Originally posted in December 2007
Shannon and I returned home late last night after spending the evening with some friends. I wasn't ready to call it a night so I put It's a Wonderful Life in the DVD player thinking I'd watch the first 45 minutes or so. Guess what? We ended up watching the entire movie until the wee hours of the morning. No matter how many times you've seen it, the story draws you in and makes it impossible to turn off. I think this quality must be the main reason IAWL remains a perennial holiday favorite. However, let me offer a few fresh observations that may help you appreciate this picture even more.
First, and most importantly, Frank Capra was a great filmic storyteller. He co-wrote the script and directed his actors in such a way that the pacing and structure of the film, well, pulls you in. He never let style get in the way of the story, but at the same time he wasn't afraid to use innovative cinematic techniques to serve the story. The most obvious example is the non-linear structure of the film, which few directors of that era would have been comfortable with, or able to pull off. A few more examples...
1) Capra used freeze-frame (remember the early scene when college-bound George Bailey is buying a suitcase?). This is a technique we're accustomed to, but not so for audiences of the day. 2) Capra's editing made liberal use of "fade to black" and "wipes" to transition between scenes. "Fade to black" tends to heighten the emotional impact of a scene and "wipes" (when the next scene transitions in from left to right across the screen) creates a dreamlike or storybook quality (remember that most of IAWL is an extended flashback in the "mind" of Clarence). Again, routine stuff today but not for mainstream films of the 1940's. 3) Capra's use of sound, particularly source music (music that originates from a location within the movie), was very effective. For instance, during George's "vision" we see Pottersville (now filled with taverns and dance halls) from his point of view. As he walks down Main Street, and each marquee slides by, we hear the various music and voices wafting out onto the sidewalk just as he's hearing it.
These are all relatively minor contributions to the greatness of the film (I haven't even mentioned the cast!), but they show a side of Capra often missed. He wasn't afraid to use the cinematic tools at his disposal, but only if they served the story he wanted to tell. Therein lies a lesson for self-indulgent directors overly enamored with cinematic whiz-bang.
The story of George Bailey is about how "life happens when you're making plans." He's a victim of circumstance over and over again -- his father's death, Harry getting married and getting the good job, the bank panic on his wedding night, the war. Things keep happening just when George is on the cusp of something big. But is he a victim? His best laid plans are constantly frustrated, and it all finally comes to a boil on that snowy Christmas Eve. But It's a Wonderful Life believes that there's a divine providence at work, and that George really isn't a victim. Indeed, there's a meaning to life greater than our own plans, aspirations and circumstances. That's a worthy message to hear in a time when individual choice and personal autonomy are held up as ultimate values.
In his moment of crisis out there on that seemingly godforsaken bridge George Bailey of Bedford Falls gives out a desperate cry for help.
God, if you're up there. Show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope.
George knows he's not a "praying man", but his prayer and the prayers of others in the town (heard at the beginning of the movie) bring a divine intervention that show him that his faithfulness and sacrifice haven't been in vain, indeed, in the things that matter most, George is the richest man in town. Here's hoping that Frank Capra's tale finds an audience for many more holiday seasons. Much has changed since 1946, but everyone still loves a good story, and It's a Wonderful Life is one of the best.
Thursday, December 17, 2015
Originally posted in December 2007
Tuesday, November 3, 2015
Another aspect of Bernie's appeal is that he's the anti-candidate candidate. He doesn't have one stump speech for one group and another for a different group. He is who he is. Witness his remarkable speech at Liberty University -- a rare example of civil discourse in an era of name-calling and polarization, where campaign appearances are carefully stage-managed. Speaking to several thousand Liberty students and faculty Sanders said:
I came here today because I believe that it is important for those with different views in our country to engage in civil discourse — not just to shout at each other or make fun of each other. It is very easy for those in politics to talk to those who agree with us. I do that every day. It is harder, but not less important, to try to communicate with those who do not agree with us and see where, if possible, we can find common ground and, in other words, to reach out of our zone of comfort.
Matt Taibbi writes in Rolling Stone about the condescending way the mainstream media is treating Sanders' campaign. It's a good read. Check it out. The media is obsessed with questions of style and strategy, but whether the rumpled leftist Grandpa from Vermont wins the nomination or not he's already proved it's possible to be a candidate, and run a campaign, that's refreshingly different than what we've rather cynically come to expect.
