Thursday, January 24, 2008

Personality Test

So, I was perusing my friend Kristin's blog which had a link to this free personality test, that I decided to take cause I was bored. Maybe I was too nervous answering all these invasive questions with black/white answers, but I'm not sure I agree with the results. I mean, I'm no online program, but I don't think I'm so much more "feeling" than "thinking," and I don't think I'm so musical. Maybe I should retake it. You tell me...
Click to view my Personality Profile page

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Top 10 of 2007

After speaking with Fuller’s resident film expert (and good friend) Eugene Suen about the best movies of the year and reading his list, I figured to compile my own list. Let me begin by saying, last year was a great year for movies. Of course, I have not been so exposed to such a wide selection of cinema from around the world as I have been in 2007, so that perception may be a little jaded. Additionally, I missed a bunch of movies I wanted to see, but to see them all, I’d probably need to become a film critic, which would likely make me into even more of a recluse. One thing I can say about 2007 is that many of our best filmmakers focused on very dark, even nihilistic, themes. I suppose that says a lot about the state of our world right now.

10. King of Kong

As I was browsing a list of 2007 films to refresh my memory, I came across this title and suddenly a rush of good tymes came rushing back to me. Perhaps the most unintentionally funny movie of all time, featuring a battle royale between a regular schmo who decides to challenge some pompous Donkey Kong champion a**hole for his title. The amazing thing is: you watch this thinking “who cares about a bunch of lame middle-aged white guys playing an 80s arcade game,” and by the end you find yourself strangely touched.

9. Sweeney Todd

I am not a huge musical fan. I think the Sound of Music is great, I enjoyed Hairspray, Chicago and West Side Story, but I can’t think of many others that really resonated with me. Then there was Sweeney Todd. Only Tim Burton could pull this one off: a grim, bloody and passionate musical adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim play. If you want to see impeccable staging, hear some memorable music and leave a musical more unsettled than you’ve ever been before, check this one out.

8. Once

My sister first told me about this little movie, and I later caught it on DVD. A remarkably simple DV feature that proves creativity, authentic characters and boldness make a great movie, not extravagant sums of money, effects and celebrities (for exorbitant, polished garbage like this, look no further than the latest Pirates of the Caribbean). Plus, the tunes in Once will probably be stuck in your head for days, and that’s a good thing.

7. Juno/Superbad

I lumped these two together because they share many commonalities, despite some obvious differences. Aside from being quite funny, they both wind up being surprisingly “adult” movies and genuinely moving, especially Juno. While most high school flicks I’ve seen paint a picture almost totally incongruent with my own experience, Superbad played like a page out of my history book. Director Judd Apatow and screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg give us an accurate and de-mythologized version of adolescence, with all its awkwardness, insecurity and unintentional hilarity. Juno accomplishes much the same feat with less obscenity. Juno unflinchingly presents its characters as awkward and insecure, and makes no apologies or concessions, which I liked.

6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

With a title that reminds me of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and a style reminiscent of Terrence Malick, I may like this movie more by this mental association with two favorite directors than its own merits. A visually lush, mesmerizing and psychological/psychospiritual/spiritual Western that defies conventions and delves extensively with the nature of distinctively American folklore and the hero myths that characterize much of our narrative history.

5. There Will Be Blood

After I watched this, the latest effort by director Paul Thomas Anderson, I left asking myself, “What on earth have I just seen?” In retrospect, I believe it to be a parable about American capitalism and a tragedy in the same vein as Citizen Kane, a similarity that numerous critics and viewers have drawn. Daniel Day-Lewis gives birth to one of the most complex, rich and involving performances of the year that should garner him an Oscar, that is, if there is any justice left in the world. It’s a movie that keeps unraveling long after you’ve seen it. If it’s any indication what kind of movie this is, it’s bounced all over the place on this list in the course of a couple short days.

4. Ratatouille

Unfortunately, I did not see this one in theaters, which was a mistake. Director Brad Bird has yet to offer audiences other than a superb movie. If somehow you missed The Incredibles, watch it immediately, for you shall love it. Then, after you have become enamored, go rent The Iron Giant. Ratatouille displays the same visual dynamism as the other two, the same warmth, the same deep characters and the same sense of total satisfaction when all is said and done.

