Monthly Archives: June 2008

Best Films of the First Half

We are officially halfway through 2008, and since I just can’t wait until December to highlight some of the year’s best films, I’m going to go ahead and list my top FIVE of the half year. Of course, as we all know, this is notoriously the lesser half of cinema’s calendar year, but there are always a couple gems. Here are the best of what I saw.

5) U23D For as simple a concept as this is, U23D turns out to be a rather magnificent film. It’s just a concert film, in 3D, on a huge screen. But when the concert is U2, and the setting is some monstrous Latin American soccer stadium, the results are stunning. I hope these immersing experience films are the future of cinema.

4) Mister Lonely
This is a very odd film, but there’s something very touching and true about it. Something about watching a bunch of sad, lonely people dressed up like their favorite celebrities and performing their lives as if they were icons is very appropriate to the fame-obsessed culture we live in today. Plus the film (which stars Diego Luna, Samantha Morton, and Werner Herzog) is just beautifully made. It’s Harmony Korine’s most polished, coherent (if you can call it that) work yet.

3) Wall E Pixar has just about the best track record of any film company, and Wall E is just about the best thing they’ve ever done (just about). It’s a thing of beauty—a true artist’s picture that is both entertaining, provocative, subtle, sad, and joyful. It reminded me of A.I. a little bit, which is a very good thing.

2) Flight of the Red Balloon This film from director Hou Hsaio-Hsien is an abstract meditation on childhood innocence, art, and all things bright and beautiful in the everyday. It’s also an homage to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic short, The Red Balloon. The film captures so much truth in its images, and Juliette Binoche offers one of the year’s early standouts. I can’t wait to buy it on DVD and slip into its simple, quiet, elegant world once more.

1) Paranoid Park I wrote on March 6th that Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park “is one of those films that jolts awake my deep love of cinema,” and that it was “without question the best film of 2008 thus far.” I stand by that statement now. This is a film of such daring cinematic bravado, such nuanced observation of human interiority, such organic beauty… It’ll be one I buy on DVD and watch multiple times a year, like a Terrence Malick film or something.

YouTube Goes Highbrow

During the L.A. Film Festival this year, I was first introduced to the Youtube Screening Room, an area of the site devoted exclusively to selected independent films. The Screening Room will feature four short films every two weeks, as well as the occasional full-length feature. Right now the four featured films include Miguel Arteta’s hilarious short, Are You the Favorite Person of Anyone? (starring Miranda July, John C. Reilly, and Mike White), Oscar-winner The Danish Poet (2007 best animated short), Oscar nominee Our Time is Up (starring a fantastic Kevin Pollack), and Love and War (“the world’s first animated opera”). I recommend viewing them all.

This new YouTube venture is terribly exciting, and has the potential to revolutionize the regretfully ghettoized short film form. Previously, short films have been largely relegated to life on the festival circuit, but with the Internet (and especially something like YouTube Screening Room), perhaps the short film will enjoy a popular renaissance.

More importantly, this will further democratize (possibly) the entry points to the film industry. Intrepid young filmmakers who score a featured spot on the site (and user-submitted videos will in fact be a part of it) and garner a million or so views will likely become attractive properties for bigger and better things in Hollywood. The Screening Room also provides a potential moneymaking venture for erstwhile unemployed aspiring filmmakers. Videos on the site will be eligible for YouTube’s revenue-sharing program, whereby filmmakers split some of the income from the advertising that accompanies their movies.

Finally, I think that if this is a successful venture, it indicates that the future of all art cinema will in the not-too-distant future be distributed first and foremost on the Internet. Blockbusters and event movies will always (well, for a while at least) be outside-the-home experiences, but art films will increasingly be seen via Netflix, HDNet, or the Internet. After all, not every city is like L.A.: most people in the world don’t have film festivals and 12-screen arthouse multiplexes to go to if they want to see obscure films.

Did God Use Constantine?

It has become fashionable of late for progressive-minded Christians to distance themselves from Constantine. Constantine, if you recall, was the Roman Emperor who in the fourth century first adopted Christianity (which had been criminalized under his predecessor, Diocletian) and made it the empire’s official religion. In a short time, Christianity was transformed from a marginal “rebel” religion that was constantly persecuted to a state-sanctioned, protected entity that became fused with the governing authorities. It was at this moment that the church-state relationship was born. It was the first time when Christians wielded power in the culture, and they would never again relinquish it.

