Saturday, June 25, 2011

'Tree of Life' Befuddles Some

As the film opens in wider and wider release, and reaches audiences in more remote parts of the country, it has apparently provoked some bizarre reactions. It recently debuted at Avon Theater in Stamford Connecticut and received what must have been some substantial number of patrons who sought a refund because the film was 'boring', 'unfocused' and 'time-dragging'. This wouldn't be so surprising if it occurred at a large multiplex, but at a small, indie-oriented, arthouse theater -- whose patrons should be used to unconventional, challenging films -- it is strange.

The theater denied requests for refunds, standing by the quality of the film, and posted this letter outside the cinema in response:

I would deride the intelligence of this particular town, but the movie isn't a puzzle film. It's a film that is primarily to be experienced and enjoyed, rather than 'figured out'. It doesn't take a great intellect to engage the film seriously or to be moved by it. But if your palette for film is trained on simplistic, crowd-pleasing, commercial cinema -- as I suspect must be the case for those seeking refunds -- then the response isn't surprising. Which is not to say that any and all sophisticated film aficionados will certainly, inexorably enjoy the film, but it is fairly safe to say that none of them would seek a refund since they would be able to appreciate the ambition and the craft of the film, even if it didn't necessarily work for them.

The other possibility is that the viewers are fairly sophisticated, arthouse patrons, but they took offense at the religious content. Though, given the nature of the responses as described, I don't think this is the case. It's much more likely that they were unsophisticated viewers who were attracted by the big names.

The film doesn't open everywhere until July 8th and once it does I suspect that some large percentage of mainstream audiences will respond similarly, since their appreciation apparatus for high-art in general is so poorly calibrated and their tastes are so coarse and vulgar. We shall see.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pragmatism, Principle and the GOP Primary

In deciding who I should support for the GOP nomination for president, I've found myself wrestling with the problem of pragmatism versus principle. Should I support the candidate most likely to defeat Obama in the general election? Or the candidate whose beliefs, values and principle most accurately reflect my own, even if that person would have poor chances of winning? Ideally some Reagan-esque option would come along, and I wouldn't have to choose but could have my cake and eat it too. Unfortunately, with the current pool of candidates, it seems I do have to choose.

Mitt Romney seems to be the current favorite to win the nomination, and in some sense would be a pragmatic choice. He looks and sounds very presidential -- more so than any of the others. He has a smoothness and charisma that none of the other candidates have. As superficial a criterion as that may be, it will play a significant factor in any election that takes place in a superficial society (which ours clearly is). He has raised the most money, he has solid experience governing, he has been successful at business and he has a fairly fiscally conservative record.

However, his own pragmatic streak makes him unreliable, and the likelihood for him to hold lightly to a principle and sway with the political winds is very high. This is most clearly illustrated by his position on abortion, going from solidly pro-choice -- when campaigning in a liberal state -- to solidly pro-life -- when campaigning for the Republican nomination for president. Similarly, one of his main accomplishments in his state was Romneycare, while he is strongly in favor of repealing Obamacare. He defends this position by saying the former was done at the state level, and the latter at the federal level, where it has no place. This defense actually does make sense, to a certain degree. I don't think it's a simple rationalization. Still, it should raise concerns for conservatives, both in terms of how vigilant he will be on this important manner if he got elected, and how Obama could wield this against him in a general election.

Also, Romney's Mormonism -- the elephant in the room -- is not a non-issue. The evangelical Christian base is one of the Republican's largest, most consistent constituencies, and there are some not-insignificant percentage of them who will never vote for a Mormon. That doesn't mean they will vote for Obama either, but it might mean that they will stay home or vote third party.

After Romney the most compelling alternatives seem to be Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty. Both of whom have significant trade-offs in terms of pragmatism and principle. Newt's legislative accomplishments are great, and he is articulate and extremely intelligent. However, his campaign has been badly mismanaged from the outset, with him opposing Paul Ryan's budget and then his staff leaving. Add to this the fact that he has an unseemly green streak, and his significant list of positives are somewhat cancelled out.

