Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Separation of Church and Status

When the Princeton Theological Review asked me last summer to contribute an article to their latest issue (themed “The Church After Google”), I was honored and thrilled. Thinking about the role and impact of technology/new media on the church is certainly one of my biggest intellectual interests. The piece I came up with for PTR took a critical look at social networking within church life: “The Separation of Church and Status: How Online Social Networking Helps and Hurts the Church.”

You can click on the link above to download the whole issue (which contains a lot of great articles), or read an excerpt from my article below:

The Paradox of Public Intimacy

Facebook and Twitter are, above all, forums of public communication. Whereas in former eras we might never know who all of our friends’ friends were, where our pastors were, or what conversations our cousins or sisters or bosses were having (and with whom) in real time, all of that is now the norm on social networking sites.  Private conversations are now out in the open, displayed on “walls” and Twitter profiles for all to see, and we actually prefer it that way.

Analogous to the now regular, but terribly annoying, cultural habit of loudly engaging in a phone conversation on subways, in elevators, or pretty much anywhere for all to hear, this online relational exhibitionism favors public bursts of communication over private email messaging, just as the cell phone rendered  the privacy of the phone booth moot in the onward march to mobile telephony.

In the world of Facebook, our “friends” are almost destined to become collectible commodities and status symbols, things we collect to adorn the “walls” of our own online environs. We strategically “friend” people on Facebook or “follow” them on Twitter, and then we post things on their wall or tag them in a post to publicly consummate the relationship.

Twitter is built on the notion of public conversation. The process of gaining followers—the ultimate purpose and goal on Twitter—is aided by the “reply” system, where you tag another user with the @ symbol in your “tweets” of 140
characters or less. Each time you engage with another @user, the conversation, often comprised of two or three messages back and forth, is made public and an
association is cemented.

As with Facebook, the whole culture of Twitter revolves around and is sustained by public relationships and a type of communication that is between individuals but observable by vast numbers of people. We love Facebook because we can spy on acquaintances and research who they communicate with regularly, and in what manner. We love it because if we want to “be seen” talking to someone, perhaps to make a point to someone else, it’s as easy as a quick wall post.

What else can this be but a performance, an exercise of power wherein which we can regulate and micromanage our very specifically staged social spheres? If this is really about relationship-oriented communication founded on intimacy, then we would just email people privately. If our “friends” were really important relationships to us, we would spend time with them in person or on the phone, and we would not care that the public was privy to the fact that we were in a relationship. This is one of the problems with social networking in general. It cheapens the very idea of “relationship” by making it a public and oftentimes performative act.  It can sometimes make friendship a mercenary act, a utilitarian activity akin to “knowing the right people” to gain traction or respect in an upwardly mobile profession.

Social networking also cheapens relationships because it removes intimacy and puts all our “friends” onto the same plane. We disclose rather significant things about ourselves (“We’re engaged! Having a baby! Mourning the death of…”) with the entire collective rather than to any sort of “inner circle.” I have heard more than one person tell me how disappointing and almost betraying it felt to hear “major” news about one of their close friends broken to them via Facebook where hundreds of others also heard it for the first time.

Pastor and technology critic Shane Hipps captures this tension well in his book, Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith:

Intimacy happens the moment we are invited into the exclusive VIP room of another person’s life. Intimacy always follows the statement, “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before.” These are risky words of deep trust and vulnerability. The exclusivity of personal information creates the conditions of intimacy. That intimacy is preserved in that relationship as long as the information remains exclusive. The moment it is available to anyone and everyone is the moment intimacy begins to evaporate.

If Christian pastors and churches are truly hoping to leverage social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter to “build community,” one hopes they are thinking seriously about what sort of community it is they are cultivating. Sure, Facebook might make it easier to keep tabs on large numbers of peoples’ lives, but is “keeping tabs” really a relationship? Facebook creates the illusion that by being constantly in touch with a person, you can know them more; that by accepting a “friend request,” you have made a real life, human connection. But  have you? Facebook allows us to have a broad network of “contacts,” but how  intimate are “contacts?”

