Monthly Archives: April 2008

Ten Slow Films Worth Slogging Through

One of the most common complaints I hear from others when they watch the “art” films I recommend is that they are “too slow.” Indeed, it seems that our increasingly hyperactive, fast-paced culture considers any film paced slower than a John Grisham novel to be impossibly languorous. Thus, it’s an uphill battle to win over converts to such films as Flight of the Red Balloon (which I reviewed earlier this week), or anything from directors like Terrence Malick or Gus Van Sant. Still, I think that if people try to sit through and attend to the beauties of these films, they will find them ultimately rewarding. Film as art (as in any art form) requires active attention and openness on the part of the audience. There are a lot of wonderful films out there that require some patience to sit through, but that reward the viewer immensely. Here are just a few (ordered by year):

Diary of a Country Priest (1954) – Robert Bresson
Bresson is one of the most widely acclaimed French auteurs, but his films are among the hardest to watch. They are about as far from the conventional Hollywood narrative as you can get. Still, there is a striking authenticity and meditative realism to the mundane worlds he portrays—especially in this beautiful film about the everyday struggles of a young priest in rural France.

Scenes From a Marriage (1973) – Ingmar Bergman
Though it is broken up into segments, this 167 minute domestic drama seems to go on and on, and in true Bergman fashion, it is an arduous, methodical descent into nihilistic flagellation. Nevertheless, the performances and themes here are utterly compelling and strikingly rendered by one of cinema’s greatest artists.

Paris, Texas (1984) – Wim Wenders
Like Gerry (see below…), this classic Wim Wenders film provides a captivating “wandering through the dessert” experience. It’s a dry, dusty, subdued sort of existential western. Harry Dean Stanton plays a broken down man, wandering the Texas landscape in search of himself. There are few words in the film, and even fewer conventions of Hollywood storytelling. But it is a memorable experience nonetheless.

Down by Law (1986) – Jim Jarmusch
This is a challenging film. More a mood piece than anything else (set in the Louisiana bayou), Down by Law eschews traditional plot and character development in favor of visual and sonic oddity. Quirkiness rarely makes for a compelling two hour experience, but this film is an exception: it’s a joy to watch. The unexpected trio of John Lurie, Tom Waits, and Roberto Benigni are unforgettable in this film—one of Jarmusch’s best.

The Thin Red Line (1998) – Terrence Malick
The challenging thing for audiences who watch The Thin Red Line is that they’ve watched too many war movies, and the understanding is that a war movie should be exciting, action-packed, and emotionally-wrenching. Personally I think Terrence Malick’s film is as emotionally-wrenching as any film I’ve ever seen, just not in the traditional ways. Give this complicated film a chance. It’s one of the most beautiful ever made.

Gerry (2002) – Gus Van Sant
This film pushes the limits of even the most patient filmgoer. The whole thing is essentially a silent observation of two hikers (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who get lost in the unforgiving desserts of the American Southwest. There are scant more than a couple dozen lines of dialogue to be found in its 103 minutes, nothing like a “plot” to speak of, and yet—and yet—something about Gerry is utterly spellbinding.

The Son (2002) – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
“Slow” could be a designation given most all Dardenne Bros films, but they are all worth sitting through. The Belgian filmmakers have a way of withholding any catharsis for the audience until the final moments of their films, and never is this more clearly exhibited than in The Son, a beautiful relationship portrait of fathers and sons.

The Five Obstructions (2003) – Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier
There were a number of Lars von Trier films I considered for this list (Dogville, The Element of Crime, etc), but I settled on this film—a documentary jointly made with Jorgen Leth—because, well, I think it needs to be seen. I’m actually not sure how anyone could call this film “boring,” but the sheer conceptual headiness of it is certainly unpalatable to many. Still, Obstructions is totally unique and features a stunning “twist” ending—if you make it that far.

Into Great Silence (Two-Disc Set) (2007) – Philip Gröning

This film is the exact opposite of “commercial” cinema. It is nearly three hours long, pretty much silent, actionless, and repetitive. But it is a documentary about the ascetic life of monks, and as such, it should be a challenge to watch. But if you let yourself be still, silent, and contemplate just what it is you are watching, then Into Great Silence can become more than cinema. It can be a truly worshipful experience.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – Andrew Dominik
The most recent addition to this list goes to last fall’s Jesse James “biopic,” which turns out to be more a phenomenological contemplation than a narrative of the famous bandit’s life. Indeed, the 160 minute film leaves many wondering “when are the great shootouts and action sequences going to come?” Answer: never. But instead, you get an immersive, mood-driven photo essay; and again, a wonderful coda sequence at the end.

