Saturday, November 15, 2014

Going Nowhere, Not Nearly Fast Enough: "Interstellar" // Movie Review

About a year ago I was pleasantly surprised by the Sandra Bullock, George Clooney space adventure Gravity. I had seen the adverts, read and heard the reviews and was convinced that it couldn't possibly live up to the hype: I was wrong. This week I went to see Interstellar: the Christopher Nolan directed sic-fi space adventure, skeptical that this was just a Gravity knock-off, but walked in open to the prospect of being surprised, considering last year's turnabout.

All I can say is, this is no knockoff of last year's hit (at least not in its totality), but it certainly isn't worth the hype.

I must be up front: I'm not a big Christopher Nolan fan. He's certainly a great action director but, to paraphrase Orson Welles, he likes to come off like a big thinker, which really must be stopped. I thought 2010's Inception was a pretentious fraud: a fun popcorn movie masquerading as existential psycho drama. I liked the Dark Night, the middle movie of Nolan's Batman trilogy, but thought the other two, especially the finale, were depressingly nihilistic. What made the Dark Knight Rises even worse is that he stuck on a happy ending to the doom and apocalyptic gloom.

In the case of Interstellar all signs point to a transcendent reality helping our heroes along, explained away using "reason" in a manner that takes more faith to accept than it does to believe in God.

The plot is very complicated, but at the heart of it the earth, in some not so distant future, is experiencing droughts and blights that are one by one killing all the main agricultural food staples. Corn is the only thing left. After that goes, so goes humanity. Matthew McConaughey plays a former astronaut turned farmer mysteriously drawn, through his daughter, to a secret NASA base. To make a very long and convoluted story short, his mission is to enter into a black hole that mysteriously appeared next to Saturn, following other secret missions that went before. Once on the other side he and his crew are to scout potential planets these previous missions had identified as being potentially habitable, selecting the one that gives humanity the best chance to start over.

There are all sorts of games played with the time space continuum, so that people on earth age faster than those on other planets and solar systems. The science gets fuzzy, as well as the logic, which I wouldn't care about if it didn't make so much of a difference to how the story wraps up. If Inception's problem was that it treated the dream world with far too much concrete linear certainty, here it's that the natural world is treated with the disjointed logic of a dream, and this strategy works no better than the first.

Plus, it takes a long time, over two hours, to get where it's going. I have nothing against long movies, but Nolan, with co-writer (and brother) Jonathan set up a plot so complicated it demanded at least an extra half hour then it probably should have get it all untangled and the loose ends tied off. Even then, it all doesn't fit. Again, I have no problem suspending disbelief in films like this, but not when so much is riding on the science part of the fiction, to the exclusion of a non-scientific explanation for anything.

As I wrote earlier, a recurring point made throughout the story is that so many events seemed to be pre-planned by an unseen agent. The black hole seemed to be placed in just the right place at just the right time. McConaughey's daughter believes that they were given clues to the base's location by ghosts. The scientists talk of the previous missions being led to their destinations by "them," whoever "they" are. McConaughey refuses to believe any of this, stating that if a phenomenon is unexplainable it's just that science hasn't figured it out yet, but it will in time (a very common atheist/skeptic argument when faced with mysteries that defy human reason). There is no explicit rejection of God or the spiritual, but it is clearly implied by how the story wraps up.

I will have more to say about this point soon, because I think a treatment of Interstellar's metaphysics deserves a separate treatment. But I'll leave it at this: I loved the cast, including John Lithgow, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, and a slew of cameos and stunt casting that would be a spoiler to reveal. The special effects are jaw dropping for their realism (the budget was a reported 165 million dollars, and every penny of it is on the screen). Some have criticized Nolan for being emotionally detached, but I thought the human characters were drawn as well as one could expect from a sci-fi action adventure. I believed the relationship between McConaughey and his young daughter played effectively by 14 year old Mackenzie Foy, though this probably has more to do with the actors then the script.

I could say these same things about any of the other Christopher Nolan films I've seen: Good actors who elevate the material and mind blowing special effects. But what's missing, now as always, is a soul. For all the black holes and distant worlds, we are still in a closed universe that we are the center of. In short, Interstellar is nothing more than feel good nihilism.

