There’s Hollywood and Then There’s Hollywood

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on March 9.]

Usually, I just check the internet to see which films won which Oscars. I don’t really have any strong desire to hear the rich and famous pontificate, posture, and “use their platform” to push this or that cause. I have nothing against them doing so; I just don’t want to watch it. This sort of exhibitionism has been given the name “virtue-signaling,” in virtue of the tendency to show how much more virtuous one is than some other one who has not shown the same virtues he or she holds up as virtuous.

But: those who seem to be most vehemently against this form of signaling one’s virtue are not quite as virtuous as they suppose themselves to be. In reference to movies, short-handed as “Hollywood,” they will say things like, “This is why I don’t go to movies!” Or they will talk about the cesspool of Hollywood and its filmmakers, and decry the immorality of it all (of which, of course, there is enough to provide a rich tableau of examples).

“Hollywood,” however, is no more univocal than any other segment of culture, popular or otherwise. Of course there’s trash. Of course there’s immorality, at least from a Christian’s point of view. There’s gratuitous (a strange word for it, with its connotations of grace) violence and sex, with which the film could clearly do without and be no less rich—if it is indeed rich. But music and books are no less subject to the inundation of trash. The point cannot be that Hollywood (as synecdoche for filmmaking) produces immoral things or low-quality things, since that is true of anything else that people produce. Hypocrisy and double-speak is no more endemic to Hollywood than it is to any other class of people engaged in the same kind of work.

Continue reading

The End of the Tour

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on March 2.]

Well, now I have to finally finish Infinite Jest. I’ve been sort of superficially fascinated by David Foster Wallace since I read The Pale King. I’ve read parts of essays, plus my (so far) abortive attempt to read Infinite Jest. The comments I’d read by him seemed to frustrate any attempt to make him into any kind of authorial or celebrity cliché. His thought seemed genuinely original, at least compared to most of popular culture.

Consider this commencement speech, for example, in which we hear how excellently Jason Segel impersonates Wallace’s voice. It is interesting for the additional reason that Wallace stumbles upon a truth that Lutherans should know well: everyone worships. Everyone has a god, whether they know it or not. “A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart” (Luther, Large Catechism, First Commandment). He does not, of course, come to the Christian conclusion (namely, that if “your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one,” but “where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God,” who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ), but he apparently knew well the unlimited jealousy of those gods, being unable to extricate himself, except by taking his own life.

So I’d been wanting to see The End of the Tour (available on Amazon Prime), but, again, only half-heartedly. It’s difficult for me to watch biopics because I always wonder how true to life they are, which keeps me from enjoying them as movies. I haven’t read the book by David Lipsky on which this film is based, but Jason Segel is certainly believable as Wallace, from the interviews I’ve seen. The idiosyncrasies on display, including his junk food consumption and his contentment living and teaching at a small school in Illinois (at least during the time period of the film), add texture to the portrait of who the man was.

As David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is quickly recording words and impressions of Wallace’s house toward the end of the film, one particular thing struck me as it seemed to strike Lipsky, something strange enough not to be made up. He is looking at pictures in the bedroom and he finds a card with a prayer by St. Ignatius, “Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for reward, save that of knowing that I do your will.” An interesting decorating decision, to say the least, since he never appeared to embrace any form of Christianity. Apparently he also went through the Roman Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults a couple times, though he never became Roman Catholic.

Other than to note significant moments (like highlighting quotes in a book), I don’t really know how to write about this movie, nor do I really want to. I want to recommend it, however, for consideration and digestion. While there is a lot of flippancy in the conversations between David and David (as would happen in real conversations), there are also moments of profundity, as Wallace (or, at least, Segel’s Wallace) hits regularly on the depths of what it means to be human, or lonely, or an artist, or famous. Or, for that matter, how much we love to be mindlessly entertained—which, without even finishing it, is very clearly the main theme of Infinite Jest.

Though much of the film is funny, there is a pallor that hangs over the whole thing, because of the significant choice to begin the film with Lipsky receive a phone call informing him of Wallace’s suicide (nearly ten years ago now). The tension that runs throughout the film, walking the line between happiness and sadness, between public and private personas, seems to have run through Wallace’s life itself. And it is a tension that is produced by an actual self-consciousness, an introspection that often leads to depression and suicide.

This is one of the increasingly rare films that is primarily dialogue-driven, but becomes compelling for that reason. It is not abstract philosophy, but the philosophy of a life lived under a perpetual question mark. Obviously, for Wallace, the question never was answered. But that he was thoughtful enough to raise the question in a culture as superficial as ours seems to be, and that he foresaw what the internet and entertainment could do, makes him and this film well worth considering.

