Bucket list

Like many folks of my generation, I do in fact have a bucket list.

Most of the items on the list are fairly reasonable.

In no particular order, I would like to:

Get a masters degree

PHD as we’ll

Own a house

Be paid to teach a class of some sort

Shake hands with Michael Keaton

Be published in either Dialogue or Journal of Mormon History

Actually finish reading “Sometimes a Great Notion”

Train all of my children to be embarrassingly enthusiastic Paul Simon fans, just like their old man

Own a beach house in either Oregon or North Carolina

Make a documentary

Learn to understand French cinema, because I feel like they just don’t know what they’re doing

Read “The truth, the way, and the life” in its entirety. Footnotes included.

Become a master at AP style.

Publish a nonfiction essay in The New Yorker (I feel like being published in TNY is something that should be on everyone’s list)

Visit Brazil again

Write a screenplay (it does not need to be produced)

Learn to garden

Learn to enjoy exercise, or at least deal with it

Reach a point where mixing up affect and effect is just something I wouldn’t do

Finish that Teddy Roosevelt bio I’ve been picking at for the last year

Live to see another bat suit on screen that includes the yellow oval

Have an office where I can hang all my movie posters

Of course there are other, more important things I hope to do, but publishing such things just isn’t what blogs are for.

Sincerely

Is sincerity necessary? Is it actually an essential characteristic of what is good? As in, is the value of something — a belief, a teaching, an action — higher or lower depending on the sincerity of the asker/commenter/performer?

I remember reading an essay in college on whether or not the truthfulness of Mormonism should be dependent on Joseph Smith’s sincerity.

“Joseph Smith Jr. is both more and less than the sum of how he has been memorialized,” the author wrote, concluding that “Mormonism as a
religious tradition works outside of the ‘sincerity box’ that has been built to contain it.”

I do tend to think that sincerity is important, especially when it comes to the foundations of my faith. I think that exploring what sincerity means to Mormonism makes it more powerful.

But at the late hour that it is, I’ve begun to wonder if the emphasis I often give to sincerity should extend past my religion. When I see a photo, for example, that I assume to be insincere — something that was obviously staged to elicit a response, not to capture something that was actually happening — I don’t like looking at it. It bothers me. Not family portraits and things, but staged events and moments.

But how can I ever actually know how sincere ( or insincere) any given photo is? Or poem? Or movie, or whatever else it is I’m enjoying. I can’t. When someone says something nice to me, how can I possibly judge the sincerity of the comment?

If I can’t actually know what is and is not sincere, should I just not worry about it? Should I disregard the whole notion of sincerity as an indicator of “good” or “quality”?

After all, my favorite form of storytelling is film. Films are full of actors. The nature of acting is falsifying sincerity. Is it the motivation of the actor that should be considered sincere then? Or is a performance only truly sincere if the actor is actually experiencing the emotion they are portraying?

Is the —what I believe to be — intrinsic value of art, conversation, etc. devalued by insincerity?

If someone raises their hand in church, or school or where have you and says something that is factually incorrect, but does so with sincerity, does the worth of the falsity increase?

I just don’t know.

But what I do know is that it is snowing outside, and it is beautiful. And I mean that.

We really don’t need to stand up for Fox News on this one, guys

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Get Religion blogger Joe Carter has come out criticizing the “new media” (do people still call it that?) response to Fox News’ unfortunate interview  with Reza Aslan. You know, the one where Lauren Green questions his credentials to write about early Christianity because he’s Muslim, and implies he couldn’t possibly write an objective book on the subject because he’s not Christian.

Carter rightfully says that the interview was an example of poor journalism, classifying it as a “mess.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t stop there.

Carter — and subsequent bloggers that have mimicked his argument — claims that Aslan misrepresented his credentials. According to Carter, Aslan (does no one think it’s funny that his last name is the same as C.S. Lewis’ messianic lion?) does indeed have four degrees, as he claims in the interview, but not the degrees Carter wants him to have.

Here are those four degrees, according to Carter: a Bachelors of Religious Studies from Santa Clara University; a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School; a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa; and a PhD in sociology of religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara .

So what’s his beef, then? That sounds like a pretty solid pedigree to qualify someone to write about religion, doesn’t it? The problem Carter has is Aslan identifies himself during the interview as someone with “a PHD in religious history.”

“Why would Aslan claim he has a PhD in history when his degree is in sociology? Does he not understand the difference between the two fields of study?”

