Monthly Archives: January 2010

Movies Too Disturbing to Sit Through

As a film critic, I have to see a lot of movies that are not necessarily pleasant to sit through. Which is fine. A lot of my favorite films—and some of the most beautiful, important films of all time—would hardly be categorized as “pleasant” viewing experiences. Films like Breaking the Waves, or Requiem for a Dream, or a number of films by David Lynch, are in my view works of art, deeply disturbing though they may be.

But sometimes it’s a fine line between “just far enough to make an impact” and “that’s gone too far.” Whether we are talking about brutal violence, explicit sex, or just a general thematic fixation on nihilism and despair, I think there is definitely a line that can be crossed.

Sometimes the line can be clearly agreed upon. Most everyone can agree that the brutality of Schindler’s List is worth watching, while that of Hostel 2 is probably excessive and needless. But more often than not, these “lines” are subjective things… rendered visible in one’s conscience when that inner monologue speaks up and says, “I shouldn’t be watching this.”

There have been moments when this voice led me to stop watching a film mid-stream. Such was the case last week, when I was watching the DVD of The Piano Teacher by Michael Haneke, a filmmaker (Cache, The White Ribbon) who I admire for his tasteful pushing of the envelope, but who in my opinion pushed it a little too far with The Piano Teacher. I stopped watching about an hour in.

Lars von Trier is another cinematic provocateur who I greatly admire; but this summer when I went to a theater in Paris to view his new film Antichrist, I couldn’t bear his sickeningly violent provocations. I walked out of the theater and tried to find a creperie on the Left Bank to get my mind on other things.

There have been other films I never finished or walked out of, for the same reasons: Films like Pasolini’s Salo, or Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, or Noé’s Irreversible.

The obvious question is: Why would you even attempt to watch these films? I can just hear the parents and preachers now: “Why subject yourself to such debased filth?” Trust me: I have thought the same thing; wrestled with it, prayed about it.

My answers usually have to do with the fact that “the line” is so subjective, and that my experience has shown that some of my favorite, most treasured movies included some “hard to watch” content. There is truth to be found—sometimes most clearly—in the midst of, or on account of, darkness. Should we wallow in it? No. Should we seek it out? Surely not. But should we bear with it, in the task of experiencing art? I think so, to an extent.

But I’m extremely interested in what others think. What is your line? Which films have you walked out of? What should be our moral ground rules for spectatorship? I definitely think there is a time when we should refuse to be subjected to certain things on screen—but I wonder sometimes about when those times are called for.

Where To Find Christian Hipsters: 10 U.S. Cities

As an entirely unscientific but perhaps accurate summary of the geographic loci of Christian hipster, here is a list of what I suggest are the ten most important cities for Christian hipsterdom. These may not be the cities with the most or the highest concentrations of Christian hipsters; They are simply the most important—for a number of reasons.

10) Orlando: This seems like an unlikely spot for a high hipster population, and indeed it is. But Orlando is the home of Relevant magazine, which immediately puts it on the Christian hipster map. It is also home of the ridiculously unhip Holy Land Experience, and hip churches with names like H20, Status and Summit.

9) Denver/Boulder/Colorado Springs: Let’s just call this the greater Denver / Rocky Mountain region. It’s teeming with Christian hipsters. Colorado Springs is sort of the epicenter for evangelical ridiculousness, which means there are a lot of post-fundamentalist / post-Focus on the Family hipsters running around. Denver is home to Denver Seminary and Colorado Christian University, as well as hipster churches like Scum of the Earth Church and Pathways. Boulder—“Berkley East”—is a whole other story.

8) Minneapolis/St. Paul: The Twin Cities, like Chicago, are sufficiently Midwestern and yet urbane enough to be highly attractive to Christian hipsters. It’s also the home of John Piper’s church, Bethlehem Baptist, Doug Pagitt’s Solomon’s Porch, Greg Boyd’s Woodland Hills Church and several other hipster churches with names like Spirit Garage and Bluer. It’s also a Christian college-heavy town, with Bethel University, North Central University, and Northwestern College all within the Twin Cities metro area.

