Monthly Archives: June 2009

Best Films of the First Half

There are many reasons to be excited about the newly expanded field of ten best picture Oscar nominees. Among them is the distinct possibility that some films released in the first half of the year might actually get some best picture love. Imagine that! First half releases usually get little in the way of awards recognition.

This year has already seen some very quality films, though my picks are maybe not on the radar (or even available to see) for most people. Alas, they are great films that you should try to see, and chances are some of them will make my top ten list come December (my top two picks from last year’s midyear list ended up making the year-end list).

5) The Brothers Bloom – (from my review): “The Brothers Bloom is a film that is from start to finish adamantly unreal. It exists in a magical story world where heiresses can juggle chainsaws and con men spend their time playing shuffleboard on 1920s-style yachts. But it’s also a film in which people are shown loving each other, laughing, and doing a Bolero dance under the moonlight. It’s a film with beautiful oceans, sunsets, and epiphanies. That is, it’s a film with a good deal of truth.”

4) Goodbye Solo – (from my review): “It’s a film of remarkable restraint and subtle suggestion, where so many “points” aren’t hammered home as much as they are delicately positioned for us to coax them into place. It’s a rare film in the way that it knocks you down without ever having to so much as blow in your direction.”

3) Silent Light – Carlos Reygadas’ masterful, elemental, and largely silent film about Mennonite infidelity in Northern Mexico is one of the most stunning, surprising films I’ve seen in a long time.

2) Munyurangabo – A film about the effects of genocide, tragedy, and war… but also about friendship and renewal and the life-giving purity of nature. It’s tender, mysterious, quiet, and one of the best films about Africa I’ve ever seen.

1) Summer Hours – (from my review): “Summer Hours is about the beauty and meaning of objects. It raises interesting, profound questions about why we treasure certain things and what gives a vase or desk or painting “value.” … But the film is also about life, and how it is so much more than objects and mementos and the bric-a-brac of our everyday accumulations. It’s about the hours we spend with our families, running around on a summer evening in a forest or field, sipping wine or eating quiche. It’s about the love and passion and sadness we share.”

Death And All His Friends

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In what will no doubt be weeks of upcoming news coverage, tributes, memorials and TV specials chronicling the life and death of Michael Jackson, the point will likely be made that Michael Jackson died the same day as Farrah Fawcett and just two days after Ed McMahon. “We can’t forget Farrah and Ed,” people will say. But invariably, the immense, wall-to-wall coverage of Jackson will overshadow the other two, and history will forget that these three important twentieth century icons died in the same city in the same few days in June.

This sort of thing happens all the time—one famous person’s death being overshadowed by someone more famous. Remember when Mother Teresa died? Probably not, because she died 6 days after Princess Diana died, while the world was totally preoccupied with the fanfare and memorials for Diana, who was the much bigger “star.”

And one of the biggest celebrity deaths for anyone who was alive at that point in history was certainly the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Everyone remembers where they were when Kennedy died, just like people probably remember where they were when Princess Diana died and will likely recall where they were today, when the King of Pop died. But few people remember that the day Kennedy died—November 22, 1963—was also the day that C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley died, important British authors who quietly passed into history as page two news behind the front page coverage of the dead American president.

Is it unfair? Can spotlights be stolen even in death? Why is one person’s death more “newsworthy” than anyone else’s?

As I’ve been thinking of death today, I’ve thought a lot about these questions. Michael Jackson was the most famous person in the world, but is his death more tragic than the death of, say, the homeless person who died just down the street earlier in the day? Is Farrah Fawcett’s death more tragic than that of Neda, the girl whose violent death in Iran we all saw on YouTube earlier this week? Is Ed McMahon’s death more significant than the death of my grandfather? For me, the answer is clear. Grandpa’s death is more significant. But aside from personal feelings or subjective emotions, are some lives more important or valuable than others?

What is the value of any given life as compared to any other life? Should the world mourn more for the death of a superstar than for an average Joe? I don’t really think so. A life is a life. It’s a precious, miraculous thing, and every death is a horrible, tragic occurrence.

