Monthly Archives: November 2008

Two Films for Thanksgiving

Thinking of going to a movie with the family this week? Here are two films you can and should say yes to: Australia and Slumdog Millionaire. Though they are not American movies, they are amazingly feel-good and epic in scope. I’d give each 4/4 stars.

Australia

This is a bish-boom-bang historical epic of the highest quality and entertainment value. Baz Lurhmann’s audacious ode to his country (though it ends up being more of an ode to American cinema circa WWII) has everything you’d ask for in a holiday film: action, romance, emotion, and eye candy for every possible type of moviegoer. Here’s an excerpt from my review of the film at Christianity Today:

The film’s epic scale, with horses and explosions and romantic kissing in the rain, summons the best spirits of the Hollywood studio system—the “dream factory” itself. What Moulin Rouge! did with late twentieth century pop music, Australia does with Hollywood historical epics. It’s an amalgam of such films as Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The African Queen, Out of Africa, even Titanic or Far & Away (which also starred Kidman). These are films of pure, dazzling escapism—vibrant, showy spectacles that are less about reality in the strict sense as reality in the idealized, dramatically lit and well-costumed sense.

Australia might strike some as a clichéd, overblown, sappy, messy blend of reality and artifice (i.e. the important commentary on Australia’s racial issues mixed with campy dialogue and subpar CGI cow stampedes). But I found it to be a pleasurable, invigorating mess. Like most of the great Hollywood epics, Australia isn’t perfect. It’s not high art… But cinema never had that heritage. It was always a medium for the masses, and came of age in a depression, when the masses needed it most. Australia is not a film for Australians as much as it is for the world, and it isn’t a history lesson. It’s an ode to a place (exotic to some, familiar to others), yes, but more than that, Australia is a state of mind: wonderment, grandeur, beauty, love, escape, hope.

I think it’s a film we need right now.

Read the full review here.

Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is the freshest, most unexpected film of the year. A British/Indian co-production (shot in India), this globo-Bollywood epic is, like Australia, a film both exotic and familiar. It is set in Mumbai but tells a story that is very rags-to-riches classic; it mixes pop-culture tidbits from east and west, with a heavily pomo/globalization aesthetic. There are M.I.A. songs on the soundtrack, and the plot is largely focused upon the Hindi version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, which is one of the Y2K-era’s biggest global media success stories.

The story is beautifully paced and tenderly told–a Dickens-esque chronicle of one boy from the slums of Mumbai who transcends his circumstances (with a lot of luck) and reaps the rewards of a humble, honest life. It’s also a love story, in the most cheerfully cliched sense (again, like Australia), and it’s all so wonderfully earnest. Not a shred of cynicism to be found.

If you’re skeptical about Bollywood or something with the word “Slumdog” in the title, don’t be. Go to this movie, and take the family. You’ll be glad you did.

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Saying No to Gay Marriage

The third and final installment of the What We Really Need Now is No” series.

I voted yes on California’s Proposition 8, and I’m sick of hearing that this somehow means that I’m an ignorant, bigoted hatemonger. I’m saddened that people assume that because I supported Prop 8, I hate or fear gay people, that somehow I want them to live without the rights that I enjoy.

My opposition to gay marriage has nothing to do with rights. I’m fine with gay couples receiving all the basic civil rights anyone else is guaranteed in this country.

No, I’m opposed to gay marriage because, well, because I think that it is a moral distortion and I cannot support it being affirmed as equally sacred as heterosexual marriage. I realize that “marriage” has taken a beating in our culture with divorce, infidelity, Britney Spears, etc… But marriage is still a sacrament that has throughout time been a religious rite of symbolizing the sacred merging of male and female. It is a slap in the face to orthodox views of morality to equate male-male, female-female with the traditional male-female union. I’m fine with gay couples getting civil unions, having the state recognize their commitment, etc. But I can’t bring myself to endorse church-sanctioned, “just like any other couple” gay marriage. It all comes down to the fact that I cannot affirm homosexuality as a right or pure expression of human sexuality.

Of course, this is the real heart of the matter for gay activists—the thing that has them screaming outside churches, harassing nuns, and sending white powdery substances in envelopes to the Mormon Church. They’re rebelling against the fact that there are people—52% of Californians, as it is—who do not affirm their lifestyle, at least in part. They are seething with anger not necessarily because any rights have been revoked, but because they perceive an attack and condemnation of their very existence in the passage of “Prop H8.”