7) Seattle: This uber hip birthplace of Starbucks and grunge is also a bastion of Christian hip. The presence of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill church is a huge factor, but there is also Seattle Pacific and Northwest Universities, Image journal, the headquarters of World Vision, Tooth and Nail Records, and a whole lot of design and tech companies. And there are other hip churches there too, such as Church of the Apostles or Mosaic Community Church—which at one point met at a bar in Capitol Hill, Seattle’s hipster/gay neighborhood.

6) Los Angeles: Southern California as a region is, and always has been, a hotbed of Christian hip. From Santa Barbara all the way down the coast to San Diego, the greater L.A. area (particularly beach cities, L.A. metro, and Orange County) is full of Christian hipsters. There are countless Christian colleges, industries (film, music, media) that naturally attract Christian hipsters, and oodles of hipster churches, including Mosaic, Rock Harbor, Bel Air Presbyterian, Sandals, Reality, and countless others.

5) Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids is the home of Calvin College, so it automatically makes the list. But it’s also a center of Christian book publishing, and the home of some really hip churches—none moreso than Mars Hill Bible Church, pastored by Rob “Evangelical Steve Jobs” Bell.

4) Kansas City: I might be biased, because I’m from Kansas City, but having traveled all over I can honestly say that, against all odds, Kansas City is one of the most influential cities for Christian hip in America. It’s the place where the International House of Prayer (24/7 prayer) originated, where bands like Waterdeep got their start playing at hip Christian coffeehouses like the New Earth. It’s the home of hipster churches like Jacob’s Well, Beggars Table, Vox Dei, Redeemer Fellowship, and The Gathering. And some of the most high-end and fashionable clothing stores in the city (The Standard Style Boutique, Habitat) are owned and operated by Christian hipsters.

3) Washington D.C.: This city has a remarkably large number of young, just-out-of-college inhabitants. They go there to make a difference in the world, interning in government and nonprofit jobs for little or no money. Christian hipsters—highly idealistic, activist-leaning people that they are—migrate to D.C. in large numbers. Hip churches are not hard to come by in D.C. either, including such congregations as Capitol Hill Baptist, Falls Church, Covenant Life Church (pastored by Joshua “I kissed dating goodbye” Harris), and National Community Church, which features a totally hip coffeehouse, Ebenezers.

2) New York: As it is for any other hipster, New York is the dream destination for many Christian hipsters. Whether they go there to be actors, artists, designers, or factory workers, hipsters love living in New York. Currently, it’s the city where many Christian hipster icons (such as Sufjan Stevens, Welcome Wagon, and Jay Bakker) reside. It’s also the site of dozens of very hip, urbane, trend-setting churches like Redeemer Presbyterian, All Angels Episcopal, and Journey, as well as ministries such as the International Arts Movement.

1) Chicago: There are oodles of Christian colleges in the Chicago area–Wheaton, North Park, Moody, Trinity, Olivet Nazarene, and more. But beyond all that, Chicago is just a super hip place to live. Hipsters of all kinds—Christians included—flock there. It’s the home of Pitchfork magazine, for goodness sake. It also has a hip heritage: the Jesus People USA are located in Uptown; the iconic 1968 DNC riots took place in Grant Park; Wilco is from there… It’s also in the Midwest—a convenient urban enclave in the middle of the Bible Belt. For many Christian hipsters, Chicago is the best option for thousands of miles.

Honorable Mention: Portland, San Diego, St. Louis, Dallas, Las Vegas.

The Nominees Should Be…

Today was the deadline for the 5,777 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to turn in their completed nominations ballots for the 2010 awards. The resulting nominations will be announced February 2 and the ceremony will be March 7.

I’m sure I’ll be mostly disappointed when the nominations are actually announced (and Avatar gets 9 nominations), so I’ll take this opportunity to put forth the nominations I’d like to see, if I could have my way:

Best Picture

Summer Hours
The White Ribbon
Inglourious Basterds
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
The Last Station
The Road
Bright Star

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon
Jane Campion, Bright Star
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Lorna’s Silence

Best Actor
Viggo Mortenson, The Road
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Joaquin Phoenix, Two Lovers
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Best Actress
Tilda Swinton, Julia
Abbie Cornish, Bright Star
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Arta Dobroshi, Lorna’s Silence