The Real Us?

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 2.]

The shocking thing about watching Christine (available on Netflix) in 2018 is maybe not that Christine Chubbuck committed suicide on live television in 1974. The shocking thing is that we haven’t seen such a thing, or something like it, in the forty years since. She took the logic of “if it bleeds, it leads” to its extreme conclusion. What surprises me is that the Idiocracy hasn’t descended further and faster than it has. I wonder whether Christine (an excellently monotone Rebecca Hall) does what she does because her mind was clouded or because she was more clear-eyed than everyone else. Is she irrational and, therefore, “crazy”? Or is she mentally ill in a Nietszchean way, seeing what everyone else refuses to see?

While such events are, thankfully, few and far between, we know intuitively that where there is disaster and blood and death, there will be viewers. We condemn such naked grabs for attention, clicks, views, and shares, but I wonder how much of it is faux outrage so that we can be justified in watching. I’m intrigued enough to watch the recent documentary Kate Plays Christine, to see how it deals with the events in a film-making context.

Though the actual footage of Christine’s shooting has not been seen since 1974, I wouldn’t be surprised if it gained a lot of views were it ever to be released publicly. We are drawn to train-wrecks. Once we tire of the fake and false, we go searching for ever more realistic—even real—depictions of depravity. It’s not a coincidence that in nearly every serial killer’s background there is extensive use of escalating, violent pornography.

That’s where the film leads me culturally and philosophically. But I don’t want to let such questions cloud the human tragedy of mental illness and suicide that is the real subject matter of thousands of lives and therefore of this film. This is, in the end, not really a film about media and the news business and its crushing pressure to produce whatever will gain viewers. That theme is present, but mainly as a backdrop for Christine’s slow descent into inescapable despair. The film produces a realism as we watch people unknowingly make decisions that feed Christine’s depression. When all is said and done, the cumulative effect of all of those words and actions comes clear in an instant. I imagine that there was enough guilt to go around the newsroom in the days following that fatal newscast.

If Christine Chubbuck were in the news business today, would she have gotten the mental health assistance that she so clearly (in retrospect) needed? Or would her driven ambition been enough to hide her deep need, as it appears in the film? Her mother calls her outbursts of bitterness and anger her “moods.” If mental illness is simply “moodiness,” who needs professional help? And, of course, there are plenty of people who receive professional help who go on to commit suicide in spite of it.

Maybe that’s what strikes me about the film’s realism: no matter what signs a person exhibits, there will nearly always be a feeling of helplessness associated with serious mental illness. If the individual refuses to seek or accept help; if she knows something is wrong, but doesn’t know how to get help; if he thinks it will get in the way of promotion or professional ambition; how will anyone force a person into being helped? You can see, after the fact, what words or actions helped her along the road, but you can’t see how it could have been any other way.

Christine Chubbuck’s actions (at least, as depicted in Christine) are fed and pushed forward by the particular environment in which she worked, but you are left with the impression that if her suicide didn’t take place at a news desk, it would have happened wherever she had been employed.

At one point, an inebriated George (Michael C. Hall) says to Christine, “People are just so funny. … It’s like we all have these different versions of ourselves competing to be the real us.” And that, I think, suggests that maybe mental illness is more by degree than a black-and-white yes or no. While some of us live with the dissonance created by the different versions of ourselves, others are unable to do so. What we present to other people is—can only be?—one version of ourselves. Even in our closest relationships, we find it impossible to convey everything we think, desire, and hope for. We cannot make known in words the depth of our inner experience. No one can feel exactly what we feel, and vice-versa.

There are a number of effective films about mental illness. (The two that come immediately to mind are Krisha and The Beaver.) Add Christine to the list of realistic and heart-breaking depictions of depression on the screen.

Holy Ghost Hypocrisy

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on January 5.]

There are more prominent hucksters in American religion, but perhaps none as honest as Marjoe Gortner. “Charlatan” is a word custom-made for him. I’m not sure why I hadn’t come across the 1972 Academy Award-winning documentary Marjoe before I found it on Sundance Now (you can also see the full film on YouTube here). After watching it, I was all the more surprised I hadn’t seen it—until I found this fascinating interview with the director, Sarah Kernochan, who says it was all but lost until 2002, when she came across an original negative of the film. (Another essay by her is here [although her misspelling of “Pentecostal” and her facile connections make me grimace].) Even so, maybe because he was before my time, I’d never even heard of Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner.

