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Archive for the ‘art’ Category

There are these days that I get euphoria. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something like depression – everything in life just combines in the right combinations to push my personality over the top. Rather than being down and lethargic and reclusive – symptoms of depression – I become boisterous, energetic, and super-confident. I feel like I could take over the world, in a benevolent and all-loving sort of way.

Today I’m filled with dreams of being a freelancer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely happy with my job; other potential jobs do not tempt me and you’d be hard pressed to get an actual word of complaint out of me about work. But this isn’t where I’m going to be forever. There is a time and a place for everything. And one day, I’ll get my skillsets in order, I’ll get my online presence in order, and I’ll know that it’s now or never, and I’ll take the leap to start out on my own. And today I’m just thinking about how that’ll be. It’ll be good, I hope.

But I’m also thinking about all the dreams Freya and I share together. Dreams of vacation coming up soon – a weekend hiding out in a cabin in the Smoky Mountains where we’ll spend our time painting and writing and soaking in a hot tub drinking champagne. Dreams of adventure in the near future – our road trip around the US that will be the adventure that makes everyone else jealous (8-10 months going wherever we want, doing whatever we want).

Then there are the dreams of who knows how far off – our dream of starting some sort of commune or collective; a place where artists can come and live for a few months (or longer) as they work on their various projects, a place where we can attempt to put into place the ideas about community that we are continually shaping. We drive past large buildings all the time and discuss its merits for being that place – we’ll find something some day.

Freya has a dream to start a homeless shelter here in Nashville aimed at families and children – the fastest growing aspect of homelessness in America today (see here). She has no clue what it will look like yet, that’s one of the things we want to research on our big road trip. But it’s an admirable dream, and I can’t wait to be there as she finds out how to carry it out.

But then there are the small things, the actual things. There’s the ability to roll down the windows on this majestic day, to sing aloud to a song that actually celebrates the glory of being alive (check it out, it’s on repeat as I type), to see the clouds floating along.

Yeah, it’s euphoria, and it strikes me occasionally and I love it. Today is a good day. Every day is a good day, even if you don’t quite remember it.

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I’m rereading Chaim Potok’s excellent novel My Name is Asher Lev right now, and last night I stayed up way too late reading. These two passages really caught my attention and merit putting somewhere that I’ll be able to find again.

He said to me one day in the second week of July, “Asher Lev, there are two ways of painting the world. In the whole history of art, there are only these two ways. One is the way of Greece and Africa, which sees the world as a geometric design. The other is the way of Persia and India and China, which sees the world as a flower. Ingres, Cézanne, Picasso paint the world as geometry. Van Gogh, Renoir, Kandinsky, Chagall paint the world as a flower. I am a geometrician. I sculpt cylinders, cubes, triangles, and cones. The world is a structure, and structure to me is geometry. I sculpt geometry. I see the world as hard-edged, filled with lines and angles. And I see it as a wild and raging and hideous, and only occasionally beautiful. The world fills me with disgust more often than it fills me with jooy. Are you listening to me, Asher Lev? The world is a terrible place. I do not sculpt and paint to make the world sacred. I sculpt and paint to give permanence to my feelings about how terrible this world truly is. Nothing is real to me except my own feelings; nothing is true except my own feelings as I see them all around me in my sculpture and paintings. I know these feelings are true, because if they were not true they would make art that is as terrible as the world. You do not understand me yet, Asher Lev. My little Hasid. My sanctifier of the world. My half-naked painter with dangling payos and a paint-smeared skullcap. One day you will understand about the truth of feelings.”

Then, two pages later.

The following week, the third week of July, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We walked through centuries of Byzantine and Western crucifixions. He showed me the development of structure and form and expression, and the handling of pictorial space. I saw crucifixions all the way home and dreamed of crucifixions all through the night.

I told him the next day that I did not think I wanted to see any more crucifixions. He became angry.