Pawlenty has a solid conservative record, with none of the faults of either Romney or Newt, but he lacks the distinctiveness and charisma that they have. However, as Thomas Sowell points out, charisma and empty rhetoric were some of the evils that delivered to us President Barack Obama in the first place. Still, it's difficult to imagine someone like Pawlenty defeating Obama in a political campaign, which Obama -- for all his faults -- excels at. Though there may be enough antipathy directed at Obama that he could pull it off. In terms of principle Pawlenty is one of the more pure choices available, but he comes with some lingering pragmatic concerns.

There are other candidates that I'd be willing to consider. Ron Paul is an extreme Constitutional conservative, which I like to a certain extent, but he has a wont for nuance. Not to mention his foreign policy prescriptions are something of a travesty. Michelle Bachmann is a solid conservative who I could see myself backing. Whoever I support in the primary though -- I'm currently leaning towards Pawlenty -- I will be forced to weigh some pragmatic concerns against principle. Ultimately, though, I dislike pragmatists and pragmatism in general, while I have great respect for men of principle. With that in mind, principle will always be given greater weight in my universe.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Malick Prepping 6 Hour Cut of 'The Tree of Life'

Over the weekend Emanuel Lubezki -- the cinematographer who worked with Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life -- said in an interview when discussing Malick's editing that Malick is preparing a 6 hour cut of The Tree of Life. This is astonishing for multiple reasons.

First is that a 6 hour long movie of any kind is an absurd oddity. Second is that a 6 hour cut of this particular film -- which may be the best of the millennium -- is an absurd oddity that will have film lovers salivating in anticipation. The third reason is that this is the busiest Malick has ever been in his career. He has just completed The Tree of Life, he's already competed shooting on a new film, and he's apparently in the ongoing process of working on Voyage of Time, a feature length documentary that is an extrapolation of the sequence from The Tree of Life that depicts the creation and evolution of the universe. Add to this that he's apparently simultaneously editing a 6-hour cut of The Tree of Life and that's a lot of activity for a man who is known for extended periods of inactivity. Though the 6-hour cut might not be as labor intensive because he's  winnowing it down from an initial 8-hour cut of the movie that already exists.

Apparently the long cut will feature a lot more of the material from the young boys lives, which makes sense. It will be very interesting to see how this turns out. It's difficult to imagine improving upon the current 2.5 hour cut of the film, which seems perfectly paced and proportioned. I wonder if it will be released on director's cut DVD (hopefully Criterion) or if it will get a limited cinematic re-release? Or whether it will ever see any kind of release at all? In any case, I absolutely can't wait to see it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Christopher Nolan and David Fincher Talk Malick and 'The Tree of Life'

If you are unfortunate enough to be among those unfamiliar with the works of Terrence Malick, perhaps high praise from Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception, The Dark Knight) and David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network) will awaken you to the cinematic treasure trove that is Malick's work.

This promotional featurette for The Tree of Life shows the two director's discussing Malick's work and technique over clips from the film. Nolan's analysis is especially interesting. It's a shame this thing is so short and that the directors don't really discuss The Tree of Life specifically, just Malick generally, though. Hopefully there is more footage of these interviews that will be released in some form (i.e. DVD extras) later.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Films to Anticipate - For 2011 and Beyond

My tastes in film tend to be fairly narrow -- as you'll see, I mostly like directors with arthouse roots, who carry those sensibilities into their more mainstream, bigger budget, studio careers -- but some parties have expressed interest in my opinion on what films they should be keeping an eye out for so hopefully this will be a helpful resource. If you feel I've omitted anything worth anticipating, please comment and let me know. It's possible something slipped my mind, or there's a project I was otherwise unaware of.

