The Taser's Edge


The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go‘s protagonist and narrator, Todd Hewitt, is the last boy in the last village on his planet. Soon before his birth on New World, war had broken out between human settlers and the native Spackle. Although the human settlers of the planet managed to destroy the natives, it was not before they had been struck with a biological weapon which killed every woman and girl and which left the remaining men unable to stop hearing the unfiltered thoughts of one another as well as every dog, squirrel, cow, and crocodile on the entire planet.

As the single and final boy on the planet, Todd’s days are spent working as well as playing and hunting with his dog Manchee, particularly in the local swamps. One day, for the first time in his life, he hears…silence.  Its source? A human girl.

For his discovery, the men of his town decide they must kill him, and as he flees with the girl, his dog, and a long-hidden journal written by his mother into the wilderness of an entire planet, he is forced to realize that all he’s ever been told about his life and his people is a complete lie.

Read this book. It’s an original story, it is well-written, it is good speculative fiction, and it respects its younger target audience (while remaining very dark). And when Lionsgate releases the film version in a couple years, you’ll be able to quietly judge all those people scrambling onto the bandwagon at the last minute.



Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) by Errol Morris

I was elated when I heard that Errol Morris was coming out with this book, even when all I knew about it was the title and the author. (Fog of War is only one of the must-watch documentaries Morris is responsible for.) And the book exceeded my expectations.

Believing is Seeing is not so much about photography as it is about whether objectivity is possible (or desirable), about what and how and whether we can know, about history and memory, about how our expectations create our observations in things small and enormous. It’s not even that I agree with all his arguments (and, in fact, I found myself dissatisfied at the end of perhaps half of his photo essays), but he is an original thinker who helps others think, and that makes this book worth reading and re-reading.

There are six essays, each based around a photograph or set of photographs which have caused problems of interpretation, often with the help of mass media, but just as often with the help of historians and other scholars. Then Morris gathers interviewees and experts and other data and begins thinking through the puzzle.

The photography is great, the history is great, the interviewees are great, the anecdotes are great, the analysis is great, the prose is great. What more do you want? Excerpts?:

I also remember reading an account of October 28, 1962–the last night of the Cuban missile crisis, when many knowledgeable people thought the world would end. Khrushchev had not yet capitulated and Kennedy was poised for nuclear war. Khrushchev was in Moscow, Kennedy in Washington. We know what Khrushchev was doing from the accounts written by his son, Sergei. Khrushchev was so worried about the possibility of nuclear war that he spent a sleepless night and then announced his decision to remove the missiles from Cuba over Radio Moscow the following morning so that it could be broadcast to the entire world without delay. On the same night, Kennedy was down by the White House pool with his aide, Dave Powers, and two girlfriends watching Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. What a story. Hepburn, heir to some unspecified throne, dreams of being free of the obligations of state, but in the end knows she must return to the requirements of the monarchy. That die, too, was cast. It was a fantasy within a fantasy within the reality of the White House.

and, in a later essay…

A photograph can capture a patch of reality, but it can also leave a strange footprint: an impression of an instantly lost past around which memories collect.

The best way to get a taste of this book also happens to be about JFK. Last week, on the anniversary of the President’s assassination, Errol Morris created a short documentary for The New York Times called “The Umbrella Man.” The way the documentary winds around, altering your mind and surprising you in the process, is the way each essay in this book works.

Here’s the link to the NY Times “Op-doc.” Here’s the link to buy Morris’ book. Here’s the link to his website. Get clickin.’



Awe

Michael König via Kottke via Gizmodo



The Trip (2011)
October 30, 2011, 9:41 pm
Filed under: Film, Food, In the News, Video | Tags: , , , ,

It is as good as you had hoped. Better than I had hoped, even.

And just because…

and, even though it’s not accurate…

The Trip is on Netflix streaming, by the way. It’s not just comedy. It has heartfelt drama as well. (Thank you, Michael Winterbottom, for your ever-excellence.)



Whale Fall (after life of a whale)

It should not surprise you to know that WNYC’s Radiolab has once again shown that art and science are not at odds. Coming to you via me via The Atlantic‘s Maria Popova (aka @brainpicker), and reminding you how awesome you once knew decomposition was (before you got yelled at for picking up that deer antler you found):

and please make sure to visit Sweet Fern Productions, the makers of the video



Smart Humor and Good Preaching

Last Friday night, thinking at first that it actually was Second City TV, I started streaming the The Second City: The First Family of Comedy, a three-part documentary on that comedy empire. It’s not a great documentary in terms of its production and it’s glaringly clear that they couldn’t get Bill Murray to have anything to do with it, but it has me enthralled. I’ve been studying comedy writing (meaning, watching a lot of TV) lately, and to see this doc and to learn where so much of the contemporary comedy landscape came from is captivating.

