We Need to Be Re-Humanized

We Need to Be Re-Humanized

This week Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted a photo of an ad that compared the “Syrian Refugee Problem” to a bowl of Skittles. The ad suggested that we can best understand the worst humanitarian crisis of our time by thinking about refugees not as embodied, suffering people but as poisonous rainbow-colored candy that could kill us. Let’s set aside for a minute the politics of this and the admitted complexity of immigration and national security.

Best of the Blog's First Five Years

I started this blog on July 18, 2007, five years ago on Wednesday. It's been a great five years of blogging. 551 posts, thousands of comments, and countless hundreds of hours of writing later, and I'm happy to say I've loved every minute of it. By way of marking the occasion of the fifth anniversary of The Search, I thought I'd look back at some of my favorite and most popular posts. If you've been a longtime reader you'll maybe remember some of them. If you're a newer reader, here are some old favorites I commend to you.

Why L.A. Has the Most Exciting Food Scene

People (especially New Yorkers) often have a negative view of Los Angeles, as if it were some sort of cultural black hole. But those who live in this fine city, and who venture all around it and enjoy its mysterious, can't-quite-put-your-finger-on-it-but-one-of-a-kind aura, know better. L.A. is the mostdiverse city in the world, and though certainly sprawling and nearly unnavigable, it has limitless treasures to unearth and lots of cultural richness (and not a little cultural trash) to discover.

Spend Your Thanksgiving With The Road

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday. It's a day when we celebrate the bounty of what we have, with family and friends, turkey and football. But in the midst of the gluttony and laziness and consumerism (black Friday!) of the weekend, it's sometimes hard to really see the forest for the trees when it comes to our blessings. It's hard to really get a perspective on how good we have it.

I have an easy way to fix that problem this Thanksgiving: Go see The Road.

This is a film that reminds you that even in the darkest of times, there is much to be thankful for. It reminds you that we are thankfully NOT living in a post-apocalyptic hell, scavenging for food and avoiding cannibals in a world devoid of sunlight and plant life. It's a film that will reminds us never to take things like food, water, clothes, or shoes for granted again.

Plus, it's just a phenomenal movie (even if not "enjoyable" to watch in the strictest sense). I've seen the film twice and would love to see it again. I wrote a review for Christianity Today, and also interviewed the director, John Hillcoat.

Take two hours out of your holiday weekend to see this film. You'll be thankful you did.

An Enemy of Serious Film Criticism

Rather than a recap/rant about the Oscars (which I did for Relevantmagazine.com), I am going to spend my post today exposing a much more urgent and insidious problem in the world of film criticsm: Ted Baehr and Movieguide.org.

If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Ted Baehr, he is a highly suspicious, frequently self-aggrandizing figure in the world of Christian film criticism. His method of film criticism is of the “how many f-words and sex scenes” variety, and he has a very strange Christian=capitalist bent to everything he writes. For those of us who aspire towards a progressive, insightful, nuanced engagement with film from a Christian perspective, Baehr is a most discouraging figure.

It is especially frustrating that, over the past few weeks, he and his organization have been representing Christian film criticism at large by being allowed to write columns in The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. In these wide platforms, Baehr has played up his usual lines about how family-friendly, G-rated, pro-capitalist films make the most money, and are therefore the best films. If you read the articles, his logic is laughable and his points almost satirical; it’s tragic that this is the Christian critic who is getting the most national media attention.

Anyway, rather than mounting a scathing rebuttal to Baehr’s nonsense (which my editor at Christianity Today did in this insightful blog post), I think it will probably prove the point to just give you some choice quotes from the two recent columns that Baehr and his partner-in-crime, Tom Snyder, authored.

From the Wall Street Journal column, Baehr and Snyder write:

As in past years, films with strong pro-capitalist content -- extolling free-market principles or containing positive portrayals of real or fictional businessmen and entrepreneurs -- tended to make the most money. The hero of the biggest success of the year, "The Dark Knight," is a billionaire capitalist who, disguised as Batman, defends Gotham City and its residents from a crazed, anarchistic terrorist criminal. In "Iron Man," the second-most popular movie with American and Canadian moviegoers in 2008, a capitalist playboy and billionaire defense contractor stops working against the interests of America and its citizens and uses his wealth to defend America and its free-market values.

