Thursday, December 25, 2008

"What's Christmas but a time for finding yourself a year older and not a day richer?"

I'm with my in-laws for Christmas, and last night I got raked over the yule log for suggesting that children should be taught not to care about getting presents for Christmas. I was arguing that Christians especially should be brought up to reject consumeristic celebration of the secular holiday (call it Festivus, if you wish, though I'm not referring to the Seinfeld holiday) on which American children worship the false god named Santa Claus. Though not in so many words, I was more or less accused of being a Scrooge.

Tonight we're watching Scrooge (Neame, 1970), the best musical version of A Christmas Carol, and it struck me that it's the American consumer culture that is Scrooge, not me. Modern Christmas is the triumph of the Scrooges over the Dickensian sentiment.
I don't know how I missed it before, but A Christmas Carol is obviously an anti-corporate screed. It is a critique of Scrooge, a capitalist who refuses to give his employees fair working conditions: no living wage, no eight hour working day, no five day work week, no vacation days, no day off for Christmas, etc. Scrooge hates Christmas, not because he hates people in general (as the musical version would have it), but because Christmas is bad for business. He is being asked to give Bob Cratchit a day off with pay and to give money to various charities. He thinks the whole holiday is a scam by lazy poor people to get money out of hard working rich people. But in the 20th Century, Scrooge got his revenge. He managed to turn Christmas into a money-making business. Even if he has to give people a day off from work, he still makes a profit because he has made their celebration of the holiday all about getting and spending.

I don't have it in for celebration of what Dickens calls the spirit of Christmas. In fact, Dickens's point seems to be that the spirit of Christmas is to be generous to those less fortunate than yourself. (The ghost of dead businessman Jacob Marley tells Scrooge that "'Tis mankind should be our business, though we [capitalists] rarely attend to it.") And I don't even have it in for making merry -- decorating trees, dancing, driking, exchanging gifts. I've written on this blog about my theory of Christian art as redemption of secular culture, and that's what most of our Christmas traditions are about: baptizing pagan rites for Christian purposes. But there are some things that can't be redeemed. Violence is one of them. Consumerism is another. When you try to sell Christmas, the pagan (in this case, American capitalist) element wins, and the Christian attempt at redemption is overwhelmed.

So I say a hearty "Humbug!" on Scroogified gift-centered capitalist Christmas. And wish you instead a truly Dickensian semi-socialist merry Christ-Mass.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives."

I was in the doctor's office waiting room this week, and I happened to pick up an old issue of The New Yorker from back in June. I was pleasantly surprised to find an essay by Tobias Wolff about a time when he saw Bergman's Winter Light at a church screening in Oxford. I really liked Wolff's optimistic reading of the film:
Bergman takes care to show that Tomas and the fisherman are not alone in their suffering, and that others, equally afflicted—the fisherman’s wife, the pastor’s steadfast lover, his hunchbacked assistant—are able to bear their pain into a still deeper faith and capacity for love.
This is how I want to read Winter Light. It is an unexpected affirmation of faith, not a rejection of faith as it is normally read.

But the point of the essay is not really about Winter Light. It is about the importance of art and beauty. After seeing the film, Wolff says he "felt harrowed, crust broken, buried things churning to the surface." At that point in his life Wolff was an atheist, but he was open to hearing what the minister might say about the film. Until the minister put up a slide of William Holman Hunt's painting "The Light of the World" which Wolff found "garish, melodramatic, cloying in its technique and sentimentality". Wolff ended up continuing in his life as a disbeliever until, years later, he discovered the poetry of George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and T.S. Eliot.

Wolff concludes:
We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives.
But he notes that not everyone experiences beauty in the same way. A friend of his who was with him at the Winter Light screening was converted by the Holman Hunt painting that put Wolff off. His encounter with the painting put him on a path that eventually led him to being a missionary in Africa. Peggy Rosenthal over at the Image Journal interprets this as a lesson about the power even bad art can have to point us toward truth:
We must admit that in our popular culture plenty of bad art stirs people to genuinely good religious faith, a faith that issues in loving actions and a Christ-like spirit.
I'm not sure that's quite right. This is a lesson about the importance of context. Wolff writes that "the contrast between Bergman’s severe, honest art and this painting, on the same screen, chilled me" (my emphasis). I actually don't hate the Holman Hunt painting. I think it does have a (perhaps simplistic) kind of beauty. But I can see how in juxtaposition to Bergman's film it would come off banal. So why didn't Wolff's friend notice this jarring juxtaposition? The context of film appreciation is not entirely external. It is internal and subjective, too. We bring our own context to the work.

If all we look at is the objective context of the chapel in Oxford on a night in the winter of 1970, then all we see is the contrast between Winter Light and Holman Hunt. But if we could see into the heart of Wolff's friend, we could see why he was able to experience the beauty of the painting while for Wolff that small beauty was outshone by the brilliance of Bergman's film. Every object has some beauty in it, and every beauty has some truth. And the power of beauty's truth is so strong that it can work even through less than brilliant artworks. I guess I'm ultimately saying the same thing as Rosenthal: even lesser art can shape our lives for the better.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"This is the website of John McAteer."

I haven't had much time for blogging lately. I've been busy applying for jobs. To that end I have created a website with my professional and personal info as well as samples of my philosophical, religious, and film writings.

Feel free to check it out at

Saturday, November 29, 2008

"It all depends on other people."

I’m not usually a big fan of British historical romance stories, but Atonement (Wright, 2007) actually worked for me. It wasn’t the tragic romance that captured my attention, but the unexpected philosophy. The movie turns out to be a sort of postmodern Masterpiece Theater remake of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 masterpiece Blow Up.

The opening image is a typewriter. The sound of the typewriter is a recurring motif in the film, even being incorporated into the music. We don’t realize it until the end of the film, but the sound of typing functions as a subtle reminder that what we are watching is not the “absolute truth” as the main character Briony Tallis will later call it. It is Briony’s imaginative reconstruction.

After a friend of hers is raped by an older man, thirteen year old Briony fingers her older sister Cecilia’s lover Robbie Turner. She tells the police inspector, “I know it was him.” The inspector presses her: “You know it was him? Or you saw him?” Briony: “Yes. I saw him. I saw him with my own eyes.” This is a deliciously ambiguous statement. She did see the rapist with her own eyes. But it wasn’t Robbie she saw.

Atonement turns out to be a movie about imagination: seeing things you think you understand but don’t understand. Throughout the film (as with Kurosawa’s Rashomon) we see the same scenes replayed from different (sometimes even fictional) points of view. At various points it is unclear (though, as with Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, we don’t realize it is unclear until the end of the film) whether what we are seeing is reality, merely one person’s interpretation of reality, a dream sequence, or an utter fiction.

The first line of the film is Briony’s: “I finished my play.” She is excited, but can’t get others to cooperate in the performance and production of the play. So she decides to stick with novels: “If you write a story, you only have to say the word ‘castle’ and you can see the towers and the woods and the village below. But in a play it’s… it all depends on other people.”