Best Supporting Actor
James McAvoy, The Last Station
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Paul Schneider, Bright Star

Best Supporting Actress
Gwenyth Paltrow, Two Lovers
Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds
Rachel Weisz, The Brothers Bloom
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Julianne Moore, A Single Man

Best Foreign Film
Still Walking (Japan)
Letters to Father Jacob (Finland)
The White Ribbon (Germany)
The Headless Woman (Argentina)
Gomorra (Italy)

Food as Worship

I don’t really have a theological defense of food, or even any Bible verses to backup my claim that eating food can be an act of worship. All I know is that when I’m taking my first bite of chicory rubbed filet mignon in bordelaise sauce, it feels like I’m tasting a bit of heaven.

People say that all the time. “The pie is heavenly…” “This chocolate soufflé is divine.” But even as it might seem irreverent to bring such “divine” language down to the quotidian level of cuisine, I think it can sometimes be appropriate. Food is frequently a means of experiencing the pleasure of God. At least it is for me.

It’s interesting to me that certain things in this world serve very utilitarian, life-sustaining purposes, and yet also give us so much pleasure. Things like clouds, oceans, sex, and all manner of food and drink. God easily could have created food that was tasteless and nothing more than nutrition. He didn’t really have to give us tastebuds, and he certainly didn’t have to make strawberries taste so sweet. And don’t even get me started on butter, sage, potatoes, pine nuts and Spanish cheeses.

I experienced probably the most spiritual meal of my life a few weeks ago when I attended a 10-course dinner prepared by my friend and coworker Jessica Kemp. She does things with food that I’ve never seen done before, and this meal—in which each course was creatively inspired by one of Jessica’s favorite songs of the year—was unsurpassed in the pantheon of great meals I’ve ever had.

Click here to read the full run-down of the ten courses through which myself and the other 7 guests were allowed to taste little bits of glory. But here are a few of the highlights that nearly brought me to tears they were so good (photos by Laurel Dailey):

Strawberry rose milkshake with rose laced cream; kobe beef, mimolette with quince mustard and vanilla aioli in steamed bun

Quail breast and leg confit, poached kumquats and “yellow lime” confit, mornay sauce, tempura basil and sage

Asagio cup with apple gelée and cave aged gruyere, blue cheese ice cream with maderia poached fig and wildflower sage honey, Brioche macaron with Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog goat cheese

How could you not experience God through food like that?

Some of my other favorite recent meals have also been courtesy of Chef Kemp. At a 5-course beer pairing dinner, I enjoyed such blessings as a homemade Kangaroo, pear and rosemary sausage, cheddar cider-beer soup, and a spicy frog leg in orange tempura with banana cream dipping sauce. At a Home Alone-inspired Christmas party (where each dessert course was inspired by something in the movie), I nearly passed out with glee when presented with the “Mimosa Mac N’ Cheese” dish (bread pudding macaroni with orange and champagne cream and hicory candy bread crumbs). Who knew such things could exist and that they would be among the tastiest delights imaginable?

All this to say: I am soooo grateful that food has taste, and that God made me with tastebuds, and that he made people like my friend Mrs. Kemp, who knows how to make food a transcendent thing. It’s proof that this world is not all bad, and that goodness can prevail even in the smallest things (like basil). I will never take food for granted as mere nutrition and sustenance… But I will always be thankful that God made it so much more than that.

Upcoming Criterion Releases You Should Buy

The next few months contain a stellar lineup of fantastic films getting the Criterion Collection treatment on DVD/Blu-ray. Here are 3 that I’m especially excited about:

Hunger (dir. Steve McQueen, 2008): Before he played the suave British agent for Operation Kino in Inglourious Basterds, Irish actor Michael Fassbender turned in an unflinching performance as IRA member Bobby Sands in Hunger, one of my favorite films of 2008. Release date: February 16, 2010.

Summer Hours (dir. Olivier Assayas, 2009): My #2 film of 2009, this French film is a gorgeous, haunting meditation on art, objects, and the ways in which they interact with human lives lived in time. It’s not a flashy film and neither too-subtle nor too didactic, but it’s full of ideas and will make you think. Release date: April 20, 2010.