The box-office receipts of pro-capitalist movies, which also included "Australia," "City of Ember" and "Bottle Shock" (which extols the virtues of the California wine industry), averaged $152 million per picture in North American theaters. On the whole, they far outperformed movies with strong anticapitalist content. That group, with films such as "Mad Money," "Chicago 10" and "War, Inc.," averaged only $5.4 million per picture in North American theaters.

The moneymaking trend was similar for movies with explicit or implicit anticommunist content. That group -- including an "An American Carol," which mocks communism; "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," where Indy reviles communists and their impoverished ideology is exposed; "City of Ember," where a tyrant steals from the people; and "Fly Me to the Moon," about the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union -- averaged $71.8 million at the 2008 box office in America and Canada. By comparison, movies with pro-communist content, such as "Che," "The Children of Huang Shi," "Gonzo," "Trumbo" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," averaged a measly $7.9 million in 2008.

And from the Newsweek article:

Not only did moviegoers prefer heroic movies with very strong moral virtues, they also rejected movies with anti-Christian, secular, nihilistic, and atheist content like "Religulous," "Adam Resurrected," "Save Me," "Wanted," "Hounddog," "Bloodline," "Hamlet 2," "The Love Guru," "Stop-Loss," and "Saw V."

Furthermore, contrary to popular opinion, 2008 was the year that obscenity, sex and nudity didn't sell -- again. In fact, movies with no foul language, no sex and no explicit nudity earned much more money on average than movies with some foul language, sex and explicit nudity, or a lot of it, by 2 to 1 or more!

Dr. Baehr, I’m sure you are well-intentioned and yes, you are a brother in Christ; but do you really believe what you are saying? The way that you twist and distort statistics to make "your type" of films look the most successful is simply egregious. And seriously: do you think audiences flocked to see The Dark Knight and Iron Man because they featured billionaire protagonists? I mean, couldn't you argue that people were much more interested in seeing the Joker in The Dark Knight than Bruce Wayne? And the Joker is hardly pro-capitalist. He burned a pile of money!

Best of the Blog’s First Year: Part Two

Last week—in honor of my upcoming one year blog anniversary (July 18)—I highlighted some of my personal favorite posts from the last year on my blog. Today I am listing some of the most provocative and most discussed posts, as well as those with the most total page views. This will conclude my anniversary week postings… Now we can move on to year two! Top posts by number of comments:

10) The Christian Hipster Revisited (13) 9) Abortion as Art? (Critical Theory Gone Berserk) (14) 8) 100 Greatest Worship Songs of all Time (16) 7) Buzzword R.I.P.: Emerging (17) 6) Christianity: More Harm Than Good? (18) 5) Kitschiest Christian Songs Ever (20) 4) Christianity 101: Exclusivity (34) 3) The Tragedy of (Most) Modern Worship Music (56) 2) No Discussion Allowed (67) 1) Best “Christian” Albums of All Time (85)

Top posts by total page views:

10) Abortion as Art? (Critical Theory Gone Berserk) 9) Top Twenty Defining Films of the 00s 8) Types of Hipsters: Part Two 7) Types of Hipsters: Part Three 6) Types of Hipsters: Part One 5) Review: David Cook, Analog Heart 4) No Discussion Allowed 3) 100 Greatest Worship Songs of All Time 2) The Tragedy of (Most) Modern Worship Music 1) Best “Christian” Albums of All Time

Best of the Blog’s First Year: Part One

My one-year anniversary of being a blogger happens next week, and in honor of that fact (and the fact that blogging is by nature a very self-indulgent act) I'm going to spend the next week revisiting some of my most controversial and popular posts, as well as my own personal favorites. It's great that blogs can archive all posts, comments, etc, but the truth is that most blog posts have relatively short life spans. The blogosphere—like the Internet in general—thrives on new content, new posts, and bite-sized pontificating. If there's a downside to blogging, it is that sometimes I feel like the things I want to say can't properly be said in this format, and that the energy I spend writing it down isn't worthwhile when in a matter of days it might fade into the digital graveyard of well-intentioned ideas.

