Monthly Archives: June 2011

Best Films of the First Half

It’s hard to believe, but the first half of 2011 is already history. That means it’s time for a mid-year survey of the year in film. So, here are my picks for the best 5 films of the first half of 2011 (no one will be surprised at number 1):

1) The Tree of Life: Terrence Malick’s magnificent film is breathtaking in both its ambition and its execution. This is a film that connects. It certainly connected with me, more so with each viewing (I’ve seen it 3 times). It’s a film that pushes cinematic storytelling forward, imagining new ways to piece together image, sound, vocal fragment, idea. But the film is not just an exercise in style; it’s a deeply personal, philosophical, punch-you-in-the-gut meditation on some of life’s biggest questions. (my review)

2) Meek’s Cutoff: I’ve been a fan of each of Kelly Reichardt’s films (Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy), but her most recent is perhaps the most interesting. It’s the most philosophical western I think I’ve ever seen–if you can call it a western. Actually it’s more like a Gus van Sant-esque period road movie. In any case, it’s a film of great restraint, mystery, and “you-fill-in-the-gap” insinuation. It’s a film that beckons the audience to actively participate in the process of meaning making, which is a rarity I always appreciate. (my review)

3) Cave of Forgotten Dreams: I love Werner Herzog. His curiosity about the world is endearingly transparent in his wonder-filled films, and Cave is no exception. A documentary about prehistoric paintings discovered in a French cave, this film is educational, artful, inspiring, and thought provoking. In true Herzog fashion, it highlights the simultaneous majesty and silliness of human civilization against the backdrop of an endlessly mysterious natural world. How do we make sense of the world? Herzog hones in on this abstract question, even while he–a true artist/philosopher–lives it out himself. (my review)

4) Certified Copy: Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is essentially Before Sunset in Italy, which is good because Sunset is one of my all time favorite films. Filmed in glorious Tuscany, featuring the sublime Juliette Binoche, and riffing on notions of originality, inspiration, and cinema itself, Copy is a complex modernist experiment in the style of Alain Resnais. Rent it.

5) Of Gods and Men. A true story about monks in North Africa who risk it all in pursuit of their mission, Gods is one of the most inspiring films about faith, sacrifice, and community that I’ve ever seen. A quiet, austere, but utterly transcendent film, Gods paints a picture of what it means to be faithfully present as Christ’s ambassadors in a world that is beautiful, dynamic, and frequently hostile.

Honorable mention: Another Year. It came out in L.A. the last week of 2010 but everywhere else in 2011, so I’m not sure in which year it qualifies. In any case, it’s an amazing film. A must-see for fans of Mike Leigh. (my review)

I also really enjoyed: Hanna, Midnight in Paris, Super 8, X Men: First Class, Bridesmaids.

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Super 8

Super 8 is a film about film. It’s about a group of kids in the 1970s who, armed with a Super 8 camera (one of the first “home movie” technologies), set out to make a zombie film and inadvertently find themselves filming something even more “movie-like” than zombies. Of course, this then is turned into a film in itself, in the style of Spielberg.

The whole Spielberg homage thing is very fun–and done extremely well–but it’s mostly interesting to me in that it immediately (along with the title) casts the film in a self-conscious light. This is a movie about the movies (a topic that always interests me). It’s a movie about movies both in the sense that it draws attention to the jaw-dropping spectacle and magic of cinema (like any Spielberg film does), but also in that it seems to examine the cinematic impulse itself: what we do with a camera in our hands, how we tell stories filmically, how “reality” and “nonreality” intermingle in the process, and why we choose to direct the camera at some things and not others.

Just as JJ Abrams’ Cloverfield explored the notion of amateur film-making by telling its monster movie tale through the lens of a low-fi camera and average Joe observer taking it all in, Abrams’ latest film ruminates on the intersection of scripted and unscripted footage, amateur and professional, high and low tech. In Super 8, the “action” of the kids’ film intertwines with the higher-budget “action” of epic train wrecks, military coverups and alien havoc. Tellingly, the kids see the “real” chaos in terms both of their own survival but also a “is the camera still rolling?” documentary impulse. They improvise and incorporate the bigger drama into their own narrative, poaching the disaster movie happening around them and repurposing bits and pieces of it for their own storytelling ends.

