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.
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.
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!
“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).
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.
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!
Albums (Greg | Elijah)
- Illinois/The Avalanche (2005/2006) Sufjan Stevens | Kid A/Amnesiac (2000/2001) Radiohead
- The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads (2001) Lift to Experience | Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003) Sufjan Stevens
- In Rainbows/Bonus Disc (2007) Radiohead | Figure 8 (2000) Elliott Smith
- The Midnight Organ Fight (2008) Frightened Rabbit | The Sophtware Slump (2000) Grandaddy
- Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003) Sufjan Stevens | Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (2000) Belle & Sebastian
- Figure 8 (2000) Elliott Smith | Songs in A & E (2008) Spiritualized
- Kid A/Amnesiac (2000/2001) Radiohead | Jane Doe (2001) Converge
- Lifted, Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (2002) Bright Eyes | Turn On the Bright Lights (2002) Interpol
- Feels (2005) Animal Collective | Illinois/The Avalanche (2005/2006) Sufjan Stevens
- Funeral (2004) The Arcade Fire | Blood Money (2002) Tom Waits
- Takk (2005) Sigur Rós | Control (2002) Pedro the Lion
- Boxer (2007) The National | Veckatimest (2009) Grizzly Bear
- Asleep in the Back (2001) Elbow | We Are the Only Friends We Have (2002) Piebald
- A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002) Coldplay | The Midnight Organ Fight (2008) Frightened Rabbit
- Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) Animal Collective | Hot Shots II (2001) The Beta Band
- Gang of Losers (2006) The Dears | The Life Pursuit (2006) Belle & Sebastian
- Control (2002) Pedro the Lion | Tyrannosaurus Hives (2004) The Hives
- The Last Broadcast (2002) Doves | The Argument (2000) Fugazi
- The Invisible Band (2001) Travis | Hail to the Thief (2003) Radiohead
- Oh, Inverted World (2001) The Shins | Sea Change (2002) Beck
- 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)
- 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
- 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
- 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)
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Michel Gondry | ditto
- Amelie (2001) Jean-Pierre Jeunet | Lord of the Rings (2001-03) Peter Jackson
- Children of Men (2006) Alfonso Cuarón | There Will Be Blood (2007) P. T. Anderson
- Lord of the Rings (2001-03) Peter Jackson | The Pianist (2002) Roman Polanski
- The New World (2005) Terrance Malick | Dancer in the Dark (2000) Lars von Trier
- Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Wes Anderson | The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) Wes Anderson
- All the Real Girls (2002) David Gordon Green | Memento (2000) Christopher Nolan
- Waltz with Bashir (2008) Ari Folman | Adaptation (2002) Spike Jonze
- In the Mood For Love (2000) Kar Wai Wong | Big Fish (2003) Tim Burton
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001) Ang Lee | ditto
- The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Andrew Dominik | Zodiac (2007) David Fincher
- WALL-E (2008) Andrew Stanton | The Proposition (2005) John Hillcoat
- There Will Be Blood (2007) P. T. Anderson | Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Wes Anderson
- Memento (2000) Christopher Nolan | The Prestige (2006) Christopher Nolan
- Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro | Elephant (2003) Gus Van Sant
- The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) Wes Anderson | A Beautiful Mind (2001) Ron Howard
- The Proposition (2005) John Hillcoat | Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro
- The Prestige (2006) Christopher Nolan | About Schmidt (2002) Alexander Payne
- The Lives of Others (2007) Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | Capote (2005) Bennett Miller
- Moulin Rouge (2001) Baz Luhrmann | Lost in Translation (2003) Sofia Coppola
- Donnie Darko (2001) Richard Kelly | American Splendor (2003) Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini
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.
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:
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 mentions: I Love You Man, Watchmen (the credit sequence alone was among the best looking cinema this year), Star Trek. ADDITION: Zombieland !
Wish I could have seen: The 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!
In my lifetime I have been blessed with the opportunity to know or at least to be exposed to various people that have a magic in them that necessitate a portion of my devotion – my heroes. Among them are people like my father, who taught me the meaning of selflessness, hard work, and patience, my grandfather, who taught me what it truly means to be a servant of God, Greg, who has impacted the way I relate to God, myself, others and to art more than any other single person, and people that I don’t know personally – people like Bob Dylan, John Gardner and Elliott Smith. Among those people at the top of my list of heroes, Daniel Smith stands out as the most inspiring and influential.
