Friday, July 27, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises - Review

The culmination of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy has arisen in the form of The Dark Knight Rises. Given the critical and popular acclaim heaped upon The Dark Knight -- much (though not all) of it deserved -- expectations for the final chapter in the trilogy were at a fever pitch. The film largely rises to the occasion, with a few significant qualifiers that keep it from being an absolute masterpiece.

Following the dynamic and indelible performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, and considering the general dark intrigue that surrounds villains as objects of speculation and hype, all eyes are on Bane this time around. An exiled member of the League of Shadows (the group led by Ra's al Ghul in Batman Begins), Bane -- a hulking wrecking-ball of a mercenary hellbent on chaos and destruction, as portrayed by Tom Hardy -- leads an underground uprising composed of Gotham's outcast and malcontent. Though the facial apparatus somewhat obstructs Hardy's ability to emote, his physical presence is dominating and fierce, and the effect produced by his ominous voice as projected through the mask is chilling -- though I'm not sure I prefer this final version of the voice over the more garbled early incarnation. Bane delivers as a cool, compelling villain, except for an event late in the film which I will come to anon.

In the wake of Harvey Dent's death as a martyr (in the eyes of the public), Gotham passed the Dent Act and cracked down on crime (one result of which is the aforementioned criminals that join Bane's uprising), and enjoyed a period of prosperity. Bruce Wayne -- sensing that Batman was no longer needed in the capacity he once was, and physically and spiritually downtrodden himself -- has gone into seclusion in the Wayne mansion and has become a bit of a recluse. But the rise of Bane represents a new need of Gotham's. 

That's the very general set-up for the film, but there's a lot more going on here. The film introduces many new characters quickly, while catching us up with old ones. The opening is a bit disorienting and demanding of the audience, but Nolan juggles the various characters and story threads deftly. I understand the desire to see a more circumscribed story, that focuses more intently on Batman and Bane for instance, though I think this is ultimately more satisfying than that approach would have been.

Especially in Batman Begins, but also in The Dark Knight to some degree, one of the few drawbacks was Nolan's choreographing and editing of action sequences. The Dark Knight had some spectacular action set pieces, but I still felt this was Nolan's achilles heel. Here he has actually improved somewhat in that regard. The set pieces are just as spectacular as in The Dark Knight and they flow more naturally and intelligibly. Fueled by Hans Zimmer's familiar and tremendous score the film is exhilarating to behold, especially in IMAX.

Nolan could easily have set his thematic and narrative inclinations on autopilot and still delivered a satisfying conclusion, but he never takes the easy path. Instead he weaves a dense tapestry of story, drawing on the well of character development in the earlier films to produce a complex and emotional climax to the series. This is part of the reason the plethora of characters doesn't feel overwhelming -- we already know Bruce, we know Alfred, we know Commissioner Gordon, and Nolan trusts the audience to engage with them on a level that connects with the previous films, rather than having to act as if this is a standalone film.

There is a powerful resonance in the image of the forces of evil -- in the guise of 'liberators' opposing the establishment, looking to institute 'justice' -- being charged by an army of cops looking to take back their city, given the clashes between Occupy and the police in the last year. Many conservative commentators have gone so far as to read the film primarily as political allegory, though I think that's a bridge too far. Clearly Nolan comes out on the side of order over chaos, and of regular people working within established institutions over world-burners and revolutionaries, while also attacking the propagandistic rhetoric of certain segments of the left and thus the film presents a nominally conservative worldview, but I don't think this theme dominates the proceedings.

Despite all the narrative brilliance, there are a couple missteps and one almost proves disastrous. The next three paragraphs will contain spoilers, so do not read ahead if you haven't yet seen the film.

One misstep is the common (but always silly) narrative device where, instead of killing the Hero when he has a chance, the Villain puts him in some sort of trap or device from which it turns out to be possible to escape. This was actually common in the Batman television show with Adam West, and perhaps in the comics as well (I never read much DC and so I can't be sure), so this could be a nod to the Batman tradition. Also, in Nolan's defense, if you ever want to imagine a scenario where the Hero is in the clutches of the Villain -- an interesting event -- it's difficult to avoid something along these lines. Still, given the grimy quasi-realist aesthetic of Nolan's Bat-iverse, you would think he would avoid this tact.

The other more serious problem is the late revelation concerning Miranda Tate. Transferring Bane's ostensible back-story to some rich, unassuming, female criminal mastermind at the last minute pulls the rug out from under the audience, to be sure, but it also turns Bane into a subordinate villain and demystifies the mythos being built around him. This wouldn't be so bad except it violates the coolness of Bane and makes the real villain just some random chick. Perhaps that's sexist of me, but I never claimed to be above petty sexism in my comic book inclinations.