Well, to be fair Mr. Carter, as you pointed out he has 4 degrees, not just one. Also, the degree you are referring to is in sociology of religions which can, and often does include a study of the historical narratives of the religions being researched. So, sure, maybe saying he has a PHD in “the history of religions” may not have been the best choice of words, but that doesn’t disqualify him from being a religious historian. Three of his degrees deal directly with religious studies, so I think he can write on it if he wants.

“Aslan also claims that he has a degree in the New Testament. But is this true? Santa Clara doesn’t offer a degree in the New Testament so he can’t be talking about his Bachelors. Perhaps he is referring to the Master’s of Theological Studies degree he earned from Harvard Divinity School in 1999. That school does offer an “area of focus” in “New Testament and Early Christianity.” Is Aslan claiming this was his degree’s area of focus at Harvard? (If so, this would make his claim about having a “degree in New Testament” misleading, at best.)”

No it doesn’t. If he received his degree from Harvard Divinity School with an area of focus in “New Testament and Early Christianity,” I don’t think it’s misleading for him to say he has a degree in New Testament studies. Because he studied the New Testament, and got a degree for it. But again, there is a valid criticism there, but Carter is taking it too far by claiming he is some sort of fraud.

Now, I think there is still something bigger looming here. Carter writes in an addendum at the end of  his article that he is only mad because Aslan identified himself as an academic historian, not an amateur like David McCullough. He’s right, David McCullough’s degree is in English, not history. But McCullough has also won the Pulitzer Prize twice for his histories, and I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone else on this planet that refers to David McCullough as an “amateur” historian.

Why?

Because he’s a good historian, that’s why. A historian is someone who  writes about the past, and knows what they are talking about. They study things that have already happened, and write about them. Some of them have degrees in history, some of them don’t. The “dean of Mormon history” Leonard Arrington, the first and only “professional historian” to hold the office of official church historian in the Mormon church, studied  agricultural economics, not history. Edmund Morris, the author of the most prominent and arguably most authoritative works on Teddy Roosevelt, studied music, art, and literature at college in South Africa. He eventually dropped out and never got a master’s degree. Then he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book  The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. 

You get the point.

Aslan may have been overreaching in his assessment of his own credentials (and he was a little overbearingly smug in his responses), but I think it’s silly to claim his error was just as grievous as the unfortunate person who decided the interview should aim to delegitimize him by pointing out his religious affiliation.

The whole point of Aslan’s angst was that they were attempting to judge his book on everything but it’s own content. Obviously no one who prepped for the interview had read the thing, and the attacks had nothing to do with his research. Carter has simply joined in on the fun, claiming that because Aslan’s academic ego doesn’t match his training, no one should listen to him.

“Maybe if these journalists spent less time mocking the gaffes of their competitors and more time vetting the so-called “experts” we wouldn’t have to listen to people snicker about the credibility of online media.”

You’re a blogger. Stop it.

So why, then? Why do people feel the need distract attention from the horrible conduct of a Fox News program? Is it because he’s a Muslim? Maybe, maybe not. I think Carter probably has good intentions, and it is true that the media focuses too much on itself, but I think the fact still remains that someone at Fox News basically told a man who *is* a scholar of religion that his credentials are undermined because he’s a Muslim.

Batman & Robin

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Batman & Robin was the inevitable outcome of the Burton/Schumacher series. The moment that Tim Burton decided that continuity was an expendable part of the franchise, each subsequent film’s fidelity to the series was always open to interpretation. What could change? What couldn’t change? Drastic alterations were made to Gotham City in the second one, as well as mood and motivation.  Batman Forever proved that they could successfully wipe the slate practically clean, leaving only a few reminders that this all took place on the same planet. Once that boundary was broken, and once the studio realized that the fans were willing to accept it, Batman & Robin was born. All things considered, it’s important to remember that B&R was nothing more than a studio testing its limits, and a character testing itself.

B&R has a lot of thing in common with its predecessors. Most of the movie feels like a complete rehash of Batman Forever, only larger and more annoying. Those involved have admitted that the film was dictated by the toy companies as much as it was by the film makers. Every ounce of this film was designed to be easily recreated in a manner that would fit well into a 9 year old boy’s closet.

There is little to no respect for the characters in the film. It continues the trend set by Forever, turning the complex characters of the comics into frustrating caricatures of themselves. While the Burton films focused on emotionally and psychologically damaged enemies, Schumacher’s stories fall back on the idea that Batman’s Rogues Gallery is simply a bunch of nut jobs that have obsessive eccentricities. Forever sidestepped it a little by allowing the Riddler more depth, but Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, and Poison Ivy are nothing more than emotionless characters that have “fun” personality quirks. They were all the same. Insert silly costume and famous actor and we have a winner every time, or so they hoped.