In this, Abrams’ film reflects the curiosity of our contemporary YouTube landscape–where “raw footage” of whatever sort (disasters, news footage, celebrity gaffes, etc.) can be remixed, re-edited, and put to work to fit the fancy of any number of aspiring auteurs or opinionated pontificators. Like any media form, the moving image has proven to be skillful at both capturing reality as it unfolds as well as capturing the malleability of reality to fit itself within the vision, fantasy, or agenda of whatever artisan maneuvers the media apparatus.

Super 8–with its ubiquitous lens flares and high flying crane shots–doesn’t hide the fact that it’s sculpting reality in a very particular, non-real manner. It’s clear that it is an artificial creation, just like any movie. But that doesn’t stop the film from ably pondering its own ontology and asking questions about what we mean when we say things of reality like, “this feels like we’re in a movie.”

At one point in Super 8, the kids watch on the news the footage of a massive train wreck they were right in the thick of the night before. “It’s on the news, so it must be real,” says one character.

Indeed, our world is so entirely mediated these days that occasionally something doesn’t feel real unless it’s shown to us–from 20 different angles–on a screen of some sort. Our immediate perceptions are to be doubted. But the mediated image seems somehow more trustworthy.

Super 8 points out how ridiculous such a scenario actually is, even while it reinforces why the “real” on film can sometimes feel more compelling than the actual real. It’s because movies like Super 8 are exciting, invigorating, resonant, and emotionally true. And it’s because we increasingly live our lives via screens, images, and media. We trust them more than our own eyes.

Should Cinema be Slow and Boring?

In recent weeks, several prominent film critics have engaged in a lively back-and-forth about the question of “slow and boring” cinema. Hearkening back to the famous Pauline Kael-Andrew Sarris debates of the 60s-70s, this latest debate revives some of the classic, ongoing tensions in cinema, and raises fundamental questions about about the movies are for, and how we should watch them.

It started with Dan Kois’ piece in the New York Times Magazine, in which he basically said that he was sick of suffering through boring, artsy films, even though he knew they were good for him. Even though he still engages in what he calls “aspirational viewing” (giving artsy films a shot, hoping to connect with them in spite of their difficulties), Kois notes that he would rather not pretend to like certain films just to demonstrate refined taste:

Perhaps I’m realizing that enjoyment doesn’t necessarily have to be a performative act, even for someone who writes about movies. Or perhaps I just lack the youthful exuberance that led me to believe I could rewire my brain through repeated exposure to Antonioni. Part of me mourns the sophisticated cineaste I might never become; part of me is grateful for all the time I’ll save now that I am a bit more choosy about the aspirational viewing in which I engage.

This post was then responded to with a one-two punch from the Times’ Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, in a piece entitled “In Defense of Slow and Boring.”

Dargis unleashed her missive with a particularly large heaping of ire aimed at mindless Hollywood blockbusters such as the universally panned Hangover 2. She writes:

“As I get older,” Mr. Kois concludes, “I find I’m suffering from a kind of culture fatigue and have less interest in eating my cultural vegetables, no matter how good they may be for me.” Happily for him, movie theaters offer a cornucopia of junk food.

For instance: “The Hangover Part II,” which I find boring, raked in $137.4 million over the five-day Memorial Day weekend. It’s the kind of boring that makes money, partly because it’s the boring that many people like, want to like, insist on liking or are just used to, and partly because it’s the sort of aggressively packaged boring you can’t escape, having opened on an estimated 17 percent of American screens. Filled with gags and characters recycled from the first “Hangover,” the sequel is grindingly repetitive and features scene after similar scene of characters staring at one another stupidly, flailing about wildly and asking what happened. This is the boring that Andy Warhol, who liked boring, found, well, boring.

For his part, Scott responded not only to Kois, but also to critics like Time’s Richard Schickel, who hated Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, decrying its “twaddling pretenses,” and calling Malick “an inept filmmaker.”