As Christians, if we truly believe that each human is a precious being—that, as C.S. Lewis put it, “there is no mere mortal… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses”—then shouldn’t we be seeking to truly know others rather than to simply “keep tabs on” them through short updates, photo albums, and wall posts?

And the Nominees Should Have Been…

The 2011 Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and as is typically the case, there are some hits and some misses. By and large I think the Academy got it pretty right, with a few good surprises (Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom) and some bad (no Andrew Garfield supporting actor nom?). If I were to have a say in the nominations, they would have gone something like this:

Best Picture: The Social Network, The King’s Speech, Blue Valentine, Fish Tank, Never Let Me Go, Animal Kingdom, Somewhere, 127 Hours, True Grit, Another Year.

Best Foreign Language Film: I Am Love, Mother, Everyone Else, A Prophet, Letters to Father Jacob.

Best Documentary: Exit Through the Gift Shop, Restrepo, Sweetgrass, Waiting for Superman, Catfish.

Best Director: David Fincher, The Social Network, Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech, Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine, Mike Leigh, Another Year, Andrea Arnold, Fish Tank.

Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech; Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine; Jessie Eisenberg, The Social Network; James Franco, 127 Hours; Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island.

Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan; Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole; Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine; Lesley Manville, Another Year; Tilda Swinton, I Am Love.

Best Supporting Actor: Andrew Garfield, The Social Network; Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech; Christian Bale, The Fighter; Jim Broadbent, Another Year; Michael Fassbender, Fish Tank.

Best Supporting Actress: Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech; Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit; Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom; Carey Mulligan, Never Let Me Go; Dianne Wiest, Rabbit Hole.

Portrayals of the Good

Over the weekend I saw Mike Leigh’s Another Year, a film that follows a year in the life of a 60something British couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) who age gracefully together amidst a messy array of family members and acquaintances. As they open their home and serve up grace to a parade of sad, lonely alcoholics, this couple provide a centered, stable calm in the storm. Their house is a haven, a place to escape–where good food, happy company, wise counsel and unconditional love are guaranteed. A rarity. But oh so needed.

Following on the heels of his last film, Happy-Go-Lucky, which also sought to portray a character of genuine optimism and grace, Mike Leigh’s Another Year reminds us how valuable and necessary are models of hope and goodness in our lives. We live in such a cynical age, when being a mess is sort of a rite-of-passage and everyone’s baggage is out in the open and almost fetishized.

We live in a time when “authenticity” is equated with those things or those people who are forthright in their brokenness and messiness, while stable, happy people are sometimes looked upon with skepticism, as if their lack of apparent problems makes them phony or untrustworthy. Our jadedness leads us to a sort of self-reinforcing stasis of raw brokenness, because this is what we believe. This is what we know. But what we really need are models of goodness & virtue in our lives… figures of hope who can motivate us out of the cycle of dreary cynicism.

Another Year offers a great example of such people–a happily married, flourishing couple who love people in need but don’t pander to them. They stand film in their principles without condescending to those struggling around them (most notably Lesley Manville, who delivers a tour-de-force performance as a clingy trainwreck of a friend who is stuck in a cycle of depression).

The couple in Another Year reminded me of Eric and Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights, the heartbeat center of that show and a couple who consistently offer wisdom, love, and empathy for those struggling around them. They aren’t without their own problems, of course, but they nevertheless are looked to because they more together than most. They model goodness and hope in a culture overwhelmed with badness and despair. We need models like them, to show us that happiness is within reach and that selflessness, charity, restraint and discipline can help get us there.

