Monthly Archives: October 2008

On the Experience of Seeing “W”

I went to a press screening of W, Oliver Stone’s new George W. Bush biopic, last night in L.A. I do not want to say too much about the film itself or my assessment of it yet, but you can read my review on Christianity Today‘s movies website on Friday.

I will say that it was one of the most interesting movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long time. The theater was completely full, both with press and average filmgoers. Leonard Maltin was sitting a few rows ahead of me, which was cool. Typical of a West L.A. arthouse movie audience, the crowd was largely partisan towards the left. The first time Dubya (Josh Brolin) showed up on screen, the crowd roared with laughter.

It was a strange atmosphere, though, because I got the sense that this crowd expected Oliver Stone to really destroy George W. Bush–to offer the definitive demonizing portrayal that so many Bush-haters have longed for. They didn’t get that, and yet they got a really amazing, complicated film. The crowd didn’t know what to do with it. It reminded me of films where the audience forces itself to laugh–and laughs overly loud at the truly funny moments because that’s what they thought they signed up for.

In any case, there were a few notable reactions from audience members when the final credits rolled. A few people booed, Leonard Maltin sat mesmerized, and the guy behind me said “I never thought I’d say this, but I was actually charmed by George W. Bush.”

For me, it was a strangely therapeutic experience. But I’ll go in to that in my full review on Friday.

In the meantime, check out my new commentary on election year films, published yesterday on CT.

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Burn After Reading

The Coen Brothers new film, Burn After Reading, suffers from the fact that it followed No Country for Old Men, last year’s best picture Oscar winner. By comparison, Reading looks a tad lightweight—a goofy black comedy without the obvious “prestige” elegance of No Country. But I think that Reading is a very good, concise, underrated film. And perhaps the Coen’s most timely movie ever.

On a filmmaking level, you have to appreciate the razor-sharp economy with which the Coens make films. In No Country, they showed just how evocative a film can be when its most crucial, waited-for moments are only implied (as in, the moment when Javier Bardem lifts up his shoe at the end of the film). In Reading, they do the same thing. The Coens use an effective narrative device—C.I.A. officials being “briefed”—to comically tell us how the most horrendously violent scenes unfold. It is often said that good filmmakers “show” rather than “tell” a scene, but in the case of violence, I think that the Coens have found a way to effectively render it in our minds without always showing it. Certainly the endings of Reading and No Country are effective in this way.

But I also appreciated Reading for other things: its great cast (Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins are especially fun), for one thing, but also its strange, quirky ability to capture the zeitgeist of America (well, Washington) in 2008.

The film has a resigned feeling to it—an almost nihilistic sense that everyone is stupid, selfish, and self-destructive. It’s a dark, cynical film, but it captures a familiar weariness that I think rings more true than ever today—in these days when Washington seems more inept than ever, more self-serving, and more prone to make a problem worse by trying to “solve” it in a quick and easy manner.

Burn After Reading never directly addresses one political party or another, and certainly it may be interpreted as a critique of the 8-year-long train wreck that has been the Bush years, but I see it more as a commentary on Washington D.C. in general, on bureaucracy, on the failed systems of power and secrecy and cover-ups that have made this generation of young Americans the most cynical ever about politics.

No Country felt timely as well, but not in a way that felt particularly American. Reading feels completely and utterly about America—about big, dumb, angry, short-tempered Americans who are scared about the future, paranoid about the present, dubious about anyone or anything “official,” and perpetually engaged in a downward spiral/comedy of errors.

At a time like this—when faith in America is dropping with the stocks, when many of us are losing all interest in the election and just wish it would end—perhaps Burn After Reading is not the best film for us. But then again, maybe it’s exactly the film we need.

Apocalypse Watch: Iceland Nearly Bankrupt

They’ve produced some truly exquisite music (Sigur Ros, Bjork) and offered us one of the great villains of modern cinema (team Iceland in Mighty Ducks 2), but now, sadly, they are on the verge of bankruptcy.

That’s right, the country of Iceland has all but gone bankrupt.