Marjoe is the real-life Elmer Gantry, though perhaps more restrained in his pursuit of the pleasures of the flesh. He’s the embodiment of everything skeptics assume to be true about old-time-relijun, revivalistic, faith-healing Pentecostalism. And he is, in the most literal sense, a hypocrite.

Continue reading

In Praise of Escapism

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

It is endlessly tiresome to consider all the Christian think-pieces that come out after any significant secular film, trying to find a metaphor or an allegory under every narrative. There are certainly films outside of “Christian movies” that contain Christian themes and tell stories that intersect or are parallel to the Story. But we can try too hard. Consider all the nonsense straining to connect the Force to a possible conception of the Christian God. Or as The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions proved, whatever intimations of Christianity the first film might have had, it was really just a gumbo of spiritual eclecticism. Sometimes a film is just a film.

And I think that might be okay. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with entertainment for entertainment’s sake. The problem comes not when entertainment is not taken seriously enough but when it’s taken too seriously. In our culture, entertainment, politics, sports (and everything else) are elevated to pedestals far too high for them to remain without tottering and falling. They are our cultural idols which have their own temples, rituals, iconography, and gnostic lingo. People who do not worship God in Christ do not worship nothing. Rather, since creatures must worship, they will worship anything and everything. And personal gods are always jealous gods, before whom their adherents will force everything else to bow—like a college student taking a single class in cultural criticism and being unable to think in any other terms. To someone whose only tool is a hammer, everything is a nail.

To 21st century North Americans, with our particular modern hammers, everything is Political. Everything is a Game. Everything is (or must be translated into) Entertainment (cf. Neil Postman). That’s too much weight for any of those things to bear. We must not take them so seriously. When it happens in cinema, every film, actor, and director has to “make a statement.” But in my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, it’s when a film tries to “say something” that it fails, both commercially and as good film. People know when they’re being propagandized, and unless they’re totally on board already, they don’t like it—not to mention that it usually creates bad art.

So, instead of being “meaningful” and “profound,” just give me a good story. Interestingly, good stories are usually meaningful, even profound. But even if they’re not—even if they’re just fun—that’s good enough. For example, Baby Driver is a fun little flick that flirts with delving into deep, childhood grief. It’s a romance and a comedy and an action movie. But it doesn’t try to be too much, and I’m okay with that. It shifts effortlessly (pun semi-intended) between serious crime-and-car-chase and witty dialogue and humor (“he puts the Asian in home invasion” or Mike Myers/Austin Powers Halloween masks instead of Michael Myers Halloween masks). There are a lot of heist movie character clichés, but Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey, and Jamie Foxx are good enough actors to play those clichés as they should be played: all the way to 11.

I’ve also been enjoying the Department Q films on Netflix. Based on books by Jussi Adler-Olsen, these Danish films are excellent detective/crime movies. They are, like Bosch and True Detective (Season One, at least; I didn’t hear good words about Season Two), more character studies of the detectives than they are narrative-focused (although the stories keep moving).

The most recent one, Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith, does have an underlying discussion about what any kind of religious faith is for, since one of the detectives, Assad, is a Muslim, and they are investigating a small religious cult’s connections to the abductions and murders of children. The final scene in particular surprised me as I was moved emotionally more than I expected to be.

But finally, they’re simply good stories. And a little entertainment and distraction and escapism is all the more needed when everything is being co-opted politically and culturally. If it’s good, it’s good, even if it doesn’t check all the right political and social boxes. Yes, a fictional world that is constructed to tell a good story can turn our eyes more critically back on the real world. Yes, films and other entertainment can help us see things more clearly. But that’s not their primary purpose (or it shouldn’t be).

For example, Get Out is a pretty good picture of a horrifying alternate reality. But people want it to say too much. And I suspect it’s a much better description of the sorts of people who take every opportunity to prove they’re “woke” than of the veiled racism that may or may not exist in every social interaction. I think both the people who see it, on the one hand. as a necessary and fundamentally important exploration of racist social structures or, on the other hand, as a shallow, typical, and unreal progressive social statement are missing the point that it’s a tense and fun ride while it lasts.

Simply stated, let me have my escapism. When politics is taken too seriously, the president is either destroying everything or saving everything, and this is the Most Important Election in our lifetime. When sports are taken too seriously, people get far too angry and bitter about wins and losses and teams and rivals. When films are taken too seriously, we have to find profundity in everything, even if it’s not there. Not everything affects everyone. Not everything is political. Not everything is a game. Not everything is entertainment.

