Monthly Archives: August 2009

Our Addiction to Public Communication

I wrote a new technology piece in Relevant magazine’s September/October issue, entitled “Short Attention Span Faith.” You can read the whole thing by clicking here, but here’s a short little excerpt:

Unsurprisingly, this frenzied, obsessive-compulsive proclivity toward being digital busybodies has deleterious effects on Christian disciplines like Bible study and prayer. How do we justify sitting down and praying for an hour when there are Hulu videos to browse, “What Ninja Turtle are you?” quizzes to take, and online “community” to cultivate? If we’re not wired, plugged-in, and communicating with the world at all times, it seems like such a waste of time…

…This is one of the biggest problems that must be reckoned with in the Twitter age: our ever diminishing inclination and/or ability to slow down and think thoroughly, deeply, and profoundly about anything. We speed through an article or web page in 60 seconds and pronounce it “read.” We see a blurb about our friend from high school’s weekend at the lake and pronounce the friendship “maintained.” But in this flurry of bite-sized narrative and dollar menu mediation, are we able to truly be self-aware? Can we consider things and know God and ourselves?

At the end of the day, it’s just hard for us to have interior thought lives anymore. It’s hard to keep anything to ourselves and be reflective just for ourselves. With Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and the quick-and-easy communication efficiency of cell phones, we’ve gotten used to the notion that anything worth saying can and should be shared with the digital community in real time. Any idea or thought worth having should be public. Everything is cooperative, collective, and wiki-oriented. When we sit alone and contemplate something that isn’t meant to be shared with the whole wide world, we almost don’t know what to do with ourselves.

I know this temptation all to well, as a writer/blogger who sometimes doesn’t value the “keep it to yourself” type of thinking. It’s so easy to say anything and everything to any and every one these days. It’s hard to keep thoughts, ideas, and rants to oneself when a huge audience is just a “publish” click away (I realize the irony that I’m blogging about this). Our culture has conditioned us to glory in attention and publicity and recognition; It’s only natural that we are increasingly finding it difficult to not live public lives. More and more, the defacto barometer of a well-lived life is not necessarily the quality or depth of our contribution to society but the breadth of it—the extent to which it is widely disseminated and known. It’s like the more Facebook friends or Twitter followers one has, the more actualized they are as a person.

What we communicate via these media platforms is not nearly as important as the fact that we have an audience, somewhere out there, listening or glimpsing into our lives. It affirms our existence, pats us on the existential back and sends us on our way, no better or worse off but for the few meaningless minutes or hours that we’ll never get back.

Could Woodstock Happen Again?

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the summer of 1969, which for most people is a “so what?” sort of thing, but to anyone who lived back then or (like me) obsesses about “The 60s” period of American history, it’s a big deal. They don’t make years like 1969 any more.

40 years ago this summer, a lot of big things happened. The Who released Tommy and Hurricane Camille killed 250 people in Mississippi and Louisiana. Star Trek aired its final episode and three American astronauts landed on the moon for the first time. The Manson family murdered 8 innocent people and Ted Kennedy (RIP) received a two-month suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of a fatal drowning accident in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts.

But the biggest thing (well, aside from putting a man on the moon) happened at the end of the summer, in White Lake, NY. On August 15-18, nearly 500,000 people gathered on a massive dairy farm for “three days of peace and music.” It was Woodstock: the music festival of all music festivals and the era-defining high water mark of the iconic 60s.

Last week I saw the new Ang Lee film, Taking Woodstock, and wrote a review for Christianity Today. Inspired by the film, I spent much of my weekend watching the 4-hour Woodstock director’s cut DVD—the 1970-released definitive documentary film about the legendary event. If you haven’t seen it, SEE IT. In terms of capturing a moment in time and a particular “spirit of the era,” there are hardly any better documentaries out there.