Django Unchained - written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. It just broke that the film will be released on Christmas day, 2012. Coming off of the excellent Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino continues to explore the theme of historical vengeance, aimed at the purest evils. In Basterds, it was the Nazis, in Django it will be slave owners in America. The film is a spaghetti western about an escaped slave (as yet uncast) who teams up with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), to get revenge on a merciless slave owner to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who has taken his wife hostage. It's kind of philosophically interesting what Tarantino seems to be doing, in a meta-film sense. Some viewers -- rightly -- have qualms about indulging in revenge fantasies, but Tarantino seems to be challenging those viewers to try not to indulge and delight in his tales of vengeance against the purest of evils, those that are the most prominent in the consciousness of the West. It's admittedly difficult to resist the appeal.

Untitled - In an unprecedented turnaround time, Terrence Malick has quickly followed up completion of his magnificent, stunning The Tree of Life, with a new film. Malick is notorious for having large gaps of time between films, so it's peculiar that he would film, and can, a new movie this quickly. And with The Tree of Life representing a kind of culmination of his film career thematically, it will be very interesting to see what direction this film goes. The new film is still untitled, but is sometimes referred to as 'The Burial'. It is some form of love story with Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams playing the two main characters (and Javier Bardem playing a priest). Though it's finished shooting, there's no telling how long it will take to edit, market and release, but whenever it does hit, definitely be on the lookout.

The Master - though the title is subject to change, this is Paul Thomas Anderson's new one with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. The film is said to be loosely modeled on the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. I believe it's about to start filming soon. Coming off of There Will be Blood, I was very curious to see what PTA would tackle next, and this seems interesting and ambitious material. Anderson is absolutely among the most interesting and talented directors working, so I can't wait for this.

The Dark Knight Rises - by Christopher Nolan with Tom Hardy as Bane and Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, with most of the rest of the cast returning. The consensus is that The Dark Knight is the best superhero comic book film ever made, and I'm somewhat inclined to agree, even though I do think it had more flaws than most seem to think. In any case, Christopher Nolan films are reliably smart and entertaining, so if there's any blockbuster-type film to eagerly await, it's this one. I think it's coming out summer 2012.

Noah - This is still in early stages, but things are happening with it. After dropping out of directing The Wolverine, it seems that this Biblical epic will be Darren Aronofsky's (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) next endeavor. Aronofsky and his collaborators made the script into a graphic novel to help pitch the film, which apparently worked as it currently has been 50% financed by some studio, and will have the rest covered if they officially land Christian Bale to star (he's currently in talks to do so). It's safe to say that it won't be your typical Charlton Heston-esque Old Testament epic with Aronofsky directing. Aronofsky has said he wants to explore this story and the character of Noah, who he says has more darkness and nuance to him than you typically tend to think. I believe I read that he might portray Noah, initially, as a drunk, or something to that effect. But don't quote me on that.

The Hobbit - With Peter Jackson retaking the helm, after Guillermo Del Toro left the films, fans of The Lord of the Rings films, as well as the books, can feel fairly confident that all is well. Not that I was too worried when Del Toro was directing, but there was a question to what extent he would submit himself to Jackson's vision of the universe, and to what extent he would inject his own vision. His design of Smaug that he described in a New Yorker profile of him, for example, seemed to be particularly Del Toro-ish -- which means Smaug would not be particularly consistent with Jackson's universe. In any event, with Jackson helming there are no longer such lingering questions, and greatness is to be expected. As I understand it, this will actually be two films, covering the material from The Hobbit, and adding story to kind of connect The Hobbit to the beginning of Lord of the Rings.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - Based on Stieg Larsson's immensely popular millennium trilogy, this sees David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network) returning to his dark, pulp roots as a director. Seems to be a brilliant match of director and material. The trailer looks great and Fincher's work is consistently excellent. It hits theaters Christmas, 2011.

A Dangerous Method - directed by David Cronenberg, and featuring Viggo Mortesen and Michael Fassbender as Freud and Jung, respectively. Mortensen is great, but I would have loved to see Christoph Waltz (who dropped out at the last minute) as Freud alongside Fassbender. This should be excellent.

