“13 Assassins”, “Human Centipede II” & censorship, Adam & Eve, “The Tree of Life” & worldviews

I never thought I’d see the day when First Things would discuss a Takashi Miike film, but here’s their review/commentary on Miike’s 13 Assassins (which is currently garnering acclaim left and right):

Thirteen Assassins did not invent the trope of ultra-violence as a proxy for virtue. Twentieth-century film and literature frequently turn to violence as the last refuge of excellence in degraded cultures devoid of moral structures, in movies like High Plains Drifter or Battle Royale and books like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.

These works are cautionary tales. We can easily mistake them for nihilistic endorsements of ultra-violence, but they instead use violence as a graphic reductio ad absurdum to warn society of the consequences resulting from abandoning the natural virtues. For no amount of cultural shift can eliminate the desire for excellence from the human heart, but without the social and moral structure to sustain real virtue, Miike’s death-dealing swordsmen might become our only heroes.


I didn’t care much for Kim Ji-woon’s A Bittersweet Life all that much—in my review, I said it leaves one feeling “hollow and unsatisfied”—but Catecinem’s thought-provoking essay makes me want to revisit the film.

A Bittersweet Life (Dalkomhan insaeng) opens with a shot of leaves swaying in a summer breeze, slowly warming from black and white to color; this transition is accompanied by a noticeable drop in temperature. Though the film’s opening sequence takes place in a hotel dominated by arterial red, obsidian black, and twinkling gold and crystal chandeliers, its tenor is a cold, neutral gray.  Point Blank operates along a similar baseline—both films are fairly straightforward revenge thrillers in terms of plot dynamics. The difference is that while John Boorman complicated Point Blank‘s impact with dreamlike, art house aesthetics, Kim Ji-woon employs graceful, Kubrickean steadicam shots and pacing. Watching A Bittersweet Life is not unlike drifting uneasily through The Shining, where corporeal horror is as much a state of mind as it is a a facet of gangster living. In fact, I’m sure that if Kubrick had ever directed a gangster revenge flick, it would have closely resembled icy genre sandbox in which Kim plays.


The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)—the sequel to the (in)famous 2010 horror film—has been banned in all forms of release in Great Britain. Not surprisingly, this has led to articles and discussions regarding censorship, extreme movie content, and whether such films pose any sort of risk to the general populace. Meanwhile, Tom Six (the film’s director) seems more pissed off by the fact that the BBFC’s (the U.K. rating board) article defending their decision contains spoilers.


Publisher’s Weekly has posted an early—and short—review of George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons:

Even ostensibly disillusioned fans will be caught up in the interweaving stories, especially when Martin drops little hints around long-debated questions such as Jon [Snow]‘s parentage.


Christianity Today’s recent cover story—“The Search for the Historical Adam”—is bound to ruffle some feathers, even though I think it approaches the controversial topic fairly even-handedly.

So, is the Adam and Eve question destined to become a groundbreaking science-and-Scripture dispute, a 21st-century equivalent of the once disturbing proof that the Earth orbits the sun? The potential is certainly there: the emerging science could be seen to challenge not only what Genesis records about the creation of humanity but the species’s unique status as bearing the “image of God,” Christian doctrine on original sin and the Fall, the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, and, perhaps most significantly, Paul’s teaching that links the historical Adam with redemption through Christ (Rom. 5:12-19; 1 Cor. 15:20-23, 42-49; and his speech in Acts 17).

The rethinking on Adam is an outgrowth of mainstream evolutionary thought that has long been the object of evangelical hostility (though the hostility has always been hotter at the grassroots than among professional scientists). One option, which consistently enjoys support from at least 40 percent of the general public in Gallup surveys, is “young earth” creationism. As writers with Answers in Genesis, in commenting on recent developments, insisted, “God created the mature, fully functioning creation in six literal days about 6,000 years ago.” If substantiated, this would of course demolish Darwinism because such a brief chronology offers no time for evolutionary processes to occur. Questions about that sort of time frame have provoked renewed defense of young earth creationism in Southern Baptist Convention circles. But even the late James Montgomery Boice, founding chair of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, which insisted on a historical Adam, thought various scientific findings make it “hard to believe” in a recent creation.

Related: “Adam, Where Are You?”, “No Adam, No Eve, No Gospel”

The Internet Monk has also entered into the potential fray with a series of articles beginning with “Get Ready for the Next Battle”. Other articles include “One of the Stickiest Issues” and “Paul, Christ, and Adam”.


Part one of Jeffrey Overstreet’s review of The Tree of Life has been posted to Image.

But if a picture’s worth a thousand words, I could write a book on the river of vivid images that flow through The Tree of Life. These pictures talk to one another. They reflect, open up, contradict, and raise questions about each other. Malick began as a storyteller with a flair for the poetic; now he’s more like an artist guiding us through an exhibition that he painted in a fever of inspiration, and the paint on his canvases is still wet.

Writing about this film, I’m tempted to steal a line from a New York Times book review for Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale: “I find myself nervous…about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.”

And yet… while my first encounter with The New World left me with tears of joy on my face, knowing I’d just fallen in love for a lifetime, I don’t have that feeling about The Tree of Life.


The Toronto Sun has posted a list of ten things that we’re all tired of seeing in movies, including 3D, “popcorn” movies being too long, and Randy Newman.


Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott offer up a defense of “Slow and the Boring” movies:

Why is it, though, that “serious” is a bad word in cultural conversations, or at least in discussions of film? Why is thinking about a movie an activity to be avoided, and a movie that seems to require thinking a source of suspicion? It seems unlikely, to say the least, that films like “Uncle Boonmee,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” “The Tree of Life” or Jean-Luc Godard’s recently and belatedly opened “Film Socialisme” will threaten the hegemony of the blockbusters, so why is so much energy expended in defending the prerogatives of entertainment from the supposed threat of seriousness? I certainly don’t think fun should be banished from the screen, or that popular entertainment is essentially antithetical to art. And while I derive great pleasure from some movies that might be described as slow or tedious, I also find food for thought in fast, slick, whimsical entertainments. I would like to think there is room in the cinematic diet for various flavors, including some that may seem, on first encounter, unfamiliar or even unpleasant.


My Christ and Pop Culture comrade Alan Noble has begun an intriguing series of articles that posits that worldview criticism may not be all that it’s cracked up to be.

While same claim that a knowledge of worldviews is an evangelistic tool which Christians can use to defend the faith and undermine other belief systems, most of those who teach worldviews in Christian schools and churches take a fairly alarmist and militant stance against worldviews other than the Christian one. The benefit of teaching Christians how to identify and understand worldviews is that it prevents them from being fooled into accepting worldly philosophies.

[...]

In other words, Christians need to understand worldviews or else they will be manipulated into believing them against their own, Christian worldview; they will be unable to properly witness to the world; they will be unable to politically fight the invasion of foreign and dangerous ideas; and they will in general lose the ideological war.


Elsewhere: A collection of interesting links and articles that I’ve come across in the last week or so. Follow me on Twitter for more of the same.

“Doctor Who”, bad movies, scientists & religion, sci-fi & sex, Blockbuster’s passing & more

Doctor Who

He might be seen as a pacifist, but Doctor Who‘s recent seasons have explored the good Doctor’s “boldly violent new side” (contains potential spoilers):

When the series was revived in 2005, viewers again saw countless companions and allies sacrifice themselves for the Doctor and his good fight each week. While the deaths may have been noble in spirit, it was still staggering to witness; it seemed that the only way to do something worthwhile on Doctor Who (unless you were a series regular) was to Keep Calm and Get Shot By Daleks.

The decision to actually bring this to the Doctor’s attention in season four, to see him react to it, was a wonderfully affecting move on the part of Russell T. Davies. The impact of that blow from Davros landed harder because the Doctor had managed to avoid contemplation of those lost lives until that moment—he had allowed himself to believe that just because he had never fired the weapon, because he had never asked any of those people to lie down across the train tracks, he somehow wasn’t culpable in their fatal trend.

Related: It’s killing me that I can’t watch the new season right now, that I’ll likely have to wait for the DVDs.


Twitch’s Todd Brown addresses the aesthetic of intentionally bad movies:

I have watched scores of these films. They are almost universally unwatchable to all but those who made them. They’re not funny. They’re not clever. They’re just plain bad movies and I want people to stop making them. Stop explaining away your shitty technique with “Hey, it’s supposed to be that way!” Because all you’re doing with that argument is proving you don’t understand the original movement at all.

Because, you see, no movie that was intentionally created to be bad has ever gone on to find an audience. Movies made to be bad are just plain shitty and nobody likes watching that. No serious, professional filmmaker ever set out to make a bad movie. Not one. They all set out to make the best movies they could under the circumstances they were presented with. It’s the struggle to be good that gives them their vitality and their continuing drawing power. When they’re funny it’s not because they wanted to be bad - it’s because they tried to be good and missed so badly. Even Ed Wood believed he was making art.


The reality is more nuanced than you might think when it comes to scientists and what they think about religion:

In one such book, Science and Theology (1998), [John] Polkinghorne proposes a taxonomy (based on the work of scholar Ian G. Barbour) of the various ways science and religion can relate. The most familiar is the stance of conflict, in which science and religion are irreconcilably opposed, each challenging the other’s legitimacy. Sometimes, however, science and religion can be considered independent, two distinct realms of inquiry. Sometimes they are considered to be in dialogue (or are consonant), overlapping but not necessarily conflicting, especially as regards the deepest of mysteries, such as creation and consciousness. And sometimes the two are integrated (or one assimilates the other), and they are unified into a common quest for understanding the universe and our place in it.

This taxonomy is worth keeping in mind while considering two recent books, each of which takes up the subject from the perspective of scientists. The first is a nuanced portrait of the religious beliefs of scientists working in the United States today; the second is a collection of writings from scientific luminaries, both historical and contemporary, laying out their thoughts on religion. Taken together, these books proffer an answer to the following question: Just what do scientists—including the most influential scientists—actually believe concerning religion?

Or… maybe not.


Simon Reynolds on modern pop music’s growing debt to the music of Ibiza:

The other day we were driving in the car, listening to one of Los Angeles’s top 40 stations, and I turned to my wife and asked: “How come everything on the radio sounds like a peak-hour tune from Ibiza?”

All these smash hits have the Auto-Tuned big-chorus bolted on top. But underneath, there are riffs and vamps, pulses and pounding beats, glistening synthetic textures and an overall banging boshing feel; it’s like these tracks have been beamed straight from Gatecrasher or Love Parade circa 1999.


