Thursday, January 28, 2010

Is the Message of Avatar...

...that James Cameron hopes Al Qaeda wins?

I realize that as probably the last person in America to see the film, I may be asking a question that has already been discussed about the film, but I'm seriously confused about the cultural work the film is performing.

Read more here.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Rick Minnich Interview

My write up of my interview with director Rick Minnich is up at CT Movies Blog.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Eric Rohmer (1920-2010)

If funerals, as they say, are for the living and not the dead, obituaries and appreciations (especially in an Internet age) are for the writers not the subjects.

Better writers and more informed film historians will argue about and establish Rohmer's place in the canon of great directors. Less enthusiastic amateur cinephiles may have to dig through the headlines at IMDB to find the news and rack their memories to remember if they've seen one of his films.

I confess when I went to IMDB and saw Rohmer's passing was only the second headline, below the notices of Simon Cowell's departure from American Idol, I was momentarily indignant. But it's always been that way for Rohmer, hasn't it? Amongst the uninitiated, he'll forever be remembered more for being the subject of Pauline Kael's classic slam than for being the auteur of My Night at Maud's, Chloe in the Afternoon, or Perceval. Kael's comment flitted through my mind not long after I heard the news of Rohmer's passing, and I tried to capture and bottle the anger and indignation I felt so that I could remind myself that a critic needs to be right 999 times to atone for the one time he or she is that wrong that snidely.

Such an object lesson still makes Rohmer's films secondary to something else, so I'll hasten to say there is a humility and a simplicity to his films that those weaned on explosions may find boring (I won't prettify the sentiments by using some nicer word), but those who love talk, ideas, and, above all, people, will find rich and savory.

In his chapter on Rohmer in Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, John Caruana begins, fittingly, with a quote from Blaise Pascal: "Temporal afflictions conceal the eternal joys to which they lead." It took a long time for me to work my way past the "temporal afflictions" in Rohmer's films and catch a glimpse of the eternal joys to which they lead. But that's a part, too, of why I am so fond of his films. Those glimpses are none too frequent in our lives as well--but they are there. Caruana writes:

"But what appears to be an obstacle to appreciating Rohmer's spirituality is actually an important key to unlocking its mystery. Rohmer's unassuming style powerfully renders its spiritual message. For what is essential about Rohmer's God, like Blaise Pascal's before him, is that he is a hidden God. For Rohmer, God's invisibility speaks to humanity's distance from him, but also to God's respect for human autonomy" (74).

Caruana goes on to suggest that Rohmer emulates his God by withdrawing as much as feasible his authority over his work, giving his viewers unimagined freedoms to exist within his work and to draw their own conclusions about the world he has created.

The respect given to the viewer by Rohmer is something that is so rare in an age of lowest common denominators, of speeches giving hammering home epiphanies and music creating artificial significance. That respect for the viewer is infectious and it permeates the work and creates a space where characters can exist with dignity and humanity in spite of their foibles. If we are lucky, it carries past the film and begins to help us catch a glimpse of how we can give our neighbor freedom and respect. I know Rohmer's films have helped me cultivate the still fragile buds of habit in my own thought life that struggle to first think charitably about my neighbor in order to create a right foundation from which acts of love and compassion can be built.

A few months ago, at the Toronto International Film Festival, I had cause to meditate on a film from Alain Resnais, and I wrote the following:

There is a communal aspect to film going that is present in the culture at large and highly concentrated around major festivals. People talk about films and the way they shape our lives in a way I seldom hear them talk about books anymore. For good or for ill, films matter to people, and as a result the relationship between cinephiles and an auteur is often something quite different from that of their relationship to authors, actors, and other celebrities.

Two years ago, the eighty-seven year old Eric Rohmer sent what could well be his final film to the festival (Romance of Astree and Celadon) and the fact that the much beloved director could not himself make the trip to present the film in no way diminished the joy of his fans at having another film. Life gets mighty precious, Bonnie Raitt sings, when there is less of it to waste.

