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The Faith Project

June 24, 2009 1 comment

I was unexpectedly hired today by a friend of a friend, or rather a client of a client, who is putting together a project on faith from 250 or so tapes he has shot over the last several years in numerous countries where he has interviewed people from a wide variety of backgrounds on their views on God, faith and religion. He has come to me as a consultant of sorts, to get him set up on the front end with technical issues and work flow, which – hooray for some extra cash. But what seems even more interesting is what all those people had to say. It seems from what little I know about it to be hours (weeks really) of reflections, experiences, stories and meditations on faith and God. What an incredible labor of love he’s putting together – I’m intrigued to learn more.

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Faith and Pop Culture

February 4, 2009 1 comment

We could argue for a long time about the poorly-conceived efforts of self-proclaimed Christians to “take back the culture for Jesus” in a militaristic us-vs.-them mentality. See some of my thoughts on the matter here and here.  I think occasionally of a flip side of this question though – what it might look like for people of faith to speak into and contribute to pop culture in a way that is neither propagandist nor disingenuous to their journey of faith. It is perhaps easy to just back away from the question, to assume that pop culture is inherently opposed to the point of view of Christian faith and the authentic voices of faith will be by and large silenced or edited down to neutrality. But what if the goal isn’t necessarily to influence or change pop culture, but to be conversant with it and perhaps have something to say on its own terms? After all, I don’t think it can be denied that pop culture influences how we view ourselves and the world around us.

watchingtv1950ent1-767606With the visual art media for example – film, TV and the like (probably stage also although I can’t count myself among the twelve people who have gone to the theater in the last decade) – what people see can be extraordinarily effective in influencing their perception of things. Think for example of the holocaust. I can’t form a visual picture of it without referencing Schindler’s List. Or World War II – Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, and Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima movies all come pretty quickly to mind. The way I perceive these events has been pretty significantly affected by these films.

These are fairly iconic examples, but I think this applies to more subtle life situations as well. Romance and gender relations, friendship, parenting, and even faith are all modeled for us, for better or worse, in pop culture. (I can count on one hand I think the films I have seen with a character demonstrating faith in a redeeming fashion. Signs…Chariots of Fire…that’s all I can think of. Not counting movies based on the Bible of course.)

Anyhow, my thought here is that what we see and experience in pop culture on some level influences our perception of people and circumstances, if ever so subtly, and even though in engaging in pop culture we generally don’t set out to discover and adopt these ways of living. I remember a friend suggesting once that America’s rampant obesity might be tied to our cultural obsession with skinniness by way of the skinny people we see on TV and in movies. Perhaps so.

I certainly think that people of faith contributing to what our culture as a whole ingests as entertainment or art is worth pursuing. I don’t think it’s a matter of “taking back our culture for Jesus” or any of that crap; it’s more that I don’t see many examples of artists of faith expressing their creativity in a way that is not disingenuous to their own faith journey. This I think would be pretty remarkable to observe.

megaphoneAll this said, I think there is a difference between a call to the arts and a call to influence pop culture. Any person of faith with an awareness of an artistic gifting I think should reckon with a call to the arts; a call to influence pop culture I think is much more rare when it actually occurs (as opposed to people in the first category who also artificially presume the second).

It doesn’t seem appropriate to expect (or even hold out much hope) that a person of faith’s efforts toward the arts will be of the missional sort, having the kind of impact on other people that brings more love, hope and other God-things into their lives. This is perhaps a grossly under-thought statement, but I lump pop culture in general in with other expressions and institutions of the world as a whole, like politics and the economy, in the sense that a person who orients their life around their faith in God should be conversant with it and contribute to it as appropriate, but will likely meet with immense frustration if they make it a primary venue of their expression of faith.

And not to entirely contradict myself, but for folks who do consider themselves as having a call to the arts, pop culture can and in ways perhaps should be a great place to express that call, especially for those who appreciate pop culture, enjoy it and perhaps have something to say on its terms. That said, for the rest of us I’m sure there is no shame if our art never goes beyond, say, a small local production, or a modest circulation among friends. In the end, while the artist certainly should have something to say, I don’t think the process of creating art can incorporate the art’s expected impact too much before it begins to cross the line into propaganda.