Sci-fi inspires us with visions of new worlds, beings, and technologies, but according to Kyle Munkittrick, sci-fi also makes us more open to strange forms of sexuality:

The point is that sci-fi lets us see those variables of attraction and sexuality in action. Even better, sci-fi video games let us experience those variables for ourselves. In the case of my FemShep (pictured, right), I ended up romantic with Liara in ME1 and with Thane in ME2. To say I was attracted to a reptilian male alien assassin is bizarre, I admit. But that’s what makes sci-fi so wonderful. By playing Mass Effect as FemShep, I was able to understand and empathize with a form of sexual attraction I would never personally have.

And that understanding is what science fiction is telling us about the future of sexuality. All of the variables and spectrums and complexities and similarities and differences can be distilled down to one simple equation: consenting persons love one another for different reasons and in different ways. It also puts our own concepts of “different” into perspective. If you’re ok with a human loving a robot, why wouldn’t you be ok with a human loving another human? Sci-fi teaches us that the type of persons involved is irrelevant, so long as they are capable of consent and willingly enter into the relationship.


There’s a growing group of individuals who are attempting to predict the fate of humanity millions of years into the future, and the emerging picture isn’t necessarily rosy:

For Rees, then, and many other thinkers about the future, a central preoccupation is making sure that humans survive to see it. Only 0.01 percent of all species that have ever existed continue to do so. We happen to be one of them, for now. When Rees looked at the myriad ways in which the present is more perilous than the past in his 2003 book “Our Final Hour,” he set the odds of human extinction in the next century at 50 percent.

Bostrom, the Oxford philosopher, puts the odds at about 25 percent, and says that many of the greatest risks for human survival are ones that could play themselves out within the scope of current human lifetimes. “The next hundred years or so might be critical for humanity,” Bostrom says, listing as possible threats the usual apocalyptic litany of nuclear annihilation, man-made or natural viruses and bacteria, or other technological threats, such as microscopic machines, or nanobots, that run amok and kill us all.

The entire article is fascinating, but I found the portion regarding the potential of a moral death for humanity, rather than a physical one, to be especially interesting… and disturbing.


Do Franklin Graham and Tim Keller depict two different approaches for the Church when it comes to politics?

The subject of the interview is not just the decision of the interviewer. It also reflects the shaping and the agenda of the subject. One large irony is that here you have a Reformed minister cautioning about political speech in the church while speaking from a tradition that has valued Christian involvement in politics. In contrast, you have the evangelist’s son from a tradition of fundamentalism that early in the 20th century saw politics as suspect engaging in a very overtly political “crusade” (the word the piece used).


Over on Parchment & Pen, Michael Patton on pain, meaninglessness, and Charles Darwin:

The thing that must unite us as Christians is that there is no such thing as “meaningless.” That word does not need to be in our vocabulary. It is a word reserved for the atheist, the deist, and the pantheist, but not the Christian. I am not saying we don’t look it in the face from time to time (God knows I do), I am just saying that we cannot allow ourselves to camp there. That campground is off-limits for Christians. There are so many things out there that have webbed feet on dry land. There are so many sciatic nerves which cause us to cry “why?” There are so many mothers who are unable to walk or talk. There are so many children who die untimely deaths. There are so many times when a move seems meaningless. But our faith is not dependent on finding immediate understanding and fulfillment for our pain. Sometimes we do punt to the eschaton knowing that there is meaning behind it, even if we don’t know what that meaning is today.


Psychologists have analyzed three decades’ worth of hit songs and have discovered that music has become increasingly narcissistic and hostile:

The new study of song lyrics certainly won’t end the debate, but it does offer another way to gauge self-absorption: the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The researchers find that hit songs in the 1980s were more likely to emphasize happy togetherness, like the racial harmony sought by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder in “Ebony and Ivory” and the group exuberance promoted by Kool & the Gang: “Let’s all celebrate and have a good time.” Diana Ross and Lionel Richie sang of “two hearts that beat as one,” and John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” emphasized the preciousness of “our life together.”

Today’s songs, according to the researchers’ linguistic analysis, are more likely be about one very special person: the singer. “I’m bringing sexy back,” Justin Timberlake proclaimed in 2006. The year before, Beyoncé exulted in how hot she looked while dancing — “It’s blazin’, you watch me in amazement.” And Fergie, who boasted about her “humps” while singing with the Black Eyed Peas, subsequently released a solo album in which she told her lover that she needed quality time alone: “It’s personal, myself and I.”


Bradford Winters laments the passing of Blockbuster Video, and what it represents for our society at large:

Back when storefronts were the only model conceivable, I maintained a healthy distaste for Blockbuster’s gambit to put its small, independent competitors out of business. But these days, when the notion of driving somewhere to rent a movie strikes an entire generation as being as antiquated as riding in a horse-and-buggy to the general store, the blue-and-yellow stronghold at Lincoln and Ocean Park is a pleasantly nostalgic sight.

Stubborn as I am, I actually walked there recently to renew my membership and rent a movie. Walking anywhere in L.A. is one thing; but doing so to rent a movie the old-fashioned way is something to write home about.

I say, the sooner Blockbuster realizes that it’s dead, the better.


Elsewhere: A collection of interesting links and articles that I’ve come across in the last week or so. Follow me on Twitter for more of the same.

