Monthly Archives: June 2008

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.

Kitschiest Christian Songs Ever!

I’ve been pretty hard on contemporary Christian music on this blog, but let me just say this: it’s much better today than it was, say, ten or fifteen years ago. But who knows, maybe we’ll say the same thing about today’s music ten years from now. In any event, I thought it would be fun (in a self-flagellating sort of way) to revisit some of the kitschy horrors of Christian music’s past. These are the songs that dominated the “special music” circuit at evangelical churches everywhere back in the 90s. They are the ones we wish to forget, but also have a semi-fondness for (ironically, of course!). Here are my picks for the top ten kitschiest Christian songs of all time, with visual aids where available!

10) TIE: “This Means War!” and “Get on Your Knees and Fight Like a Man” – I couldn’t decide which cheesy Petra song to include, so I just picked these two (which might be the cheesiest). These songs may not be familiar to many, but as examples of deliciously awful 80s Christian metal, these gems more than represent. Thank you John Schlitt, for being the big-haired bad boy of CCM. You gotta love hellfire-and-brimstone lyrics like this: “Now it’s all over down to the wire / Counting the days to your own lake of fire.”

9) “El Shaddai” – This 1982 classic, penned by Amy Grant and Michael Card, is as vintage CCM kitsch as you can get. The desperately somber, uber-melodic song features multi-lingual lyrics that lend it its patented sense of gravitas. This song also works very well when performed in sign language (preferably by a church’s “signers ministry”).

8) “Household of Faith” – There was a time in the 90s when this harmony-heavy Steve Green song was performed at every Baptist wedding within a six state area. But apparently people are still (remarkably) choosing this as a wedding song, as recently as 2007. And it looks like it’s still a favorite for Sunday night special music as well!

7) “Who’s In the House? (Kickin’ it for Christ)” – Ne’er was there a more disastrous attempt at white guy Christian rap than in this Carmen catastrophe from 1993. And the scary thing is there are still Christians getting jiggy to this song. See this horrifying clip from Jesus Camp. Oh, and for more painful laughs, here’s the official music video.

6) “Via Dolorosa” – Anyone who grew up in a Baptist church no doubt saw this Spanglish tearjerker performed by some unfortunate wannabe soprano once or twice as a “special music.” Special props to the “first diva” of Christian music, Sandi “the Voice” Patty, for her dramatic arm movements in this vintage performance:

5) “Behold the Lamb” – Subtlety is a rarity on this list, but it is absolutely nowhere to be found in this overblown wonder. Check out the video of David Phelps singing it. If there was a Christian version of American Idol, this would be performed every season.

4) “In the Presence of Jehovah” – This song is a great example of the popular “white church ladies trying to sing black” church music genre. Tons of opps for runs and trills, crazy vibrato and hand flailing. It’s also a great one for making the old ladies cry, and sometimes works well with a wind machine!

3) “People Need the Lord” – The most epic of all Steve Green songs! This tear-inducing evangelistic anthem is oft-used as background music during missionary montage videos. It also makes for a good duet, though be warned: his one is excruciating to watch!

2) “Thank You For Giving to the Lord” – This 1988 Ray Boltz weepie is the quintessential offertory anthem. Put some dynamo tenor in a suit up on stage and poof, the money will pour into the offering plates. This one definitely warrants a youtube viewing. Get those Kleenex ready!

1) “Love in Any Language” – This song beats them all. Just watch this fantastic video of (who else?) Sandi Patty leading a multi-ethnic chorus in a “we are the world”-type performance at some Gaither family event. I mean… what can be said?

BONUS! – “I Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb”: I simply can’t resist mentioning this song—another Ray Boltz classic. Mainly because it has the best video ever. EVER.

Could Paul Be President?

Note: In light of the fact that finally, officially, we have our two presidential candidates lined up and ready to go (and, regrettably, to wage smear campaigns on one another during the general election), I thought I’d post an adapted version of a recent article I wrote for the Relevant850 newsletter. Enjoy.

I’m not sure why Paul (Saint Paul, that is) would ever want to be the president of the United States, but let’s say he wanted to. Would he have a chance of being elected if he ran in 2008? In a word: NO.