Evidently while its residents have busied themselves making mind-blowingly whimsical music videos, the government and banking industry in Iceland were recklessly setting the country up for economic collapse.

Maybe now that their currency has lost 50% of its value, I should take my long sought trip to Reykjavik. But then again… what would be open when I got there?

Just a sign of the times, I guess. Like this… and this.

Who Wants to Worship in a Warehouse?

A few weeks ago, I attended an evening service at a southern California church that shall remain nameless. Its name doesn’t matter, because churches like this are a dime a dozen around here. The worship service convened in a mammoth rectangular building that was some sort of converted warehouse or light-industrial complex. It was like one long, ugly wedding banquet hall, jazzed up with stage lighting, several huge jumbo-tron screens, and, well, not much else that I can remember.

Don’t get me wrong. The service itself was great, and the band was great. God was there; it was a church.

But I found myself extremely distracted by the enormity and bland ugliness of the building I was supposed to be reverent and pious in. It was like trying to have a moment with God in CostCo or the huge storage section of IKEA. It was not impossible in this environment to get into the reverential mode; but it was certainly not easy.

I wondered: am I alone in feeling like we are missing something here? Why are evangelicals so unconcerned with a church building that is aesthetically pleasing? What happened to the Christian commitment to build beautiful cathedrals and sacred spaces that architects 1000 years from now will look back upon for inspiration?

Meanwhile, I had just read this article on Out of Ur blog, describing the results of a poll that asked non-Christians what sort of church architecture was most appealing to them. The results found that most unchurched adults preferred the gothic look, with the white-steeple-and-pillar exterior coming in second. In last place was the more contemporary office/warehouse aesthetic.

And yet, how many churches are bothering with gothic arches anymore? Or steeples? Or anything architecturally daring? Answer: next to none. Pastors today seem to think that money spent on “extravagant” building design is money wasted. It’s the old protestant thrift rearing it’s head again: the notion (unBibical, I would say) that “superfluity” or “needless adornment” is somehow a sin.

Don’t we serve a God of abundance? Isn’t he the God who gave the Israelites some pretty elaborate—some might say superfluous—instruction on building the tabernacle? (Even while they were wandering the desert, scared and hungry.) I mean, just look at his instructions for how he wanted them to build the lampstand:

“Make a lampstand of pure gold and hammer it out, base and shaft; its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms shall be of one piece with it. Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand—three on one side and three on the other. Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand.And on the lampstand there are to be four cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms. One bud shall be under the first pair of branches extending from the lampstand, a second bud under the second pair, and a third bud under the third pair—six branches in all. The buds and branches shall all be of one piece with the lampstand, hammered out of pure gold. (Exodus 25: 31-36).

Can you imagine the reaction of a pastor today who would get that instruction? They’d be like, “can’t we just buy a lampstand at Kohl’s?”

The point is, we serve a God who does not seem to be offended when we are a tad superfluous in our resources—IF it is in worship of him. He didn’t seem to mind when the sinful woman washed his feet with expensive perfume, after all.

So why don’t we take the money we have and make some beautiful buildings again? Why don’t we hire Richard Meier to design a church like this for our next building project?

Yeah, it’s a risky proposition; yes, it’s too much money. But everything we spend money on is a risk. Why not invest in beauty for a change?

Hipsters Getting Married

I saw Rachel Getting Married over the weekend, and really enjoyed it. It features a performance by Anne Hathaway that more than meets its billing, as well as some remarkable supporting performances from Debra Winger and Rosemarie DeWitt (in the title role). The movie is artfully made and certainly Jonathan Demme’s best directorial effort since Silence of the Lambs.

But the thing I like most about this movie is its commitment to hipster realism. It has an almost ethnographic-like attention to the details and culture of hipster, which I—as a person who is currently writing a book about hipsters—readily appreciated.

The movie is about a wedding—the marriage between Rachel (a pasty white woman in her early thirties) and Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), who is black and an uber-hip musician. As the film’s wedding weekend unfolds, the two families mix and mingle like one big happy hipster reunion, with no racial unease to be found. Race is never acknowledged in the film, nor is it ever hinted at that this wedding is in any way stylistically unorthodox.