Gravity - by Alfonso Cuaron starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. The film has gone through some production woes, with Robert Downey Jr. being slated to star, and eventually dropping out, and I'm not quite sure what stage it is at currently, but if and when it gets completed it should be very cool. Cuaron directed one of the best Earth-bound, sci-fi dystopian films ever with Children of Men, so it should be cool to see him bring his sensibilities to space sci-fi. The film is said to be 60% CGI, integrating live-action with CGI. That is somewhat disheartening, but I imagine that the bulk of CGI will be of inanimate objects, like space crafts and such, and so won't be so bad. Apparently most of -- if not the whole -- film will be shot in zero-gravity conditions, and it will feature a 20-minute, uncut opening shot. Cool.

Blood Meridian - based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road) the film was once slated to have Ridley Scott direct, then Todd Field, and more recently the project has fallen into the hands of James Franco, which seems insane. Franco is unproven as a director, and this is a literary classic of the 20th century that will be difficult to bring to the screen. In any case, the source material is utterly brilliant, and much of it has great cinematic potential, especially the enigmatic character of The Judge. If done right it could be phenomenal, but there are a lot of 'ifs' associated with this film at this stage. Who knows when it will go into production, or even whether it will ultimately get made, but if and when it hits theaters, check it out. But read the novel first.

Those are my most highly anticipated, taking a long-term look at the future, as many of the projects have not even begun filming yet. In the more near-term (2011 releases mostly), and with somewhat less interest I'm also anticipating:
  • David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis
  • Haywire by Steven Soderbergh
  • On the Road - an adaptation of the Jack Kerouac novel with a good cast, from the team that made The Motorcycle Diaries
  • Moneyball with Brad Pitt, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Jonah Hill, about Oakland A's manager Billy Beane.
  • The Rum Diary starring Johnny Depp based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson. The film is completed, but since the studio isn't hurrying to release it, it might not be any good.
  • The Man of Steel is Zach Snyder's take on Superman
  • Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson's newest with Ed Norton and Bill Murray.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Discourse and The Internet

One of the great things about the internet -- and communication technology in general -- is the ways in which it has, in some corners and among certain kinds of people, revolutionized intellectual discourse. Whether on a forum, on Facebook, on a blog comment section, or in an email exchange, the character of discourse that takes place is distinct from live interactions, telephone conversations or the exchange of snail-mail letters. Discourse that takes place on the internet leaves an interval for contemplation, reflection, thought and research that live interactions typically do not. And while writing letters also offer this feature, they have the defect of having large gaps of time between transmissions. The internet has the capacity to fill this void -- between not enough time for thought, and too much -- in communication.

Of course, just because the medium makes contemplation and reflection possible, doesn't mean that human beings will often take advantage of it. As I've written before, the internet has actually had a coarsening effect on discourse, to a large extent. My aim here is only to point out the capacity for a new kind of discourse that the internet opens up, for those who choose to take advantage of it.

In live interactions with people, specifically in a situation where there is an argument or disagreement among parties, so often not much relevant gets said. The tendency in exchanges of this sort is for people to get easily distracted from the main point of contention and led down tangents, until the end of the conversation loses the central point of dispute entirely.

These types of interactions are not without benefits, though. They can be quite lively and sometimes even enlightening, but they very often lack focus. While, on the internet, given two parties seeking genuine, rational dialogue, there is much greater potential for clarity and focus. The reason for this is obvious; when you post something online, you must first consider your words, read them, think about them, edit them, and then post them because once you hit submit, your words are there permanently (more or less), open for scrutiny. Furthermore, your partner in the discussion can always return to words you had said earlier and quote them back to you. Therefore, greater care to be consistent, clear and coherent is needed.

None of this is the case, in the same manner, in a live or telephone discussion. In either of those contexts, conversations are expected to meander, get off-topic, for threads of argument to be lost ignored, for subjects to change, for inconsistencies to be less obvious etc. Thus these exchanges will always be less ordered and precise.