Speaking for myself here, my vote for Prop 8 was not an attack on anything or anyone, and it certainly was no exercise in hate. I lament that it is perceived as such. It especially pains me when my gay friends perceive it as such. But I hope they understand where I’m coming from.

My support for Prop 8 was an affirmation of a principle I hold dear and will never apologize for: that wrong should never be called right, regardless of the sincerity or well-meaning of its practitioners.

Here will come the inevitable arguments that homosexuality is not a sin or is not wrong. You are welcome to think this, of course. But my moral system, as informed by orthodox Christian interpretations of Biblical teachings (as well as, frankly, my soul’s intuition), deems it as such—a sin—no more and no less than illicit heterosexual improprieties or pride or greed or gluttony are sins.

Is it not right to say no to the things one’s religion says is wrong? Would I not be making a mockery of my faith if I were to say, “well, because so many people are so sincerely and emotionally arguing that homosexuality is a valid lifestyle, I guess it can’t be wrong after all?” I wonder what the abolitionists would have to say about that type of reasoning? And yes, I did just go there.

Here’s the bottom line: it pains me to write something that sounds like a condemnation. But it’s not a condemnation. It’s an affirmation. In saying “no” to gay marriage I am really just saying yes to the moral system of restraint, discipline and piety that I believe is God’s best plan for humanity. I struggle with it in my own life, to be sure. It’s not easy. I’m no saint. I’m a child of the screwed up, fallen world as much as the next guy, as much as my gay neighbor or racist landlady. We are all unfortunately slogging through identities that have been marred and twisted and disordered by forces and circumstances often out of our control. But as much as it isn’t our fault that we have wrongheaded desires and unconscious impulses toward the wrong, we must nevertheless answer for them.

This may seem unjust, and yes, from our human perspective it sort of is. I can totally sympathize with feeling the dissonance between something that feels right or natural but that we are told is sinful or wrong. I understand and grieve with those who, because of abuse or damage done to them in their childhood, suffer from psychological issues today that they in no way chose or seek out. It is true that our environment, and often our parents or elders, screw us up. But that doesn’t mean that immorality is excused. It doesn’t mean that our damaged psyches can be normalized and accepted rather than redeemed. But they can be redeemed, thank God; but only when we deny that they define us. We must first orient ourselves upward, outward, and say no to our inward, narcissistic pull.

When I say no to gay marriage, I’m saying no to things in my own life, too. It’s an act of solidarity—this struggle to deny one’s self in service of a higher truth. But we’re all in it together. And I’ll let that be the last word.

The Upside of Legalism

Part 2 of the What We Really Need Now is No” series.

“No” is the new “Yes.”

Even with Obama’s “Yes we Can” battle cry (of which, in all seriousness, I’m a big fan), I think that our society is more in need of nos now than yeses. And I think they realize it.

Detroit needs to be told no, as do greedy banks on the verge of collapse. People with bad credit and no income seeking a loan need to hear it, as do fiscally irresponsible, tax-and-spend politicians. Little boys and girls screaming for this or that at the mall need a hearty N-O from their parents, as do I when I’m in the iTunes store, preparing to buy my third digital album of the week.

We need restraint. We need to be more disciplined. We need to rediscover the beauty of not getting things we want. We need to re-introduce ourselves to the ascetic life. We need to deny ourselves daily.

I grew up in conservative Southern Baptist churches that seemed to be all about legalism. There was an abundance of things that were forbidden for members of the church to partake in: drinking alcohol, smoking, gambling, having sex before marriage, watching too many R-rated movies, etc. At the time, it seemed so stupid and so unfair.

These days, there are tons of “cool” churches that allow all of the things I’ve listed above. Many of them show R-rated movies in church, have wine-tasting events for the college groups, and don’t say a harsh word when it comes to illicit sexual activities. Little if anything is forbidden, and only the happy, “love others” passages of scriptures are preached. The Gospels get emphasized a lot more than the Epistles, that’s for sure.

Obviously I am pointing out two extremes here: the hyper-legalistic and the hyper-permissive. Both are wrong, in my view. It is a shame that, in reacting against the former approach, the latter has gone so far in the other direction. I think we’ve lost a crucial aspect of Christianity in our efforts to purge it of the much-maligned “legalism.” We’ve lost the element of sacrifice. Christ called his followers to take up their cross, to identify with his suffering, to be living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to him.