Abortion as Art? (Critical Theory Gone Berserk)

By now you’ve all probably heard about Yale Abortion Girl, right? Her name is Aliza Shvarts, and she’s a senior art student at the esteemed Ivy League school. She made international news last week when her outrageous senior art project was made public.

According to Shvarts, her project is a documentation of a nine-month process in which she artificially inseminated herself (from a number of sperm donors) “as often as possible” and then took herbal abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages. The actual project was to be an installation of a large cube suspended from the ceiling of the exhibition hall, filled with the menstrual blood from her supposed litany of miscarriages. Recorded video of her experiencing the miscarriages in her bathtub was to be projected on each side of the cube.

Schvarts initially defended the project by saying, “I believe strongly that art should be a medium for politics and ideologies, not just a commodity… I think that I’m creating a project that lives up to the standard of what art is supposed to be… It was a private and personal endeavor, but also a transparent one for the most part… This isn’t something I’ve been hiding.”

But as news circulated beyond Yale and outraged criticism came pouring in, Yale put a kibosh on the project, which was supposed to be installed for the senior art show last week.

“I am appalled,” said Yale College Dean Peter Salovey. “This piece of performance art as reported in the press bears no relation to what I consider appropriate for an undergraduate senior project.”

School of Art Dean Robert Storr also denounced Schvarts’ project, saying that while Yale “has a profound commitment to freedom of expression,” the University “does not encourage or condone projects that would involve unknown health risks to the student.”

Soon after the initial hubbub, however, the University officials announced to the press that Shvarts had privately denied actually committing the acts in question, and that the whole project was nothing more than an elaborate hoax—a “creative fiction” meant to highlight the ambiguity of the relationship between art and the human body.

Shvarts responded by calling the University’s claims “ultimately inaccurate,” and refused to sign a written confession saying that the whole thing was a hoax. Instead, Shvarts began a “no one knows the truth except me” campaign of meta-meta-meta critique. And arguably, this is when her “project” kicked in to high gear.

Shvarts told the press that throughout the nine months she never knew if she was ever really pregnant or not (she never took a pregnancy test), and in a column for the Yale Daily News, Shvarts wrote that “The reality of the pregnancy, both for myself and for the audience, is a matter of reading.”

Huh? Being pregnant is a matter of reading? This is where it becomes clear what Schvarts is really up to—an amped-up deconstructionist exercise in sexual semiotics.

“The part most meaningful in [the project’s] political agenda … is the impossibility of accurately identifying the resulting blood,” Shvarts wrote in the same column. “Because the miscarriages coincide with the expected date of menstruation (the 28th day of my cycle), it remains ambiguous whether there was ever a fertilized ovum or not.”

“This piece — in its textual and sculptural forms — is meant to call into question the relationship between form and function as they converge on the body,” she wrote. “…To protect myself and others, only I know the number of fabricators who participated, the frequency and accuracy with which I inseminated and the specific abortifacient I used. Because of these measures of privacy, the piece exists only in its telling.”

Ahh, the crux: the piece exists only in its telling. With no more metanarratives, no external “Truth,” we can only trust individual perceptions, personalized accounts of experiential contingencies. What a wonderful world.

There is a lot to be disturbed by in this little viral provocation. Of course, the cavalier treatment of pregnancy and abortion (as mere tools in an artistic creation—even if just on the conceptual level) is one thing; and the notion that anything so disgusting (a cube of menstrual blood from self-induced abortions?) could be considered art is another…

But the most frightening aspect of this whole thing, for me, is that it shows just how inaccessible (and out of fashion) truth is in the academy today. When someone like Shvarts can blatantly lie to the press and write it off as part an academic project, what does that say about our academic standards? Where would she get the idea that education (formerly known as the search for truth) can be founded on lies and the privileging of ambiguity?

Hmmm, well, she can get that idea from at least 20 years of critical theory, for starters. This is the strain of scholarly thought that puts truth on the backburner (if it doesn’t dispose of it entirely) in favor of a view of reality as a contested space in which nothing is certain, everything has to do with power imbalances, and ambiguity (re: “complicating, problematizing…”) is the end of all academic pursuit. She also gets this idea from radical feminism, which in saying “the personal is the political” situates the human body in a discursive battleground of contextual ideologies that laughs off the idea of transcendent morality or gender.

