A Hated Inheritance

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 15.]

Since high school, I’ve been interested in the genealogy of my family. Nearly all of us German Lutherans as far back as I can trace, all of those generations are part of who I am. So far, there haven’t been any shocking discoveries, but there are certainly intriguing gaps in the records. At what point did my German ancestors settle in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (my father’s side) or Russia (my mother’s side)? What is the connection between the German town of Winterstein and my family? (One interesting speculation is that our ancestors were Sinti [Christian Roma or Gypsies] who took the Winterstein name after working as tailors for the minor nobility of Winterstein).

What about that one great-uncle who was kicked out of the pastoral ministry for some form of false teaching (and later reinstated)? What about that one cousin in my mother’s family who spent nearly her entire life in a mental institution? Why, on the same census, do my great-grandfather and his family appear to live in different locations?

Those sorts of questions are normal with the gaps in knowledge that open up when those who know the answers begin to die. But what if you were born with a last name like Goering, Himmler, Hoess, or Goeth, names infamously connected to the Nazi regime and particular concentration and death camps? I don’t know why it has never occurred to me that while no one (that I’m aware) shares the surname Hitler, many of the other significant members of the Third Reich would indeed have children and grand-children and other relatives sharing their names.

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A (Not So) Wild Story

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 8.]

On the one hand, Wild Wild Country (six parts, on Netflix) is about as strange a religious story as there is in the United States. On the other hand, it’s not very strange at all. The divisive nature of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (a name I would be okay never hearing again), the completely opposite stories told by the Rajneeshees and everyone else, and the weird, magnetic pull of the Bhagwan’s personality make this a compelling story. It’s salacious, with the (accurate) rumors of a sort of sex cult, but it doesn’t seem that the Bhagwan was all that involved in the sexual aspect of his commune, as you might expect a sex cult leader to be!

But even though the free-love aspect of the Rajneeshees seems to attract the attention, that’s only a side story to this documentary. The people interviewed are limited to four major people on either side of the controversy in Antelope, Oregon, in addition to law enforcement and legal participants. While normally I might want more breadth and more input from various people, the limited number of main players actually works well in a six-part series. You actually begin to get a pretty good feel for where they’re coming from and their individual personalities.

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Not Quite Holy

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 1.]

I can’t believe that I’ve been writing these for a year! Thanks to The Jagged Word for the opportunity to watch more movies and write down whatever I think about when I watch them. I don’t know if any of it is worth anything but, at the very least, I hope you’ve discovered some good movies.

In spite of some controversy stirred up by this film, I had never heard of Holy Air until I came across it randomly on Amazon (free for Prime users). The synopsis begins, “Adam and Lamia are a Christian Arab couple from Nazareth – members of a vanishing minority in the Holy Land.” and I was in. But if you go by the synopsis, you might, like me, start to wonder after 15 minutes or so what you’re actually watching. Adam and Lamia are not what you’d call observant Christians. In this, they parallel many (most?) American Christians who are in their 20s or 30s and children of observant Christians. Adam’s discussion with his parents at the Christmas dinner table probably sounds a lot like many conversations around holiday dinner tables in the United States.

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The Swedish Theory of Love

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 25.]

What would happen if an entire country took independence and individualism to their logical and extreme ends? We don’t have to wonder. We have Sweden. For the last 40+ years, Sweden has been engaged in a social experiment which now has borne its desiccated fruit. The Swedish Theory of Love is the documentary telling that story. (You can find it online here. If you don’t want to subscribe, you can simply share the movie—I shared it to be visible only to me on Facebook—and you can watch it for free.)

It is the story of the inversion of Genesis 2:18: “It is good for a man or a woman to be alone; too much human dependence is evil.” I found myself both repelled and interested, because my default is alone and quiet. And yet the effects of this as a national ideal are clearly destructive: the end of husbands and wives; the end of the home with two parents as the natural location of a child; the beginning of loneliness as the more-than-likely outcome of a life.

This is the end of an “old-fashioned, outdated family structure…that made us deeply dependent on one another.” In order to call this progress, complete independence with complete control and choice must be the goal. But that begs the question: is that a good or worthy goal to be pursued? Does such “progress,” in fact, work against what is hard-wired into the human creature, whether one believes that to be the result of a Creator or the result of evolutionary adaptation? Can natural law be so easily contravened?

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One Kind of Invitation

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 18.]

[SPOILERS]

There is only one story, told truthfully or distorted. Once reality has been shaded in a particular direction, there is no escaping it. One can deny it or affirm it, but one can’t pretend that it never happened. So whether one denies the Christian story or believes it, it is impossible to escape.

I don’t know if The Invitation (available on Netflix) was conceived to be a denial of or an attack on the generally religious or specifically Christian idea of an after-life, that there is “a better place after this one,” but there is much more beneath the surface of this “horror” film than is usual.

And for Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), there is much more than just an invitation to a party at this house. They know it’s the house of Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), but it’s been two years since they’ve last seen each other. Why this party, and why now?

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Moral Conundrums

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 11.]

What a tangled web we weave when we really, really want something. It’s a web that is woven inside a small Italian cafe called The Place, which is also the name of an engrossing film.