The death of Christ, China’s church, awful Christian movies, Andrew Sullivan & the Bible’s questions

Crucifix

The Internet Monk’s Jeff Dunn offers a beautiful, thought-provoking meditation on the death of Christ... just in time for Good Friday:

After all, our faith is built around Easter Sunday sunrise services that celebrate the empty tomb. The resurrection is what sets us apart from all other religions whose gods stay in their graves. And come this Sunday you will find me celebrating the risen Christ with a heart filled with laughter and praise.

But let’s not rush past the cross of Good Friday. And let us not be too hasty to dismiss the crucifix. I now disagree with my Baptist pastor. Jesus is not off of the cross. In a very real sense, as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world he has always been and always will be dead. And this—the dead Christ—is our hope and our salvation.

[...]

Sunday I will celebrate the risen Christ. But for now, I will gaze upon the crucified Christ, and thank him that he will forevermore taste death so that I might live.


Why don’t we believe the findings of science, e.g., global warming, the link between vaccines and autism, evolution? Essentially, our reasoning is “suffused with emotion”:

Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.


The New York Times reports on the church in China, and the increasing crackdown on Chinese Christians by the government:

The move against Shouwang, as well as other house churches, coincides with the most expansive assault on dissent in China in years, one that has led to the arrests of high-profile critics like the artist Ai Weiwei, but also legions of little-known bloggers, rights lawyers and democracy advocates who have disappeared into the country’s opaque legal system. The crackdown, now in its second month, was prompted by government fears that the Arab revolts against autocracy could spread to China and undermine the Communist Party’s six-decade hold on power.

Although many congregations continue to hold services unhindered, in recent weeks the pastors of two large unofficial churches in the southern city of Guangzhou have been detained and their congregations rendered homeless. In Shanxi Province, a house church organizer said the police attacked him with electric batons, and religious leaders in places like Xinjiang in the far west and Inner Mongolia in the north have reported increased harassment, according to China Aid, a Texas-based Christian advocacy group. Last year, the organization reported 3,343 instances in which house church members or leaders were detained or beaten, a 15 percent increase over 2009. Bob Fu, the group’s president, said such incidents were part of the latest government campaign to try to force house church members into state-run congregations.

“I’m not optimistic a peaceful solution will be found to this crisis,” he said. “The government’s moves are forcing nonpolitical churches to commit acts of civil disobedience, which the government is not likely to tolerate.”


Andrew O’Hehir asks, “Why Are Christian Movies So Awful?”

Whatever you want to say about Christianity as a system of thought or a force in history, you’ll have to admit that it has a pretty impressive record as a source of inspiration for artists and writers. But when we use the buzzword “Christian” in contemporary American society, we’re talking about a distinctively modern cultural and demographic phenomenon that has almost no connection to the spiritual and intellectual tradition that fueled Dante and Milton and Leonardo and Bach. Furthermore, American evangelical Christians, concentrated in the heartland and the South, have felt a certain level of antipathy toward the film industry since its birth. They have long viewed Hollywood (not without justification) as a Jewish-dominated metropolitan enterprise that was fundamentally secular and indeed almost Nietzschean in its worship of bigness and money and power.

[...]

But American cinema and the Hollywood system and the rest of our society were turned upside down in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the rise of the Christian-oriented film industry, like so many other things in our cultural life, is an aftershock from that earthquake. It’s only oversimplifying a little to say that pop culture went in one direction and the evangelical population went in another, and despite a long process of reconciliation, it’s still not clear that they speak the same language. If I really had any faith in American pluralism and in my fellow human beings, I guess I would predict that someday soon Christian filmmakers will ramp up their craft and make much better movies than “Soul Surfer.” Does the Lord really want to be glorified by way of something that looks like an especially tame episode of “Baywatch”?

And Christianity Today responds... sort of:

What I completely disagree with, however, when it comes to O’Hehir’s article, is his “hook”: He’s jumped on Soul Surfer as an excuse to write his opinions, and for that, I think he’s wrong. O’Hehir calls the film “a trite, sentimental puddle of sub-Hollywood mush, with mediocre photography, weak special effects and an utterly formulaic script. . . . [T]his one is pretty awful.”

I don’t think Soul Surfer is a great movie; I’m pretty sure it won’t be considered for our Critics’ Choice list at the end of the year (though it’ll be a strong candidate for our Most Redeeming list). It’s not great, but it is very good. And if, as O’Hehir suggests, it is to be labeled a “Christian movie”—and frankly, I could argue either way on that point—I would say it’s one of the best ones we’ve seen in years.


Confessing Evangelical asks, did Jesus really tell His disciples to arm themselves in Luke 22:35-38?

Personally, as I said on the Boar’s Head Tavern a few days ago, I’ve always assumed that Jesus was being rhetorical when he says his disciples should sell their cloaks to buy swords – that he was pointing out the danger and drama that was about to burst into their lives as the temple guard arrived to arrest Jesus. His “it is enough” is then either heavily ironic – after all, how could two swords be enough to resist arrest by a large, well-armed mob? – or else a rebuke: more “that’s enough!” than “I agree that that is a sufficient number of swords”. This interpretation seems more consistent with Jesus’ words and actions in vv49-51.

Here are a couple of further pointers I’ve found on this passage in the past few days, which tend to support such a reading of Jesus’ words.


Harvard Magazine asks “Is Andrew Sullivan the world’s best blogger?”:

Andrew Sullivan is an intellectual diva, prone to epic battles. He’s a showman; call what he does a show. But he performs in the open, without rehearsals, and he reveals everything to his readers, never sparing himself. And then, because he has an acute sense of pacing, he varies his posts with features that have nothing to do with politics, torture, or Palin.