Shvarts’ project shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, then, and Yale should look no further than their own professors if they want someone to blame. If we teach our students that all reality is perceptual, all morality personal, and all truth a narrativized fiction, “Abortion Girl” is the least we should expect.

“Life is a Journey” (of Art and Commerce)

So I was in at the local arthouse movie theater last week and was struck by one of the pre-show ads that presaged the ten minutes of indie film trailers. I really liked the ad, and felt almost moved by it at times… until the last few seconds, when it was revealed what the “ad” was actually for. Apparently the rest of the audience was caught off guard as well, because they all erupted in laughter upon the brand reveal. Here, you can see the ad for yourself:

When I was first watching it, I kept thinking: is this a trailer for some new Babel-esque film that takes place in multiple countries? Or maybe it’s just a small little short film of some kind? I never expected that it would be a Louis Vuitton ad… but perhaps I should have.

It got me thinking: should I respect Louis Vuitton for making such a lovely, aesthetically astute advertisement? Or do I loathe him for coopting “art” and exploiting my indie-film sensibilities? (just as he did in The Darjeeling Limited last fall, which prominently featured an array of Marc Jacobs-designed Louis Vuitton luggage pieces). I guess I can’t fault Louis Vuitton too much, because the ad (LV’s first television ad) is simply doing what advertising has always done: associating a product with a “life experience” or emotion and suggesting that one’s existential satisfaction is tied to overpriced consumer goods.

By using a theme that any self-respecting yuppie has a major weakness for (travel), and highlighting an assortment of poetic little questions (“Does the person create the journey? Or does the journey create the person?”) and proverb-sounding quips (“A journey brings us face to face… with ourselves”), the ad mimics an array of familiar cultural images, sounds, and feelings that all should appeal to the style-conscious upper classes (or wannabes).

The soft images of blue-tinted, misty explorations (that appear to be vaguely SE Asian) evoke an eco-friendly exoticism of the “I vacation in Thailand!” variety. Other images capture a sort of Lost in Translation aesthetic. Indeed, several shots in the ad (people looking out of highrise windows at a city skyline, a woman peering longingly out of a taxi window) are direct quotations of Sofia Coppola’s beautiful travelogue. What to make of this?

Perhaps the biggest question we should ask is this: are the people for whom “life is a journey” really going to spend thousands of dollars on LV handbags? If those who are existentially attracted to traveling (which is what the ad is appealing to: not the “jet-set” type of travel, but the “spiritual journey” type) have a few extra thousand to spend on consumer goods, will they spend it on designer luggage? Probably the money would go to various travel indulgences (airfare, nice hotel, ethnic souvenirs, etc) or something otherwise “experiential” rather than material/utilitarian. But then again, rich people who travel do need luggage… so why not Louis Vuitton?

Bra Boys

I spent Sunday afternoon at Santa Monica beach (something I do frequently on Sunday afternoons), and let me just say: this is one of the most unique and complicated places you can encounter. The twin beach towns of Santa Monica and Venice (about 15 miles west of downtown Los Angeles) make up a unique beach community that stands out among a coastline of “stand out” beach towns. Something about the combination of people (tourists, hippie locals, every ethnicity imaginable, celebrities, vagrants), material environment (art deco architecture, open air promenades, seagulls, cheesy tourist shops), and history (Route 66, the pier, the legendary surf/skateboard communities of the 60s/70s) make this a place with (seemingly) more character than a lot of places. But in the end, aren’t all places equally complicated and unique? What defines a “unique” location? Is a Kansas farmtown any less complex and character-filled than Paris or Shanghai? I was wondering these things as I was at the beach.

Fittingly, I decided to catch a movie at the beachfront arts theater—a documentary called Bra Boys. I say fittingly, because this is a documentary that addresses the question of place very directly and engagingly. In this film (which I highly recommend), the ostensible subject is a group of ragtag Australian hoodlums/surfer dudes nicknamed “Bra Boys.” They are a multi-ethnic gang (or “tribe,” as Australian surfer gangs are often labeled) made up of troubled teens/twentysomethings, thick-necked rugby players, and a few professional surfers (Koby Abberton, most notably). They are joined by a love of surfing, fraternity spirit (they all have “Bra Boys” tattoos), and the fact that they all live and surf the beach waves of Sydney suburb Maroubra. And in the end, this film is not so much about its characters or even the sport of surfing (though it is about this), but rather it is about Maroubra—a place quite unlike any other.