It just blows my mind to watch this and realize the magnitude of it—to see half a million young people pouring into this middle-of-nowhere farm for an event that was about the music, yes (Hendrix, Baez, Joplin, Cocker, Sly and the Family Stone, etc), but mostly about the scene. The moment. The drugs and freedom and peace and camaraderie. It was the climax of all things “counterculture” and an unparalleled expression of generational solidarity. The hippies were there, along with the SDS activists, the bra-burners, gay activists, yippies, performance artists, yoga gurus, shaman, Vietnam vets, suburban straights and everyone in between. How amazing that one event like Woodstock could mobilize such a wide swath of American youth and galvanize them in their rebellion and idealism?

Could anything like that bring together a crowd of 500,000 young people today? I sincerely doubt it.

The thing about Woodstock is that it was literally the culmination of decades of cultural change and political foment, a sort of final consequence/celebration of all that had been building and bubbling up as the relatively new youth culture came into its own and established itself in opposition to the dominant hegemonies and systems of accepted technocratic order.

When Jimi Hendrix performed his iconic electric guitar rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to the rapt throngs of muddied young Americans at Woodstock, it was the apotheosis of so much. In that moment was George Washington, Davy Crockett, manifest destiny, JFK, the GI Bill, Bob Dylan, “I have a dream,” Montgomery, Berkeley, Nixon, Hiroshima, Hanoi, Chicago ’68, Ozzie and Harriet, and Huckleberry Finn. It was the youth, adolescence, and future of an entire generation.

These youngsters had been born after the war and had grown up in the idyllic Howdy Doody era of optimism, consumerism and capitalistic excess. And like their Beatnik forbears, they were convinced that there was more to life than bureaucratic clones, Levittown suburbs and white picket fence perfection. They resonated with Ginsburg when he wrote:

Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch
whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch
whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch
whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen!
Moloch whose name is the Mind!

They resonated with Kerouac when he wrote, in On the Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…

As Theodore Roszak describes in The Making of a Counter Culture, the driving force of the youth culture’s rebellion in the 60s was a rejection of the “technocracy” that had come to define America in the post-war era—the massive bureaucracy that was ruled by experts who deified technology, rationalism, and science and trusted in mechanization and specialization to solve the world’s problems. In contradistinction to this, the young, emerging counterculture in the 60s was increasingly characterized by an elevation of the personal, subjective and experiential rather than the broad, objective or ideological.

Channeling countercultural pioneers like Emerson and Thoreau, and feeding upon current European Marxist and existentialist thought, the 60s hipsters were convinced that the impersonal technocratic regime was waging war on human joy, on the preciousness of life and consciousness. True to the eternal hipster spirit, the emphasis was on the individual, on private and personal experience. It was less about class-consciousness than it was about “consciousness consciousness”

It was a generational rebellion, the mobilization of a youth culture that was larger and more prosperous and better educated than any American generation prior. And the world was spinning out of control in the 60s, which galvanized these restless youth in their revolt. People were getting assassinated right and left (John F. and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X), the Vietnam War was increasingly unpopular, the fight for civil rights was at a tipping point, there were riots and protests all over the world, rock music was being born, and so on and so forth.

There was a lot going on, and, importantly, it was all coinciding with the heyday of mass culture. The news of the world was now everywhere, the trends proliferated, the horrors unshielded from the public eye. And it was all on a limited number of media channels. Everyone saw and experienced the same stuff. This made it possible for so many people of the same age to be on the same cultural and spiritual page. They’d all grown up in the same Campbell’s soup post-war America. They were all equally nervous about Vietnam.

These days, there is still a lot going on, but by now we are used to a constant barrage of shocking news and earth-shattering events. Nothing riles us up anymore. Plus, there are far too many channels with which to receive information. Everyone gets a different story. Our music and cultural tastes are infinitely more disparate than that of our parents’ generation. Everything about culture is personal and fragmented rather than public and cohesive. Aside from the YouTube viral video of the week, nothing is really shared anymore.