“Asher Lev, you want to go off into a corner somewhere and paint little rabbis in long beards? Then go away and do not waste my time. Go paint your little rabbis. No one will pay attention to you. I am not telling you to paint crucifixions. I am telling you that you must understand what a crucifixion is in art if you want to be a great artist. The crucifixion must be available to you as a form. Do you understand? No, I see you do not understand. In any case, we will see more crucifixions and more resurrections and more nativities and more Greek and Roman gods and more scenes of war and love – because that is the world of art, Asher Lev. And we will see more naked women, and you will learn the reason for the differences between the naked women of Titian and those of Rubens. This is the world you want to make sacred. You had better learn it well first before you begin.”

These passages stand alone – but that last sentence was a dagger to my heart. Do I have the strength to learn the world well? Most Christians do not. They do not see the reason to expose themselves to the horror of the world, but in being afraid to do that, they are never able to speak to that world.

I want to avoid that. It sounds like a long long path, but I’ve already taken the first steps…

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This question was asked on a forum I sometimes participate, and I thought I’d cross post my answer, rough as it is.

When I watch a film, first and foremost I desire a complete world. I don’t care if afterwards I think the story was lousy, the characters were evil, the film was too long or badly edited – I want to be taken into the filmmaker’s vision.

Yesterday my wife and I caught a film called Sita Sings the Blues at the Nashville Film Festival. (this film is incredible on its own, one woman wrote directed and animated the ENTIRE thing) I took in a notebook to write down some notes because I’m writing some reviews for a local site. But I was so entranced by the film I didn’t take one note. The director created this world and sucked me in, and it was amazing.

That’s step number one. A world I can believe in. I don’t care if it’s completely fantasy like Lord of the Rings, or completely realistic film like the French films I’ve been watching lately, or something in between.

Secondly, (and admittedly, step number one is big picture under which everything else falls) I look to the writing and acting. I want to believe the characters. Do they seem like real people? Why does this matter?

Because I love love love foreign films and indie dramas – films that challenge my perspective of the world. Films that open my eyes and help me better understand what it means to be a human. And good filmmakers create characters who feel human; meaning that despite their geographical, sociopolitcal, racial, and economic differences from me – there are things that I connect with in them. When a good character is created, then I can’t hold them at arms length. Whatever happens to them becomes more personal to me.

Take for instance, the film That Evening Sun that I saw this weekend. It features Hal Holbrook as the lead (An 80 year old lead – how awesome is that?!) – a farmer from the hills of TN who leaves the old person home his son has placed him in because he wants to die on his farm. Only, when he comes back he finds his son has rented the farm to a family who the old man despises because of class. The film is a class war, a meditation on aging, and features no characters that arguably have anything in common with me.

But the filmmakers worked so hard to create genuine, realistic characters, that I, in my humanity, have a great deal in common with them. And so as I watched this (phenomenal) movie unfold, I wasn’t just watching a story and being entertained, I was understanding my sin nature, the ways I fall.

Last of all (not really, but this feels long), I look at the technical elements of the film. The cinematography, the usage (or non-usage from those crazy Europeans) of music, the pacing and editing, continuity and such. These things matter to me, and they disrupt from my viewing of the film if they are not done well.

But I have one final thing to say about watching films – and this may be the only thing of value I say. In my 4 or 5 year long quest to understand whether I thought filmmaking was my true desire and how I felt that fit into faith (which, isn’t over, that’s just where I am in the question), I have finally come to some sort of conclusion on the biggest value of films to me. It’s simple but it’s now the basic framework by which I approach all films.

Films expand my understanding of what it means to be human. And since God is personal, and I will always always only understand him through my own experience, the more I watch good and challenging films (and read great literature, and listen to great music, and read great poetry), the more I expand my understand my understanding of this experience of being human, and the more I am able to deepen my understanding of the mystery of the Gospel and the mystery of the God who is the author of my faith and salvation.

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500 Days of Summer

Marc Webb’s debut film finally made it to Nashville last night, as part of the Nashville Film Festival (which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, very cool). The trailer bills the movie as a story about Boy Meets Girl, but not a love story, and the trailer is accurate, thank goodness. We don’t need another romantic comedy, and this film doesn’t attempt to give us more of what we don’t need.