From the Rolling Stone article:
Sanders is a clear outlier in a generation that has forgotten what it means to be a public servant. The Times remarks upon his "grumpy demeanor." But Bernie is grumpy because he's thinking about vets who need surgeries, guest workers who've had their wages ripped off, kids without access to dentists or some other godforsaken problem that most of us normal people can care about for maybe a few minutes on a good day, but Bernie worries about more or less all the time.
I first met Bernie Sanders ten years ago, and I don't believe there's anything else he really thinks about. There's no other endgame for him. He's not looking for a book deal or a membership in a Martha's Vineyard golf club or a cameo in a Guy Ritchie movie. This election isn't a game to him; it's not the awesomely repulsive dark joke it is to me and many others.
And the only reason this attention-averse, sometimes socially uncomfortable person is subjecting himself to this asinine process is because he genuinely believes the system is not beyond repair.
Give 'em hell, Bernie!
Saturday, August 15, 2015
Be warned. Watching Waiting for "Superman" is a pretty depressing experience. It left me discouraged about the future of our country and anxious about the future prospects of my two boys. I think it's must-viewing though, especially if you've ever said something like: "I'll never send my kids to that school." This movie convincingly hammers home the unassailable fact that our public schools are failing a vast number of children -- this despite spending unprecedented amounts of money and sallying forth with one ballyhooed reform effort after another. Millions of children are still being left behind. This fine 2010 documentary succeeds by presenting the numbers -- often with nifty animations -- but even more effective than the damning statistics are the stories of the real life parents and kids told to us by filmmaker (and father) Davis Guggenheim. The statistics on failing schools can seem abstract, but here they come attached to names and faces.
Among the takeaways from Waiting for "Superman": he -- the Man of Steel that is -- doesn't exist, and there isn't a magic bullet solution to the education mess. The closest thing to education Supermen are reformers like billionaire Bill Gates, who understands that our nation's fortunes are tied to a quality public education system, and Geoffrey Canada, the founder of Harlem Children's Zone, who's demonstrated that it's possible to give a quality education to children from the most at-risk neighborhoods. Another takeaway is that most teachers are heroes, but that teachers unions are a menace to our kids. If you think menace is too strong a word, then watch the scene where we visit a "rubber room" in New York City where tenured teachers accused of incompetence (and even sexual misconduct) are paid to do nothing while they wait for their cases to wind through the bureaucracy. It's virtually impossible to fire a tenured teacher, and the unions want to keep it that way. Usually what happens is that bad teachers are passed from school to school -- a process called "the lemon dance" -- leaving devastation in their wakes.
Failing schools a/k/a "dropout factories" a/k/a "education sinkholes" aren't just an urban problem though. Waiting for "Superman" follows 8th grader Emily from a tony Silicon Valley suburb where the median home price is in the high six figures. At Emily's ostensibly "good school" her chances of getting into one of California's stellar public universities are jeopardized by an arbitrary process called "academic tracking." Because of this her family decides to enter the lottery to be accepted at a nearby charter school where students aren't tracked. For more and more families the chances of their children getting into a good school are tied to a bouncing ball or a randomly generated number. This is a scenario that could be in my family's future, and is already a reality for some of our friends.
Waiting for "Superman" paints a devastating picture of dysfunctional institutions victimizing those within their grasp, but the blame can't all be laid at the feet of educators and politicians. For every single mom or working family doing all in their power to get the best possible education for their child, there are many others who just don't care. This film also makes evident that if there isn't support at home then even the best teachers and administrators have an impossible task.
As someone who used to be somewhat anti-public schools I came away from this film convinced that reforming public education is both a national security and social justice issue. Some will argue that taxpayer-funded compulsory education was a fools errand to start with. Perhaps they're right, but that horse has long ago left the barn. We simply can't give up on the millions of children for whom public schools are the only option. The truth is, somebody's kid is going to have to go to that school. You know...the one I wouldn't dream of sending my son or daughter to.
