Sunday, March 29, 2009

Golden Age

Sitting on my desktop tower this moment - and for the last month - is a copy of Shotgun Stories, ranked as one of Jeffrey Overstreet's favorite movies of 08. I wanted to see if it'd be one of mine too. After all, he has helped to shape how I view movies over the last few years (in particular, looking for moments of grace) and introduced me to personal favorites like Paul Thomas Anderson (via Magnolia), Krystof Kieslowski (who's Bleu I finally watched for the first time late last year and have added to my faves of all-time), and Stevie, by locals Steve James and Peter Gilbert (whose Hoop Dreams is within my top-five all time).

But yet I'm not watching Shotgun Stories. I tried a couple weeks ago. Had me a brewski, a man's dinner, a night alone before my birthday. Neighbors downstairs were partying with their frat-friends in anticipation of St. Paddy's Day (because you know how those Irish like to get down...). And I made it a couple minutes in.

But I just wasn't in the mood. Still not in the mood. Not that I don't trust that it will be an experience to remember. But then I realized something.

I. Like. TV.

I'm watching a lot of tele these days, which is remarkable for a guy who doesn't even own a tube. And all this tv viewing can eat at chunks of whatever other time that I might have for quality film viewing. And it's high-quality stuff (well, maybe with one cheesy exception). I'm not dumbing down (for the most part); I do believe that we've only got so many hours of time for consumptive viewing and that we shouldn't waste it on trivial garbage. But TV is not what it was a generation ago. One needn't resign to PBS to purify oneself anymore. Even FOX has some quality (albeit stuck in Friday night limbo now. Remember when Sunday nights were the golden nights at Fox?).

But there's something to be said about the serial and the linear progressions that happen with a multi-year series like "The Office" can produce. Have you seen it recently? The last three shows were golden and belong in the pantheon along with much of seasons 1&2. You witness cyclical changes (Michael has a boss. The boss is a jerk/tight-wad. The boss starts to upset the weird status quo in the office. The boss starts to show fissures. Status quo is resolved) that really demonstrate how complex social interactions can be and how deep human psyches are. In a movie (as in a novel), you would see a character change through crisis, in serials, you see the character flesh-out in numerous crises - perhaps grow, perhaps not.

Another example would be Joss Whedon's series The Dollhouse. Not heard of it? Not seen it? That's a crying shame. Because the mid-season replacement is now on its seventh episode, and Hulu only carries five at a time. Who knows how many more will come out of this tenuous and stressed-filled relationship between the creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly" and the network responsible for "COPS" and "When Animals Go Berserk!" marathons. For the time-being, every episode, every moment of Dollhouse is riveting smorgasbord for the mouth. It's an enigma wrapped in bacon-strips and dipped in fine, dark chocolate. It is to be slowly savored over a long period of time.

I can only hope that it lasts longer than "Firefly" did. Or, for that matter, than "Chuck" will (yes, that is my guilty pleasure).

Tv. Watch it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

For Your Lenten Consideration...

Renowned pastor, author and Bible translator Eugene Peterson meditating on the so-called "middle voice" - which lays somewhere between the active and the passive voice in ancient Greek grammar.
My grammar book said, "The middle voice is that use of the verb which describes the subjects as participating in the results of the action." I read that now, and it reads like a description of Christian prayer -- "the subject as participating in the results of the action." I do not control the action; that is a pagan concept of prayer putting the gods to work in my incantations or rituals. I am not controlled by the action; that is a Hindu concept of prayer in which I slump passively into the impersonal and fated will of gods and goddesses. I enter into the action begun by another, my creating and saving Lord, and find myself participating in the results of the actions. I neither do it, nor have it done to me; I will to participate in what is willed.

- Eugene Peterson, quoted by Philip Yancey in Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Oscar Weeks #3: Slumdog Millioniare

We saw it the day before the Oscars. Didn't have high hopes, but wife was really excited. I can say now that I'm a happy convert and was gladly rooting for it during the telecast.

First, the negatives: it's melodramatic (aren't most Oscar contenders?); it contains too many implausible scenarios;; it's fate-driven and, tied with that, it's predictable.

I don't always hate fatalism, but the cheap notion that destiny plays as a cheap plot device makes me sick to my cheap stomach. It's why I can't stand most romantic movies, with Eternal Sunshine being a particular (and odd) exception. And this particular film... Well, let's just say, "It is written."

But yet, there are a lot of elements in Slumdog, and though some may not work so well on their own (say, the derivative gangster movie posturing of older brother in latter scenes), the piece as a whole presents a view of lower-class India that I think the popcorn-eating, extravagance-loving, song-dance-and-swirling-color viewers out there (myself included) need to confront. The whole is worth more than the sum of the parts - it's like a Frankenstein monster of a meal made out of really crazy disparate parts that you should hate (or at least wave burning sticks at madly), yet it all works together to create something extraordinary, fresh, and tasty.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Oscar weeks: There Will Be Blood

Initially, I did not enjoy this movie. Still question if I do, but I found it to be powerful and disturbing. Disturbing in a sense that is ferociously honest.