Today, however, many Christians are seeking to shed the Constantinian cloak of power once and for all. After the Crusades, slavery, imperialism, and other such bad side effects of institutionalized, power-wielding Christianity, many Christians are hoping to return to a place of humility rather than power, quiet love rather than public force.

The recent Evangelical Manifesto, for example, has an entire section called “The way of Jesus, not Constantine,” in which the writers firmly situate their hope for evangelicalism outside the state-sanctioned, power-wielding tradition of Rome:

“We utterly deplore the dangerous alliance between church and state, and the oppression that was its dark fruit. We Evangelicals trace our heritage, not to Constantine, but to the very different stance of Jesus of Nazareth. While some of us are pacifists and others are advocates of just war, we all believe that Jesus’ Good News of justice for the whole world was promoted, not by a conqueror’s power and sword, but by a suffering servant emptied of power and ready to die for the ends he came to achieve.”

The thought here is that Christianity was never meant to be a powerful political force, and certainly not a violent one. It is often pointed out that Christianity thrives the most when it is underground and persecuted by culture, not when it runs the culture. Look at the world today: Christianity is on fire in places like China (where it is outlawed), while it is dying out in places like the U.S. and especially Europe, where it institutionalized and entrenched and, well, easy.

Is Christianity better as an underdog? Kierkegaard certainly thought so. In his Training in Christianity writings, the fiery Danish philosopher (a radical Protestant) argues that Christianity has been “done away with” by Christendom—“for it has become an easy thing, a superficial something that neither wounds nor heals profoundly enough.” He writes that Christendom has popularized Christianity and garnered many followers (because “people are only too eager to take part when there is nothing whatever to do but to triumph and join the parade”), but has lost the essential qualities of what he called “contemporaneousness with Christ.” For Kierkegaard, true Christianity requires a suffering and experience of offense that clearly separates followers of Christ (the Suffering Servant) from worldly pursuits. In established Christendom, he writes, “one becomes a Christian in the merriest possible way, without in the least becoming aware of the possibility of the offense.”

Clearly there is precedent for faulting Constantine (and the development of Christendom) for the failures of the church today. And I admit to sympathizing with these thoughts quite a bit. I do think that Christianity is better fit as an underdog movement rather than top dog institution, but part of me wonders: was Constantine really that bad for Christianity? Might he have been used by God—purposefully—to further His church on earth?

If we believe that God orchestrates history and has everything under control (and I, for one, believe this), don’t we have to see Constantine and his impact on Christianity as being God-ordained? Let’s think about the good things Constantine and the birth of Christendom did for Christianity. First of all, Constantine was the one who convened the pivotal Council of Nicea in 325, the first attempt at theological consensus and the birth of, among other things, the doctrine of the trinity, the holiday of Easter, and a concise articulation of Christian beliefs in the Nicene Creed. Without the precedent set by Nicea (which would likely not have happened without Constantine), Christian unity would have been long-delayed or otherwise impossible. And unity is crucial to Christian history.

Furthermore, perhaps we can look at the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire as the event God used to really get His church disseminated throughout the world. Would Christianity have spread as fast and as far had it stayed underground? We’ll never know. But once Constantine sanctioned and protected it, Christianity was allowed to thrive and grow like never before. It also added a legitimacy to Christianity: the Roman Emperor breaking with tradition to adopt this upstart religion? People undoubtedly considered Christianity in a new light after this.

But I don’t want to offer an apologetic for Constantine, or Constantine-esque Christianity. I only want to suggest that before we go rushing to cut ourselves off from what we (and most secular people) perceive as a pretty suspicious institutional past, we should consider that 1) despite everything, the church is still thriving on earth; and 2) If you were Constantine and you discovered this amazing new way of thinking, wouldn’t you also want to us all your power to strengthen and spread it?

It’s easy for us in the comfy Christianized 21st century to scoff at Constantine, but I wonder: would we prefer that he had been as tenuous and apathetic about spreading Christianity then as we are now?