Daniel Smith is truly a unique character. It’s difficult to be indifferent toward him, that is to say he is a polarizing person. There’s a quality to his personality and the way he expresses himself that will either turn you on or turn you off, but will never leave you indifferent. The process and product of his imagination are not something I can easily express in one post. In 2006 a documentary was released, ‘Danielson, a Family Movie (or, Make a Joyful Noise Here)‘ documenting the progress of Daniel Smith’s artistic expression since the founding of the “Danielson Famile,” a band literally consisting of Daniel and his siblings. Daniel was an art student at Rutgers and his professors insisted that the visual and performing arts were to be kept in their respective galleries and conservatories. Daniel wouldn’t have it, and since 1994 he hasn’t had it. He’s continued to press forward even after fifteen years of mediocre (at best) success. The sincerity and devotion with which he creates is what captures me most.
I could go on and on about Daniel and the opportunities I’ve had to meet him/see him perform, but I’d rather introduce you to the man. And if you’ve already been introduced you ought to watch anyway. This video, which was posted on the Danielson site yesterday, is a great summation of much of what Daniel Smith stands for. Take a look:
This post, in partial attempt to push my last post under the radar, is more in my line of pseudo-expertise and at least non-inflammatory interest…
On 6 August 2009 Elliott Smith would have turned 40 years old. Instead, on 21 October 2009 we grieve six years without him. Readers may or may not know who Elliott Smith was (or is), but if you’ve heard the film soundtracks for either Good Will Hunting, Hurricane Streets, American Beauty, Keeping the Faith, Antitrust (sadly), The Royal Tenenbaums, Thumbsucker, Georgia Rule (unfortunately), The Go-Getter, or Paranoid Park, or if you’ve played through Guitar Hero 5, you’ve been exposed to at least a portion of his work. If you’ve not heard any of that, maybe you saw the 70th Academy Awards (1998) and caught his performance “Miss Misery,” which was nominated for best original song (losing to James Horner and Will Jennings for “My Heart Will Go On,” from the film Titanic). Though he never experienced a great degree of commercial success, Elliott Smith has left a legacy of what I believe are some of the best pop/folk songs ever written.
Elliott Smith’s singing voice can be characterized as a tenor-whisper (which is also doubled in most tracks – Elliott is among the finest/if not the finest doubling singers I’ve ever heard). When I first heard his unique voice I didn’t know what to expect regarding his looks. The first time you see a picture of Elliott after hearing his voice you might ask yourself, “Really?” Yet when you see a live performance (something now only possible through video recordings) the deep honesty of his voice is a perfect complement to the deep honesty of his weathered face.
Lyrically Elliott is typically rather dark, which typically leaves his listeners ultimately unsurprised (though devastated) when they learn of his suicide. His lyrics often feature the themes of existential despair, love (or the absence of such) and the looming prospect of taking one’s own life (“Instruments shine on a silver tray | Don’t let me get carried away | Don’t let me get carried away | Don’t let me be carried away” – last lines on From a Basement on the Hill‘s ‘King’s Crossing’, one of the last songs he ever wrote).
But contrary to accusations I’ve often heard against it, Elliott’s music is not a tool for thrusting oneself into despair. I cannot precisely explain the emotional quality that draws me into Elliott Smith’s music, but it is not one that is dismal so much as it is honest. When I listen to Elliott Smith I find an advocate, a counselor, one not above the darkness, but in its midst. Like the Psalmist, Elliott cries out for me when I have no words. And that is what gives Elliott the edge in my musical library: he is so substantive and of this earth. His passions, his pains, his loves, his hates, his strengths, and his weaknesses are all laid out with the utmost artistic integrity. I truly believe every word that comes from his mouth, or at least I believe that he believes what he is singing.
If you’re looking for shallow comfort listen to The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t it Be Nice’, one of my favourite pop songs of all time. But if you want to experience someone’s heart laid out before you and if you want to taste both the sweetness and bitterness of a true artist, give Elliott Smith a listen, a long intentional listen.
Elliott Smith Full-Length Releases
Let me first say that I consider every Elliott Smith album an excellent album, and I don’t award such praise lightly (at least I don’t think I do…).
From 1991 to 1996 Elliott sang/played guitar in the alternative rock band Heatmiser. While in the band he began his solo career, resulting in 1994’s Roman Candle, nine tracks (the last one instrumental) that Elliott had not actually intended on releasing in album form. With this in mind, Roman Candle is much less cohesive than Elliott’s later releases, but still showcases his exceptional musical/writing ability, as well as the signature lo-fi production that characterizes most of his music.
Elliott released his self-titled album in 1995, like Roman Candle, while still in Heatmiser. This album includes the track, “Needle in the Hay,” featured in the film The Royal Tenenbaums.
Either/Or, released in 1997, follows in the same vein as Elliott’s first two releases. The title comes from Søren Kierkegaard’s book, Enten ‒ Eller. Several songs from this album were used in the film Good Will Hunting (though “Miss Misery,” the song for which Elliott was nominated for an Academy Award, was written specifically for the film and saw no studio album release).
Elliott followed Either/Or with 1998’s XO, his first release through DreamWorks and thus his first release on a major label. Elliott’s earlier philosphical/aesthetic sentiments are present, but begin to manifest themselves differently through this album, which features more instruments and better production.