In Hollywood, truly good characters don’t get the attention and accolades that crazy, messed-up characters do.  It’s much easier to win awards by playing a convincing evil (Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight) or a convincing trainwreck (Christian Bale in The Fighter) than by portraying a solid, stable, virtuous character. Even in Another Year, the marquee, award-winning performance is that of Lesley Manville–who is riveting and truthful as a single, sad, mess of a person. Why is this more riveting, truthful, and laudable to us than Ruth Sheen’s less showy, but no less truthful portrayal of a good friend? Why is Christian Bale’s wild-eyed druggie turn in The Fighter so much more acclaimed than Mark Wahlberg’s good-brother, reliable workhorse role? (a question alluded to by Bale in his Golden Globes acceptance speech).

I think we need more strong, solid, good characters to admire in our movies and TV. Characters like Helena Bonham Carter’s in The King’s Speech, or Hailie Steinfield’s in True Grit. Characters that help the struggling get better, characters that embody hope and growth and goodness, untainted by cynicism or despair. Because those people exist. And we need more of them in our lives.

Blue Valentine

It would be cliched and redundant to say that Blue Valentine is a heartbreaking film. That much is clear from its title. It is heartbreaking, devastating, a punch-to-the-gut… all that. Yes. But this is also a deeply observant film, with things to say not just about one couple and their problematic relationship, but about how we as a culture (or at least a particular segment/generation of it) think about things like romance, chivalry, marriage, love.

Valentine is about a young couple in contemporary New York who fall in love, and then find it hard to maintain. He (Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic romantic who likes art, music, dancing, and works jobs doing physical labor so that he can afford his real purpose in life: Being a dad and husband. She (Michelle Williams) likes the same things he does, but is a bit more practical. She values stability. She cares about conventional things as well as ukulele dancing, and ultimately wants a husband to be not only loving, but also ambitious. As a couple, the signs of their future discord are evident from the outset, as obvious as is the genuine nature of their attraction to one another. They fall in love, for good reasons… As anyone does. And the struggles they eventually face are familiar, not unique to them. Do they make all the right choices? No. Do they give up too easily on their marriage? Perhaps. I think it’s clear that Blue Valentine doesn’t view its characters or their choices as perfect or prescriptive. We’re not meant to absolve these characters of their conduct, but neither are we meant to judge. It’s not a morality tale.

What it is is an observation of two people trying to live out a real romance in a world that serves up fictional narratives of love at every turn–a world where hearts and valentines and love stories are ubiquitous, pumped into our bloodstream from birth through an unceasing IV drip of romantic comedies, Disney princesses, soap operas and love songs. It’s a world of dissonance between the romanticized love-as-escapism on one hand and the lived reality (divorced parents, rampant infidelity, porn) of love-as-disappointment on the other. Keenly savvy to the dissonance, younger generations approach love with a necessary bit of detachment and irony, no less entranced by the emotions of romance as their parents were, but perhaps with lower expectations from the outset. “Marriage” is more a romantic trope than a meaningful sacrament.

In Blue Valentine, Gosling and Williams play out their romance against the backdrop (literally) of idealized, quaintly nostalgic romantic iconography. In the film’s key scene–the moment when the couple’s bond is sealed–Gosling plays “You Always Hurt the One You Love” on his ukulele while Williams does a little tap dance in front of the windows of what looks like a 1950s wedding boutique. Here they are, having an unconventional little romantic moment of self-proclaimed goofiness, while a vintage wedding dress and tux stare down at them from their grandparents’ generation. Earlier in the film, both Gosling and Williams have moments of interacting with elderly men and women, questioning them about their experiences of love, looking at faded photos and lockets of lovers from a simpler time. These moments are characterized by earnest appreciation and nostalgia, not cynicism, but they are nevertheless moments in which lines are drawn between “the way things were” and “the way things are,” with perhaps a faint outline of “the way we’d like things to be.”