Scott responded:

In Mr. Schickel’s argument, “pretentious” functions, like “boring” elsewhere, as an accusation that it is almost impossible to refute, since it is a subjective hunch masquerading as a description. Manohla, you had some reservations about “The Tree of Life,” but your dispatch on it from Cannes emphasized its self-evident and disarming sincerity. Sincerity is the opposite of pretentiousness, and while it is certainly possible to be puzzled or annoyed by Mr. Malick’s philosophical tendencies or unmoved by the images he composes or the story he tells, I don’t think there is any pretending involved.

At Salon.com, critic Andrew O’Hehir takes a somewhat middle-of-the-road approach, though he sides with “team boredom” in the end:

Suffice it to say they’re both right and both wrong and that, thankfully, hardly anyone holds those positions in their purest form. Pop culture can be a tremendously liberating collective experience, and can also be a tool and an example of totalitarianism. What remains of aristocratic high culture in the art-house tradition really does embody some of the finest aesthetic values of the post-Renaissance West, but it can also be a masochistic and exclusionary ritual, like Odysseus tied to the mast and listening to the Sirens sing. What is boring? A lot of human life is boring, and we’ve all got to pick our poison. Most people, most of the time, prefer to be distracted from the boredom of everyday life with movies that labor to entertain them — and they may get understandably pissed off at those of us who claim that those things, too, are boring.

What about works of art that are deliberately and intensively boring, in the Tarkovsky mode? They’ll almost certainly be out there somewhere, for the audience of flagellants like me who want to seek them out, but that’s hardly the point. Even if you take the most dystopian possible view, as I often do, and see a culture that has tried to build a massive edifice to keep boredom out, a Maginot Line or Berlin Wall of permanent entertainment — well, then reflect on what happened to the Maginot Line and the Berlin Wall. Boredom is like the ants’ nest underneath your picnic, or the mass of hungry zombies outside the mall. Do what you will, you can’t keep it out.

Though complex and multifaceted, I think what this debate boils down to is a question of the merits of “escapism” and the proper posture one should have towards consuming cultural items like films. If a film demands more than intellectual passivity from its audience, should we rise to the occasion and “aspire” (as Kois puts it) to get the film? Or is it our right and prerogative, as an audience, to demand that films speak to us on our level, give us what we want for a few hours (escapism), and then send us on our merry way?

Of course, beneath these questions is the complicated history and nature of the cinematic medium. Historically it’s been a popular form of diversion, more “mass entertainment” than other artistic forms. But in spite of its populist roots, there is no question that cinema has proven, from even its earliest days, that it is indeed an art form–capable of exploring, exposing, moving, and challenging audiences as effectively (or , sometimes, even more) than novels, paintings, or plays. Thus, I think we can excuse from the outset the notion that film is somehow destined, or properly meant, to solely be diversion. Film has proven itself adept at artistic achievement, and we should thus proceed in this conversation as if film is on the same level as the “high arts,” because it is–or can be.

The issue here is bigger than just film. It’s about how we consume anything, and how we look at the world. Do we really believe in the power of art to edify our lives? Are there things left to discover or learn about the world through art? Or is it merely something pleasing from which we can partake as means of reprieve or escape?

It would be easy to accuse Kois and Schickel of being lazy–just not looking hard enough or caring to exert energy in “getting” a difficult, slow or boring film. But I think it has more to do with cynicism than laziness. Sadly, our world is ever more cynical and skeptical, doubtful that anything mediated is truly true, or good, or new. We’re understandably reluctant to trust in anything mediated to us, because we’ve seen everything, we think. What could a movie possibly add that we haven’t learned from first-hand experience? It’s almost as if, in a world of over-mediated, what-can-we-trust incredulity, our physical and first-hand experience is all we can believe in.

We are also skeptical about meaning. Is it even there? Grand, ambitious attempts at meaning making are foolishness in a postmodern world (this is evident in Schickel’s insinuation that great film directors only touch on the “big questions” as an aside to the more important narrative entertainment). We’re dubious that pondering, probing, or discovering meaning in life is possible, or even desirable. Thus, why exert energy trying to figure out the nuances of what some other dude (especially some annoyingly esoteric, obtuse artist like Terrence Malick) thinks about the mysteries of existence? Just give me something I can laugh out, immerse myself in, or be amused by.