Also, in live discussions, there is a tendency for participants to feel the need to respond directly to everything that the other says, often not taking time to contemplate whether or not what has been said is pertinent. Of course, it's still possible in live arguments to realize something is a red herring or otherwise irrelevant, and point it out, but it's much easier to do in online discussions.  When discussing something in real time, one is much less likely -- for whatever reason -- to stop and ask one's self that most important question: "and therefore what?"

To give an example, on the topic of 'religion' a critic of religion might unleash a string of complaints against 'religion', when engaging in a conversation with a religious person. The religious person might feel inclined to answer these critiques, feeling that it is their duty to defend religion as such, if they are themselves religious. What might not be immediately apparent to either party, especially without time to contemplate the matter, is that a devout Mormon can be a devout Mormon and still be an intense critic of 'religion'; a devout Catholic can be a devout Catholic and still acknowledge all the evils perpetrated in the name of religion, even in the name of Catholicism, without feeling any pressure to renounce his faith; a devout Muslim can affirm any critique of 'religion' generally, claiming that the chief problem with 'religion' is that most religious people are not devout Muslims. In short, a religious person could -- rightly, logically -- answer any critique of 'religion' in general by merely stating "and therefore what?" 'Religion' could be universally recognized as a deleterious force in general, and still be advocated by every single religious person, without contradiction.

Of course, it's not incumbent to take this tactic in a situation like this. A religious person might genuinely want to defend religion as such, rather than just their religion in particular. The point is only that, in a live conversation, the irrelevance is less likely to be seen for what it is, and much time will be wasted by one party attacking 'religion' -- whatever that is -- while the other attempts defending it, when there is often no need to do so. The internet makes it more possible to cut to the heart of the matter more quickly, as, in this very same situation, rather than feeling the need to answer a specific critique of religion, the respondent might simply stop, think, ask himself "and therefore what?", and then point out the irrelevance of the contention.

Another benefit of the internet is that discussions can be seen through to some kind of end point, if those engaging so desire, and a much more thorough treatment of the subject can be achieved. Of course, in live interactions, you can have an ongoing conversation with someone that spans many discussions, which has its own sets of benefits, but they will necessarily tend to lack the precision of an online discussion of a similar nature.

These are just a few specific examples of the capacity for discourse on the internet to cut through the dross that composes large portions of live discussion, but, if you stop to ponder the matter, I'm sure you will recognize many other examples. Of course, some of this applies to the written word in general -- books, letters, newspapers, etc. -- not solely the internet. But the internet quickens, heightens and make more acute these benefits. And, certainly, there are many benefits of live discussion that text exchanges on the internet doesn't necessarily provide, such as body language and touch. The internet simply makes possible a greater depth and precision of human interaction, not by replacing other forms, but by being another tool with its own particular benefits (and detriments).

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Tree of Life's Christian Pedigree

In my initial review and follow-up post on The Tree of Life it was made clear, I would hope, that the film had a fairly strong Christian (or at least Judeo-Christian) pedigree. Most non-religious reviewers seem to see the film as essentially spiritual, and perhaps vaguely Christian, but as being about 'more' than just God or religion. This is certainly an understandable reading of the film given the worldview that they're working within.

I was more curious to hear the opinion of fellow Christian reviewers and whether or not they would see the film as intensely Christian, or whether they would view it more as primarily depicting a kind of new-agey spirituality.

As a big fan of David Bentley Hart, I inquired whether he would be reviewing the film, since he had professed great admiration of Terrence Malick's work, and since this is Malick's most overtly Christian film, in my view. Unfortunately, he hasn't had a chance to see the film yet and said that he would only know whether he had an inclination to review it after he has seen it.

This video review by Father Robert Barron on Youtube largely echoes my interpretation of the film, as well as gives some additional perspective on the film.