Nothing proves this more than the fact that Bane was so heinously disregarded by the writer. He looks more like a Ninja Turtle than a Batman villain, with his pudgy green fingers and stupid little “power up” button on his chest. In the comic books he is a criminal and political genius who also possesses super strength by means of a steroid called Venom. Schumacher was kind enough to give him a 3 word vocabulary and green skin.

And then there is that scene where Mr. Freeze is trying to force his minions to do a singalong with him in his frozen lair. Somewhere, someone in some executive’s room actually thought that was an acceptable idea.

To make matters worse, around the same time as the theatrical run of the film, Warner Brothers released a full-length straight-to-video animated film called Sub Zero. It featured many of the same characters and plot points as B&R, but it is infinitely better. To say that Schumacher’s films were outshined by their animated counterparts is a vulgar understatement.

In fact, B&R’s treatment of Mr. Freeze is a crude rehash of the 90’s cartoon. The creators of “Batman: The Animated Series” did a very difficult thing; they  took an absurd character named Mr. Freeze and gave him a credible and complex back story. Batman & Robin was kind enough to borrow elements from that backstory as they quickly de-legitimized the character once again. For the creators of the cartoon it must have felt like being stabbed in the back with your own beautifully crafted icy knife, over and over and over again.

Another element that was underdeveloped was the relationship between Batman and his new partner. Right off the bat, shortly after Schumacher’s odd “suit up” sequence, the Dynamic Duo show signs of a strained partnership, an element important to both characters’ development in the comics. This would have been a perfect sequel idea: now that Robin has been introduced, shift the focus from Batman vs. villains to a relationship drama. Instead they just have crazy old George say stupid things like “this is why Superman works alone.” Again, interesting ideas, absolutely no real execution.

That line – that stupid, stupid line – was supposed to be a line that paralleled the opener to Batman Forever’s, “I’ll get drive through.” However, Val Kilmer still delivers this line with a grumbly Batman voice, covered in the shadows of the Batcave. After delivering this admittedly unnecessary line, Kilmer then hops into a legitimately awesome car and drives off into the night. B&R hates its audience way too much to do any of those things. Instead Batman hops into a ridiculous space-convertible, stares awkwardly at the camera as his overweight head tilts back in strain and speeds off to a museum that has dinosaurs and diamonds.

After confusing everyone by proving within the first 5 minutes that this movie not only doesn’t take itself seriously, but also does not take its audience seriously, we are subjected to 15 minutes of Batman ice-skating and zoinky sound effects.

The next test was to stretch the boundaries of the typical Batman narrative. Because it is the fourth film in the series, B&R was at pains to tell an original story about Batman as a character. Schumacher, for the first time, shifted the focus from Batman. We see more and more of the world he inhabits, giving us a glimpse of the citizens of Gotham. The strangest example of this involves a motorcycle race sequence between Robin and Batgirl. Schumacher portrays the state of Gotham’s underworld to be nuttier than the previous films. Gang members dress up like the characters from A Clockwork Orange, Coolio roams the streets at night, and everything comes with sparks attached. This is probably the closest the film comes to a dark gritty edge. The darkness in this scene is left for Robin and Batgirl, not for Batman. While Dick Grayson and his new nifty sidekick are out exploring the depth of the Gotham underworld, Bruce is probably hanging out in the mansion reading Jane Austin or something.

This scene also carries on the series’ insistence that there is a Gotham beneath the Gotham, something that is unevenly explored throughout the films. Burton’s interpretation of Gotham’s underbelly was portrayed mostly as gangsters, businessmen and deformed creatures that literally lived underground. Schumacher insinuates not only that Gotham is truly run by young flashy street thugs, but also that Batman doesn’t seem to mind. Schumacher’s Bruce Wayne is truly an out of touch millionaire who’s only attracted to the eccentric villains. Fixing what’s broken with Gotham doesn’t seem to be on his mind anymore. He even appears at large public events, and accepts sponsorships from credit card companies. While families are being mugged in alleys, batman is busy selling out at the nearest “charity” event.

