The Taser's Edge

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.’


Michael König via Kottke via Gizmodo

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).


The American (2010), directed by Anton Corbijn

I often post the trailer to a movie as a way to introduce it before reviewing it.  The one above is singularly annoying, as that fuzzy-radio-ized American voice which effectively narrates the trailer is found nowhere in the film.

The basic plot is that George Clooney’s character is an assassin and a gunsmith for assassins.  He is aging, he has too much loss from a violent past bearing down on him, some murderous Swedes are after him, and he settles in a quiet Italian village in order to complete a job.  Although he knows that his work requires that he never has truly personal relationships, he falls in love with a prostitute and she falls in love with him.  Eventually, of course, his career choice catches up with him and anyone near him.

I read the book on which this was based after the movie came out, by which time Martin Booth’s 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman had already been re-titled and re-released as The American.  That novel is one of the best I read last year, but it was also clear as I read it that it would not actually be filmed.  That is, the movie would not work if it really followed the book.

In the book, the assassin never names himself, and it’s not really even clear whether he’s an American or not.  Instead of photographing architecture as in the movie, he photographs and draws butterflies. (Book “Flaw” 1: No butterflies in movies!) He becomes good friends with the priest, who is actually a holy man, and they have spiritual conversations over the priest’s wonderful cooking. (Flaw 2: No non-stereotypical priests in movies!)  Oh yes, also in the book, the Clooney character’s not an assassin. (Flaw 3: Only actual assassins, not other members of the assassin industry, are in movies!).

The biggest way in which the book fought being filmed, however, was in the way that the main character narrated it.  So much of it is his internal processing of his environment as only a highly trained and veteran hunted man could.  (Flaw 4: No thoughts in movies!) Car colors, makes, and models, and ditto with firearms.  Choosing to make sure no one can follow him back to his home by winding endlessly through the village streets on the way home.  Picking up on who is new to town, even though he himself is new to town.  Moreover, it is only very slowly that he tells us about his past or what he is doing in town. (Flaw 5: No waiting, ambiguity, or subtlety in movies!)

In the book, it takes a long while for us to know what his work really entails, while the opening scene of the movie leaves three people dead at his hand. It has altogether too much James Bond-ing, down to the throwaway beautiful (and sometimes deadly) women, the Walther PP7 Clooney carries, and the Vespa chase down ancient streets and stairways.

It’s actually sad that they couldn’t figure out some way to put a monologue over the top, both because the visuals for the film aren’t enough to translate the book, and because the reason I watch George Clooney movies is to hear his voice.  Yes, he’s beautiful (although this movie shows that even Clooney’s butt has aged in the eight years since Solaris), but his voice is even better, and this film is very low on dialogue.

Thankfully, next on the release schedule for Clooney appears to be The Descendants, and Alexander Payne has yet to disappoint at dialogue or voiceover (sadly, no great YouTube proof).

The American: solidly in the upper middle of the pretty-good-but-not-great pack.

Click the Image for More “Trippy Hippy Kid’s Books”

I actually remember the original "Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile" by Bernard Waber from Grandma's house.

Talk Radio (1988; dir. Oliver Stone)

When I watched this movie about a month ago, it was the fourth Oliver Stone movie I had seen in ten days, and W. was the worst.  Easily.  Not that Talk Radio is brilliant, but it is good, and the acting by the star, Eric Bogosian as Barry Champlain, is very strong.  Apparently the original version of the work was a play penned by Bogosian, with him as the same character, and his performance has some of that stage-acting feel of overwrought emotion.

How to describe Talk Radio?  The basic plot is that Bogosian plays a DJ who is generally much tamer than the DJs that you can think of now, 23 years later.  He says awful things, but he’s not a shock jock, not Howard Stern.  He says political things, but he’s not a political talk radio guy, not Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or whomever.

Actually, while I’m sure that radio shows like his exist, I have never heard one.  His show has no format and no plan.  Basically, people call up with various things, and he talks at them in his own misanthropic way in order to entertain his audience.  Over time, he has developed a loyal group of folks who call in to talk about ongoing life issues.  Then he has plenty of random nuts.

And then he has gathered a group of loyal listeners who tune in and call in because Champlain (not his real name) is Jewish, and they hate Jews.  Neo-Nazis?  Maybe.  Holocaust deniers?  Yes.  Good ol’ boys?  Seem to be, although of a particular variety.  They call in, he baits them, they send death threats in the mail, and he baits them some more.  And the good people of Dallas listen in often enough that a national radio conglomerate wants to begin broadcasting nationally.

The meat of the movie is a number of different nights of the show, complete with a producer who Champlain is sleeping with; a hot, young Alec Baldwin playing that driven, deep-voiced corporate guy he perfected literally decades ago; and Champlain’s ex-wife coming into town, invited by him to provide emotional support during the jump to national celebrity.