Today, over at First Things, Kevin Collins wrote one of the first Christian reviews of the film that I've read and he definitely tends more toward the interpretation of the film depicting interactions with an indifferent, mute, new-age, deist God -- but not the Christian God or the God of the Old Testament. He points primarily to the fact that Christ's name is never invoked in the film, that the God in the film is ill-defined, and that the Faith of the family isn't of a robust nature, occupying the center of their lives. What this reviewer seems to miss, I think, is that the film is mostly about coming to faith, not already dwelling strongly within it. The journey is that of Jack's, and it's about him finding his faith, amidst responses from God that are of the same character as God's response in the Book of Job.

To some extent, Collins accurately points out what the film is not, but I think he misses what the film is. Certainly it is not a theological treatise; it is not a depiction of the most venerable form of Christian Faith; it is not about all the details of the history of God's relationship with man. It is a film about the God of Creation; it is about Man occupying a central place in God's creation; it is about the Fall, death, human frailty and sin; it is about a God who loves his creatures; it is even about salvation, Resurrection and New Creation. Admittedly, much of this is arrived at in a somewhat elliptical fashion, but there seems to be no question that this is the thrust of much of the film.

A Christian viewer might have liked the means of reconciliation and salvation to be depicted in more concrete terms, but one must be aware too that putting in material extremely Christ-centric, with strongly Christian language would absolutely drive studios, stars, financial backers, distributors, and viewers away from the film -- unfortunately -- very probably relegating the film to straight-to-video status, at best. Not that this was Malick's reason for not doing this -- I think he likely was able to make the film he intended to make -- but the desire to see such a thing in a mainstream studio film is a literal impossibility.

Celebrate The Tree of Life for being the film that it is, and try not to to let the thoughts of what it is not detract from that appreciation.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

'Beauty of the Infinite' - Review

I finally completed Beauty of the Infinite. As I've mentioned in other posts, it was a difficult read for me in terms of my lack of familiarity with the works of many of the philosophers and theologians -- and the epochs of thought -- which Hart's argument builds upon. Though, I imagine it's also partially due to Hart's style, most notably his unrestrained erudition and massive vocabulary (spanning multiple languages), though this could be a false perception. In any case, the read became much easier as the book progressed, though I'm not sure if the latter half of the book is "objectively" less difficult, or whether I just became accustomed to the language and style of thought by that point.

This text doesn't seem to be intended for a lay audience at all, but it was an extremely rich, rewarding and perhaps revolutionary read for me. I never really thought that Christian tradition was lacking in theological richness, or in philosophical resources, but Beauty of the Infinite took my appreciation for that tradition to new heights. Much of that richness was undoubtedly already present in tradition, and I had just never encountered it. This is evident in the sections where Hart merely summarizes the thought of various theologians -- such as Gregory of Nyssa and Athanasius -- and those mere summaries of their thought gave me a greater appreciation for the Christian intellectual tradition.

On top of this mini-revelation are Hart's own theological and philosophical contributions which -- again from my vantage as a member of the laity -- are thorough, brilliant and enlightening. Hart's discourses on the analogia entis (the 'analogy of being'), Trinitarian dogmatics and the aesthetics of Christian truth particularly opened my mind just what it is that fundamentally differentiates Christian thought from other forms of thought, and the radical possibilities that open up as a result.

Specifically, the notion of the supremacy of surfaces and rhetoric (over and against 'essences' and 'dialectic') in Christian thought was something I had never fully grasped and which this text clarified for me. That the 'form' of Christ -- in all his particularity and beauty -- is fundamentally everything that Christianity has to offer. And how contrasting this style of thought to both the reductionist tendencies of modernity, as well as the nihilistic totalizing of postmodernity, reveals how Christian thought can accept that it is a kind of rhetoric, only one without peer.

This elevation of rhetoric -- the rhetoric of the Father as incarnate in Christ -- leads directly into the idea that Being is an expression of the Trinitarian God, as opposed to it being a 'univocal' expression. I had never fully considered the consequences of this. For if Creation is a truthful expression of its Creator then that Creation should express certain characteristics in its very fabric, and a 'univocal' expression of being would be very different from a Trinitarian expression. The Trinity possesses an internal dynamism, a life, an intrinsic grace, and when this conception of God is analogized to Creation, Creation should take on a certain form which also contains an irreducible dynamism.