But such things can be ordered correctly only if one has the true God. Idolatry inverts the right order of everything. Only when the crucified and resurrected Jesus has made His Father our true God again by faith is everything put back into its proper place. The true God, the Creator, subverts all our attempts to make created things bear too much weight. The true God subordinates truly subordinate things. Then we can actually worship the only One who should be worshiped, while the penultimate things remain penultimate; politics becomes a way of ordering our civil life together in this creation, sport remains play, and entertainment remains escapism that is freed to hint at the true Story of things by its narrower sub-reality. And that is as it should be.

In the new creation, there will be no politics (as we commonly understand it) because its full and only polis will be the eternal, visible reign of God. There will be then no entertainment that subverts the good, true, and beautiful, nor will there be entertainment that points us beyond that eternal moment. And while there may be play in its truest sense, it will never be subjected to our corrupted hero-worship and tendency to make created things the measure of reality. So, for now, while we wait in this distorted and corrupted creation for that new and restored creation, a place for everything, and everything in its place—even movies.

Liking Christ, But Not Christianity

That’s Anne Rice’s position (see here and here also) (along with a lot of other prominent people who are or were Christians).  I’ve never read any of her vampire novels, but I enjoyed very much her two novels on the early life of Christ (Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and Christ the Lord: Road to Cana).  She manages to walk the very thin line of Jesus’ humanity and divinity, (almost) never confusing them, and (almost) never dividing them.  (I say “almost” because I can’t think of any specific parts, but there may be some.) 

But after a few years, she’s apparently done with Roman Catholicism (here’s an excellent response from a Roman Catholic and a, as usual, great post by Joseph Bottum), and various groups and people (sometimes officially) are making the case for why she should join them. 

This is the thing: if we could be Christians based on our own preferences, and never have to deal with other people who call themselves Christians, though they embarrass or confuse us, we’d each have our own church of one.  Unfortunately at times, and fortunately at others, the Body of Christ in this world is made up of selfish, idiot sinners who do and say stupid, sinful things.  I don’t agree with Anne Rice’s conception of what following Christ means (I also think she would fit right in in the UCC!), but I’m happy to call her a sister in Christ if she believes He died for sinners such as her and sinners such as me.  All “Christian” means is “sinner-covered-with-the-righteousness-of-Christ.”  Good fruit, including certain behavior, follows from that.  But if the former is not there, it’s completely irrelevant what nice things you say (the better for fans of vampire novels to agree!), or what nice things you do (the better for the secular press to approve!), or how tolerant you are of whatever the evil Fundamentalists oppose. 

Christ’s Body is the Church, no matter how whorish she appears (or: “God saves bad people”).  That’s why we “believe one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” and not we see her.  Believing is for this creation; seeing is for the next, when Christ makes all things new.  (And that’s the case for why Anne Rice should be Lutheran!)


“Thanks in Part to Mother Nature”

Fitting for the day, don’t you think?

Don’t you just love the sun?
Doesn’t it make you feel good all over?
It’s my pleasure to announce
In conjunction with the Fed
And my recent popularity

Thanks in part to mother nature
It will never rain again
It should do wonders for the GNP

If you’re just joining us now
You missed a brilliant speech
We go now live to the streets
To find out what the voters think
He’s worked a  miracle
I just now bought a brand new car

God bless the Indian summer
God bless the Indian summer
God bless the Indian summer

Pedro the Lion (David Bazan), “Indian Summer,” Control


History-Making Elections

I know I said I was done, but there’s something that’s been bothering me.  And that is all the triumphalist rhetoric issuing from every corner of our society over the fact that “we” have elected the first African-American president in our history.  I agree, that’s history-making.  And I can imagine how that might feel to African-Americans who have felt some sense of injustice in this country, especially if their (great-great-)grandparents were slaves.  I can imagine how it might feel if all the presidents up to this year were black, and we finally elected a white president.  But that makes me feel sort of slimy.  I mean, is that it?  Is that the final barrier to true equality?  Is that the marker of the fact that our country is now finally done with bigotry and intolerance?  That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

And I keep hearing people say that the best thing about Pres. Obama is that he’s a uniter and a healer, that he’s going to bring this country together.  Besides the fact that it’s the same Lefty therapeutic blather we’ve heard for the last forty or fifty years (or longer), what evidence do we have of this supposed coming unity?  All we have is the fact that a majority of both black and white people elected him president.  Which is all sort of curious, because it’s so circular.  See, a majority of black and white people elected him because he promised to bring unity and change; he’s brought unity and change because a majority of black and white people elected him.  There is no substance there whatsoever.  His vague platitudes and smooth talk convinced a majority of people to vote him into the highest office in the country.  For what?  We shall see.  But since Barack Obama has voted nearly always with the Democrats (more times, let’s remember, than John McCain voted wtih Pres. Bush), and since he wants all the same things Democrats want–no restrictions on abortion, more and bigger government running more and bigger programs, higher taxes on those who actually create jobs, etc.–where is this unity and change going to come from?  So far, it’s come from the fact that his presidency would make history (read: the color of his skin).  If that’s not about the farthest thing from a good reason to elect a person to the presidency, I don’t know what is.