But more on that next time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Poppies to Keep Us Awake

The World War I Poppy Memorial at the Tower of London
For us here in the United States the 11th of November is Veteran's Day; a moment to say thank you to the men and women who have served in the armed forces, and increasingly to recognize those still serving in uniform. But we have lost the reason why this day is different from all other days, so to speak. Today is the 96th anniversary of the ceasefire agreement on the Western front during World War I, and until 1954 we observed it as Armistice Day to reflect that connection. Even as child, long after Veterans Day supplanted the previous holiday, I can recall church bells ringing at 11am, a faint echo of remembrance that the fighting ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. Here in the States this fact is lost on many people. But in Canada and England the observances still focus on this singular event.

And for good reason. England alone lost upwards of a million people, both military and civilian due to battle, war crimes and disease. Those young adults who were killed, as well as those who survived the experience are often called the Lost Generation. There was mourning for lives that never reached maturity as well for those who were able to carry on but had lost a sense of purpose and meaning in life. We have short memories on this side of the Pond, but even a hundred years after the war began the people of the United Kingdom, and much of the Commonwealth, are still enveloped with a pall of sadness over the destruction, both human and cultural, that resulted from the conflict.

But there was another casualty of World War I. If the Faith is dead, or at least dormant, in Europe today it is due to a great degree to the war. A profound existential doubt hit Western Culture over the years of 1914 to1918, and then was solidified by World War II resulting in people losing faith that there is a providential God who loves and guides human progress. If God is all loving why would he permit such suffering and destruction? What is the purpose of being born if life can be taken so swiftly and senselessly? Where is God in all this? For many, no satisfactory answer was found, so the churches emptied and the culture became increasingly secular. But does this reaction make sense?

While questioning one's faith in the face of calamity is more than understandable, in the particular case of the Great War, I would argue that it, along with World War II, were not religiously motivated conflicts, but came after periods of increased secularization and optimism in the ability of human progress to shape a bright, prosperous and peaceful future. In the second half of the previous century Germany, France and Italy had all undergone Church - State conflicts that saw the place of religious institution is public life greatly limited (some would call it a persecution). We can see here the beginnings of later totalitarianism in which the state claimed complete control over the loyalty and even wills of the people. Nietzsche saw that religion was on the retreat as a relevant cultural and social force, proclaiming the God was dead, and that it was our indifference that had "killed" Him.  The late 19th and early 20th century saw an explosion of world's fairs and exhibitions where the latest scientific and technological advancements were put on display. While many of the items being shown off were the latest turbines or industrial machines, there were also plenty of artillery pieces and other armaments. The industrial revolution had given birth to modern warfare and killing could be done wholesale.

World War I was the time when all the technology, all the political strategy and all the secular notions of progress were put into practice. Our faith was no longer in a providential God who needed to be obeyed, but in science and technology's ability to shape and manipulate nature and the state which would guide and control our lives from cradle to grave. The guiding principle was enlightened human reason's ability to control it all. If World War I was a failure it was in humanity's ability to shepherd itself.

The failure of the churches during this time was that they tended to go along with the notion, even implicetly, of boundless human progress, and in surrendering to nationalism that was the great tool used to stir up hate between the nations. Priests, bishops, ministers and preachers helped promote the war effort, and were really dupes. Yes, there were voices like Pope Benedict XV calling for peace and reconciliation between peoples, but far too many churchmen, both Catholic and Protestant, were preaching "praise the Lord and pass the ammunition."

The church, in the broad sense of the word, has learned from this experience. While not nearly all religious people are pacifists, I do believe that most know that war is not to be glorified and the men and women who served need to be cared for, and not shepherded to their deaths on behalf of blind nationalism. We also know, I hope, the difference between patriotism and nationalism; one being a love of country and the other a love of the state (maybe a discussion for another day).

But otherwise the broader culture has doubled down on stupid. We still believe that science, technology and government are our saviors, in spite of the 20th Century's atomic bombs, gulags and genocides, which used man made tools meant to save us rather to destroy and dominate. Some may point to Islamic terrorism as a sign of how religion motivates wars and conflict, but if we look closely can anyone honestly say that ISIS is motivated by faith, or is religion being used as an excuse for political conquest? Again, a discussion for another day.