A friend of mine has been mourning the sudden, unexpected death of a close friend who died earlier this week. I didn’t know the person who died, but I know my friend and I mourn alongside him. Every death is harder to deal with for those closest to the dead, but every life extinguished is—in the end—equally tragic. My friend’s friend, the people on the train in Washington D.C., the faces dotting the obituary newspapers today, and every other person in the world who this very minute is taking their last breath.

It’s all tragic.

Said C.S. Lewis, who always recognized the “more than this world” miracle of life: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

Interview With a Christian Hipster Icon: Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne is someone I’ve been following for quite some time—someone who I greatly admire and who I believe is an important, prophetic voice for the church today. If you’ve read his books or heard him speak, you know how provocative and compelling and fascinating he is. In my book on Christian hipster culture, Shane gets more than a few paragraphs mention.

I recently had the chance to interview Shane as an online feature to go along with the cover story for the latest Biola Magazine. You can read the interview by clicking here, but here is a little excerpt:

BM: One of the things you often talk about is how we should live simpler lives and consume less. As Christians, what are some ways that we can live more simply?

SC: There are really concrete things we can do. For example, we can fast in some way – in a way that allows us to identify with poverty and the groaning in the world. We can fast from the things that clutter and complicate our lives, things that we think are necessities but for the rest of the world are really luxuries.

I don’t really believe it’s a call to ascetism out of guilt but rather the call to live life to the fullest, as John 10:10 says. It’s a call that not only brings life to the poor and is a sensible way of living, but it also brings us to life. We’ve chosen patterns of living so that even though we are the wealthiest country in the world, we have some of the highest rates of loneliness and depression and medication. We’ve really lost community and the things that are the deepest hungers of our heart. And in order to remember those things, I think we need to cut away the chaff. We can learn to carpool, or grow our own food, or share our possessions like the early church did. We may be rediscovering this by necessity these days. I’m excited because I see folks saying, “Hey, not everyone needs a washer and dryer. Why don’t we share it with a few families? Why don’t we share a car together? Why don’t we have one lawnmower that our cul-de-sac uses?” I think all those are great steps, and ultimately what you discover is that it’s fantastic to free yourself from this compartmentalized existence where you don’t know your neighbors and think you don’t need anybody else. (read more)

Shane is a super earnest, likeable guy, and though his dreadlocked, homemade-tunic appearance can be off-putting, he’s one of the nicest and most respectable voices of his generation. His passion and commitment to living an unorthodox, counter-cultural life seems to be genuine, and he is the first to say that he is neither cool nor a hipster. He writes in The Irresistible Revolution that his coolness was ruined by “a God who has everything backward,” and that “you don’t get crucified for being cool; you get crucified for living radically different from the norms of all that is cool in the world.”

But this statement is a little paradoxical, because the types of things Claiborne does—serving the poor, fighting consumerism, being green and opposing the Iraq war, etc.—are in fact very cool these days. The “norms of all that is cool” from which he rebels are actually totally uncool commodities of the establishment. So though he is acting very earnestly in his desire to appear uncool, Claiborne is nevertheless inescapably hip. But it’s all good.

That he actively shuns the label only makes him cooler.

Away We Go

I like Dave Eggers, and I really liked A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But there were times in reading that book when I was like, “okay, I get it: your family is screwed up, life if a torrent of never-ending hassles and wonders and beauties and tragedies. Point established. Welcome to the world.”

Similarly, although I love the films of Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road), I occasionally want to take him by the shoulders and say, “Sam, we all know that marriage is hard and suburbia is a wasteland and America is a cesspool of depravity beneath white picket fence veneers. Duh! Now stop banging me over the head with it and just give me more of those plastic bag moments of truth!”

In their first collaboration, Away We Go, Eggers (writer) and Mendes (director) indulge the worst parts of their middle class, quirky, wannabe subversive creative instincts. It’s a movie that ends up being mildly entertaining and at times quite moving, but on the whole a pretty contrived bit of “been there done that” generational angst.

We’ve all seen Garden State; we’ve all seen Little Miss Sunshine. By now the formula for these sorts of artsy, American, “we’re young and we don’t know who we are or where home is!” films is pretty well established. Away We Go adds and subtracts to the formula only in the smallest of ways (i.e. rather than a multitude of obscure indie rockers on the soundtrack, there is only one: Scottish singer/songwriter Alexi Murdoch). For the most part, the film is a mélange of hipster movie conventions and retread emotional epiphanies, which would be fine and dandy if not for the nauseating self-importance oozing out of every pore of this film. It’s a fairly good film made extremely annoying because it thinks it is saying something more important than it is.

