Monthly Archives: April 2011

Meek’s Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff is the latest ponderous, gorgeously shot film from the minimalist indie director Kelly Reichardt, whose two previous films–2006’s Old Joy and 2008’s Wendy & Lucy–were striking examples of her delicately academic approach to cinema and interest in exploring journeying characters in moments of despair (existential, personal, psychological).

Reichardt, who is a professor of film at Bard College, makes films that are spare, simple, reflective, and yet deeply affecting. Meek’s Cutoff is perhaps her most mesmerizing film yet. With the patience and experimental spirit of Gus Van Sant and the naturalistic style and existential curiosity of Terrence Malick, Reichardt has emerged as one of the great up-and-coming auteurs in cinema.

Set in 1845 Oregon, in the early days of the Oregon Trail, Meek’s Cutoff follows the covered wagon journey of three families and the mountain man guide (Stephen Meek) who is leading them through the wilderness on the way to the Willamette Valley. From the beginning of the film, our protagonists are seemingly lost, running out of water, facing Oregon Trail-style challenges (broken axles, hungry oxen, forging rivers). They are suspicious that Meek doesn’t really know where they are going. As the film progresses, frustration increases and despair sets in. The party capture an Indian, keeping him prisoner and using him as a guide. But is he any more reliable than Meek? Is he leading them in the right direction? Or to their doom?

What’s magnificent about the film is that it puts us exactly in the shoes of these hapless frontier sojourners. There is no God’s eye view or knowing narrator that gives the audience a privileged perspective. We know what they do, we discover things as they do. When they look nervously or quizzically at their Indian prisoner, we ponder just as they do.

Reichardt’s minimalist style reflects camerawork that is not indifferent; just restrained, observational. Her shots are unembellished and yet certainly personal, aligning in particular with the feminine gaze of the film’s center of gravity: Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams). In the deeply expressive eyes of Williams (who also starred in Reichardt’s last film, Wendy & Lucy), we recognize our own blend of empathy, fear, disgust, repression and longing.

But this isn’t a film about one heroine’s point of view; it’s a film about our point of view. How do we read images? Reichardt recognizes the inherent ambiguity of the photographed image–that in as much as it captures reality in some sense, it also opens up the possibilities of interpreted reality. Each film shot captures something we can recognize: wagons moving along a horizontal plan, a woman gathering wood for a fire, clouds billowing across a big western sky. And yet it’s also ambiguous. What do we read into the faces that we see? Do we interpret the desert landscape as something fearsome and ominous? Or beautiful and stately? What lies beyond the four edges of a film’s rectangular frame? The nature of cinema is suggestion and open-endedness, and Reichardt seizes upon this in Meek’s Cutoff.

What exactly is this film about? Can we read political subtext into it? Commentary on race relations? A feminist perspective? Each viewer likely will see something different in it, and yet something profound. In that way, it succeeds in the same way a film like Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon does: Capturing palpable mood, tension, very real actions and emotions, and yet totally open to interpretation and actively involving the viewer in the process of decoding its meaning. The ambiguity of it will frustrate some and enthrall others. I definitely fall in the latter camp.

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Are E-Books Good For Us?

Every April I read The Great Gatsby. The tradition started the April of my junior year at Wheaton College, when I took my copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece (the most perfect American novel, IMHO) to Adams Park, laid down on the newly warm grass and read through the whole book in one sunny afternoon. It was bliss.

This year, as an experiment, I decided to buy Gatsby on Kindle and read it on my iPad. I’ve hitherto been loathe to enter the world of e-books, but I figured I better not knock it until I’ve tried it. A few weeks ago at Biola’s Imagination Summit, a discussion on “the future of books” with Moe Girkins (former CEO of Zondervan) and Jason Illian (CEO of e-book upstart ReThink Books) got me thinking about the topic. E-books certainly seem to be the future. Physical books, Borders, libraries… all of that will likely become outmoded. But is that a good thing?

The way I see it, there are both pros and cons with the e-book experience.

Pros:

  • All-in-one storage. Kindles, iPads, devices of similar ilk become portable libraries of vast numbers of books. Imagine having your entire library with you wherever you are. Instead of feeling frustrated that the book you want to quote in your research paper is on your shelf back home or in some library in another state… it’s all at your fingertips. Want to study abroad but don’t want to bring suitcases full of physical books? Just bring an iPad full of the dozens of books you’ll need.
  • Better preserved. Electronic books, stored on a device or in a cloud somewhere, are free from the mold, acid, water damage, etc. that plagues physical books.
  • Convenience. Have a few extra minutes waiting for someone at a coffeeshop? A half hour on the subway? Instead of having to remember a physical book, just pull out that iPhone and pick up where you left off.
  • Social reading. As new platforms and apps develop that combine e-readers with social networking (ReThink Books is one), the potential social and pedagogical benefits of collective reading (tracking friends’ comments, sharing notes, keeping tabs on students’ reading progress, etc) are apparent.