Ride With the Devil (dir. Ang Lee, 1999): This is my favorite Ang Lee film, and I’m delighted to see it being released by Criterion (a 13-minutes-added director’s cut no less!) In my opinion this stirring Civil War-set film features the best performances of Jeffrey Wright and Tobey Maguire, not to mention a surprisingly adept performance by Jewel. It’s also near and dear to my heart because it was shot in and around my hometown of Kansas City. Release date: April 27, 2010.

Why Do We Care What Pat Robertson Says?

One of the most devastating and tragic earthquakes of my lifetime hit the already downtrodden nation of Haiti on Tuesday. It hurts my heart to think about the horror of such a calamity, which destroyed the capital city and killed tens of thousands of people.

But in the wake of this tragedy of unimaginable scope, everyone seems to be talking about something else… Pat Robertson.

Quips about Robertson and his ridiculous comments have been lighting up Twitter and Facebook. He’s been a top trending topic for the last 2 days. And everyone seems to be getting quite a kick out of joining in the Robertson slam-fest. Of the many tweets I’ve seen, here’s just a sampling:

  • “Pat Robertson is kinda like that senile old uncle at your family reunion. He said what? Oh, that’s just crazy Uncle Pat. Pay no attention.”
  • “Why do so many people in Haiti have to die while Pat Robertson lives?”
  • “Pat Robertson, bringing shame to the name of Christ for 50 years.”
  • “I wonder what Pat Robertson blames for the NBC late night debacle.”
  • “Pat talks about the Devil like he’s had business meetings with him… or the two play racket ball…”
  • “Just in case you needed more proof that Pat Robertson doesn’t speak for Christians, here you go…”
  • “Behold Pat Robertson, the unintended consequence of the first amendment.”

Everyone is buzzing about Pat Robertson this and that, but how many of us have actually given money to a relief organization or said a prayer for Haiti? Why do we care so much about what this old dude is saying about pacts with the devil? More importantly, why are we still talking about it?

Christians especially seem to have rushed swiftly to the “denounce Pat!” party. He doesn’t speak for us! Not all Christians are like that! He’s giving our faith a black eye! Can’t he just retire and disappear from the public eye?

I didn’t really want to read any more about Pat Robertson today, but so many people were sending this link around to Donald Miller’s blog post, I decided to click on it. Donald Miller’s post eloquently repurposes Robertson’s gaffe and turns it into a discussion about how being “overtly religious” is dangerous, and that faith in Christ should be intimate, quiet, and personal rather than public and loud. It should be about love and compassion rather than judgment and proclamations. How nice.

Miller’s post was retweeted more than 1100 times and garnered hundreds of comments, most of which expressed a sort of collective sigh of relief from Christians desperate for a moment of better PR. Many commented something to the effect of “Thank you for defending the true nature of our loving God and Savior!”

What saddens me about all of this is that Christians felt so desperate for a “defense” of their faith. Are we really that feeble in our religion (or, excuse me, our “Christ following”) that we need to even comment on dear old Pat? Is it that much of a threat? I don’t think so.

We need to stop worrying so much about having a favorable image. The success of God’s work in the world is not dependent on how people in 2010 perceive Christians, or how people like Pat Robertson contort the Gospel in disturbing and wrongheaded ways. If we believe God is sovereign we need to have confidence that he can overcome all the loudmouth bigots who go around saying idiotic things in the name of Christ (not that we shouldn’t chastise and discipline those loudmouth bigots among us).

We need to quit worrying about how the worst among us are ruining our reputation and instead focus on living Christ-like lives in accordance to scripture and God’s will. We need to worry about our own transformation first and foremost. Are we new creations?

We should love others and ease the suffering in the world—DONATE TO HELP HAITI—not because it will be better for our PR, but because the Bible tells us to and because the Spirit inside us spurs us to outward action. We should exude charity and patience and peace in our dealings with others not because it will win us admirers but because it is the Christian thing to do.

We need to be humble, yes, but not tepid. We should have confidence in the God we serve, the gospel we believe, and the church that we are. Christianity isn’t going to die, and no amount of public relations nightmares will break the body of Christ that has and will continue to move in the world. As the church of the resurrected Christ, our destiny is eternal and our hope never-ending.

