Monthly Archives: February 2013

Truth, Memory, Love: The Films of 2012

As the last in a long, exhausting, three-month parade of self-congratulatory awards shows and “best of the year” recaps, the Academy Awards sometimes come as more of a relief than a climax. Finally we can shut the door on the year that was and move on to the next big things.

When we watch the Oscars we’re often surprised to be reminded that yes, that film from a year ago was fromjust a year ago. So it goes in our hyperspeed forgetful culture, where it’s hard to remember last week’s viral YouTube clip let alone last year’s blockbuster films. It’s no wonder Academy voters tend to nominate only movies released in the last few months of a year. Everything these days — even the best movies — are so swiftly consumed and disposed. Very little lingers. I’m pleasantly surprised when Academy voters recognize anything from before October (this year’s token early-in-the-year nominee was Beasts of the Southern Wild).

It seems our collective cultural memory is ever more truncated. Who of us can remember the Best Picture winners from recent years? Or if you watch the Oscars more for the fashions, who can remember what anyone wore?

Memory can be as untrustworthy as it is beloved, as fragile and dangerous as it is indispensable. Perhaps because our frantically paced, fragmented contemporary world reinforces the tenuousness of recollection more than ever, many of this year’s films seemed to wrestle with that very theme.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained played with our culture’s collective memories of slavery and the Civil War, wrestling with the iconography of national heroes and institutions and the lingering stains of a peculiar period in American history.

Zero Dark Thirty and Argo also explored American history, albeit much more recent episodes. The former, likeLincoln, received plenty of criticism for its portrayals of the way things happened — in this case the way torture was or was not an influential part of the quest for Osama Bin Laden. The difficulty of that question—and the feverish handwringing from politicians and commentators that accompanied it—underscores the difficulty we have as our society with truth: locating it, understanding it, reckoning with it, even when it’s such recent history.

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi dealt with this in its own (perhaps heavy-handed) way. The film ends with a postmodern monologue that acknowledges the difficulties we have with narratives of our history (who can ever know whatactually happened?) while celebrating the art of storytelling in a “who cares what’s true!” sort of way.

Ben Affleck’s Argo seems to advocate a similar stance toward truth. Both in its celebration of cinematic storytelling as a liberating force (literally) and in its own unabashed stretching of the facts in the historical episode it narrates, Argo traverses the same epistemological terrain as Life of Pi, though perhaps more unknowingly. Affleck probably didn’t set out to make a film that presents so vividly the conundrum of historical truth’s elusiveness and storytelling’s distorting power, but that’s what Argo turns out to be (and not in a good way). In his recent takedown of Argo, critic Andrew O’Hehir calls the film “a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology.” He continues:

Affleck and Terrio are spinning a fanciful tale designed to make us feel better about the decrepit, xenophobic and belligerent Cold War America of 1980 as it toppled toward the abyss of Reaganism, and that’s a more outrageous lie than any of the contested historical points in Lincoln or Zero Dark Thirty. It’s almost hilarious that the grim and ambiguous portrayal of torture in Kathryn Bigelow’s film—torture that absolutely happened, however one judges it and whatever information it did or didn’t produce—was widely decried as propagandistic by well-meaning liberals who never noticed or didn’t care about Affleck and Terrio’s wholesale fictionalization.

It’s unfortunate that Argo appears to be on track to become the next Crash (that is: an extremely undeserving Best Picture winner). Because there were many other 2012 films that more eloquently wrestled with the preoccupations and eccentricities of our present age.

One I commend to you is Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a Turkish drama from Nuri Bilge Ceylan that explores the theme of the elusiveness of truth in a beautifully restrained, curiously ambivalent manner—one that leaves you unsettled precisely because it hits so close to home. The Imposter is another deeply unnerving, absolutely gripping film from 2012 that explores the tension between truth and storytelling. It’s a documentary that depicts a stranger-than-fiction story of identity theft, breached security, and (most disturbingly) one family’s willful self-deception.

The anxieties about truth on display in all of these films seem fitting for a year like 2012 — a politically charged, rhetoric-saturated election year. A year in which the hiddenness of truth and the reality that there are very few “no-spin zones” left in this world became depressingly pronounced. Ours is a world where subjective narratives of every sort — whether 140 character tweets, cable news talking head banter, or blog commentary — bombard us from every which way at nearly all hours of the day. It’s no wonder skepticism about truth and uneasiness about narrative reliability thread through so many of our films.

This present awareness of our weak connections to truth and our fragility in a world so crazed and chaotic has a positive consequence in film as well: a renewed emphasis on the power of human connection and love as a coping mechanism. This can be seen in 2012 films like Moonrise KingdomBeasts of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings PlaybookAmour, and Rust and Bone—movies where terrible things happen and suffering abounds, but love for one another becomes an almost salvific balm. This is also evident in my favorite film of 2012, The Dardenne Brothers’ The Kid With a Bike (read my review), which powerfully depicts the redemptive power of sacrificial love between a single woman and an orphaned boy who stumbles into her life.