Narrator Russell Crowe makes this clear from the get go, as the film begins with an extended narrative montage of the history of Maroubra—from the colonial days (New South Wales was created, as we know, to be a massive prison for exiles of the Empire) to the relatively recent (1990s-onward) problems of gang violence. From there the film expands into a full-fledged, beautifully-rendered portrait of a very rough, very tight-knit community. It’s also a very personal portrait, as the film is directed by a Bra Boy and Maroubra native, Sunny Abberton (who, along with his brothers Jai and Koby, are the film’s chief character subjects).

Maroubra has had a difficult history, with a lot going against it from very early on. The town is flanked on its three non-ocean sides by a massive prison (Long Bay Jail), the biggest sewage plant in the southern hemisphere, and a rifle range. It’s also a hotbed for low-income public housing, drugs, broken families, and violence (stabbings, shootings, beatings) of all kinds. Out of this overlooked neighborhood (and others like it along the suburban Sydney coast) arose territorial surfer tribes/gangs—more violent, testosterone-filled versions of Santa Monica’s legendary “Z Boys”—who fight each other and defend their communities with vicious tenacity.

Bra Boys is fascinating in its exposure of a strident localism that is little-seen in our increasingly “flat,” globalized world. Maroubra is a place well-defined by its people and history, bound by the driving pastime of surfing on its expansive beaches. Indeed, without surfing, this roughshod neighborhood might collapse in on itself—its residents bound to cycles of poverty, drugs, and incarceration. Instead, it is a place that—through surfing and community—motivates its underprivileged youngsters to rise above their circumstances (almost all of the Bra boys are fatherless, for example) and make something of themselves. I suppose it is an intrinsic logic of any place to find productive outlets wherein the circumstantial disadvantages of its citizens can be overcome, but Bra Boys makes the argument that Maroubra does it better than most.

I’m not sure the film works as an argument for the virtues of Maroubra as a socializing force, but it definitely works as a compelling snapshot of a specific place and culture. There’s something powerful about the singularity of Maroubra’s character—fueled by a common love (surfing) and common enemy (its own fierce localism). Places, I think, are stronger when they have a shared, clear identity, when disparate forces and the dangers of diversity don’t undermine but rather enhance a collective goal or telos. I’m not sure how many Maroubras there are left on earth—or even if we need them anymore. But it’s nice to see one so alive and functional, even if the observance seems somewhat elegiac.

Flight of the Red Balloon

When I heard that a re-make of Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic short, The Red Balloon, was in the works, I wondered: how could such a film (about a boy in Paris who spends a day with a seemingly sentient red balloon) work today? And when I heard that the updated version was a project commissioned by Paris’s Musee d’Orsay (to celebrate their 20th anniversary) and would be directed by acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (Three Times), my curiosity was piqued.

I saw the new version this weekend, and I was absolutely blown away. It surpassed all my expectations and quickly jumped to the second spot (behind Paranoid Park) on my best of 2008 list so far. The film is less a remake of Lamorisse’s Oscar-winning version than it is an homage. The original film was only 34 minutes in length and free of dialogue; the 2008 version is 130 minutes and only intermittently “about” a red balloon.

One thing that I am always a fan of is out-of-the-box adaptation. That is: a film that takes inspiration from something else in theme, tone, and perhaps style, but which becomes something undeniably new in the process. A great adaptation works within an aesthetic context and frame, but expands and personalizes it as well. Hou’s work here maintains an uncanny respect and fidelity to the original, and yet pushes it further in to the mystical and metaphorical—as well as the geocultural.

It is totally fitting that a film so thoroughly about Paris is realized, in 2008, by a Taiwanese artist with a decidedly eastern sensibility. The significance of this is at least twofold: first, because we live in a globalized world and Paris—as anyone who has been there in recent years can attest—is a thoroughly international city. Secondly, the subject upon which The Red Balloon meditated (childhood), is no longer a solely western concept. The ideal of childhood (as innocent, light, and fancy free—like a red balloon) is something the whole world can relate to.

In his envisioning of The Red Balloon, however, Hou mixes in some cold, hard reality. The film opens with seven-year-old Simon (Simon Iteanu) walking around Paris, and then riding a subway, with a curious red balloon following his every move. The literal adaptation pretty much ends here.