So be warned: Sullivan sometimes posts dozens of times a day. If you’ve never read him, it might be better not to start. A curiosity can lead to a habit, and a habit to an addiction. And then, without quite knowing how it happened, you may find yourself beginning a sentence with, “As Andrew said….”


Timothy Beal: “The Bible is not a book of answers but a library of questions”:

Given how many hands have been involved in so many contexts over such a long time in the history of this literature, can we honestly imagine that no one noticed such glaring discrepancies? Can we believe, for example, that the seam between the first and second creation stories in Genesis, as well as the many other seams found throughout the Torah, were not obvious? That if agreement and univocality were the goal, such discrepancies would not have been fixed and such rough seams mended long ago? That creation stories would have been made to conform or be removed? That Job would’ve been allowed to stand against Moses? That Gospel mix-ups concerning who saw what after Jesus’s resurrection would have been left to stand? That Judas would have died twice, once by suicide and once by divine disgorge? And so on. Could all those many, many people involved in the development of biblical literature and the canon of Scriptures have been so blind, so stupid? It’s modern arrogance to imagine so.

[...]

There is a widely held, simplistic definition of faith as firm belief. To many, especially nonreligious people, faith is seen as absolute certainty despite or without regard to observed facts or evidence. Yet, as anyone trying to live faithfully in this world knows full well, there is no faith without doubt. Doubt is faith’s other side, its dark night. Indeed, in an atheist­ing match, I’d put big odds on the faithful any day. People of faith know the reasons to doubt their faith more deeply and more personally than any outside critic ever can. Faith is inherently vulnerable. To live by faith is to live with that vulnerability, that soft belly, exposed.

Likewise the Bible. The Bible can atheist any book under the table on some pages. It presumes faith in God, yet it also often gives voice to the most profound and menacing doubts about the security of that faith. The Bible is not a book of answers but a library of questions. How rare such places have become in a society addicted to quick fixes, executive summaries, and idiot’s guides. The canon of the Bible is that kind of place.


Andy Whitman meditates on “It Is Well with My Soul”, which just so happens to be my favorite hymn:

Last night my television suddenly stopped working, and I wanted to rage, rend my garments, compose a psalm of lamentation. Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen, stranded without high definition right in the middle of March Madness. God help me.

And so it is something of a mystery to me to ponder the faith of this man, a wounded, bankrupt captain of industry and bereaved father and husband who could write those amazing words as he tried to comprehend the terrible realities of a way of life that was gone forever.

I love the fact that he doesn’t try to diminish the enormity of the sorrows. Those are sea billows, all right; enormous, hope-smashing, all-consuming waves. And I am astonished by the faith expressed in the midst of that reality: it is well with my soul.


You will never be able to read all of the books, listen to all of the music, etc. that exists, and NPR’s Linda Holmes contends that that’s a good thing:

Culling is easy; it implies a huge amount of control and mastery. Surrender, on the other hand, is a little sad. That’s the moment you realize you’re separated from so much. That’s your moment of understanding that you’ll miss most of the music and the dancing and the art and the books and the films that there have ever been and ever will be, and right now, there’s something being performed somewhere in the world that you’re not seeing that you would love.

It’s sad, but it’s also ... great, really. Imagine if you’d seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you’re “supposed to see.” Imagine you got through everybody’s list, until everything you hadn’t read didn’t really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.


For all of the hullaballoo surrounding violent video games, it turns out the the video game industry is the best as preventing mature content from falling into the hands of minors:

The Federal Trade Commission recently conducted an annual undercover shopping survey and found that, of the various consumer entertainment industries, the video game industry was actually best at self-policing and keeping material intended for mature audiences away from children. Following a trend since 2000, the game industry scored very well with only 13 percent of underage shoppers able to buy M-rated games, down from 20 percent last year.


Elsewhere: A collection of interesting links and articles that I’ve come across in the last week or so. Follow me on Twitter for more of the same.

Josh T. Pearson, musical complacency, “Kill Bill”, Pixar’s “nonsuckiness”, Low & Japanese cinema

Josh T. Pearson

Two of my favorite critics have recently reviewed Josh T. Pearson’s Last of the Country Gentlemen. First up is Josh Hurst’s review:

...there is something strangely beautiful about all this sadness; indeed, this isn’t a record that wallows in misery so much as it confronts human frailty head-on, and demands that the listener do the same. What it amounts to is music that cries out, with every second and every note, for grace and redemption– and if Pearson can’t provide that, so what? At least he’s honest about it– “sweetheart, I ain’t your Christ”– and besides, the cry itself is enough to stir the soul, making Last of the Country Gentlemen a thing of perfectly broken, holy sadness.

Then there’s Andy Whitman’s review, written for Image Journal:

Photographs of Texas troubadour Josh T. Pearson reveal a man out of time. His rail-thin body, long hair, audacious, disheveled beard, and hollow eyes call to mind a shell-shocked survivor of Gettysburg or Cold Harbor, not the victim/protagonist of the petty internecine warfare of a failed twenty-first century marriage.

Listening to his solo debut album Last of the Country Gentlemen, it’s equally apparent that the wounds are no less devastating simply because they weren’t physically inflicted. It’s there to see in those vacant eyes. Something got lost along the way; a soul perhaps, or possibly hope, and Pearson catalogs the resulting trauma in hushed but bluntly horrific terms. This may be the prettiest and most becalmed music about despair you’ve ever heard.