As a film about quirky encounters with strange bit characters played by great actors (like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Catherine O’Hara, Allison Janney, Chris Messina), Away We Go is funny and interesting. But as a film about a thirtysomething couple struggling to figure out their place in the world and ultimately forced to “define home on their own terms,” Away We Go is boring and overwrought.

Maybe I’ve sold out to the man, or maybe I’m just tired of traveling, but the whole “what is home? The road is my only truth” hipster movie genre doesn’t hold the traction it once did. Sure, there is truth in the representation of this sort of generational discontent and unsettled spirit. But there always has been. It’s nothing new.

And in a world where people our age are dying for speaking out against corruption and injustice (Iran), or just dying from starvation or disease (most of the developing world), this whole “my American life is so damn tough” complaint seems all the more extraneous.

At the end of the day, the question of whether a thirtysomething yuppie couple should raise their unborn child in Tucson, Montreal, or Miami is a remarkably trivial sort of question. Rest assured: there will be Starbucks, used bookstores and organic food grocers wherever they end up. They’ll still have their Macbooks and iPhones and moleskin notebooks. They might not have white picket fence happiness, but they’ll have a stable roof over their heads and a consistently stocked fridge, which is more than can be said for most people in the world.

Sam Mendes and Dave Eggers are poetic bards of middle class malaise and passive-aggressive domestic drama. That is for sure. Sometimes it can be brilliant and substantial, but sometimes (in the case of Away We Go) it can be a little bit grating and comically self-serious. The world is a hard place; living isn’t easy; family, love, and home are sometimes hard to come by. Everyone knows and experiences this daily. Is it too much to ask that we start making films that go a bit beyond these hackneyed and overplayed existential acknowledgements?

An Early Summer Arcade Fire Reverie

I always think of memories in terms of seasons. For example, when it’s Christmas, I’m most prone to reflect back on all my favorite Christmas memories. When it’s the first cold day of Autumn, I think about all things Autumnal.

And so it is now, in these first few days of summer. I’ve been thinking back to “early summer” memories like Vacation Bible School, camping trips, mowing the grass twice a week, Memorial Day barbecues, the cold water of early summer pool swimming, seeing Coldplay at Red Rocks in 2003, driving up the Pacific Coast Highway with my parents last June, seeing Jurassic Park one humid afternoon in 1993 after a morning at Bill Self’s basketball camp. And the list goes on.

After reading this amazing post by my friend Laurel, I was pleasantly reminded this week of another early summer memory: seeing Arcade Fire open for David Byrne at the Hollywood Bowl in June 2005.

The concert was amazing. I was with my best friend Ryan, and the two of us had just driven out to California all the way from Chicago for a summer internship in Redlands. We’d also just finished college, and the future was scary and exciting. We were at the Hollywood Bowl listening to Arcade Fire, whose music somehow captured everything about who we were at that moment in time.

We were drinking red wine and some sort of fancy cheese that we’d picked up at Trader Joes. Our friend Tracy was with us—a new friend from work. There were hipsters everywhere. In a month we would be in England.

It was four years ago this month. And so much has happened since then. It’s strange to think I’ve been out of college (undergrad) longer than I was in it. But that night of listening to Arcade Fire at the Bowl remains so clear in my memory, as if it were yesterday.

Here’s a bit of Laurel’s description of the same concert experience:

In the summer after I graduated college, I saw the Arcade Fire perform for the first time… I was full of defiant optimism, at once terrified and yet determined to take this thing called Life and turn it on its head, to beat it into submission. I had yet to work three jobs – three corporate jobs that would eventually leave me for lack of any better term, dazed and utterly confused. I had yet to watch social groups fracture and filigree and form messy veins that skittered across a map of the U.S. and beyond. I had yet to experience loss of any real kind, and I’d certainly yet to sacrifice a third of my paycheck to any government I refused to pledge allegiance to at the time. In other words, I was a real asshat, brimming to the gills with youthful insouciance and I certainly had never been told, “Hey, kid, simmer down. Your self-righteous can-do spirit is on a rampage and it’s headed straight for my patience.”