People don’t particularly look to art for answers or for a right view of the world. As a friend of mine  said recently, “the reason I watch anything and everything is to find moments of magic.” I think this is perhaps a better expression of what a call to the arts should mean than whether or not it is relevant or influential on pop culture’s terms.

Film Twins

November 24, 2008 1 comment

There’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed recently that I thought I’d finally put on…paper…pixels…whatever. It’s the tendency from time to time in Hollywood for two films to be released at about the same time from two separate studios with very similar and distinct topics, subject matter or themes. Pretty specific topics too, like “Animated films featuring anthropomorphized insects” rather than “Action film set in Tokyo.” They’re not sequels or copycats or spin-offs, since they were produced on roughly the same schedule, and released well within a year of each other. Here are the few sets of Film Twins I’ve noticed (with a set of triplets thrown in!), in chronological order. (And excluding the trio of Amy Fisher made-for-TV movies in 1992/93)

Platoon (MGM, 12/24/86)
Full Metal Jacket (Warner Bros., 6/26/87)
Bleak, violent and un-glamorized depictions of the Vietnam War

Tombstone (Hollywood Pictures, 12/25/93)
Wyatt Earp (Warner Bros., 6/24/94)
Dramatizations of the heroism of the Earps at the Gunfight at the OK Corral

Deep Impact (Paramount, 5/8/98)
Armageddon (Disney, 7/1/98)
Special effects-laden end-of-the-world scenarios centering around projectiles from space

Antz (Dreamworks, 10/2/98)
A Bug’s Life (Disney/Pixar, 11/25/98)
Animated films about an ant who saves his colony and wins the heart of a princess

Capote (Sony Pictures, 2/3/06)
Infamous (Warner Bros., 11/16/06)
Biopics of Truman Capote’s process of writing In Cold Blood

The Illusionist (Universal, 9/1/06)
The Prestige (Warner Bros., 10/20/06)
Dramas centering around turn-of-the-century European magicians

Waitress (20th Century Fox, 5/25/07)
Knocked Up (Universal, 6/1/07)
Juno (Fox Searchlight, 12/25/07)
Romantic comedy-esque films about unplanned pregnancies

I’m sure there are more out there than I have thought of. So if you can think of other sets of films about the same thing, released within a year of each other, let’s hear ’em!

The Alphabet Meme

November 22, 2008 1 comment

Fletch at Blog Cabins kicked off a list of best films by letter, and though I haven’t been tagged I thought hey, why not join the fun. Here are the stated rules:

1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet.

2. The letter “A” and the word “The” do not count as the beginning of a film’s title, unless the film is simply titled A or The, and I don’t know of any films with those titles.

3. Movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release.

4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number’s word. 12 Monkeys would be filed under “T.”

5. Link back to Blog Cabins in your post so that I can eventually type “alphabet meme” into Google and come up #1, then make a post where I declare that I am the King of Google.

Seems like a good time. Here’s a shot.

Apocalypse Now – more for it’s impact on culture and filmmaking than the fact that I enjoy watching it
Babettes gaestebud – I love films about love
Chinatown – The best film ever written
Dark Knight, The – Seemed easy to fill in here. Someone get me a Joker t-shirt.
Empire Strikes Back, The – a Star Wars film had to make the list
Fight Club – Narrowly beating out (ha) the Fisher King.
Godfather, The – Empire got it right. The best one there is.
Hana-bi – Another movie about love. Sort of.
Incredibles, The – Pixar’s reigning king
Juno – Watch it for the soundtrack, let alone the film
K-PAX (Aaa! Just kidding! – actually I can’t think of one. I’ll have to go with King Kong (1933))
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King – Can I just include all three here?
Matrix, The – One of the few movies that changed how I look at the world
Napoleon Dynamite – Utterly quotable, but only if you do it right. Otherwise you just sound dumb.
Ordet – Heard of it? The power of hope, captured on celluloid.
Pather Panchali – Another film school film, one I get lost in.
Quiet Man, The – Not many Q offerings, but this one is a gem.
Rope – My favorite of Hitchcock’s (really – North by Northwest didn’t even make the list)
Shichinin no Samurai – If the Godfather is the best there is, this one is the granddady of them all
Trois Couleurs: Rouge – Another movie that changed how I look at the world. And it’s about love.
Usual Suspects, The – Saw it four times in a row in the theaters.
Vertigo – Vertigo? V for Vendetta? I’ll go with Hitch again.
Wit – a tale of an adamantium will crushed to the point of being able to be loved.
X-Men – because there just aren’t that many X films.
You’ve Got Mail – “I was eloquent! Shit!”
Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination (it’s the only Z movie I can remember ever seeing)

Think you can do it too?