At the last moment Bane becomes Darth Vader (mask and all) to Tate's Emperor (only minus the redemptive turn). I'm sure on a repeat viewing it will be interesting to watch Tate's (and Bane's, for that matter) actions and words in a new light, but it still feels a little cheap and less gratifying than if Bane had in fact been the child born into a dark hell who rose. I want that to be him. I don't want him demoted to the level of devoted and somewhat creepy henchman. That said, as much as that alters the film, and as much as I'd rather it be otherwise, the movie still succeeds. And perhaps on repeat viewings the feeling of being duped will subside.

Despite these missteps, The Dark Knight Rises still manages to soar -- literally, as The Bat, Batman's aerial vehicle, plays a big role in key sequences and in fighting the war against Bane's army. With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan not only outpaces all the comic-book competition but also maintains his near-monopoly on challenging, intelligent, adult, blockbuster, 'event-film' entertainment.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Introducing Radical Orthodoxy

After having read a book, some essays, and watched some lectures by John Milbank, the project of Radical Orthodoxy piqued my interest. Many aspects of Milbank's thought resonated with my own inclinations, but I also knew that the project of RO was bigger than Milbank (though he is the most prominent of RO's figures) and that having read only one of his books -- and one that was only half his, The Monstrosity of Christ -- the fundamentals of his thought were still somewhat obscure to me. With Milbank's manifesto Theology and Social Theory being a bit too pricey for Kindle, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy by James K.A. Smith seemed a perfect place to turn.

Smith and the RO authors themselves -- John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward primarily -- seem to eschew the use of "school" or "movement" in describing RO, instead opting for phrases such as "ecumenical agenda" or "ecumenical program". Smith, quoting Pickstock, says that RO "is not a system, method, or formula but a 'hermeneutic disposition and style of metaphysical vision.'" So what makes up this agenda, this disposition, this vision?

Smith does a magnificent job outlining all of the contours of theory and thought that give shape to RO, so I won't try to completely distill that work here. I will touch on some of the major cornerstones of RO that most struck me.

One aspect of the movement (I'll use this term for lack of a better single word) that is most enticing and striking to me is its unapologetic "apologetics". Or rather, the manner in which it rejects apologetics -- especially "classical apologetics" -- which it sees as a fundamental compromise with modernity, as classical apologetics operates within a certain apostate framework of thought that has a foundation of secular premises. This concedes too much ground to the secular (which is itself a fragile fiction of sorts). No matter how grand or profound a defense for the faith you can build up from within this apostate framework, conceding the 'rules of the game' to anyone other than Christ is idolatry.

And that is what we do when we compromise with modernity or postmodernity (which RO, along with, for instance, David Bentley Hart, holds to be a sort of hyper-modernity), so RO instead seeks to "stop doing theory according to 'the rudiments of this world rather than according to Christ.'" This, it should be noted, is not to reject all of the 'fruits of modernity', or to be 'anti-modern', or to deny the valid aspects of the postmodern turn in philosophy, only to re-narrate everything according to Christ and reclaiming that which properly belongs to him.

This foundational idea blossoms in many ways. To name a few: it entails rejecting the Enlightenment sundering of faith from reason as illegitimate; it means denying the validity of modern politics (secular, liberal democracy), the epistemology that undergirds it (autonomous reason) and denouncing it as a product of an apostate ontology (the univocity of being, traced back to Scotus); it means opposing -- or at least rehabilitating -- many dualisms, such as that erected between nature and grace.

Once the received wisdom of modernity is shown to hinge at various points on essentially arbitrary and apostate movements of thought, the cosmos are free to be re-narrated according to the form of Christ. Though this sort of phrases the truth of things in reverse; God's creation as creation and our participation in it is prior to any apostasy, however, living in a modern or postmodern culture, one must contend with the reigning metanarrative and show that it is merely one metanarrative among possibilities and in no way necessary. Postmodernity wouldn't object to recognizing modernity and Christianity as competing metanarratives, and so RO doesn't fully reject its insights on this count.