This sort of cynicism understandably makes any sort of sincere, complex or difficult art terribly arduous to endure. When we are closed off to the possibility that art can actually teach us things, or make our lives better, or reveal truth to us, then of course it becomes a chore and a bore to sit through. Kois’s “aspirational viewing” is admirable, but it seems like what he’s “aspiring” to is more a sort of in-the-know literacy than an actual discovery of beauty and truth. In the end, Kois seems to resent films that set their own terms, confront or challenge us, or suggest that we have things to learn about ourselves and our world. Escapist films are just so much more palatable.

The thing is, “escapism” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s all in how we understand what escapism means. Yes, film and other arts are great at escapism in the sense that they show us exotic worlds, take us out of our comfort zones and allow us to see and experience wonders we might otherwise never behold. But when escapism is sought after merely because it temporarily nulls the boredom, void, denial, or fear we have in confronting the world right in front of us, escapism becomes an abuse (in the same way we might abuse alcohol or some other drug). In the latter case, escapism is a selfish, lazy, quick-fix thing we use to soothe ourselves. We don’t care what the cultural text in question has to say; only what it does for us. The better approach to escapism is when we cede our control, letting the film take us where it wants to go and opening ourselves up to what it has to show us. In this, we see new scenery, new places, new perspectives. We “escape” the mundane. But we also see the mundane anew, recognizing–if we are willing to actively search–mysteries and curiosities about ourselves and our world that film and other arts are uncannily skilled at revealing.

Announcing… Book No. 2

It’s been almost a year since Hipster Christianity, my first book, was released. Thank you to all those read it, responded to it, engaged it and supported me throughout the process of it. HC was a thrilling, humbling, once-in-a-lifetime experience. You only write your first book once, after all. I’m thrilled with the conversations it started, and I thank God for giving me the opportunity to contribute to such an important ongoing discussion, both in the writing of the book and in the subsequent interviews, dialogues, lectures, and speaking engagements I’ve been blessed to participate in.

HC came out of my deep passion for the church and my abiding interest in the dynamic narrative of Christianity’s relationship with culture. That general interest area–particularly advocating for a thoughtful, nuanced Christian engagement with popular culture–continues to drive my writing life, whether I’m talking about smartphones, Malick movies, or–as in the most recent issue of Christianity Todaymarijuana.

How do Christians engage the culture in a way that enriches our spiritual walk, edifies God, and contributes to broader human flourishing? How should we go about consuming potentially dicey — but also potentially edifying — areas of pop culture? How do we get the most out of that which we consume, and how do we discern what is and isn’t appropriate among the vast range of cultural goods, experiences, and products to which we are daily beckoned as consumers?

These are the sorts of questions I’m always asking, and they’re questions that loom large in my next book project, which I’m proud to say I started writing last week (after signing a contract with Baker Books, who will be publishing it).

I don’t want to say too much about the specifics of the book just yet… But I will say that it’s admittedly ambitious and sprawling, and will require immense energies and focus as I write it over the next 14 months (even as I work full time, pursue relationships, and continue to travel and speak in support of HC). That said, it’s going to be an absolute blast to write. The research for this book will take me to Switzerland, Spain, England, Chicago, New York, among many other places. It will require me to spend plenty of hours conversing with baristas and filmmakers and poets and musicians, and may require a few trips to breweries and wineries. It won’t be a bad gig.

As I begin the writing process, one thing that is motivating me is my firmly held belief in the radical nature of nuance. Moderation. Balance.

As is the case (sadly) with so many things in Christianity, the Christian position on culture tends to fall into extremes: Either “hands off!” separatism on one hand, which views culture as mostly a corrupting thing, or an “arms open wide” embrace on the other hand, which accepts perhaps more than it should and sometimes (as in my generation of Relevant recovering evangelicals, for e.g.), in rebellion against legalism, overcompensates too much in the direction of license. We don’t really do nuance or balance well. But is there a middle way forward? How do we positively seek out and engage culture in ways that are mature, discerning and edifying rather than reckless, excessive or reactionary? How can we slow down, pause, and consider culture more attentively?

These are big, important questions. How we engage culture and consume it as Christians has as much of a bearing on mission–our witness as ambassadors of Christ–as it does on our own development as embodied beings seeking after Christ.

