Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top Ten Films of 2009

I've posted my annual Top 10 list for favorite films at 1More Film Blog.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Over at 1More Film Blog, I'm trying to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas by going to a movie a day. We'll see if I can sustain that better than Nanowrimo. Anyhow, here is a link to my review of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Twilight: New Moon

Becky Finken reviews the new Twilight film at 1More Film Blog. The review is up.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Nanowrimo 2009

"Now there's something you don't see every day," he cracked, looking at the body of what was presumably the owner of Sensei Mike's Karate Academy with a sword sticking all the way through his chest and piercing the punching bag on the other side.

He was right, but the joke was about as stale as the McDonalds coffee that I was reduced to sipping out of a Styrofoam cup. Being forced to drink fast food coffee would be enough to put me in a foul mood even if I wasn't having to stare down at the body of a homicide victim with my best friend (who usually really isn't that much of an asshole) making feeble stabs at gallows humor to try to hide his discomfort.

[Only 49, 874 more words to go! This novel writing stuff is easy breezy, Chucky Cheesey.]

Christian Fiction

My article on "Christian Fiction" from the Books and Beyond (a Greenwood Encylopedia of Literary Genres) is now available online here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bible Films Meme

My friend Carmen at In The Open Space: God & Culture tagged me with a meme that is going around asking people to select their three favorite "Bible Films" and to add one Bible based film they would like to see made.

This was a hard challenge for me because I mostly don't like Bible films, and I'm tempted to start a long discourse on why. But then, I'm always afraid in such instances that doing so turns into a knock on those who act or feel differently, and I don't want to do that either.

I guess I do need to say enough to contextualize my list. I tend to not like Bible films for much the same reason I don't like literary adaptations--good enough is hardly ever perfect, and I end up feeling as though my relationship to the text gets transferred in ways I don't particularly like. Also, I actively resist passive reading or passive viewing where the Bible is involved, meaning I'm usually working against the text.

Okay, so much for my caveats. Here are the three that I would consider my favorites:

The Miracle Maker (Hayes, 2000)
I find that the claymation and animation mix helps create defamiliarization, an essential element of any Bible film for me. Most of the interpretive choices or glosses are fairly well vetted, so the film mostly avoids the kinds of theologically problematic glosses on scenes that take me out of a film when I watch them.

I do tend to dislike the mix of Biblical and apocryphal interpolations (despite two of them being on my list), and I would prefer that an unknown voice Jesus, since any actor's persona carries with it problematic associations with other roles. Generally quick moving, and at times (in the animation) more emotionally suggestive than literal, The Miracle Maker is generally my go to film if I want a film as devotional or contemplative aid, though even this one feels long at 90 minutes sometimes.

The Bible: In The Beginning (Huston, 1966)
If I like The Miracle Maker for being stylized, I like The Bible for its insistent plainness. The most iconic thing about it is Huston's rich, accented voice, and the minimalist interpretations of the early Genesis scenes to help me to think of them as historical depictions of actual people rather than legendary archetypes. Certainly by the time one gets to George C. Scott as Abraham, I feel like I'm watching an actor read his lines rather than a tableau enact the spoken words, but I have a soft spot for the Noah passages. Perhaps it comes from having read of Huston's trials in working with animals and feeling as though there is something just a little metafictive in the way that he, like Noah, takes on a task that is so clearly out of his control.

I've posted a little bit more about Huston at 1More Film Blog, including this quote, which made me love the man, even while I was still on the fence about what I thought of this film: "I try to direct as little as possible. The more one directs, the more there is a tendency to monotony. If one is telling each person what to do, one ends up with a host of little replicas of oneself." Honestly, I don't know how anyone could direct a Bible film any other way.

Intolerance (Griffith, 1916)
D.W. Griffith's film is often viewed as his apology for or defense of Birth of a Nation, but really it's his defense of himself for having made Birth of a Nation. Intersplicing four stories of intolerance through the ages, the film might not be considered a Bible film by some, since only one of the stories is from the Bible. I find that I need something outside the standard depictions of the passion text, however, to keep me from just falling into a familiar sense that I've seen it before. And since some Bible films do feel self-contained to me, I sort of like ones that point outside the cinematic text and address the question of the text's relation to the surrounding world rather than simply being an illustrated text. As a film, Intolerance's use of sets and actual people always instills a sort of awe in me that CGI just doesn't give. There is something epic about the production values that gives the film a sort of weightiness that, while not the end-all-be-all of a Bible film, is, I think, a necessary element.

In terms of Bible films I would like to see made, that's a tough one. I'm tempted to say Carl Theodor Dreyer's long contemplated but never filmed biography of Jesus, but the truth is that I'm happy enough with what Dreyer created. I suppose Hosea might make a good film, as would Jonah, if there were a way to contextualize it quickly enough that the human emotions that are so universal in these texts could be allowed to stand without all the exposition. Rather than pick a film that I want made, can I pick an auteur whose Bible film I would be most interested in screening, whatever subject matter he/she picked from?

Answer: Frederic Back.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

TIFF Coverage at Christianity Today Movies

I'm happy to announce I'll be doing some guest blogging for Christianity Today (CT Movies). You can follow my posts at the CT Movies Blog.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tentative 2009 TIFF Schedule

Well, I got my Out of Town Package from the Toronto International Film Festival today, and spent most of the day figuring out what my itinerary will be. Now, the question is what will happen if I lose out on any of these in the lottery.

Here's what I put in for:

THURSDAY SEP 10:

6:00-7:40 An Education--Sherfig (Ryerson)

FRIDAY SEP 11:

12:30-2:51 Face--Tsai (Scotiabank 1)
6:00-7:50 Vision--von Trotta (Scotiabank 2)
9:00-11:04 Fish Tank--Arnold (Scotiabank 2)

SATURDAY SEP 12:
11:45-1:22 My Tehran For Sale--Moussavi (AMC 7)
3:15-4:56 The Art of the Steal--Argott (AMC 2)
5:15-7:40 White Ribbon--Haneke (Scotiabank 1)
9:15-10:50 The Disappearance of Alice Creed--Blakeson (Ryerson)

SUNDAY Sep 13:
9:30-11:30 Bright Star--Campion (Scotiabank 2)
12:30-2:17 Dorian Gray--Parker (Winter Garden)
9:00-11:00 Air Doll--Koreeda (Scotiabank 2)

MONDAY Sep 14:
10:00-11:30 Solitary Man--Koppelman (Scotiabank 2)
3:00-5:00 The Road--Hillcoat (Scotiabank 2)
5:00-7:00 Agora--Amenabar (Scotiabank 1)
8:15-9:51 Life During Wartime--Solondz (Scotiabank 1)

TUESDAY Sep 15:
9:30-11:14 Wild Grass--Resnais (Scotiabank 4)
12:30-2:03 Carmel--Gitai (Scotiabank 2)
6:30-8:12 White Material--Denis (Scotiabank 1)
9:15-10:51 Lourdes--Hausner (Scotiabank 1)

WEDS Sep 16:
9:15-10:40 Leslie, My Name is Evil--Harkema (Scotiabank 4)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Poker Question That Probably Only Interests Me...

...or maybe it's a math question.

I remember talking to my friend Tom (tdeem1) once about euchre strategy, and he said something like "there is euchre and there is ladder euchre." Part of what he meant was that in order to succeed, you had to know not only the game but the venue.

Which brings me to Zynga Poker. Zynga is a free poker game attached to Facebook. Players earn chips that give them access to various rooms, but really there is no money exchanged. So that's one difference right there. People tend to be more aggressive, play to a draw more often, etc., when there is nothing really at stake.

Zynga has what is called a "Shoot Out" progressive tournament. You buy in for $2000 imaginary Zynga dollars and everyone gets $1000 chips. The winner gets his/her stake back plus entry into round 2. (Second and third get partial amount of stake back.) In round 2 the top three places score and the winner gets entry into round 3, where the winner gets 500,000 imaginary dollars.

Because the cost of the buy in is so low for Round 1, because they have very little attention span, and because it is not real money, many players in Round 1 go "all-in" on the first hand regardless of what they have. Most tables the average number of players who go all in is around 5, though I've seen all 9. I've only on very few occasions seen less than 4.

So here is my question, for the average person for whom imaginary game site dollars are not low (I have like 600 K and the buy in is 2K), when should you move all-in on the first hand?

Various thoughts, followed by rationale, follow, but I'm interested in other people's, especially math guru's, thoughts. FWIW, bear in mind that the fewer people all in (like 4) the easier it is to win the hand but the less decided advantage the person has. If there are seven people all in, it is possible with the blinds still at 10 and 20 dollars, to buy in to most pre-flop hands, wait for a commanding advantage and win the game. Though I have beaten the first hand winner many times, even when he/she generally has a 4-1 or 5-1 chips advantage.

Thought #1: NEVER
The problem with ever entering these free for alls is that even pocket aces seldom win. It becomes more random. You are 4-1 to beat a lower pair, but if there are 2 lower pair, and someone has suited cards and someone else has connectors, well, you get the idea...the number of hands that can beat you increases the more hands that are in and you can rarely get people off the hand. I will usually ANNOUNCE quickly when I have pocket aces, and I usually get 2-4 calls anyway. My hope is that 1 or 2 people might wait a hand to go all in. The fewer hands, the higher my probability of winning the first hand. And even just doubling up the first hand puts me in a much better position to be patient to bust the winner of the eventual group all-in.