Instead, the film, in its light-hearted and whimsical style, is concerned with what exactly love is in modern times. Both of the main characters come from homes with divorced parents, but Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) believes in true love and finding “the one” while Summer (Zooey Deschanel) does not believe in any of that stuff. Their story; told in a great non-linear fashion that examines the 500 days that Summer is in Tom’s life, examines whether either of their ideas about love hold up in reality.

Much has been made in early reviews about Webb’s experience with music videos, probably because there is a dance scene and the music is heavily tied to the visuals in the film (look for a great split-screen sequence with Regina Spektor’s song Us), but I think most of those reviewers missed the subtle touch that Webb brought out in the post-film Q&A last night. The narrator that we hear in the trailer is the narrator of the film as well; a deep, soothing voice that sets the tone for a storybook-ish movie. By beginning with the narrator giving us the setup – Girl doesn’t believe in love, boy does believe in love, and boy knows that girl is The One at first meeting – the film gives the viewers the normal cues of a fairy tale story.

But the film isn’t intending to be a fairy tale, nor is it intending to subvert fairy tales by setting your expectations and destroying them. Rather, it is questioning and wrestling with my generation’s takes on love – the fear of labeling relationships, the generation of kids who’ve grown up after divorce, the desire for some concrete idea of love but the complete lack of any model or definition. By using fairy-tale aspects, 500 Days of Summer did well to ask the questions that I’ve heard lots of friends ask (that I myself asked), and while the film didn’t really have any good answers, it wasn’t willing to forsake all hope in the idea of love.

I identified with the movie a great deal because I’ve been in those positions before; finding someone who I thought was the one, being with a different someone who just really really wasn’t the one, and finally finding The One who I’m now happily married to. I still don’t know exactly what love is; but I’m a lot closer and I do know a litany of things that it is definitely not. This movie, rather than being a “happy ending all things tied up neatly but nothing of substance provided” Hollywood film, successfully (to me) asked some questions and wrestled with them in a way fitting its characters and story, then ended on a note of hope. It wasn’t a perfect film, but it was far better than anything that Hollywood normally produces on the subject of love, and I hope it has a great deal of success at the Box Office.

Off Topic:

And I think that somewhere down the line there is a critical essay waiting to happen about how this film identifies another shift in culture; with Summer being representative of this generation’s wrestling with the 70’s generation (which might be defined as Spring – the birth of free love and love as a self-centered, self-seeking concept). If I were to write said essay, I would place the modern generation right at the end of 500 Days of Summer (which I won’t spoil), and explore the themes of the film as suggestions of ways that culture is changing. But that’s just me.

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Learning about being Human

Films I’ve seen thus far at SXSW:

  • New World Order
  • Medicine for Melancholy
  • True Adolescents
  • Artois the Goat
  • Sin Nombre
  • it was great, but i was ready to come home.

They’ve ranged from american new wave (the second and the latter) to indie/mainstream mixes (the third and fourth) to  really affecting Indie dramas (Sin Nombre). Coming to this fest has taught me a few things. 

First, I’m never coming to a film festival without my wife again; or some other film loving geek who I have a preexisting relationship with. I’ve struck up conversations with people nearby and had a couple decent convos, but there’s nothing quite like friendship and knowing where someone stands to help promote deeper conversations about the films I am seeing.

Secondly, the last piece of my understanding of why film fell into place. As in, why do I have such a strong desire to make film? What is it I love about watching films? And this is obvious, but in my usual behind the curve way, it just now dawned on me; I love film, i watch and analyze film, to learn about being human. Not just to learn more about myself, but to learn more about others.

It seems simple, but it was kind of eye-opening to me to put it into such exact terms. I’ve even had the thought many times before, but I think in light of the wonderful films I’ve seen recently, from Silent Light to Medicine for Melancholy to it was great, but I was ready to come home. have all clearly emphasized that goal. They have opened my eyes to what it means to be human. 