Waiting for "Superman" ends with a montage of the families we've gotten to know attending lotteries that will decide whether their child gets one of the coveted spots at a high-performing charter school. The stakes seem almost life and death. Tears rolled down my face as I watched the disappointment set in as their child's name or number wasn't called. Is this the best we can do? A lottery to decide a child's future? This film might depress you, but hopefully it will make you mad too. Hopefully it will rouse you to action. Our future depends on it.
Friday, August 7, 2015
(Mild spoilers ahead.)
In the twentieth chapter of John's Gospel we see the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples as they cower behind locked doors. He announces, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." Jesus goes on to say, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."
This charge, or sending out (Latin: 'missio'), forms the basis for much of the Church's understanding of its mission in and to the world. Here too is the origin of our words missionary and another word much in vogue in contemporary Christian discourse: missional. If the church, and by implication, all disciples of Jesus Christ are sent into the world as the Father sent Jesus, what does this look like? What does it imply?
Certainly it implies a measure of triumph. After all, this charge is issued by someone who's just been vindicated as the conqueror of sin and death. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me", he will later tell the disciples. All authority. But set aside the triumphalism and let's see what else our sending brings with it -- if indeed our sending is one like Jesus of Nazareth's.
We will be mocked. We'll be told we are irrelevant, unwanted, a relic of history. We'll be scrutinized for any sign of weakness. We'll be tempted. We'll be beaten. Knowing our holy calling some will flaunt their basest sins in our face and watch to see how we react. We'll be let down by the weakness of our colleagues. Our dearest consolations will be cruelly taken away. We'll be called upon to bear the sins of our community, maybe even the sins of our church. And in the end we'll die at the hands of those we're trying to save.
All this happens to Father James, the hero of Calvary, a 2014 film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh and set in an Irish coastal village. This is a magnificent film in every way. Not always easy to watch, but magnificent. The final encounter on a beach in County Sligo is permanently seared in my memory. Brendan Gleeson plays the priest and turns in a mesmerizing performance, indeed the whole cast is a delight, including legendary character actor M. Emmet Walsh still going strong at 80. (For what it's worth Calvary shares a stylistic and thematic kinship with Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest. McDonagh's script makes the connection explicit by a reference to the French Catholic author Georges Bernanos, who wrote the novel Bresson's masterpiece is based on.)
Calvary begins on a close-up of James in the confessional, listening as a voice off-camera threatens to kill him "a good priest" on Sunday next as revenge for the vile abuse the unidentified confessor suffered as a child at the hands of a "bad priest." Viewers more perceptive than me may guess the identity of the would-be assassin before he's finally revealed. I for one was surprised. Throughout the week following the threat we witness a series of encounters between the priest and his mendacious parishioners, each one freighted with meaning and portent. Also carrying the story forward is a growing rapprochement with his troubled daughter Fiona (we learn that James entered the priesthood after losing his wife), and along the way there's an encouraging encounter with a devout Frenchwoman who faces tragedy while in Ireland on holiday. It's these flickers of faith amid the darkness of unbelief that keep Father James from abandoning his vocation.
Judged by contemporary notions of success, Father James is a failure, but his faithfulness in the face of suffering is a needed corrective to romantic notions of pastoral ministry. And lest we forget, there is joy in heaven over just one sinner who repents. In a final conversation between James and Fiona they speak about forgiveness as the supreme virtue. This draws me again to Jesus' words quoted above: "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld." Theologians have long debated the meaning of this enigmatic promise, and different church traditions interpret it in different ways. But at the very least Jesus seems to be saying the same thing he demonstrated supremely on the cross, that one act of forgiveness brings forth the possibility of more forgiveness. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." In a parabolic way the epilogue of Calvary shows the possibility of forgiveness breaking the cycle of evil, or in St. Paul's words: "overcoming evil with good."
Earlier I pointed out that "missional" has become a buzzword, especially in evangelical Christian circles. It's a good word and a needed discussion. As the world around us becomes more secular, more post-Christian, it's not enough to open the church doors and expect people to come. Like the first-century church it's time to recognize that the church isn't a building or programs, it's people taking the good news to the streets. It's about being the church rather than merely doing church.