Thoguht #2: ALWAYS
If it's just random, you should win a certain percentage over the long run (times where you have aces losing to a flush evening out with times you have 7-2 and suck out someone with the better hand). Once you win, you are in a commanding position. And if you wait, you are playing catch up most of the game.

Thought #3: Sometimes
Okay, but when? Given the fact that most of the other players will go in with anything, my thought here is that if you only play higher probability hands, you will still lose a lot, but the goal is to win more than a strictly random amount. So if you fold the 7-2s and play the AA, well, you'll now and then miss out on the 2-2-2 flop and get sucked out by the flush or straight draw, but the latter will happen less frequently than the former, and so, over time, you'll win a higher percentage than accepting the coin flip.

I sort of go with #3...I'll join if I have two cards 10 or higher, suited connecters, or an Ace + 2, 8, or 9.

Part of my wondering here is that not EVERYONE goes all in, so it is not strictly random draw. If I assume most people similarly won't fold two high cards, I can reasonably assume that the more people who are all-in, the less likely I am to draw a hand since there will be more low cards in the deck to flop. So, part of me thinks if there are 4 or fewer, go all in with high cards, but 5 or more, go all in with low cards (or value suited-connectors more). Then again, a lot of the players are just randomly all-in, so it isn't as though I can seriously read anyone's hand.

Also, does table position matter in this situation at all? I see some people just call the big blind and wait to see how many go all in, but I've seen it go all the way around the table to the small blind only to have him go all in and players with AA or 2-9 follow around the table, so the notion that there is less likely to be more good hands if it calls almost all the way around isn't really valid.

Just wondering if any poker players or math people have some thoughts about the most logical way to play this first hand melee.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Town Halls

I remember a professor in graduate school saying once that the only appropriate response to some arguments is the "no comment F."


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dis-enchanted

Rummaging through the desk the other day I found a hard copy of a paper I had delivered at a conference and thought was inadvertently deleted. It compares the films Ella Enchanted and Kill Bill: Volume 2.

I've put a copy of the paper up at 1More Film Blog.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Gates Arrest Police Report

A lot of people have weighed in on the Gates-Crowley while almost everyone I've heard with an opinion has conceded to not knowing all/most of the facts. To that end, here is a link to a copy of the police reports at The Smoking Gun. Not saying these are all facts, but there is at least one side of the story in the participants own words, making it easier to draw your own conclusions.

Monday, June 29, 2009

"H" is for "Happy"

I had a philosophy professor in college who claimed Plato called music "magic" because it can alter one's mood with no reference to prior experience. You are walking down the street and hear a song you've never heard before and all of a sudden you feel good. What is that, but magic?

My alphabetical sojourn through my Ipod has been stalled lately, but I'm up to the letter "H" and in honor of Plato, I say "H" is for "happy."

There are 90 songs beginning with the letter "h" in my Itunes, list. What follows are the songs from my list that tend to make me happy when I hear them--songs that put me in a good mood or that I enjoy hearing when I am in a good mood:

5) "Heartbreaker" by Dionne Warwick.
Okay, the bizarre thing about music is that sad songs often make you happy and happy songs often are just depressing (often, because they are insipid). It doesn't hurt that this song came out right around the time I was a junior or senior in high school, so it perfectly captures the overwrought emotional romanticism that is young adulthood. There is, perhaps, some nostalgia driving the engine--ah, to be young and to feel each nick and cut as an epic tragedy--but there is something self comforting in the song, too: "Get to the morning and you never call / Love should be everything or not at all." Of course, its always happier nostalgia because, in retrospect, one knows that the greater love was yet to come.

4) "Have a Heart" by Bonnie Raitt
Like Warwick, Raitt is able to sing about heartbreak and make it sound down right enjoyable. Still, while Warwick's song is overwrought, there is a fiestiness in Raitt's lyrics and voice that I just love. Lot of pluck. Glad I've never had to have that sort of spunk in love, but I wish I could have it in all areas of my life:

Hey!
Shut up.
Dont lie to me.
Hey!
Mister, how do you do.
Oh pardon me I thought I knew you.

I mean, that's perfect.

3) "Hips Don't Lie" by Shakira

I discovered this song after reading an interview with some athlete on SI.com where they asked him, "What's the most embarassing song you have on your Ipod." When he said he had the music video for this song I had to look it up. "I never really knew that she could dance like this / She makes a man want to speak Spanish..." Okay, I was gonna say that's positively Donne-worthy, but I'll settle for Byronesque (he who rhymed "intellectual" with "hen-pecked-you-all." Besides, goofy is fun, isn't it?

2) "Heart and Soul" by T'Pau
Actually the lyrics of this song are pretty damned depressing. Good thing one can't hardly decipher them. Love the music, though.

1) "Hymn to Her" by the Pretenders
Doesn't hurt that I discovered this song when I was falling in love for the first time. Never fails to bring a smile to my face.

Honorable mentions: "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen, "Holding Out for a Her" by Bonnie Tyler, "Heaven is a Place on Earth" by Belinda Carlisle; "Human Wheels" by John Cougar Mellencamp; "Head Over Heels" by Tears for Fears.

Two Bresson posts

I have posted thoughts on two Bresson films at 1More Film Blog:

A Man Escaped

The Trial of Joan of Arc

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Howard Hawks, Land of the Pharaohs

I've been busy with work recently and haven't done much new film viewing, so I've uploaded an older piece I worked on awhile back to 1More Film Blog.

I got a kick out of the reason William Faulkner said writing the screenplay for this film was so difficult.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Charles Muntz vs Ted Turner




















Am I the only one who sees a resemblance? I'm sure it's probably just coincidental, no?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

NBA Basketball

So, based on my recent anthropological observations, here is the skinny on NBA basketball.

NBA Basketball is a contest resembling but in no wise identical to actual High School, College, Olympic, or Recreational Basketball. The play proceeds for three and one half quarters where four players congregate underneath under baskets and attempt to beat the living s--t out of one another while one player from a team alternately bounces and scoops and carries an orange ball like a waiter's tray while trying to run into the fifth player on the other team. If he is successful at running into the player on the other team, he gets two free throws, if not he must stamp his foot three times and cover his eyes before returning to play.

This proceeds until there are are approximately four minutes left in the game, at which point the rules change. Then, one player from the team that is behind is chosen at random to intentionally wrap his arms around another player's waist (rather than elbow him in the face) before the player scooping the ball can run into another player. If the scooping player is named Lebron, Kobe, or Michael, he doesn't actually have to run into another player in the last four minutes, he only has to get within three feet of the other player--at which point the other player is obligated to run in the other direction or be called for a foul.

After the game is over, the player with the most felonies or points must then publicly thank God and the fans at the arena, while the players of the losing team must say the word "adjustments" before going to the locker room. This is repeated every three days if no travel is required or every two if the teams are not from Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago until one team is either so beat up they can't play or has so many players suspended for doing in the last two minutes of the game what they are required to do all game, that the other team moves forward.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

New Contributors to 1More Film Blog

I'm pleased to be able to add content to 1More Film Blog from two new contributors.

Dan Mohr has graciously allowed me to republish some of his discussion board thoughts on the new Star Trek film. I like Dan's writing style and (although we largely agree on this particular film) his ability to disagree with a prevailing attitude or critical consensus while avoiding personal insults and just dealing with the substance of an idea or critical opinion.

I've known Laura J. Morefield much longer, as a sister-in-law and friend. She describes herself on her blog thusly:
Laura Morefield is a poet, budding novelist, political commentator, wife, sister, aunt, daughter, friend, person fighting cancer and occasional life coach.
Laura's skills and experience as a creative writer give her a perspective which, I think, nicely complements my own as an academic and critic. In her own blog, she has written about how fighting cancer has effected her perspective about her own political writing, and I suspect this experience can't help but influence how she feels and writes about art as well. It is for this reason I especially welcome her perspective as she works through Academy Award winners or other films. Her most recent piece is about The Life of Emile Zola.

There is, of course, something that threatens to reduce a person and put her (or him) in a box when we focus too much on one specific aspect of their perspective. Just as I like to think of myself as more than "just" a "Christian critic" or a "literature teacher" even though I like to think my faith and profession help shape and differentiate my perspective, so too Laura is so much more than "just" a cancer fighter, or a creative writer, or a woman writer. All these things (and more) inform and differentiate her perspective and make her someone I enjoy listening to and someone who I inevitably learn from.

Friday, May 15, 2009

When Facebook Applications Go Bad, Part II.



Yeah, I can't possibly think what could go wrong here, either.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Star Trek Rant

Originally posted at Cinevox. Spoliers, of course.

******************************************

Spoilers abound, of course.

So Peter, Beth, Cindy and I saw it.

My goodness, my transformation to effete film snob is nearly complete. I know intellectually this movie isn't half as bad as it felt (or maybe it was) and that I'm responding as much to the adulation it is getting (confirming my growing suspicion that most of the people in the world who aren't me--or at least agree with me 95% of the time--are idiots) as its mediocrity.

Peter and Beth want a full-on ATK rant. Not sure I'm up to that--but I guess I'll give it the old James T. Kirk try. The abbreviated version, in rising order of what I found irritating:

--the prolonged and ever increasing chase factor, turning the franchise from a science-fiction film into an action film. Mission: Impossible in space, if you will.

--either be a reboot (and ignore the continuity issues/problems) or a prequel (and spend time explaining how to get Nimoy, etc into the movie), but don't do a half-assed job at both and thus a satisfactory job at neither.

--The explicit coda delivered in dialogue for those too stupid to understand what a movie they have just seen is about.