After the close of the movie’s narrative, we flash forward to an elderly Briony in present day giving an interview about the story we have just seen. She explains that the story of Atonement must be her last novel. because she has a disease called vascular dementia in which “your brain closes down, gradually you lose words, you lose your memory, which for a writer is pretty much the point.”

Now, Briony’s “novel” is so “entirely” “autobiographical” that she says “I haven’t changed any names, including my own.” She claims it is “the absolute truth” with “no rhymes, no embellishments”. But if Briony is losing her memory, then how can she be trusted to tell the historical truth? And if the story is pure history, then how is it a novel? Shouldn’t we call it a memoir? Not so fast. Briony continues:

“I got first-hand accounts of all the events I didn’t personally witness[…]. But the effect of all this honesty was rather pitiless. You see, I couldn’t any longer imagine what purpose would be served by it. […] By honesty. Or reality.” She was “too much of a coward” to make amends for her false accusations and so she “imagined” the scene, “invented” it. “But what sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending” that told the ugly truth? She admits to changing the facts and giving her character the strength to do what she ought to have done, but says she’d “like to think this isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness. I gave them their happiness.”

This is Briony’s atonement, her attempt to make right the happiness she prevented her sister from having. But notice that the effectiveness of this atonement rests on a paradox. The novel must narrate a happy ending for Cecilia and Robbie while simultaneously confessing Briony’s sin of preventing that happy ending. Briony has to tell the story both as it did happen and as it ought to have happened but did not.

John Mullan gives a nice analysis of this final scene in the London newspaper The Guardian. (He’s writing about Ian McEwan’s novel upon which the movie was based, but his comments apply to the film, too.)

Unlike writers of metafiction, McEwan wants you to identify with characters, to succumb to narrative illusion. For Briony to undertake her “atonement”, her work of fiction must make up for, and confess, the wrong that she has done. In a novel, she can make the world better than it truly is. She can make Cecilia and Robbie survive and meet again. And we must be allowed to believe it.

In other words, the reason Briony’s atonement works (if it does) is that she has made us believe in the love story and feel the aesthetic appropriateness of its narrative conclusion. (Note the ironic symmetry here: like the play from the opening scene, the closing scene reveals that the effectiveness of Briony’s novel “all depends on other people.”) But Frank Kermode seems to give the opposite analysis in The London Review of Books, arguing that we are not supposed to believe the story:

It is, in perhaps the only possible way, a philosophical novel, pitting the imagination against what it has to imagine if we are to be given the false assurance that there is a match between our fictions and the specifications of reality. The pleasure it gives depends as much on our suspending belief as on our suspending disbelief.

But Kermode is using “believe” in a somewhat different sense than Mullan. Mullan argues only that we must be emotionally committed to the story -- that we “identify with the characters” -- not that we accept them as nonfictional representations of reality. So what is Mullan’s point? He is reading Atonement the way postliberal theologians read the Bible.

For modern theologians (both liberals and fundamentalists), the point of Scripture is its representation of reality. Believers must either accept all the Biblical stories at fact value (as do fundamentalists) or they must try to find the philosophical truth behind the mythical stories (as do liberals). But postliberals (and postevangelicals) realize that there is no way to get behind the text. There is no way to know exactly what happened historically and thus there is no way to know to what degree the stories are fact or myth – just as there is no way to know to which bits of Atonement are facts, which are Briony’s false interpretations of facts, and which are pure fictions.

And even if we could know “the absolute truth” about what “really” happened, this would be beside the point. The (historical) truth would, as the elderly Briony says, no longer serve any purpose. (Kierkegaard says much the same thing about the historical Jesus.) But as Mullan points out, this need not imply that we can’t believe the story. For postliberals belief is more a commitment to a form of life structured around the Biblical narratives. We can enter into the story without knowing what really happened. We can, as Mullan says, “identify” ourselves with Christ -- we can let him enact our “atonement” with God -- despite the fact that there are four (incompatible) versions of his life in the four Gospels. Scripture does not mirror the (uninterpreted) reality of history -- it structures our reality and teaches us to interpret history, giving us a “sense of hope or satisfaction”. But it is precisely in this way that Scripture turns out to be true.

Friday, November 14, 2008

"Donc, si vous voulez, mon art serait de vivre."

We are all artists.

Whether you want to be an artist or not, whether you feel like an artist or not, you are an artist. Even if you haven’t painted a picture since the days of kindergarten finger-paint, even if you haven’t danced a single step since your Saturday morning ballet lessons in elementary school, you are still an artist. Even if you haven’t written a story since junior high creative writing assignments and haven’t played a musical instrument since high school marching band or composed a song since your now abandoned late nights as an undergrad rock star wannabe, even if you have given up on all these artistic endeavors, you are still an artist.

As long as you are alive it is impossible to stop being an artist; for your life itself is your work of art. Every choice you make inscribes a sentence in your autobiography, every emotion you feel paints a brushstroke of your self-portrait, every belief and every desire sounds a note and choreographs a step in the performance of your life.

You have no choice about whether your life will be a work of art. Your only choice is whether you life will be a good work of art, whether you will live a beautiful life and cultivate a beautiful soul.

Unfortunately there are no rules for how to create something beautiful. Aesthetic achievement takes genius, an understanding of your own unique relation to the world. This, of course, does not mean that anything goes. There are clear paradigms of beautiful lives and obvious examples of unspeakable deformities. The problem is that in the art of life, as in any art, there is no mathematical formula for success. Creating beauty takes good taste, an ability to discriminate the relevant details of your life and your world and a sensitivity to the harmonies and dissonances that reverberate from your choices.

And yet, in life as in the other arts, we can develop good taste. We learn first to discern and then to love the good by contemplating the paradigmatic works of beauty available to us in our traditions, the masterpieces lived by the saints and heroes. And we learn in conversation with our contemporary community of fellow artists how to read and interpret these great models of the past by engaging together in a study of the great critics of the past, the master philosophers and theologians, applying the lessons of the classics to our own ever-changing situations.

For Christians, the primary workshop for our training as artists is worship, the regular participation in word and sacrament. Christians believe that in worship we tell God’s story, enact the drama of salvation, and rehearse our steps in the eternal perichoretic dance of the ultimate Reality. In worship we encounter the ground of true Beauty and our lives are sculpted anew into His image and likeness. In worship we are taught how to think and feel and desire, how to represent Christ in our lives the way Christ represented God in his own life. In worship our souls are made beautiful.

But even if you are not a Christian, you are still an artist. Your life is still formed in response to traditions and models you take to be authoritative. We are all artists. May God grant us the grace to live artistically.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Sunday, November 2, 2008

"You can't mend the heart in a heartless world by observing that the world is in fact heartless."

Here are some nice reflections on the problem of evil by Andrew Brown, columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian:
"In the end, I suppose, my objections to God are, as they must be, theological: the workings of divine providence are just a little too inaccessible to human reasoning. The problem of suffering remains insoluble. There is no possible theodicy. But I can't, either, take the Dawkinsian view that the problem of suffering is an illusion generated by the illusion of God. You can't mend the heart in a heartless world by observing that the world is in fact heartless. That's not the point. I suppose I end up saying that I accept the Christian account of the problem; I just can't accept Christianity's account of the solution, and so I remain, by the grace of God perhaps, an atheist."
You can read the whole essay here. (Thanks to Episcopal Cafe's "The Lead" for pointing me to it.)

