silver Mt. Zion and a new track from Explosions in the Sky) further enhances the organic, ethereal mood. It’s an intensely artistic film, juxtaposing easy-listening poetry with brazen, balls-out subject matter that will leave unsuspecting viewers utterly confused.

Typically, Green’s films are most challenging on the tonal level, and this is where audiences and critics have been divided about Angels. “I like movies that challenge me tonally,” said Green at a recent screening of George Washington. And Angels is certainly one such film. At times it feels like a dark comedy, at others a tragedy. Frequently it is beautifully mellow, but there are several scenes of terrible intensity. Green loves to jump back and forth from humor to tragedy, sometimes within the same scene. There is a striking scene in which Sam Rockwell’s character is heartbroken and impossibly drunk at a dingy rural bar. It is desperately sad, until he starts slow-dancing with some equally blitzed drunks to a Gene Autry song. All of a sudden it is funny, and odd, and tragic—all at the same time. And it’s not just quirkiness for the sake of irony. It works. You never know what kind of wonderful and compelling nuggets Green will throw at you next, which is a rare and wonderful trait in a director.

I am purposefully avoiding a discussion of what actually happens in this film, because the joy of watching it is that it is totally unpredictable—even shocking. It’s a film that asks deep questions about morality and collective responsibility, offering little in the way of justice or blame. It’s a film that shows the small joys and heartbreaks of life in all their symbiotic simultaneity. It’s a wonderfully unsteady, untidy experience that will mess with the tidy filmgoer. But sometimes we need to be messed with.

Could it be True? Friday Night Lights Renewed?!


In what could be the happiest news of this Lenten season, reports are surfacing that NBC has decided to bring Friday Night Lights back for a third season! The ink has yet to dry on the deal (which has not been officially reported by NBC), but it appears that the peacock network has teamed with DirectTV for a co-finance, co-airing strategy that will ease the burden on NBC to justify higher ratings for the underseen show. The network has been in similar talks over the past month with several networks–CW, USA, even ESPN–but it appears that DirectTV was the one that finally coughed up the needed sum to make NBC happy. Thank you!

Fans of the low-rated show have been in fearful limbo since it ended its second season on an abrupt, Writer’s Strike-induced note last month. Lights has been consistently low-rated (averaging around 6 million viewers) and yet critics have showered praise and awards on the show since it’s debut in 2006. A dedicated band of diehard Lights fans have been circulating online petitions and bombarding the offices of Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman (NBC pres) with little “Save FNL” foam footballs over the last several weeks. Whether this little bit of grassroots effort pressured NBC into making the decision to renew or whether it was a band of NBC execs who lobbied hard internally for the show, I don’t know. All I know is that Lights is still the best show on network television, and a third season demands to be seen by more viewers.

Faith and Film Critics Circle Pick ’07 Winners


The Faith and Film Critics Circle (of which I am a member) has just announced its awards for 2007. I’m happy to say that Into Great Silence won our highest honor: “most significant exploration of spiritual themes.” It’s a great, deserving film that was tragically under-seen. I had the pleasure of writing about it for Relevant last April. Here is the full list of awards and nominees:

Most Significant Exploration of Spiritual Themes Into Great Silence

Best Narrative FilmThere Will Be Blood

Best DocumentaryInto Great Silence

Best Film for the Whole FamilyRatatouille

Best Director – Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

Best Performance by an Actor – Daniel Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood

Best Performance by an Actress Ellen Page, Juno

Best Performance by a ChildSaoirse Ronan, Atonement

Best Supporting Performance by an Actor (tie) Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James & Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men

Best Supporting Performance by an Actress (tie) – Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There & Jennifer Garner, Juno

Best Ensemble Cast Lars and the Real Girl

Best Cinematography – Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood

Best Original Screenplay – Diablo Cody, Juno

Best Adapted Screenplay – Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men

Best Original Score – Dario Marianell, Atonement

Paranoid Park: The Best Film of 2008 (Thus Far)


Gus Van Sant’s new film, Paranoid Park, is without question the best film of 2008 thus far. And if we consider it a 2007 film (it did qualify as such for the Independent Spirit Awards, for which it won one and was nominated for three), I would have to put it in the top four (certainly just as good as There Will Be Blood, I’m Not There, and No Country for Old Men).

Paranoid Park is one of those films that jolts awake my deep love of cinema (and I know that’s a cliché… but it’s true). I’ve seen six films in the theater over the last seven days, and admittedly such a schedule makes cinemagoing frightfully mundane—even laborious. But as I left Park I felt more alive and entranced by the beauty and possibility of cinema than I have since probably The New World. Like Malick’s film, Park is brimful of moments and sequences that are achingly beautiful.

Like several of Gus Van Zant’s more recent works (Elephant, Last Days), Park is on the experimental/lyrical/avant-garde side of things—which to this critic is definitely a good thing. Van Sant’s more mainstream films (Finding Forrester, To Die For, Goodwill Hunting) display a great mastery of the cinematic form, but the scope of the auteur’s striking talent and vision is only beginning to be fully realized. Paranoid Park is his most accomplished film—I might even dare to call it perfect.