--(I realize I may be the only one who cares about this one, but...) I find it to be the wrong cultural moment for the political self-congratulatory tone of our humanistic, Western federation valuing of life and even mercy towards our enemies. Spock is supposed to be the moral hero because he recognizes he has been "emotionally compromised" and thus relieves himself of command. Kirk offers mercy to the terrorist slayer of 6 billion life forms b/c that may be the only way to build a diplomatic bridge to the terrorists? Sure, he's happy when they say they'd rather die than submit, allowing us to simultaneously exercise genocidal vengeance yet still feel morally superior in, you know, a Christian sort of way. It's the sort of fantasy wish fulfillment of the sort (pandering to our basest instincts masquerading as moral superiority) I haven't seen since, well, Left Behind. Rather than deal with or even acknowledge our most problematic (Kaplan uses the word "shameful," I think, in Female Perversions) urges, let's construct fantasy scenarios in which giving in to them is actually required of us and therefore morally noble rather than compromised or even base. It's the philosophical/moral equivalent of the Kobyashi Maru scneario--let's rewrite the program to that some problem isn't a problem at all and congratulate ourselves at our cleverness in being able to have our cake and eat it too. I've never been a great follower/fan of the television incarnations, but I've respected what I've seen, in part because there seemed to be an actual ideological idea or world-view that was being expressed. This film reminded me of the first Harry Potter film--working feverishly to get in all the superficial surface paraphernalia (as though those were the things that made it great rather than just nostalgic buttons to push) but totally whiffing on the spirit that animated them and made people love it in the first place.

Should make a couple gazillion billion dollars and serve marvelously as a tent pole reboot. And it's my fault, because like the last two Star Wars movies, I know I'll probably go see them all.

On the upside, I had a great afternoon with friends and family, so that was well worth eight bucks. I guess if I had to choose between that and loving the film but finding the people I see it with really annoying, I'll take the company every time.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"God's Love" and The Celebrity Apprentice

I stopped watching The Apprentice long ago, basically when it became clear that decisions were not about winning the weekly contests but about creating conflict that was good for "drama." I was, however, interested enough to read this interview with Joan Rivers who defended calling one of her rivals (apparently Annie Duke, the poker player) "worse than Hitler."

King: Joanny, where did you come up with that 'worse than Hitler' crack?

Rivers: Oh, I don't know. You know, you're always saying things. Hitler is the worst villain in the world. So when you really get furious at someone, you say, 'Oh, you're a female Hitler' or something, you know? It's just an expression. But I stand behind it.

So, it's all in the game, and it's all about making money for charity.

Joan's charity? I'm not making this up:

Trump: She got $250,000 plus she raised hundreds of thousands more during the course of the 14 weeks. But she gets $250,000. That goes to God's Love We Deliver, which is a great charity in New York.

I guess I should cap this post with a clever zinger about irony, but really, one senses that if people don't get it themselves, anything I could say about it would probably be lost. So, instead, I'll just say, thank you Joan Rivers for delivering God's love, and congratulations on acquiring $250,000 for your charity.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Dom DeLuise has died...

...and so has Bea Arthur. So has Jack Kemp.

But that's not really what this post is about.

The first celebrity passing which I recall actually being aware of was when a newscaster for the evening news gave a teaser that John Wayne had passed.

People died back then, but, pardon the crassness of my saying so, it seemed to happen less frequently. I'm sure there were obituaries and all, but with the Internet, it seems that someone dies every day.

And that's what this post is about.

There seems to me to be something pat, routine, and "Now...This"ish about the whole exercise of acknowledging (different from memorializing) celebrity passings that I actually find dispiriting and depressing. The phrase "Now...This" is from the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman (who I think is dead, but I'm not sure). It is the transition, he says, that indicates what you have just heard and been asked to think about has absolutely no connection to what you are about to hear or think about. Okay, that part is just typical media age disconnectedness. He also says, though, that it is the cue that you have thought long enough (an appropriate time) about whatever and now are okay to think about something else. If it is a really big celebrity, that might mean long enough to post a thought on your blog (or read someone's), but if it was someone you didn't really know was alive or dead until you read the obit, it's more usually a moment of silence or an acknowledgment.

What's wrong with that?

Well, nothing, I guess, other than my general dislike of expressions of anything that are ceremonial rather than actual. But it just seems like the canned way of responding is so routine that it just means that all we think about is death, that death is the only thing that gives the story meaning. It's also a bit of a trap in that not acknowledging makes us feel cold and hypocritical, so we have to acknowledge everyone...."Hey, that person that was in the commercial for x died...yeah, that was a funny commercial...hey and the first drummer on the One Hit Wonders...and the reserve point guard who played on the NBA finals..." But in acknowledging everyone, isn't there a kind of trap or hypocrisy as well? "So and so...wasn't he the one who did that television show I never watched before doing that other television show that I didn't watch?"

If nobody died, we can always do a catch up with the friends or family of somebody who died last month or last year. Earlier this month I was at the supermarket and there was a magazine that had a famous celebrity talking about dealing with the death of a family member. "Oh, yes," I thought, "I remember [vaguely] when it was reported that that happened."

The fact that I hadn't thought about it once since then is, perhaps an indication that this story didn't really have anything to do with me. That a stranger died in another part of the country under sad and tragic circumstances. Or perhaps it is an indication that whatever sympathies I had for that family and those people was parcelled into increasingly smaller packages to be shared with the friends and families of Dom DeLuise, and Bea Arthur, and (not dead yet!) Roger Ebert, and Patrick Swayze, and Farrah Fawcett...

Kon Ichikawa died this year. Seems like just yesterday we were talking about Bergman and Antonioni going in quick succession. Oh, wait that was 2007. I totally skipped over the tragic deaths of Heath Ledger and Natasha Richardson, didn't I? How could I have forgotten those stories? No, I mean that literally, how? They were all over the news, weren't they?

I don't mean to disparage any of these celebrities who brought beauty and entertainment to countless people and who, I hope, had friends and loved ones who will feel their losses very deeply, not because a newspaper told them to, but because they were integral parts of their lives. I don't even mind people who have a particular remembrance of a film or a performance writing a memory or an appreciation. (I did, when Nick Reynolds passed away last year...or was it 2 years ago...). I just wish that we could find some way of making such gestures something other than compulsory so that I could trust and believe them when I read them and not just feel like they served no other purposed than to make the person making them feel insulated from the charge of being a jerk less anyone notice that, "Hey, Marilyn Chambers died, and Ken was so busy writing about his life and his family that he didn't even mention it."

Friday, May 01, 2009

Movie Prayers--Cromwell (1970)

Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget thee, do not thou forget me.

"I'll Pray for You..."

Why do those words set my teeth on edge?

Okay, today it is because I got a letter that had in its return logo:

DEAR JESUS, WE PRAY THAT YOU WILL BLESS SOMEONE IN THIS HOME SPIRITUALLY, PHYSICALLY AND FINANCIALLY. ST. MATTHEW 18:19.
On the back it said:

WE PRAY OVER THIS LETTER BECAUSE WE WANT TO HELP THIS DEAR PERSON IN YOUR HOLY NAME AMEN. PSALM 37:4
and

...AND PLEASE DEAR JESUS, BLESS THE HANDS THAT OPEN THIS FAITH LETTER THAN CAN CHANGE THESE LIVES, AND WE ASK THEE TO GIVE THEM THE DESIRES OF THEIR HEARTS...
Really? Even if the desire of the heart of the hands that open the letter are an Islamic Jihad, a pedophilia party, or a lifetime supply of crack cocaine?

My friend Jeffrey Overstreet once remarked to an inquiry about whether or not he prayed for Hollywood celebrities with a rather caustic remark that he had a hard enough time cultivating the discipline of praying for his own family.

Really, isn't praying for someone one of the greatest things you can do? We certainly say that, yet how many people, when they hear those words actually feel glad to know it? Even Christians. Perhaps we don't feel it because, rhetoric aside, our experience of having people tell us those words is not one of experiencing a difference in our lives.

Many years ago, I made the decision to try to avoid ever saying "I'll pray for you." It seemed like an indeterminate and weaselly commitment. I was also frustrated by the number of people who would ask me to pray for someone or about something and then never follow up. I might see them days later and ask about their "prayer request" only to be met with a shrug or an embarrassed look and told they didn't know how the situation had resolved or if it had. Really "I'll pray for you" is a way of ending the conversation, without having to do any follow up. I will, occasionally tell someone "I have prayed for you" and I'm certainly open to people who want to pray right now.

My favorite part of the above prayer is the scripture reference. I love how the pray-ers tell Jesus not a prayer but THAT THEY ARE PRAYING. They then tell Jesus that they are praying in his name, and in case Jesus is wondering why they are praying the way they are, they provide Jesus with a nice scrpture reference from Psalms.

I'm trying to picture a kid talking to his parents (or, if the metaphor is better, his big brother) like this:

"Hey, will you bless this name in the phone book, because I want to help this person on your behalf by letting them know you blessed them..."

I believe prayer is a a good thing. I believe it helps us more than we know and is effective more than we guess. I just wish that it were more meaningful in our culture. Meaningful enough that we would toss our prayers around like advertising slogans, hoping for market pentetration rather than genuine human and spiritual connection. And I wish we would talk about praying less and actually do it more.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

More Fun with More Film

Wow, wordpress really lets me go to town with my new film blog...scrolling feature bar, random post selection, video embedding. I'm having all sorts of fun. Check out the new and improved look at http://1morefilmblog.com.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Things That Keep You Going Back

So I finally figured out how to upload photos from my cell phone.