I really like his criticism of Richard Dawkins. And I am sympathetic to his view that there is no solution to the problem of evil -- sometimes I'm tempted to agree. But I wonder what exactly Brown takes to be "Christianity's account of the solution".

I'm a Christian theologian (more or less), and I'm still trying to figure out what sort of theodicy Christianity actually teaches. There have been many different theodicies offered by Christians throughout history. And even the Bible suggests different responses to evil. I don't find it at all obvious which theodicy (if any) coheres best with the majority of other fundamental Christian theological committments.

If there's one thing I am fairly sure of (given my reading of the relevant Biblical texts such as Job, the Psalms, Revelation, etc.) is that the best response to evil is going to have something to do with worship of God generally and in particular the liturgy of the Eucharist. (Then again, I tend to think that everything has something to do with the Eucharist!)

The centrality of worship (prayer, liturgy, communion, etc.) for our response to evil is something the best cinematic theologians have realized. I have already discussed Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (see my earlier post) on this topic. Here let me just mention the work of Ingmar Bergman, perhaps the filmmaker most obsessed with the problem of evil. There are hints of Eucharistic themes in The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957) and The Virgin Spring (Bergman, 1960). But the theme becomes most prominent in Winter Light (Bergman, 1962) whose story takes place in and between two celebrations of the Eucharist.

One could argue that Bergman intended these films as a critique of the idea that worship can provide an adequate response to evil. (For a really good analysis of The Seventh Seal along these lines, see Steven Greydanus's essay at Decent Films.) But even if it is true that Bergman intended to reject a Eucharistic theodicy, he was unable to keep the truth from shining through his work. In any event, I think Bergman's intentions were more complex than simply rejecting Christianity. He also struggled with the ability of art to respond adequately to evil -- most significantly in Persona (Bergman, 1966), but I don't think he ever quite gave up hope that art could help us go on living.

Unfortunately I don't have time now to give a detailed analysis of Winter Light (I hope to do so in a future post -- this post was supposed to be a simple link to the essay by Andrew Brown!), but I encourage you to watch it for yourself and try to figure out what is going on in the final scene. Has the priest lost his faith? Why does he go through with the liturgy? Is this an optimistic or pessimistic ending? How does the ending relate to the endings of The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring? And, most importantly, what can we learn from this film (regardless of what Bergman was trying to teach us) about responding to evil?

Let me know what you think.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"Barack Obama will win: It’s all in ‘The West Wing.’"

Here's a fun article comparing the current presidential election to the final season of the best TV shows in history: The West Wing (Sorkin et al, 1999-2006).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Abortion confronts the Christian with the most perplexing questions of all."

This election season many Roman Catholic and Evangelical voters have found themselves attracted to Democratic candidate Barack Obama. At the same time, many of these religious voters feel conflicted because of Obama's pro-choice stand on abortion. That Evangelicals could support a Democrat at all is surprising, of course, because Evangelicalism has, for the past 30 or so years, wed itself tightly to the Republican party. But, for some Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, it is simply too much to ask to forsake the pro-life commitment that the Replublican party has used to gain the loyalty of the "Religious Right" for so long.

In light of this controversy, religious supporters of Obama have given some interesting arguments for Obama. For example, my wife posted about this issue on her blog and received some nice responses. Some pro-life advocates have explicitly argued in favor of Obama, too. But one of the most interesting arguments has come from Obama's running mate Joe Biden who has recently pointed out that Roman Catholic dogma on abortion has shifted throughout the centuries.

Catholic historian Frank Flinn has a nice article on the Church's changing attitudes toward abortion. He explains that it wasn't until 1869 that the pope declared abortion to be absolutely forbidden during all stages of pregancy. Before that, the fetus was not considered a person until the moment of "quickening" (i.e., the moment the mother first feels the baby move in her womb) which usually happens in the middle of the second trimester. Flinn even quotes Anselm as saying: "No human intellect accepts the view that an infant has the rational soul from the moment of conception"!

I suppose the argument here is that if even the supposedly infallible Roman Catholic Church has changed its mind over the centuries about when a fetus becomes a human person, then this is a question too hard for the American government and should be left up to individual people. It's the same point Obama was making when he told Evangelical leader Rick Warren that this question was above his "pay grade". One could reply (as did Biden's own Bishop) that when the Church changes its teaching, the later teaching is always better than the earlier teaching. But this reply would seem to undermine the whole point of conservatism which teaches that "traditional" (i.e., older) teachings are always better. This was the point I was making in my earlier post about same sex marriage. Conservatives can't argue that we should accept the "traditional" view of marriage, because on the traditional view wives are property of their husbands and the possibility of polygamy was assumed: men can own as many wives as they can afford. Here again the conservative argument from tradition doesn't support Evangelical and Catholic positions.

Now, I knew this stuff about the Catholic Church's evolving position, but when I read it again it got me wondering about Evangelicals. Has there been any shift in Evangelical understandings of abortion? A few minutes with Google reveals that there has been.

In 1968 Christianity Today sponsored a symposium on issues of birth control and abortion. And what happened? Evangelical leaders of the day got together and decided ... to be pro-choice. Follow this link for the published summary of the symposium along with some responses. Below are some of the most interesting passages, along with my comments in italics:
  • "Abortion confronts the Christian with the most perplexing questions of all: Is induced abortion permissible and if so, under what conditions? If it is permissible in some instances is the act of intervention still sinful? Can abortion then be justified by the principle of tragic moral choice in which a lesser evil is chosen to avoid a greater one? As to whether or not the performance of an induced abortion is always sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord." -- i.e., abortion is always tragic, but sometimes it is the best choice in a bad situation. Note also the assumption that we should approach the question of abortion with humility -- i.e., we should remember that the answer is above our pay grade.
  • "The Christian physician will advise induced abortion only to safeguard greater values sanctioned by Scripture. These values should include individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility." -- i.e., it is permissible to have an abortion if you think you won't be able to care for the child.
  • "The Christian maintains that in avoiding legalism on the one hand and license on the other, the prescriptions of legal codes should not be permitted to usurp the authority of the Christian conscience informed by Scripture." -- i.e., the choice of whether to have an abortion should be left to the individual, not mandated by the government.
  • "Physicians are called upon to maintain and restore the health of the whole [human being]." -- i.e., abortion may be necessary for the mental (not just the physical) health of the mother.
  • "We live in a world pervaded by evil. Human relationships become distorted; unwanted children are born into the world; genetic defects are not uncommon and harmful social conditions abound. Therefore, it is the duty of Christians to be compassionate to individuals and to seek responsibility to mitigate the effects of evil when possible, in accordance with the above principles. When principles conflict, the preservation of fetal life or the integrity of the human body may have to be abandoned in order to maintain full and secure family life." -- i.e., there are many kinds of cases in which abortion may be necessary: cases of "distorted" relationships such as rape or incest, cases of "genetic defects", cases of "harmful social conditions" such as poverty, cases in which the mother's bodily "integrity" is threatened such as when her life or health is in jeapardy, and even in cases of "unwanted" pregnancy. Note that many of these cases are spelled out in more explicit detail elsewhere in the report.
So this is a fairly standard pro-choice document. It is also a clearly pro-life document -- what? you can be pro-life and pro-choice at the same time? -- but while affirming the value and sanctity of all human life from the moment of conception, the document's drafters understand that in this fallen world hard choices must sometimes be made. And those choices can't be made for us by government officials who don't know the specifics of our case and try to create blanket rules that apply to everyone. Its a document I think Obama could agree with.

