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The World Unchained

DjangoUnchained

WARNING: Contains spoilers

This article was originally published in the February 2013 newsletter for Govan & Linthouse Parish Church, Glasgow.

Last week I had the opportunity to go to a screening of the latest Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained.  If you’ve never seen a Tarantino film, they are known for their excessive violence, brutality and coarse language.  Django Unchained is no different.  I’m not suggesting you see the film, that is, unless you’re willing to endure 165 minutes of brutality (but it’s brutality with a point).  If you are planning on seeing the film, I warn you that this article will contain some spoilers.

The film is made out to be a western epic.  It takes place in the pre-Civil War United States.  The main protagonists are Dr King Schultz (played by Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz), a German immigrant and former dentist who works as a bounty hunter, collecting rewards for the bodies of federal outlaws, and Django (played by another Academy Award winner, Jamie Foxx), a black slave who has been separated from his wife, another slave called Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington).  Schultz first ‘unchains’ Django as he is being transported by slave drivers through Texas.  Previously, Django had been a slave on a plantation where three murderous outlaws, the Brittle Brothers, had worked as farmhands.  Schultz wishes for Django to assist him in identifying the Brittle Brothers so that he may collect the reward for their bodies.  Schultz, who throughout the film demonstrates his utter distaste for the institution of slavery, offers Django his freedom, $75 and a horse in exchange for his assistance (and feels awful for not simply giving Django his freedom straight away).  After the slaying of the Brittle Brothers, Schultz asks Django, who demonstrates great skill in the ‘art’ of bounty hunting, if he would join him as his business partner for the winter and Django accepts his proposition.  Django reveals that once he is finished with their winter’s work, he is going to try to find his wife and rescue her from slavery.  Schultz, who has developed a very close friendship with Django, insists that he helps Django, as they discover that Broomhilda is a slave on a large plantation outside of Greenville, Mississippi, a particularly dangerous part of the States for a black man, free or not.

After the winter they come up with and carry out a complicated plan to reunite Django and his beloved Broomhilda.  But after their plan is uncovered, Schultz and Django are given an ultimatum: either they pay the exorbitant amount of $12,000 to purchase Broomhilda or she will be killed by her owner, the ruthless and bigoted plantation owner, Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).  After they comply, Candie proposes that the transaction is not official until Schultz shakes his hand.  Schultz, who has been having flashbacks of an event during which Candie ordered a runaway slave to be torn apart by dogs, refuses to shake hands.  This is the point in the film which I believe carries the most moral weight.  As we, the audience, have been battered with the injustice and brutality of racism and the institution of slavery throughout the film, we feel something of that same moral weight.  Ultimately, Schultz’ refusal ends up costing him his life.

The film continues from there, but it’s at this point that I want to ask a question: what does Django Unchained have to teach Christians?  Our two main protagonists exhibit many Christ-like qualities throughout the film, but the one which I think is most profound, as a result of the build-up of the film, is Schultz refusal.  On principle, Schultz sees shaking Candie’s hand as some sort of approval of Candie, his vicious treatment of slaves and the whole of institutionalised racism that still, even in the age of a black President, finds expression in some parts of American culture.  Although some Americans, particularly the Quakers in the North, were opposed to slavery during the first half of the 19th century, the institution was still regarded as rather normal for most Americans.  Still, Schultz refuses to betray his strong sense of justice, even a sense of justice perhaps rather clouded by his recent career as a bounty hunter.  He demonstrates this passion in his last great speech immediately preceding his refusal to shake Candie’s hand.  After completing the paperwork for Broomhilda, Candie offers Schultz some rhubarb pie, but Schultz declines.

Candie   ‘Are you brooding ‘bout me getting the best of ya?’

Schultz   ‘Actually, I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, D’Artagnan.  And I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this.’

Candie   ‘Dumas…?’

Schultz   ‘Alexander Dumas.  He wrote The Three Musketeers.  I figured you must be an admirer.  You named your slave after that novel’s lead character.  If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would of made of it?’

Candie   ‘You doubt he’d approve?’

Schultz   ‘Yes, his approval would be a dubious proposition at best.’

Candie   ‘Soft hearted Frenchy?’

Schultz   ‘Alexander Dumas is black.’

The weight of the tone of the speech can only be captured if you see the film, but written out here, we can see that Schultz is able to undermine Candie’s ignorant racism with his poignant and authoritative presentation.  Candie, a self-professed Francophile who, although he does not know the language, insists on being called Monsieur Candie, is left stunned and confused.

Schultz’ words here remind me of the Parables of Christ.  Taking something trivial such as the raw materials of everyday life and turning it on its head in order to shift the worldview of his listeners toward that of the truths and values of the kingdom of God.  Unfortunately, Candie did not have ‘ears to hear’ the truth that Schultz uttered.  Do we?