Cons:

  • Hinders our focus. When you’re reading a book on the same device that you could use to check email, update Facebook, watch a video, play Angry Birds, listen to music, chat with friends, and do about a million other things, it becomes harder to focus on reading for a long stretch of time. These devices are made for multi-tasking, after all… short bursts of activity for short attention spans. How could I ever focus on reading a book on my iPad for an hour when my instincts tell me to press a button and check my inbox or Twitter feed every 10 minutes?
  • Turns reading into a “downtime” activity. Before, we took books with us to the park for 4 hours. We packed a book for a day of reading at the beach. We planned rainy days around reading books. It was an event. But now, our devices go with us everywhere, so reading a book becomes an anywhere/anytime activity, which by default usually becomes a “when I have time” or “I’m on the bus so I might as well do something on my iPhone” activity.
  • Takes away the billboard effect. Previously, having a physical book in our hands served as an advertisement of sorts: Letting others see what you were reading. It starts conversations (“Oh, I loved that book!” or “What’s that you’re reading?”). Now, when people see us looking at a screen in our lap, there is no visual indication that we are reading a book, let alone what we might be reading. Where’s the fun in that? Similarly, the loss of personal libraries in our homes–bookshelves with books that serve as identity markers and clues to our personalities (let alone conversation starters)–seems to take away a valuable function of books as social and household artifacts.
  • Hurts the eyes. I’m sorry, but yes. Reading long PDFs on my laptop screen hurts my eyes, and this is no different. Kindles, iPads, laptop screens… It’s nothing like reading a book. It’s exactly like reading an electronic screen. Eyesore.
  • More expensive! This may not always be true, but it was for me and The Great Gatsby. $10.99 on Kindle. $7.99 for the physical book. How does that make sense?

Anyway, that’s my two cents. I’m open to e-books, but I’m certainly not convinced of their value.

What do you think? Have you had a positive experience with e-books? Negative? Indifferent? Are physical books going to exist in the future?

Easter Humility

For Lent, I gave up blogging. Today, Easter, I’m posting my first new blog post since March 8, when I announced my fast from the blogosphere.

It was a refreshing break.

Though the last six weeks have hardly been the quiet, contemplative, restful Lenten weeks I’d hoped they would be, it’s still been a fruitful exercise to abstain from the blogosphere during this time. There were plenty of times I wanted to chime in on the issue of the moment, or a thought I’d been wrestling with… but the process of thinking about something carefully, and then not sharing it with the world, was incredibly enriching.

I think it’s important to have restraint. If there’s one thing I’ve been learning–and want to keep learning–it is the importance of being slow to speak, but quick to listen.  I want to be a better listener, a better perceiver, a better interpreter of the world and its beauties. To take in more than I churn out… and then to churn out only after a thoughtful period of processing and active listening… that’s where I want to be. As a blogger, as a friend, as a follower of Christ.

On Easter, as we contemplate the magnificent triumph of the Resurrection–of Christ’s victory over sin and death and his inauguration of a redeemed, renewing creation–I am reminded anew of the lengths of humility and depths of servitude that characterized Christ’s life.

He was a suffering servant, downwardly mobile. He was a carpenter who favored the company of fishermen, the sick and the poor. He “made himself of no reputation,” and washed his disciples feet. He was not unfamiliar with suffering, and willingly bore the humiliation of the cross and the shame of sin, even as he of all men did not deserve it. He was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.

This blog post excerpt by New Testament scholar Joe Hellerman on the “shame-bearing” suffering of Christ is worth reading:

Willingly stepping down the ladder of public esteem… is precisely what Jesus did for you and for me in his incarnation and subsequent death on the cross: ‘He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross’ (Phil 2:8). The early Christians were highly sensitive to the utter shame that crucifixion entailed in their social world—thus Paul’s emphatic phrase ‘even death on a cross.’

One of our earliest recorded Easter sermons describes the great paradox of a humiliated God like this:

He who hung the earth [in its place] is fixed there, he who made all things fast is made fast upon the tree, the Master has been insulted, God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been slain by an Israelitish hand. O strange murder, strange crime! The Master has been treated in unseemly fashion, his body naked, and not even deemed worthy of a covering, that [his nakedness] might not be seen. Therefore the lights [of heaven] turned away, and the day darkened, that it might hide him who was stripped upon the cross. (Melito or Sardis, Homily on the Passion, 96)

Another ancient Christian preacher similarly reflected,

Where can anything be found more paradoxical than this? This death was the most shameful of all, the most accursed. . . .This was no ordinary death. (John Chrysostom, Homily on Philippians, 8.2.5–11)

No comments in either of these sermon excerpts about Jesus’ physical suffering. No comments about the atonement. For these early Christian preachers, it was the horror of God the Son’s public humiliation that they wanted to impress upon their congregations.

Jesus, we are told by the author of Hebrews, ‘endured the cross, scorning its shame’ (Heb 12:2).

The humility of Christ, and his willingness to be humiliated, should give us all pause. In a culture of extreme exhibitionism, vanity, pride, in which everything is done with an eye to “status” and social performance, this sort of humility is hard to come by. When we do encounter it–even in faint glimpses–it astounds and inspires us, because it’s just so against our natural disposition toward pride and narcissism.