Seventeen Songs for Summer

It’s stifling hot in L.A., gas prices are surpassing $5/gallon, and the L.A. Film Festival is going on down the block in Westwood Village. This can only mean one thing: Summer is here!

In honor of this wonderful, extreme season, I’ve put together my annual summer music mix (I actually make several of these, to help pass the time in my new hour-plus commute). This year’s mix—comprised entirely of songs released within the last several months—is heavily electronic, 80s-nostalgic, more happy than morose, and a guaranteed good time.

Thanks to iTunes (and I promise they are not paying me to say this), you can locate and download these songs ala carte, with ridiculous ease. Hooray digital capitalism! Anyway, here’s the playlist. My soundtrack to the summer of ’08.

Coldplay, “Strawberry Swing”
– Arguably the best overall song on Coldplay’s new album, this track—with its cheery rhythms and sunny guitar riffs—waxes nostalgic about blue skies, swings, and young love.

The Radio Dept., “Freddie and the Trojan Horse” – Sweden’s new-wave shoegazer outfit presents the perfect summer song from their wonderful new EP. It’s sweet like a popsicle.

Mates of State, “Help Help” – This bouncy, synth-bass-heavy pop gem from the husband/wife duo known as Mates of State is the best song off of their recent album, Re-arrange Us. You’ll love it, I promise.

Weezer, “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived” – This song is a goofy good time. Borrowing a melody from a familiar Shaker hymn, Rivers Cuomo throws down a rock-opera of a pop song that features about a dozen kitschy mutations of its catchy chorus. Lots of fun.

M83, “Graveyard Girl”
– If you haven’t heard the new album from French electronica geniuses M83, I highly recommend you check it out. The new single, “Graveyard Girl,” is a blissful shoegazer anthem with a hilarious video (see below).

Sigur Ros, “Festival” – My favorite song off their new album, this 9-minute opus builds from nothing to a grandiose climax that will doubtless shake the rafters in concert. Truly breathtaking.

The Notwist, “Good Lies” – The first track off this German electronic band’s new album is perfectly joyful, even in it’s solemnity.

Cut / Copy, “Hearts on Fire”
– Listen to this song and you’d think you were listening to New Order or something else from the dancefloor 80s. But no, this is 2008 music from Australia. And it’s super cool.

Vampire Weekend, “Mansard Roof” – The Afro-pop hipsters from NYC may be a little overrated, but their bouncy tunes, like “Mansard Roof,” are absolutely perfect for summer. Check out the summery vid:

Wolf Parade, “California Dreamer”
– What’s a summer mix without a song about California? This new Wolf Parade song (from their just-released, At Mount Zoomer) is an epic anthem that alternates between delicate balladry and headstrong rock energy.

The National, “You’ve Done it Again, Virginia” – Every summer mix needs a few somber entries, and The National is always good for that. This new song from their recent Virginia EP features more luxuriant Sufjan piano and their usual “Gatsby with a cocktail” tragic elegance.

Cat Power, “Ramblin’ (Wo)Man” – This song from her recent Jukebox album is a sweetly feminine riff on Hank Williams’ song, “Ramblin’ Man.” A jazzy, sexy song for humid summer nights.

Ladytron, “Ghosts” – Britain’s favorite electro-goth-pop band’s new album, Velocifero, is fantastic. And this song is the first breezily haunting single. See below for the trippy video:

Matt Wertz, “5:19”
– This first single from Matt’s upcoming album, Under Summer Sun (to be released in August) is a lovely acoustic number with hyper-melodic hooks, perfect for summer love and heartbreak.

Fleet Foxes, “Ragged Wood” – One of the best discoveries of 2008, Seattle’s Fleet Foxes offer Beach Boys-esque harmonies with Appalachian and Irish traditional ancestry. It’s gorgeous, and the formidable “Ragged Wood” is a perfectly sweet/somber track to sample.

Nine Inch Nails, “Discipline” – For something edgier, try this fantastic new single from NIN’s The Slip—the album Trent Reznor gave away for free online this spring.

Death Cab for Cutie, “I Will Possess Your Heart” – This 8 minute song is slow to build and mostly instrumental, but there is something quite dreamy about it. Its travelogue video is a perfect accompaniment to those of us traveling abroad this summer:

The Best News of the Year

Okay, so that may be an overstatement, but for me, this is HUGE:

Terrence Malick’s long-awaited director’s cut of The New World is coming out on DVD October 14!!!