Why not, you might ask? He’s a brilliant writer, thinker, and all-around passionate person, not to mention a SAINT! He wrote the texts that became the theological foundation of the Christian faith, after all. That has to count for something, right? Unfortunately Paul has a huge skeleton in his closet: a history of mercilessly persecuting and killing Christians. His past is very, very sketchy, and if you are a politician running for President of the United States these days, your past better be absolutely spotless.

It doesn’t matter how brilliant or well-spoken Paul might be. The minute word got out (and circulated via cable news) about Paul’s wild pre-conversion days as the Christian-hating Saul, he’d be toast. The James Dobsons and Pat Robertsons across America would denounce Paul as an unpatriotic anathema—someone who, with such a horrible record of unchristian behavior, could not be trusted to run the country. Let’s face it: if Paul ran for President of the United States, he might as well pick Osama bin Laden as his running mate. He’d have about as much of a chance as Ron Paul to win the presidency.

It’s a strange time when, in America—a country which has always prided itself on fresh starts and second chances—a presidential hopeful is absolutely bound to their past sins, scandals, and gaffs. The 2008 election has proven that one’s past is, perhaps, the most important determinant of one’s electability. Each of men running for president has their own personal albatross: that is, their own past baggage that could prove disastrous for their White House chances.

For Obama, the biggie is Reverend Wright—the outspoken Chicago pastor who has a penchant for colorful, impassioned critiques of America. When the Wright soundbites hit the cable news circuits a few months ago, Obama was suddenly questioned: is he unpatriotic by association? Does Obama share his pastor’s extreme and polarizing views of race, 9/11, and the American government? Even as Obama denounced Wright’s remarks and severed ties with the controversial pastor, the media seems determined to brand the Wright scandal as Obama’s potential Achilles’ heel.

John McCain’s major albatross, of course, is his association with President Bush. Now the extent of his actual association with Bush is relatively negligible in the grand scheme of Republican politics, and indeed, Bush and McCain have been bitter rivals more often than they’ve been buddy-buddy. They differ quite a bit on policies too, but the mere fact that McCain is a Republican, supports continued troop presence in Iraq, and doesn’t publicly denounce President Bush makes him “Bush II” in the many voters’ eyes. He can distance himself all he wants from the current administration, but the past eight years of Republican-led government will nevertheless haunt McCain as he tries to build a case for himself as a “different type” of Republican.

In each case, the most damaging thing for the candidate is in the past—and it’s not even something they themselves did or said! It’s some one they were associated with: Obama with Rev. Wright, McCain with Bush… Are we really ready to disqualify someone on the basis of who they know? Should politics really be about how cleanly one has kept his or her company, admitting only the most inoffensive, neutral, uncontroversial people into the inner circle? I’m not so sure this is at all what we want in a leader.

Think about Jesus: he kept company with some pretty scandalous and generally unseemly people. He openly criticized the government of the day, in much stronger language than anything Rev. Wright is saying of America today. Heck, if Paul would be a controversial presidential candidate, imagine Jesus! He wouldn’t have the murderous record of persecuting Christians to defend, but he would have to answer for those pesky claims of divinity (talk about elitism!) and his tendency to favor blunt language over politically-correct platitudes.

The point of all this is not to suggest that Christianity and politics are impossibly opposed; on the contrary, I think that Christians should get involved in politics. But it’s important to remember that our faith is about forgiveness—redemption, renewal, and the unbinding of past shackles. Our faith would be pointless if we let our past mistakes inhibit our future success. We are reliant on the reconciliatory power of the gospel—that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come”… that God reconciled the world to himself in Christ, not counting our sins (past, present, and future) against us (2 Corinthians 5:16-19). As Christians, we’d be hypocrites to demand spotless moral records from anyone, even our presidents.

Can We Speak/Think Things Into Being?

Over the past couple weeks I’ve had the curious pleasure of hearing a couple of the world’s foremost “gurus”—Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins—give their respective accounts of human happiness to a classroom of wide-eyed college students. Chopra and Robbins are champions of “wellness” and mind-body-spirit synchronicity, preaching a new-agey self-help gospel not dissimilar from Rhonda Byrne’s Oprah-sanctioned The Secret. Central to each of their dogmas is a salvific belief in the power of positive thinking. For Chopra, this translates into things like “narrative medicine” and the assertion that beliefs can convert into actual molecules, that “our consciousness creates our biology.” Robbins articulates it in terms of pop-psychology, emphasizing the power of frames and syntax in the construction of our identities and personal stories, suggesting that “the way we think about our self changes the reality of who we are.” And of course this is all simplified rather nicely in The Secret, which similarly maintains that our thoughts can create our reality: “You become AND attract what you think.”