The document actually reminds me a lot of one of my favorite movies on the topic of abortion: Citizen Ruth (Payne, 1996). The movie satirizes both sides of the culture war, indicting both pro-life and pro-choice activists for their mutual failure to treat the women involved as actual human beings rather than pawns in a political battle. (There's a key scene toward the end where the two sides are so involved in screaming at each other about what is in Ruth's best interests that they don't notice her walking away from the whole mess.) In 1968 Evangelicals were the compassionate people writer-director Alexander Payne would one day challenge us to be with his film. But by the time he actually made his film in 1996, Evangelicals were just the butt of his jokes.

Friday, October 17, 2008

"Call it."

Earlier this week blogger Jason Hesiak posted his reflections comparing the philosophy of No Country For Old Men (The Coen Brothers, 2007) with The Dark Knight (The Nolan Brothers, 2008). His reflections on No Country are great, though I think he under-appreciates The Dark Knight.

In any event, it was insightful of him to juxtapose the two films. Anton Chigurh and The Joker are clearly cut from the same nihilistic cloth. They both -- I would argue, innaccurately -- think of themselves as Nietzschen Übermenschen. Like Hitler, and other evil men who utterly misunderstood Nietzsche, they're really more like Hannibal Lecter than Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche -- and, I would argue, like the Jesus who rejected the legalism of the Pharisees-- they do reject a morality based on "rules" (Chigurh: "Let me ask you a question: if the rule you followed brought you to this [i.e., to your death], of what use was the rule?" and The Joker: "The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules."), but unlike Nietzsche (and Jesus) they are left with a life-denying nihilism because they don't attempt to engage in the "transvaluation of all values" by building a new life-affirming morality based on joyfulness rather than legalism. (Beyond this nihilism, there is also a fairly obvious -- though unremarked upon by Hesiak -- link between Chigurh's coin tossing ["Call it."] and the coin tossing of The Joker's protégé Two-Face ["The world is cruel. And the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased, unprejudiced, fair."].)

Hesiak has two criticisms of The Dark Knight. His first problem with it is that it explains its philosophy too verbally instead of letting it come out through more cinematic means. He writes that in No Country "no one in the film explains to the audience, or to any other character in the film" the kind of things The Joker is always explaining to Batman. This might be a fair criticism -- but in general I think The Dark Knight is interesting insofar as its explicitly philosophical musings pull us in conflicting directions (see my earlier post on the film). These aren't explanations as much as they are questions.

His other problem is that the film is too nihilistic and doesn't offer any hope. He writes: "So I suppose I could summarize my opinion of No Country of Old Men by saying that I experienced it as a medium through which I lived out my life and my death, and that it was a refreshing experience after Batman: Dark Knight, through which I felt as though I simply experienced my death." This criticism is less fair insofar as The Dark Knight is part of an ongoing series. I expect (or rather, hope) that in the next Nolan-directed Batman film we will see Batman beginning to find his way out of the darkness into which he has descended in the first two films. If The Dark Knight is the middle film in a trilogy, it makes sense that it would be the darkest and least hopeful.

Furthermore, I disagree with Hesiak's suggestion that Chigurh is the "main character" of No Country. I think Sheriff Bell is the main character. (Clearly Llewelyn Moss is not.) On my view the movie is about the sheriff's confrontation with the inexplicability of evil. It narrates his struggle to find meaning in the kind of world where Anton Chigurh could exist. In other words, No Country For Old Men is about the problem of evil.

But the Coens' film doesn't seem to have much to say about the solution to the problem. It just wants to make sure we understand why and how the nature of evil threatens the meaning of life. The Dark Knight, on the other hand, goes further. The Nolans' movie is also about the problem of evil, but, like Batman Begins, it movie is interested in exploring -- and criticizing -- various possible solutions to the problem. True, the Nolans tend to talk about their themes as much as they dramatize them, but I don't see that as being as problematic as Hesiak does.

But regardless of whether you ultimately agree or disagree with Hesiak's essay, it is definitely worth reading. Check it out here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"Churches could lose their tax-exemption status."

It seems like every time I watch TV there's an anti-Prop 8 commercial on. (For those of you outside California, Proposition 8 is a voter initiative to amend the state constitution making same sex marriage illegal. This is in response to the recent state Supreme Court decision saying that the California constitution guarantees equal rights to same sex couples.)

Here is a link to the video. (I couldn't get it to embed in this post.) The ad is a point by point response to an earlier commercial for Yes on Prop 8 (embedded below):

Now, one claim from this ad sticks out to me: "Churches could lose their tax-exemption status." The "No On Prop 8" people ridicule this claim because the Supreme Court decision explicitly states that religions will not be affected. But I actually think that, while they are usually paranoid, the religious right is correct in their fears about this proposition. Why wouldn't the same sort of reasoning apply in the same sex marriage case that applied in the interracial marriage case when Bob Jones University lost their tax exempt status for their racial discriminatory policies?

I actually don't know what I think about this issue. I totally agree that Bob Jones's policies were evil. And I agree that the same-sex marriage issue is parallel. But I also think it was part of Bob Jones's religious freedom to keep the races segregated according to their (evil) fundamentalist doctrines. Maybe no churches should be tax exempt. But it seems wrong to dole out tax exemption in such a way that it pressures churches to violate their own religious teachings.

This issue reminds me of the issue of polygamy. Sometimes opponents of gay marriage argue that if we allow same sex couples to marry, there will be no stopping the slide down the slippery slope to allowing group marriage. Again, I think this is a place where the religious right is absolutely correct. But again, I'm not sure that it would be such bad thing to allow polygamous marriage. It was evil of the U.S. government to persecute the Mormon church for their marriage practices -- and it was even more ridiculous for the Mormons to change their doctrines in order to gain public acceptability. If the Mormon religion teaches polygamy, then it is their First Amendment right to practice polygamy.

For more reflection on polygamy, check out HBO's series Big Love, starring Bill Paxton as a man married to three wives. The show is a fascinating look at a variety of viewpoints on polygamy. It does not shy away from the dark side of polygamy as it is practiced in the fundamentalist Mormon "compounds" (forced marriage, pedophilia, incest, etc., not to mention repressive patriarchy), but the central characters' suburban polygamous family is surprisingly healthy. The show seems to be arguing that polygamy is not necessarily evil: if we brought polygamy out of the shadows of criminalization it could be made to work.