The rest of the film is also centered around Simon’s life, but the red balloon—which infrequently appears outside Simon’s bedroom window—is relegated to the fringes, to the spaces outside the frame. Instead, we get two hours of thoroughly compelling slice-of-life observance of Simon’s daily routine, along with his mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), his nanny Song (Song Fang), and various other characters who float in and out of the story.

The film is, in many respects, about the juxtaposition of child and adult life. Simon and Suzanne represent the two extremes, while Song seems to occupy a place somewhere in the middle. Song is a film student in Paris for school (from Taiwan originally), and her role as nanny is one of protecting Simon’s childhood innocence, while mediating between the various “adult” intrusions that invade the family’s spaces. Song is a quiet, almost passive presence, and seems to represent the perspective of Hou—an Asian “outsider” standing on the margins, offering the artistic filter and frame wherein we can observe this family.

Suzanne is the opposite of Song: she is as frazzled and vivacious as her out-of-control blonde hair. Every scene with Suzanne becomes a three-ring circus of intensified emotion, amped up rhythm, and chaotic conflict. Juliette Binoche shines in what I think is her best performance since Blue. She is utterly familiar as the “barely keeping it together” single mom—sometimes strong, sometimes undone, but always busying herself with something. She is a striking contrast to Simon (and Song, for that matter), who lives life at a leisurely pace, wowed by the little things (pinball, video games, statues in the park, paintings at the museum) and never too disturbed by the big ones.

Still, Simon’s childhood can’t help but be victimized by his chaotic surroundings. His parents are divorced, his stepsister (his closest friend) is in Belgium, and his mother is—on her good days—a basketcase. As such, the magic red balloon (which Hou employs as a poetic symbol and aesthetic device) is sadly marginal to Simon’s existence. It shows up more in mediated form (painted on a wall, captured on Song’s digital video camera) than in physical reality—an interesting statement on the hyper-mediation of contemporary youth.

Indeed, the film’s reflexive comments on art (seen mostly through the character of Song with her video shooting, or Suzanne’s job as a puppeteer) are quite interesting. There is a sense here that “childhood” is more of an aesthetic construction than physical reality—borne out of decades of children’s literature, fairy stories, puppet shows, etc… But the film is also highly concerned with the redeeming of physical reality as such. There is a child-like wonder to be found beneath the surfaces, materials, and cadences of existence, Hou seems to infer. His camera is intensely observant in the way that a young child is—focusing on the things that exist and the actions that are happening in front of his eyes. He is not concerned with abstraction or complexity, just observing the curious circumstances of daily life. And it makes for some truly gorgeous cinema.

There is something otherworldly about the mundane goings-on of this film—the everyday household activities and structures of normality that Hou’s camera is so captivated by. A good example of the sort of “entrancing everydayness” that this film captures is its recurring focus on a rather unimpressive domestic object: an old upright piano. For long stretches of time (usually unbroken shots), we find ourselves watching Simon receive a piano lesson, but then the camera is diverted to other movement in the room: a tenant cleaning up from a party the night before, Song watching in stately observance). We later see the piano being moved up the stairs to another apartment unit, and then another scene is devoted to its being tuned (by a charming blind tuner).

I don’t know that I can articulate the unexpected beauty of these scenes—which, like most in the film—serve no purpose for anything you might call “plot,” insofar as that even exists here. All I can do is say that the everyday, when as lovingly and observantly rendered as it is here, is certainly a site of transcendent beauty. Paul Schrader once wrote (in Transcendental Style in Film), that “transcendental artists” use the mundane representation of life to “prepare reality for the intrusion of the Transcendent.” The everyday, he wrote, “celebrates the bare threshold of existence, those banal occurrences which separate the living from the dead, the physical from the material, those occurrences which so many people equate with life itself.” When we are focused upon this root level of existence (and cinema—perhaps more than any other art—can focus us on everyday reality), we begin to see the beauty and mystery of life itself. The Flight of the Red Balloon uses this tactic to great effect. It is one of the alive films I have ever seen.

Welcome, Pope!