The people of England still mourn a century later. There is a temporary memorial made up of clay poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London; one for each life lost by that country. The public out pouring as been overwhelming, with thousands of people coming to visit the site everyday for the past several months. Poppies are usually associated with opium, sleep and forgetfulness. Here they are meant to keep us awake and remembering. But what we remember is important. As Christians we need to remember that we are at the service of the One Lord, Jesus Christ, and while we love our country, we are not slaves of the state. For the entire culture science, technology and sound government are tools that are not goods in and of themselves, but need to be guided by deeper principles rooted in faith, or else all manner of atrocity is possible.

While the memorial's reference to the blood spilled in the poppy fields of Belgium is obvious, the way they appear to be cascading out of a window of the Tower is reminiscent of the blood flowing from our Saviour's wounded side. England, Europe and all Western Civilization suffered a passion in the 20th Century. I pray that we may all soon experience a resurrection of the Faith.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox

I was recently introduced to the musical ensemble Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox (PMJ), by way of a You Tube video of one of their more popular offerings: a jazzified version of the Meghan Trainor hit All About That Bass. Band leader, arranger and pianist Scott Bradlee's premise is simple: take current pop hits and re-imagine them in various pop genres of the past century. And for the most part it works extraordinarily well. PMJ's offerings make two things abundantly clear: first, that pop music, no matter the era, is incredibly elastic and adaptable (Bradlee's observation). The second is that your average pop star today isn't very talented, or more to the point, there are incredibly talented musicians and singers out there who never get a chance because the music industry is more about style, spectacle and shock, and not so much about music.

Yes, the idea of post modernism does play a part here: there is a clear ironic twist to the proceedings. When Jason Derulo's Talk Dirty is redone as a Jewish, Fiddler on the Roof style folk song you know that you're not supposed to take it all too seriously. PMJ's collaborations with cabaret singer Puddles the Clown (Michael Geier) are the height of genre bending bordering on parody. Their version of Lorde's Royals, is superior to the original in terms of arrangement, phrasing and overall emotional punch. But in the video, done in PMJ's minimalist, one camera format (until recently taped in Bradlee's bare white living room), Puddles gently mugs and gestures, indicating a disconnect between his rich and expressive baritone and his "this is a big put on" demeanor (as if performing in full sad clown suit and make up isn't the first hint).

In a way it's too bad, because these guys and gals are really talented. Robin Adele Anderson, Cristina Gatti and Ashley Stroud, regulars who rotate on vocals, all have great voices and know how to work a song. PMJ also features a wide variety of guest musicians and vocalists. Kate Davis, who sings and plays the upright bass on I'm All About That Bass, takes an over glorified novelty song and offers a playful, nuanced performance. In doing so she and Bradlee transform something base and obvious into something sly and almost innocent. A New Orleans Jazz version of the Guns 'N' Roses rocker Sweet Child O' Mine, sung by Miche Branden captures the bombast of the original, with textured horns and vocals, that once again, bring out emotions beyond what the contemporary Pop-Rock genres are capable of. PMJ mine what are too often vacuous lyrics for all their emotional worth, making the words sound like they mean more than they really do. I get it, that's the point: but like with Puddles the Clown, their talent raises these performances above mere parody, making me wonder what they could do with more worthy material.

I could go on, but it's better to listen to this original, fun and impossibly entertaining musical conglomeration.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Sun Will Melt Your Wings: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) // Movie Review

Let me get my criticism of Birdman out of the way right off the bat.

There's a scene early where Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a faded action movie star trying to reinvent himself as a serious stage actor, is exchanging dialogue with the vastly more experienced theater actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Shiner is brought in to work on the Broadway production at the last moment after a piece of lighting falls on one of the players during rehearsals (symbolic of the problems plaguing the production thus far). Shiner knows the script because he had helped coach his girlfriend (Naomi Watts) who is in the play and suggested him for the role. When Riggan feeds him a line, Shiner stops him, pointing out that he had just said the same thing in about five different ways. Why not cut out the repetition? Make is punchy, make it blunt, say it once.