What I found so odd about this film is how misanthropic it is - I was sure I had picked up a Coen brothers flick by accident. What made it odder still is that unlike PT Anderson's last two films (both of which rate as some of my favorite of all time), There Will Be Blood had no shot of redeeming grace. No plague of frogs to deliver the entrapped slaves of LA from their self-hatred and suicide (as in Magnolia), no inexplicable piano dropping from heaven or even less-explicable unmerited love that saves a dangerously implosive and lonely man by allowing him to act out of love and overcome regret (as in Punch-Drunk Love). Just a man who intensely and insanely drives out any would-be competition.

This is a story about the all-taking consumption of greed, and this time, there is no salvation from the emptiness of self-centeredness. It is the story of a wretched prospector who begins his adventures seemingly supernaturally aged, who hopes to find hope in finding kindred spirits but ultimately fails in this regard, who lives oil. Oil, in fact, is his lifeblood and is the metaphor for his life. His heart pumps oil. You can sense the literary functions in the movie throughout. If Jed Clampett found the crude accidentally by shooting at some food, Daniel Plainfield finds it because it is him; the land that he takes the oil from bubbles to the top with the black, volatile, cruel, nasty, mangy majesty, much as it does from his skin.

In other words, what I've come to appreciate about the film is that Daniel Plainfield represents not all of humanity, nor, I hope, the director's view of humanity. But rather, a view of humanity held by one of its most important oil men. America, the man with the long straw and bowling balls aimed for his enemies is Dick Cheney.

My name is Dick Plainfield and this is my associate, G. W. Plainfield.

I only partially kid here.

Also notable is the breathtaking cinematic scope and the haunting and searing soundtrack, not to mention the singular vision that makes this three hour movie intensely watchable.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Weekly Links We Like to Link to: Mostly politics and/or dummies edition

The Lonely Life of Rollie Burris: The Cartoon.

Mel Gibson's latest movie is going to be a spectacular mix of a biopic and more of his trademark redemptive violence.

Intriguing article about Newt Gingrich at New York Times Magazine reveals this tidbit from one of his disciples, minority whip Eric Cantor (R, Va.):

Well, generally, [Gingrich] is very quick to see the historic election of President Obama and the potential for his support to last, and what that means for Congress, and how we compare the success of Barack Obama to, frankly, the difficulties that Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid are having with the American public right now. You know, Congressional Democrats are nowhere near where this president is right now in terms of public opinion.
(On a personal note, I think that's an interesting wedge issue. I may not agree with Newt's ideas, but I think that the Republican party needs to stand up and intelligently challenge the Democrats in power. Otherwise, you face the prospect of a one (weak-arse) party system, as if the Democrats weren't inept enough as it were, they would become inept and fascist.)

And, speaking of the Times and the Republican/Democrat divide, here's an informative article about the sea-change represented in ideals that has come as a result of the new budget. The money passage:

Over the last three decades, the pretax incomes of the wealthiest households have risen far more than they have for other households, while the tax rates for top earners have fallen more than they have for others, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

As a result, the average post-tax income of the top 1 percent of households has jumped by roughly $1 million since 1979, adjusted for inflation, to $1.4 million. Pay for most families has risen only slightly faster than inflation.

Before becoming Mr. Obama’s top economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers liked to tell a hypothetical story to distill the trend. The increase in inequality, Mr. Summers would say, meant that each family in the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution was effectively sending a $10,000 check, every year, to the top 1 percent of earners.

And here's an argument for spading and neutering dumb, dumb parents.

... And that's the rest of the story.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Book Selection: Surprised by Hope

[Editor's notes: 1) I'm going to try to finish up "Oscar Week" this week or next week. Most likely early next week. Depends on whether or not I can finish up any more really recent really good films (at current rates, no such luck); 2) I'm taking a semi-bloggatical, but mostly from my work at ChicagoDads. Still, every other day (at least through this week), I'll have something posted there. So, please, check it out.]

This book addresses two questions that have often been dealt with entirely separately but that, I passionately believe, belong tightly together. First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? And the main answer can be put like this. As long as we see Christian hope in terms of "going to heaven," of a salvation that is essentially
away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated. Indeed, some insist angrily that to ask the second one at all is to ignore the first one, which is the really important one. This in turn makes others get angry when people talk of resurrection, as if this might draw attention away from the really important and pressing matters of contemporary social concern. But if the Christian hope is for God's new creation, for "new heavens and new earth," and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two questions together. And if that is so, we find that answering the one is also answering the other. I find that to many -- not least, many Christians -- all this comes as a surprise: both that the Christian hope is surprisingly different from what they had assumed and that this same hope offers a coherent and energizing basis for work in today's world.

NT "Tom" Wright
Surprised by Hope