Let’s stop talking about Pat Robertson and start living strongly in the light of our calling—which is to spread the message of hope, resurrection and renewal that is the Gospel of Christ.

My Predictions for 2020

In Relevant magazine this month, there is a fascinating 14 page article (“Bringing 2020 Into Focus”) in which experts weigh in on what to expect in the coming decade, in areas like the environment, social justice, politics, culture, faith and science. As the “expert” in the cultural arena, I was commissioned to forecast the trends and changes I think will be most significant in the next 10 years. To read the whole spread, click here. But below I’ve excerpted a few sentences from the 4 trends I highlight.

One With the News:

Ten years ago we didn’t have YouTube and blogs were barely in their infancy. “Have it your way” was just a Burger King slogan. But now, “have it your way” is manifest destiny. It’s an inalienable right–a mantra that permeates everyone’s digital media existence–and by 2020, it will conquer more than just music libraries. It will define the fourth estate.

All signs point to a 2020 in which the news is no longer uniform, no longer top-down and no longer the same for any two people. The news will no longer be an externality, but a personal thing—for individuals, by individuals, about individuals.

It won’t just be about the ability to personalize the news people consume (through RSS feeds, Digg and personalized homepages), it will become more about people placing themselves in the thick of generating the news and being the news. CNN’s “iReporter” is the current industry standard for this “citizen journalism,” and sites like Newsvine–which attempt to involve average consumers in the generation of news–are perhaps a good indicator of what is to come. ()

The New Cultural Power Brokers:

Whether it’s the 17-year-old film critic blogger who talks up the unknown indie films or a music webzine like Pitchfork that rises to atmospheric importance because of a track record of reliably good taste, these everyday tastemakers will rule the roost of cultural capital in 2020. They will be the arbiters of worth-my-attention commodities for the niche audiences they twitter to. They will pan for gold in the muddy waters of DIY culture-making and elevate only that which deserves it. They will carry the carrots toward which the deep pocket conglomerates race to monetize, and though merely “intermediaries,” they will be the most indispensable link in the chain. ()

There Will Be No Place Like Home:

Home is making a comeback; “local” is the new “global.” And in 2020, people wonder why, back in the day, they were ever so antsy to leave.

Rising gas prices and struggling airlines will lead to continued escalation in transportation costs and the desire to “get out” will simply be crowded out by the realities of affordability. The “main street” local economy will thrive again and shipping costs will make homegrown business more viable. ()

Hipster Church Tour: Resurrection Presbyterian

Church Name: Resurrection Presbyterian

Location: Brooklyn, NY

Head Pastor: Vito Aiuto

Summary: Resurrection Presbyterian is a noteworthy hipster church for a number of reasons. Launched in 2004 as a plant of the Redeemer planting network, Resurrection is situated smack dab in the heart of worldwide hipster culture: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Not only that, but the church is pastored by Vito Aiuto, a full-blooded Christian hipster who is a reverend by day and indie musician by night. He and his wife Monique moonlight as The Welcome Wagon and released their Sufjan Stevens-produced debut album on Asthmatic Kitty in late 2008. The church itself bears many of the typical marks of a vibrant hipster Christian community: liturgy, pews, communion out of a common cup (with real port!), and a strongly infused mission-mindedness that includes local social justice work, HIV/AIDS ministry in Africa, and a leadership development/church-planting initiative known as the Brooklyn Church Project. I attended Resurrection on a steamy, stormy May evening in 2009.

Building: The church meets at St. Paul’s Lutheran church in Williamsburg. St. Paul’s meets in the morning, and Resurrection Presbyterian meets in the evenings. It’s a beautiful old building, with stained glass, organ, and dark wood pews. It’s a creaky, humid structure that fits well with the liturgy, read prayers and quirky renditions of ancient hymns that make up a typical Resurrection service.

Congregation: There were about 100 people in worship on the Sunday I attended (granted, it was Memorial Day weekend), and the crowd seemed to be mostly twentysomething singles and a few young families, with a smattering of older folks here and there. Naturally, there were a LOT of hipsters in attendance, with tattoos, scruffy beards and skinny jeans galore.