Oh, if only director Alejandro Gonzalez IƱarritu and his veritable army of co-writers had followed their own advice. We are repeatedly hit over the head by on the nose dialogue about the pressure Riggan Thompson is under that it assumes the audience isn't smart enough to figure that out by what's going on on the screen. And what's going on on the screen is spectacular, and outweighs any reservations I might have about the script itself, which alternates between slyly wicked and obvious.

The movie begins with the play within a movie ready to go into previews and the production already in shambles as well as in debt. The a fore mentioned Riggan Thompson is still trying to run away from the shadow of the hugely popular superhero franchise he quit back in the early '90's. But now that he's hitting sixty he finds himself  irrelevant in a new world of social media and viral videos. In an attempt to do something meaningful he adapts a short story by Raymond Carver, writing, directing, producing and staring in the project. Along with the felled, now litigious co-star, he's dealing with a hostile daughter just out of rehab (Emma Stone), an insecure leading lady (Watts), a girlfriend who may be pregnant, and also has eyes for the leading lady (Andrea Riseborough), as well as the Norton character who is volatile, abrasive and self serving. As if his friends weren't enemy enough, there's a hell on wheels New York Times theater critic determined to close the play on opening night with her pen (Lindsay Duncan). The only one keeping him sane (barely) is his lawyer played by Zach Galifianakis.

As you can tell, there are a lot of characters to keep track of, but each suffers from an underlying crisis of meaning in life and the emotional insecurity it brings with it. At the same time the movie doesn't accept that their angst is necessarily well earned. When Norton confronts the Stone character on why she's so hostile toward her father she talks about how he was always away during her childhood and later tried to make up for it by making her feel special. Norton responds with a shrug, as if to say, "And? That's it?" As for Norton, he's a cocky loose cannon and readily admits that he really doesn't care if people like him or not, yet he only feels completely self assured on stage. In fact when it comes to his love life the stage is the only place he's ready to perform, much to the horror / frustration of his girlfriend-co-star (you'll just have to see the movie to know what I mean).

As for Michael Keaton's Riggan, there are obvious parallels to his real life association to the Batman franchise, though in 1989 Keaton was a serious actor who took heat for donning the cape and mask from fan boys who didn't think he has action star enough. Here his character tries to prove his artistic theater cred amid reporters who would rather talk about rumors of unorthodox anti aging injections and a possible reprise of his Birdman role. He's a man who is trying to pursue an artistic vision in a world that has stopped caring about art, thus forcing the question if the project really matters at all. The one person in the movie who does care about such things is the Times critic who can't get past the fact that Riggan is a "movie star" who only got to book the theater because of his celebrity, thus robbing a more worthy playwright an opportunity to shine.

Amidst the egos, pratfalls, self destruction, and bizzare twists of fate Riggan barely keeps it together. He hears the voice of Birdman and experiences episodes of magical realism that are obviously going on in his head. Or are they? He reaches rock bottom the night of the last preview when he realizes that the critic has already decided what she thinks, leaving us to wonder if he can pull this mess of a play together in time for opening night. The ending is telegraphed, which was frustrating at first, but they give it enough of a humorously ambiguous twist to keep it from being completely predictable, and staying true to the film's dark yet comic tone.

Like the project that our antihero is pursuing, Birdman is ambitious. It is critiquing our vacuous, celebrity gossip driven, entertainment obsessed times, while also exploring the nature of intimate relationships and the meaning of life. Along with very introspective scenes of dialogue, both internal and external, there is sweeping camera work, and even a touch of CGI action fantasy thrown in for good measure. IƱarritu utilizes long takes and impressive tracking shots that allow scened to develop and meld into each other. While my criticism of the script itself still holds, and it could have been about 15 or twenty minutes shorter, Birdman offered me something alien to too many of my recent movie going experiences: a sense that I was being challenged.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

St. Louis Guanella

St. Louis Guanella, whose feast day was yesterday, knew Don Bosco and was for a short time a member of the Salesian Society. The call of the Lord lead him out of the congregation to dedicate his life to working wit the developmentally challenged. He is an example to our call to recognize the presence of God in all people, especially in those the "world" counts as weak, or even useless. Here's a reflection on his life and work from the Apostleship of Prayer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Virgin Sings "Like A Virgin": What's So Strange About That?

Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Bernini
I've never commented on the phenomena that is Sr. Cristina Scuccia, the Ursuline sister who won the Italian version of the popular talent competition The Voice, because I felt a bit ambivalent about the whole thing. I didn't think it was scandalous, just gimmicky. My first impression when I saw the viral video of her auditioning for the show's judges was that her getting through was the result of a sort of "man bites dog" situation. No one expects to see a young woman in full habit, crucifix and sensible shoes belting out an R & B number on national television. But there she was: the judges couldn't help but go for it, and so a curiosity was born. I figured that the good sister's 15 minutes would pass and she'd be back in the convent before long, mainly because her singing voice is unremarkable. Not bad by any stretch, and Sr. Cristina certainly has a lot of heart, but she doesn't possess the soaring and dramatic pipes of a Susan Boyle let's say, another viva in sheep's clothing who came out of nowhere to find fame on Britain's Got Talent a few years back. But here she is, the winner, and her singing career is on it's way.

For her first post Voice single she's chosen to cover Madonna's Like a Virgin. An odd choice: sure. A nun sings Like a Virgin? Sounds more like a Saturday Night Live skit. Scandalous? It's easy to think so.

Until you listen to it, and better yet watch the video.

In this off kilter song selection Sr. Cristina pulls off a bit of holy subversiveness. As Madonna indulges in hyper sexualizing the sacred (do you remember Like a Prayer?), Sr. Cristina has taken an ode to lust and turned it into a hymn to agape. In the original video Madonna struts, writhes and wiggles her way through the canals of Venice seducing the camera as she goes. It's a one note performance, in more ways than one (I forgot how much she sounded like Minnie Mouse in those early years). Here, Sr. Christina conquers the same canals, but with a gaze focused somewhere else, as she sings of making it through the wilderness to reach a love that is rejuvenating and eternal.  Rather than Venice serving as an amorous backdrop for the singer, it is itself a "character," whose natural beauty and architectural wonders help lift the mind to something higher, something spiritual, something pure. When she does look into the camera directly it's with a sly, Mona Lisa smile, that says, "Yeah, I went there." It also says, "Scoff if you will, but I know what love is, and it's so much more than most of us think."

Sr. Cristina's turns the tables on the Queen of Pop, and redeems an otherwise disposable dance number.

She also pulls off something very rare: she produces a cover that's actually better than the original.

Because of the slowed down arraignment, free of the original's overdone synthesizers and drums machines, we actually hear the lyrics. It turns out that they are rather tender and speak to the redeeming, renewing quality of love. The stanzas are wisely emphasized, with the chorus handled more subtly, so as to avoid what could have become an unintended parody. While the original stays pretty much on the same tempo and key, this new version lingers, swells, crashes and rises again, showing tones and colors Madonna never even thought of.  Sister may not have a powerful voice, but it is expressive, pointing to a different experience of love then we usually hear in your average pop song. This version can be taken on a romantic level for sure, but also on a far deeper plain of two people whose hearts are united in a spiritual, unconditional embrace.

We can even go further and see the union of the soul with God.

From the Song of Songs to John of the Cross romantic, even erotic, imagery has been employed to describe the the human soul united with God in contemplative prayer. This is brought our clearly in Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa, where the saint is depicted, well, in ecstasy as the angel pierces her heart with  the arrows of God's love. St. John Paul II in his writings hinted that in the resurrection our whole being, body and soul, will be united with God in a nuptial embrace. Christopher West, the popularizer of the saint's Theology of the Body in the English language, has warned against over literalizing this concept, but the idea that the sexual union of man and woman is a foreshadowing, or imaging, of the heavenly reality to come is not so far fetched, and has it's roots in Christian mysticism.

Putting all the high minded theology aside, how do I explain Sr. Cristina's appeal? Beyond the novelty of it all, there is a beauty to innocence that only the most cynical can resist. It was the same with Susan Boyle: a practicing Catholic from a small town who always wanted to sing but never got the chance because the world cares more about the flesh than the spirit; appearances more than what lies beneath. When she did get the chance the public responded on a gut level and embraced beauty.