This film feels dated in a not entirely bad way, but there are certain parts that make it feel like it has more worth as film history than as a film in itself.  That is, Network (1976) is one of my absolute favorite films, and it was a perfect vision of something close to what Talk Radio is aiming for.  This isn’t being unfair, as Talk Radio certainly pays homage to that earlier film, and Stone knows that Network is untouchably great.

Then on this side of Talk Radio, we have Spike Lee’s fantastic Bamboozled!, which envisions a reincarnated minstrel show becoming the top-rated show on American television in the 1990s.  It’s hard to say which film—Network or Bamboozled!—pushes the envelope further.  Network is eerily plausible, while Bamboozled! is less-than-plausible, even as something a bit less than an all-out minstrel show seems possible.

Watching it, particularly as a white male (myself), you do not know whether to laugh at the parts that are clearly meant to be humorous or not (as Lee himself says at the very end of this badly audio-synched interview).

(Sidetrack: And if you don’t think you can take the movie itself, at least watch this clip, which, although no less hard to watch, is the spiritual heart of the film.)


So we have Network in 1976, then Talk Radio in 1988, then Bamboozled! in 2000, evenly spaced at 12 years apart.  As is the case in so many areas of life, the problem is in the sandwich.  Were Talk Radio just an updated Network, that would be fine.  A good movie standing in the shadow of a great movie—fine.  The problem is when Bamboozled! was made on the this side of Talk Radio, putting Talk Radio in the middle.  Compared to one giant, Talk Radio fares okay.  Compared to two giants, Talk Radio suffers.

Limiting a review to comparison is not quite fair, so I should also talk about Talk Radio on its own merits.  As I opened with, the talk radio program in the movie is not like Beck.  And yet…a show like the fictional show’s popularity paves the way to Beck.  It’s all about the power of words.  Talk Radio’s Barry Champlain seems to live a life believing that his words have little to no real power at the same time that he believes they have tremendous power and that his gift of words to those who call in gives them tremendous power as well.  (This is the American problem: freedom of speech is important because of the nearly limitless power of speech, yet the enshrinement of freedom of speech makes our speech cheap.)

I’d check this movie out if you’re trying to be an Oliver Stone completist, or if you’re interested in movies about media, or if you’re a student who wants to see a great actor (Bogosian) doing great work despite his surroundings, or you might check out a stage production if it comes to town.  The movie is not great, but it is solid.

Embracing Death, Worshiping Death, Accepting Death

Is there a difference between embracing death as a Christian (see previous post) and worshiping death?  Undoubtedly.  But where is the line between the two?  This week makes it blurry…

Monday: The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas
You don’t need to live in a world where the word “martyrdom” seems always linked to Islamic terrorism to find the early Church’s connection to martyrdom disturbing.  Read the Apostolic Fathers (some of whom having brushed shoulders with New Testament writers), particularly Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna, and you begin to realize that in the early Church, they had no conception of a good death apart from martyrdom.  It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that a peaceful death was a faithless death.

But the story of Perpetua and Felicitas is particularly stomach-churning.  In the tale, Felicitas is eight months pregnant when she is locked up as a Christian.  Her friends are going to be executed, and her concern is that the Romans won’t execute her as a pregnant woman.  The happy ending is that she is able to indeed give birth a couple days so that she could enter the arena with her comrades.  Perpetua meanwhile directed the untalented sword of her executioner to her own neck.

I manage my church’s blog, and so I write about saints from time to time, but I didn’t know how to touch that story.

Tuesday: Shrove Tuesday
Not much en vogue these days, but the idea once was that you made Confession before the beginning of Lent, and then you would have a feast to celebrate about your reconciliation with God and everyone else before Lent began.  Holy water (again bringing baptism and death into the picture) is often used as part of the Absolution.

Wednesday: Ash Wednesday
A symbol of a torture and execution device is written in the product of fiery destruction on your forehead to wear for a day after you are told, “You are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Friday: Today
I came across the Spring Men’s Fashion Collection – Anatomy of Change – by Thierry Mugler, put together by and featuring Rico (or Rick) Genest, aka “Zombie Boy,” who has, unsurprisingly, also done quite a bit of work with Lady Gaga.

This post doesn’t even deal with all kinds of death suffered this week by people around the world (from victims of crimes, their governments, tsunami).  What is the Christian way of relating to death?  Is having a skeleton tattooed all over your body materially screwier than lining up to get ashes smeared on you once a year?  Than eating the broken body and drinking the poured out blood of the God-Man every week?

At the end here, I really don’t like the word “embracing” to describe the relationship Christians are called to have to death.  Perhaps, though, “accepting” (vs. “blocking”, as Sam Wells puts it in Improvisation), will work.