So many discourses on being -- virtually all of them, even some Christian ones -- according to Hart, fail to completely grasp the implications of this "theological interruption" and what it consequently makes possible. In other words, Christian thought can, in many ways, consider itself immune to the critiques of modernity and postmodernity, once the critiques are properly understood. Not that it can evade engaging those critiques, but that it can answer them in a way that other forms of thought can not. Once the project of modernity -- to dissemble and distill reality into sets of self-evident truths, by way of "disinterested rationality" -- failed, Christian thought knew that this was inevitable because Truth is contained in the surface. And that surface is a a reflection of the Trinitarian God who similarly can not be reduced to principles or 'truths' that are more essential than (and therefore less than) the totality of Himself, as expressed in the form, the surface, the particularities of Christ.

This is a very inadequate summary of some aspects of Hart's arguments, but hopefully you get the general idea. This understanding of Christian truth was a revelation for me as the implications of this understanding have actually proved to be quite extensive. For anyone with any theological or philosophical training, Beauty of the Infinite is essential reading. For any lay person with a fairly intense intellectual curiosity and dogged persistence, the text can prove extremely rich and rewarding as well.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

X-men: First Class - Review

The best parts about the Bryan Singer helmed X-men films (let's all forget the Rattner one, please) were Wolverine and the relationship between Xavier and Magneto. The tension between their opposed worldviews, the philosophizing, their continued friendship (of sorts) that persists even when they are on the opposite sides of a chasm of thought. Not to mention the superb casting of Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart. Though, because this dynamic only evolves over the course of two films packed with characters, it's given short shrift. What is there is fantastic, but it's necessarily -- and unfortunately  -- very limited.

The makers of X-men: First Class (helmed by Matthew Vaughn) smartly make the Charles-Erik (or Professor X - Magneto) dynamic the heart of this film as well, and it pays dividends. The casting is, once again, excellent and the respective performances are pitch perfect. James McEvoy plays a young, ambulatory Professor X with charm and class. While Michael Fassbender's Magneto is seething with a thirst for vengeance, and his performance is explosive.

The film acts as a prequel to the trilogy of films released last decade, even using one of the first scenes from the first X-men film as the opening scene for this one. Exploring the seeds of division that resulted in Professor X's school for mutants and Magneto's Brotherhood, the film revolves around the two characters and their relationship. Set during the Cold War, the events embroil mutants in the affairs of humans and serves to explain the origins of Magneto's antipathy and Xavier's pity and compassion toward them.

It was satisfying to get more of this relationship and these characters, but once again I felt as if the film would have benefited from narrowing its focus even further, at the expense of giving less attention to minor characters and plot.

Though there are things to like in the secondary characters and their interactions. The character arcs of -- and relationship between -- Raven and Beast are interesting and well done. And the training sequences of Havoc and Banshee are cool. Beast's birth is pretty awesome, being shown from a first-person perspective. Of course there are the big action set pieces and the mutant confrontations, and those are extremely well-done, especially the climactic sequence.

The villains are actually one of the film's somewhat weak points, I thought. Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon (who always plays a great villain) looks and sounds like he should be just some kind of diabolical mastermind- human-pulling-the-strings-behind-the-scenes, but he turns out to have one of the ultimate mutations it almost feels unfair to the heroes (though if you're familiar with him from the comics, you know it going in). I generally like a foe with slightly more meager gifts, but a more brilliant plan (ultimately it's only dumb luck that does him in, which is a bit of a flaw in the script). The great thing about the main villain, Shaw, is that Magneto has an extremely personal vendetta against him, and that acts as perfect fuel to Fassbender's flame.