Music: The music reflects the style of The Welcome Wagon: pared down, acoustic, vintage, thoroughly hipster but totally reverent. On the day I attended, there appeared to be only two musicians in the worship ensemble—a woman who sang and man who alternated playing guitar, piano, and a number of other instruments. The worship songs were entirely old hymns, including “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” and “Fairest Lord Jesus.” There were also a number of purely instrumental songs—a tenor sax prelude, a jazzy ragtime-sounding piano solo during offertory and communion, etc. The music was quiet and worshipful and fit the building well. It was about the farthest thing you could get from your typical megachurch rock band or praise team.

Arts: Many artists and aesthetically-minded people attend the church, and the fact that the pastor is an acclaimed indie rock artist indicates that this is a congregation quite naturally and organically “artsy.”

Technology: Almost nill. There are no overhead projectors of any kind, and the music has no bells and whistles whatsoever. It’s a slap in the face to technophile churches everywhere.

Neighborhood: Williamsburg: the epicenter of hip. Though increasingly gentrified, the neighborhood still has its rough edges, ethnic diversity and pockets of poverty, which makes it even more appealing to hipsters. This area of Brooklyn—bordered by Greenpoint, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick—is packed with trendy bars, concert venues, vegan restaurants, record stores, vintage clothiers and used bookstores, especially along Bedford Avenue. The arts and indie music community in this area of New York is particularly strong, with new Pitchfork-heralded bands emerging seemingly weekly from the lofts and dingy flats of the Brooklyn scene.

Preaching: Vito Aiuto speaks mosts Sundays, though on the day I attended he was absent and associate pastor Chris Hildebrand spoke on the topic of Christ’s ascension (the last part of the “He is Risen Indeed! Stories of Resurrection Life” series). Hildebrand’s sermon, which incorporated quotes from N.T. Wright and references to Google Maps, focused on Christ’s kingly authority and the implications of the ascension on our lives—that Jesus calls us to both humility and hope. In subsequent weeks I also listened to sermons online that Vito preached on a Farmer’s market-inspired sermon series about the fruits of the spirit: “Organic, Local and Beautiful: Bearing the Fruits of God’s Spirit.” It was a fascinating series of sermons because it seemed entirely appropriate and directed toward the hipster Christian audience, and yet thoroughly Biblical as well.

Quote from pulpit: “We don’t want to be the man. We want to be as far away from that as possible. We know what we don’t want to be. But the question is: what do you want to give your life to? What will this church look like? We have a pretty good idea about what church we don’t want to belong to, but what kind of church are we going to be?” (5/31/09)

Quote from website: “A look at our liturgy—the pattern of our worship together—shows that worship begins with God’s gracious movement towards us: God calls us to worship; he tells us of the forgiveness of our sins; he speaks his word of comfort, rebuke, and encouragement; he feeds us at Holy Communion.”

The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon (which last week I named the best film of 2009) is unlike any film I saw this year, and a film that any lover of cinema should make an effort to see and think about deeply.

Directed by Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (Cache, Funny Games), The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band) is a German-language film that is at once the most luxurious visual feast of the year and the most psychologically challenging. Set in a small agrarian German village in 1913 (in the last days of peace before WWI), where strange deaths and disturbing incidents begin to unnerve the villagers, Ribbon explores the psyche of feudal-era Germany on the brink of the chain of events that would lead them to become the most infamous example of fascism in world history. In talking about the film, Haneke has said this:

“Why do people follow an ideology? German fascism is the best-known example of ideological delusion. The grownups of 1933 and 1945 were children in the years prior to World War 1. What made them susceptible to following political Pied Pipers? My film doesn’t attempt to explain German fascism. It explores the psychological preconditions of its adherents. What in people’s upbringing makes them willing to surrender their responsibilities? What in their upbringing makes them hate?”

The beauty of The White Ribbon is that even while it tackles a huge question (the origins of fascism), it does so with the sort of hyper-subtlety and open-endedness that requires the viewer to do most of the interpretive work. We can easily recognize that Haneke is indeed making a statement about things like discipline, violence, Christianity, fear and hate, but we are left to our own psychological devices to put all the pieces together.