3. Into the Wild

Directed by Sean Penn, Into the Wild may be the most sweeping epic of the year, without the accoutrements of a bigger, more expensive studio production. Based on the true story of Christopher McCandless who abandoned civilized life in order to wander the earth on a quest for a more authentic kind of life. I could really resonate with his impulse to drop everything and head for the wilderness, though I have never acted on that impulse with anywhere near the tenacity of this guy. A sweeping road trip film, the movie takes place in dozens of locations, and everything was filmed on location. As a result, Into the Wild feels very real, almost like a documentary. Fresh, invigorating, introspective, strange and passionate.

2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I probably don’t need to say much about this one since I just finished writing a blog about it. Suffice to say, it is one daring effort by director Julian Schnabel who crafts a movie about an artist struggling to create. The visual style crafted by Janusz Kaminski will surely spawn its copycats, and surely with less efficacy. A pioneering, emotionally involving, devastatingly beautiful and uplifting movie.

No Country for Old Men

The Coen brothers have crafted an intense, penetrating and sobering film that left me haunted for days after I first saw it, and left me affected as much the second time.
No Country conjures analogies to the Coens’ 1996 film Fargo (which I consider a masterpiece, too), an ironic, occasionally hilarious and deeply disturbing movie. No Country paints a bleak picture without the humor. I labeled it a lament, or to be more specific, a lament for the vicious cycles into which humanity keeps falling. The film leaves me pondering what my country will look like when I am old, and strikes me with the determination interrupt the destructive circle before our children inherit a bleaker, more difficult and violent culture than the one we now know. Add to this a spectacular, unflinching performance by Javier Bardem that makes him one of cinema’s greatest villains of all time, and you’ve got one memorable movie.

Honorable Mentions - Here’s a few titles I either couldn’t figure how to place or failed to recognize their greatness.

  • Silent Light (Stellet licht) – Carlos Reygadas

A slow-burning, meditative, earthy picture of Mennonite life. Not for the impatient filmgoer, however.

  • Flight of the Red Balloon (Le voyage du ballon rouge) – Hsiao-hsien Hou

Juliette Binoche is great (as always) in this film that lingers on the ordinary and urges us to perceive the transcendent. Again, if you think a movie like Letters from Iwo Jima is too slow with too many subtitles, then Red Balloon probably isn’t for you… but you should see it anyways, just for that reason.

  • Eastern Promises – David Cronenberg

Once again, Cronenberg subverts our expectations and plays violence like it should be: grotesque, unsettling and downright frightening.

  • Zodiac – David Fincher

On of the least violent, most cerebral serial killer movies you will ever see.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Deal With It!

While I was driving back from some place yesterday I passed a car with a window sticker that read “Jesus is alive, deal with it.” This slogan overlaid a big, cartoonish cross. For some reason, this really jumped out at me. In fact, I was so convicted by this slogan that I immediately rededicated my life to Jesus there at the intersection of Fair Oaks and Corson.

Actually, to be honest, I didn’t like the sticker at all. “Why not?” you may be asking. Well, it seems to reflect the fact that many people perceive the supposed good news of the Gospel as un-good, and that believers in that Gospel want to keep it that way. What the sticker presumes (I’m guessing) is that non-Christians don’t believe in the resurrection despite the preponderance of clearly obvious empirical data made available to them by so many eager apologists, and by that I mean, people with stickers on their car windows.

I suppose this kind of in-yo-face! religious zeal reflects the condition of competition and rivalry that, according to Henri Nouwen, pervades even our most intimate relationships, let alone our relationships to strangers. In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis says, “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed.” I see in this comment an insightful commentary on modern American society as a whole and western Christianity too. By saying “deal with it,” aren’t we telling others that Jesus’ resurrection is far from being good news about the incarnate reign of a merciful God in our midst and represents more an annoying intrusion of an exclusive and elitist ideology?

This attitude is reflected in exclusive claims to knowledge and the creation of who’s in/who’s out categories in the Christian church, doesn’t it? How can so many Christians (especially evangelicals) claim the blessings of God and condemn in broad strokes so many others who do not hold to the same beliefs? Here’s what I fail to understand about the narrow “salvation” claimed by so many of my fellow followers of Jesus: it presumes that the grace of God was limited by the emergence of Jesus. I cannot see why, for example, Jesus’ death would condemn the Jews (his own people!), merely because they would not accept him as Lord and Savior. I can just see Christians back in the second century with the words “Jesus is alive, deal with it” engraved on the back of their carriages just to incite their Jewish neighbors.

