Roger & Me

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Roger Ebert taught me how to read. I can’t explain why, but for some reason reading was always a burden to me growing up. It was like getting my hair cut, or going to the dentist; it was nothing more than an unfortunate necessity. I was always into movies though.

When things got confusing for me in high school, I frequently looked for ways to escape. I stumbled onto Roger Ebert’s website, and stumbled into a perfect addiction. I frequented the Internet Movie Database regularly (I was/am a regular to the “trivia” page), and Ebert’s reviews were always at the top of the “External Reviews” section. Once I started reading his stuff, I couldn’t stop. Reading movie reviews became a part of my intellectual development, and I have Ebert to thank for that.

I think it was his wit that got to me initially. He was a writer first, film critic second.  He always felt reasonable. As I became more obsessed with film criticism, I began to read the Oregonian every Friday, catching as many of Eugene Levy’s reviews as I could. Levy was good, but he seemed to have a disdain for movies that had broad appeal – a common curse of criticism. Ebert never fell into that trap. He was more than willing to recognize that in its own way, Raiders of the Lost Ark was just as essential viewing as any Scorsese picture (he called Raiders “an out-0f-body experience”). I loved movies, and I could see that above all else Ebert was just a fan like me.

Even though I remember watching Siskel & Ebert with my dad as a kid, I feel like I came to know him more as a writer than as a television personality. Having said that, part of my high school obsession with film criticism was expressed by my constant watching of “At the Movies” episodes on movies.com. My friends and I would sit for hours discussing movies. I have a hard time believing that wasn’t the direct result of my infatuation with watching Ebert battle it out with Roeper (who was a nice guy, but definitely no Siskel).

Ebert’s criticism led me to many great movies. I never would have watched a David Gordon Green film had it not been for  Ebert’s confidant recommendation. He called him a “true poet of the cinema”. How could I possibly resist?

He had a prose that struck me deep. He saw movies as something profound and powerful, which inspired my young mind to think in ways my schooling was failing to encourage. Even after entering college, Ebert remained one of my favorite writers. I still have his 1990 Movie Home Companion that I inadvertently stole from my aunt. Two reviews in that compilation still stick out in my mind: Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). I never did see The Last Temptation of Christ, but I remember the powerful awe his review inspired in my young religious mind. “I cannot think of another film on a religious subject that has challenged me more fully.” he wrote, “The film has offended those whose ideas about God and man it does not reflect. But then, so did Jesus.” I think I owe it to him to watch this one.

Bang the Drum Slowly, on the other hand, I have seen. I watched it on his recommendation. “In its mixture of fatalism, roughness, tenderness, and bleak humor, indeed, it seems to know more about the ways we humans handle death than  a movie like Love Story ever guessed.” He was right. What a beautiful movie.

It’s important to note, however, that I don’t agree with all of his reviews. I remember yelling at my computer screen the first time I read his review of Dead Poets Society, one of my personal favorites. Its a movie about what it feels like to be young, wide eyed and bored. What it feels like to have someone come into your life and give you things you didn’t know were missing. Above all, however, its about the stark strangling realities of life. Its unfairness, its heartbreak. Ebert simply didn’t see that. “Peter Weir’s The Dead Poets Society is a collection of pious platitudes masquerading as a courageous stand in favor of something – doing your own thing, I think.”  And that was that. He missed the whole point, and slapped it with two stars (the same rating as Batman & Robin I might add).

His greatest review came just a few years ago. His blog post about Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life is one I go back to often. Every time I read it I am reminded of the profound potential of the cinema. I miss him already.

Orson Scott Card Vs. Superman

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So this whole Orson Scott Card thing is a tricky situation. I think that Card is an amazing writer, and so does most everyone else. His stories (story, really. I’ve only read Ender’s Game) are complex, emotional, and shockingly powerful. I did not expect to like Ender’s Game as much as I did.

The fact that he will no longer be doing the Superman story–or at least it has been put on hold–doesn’t have me as bothered as I thought it would. I think the best thing it would have done is introduce Card to a new, younger audience. But the reality is that if you are reading Superman comics, you probably already know who he is. Whether or not his Superman story would have been any good will have to remain unseen, but I’m skeptical that he would have much to say about the character.

The other shame is that this proves, no matter what your thoughts on the issue are, that if you hold views that a lot of other people don’t have, apparently you can’t write Superman comics. Which is a shame.