This book (which I promise is more specific than the vagueries I’m giving you here!) is more than anything an attempt to add something of value to the ongoing narrative of  Christian cultural engagement (Niebuhr, Lewis, Schaeffer, Kuyper, L’Engle, Begbie, Dillard, Hunter, etc.), while speaking particularly to specific areas in culture that have proven thorny or contested within contemporary Christianity.

I’m excited to undertake this project, and I’m glad to have the support of so many of you along the way. I’ll be posting book thoughts and excerpts on this blog along the way, so stay tuned!

Babies: Born This Way?

I was recently quite disturbed by this story of a couple in Toronto who have refused to divulge the gender of their recently born child, who they named Storm (how perfectly gender ambiguous!). Though Storm does indeed have a gender, Storm’s parents–Kathy Witterick and David Stocker–aren’t telling anyone, not even family and close friends, what it is.

“We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now–a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation,” wrote Witterick in an email. “In fact, in not telling the gender of my precious baby, I am saying to the world, ‘Please can you just let Storm discover for him/herself what s (he) wants to be?!.”

“What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. It’s obnoxious,” said Stocker.

There are many troubling aspects to this story, not least of which is the fact that a newborn has been turned into a political statement by his/her “progressive and proud of it!” parents. If we’re talking about giving children more choices and more freedom, did anyone ask little Storm if he/she wanted to be turned into a political statement about gender ambiguity? No one asked Storm, but nevertheless it appears the baby is fated to live a life forever tainted by his/her parents refusal to raise a child with gender as a given attribute of identity.

More troubling is the notion that a baby’s gender is a choice that parents can make for it, or even a choice that the baby can make for itself at some point. I realize that this is contested territory in our society today (look no further than the new documentary Becoming Chaz to see how normalized the notion of gender malleability is in our culture), but I just have a hard time accepting this extreme insistence on freedom of choice in the realm of something as fundamental as gender. Are we really free to become anything we want to be, if science/surgery can make it possible? Where does it end? I suppose it’s a natural outgrowth of our society’s values of autonomy and liberty (no one but me controls my fate!) that now even the bodies we are born with are subject to our consumer preferences.

But perhaps most troubling in this story is the idea that making choices for children is a bad thing–that, even from birth, humans are entitled to decide everything for themselves, and that parents who get too pushy about dos and don’ts are merely cogs in the machine of an oppressive hegemony, hellbent on suffocating the freedom and fancy of autonomous individuals.

Personally, I’m thankful for rules. I’m thankful my parents lived in a world of moral norms, dos-and-don’ts, crime and punishment. I’m glad they didn’t let me decide everything for myself. I’m glad there were structures, guidelines, expectations. How awful to grow up in a formless void of anything-goes, “every feeling you have is true!” vapidity. We are fallen creatures, and every feeling we have is not true, good, or right. We need to learn that. We need people to tell us that we aren’t always right, even when we feel like we are.

In The Tree of Life, the boys have a hard time with their disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt) and seem to favor their more gracious mother (Jessica Chastain). But notice what happens when their father goes away for a trip. Under mom’s lenient watch, they get into all sorts of mischief. They discover their dark side. Freedom, unbound by the accountability of dad’s watchful eye, leads them to sin. It’s fun to be free, but it leads them down a dark path. Ultimately, they need their father. They need someone to tell them no, and they respect him all the more for it. This is loving: Being able to guide the unwieldy whims and freedom of someone you love into a pattern of virtue and restraint. Left to our own devices, free of all constraints and having no choices made for us, we’re bound for all sorts of trouble.

The whole thing reminds me of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way (which I blogged about back in February), an album which sets forth an increasingly heralded ethos of embracing whoever and whatever you want to be. “There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are,” sings Gaga. “Cause he made you perfect, Babe… God makes no mistakes.”

But if God makes no mistakes, why not celebrate the gender of a baby who is born one way and not the other?

What Gaga is really trying to say is “YOU are God, and you make no mistakes… Forget how God, or evolution, or biology made you… None of that matters because you can change it any time you want. You are bound by no one and nothing.”

And that’s an ethos that can only lead little Storm, and the world in which he/she will grow up, into utter chaos.