At about 22 minutes into the first segment, one bit really caught my attention. Harold Ramis is talking about how the second generation of Second City (many of whom became the first season casts of SNL and SCTV and then went on to define 1980s-and-beyond comedy) came into its own.

Ramis explains the difference between this second class and that original class (which, wow, included Alan freakin’ Arkin, who I am now convinced needs to be asked to host SNL, in a thoroughly non-ironic way). Here’s my own transcript from the documentary:

Harold Ramis: “Bernie Sahlins had a motto which was, ‘Always work from the top of your intelligence.’”

Joe Flaherty: “You have to assume that the audience is at least as smart as you are. When you play down to an audience, you know, when you start doing comedy that you think, ‘Well I wouldn’t like it, I don’t think it’s funny, it’s, you know, stupid, but they’ll like it,’ it doesn’t work. It just falls flat on its face.”

And now comes the 4G turn…this is how I think about the church and specifically about the state of preaching in American churches. One central temptation to the pastor or preacher or teacher or Christian writer (popular or academic) is to not work from the top of our intelligence.

In comedy, the reasons for working from the top of your intelligence are that if you don’t, (a) your comedy won’t be as high quality and (b) you will be actively insulting your audience by treating them as if they are stupid.

Likewise, in preaching and pastoral work, if you don’t work from the top of your intelligence, (a) your work won’t be as high quality and (b) you will be actively insulting your hearers, readers, or congregation. (If you’re wondering, insulting your congregation is worse than insulting your audience at a comedy club. Lowest common denominator preaching is a devaluing of people who we supposedly believe are created in the image of God.)

Worst of all, if you’re not preaching from the top of your intelligence, (c.) you are failing to help your fellow disciples to grow and mature. Life experience, the Christian tradition, and Scripture are clear: we don’t grow unless we are stretched and asked to push further. Ask any athlete, any good comic, any saint.

So far so good, perhaps, but the question which this all begs is what “smart” preaching is. I happen to have an intellectual bent, but intellectual or academic preaching is not what I’m talking about. At all.

To explain, I go back to good comedy. There are comics out there today and in history who have been inarguably smart and who love the dumb joke. The Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the writers of the best Cary Grant films, Woody Allen, and on down to Futurama, 30 Rock, and Louis CK, have all recognized that being smart in their humor includes being dumb in their humor. Somehow the best comics have not just been about being smart, but they choose to be smart in service of being good.

That’s all I’m asking of preachers. Be smart, because that’s part of pursuing the Good in what you do.



A Proper Sabbath Video

visit Sojourners online



E is for Elmofication

The reason that Sesame Street will always be great, I think, is that it defined educational television even when the show’s creators didn’t really know what education television was; they decided what educational TV was, and then they created it.

Sesame Street continues to be good because it keeps changing and because it keeps up with the times. Of the recent pop-culture-based sketches (including versions of Glee, The Closer, and even True Blood), my favorite is definitely their spoof of Mad Men, maybe because the Street is always at its best when it’s being classy:

But all that’s not even what this post is about. It’s about art. I love art forms that are clearly art when you stop and think, but that don’t really receive the recognition of other art forms. For instance, muppeteering. I hated the Elmofication of Sesame Street as much as anyone who grew up before it, but this movie, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, looks great, because it will help more people see that this is an art form:



The Tree of Life (2011; directed by Terrence Malick)

Disclaimer: What follows might be pretentious, but please don’t think the movie’s pretentious just because it actively resists being written about by me. Also, consider yourself warned.

First, watch this trailer in full-screen. Watch it twice if you wish.

Supposedly, Terrence Malick has been working on the ideas behind this film for decades, and the technology and time had finally come for it. The trailer is entirely accurate if you’ve seen the film, but it’s fairly misleading if you haven’t. For instance, you might think that  the plot is actually something substantial. In fact, nothing in this film is substantial in the sense that nothing can actually be grasped and held onto. If anything, it has the viewer.

Tree of Life is about a family of five and then four in Waco, Texas, and about one of those five growing up into a wounded adult. But it’s also a visual meditation about God and death, nature and grace, Creation, destruction, a time, Time, family, children, marriage, boys, good and evil. Yes, it’s also slow.

For this particular film, it seems better to talk about themes than plot, but the two themes I name aren’t exhaustive in any way. They’re just most interesting to me.

First, it is about art, everything, and life. (I wouldn’t always group those three together.) I’m certain that the film is meant to be, as much as film can be, an imitation of the experience of life. It resists every attempt to be described or cognitively understood, because that’s how life is. Empiricist and intellectual approaches to life always end up being reductionist, and there’s a sense in which, if you take those approaches alone, all that is wonderful will be missed.

Alongside those approaches must come the emotional. And beyond that, there is the experiential. Some things can only be experienced: they can’t be understood; they can’t be described; they can’t even be felt in the sense that we normally talk about our senses. If you want to “get” this film, see it once and struggle to make sense of it. See it a second time after you decide to give that up and just experience it.