As much as these characters take pleasure in admiring the conventions of old-school love and marriage (especially Gosling), they know it’s not necessarily for them–at least not in the same way. Instead, their love is ardently unconventional, full of quirky dates and ironic nights at kitschy “future”-themed love motels, a courthouse wedding that includes a blue vintage leisure suit and a pregnant bride. The unconventional, oddball nature of it feels like a defense mechanism, as if their uncharted, different-from-the-rest romance inoculates it against the patterns of failure that seem so otherwise inevitable. Of course this isn’t the case, sadly, and the unraveling of the romance plays out far more conventionally.

Blue Valentine doesn’t offer any breakthroughs on the secret to love’s success, which it shouldn’t be faulted for. Nor should it be faulted for being cynical or bleak (I would contend it is neither). Insofar as I can see, all it aspires to be is a film about two particular modern-day American youths who, in the way they talk and flirt and think through love and romance, represent a broader swath of modern-day American youth. And to that it succeeds unquestionably.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are the absolute perfect actors to play these parts. Two of the best actors of their age, Gosling and Williams represent both the ardent idealism and the world-weary skepticism of their generation, and have played those parts, respectively, before (he in Half Nelson, she in the stellar Wendy & Lucy). In Blue Valentine, amidst ubiquitous American flags, meatloaf, fireworks and city skylines, they lend a potent realism to the melodrama of the classic American love story, subverting it even while they salute it, joyful and mournful in equal measure.

Reflections on the Real in 2010 Cinema

The Social Network was undoubtedly the film of 2010. The David Fincher epic about the founding of Facebook is the odds-on favorite to win the best picture Oscar and has been picking up scores of “best film” accolades in recent months. With a theatrical, chatterbox script penned by Aaron Sorkin, Network takes quite a bit of liberties with the retelling of the Mark Zuckerberg story, but most people seem ok with that. This isn’t a fact-concerned documentary. It’s a truth-concerned document. It may not be an accurate reporter of what happened with Facebook, but it’s a spot-on account of what Facebook is.

It wasn’t the only Facebook movie to come out in 2010. There was also Catfish, a “documentary” about a photographer who begins a Facebook romance with a woman of whom he later comes to doubt the existence. The documentary purports to be authentic and completely real, but many have wondered about how much of it actually happened as depicted. Is it really a documentary? Regardless, the film raises important, resonant points about the privacy and anonymity issues related to Facebook. The film’s credulity may be in doubt, but its thematic points about online identity are well taken.

The documentary-in-scare-quotes genre really had a banner year. In addition to Catfish, we had the infamous I’m Still Here, which touted itself as the biographical sketch of Joaquin Phoenix gone berserk. But, as we now know, the whole thing was an act, with nary a shred of documentary veracity. Joaquin Phoenix was playing the part of an A-list actor who lets fame go to his head. A command performance. Received with ire and a box office disaster, I’m Still Here nevertheless interested me in its commitment to exploring identity within the blurry-lined context of celebrity.

A more successful example of the scare-quotes documentary this year was Exit Through the Gift Shop, the Banksy film about street art that may or may not be one big “gotcha” on the contemporary art establishment. Gift Shop is perhaps the best example this year of a film that looks and feels like a documentary but could very well be a largely fictional, Rauschenberg-esque pastiche of bits of facts and flourishes of embellishment and commentary.  Again, the veracity of what happens in Gift Shop is subject to doubt; but the points it raises and the amusements it offers are not. It’s a valuable, supremely provocative and enjoyable film, regardless of its perhaps tenuous relationship to reality.

But almost everything in our digitized, cut-and-paste world these days has a tenuous relationship to reality. Perhaps that’s why these dubiously “true” films are nevertheless enjoyed and embraced, particularly by younger audiences. The idea of black and white, “true or untrue” doesn’t make much sense to a generation who has grown up with a steady stream of mediated half-truths, advertising, made-for-TV reflections on the news, The Real World, etc. It goes without saying that something can be enjoyable, moving, resonant, but completely fabricated. Even if it touts itself, with a wink, as “real.”