Politics, Religion, and Aaron Sorkin

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The Pope resigned a little while ago. For the past week or so everyone has been interested in Catholicism and the nature of authoritarian religious leadership in a democratic society. More importantly, I think, people have been paying attention to the relationship between fervent belief and rational, critical thought. No one questions whether or not a Catholic has the potential to also be a deep thinker (that is, no one but Bill Maher and his super-crew of New Atheists, who refuse to accept religion on its own terms and continue to paint silly caricatures). Religion is such a complex, and enduring form of the human experience that it deserves attention and respect from everyone, whether they are believers or not. It’s good to see that even within all the negative op-eds about how backwards the Catholic Church is, and how terrible a person Pope Benedict was for being, well, a Catholic, the media has shined a light on someone who brought thoughtful faith to the forefront.

As Carol Zaleski noted in her piece for the New York Times, Benedict was “a profound religious thinker in the Augustinian tradition” who believed  “longing for truth is innate and universal”. He preached a religion that allowed science and philosophy and secular wisdom into the discussion. In short, he “opened a new era in the dialogue between religion and secular reason.”

I don’t know if all of that is true, I don’t follow Catholicism enough to truly have an opinion. I’ll take her word for it.

A midst all of this, I was recently reminded of another prominent Catholic who believed in thoughtful faith: President Jed Bartlet. Two episodes of West Wing that my wife and I recently watched (and I use recently loosely, school has really caught up with us) explored interesting and important elements of religion in American life. “Take This Sabbath Day”, my personal favorite, shows the struggles of compromising deeply rooted religious belief because you know too many people will disagree with you. It’s about my two least favorite subjects: the death penalty and irresponsible partying by public officials (kind of). The second episode we saw that touched on religion was “Shibboleth” about Chinese fugitives who claim to be escaping to avoid religious persecution.  “Shibboleth” was a little too Aaron Sorkin-y for me.

Let me explain “too Sorkin-y”. He, or as I like to call him, “The Sork”, obviously has a very complicated relationship with religion. Frankly, he doesn’t seem to like it much. Pretty much all of his shows portray religious people as socially dangerous fanatics who need a good atheist to slap them around once in a while (See pretty much every episode of Studio 60, and about every other episode of West Wing). What makes President Bartlet so fascinating is that he seems to be what “The Sork” wishes all religious people were. For one thing, he’s really smart. so much so that his staff gets annoyed at his super-intelligence. He doesn’t interpret the Bible literally, or at least the Old Testament. He holds his faith up high, and his altruistic moral values even higher. He makes great speeches chastising the pesky fundamentalists, and is really good at using scripture against them.

The biggest problem I have with Sorkin’s approach to religion is that he clearly sees a right and wrong when it comes to religious practice. There is a right way to believe in God, and that is a way that never offends or gets in the way of people who do not believe. I think most people can get behind that, but a professor of mine once wrote about how not to think about religious fundamentalism, which changed how I view varying approaches to religious belief. You see, Sorkin likes it when his believers act like atheists who are well versed in the Bible, much like how he likes his Republicans to act like Democrats.

And then there is this ridiculous scene from Studio 60:

If there is anything to be learned from this clip, it’s that Aaron Sorkin, much like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins, doesn’t understand why people actually pray. And the worst part is, he probably doesn’t really care.

A Limited Philosophy

Super-studly PBS pundit David Brooks recently wrote in his New York Times column about the “Philosophy of Data”. He does that thing he always does – weighing the pro’s and cons and doing everything in his power to be reasonable. I love him for that. I love his skepticism of accepting a worldview based entirely out of data and statistics. He expresses his worry that we ” tend to get carried away in our desire to reduce everything to the quantifiable”, and then immediately begins to explain why even with all its faults, data-driven decision-making can do a lot of good in the world. Data can bring to light faulty assumptions, ripe for the changing. It can also  show us patterns we didn’t know were there. Data, according to Brooks, has the potential to revolutionize how we make decisions about the future, we just have to use it right.

If the data movement really is an emerging philosophy, i’m fascinated by the potential for new and interesting art to reflect such a potentially profound shift. When I first read this piece, the first thing that came to mind was the Bennett Miller film “Moneyball”. Moneyball is, in a sense, about a revolution. The genius of that movie comes from the genuine tension and drama that Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane experiences while diving head-first into untested waters. His willingness to throw away everything that’s ever been done before seems to come from a profound desperation. He feels cheated by a system that gambles the lives of young talent. He’s fed up with uncertainty, and turns to data for comfort.