No, I am not a Catholic. But I am terribly excited that the Pope is visiting my country! I was glued to the T.V. this afternoon as Pope Benedict XVI stepped off the papal plane (“Shepherd One”) at Andrew’s Air force Base, setting foot in the U.S. for the first time since he assumed the papacy three years ago. The Pope was immediately greeted by President and Mrs. Bush (and Jenna, of all people), who awkwardly shook Benedict’s hand and followed him through an extensive receiving line. One wonders what eloquent small talk Dubya had up his sleeve with which to amuse the Holy Father…

In any case, I’m sure the Pope and Bush will have some interesting things to talk about during their extended visits over the next couple days. Benedict has criticized the decision to go to war in Iraq, though he reportedly does not want any swift drawdown of troops (for fear of the humanitarian repercussions… especially for Iraqi Christians). There will also undoubtedly be some discussion of immigration (after all, as Bush has said, Catholicism is the religion of the “newly arrived”), as well as the many issues upon which Bush and Benedict agree (pro-life issues, anti-relativism, etc).

I’m also interested to see how the Pope responds to the gaping wound of the American Catholic church: priest sex scandals. Before his plane even landed in America, Benedict was speaking about this issue to reporters, saying, “It’s difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way their mission to give healing, to give the love of God to these children. We are deeply ashamed, and we will do what is possible that this cannot happen in the future.”

One hopes that the Pope will be able to bring a new perspective and energy to the church in this country, galvanizing his flock to fortify the church for the 21st century. So far the Pope has not been able to reinvigorate the dying church in Europe, but perhaps—Lord willing—he can be more successful here.

It’s nice to be able to speak of the Pope in these terms—as an ally and role model in the faith. So often Protestants (and particularly those of the fundamentalist bent) view the Pope as either a cute anomaly in a funny costume, or a dangerous heretic leading many pagans (re: Catholics) astray. But even as I don’t necessarily agree with all his beliefs or venerate him as the supreme arbiter of Christian doctrine and truth (that is, the voice of God on Earth), I definitely respect him a deeply Godly man—someone who exemplifies, more than almost anyone in the public eye, what it means to devote one’s life to following Christ.

Amid the ongoing Catholic-Protestant disputes, we often lose sight of the fact that, in the end, both sides are followers of Christ. The historical events of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection gave rise to a thing called “the church,” a people called “Christians.” This is the rock upon which all else has been built. Theology has since shaped our various conceptions of how we are to live as Christians, but we can all agree on the core of what Christ means for the world: salvation.

I don’t want to make light of the differences—and there are some significant ones—between Protestant and Catholic theology (and between various Protestant denominations, for that matter). I just want to make a point that what the worldwide church (i.e. the 2.2 billion who claim Christ as savior) needs now is unity—a common cause and passion to respond to the world’s contemporary challenges with grace and love.

If the Pope’s visit to America results in 100,000 people converting to Catholicism (or re-discovering it), I’m not going to complain that those are 100,000 who might have become Presbyterians or Baptists. Rather, I will rejoice that here are 100,000 more potential saints to join the ranks of a worldwide, very-much-alive movement that–thanks be to God–shows no signs of fading into irrelevance anytime soon.

Some Thoughts on Immigration

Last week I attended a screening and panel discussion of the film, The Visitor. This beautiful film from director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) tackles a very complicated, current issue: immigration. I won’t go into too much detail about the film here (you can read my Christianity Today review here), but I will say that the film is refreshing in the way that it humanizes (rather than politicizes) the immigrant issue. And in this hyper-politicized election year—in which immigration is sure to be a major, divisive talking point—perhaps humanizing is what we need.

As a resident of Los Angeles and Southern California, I have seen the effects of immigration firsthand. I worked for a year at a restaurant in Beverly Hills, where most every kitchen worker was a Spanish-speaking immigrant (legal status unknown). I’ve seen the way that they are treated (by employers, customers, white coworkers), the way that they appreciate their minimum wage (usually sent home to families in Mexico, El Salvador, or wherever it may be). Most importantly, I’ve seen their kindness, diligence, and humanity, which is (apparently) hard for many in America to recognize.

I understand that immigration is a complicated issue. It’s an issue that, in some ways, sits at the nexus of many of the major issues America struggles with today: the economy, globalization, terrorism, racism, nationalism, etc. As such, it’s not an issue that we can easily come to terms with. Even so, I think that the prevailing discourses about immigration (especially from the far right) are very counterproductive. It’s frustrating to listen to conservative radio in L.A. and hear the ugly antagonism and veiled racism beneath the traditional “they’re taking our jobs, depleting our resources, ruining our education system” statements.