There were at least two Newport Beach Film Festival movies that revolved around moral or ethical conundrums, the ways we get ourselves into them, and the ways we try to get out. The Korean film A Day forces its three central characters to try to make right their past sins by re-living the same day over and over—a much more intense Groundhog Day.

But The Place (a film adaptation of a 2011-12 American television show, which I cannot find online anywhere) is a fascinating examination of free will, compulsion, desire, and what we’re willing to do to get what we want. There is a man who sits always at the same table in the same cafe. If you want something to happen (a happy marriage, a healthy child, to be more beautiful, or to feel close to God again), you visit this man. To nearly everything, he says, “It’s doable.” Then he looks in his notebook, and tells you to do something. If you do it, you get what you want.

The man neither tries to convince you to do the thing or not to do it. He simply tells you what the price of your desire is. And the price is often deeply immoral or criminal. You want your husband’s dementia to be reversed? Plant a bomb and detonate it where a large number of people will die. You want a happy marriage? Break up someone else’s. You want beauty? Steal this amount of money.

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Family Longings

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 4.]

I’m on my way back from the Newport Beach Film Festival. Of the films I saw, one of the recurring themes was youth and growing up in this cultural moment. Two documentaries in particular addressed this theme from different angles. The first was Minding the Gap, about three friends whose youth is documented by a fourth friend. Bing Liu is clearly a talented filmmaker from very early on, as he films his friends skateboarding around Rockford, Illinois.

With none of their families intact, their friends become a sort of stand-in family. But it’s clear from their experiences that friendship doesn’t provide them all the resources they need to navigate adulthood. They have been set adrift by missing, negligent, or abusive parents. There is no necessary repeating cycle of behavior, but escaping the patterns set by parents is easier said than done.

The effects and signs of family disintegration depicted brilliantly in Minding the Gap are everywhere, from the proliferation of parenting and marriage books to the reinvention of nearly every aspect of adulthood. Some of that is simply due to the results of our fluid world in terms of technology, communication, and information. But for many of the answers and solutions and skills which would have been handed down to us by our immediate and extended families even two generations ago we now require YouTube videos, books, blogs, and podcasts.

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In Short

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on April 27.]

By the time you read this, I will be at the 19th annual Newport Beach Film Festival. Since I started attending with my brother, Jay, six or seven years ago, one of the things that I’ve come to appreciate is the short film program. This will be my second year as a short film programmer, but even before last year, I found that short films were among the more interesting and provocative films I saw. In fact, short films often make a film festival worthwhile, because you’re unlikely to see many of them anywhere else.

Sometimes shorts are made to secure funding for a feature film. Sometimes they’re made as a side-project to get a filmmaker’s name out there. Sometimes they’re made as a labor of love, simply because there’s a idea there. But short films don’t usually make any money. Except at film festivals, short films are rarely seen in theaters. You can find them more often now on streaming services, but they still are not nearly as prevalent as features.

You have to tell the story in a different way from a feature if you make a short film, similar to the difference between a novel and a short story. You don’t have the luxury of letting a narrative develop over 90 minutes. Very often, if the opening scene of a short doesn’t set the tone immediately, it’s not going to be successful.

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Idaho Horror Story

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on April 20.]

There are some things that are too horrific to face straight on. You have to shield your eyes, take a side glance, observe from an oblique angle. One of the feature-length documentaries screening at this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival is Forever ‘B’ (now called Abducted in Plain Sight), and its story is almost beyond belief.

It is a story that, in some ways, resembles the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping in 2002. Both Jan Broberg (the subject of Forever ‘B’) and Elizabeth Smart were raised in Mormon households and both were kidnapped by older men who believed they should marry these young girls. Both kidnappers were adept at religious or superstitious manipulation—though Elizabeth, unlike Jan, was never convinced of the rightness of her kidnapper. Elizabeth’s kidnapper was sentenced to two life terms while Jan’s kidnapper largely escaped serious consequences (in this life).

Elizabeth Smart’s story is strange and horrible enough, but Jan Broberg’s story is even stranger. In its spiraling, strangeness-upon-strangeness unbelievability, it reminds me of another NBFF alum, Who Took Johnny?, which, if you have a strong stomach, you can find on Netflix.

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A Quiet Place

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on April 14.]

[SPOILERS]

First of all, if you haven’t gotten Movie Pass yet, what are you waiting for? If you sign up on the website, it’s only $6.95 a month, and if you see even one movie a month, it pays for itself. (Just make sure that it covers theaters in your area. It didn’t cover Wenatchee for a long time.)

My first Movie Pass movie was A Quiet Place, which has been generating a lot of buzz recently. It’s a film that confirms my view that horror movies can do things that other, straighforwardly narrative movies can’t do. In some ways it’s like a new song that you feel like you’ve heard a hundred times—or, if you haven’t heard it before, you wonder how no one ever produced this exact melody before. Post-apocalyptic movies have been done a thousand times. Monster movies have been done a thousand times. The fear of the unknown has fueled a thousand plots. And yet, A Quiet Place doesn’t feel like a cliché. It feels familiar, but it also feels new.

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