And in case you missed it, here’s my review of Last of the Country Gentlemen.


Andy Whitman bemoans those who grow complacent about music as they grow older:

What I don’t understand is why so few people continue to seek out new music past the tender age of, oh, say 25. Yes, I know, life gets complicated. Marriages and kids come along, and so do careers, and all those things sap energy and time. But we’re talking about an unending, lifegiving source of joy, of connection at the deepest levels of our being. Why would you ever give that up? This isn’t the fountain of youth (are you listening, Mick Jagger?), and those who try to make it so end up looking fairly silly. But like all forms of art, it has the potential and the power to shake us from our lethargy, from the gray monotony of routine days, and awaken within us those emotions, sensations, connections, whatever they are , that make us feel more alive and more connected to those around us. The music itself is not God, but I would like to think, and I’m fairly certain that I know, that God works through this process. And people like my Eddie-Van-Halen-loving friend routinely give it up. It’s a part of the past. It’s nostalgia. It’s the good old days. Pardon me while I groan. What could be more stultifying, more crippling than being cut off from a source of life, and believing that the source of life was no longer available, that it was somehow unseemly and inappropriate?

It is, indeed, a sad thing to think of seeking after joy and beauty in music as something that’s only for the young ‘uns.


Germain Lussier reviews Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair—the long-awaited combined version of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films—and says that its small changes make it a much better film:

The print, which was the exact one that screened at Cannes—complete with French subtitles—played from March 27 (Tarantino’s birthday) through April 7 to mostly sold out audiences. After being out of town for the majority of the run, I was finally able to see the film on its final evening and it was a near perfect movie going experience. Four plus hours of bliss that make Kill Bill better than you ever thought it could be.


Pixar describes their creative process as “going from suck to nonsuck”:

Catmull and Pixar’s directors think it’s better to fix problems than to prevent errors. “My strategy has always been: be wrong as fast as we can,” says Andrew Stanton, Director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E, “Which basically means, we’re gonna screw up, let’s just admit that. Let’s not be afraid of that.” We can all work this way more often.

[...]

In fact, directors say that Pixar’s films will suck virtually until the last stage of production—problems are constantly identified and fixed. Finding Nemo had a massive problem with a series of flashbacks that test audiences didn’t get that had to be fixed, while Toy Story 2 had to be completely rewritten a year before it was released. (Pixar film release dates are set in stone, which serves as a constraint.)

What we see is not effortless genius. Through tireless iteration, toil, and (often) sleepless nights, the films start to come together.

And speaking of Pixar, some storyboard art for their upcoming film Brave was recently released. The film, previously known as The Bear and the Bow, will be set in mythical Scotland and follow the exploits of the studio’s first female protagonist. The film will star Kelly Macdonald (who replaced Reese Witherspoon as the film’s lead), Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, and Craig Ferguson. More info here.


PopMatter’s Kris Ligman recently played Mass Effect 2: Arrival and doesn’t like what it turned her character into:

I do not enjoy watching a character that I’ve nurtured for over 60+ hours of gameplay consign an entire planetary system to death without even dignifying the moment with a perfunctory button press (a la BioShock or Mass Effect 3). The narrative already asserts its character preferences over my own in enough situations without adding compulsory genocide to the list. When I import a new campaign to get my ideal playthrough together in time for Mass Effect 3, I’m fairly confident I will be leaving this particular mission unplayed altogether. If the game’s writing is determined to create straw men just so I have another breed of enemy to half-heartedly gun down, it can do so without my support.


CNN’s Lisa Respers France on the “extreme TV” shows such as Extreme Couponing and Freaky Eaters:

...no network has so thoroughly mined the world of the unusual as TLC, which over the years has found ratings success with shows about mega-families (such as “Jon & Kate Plus 8” and “19 Kids and Counting); little people (including “Little People, Big World” and “The Little Couple”); and the tiny tots who vigorously compete in beauty pageants on “Toddlers & Tiaras.”

TLC’s latest offerings include “Freaky Eaters,” about people with bizarre eating disorders and food addiction, and “My Strange Addiction,” which features those who battled obsessive behaviors like eating cleanser and sleeping with a blow-dryer.

Humane stories that offer a respectful look at otherwise-ostracized individuals, or exploitative freakshows? You decide.


Josh Hurst reviews Low’s C’mon:

The first time I heard Low’s new one, it was through an online stream– and while the album ultimately won me over in a big way, I have to say that this is the absolute worst context in which to savor the music of these slow-burn champs. Low’s music, it seems to me, has always thrived on turning the intimate into the epic; their best songs are the ones that take little details and blow them into melodrama, that layer simplicity into something sweeping, that conjur a thunderous sense of quiet. When I think of all the great Low songs, I remember them for their words and melodies, but also for little sonic details– for the shake and jangle of a tambourine, perhaps, or for the deep Neil Young-style harmonics. These are the kinds of things that simply don’t pack the same punch when you’re hearing them through tinny laptop speakers.


There’s a long-running theme in Japanese cinema regarding natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunami:

In September 2008, Hayao Miyazaki, the author of Spirited Away, attended the Venice festival to present his most recent full-length film, Ponyo. In this city so closely connected with the sea, the Japanese director explained why he chose to end the film with a tsunami, and why the Japanese celebrate nature in spite of its destructive power.