Something like Woodstock simply could not happen. 500,000 young people in this era would never be able to agree on a motivating cause, let alone a lineup of bands.

But that’s okay. It’s not like Woodstock changed much of anything anyway. Its lasting importance is mainly that of an American cultural artifact—a nostalgic celebration of a revolution that nearly happened but didn’t. That, and an amazing 4-hour concert DVD.

Meditations on Late Summer

The start of every summer is always so full of excitement—the promise of endless free time, lazy mornings, late nights, swimming in pools and oceans, climbing trees and mountains, reading books. Every year around late May, the summer looms so large. It seems so immense. Those endless days! Those boozy low-pressure thunderstorm nights! And so little that must be done!

I used to make “summer plans” every May when school ended: plans that including a list of books to read, projects to work on, relationships to pursue, etc. But invariably, most of these “plans” never really materialized. June would come and go, July would be a flurry of vacation, August would start and so would school. Soon it was football and marching band and getting the right calculator for math class. Pep rallies, bonfires, ever shortening sunlight. Summer a fading memory. Another year passing.

The students are slowing finding their way back to Biola’s campus these days. I work full time here so I’ve been on campus all summer, enjoying the quiet quad and near-empty cafeteria. But all that changes this week as another school year begins. Things will get lively again. The rhythms of work and study and discipline return. It’s definitely exciting. But it also means the summer is over.

At the start of this summer, way back in mid-May when school let out and graduates dispersed, I took a trip to England. I stayed for a while in C.S. Lewis’ house, The Kilns, in Oxford. I slept in each morning, summer-style. I wrote in the flowering gardens. I took walks to the pond on misty/cool afternoons. When I didn’t feel like writing, I read books that I found in the library. Everything Lewis ever wrote was there on the shelves, and some of it was new to me. I picked up a book of Lewis’ poetry one day, in which I came across this poem. I’m not sure when he wrote it or if it was ever published, but it sounds like he wrote it late in life. It captures a lot of what “late summer” means, I think:

Late Summer

I, dusty and bedraggled as I am,
Pestered with wasps and weed and making jam,
Blowzy and stale, my welcome long outstayed,
Proved false in every promise that I made,
At my beginning I believed, like you,
Something would come of all my green and blue.
Mortals remember, looking on the thing
I am, that I, even I, was once a spring.

There’s a lot of regret in those words, as in every August. The regret of things that never quite materialize, love that never happens the way you thought it would, barbecue experiments that go slightly awry.

Ah, the end of summer. It’s about change, aging, and looking back. Just ask Yasujiro Ozu, whose penultimate film was entitled The End of Summer and who, like C.S. Lewis, died in 1963. Or ask Rilke, whose poem “Autumn Day” evokes the late summer in its famous opening line: “Lord, it is time: The summer was immense.”

Indeed. It was immense. There is still sand in my suitcase. But it’s time to move on.

Inglourious Basterds

There are very few directors in the world who can imbue a dollop of cream and a plate of apple strudel with the sort of pulsating, vivacious energy that Quentin Tarantino can. And there are very few directors who can make twenty minutes of table talk as utterly engrossing and tension building as Tarantino can. But the Pulp Fiction auteur has a way of bringing to life the cinema in ways that hardly anyone else even attempts anymore. He doesn’t do it by using CGI or massive budgets. He does it by knowing how to tell a good story and how to tell it cinematically. And he does it by taking risks. He’s an utter master of the craft—a nerdy, fearless, movie nut genius who turns low art pop kitsch into masterful, luxurious moving picture epics. He’s like the Andy Warhol of the post-MTV, videogame era. And his new movie, Inglourious Basterds, might just be his masterpiece.

Tarantino, as you may already know, is a director who traffics in genre revisionism, pop pastiche, and all things irreverent, over-the-top, and anachronistic. Basterds is his “WWII epic” (mixing elements of war, spy, spaghetti western and noir genres), and it’s a film that looks and feels very much at home in his larger body of work. As such, you shouldn’t expect Saving Private Ryan. It’s not as honorable or sober as that film. But it’s no less profound.