Of course, our context is quite different.  The context of slavery-era Southern United States is a far cry from present day Govan and Linthouse.  I’ll even say that we live in a fortunate part of Scotland with a long heritage of fighting for social justice.  But have we grown complacent?  Perhaps we don’t have slaves in our context, but throughout our congregation and parish there are new battles to be fought.  Among others, the people who suffer in poverty, the people who struggle with addiction, the people who have immigrated from other countries, the people who seek asylum – they all suffer under various institutions of injustice here.  Maybe we’re responsible for some of that with our behaviour.  In Django Unchained, white people are appalled at the scandal of a black man on a horse.  I’ve heard people express their shock about the scandal of a recent immigrant with a bankcard or a mobile phone.

No matter how much we try—and we do try—justice is not the way of Scotland, the United Kingdom or any other nation.  Nations are made up of all kinds of people with very different ideals, some of which propagate institutionalised oppression.  In reality, the Church looks very much the same, and while I am grateful to God that the Church of Scotland and that Govan and Linthouse Parish Church are very much composed of a diverse body of people, I think we can unite in discipleship under the leadership of one man, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The words found within our Gospel readings for the month of February have a great deal to teach us about the way that being a Christian turns the institutions of this world on its head:

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh…

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6:17-21, 27-31

As Christians, it is our daily challenge, not just in the month of February, but for the rest of our lives, to seek the values of the kingdom of God.  And we are not called to do this simply because we are good people or we think we will get a box of treasure in the future.  We are called to love because God loves this world.  God desires that we ‘unchain’ the world from oppression — what an unworthy honour for us!

May we be inspired by the love and grace of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the works of the kingdom and fight with great conviction, as Dr King Schultz fought, the injustices in our community and beyond its boundaries.  It’s no simple task, but maybe we could keep each other accountable.  Next time you see me, I’d appreciate it if you reminded me to be more like Jesus and Dr King Schultz.

Many blessings,

Elijah

Some thoughts on Detachment (Tony Kaye, 2011)

Last night I had the pleasure of viewing Tony Kaye’s third and most recent ‘talkie’, Detachment.  The film was shot beautifully and acted brilliantly, and for those qualities alone it is worth seeing.  But the content is yet more intriguing.  Detachment follows a few weeks in the life of a substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) as he takes up a temporary post at a New York state school in decline.  But the film could take place in any school.  In the New York Times review of the film from 15 March 2012, the film is ‘about the failing public-education system [in the United States].’  I would agree with this claim in part – yes, prominent in the film is this portrayal of the dysfunctional education system.  But it’s so much more than that.  I’d argue that the entirety of the film represents a microcosm of society at large.

This isn’t me dropping a shameful reference to my doctoral research, but I think a strong case could be made that Detachment is actually a parable.  By this I mean that the film is using the raw material of every day life to tell a bigger, more disturbing yet more hopeful story.  Just as Christ told parables the audience in the Gospels, the film is tied together by a loose narration from our Henry Barthes, with close-ups of his unkept face in a dark room (perhaps during a counselling session).  We’ve got representatives from various levels of society and various levels of engagement with and detachment from their current situations.  At the very heart of this parable is not ‘education’, for education is merely an outflowing of the deeper social illness.  The parable takes society back to the most basic social framework, a framework we all encounter by virtue of being born – family.

To quote the oft-quoted Larkin poem, ‘This Be The Verse’, They fuck you up, your mum and dad.  Most of the great conflicts in the film are rooted in family and parenting, just to name a few:

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW, SKIP TO THE NEXT SECTION TO AVOID THEM

a girl is expelled from the school after she threatened and spat upon Ms Madison (Christian Hendricks) and her similarly-tempered mother storms into the school hurling yet more abuse at the harmless Ms Madison.

Mr Wiatt (Tim Blake Nelson) takes up an odd stance at a school fence every afternoon hoping to be noticed by anyone as a result of being ignored constantly by his family members when he returns home from work every day.

Meredith (Betty Kaye, daughter of the director) is discouraged in her artistic endeavours and told that she ought to lose weight and conform to social norms by her father and ultimately decides to kill herself as a result of her extreme sense of rejection and isolation.

Erica’s (Sami Gayle) lifestyle as a teenage prostitute and her great distress when she is removed from Henry’s care by social workers.

During ‘parents’ night’ at the high school, virtually no parents show up, demonstrating a lack of both the parents’ concern for their children’s education and appreciation of the teachers.

And ultimately, Henry’s sense of detachment from being abandoned by his father as a toddler, losing his mother to a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol when he was a small child and caring for his dementia-stricken grandfather, whose abuse of Henry’s mother led to her substance abuse.