Repostings: Things I’m Still Thinking About

September 29, 2008 1 comment

From Jonathan Brink‘s “Chaos vs. Order”:

There is something about order that seems to feel right, at least in principle. Order implies the world is working right, that things are aligning and people aren’t hurting each other. …Yet for some reason God doesn’t choose to establish a controlled order in the universe.  He allows chaos… He could have assumed control and brought order to the world.  But to do so would be to go against love.

…The sad thing is, it’s just easier to live in control than it is in love.  It’s just easier to establish a law that keeps you from stealing from me than it is to practice and teach love, which accomplishes the same measure by choice.

A quote I ran across from John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man:

The system, however, is fueled by something far more dangerous than conspiracy. It is driven not by a small band of men but by a concept that has become accepted as gospel: the idea that all economic growth benefits humankind and the greater the growth, the more widespread the benefits. This belief also has a corollary; that those people who excel at stoking the fires of economic growth should be exalted and rewarded, while those born at the fringes are available for exploitation.

From “A Clean Shot” by my latest favorite band, The Myriad:

I would die to be your lover lost at sea
And I’d fly to hear your arid sirening
And I’d scream “My love!” through bloody hurricanes

Would you say so if you thought of me?
And would it crush you if you saw me bleed?
And would you dance the same if you knew that I could see?
Do you feel the same for me?

From Cinemagogue‘s review of Ratatouille:

Remy the rat was told he was BORN a certain way… into a certain time, place, and culture, and he must accept this as his reality and truth. At on point Remy says “No. Dad, I don’t believe it. You’re telling me that the future is – can only be – more of this?” His father says “This is the way things are; you can’t change nature.”

Can our nature be changed? If we are rats on this ship called life… trapped in a sociopolitical situation like Hindus in the untouchable caste, or genetically predisposed a certain direction – are we locked into that? Is our identity FIXED? Is our destiny dictated by our birth and/or environment?

The message of Ratatouille is NO – it CAN be changed… and there IS hope.

And for whatever reason, the first stanza penned by Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

And finally, the fact that Kirk Cameron never takes his wedding ring off or kisses another actress not his wife. Cute, perhaps, or stubbornly moralistic of him, especially given the realm of moviemaking he inhabits these days. I find it admirable however, because if it were me, I don’t think I could do any differently.

Be Kind Rewind: A Review

August 11, 2008 1 comment

We watched this movie on the inaugural night of our vacation, and while on the one hand it lived up to its billing as a dumb and fun Jack Black vehicle, on the other hand I found in it some connections to my understanding of The Way the World Really Is (see my forthcoming post on The Meaning of Everything). If you haven’t seen this movie yet and intend to, be warned – spoilers ahead.

Danny Glover plays Mr Fletcher, a down-on-his-luck owner of a corner video store that only stocks VHS and rents for a dollar a day. Facing the reality of losing his building he leaves to get advice from some friends and entrusts his adopted son Mike (Mos Def) with the running of the store in his absence. However when Mike’s slightly off-center friend Jerry (Jack Black, playing Jack Black) unintentionally erases all the tapes on the shelves the two come up with the plan of covering up the disaster by recording over all the erased movies with their own remakes using Mike’s camera and plenty of aluminum foil and cardboard. Instead of obviously exposing the mistake, however, the bootleg versions become a neighborhood sensation, with people lining up around the block to request them.

But besides being a comedy based on a single gag (which I suppose you could apply to either the idea of the remakes or to Jack Black himself), the movie subtly develops the theme of community through the solidarity of the main characters around the history and preservation of their building and the phenomenon of the remade films (or “sweded”, as Sweden is far away and therefore more expensive) which gathers the diverse neighborhood and enlivens it. Being an avid fan of Mr. Alfred Yankovic’s magnum opus UHF, which features a parallel plot of a group of friends trying to save a failing enterprise by creating a sensation and rallying the community in its own support, and having ingested enough Hollywood happy endings, I was expecting this movie to build to an inspiring-sports-movie sort of finale where the contributions of the neighborhood add up to just enough pennies to save Mr. Fletcher’s building and send the corporate cronies off with their tails between their legs while our heroes are lifted on the shoulders of the cheering crowd.