When Christ rose from the dead, there began a movement of followers of his way. Followers of the upside-down kingdom of heaven that Christ introduced. This new way of living includes–and indeed, centers upon–humility. It’s a life in which we are instructed to “in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3) and to deny ourselves and take up our crosses (Mark 8:34-35) rather than seek status and affirmation. It’s a life where the “meek” and “poor in spirit” are blessed.

Easter is a triumph, but it’s not a call to triumphalism.

We have to remember that the triumph–every triumph–is in Christ, not in us. Not that we are worthless… just that our worth is derived from, animated by, and seen in light of Christ alone.

And that’s a reassuring, energizing thought. It means that I’m nothing apart from Christ; but that in him, because of him, I’m something. I have some sort of purpose. Figuring out what that purpose is, and in humility striving to live up to it, continues to be an ongoing process and an ongoing search… of which this blog is certainly a part.

It’s a Good Day

(A 2009 Good Friday post)

I always wondered why it was called “Good Friday.” I mean, Jesus was brutally tortured and hung on a cross. There were dark skies and earthquakes and torn veils. Seems more like “Bad Friday,” doesn’t it? Really, has humanity ever had a worse day? The one time the God of the universe was actually walking around in human form on earth, and what do we do? We kill him. That’s pretty bad.

Yet we call it Good Friday. And sure enough, it is a good day. In spite of the horrors of the crucifixion, in spite of the horrors of our own sin and depravity, it is a good day. Why? Because of the last words Jesus uttered before he gave up his spirit: It is finished.

These are words to remember.

In the darkest hours of the night, when nightmares and migraines and monsters keep us from sleep. When car crashes and hospital bills and blood tests make us fret. When sirens and helicopters and cancer loom in the background.

It is finished.

On the days when you don’t want to wake up because you know there is way more to do than can be done, when you feel like you’ll never make a dent in the checklist. When you say the wrong things and love the wrong people. When you long for the good ole days. When scotch is the only way you can make it through. When you look at the world and it hurts your gut.

It is finished.

When it all comes crashing down: bones, taxes, therapy, pottery, dishonesty, Sunday School, workman’s comp, babysitters, yoga, coffee, car insurance, insecurity, vitamins, piano lessons, treadmill, facebook, failure, success, love, loss… remember that all the trouble we’ve seen has been seen before, every hardship endured on some other rocky road. Christ took it upon himself and assumed the burden. Friends: it is finished.

“In this world you will have trouble,” said Jesus on the night before he died. “But take heart!” he continued. “I have overcome the world.”

Overcome the world?

You better believe this is a good day.

Trees.

(A Palm Sunday post from 2009… Appropriate this year in light of this coming attraction).

Growing up, I always used to associate Palm Sunday with the coming of spring. In the Midwest, spring meant that flowers bloomed and trees blossomed. The earth got green again. Girls put on frilly white dresses and boys were forced to wear pastel ties. The kids waived palm fronds in the air and heard flannel graph stories of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem.

In Southern California, palm trees are everywhere. There are many varieties, but I’m most taken with the really really tall, skinny ones that line some of the streets in Beverly Hills, for example. How do they stay up? They are flimsy looking and yet durable—regal icons watching over the glittery sidewalks and sad-eyed starlets, basking in the Pacific sun and ocean/desert air. On gusty days they sway and wobble, like tipsy flappers at the Coconut Grove. Come morning, they’re still there—minus a few fronds, perhaps.

The first house I lived in—on Redbud Street in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma—had some pretty interesting trees. There were a few peach trees in the backyard from which we occasionally plucked fruit and made pie or cobbler. There were dogwoods and Bradford pear trees, the latter of which was a beautiful white in the spring but had a tendency to lose branches in winter ice storms. And there was a monstrous oak that secreted this vomit-like substance from a few holes in its bark. I never found out what that was all about.

Have you ever been to Yosemite National Park? They have the biggest trees I’ve ever seen. In the park’s famous Mariposa Grove, there are trees with trunks so wide you can drive through them. There are trees there that are more than 2,500 years old. That means that some of the trees that are still growing in this grove were centuries old at the time Christ was walking the earth.

Terrence Malick’s film, The New World (one of my favorite movies ever) has a lot of shots of trees. Trees are important in the film. “Think of a tree, how it grows around its wounds,” says one character. “If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop but keeps reaching towards the light.” The New World is about resiliency—about pushing on amidst hardship, pain, suffering, and striving to make the best of one’s circumstance. Trees are like that—always growing, pulled toward the sky, even when winds and rain and hardship come. They weather all seasons, even if they lose some pieces along the way.

Trees are about life and death. They’re mostly about life, but there’s some death in there too. The thing I love about trees is that even when they look lost and hopeless and perhaps down for the count, there is so often a vitality brimming beneath the bark, or a bud about ready to pop. In the dead of winter, an ugly, dead-looking tree is still very much alive, ready to spring forth with greenery and oxygen when the weather turns. It’s a comfort, and I feel it keenly this Palm Sunday weekend: there’s always a hidden life behind dead-looking things. There’s always the promise of newness and rebirth.

Nothing is ever really dead.