Following in the same musical/productive trajectory of XO, Elliott released Figure 8 in 2000. This album is simply incredible. The cover photo was taken in front of the A/V repair shop Solutions in Los Angeles by photographer Autumn de Wilde. If you’re in Los Angeles you can visit and leave a message on the wall (located at 4334 W. Sunset Blvd.), which has become an unofficial Elliott Smith memorial.
At the time of his death, Elliott was still working on this album, which was released posthumously in 2004. Though we don’t have Elliott’s final product here, his former producer along with his girlfriend compiled this album from the material he had been working on in the studio. They did a good job.
This album is actually a compilation of B-sides, outtakes and rarities generally from the self-titled and Either/Or sessions, and the style/production is predominantly reflective of that period. It was released in 2007.
For more information on Elliott Smith visit Sweet Adeline, his official website.
I saw the film Inglourious Basterds the other day, upon the recommendation of a number of friends. I left the theater feeling two simultaneous and somewhat contradictory feelings (in a word: ambivalent). On the one hand, I “enjoyed” the film: the tension-building dialogues exploding in a climactic release (apologies for the sexual undertones there), the hip, “anything goes” approach to style (anachronistic soundtrack, insider cameos, visual homage, etc.) and the powerful archetypal film characters (the bad ass soldiers, the avenging victim, the brilliant psychopath, etc.). It was an incredibly well-made film, but it also gave me exactly what I would want (on one level) from a movie about people taking on the Nazis. [SPOILER ALERT] The Nazis get SLAUGHTERED! The good guys win, and even if some of them died in the process, it was heroically in the act of destroying some of the most evil people in history.
But this is where the contradictory feeling came in. It felt wrong to enjoy the massacre of Nazis. (There was some part of me that felt like I was watching Team America: World Police without realizing it was a satire of American military arrogance.)
The scene that came back to me as I was reflecting on the film & realizing my ambivalence was when Hitler, Goebbels & the Nazi elite were watching the film within the film about the young Nazi war hero who killed 300 Allied soldiers from a tower. Repeatedly, we watch the Nazis applauding scenes of the sniper picking off his attackers (probably Americans) and we scoff at this propagandistic depiction of violence against the enemy, portrayed as inhuman, anonymous targets for the hero to destroy. Even the young Nazi hero seems to feel disdain for the way this is portrayed…
Though I did not find it ironic at the time, subsequently, we as the audience are treated to the sight of these Nazi filmgoers being burned to death & shot down like fish in a barrel by Jewish soldiers (along with a highly fetishized moment of actor Eli Roth ripping Hitler’s face apart with a hail (heil?) of bullets). It seems implicit that we will cheer this on, indeed, the whole film feels like a set-up for a moment that we can hardly believe could end this way (knowing actual history as we do). Of course, it was an “alternate history” reality we see occurring, but it felt so much more satisfying than what actually happened. However, I began to wonder how we as the filmgoers were much different from the Nazi movie audience cheering the death of Allied soldiers.
This led me to see the director of IB, Quentin Tarantino, as a sort of Joseph Goebbels figure of American populist cinema (depicting simplistic good/evil characters, giving an audience what it wants, using techniques–such as the score, B-movie conventions, etc.–to tap into the collective audience subconscious and manipulate them to the filmmaker’s ends), which oddly then, would make Harvey Weinstein, a Jew, the Hitler figure…although I suppose it’s not completely surprising as he has been seen as a bit of a fascist dictator in the filmmaking business.
The film had a number of role reversals of Nazi for Jew (Aldo referring to Nazi’s as “not human”, the brutal beatings/casual executions of German soldiers, all of the Nazi’s being burned to death similar to the crematoriums), which made me feel like I was being set up/propogandized to applaud the same thing for the Nazis which I lamented for the Jews. I may be seeing something that is not there at all, but it seems like to take this film simply as a “revenge fantasy film” for Jews (see reactions from descendants of Holocaust survivors and Rabbis here) lacks a certain amount of incredulity that a savvy director such as QT would expect. Am I supposed to resist my enjoyment of this slice of fantasy justice, or give into it and become implicitly akin to the Nazi filmgoers?
Anyhow, regardless of whether I have appropriately interpreted this sequence of scenes, I would recommend anyone else who “enjoyed” watching all of the Nazis get killed as inhuman representations of pure evil to watch a film like Stalingrad where the audience follows young German soldiers, who don’t seem as gung ho about the 3rd Reich as we usually see in films, heading to the Russian front where they are led like sheep to a slaughter. Anyone associated with the Nazi regime certainly finds themselves on the wrong side of history, but we may need to be careful to allow ourselves to be duped into seeing ANYONE as less than human…even those who we feel like are the worst people in history.