I hope that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus never represents something that must be dealt with, as though it was a harsh, exclusive and condemnatory fact, but instead a reason for joy and gratitude that we are invited into the life of God in the midst of our fractured, confusing and fallible lives.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Search for Deeper Sources of Vitality

I recently saw a great new film at the Laemmle Theater called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. You may have seen a preview for it, but probably you’ve never heard of it. Too bad, because it’s a great movie. TDBATB is directed by Julian Schnabel, who has limited filmmaking experience but an extensive history in the arts, and it shows. I saw another of his films, Basquiat (1996) in an art class at Fuller last year and enjoyed it, too. With a combination of pioneering film style, great performances and a remarkable story make this one of the best films of the year.

It begins with perhaps the most appropriate FADE IN from black in the history of cinema. As the audience, we awaken with the protagonist from some unknown past into a dim hospital room, the camera struggling to focus on various strangers who ask odd questions and appear not to hear a voice that emanates from the rear speakers, a voice within a mind that belongs to someone we cannot yet see. Schnabel and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (a Spielberg regular) invite us into a vicarious experience of total paralysis and muteness—the world of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a man who has suffered a sudden debilitating stroke. For a good portion of the film, we see the world only through a subjective camera which blinks and darts just like the human eye. Bauby lives behind a two-way mirror, in which he can see, think and respond to others but they cannot reciprocate. The effect is claustrophobic. We hear every little sound, from the brush of fabric to gusts of breath. Bauby’s senses and ours become heightened to his surroundings, living in a world of forced asceticism. The analogy of being trapped in a diving bell is especially pertinent. Imagine being trapped hundreds of feet below water in a large metal diving suit—the closeness of sound, the immobility and the feeling of utter helplessness—and you can imagine this film’s unique aesthetic quality.

It soon becomes apparent that Bauby’s condition trapped behind the mirror will likely be permanent. An eye is sown shut (in the film’s most cringe-worthy scene) and a couple lovely ladies are brought in to teach him to communicate. The system devised involves a person reading the alphabet to Bauby, who blinks when the person gets to the letter he wants. This continues to form words and phrases. Many of the effects on film were accomplished in the camera, without digital manipulation, and much of the dialog—or dual monologue, to be more precise—is improvised, and the film benefits from the resulting “hands-on” feel.

At first, Bauby feels so trapped and helpless in his “diving bell” that he wants to die, but the love, attention, patience and mere presence of so many people, including his friends and family, instills in him the will to stop pitying himself. This motivates a move away from the subjective camera to an objective camera, where we see a paralyzed Bauby for the first time. The other scenes that step out of the first person into the third are Bauby’s dreams, memories and imaginings. He calls memory and imagination the only parts still working in him. His memory/imagination comes to us in bits—presumably, as he recalls the events himself—and always ends abruptly, as though waking from a dream. I don’t know about you, but every one of my dreams ends the same way. This element contributes to the vicarious experience of the film and draws us further into Bauby’s interior world.

The majority of the film follows Bauby’s decision to write a book with the help of a transcriber. This is where Diving Bell diverts from a similarly themed movie, The Sea Inside (2004). Whereas Bauby decides to stop pitying himself and create something beautiful, the character played by Javier Bardem in The Sea Inside takes his self-pity to a dismal end: a glass full of poison. Bardem ends his paralyzed life alone in front of a DV camera, while Bauby ends his life surrounded by love. I recently discovered the writer Henri Nouwen (who I will surely write on at a later time), and a particular section from his book Reaching Out sparked a connection for me with this film:

What if our history does not prove to be a blind impersonal sequence of events over which we have no control, but rather reveals to us a guiding hand pointing to a personal encounter in which all our hopes and aspirations will reach their fulfillment?
Then our life would indeed be a different life because then fate becomes opportunity, wounds a warning and paralysis an invitation to search for deeper sources of vitality.

I cannot think of a better way to summarize this film. In some ways, the end of Diving Bell resembled another film about discovering deeper sources of vital after suffering paralysis, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, although the paralysis in that film is more emotional than physical. Both films show us that the categories that make us human are far wider than we might imagine, and that personal encounter, or Presence is one of, if not the most valuable resource for our lives, indeed, that makes life worth living. The “butterfly” the title implies is released from Bauby’s interior world of memory/imagination and breaks into the external world of the “diving bell,” imparting beauty, meaning and hope to an otherwise painful and insufferable reality.

At the Golden Globe Awards last Sunday, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly received two awards: Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director (Julian Schnabel). If you are able, see this movie!