But enough of the glittering generalities and over-the-top superlatives. So why is this film such a big deal? Why did it receive (and totally deserve) the 60th Anniversary prize at Cannes last year? Let me officially begin my review…

Adapted by Van Sant from the novel by Blake Nelson, Paranoid Park tells the seemingly simple story of a 16-year-old skateboarder, Alex (non-actor Gabe Nevins), who begins hanging out at a notorious Portland skate park (“Paranoid Park”) and associating with shady characters. One fateful night Alex accidentally kills a security guard, and the film is about how he deals with the (mostly psychological) consequences of this life-altering event.

Like its precursor and companion film, Elephant, Park features a cast of unknown teenage actors—a brilliant move that lends a striking awkwardness and realism to the film. Gabe Nevins is perfect in the lead role—a wide-eyed, innocent teenager who finds himself in the midst of something too horrible to comprehend. The film is told from his perspective, though in a non-linear, “never sure where or when we are” sort of fashion. Like a highschooler recounting his day at school to his mother, Alex gives us scarcely little in the way of sensical verbal narrative—repeating some things multiple times (with slight variations or shifted emphasis), retracting or reframing other things, giving staccato answers to immensely involved questions, etc. His fragmentary, confused perspective and stilted utterances speak many volumes of truth, however.

Unlike the fast-talking characters of other teen movies (Juno!), Nevins and the other adolescent actors in Park speak in the choppy, awkward, believable parlance of net-generation millennials. They talk about obligatory teen stuff (getting laid, making weekend plans), their personal problems (absentee dads, divorcing parents, annoying girlfriends), and even give MTV-style lip service to the problems of the world (Iraq, starving children in Africa, etc). They are the teenagers of today, and Van Sant’s eye captures them more perceptively than any film I’ve seen.

Paranoid Park explores the contemporary teen psyche well—externalizing the confusing and contradictory voices, influences, and narratives that crowd their mediated minds. Nevins’ Alex is never quite present in his interactions with people and lacks a tangible grasp of his own unfolding life. A scene of him driving a car and reacting to various songs playing on the radio (from classical to rap) displays his fluid, impressionable sense of self. Indeed, music is a huge part of the film, as it is in any teenager’s life. There is sort of “iPod shuffle” aesthetic to the soundtrack of Park—an eclectic, seemingly random assemblage of artists (everyone from Elliott Smith to Beethoven) that embodies the alternately angsty, meditative, whimsical, and disturbing mood of the film.

In the end, Paranoid Park is a film about the heavy incomprehensibility of “the self behind the self” (to use a phrase from an Emily Dickinson poem). There are multiple levels to this: Obviously Alex languishes under the tension between wanting to unload the terrible information that he holds and yet knowing that he can’t; but he also faces the more unsettling question of how he can live with himself in keeping it forever secret. Can one cordon off the unpleasantries of guilt and memory?

This is a film that astutely captures one young man in his first encounter with the burden of interiority—both as an adolescent in search of an authentic identity (beyond the Facebook self, the cell phone self, the skatepark self, etc) and as a human who must reckon with a reality that upsets the tidy balance of segmentation. All of this is rendered in far more organic and unpretentious ways than my discussion here would suggest. Still, it is complicated, challenging material—definitely not for the recreational filmgoer.

One of the things people will either love or hate about Park is the use of extended lyrical skateboarding sequences. During these audio-visual “interludes” (shot in a more home-video style), cinematographer Christopher Doyle (2046, The Quiet American) delicately follows the acrobatic swerving, flying, and weaving patchwork of teenage skater boys in slow-motion. It’s a remarkable sight to behold. For me, these were the most heartbreakingly profound moments—instances of making the familiar strange, of alienating the material environment while also exposing its truth. These scenes (and the whole movie), remind me of what realist film theorist Siegfried Kracauer believed cinema was most adept at capturing: “the flow of life.” Unlike photography, which can only capture moments and not movement of reality in time, the cinema, Kracauer believed, has the ability to capture reality in motion—an indeterminate glimpse into the open-ended continuum and “flow” of material existence.

Kracauer often referred to “the street” (i.e. shots of large groups of people in motion) as one of the most thrilling applications of cinematic potential. In his seminal work, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Kracauer wrote:

The street in the extended sense of the word is not only the arena of fleeting impressions and chance encounters but a place where the flow of life is bound to assert itself. Again one will have to think mainly of the city street with its ever-moving anonymous crowds… Each [face] has a story, yet the story is not given. Instead, an incessant flow of possibilities and near-intangible meanings appears.

This applies to much of Van Sant’s film, which revels in the very indeterminacy and “near-intangible” meaning which photography and cinema uniquely relay. Indeed, much of Doyle’s photography in Park consists in long shots with purposefully little in the way of explicit meaning, point of view, or plot utility. As in Elephant, there are frequent tracking shots that simply follow Alex around as he walks in the school halls or carries his skateboard down a Portland sidewalk. Other shots linger on complicated faces (not just Alex) that could be thinking any number of things. There is a thrilling editorial restraint to this film, though it is no doubt a source of frustration for some viewers.

Clearly, Paranoid Park is not for everyone (again, a cliché!), but if you have any interest in seeing something truly unique and provocative and beautiful, I urge to go see this film. It comes out in NYC on March 7 and then releases wider as the month goes on.