Skeptics will dismiss Basterds as a too-far trivializing of a very serious topic (WWII, Nazis, the slaughter of Jews), but make no mistake: this film doesn’t take the subject matter lightly. Quite the contrary. Pay attention to Tarantino’s film (beneath all the ridiculous scalping and bashing of brains) and you’ll see a probing examination of the lasting emotional legacy of WWII. It’s a film about revenge and justice—familiar themes for Tarantino—and a cultural therapy session wherein the traumas of WWII are not debunked or demeaned but rather funneled into a piercing, explosive denouement that is equal parts catharsis and critique.

The end of this film, like the end of all Tarantino films, is a bloodbath. But it’s a bloodbath in the most respectable, glorious, Scorsese-esque sense of the word. It’s a bloodbath that feels almost purifying. Tarantino is an artist who knows how gore and bloodletting can service a film in an operatic, visceral (as opposed to desensitized), meaningful sense, and it’s never as meaningful as it is at the close of this film.

As in all of his films, Tarantino’s objective here is twofold. On one hand (and perhaps of primary import), he wants to make a wildly entertaining movie that indulges his fanboy fetishes and pop art proclivities. But on the other hand, he’s interested in making a point about what the cinema is—what it offers us that real life can’t (nonlinear storytelling, bird’s eye camera perspectives, and in this case, rewritten history and revenge catharsis), how we respond to it, and what its dangers are.

It’s not a coincidence that the final bloodbath scene takes place in a movie theater and features film-as-death imagery everywhere. Nor is it a coincidence that Eli Roth (mastermind of splatterfest movies like Hostel) plays one of the most vicious Nazi-hunting Jew protagonists (the baseball-bat armed “Bear Jew”). And in true form for Tarantino (who often has something subtle to say about race), I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a black man unexpectedly winds up being the biggest thorn in the Nazis’ side. You’ll recognize the scene I’m talking about when you see the film. But suffice it to say, it’s all very Gone With the Wind (incidentally, Josef Goebbels favorite film).

Tarantino’s attention to detail and uncanny ability to create memorable scenes ensures that Basterds will offer cinematic delights for repeat viewings for years to come. Tarantino’s movies are rich, artistic endeavors where every choice has his unique stamp on it, from the music to the vivid coloring to the unexpected casting (this is Tarantino’s best ensemble cast, I’d venture). Among the acting highlights in the film are Michael Fassbender as a demure British spy (with a slightly imperfect German accent), Christoph Waltz as the Austrian Nazi known as “The Jew Hunter” (perhaps Tarantino’s most delectably realized villain), Diane Kruger as 40s bombshell actress Bridget von Hammersmark, and Mélanie Laurent as heroine Shoshanna Dreyfus. And watch out for Mike Myers’ cameo. Tarantino employs his “Austin Powers British” skills in a brief scene that almost steals the whole movie.

My favorite scene in the film concerns a rendezvous of spies and “basterds” in the basement of a French tavern. It’s one of the best examples of Tarantino’s ability to build tension in a prolonged scene. For about 15 minutes, the characters are just talking, but the tension just builds and builds until the scene’s bloody, Reservoir Dogs-inspired climax (which lasts about 15 seconds). Everyone in the theater gasped and released nervous laughter when that scene ended—a sure sign that Tarantino accomplished what he intended to.

But really, the whole film is like this. The opening scene features a similar “rising tension while talking” motif, as do several scenes throughout the film (any scene featured Waltz’s “Jew Hunter,” for example). There isn’t a misstep in the whole grand affair, and it’s all so thoroughly entertaining and disarmingly cinematic. I haven’t even mentioned half of the great stuff in this film (Brad Pitt and his team of Nazi-hunters, for example), but I’ve said enough. This is an epic achievement and I daresay an essential addition to the canon of WWII film classics.