And so, In light of all the trouble I have writing official reviews, from now on I’m just going to examine films from that light; what did this film open my eyes to about the experience of being human? What do I miss, that this film opened my eyes to?

I’m not stopping attempts to critique films, that is obviously necessary to my better understanding and appreciating them, but it has helped me today in trying to crack these films apart from just an “are they good; why or why not” aspect, which is always frustrating to me. 

So, look for more thoughts in the coming weeks, on these films, and others that I’ve seen this year. (Like, Silent Light and The Wrestler)

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Fearless Creation

Flannery O’Connor has popped up a great deal in my reading the past few days. (here, and here are two notable articles). That first link asks the question “is O’Connor overrated?” and arrives at the answer that she most definitely is not. I would agree, but I don’t claim special authority in answering that question.

But the article delves into how misunderstood she has been, since her first novel arrived on the scene. Many many people have been able to see her genius, but many of those people never understood its roots or her purpose in writing. At one level she was merely an artist; a writer who was writing what the knew to the best of her abilities.

But there were deeper levels to her artistry; as she explored themes of grace and redemption in the most backwoods and filthy settings. She was exploring the essence of her faith in the symbols of the world that she lived in. And she did it with such craft and skill that her stories, though written 50 years ago, are still admired, studied, and excellent.

I was challenged as I read this article, because she didn’t fear being misunderstood. She didn’t fear that someone would read her story A Good Man is Hard to Find and not get that the grandmother receives grace the moment before she is shot. She just wrote the story that needed to be told.

I’m not sure I can do that yet. I don’t think I’m brave enough or courageous enough to create something that is able to be misunderstood, that isn’t overt enough that it is clear what I was doing with the art. But yet, many many artists who are Christian do just that, from O’Connor to Sufjan Stevens to Makoto Fujimara. It is, I imagine, something that is demanded of an artist who is attempting to make something great; the willingness to do everything in your power to create a genuine, excellent art in your chosen medium and then to set it free.

And if I explore this further, I find that it comes from the very idea of Creation itself. If God created man, and set him free to choose his own adventure, then there was the (now proven) risk that Man wouldn’t understand, and would make the wrong choices. Man would fall.

The beauty of the Gospel is that man, in his infinite foolishness, his lack of understanding of the Creation, did not devalue the creation. The Gospel is the redemption of Creation and it gives man the ability to understand again, to see what was intended. God’s creation was not lost or devalued by its misunderstanding; but God himself had to step in to allow it to be seen clearly again.

Thinking in this way is opening up many thoughts to me, but to bring it back around full circle; the fear for artists is not that their art will be misunderstood, but that it is not good enough for the truth to shine through to someone who is examining it closely. Not all will understand, but hopefully those who look closely will.

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A Vision for Christians

Christians in the arts is a popular subject with me. It is something I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about, reading about, searching out. And while there are glimmers of hope, there’s not much out there to be excited about. We just don’t do much that’s worth a whole lot anymore, and when anyone does there are just as many negative critics who hold the same faith as there are positive critics outside the faith.

There are many words to be spilled on this subject, many ideas I have that are half formed, but there is a fundamental way that we approach art that I would change, and while it may not matter much, I want to lay out my vision here just to get it into words.

Art is powerful we are constantly told, and indeed it is. Be careful what you see little eyes we hear as a child, and so we grow up thinking that because art is powerful, we must cower from it, be careful what we see. So we have industries built around making “Christian” music and books so we have things that are safe. We have websites dedicated to the content of movies so that we can know how many cuss words there are and how much flesh we’ll see in each movie. And ok, there’s room for that, these things do matter, I’m not arguing that they don’t. But my vision supercedes the parts of art for a vision of whole; a larger vision for approaching the arts than whether it is “safe” or “worldly.”

It is my hope that one day Christians will not cower from art or run from it, but we will challenge it. Rather than pointing at the latest modern art meant to shock and saying “That’s evil!” we posit rational arguments based on a knowledge of the medium that joins in the conversation that the art is meant to provoke. Rather than breaking movies into parts we agree with and parts we don’t, we examine the movie on a whole to understand it and break it apart thematically. In the future, we meet art head on, as critics do.