Nevertheless, I've found it all a very worthwhile endeavor, and when I look back to the second post that I wrote, entitled "The Search" (July 19), I find that the principles and motivations with which I started this blog have more or less carried through and sustained me over the past year.

In any case, the following is an annotated list of fifteen of my personal favorite blog posts from my first twelve months of blogging. Next week I will post a list of the top ten most-viewed posts and top ten by number-of-comments posts, just in case you missed them the first time.

Harry Potter and the Christian Fear of Imagination: A post from last summer when the final book came out, and a treatise against the ridiculous Christian antagonism towards our beloved Harry Potter.

Memories of a Recent October: This was a therapeutic one to write, and captured numerous of my autumnal thoughts and feelings. Plus it was a chance to plug the White Sox!

No Country For Old Men: My thoughts on the Academy Award-winning film, from when it came out back in November. The Miramax website actually linked to this post in their “for your consideration” Oscar campaign site.

The Commodification of Experience: Inspired by The Darjeeling Limited, this post allowed me to articulate some things I’d been thinking about and writing about at UCLA the past year.

Mii, Myself, and My Online Identity: Inspired by a paper I wrote for a Videogame Theory class at UCLA, this post was one of many semi-meta examinations of online/blog identity.

The Case for Criticism: Not a Lee Strobel book! Rather, this is my attempt to legitimate the art of true, productive criticism at a time when everyone seems to be adopting the “critic” title.

Quarterlife Crisis: My thoughts upon turning 25; one of the rare times I wrote about myself and my thoughts in any sort of transparent way.

Incomprehensible Incarnation (Merry Christmas): My attempt to be as poetic as Linford Detweiler in describing what Christmas actually means. (Note that I quote Linford extensively in the article).

Does Jesse James Know Who He Is?: This is another article about—you guessed it—identity. This time it was inspired by the beautiful Assassination of Jesse James film from last fall.

Top-Down Populism: This one got me into some trouble with colleagues at UCLA, or at least sparked a discussion with them. But I stand by what I wrote, and I think it reveals a lot of my foundational political ideology.

In lieu of a real posting: An attempt at a free-written blog post; a thoroughly refreshing, existential exercise that may or may not reveal anything significant about life.

The Hills Are Alive With Confused Identity: There’s that “i” word again… This time it’s with respect to the MTV show, The Hills.

Paranoid Park: My favorite film of the year so far, and one of the most pleasurable reviews to write. I also like this one because I think there was some exceptionally productive dialogue in the comments section.

Saturday Art: In many ways this post captures my fundamental approach to the arts and to beauty.

Flight of the Red Balloon: A gorgeous film and another review I really loved writing. Films like this afford a critic the best opportunities to sound off on the things about cinema they really love: in my case, transcendental aesthetics.

Snow Angels

snow-angels.jpg If there is one word that describes David Gordon Green’s new film, Snow Angels, it is challenging. If there are five words, they are “challenging in a good way.”

The same words could be used to describe any of Green’s films, which have been consistently complex, beautiful, and multilayered. If you have not seen his stunning first feature, 2000’s George Washington (made for a paltry 40k), or 2003’s lush All the Real Girls, you should definitely check them out. His gorgeously gothic third film, Undertow (which was produced and co-written by Green’s inspiration Terrence Malick), is also a must-see.

Green’s fourth film and first adaptation (based on the novel by Stewart O’Nan), Angels is an ensemble drama about a chain of shattering events in one wintry Pennsylvania town. Like Green’s other films, Angels focuses on the complexities of interpersonal, familial, and intergenerational relationships. The film centers upon Annie and Glenn (Kate Beckinsdale and Sam Rockwell), a recently separated couple with a young daughter and a lot of issues to work out. Annie is having an affair with a man (Nicky Katt) who is married to her closest friend and coworker (Amy Sedaris). Glenn—an unstable, unemployed loser who has recently turned firebrand evangelical Christian—refuses to let Annie go, and a series of poor choices by all parties results in tragic consequences. On the lighter side, the second major relationship of the film is a budding high school romance between band-nerd Arthur (Michael Angarano) and new-girl Lila (Olivia Thirlby). Arthur’s parents are divorcing and his friend (and former babysitter) Annie is suffering, but his innocent and awkward relationship with Lila gives an otherwise cold film a hearty, curiously nostalgic warmth.

