Thursday, December 17, 2015

George Bailey: victim of circumstances?

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.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Serious Candidate

I've written in this space before about my admiration for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders -- formerly, a mostly unknown quantity nationally, now, a serious challenger to Hillary the anointed one. Despite my deep differences with him on "abortion rights" and the meaning of marriage, his message of economic populism and his broadsides against the corrupting effects of big money on our political system resonate with me. Of all the candidates running for president he's the only one who gives voice to the frustration felt by struggling low and moderate-income families like mine. Others talk a good game, but Sanders is the only one with the credibility of a long track record to back it up and the independence that comes from refusing to take money from special interests and super PAC's. I'm happy to be one of the 1,000,000+ contributors who've given an average of $24.86 to his truly grass-roots campaign.

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

Waiting for "Superman" (originally posted in 2011)

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

Describing poetry

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


Boyhood is Richard Linklater's magnum opus. There's so much I could say about this film, and I already know it's one I'll return to again and again. It wasn't what I expected, but it was more than I expected. Maybe because I'm a parent I found the most compelling character -- and the one I most identified with -- to be the mother played by Patricia Arquette. She's the responsible one. Always present, doing the thankless "grunt work" of raising two kids, mostly on her own, albeit making some calamitous choices along the way. Yet by the end she's the one feeling most unfulfilled, unhappy, even alone. Perhaps there's a cautionary tale here somewhere.

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?
One of the many things Boyhood does brilliantly is highlight the seemingly insignificant conversations and chance encounters that end up shaping our lives. Watching it feels like eavesdropping on a series of vignettes reproduced with exacting verisimilitude. "Life is what happens when you're busy making plans," a wag once said. As the final scene seems to say: more often than not the major turning points of our lives are a case of "the moment seizing us" rather than the reverse.

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

A Christian challenge to sexual determinism

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