And the show's fundamentalist Mormon patriarch gives the best argument against Prop 8 I've heard: If we define marriage as the union between one man and one woman, then we criminalize many of our Biblical forefathers such as Abraham, Jacob, David, etc. In other words, the "traditional" definition of marriage does not seem to be limited to heterosexual monogamy.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

"Abortion is murder!"

When I return to teaching, I plan to assign my students to watch the abortion documentary Lake of Fire (Kaye, 2006). Along with the Jewish homosexuality documentary Trembling Before G-d, it's one of the most stimulating movies I've seen about a contemporary ethical issue. And, like movies such as Waking Life and My Dinner With Andre, the film is made up almost entirely of philosophical discussion, priming the audience's intellectual pump for class discussion.

One caveat I have about the film, though, is that I don't think students will be able to digest the material without expert commentary. Much of the footage is presented without editorial comment -- there is no narrator and very few on-screen titles -- and hence lacks any sort of context and ends up being misleading.

Because of this lack of commentary, most reviews of the film claim that it is fair to both sides of the debate -- something unusual in the abortion contoversy. But I didn't find the film to be fair and openminded at all. Filmmaker Tony Kaye is not unbiased -- he's obviously pro-choice. I actually have a hard time understanding why anyone would miss this point. Why would reviewers think Kaye is anything but pro-choice? Surely professional film critics don't need the director to come right out and say he is pro-choice before they can detect his viewpoint. (Maybe they've seen too many Michael Moore movies!)

A more charitable interpretation of the critical blindspot is that since the film includes graphic footage of late-term fetuses, perhaps reviewers were led to think Kaye is sympathetic to the view that abortion is murder. After all, these fetuses look exactly like post-birth babies, and hence exactly the same sort of footage is used in many anti-abortion propaganda movies. (This, by the way, is one of the misleading scenes. The fetuses are clearly in their second-trimester of development. But without being told that almost 90% of abortions take place in the first-trimester when the fetus looks more like a sea monkey than a baby, viewers might think that all aborted fetuses look like this.)

Another reason people may mistakenly believe the film is ambivalent is that, in part because of the graphic footage but also because it presents such an array of voices from every side of the debate, the film is so unsettling that it creates a kind of ambivalence in the viewer. It's not that Kaye doesn't know what he thinks about abortion or that he keeps his own viewpoint hidden in the film -- it's that after watching the film, you no longer know exactly what you think about abortion. And that's the most significant aspect of the film. It's also one of the most pro-choice aspects of the film. The film wants to convince us that this is a hard issue that is not as black and white as it is usually presented in political debates. Therefore, the film suggests, we should leave the choice about abortions up to individuals.

Another caveat: I'm not sure the film is primarily a debate about abortion at all. It is a documentary about the people involved in the abortion debate. And it's mostly about fundamentalist Christians who believe that abortion doctors should be assassinated. In some ways, the film is presenting a philosophical challenge to pro-life advocates, asking them "if you agree that abortion is murder, then what makes you different than these extremists?" (Again, I don' t think the film is even trying to be unbiased.) It's a fascinating question: if abortion really is parallel to the holocaust, then why shouldn't pro-lifers declare open war on abortionists like the Allies declared on the Nazis?

Brett McCracken, an Evangelical reviewer, misses this challenge. He complains in his Christianity Today review that the film "purposefully avoids featuring any thoughtful, articulate, or moderate Christians". From the rest of the review, I have to assume that by "moderate", McCracken means a Christian who condemns abortion as murder but also condemns the murders of abortion doctors. While this may be true, the film nevertheless presents the positions of moderate Christians, while putting them in the mouths of extremists. And what this move does is make the extremists look like they have some good points and that they are not (entirely) crazy. So I actually take this to be a rhetorical virtue of the film.

Moreover I reject McCracken's definition of "moderate Christian". I think any view according to which abortion is obviously murder is a pretty conservative one. A truly moderate Christian is one who admits that this is a hard issue about which the Bible has little to say, and who is willing to allow diversity of opinions about abortion. A liberal Christian is one who simply accepts the pro-choice viewpoint as obviously true.

McCracken seems to think that what separates his own (supposedly "moderate" view) from other "fundamenatlist" or "expremist" views, is that he is not interested in forcibly converting nonbelievers. He complains that the film makes all pro-life advocates look like "mindless pawns in a larger and more malicious march toward theocracy". In other words, the film assimilates anyone who votes against abortion rights to the "reconstructionist" viewpoint that the laws of the United States should be revised to match the laws of the Old Testament so that, for example, anyone who uses the Lord's name in vain should be put to death. (Someone in the film actually gives this example!)

Again, McCracken's observation is true: the film does attempt to blur the line between extremist theocrats and more moderate run-of-the-mill pro-life Republicans. But again this is a virtue of the film. I think a strong case could be made (though the argument is left implicit in the film) that anyone whose position on aborion legislation comes from their Christianity and not from publically shared reasons is, indeed, a theocrat. (This point is even more clear when it comes to the issue of gay marriage.) The fact that McCracken is so defensive suggests that, on some level, he knows this critique to be on target.

It's this ability to challenge us to rethink the implications of our deeply held beliefs about abortion that I think is the film's biggest philosophical strength. Without the Socratic ability to recognize that we lack wisdom, we have no hope of escaping the unproductive torment of the "lake of fire" the abortion controversy has devolved into.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"We are white men, sir, not beasts."

If you haven't seen The Proposition (Hillcoat, 2005), I recommend it to you. I'm not sure there's a lot of new territory here that John Ford hadn't already explored in The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (see my earlier post on these films), but the old puzzle about the relationship between civilization and violence is brilliantly and beautifully retold by first-time screenwriter Nick Cave in the context of a western set in the Australian Outback. These are the same sort of perennial questions about the nature of justice raised again this year by The Dark Knight. (Come to think of it, Liberty Valance and The Dark Knight are almost the same movie!)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

"Either you die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."

As hoped for in a previous post, I did finally see The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008), but I haven't been able to write about it yet. I think I need to see it a few more times before I can unravel my thoughts. Here are a few of my confused musings.

First, let me point you to an op-ed by Jonathan Lethem in this week's New York Times. I really liked Lethem's comment that "a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real takeaway, chaotic form its ultimate content". That's exactly the theme I discussed in an academic paper on the philosophy of Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005). I think the movie is intentionally incoherent, pointing to a puzzle in the American soul, a deep ambivalence we have about the nature of violence, justice, and heroism.

This ambivalence is dialectically expressed in a debate between commentators: witness Andrew Klavan's article in The Wall Street Journal and the response by David Cohen in Variety. Klavan argues that The Dark Knight sets Batman up as a symbol of George W. Bush in order to show us that Bush is a misunderstood hero. Cohen agrees with the Bush bit, but sees the movie as a criticism of the president's view of heroism. Lethem seems closer to the target when he says that the movie is playing both points of view off each other.