Snow Angels (opening March 14 in NY and LA) divided audiences at Sundance last year, and it’s easy to see why. This is not an easy film. I have seen David Gordon Green speak about his films on several occasions (and I met him in person three years ago), and he always reiterates that his goal in filmmaking is to “do things differently” than conventional Hollywood. He eschews the traditional three-act structure, preferring a “two-halves” form, and privileges moments over coherent narrative. He foregrounds odd little character moments and curious visual details not to service the plot but rather to add texture and color to his extremely unique, realist/phenomenological cinematic aesthetic.

Photographed by Green’s film school comrade Tim Orr, Angels beautifully captures the slightly-antiquated, worn-down material and heavily naturalistic settings that have come to define his films. The film’s post-rock instrumental music (including songs from Mono, Uno Dose, Silver Mt. Zion and a new track from Explosions in the Sky) further enhances the organic, ethereal mood. It’s an intensely artistic film, juxtaposing easy-listening poetry with brazen, balls-out subject matter that will leave unsuspecting viewers utterly confused.

Typically, Green’s films are most challenging on the tonal level, and this is where audiences and critics have been divided about Angels. “I like movies that challenge me tonally,” said Green at a recent screening of George Washington. And Angels is certainly one such film. At times it feels like a dark comedy, at others a tragedy. Frequently it is beautifully mellow, but there are several scenes of terrible intensity. Green loves to jump back and forth from humor to tragedy, sometimes within the same scene. There is a striking scene in which Sam Rockwell’s character is heartbroken and impossibly drunk at a dingy rural bar. It is desperately sad, until he starts slow-dancing with some equally blitzed drunks to a Gene Autry song. All of a sudden it is funny, and odd, and tragic—all at the same time. And it’s not just quirkiness for the sake of irony. It works. You never know what kind of wonderful and compelling nuggets Green will throw at you next, which is a rare and wonderful trait in a director.

I am purposefully avoiding a discussion of what actually happens in this film, because the joy of watching it is that it is totally unpredictable—even shocking. It’s a film that asks deep questions about morality and collective responsibility, offering little in the way of justice or blame. It’s a film that shows the small joys and heartbreaks of life in all their symbiotic simultaneity. It’s a wonderfully unsteady, untidy experience that will mess with the tidy filmgoer. But sometimes we need to be messed with.

In lieu of a real posting…

Do you ever have those moments when your mind is so utterly frenzied and unsettled and all-over-the-place that you couldn’t possibly articulate a coherent thought? Well I had a moment like that last night, and it was kind of wonderful.

I was sitting in church (the place I usually get all my blog post ideas… even about things that have nothing to do with church) and found myself in one of those totally involuntary mental overdrive moments. I tried and tried to think of a good topic to think and then write about, but too much else was in my mind. So in lieu of a real posting, I’ll just do what I tell my English 3 writing students at UCLA to do: freewrite.

So it’s been ridiculously rainy in L.A. all weekend. For like five days straight now. And cold. Tonight as I drove to church and the sun was setting, the clouds were ominous and I even saw lightning and what looked like a funnel cloud. Things were whirling and wispy and foggy and alive…

At church the sermon had something to do with Adam and Eve: the knowledge of good and evil, the tree, the serpent, the whole shebang. There was a good point about Othello and Desdemona (and Iago as the serpent)… and then there was some point about Martin Buber (who I love). He’s a Jewish theologian and not typically cited in protestant settings, but his I-It / I-Thou ideas are brilliant. Here’s one of my favorite Martin Buber quotes: “Spirit is not in the I but between I and You. It is not like the blood that circulates in you but like the air in which you breathe. Man lives in the spirit when he is able to respond to his You.”

The “You” is God I think, or perhaps the bit of God that we can touch and feel and “breathe,” as Buber writes.And I think that the “You moments” are the key to some sort of Joy. Buber calls these moments “queer lyric-dramatic episodes”—which reminds me of Lost in Translation or Once or any of a number of Richard Linklater films.