The wedding is India-themed, in part and parcel. The bride and bridesmaids wear saris and the groom and groomsmen wear kurtas, and there is a sitar player. Oh, and the cake is in the shape of an Indian elephant. The rest of the wedding is a diverse hodge-podge of other cultures and traditions, with eclectic backyard decorations, red meat on the Barbie for food, and a wild assortment of music/dancing all through the night.

The music is really where the film hits the nail on the hipster head. It is eclectic with a capital E. Dozens of Sidney’s bohemian musician friends are bumming around the house during the entire wedding weekend, jamming to jazz and folk and whatever they feel like. A drums-and-guitar emo punk plays a Hendrix-style wedding processional. Sidney sings Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” for his wedding vow. There is hip hop, an African drum collective, a jazz trumpeter, and an androgynous DJ for everything in between. And that’s only what I can remember.

In the N.Y. Times, A.O. Scott lauded the way that Rachel “gathers races, traditions and generations in a pleasing display of genteel multiculturalism,” all the while painting a “faithful and affectionate” picture of blue-state America. It’s an apt description, certainly, but I would substitute “blue-state America” with “hipster-state America.”

The people partying with gleeful, postmodern abandon (when they are not embroiled in family drama and emotional catharsis) are the very essence of hipsterdom today. It’s about pastiche, de-contextualized pop commodities, “subversive” stylistic fusion, and non-committal, consumer-oriented multiculturalism.

The whole thing reminded me of this article I read recently on PopMatters.com, in which Erik Hinton writes this:

The rise of the hipster signals our waning ability to experience the other. The world at large is quickly losing touch with alterity. As a result, we are losing the capacity to create meaning. The shallow virtual reality of hipsterdom—the world remade as simply an empty aggregate of trendy bands and silly clothing—is merely the first indication of this.

Hinton goes on to point out, quite correctly, that the hipster’s tendency to collapse and collect bits and pieces of all culture and boil it up in one “totally unique” persona stew, ultimately creates a void of meaning wherein cultural distinction and difference is lost. For example, as hipsters become more and more identified by the styles and tastes they accumulate, they lose their own sense of identity. “Who am I?” gets lost in the more pressing hipster question: “what bands, brands, and quirky styles do I like?”

As Hinton continues:

…our lists of particulars become the whole of our personalities. This is why we see that kid at parties dressed like Hunter S. Thompson and break-dancing with gold chains around his neck, the girl reading Byron, wearing a Siouxsie T-shirt and hanging out at the bike shop… The hipster is no more than a conscious manipulation of the freedom to live these piecemeal identities, comfortable in the awareness that identity can be constructed out of any bands, clothing, cheap, regionally esoteric beer, and inane micro-fiction that pleases. The hipster is a pastiche of old and new culture, free from the limits of meaning or the constraints of authentic identity.

Given this, it is appropriate, I think, that the characters in Rachel (with the exception of the three aforementioned female leads) seemed rather hard to pin down. They were gloriously complicated in a hipster/stylized/quirky-is-good sort of way, but I didn’t get a real definite sense of who they really were.

Which is the problem of hipsterdom in general: there is an ironic loss of unique identity (alterity, difference, etc) in the all-consuming desire to fashion a “unique,” rebellious identity. It’s about getting lost in style and subversion, and forgetting that skinny jeans and Parliament cigarettes can only go so far in setting us apart.

Religulous: Outrageously Innocuous

Bill Maher’s new “I hate religion” agit-prop indulgence, Religulous, is appreciatively passionate and occasionally funny, but all things considered, it’s a rather trifling little film.

There are numerous things to be said about it (both praises and criticisms), and you can find some of them in my 2 star review of the film for Christianity Today.

My reaction was not exactly what I—or Bill Maher—expected. I assumed that I would leave the film totally offended and perhaps a bit distraught. Maher no doubt was banking on me (i.e. the average person of committed religious faith) having a reaction like that.

But after seeing Religulous, I didn’t have much of a strong reaction at all. Maybe it’s because I’d seen all of this stuff before. Maher’s film merely pulls up all the worst, most unrepresentative spokespersons of these faiths. And that is nothing new. Jesus Camp did this in 2006; the “what is Pat Robertson saying this time” media does it on a daily basis.