Reportedly the film is 30 minutes longer and hand-crafted by Malick himself. This is 15 minutes longer than the forever-lost version that was screened for critics in December 2005 (which I saw). In addition to offering Malick-philes a chance to see more heartbreakingly beautiful footage of what is arguably his most stunning film, the DVD will include a ten-part “making-of” documentary. I wonder if recluse Malick will show himself in the behind-the-scenes footage? Doubtful.

Anyway, I just had to share this exciting news. Coupled with the knowledge that a new Malick film (Tree of Life) is just around the corner, this latest news more than compensates for the 8 year drought I suffered in between The Thin Red Line and The New World.

Is Teenage Pregnancy Now Cool?

Have you heard of this latest “what is happening with our kids” shock story? Apparently 17 high school girls at Gloucester High in Massachusetts decided last fall to make an unusual pact: to all get pregnant and raise their babies together. They wanted to, ya know, throw baby showers and stuff. Sure enough, they pulled it off, roping in whatever willing males they could find (including a 24-year-old homeless man) to help with the project. The group/club/clique members are expecting their bevy of babies sometime this summer.

The story broke just days after it was announced that 17-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears gave birth to her baby, and a few months after Juno became the hippest teen-preggers pic of all time. Obviously it has people wondering: has pop culture made teenage pregnancy the new “it” thing?

In the past, teenage girls who became pregnant while freshmen in high school viewed it as a life-altering tragedy. Not at Gloucester. Reportedly the girls high-fived each other when one of their pregnancy tests came back positive. School officials are baffled, wondering what went wrong with their sex-ed programs and generous contraceptive distribution. Unfortunately no amount of contraceptives will prevent this new reproductive trend: girls trying to get pregnant.

This story horrifies me, in the way the recent Abortion Girl story horrified me. In both cases, pregnancy—the most sacred and miraculous of all human phenomena—was turned into little more than a recreational activity, a game. For Abortion Girl it was a means to make a political/artistic statement: getting pregnant as many times as possible, so as to abort as many times as possible. With these Gloucester girls, getting pregnant was a social activity, like going to the mall or the prom—just something fun to do together.

Has creating a human life really been reduced to this? Call me crazy, but to bring a life—indeed, a soul—into the world (a world that has seen better days) seems to me a rather serious proposition. Yes I know it often happens on accident, but when it is planned should it not be planned with the utmost care and selfless love? Having a baby should not be like buying a new purse or getting a new haircut, and it certainly should not be an action taken out of desperate adolescent loneliness (it was suggested that the girls did this so they could receive some unconditional love).

Whatever the cause (and I don’t think it’s Juno), I’m pretty sure it doesn’t bode well for our society. God help us, and God help those poor little girls and their future children.

The New (and Improved) Coldplay

I wasn’t quite sure what I expected when I bought Coldplay’s new album earlier this week—I suppose I expected it to be a lot of patented sappy love songs and stadium anthems for the middle class preppies in the suburbs (I bought my copy in Starbucks, after all). But I have to say, this album shocked me—in a very good way. Is this really Coldplay? These songs are inventive—even progressive! They still have that ethereal “to the rafters” grandeur to them, but—amazingly—they are more restrained and nuanced than anything they have ever done.

From the gorgeous, electronic instrumental opening (“Life in Technicolor”) to the ghostly hidden coda track (“The Escapist”… aka part II of “Death and All His Friends”), this is an album of lush musical diversity and sonic subtleties. It’s exquisite. It’s not radio-friendly in the least (apart from the title track), but it may very well prove to be their most popular album. It’s certainly their best since Parachutes.

It’s also an album that—in some ways—represents what an album could (should?) be in this era of the death of the album. It is fitting that Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” song has been in all the iTunes ads this spring. This is an album for the iTunes age. With ala carte music consumption, music has re-oriented itself to songs over albums, randomized playlists over coherent LPs. Viva la Vida is an album in the sense that it is one collection of songs released together, but other than that it seems to be something altogether different. These songs have little to do with one another, and some sections of some of the songs have little to do with other sections.