But this is but one of the many things bouncing around my head during church. I was also thinking about the millions of things I have to do this week, and then self-consciously thinking about how unholy it was to be thinking about such trifles in a time of worship. And then all of a sudden I became totally mesmerized by the word “Jesus” that was up on the screen during some mediocre Matt Redman worship song.

Jesus. How odd that this massive collection of wealthy white people is passionately singing about a Jewish guy named “Jesus.” J-E-S-U-S. Have you ever taken a step back from words like that? It’s a trip.

But then there was something in the sermon about how we should never ask the question: Is God really a loving Being? After all, Satan tried to get Eve to question what she thought about God… and look how that turned out. Hmm… I don’t know. I’m not sure that questioning God’s relative benevolence or malevolence is even a question I’m qualified to ask. Isn’t God beyond those categories? Aren’t those just words, anyway? Oh, deconstructionism. Death to Derrida (who, incidentally, is already dead).

In the end, the chaos in my brain gave way to a strange sort of epiphany. Most epiphanies, I think, might also be called “moments of clarity,” but in this case it was the opposite of clarity. But it was clarity, in a sense, because for a brief flutter of a moment I saw—or imagined—some large-scale meta connection in my life and the world and the weather and the cross. In and through the fragments and puzzles pieces of my schizophrenic cognition a truth revealed itself, though I couldn’t tell you what it was exactly. It was like a Picasso or Kandinsky painting or something—a thoroughly messy tapestry of colors and lines and ideas that somehow, inexplicably, coheres.You might not “get it” in the sense that you think you should, but it nevertheless brings you into a mysterious communion that transcends labels and categories and rationality. 

More 2007 Bests: Soundtracks and Documentaries

Listmania month continues with two more categories: 2007’s best movie soundtracks and documentary films. Enjoy!

Top Five Movie Soundtracks

5) Southland Tales – Moby’s new songs for this trippy film are perfect digi-age homages to the thick sonic layering of Angelo Badalamenti (who scores David Lynch’s films). This eclectic soundtrack also features great songs from The Pixies, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and Elbow.

4) Juno – Music is integral to this film, especially the lovely kid-folk tunes of Kimya Dawson (formerly of The Moldy Peaches). The heartwarming duet “Anyone Else But You” features prominently in the film, as do songs by The Kinks, Belle & Sebastian, and Sonic Youth.

3) Once – The modern musical hit of the year produced one of the most enchanting soundtrack albums, featuring the low-key acoustic duets of Glen Hansard (frontman of Dublin band The Frames) and Markéta Irglová (classically trained Czech vocalist and pianist).

2) Into the Wild– Eddie Vedder is the musical voice of early-90s Gen X angst in this wonderful film adaptation of the Jon Kracauer novel. Even if you never liked Pearl Jam you should check out this rich collection of original songs that perfectly compliment the film’s themes of wanderlust and alienation.

1) I’m Not There – Not only the best film soundtrack of the year, but one of the year’s most satisfying albums period. A great two-disc collection of Dylan songs as interpreted by a diverse array of folkophiles like Calexico, Cat Power, Mason Jennings, and Yo La Tengo.

Honorable Mention: There Will Be Blood – Johnny Greenwood’s instrumental soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is full of paranoia and foreboding… and some gorgeously creepy buzzing noises.

Top Five Documentaries

5) Unborn in the U.S.A. – This is the film Lake of Fire touted itself to be: a remarkably objective documentary about the abortion debate. Unborn examines various aspects of the pro-life movement without indulging in editorial embellishment or cheap-shot exploitation.

4) My Kid Could Paint That– An utterly fascinating film for anyone who’s ever wondered what makes something “art” or who decides what abstract painting is more worthy than another. Whatever you think of the contemporary art world, this is a film sure to provoke.

3) The Devil Came on Horseback- A compelling look at the crisis in Darfur from the perspective of someone (Marine Capt. Brian Steidle) who lived and worked in the midst of the genocide. A truly moving, frustrating look at Sudan’s troubles and the lackluster response by the rest of the world.