END OF SPOILERS

Like a parable, the characters are universal (as opposed to cliché) in order to open the eyes and ears of the audience to the deeper level of meaning.  In addition to his ‘counselling session’ narrative, at different points in the film Henry also tells the audience (by way of telling his students) the root of these social ills, calling on his students to avoid the ‘ubiquitous assimilation’ of oppressive values being shoved down their throats by a constant barrage of bull shit that has not only broken into media and culture, but has also infiltrated the very fabric of their family lives.

During the opening sequence we are given a quotation from Camus’ The Stranger, concluding with ‘And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.’  Throughout the film Henry is challenged to break down his wall of ‘compassionate detachment’.  The blurb from the official website states, ‘Kaye has molded a contemporary vision of people who become increasingly distant from others while still feeling the need to connect.’  Does that wall ever break down?  Well I’m not going to include any more spoilers – you should see it for yourself.

The aforementioned New York Times review concludes with, ‘Is it really this bad? Or is “Detachment” a flashy educational horror movie masquerading as nightmarish reality?’  No, it’s not really this bad – it’s worse.  As I mentioned before, I believe that the film is using the façade of the educational system (severely broken as a result of the deeper problem) to tell a bigger, more disturbing yet more hopeful story.  In a recent Guardian interview, Kaye states, ‘We live, we go through these realms, we learn, we figure out where we went wrong.  That’s what living is.’  Detachment won’t be tearing down the power structures built up in our society to control, but perhaps it can help inspire us to fight harder with all that we have in hopes that we might chip away at the foundations of such oppression.

Why I am not a Scientologist

Last spring it was revealed that one of my favourite directors, Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood) was trying to pitch a new film to a studio.  In December of 2009, Variety reported on the new film, possibly dubbed The Master, with the outstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman set to star.  A synopsis of the script was published by The Playlist last February:

‘The Master’ is the story of a charismatic intellectual … who hatches a faith-based organization that begins to catch on in America in 1952 called The Cause.  The core dynamic centers on the relationship between The Master and Freddie Sutton, … an aimless twenty-something drifter and alcoholic who eventually becomes the leader’s loyal lieutenant.  As the faith begins to gain a fervent following, Freddie finds himself questioning the belief system he has embraced, and his mentor.

Essentially the film has been seen as a critique of the infamous L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology.  The Master has encountered several snags since these reports, snags that some connect with Scientology’s influence in Hollywood.  But alas, the film seems to be under way, with Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix potentially set to star alongside Hoffman.

Anderson is a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.  I’m certain that The Master, or whatever it will be called, will be an excellent film – he just doesn’t make bad films.  I suppose that’s why it’s so shocking that he’s gone through such an ordeal to find a studio to back this latest project.  It’s easy to point the finger at the heavily-caricatured Church of Scientology, but in my reflections I’m not so sure that’s fair.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time investigating Scientology for someone who has never considered taking up the belief system.  Growing up in and around Los Angeles, Scientology was always something ‘close to home’.  In the last few years, Scientology has been the target of a significant amount of slander.  I suspect that this can be largely attributed to the erratic behaviour of one of their most outspoken members.  I’ve read a lot of Scientological literature (Dianetics, What is Scientology?, Scientology 0-8, etc.) and have learned a lot of Scientological terminology (‘Thetan’, ‘Clear’, an ‘OT’ = ‘Operating Thetan’, ‘KSW’ = ‘Keep Scientology Working’, ‘LRH’ = ‘L. Ron Hubbard’, an ‘SP’ = ‘Suppressive Person’, ‘Tech’, ‘In-Ethics’, ‘Out-Ethics’, ‘Orgs’, etc.).  I’ve heard many people criticise Scientology for its ‘outlandish’ beliefs, such as the fundamental belief concerning human origins (called ‘Incident II’): that the dictator of the ‘Galactic Confederacy’, a being named Xenu brought billions of beings to Earth and killed them with hydrogen bombs, though leaving their essences to inhabit bodies that are now people, etc…

That bit does seem like a lot to stomach—and I know that the orthodox Christian claims concerning such as the existence of a personal deity, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus, could be just as alienating—but Scientological ‘cosmology’ is not my primary reason for rejecting Scientology.  The Church of Scientology’s Creed, written by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, states:

We of the Church believe
That all men of whatever race, color or creed were created with equal rights.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own religious practices and their performance.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own lives.
That all men have inalienable rights to their sanity.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own defense.
That all men have inalienable rights to conceive, choose, assist or support their own organizations, churches and governments.
That all men have inalienable rights to think freely, to talk freely, to write freely their own opinions and to counter or utter or write upon the opinions of others.
That all men have inalienable rights to the creation of their own kind.
That the souls of men have the rights of men.
That the study of the Mind and the healing of mentally caused ills should not be alienated from religion or condoned in nonreligious fields.
And that no agency less than God has the power to suspend or set aside these rights, overtly or covertly.

