Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Problem With Kids Today

Roger Ebert has gotten mighty cantankerous of late, and I love it. He’s always been one of my favorite critical thinkers, and his latest blog rant endears me to him even more.

The piece, entitled “The Gathering Dark Age,” is mostly Ebert complaining about the fact that young filmgoers are increasingly apathetic about reading reviews, which is exacerbated by the ever more insipid mass media machine that refuses the sort of intelligence and critical thinking which characterized older eras of journalism. Instead, the marketing and advertising arms of media conglomerates are setting the agenda and setting it low. With few in the media asking challenging or provocative questions of films anymore, it’s no wonder that most people under 25 have learned to consume media without the filter of critical thinking.

But it was this paragraph of Ebert’s article that particularly struck me:

“If I mention the cliché “the dumbing-down of America,” it’s only because there’s no way around it. And this dumbing-down seems more pronounced among younger Americans. It has nothing to do with higher educational or income levels. It proceeds from a lack of curiosity and, in many cases, a criminally useless system of primary and secondary education. Until a few decades ago, almost all high school graduates could read a daily newspaper. The issue today is not whether they read a daily paper, but whether they can.”

The problem with kids today is not that they aren’t motivated to be successful and/or change the world, it’s that they aren’t curious about the world. They aren’t interested in thinking critically, deliberately, and probingly about anything, unless it spells immediate pleasure and or advancement for their life. They are utilitarians in the first place, bored by any inquiry that lasts more that a few minutes or which requires more than a few Wikipedia searches.

Some people will say that this is because young people today don’t read. They don’t read newspapers, they don’t read journals or magazines, and fewer and fewer of them read books of any real depth. I’m not sure this is the source of the problem as much as it is one side effect. Media changes. If the future of media is indeed “bite sized” or visual or interactive in some way, so be it. Meaningful ideas will always find a way to be mediated, whether it’s books or films or Kindle. The real question is: will anyone be interested in ideas in the future?

The real problem—the true crisis that needs to be addressed in our lifetime—is that kids these days are raised with no enchantment of the world. They’re born into a world where every answer is at their fingertips (just a Google search away), every wonder and excitement is available on X-Box or Netflix, and little in existence is shrouded in any sort of mystery or transcendence. There’s a lot that entertains us but very little anymore that intrigues us. There is a ton of stuff that provides us pleasure but hardly anything that piques our interest.

One of the big culprits of this predicament, as Ebert noted, is the failure of our education system. Our schools are more like factories these days than they are centers of learning. They are places of standardization where students are numbers, degrees are barcodes, and ideas are merely yes or no questions on the SAT. Where are the schools that are truly interested in inspiring students to want to learn? Where are the teachers willing to model an inquisitive spirit for their pupils? They are out there, to be sure, but the system does so little to support them.

More important than systems and bureaucracies in all this, however, are families. Parents. If we want our kids to care about learning and thinking and discovering, we have to model this curiosity for them and raise them in that spirit. We have to read books to them constantly, take them to the zoo, the museum, but we also have to keep them shielded from the desensitizing, demystifying influences of mass culture. Turn off the TV. I don’t care if it’s PBS. Give your kids a paintbrush instead. Take them to the park. Show them the stars and constellations. Teach them to ask questions.

The crisis of the 21st century will not necessarily be a lack of intelligence or the inability to think. Rather, the crisis will be the lack of knowing what to think about or caring to think about anything in the first place.

Lorna’s Silence

No one is making better films out of Europe these days than the Belgian Dardenne Brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc), who for more than a decade have been churning out stunning, humane, punch-in-the-gut films about working class contemporary Europe. If you haven’t checked out their films The Promise (1996), Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), and The Child (2005), I urge you drop everything and watch them.

Lorna’s Silence, the Dardennes’ latest film (and winner of the best screenplay prize at Cannes in 2008), is yet another masterpiece—if not their best work then at least their most emotionally complex. It’s a film that left me incapacitated and breathless in my seat as the credits rolled.

I hesitate to say too much about this film because I’d rather you just see it for yourself and let it unfold before you. I went in to it purposefully oblivious to any plot details, knowing only that it was a Dardenne Bros film. If you want to do the same, perhaps you should stop reading here.

Lorna’s Silence centers around Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), a working class Albanian woman who wants to open a restaurant in Belgium with her boyfriend. To gain Belgian citizenship (and to get a little extra money), she allows herself to be part of a mobster-conceived scheme in which she marries a druggie (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier), divorces him, and then weds a Russian immigrant who also wants to gain Belgian citizenship. Whatever her motivation for getting involved in such a sordid plot, however, it quickly becomes clear that she is merely a means to an end for much more corrupt and dangerous gangsters. Her dreams or desires are the least of anyone’s priorities, and she is a woman alone in the company of some really bad men. She lets herself be used and abused by them with scarcely a word of protest, which is (presumably) where the film gets its title.