Both of Nolan's Batman movies have two endings: an ending in which Batman's method is praised and an ending in which it is vilified. In Batman Begins Rachel Dawes visits Bruce Wayne at the site of the burned-down Wayne Manor and says that Bruce was right to have created Batman, that Gotham City needs him. This seems like the end of the movie, but it is followed by a scene in which Lt. Jim Gordon points out that Bruce's method has resulted in "escalation" by giving grandiose ideas to the Joker. In The Dark Knight this theme is elaborated upon: the Joker and Batman are shown to be "two faces" of the same coin. But here we have two endings, too. First Harvey Dent points out that both he and Bruce share the blame for Rachel's death -- only Jim Gordon comes out looking innocent -- and then Gordon goes on to repeat Rachel's idea that Gotham needs Batman. (Actually he says we "deserve" Batman, the dark knight, but that we "need" Harvey Dent, the white knight. I'm not yet clear on what's going on here.)

The philosopher in me keeps hoping for a coherent message. I dream that writer-director Christopher Nolan is working on a trilogy in which Batman finally and unambiguously realizes that his vigilantism was a mistake, thereby affirming Cohen's reading. (It seems sigificant along these lines that, before she dies, Rachel recants her speech from the first ending of Batman Begins.) But, artistically, I suppose I have to admit that the film is a better text for being open to multiple readings.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"What would you do if you suddenly received a box via mail, labeled 'FRAGILE: Contains Peace'? "

This week I received a little bundle of joy. No, I didn't have another baby. (My first baby is less than four months old, so that's sort of impossible.) In fact, my bundle of joy came in the mail. It was an artwork in a global public art series called "The Priority Boxes" (2006-2009) by Nicaraguan artist Franck de Las Mercedes who sends a box (for free!) to anyone who requests one.

I first heard about the project on Barry Taylor's blog. Barry's box contained world peace as did many of the boxes in the project's photo gallery (imagine what the postal carriers must think), so I kind of expected to receive that too when I ordered mine. But it takes several weeks for your box to arrive, and by then I had forgotten that I had even ordered it. So when it did arrive, it really did bring me joy, something I needed especially on that day.

Browsing the gallery of boxes again after receiving my box, I was struck by the fact that almost all of Paul's "fruit of the spirit" have been mailed out. There's love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and will power (self-control?). I didn't see faithfulness, goodness, or gentleness, though I did see faith and hope. Other non-theological boxes include things like life, truth, beauty, foresight, courage, creativity, etc. And there are a large number of democracy-themed boxes: freedom, human rights, world peace, activism, change, prosperity, humanity, etc. You can order your own box here. You never know what it might contain when it arrives. It might contain inspiration or even happiness.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

"Love is always small."

Christianity Today has a great interview (online here) with Andy Crouch about his new book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. I've been a big fan of Andy since his days as creator/editor of re:generation quarterly. And his new book sounds especially exciting since it is the kind of thing I've been thinking about, too. See my review of WALL-E.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"And now for something completely different..."

In the past three and a half months since I started this blog, I've written 50 posts and had over 1,000 page visits. Thanks for your support!

The observant among you will have noticed that my profile says I "almost" have a PhD. That's because I am not yet finished with my dissertation. But I am taking this fall semester off from teaching so I can finish up. Unfortunately that means I will have to write less frequently on this blog.

I'll still try to post at least once a week, but if I haven't posted in a while, you can go back and check out the archives of posts you might have missed. After I finish my dissertation, my next writing project will be on the sort of issues raised in these posts, so I would really love to read your comments!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

"I don't like food, I love it. If I don't love it, I don't swallow."

In honor of this weekend's Slow Food Nation event in San Francisco, here are my Top 10 Slow Food Movies (in alphabetical order):

1. Babette’s Feast (Axel, 1984)
2. Big Night (Scott and Tucci, 1996)
3. Eat Drink Man Woman (Lee, 1994)
4. Fast Food Nation (Linklater, 2006)
5. How to Cook Your Life (Dörrie, 2007)
6. Mostly Martha (Nettlebeck, 2001)
7. Ratatouille (Bird, 2007)
8. Sideways (Payne, 2004)
9. Spanglish (Brooks, 2004)
10. What’s Cooking? (Chadha, 2000)

In case you haven't heard, Slow Food is an international movement trying to combat "fast food" by emphasizing conscious eating (i.e., sustainability and fair trade as well as mindfulness), communal dining, quality food, etc. (For more on the concept of "slow food", check out the international movement's website.) What do you think? Have I missed any movies that should be on the list?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

"Is not all religion a contract between man and God?"

One of the recurring themes of this blog is the problem of evil. My first real post was titled "Theodicy at the Movies". But my interests are all of pop culture, not just movies. Today I want to discuss a graphic novel. Comic book auteur Will Eisner coined the term "graphic novel" as a fancy word for a literary comic book. And what's a comic book but a non animated cartoon?

The title piece in Eisner's seminal graphic novel (actually a collection of graphic short stories, but graphic literature in any case) A Contract With God (Eisner, 1978) is an interesting exploration of the problem of evil -- interesting because, like much great literature, it is open to multiple interpretations. Indeed, I would say that the story's ambiguity is its point. Like the problem of evil itself (at least in Eisner's view), the story is a mystery with no solution.

This is a very Jewish bit of theology. One of my favorite things about Contract is the way Eisner sometimes draws question marks in a font that resembles the Hebrew alphabet. Another example of this font is the word "God" on the cover, shown above left. To the right is one point where we see the Hebrew-esque question mark.

It is important that Eisner doesn't always draw question marks this way. He reserves this font for theological questions. Moreover, the only place he uses this Hewbrew font (other than the title) is in these theological question marks. It is as if Eisner sees the essence Hebraic thought as an unsolvable mystery, perhaps drawing on the tradition according to which the word Israel means "he who wrestles with God". And for the Jews, a nation persecuted for thousands of years, this wrestling revolves around the mystery of evil.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Jimmy Carter for president!"

I'm too young to remember Jimmy Carter's presidency. Though I was alive during Carter's time in office, my earliest political memories are of the 1984 Regan vs. Mondale campaign. But after seeing Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains (Demme, 2007), I'm a big fan of Carter. I couldn't agree more with Ed Norton's reaction to seeing Carter backstage at The Tonight Show: "Jimmy Carter for president!"

The movie isn't actually a straight documentary about Carter -- it's actually about Carter's recent controversial book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid -- but I loved the historical accounts of Carter's policies. We can only wonder what would have happened if he had been reelected and allowed to continue his sustainable energy policy, his anti-nuclear weapons campaign, his Mid-east diplomacy, etc.

And Carter's supposed failure in the Iran hostage crisis, turns out to be his greatest success. Carter may be the only president ever to avoid a war, even to his own political detriment. Now that's an Christian president. Unlike the allegedly Christian George W. Bush, who invented a war out of a trumped-up act of terrorism (the alleged connection between Iraq and 9/11), Carter managed to keep our country out of war with Iran, eventually saving all the hostages from actual terrorists.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Jihad: "to strive in the path of God"

First there was Trembling Before G-d (Dubowski, 2001), then there was For the Bible Tells Me So (Karslake, 2007), and now comes A Jihad for Love (Sharma, 2008). These are documentary films about religious gay and lesbian people, focusing on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, respectively. I loved Trembling Before G-d, but was disappointed by For the Bible Tells Me So's lack of rigorous engagement with the difficult Biblical texts (despite the film's title and the claims of its promotional materials.) But since Jihad was produced by the same people as Trembling, I have high hopes.