Second, it is about the mundane and the extraordinary. Many contemporary films and much of contemporary literature seem to want us to believe that their characters and their characters’ experiences are totally individual. No one else could experience what they have experienced, therefore no one else can understand them, therefore no one else can empathize, therefore we’re all alone.

That, in fact, seems to be how the main character, Jack (played by Hunter McCracken as a kid and Sean Penn as an adult), experiences life.  He doesn’t get along well with his father (played by Brad Pitt), who, while he inarguably crosses verbal and physical lines with his wife and kids, is far from a monster. Surely Jack’s problems with his dad have their own character, but they are also the problems of every son and his father.

Or are they? In order to tell the story of this family, Malick shows the story of the birth of the universe, from the Big Bang to the most recent Ice Age. The juxtaposition of father/son dynamics with the Big Bang and the dinosaurs makes this particular father/son relationship into a unique experience and simultaneously makes the Big Bang and the dinosaurs into something totally mundane (“daily”) and ordinary. That is, the Big Bang and friction in a father/son relationship are equally mundane and equally extraordinary. It’s an awe-inspiring thought.

Worth Mentioning:

  • The interactions between the child actors are unbelievably real. Boys doing fun things, gross things, dumb things, dangerous things together. Boys figuring out what to do when they’re bored. My assumption is that no child actor is good enough to do that (although these are great) and that Malick (who is famous for the ludicrous amount of film that initially heads into the editing room) didn’t tell them what to do, but told them to become friends and to play, and then filmed it for days on end.

Two Comparisons:

  • The obvious comparison of recent years to me is The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky’s own film about life and everything, but I don’t think that there was anything mundane in the drama of that movie. Still, The Fountain is terribly underappreciated, and you really ought to watch it while you’re waiting for Tree of Life to come to, for instance, Florence, SC. It’s on Netflix Streaming.
  • The substantial comparison, however, is to 2001: A Space Odyssey. My pet theory is that Malick used dinosaurs instead of apes to elude the comparison, but the movies are most similar in that refusing-to-be-described, demanding-to-be-experienced, may-lull-you-into-a-coma sort of way. (For the record, I don’t know why I watched 2001 three or four times without giving up on finding something there, but the attempt paid off, and I don’t regret the time spent. Others might have the same experience with The Tree of Life.)

On first viewing and one night’s digestion, very good with the possibility that it’s great or even…MEGA-GREAT!!!(tm).

 



Matterhorn (Grove Press, 2010) by Karl Marlantes

When Matterhorn came out last year, I immediately knew I would read it. I’d love to know more about Vietnam, yes. More interesting than that was the author, Karl Marlantes, who served as a Marine inVietnam and then spent three decades writing this novel.

Unsurprisingly, Matterhorn is an ugly experience. The opening conflict, for instance, is a man getting a leech inside his urethra on patrol; no one but a medic is available to help him, and that’s not the most comfortable of impromptu surgeries. The book shares a lot of its spirit with Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and has a similar effect on the reader. I entered in more fully to both novels because I knew that they wrote out of their authors’ experiences. (For the record, however, Tim O’Brien is better than either Marlantes or Mailer at the actual craft of writing, and I’d re-read his stuff before any other war author except perhaps Hemingway.)

Matterhorn is a big book, and it took me a long time to get into it. I tend to be someone in love with the well-crafted sentence, while Marlantes is more in the powerful narrative school of writing (a la Graham Greene). By the end, however, Marlantes had me stylistically satisfied.

Beyond learning my history and spending my leisure time, I read war novels and watch war movies because, unsurprisingly, I came out of Duke Divinity thinking about Christianity and pacifism. If you read this blog, you’ve heard the following spiel:

Some activists are actually pacifists; some thinkers (Hauerwas included) are actually pacifists; however, no one under 30 is a real pacifist unless they’ve been through something extraordinary. Pacifism is too hard for someone that young to get.

Matterhorn is not an anti-war novel in the sense that Full Metal Jacket is an anti-war movie. Full Metal Jacket says war is evil. Matterhorn says war is unavoidable because the world is fallen. It’s difficult to emphasize how strong of a difference that is, so I’ll try again.

FMJ shows that war is hell through showing what it does both to the “bad guys,” to civilians, and to the “good guys.” That, to me, is what most of the best anti-war art does and claims: War is hell, therefore we need to exercise non-violent means of change. Some of it just says, War is hell, full stop.

Matterhorn, however, says that war is not the problem, but the symptom. You can try fighting the symptom but it will always return because the underlying sickness continues on. The way that the nations and peoples of the world relate to one another doesn’t just make war possible; it makes war inevitable because it’s necessary.

So my question then is, Do pacifism and non-violence get at the underlying disease or are they just symptom management?