This rather banal little photo is career ace #5, made earlier this year in McLean. It was a short little hole, a measly 146 feet. But an ace is an ace. I threw a beat in Innova Dragon that tracked a perfect slice into the chains.

There are pictures that are pretty and there are pictures that are "purty."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

OLC Torture Memo Excerpt Put to Music

Rockcookiebottom.com has a YouTube of the OLC Torture Memo put to music. Thanks to Andy Zell for pointing this out to me:


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Deuce Factor

Since I moved most of my movie stuff elsewhere, I thought this a good time/place to repost the history of "Deuce Factor":
*********************

What Is It?
Okay, now that I know that "Deuce Factor" is being practiced in at least four different cities, I figured I better write it up so that any subsequent people claiming to have invented it would be precluded. "Deuce Factor" is a way of rating movie trailers (also called previews). After watching a trailer, each person ranks how interested/willing to see the film he/she is in comparison to Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo. One simply asks oneself the question: "Based on this trailer, if someone held a gun to my head and said, you MUST watch, right now, either this movie or Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, which one would I choose?"

A Deuce Factor +1, means you would rather watch the film than Deuce Bigalow, conversely, a Deuce Factor -1 means, if forced, you would prefer to watch the Rob Schneider film. Films can be given a +2 (I think I would rather watch that movie twice than have to sit through Deuce Bigalow once) or a -2 (I would rather watch Deuce Bigalow twice than this movie once:--and hey, it can happen). Thus far, only one movie in history (Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) has ever received a Deuce Factor -3. A "Deuce Push" means that one may as well flip a coin, there is nothing to recommend the film (based on the trailer) over Deuce Bigalow or vice-versa).
I would point out, this procedure, while working marvelously well, only seems to work for those people who have NOT in fact seen Deuce Bigalow. If you have seen it, then the question becomes, "would I rather see it again, or watch this movie for a first time?" and then calibration gets messed up.

Who Invented It?
Steven H. Perlstein of Northern Virginia. I was visiting him in the winter of 1999 and lamenting how Deuce Bigalow looked like the worst movie of all time. "You're being melodramatic," he replied. "I can think of a half dozen movies playing right now that I would rather see Deuce Bigalow than..." I challenged this statement, and Steve picked up the Washington Post and began perusing the film section. I don't remember the exact movies that he rattled off--perhaps one was Bicentennial Man, perhaps another was Stuart Little, perhaps he mentioned Dogma, The Messenger, or The Bone Collector. I think The Story of Us was still playing in the $1.00 theaters. Needless to say, I was shaken. It wasn't so much that there were a half-dozen movies as bad as or worse than Deuce Bigalow, just that there were a half-dozen as bad or worse movies AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT.

Later, in line to see Man on the Moon, Steve consoled me for my naiveté. "Deuce Bigalow is a good test case though; it's the type of movie that is easy to ridicule and criticize without ever thinking about how bad some other movies really are." We bought our tickets. "In fact," Steve said, "I think that is how I am going to judge previews from now on: would I rather see this movie or Deuce Bigalow?"

I believe the first previews we got that night was for Play It to the Bone. It looked stupid, crass, and pointless. I was hard pressed to find any reason why I would rather see it instead of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. I think next came Fantasia 2000, or maybe Snow Falling on Cedars. More pretentious films, to be sure, but in their own ways promising to be no less dreary. "I rest my case," Steve said.

I've never looked at previews the same way since.

P.S.
Since that time my friends Todd and Sherry Truffin have introduced "Deuce Factor" to Cleveland, Ohio, and last summer I took "Deuce Factor" on the road to Saugus, California where my brother, sister-in-law, and friend, Jeremy Riter, quibbled over whether Coyote Ugly was a +3 or a -1 (and whether a film had only one true and authentic "Deuce Factor rating" or if it could have several depending upon the gender and taste of the viewer). These questions are still unresolved.

So if you are in a movie theater and you hear somebody saying, "It's a -1..." during one of the previews, you know what they are talking about. Why not lean over and surprise them by saying, "You mean you would seriously rather see Deuce Bigalow than that?"

Then email me at kenmorefieldATgmail.com and tell me where "Deuce Factor" has reached.

You Keep Using That Word...

...I don't think it means what you think it means.

Last week, I was apparently the only person in the world who thought it odd that U.S. News and World Report would says that Rick Warren was "a little nauseous."

Today I wake up to find that SI.com says the Penguins defeated Philadelphia Flyers to "seize control" of their playoff hockey series.

Just so we're clear. The Penguins were leading the series two games to zero before "seizing control." I wonder who had before this game?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Viewpoint Gives Way to 1More Film Blog

I've been wanting to update my rather shoddy looking web page for my miscellaneous film reviews, and finally carved out a niche of time to learn Wordpress, investigate themes, blah, blah, blah.

Over the years Viewpoint has morphed from a Blogger blog where I posted reviews, to a Web Site Tonight platform through GoDaddy, back to Blogger as just a list of links to my reviews elsewhere, a hybrid of links and unpublished reviews, etc. I've been working on it for many years, and I'll be sad to see it go, but I'm happy about it's newest incarnation: 1More Film Blog.

Wordpress really is more flexible and powerful, and even though the site is still under construction--it will take awhile to tweak some of my old posts--I think in the long run this will be a lot nicer web presence than I've had before.

I will, though, keep All Things Ken at Blogger. It's just terribly, terribly easy for the sorts of personal news that this Blog is. I'm just happy to have a dedicated site for film related reviews and essays.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Bitter Tea of Mister Capra

I haven't been updating my film page much recently because I've been doing other things, but I just recently posted some thoughts about Frank Capra and his little seen The Bitter Tea of General Yen.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Monday, April 06, 2009

Eldorado

What, a Belgian film by a director not named Dardennes? Jeffrey Overstreet reviews Eldorado at Filmwell.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

What do Facets and L.L. Bean Have in Common?

I love Facets. Having lived in Northern Illinois for 10 years, I can't imagine what would induce anyone to want to live in Chicago, except maybe Facets.

So I was thrilled that they started offering a Netflix like rental membership via mail. The market advantage? Facets has hundreds of rare, OOP VHS films that members can rent via mail with a membership.

Now the catch is that you do have to pay the shipping on VHS rentals (not on DVDs) and there is a $200 claim against a lost or damaged OOP VHS film, so treat those rentals like the valuable commodity they are.

If I were President Obama, here would be my stimulus plan. Give everyone a free Facets membership. They'll end up spending money on shipping because its so darn tantalizing to finally be able to see Red Desert, or Greed, or The Bitter Tea of General Yen, or This Happy Breed. Yesterday in the mail I got Joseph Losey's The Go-Between.

Aside from just making you all mad with envy and my cinephelic bliss, I post this for another reason. Facets is having some growing pains going from essentially a store to a by mail rental service. Those of you who have read this blog before know I love to rag on companies with poor customer service (I'm looking at you Blockbuster) or deceptive practices (I'm looking at you Time Warner Cable). So it was stunning and refreshing to send an e-mail complaint about problems I was having with my Facets membership and get...gasp...a response. Not only was my problem corrected, but I was given a small bonus for having to put up with them getting the kinks out.

This would be as good a time as any to review some principles for approaching customer service issues to maximize your possible results:

1) Keep a record of who you contacted and when. Letters and calls that say, "I've called three times and and spoken to x, y, and z" tend to get more attention than "I've been getting the run around!"

2) Know who you are speaking to and what they are authorized to do. There is no sense arguing with someone who is only paid to record information. Ask to speak to a supervisor if you are not satisfied with the response. All they can do is say "no."

3) Know what you want. This would seem self evident but it isn't. By the time most people get around to calling customer service, there is a problem and they just want to vent or complain. Before you dial (or boot up e-mail), ask yourself what you want out of the exchange? A refund? A credit? An upgrade? A change of practice? An apology? Too often we approach a business with a complaint and expect them to guess what we want or just start lobbing things in our direction. Chances are, though, they are going to peg you pretty early in an exchange as a potential customer who can be kept or a complainer who wants to vent. The company's purpose in dealing with the former is to win you back. With the latter it is to finish the transaction as quickly as possible and move on.

4) Compensation is better than vengeance. It may be emotionally satisfying to say "I want whoever helped me fired..." but, hey, that's probably not going to happen. There is time and money invested in advertising, hiring, and training, even for call centers, temps, or customer service. Good managers really take a cost assessment approach to customer service, and part of that is making concrete what something is going to cost (in terms of money or time) to fix. Uncertain costs scare us as consumers, but they scare managers as well. If a delivery person shows up late, you are much more likely to get a manager to waive the delivery fee than to fire the delivery person or agree to pay lost wages or your baby sitter. The former is a fixed cost, the latter tend to be expenses that they may not know what they are agreeing to.

5) If someone gives you good customer service, go back there. I recently returned a backpack with a lifetime guarantee to LL Bean. They replaced it at no charge. Some stuff at Bean costs a little more, but I go back because I want to reward companies that give good service not just punish those that don't.

Obama's Gifts

Which would you rather have? The Ipod he gave QE2 or the 100 movies he gave Gordon Brown? I'd rather have the movies, myself.

Where's my Ipod though?

Bella (2006)

I've got a new piece up at Filmwell on Alejandro Gomez Montverde's Bella.

Well sort of. It's more about marketing and culture wars.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Filmwell

Well, I'm happy to be asked to be involved in a new film page, Filmwell.

