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!