The film—as all Dardenne Bros films do—begins in medias res with only the slightest effort to catch the audience up on who these people are or why they are doing what they are doing. But gradually we come to know what we need to know, if only in the faintest of relief. But it’s okay. This film is not about the plot details as much as the plight of humanity at the center. Shot in the trademark visual style (handheld, spare, bleak, cold, with no effects or nondiegetic sound) that the Dardennes did first and better than all the many imitators, Lorna’s Silence puts us right in the middle of a horrifying, desperate urban world full of struggle and depravity and yet nevertheless haunted by hope and beauty. It’s all set against the backdrop of post-EU street-level Europe as it might be imagined through the dire eyes of Cormac McCarthy. It’s a bleak, godless place in which things like marriage and pregnancy are merely economic transactions and nurses at government run hospitals might provide the only unconditional affection in someone’s life.

But Lorna’s Silence isn’t primarily a commentary on contemporary working class Europe (though this is certainly an important part of it). It’s mostly about the journey of Lorna and the desperate situation she finds herself in—a situation at once out of her hands and completely within them. It’s a film about a woman and the tragic loneliness she endures. Who, if anyone, is in Lorna’s corner? As the film goes on, the question becomes increasingly depressing.

Lorna is a woman aching to make a better life for herself—to love and be loved back. She’s like everyone in that way. But unfortunately the hand she’s been dealt has mostly been hardship. She’s an immigrant from a poor background (she wears the same red jeans in nearly every scene and works long hours as a dry cleaner), has no family in sight, and associates with all the wrong people. But she can’t blame circumstances on everything. She can help who she does business with and she could have said no from the beginning. But she didn’t, and so she suffers the consequences.

Still, as much as we know that Lorna has made bad decisions, it’s hard not to empathize with her and feel the existential desperation that cascades out of her eyes in almost every scene. She’s resilient and brave and only cries once or twice, but we see it in her countenance at every turn: Lorna is a very sad person. For most of the movie, she keeps it dangerously bottled up. But by the end of the film (the last ten minutes are breathtaking), Lorna finds a new strength and a new love to live for. She begins to truly speak.

Among the Dardenne Brothers other strengths, they tend to structure their films in such a way that tension and bleakness build up only to be released in a tiny but potent catharsis at the very last moment. Here, like in their stunning finale to The Child (L’Enfant), the Dardennes surprise us with where they end the film. When it cuts to black, in medias res as in the beginning, we feel the weight of an uncertain but hopeful resolution. As in life, we don’t know what exactly will happen, but to know would be to tragically and too-quickly move beyond the hardship and struggle we’ve just gone through. It’s better to just think about where we are and where we’ve come from, to mull over the journey thus far. However harrowing the future may be, it’s enough to just worry about the now.

Funny People

Funny People is a funny movie. But it’s also serious. It mixes genre in a way that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, and this will frustrate many viewers. It’s also a Judd Apatow film, which means there are about fifty too many penis jokes, lots of bromance comedy shenanigans, and touches of emotional depth and “growing up” insights. As part of the Apatow canon, it fits nicely in with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, rounding out the trilogy (if you want to call it a trilogy) with an appropriate graduation to existential self-awareness.

This is one of those self-reflexive films by Hollywood people about Hollywood people. In this case, it’s a film about comedians made by comedians (and chock full of them: everyone from Sarah Silverman to Andy Dick to “everyone loves” Ray Romano). It’s an “inside the life of a comedian in L.A.” type movie, and for me this was its most interesting aspect. Some people don’t like these sorts of films, but I do. I live in L.A. and it all rings very true.

Adam Sandler plays a version of himself—an aging comic superstar who was a huge star in the 90s but has been reduced to making Eddie-Murphy style sophomoric films about talking babies. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Jason Schwartzman play aspiring young comedians/actors who share an apartment in the Larchmont Village section of Los Angeles. They are the up-and-comers waiting for their big break. Sandler is the established star who lost his knack for fresh stand-up jokes. He needs the young guys to revive his career. The young guys grew up on Sandler, worship him, and need an “in” to the industry. Let the bromance begin.

This dynamic is a common one in L.A. Everyone is in a curiously symbiotic relationship with everyone else, and the whole town’s web of relationships is one big boiling stew of admiration, fear, fame, mistrust, aspiration, love, loathing, and lunch meetings. This is the thing Funny People gets most right: the complex relational tenor of “industry” circles in L.A.