It's a collaborative effort with some people I really dig: Jeffrey Overstreet, Alissa Wilkinson, Jason Morehead, Mike Leary, and Mike Hertenstein. Each of us will be posting on different days, and we're trying to shy away from celebrity news and gossip and....well, I'll let you figure out what we ARE trying to do.

My first post is a meditation on Josephy Losey's The Servant.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Secrets (2007)

I've been meaning to blurb this, because I know I probably won't be able to write a full review.

I caught Avi Nesher's Ha-Sodot (The Secrets) the other week and found it to be a nice bindungsroman (boy I hate that the adjective "nice" has been demeaned) about first love, deciding who you are, and the ways in which a fundamentalist community can become so stifling that you have to pull away from it even though you think you can't.

It is (or would be) an easy enough film to mock. Just throw out all the current dismissive buzz phrases like "After School Special," "melodrama," or "provincial." But the fact is, I did care about these characters by the end of the film, not as poster children for some theological or political argument, but as human beings whom I wanted to see succeed and be happy whatever choices they made that might deviate from my own. In that sense, it would be a nice companion to Milk, which I thought more smooth but less heartfelt.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Watchmen (2009)

Yeah, I called that one wrong.

As a fetishistic recreation of the graphic novel for the purposes of masturbatory group nostalgia--it was a great experience the first time you read it wasn't it?--the film was fine. As a work of art, well, a three hour story board can be a bit tedious. There is a "Now...This" quality to the narrative that is as much a structural problem as anything else. Comic books are montages by nature, and we are conditioned to see montage as ellipsis. But when the whole thing is montage, the film ends up eliding any remnant of story, character or humanity, and we just have spectacle. Some of the individual bits of spectacle or pieces of montage are interesting, others campy, others clumsy, but it plods from one to the next. By "plod" I don't mean the pace is slow necessarily, just that slavish faithfulness to putting every little thing in from the graphic novel ends up making the audience (or at least this member of it) feel as though that was the (only) purpose in making the film. It wasn't so much that I felt like Snyder didn't know or understand what the material meant and couldn't translate it to the screen--I felt like he didn't care what it meant. That his purpose was not to convey the meaning of the source material but the surface of it, the mechanics of it, and as a result the film felt mechanical and purposeless, even with all its sermonizing about the human spirit. In that sense, the film it most reminded me of was Chris Columbus's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

I could enumerate in more detail, I suppose, but really, to what purpose? Those who will like the film have most likely already seen it. Those who haven't seen it yet probably have their own reasons for not doing so. I enjoyed the experience of going to the movies with my friends and watching this movie, which is not the same as enjoying this movie, but....

P.S. This is probably as good a place as any to mention that over at Cinevox I'm in the process of casting Muppet Watchmen, to go with Muppets in Space and Muppet Treasure Island...

Friday, March 20, 2009

Career Ace Number Five

Hole 9 at McLean Community Park is only 146 feet, but a slight anyzer with a beat in Dragon got me career ace #5. And an ace is an ace.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The House Bunny Quasi-Rant

I can't quite bring myself to full rant mode for The House Bunny, because, let's be honest, pretty much any complaint I could raise about the film would be rebutted by at least two of the five primal questions:

  1. What did you think was going to happen?
  2. How long have you known about the assignment?
Not that The House Bunny has no redeeming values. I've been searching for works that my students might be familiar with that illustrate the notion of deconstruction--undermining the philosophy a work asserts or the hierarchies on which it relies.

Now, I could point to the ending with a speech about the importance of inner beauty, friendship, etc. followed by the post-coda dance to the song, "I Know What Boys Want." But I prefer this exchange of dialogue:

Maybe Oliver is one of those guys who likes to have a conversation with a girl before he hooks up with her.

He's gay?


Oh boy, we laugh because it's funny, and we laugh because it's so true. Because, really, aren't gays the only guys that like to talk with girls they hook up with?

I would point out that this film is more demeaning towards men than women, as it shows women at least capable of friendship and being motivated by things other than sex, while it makes clear that a guy is and can only be motivated by one thing.

I would point that out, except that to point out that the only reason a guy might watch the film is to ogle girls requires admitting you watched the film. This reminds me of the famous Dilbert cartoon where the point haired boss says that one of his worker's flaws is that she tends to argue with people who are much smarter than her prompting her to think, "I can't argue with his stupid misconception without proving it is true!" Checkmate.

Okay, I watched this film, so I guess I deserve whatever scorn I get. Please berate me in the comments below as you see fit.

P.S. Anna Farris was actually kind of cute in Entourage. Oh well.
P.P.S. Was that Katherine Macphee as in American Idol Katherine MacPhee? You know, if I had to put her performance up against Kelly Clarkson's in From Justin 2 Kelly, I think she might actually beat Kelly Clarkson, which feels out to even type.
P.P.P.S. Last fall in Toronto I saw Kat Dennings in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. I am hard pressed to think of an actress who has been in two consecutive films this bad and yet towards whom I developed no ill will. She seems like a pleasant enough actress, but Kat...fire your agent.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

FFCC Awards 2008

The Faith and Film Critics Circle (FFCC) is an affiliation of film critics whose scholarly or journalistic work has paid particular interest to the representations of faith in contemporary film. In an attempt to draw attention to quality works of art, the FFCC votes annually on awards for Best Narrative Film, Best Documentary, Best Film For the Whole Family, and Best Exploration of Spiritual Themes.

I was particularly happy to see At the Death House Door take the prize for Best Documentary as it was my favorite film of 2008.

This years selections were announced today and included the following films:

MOST SIGNIFICANT EXPLORATION OF SPIRITUAL THEMES
Winner: Silent Light
Runner up: Doubt
Also nominated: The Dark Knight, In Bruges, Slumdog Millionaire

BEST NARRATIVE FILM
Winner: Slumdog Millionaire
Runner up: Silent Light
Also nominated: Happy-Go-Lucky, Paranoid Park, WALL-E

BEST DOCUMENTARY
Winner: At the Death House Door
Runner up: Man onWire
Also nominated: Encounters at the End of the World, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Young@Heart

BEST FILM FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
Winner: WALL-E
Runner up: More Than a Game
Also nominated: City of Ember, Horton Hears a Who, Kung Fu Panda, The Spiderwick Chronicles

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Yes, I am, Cartman--The Cool Judaism of Kyle Broslofski

The Deep End of South Park: Critical Essays on Television's Shocking Cartoon Series is now available from McFarland Publishing.

It contains my essay, "'Yes I Am, Cartman!': The Cool Judaism of Kyle Broslofski."

Unfortunately, due to copyright restrictions, I had to take almost all of the direct quotations out (and substitute descriptions), so the writing doesn't have quite the same snap; that said, I kind of like this essay.

Here's a teaser:

The key to understanding Kyle’s superiority to Eric may be found in a close reading of an exchange in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. As the two boys face death, Eric offers a typically misguided apology: “Kyle, all those times I called you a stupid Jew, I didn't mean it. You're not a Jew.” When Kyle affirms that he is a Jew, Eric demurs, saying, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Among other things, this exchange highlights the fact that the word “Jew” is—at least in this exchange--devoid of content or meaning for Eric; it is a word that he understands is supposed to be insulting without really knowing why. This point is underscored by an earlier exchange when Eric’s teacher overhears him tell Kyle, “Don't call me fat, you fucking Jew!” When Mr. Garrison asks, “Eric, did you just say the F-word?” he looks puzzled and asks, “Jew?”
The quality that makes Kyle’s Judaism cool is its authenticity, a word I use to express its combination of pride (or at least its lack of shame) and its considered nature, leading to its individuality (a trait to which I will return later). Kyle’s Judaism is cool because it is unabashed; he does not attempt to hide it or “pass,” even when invited to do so (symbolically if not literally) by Eric. Even the form of Kyle’s affirmation, using as it does the English translation of the name God reveals to Moses in the book of Exodus, subtly underscores Kyle’s ability to appropriate the text and terminology shared with the Christian for his own use and purpose. Kyle accepts the name but he does not accept the meaning attached to it and in doing so he symbolically prevents Eric, other Christians, or indeed anyone else, from defining his spiritual identity for him.

You can purchase the book at this link.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Waltz With Bashir (2008)

It it hard for me to know how I might have responded to this film if I hadn't seen The Reader or Heartbeat Detector in the last few weeks.

Some of the responses (I'm talking in general, not about responses here) to those films, particularly the former appear to say it is not just wrong to excuse (or offer an excuse) for Nazi (or German...they're always the same, right?) atrocities but even just to understand them or to try to talk about the context it which they occurred as part of the dialogue surrounding them.

In a survey, even an historical one, of atrocities, there are two categories, victims and perpetrators. There are no witnesses, nor are there people who are merely complicit. (What does it mean to be complicit but to look the other way? Silence is a form of consent that allows evil to flourish.)

Several times while watching Waltz With Bashir I thought about the notion that by the measure we judge we shall be weighed, and I don't doubt that contributed to my dissatisfaction with the film.

I'm not sure how the film could have been other than what it was, but the repressed memory device ensures that the whole film (okay, well, 99% of it) remains squarely from the perspective of the Israeli yet assiduously avoids any apportionment of blame. What, I wondered, would be the response of a film about a traumatized German solider who represses his memory of participating in a massacre (the film's word, not mine)? Of a white South African who tries to reconstruct repressed memories of Soweto? Of an American who tries to recall being at My Lai?