But that’s the joy of it all! That can-do spirit went and did it and that night at the show, I wanted to jump out of my skin and conquer the world right then and there. And the thing about the Arcade Fire is that you get the sense that Winn Butler & the gang are right there with you, all muscular energy and visceral, blistering pronouncements. In solidarity you spit out the lyrics, fists beating the fevered night air. In revolt you get your body moving, get your hips swaying to that insurgent sound and you really feel like you can take on the world. All the media, the marketing, the agency big-wigs, the monolithic corporate structures – all of it! Piecemeal! Easily bested! “Now here’s the moon, it’s all right (lies! lies!), and every time you close your eyes (lies! lies!)” … (read more)

It was interesting reading this account of the Arcade Fire concert and resonating with so much of it. These were not my memories, but I remember feeling similar things. And I would guess that hundreds of other twentysomethings who were at that show would look back on that event with likeminded thoughts. Funny that four years later, I’m friends with some of those strangers who were in that massive amphitheater that early summer evening. Funny that four years later, Arcade Fire has released only one more album. Funny that I distinctly remember the look of certain hipsters at that concert four years ago, and now I’m writing a book about hipsterdom.

Ah, June. It’s right in the middle of every painful, passing year. But it’s an idealistic month.

Summer Hours

Having just come back from France, and needing desperately to get the bad taste of Antichrist out of my mouth, I went to see Summer Hours over the weekend—a French film directed by Oliver Assayas and starring Juliette Binoche and Jeremie Renier. It was just what the doctor ordered, and more. Summer Hours was two summer hours of pure cinematic bliss, a film I have no hesitation calling a masterpiece and perhaps the best film of the year so far.

The film—as its title implies—is about time. The passage of it. The joy and tragedy of living temporally.

The plot of the film is gloriously simple. It’s about a French family dealing with the death of its matriarch. The film opens with a joyful summer scene at one of those storybook country houses in rural France. The whole family has gathered here for a reunion and celebration of grandmother Helene’s (Edith Scob) 75th birthday. As the children and grandchildren gradually disperse and go their separate ways at the conclusion of the festivities, Helene is left alone with the sadness of a once-again empty house and a feeling that her days are numbered. And indeed, within the year she is dead.

After Helene’s passing, her three children return to the house in France to consider the fate of the estate. Will they keep or sell the house? And what of the esteemed art collection and museum-quality pieces that are in the house? Will they stay in the family or be sold off to collectors and museums? Quickly, sadly, and all-too-realistically, the siblings decide that they need cash more than antiques. They sell the house and go about the business of selling off their families prized possessions.

The majority of the film is an observance—a quiet, curious, melancholy observance—of the minutiae and business of getting the estate sold off. It’s about the process of tidying up affairs after a death. It’s about moving on and clearing the way for the next phase of life. It’s about our entrances and exits and the ambivalent banality of it all.

I think one of the reasons this film affected me so much is that my own grandmother’s house—the house my mother and uncles were raised in and the house I grew up visiting—was recently sold and all of its furniture and belongings dolled out among the children and grandchildren. My grandmother was put in a nursing home and her whole material life was left behind and now liquidated. It’s a terribly sad thing, to realize that something so spirited and alive as a house could so quickly turn into a lifeless relic or alien structure with new tenants. It’s so weird to see a material history evaporate with a few handshakes, pen strokes, and an interchange of documents. But so is life: it’s all so very evanescent.

Summer Hours is about the beauty and meaning of objects. It raises interesting, profound questions about why we treasure certain things and what gives a vase or desk or painting “value.” Is it the story behind it, or the way we use it? Is it the beauty and craftsmanship of the thing itself? Is a vase designed by a famous master more “alive” in a museum or in a rural cottage with a bouquet of flowers sticking out of it?

But the film is also about life, and how it is so much more than objects and mementos and the bric-a-brac of our everyday accumulations. It’s about the hours we spend with our families, running around on a summer evening in a forest or field, sipping wine or eating quiche. It’s about the love and passion and sadness we share.