Of course, relationships can be as fragile, fickle and untrustworthy as are our connections to truth. Films like On the RoadKilling Them Softly, and The Loneliest Planet underscore this point, showing how tenuous our connections to one another can be and how quickly they can turn, especially in an environment of skepticism and “every man for himself” individualism. We live in a world where (for good reason, perhaps), people are more guarded than ever. We’ve seen tragedy and expect it. We’ve been let down too many times and will not be surprised by it again. In such a world it’s hard to open oneself up too readily to anything purporting to be substantial — whether it be love, or “truth,” or a stable family.

Some of the best films—of this year or any year—are those which chip away a bit at this guardedness and invite us to believe in things like love and truth again. For me this year, that was The Kid With the Bike. What was it for you?

Originally published on Q Ideas.

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On Zadie Smith, C.S. Lewis, and Joy

A few weeks ago I read Zadie Smith’s essay, “Joy,” in the New York Review of Books. If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend doing so. It’s a beautifully written, decidedly contemporary reflection on joy with a tone I suspect Millennial and Gen-X readers will particularly resonate with. I also recommend Gary Gutting’s follow-up piece in the Times, helpfully bringing Thomas Aquinas into conversation with Smith’s portrait of joy.

As I’ve reflected on Smith’s essay the last few weeks, I’ve thought about a few things. The first is that I believe Smith’s ultimate conclusions about joy as opposed to pleasure are somewhat reminiscent of those of C.S. Lewis, whose reflections on joy ring the truest of all those I’ve come across.

Smith’s essay begins with an assumption that is self-evident to anyone who exists in this world: pleasures are rather easy to come by but joy is a bit more elusive. She then describes a handful of moments in her life when she felt that she touched joy, in particular a London nightclub experience in the 90s at the beginning of the ecstasy craze. But was that really joy? The morning-after letdown makes Smith wonder. Maybe joy exists mostly in the tease, the replication, the mimesis of something far rarer or altogether out of reach?

Reflecting on her drug experience that felt awfully close to joy, Smith writes:

At the neural level, such experiences gave you a clue about what joy not-under-the-influence would feel like. Helped you learn to recognize joy, when it arrived. I suppose a neuroscientist could explain in very clear terms why the moment after giving birth can feel ecstatic, or swimming in a Welsh mountain lake with somebody dear to you. Perhaps the same synapses that ecstasy falsely twanged are twanged authentically by fresh water, certain epidurals, and oxytocin… We certainly don’t need to be neuroscientists to know that wild romantic crushes—especially if they are fraught with danger—do something ecstatic to our brains, though like the pills that share the name, horror and disappointment are usually not far behind. When my wild crush came, we wandered around a museum for so long it closed without us noticing; stuck in the grounds we climbed a high wall and, finding it higher on its other side, considered our options: broken ankles or a long night sleeping on a stone lion. In the end a passerby helped us down, and things turned prosaic and, after a few months, fizzled out. What looked like love had just been teen spirit. But what a wonderful thing, to sit on a high wall, dizzy with joy, and think nothing of breaking your ankles.

To me, Smith’s notion of joy here feels like bittersweet nostalgia and longing more than anything, which brings to mind Lewis’s notion of it in Surprised by Joy. Reflecting on the common qualities of Lewis’s own list of “joy” experiences from childhood, he writes:

For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasure in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.

Smith seems to agree with Lewis that joy is a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. “The thing no one ever tells you about joy,” she writes, “is that it has very little real pleasure in it.” And yet she seems more perplexed than Lewis on the question of why humans would choose to desire joy over pleasure, even when it can cause so much pain:

The writer Julian Barnes, considering mourning, once said, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.” In fact, it was a friend of his who wrote the line in a letter of condolence, and Julian told it to my husband, who told it to me. For months afterward these words stuck with both of us, so clear and so brutal. It hurts just as much as it is worth. What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal? Surely if we were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do. The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.

Smith’s recognition of the ultimate disposability and evanescence of pleasure seems to me representative of my generation’s increasing awareness of the general ephemerality of things, and their skepticism of all the tropes (a house, a family, a career, the suburban life…) previously associated (mostly via Hollywood) with a “joyous” life.

Mine is a generation which has grown up seeing about half of all marriages end in divorce. We’ve seen the real estate market collapse a few times, as well the stock market. We’ve seen umpteen holes shot through our heroes and icons (sex scandals, doping scandals, the generally unflattering transparency of 360 degree media).

Meanwhile, the allure of physical possessions seems ever diminished. Books on bookshelves are going the way of the CD. Amassing expensive furniture, investing in home improvements, registering for fine wedding china that will rarely be used… all of it feels pointless in a world whose impermanence is palpable: a world where life is lived via moment-by-moment tweets and Insta-documents quickly forgotten; where natural disaster, terrorism and apocalyptic doom are not feared as much as expected; where market instability, escalating debt and climate change make visions the future look closer to Children of Men than “Tomorrowland.”