Once the 'playing field of thought' is leveled, RO believes a robust liturgical, sacramental, and participatory narration of the cosmos according to Christ will stand apart -- not by being secured as truth by way of autonomous reason operating on first principles -- but as narrative, and one that doesn't suffer the same contradictions or antinomies as the metanarrative of modernity or postmodernity. This requires an alternative epistemology (illumination) grounded in an alternative ontology (participation), and this is partially accomplished by retrieving pre-modern sources -- Plato,Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Aquinas etc. -- and exploring the ways in which the historical development of thought fits with this vision. Simultaneously, the movement engages with postmodern thinkers -- Derrida, Deleuze, Foulcalt -- acknowledging what they get right and noting where there is a convergence of sensibility, while still reading them according to their own distinctly Christian vision. This is not to forfeit truth, but to forfeit truth as being reducible to modern epistemology or to any ontology of immanence.

The most significant point of departure from the modern and postmodern is at the most basic level of ontology. While postmoderns necessarily read the immanent as violence, and therefore inscribe violence into  being, RO's ontology is one of an original peace, as revealed in the Trinity. Because God contains difference in himself and is a harmonious One, and because creation is God's good work in which he reveals Himself, the nature of difference must not be of violence but of peace. This fundamental observation re-orders everything.

RO envisions a form of post-secular thought -- rooted in a participatory metaphysics and an epistemology of illumination -- in which it isn't just philosophy that is the 'handmaiden of theology', but that all theoretical disciplines, in a sense, are. The fact that it was ever otherwise, as a matter of history, is only a result of fallenness and of the course of the development of thought turning from its proper telos. Hence, RO seeks to create a post-secular realm where architectural theory is shaped and formed according to theology, where literature and the arts are, where economics is, where philosophy is. This is different from bringing Christian sensibilities to these disciplines and looking to 'baptize' them -- as if the disciplines were autonomous realms not belonging to Christ -- but re-thinking them at the root, according to the form of Christ, Trinity, and a participatory understanding of humanity's role in creation.

All of RO's thought and its conclusions are arrived at and given shape by the radical truth of the incarnation, along with the attendant doctrine of the Trinity. Because of creation's initial goodness, and because of Christ's incarnation and rescue of creation from fallenness, RO is free to affirm the goodness of materiality and view human participation in the divine by way of this truth. Which means affirming the liturgical and the sacramental as the primary means of grace. In modern and postmodern thought, where the immanent is all, the immanent is ironically revealed to be in the end nothing. RO argues that it is only when the immanent is suspended from the transcendent that the immanent can be affirmed.

Another dualism that RO rejects is that between fact and value, or between the empirical and the aesthetic. Because truth isn't the 'positive ground' that modernity sought, it is free to be synthetic, and therefore the realm of the aesthetic can be affirmed as not only one avenue to truth, but it becomes the primary vehicle of illumination and knowledge. This re-affirms the significance of the arts and images (in addition to other things) as God's good tools, rather than demoting them to the realm of entertainment or false idols. This understanding of the aesthetic informs the conclusion that narrative, in all its unconquerable particularities, is the mode of revelation that contains God's truth.

While much more could be said, I'll leave that to the book itself which I highly recommend. Smith traces the shape of RO in a highly readable manner and with many felicitous expressions, while also allowing those readers who want to, to delve deeper via extensive end notes. While my primary interest was in RO itself, Smith also wishes to bring RO into dialogue with the Dutch Reformed tradition -- specifically Kuyper and Dooyeweerd -- and to locate resonances and areas where one can offer correctives to the other. For my interest in the material this was mostly superfluous, but it didn't detract from the read any. Introducing Radical Orthodoxy is an enlightening, engaging prĂ©cis on a movement that is charting a course for Christian post-secular thought in a modern/postmodern culture.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Cloud Atlas Review

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas gripped me from the table of contents. The book is comprised of 6 stories, separated by time, but with thematic and inter-personal intersections which cascade through time. The chapters are arranged palindromically (i.e. A-B-C-D-E-F-E-D-C-B-A, with each letter representing a unique story, split into two parts), and being a bit obsessed with palindromes, my interest was piqued.

The first half of the book is an ascent through time, from the 1850s, through the present, and into the future while the latter half of the book descends through the same periods. Such a structure could be indicative of an ingenious narratival device, or a cheap gimmick that doesn't bear any fruit. In a meta moment during the Letters from Zedelghem story, Robert Frobisher -- the protagonist of the second story and a musical apprentice to a famous, genius composer -- describes the magnum opus that he is composing (independent of his mentor) in a letter to his friend:
"[A] sextet for overlapping soloists": piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor; in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finishished and by then it'll be too late.
 This is clearly a metaphor for the structure of the book itself, whose individual sections are also in their own "key, scale, and color" (or voice, genre, and style). And while I wouldn't go as far as "revolutionary", it isn't gimmicky either, but rather is a device that is utilized to a stunning, effective end.