And we of the Church believe
That Man is basically good.
That he is seeking to Survive.
That his survival depends upon himself and upon his fellows and his attainment of brotherhood with the Universe.

And we of the Church believe that the laws of God forbid Man
To destroy his own kind.
To destroy the sanity of another.
To destroy or enslave another’s soul.
To destroy or reduce the survival of one’s companions or one’s group.

And we of the Church believe
That the spirit can be saved.
And that the spirit alone may save or heal the body.

Perhaps you read this creed and find no fault.  Perhaps you read this creed and see a bunch of convoluted and meaningless language.  When I read this creed something else jumps out at me.  At the very centre of Scientological belief is the view that a person is a spirit, a thetan.  According to their website, and one of their more prominent evangelical campaigns in the last few years, the heart of Scientology lies in an answer to the question, ‘Is Man a spirit?’  The official website states,

Yes.  A short exercise can quickly answer this for anyone: Ask someone to close their eyes and get a picture of a cat, and they will get a mental image picture of a cat.  Ask them who is looking at the picture of the cat and they will respond ‘I am.’  That which is looking at the cat is you, a spirit. One is a spirit, who has a mind and occupies a body.  You are you in a body.

Scientology breaks up the ‘Parts of Man‘ in this way:

First there is the body itself.  The body is the organized physical composition or substance of Man, whether living or dead.  It is not the being himself.

Next, there is the mind, which consists essentially of pictures.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the thetan.  The thetan is not a thing.  It is the creator of things.

Of the three parts of Man, the thetan is, obviously, most important.  Without the thetan, there would be no mind or animation in the body.  While without a body or a mind, there is still animation and life in the thetan.

The goal of a Scientologist is to become an OT, an ‘Operating Thetan’, defined by the Church of Scientology as ‘a spiritual state of being above Clear.’  It continues, ‘By Operating is meant “able to act and handle things” and by Thetan is meant “the spiritual being that is the basic self.”  An Operating Thetan, then, is one who can handle things without having to use a body of physical means.’

In order to achieve this OT state, a Scientologist much engage in a series of ‘gradient steps, each one slightly more advanced than the last and each with its own ability gained.’  The website continues, ‘At the level of OT, Scientologists study the very advanced materials of L. Ron Hubbard’s research.  According to those who have achieved OT, the spiritual benefits obtained surpass description.’

I want to make clear that this is not an attempt to set up a ‘straw man’ version of Scientology.  I could commit many different philosophical fallacies trying to incite hatred of the Church of Scientology, like rumours about conspiracies and brainwashing or the odd lifestyles of the late L. Ron Hubbard or Tom Cruise.  I could also argue that the language employed in these statements is convoluted and meaningless.  But what I am sharing here are things directly from the Church of Scientology’s official website, in the sections that are meant to evangelise to non-Scientologists.  It has been my aim to briefly and accurately express some core beliefs of the Church of Scientology.  At this point I hope to highlight a fundamental disagreement between Christian orthodoxy and Scientological belief, ultimately illustrating why I, as a Christian, am not a Scientologist.

From very early on, the resurrection of the body has been a fundamental tenet of Christian orthodoxy.  In the Creed of Marcellus (a precursor to The Apostles’ Creed) from 340 it is written, ‘… And [I believe] in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body [σαρκός], life everlasting.’1

The need for these sorts of credal affirmations of the physical body arose from a very early Christian heresy that is labelled ‘gnosticism’.  Within a very watered-down gnostic worldview we find the idea that there is an fundamental antagonism between God and the material world (dualism).  The soul is trapped in this material world and through certain esoteric knowledge the soul can find a way of escape.  From what I have gathered, the Scientological belief system very closely resembles a type of gnosticism.  But in light of their understanding of the resurrection of Christ, early Christians, like the second-century Ante-Nicene Father St Irenaeus, condemned such views.  Indeed, when ‘the resurrection of the body’ is mentioned in early Christian sources the phrase does not mean that Christ (as the ‘first fruits’ of the resurrection from 1 Corinthians 15:23) has figuratively risen from the dead.  Contrary to the claims of critics like John Dominic Crossan and his ‘Jesus Seminar’, what makes the claim of the resurrection in the first-century Jewish context so problematic is that it only ever refers to a physical, bodily, literal raising from the dead.2

Whether or not one accepts that Jesus rose from the dead in this way, the early Christian Church held this view and when we say in the creeds, ‘He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day…’ we mean just that.  While St Paul condemns ‘sin in the flesh’ (ἐν τῇ σαρκί) in Romans 8, he is not condemning the body, but the sinfulness over which Christ has triumphed.  This is the key to the validity of the Christian faith.  It is both our present and future hope.  Part of the beauty of this hope is that it restores value and dignity to the creation, the physical creation, that God has created.  The Christian faith is not some collection of data that prepares our souls for a rescue from our bodily prisons, but it is a submission to the reality that God has begun to rescue and will fully rescue this physical world from its corruption and decay.