You know what would prove that Pres. Obama is a uniter and not a divider?  Appoint Sarah Palin to a cabinet position that has some actual authority, say, something having to do with energy policy.  Then I might be able to finally believe the hype.

UPDATE: I also wonder what the pundits would be saying if someone like Alan Keyes were elected.  And: what will the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton do now?

And: here’s Touchstone‘s Mere Comments (you should all read James Kushiner’s editorial in the most recent Touchstone) on the same topic.


Richard John Neuhaus on “Political Utopianism” and Voters

[From “While We’re At It” in the Nov. 2008 issue]

Once again the rhetoric of political utopianism is in the air.  And once again it will collapse into disappointment; without, one hopes, having done too much damage or leaving too much bitterness in its wake.  As the saying has it, God looks out for drunks, little children, and the United States of America.  And he has blessed us with a constitutional order that cannot be easily overturned or undermined.  Which is certainly not to say that elections make no difference.  This one could make a very big difference with respect to the preeminient concern for the protection of the unborn and resistance to the biotechnological redefinition of the human.  More particularly, that difference will be made in the courts, the busiest little engines given to overturning and undermining.  For starters, it is quite likely that the next president will appoint one or more new members to the Supreme Court.  It strikes some as passing strange that a politician declares that this is the greatest country in the world and is therefore in need of dramatic change.  But that, too, is very American: the confused coexistence of idealism and realism, of the utopian and pragmatic, as they are expressed in the endless permutations of what is called liberalism and conservatism.

A great many people make their political decisions on the basis of party alignments.  Relatively few do so on the basis of “the issues” — meaning that they study the policy wonkery and conclude that one or the other course will better serve the common good.  In any event, most wonkery is in the service of party alignments.  And, of course, voters beyond numbering go with celebrity appeal or whether they “feel comfortable” with the candidate projected on the television screen. … Except for the critical issues mentioned above, the substantive differences between the major candidates are not so great as fervent ideologists on the left and the right want them to be, leaving them to complain once again that they are disenfranchised.  Which is pretty much what the Founders had in mind. …

If anyone (else) tells me that he/she voted for someone based on how that candidate made him/her feel, I’m going to want to feel a face with my fist.  Who cares if you could drink a beer with the candidate?  You’re not going to.  Vote on the single issue that will actually last between the next six months: who will appoint the right judges to the Supreme Court.  Health care will be figured out, no matter who’s in charge, because so many people are mad.  Same with the financial situation.  Focus on the Supreme Court, the FOCA, and similar items, where the president will actually do good or do damage.


Mark Steyn on Barack Obama’s Voters

I commend to you the “Happy Warrior” on the last page of the current National Review (which I just got today).  In it, Mark Steyn (he of America Alone/I’m being blacklisted by the Canadian Human Rights Court fame) talks about what voters are looking for in a president, and that it’s far too much compared to what presidents can deliver.  A sample, and then you’ll have to go find a copy of NR for yourself:

It’s a bit late in the day to say what I’m looking for in a candidate. So let me say what I’m looking for in a voter. It was nicely summed up by Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic, contrasting McCain and Obama back at the end of primary season as they clinched their respective nominations: “The enormous crowd in the Xcel center seems ready to lift Obama on its shoulders; the much smaller audience for McCain’s speech interrupted his remarks with stilted cheers.”…

The speech that so moved Marc Ambinder was one Senator Obama largely devoted to the significance of himself: “I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

“Heal” is the operative word here. Barack is not one of those warrior kings who cure sick children on weekend breaks from slaughtering foreigners, but rather the apotheosis of a therapeutic culture: He will “heal” the planet and thereby bring “closure” to the Bush era. The other day I found myself stuck in traffic behind one of his Hopemobiles — that’s to say, a van whose rear bore a giant poster in vaguely Soviet-realist style of the Great Healer captioned not by his name but only by his message: “HOPE.” Smaller placards dotted around it fleshed out his policy platform: “KIDS’ FUTURE? VOTE DEMOCRATIC.” “HOPE NOT FEAR? VOTE DEMOCRATIC.” I felt a sudden desire to order up a gross of bumper stickers bearing the slogan “FEAR HOPE.”

Excellent.  This would be enough to make me subscribe, if I didn’t already.