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I haven’t written in awhile, I know. I’ve been doing more practical things; working and spending time in person with real people. Which is kind of a let down, I was going to write reviews for Sita Sings the Blues and That Evening Sun, but I haven’t and I’m not sure I will at this point. So today, I’ll just share some thoughts from Flannery O’Connor. These are from her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” although I find that she writes so well that any medium can be swapped out for fiction, and the thoughts are still applicable.

A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it. It will, of course, add a dimension to the writer’s observation which many cannot, in conscience, acknowledge exists, but as long as what they can acknowledge, is present in the work, they cannot claim that any freedom has been denied the artist.  A dimension taken away is one thing; a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic fiction writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the natural events presented. If the Catholic fiction writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is. An affirmative vision cannot be demanded of him without limiting his freedom to observe what man has done with the things of God.

If we intend to encourage Catholic fiction writers, we must convice those coming along that the Church does not restrict their freedom to be artists but insures it (the restrictions of art are another matter), and to convice them of this requires, perhaps more than anything else, a body of Catholic viewers who are equipped to recognize something in fiction besides passages that they consider obscene. It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read a phonebook can read a short story or novel, and it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the Truth in the Church, we can use this Truth directly as an instrument of judgement on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of that discipline itself. Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels that they don’t have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often thse are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit.

It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life, and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the sense of supernatural is apt gradually to be lost. Fiction, made according to its own laws, is an antidote to such a tendency, for it renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions. The Catholic fiction writer, as fiction writer, will look for the will of God first in the laws and limitations of his art and will hope that if he obeys these, other blessings will be added to his work. The happiest of these, and the one he may presently least expect, will be the satisfid Catholic reader.

And while your reading that, go ahead and put on the song “Funeral” by Band of Horses – it’s my favorite for the day.

Hero Worship

On Bookslut, the author has a great excerpt from W. Somerset Maughan’s autobiography about the danger of knowing exactly who our heroes and legends are, which I will now show here:

We are shocked when we discover that great men were weak and petty, dishonest or selfish, sexually vicious, vain or intemperate; and many people think it disgraceful to disclose to the public its heroes’ failings. There is not much to choose between men. They are all a hopscotch of greatness and littleness, of virtue and vice, of nobility and baseness. Some have more strength of character, or more opportunity, and so in one direction or another give their instincts freer play, but potentially they are the same. For my part I do not think I am any better or any worse than most people, but I know that if I set down every action in my life and every thought that has crossed my mind the world would consider me a monster of depravity.

I think he sums it up pretty well. It’s something we should strive to remember in this celebrity based culture.

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.

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.

Monsters Vs. Aliens

Many critics have already railed against this film for being gimmicky. I’m here to tell you they are right. But most of those critics saw the film for free, meaning that they didn’t get the full experience that I had last night. Freya and I decided to see the film on the IMAX screen in 3D, and we might have rethought that if we’d asked the price before purchasing the ticket. The tickets were $14.50 apiece – $6 more than your regular movie ticket.

When you go see 3D movies on IMAX, the theater gets to add two upsell fees – $3 for IMAX, and $3 for 3D. If the film were good, if it were interesting, I’m fairly sure I’m ok with paying $6 extra dollars per ticket to enjoy the film on the biggest screen possible. And 3D on IMAX was definitely cool.

Monsters vs. Aliens was not good or interesting though. I guess when one takes inspiration from B-Movies and then attempts to write a kids movie, one cannot make anything more than a B-movie. And when a studio undertakes the effort, with its legions of writers and focus on the bottom-line, and when the film becomes the Studio-head’s seminal effort to show off the awesomeness of a new technology, well you can guess that there are a couple things that fall to the wayside in making that film.

Those things are plot, characterization, plot, and refinement of plot. Monsters vs. Aliens is, when it comes down to it, a demo-reel for 3D technology. There are some funny gags and a few laugh-out-loud lines or scenes, but overall, there is very little substance to this movie.

You shouldn’t misunderstand either; I love a good kids movie. I was all about suspending some disbelief and having some fun with Monsters Vs. Aliens. But the writers through every possible idea they could come up with into a bucket, and it just kind of came out looking like mud. Here’s some of my main complaints:

  • The monsters are lame. The supporting monsters are all cardboard characters that we don’t really get to know at all. The filmmakers couldn’t decide if they should be “realistic” (meaning they could be explained by “science”) or if they should be monster-ish, so they are both. And it doesn’t work.
  • The humans vary between cartoonish (see next point) and attempts to be real (like with the monsters). The President is a pointless character as are the general and Susan’s parents, but Susan herself is an attempt to bring a moral to the movie so they can’t make her too cartoony. It just feels stupid.
  • The General is a clear mish-mash of every General in every war film that was already a parody – most obviously that I saw was Gen. Buck Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove. Apparently when you parody a cartoonish character by making him more cartoonish, no one finds it funny.
  • And last of all, the battles were lame. I mean, with a title like Monsters vs. Aliens, there’s an expectation that you’ll have a battle of epic proportions, something like the old Godzilla movies. Nope, no go.

But honestly, I think I would have enjoyed the movie more if not for those ticket prices. It just wasn’t worth it at all.

Adventure Button

This morning as I drove to work, the clouds were temporarily ripped around the Nashville Metro area to allow sun in. And as the early morning sun streamed down, and the clouds reclaimed some of the liquid that they have given us the past few days in a hazy steam, I was reminded of my travels.

It made me remember the time that Drew and I drove across the US and watched storms from a distance in the desert, miles and miles away. Storms don’t look like that in the south.

Then I thought about all the other things I’ve been blessed to see in my youth thus far, just the US. Travelling from San Francisco to Portland to Chicago to New York and Boston to Florida and Texas, I’ve seen lots of corners of this beautiful land.

But I really want to see more; really really. I want to hop in the car, grab Freya, and and take off to see more and more and more.

And then yesterday Wired arrives with this article and makes me want to go buy a cheap RV, fit it out with some cool technology (mobile edit studio, amirite?) and leave for a few years.

That big button labeled adventure gets pushed like every three weeks in me these days. I’ve got to hit the road.