If may be true that such a film would offer up an excu...explanation that the person from whose perspective it was written (or shown) was young, and stupid, and afraid, and merely following orders. Would it, however, expect audiences to feel such unreflected sympathy for the person traumatized by the event absent much (any?) attempt to grapple with or own the fact that participation in such events makes one the oppressor not the victim? (Perhaps the only real analog I could find for the film might be James Baldwin's short story "Going to Meet the Man" which could only get away with focusing on the pain, rage, and empathy for the racist white sheriff because it was written by a Black American.)

"You were traumatized by the massacre before it happened" a friend tells the main character (or something close to that). This segues into some pop-psychology about the collective memory of the Holocaust the purport of which can be debated. Perhaps this scene is not meant as a "the Holocaust justifies everything" scene. Perhaps it means that having grown up with an historical narrative of victimization, the narrator cannot fathom a world in which events don't conform to an archetypal pattern he's been drilled to believe is the context for the only way of looking at the world.

After watching this film, I thought a lot about the third act of Bob Hercules's incredible documentary, Forgiving Dr. Mengele. After Eva Mozes Kor forgives a prison guard, and later gives personal forgiveness to all Nazis, including the infamous doctor who experimented on her and killed her sister, she at first refuses and then reluctantly agrees to a meeting with some Palestinians. There is a truly frustrating disconnect in that part of the film, as Kor tries to explain that she can't forgive the Palestinians because they are still actively trying to kill her; she seems unaware that the people she met with don't want her forgiveness. They consider her the oppressor and (apparently mistakenly) think that she will understand their greivances.

I have never been to Israel. Someone I know and trust implicitly has, and in the wake of this film that person told me unless or until an American Christian goes to Israel he simply cannot fathom how completely, insistently, and totally the Israeli people are acculturated to accept an identity of victimhood. Given a history of Jewish persecution that is measured in millennia rather than decades, perhaps the narrator's emphasis in the first half of the film on the sheer terror of war is meant less as a generic excuse and more as a (very, very, very, very, indirect) probing of the mindset that has to repress accountability even at the cost of memory. Perhaps the experience of fear has been so long it becomes ingrained and, at that point, the person never feels safe; even when victims subsequently find themselves in contexts where they have more power (and thus more relative safety) they often still feel as those they must maintain that upper hand or they will fall victim again. Thus the drive for feeling safer becomes a drive for maintaining the upper hand of power at all costs.

Accountability for what, though? Standing by and watching while the "Christian Philangist" militia did their exterminating for them? For sending up a flare? This
hanging on to the "it was them not us" distinction to the very end may be historically accurate, but it strikes me as nevertheless being self-serving (the film up to that point shows the soldiers shooting up a car with little regard to whether or not civilians are inside of it, dumping bodies along with wounded who may not be dead, etc.) and the sort of rationales that is largely rejected in other contexts.

Am I saying Israel is unilaterally at fault for everything that is wrong with Arab-Jewish relations? Of course not. What I am saying is that absent an almost completely pro-Israel perspective, it is easy enough for me to see how some might find this film self-serving, perhaps even offensively so.

But there's the rub. This film was made by an Israeli, funded by (I believe) a government grant, and selected by Israel to represent its country for the Academy Award consideration. Given the historic grievances perpetrated on the Jewish people, perhaps it is amazing that a generation after the camps that such a comparison (between the victimization of Jews in the camps and Arabs in Sabra) could be even whispered, even in a vague and indirect manner.

In his famous essay, "On Moral Equivalence", Charles Krauthammer slams Jesse Jackson for calling Lebanon a "cycle of pain," presumably because the cycle metaphor fails to distinguish retaliatory violence from attack or self defense from terrorism.

Not all acts of violence are created equal. Got it. So why do we (by which I mean "human beings" not necessary Jews, Christians, Arabs, or Atheists) cling so hard to the double standard that insists that everything we do is mitigated by history and context but everything done to us must be accounted for on a scale of moral absolutes?

In the final analysis, I don't know if Waltz With Bashir simply lacked introspection (for all its narrative emphasis on reclaiming memory) and is thus a flawed film, or whether I'm just such a legalistic Pharisee that I'm looking at a glass half full and condemning it for not being overflowing. Perhaps if it weren't being praised so widely and strongly, I might think the latter. As it is, I sort of felt watching the film like my wife must have felt after some arguments early in our marriage--you know in that moment after the dust has settled and the party you were fighting with has reconciled himself to the situation and talked through his motivations and explained his (flawed but he assures you basically decent) intentions and demonstrated contrition and maybe even done penance but, well, never actually said "I was wrong."

More discussion at Cinevox.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Why I Think The Watchmen is Going to Be a Smash...

Once upon a time there was a film.

It had a director mostly known for making franchise films bigger and louder but who was not particularly considered a great director/auteur.

It got a lot of buzz but was plagued by whispers of problems, whispers that were not helped by an early in the year, non-prestige release date.

The film I'm thinking of had a kick-butt trailer. But the trailer was also a teaser, and it came out so far in advance of the film that rather than building excitement culminating in a ticket purchase, it created anxiety (have I seen all teh good stuff already? will it be another trailer that looks good but be a bad film?) and backlash (I'm sick of this movie and I haven't even seen it yet!).

Early reviews were guarded, and the pressure of the fact that nothing less than a home run would live up to expectations made failure seem inevitable.

It was in a genre that conventional wisdom said appealed to a particular demographic rather than to a wide enough one to attract blockbuster numbers.

It starred actors who, while known, were not exactly box office best bets.

It was accused of being special effects laden, bloated, and over long.

That film was....

Titanic

I swear the lead up to The Watchmen feels nothing if not like the buzz creation cycle leading up to Titanic, and I just have a hunch people are going to go ape over the film in a big way...

No, I haven't seen the film and I've read the graphic novel once. I liked it, but I don't consider myself a geek about it. This is nothing but a hunch, but it just feels like deja vu all over again.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Seraphine Redux.

I came out of Toronto thinking I was the only one enamored of this film, but I see from David Hudson's blog at IFC that I was a bit premature in that assessment.

I found it a difficult film, not so much technically but in the way that it refuses to give in to pat answers to the questions it raises and risks leaving some frustrated at that fact. But it lingered in my memory, and it is a great case study for those who ponder the meaning and value of art in our lives.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Funny Kitty Cartoon

I got this as an e-mail attachment. Does anyone know the source?


video

On Discernment, Taste, Quality, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I have never seen an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I have been told numerous times by numerous people (some whose opinions or judgments I actually respect) that it is a quality show. I don't doubt it. From others, whose rhetoric is a bit less carefully chosen, I've been told that I would like it. I do doubt that, though I allow for the possibility that it is true. (Doubt is not denial; it is uncertainty.) From still others, whose rhetoric is even less circumspect, I've been told that I "should" watch it. I would doubt that if I thought it meant what it said and wasn't just a lazy short hand for "well, I like it."

I have pulled Season One off the shelf at CD Warehouse numerous times and looked at it. I've had friends who own the complete series who have offered to lend it to me for free. I've thought about putting it on the Netflix queue. Each time, though, I've stopped. Not because of some critical panning or particularly bad review--I actually can't think of a single person I know who has seen it and given it a bad review--but because some inner voice or impression has said, each time I've thought about watching it, "You don't want to do watch that."

Now in Christianese circles, the word attached to the process I've described here is generally "discernment," and my reluctance to actually just use that label says a little something, perhaps, about the odd way in which that word has been appropriated, deconstructed, diminished, and come, perhaps, to stand in for something other than what it is.

Perhaps, then, before I amplify, a few disclaimers are in order. There are a number of things I am NOT claiming, and its important for me to point them out because of the way this concept is batted around in Christian circles.

1) I am not saying that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is bad artistically.

2) I am not saying that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is bad in some spiritual or moral sense, especially if by "bad" we mean:
2a) intrinsically or essentially bad, bad in its essence and, hence, logically
2b) bad for everyone.
[To cop a food analogy, giving peanuts to someone with severe peanut allergies would show bad judgment. It doesn't follow that peanuts are inherently bad and should be denied to anyone.]

3) I am not claiming that those who refrain from watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer have more judgment or discernment than those who don't. If I'm a diabetic does my refraining from certain foods mean I have better judgment than those who partake of it? Perhaps, if they too are diabetic, but maybe their ability to partake is evidence of the fact that they are constitutionally better equipped to process such foods, could even be evidence that they have not exercised bad judgement (in terms of diet) as much as I have in the past and are thus in a better position to be able to eat food I can't.

4) I am not claiming that those who are able to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer are more spiritually (or emotionally) mature, developed or discerning than those who aren't. This may seem counter to what I just said in #3, but it isn't. Because while there are situations in which particular choices can be evidence of good judgment, it doesn't follow that the same choice (in different contexts) is always evidence of the same degree of judgment. This point strikes me as one that most Christians I know seem to find very difficult to embrace when it comes to art or consumer choices. Even though they wouldn't insist on the logic, most sort of reflexively hold onto the notion that maturity means more choices and thus, de facto, anyone who can make a choice another cannot is more mature. I think this is a false premise, not necessarily false logic, and I largely attribute to it the disbelief (and sometimes exasperation) people express if I cop to the reason I don't watch Buffy as being one of discernment. But you're such a mature Christian! But you watch _____________ (insert the name of something that they think is intrinsically worse)!

In the vernacular, "discernment" simply means acuteness of judgment. To exercise discernment is to exercise good judgment. But that is to use a synonym rather than to actually define the word, and in Christianese the term carries with it the notion that the judgment is good because it has been particularly or peculiarly informed or influence by God. For example the NIV translates Hebrews 5:14 as "But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil" while the ESV renders the same verse "But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil."