The house at the center of Summer Hours is an impressive structure and perhaps the most important character in the film. It’s the one constant—and there is a decidedly ghostly quality to the way that it transitions from a bustling center of family and furniture to an empty re-booted tabula rasa, ready for the next family to move in. If these walls could talk, what would they say? Summer Hours mulls this question but easily concludes that, in the end, walls and objects cannot talk. Their meaning is derived only and ever through the experiences of people who use them and see them in different ways and for different reasons.

There is a major gulf between humans and objects, and it has to do with time. The former decays far more rapidly than the latter. People almost always die sooner than their accumulated, material lives. Our footprints and letters and blankets and beds will long outlive us, though they will frequently move on and forget they ever accompanied us for a time. And this is the film’s most beautiful and heartbreaking realization—that humans are mostly just passing through, ruffling up the earth and fabrics and rocks and trees for a time, but then passing the torch to the next generation. It’s not a good or bad thing. Like the unchangeable persistence of time, it’s just the way that it is.

My Interview With Lee Isaac Chung

In the next couple of weeks, I will be posting my “Best Films of the First Half” list, just as I did last year. High on the list will no doubt be Munyurangabo, a fictional film about post-genocide Rwanda that I saw at the City of Angels Film Festival earlier this year and which totally blew me away (watch the trailer here). I met the film’s director, Lee Isaac Chung, after the screening and later had an in-depth interview with him for Christianity Today. You can read that interview here.

The background of the film is fascinating. In the summer of 2006, Chung went to Rwanda as a volunteer with Youth With a Mission (YWAM), the Christian ministry that his wife Valerie worked for. Chung and Valerie, who had a background in art therapy, decided that their best gift to Rwanda’s youth would be to help them use art to work through the traumas and horrors they’d been through in the 1994 genocide. Chung, who studied film at the University of Utah, wanted to teach filmmaking and allow the kids to tell their own stories, “to let the culture speak for itself.” The result of that summer filmmaking class was Munyurangabo.

But Munyurangabo has since become much more than a class project. The film played at many of the world’s top festivals in 2007 and 2008, including Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, London, and New York. It won the grand jury prize at the AFI Festival in 2008, and has been thoroughly praised by critics. Variety‘s Robert Koehler described it as an “astonishing and thoroughly masterful debut … the finest and truest film yet on the moral and emotional repercussions of the 15-year-old genocide that wracked Rwanda.”

Here are what some other critics have said of the film:

“an intermittently lyrical and genuinely affecting work that at times even emits the shock of the new.” -Elbert Venture, indieWIRE

“Unlike Terry George’s earnestly melodramatic ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ Mr Chung’s film, the first narrative feature in the Kinyarwandan language, leaves the violence off screen and in the past. But the enormity of the 1994 massacres – during which at least 800,000 Tutsis and dissident Hutus were killed, many by their own neighbors acting on the orders of the Hutu nationalist government – is if anything underscored by the absence of graphic physical evidence.” -A.O. Scott, The New York Times

“Among the most remarkable aspects of the film is its total lack of condescension—none of the Noble American putting things straight for the ignorant natives. One would never guess, without prior knowledge, that the film was the work of an outsider. Chung, one might say, has given it to the people of Rwanda, allowing them their voices without intervention—that, certainly, is the impression the film gives, even as its complex narrative structure suggests otherwise.” -Robin Wood, Film Comment

“It‘s the film’s emotional closeness to these two young men, communicated both via cinematographic proximity as well as the narrative’s concentration on their tormented condition, that leaves a gut-wrenching impression, with the sight of their hands and feet packing mud to be used to solidify a house’s crumbling wall, or a conversation in which the camera assumes the position of the listening party, providing a clear window into their beleaguered hearts and minds. Upon reaching his destination, Munyurangabo meets a man who recites (in a fierce single take) a from-the-gut poetic lament for the past and plea for the future. It’s a verse that leads Munyurangabo to question his vengeful aims, though as befitting a film so thoughtfully attuned to the country’s divisive personal and social conflicts, any measure of optimism is ultimately tempered by the understanding that, 14 years after the genocide’s end, Rwanda remains an open wound.” -Nick Schager, Slant