Indeed, I wonder how we can categorize “songs” in the context of this album. Several tracks on Viva have more than one musical thought going on. Track 5 is the clearest example: “Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love” is a couplet of an upbeat rock number and a mournful electro-ballad, respectively. You might say the latter (which is my favorite song on the album) compliments the former, but I’m hard-pressed to see them as anything more than two completely separate emotional moments juxtaposed because, well, sometimes our moods change that fast.

Other songs on the album don’t even name their dual sections. Track 6, “Yes,” begins as an eastern-inspired minor chord anthem about sexual frustration (featuring Chris Martin singing in the lowest key he’s ever attempted) and then becomes a breezy shoegazer romp (apparently called “Chinese Sleep Chant,” but not advertised as such on the album cover). Same goes for the final track, “Death and All His Friends,” which ends on a rousing, rhythmically-daring note, only to be followed by the aforementioned fade-out song (“The Escapist,” also unadvertised). Many of these multi-section songs could easily have been split into separate tracks, but they weren’t. Why? It’s almost as if Coldplay is rewarding iTunes buyers by giving them two-for-one specials; or perhaps they are just showing how interesting an album of haphazard shifts and unpredictable turns can be.

The album feels totally incoherent, but in a coherent sort of way. It feels like an album of the 21st century, where our only frame of reference is, in fact, disjointedness. The album mimics our digitally fragmented lives, when everything is on shuffle and our attentions and cares and feelings are so interchangeable and fluid that sixty minutes of musical narrative (even five minutes of one song) have a hard time connecting with us. Indeed, Coldplay’s lyrics on this album are hardly narrative at all—just words and thoughts and random images, strewn together paratextually in the way our laptop screens bind together our images, emails, memories, interests, and connections. We are a windows world now; our interfaces are multifarious and rarely singularly focused. Sometimes we feel mournful (“Cemeteries of London”), sometimes joyful (“Strawberry Swing”), but hardly ever do we feel wholly one or the other. Coldplay’s album is the musical embodiment of this.

The title alone (Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends) shows how eclectic this album really is. The use of Spanish indicates the international feel of the music, and the nonsensical bonus title shows that the album is, well, anything you want it to be. Viva borrows bits and pieces of world music (Middle-eastern, North African, Latin American, etc) and borrows from a wild array of styles—everything from shoegazer to tribal organ to electronic minimalism. It’s pastiche of the highest order, and I absolutely love it.

New Mediascape Website!

For those who don’t know, I have been the editor in chief of the scholarly e-journal, Mediascape, for the past year. It’s UCLA’s graduate journal of cinema and media studies, and it publishes once a year in online-only format. We’ve been hard at work these past months rebuilding our website and getting our new issue together. I’m proud to announce that it is finally done, and I urge you to take a look at it here:

The pseudo-theme of this issue is comedy, and we have some interesting articles about The Darjeeling Limited, Vince Vaughn, frat-pack movies, multi-camera sitcoms & How I Met Your Mother, Jewishness and comedy, Brothers and Sisters, and Jon Stewart… among many others.

If you like scholarly approaches to film/media/pop culture, check out these articles. They’re quite interesting and I’m proud of our staff for putting together such a strong journal issue.

Ruminations on a Graduation Day

Today I get my Masters degree in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. It’s been a quick but rigorous two year program, and for the most part totally worth my time. This is my third graduation in seven years (the others being high school and Wheaton College), and I have to say that I love putting on that cap and gown every time (and this go ‘round I get a special hood!). There’s something nice about inserting yourself—even for just a few hours—into the centuries-old lineage of academic decorum that is represented in the four-point hat and gown regalia.

So, on this special occasion—after two years of countless stressful days and nights of studying, teaching, reading, and writing—what do I have to say about my experience? Here are a few scatterbrained thoughts:

• Learning never gets old, but college definitely can. After six years of being a college student, I’m ready to take a break. I’m ready to not have homework or mountains of books to read on nights and weekends. I’ll still read books constantly (one should never stop), but I might throw in some fiction or poetry instead of 24/7 theory/history/philosophy.

• Big universities are increasingly run like corporations. Learning is only the means to (and occasional byproduct of) a lucrative economic end. It’s a site of economic bonanza: research funding, technology development, cheap labor, captivated consumer audiences with lots of their parents’ money… And everything is so very expensive!