Now, my initial response to all of this is that it is complete and utter gobbledygook. Do we really think that we can change our biology, our personality, our material circumstance in life just by thinking about it a lot? Does our saying something bring it into being? Surely not…

But as a good postmodern (I use that designation loosely… in the postmodern sense, I suppose) who has studied Communication, Critical Theory, and Literary Theory in graduate school, I must admit there are lingering suspicions in my mind that there is something to this idea of reality as the construction of language, of declaration.

And speaking of declarations, perhaps we should turn to Jacques Derrida and his essay “Declarations of Independence” to understand these ideas. Derrida uses the Declaration of Independence to argue for the arbitrariness of all claims to power, specifically in the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights.” Derrida finds in this statement a profound contradiction: on one hand the signatories of the Declaration are invoking natural law/God and are thus stating a “constative” (to use Derrida’s term), while on the other hand they say that “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” which for Derrida is “performative”—it establishes the truth of the stated principles by means of the very act of stating them. If the truths are self-evident to all human beings, for example, why do we even need to point out that they are self-evident? The signatories must establish themselves as holding the truths to be self-evident. For Derrida, this is a performative declaration masquerading as a constative.

Indeed, isn’t it true that in our multicultural, heterogeneous, globalized world we have come to recognize that language (all communication, really) takes on an unavoidably performative dimension? That is: communication must be seen in cultural context—as a means of making meaning that is both “of” and “for” reality. What is “true” or taken as constative in one culture (e.g. “The sky is blue”) may be totally incomprehensible in another, where different words and expressions create different realities of what otherwise might be thought of as a “universal.” Different cultures emphasize different values and articulate different aspects of reality—and even those things that do seem universal (“love,” “sadness”) are articulated or understood in vastly different ways. Clearly, the way that we communicate the world to ourselves (in culturally and temporally specific contexts), determines what that world is, at least in terms of our perceptions of it (and what else do we have but our perceptions??).

And so, if we admit that to some extent our realities come into being through the various ways we communicate them to one another, is it that much of a stretch to believe Chopra, Robbins, and The Secret lady when they say that we can think our way to better lives??

Well, before we get too carried away, let’s think a bit more practically about all this. After all, aren’t there pretty obvious limits to “the power of declaration”? It’s not like we (unlike God) can simply say “Let there be light” if we are afraid of the dark. It’s not like we can declare “I want to fly” and then take off like Peter Pan… That is one belief, Deepak, that I don’t think can morph into molecular reality.

And of course, we still have the problems of first principles, of legitimacy and authority in the original instance. For rationalists/modernists like Jurgen Habermas, the untamed fluidity of performative declarations always begs the question, “in the name of what?” That is, if we have any recourse to dialogical reasonableness (i.e. the cognitive acceptance of another person’s statement as having some merit) we must appeal to some sort of transcendent norm or power. How could we ever converse across cultures? There must be some overarching power that allows us to accept logic and dismiss ridiculousness.

Hannah Arendt is perhaps the most articulate in highlighting the problem of circularity inherent in every foundational act or beginning. If it is true that the will of a person (to assert certain truths as self-evident, for example) is the source of all legitimacy, then from where do the people originally derive their authority? With respect to Derrida’s notion that the declaration “all men are created equal” is self-evident only because we posit it as such, Arendt responds that no, our experience shows us that men are not created equal, but become equal only through political order and constitutional assurances of equality.

The insinuation is that there are practical things that we must do, not just say, in order to bring things into being. And in this highly-mediated election season in which promises and soundbites and declarations are bandied about with gluttonous abandon, we would do well to recognize this fact: Words themselves can only do so much.

Yes, Rev. Wright, it is true that words can do quite a lot (Obama knows that better than anyone), but one can speak only so much truth to power. To those who feel slighted by the system or otherwise silenced, a word well spoken is a powerful thing, yes. But it is not all powerful. Language is an effective mediator, but it is not a creator.