Because of all of this (and no doubt much more), many of us are now, on the whole, much more desirous of experiences than things. We’d rather travel, eat amazing food, see movies, have adventures, and live socially in the present-tense than build for anything long-term. Unlike our parents, we tend to rent rather than buy; we work in jobs for years but not decades; we don’t live in one place for very long. We have close friends for “seasons,” but very few for life.

To be sure, the idea of rootedness, permanence and longevity–building an idyllic homestead wherein one’s family can flourish, amidst a tightknit community where “everybody knows your name,” where we can carve out a niche and stake our place for once and all–is desirable, but mostly in a fantasy sense (in the simultaneously nostalgic and eschatological sense, perhaps, of Marilynne Robinson’s reflections on home in the essay, “When I was a Child I Read Books.”) Such a vision confronts us mostly as a stab, a pang, a longing for what we know will probably never be.

And this brings us back to the discussion of joy. For it is precisely in those pangs and longings where joy exists, argues Lewis. “All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire,” he wrote once in a letter to Dom Bede Griffiths. “Our best havings are wantings.”

Though I agree with Lewis that pleasure is surely distinct from joy, I also think they are very closely linked. That is, I believe pleasure–mostly the nostalgic remembrance of a pleasure–can often be a catalyst for joy. Zadie Smith’s experience in the London club likely felt more joyous and profound in her memory–with great distance–than it did in the actual moment. Perhaps in the moment it was closer to pleasure than joy. But without that initial pleasure to look back on and long for, would there be joy?

When I consider instances of joy in my life thus far, most of what I would list probably felt more like pleasure at the time. I think of the summer night in Cambridge when I snuck onto the roof of Clare College with friends, looking out over the moonlit gardens, punting down the Cam river well after midnight, with champagne and laughter in ample supply. I think of the long, late-night undergrad conversations at Wheaton with my roommates: about God, movies, theology, relationships and the like. Or the childhood trips with my family to the Tulsa State Fair, an autumnal tradition rife with the screams and whirring of carnival rides and the smells of all things barbecue and fried. Pleasures all.

The memories of all that, the longing for those happy experiences and the intense recognition that they will never be replicated in just the same way… that’s what stirs up joy. Sehnsucht. And it’s not just nostalgia for the past. It’s nostalgia for a future that a lifetime full of accumulated pangs and pleasures leads us to believe exists. Somewhere. Joy is the ineffable, the transcendent, the sublime stasis which a million little experiences grasp at but can never fully capture. An ultimate settledness for which our hearts now restlessly pine.

This is why Smith feels that there is something melancholy about joy, that it has such a paradoxical capacity to bring us pain. And perhaps that is why in today’s world–so untrusted and unstable, where we’re all so aware of contingency and fragility–the idea of joy makes a lot more sense when articulated as a groaning for completion rather than a smiling-face present perfection. Lewis’ characterization of joy as always pointing away or calling us elsewhere (emphasizing our “pilgrim status”) rings true for citizens of discombobulated late modernity. We know all too well the vacuity that so often accompanies lives of consumption; the limited capacity of things to bring lasting pleasure. (Of course, experiences can also be disposable and empty, though I think they have greater capacity to morph into pleasant memories which ultimately bring joy).

Still, whether we’re curating commodities or experiences, It’s up to us to make the most of the little pleasures we come across. We can either celebrate the presentness of pleasure (YOLO, right?!) and stop there; or we can go further and see in pleasure signposts, recognizing that the ecstatic feeling triggered by a dance party, or a small-batch bourbon, or a down-to-the-wire Super Bowl, is not an end unto itself but rather a means by which we can contemplate our true pilgrim status and the telos to which it all must point.

(Originally published on MereOrthodoxy.com)

Ash Wednesday Prayer Requests

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Lord, bring us to our knees. Quiet our hearts.

Away from the onslaught of screens and tweets and texts, focus our eyes on you.

Abide in our perceptions, as we taste and see and hear that you are good.

In the stillness of dusk, on ever lengthening days; serenaded by car horns, engines, buzzing iPhones, birds, distant planes, and the mystical fugues of February vespers… speak to us oh God.

Remove us from ourselves. Help us to dismiss our notions of grandeur and relinquish our litany of self-appointed rights: that we deserve jobs, freedom and low gas prices; that our social updates deserve to be paid attention to; that the world revolves around us; that we can do with our bodies what we fancy; that the chief end of life is our own individual happiness.

Remove us from ourselves Lord, and draw us closer to You. Bring us to a distance–a desert, a depth, a hunger, Sehnsucht–so that what we see of ourselves isn’t glamour and greatness, but only your grace. Only your righteousness.

Only you, in fact, for it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

Ashes to ashes, let us deny ourselves. Let us give ourselves away rather than grab what’s ours. Let us be crucified with Christ. Let us seek the cinders, Oh God, to be crushed as you were, refined to a new fragrance.

In the darkness, in the desert, in the endless debates, let us look to resurrection. The morning is coming.

Into debt we further go. Under avalanches of paperwork, tasks, and to-dos we further sink. Against our arthritic, cancerous, flaking-away bodies we further fight. The nations wage war and the blizzards take their toll.

But Easter looms.

(Originally published in 2012)