2) Into Great Silence – Three hours of near silent meditation may not be entertaining, but it is certainly beautiful and sometimes utterly spellbinding. It really gets you into the otherworldly rhythm of life in a secluded monastery.

1) The King of Kong– This is a fun documentary about nerdy middle-aged “gamers” and their obsession with world records, but it is also one of the most profound cinematic microcosms of Americana to hit the screen all year. Really a must-see.

Honorable Mention: Heima (Home) – This Sigur Ros concert film was never released in theaters, but it’s definitely worth checking out on DVD. A beautiful film about Iceland, the power of live music, and the joy of coming home after a long absence.

The Search

I wonder how many web searches I’ve undertaken in my life. A million? Nowadays we live our lives through searches. Is there a question you need answered? A product you need to find? Simply type in a word or two into the Google searchbox and off you go. Pages and pages of potential answers are only a click away.But this instantaneous “searching” is not really what the search is all about. In fact, our technological capabilities to search and find anything and everything in just a few easy steps has quite possibly damaged the search as it exists in modern culture. Increasingly, we are losing our capacity to think critically, to mull over a question without ready access to its answer. The Search goes deeper than the zeros and ones of Google-brand fact transaction, however. At its heart, the search is a way of being. It is a state of wonderment, curiosity, and awareness of something other. It requires the tension of the unknown and the unease of the unknowable. It inspires both deep and broad thinking, and a commitment to making connections where ideas, postulates, and observations allow.

The Search is also about finding connections with other people. Ironically, we are ever more isolated in our hyper-connected digital society. We yearn for the physical presence and emotional resonance of our fellow man, whose camaraderie we long for above all else. As George Steiner writes in Real Presences, “we are monads haunted by communion.”

The Search is about filling these absences, feeling the specter of otherness, finding communion and connection with others on the same journey. If this blog could be about anything, I would hope it would be about this. I’m not any farther on the journey than anyone else, but none of us are going to get anywhere without dialogue.

To be human is to long for understanding. We all want to “be onto something,” as Walker Percy writes of the search. To not be onto something is to be mired in despair; stuck in the mindless and mundane of the “one-click” universe of Google. Let’s be done with that. Let’s rediscover what we’re really looking for.

Welcome to my antiblog

I never, ever thought I’d have a blog. It just always seemed so frivolous, self-indulgent, and annoying. And it’s not like I’m starving to self-publish or anything. For the last 4 years I’ve been able to write whenever and whatever I want on Relevantmagazine.com, among other websites.

So why am I caving now, in 2007 (the year the “blog” turns a decade old), and starting my very own “web log”? Well, I suppose there are a few explanations:

1) I’m intellectually interested in the “experience” of blogging (as a grad student getting a masters in Media Studies, blogs are unavoidable as subjects of study),

2) I like the idea of being able to endlessly publicize what I think deserves attention, and go hog-wild with hyperlinks (I LOVE hyperlinks)

3) Everyone’s doing it. But to keep in line with my pseudo Luddite media ethic that tells me to avoid things like blogs, I’ve decided to make this “site” as un-bloggish as possible. Thus, as a sort of founding manifesto, I’ve decided to draft a list of dos and don’ts to govern this silly exercise in narcissism:

First, the DON’Ts:

1) No blog entry will detail events, persons, or problems from my personal life, unless used as literary devices or otherwise in service of some more substantial point. In fact, the use of the first-person pronoun in general should be used with discretion.

2) This will not be a “news” site that pointlessly reiterates stories as seen on CNN, TMZ, ESPN, or other such widely seen sites.

3) No crappy, late-night ramblings or sub-par filler writing. Only high quality and serious interrogations of issues, ideas, art, etc.

And now, the DOs:

1) Link to the best stuff on the web (articles, mp3s, videos, etc) that might otherwise be lost in the ridiculous glut of information out there.

2) Write about (and link to other writing about) anything and everything, as long as it is done with an earnest curiosity and minimum of irony. The world needs more earnestness, I think.

3) Provide more questions than answers. There’s a reason the blog’s called “The Search.” It’s always ongoing.