As for Sr. Cristina, who recently renewed her temporary vows, I pray for her. There are many temptations to pride and egoism in the entertainment industry that she's now entered. I hope she keeps her head about her, and uses this opening as an evangelizing tool, and when the bubble bursts, as it does eventually for everyone in that business, she has the humility to return to the "ordinary" life of her community. But until them, I'm hoping to see some more holy subversion out of her in near future.

Two Reflections on St. John Paul II from Catholic News Service and AOP

Friday, October 17, 2014

Synod of Bishops: Twelve Months to Take a Breath

The lead up to the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops that is wrapping up in Rome was filled with predictions of fireworks and infighting. I normally don't give much credence to such talk, and while I agree with voices like Fr. Robert Barron that we shouldn't make too much out of this week's controversies, it's hard to deny that, for once, the predictions were right.

Clear divisions can be seen among the Synod fathers, and while I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit is in charge and all will workout along God's plan, it has been a disconcerting process.

Week one seemed to go smoothly enough. Sure there were a few eyebrows raised by an Australian couple who spoke to the bishops about welcoming gay children and their partners to Christmas dinner. But for the most part what ever tremors were going on seemed to be mild. It looked like all the talk of rupture and discord was overblown.

Then week two opened with a seismic jolt by way of the release of the Relatio post disceptationem (report after the debate), a mid term report meant to summarize the discussions so far. While the document is wide ranging, not particularly well written and most importantly, not an authoritative teaching tool, the three paragraphs concerning homosexuals in the Church caused a firestorm inside the synod hall and in the secular as well as Catholic press. It engendered strong reactions from conservative minded bishops like Cardinal Pell who implied that the most talked about debate, concerning the issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried, is a stalking horse to get things like the recognition of gay unions on then table

The drama continued with the controversial interview with Cardinal Kasper that wasn't (but really was). In it the cardinal, who has been championing a change in Church discipline to allow Communion for the divorced and remarried, came off as dismissive of the bishops from Africa, more then implying that they shouldn't have much of a say in how the Church moves in this area since their cultural milieu is so different from that of the Western world. Realizing how negatively he came off, Cardinal Kasper tried to deny that the interview ever took place, which was silly since it was recorded and there were two other journalists present. John Allen has an interesting take on the whole thing, framing the controversy in light of Africa's coming of age within the Church.

If any of you have been following the controversy surrounding Cardinal Kasper, you'll notice that I haven't used the word "racist" to describe him, as some have. Partly it's because I don't believe that he is one, and also I think the racism, as well as homophobe cards are thrown around way too freely these days. It's like calling somebody a communist back in the 1950's; a cheep and easy way to cast aspersions on someone you can't actually beat in an honest debate. Cardinal Kasper, high IQ not withstanding, was speaking after days of grueling meetings, probably before supper, so he was more than a bit hungry, and communicating in a second or third (or maybe even fourth) language. I can attest that my ability to communicate in Spanish takes a big nosedive after a long day and on an empty stomach. The cardinal is an honorable man, and should be given the benefit of the doubt.

But his words do denote a general prejudice that some churchmen in the West have toward their counterparts in the developing world. Again, not racism in the sense that they think that people from the Southern Hemisphere are inherently inferior, but that they haven't caught up socially or intellectually yet. Give them time, the Europeans say, and our African and Asian brothers and sisters will see the light. But the African bishops are saying wait a minute; we understand and live the Church's social doctrine with zeal, as well as embrace Her moral doctrines. We've experienced persecution, and know what it is to have to grow and develop in a hostile culture. We take a back seat to no one: our parishes, religious houses and seminaries are filled to overflowing, while those of the West are withering. Maybe it's you that need to learn from us. Maybe it is those that the world considers weak who will teach the strong.    

Thankfully the Synod will end this weekend, and we will have time as a Church to pray and reflect before the ordinary synod in 12 months. 

Next time, something on Pope Paul VI, who will he beatified Sunday, the Spirit of Vatican II and how both relate to this soon to be concluded Synod.