“There are many typhoons and earthquakes in Japan,” he said. “There is no point in portraying these natural disasters as evil events. They are one of the givens in the world in which we live. I am always moved when I visit Venice to see that in this city which is sinking into the sea, people carry on living regardless. It is one of the givens of their life. In the same way people in Japan have a different perception of natural disasters.”

True enough, in Miyazaki’s animated films nature dictates its terms on mankind. Ultimately the tsunami in Ponyo is beneficial for the country it wrecks, which with its ageing population and small coastal towns closely resembles the real Japan. But not all the pictures in Japanese films, whether animated or not, are underpinned by such environmentally aware animistic harmony.


Elsewhere: A collection of interesting links and articles that I’ve come across in the last week or so. Follow me on Twitter for more of the same. Josh T. Pearson photo by Steve Gullick.

The tragic Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, Rob Bell, C.S. Lewis, “The Last Lovecraft” & “Dragon Age 2”

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce

Nick Brickwell contends that Wesley Wyndam-Pryce “is the most intensely actualized character in all of the Whedonverse” and I have no problem with that.

Joss Whedon has created some of the most impressive characters in television history. From the iconic Buffy Summers to the redemptive Angel to renegade Captain Mal Reynolds, his protagonists are uniquely recognized as extraordinary, fully realized creations, and are acclaimed by critics and fans alike. Whedon’s characters are often used as vehicles to explore facets of life and the human condition. His super-powered heroes, like Buffy and Angel, always serve a greater metaphor or overarching message, and while Whedon creates fantastical realms in which to enact his perceptions of the world, his characters nonetheless echo the human plight. Through these characters Whedon explores love, loss, friendship, betrayal, vengeance, redemption, empowerment, familial relations, purpose, hope, failure, triumph, and sacrifice.

While some these themes may be realized, individually, in a number of characters, one character encapsulates them all. He is neither Slayer, vampire, nor futuristic space captain, but rather an ordinary human: Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Former watcher, rouge demon hunter, loyal ally to the good fight, and morally mellifluous hero, he is the most intensely actualized character in all of the Whedonverse, and one of the few characters whose journey is most fully explored within the confines of the series. Whedon and his team of writers, such as Tim Minear and Steven S. DeKnight, write Wesley as the Biblical Job of the Whedonverse, repeatedly pushed to the brink of darkness, only to rally time and time again behind the forces of good. Wesley, portrayed brilliantly by Alexis Denisof, undergoes the greatest transformation of any character Whedon has written, facing challenges that mirror the enduring and conquering spirit of humanity, and in doing so becomes perhaps the best developed character of not only Whedon’s work but also television as a whole.

Sidenote: Wesley Wyndam-Pryce may or may not have figured into the name we chose for our firstborn.


We all love to hate it, but as this in-depth article points out, Internet Explorer did get a few things right:

It’s the browser that everyone loves to hate—sometimes justifiably so. What was once the most innovative browser became the thorn in every front-end developer’s side. Amidst the turmoil and complaints today’s developers throw at Internet Explorer, what’s often not heard is how Microsoft changed the face of not only front-end development, but web development as a whole.


Timothy Dalrymple posts a thoughtful article regarding Rob Bell, discussions of hell, and “the Ethics of Christian Conversation”:

To believe in hell is not to be hateful.  And to defend the truth as you see it is not to be angry, arrogant or abusive.  The truth matters, and we are not free to rearrange the truth to suit our preferences.  If there is a hell, then it would be unloving in the extreme to say that there is not.  The world loves the “love” that gives its blessing to what the world wants to do and believe.  Yet if our act of “love” is to announce that there is no eternal torment in hell, and yet there is one, then our “love” is a lie.  Authentic love must be willing to be perceived as hateful in order to serve the good of the beloved, and so sometimes the most loving thing we can do is confess the truth Christ taught even though the world hates us for it.

On the other hand, I strongly sympathize with those who would press Christianity in a universalist direction.  Theologically, anyone who does not feel cognitive dissonance between the profession of a God who is Love and the teaching that this God makes or lets his creatures suffer everlasting torment is failing to take one or the other idea seriously.  Personally, there is for many Christians a nearly unbearable tension between the doctrine of eternal damnation and their own experience of a God who is endlessly loving and gracious.  A tension is not a contradiction, of course; intelligent Christians for centuries have found ways to harmonize these elements.  Yet the cultural and psychological costs of these tensions are high.


Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, “basically agrees” with Rob Bell’s theology:

If I were given the assignment of writing a careful theological essay on “The Eschatology of Rob Bell,” I would begin by laying out the basics of C. S. Lewis’s perspective on heaven and hell. Lewis held that we are created for a relationship with God as human beings who bear the divine image. When we rebel against God and commit ourselves to evil ways, we move further away from this positive relationship with God—and, thereby, further and further away from our humanity. Our ultimate destiny, then, if we do not change directions, is to cease to be human: we end up as monsters who have chosen to live in an outer darkness, removed from God and from other humans.

[...]

And I certainly do believe that some folks choose that hell. The Hitler types. The man who kidnaps young girls and sells them into sexual slavery. They are well on their way to hell, to becoming inhuman monsters. To be sure, as the hymn rightly reminds us: “The vilest offender who truly believes/ that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” But for those who persist in their wicked ways, eternal separation is the natural outcome of all the choices they have made along the way.


Jeff Cook wonders, are there really any significant differences between Rob Bell and C.S. Lewis, and the theology they’ve expressed in their writings?