On the other side, it’s frustrating to hear the far left use the “we’re all immigrants” rhetoric to justify the presence of 12 million+ illegal immigrants in the U.S. today. After all, there’s a big (and legal) difference between immigrants who go through the arduous naturalization process and immigrants who do not. It’s a legal distinction, and a matter of fairness: should we reward (with amnesty) those who don’t play by the rules, even while millions others do?

Obviously there are arguments for all sides in this debate, and simple answers will not do. But I think that the first thing we should do—especially those of us who claim Christian compassion—is to begin to look at immigrants (legal and illegal) as fellow humans, not as foreign invaders. As The Visitor points out, there is more commonality than difference—on a human level—between people of different races, nationalities, and classes. We all want to survive, to do the best by our selves and our families. We need to get past our nativistic fears (post-9/11 or otherwise) and approach this issue rationally, with prudence and compassion.

Idols “Give Back”

Last night was American Idol’s second annual edition of Idol Gives Back—a 2.5 hour telethon extravaganza in which the Idol finalists (eight are left) are joined by scores of celebs, musicians, and—of course—Bono, to raise gobs of money for a couple dozen charities. When they first did this last year, I was pleasantly surprised to see such a successful (and relentlessly money-grubbing) TV megahit using their unprecedented exposure to raise money for charity. What could be wrong with that?

In watching it last night, however, I was left feeling rather less “inspired” and more, well, cynical about the whole ordeal. There’s something very odd about the event. For one thing, it’s the one night of the year in which Simon Cowell’s “humanity” is paraded around as if it were sincere and regular (last night he was “inspiring” a woman with Lupus). But then later he was publicly skewered by Jimmy Kimmel (unloading about Cowell’s man-boobs and v-neck T-shirts), apparently to keep the “Simon is to be hated” continuity in check. Are we to emulate or loathe Simon? I’m not sure.

Or maybe it’s just that the whole thing felt so formulaic and emotionally contrived. Why did I wince during a segment in which all-American girl Reese Witherspoon promotes the Children’s Defense Fund “freedom schools” initiative in New Orleans (as Moby’s “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” plays in the background)? Why is it that I really wanted to fastforward through a heart-wrenching segment in which Forest Whitaker consoled children with malaria in Africa (as Sia’s “Breathe Me” plays in the background)? Why is it that—when Gordon Brown announced from 10 Downing Street that the British government was donating $200 million to the fundraiser—all I could think about was how curiously large Gordon Brown’s ears were?

Maybe I’m just dead inside, but nothing in Idol Gives Back particularly moved me. Maybe I’m just really really cynical about celebrities who talk about “giving back” but then drop $2000/day on personal stylist fees.

During one of many “celeb goes to Africa” sequences of the show, we hear Alicia Keys proclaim the following: “If only everyone could come to Africa, I know it would change them all… It’s crazy when you think about it: how you can change the lives of people forever, for the price of a pair of shoes!” Very true, Alicia! Especially with the shoes you wear—those $400 Jimmy Choos and $900 Manolo Blahniks can go a long way in saving lives in Africa!

And what of the requisite appearance by Brad “my wife is a UN Goodwill Ambassador” Pitt? Wearing a beret and standing shoulder-to-shoulder (and shovel to shovel) with Bill Clinton, Pitt lifts the spirits of a FEMA-trailer community in New Orleans (and promotes his ambitious “Global Green” campaign to rebuild an eco-friendly New Orleans). It’s great that you’re building sustainable low-income housing in the Ninth Ward, Brad, but if you really want to help the impoverished, why not start by auctioning off your excessive array of designer clothes, hats, and accessories?

Alas, I’m probably just bitter about my own failings in “giving back.” Or maybe I’m just cranky because my ears are still burning from the mawkish rendition of the Rent rouser “Seasons of Love” by the Idol finalists (decked out in GAP Red shirts). Or perhaps it’s because I had to suffer through two performances by Miley “Hannah Montana” Cyrus. TWO! Then we were forced to watch Miley and her dad (Billy Ray) return to their Appalachian roots in Clay County, Kentucky to expose the destitution of white trailer people in the hills.

By the way, it’s no coincidence that so many of these segments feature superstar celebs going “home” to the poor, depraved conditions of their childhood. It’s a nice message of “hope” to all those who suffer: someday you might escape the shambles of your lot and become an American Idol! So funny how Idol manages to legitimize their own rags-to-riches mythology, even on a night when the attention is supposed to be elsewhere. Other predictable moments of self-promotion included a segment on Daughtry (“The biggest-selling band of last year”) playing an acoustic song in a Ugandan village, a requisite Carrie Underwood ballad performance (available on iTunes!), and shots of various Idol alums in the audience (reminder: Elliott Yamin is still selling records!).