To fulfill this vision this is my current thoughts on what is needed:

1. A willingness to be more knowledgeable on theology and history than we currently are

All of my points are idealistic; but this is what I’m getting at. Christianity today is simplistic for many many people; accept the Gospel and retreat to the Christian ghetto. But a brief history in theology and Christians in America finds that the landscape has drastically changed in the past few years. A good grasp of how will help us understand why, it will give us some context on our modern situation.

When we don’t have a good grasp of history; we don’t understand how our theologies developed. And even though most of us can’t put words to our theology on culture and art, or how our understanding of God’s sovereignty and commands causes us to approach these things, we do have a theology; a central belief on these subjects. By taking time to understand our context and put into words our beliefs, we will be more ready to move forward in these steps.

2. A willingness to learn how to critically approach a medium

I am of the opinion that it is our responsibility to do this regardless of whether we are creators or merely the audience. Rather than narrowing down every film and music and painting into categories of safe (meaning clean and pro-Christian), we are willing to learn how to critically examine things. This means learning the language of the medium, and understanding how to ask questions about the themes rather than simply the content.

I don’t mean to suggest we ignore content, but that we learn ourselves and our weaknesses and avoid or keep ourselves accountable in these areas. In all other things, we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater; we approach the art using all our critical capabilities, being willing to praise the things we find admirable and critique the aspects that we do not think are worthy of praise.

3. A Willingness to approach each medium on its own terms

The problem here is a split view in Modern Christian’s understanding. There is the “artist” view, which views art for its creative/creation aspects, and there is the “ministry” view, which views art as a message bearing tool. Most mediums have each of these aspects. In that every creative act has some sort of underlying message, but often times that message is much more implicit than explicit.

In this vision, we are willing to approach each and every medium and explore how it expresses messages. We do not force messages into mediums that don’t belong, and neither do we forsake truth in attempting to create art. Rather, we pursue the next step so that as we work to create, we add our voices to the canons of the medium, rather than simply trying to make the medium an unwilling slave to our “good-intentioned” ministry desires.

4. A Willingness to study the medium and learn from the masters

As Christians we have become much better at complaining about art than adding to the conversation. Take film for example. We complain about the state of filmmaking, how Hollywood makes films that are blatantly anti-Christian, and yet we know little of how this happened. We don’t have much knowledge of the history of filmmaking or the masters of film. The same is true about most mediums that we like to criticize or complain about.

By not taking the time to learn the past masters and the history of the medium, we are unable to speak credibly on the current trends, we cannot join the conversations that constantly surround art. Furthermore, as with all history, by studying the past we understand how we came to arrive at the present, which gives us greater power to add influence over where things are headed, something that complaining doesn’t do much of.

5. A Willingness to be humble

Even though this idea takes the least amount of time to achieve, it may well be the most idealistic of them all. We humans are programmed to think that we are worth being heard as soon as we know anything. And we Christians think that because we lay claim to exclusive truth, everyone else needs to listen to us. But to make a difference in culture, we must earn our place among the people who are making the differences already.

This means simultaneously working to create good art and listening to those who are already the leaders in the world of whichever medium we are examining. They will not listen to us immediately. They should not listen to us immediately. But as we take time to show we are genuine in our passion for the art, and willing to listen to the conversations and ideas already in place, we might find that our voices are heard more and more.

But humility has another obstacle. Being humble and being willing to listen, means subjecting ourselves to things we disagree with; hearing our faith and our ideas trashed and ridiculed. But humility means that we don’t reflexively respond to these attacks; instead with patience we just keep listening.

Conclusion

Is this an idealistic view? Absolutely, I don’t pretend that it isn’t. How does it practically play out? I have no clue. I think it will take two generations before any sort of large difference is seen, even if this idea caught on immediately. But it’s something I think worth working towards.

Comments are welcomed.

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