It's playing in San Francisco and Berkeley this week, though I haven't seen it, and to be honest, I'll probably wait for DVD. It's not getting great reviews, but for students of the problem of religion and homosexuality, it is surely worth a look. You can check out the official site here. And the trailer is below:

Monday, August 18, 2008

“The gods will do nothing for us that we will not do for ourselves. What we need is a hero.”

Robert Zemekis has perfected photorealistic computer animation. But why? His Beowulf (Zemekis, 2007) is impressive, but distracting. What is gained from making computer images of people that look exactly like real people? I think I prefer the route taken by (the very similar, but aesthetically superior film) 300 in which real actors are placed on a primarily CG background.

The one philosophically interesting thing about Beowulf's motion capture technology is the way it forces us to redefine animation. If Beowulf is animation, then why isn't 300? What percentage of the imagery must be traditional photography before the film ceases to be "animated"? If we say an animated film can have absolutely no photography, then WALL-E wouldn't count as animated. (Remember the video of Fred Willard as the Buy-n-Large CEO.) After watching Beowulf, it seems hard not to count 300 or Sin City as an animated film. But then do we also have to count the Star Wars prequels or The Lord of the Rings movies which also have a large percentage of computer animation?

Zemekis should have stuck to traditional filmmaking. Now he's gone and confused our whole cinematic ontology.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Ever since Walt Disney made the first feature length cartoon in 1937, mainstream animated films have most often been fairy-tales, a genre primarily about children/adolescents learning the ways of the world and growing into adulthood. But Pixar's WALL-E (Stanton, 2008) is something deeper. It is a myth, a genre about what it means to be human. Not only that, I also think it is a substantially true myth. I think this is why WALL-E has been generating such hyperbolic reviews. People are unconsciously connecting to their vocation as humans. Or, as the movie puts it, it's about finding your true "directive."

WALL-E is the story of humanity's creation, fall, and redemption. In other words, it is the Christ-story -- with a cute, little robot as an unlikely Christ-figure. In the movie, several characters have misunderstood or even forgotten their directives. M-O blindly follows his directive to obliterate all "foreign contaminates". likewise Auto continues to follow his directive even after circumstances have changed. Only EVE is able to be flexible about her directive and to take into account how following it affects her relationship to others. But most significantly, the Captain and other humans have completely forgotten what their directive is. In Christian terms, they are "fallen" creatures.

So what is the human directive, according to the film? To love one another and to take care of the earth. This is exactly the same directive given to Adam and Eve in the Biblical creation story. "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" (Genesis 1:28). In other words, make human communities ("be fruitful and multiply") and take care of the earth ("have dominion").

If this is our directive, then to be fallen is to have deviated from this. We have forgotten that having dominion over the earth is to be in a position of caretaker. Instead we have used the earth for our own selfish purposes. We have created technology that (in Heideggerian terminology) "uses up" nature rather than "letting the earth be earth". Instead of taking responsibility and being a servant-leader of the earth, we have created technology to make it serve us. And, as WALL-E demonstrates, this has ironically lead to us being slaves of our technology.

What we need, then, is a savior. We need a new Adam to fix the mistakes of the original Adam. We need someone to come and make it possible for us to fulfill our original directive, freeing us from our slavery to our own human constructions and teaching us to live in harmony with the world. In short, we need Jesus. Or WALL-E. Like Christ, the film's hero teaches the humans to reconnect to one another and brings them the means to live into their directive, defeating the forces that kept them in slavery. And, also like Christ, he gives up his own life in the process but is reborn.

Along with his EVE, this new Adam is the first parent of a new creation, a new community of humans finally living the way they were intended to live. In Christian terms, WALL-E ends with Pentecost, the birth of the Church. This is the true myth. But it also a cartoon about cute robots.

Friday, August 15, 2008

"The past belongs to us, and we can change it."

Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind (Gondry 2008) perfectly captures the spirit of "fun" I described in my recent post on Bollywood cinema. Based on the lukewarm reviews, (and my own disappointment with Gondry's previous film The Science of Sleep) I wasn't expecting to like this movie. It was fun watching Gondry show us how to recreate big budget special effects with ordinary household items. It reminded me of the pleasures of early silent films, back in the days when movies were "handmade".

But even more than the special effects, I was totally caught up in the sheer fun of filmmaking as I watched Jack Black and Mos Def attempt to recreate Hollywood "blockbusters" with nothing more than a video camera. Given his references to copyright violation, community participation, etc., Gondry obviously has Youtube and other internet phenomena in mind here, but with their mix-and-match cliches and shamelessly "bad" (or should I say "awesomely bad") technical quality, the movies within the movie reminded me of nothing so much as Bollywood. It was just good old, crowd-pleasing fun. This is what filmmaking is all about. Too bad one of the only other filmmakers to understand this is Baz Luhrmann. Speaking of which, I think I'll go watch the shamelessly crowd-pleasing Strictly Ballroom....

Friday, August 8, 2008

"Duniya ki sabse choti prem kahani hogi."

Yesterday I wrote about Moulin Rouge, my favorite Bollywood movie. If Moulin Rouge isn't technically a Bollywood movie, that's because it's made by an Austrailian and not an Indian. But it has all the conventions of the Bollywood genre: it's a highly exaggerated melodramatic musical, incorporating cliches from numerous classic Hollywood movies.

Today I mention my most recent Bollywood viewing, Dil Se (Ratnam, 1998) -- a Hindi title translated "With My Whole Heart". I watched it this week after Netflixing Spike Lee's Inside Man (Lee, 2006). I enjoyed Inside Man as a Hollywood thriller, though as Roger Ebert points out in his review, the plot is completely unbelievable. But the plot is twisty enough to be entertaining for a couple of hours. What really makes the movie worth watching, though, are the fun characters. The actors are clearly having a great time with the improvisational dialogue, and their enjoyment is infectious.

But, for me, the single most memorable thing in the film is the song under the opening credits: "Chaiyya Chayyia" from Dil Se. It makes no sense thematically to open Inside Man with a Bollywood song, but on the DVD commentary, Spike Lee said he just "likes" it. You can see the song in its original context here:

As you can see for yourself, the music in Dil Se (by the incomparable A.R. Rahman) is excellent. As for the rest of the movie ... well, not so much. Dil Se is one of those new generation Bollywood movies that wants to be taken seriously as art. It is aesthetically and thematically ambitious. Like Inside Man, it is an exploration of complicated and morally ambiguous characters. And that would be all well and good, if the movie didn't seem to be ashamed of its traditions. I have no problem with social commentary as long as it doesn't get in the way of pure fun that a Bollywood movie is supposed to be. In other words, Dil Se could have learned a lesson from Inside Man. Spike Lee managed to insert his trademark racial commentary into the film without distracting from its pulpy genre charms.