In this way we are invited to throw ourselves into the rushing stream of God’s kingdom.  We are asked to take part in God’s story through loving others as we have been loved by God.  We do not fight the oppression of the physical world.  Instead, we declare that this physical world has been redeemed by Christ and demonstrate that redemption through God’s working in our lives; caring for those who have been mistreated; being a beacon of peace in the midst of ongoing conflict; standing up for the dignity all people, regardless of nationality, race, age, gender or socioeconomic status.  We are to be constantly challenging the way that those with power (including those within our own large-and-small-scale ecclesiastical institutions) exercise their oppressive authority over the powerless.  God has come in a body through the incarnation, Jesus met the holistic needs of people during his ministry and in the death and resurrection of Christ God has exclaimed ‘I have redeemed the whole person, not merely his or her “soul” and not merely his or her “body”!’

In Scientological literature we are presented with this: ‘A Scientologist can be defined by a single question: Would you want others to achieve the knowledge you now have?’  In the Christian faith a similar question might be worded in this [admittedly cumbersome] way: ‘Would you want others to receive the present and future, holistic hope that you now have?’

+++++

1. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches, Third Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 23.
2. For a brief, accessible look at this literal concept of the resurrection, see Tom Wright’s Simply Christian (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), 111-6.

Eff you, Oscar…here’s The Arts & Faith Top 100

Oscars are on Sunday.  Some good films will be celebrated, some so-so films will get awards–sadly, the best film of the year (Fantastic Mr. Fox) will walk away empty-pawed (though you must check out this terrifically funny animated acceptance speech made by Mr. Anderson).

However, an online group affiliated with the thoughtful religious-y journal IMAGE (who once bastardly REJECTED a story I sent in!) just released their collaboratively determined top 100 films, somehow relating to Arts & Faith (not crystal clear on the criteria…).

One of the crafters of A & F 100, Jeffrey Overstreet, a film critic/novelist whom I had the chance to grab a meal with once upon a time, wrote a bit about the list in anticipation of questions raised by the list–here’s one response I liked quite a bit:

Question #6: Is it just me, or do most of these films look like hard work?

The Arts and Faith Top 100 are not favored for their difficulty. They are honored for their excellence, their beauty, their capacity to inspire us to become more fully human.

Each movie on this list explores fundamental and provocative spiritual questions. Questions that challenge us to grow in understanding. Questions that cultivate community through the experience of bracing conversations. Questions that kindle our deepest longings for all that is sacred and good.

In other words, yes—some of these films require serious work on the part of the viewer. But they are full of rewards for those who give them a chance.

The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films will arrest you with their vividness and strangeness. They are full of beauty and mystery. And unlike what is commonly categorized as “Christian art,” they will leave audiences with some doubt as to their precise application. They tease the mind into thought and reflection—again and again and again.

I agree wholeheartedly with his point & lament it at the same time.  As a culture, we’ve been raised on a steady diet of candy art, making these cinematic banquets taste bitter to our palates.  I’d love to encourage us all to line up a number of these films on the ole Netflix queue, yet at the same time, I feel MY OWN resistance to sitting down to 3+ hours of static camerawork, silence on the soundtrack, and characterizations that feel incredibly ripe for satire (ahh, the pretension!).

Let me then suggest two things:

1.  My own recommendations from this list.  I love the following films enough to own them–I will gladly loan them to you and am also willing to sit down and watch/discuss them together (if you live in a 20 mile radius of La Mirada, CA).

  • #2  The Decalogue (it’s about 10 hours long, in Polish–one short film per commandment, but they are not really interconnected so you can dip your toe in with a few films, maybe I, VI, or X)
  • #3  Babette’s Feast (Danish, Oscar winner, slow but beautiful story of the lavishness of grace)
  • #8 Andrei Rublev (Russian, B/W, slow as hades, but lovely as Abraham’s bosom)
  • #12  Wings of Desire (German, my favorite film of all time!  Just got a new Criterion edition too)
  • #15  Three Colors Trilogy (Polish/French, you should watch all 3 and tell me which you connected with the most)
  • #30  Stalker (Russian, MOLASSES SLOW, but deep as can be, haunting, beautiful)
  • #36 Days of Heaven (American, pretty accessible…amazing cinematography)
  • #51 The Spirit of the Beehive (Spanish, so sweet & profound & memorable)
  • #56  Ponette (French, on my personal top 10, unbelievable performance from a 4 year old)
  • #65  After Life (Japanese film about dead people picking one memory to live in forever)
  • #90  Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher (I didn’t actually LOVE this documentary–it’s a bit amateur–but the STORY is so worth exploring)
  • #96  The New World (American, I have the extended director’s cut–so powerful!)