...let’s not kid ourselves, I suspect the fire behind the debate is often about envy and resentment of a very talented man, about our own inability to get a hearing in the public square, and about the fear that new ways of talking about Jesus might trump what some have preached for decades.

These issues are big, but they are not only about doctrine. The issues at hand are about culture and control, about how the theology of emerging Christians will be defined, and about the continuing fight between postmodern and modern expressions of Christianity. This seems clear to me now, for I would like to defend the following claim:

There’s not one controversial idea in Love Wins that is not clearly voiced as a real possibility by the most popular evangelical writer of the last century, CS Lewis.

Needless to say, an interesting debate is occurring within the comments.


Brent McKnight reviews The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu and really likes it:

Horror comedy is a tricky genre, or subgenre, or classification, or whatever it is.  For every Shaun of the Dead and Slither there are 50 half-assed attempts that fail to be either funny or horrific. The Last Lovecraft, however, is not one of these failures, and is both a gore-soaked monster movie and hilarious from end to end.

[...]

So many movies that try to be scary and funny start out with promise only to abandon the things that worked early on. Or they feel like a good idea that is not fully developed, and when the initial joke runs out, the filmmakers are left scrambling to fill the rest of a feature-length movie. The Last Lovecraft is a complete work, with characters, plot, and a story arc, as well as an awesome concept. It’s short, clocking in at 79-minutes, but it’s definitely a finished product.

I wrote about The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu, as well as several other recent H.P. Lovecraft-inspired movies, earlier this month.


Netflix is working on a deal to become their own network and provide original content, starting with David Fincher’s House of Cards:

An executive close to the negotiations confirmed the report that Netflix had entered the bidding for the show. There was still considerable uncertainty Tuesday about the terms of the potential deal, and a Netflix spokesman declined to comment.

A second executive close to the negotiations dismissed the $100 million estimate, noting that there was no deal between the parties yet, and that in the event a deal is struck, it would cost Netflix significantly less. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized by their bosses to speak about the negotiations.

Picking up the exclusive rights to a television show would effectively make Netflix a network similar to ABC or HBO and would underscore just how disruptive the company has become to the media business.


The New York Times ponders the eternal questions of free will, determinism, and moral responsibility:

...in another way it makes perfect sense to hold Bill fully accountable for murder. His judges pragmatically intuit that regardless of whether free will exists, our society depends on everyone’s believing it does. The benefits of this belief have been demonstrated in other research showing that when people doubt free will, they do worse at their jobs and are less honest.

[...]

At an abstract level, people seem to be what philosophers call incompatibilists: those who believe free will is incompatible with determinism. If everything that happens is determined by what happened before, it can seem only logical to conclude you can’t be morally responsible for your next action.

But there is also a school of philosophers—in fact, perhaps the majority school—who consider free will compatible with their definition of determinism. These compatibilists believe that we do make choices, even though these choices are determined by previous events and influences. In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer, “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

Does that sound confusing—or ridiculously illogical? Compatibilism isn’t easy to explain. But it seems to jibe with our gut instinct that Bill is morally responsible even though he’s living in a deterministic universe. Dr. Nichols suggests that his experiment with Mark and Bill shows that in our abstract brains we’re incompatibilists, but in our hearts we’re compatibilists.


Richard Clark explores how video games can help us explore the concept of sin:

Artistic mediums that ignore the reality of sin are sentimental at best. Thomas Kinkaid may paint a lovely cottage, but there is very little richness and resonance to his work because it lacks an acknowledgement of this key truth. Videogames, on the other hand, tend to acknowledge our inherent sinful nature without even trying. In fact, videogames’ biggest strength is that they illuminate our nature and force us to come to terms with it. In a videogame we are, simply put, selfish jerks.

When I am given a blatant moral choice, I may make the outwardly righteous choice, but my inward tendency still remains. I do what it takes to progress, not because it’s right, but because it alleviates my boredom and allows me to feel good about myself. While playing Pitfall, I used crocodile heads as stepping stones. In the city of Rapture, I killed untold numbers of people, simply because they are insane. It wasn’t enough to win a match of Mortal Kombat against my friend; once he was unconscious, I had to turn into a dragon, and bite him in half.

These days, we long for meaningful moments to occur within our games, and we’re embarrassed for the action game that contains awkward and stilted social interactions. Even still, after spending much of Far Cry 2 doing deeds for the notorious arms dealer known as the Jackal for some extra diamonds and burning men alive, walking into a nearly empty bar and receiving nothing more than empty stares and impatiently quick explanations just seems right. I don’t deserve a relationship with these people, and they can’t risk one with me.


I’m only 20 hours or so into the game, but so far, I’m in nearly complete agreement with Kirk Hamilton’s review of Dragon Age 2:

When it comes down to it, Dragon Age 2 simply feels flat, unfinished and short on soul. In many ways it combines the advanced graphics of a current-generation videogame with the tedious inconsequentiality a casual Facebook title, and it seems expressly designed both to be accessible to newcomers and to easily accommodate post-release downloadable content. Its main storyline is a sloppily scripted tease for a grander tale that has yet to be told, and its side stories feel empty and pointless.

My friend Matt touches on many of the same issues and complaints in his mid-game review of Dragon Age 2.


Elsewhere: A collection of interesting links and articles that I’ve come across in the last week or so. Follow me on Twitter for more of the same.