And it’s not like this is a bad life. What we take as a renunciation of the worldly things we desire is really just a renunciation of the smallest, most unfulfilling part of existence. Lewis reminds us so beautifully in The Weight of Glory that it is not that our desires are too strong, it is that they are too weak—that we are far too easily pleased. In Christ, in focusing on being in him and abiding in the future glory he promises, we discover a higher longing that frames and illuminates everything else we thought we wanted.

The Christian life is a wonderful life because it requires some pretty serious “no” discipline but ultimately offers the greatest “yes” of all: an affirmation of our part in the kingdom and royal priesthood of God, the very maker of heaven and earth. In the face of God’s grace, our excuses and quibbles and struggles look pretty insignificant. As such, we should be more than happy to give up the pursuits, pleasures, and comforts we thought we wanted. God’s grace is sufficient, but it isn’t cheap.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarizes it nicely in The Cost of Discipleship:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has… It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

So what does this mean for Christians? It means that we can’t be cavalier with God’s grace. We can’t live wild, hedonistic lives in which the world’s pleasures and our own deeply felt, bent urges are in competition with the call of the Christian life. We have to say no to what is wrong and stand up for what is right. We have to be willing to discipline ourselves and each other; we have to be willing to be intolerant where it is appropriate. And yes, this goes against the grain. It isn’t popular to be intolerant. But ultimately, it’s better for humanity.

Some might say that rules, boundaries, and limitations are stifling. I say they’re liberating. When individual man is the measure of morality… that’s when it’s stifling.

The Return of the Pregnant Man

Part 1 of a three-part series: What We Really Need Now is “No”

Just when I had almost purged the memory from my mind, the “pregnant man” re-emerged in the pop culture zeitgeist, and reminded me (as if I needed reminding) that the world is on the brink of losing whatever shred of rational bearings it still has left.

The pregnant man. Oh, the pregnant man. “He” (aka Thomas Beatie, formerly Tracy Beatie) first made waves last spring when (s)he appeared on Oprah, with a beard and a pregnant belly. (S)he gave birth to a baby girl last summer, which (s)he plans to raise with his/her wife/lesbian, Nancy. To read about the sordid biological minutia of all this, just google “Thomas Beatie Pregnant Man.”

On Oprah, Beatie said that whether you are a man or a woman, you have the right to get pregnant and have a baby.

“I feel it’s not a male or female desire to have a child. It’s a human need. I’m a person and I have the right to have a biological child.”

Really? I mean … Really?? Even though it is physically impossible for a male to biologically get pregnant and have a baby, it is somehow still their right to do so?

Is it a right because you say it is a right? Does it follow that whatever one sincerely feels or desires deeply—whether to get pregnant as a man, or perhaps to marry a horse—that it is a “right”? Since when are rights derived from the fickle and variant desires of the individual? Personally, I sincerely, passionately desire that I be able to fly… but even if it became scientifically plausible, I would not ever consider it to be the right or natural thing to do. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should. Clearly, humans were not created to fly. Clearly, men were not created to give birth to babies.

It’s a very western, capitalistic notion, I think: this idea that it is our human right and prerogative to do and be whatever we want. To some extent, it is healthy to champion this “sky is the limit” mentality. But there have to be limits: clear, moral limits that necessarily rely on some sense of transcendent truth. Unbridled capitalism (I think we’d all agree) means trouble, just as a “buy and become whatever you desire” consumer mindset frequently winds up being damaging.

And the same goes for identity. Young generations in the industrialized west have grown up hearing from everyone that they can be whoever they want to be, that their identity is completely within their grasp and is definable by them and them alone. “You are special,” was the message we got from Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, teachers, parents, and presidents. “You can be whoever you want to be. Don’t let anyone or anything get in your way.”

And of course, when that is what a civilization preaches, it is only a matter of time (and science) before we get things like “the pregnant man.”

How far will we go in this “anything goes” free-for-all before we collectively recognize that there must be limits? We’ve set a moral course and precedent that relies on dangerous precepts—that something is permissible if 1) it is sincerely or passionately felt to be one’s “right,” 2) it doesn’t directly hurt anyone else, and 3) it is scientifically possible.