Sandler’s relationship with Rogen is the biggest and best example of this. Sandler is a stereotypical rich industry powerhouse: Huge house, few friends, lots of meaningless sex. Rogen is a stereotypical aspirant: awkward, desperate, pathetically anonymous, and not yet completely corrupted by the two faces of fame. When Rogen becomes Sandler’s assistant, he quickly becomes his best friend. But the power disparity rears its ugly head often, as Sandler can’t help but remind Rogen that he is a paid employee, hired help, in no position to do anything but fetch Diet Cokes, schedule doctor appointments and call the cable repairman if need be.

The film captures the celebrity/assistant relationship in Hollywood well. So often the dynamic produces an intimate bond where the celebrity feels closer to his or her assistant than just about anyone (hey, it’s a lonely and trustless town). But it’s still a slave/master relationship, and both parties know it. It’s weird to be close to someone who you know is using you and who you are using. But unfortunately this is the case with a huge percentage of relationships in Hollywood. In a place where everyone is desperately vying for a limited pool of buzzworthy notoriety, selfless, loving relationships are naturally going to be hard to come by.

You see this all over Funny People. As comedians make small talk backstage at a show, they’re full of transparently phony words of commendation. Onstage, they’re constantly sabotaging each other or pilfering each other’s jokes. Even those that are friends (as in the Rogen/Hill/Schwartzman roommate trio) are unable to hide their inherent competition and jealousy when one gets a break on a TV show or becomes Adam Sandler’s assistant. Of course, all of this is very passive-aggressive and mostly just an unspoken undercurrent in what might otherwise appear to be healthy, bonding friendliness.

Perhaps Apatow’s latest revelation about male bonding (and this IS a film mostly about male bonding… as much as Leslie Mann’s presence in the third act indicates otherwise) is that competition and power-struggle are not only unavoidable but likely essential aspects of any friendship between men. We’re prideful creatures and we need to exhibit our accomplishments to one another (while avoiding vulnerability and weakness wherever possible) in ways that playfully intermingle friendship with territorial warfare. Whether this means sleeping with the new neighbor girl before our best friend can (as Jason Schwartzman does in the film) or simply using up good jokes before our fellow comedian (who we wrote the jokes for) can, there’s always a subtle impulse toward self-aggrandizing in the midst of even the most intimate of male relationships.

Funny People is a little less funny and a little more cynical than Apatow’s first two films (as director), but it is perhaps the most insightful and interesting. Few filmmakers are making films about maleness anymore, and so even if he gets carried away with phallic humor and perhaps presents masculinity in too victimized a light, Apatow is to be praised for at least being willing to go there and get the conversation going.

Remembering Hiroshima

It was 64 years ago today: the Allies dropped a nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in efforts to force Japan into surrender. The bomb was dropped by the Enola Gay at 8:15 in the morning, just as schoolchildren were arriving at school and businessmen were walking to work. About 80,000 people were killed instantly (about 30% of the city’s population at the time), and in the bomb’s aftermath many thousands more would perish.

I read a great article today entitled “Remembering Hiroshima Rightly.” The author wisely points out that, amid all the political talk of nuclear weapon proliferation and the rightness or wrongness of the decision to drop the bomb, we should mostly just remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki “as two events involving massive suffering and loss of life, situated within the vast tapestry of suffering and death that was World War II.”

In our world of desensitized violence, partisan bickering and over-mediated orgies of commoditized discourse, we so often forget to remember: People died. People are dying. We should all agree on and share in the necessary mourning of humanity lost.

Two years ago, I was in Hiroshima. It was a short stop during a long trip to Japan, but it was one of the most meaningful travel experiences I’ve ever had.

The city is modern now, and bustling, full of life and food and promise. But on the day I was there, it was cloudy and rainy, suitably morose. My friends and I walked around the various memorials in the “Peace Park,” under the “52 Gates of Peace,” and in the vast museum that stands not too far from ground zero of the bomb. It was fascinating, draining, heartbreaking, hopeful, and wet (raining the whole time).

At one point an elderly Japanese woman came up to me in one of the garden areas, and tugged at my shirt.

“American?” she asked. I nodded, wondering if she was going to slap me or spit on me or something.

Instead she took my hand and clasped it in hers.

“Thank you for coming here,” she said. “Thank you seeing this.”

She smiled at me and left it at that, and I wondered what in the world that exchange meant. It was already weird enough being there, as an American, two generations removed from the Americans who made the decision to drop the bomb. It was weird that I was from Kansas City, the hometown of Harry Truman, the man who said yes to dropping the bomb.

But mostly it was just a reminder that I was alive. I was a survivor just like this old Japanese woman. I was born in a place that didn’t get bombed and I’ve thus far avoided mortal calamity. And it’s not because of anything that I’ve done. It’s just by the grace of God. In a world as unfathomable and unforgiving as this one, that’s one bit of understandable comfort that I cling to.