• Grad students in the humanities almost always regress as writers the longer they stay in grad school. You see, there is this thing called “academic writing” that ruins any inclination one might have for good writing. It requires the usage of meaningless verbs like “problematize,” “privilege,” “complicate,” “destabilize,” and a million words to make rich white protestant men sound legitimately evil (“heteronormativity,” “hegemony,” “patriarchal,” etc). In general, people in grad school (humanities) communicate in ever more abstract language about ever less germane issues.

• Graduate school seems to be more and more about hyperspecialization. There is little interest in broad-based knowledge or cross-discipline intersections anymore. People are encouraged to pick a thing to focus on, to become an “expert” in, and that is that. Connecting to or caring about what others are studying, researching, or writing about is increasingly a rarity (sadly). Everyone does their own thing.

• Lest this all sound super negative, I will say this: my experience in grad school definitely taught me a ton. I gained so much knowledge in such a short amount of time. I feel like my knowledge of film and media (theory, history, criticism, etc) has at least quadrupled in the time I’ve been here, and that will certainly prove valuable to me as a writer and critic.

• Some people ask me if studying film academically (and as a critic) leaves me unable to really enjoy film in the awestruck, child-like sense. In my experience, no it does not. In fact, I can honestly say that I love and appreciate cinema more than ever now—having studied and lived among it in Los Angeles for 2+ years. Also, I have come to appreciate television as an art form way more than I did prior to coming here. In fact, I would say that increasingly I am finding television to be the site of the most interesting and creative output Hollywood has to offer.

Okay, so it may sound like a mixed bag, but I’d truly recommend graduate school to any who might be interested. It’s good for the mind, and challenging (for those who like challenges). It’s also a great place to question things (for those who like questioning), and to discover both the limits and potentials of human inquiry. There were a few moments over the past two years when I felt my mind spinning so hard that I thought I might lose it. Those were great times. Those “teetering on the edge of madness” moments tended to be the most illuminating, and I hope I continue to have them, even as a lay academic.

The Best of Hitchcock

I saw M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening today, and I can say nothing of that now (my review will be up at CT Movies on Friday). Well, I will say this: it has its share of creepy—sometimes downright disturbing—moments. Shyamalan continues to try to live up to the early Hitchcock comparisons, and though this is clearly a stretch, I do think both directors share a penchant for stylishly-rendered scares. Still, Hitchcock is by far the better of the two, and I’d like to pay homage by listing my five favorite Hitchcock films, with some images from Vanity Fair’s recent tribute photo spread.

5) Rear Window (1954): As thrillers go, Rear Window is about as good as it gets. So many horror/suspense film conventions were either invented or perfected in this film, which uses voyeurism to both scare us and provide a commentary on our human impulses to spy on and live vicariously through the lives of others. The below image features Scarlett Johansson and Javier Bardem as the Grace Kelly and wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart characters.

4) The 39 Steps (1935): Hitchcock made this spy-plotted film while still in England, and many consider it his finest British thriller. It’s certainly not one of his scariest, but it is totally engrossing (what with the burning question “What are the 39 steps?”) and thoroughly British/Scottish, which is probably why I love it so much.

3) Psycho (1960): This film still holds up as one of the most frightening of all time, and Janet Leigh’s fateful shower scene (recreated below with actress Marion Cotillard) is undoubtedly one of the most significant single scenes in film history. Killing off the star actress halfway through the film, by a cross-dressing, knife-wielding sociopath (in the shower, no less!)? Shocking!

2) Shadow of a Doubt (1943): This is one of the most under-seen and under-appreciated of all Hitchcock films, and yet Hitchcock himself cited it as his personal favorite. An unsettling, noir-ish usurping of the American suburban ideal, the Thornton Wilder-penned Doubt is perhaps Hitchcock’s most subtle, insidious American film.

1) Rebecca (1940): Hitchcock’s films were never really known for their great acting, but in the case of the supremely creepy Rebecca—with stellar performances from Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and Judith Anderson (the latter two interpreted below by Keira Knightley and Jennifer Jason Leigh)—the performances made the film. Hitchcock’s first American feature (though set in England) is intensely elegant and ridiculously creepy.