Of course, to counteract the endless tales of disease and squalor, there was a parade of comedians (Dane Cook, Sarah Silverman, Ellen DeGeneres, David Spade, Jimmy Kimmel, Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, even Rob Schneider) to lighten the mood. And this was a nice touch—because it reminded us that this is, after all, first and foremost entertainment: pop, fluff, trifle…

Idol is a show for our pleasure and consumption, and it’s a show that knows how to make a lot of money for FOX. I guess I shouldn’t be displeased that they also know how to make money by spectacularizing the act of giving a lot of it away.

Rock Chalk Jayhawk!!!

In what was undoubtedly one of the best NCAA championship games of all time (and only the seventh to go to overtime), the Kansas Jayhawks beat Memphis and won it all! I said KANSAS WON! My team, my home state… this is just utter joy! Mario Chalmers, you’re my hero! And you will go down in history as making the miracle shot that made this a game for the ages. Ahhh, this is what it’s all about. March Madness could not have ended on a better note. Kansas fans everywhere: BELIEVE IT! 1952. 1988. And now 2008!!!

My Blueberry Nights

Wong Kar Wai makes beautiful films. If you saw In the Mood for Love, 2046, or Days of Being Wild, you know how sensuous and luxuriant the Hong Kong filmmaker’s visual style is. His penchant for slow-mo sequences with 50s American pop/soul music playing in the background creates some truly breathtaking cinema.

My Blueberry Nights—the director’s first English-language feature—is just as remarkable from an artistic point of view. However, compared to his other films, Nights never quite feels as special or real or… something. Perhaps because it’s in English and we don’t quite give actors as much grace when they perform in our native language, but I really didn’t connect with the actors that much in this film (with the exception of Chan Marshall in a brief cameo).

Norah Jones is the star (in her first screen role), and though she’s not terrible, she’s just not equipped to give the role the depth it deserves. Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn and Natalie Portman round out the cast, and each has a few good moments, but on the whole they never quite embody the sort of sensual mystery that Wong Kar Wai’s films are so apt to capture. Then again, this may also be my limited western perspective on what Wong Kar Wai is visioning through eastern eyes. And herein lies the film’s biggest strength and biggest weakness.

Wong Kar Wai’s films have always excelled at navigating the dialectical tensions—visually, tonally, thematically—between east and west. When one lives in Hong Kong (a longtime British colony), I suppose this tension is borne into you. In Nights, Wong Kar Wai aims to make a deeply American film, though it features the sort of non-linear, mystical time-warp structure that his Hong Kong films often follow. The result is a bit messy and boozy and surreal, with moments that hit and some that definitely miss.

The film encompasses a vision of America that one would expect from a non-American artist. The understanding of America here is thoroughly mediated by postcard imagery, iconography, and pop-cultural exports that have long defined this country for the rest of the world. This includes a Hopper-esque New York City (dingy cafes under the train tracks, noir-ish wet streets, flickering neon signs), an Elvis-haunted Memphis (full of stilted lovers, drunks, and barroom brawls), and a desolate Nevada desert (full of casinos and highways made for muscle car convertibles). The imagery of Americana is also heavily defined by food—blueberry pie ala mode, steak and potatoes, cheeseburgers and fries, etc., which is interesting at a time when films (Ratatouille, Waitress, Bella), seem to be exploring the cinematic joys of food like never before.

Of course, the vision of America Nights envisages is also defined through the story. It’s a story in which each character is ending some relationship but then starting a new one—forgetting the past and taking a new path, as it were. It’s about movement and possibility and second chances, fully in keeping with the popular literary mythos of “open road America.” Indeed, the film toys with “road-movie” as its genre (Norah Jones’ character begins in NY and gradually makes her way out to Nevada by the end of the film), and the final scene brings it all back to the beginning—providing a semblance of T.S. Eliot (“to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”) to chew on, along with a big juicy slice of blueberry pie.

In the end, Nights is an imperfect though respectably ambitious ode to America from an outsider voice. I enjoyed the film in the way that I enjoyed German director Wim Wenders’ last film, Don’t Come Knocking, which was also a road movie that heavily invoked pop mythologies of Americana. It’s nostalgic more than prescient, lyrical more than challenging. Good bits of cinema… just not great.