On the other hand I think missional can easily become a synonym for "cool" or "relevant" or "popular." If so the mission involved bears little resemblance to the one modeled by our trailblazing Lord. To be sent into the world as Jesus was sent may bring success and popularity, but it's just as likely to bring being mocked, marginalized and in extreme cases killed by the very ones who need to hear the message of the gospel the most. It may mean being crushed between a rock and a hard place. N.T. Wright has written that Christian discipleship is "to become for the world what Jesus was for the world." Calvary is a beautiful picture of one such becoming. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Thursday, May 7, 2015
At its best football is poetry, and at its best writing about football must attempt to translate the untranslatable. This -- the opening paragraph of Barney Ronay's recap of Lionel Messi's single-handed demolition of powerful Bayern Munich in the last 10 minutes of yesterday's Champion's League semifinal -- is a wonderful try.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Lionel Messi’s second goal against Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night was its gentleness. There were 80 minutes gone when Messi approached Jérôme Boateng, feigned to go inside but instead glided to his right, not so much a dribble as a kind of lullaby, leaving Boateng, Manuel Neuer and finally Rafinha lying down very gently on their backs in their own penalty area as the ball floated into the back of the net. In the space of five perfect strides Messi had effectively put the Bayern defence to sleep, lulled into a drowsy supplication at his feet by a moment of controlled gymnastic perfection.
Read the whole thing here.
It's been years since I read A Scanner Darkly by the brilliant sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick (1928 - 1982), but something about recent headlines jogged my memory toward this haunting monologue.
It requires the greatest kind of wisdom, she thought, to know when to apply injustice. How can justice fall victim, ever, to what is right? How can this happen? She thought, Because there is a curse on this world, and all this proves it; this is the proof right here. Somewhere, at the deepest level possible, the mechanism, the construction of things, fell apart, and up from what remained swam the need to do all the various sort of unclear wrongs the wisest choice has made us act out. It must have started thousands of years ago. By now it's infiltrated into the nature of everything. And, she thought, into every one of us. We can't turn around or open our mouth and speak, decide at all, without doing it. I don't even care how it got started, when or why. She thought, I just hope it'll end some time. Like with Tony Amsterdam; I just hope one day the shower of brightly colored sparks will return, and this time we'll all see it. The narrow doorway where there's peace on the far side. A statue, the sea, and what looks like moonlight. And nothing stirring, nothing to break the calm.
A long, long time ago, she thought. Before the curse, and everything and everyone became this way. The Golden Age, she thought, when wisdom and justice were the same. Before it all shattered into cutting fragments. Into broken bits that don't fit, that can't be put back together, hard as we try.
Below her, in the darkness and distribution of urban lights a police siren sounded. A police car in hot pursuit. It sounded like a deranged animal, greedy to kill. And knowing that it soon would. She shivered; the night air had become cold. It was time to go.
For what it's worth, Richard Linklater's 2006 film adaptation of this novel is worth checking out. And if you put together all the movies based on Dick's material you'd have a film festival strikingly relevant to current events and debates.
Sunday, January 11, 2015
Another fascinating angle one could go into -- which I won't since it would involve getting wonky -- is the portrayal of family values in red-state America. For example Texas -- the terrain of Boyhood and the terrain of the director -- has a strikingly higher divorce and teen pregnancy rate than a blue state like Massachusetts. Fodder for a future post?
Then again, maybe the best review of Boyhood is the one-line assessment offered up by Shannon as we watched it together last night: "watching this makes me want to hug our boys." Indeed.
Sunday, January 4, 2015
The received wisdom of the day is that one is (or should be) defined by who they are sexually attracted to. If you're attracted to members of the same sex then it's folly not to act on that attraction, we're told. Indeed one should make it the core of one's identity. Thus the late-modern language of sexual orientation that would have left the ancients scratching their heads.
Challenge the conventional wisdom on sexual attraction and you're liable to be called deluded, in denial, or worse. Kudos to NPR Weekend Edition for letting us hear from two people who are so bold as to challenge, with utmost humility and graciousness, the CW (scroll through the comments for the requisite barbs and name-calling). Not only do they offer an alternative understanding of sexuality, they are living out a fuller and richer meaning of what it means to be human.
Click the link below to hear their story.
Attracted To Men, Pastor Feels Called To Marriage With A Woman
Monday, December 15, 2014
The other night I read the article "Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson" which is the twelfth in a collection of essays published as Heretics. It's part of Chesterton's enduring relevance that it matters not a whit whether one knows Lowes Dickinson from Emily Dickinson.