It Might Get Loud

My review of the new guitar documentary, It Might Get Loud, is posted at Christianity Today.

It’s a pretty interesting film and definitely fascinating for anyone who plays guitar or is interested in the history of rock music. The film focuses on Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White (pictured above).

Here’s a snippet of my review, where I talk about how The Edge is characterized in the film:

Born David Howell Evans, The Edge plays the part of the spiritual rocker. We see him doing yoga, playing his guitar (with amp) on a remote beach on the Irish Sea, and making philosophical remarks about how forests are a metaphor for guitar playing. Somewhere between Thoreau and Gandhi, The Edge uses his guitar in a distinctly otherworldly manner, meticulously employing the technologies and techniques at his disposal (effects modules, pedals, delay, reverb) to push sound to its outer limits. His glittering, patented sound crystallizes best in songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name,” which we are privileged to hear both in stadium concert form and when The Edge plays a four-track recording of the early demos of his iconic introductory guitar riff. Where other rock star guitarists might get caught up in the “scene” (groupies, drugs, bad fashion), the sleek, refined Edge comes across as a minimalist zenmaster, an all-business shaman who wants to get in the sound, exploring its contours and possibilities with scientific precision.

And here’s my take on Jack White’s persona in the film:

In stark contrast to The Edge (but no less fascinating) is Jack White, a Detroit-bred relative youngster whose explosive reinvention of garage rock (via Delta blues) catapulted him to fame alongside bandmate/ex-wife Meg White, who collectively make up The White Stripes. White is a hipster to the core, obsessed with all things old, vintage, and difficult, and prone to inventing obstacles and challenges for himself just because things shouldn’t be so easy in these here modern times. Where The Edge was about the sound and musicality of creation, Jack White is more taken with the materiality and lore of rock music. He loves handcrafted custom guitars, the gimmicky peppermint-painted aesthetic of his band (he and Meg only wear red, white or black), and the finger-bleeding “you have to pick a fight with the guitar” intensity of being a hard rocker. Always the contrarian, White also takes pleasure in confusing the press, Bob Dylan style. He’s managed to keep the false rumor alive, for example, that Meg White is actually his big sister—something he claims in the film. He is a great guitar talent, to be sure, but for Jack White the accoutrements of rock sometime seems more important than the actual music.

Read the rest of the review here.

A Brief Thought About Home

From Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful book, Home:

And here is the world, she thought, just as we left it. A hot white sky and a soft wind, a murmur among the trees, the treble rasp of a few cicadas. There were acorns in the road, some of them broken by passing cars. Chrysanthemums were coming into bloom. Yellowing squash vines swamped the vegetable gardens and tomato plants hung from their stakes, depleted with bearing. Another summer in Gilead. Gilead, dreaming out its curse of sameness, somnolence. How could anyone want to live here? That was the question they asked one another, out of their father’s hearing, when they came back from college, or from the world. Why would anyone stay here?

In college all of them had studied the putative effects of deracination, which were angst and anomie, those dull horrors of the modern world. They had been examined on the subject, had rehearsed bleak and portentous philosophies in term papers, and they had done it with the earnest suspension of doubt that afflicts the highly educable. And then their return to the pays natal, where the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose and bloomed as negligence permitted. Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? Oh, to be passing anonymously through an impersonal landscape! Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember how the fields of Queen Anne’s lace figured in the childish happiness they had offered to their father’s hopes, God bless him.

She had to speak to neighbors in their gardens, to acquaintances she met on the sidewalk. Strangers in some vast, cold city might notice the grief in her eyes, even remember it for an hour or two as they would a painting or a photograph, but they would not violate her anonymity. But these good souls would worry about her, mention her, and speculate to one another about her. Dear God, she saw concern in their eyes, regret. Poor Glory, her life has not gone well. Such a nice girl, and bright. Very bright.

That odd capacity for destitution, as if by nature we ought to have so much more than nature gives us. As if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling and purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all.