The Shaw-Magneto dynamic is very interesting, in terms of character, because of what it reveals about Magneto. He doesn't oppose Shaw because he aims to destroy humans, on the contrary, he shares his worldview (after years in his tutelage). The only thing he holds against Shaw is the harm he inflicted on Magneto's family. It's the most personal kind of grudge, and the set-up and payoff for that dynamic is marvelous.

X-men: First Class is definitely the best X-men film to date, which I give a high recommendation. Definitely earns its place right in the upper echelon of comic book films made since the comic-book-film explosion.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Pagan Devotions and Christianity

Many critics of Christianity often take the 'resemblance' of Christianity to various pagan myths to be evidence that Christianity itself is merely a variation of these myths, though perhaps mapped onto actual history. With that last qualification begrudgingly conceded to due to the wealth of available historical evidence corroborating Christian claims. Though, this very fact of historicity undermines the claims of similarity immediately, at one level, because pagan myths lack this element almost entirely.

Still, these critiques do present some questions that Christians have to confront: Is there such a resemblance? If so is it a significant resemblance, or merely a superficial one? If there is some substantial resemblance on some level, what does that mean? Does it mean that Christian claims are untrue, or that scripture is merely a re-tooled pagan myth?

Without even being particularly well-versed in history and simply utilizing formal logic, it can easily be seen that, even if there were substantial pagan precedents to Christianity, it wouldn't say anything about Christian truth claims, nor necessitate the conclusion that Christianity is also fully -- or largely -- myth, even if it had -- in some sense -- been preceded by religious practices and devotions in late antiquity. And, once you actually do delve into the details of history, this becomes all the more obvious because many of the supposed similarities to Christian belief and thought are superficial or non-existent, while the similarities that do exist are easily explicable within the bounds of Christian thought.

A podcast I listen to regularly (Take the Stand) recently tackled this issue, and they do a good job of employing the traditional (and potent) Christian apologetics on the issue. Some supposed similarities are simply fabricated; others are exaggerated; others exist but are superficial; others are legitimate similarities but only analogous to a single aspect of Christian belief (if that), not to the whole; Pagan myths differ in their very intent and content, whatever details may be vaguely similar.

On top of this, Christian thought maintains that Christ is the creator of all things and that Creation expresses the work of the creator in its fabric. With this being the case, its even less surprising that humans -- even prior to the Incarnation -- should stumble upon this truth, though necessarily in a pale, shadowy, incomplete form.

After I had just listened to this episode, David Bentley Hart wrote a new article on this matter as well. Hart takes a much different approach, instead choosing to acknowledge significant pagan analogs to Christianity "in the intensity of piety, in the spiritual longings it answered, even in its liturgical and sacramental conventions." Part of the intent of Hart's piece seems to jolt Christians out of their reactionary denials of any similarity, instead noting that certain stylistic and spiritual similarities are undeniable, and that this fact should hardly be surprising (though Hart deliberately narrows his focus to the styles of religious devotion, rather than the areas of moral or narrative content, historicity, truth, etc.)

Christianity is, in fact, historically rooted, so there's no reason to suspect that its worship, devotions, or language would differ markedly from the prevalent styles of the time. What we as Christians need to maintain is not complete originality on all matters, though we must argue in favor of the historicity of Christ, and deny claims of 'legend' or 'myth' being significantly present in scripture. What makes Christianity important and different is that it is true, not that it is wholly original in its human devotions or stylistic conventions.

Christian thought does make significant claims to telling a new narrative of reality and being and professes a content that is unlike any other in the ultimacy and finality of its truth (pagan myths were not even believed to encompass a complete account of being, but rather were almost always accounts of gods within an economy of gods) and on this count we should persist and be vigilant. The actual content of the Christian faith is something entirely new and original and true, and none of the vague, imprecise approximations of that content that existed in late antiquity (some of those being influenced by Christian thought, and not the other way around) do anything to circumvent this claim. Nor do they make the conclusion that the authors of Biblical texts 'copied' or 'appropriated' significantly from pagan myths any less untenable.