Was Jesus Ever Tipsy?

And if he was, does that mean being tipsy is not a sin? This is a question I have been wondering lately. I’ve been wondering about drinking for Christians. Where is the line? What is appropriate? I’ve been wondering about it because most of the Christians I associate with drink alcohol, some of them love it, and many churches and pastors I’ve visited this year have promoted alcohol consumption in various ways. But this is soooo different from what I grew up in. The conservative Baptist outlook on alcohol (in which I was reared) was strictly prohibitionist—probably a vestige of cultural influences (American temperance movements, fundamentalism, etc) moreso than careful Biblical exegesis.

But what about alcohol is so inherently bad? The obvious answer is that it leads people to lose their faculties and do dumb things. It causes car accidents and drunk texting. It gives you liver cancer. But all of these negative things happen only when alcohol is consumed in excess. Similar negative outcomes are associated with anything consumed in excess. Eating McDonald’s in excess, for example: makes you obese. Drinking soda in excess: gives you diabetes. Playing Halo in excess: numbs your brain and inhibits you socially. Obsessing about Twilight: crowds out more enriching life pursuits.

But all of these things are good in moderation, even (MAYBE) Twilight.
These are good things—the fruits of this beautiful planet that God created and let us live in. Why should we abstain just because these things might lead to sin?

The Bible does not tell us to abstain. Jesus clearly drank wine. He turned six huge jars of water into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-11). Even the evangelical Pope himself will admit it.

“Jesus drank wine,” Billy Graham told the Miami Herald in 1976. “Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast. That wasn’t grape juice, as some of them try to claim,” he added.

Drinking wine, and drinking other types of alcohol, can be a wonderful thing in moderation. I’ve come to really appreciate good quality fermented beverages myself. I like listening to classical music on a tired summer night while sipping a cool Pinot Grigio. I like picking up aromas of melon & orange blossom and maybe a hint of coconut. I like a good spicy Shiraz from Australian vineyards or a dark, earthy Sangiovese from under the Tuscan sun. The same goes for a good Chimay trappist ale or a sip of Jefferson Reserve 15 year bourbon. These things are just good things. Like rainbows or organ music or aspen trees in autumn. They are good.

Still, there is the question of how Christians should approach alcohol. Should we just abstain from it, in hopes of keeping ourselves safe from sin and the appearance of any evil? Some would argue that this is the true biblical stance. But theologian Scot McKnight says that this is going beyond what the Bible says—and that if one tries to be “more biblical than the Bible,” they are in danger of zealotry.

If God is God, and if God speaks to us in the Bible, then God spoke words that show that wine drinking is fine. One may choose not to drink, but that view is more extreme than what the Bible says. Drinking too much is contrary to the Bible, but not drinking at all is not what the Bible teaches (except for ascetic strands at time).

So we can drink. But is there a line we shouldn’t cross? When we get a little buzzed or tipsy? Is that unbiblical? The Bible is clear that drunkenness is a sin, but what about the “happy” feeling that you get after a few glasses of wine? What about the social-lubricant function of alcohol that makes us more chatty and affable and friendly? Is this always a bad thing? I’m not sure.

On one hand, I would say this: Some of my best, most “heavenly” moments have come in situations where I’m with friends and there is alcohol present. Whether it is in Oxford with friends at a pub, or in Tokyo with friends at the top of the Park Hyatt, drinking Suntory and looking out over the city, drinking frequently shows up in good and wonderful social memories.

On the other hand, I could say this: Christians are to be set apart from the world. Abstaining from a “worldly” thing like alcohol or infrequently consuming it is one way we can be different. Also, it is true that alcohol can easily lead us to situations of sin. It doesn’t take much to go from alcohol consumption being a neutral activity to it becoming a vice. The vast number of alcoholics in the world can attest to this.

But everything in life is fraught with potential disaster. Our nature infuses everything neutral with the potential to become complicit in evil. The world is beautiful and good, but it can quickly become a playground for licentiousness and depravity. Does that mean we should hide away in a cave somewhere, free of all temptation or potential vice? Should the fact that a juicy hamburger is full of cholesterol and other heart-killing ingredients scare me away from Red Robin forever? Does the potential for lusting after a member of the opposite sex mean that we should never go to the beach? Does the risk of death associated with rock climbing mean we should never attempt to scale a rock face? I don’t think so.

There is a thing called self-control. It’s one of the fruits of the Spirit. Christians have it. It’s a virtue that God gives us so that we can enjoy good things without enjoying them too much. It’s the ability to know when things have gone too far, and the ability to stop at that point. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit.

And so is a pint of Guinness.