Religulous is offensive, yes, but not in the sense that Maher hopes it will be. It insults the audience’s intelligence not only because it tells them they are dumb to believe in a deity, but because it assumes—counter to all statistics—that large portions of the potential viewing audience agree. Maher’s film presents an achingly narrow view—the view that religions are all dumb and religious people all stupid—and it doesn’t seem to recognize just how marginal such a position really is.

Bill Maher lives in a bubble if he thinks that there are many people in the world who share his opinion that “religion is the most dangerous threat facing humanity.” He seems ignorant (perhaps willfully) of the fact that most of the smartest people in history have been religious, and that most reform movements and humanitarian aid has had religious origins.

Ultimately, this is why Religulous is so disappointing. It is too wrapped up in itself, too out-of-touch, to have anything to say to anybody. It can be cute, and funny (and frequently is), but it’s not important. It’s intellectually boring. And for a movie so devotedly about a “call to arms” against religion, intellectually boring is the last thing you want to be.

Lest you think I’m uniquely harsh on the film, here is what some other critics are saying:

Kenneth Turan, L.A. Times: “Because [Maher] wants to be amusing above all else, he takes his questions not to sober religious thinkers but to the assorted fruits and nuts that populate the fringes of religion just as they do the fringes of atheism. The humor he creates at their expense proves nothing except that dealing from a stacked deck benefits no one but the dealer.”

Rafer Guzman, Newsday: “It’s a nasty, condescending, small-minded film, self-amused and ultimately self-defeating. Its only accomplishment is to make atheists look bad.”

Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter: “The problem, if you’re going to take Maher’s inquiry seriously, is whom he chooses to question and where he chooses to go. For the most part, he verbally jousts with evangelical charlatans and redneck whack jobs… Maher doesn’t risk questioning a learned theologian.”

Friday Night Lights is Back!

It’s true (at least for those of us who have DirecTV!). Television’s most undervalued show began its third season last night on the 101 channel on DirecTV. Fear not, it will be on NBC as well… just not until sometime in early 2009. I admit it: I pretty much bought DirecTV so I could watch the first run of FNL’s new season. That’s how much I like this show.

The season premiere last night picked up about 9 months after season 2 abruptly ended (curse you, WGA strike!), with the Dillon Panthers beginning a new season of football and Tami Taylor (the wonderful Connie Britton) assuming the role of principal of Dillon High. What a smart move on the part of the writers! Put Tami even more front and center. She is the best asset of a uniformly outstanding cast.

I won’t go into any other plot details (for those who want to wait and experience it fresh on NBC in a few months), but I will say that it looks to be more of a “back to basics” season, which is welcome after last season’s slightly off-kilter melodrama (murder! Cover-up!). After all, this show—unlike most other hour-long dramas on TV—is not about plot twists and cliffhangers. Its greatness comes from how mundane it is—how it captures subtle beauty in the everyday occurrences of this sleepy little Texas town.

And whereas TV’s other great drama (Mad Men) can sometimes feel too nihilistic for its own good, FNL is guardedly optimistic about life. It finds the goodness in its characters and roots for them to fight off their personal demons. Other shows seem to take devious pleasure in documenting their characters’ downfalls; FNL acknowledges that yes, sometimes we are our own worst enemies, but the real drama in life is not when we fall—but when we gradually get up again, with the help of our loved ones and community.

And ultimately, Friday Night Lights is about community. The show is remarkably in tune with the mythos of American small town life (in a respectful, rather than condescending, manner). Every time I watch it I feel like I’m back in Oklahoma, fifteen years ago, when I was a kid at the local high school’s Friday night football games. It reminds me of the sorts of towns I grew up in, which maybe explains why I’m such a huge fan.

But I also think anyone can relate to the show. The family dynamics of the Taylor clan are enough to hook anyone with a soul. If you haven’t already, please watch Season 1 on DVD. You’ll see what I–and pretty much every other American critic–is going on and on about.