Chesterton's argument here is two-fold: that the modern conception of Paganism is incorrect ("Pagans are depicted as above all things inebriate and lawless, whereas they were above all things reasonable and respectable") and that Christianity is the one thing that can still be said to be of pagan origin ("If any one wants to hold the end of a chain which really goes back to the heathen mysteries, he had better take hold of a festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas"). Christianity adopted the pagan "rational" virtues such as justice and temperance, but to them added the "three mystical virtues" -- faith, hope and charity. The former are the "sad" and "rationalistic" virtues the latter are the "gay and exuberant" virtues. The pagan virtues are the "reasonable virtues" but the Christian virtues are "in their essence as unreasonable as they can be." In other words, each involves a paradox.
Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that. But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.
Whatever may be the meaning of the contradiction, it is the fact that the only kind of hope that is of any use in a battle is a hope that denies arithmetic. Whatever may be the meaning of the contradiction, it is the fact that the only kind of charity which any weak spirit wants, or which any generous spirit feels, is the charity which forgives the sins that are like scarlet. Whatever may be the meaning of faith, it must always mean a certainty about something we cannot prove. Thus, for instance, we believe by faith in the existence of other people.
Chesterton continues to scale the rhetorical heights by bringing in that other cardinal Christian virtue, the one that trumps all others -- humility. It was humility that transformed reasonable pagans into exuberant Christians. Humility gave birth to joy. The pagan set out on an admirable quest to enjoy himself, but in the end made the surprising discovery "that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else." He had thought that "the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by extending our ego to infinity, the truth is that the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by reducing our ego to zero." Civilization had to discover humility, or die. For humility is the virtue that's "for ever renewing the earth and the stars."
The curse that came before history has laid on us all a tendency to be weary of wonders. If we saw the sun for the first time it would be the most fearful and beautiful of meteors. Now that we see it for the hundredth time we call it, in the hideous and blasphemous phrase of Wordsworth, "the light of common day." We are inclined to increase our claims. We are inclined to demand six suns, to demand a blue sun, to demand a green sun. Humility is perpetually putting us back in the primal darkness. There all light is lightning, startling and instantaneous. Until we understand that original dark, in which we have neither sight nor expectation, we can give no hearty and childlike praise to the splendid sensationalism of things. The terms "pessimism" and "optimism," like most modern terms, are unmeaning. But if they can be used in any vague sense as meaning something, we may say that in this great fact pessimism is the very basis of optimism. The man who destroys himself creates the universe. To the humble man, and to the humble man alone, the sun is really a sun; to the humble man, and to the humble man alone, the sea is really a sea. When he looks at all the faces in the street, he does not only realize that men are alive, he realizes with a dramatic pleasure that they are not dead.
Behind this splendid prose one begins to see the outline of a figure that embodied the perfect principle of humility so sought after by the ancients. A man. Indeed, one who called himself the Son of Man. The Apostle tells us this God-man emptied himself -- made himself nothing -- so that he could identify with the oppressed race of Adam. Furthermore, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. By this humble act a new humanity was created, and by it one day the cosmos will be renewed. Incredible, isn't it?
Elsewhere Chesterton exclaimed:
When a tree really looks like a man our knees knock under us. And when the whole universe looks like a man we fall on our faces.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) is a film admired by many of the greats of contemporary cinema. For example Martin Scorsese features it in his fascinating Journey Through American Movies -- a series I recommend to anyone looking to increase your knowledge of American movies. Here and in several other films (see especially Magnificent Obsession) German émigré Sirk created a unique emotional vocabulary through a rigorous stylistic approach to color and framing. He knew how to get the most out of actors too. Jane Wyman's performance in All That Heaven Allows is one for the ages.
In a time where everything (it seems) is permissible the thematic elements of this picture may seem clichéd or just plain incomprehensible to modern viewers. That would be a shame. This movie must have exploded like a bomb in the consciousness of a generation of middle-class housewives, and if you allow it to transcend it's particular time and place it remains a devastatingly effective viewing experience. Except for the "Hollywood ending" it's perfect. A more appropriate final scene would have been the one below, which concludes with a shot of such emotional power it made my jaw drop as I watched it last night.