The idea of home has been on my mind lately. I’ve suddenly and acutely become aware of the fact that I have no blood relatives within an 800 mile radius, and that the various “homes” I’ve had over the years are so widely disparate in spirit and geography that my head spins whenever I take nostalgic stock of them.

The “home” that looms largest in my heart right now is Shawnee, Kansas, where my closest family members reside and where I lived for five years. It’s a place of hills and wheat fields and thunderstorms, where the same old willows sweep the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arises and blooms as negligence permits.

In the book Home, Glory Boughton returns home to care for her dying father. As the passage above indicates, she finds it to be a welcoming, comfortable place, full of memory and nostalgia but also regret for a life she didn’t have. She wallows in its beauty and sweetness but also its awkwardness and tension. Home is always a mix of the best and worst parts of ourselves: Our attraction to stability on one hand and our intractable penchant for dissatisfaction on the other. It’s a sublime site of unsettledness. Like most everything else in life, the portrait of home in our memories and desires frequently and curiously eclipses the reality.

But there’s still nothing better than going home.

District 9

I suppose it’s an odd thing in a movie so full of heads being ripped off, bodies blown up, and fingernails peeled off, that above all else, District 9 made me think about love. But District 9 is an odd film, unexpected in all the best ways. It’s the summer’s biggest surprise.

This is a B movie of the highest order: gory, breakneck, funny/scary, and infused with political and cultural resonance. It’s the sort of 50s-sci-fi creature movie that makes portly, unkempt fanboys like producer Peter Jackson giggle with glee. Though in this case, pretty much everyone will be giggling with glee.

Made on a shoestring budget (about 1/7 the cost of Transformers 2, and at least 7 times the better film) by a team of unknown South Africans, District 9 presents a documentary-style modern allegory of race and class under the guise of an alien film. What happens when a massive alien spaceship stalls over Johannesburg and unloads about a million alien refugees who are helpless, hungry, and by all appearances benign scavengers? Are we to fear them? Or should they fear us? District 9 concludes the latter. When the ugly, bug-like alien outsiders land and become South Africa’s problem, the government quickly corrals them into a sequestered slum (“District 9”) and for the next 20 years instigates a system of controlled human/alien segregation that—you guessed it—looks awfully like apartheid. But when the villainous defense contractors MNU (Multi-National United) set out to move the aliens to a new camp (“District 10”), things begin to get a little crazy. That’s where the film picks up, and it’s a wild ride from there.

District 9 goes where few alien invasion movies have gone before: It turns the tables on humans and suggests that we—not them—might be the malevolent monsters (and indeed, most of the killers in the film end up being humans, not aliens). Cleverly derivative of alien movies past (everything from War of the Worlds to Independence Day to the not-aliens-but-pretty-much movie A.I.), this revisionist alien film asks questions about what it actually means to be “alien.” How might we empathize with the outsiders whose difference from us we find offensive and whose presence in “our world” is unwelcome and uncomfortable? Director/writer Neill Blomkamp certainly doesn’t make it easy. These aren’t cute E.T. aliens. They’re nasty-looking scavengers who eat canned cat food and speak in an ungainly click/rattle language. The humans use the derogatory term “Prawns” to describe the aliens. They’re a hard species to love.

But that’s precisely the point. How can we put aside our prejudices and love even the most unlovable, smelly, disgusting of creatures? Are we capable of that sort of unconditional love? Perhaps we can only get to that point if we make efforts to get to know the aliens in our midst, to spend some time in their shoes, in their houses, and in their skin (literally, as it happens in this film).

District 9 is a smart, challenging film that also happens to be thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. It’s brimful of political and cultural ideas, but it’s also brimful of alien/robot/zombie action, explosions, battles, and video game shenanigans that I have a feeling will strike a massive chord with the gamers in the room. It’s a fresh perspective on an old genre, and a movie that blows the doors off most of the summer blockbusters we’ve seen so far this year.