2.  Please challenge ME to take on one of these based on your recommendation…I need to keep my tastes from atrophying due to my consumption of the “frivolity-industrial complex” produced films that are playing in my local excuse for a cinema.

With our great affection for lists, perhaps someday we’ll have a “Lost In the Cloud Top 100″…until then, enjoy these selections!

Ephemeral Moonshine of the Blemished Mind

“Random thoughts on Valentine’s Day 2004.  Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.”

Jim Carrey as Joel Barish from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004).

This particular film was pegged as both Greg and my number one pick for the last decade and currently is placed fourth in both Greg and my top ten film lists.

The film itself is a masterpiece.  The screenplay by Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufmann is incredible.  The surrealistic and deconstructed story telling really gives the viewer a very unique cinematic experience while remaining extremely logical and precise.  The acting of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet (as well as the supporting cast – David Cross as Rob, “Carrie, I am making a birdhouse”) is top notch, while the score by Jon Brion is imaginative, beautiful and haunting.  These many strengths are often the focus of reviews, but what I believe is the most compelling aspect of this film is the unique way that it uses science fiction to explore and communicate some of the most profound thoughts on the nature and possibilities of love.

Warning: plot spoilers follow.   Throughout the film we see the breakdown of the relationship shared by the two main characters, Joel and Clementine, except in reverse as Joel’s memories of the relationship are being systematically erased during a [science] fictional medical procedure.   Throughout the reliving of these memories we experience the real frustrations that Joel and Clementine faced as two very different people sharing life together (Joel being generally presented as more reserved, simple and logical, while Clementine is generally presented as free-spirited, impulsive and emotional).

In the end (chronologically), Joel and Clementine (who have both had their relationship erased via the procedure) have subconsciously ended up at the same place, Montauk, where they had originally met some two years prior.   They begin to hit it off despite the obvious personality differences, but later on discover that they had previously dated for two years and they listen confusedly to separate recordings they had made before the procedure, explaining why each wanted to erase the relationship from their respective memories.  Throughout the film we have discovered exactly why Joel and Clementine have fallen apart, but we have also witnessed unique and profound experiences that the two have shared, leaving us regretful for their inevitable break-up.

Still, Joel and Clementine determine:

Clementine “I’m not a concept, Joel, I’m just a fucked up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind.   I’m not perfect.”

Joel “I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you.”

Clementine “But you will.”

Joel “Right now I can’t.”

Clementine “But you will, you know, you will think of things.  And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.”

Joel “Okay.”   Joel is content.

Clementine “Okay,” Clementine smiles and agrees, “okay.”

Highlighted by Beck’s amazing cover of The Korgis’ ‘Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime’, this ending always leaves me in tears because of the incredible way it presents life.  Life is that dialectical tension between the broken and the beautiful, and in God’s grace the broken is made beautiful.  Similarly, the tension of the Gospel is that the wholly-other God, unknowable by a broken universe, has effectively participated in human suffering in Jesus Christ and has invited the broken universe to know him, and in knowing him the broken universe is recreated.  In the end, Joel and Clementine accept a love that is not ‘perfect’ by many standards, a love that is neither about the perfect timing nor about the perfect compatibility, but a love that is based upon a simple, yet profound commitment between two broken people – “Okay.”   “Okay”, knowing full well that they will hate a lot of the other person and “Okay” knowing that to love is ultimately worthwhile.

21 Artifacts from the 21st Century

The end of the decade has resulted in a number of best of the decade lists.  We’ve kind of OD’d on best of lists here already, but Elijah and I wanted to throw in our votes for those works of culture from the 2000’s WE think will/should stand the test of time.

I feel somewhat presumptuous putting this out there, as if my vote actually mattered, but what I have found is that my friends, acquaintances, and YOU dear reader, often find your interest piqued by something that has been declared “the best.”  I know that some of Elijah’s musical selections caused me to listen to albums I had not heeded before…so perhaps you may find something here that causes you to want to experience, reconsider or even maybe avoid (?) the following creative endeavors.  Hope you enjoy…see you next decade!