This Christmas I was struck by some of the wonderfully cheerful “Hallelujah Chorus” flashmob Youtube videos that were being sent around online. Many have doubted how organic or spontaneous some of these videos are (a familiar suspicion of amateur viral videos), and indeed how much what is happening can actually be called a “flashmob” as opposed to an elaborately set up group performance. But to me, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care if something like this happened as it says it happened; I don’t even really care if it happened at all. If it turns out this video was digitally made on a computer screen, or if everyone was an actor, I’d still enjoy the video. What it captures is joy, and the power of human voices joining in unison to take note of the glory of God and the beauty of life. It captures it viscerally, and I encounter it so.

It’s why we can be simultaneously savvy to the fact that most reality TV shows aren’t really “reality” at all, and yet still embrace them wholeheartedly. It’s why we can leave movies like Black Swan and Inception with no clue about how much of what we just saw was “real,” but not really caring (and sometimes kind of loving) that we don’t know. It’s why we can live much of our daily lives in the presence of disembodied digital phantoms and yet be happy with the tangible feelings and emotions that come with interacting with them. We all know that the Facebook “people” we observe via update-feeds are probably unreal constructions of themselves, but who cares? We’re all a little bit unreal.

The whole concept of “reality” is so much cloudier and more dubious than it once was, and yet we press on and enjoy the little blips of recognition we find here and there in the Twitter stream of consumption and engagement. It’s about the present experience, the present recognition. The suspension of disbelief. But that’s precisely what the movies have always been about: suspending disbelief, winking to the slightly-embellished reality of it all, welcoming truth and epiphany in bits and pieces, untainted by the elusiveness of the dominant but overrated specter of certainty.

Best Films of 2010

Though by now we’re all a little fatigued by the flurry of end-of-year best-of lists, I’m going to go ahead and add to the critical chorus with my picks for the best films of 2010. This is the list I think about the most and put the most hours into compiling. That’s because I love films, see a lot of them (I saw upwards of 60 new releases in 2010), and want others to see them too. I will be posting a more in-depth analysis of the year in cinema this weekend (in which I also try to make sense of Banksy, Facebook and flashmobs). But for now, here are my picks for the best of the year…

10) Rabbit Hole (dir. John Cameron Mitchell): Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart shine in this quiet little drama about a couple coping with the death of their young child. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Rabbit Hole is an insightful, beautifully made film about perseverance amid grief. Unlike many films about familial strife which seem more interested in wallowing in misery (for the sake of “realism”), Rabbit Hole has an insistent, if tentative, optimism about how we can grow from and move forward after a tragedy.

9) True Grit (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen): The Coen Bros’ first true western is a hero of the genre. It’s vintage, classy, chivalrous and straightforward, appropriately self-conscious and rousingly cinematic. Featuring the Coens’ trademark cerebral subtlety and quirky edge, True Grit is at times boldly austere, refusing the chaotic, big-explosion tendencies of today’s historical action blockbusters and instead favoring nuanced character portraits and thematic explorations. It’s a film about grace and justice in a wild, unjust world.

8) 127 Hours (dir. Danny Boyle): The climactic amputation scene of this torn-from-the-headlines survival story uses the extreme depiction of violence not to underscore the depravity of man, but to viscerally communicate the preciousness of life and the perseverance of hope. The result is a film about the extremes of life that, for the viewer, feels like running a marathon or climbing a mountain: an experience that is excruciatingly painful and yet supremely cathartic.

7) Somewhere (dir. Sofia Coppola): Though aptly described by some as a B-side to Coppola’s masterpiece, Lost in Translation, Somewhere is certainly not re-tread material. Exercising a formal experimentation that ranks up there with Vincent Gallo or Gus Van Sant, Coppola offers something that is genuinely new and yet perfectly at home in her oeuvre of films exploring celebrity, isolation, and a sort of “morning after” existentialism. Here, Stephen Dorff plays an actor living with his teenage daughter (Elle Fanning) at Hollywood’s fabled Chateau Marmont when he’s not promoting a movie in Milan or chasing girls in the Hollywood Hills. It’s a true film about place in a physical sense, seen through the probing gaze of a perceptive explorer.