Alain Resnais is eighty-seven this year, and Les Herbes folles could well be his last film. That he was not able to be in the Scotiabank theater to present the film did little to diminish my pleasure in having two more hours in the dark with an international treasure of whom we are not yet ready (are we ever?) to let go.

I knew before today that I would probably not see another new Eric Rohmer film in this life. I knew this. This news was not unexpected. And yet, I still was not ready to let him go.

Are we ever?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Did Christianity "Cause" The Crash?

Short answer: no.

Slightly longer answer: what the fu..!?! Um, no.

Even longer answer:

Sigh. I had some reward points for filling out polls Online, and without much in the way of prizes I wanted, I accepted a free subscription for one year to The Atlantic. Every now and then I've heard snippets from amongst friends that in an age where press journalism is hit hard that The Atlantic was a more substantial, more thoughtful example of journalism that was more in depth than say USA Today, Time or Newsweek.

Unfortunately the first issue I received did not impress me much. The letters to the editor actually struck me as more interesting and thoughtful than any of the articles, which included some lengthy explication on why Julie and Julia was more than just a "chick flick."

The cover article, by Hannah Rosin, was entitled, "Did Christianity Cause the Crash?" Rosin has just found out, it seems, about the so called "prosperity gospel," and the bulk of the article is actually a series of descriptions of churches or people who sit under the teaching of pastors or advocates of fiscal irresponsibility passing under the guise of faith.

I certainly don't want to jump to the defense of proponents of the prosperity gospel, but by the same token I struggle with the fact that the lead article in a prestige magazine is something which, were it handed in for a grade in my Freshman Composition class, might earn a C+ (clear, well edited writing with an identifiable and consistent thesis, but huge gaps in logic and poor use of examples for support). Maybe this is because my institution is on the "Critical Thinking" warpath, but I don't think so. I mean, surely it is not only in University English departments where things like hasty generalizations and non-sequiturs are viewed as poor argumentation? Or have we officially reached the Fox News age where argumentation doesn't even pretend to be about logos or ethos and is only about pathos? The shock headline may attract readers and if the argument itself leaves people nonplussed, well it sold the advertising space for a month and that's all that matters, right?

Maybe. Though (and now I'm gonna start sounding like Fox News rather than lambasting them, but...) I wonder if the article were dealing with some other religion or social group than Christianity or evangelical Christians if such broad stereotyping and generalizations would not be called out as based on and inflaming prejudices? Think about the headline for a second and then think of the article. Certainly we have a core problem of taking a subset of a larger group (proponents of the prosperity gospel) and identifying them as the larger thing (Christianity), I won't even bother to expound upon the apparently too subtle but important distinction between the generalization the article intentionally makes (prosperity gospel proponents = all Christians) and the even greater, more egregious rhetorical generalization the article unthinkingly promulgates (the actions of some Christians="Christianity" in its true form). Add to that the fact that I would hope it wouldn't take an offended Christian reader or a Ph.D. in Economics (hey, I majored in literature) to take issue with the underlying assumption that the "crash" did not have multiple proximate and remote causes, and I think you begin to the see the foundational problems at the core of this article. Leaving aside the generalizations about Christianity, surely the crash had so many causes that I would think laying the blame for it (or even the lion's share of the blame for it) at the feet of one subsection of (consumer!) society influenced by one way of thinking is, well, facile.

Here's a chain of causal influences for you. The World Trade Center buildings were destroyed by Islamic extremists who wanted to cause terror in the United States. One reason why the Muslim world has had it in for the United States is because of its support of Israel. Israel is composed of Jewish people, many of whom believe, for religious reasons, that they are entitled to land on the West Bank. If I were to then write an article in which I interviewed several Jews who held that belief and gave it a title "Did Judaism Cause 9/11?" I don't know exactly what would happen, but I expect I know one thing that wouldn't happen. I wouldn't get a cover story in The Atlantic.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Sherlock Holmes (Ritchie, 2009)

I wasn't expecting much, and on the whole, it struck me as a generic action flick.

I was wondering though...was I the only one who thought it strange to have a major studio picture whose plot revolved around a faked resurrection in an attempt to gain power over the common people who were easily duped (and thus felt fear) released on Christmas day?