Too many young Bollywood directors don't seem to actually like Bollywood movies. They are always complaining that audiences/studios require them to make every movie a melodramatic musical. These
films usually still have musical numbers, but (as in Dil Se) the songs seem perfunctory and disconnected from the main action. They could be cut (as the directors wish they would be) without losing anything. Instead of embracing the Bollywood genre elements audiences love, these young directors try to make "serious" movies that end up being just bad versions of American independent movies. They lose their unique Indian flavor. We have plenty of pretentious wannabe Sundance filmmakers. What India has to offer the world is cheesy Bollywood fun.

There are some great scenes in Dil Se. For example, the opening scene at the train station is a nice vignette. It ends with the line I used as a title for this post: "Duniya ki sabse choti prem kahani hogi." Hindi for: "
must be the world's shortest love story." It works beautifully. But when the love story starts to aspire to epic proportions -- in this case, Romeo and Juliet meets the suicide bomber drama Paradise Now -- its reach exceeds its grasp. In the end, Dil Se is an interesting failure with wonderful music. Inside Man would have suffered the same fate if it hadn't kept its pretentious under control.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"Tell our story Christian, that way I'll always be with you."

Ever since I created my blog, I've had a link to Jamie Smith's blog Fors Clavigera. I'm a huge fan of Smith's philosophical and theological publications, but I've been disappointed with the (in)frequency of his blogging. In this week's blog post he reveals why he has been neglecting his blog: he's been finishing a new book. The topic is one of my own personal areas of research, what I would call "liturgical ethics" or the way worship (really art in general) leads to moral formation. Smith puts it this way: "In short, I'm suggesting that before we can ever articulate a Christian 'worldview,' we are engaged in the practices of Christian worship. Drawing on Charles Taylor, I argue that the practices of Christian worship 'carry' within them an 'understanding' of the world that is better described as a 'Christian social imaginary.'"

Smith's book looks great. I'm especially excited about the section on Moulin Rouge (Luhrmann, 2001). It's called "Why Victoria’s In on the Secret: Picturing Discipleship at the Moulin Rouge". Moulin Rouge is one of my favorite movies. I don't know exactly what Smith will write about, but if I were writing about Moulin Rouge and liturgical ethics, I would talk about the way writer-director Baz Luhrmann uses the language of pop music to express his own feelings (and the feelings of his characters). It's precisely the way the writers of the New Testament use the text of the Old Testament -- and the way the Church Fathers use the text of the New Testament. Baz has been "formed" by American popular culture the way we should be formed by the Christian tradition.

If you haven't seen the movie, check out this scene for the best example of what Baz is up to. Another thing that is aesthetically interesting about Moulin Rouge is the way Baz "recontextualizes" pop songs, giving them a new meaning. I've already discussed this idea in my post on Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt", but my favorite example in Moulin Rouge is the cover of Madonna's "Like a Virgin". You can watch it here. Anyway, there's more to discuss about Moulin Rouge, but I'm out of time for now.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Just For Fun: "I am an immortal."

This week's earthquake in Chino Hills (a suburb of Los Angeles) reminds me of a scene from the movie Groundhog Day (Ramis, 1993). In the movie, Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) goes to bed each night on February 2 only to find that he wakes up on February 2 again. After an initial period of hedonism, Phil falls into a depression, but finds that suicide doesn't release him from the cycle. Finally he confides in his coworker Rita:

PHIL: I am a god.
RITA: You're God?
a god. I'm not the God. I don't think.
RITA: Because you survived a car wreck?
PHIL: I didn't just survive a wreck. I wasn't just blown up yesterday. I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned.
RITA: Oh, really?
PHIL: Every morning I wake up without a scratch on me, not a dent in the fender: I am an immortal.
RITA: Why are you telling me this?
PHIL: Because I want you to believe in me.
RITA: You're not a god. Believe me. This is twelve years of Catholic school talking.

So why does an earthquake remind me of this? Because I missed it. I moved to Los Angeles six months after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and I moved away one month before the 2008 Chino Hills earthquake. The whole time I lived in L.A., we never had any significant quakes. I felt a couple of brief wobbles, but I never really got to experience a real shaker. It's kinda sad, really. Maybe I'm some sort of good luck charm. Maybe I'm a god like Phil Connors.

I wonder whether the tornadoes would stop if I moved to Kansas or whether the hurricanes would stop if I moved to Florida. As we learned from Spider-Man: "With great power comes great responsibility." What should I do with my new-found superpower? I am Calm Man! No earthquake may shake me!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

DVD Miscellany

As mentioned in a previous post, I'm watching movies at home now. And I've watched a few of Netflix movies last week that I haven't yet written about, because I don't have much to say about them. So I'll collect them all together into one post.

The first movie I tried to watch was The Golden Compass (Weitz, 2007). Like the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and unlike most evangelical Christians, I appreciated the story's criticism of dogmatism. But I did find the critique coming dangerously close to being itself a kind of dogmatic secularism that worships the authority of "science" as much as it criticizes religions for adherence to authority. More importantly, I found the movie boring and confusing. Without having read the book, I found it difficult to follow all the plot that had been shoe-horned into two hours. I imagine this is what people who haven't read the Harry Potter books feel like when they watched the movies. My final verdict: I didn't end up finishing the movie.

I had much more fun with Scanners (Cronenberg, 1981). I'm a big fan of David Cronenberg's early sci-fi/horror movies, though I have enjoyed his more recent "mainstream" movies like A History of Violence less. (Actually my favorite Cronenberg movie -- Dead Ringers -- sort of bridges this gap between horror and drama.) But I don't have anything interesting to say about the movie. I simply liked it. It's just good (admitedly somewhat cheesy) fun.

Then, in preparation for Scott Derrickson's upcoming remake, I watched the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise, 1951). Scott has taken some flak from internet geeks for remaking a classic. But let's face it, Day isn't Psycho. (Someday I'll write up my thoughts on Gus Van Sant's remake of the Hitchcock classic.) I enjoyed its retro special effects, but its social commentary seemed pretty heavy-handed. I didn't find more here than in a lesser episode of The Twilight Zone. Hopefully Scott can do something more with this premise.

Finally, after those three sci-fi films, I watched two religious documentaries: How to Cook Your Life (Dörrie, 2007) and Into Great Silence (Gröning, 2005). (Are you getting an idea of my cinematic taste yet?) The latter film was not nearly as interesting as I thought it would be. Into Great Silence follows the daily life of Carthusian monks who have taken a vow of silence. Watching the film was a nice meditative experience. I particularly loved the sound design. Since there is not talking, each scene involves some cool background sounds. At one point we even hear the snow falling! But I didn't really learn anything new from the film. Life in the monestary was pretty much just as I expected it to be.

How to Cook Your Life, on the other hand, was much better than I thought. The film is a portrait of Zen teacher Edward Epse Brown. When I saw the trailer for the movie, I thought Brown was annoying and not a very good Buddhist. He gets frustrated while cooking. How does that demonstrate non-attachment? But Brown actually ended up being pretty wise. As an amateur chef I appreciated the way he drew life lessons from the act of cooking. He perfectly captured the feeling of Zen bliss that I feel in the kitchen. I really enjoyed sitting at his feet for a couple of hours.