The tension I see in this verse is that both translations give the ability to distinguish good from evil as the hallmark of those who have discernment. Thus, doesn't it follow that what they are discerning is the "good" and "evil"? And wouldn't it further follow that the choice to refrain would only come from discerning evil? I don't think so.

First, this logic follows if there are only two, absolute, concrete categories. Good and evil. I tend to believe (as, for example, Milton claims in Areopagitica) that in the world good and evil (and the ability to discern them) are intermixed. In fact, the pure "good" is so rare as to be possibly non-existent. (This is why I reject the--what seems to me socially fundamentalist position--that the proper response to all mixes is to refrain and only partake of what is an unqualified good.)

Second, bear in mind that the verse above is talking about teaching. In cultural conversation it tends to get conflated with verses about meat offered to idols and thus create a notion that, analogously or metaphorically, it is okay to eat meat offered to idols (i.e. partake of something questionable) if one has and exercises discernment.

Let's separate these two verses, though. It seems to me that what Paul says about eating meat that was sacrificed to idols not that it is okay for some and bad for others. He says it is fine, that there is nothing wrong with it. He then goes on to say that if you think or feel it is wrong and do it anyway, that you have sinned against your own conscience and tells those who have freedom in their conscience that they should refrain rather than tempt a brother to stumble. [My friend Don often used the term "tyranny of the weaker brother" for those who used this verse to try to coerce people not merely to accommodate their weakness but to defer to their judgment. That is, to people who used the argument of I Cor 8 but used it as a trump card to try to force their will where their were disagreements about the substance of 2A rather than about the effect of exercising freedom they acknowledged the other person had.]

The Hebrews verse, by contrast, strikes me as saying that Paul (or the author if you don't believe in Pauline authorship of Hebrews) would be able to give more difficult or advanced teachings if the listeners/readers had more discernment, but that such teaching may be damaging (or at the least unhelpful) to those who hear it without judgment.

Clearly the author isn't saying that the lack of discernment on the part of the hearers is in some way correlated to the intrinsic good or evil of the object. The teaching itself was good, so I have a hard time buying an interpretation that says the motive for being unable to give the teaching that the hearers might err in their discernment about the intrinsic nature of it. I have a similar hard time buying the argument (though I think it marginally more possible) that the reason for refraining from giving the advanced or good teaching was that it might induce some to accept ideas without coming to any determination at all, without making that part of their mental calculus.

What I think the verse does suggest, and what I think can be applied to art or entertainment choices is the notion that the more developed the person's discernment (i.e. capacity to distinguish good from evil), the more they can make such judgments (about what to listen to) for themselves rather than having to be shielded from not only those things that are always or intrinsically bad (or wrong, or evil) but from those that might have bad consequences stemming from their inability to distinguish the good from the bad in it or who might be peculiarly or particularly injured by the bad intermixed in it, even if that amount is smaller in quotient relative to the good than it is in other matters. ( This latter is, I think, the category that Buffy falls into for me and why I don't watch it.)

None of this strikes me as particularly new or insightful or "out there." So why share it now and here?

Only this. I tend to congregate in circles where the default is to more often criticize the puritanical censor, the weaker brother tyrant, or the holier-than-thou-snob. Most of my friends and many of my acquaintances, to the extent they congregate in Evangelical circles at all, have had experiences of being ostracized, condemned, defamed, or criticized for not refraining from something that someone else thought it their business to tell them they ought to refrain from.

By and large the ability to screen out, ignore, or leave behind the voices of the puritanical, Pharisaical censor (whether it be the external voice of a toxic, self-appointed guardian of morality or the internalized, nagging voice masquerading as conscience in those who have lived too long amongst the others) is, in my experience and judgment a difficult but important and liberating step away from cultural hegemony and towards emotional and spiritual maturity.

But...

Well, there is such a thing as backlash or blowback, and it puzzles me how often the exercise of one's discretion grates on or offends another party, even when it is not accompanied with judgment or condemnation. Of course, maybe it is possible that I misjudge or mismeasure the extent to which I don't communicate or don't feel those things in reference to those who watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Were I to be asked to enumerate the five people whose spiritual judgment I trust and value the most in the world at least two of them would be self-professed fans of the show. So if I hold some secret contempt in my heart for those who watch the show, it is one of those well kept secrets that I'm keeping even from myself. I can't recall ever (before now) volunteering that I had never seen the show when others were praising it nor stating what my reasons were for not watching it unless specifically asked. Yet in those times when it does come up my decision is more often met with criticism or frustration rather than understanding. I suppose on some level the irritation and frustration can be chalked up to enthusiasm leading to disappointment--those who like books or films like being able to share them with people they like--and not to something less benign.

What I do know is that people who I think wouldn't dream of replying to someone who said, "Well, there is nothing wrong with double fudge cake, but diabetes runs in my family and I don't think that is a good idea for me" with "Oh, come on, you'll really like it, and one scoop won't kill you!" seem to feel no compunction about telling me that I've unfairly misjudged their show, that I'm needlessly missing out on the most fun I'll ever have in my life, or that I must therefore be just like those fundamentalists that told them they were going to hell when it got out they had seen Nine Songs or listened to the Police.

And I don't get that. If your partaking shouldn't lead to my taking offense, please don't take offense at my refraining. Look at it this way, that just gives you something to do while I'm watching South Park or Eyes Wide Shut or Brokeback Mountain, and while we're together we can always watch Firefly or Dollhouse.

Deal?

Bizarre BBC Book List Meme 48

This has been going around Facebook; the list itself is rather odd. Heavily British slanted and heavily modern; it's clearly not supposed to be a canon of great books (Douglas Adams but no Chaucer). Even so, lists/memes make for interesting jumping off points in conversation, so here we go.
**********************************************************************
Apparently the BBC reckons most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here. Come on, well-read friends, it's time to feel good about yourself.

Instructions:
1) Look at the list and put an 'x' after those you have read. [Ken note; I put a 'y' by those I have read in part but not in full. I put an 'xx' next to those I have read multiple times, though the number of x's is not equivalent to the number of reads. Some like Emma or The Bible I've read more times than twice.]
2) Add a '+' to the ones you LOVE.
3) Star (*) those you plan on reading.
4) Tally your total at the bottom.
5) Put in a note with your total in the subject
6) Cut and paste to notes and link me in too please...

--------------------------
----------------------------------------------------------
1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen (x+)
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien (xx+)
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte x
4 The Harry Potter Series - JK Rowling x
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee xx
6 The Bible xx+
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte x
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell x
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman x
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens x
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott y
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare yxx
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien xx
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger xx
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot xx+
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell *
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald xx
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy *
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams xx
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky x
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck x
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll y
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis xx
34 Emma- Jane Austen xx+
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen xx
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis xx
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne y
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown x
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood y
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding xx
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert xx+
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen x
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens x
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley x
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck x
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov xx+ (I love it and hate it both, but that's Nabokov).
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville xx+
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker xx
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson x
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens y
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker xx
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro xx+
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert x
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White xx
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle xx
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad xx
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams x
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare xx
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl xx
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo x (The unabridged version, too!)

Monday, February 16, 2009

In Defense of Slumdog Millionaire

Okay, I get that the Academy Awards are lightning rods for critical disaffection and that as such, films nominated or winning awards become the easy scapegoats for those frustrated at the quality and quantity of movies monopolizing our critical attention.

I get, too, the complaint that something about the process--politicking, judgment by committee--continually appears to result in the championing of mediocrity rather than daring. In the last ten years the Best Picture award has gone to: No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator, and American Beauty. That's a depressing list to contemplate.

I also understand that disaffection may be strong this year because the whole crop of nominations appears particularly weak, meaning that those who had films they actually valued will have their irritation level raised before it even has to settle on a particular target.

All that said, the scorn heaped on this year's front-runner, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, strikes me as particularly intense. And given the fact that, unlike, say, at least six of the films on that list two paragraphs ago, Slumdog Millionaire is not (at least in my opinion) a bad film even if it is also not (again, in my opinion) the best film, I guess I feel roused to move beyond my initial "begrudging" thumbs up to say a bit more about what I liked about this film.

First up, though, some disclaimers:

I do not claim here that anyone should like this film. How many times does this bear repeating? Affinity and critical estimation are not the same thing. You can like something (even a lot) that you don't think is very good for all sorts of reasons. You can recognize the craftsmanship in something that you nevertheless feel antipathy for. If you didn't care for Slumdog Millionaire, you aren't alone. Nobody is asking you to hand in your critic's card, or human being card. By the same token, though, recognize that a lot of people did like it. And either they are all simpering idiots, none of them is smarter than you (or even smart enough to think something you haven't thought of first), they are all deliberating lying to try to pull one over on you, or they are capable of appreciating and enjoying something that you don't. Why is the latter such an offense to so many people's sensibilities?

In talking about the critical response surrounding a film, one inevitably generalizes, stereotypes, and is selective with, others' readings of the film. This sort of survey of criticism is one of the lower forms of responses for that reason. It pretty much always comes off as more arrogant than one means it to, because it places the writer (in this case, me) in the role of adjudicator rather than participant in the debate.

Why do it, then?

Well, because my response to a second viewing was markedly different from my initial response, and in that development of opinion may (or may not, but hey that's what the delete button is for) provide some insight into where these critical divisions lie and why the gulf between them is so sharp and nasty.