My sense is that younger generations will be the first to rebel against this “all is permissible” mindset. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are going to be (I think) the last generations to actively push this “you can and should do whatever you think is right” fallacy. In my experience, kids these days are fatigued by hearing “yes you can!” from every direction. They recognize the lack of authenticity and sustainability inherent in this overpopulated forest of yeses. They are desperately longing for limits, for someone—anyone—to tell them “No!” We’ve gone up the postmodern mountain and over the hump, and now (I think) we are cautiously coming down on the other side.

The Pinnacle of Unoriginality

We’ve always known that Christian music (like Christian movies, books, bracelets, t-shirts, etc) tends to be highly derivative of whatever is hip or trailblazing in secular culture. On average there is a 3-5 year gap before Christian pop coopts secular pop (though I think Plus One came sooner than that on the heels of the Y2K-era boy band craze). This delayed reaction creates enough distance that the mimicry remains mostly unnoticeable for the average short-attention-span consumer. But when something like THIS comes along–something so shockingly, unabashedly copycat–absolutely no one is fooled.

Behold: Third Day’s latest album cover, a shamefully direct clone of Radiohead’s classic album cover for Hail to the Thief.

What is there to say? Did Third Day really never see the Radiohead album cover before? Or did they just not have a problem ripping it off so directly?

Either way, it’s a sad commentary on the state of Christian music, which already has the stigma of being completely unoriginal.

Sigh.

Ballast

ballast

I knew from the trailer of this film that I would love it, and sure enough, I did. There is a moment in the trailer when the main character, James, is lying down with a dog, accompanied with the oft-trite words “life affirming” (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). In this case, the words could not be more appropriate. This film, in all of its squalor, destitution, and grim grayness, is an affirmation of life in all of its imperfect, painstaking glory.

Of course, the movie begins with death. One twin brother kills himself with pills, the other shoots himself in the chest. The latter survives. The film progresses from there—quietly, mysteriously, showing us the fallout of these opening events on the lives of a mother and son, and the suicide survivor Lawrence. We know little of the whos or whys about any of these people, just the whats. It’s a very phenomenological film—confronting us with the realities of things, eschewing a direct contemplation of their meanings.

It’s a very quiet, restrained film. There is no music, no non-diagetic sound. Sometimes all sound is removed for emphasis. The end credits are loudly silent. The camera-work is fluid and handheld, with lots of jump cuts and fragmentary editing, though none of it is pretentious or jarring. It’s beautifully shot, humanely and sympathetically focusing on Mississippi delta mud and puddles and sometimes faces and sunbeams.

But Ballast is more than just a stylistic exercise. It’s a story of how we pull our lives together and make things work, even when everything seems to be going against us. One definition of the word “ballast” is “something that gives stability (as in character or conduct).” And this film is about that. It’s about how unstable characters—each on the brink and about to fall over—manage to get their bearings and build back their lives.

Ballast is a beautiful picture of the durability and persistence of humanity. At first glance it looks like some sort of cruel examination of poor, hapless black people beat down by the system. It is that, in part, but there are no victims or villainous oppressors here, and there are no excuses. The characters are flawed, frustrated, but determined to somehow forge ahead.

I love how this film slowly moves toward hope. Two-thirds of the way through, we start seeing the sun for the first time. Toxic plotlines of the first half of the film (drugs, guns) are largely abandoned and forgotten in the second half. Director Lance Hammer doesn’t bother explaining why his characters make the decisions they make; he doesn’t have to. We already know. Ballast reveals truth about humanity in the way a telescope reminds us of the existence of stars; we never doubt its existence, we just forget how glorious it looks up close.

Why the Long Take?

I’m an unabashed supporter of the long take in cinema (i.e. excruciatingly unending shots), and I recently wrote about it for the new website Into the Hill:

The long take is, in my opinion, the most cinematic of all cinematic devices. It gets to the heart of what cinema is: a series of moving images that captures time as it happens. It has recently been used in gimmicky and show-offy ways (Children of Men, Atonement, etc), albeit to spectacular effect. But the long take is far more than just a tactic for the skillful filmmaker to use and exploit to wow his or her audience. No, the long take is the heart of cinema. Or, at least, it is the heart of cinema’s potential for the transcendent.

Read the rest of the essay here.