Contrast this with another great baseball movie, The Natural. What a great film that is. Even though they both use the same game, the natural is about something very different. It’s about the magic of the game, the inspiration that comes through things like virtue and hard work. Moneyball is about realizing that those things don’t always pan out the way you hoped.

Miller’s film feels so current, which is why the idea of an emerging art reacting to the “Philosophy of Data” gets me all excited. We’ll get to see the good, the bad and the ugly of the movement. It’s a new romanticism, believing that maybe our problems really can be solved by data. Not the old, flawed data from the 80’s and 90’s. You know, The kind that Paul Simon wrote about, and that told everyone that New Coke would be a great success.

No. We’ve worked out those kinks. These statistics will change the world. Nate Silver has now shown us that we can confidently know who the president will be far before voting day. We are that much closer to touching the face of God.

Of course, this wont actually work. Nate Silver definitely has proven that voting trends and polling numbers can be used to create accurate predictions, and that will certainly continue to influence politics. Baseball is forever different because they now know how to build a cheaper, more effective team. There’s no transcendence to the philosophy of data. You don’t go to bed at night feeling better because you know we understand statistics more.If anything, there will be an added emptiness knowing that we know more, but still struggle to do more.

On the other hand, such a realization can make for some great art.

“We’re addressing life”

Every once in a while I get overly interested in a topic. I make google alerts, follow certain columnists on twitter, and bother my wife about everything new that I’m learning. For example, the “Mormon Moment” dominated much more of my mind than it really should have. The gun control debate is another example of an unnecessary, media-driven obsession that I have. One that remains relatively consistent, however, is abortion. I consider myself to be a moderate on abortion (like pretty much everything), buying into Clinton’s (and Obama’s) suggestion that it be safe, legal, and rare. Safe and legal because we all know of instances where it’s necessary for the health, be it mental or physical, of the woman. I say mental because of the rape/incest issue. Rare because, as a person who really does believe that protecting lives should be the ultimate goal of any community, I can’t help but worry that a relaxed opinion about abortion is damaging to society. 

My two most current newsy obsessions converged yesterday, with a column in the New York Times. Laurie Goodstein reported that in the wake of the Newtown shooting, and a midst Friday’s March for Life – a pro-life demonstration that takes place yearly in front of the Supreme Court building – over 60 Catholic priests, nuns, scholars and even two former ambassadors to the Vatican sent a letter calling for stronger support of gun control legislation. In order to defend life, they said, they must be willing to support legislation that could potentially lower gun deaths in this country. They called out Republicans like John Boehner and Paul Ryan, as well as Democratic Senators like Senators Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, asking them to stand up to the NRA. 

They aren’t just asking for the easy stuff either. They want bans on assault rifles and high capacity magazines, two proposals that haven’t been terribly popular but are increasingly gaining support. 

“I accept the Catholic teachings, which promote the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.” Wrote Thomas P. Melady, a conservative Republican who once served under Bush 41. “certainly the death of the 20 young kids and 6 adults in Newtown was not natural.”

The fact they are using their own religious ideology is probably frustrating to some people. Much like the religious conservative arguments against gay marriage that upset those on the left. Personally, I think it’s too impossible for me successfully separate the environmental and cultural factors that gave me the opinions I have. I like recycling because I’m from Oregon. I believe in welfare programs because of my time in Brazil as a missionary. And I believe in progress, personal and political, because I’m a Mormon. 

Maybe saying you support gun control legislation because you are Catholic is an inappropriate form of political involvement, but I’m more than willing to accept it. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, indeed.  

He’s like that kid in your class that you want to judge but actually really want to hang out with

JJ Abrams makes me so jealous I could strangle an ewok. Seriously. The dude has my name. He saved the Mission: Impossible franchise (which was completely unnecessary but somehow worked anyways). He made a Spielberg movie. He forced millions of people who never cared about Star Trek to actually care about Star Trek. He managed to trick the world into thinking that Fringe was not a remake of The X-Files. And now he’s resurrecting Star Wars from the hollow death that was Episodes I-III. I wish I could hate him, but deep down inside I know that I really want to buy him a soda and talk movies  for hours.