My first comment is that we live in a cynical age, and sentimental works of art, by their nature, tend to be very divisive. Dictionary.com defines sentimental as:

sen⋅ti⋅men⋅tal

–adjective
1. expressive of or appealing to sentiment, esp. the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia: a sentimental song.
2. pertaining to or dependent on sentiment: We kept the old photograph for purely sentimental reasons.
3. weakly emotional; mawkishly susceptible or tender: the sentimental Victorians.
4. characterized by or showing sentiment or refined feeling.


Now certainly these definitions in the aggregate do not mandate that the term must be prejudicial, but I think it has mostly become so. I would not be the first to suggest that the sentimentality of the Victorians (think Dickens on a bad day) was concurrent with (and in part wrapped up in) the rise of a less sophisticated commercial audience and is so wed in our historic consciousness with a sheen of inferiority. There are, in fact, however, works that are dependent on sentiment not simply as a gloss to cover over technical inferiority but which are combined with technical ability to great great sentimental art. (Think George MacDonald on a good day. Or Robert Burns. Or Frank Capra.)

It seems perfectly acceptable to me to say of such works that we don't care for them. But there is a difference between not caring for the genre and denigrating the artist, between saying "I don't like pop music" and "Celine Dion can't sing." The first is a defensible personal taste. The second is a snooty prejudice masquerading as a critical opinion.

One reason we don't like sentimentality may simply be personal taste. I would argue, though, that we are enculturated to dislike it, because sentimentality is the direct opposite of cynicism, and cynicism is the defensive posture of the day. It is the default attitude to which most modern viewers are calibrated. And it views sentimentality as not merely naive but false.

I read some comment somewhere from a viewer who said he or she liked the film well enough but would have liked it more if Jamal had gotten the last question wrong. Even when recognizing it as a genre piece, there is a part of us that recoils at the happy ending, that feels as though all happy endings must be "earned" (whatever the heck that means) or are not realistic.

I had one friend call Slumdog Millionaire the world's most depressing feel-good movie. I think she was right. Part of what I think she meant (or what I think she recognized if she meant something different) is that we are so uncalibrated to sentimentality, that we tend to think of it only as incessant, upbeat, Pollyanna cheerfulness--a denial of the darkness and painfulness of life rather than merely a(n increasingly foreign) response to it. Boyle's film doesn't sugarcoat the poverty, the suffering, the weight of environmental determinism and so we have a hard time dismissing it on purely sentimental grounds because it doesn't fall into the trap that bad sentimental art does.

Sometimes, too, I think we go to the other extreme. If a film refuses to be fantasy by simply denying pain, suffering, or obstacles, we insist it be cynicism by saying that those things are not just real but preeminent. Or, we put the weight on them to explain rather than merely testify to the presence of pain and suffering in the world. Now, I'll rail against films that I think play fast and loose with (or exploit) the mystery of suffering, either by offering false answers or pat ones that are really no answers at all. (Signs is one of my favorite whipping boys in this regard.)

If I've softened a bit towards films that are realistic about human suffering but sentimental in their conclusions (and certainly Slumdog Millionaire fits the bill here) it is because I can sometimes bring myself to see them as embodying the mysteries of the vagaries of providence (I use the word deliberately rather than "fate") rather than depending upon either false answer (i.e. that the innocent never suffer or that the reward is somehow and apt compensation for and hence justification of the suffering).

The essence of Slumdog Millionaire, its central theme, is announced right at the beginning. How did Jamal arrive where he is? It is the sentimental rejoinder to the much (too much in my opinion) celebrated "profoundness" of Anton Chigurgh's taunting inquiry of what use is one's philosophy if it has brought one to the point of despair (or hasn't prepared one to face the ultimate fate that awaits us all--doesn't have answers to the only questions that really matter).

"It is written" can be taken as just a cheeky reminder that what we are watching is a genre piece, a fairy tale. Jamal got here because there is an author and he wrote the script that way. And the reason he wrote the script that way is because that is how fairy tales are written. Certainly that's how I took it on a first viewing, and I laughed at the winking joke to the audience right before the fourth wall came down and everyone (from those playing happy Jamal to those playing trash heap living orphans) came out and did a happy boogey dance.

The film is very meta-fictive, even more so (for me) on a second viewing. And one quality of much metafiction is that it instructs you on how to read it (in the reader-response sort of way). The film is not just a depiction of the story, it continually breaks from the story to depict people watching the story and commenting on how and why they are watching it. From Jamal's early interactions with the police who are poring over the episode on tape to try to demonstrate their critical and intellectual superiority (but who evidence only their snobbishness and the way it threatens to blind them to a truth that is openly proclaimed right in front of them), to Latika's glossing of the show as a means of "escape," to the countless shots of people congregating around televisions in the build up to the final question, Slumdog Millionaire treats Who Wants to Be a Millionaire not just as the story within the story but as the means to be a story about stories. (Even the little bit about Jamal being fed the wrong answer by the show's host can be interpreted as a sort of meta-commentary on the determinedness of stories as one character within the story tries to usurp for himself the role of story author and finds, like we all do when we lose track of whether we are authors or characters in our own narrative that having all the answers isn't the same thing as being able to control what will happen in life.)

Still, most of my reservations about the film on first viewing, were tied to the show frame which not only showed Jamal on the show but insisted on interweaving the answers to the questions into his life experience. While this makes sense as a narrative hook, I was a bit too hung up on assuming that by underlining those events, by structuring the film around them, the story gave them a thematic significance that somehow made the game's outcome a quid-pro-quo. Sorry you got orphaned, but hey that experience got you past the $100 question. Your friend's blinding and slavery was not in vain, it led to the $50,000 answer.

If some were to read the film that way (and I can totally see how some might) I would totally understand why they might not only dislike the film but actually outright despise it. I don't think that is the film's message though, both because the final question's answer is not the product of some life experience (though it does reinforce the theme that the most important things like the most important questions, are the ones that were before us all along if we just could have eyes to see them) and also because Jamal, post answer, is not radically changed. The next shot of him is of him waiting in the train station, still alone, still unfulfilled. The money isn't the reward for the experiences, the girl is.

But isn't that the same thing? It's still happiness, whether it comes in the form of a check or a kiss. Perhaps. If that were delivered whole, all at once, and without a spot shadowing of the scars that remain as evidence of the past pain. Jamal does not so much overcome suffering as escape it. Neither--and this is important for me--is his suffering (or Latika's for that matter) portrayed as redemptive. It is not as though he is able to use the money to extricate her from her mobster's prison. Jamal is faithful through the suffering, but that faithfulness doesn't enact change so much as it makes him present and available when change becomes possible. (In large part through the agency of others.)

If Jamal's (and Latika's) progress is an escape from suffering (as opposed to a defeat of it), then my nagging doubts were about the singular and peculiar nature of that escape. Why do some live and some die? This, too, is a question that film ponders itself. Both when the blind boy says "I'll sing at your funeral" and when Salim looks down on Mumbai from the skyscraper with wonder at how they got from there to where they are now.

We need there to be some explanation, some reason, that ties that seemingly arbitrary providence to human agency, and hence merit. He need this so that we can feel not just that it is a fortuituos thing that some (including us) are rich and happy while others are not but that it is an appropriate thing.

Dallas Willard writes in The Divine Conspiracy:

It is deeply revealing of how we think about God to see the way translators struggle to make this condition of "spiritual poverty" something good in its own right and thus deserving of blessing [...] This struggle with the translation reflects our intense need to find in the condition referred to something good, something God supposedly desires or even requires, that can serve as a "reasonable" basis for the blessedness he bestows. But that precisely misses the point that the very formulation of the Beatitudes should bring to our attention.

Jesus did not say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit because they are poor in spirit." He did not think, "What a fine thing it is to be destitute of every spiritual attainment or quality. It makes people worthy of the kingdom." And we steal away the much more profound meaning of the teaching about the availability of the kingdom by replacing the state of spiritual impoverishment [...] with some supposedly praiseworthy state of mind or attitude [....]

In so doing we merely substitute another banal legalism for the ecstatic pronouncement of the gospel.


Yes, Ken, but Willard is talking about the kingdom of God, not earthly blessings. Are you saying the film is some sort of spiritual allegory?

Well, no. If by that do we mean was Vikas Swarup thinking of Matthew 5 when he wrote the novel? I don't think the film is necessarily about the New Testament beatitudunal teachings, but I do think Jamal can be a figure of them, and thinking of him as such reminds me (particularly the cynic in me) that "realistic" is not the same as "true" and that cynicism is not the same as wisdom.

You know, we don't have an answer for why the rain falls on the unjust as well as the just, but we don't reflexively sneer at films that depict it doing so. When a work of art shows the unredeemed or the unrepentant sharing in some universal blessing, we may, like Solomon (or Quoheleth, if you prefer) question why it should be so, but we don't (at least in my experience) chastise the artist for lying to people about the way things really are.

Sometimes bad things happen to good people. That sucks, but that's life.

Sometimes good things happen to bad people. That can be hard to bear, but that too is life.

Sometimes, though, good things happen to good people. Not merely because they are good. Not necessarily as a reward for their goodness, but because for one soul-lifting moment the veil is lifted and the fog of so many things we can't understand rolls away to give us a glimpse of the universe we know must be latent somewhere beneath the dirt, and death, and shit, even if we too often despair from the weight of doubt borne out the infrequency of such glimpses.

This, too, is life.