– Greg

Albums (Greg | Elijah)

  1. Illinois/The Avalanche (2005/2006) Sufjan Stevens | Kid A/Amnesiac (2000/2001) Radiohead
  2. The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads (2001) Lift to Experience | Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003) Sufjan Stevens
  3. In Rainbows/Bonus Disc (2007) Radiohead | Figure 8 (2000) Elliott Smith
  4. The Midnight Organ Fight (2008) Frightened Rabbit | The Sophtware Slump (2000) Grandaddy
  5. Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003) Sufjan Stevens | Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (2000) Belle & Sebastian
  6. Figure 8 (2000) Elliott Smith | Songs in A & E (2008) Spiritualized
  7. Kid A/Amnesiac (2000/2001) Radiohead | Jane Doe (2001) Converge
  8. Lifted, Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (2002) Bright Eyes | Turn On the Bright Lights (2002) Interpol
  9. Feels (2005) Animal Collective | Illinois/The Avalanche (2005/2006) Sufjan Stevens
  10. Funeral (2004) The Arcade Fire | Blood Money (2002) Tom Waits
  11. Takk (2005) Sigur Rós | Control (2002) Pedro the Lion
  12. Boxer (2007) The National | Veckatimest (2009) Grizzly Bear
  13. Asleep in the Back (2001) Elbow | We Are the Only Friends We Have (2002) Piebald
  14. A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002) Coldplay | The Midnight Organ Fight (2008) Frightened Rabbit
  15. Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) Animal Collective | Hot Shots II (2001) The Beta Band
  16. Gang of Losers (2006) The Dears | The Life Pursuit (2006) Belle & Sebastian
  17. Control (2002) Pedro the Lion | Tyrannosaurus Hives (2004) The Hives
  18. The Last Broadcast (2002) Doves | The Argument (2000) Fugazi
  19. The Invisible Band (2001) Travis | Hail to the Thief (2003) Radiohead
  20. Oh, Inverted World (2001) The Shins | Sea Change (2002) Beck
  21. Retreiver (2004) Ron Sexsmith | How It Ends (2004) DeVotchKa

Books (there were so many that we didn’t read [Elijah read only a handful of novels from the 2000s], so this list is incredibly subjective and limited in scope)

Novels:

  • Cloud Atlas (2004) David Mitchell
  • House of Leaves (2000) Mark Z. Danielewski
  • 2666 (2004) Roberto Bolaño
  • Atonement (2001) Ian McEwan
  • The Book of Illusions (2002) Paul Auster
  • Black Swan Green (2007) David Mitchell
  • American Gods (2001) Neil Gaiman
  • Thinks (2001) David Lodge
  • The City & The City (2009) China Mieville

Misc:

  • Blankets (2003) Craig Thompson, graphic novel
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) Dave Eggers, memoir
  • The Book of Other People (2007) ed. Zadie Smith, story collection
  • The Perry Bible Fellowship: The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories (2007) Nicholas Gurewitch, comic collection
  • Box Office Poison (2001) Alex Robinson, graphic novel
  • The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction (2005) literary survey
  • Wall and Piece (2005) Banksy, art collection

Religion/Christianity:

  • Free of Charge (2006) Miroslav Volf
  • Jesus of Nazareth (2008) Pope Benedict XVI
  • The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (2009) David Dark
  • Renewing the Center (2000) Stanley Grenz
  • Across the Spectrum (2002) Gregory Boyd & Paul Eddy
  • The Mosaic of Christian Belief (2002) Roger Olson
  • The Shaping of Things to Come (2003) Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch
  • These last three Tom Wright books are included for their effective introductory appeal rather than any necessary anticipation of ‘classic’ status.
  • Paul: In Fresh Perspective (2005) N. T. (Tom) Wright
  • Simply Christian (2006) N. T. (Tom) Wright
  • Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (2009) N. T. (Tom) Wright

Film (G | E)

  1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Michel Gondry | ditto
  2. Amelie (2001) Jean-Pierre Jeunet | Lord of the Rings (2001-03)  Peter Jackson
  3. Children of Men (2006) Alfonso Cuarón | There Will Be Blood (2007) P. T. Anderson
  4. Lord of the Rings (2001-03)  Peter Jackson | The Pianist (2002) Roman Polanski
  5. The New World (2005) Terrance Malick | Dancer in the Dark (2000) Lars von Trier
  6. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Wes Anderson | The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) Wes Anderson
  7. All the Real Girls (2002) David Gordon Green | Memento (2000) Christopher Nolan
  8. Waltz with Bashir (2008) Ari Folman | Adaptation (2002) Spike Jonze
  9. In the Mood For Love (2000) Kar Wai Wong | Big Fish (2003) Tim Burton
  10. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001) Ang Lee | ditto
  11. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Andrew Dominik | Zodiac (2007) David Fincher
  12. WALL-E (2008) Andrew Stanton | The Proposition (2005) John Hillcoat
  13. There Will Be Blood (2007) P. T. Anderson | Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Wes Anderson
  14. Memento (2000) Christopher Nolan | The Prestige (2006) Christopher Nolan
  15. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro | Elephant (2003) Gus Van Sant
  16. The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) Wes Anderson | A Beautiful Mind (2001) Ron Howard
  17. The Proposition (2005) John Hillcoat | Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro
  18. The Prestige (2006) Christopher Nolan | About Schmidt (2002) Alexander Payne
  19. The Lives of Others (2007) Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | Capote (2005) Bennett Miller
  20. Moulin Rouge (2001) Baz Luhrmann | Lost in Translation (2003) Sofia Coppola
  21. Donnie Darko (2001) Richard Kelly | American Splendor (2003) Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini

The Top (Two Thousand and) Ten Films

Dear reader,

I give you these 10 suggestions (from the 35 films I saw this year) to consider as eminently watchable and deeply worthwhile cultural experiences…

10.  The Road:  It was bleak and heart-wrenching and so difficult to watch…but it was unflinchingly truthful and often had a kind of tarnished beauty.  An amazing film that I never want to see again.

9.  (500) Days of Summer:  I think I was dead center in the sights of this film’s demographic appeal.  Indie soundtrack (& Smiths shout out to boot!), check.  Ernestly romantic guy, check.  Lack of ambition as virtue, check.  Creative, non-linear, brain-teasing narrative structure, check.  By all accounts, a non-conformist, iconoclastic, incredulous contrarian such as myself should have seen right through this.  But I ate it up.

8.  District 9:  The Office with aliens.  Original and touching beyond all expectation.

7.  Avatar:  Utterly predictable storytelling, but I was almost literally transported into the world of Pandora (course, I DID see it in IMAX 3-D, which made this almost a given).  The mythic instinct come to life…

6.  Adventureland:  This film tapped into something pretty nostalgic for me, but it also is an amazingly honest portrait of summertime post-teenage angst in low-pay limbo.  Performances from main & minor actors hit me in the melancholy bone…and the songs made me shudder with recollection of an adolescence lived to that soundtrack (ROCK ME, AMADEUS!).

5.  Up in the Air:  My only criticism of this very fine and relevant dramatic comedy is in the casting of non-leads:  actual unemployed people as the victims of redundancy came off as schlocky & the hip actors (Zach Galifianakis, Danny McBride, Jason Bateman) in minor roles felt distracting (see The Invention of Lying for the most egregious use of this type of “pack casting”—i.e. “if I show up in your movie, that lets everyone know I’m in your crew”)

4.  Up:  I did not want to like this in order to resist the Pixarification of my soul, but alas my brain is fully washed and my heart is clay in the hands of these masters.  I saw it once with my wife & once with my kids.  So great & unforeseeably ingenious.

3.  Inglourious Basterds:   I really did love this movie, though my reservations of whether I SHOULD have loved it still haunt me.

2.  Where the Wild Things Are:   Never was a fan of the book…creeped me out.  Didn’t particularly want to like the movie, though I am a fan of Jonze & Eggars.  But after viewing, I could not get it out of my thoughts for days.  I feel like I lived that film somehow.  Moved me in profound ways on many different levels.  It will gain the recognition it deserved someday…

And in FIRST PLACE:

The furthest thing from the cluster cuss this could have been.

1.  Fantastic Mr. Fox:  The dialogue, the look, the details, the heart, the growling, the outfits, the voices, the humor, the pacing, the panache, the feel, the stillness, the child-likeness, the tears, the speeches, the GENIUS.  I will see this film many times more before I die…

Note: It’s fascinating to me to see THREE (ostensibly) children’s films at the top of this list.  Regression?  Longing for a care free world?  Return to innocence?  My only response is to ask what the cross is between an elephant and a rhino.

Honorable mentionsI Love You Man, Watchmen (the credit sequence alone was among the best looking cinema this year), Star TrekADDITION:  Zombieland !

Wish I could have seenThe Hurt Locker, Bright Star, Moon, A Serious Man, In the Loop, It Might Get Loud, The Informant!, The White Ribbon, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Thirst.

Biggest disappointments (and my respective “microview”—aka review with minimal words involving some sort of pun on the title):

  • The Brothers Bloom – The Brothers Wilt
  • Away We Go – Eww, Go Away
  • The Invention of Lying – The Venting of Denying
  • Ponyo – Panyo

Not as bad as everyone said it was: The Box (from Richard Kelly, writer/director of Donnie Darko):  which had some genuinely creepy, intriguing and touching moments, solid performances, lovely sense of time/place, before it crapped out.  And a score from (pretty much) The Arcade Fire!