And indeed it is a puzzle. From the painstakingly slow fade from black that opens the film, through the 144 minutes of fragmentary, multiple-storyline episodic exposition that ends with another painstakingly slow fade to black, it is clear that Haneke is uninterested in proving us with clear or easy answers. On the contrary, he wants the audience to think. The noticeable quietness of the film (as with all of Haneke’s films, there is no soundtrack or nondiegetic music) is but one clue that Ribbon intends to invite the audience to process and create the meaning themselves.

Haneke, a former film critic who studied philosophy and psychology in Vienna, is a cerebral filmmaker interested in the cerebral processes of cinema—that is, how the mind of the spectator makes sense of what they see on screen. Haneke is doubtless familiar with the tradition in early classical film theory concerning spectatorship, in which psychologists/theorists like Hugo Münsterberg and Rudolf Arnheim argued for various interpretations of the spectator’s psychological relationship to the movies. In his 1932 text, Film as Art, for example, Arnheim (a student of Gestalt psychology) argues that the spectator’s mind is the only way “reality” can be drawn out of cinema (which is inherently unrealistic). In Arnheim’s view, film does not and cannot have a direct correlation to reality; rather, it provides a partial illusion that the spectator’s mind can then process and understand as if it were some sort of reproduction of reality.

This may seem obvious and fundamental—and indeed, the reality of our gaze and its voluntary and involuntary interpretive power is something we rarely think of in the process of seeing—but it’s nonetheless a curious power of the cinema of which Haneke is interested in forcing us to reckon. How do we see when we watch a film? What power do we have to construct the meaning of an image? Is our understanding of a film determined by the manipulative powers of the filmmakers to “control” the direction and attention of our gaze?

“When you make a film you’re manipulating the spectator,” said Haneke in a recent Newsweek interview. “If you place your camera here instead of there, you’re going to give a very different impression, so filmmaking always involves manipulation. The question is rather, to what end do you manipulate the spectator? I’ve often said that manipulation is a form of rape. The only acceptable form of rape is when you rape the spectator into autonomy, make the spectator aware of their role as a receptor, as a victim, so that they become autonomous or independent.”

At various points in The White Ribbon, Haneke spotlights the ways in which we, as the audience, are manipulated by cinema. There are certain cuts where we expect to see something and think we see something (in one case, something quite disturbing) that turns out to be something else. We question why our minds “went there.” In one scene there is a casket in which we think, but are not quite sure, we know who is inside. But we have to wonder about our assumptions, especially (at least in my case) because our assumptions are frequently proved false. Is the film really manipulating me that much? Or is my mind playing tricks on me? Why do I assume certain things?

Almost everything in The White Ribbon requires us to make psychological jumps. We have to connect the dots. None of the scenes of violence and treachery are actually shown on screen (as with, if you pay attention, Funny Games). We have to think about who does what, and why. When we see a little girl with scissors in her hand, and then a shot of a bird in a birdcage, we have to assume that she means harm to the bird. When we later see a shot of a dead bird, we connect the dots. But in Ribbon, that’s about as easy as it gets. On top of figuring out “who did what?” plot details, we also wonder about the meaning of everything. What, for example, does the symbol of the white ribbon (tied to children to “help them avoid sin”) mean? What is Haneke actually trying to say about the origins of fascism?

“I try to take the spectator seriously,” said Haneke in the Newsweek interview. “Mainstream cinema raises questions only to immediately provide an answer to them, so they can send the spectator home reassured. If we actually had those answers, then society would appear very different from what it is. My approach is rather to deal with the question, to raise the question in a way that confronts the audience with it and forces the audience to find their own responses. As a dramatist, your requirement is to do that with as much urgency as possible so the viewer feels compelled to think about the issues.”

Haneke, who elsewhere has described his films as “polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator,” is interested in making films full of ideas, but only as conjured up by the minds of the spectators whose thoughtfulness he solicits. The White Ribbon is a great example of a film in which we, the audience, are not force-fed anything but instead invited into the process of telling the story. No two people will have the same experience of this film, and it will mean different things to different people.

For me, The White Ribbon was as beautiful and brilliant a film as I’d seen all year—a Hawthorne-esque, literary examination of community, nation, and human nature. It’s a haunting, ambiguous film about the cycles of fear, paranoia, retribution and resentment at the family and local level, and how it all interacts with history both near and far.