Each of the stories work well on their own as stories. The characters are well-rendered, the stories pulse ahead in lively fashion, and the prose is excellent in the varying styles. If this were a short story collection instead of a novel, it would be a tremendous collection. But the structure, the intersections through time, and the handling of the themes -- the rise and fall of civilizations (or ascent and descent generally), the nature of culture, the human condition, imprisonment and escape -- as they appear in each of the narratives, elevate it and keep it from seeming as if it is merely a series of unrelated stories with a tacked-on way of connecting them. Instead, the stories inform and enrich one another, fleshing out characters and illuminating ideas.

While all of the stories have much to recommend them, the two that occur in the future and at the apex of the book -- An Orison of Sonmi 451 and Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin After -- were especially impactful in the way that they bring the threads of the book to fruition. The way the stories give glimpses of both a dystopian future and a post-apocalyptic distant future that follows it is an imaginative feat which isn't quite replicated by the stories set in the present and the past.

Astonishingly -- given the scope of the novel -- a film adaptation directed by the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix) is slated for release later this year. One could easily envision an invigorating, satisfying film culled from the world of the Sonmi narrative alone, but faithfully translating this entire novel seems a tall task. It will be interesting to see how much is lost in translation.

Cloud Atlas explores how the unfolding of time provides a backdrop for the story of humanity. It accounts for the variables and the universals; the feats of heroism and villainy; the rises and falls. While this can be done -- to some degree -- in a single story, the structural novelty along with Mitchell's gift for storytelling open up space for a richness and depth that is otherwise very difficult to achieve.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Gay Marriage and Christian Penitence

Over at Patheos Christian Piatt has a piece in which he describes his experience at a Gay Pride parade in Portland where he and his wife wore sandwich boards with the following message:

According to Piatt, humbly begging for forgiveness from the Gay Community on behalf of all Christians (whom, it's worth noting, he doesn't necessarily speak for) in Portland at a Gay Pride parade is a daring act of courage that could possibly carry dire consequences. Consequences such as, I suppose, being accepted and extremely well-liked.

If you carried a "Homosexuality is a Sin" or a "Marriage is a Sacrament, Not a Right" sign, then you'd be taking a stand for the faith which almost certainly would get scorn and derision directed at you. Not that I would recommend such a tact, but let's be honest about what is and what is not an unpopular stance at a particular venue. There's scarcely anything safer or more in line with current cultural trends than gestures toward the LGBT community in this vein, especially at a Gay Pride parade in Portland.

This fact in itself doesn't mean that such gestures are wrong (though I think they are), but even bracketing out that question -- and saving it for another blog, perhaps -- it's objectively not the case that it's a stance very likely to cost you anything. Not even so much as being mildly disliked.

John Roberts' Staining of the Court

I've declined to do much blogging on political topics of late, content to leave the task to others more capable and knowledgeable than myself in that area. However, shock, horror, disbelief, and outrage are magnificent motivators to write and have provided fuel for my flame.

Were my angst and discontent over the recent Supreme Court Obamacare ruling a mere matter of technical disagreement on the legal specifics of the case, I would respectfully -- but vehemently -- object to the opinion of Chief Justice John Roberts, siding with the four dissenters. However, the written opinion itself raised questions about whether Roberts' conclusion was purely wrought in the fires of Constitutional jurisprudence, and subsequent information is confirming suspicions that it was not. Instead it seems as if the opinion was the product of the Chief Justice weighing a variety of considerations and interests, many of which have nothing to do with his duties as a faithful interpreter of the text and of the relevant precedents. It's not only that Roberts has erred in his decision, going beyond the principle of generous interpretation and effectively legislating from the bench -- which would be bad enough -- but that his motivations for doing so seem to be concerns which should be, in principle, bracketed out to begin with and never taken into consideration.

Considerations such as the role of Chief Justice as a "steward" of the court, or of "the court's reputation", or making compromises toward some imaginary "long view", or declining to "obstruct" Congress and the President on an important piece of legislation. If faithful, accurate interpretation and application of the Constitution causes the "reputation of the court" to suffer, then please suffer dutifully and with honor. If reading the caterwauling of the elite media class causes you to believe the "reputation of the court" is actually at stake when it isn't, then please put down the New York Times Op-ed page immediately. If it makes you uncomfortable to strike down the cornerstone of a President's political and legislative agenda, then please decline to take the oath of your office which requires you to -- at times -- do precisely that.