6) Never Let Me Go (dir. Mark Romanek): This is one of those quiet little under-the-radar gems that will undeservedly be forgotten at Oscar time, but which has stayed with since I saw it months ago. Featuring a trio of solid performances from Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew “I’m everywhere this year” Garfield, Never Let Me Go tackles a bleak subject matter in a chillingly unassuming manner. The sci-fi drama is elegant, stately, haunting and provocative, raising fascinating questions about what it is that actually makes us human.

5) I Am Love (dir. Luca Guadagnino): Featuring a can’t-turn-away tour-de-force performance by the strange and wonderful Tilda Swinton, the Italian I Am Love is a feast for the senses. Overflowing with life, depth, beauty, elegance, and originality, all on grand scale, Love feels somewhere between The Godfather and Fellini. Embodying a style critic Manohla Dargis called “postclassical Hollywood baroque,” I Am Love is one of those films that reminds us why we love movies so much. It puts the beauty of the world under a microscope in a way that feels both familiar and foreign, real and imaginary.

4) Fish Tank (dir. Andrea Arnold): In the tradition of Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh, Andrea Arnold’s social realist examination of the British underclass is gritty, eye-opening and sometimes transcendent. Centering upon the harrowing coming-of-age confusion of a teenage girl named Mia (Katie Jarvis) in a working class neighborhood of Britain, Fish Tank is full of shock and awe (and a little despair), but it’s also shockingly full of hope, beauty, and not a little absolute truth about the adolescent experience.

3) The King’s Speech (dir. Tom Hooper): It seems that every year around this time a new arthouse film about the British royal family starts wooing prestige filmgoers in advance of Oscar season (last year it was The Young Victoria, a few years ago it was The Queen). This might grow tiresome if it weren’t for the fact that these films are usually amazing. And this year’s entry is no different. With an excellent cast of British thespians and a phenomenal performance by Colin Firth as King George VI, The King’s Speech is an entertaining, inspiring, beautifully rendered study of friendship and perseverance.

2) Blue Valentine (dir. Derek Cianfrance): In his astonishing debut, director Derek Cianfrance offers a devastating, uncannily observant treatment of a great American love story. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams deliver performances nothing short of miraculous in a film that—by jumping back and forth between a couple falling in love and falling out of it—feels like a red and blue diptych befitting its title. Though the journey is rough and sometime bleak, Blue Valentine is tenderhearted and full of moments of truth and transcendence the likes of which few films this year captured. It’s an earnest film about chivalry, hope and romanticism in an age when those things seem more literary than real.

1) The Social Network (dir. David Fincher): Everything about this movie succeeds. The stellar acting, the score by Trent Reznor, the epic dialogue scenes courtesy of Aaron Sorkin, the Citizen Kane grandeur of it all. But The Social Network is not just an example of 21st century filmmaking par excellence. Fincher’s masterful narrative of the fabled founding of Facebook is a also time capsule for our time. It’s a document of a curious revolution in social communication, economics, and the shifting notion of “status” in a world where roots, tradition, and familial privilege are less important than the ability to navigate media and manipulate tech-enabled perceptions of one’s digital self. It’s also a frenetic, words-as-action thriller that underscores just how much language and communication are changing in the age of texting and Twitterspeak. It’s a triumphant feat of cultural observation in a world where pop culture interprets history even before history has a chance to understand itself.

Honorable Mention (The Next Best 10): Letters to Father Jacob, Inception, Winter’s Bone, Everyone Else, Toy Story 3, The Ghost Writer, Black Swan, Shutter Island, Please Give, A Prophet.