This however was not the case, much to my surprise and ponderment, if that were a word.

On the night of the demolition, Mike, Jerry and friends hold a screening of their final and most thorough effort yet, an original and entirely fictitious production on the life of Fats Waller and his historical ties with their own condemned building, with enthusiastic participation by the entire community of some 30 or 50 people who have been caught up in the sweded phenomenon. As they file in to the store they drop change in a collections bucket labeled with the invitation “please contribute as much as you can”. And yet somehow it begins to seem that these pennies may not be enough.

Through a series of mistakes and lucky breaks the film ends up being projected onto a sheet spread across the storefront glass window, and when the lights go down and the projector illuminates, the hush and the magic of cinema envelops the room as people laugh and point at the things they and their friends have created. And it’s here that the film pauses just a little too long and the strings get just a little too insistent on the in-case-you-haven’t-figured-it-out utter emotional profundity of what you are watching. But what happens next is the striking part. At the film’s climax cheers from outside the shop betray a second audience: an impromptu assembly of strangers and other members of the larger community, as well as the demolition crew that has been tapping its feet outside all evening, watching the film in reverse image from the outside of the store and sharing in the same magic as the folks inside. And once again the delivery is a bit heavy-handed in favor of the significance of the moment; but then, with a slow crane shot up into the night, the movie is over. No mention is made of the money collected, no reprieve on the demolition is implied by the city officials, and no further significance is attached to the efforts of Mike and his friends except that they brought people together.

And this I think is the part that I related to most in the movie, the tie-in with The Way the World Really Is. If Be Kind Rewind is to be believed, bringing people together is what life is all about – the joy and other relational impact on the people involved in the shop’s efforts outweighs the community impact of the building’s demolition; the success and satisfaction of completing and enjoying their film outweighs the circumstantial success of saving the building, and somehow even the benefits Mr. Fletcher and Mike receive from their role in it all outweigh the personal effects of leaving their jobs and their home. It’s a strange and entirely counterintuitive view of life and happiness. In the end, life is about relationship more than it’s about success, progress, or money – or even the hope of things going right, as with Mr. Fletcher’s shop. It’s about people coming together and having a good time collaborating to create something bigger than themselves, and celebrating community in the process.

So while on the one hand the film was a little too long, the comedy occasionally vapid, and the final emotional message delivered in a Spielbergian spoon-feeding, on the other hand the atmosphere of creativity engendered by the enthused movie-making crowd where any everyday object or location is fair game for their art, and the unexpected resolution with its subtle avoidance of the everything-turns-out-great Hollywood myth left me thinking a little further into life than many movies have in some time.

Endless Productivity

May 5, 2008 1 comment

So this project I’m on at work is up to 700 gigs or so of media, 175 individual videos and counting, and they’ve just booked me another month and a half in addition to the month I’ve already been on it. In total I’ve had a week and two days or so since I started in the middle of March that I haven’t been owned by Honeywell. And in many ways it’s been grueling. I eat lunch at my desk every day, there have been a few late nights, and then there’s the sheer enormity of it all, which maintaining comprehension of claims what little intellectual equity I have let over from fathering three children and planning a move in four weeks, among other ongoing responsibilities.

So while on the one hand I’m getting quite a bit accomplished on this project, having cranked out around a hundred or so of these clips so far, on the other hand none of them are client-approved in any final sense of the word, and they’re still shooting footage for new and existing clips. It’s an unending series of revisions and expansions and reorganizations and other subtle forms of scope creep. All of which leaves me feeling remarkably unproductive – like the guy moving a pile of sand with tweezers or my old friend Sisyphus. There’s no denying the productivity I’ve had during my time on this project, but if the project itself is continually expanding at the same time it’s shifting and reinventing itself, how much of it is actually productive?

I left my last job for numerous reasons, some of the less weighty ones being my concern that the company was only working for one client, and the fact that I ended up working on the same types of projects over and over. Tragic irony, methinks.