The previous films already went through all of the cliché difficulties that heroes face; he had to prove to the public that he was a hero and not a villain (twice actually), he struggled with balancing the ambitions of his personal life with his responsibility as a crime fighter He dabbled with the idea of taking off the cowl once and for all, and He even got shot in the head.  Where else was there for Batman to go in a series with no overreaching themes or character development? As I mentioned earlier, B&R was an experiment to see if the Batman film genre could continue to survive with Batman taking a back seat to just about everyone else. The emotional narrative of this film revolves almost completely around Alfred- who is portrayed for the first time in this series to have anything interesting to add to the narrative. Dick Grayson takes on the burden of character growth, replacing Batman as the one who is learning about what it’s like to devote your life to a worthy cause. Batgirl is thrown in to replace the newcomer role that Robin occupied in Forever. The characters became stock, each one eternally replaceable.

The fact is, Batman & Robin is probably just as important in the Batman mythos as Batman ’89 and Batman Begins. While’89 was the character’s first screen interpretation for a modern age, and Begins was a game changing genre bender, Batman & Robin will forever stand as the prime example of where this character should never go. As Warner Brothers contemplates how the post-Nolan Batman should be approached, you can be assured that the words “lighter” and “more kid-friendly” won’t be part of the conversation. It’s not that there isn’t room for light hearted comic book adventures anymore; it’s simply that no one wants to see Batman enter that realm again. We like him complicated, brooding over his parents’ death and releasing his anguish on the criminals of Gotham.

Since the comic book genre was, at this time, still struggling to mature, B&R was chosen to play the role of the reckless teenager pushing the boundaries as far in one direction as they could go. It’s a shame they had to ruin it; somewhere deep beneath the neon lights and black-light plants there were the elements of an interesting story.  But then again without the failure of Batman & Robin, we never would have gotten Batman Begins. So I guess it was worth it, in a strange kind of way.

Batfilm Rating: D

Film Rating: F

Batman Forever (’95)

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The first thing to remember about Batman Forever is that no matter what angry fan boys on the IMDB message boards say, Forever is considerably closer in content to the comic books than Batman Returns. Whether or not it is a more satisfying movie may be a whole different matter, but the argument that Burton was better because he stuck closer to the source material doesn’t ring true in this case.

  

When people think “comic book movie” they tend to imagine a bunch of grown men running around in silly outfits with lots things needlessly exploding and a plot line that plays second fiddle to nerdy indulgence (See The Avengers for the most compelling example of this). This is basically what Batman Forever is, but now nerds are too embarrassed to admit they liked it. But they did. We all did. I even recently saw a batman infographic depicting all of the stages of Batman in comics and film. It erroneously claimed that Batman Forever was a critical and financial failure, which is not the case at all. When it came out it made a pretty big splash.

The biggest failure of the movie is that its story takes a back seat to the visual elements which also happens to be the problem with the first two. Critics, however, reacted with less enthusiasm over Schumacher’s first bat-attempt because for some reason the overpowering bodaciousness of the neon-lit Gotham is less appealing than the overpowering gloom of Burton’s shadowy version. In the earlier incarnations the noir approach distracted viewers into believing that there was a lot more going on than there actually was. It all seemed like some sort of dark mystery that was too emotionally damaged reveal itself. In Schumacher’s Gotham-Tokyo there is no real sense of mystery. The film acknowledges too openly that what you’re seeing is just a bunch of grown-ups in a fantasy world. There is a certain charm to it but in the end it is far less satisfying.

Many of the problems with the movie’s approach first took root in Batman Returns. For example the odd statues that litter the Gotham City of Forever emphasizing the cartoonish nature of the world they inhabit are surprisingly similar to the statues seen in Returns. The more sleek look of the batsuit which is a stark contrast to the more rugged original suit worn by Keaton actually appeared first in Returns as well. Aside from the design of the film, the performances draw, at least to some degree, from a standard set in Burton’s sequel. While Batman ’89 had an obvious aversion to campy dialogue and performances, Returns was really the first Batman to allow its characters to acknowledge the fact that they are ridiculous, something that Batman Forever takes full advantage of. Though some fans may have a problem with Jim Carrey’s over the top performance and Tommy Lee Jones’s unfaithful interpretation of Two-Face they must recognize that Michele Pfifer’s Catwoman and Danny Devitto’s Penguin suffer from the same problems.

It is also important to take into account  that while Danny Devitto’s odd (and quite frankly outrageous) interpretation at least made the Penguin more interesting, not less. Tommy Lee Jones’s Two-Face is far more one-dimensional than modern renderings of the character in the comics. In fact if this movie committed one truly punishable sin it is that one of Batman’s most important and menacing villains was treated as a joker rip-off. I don’t find much to complain about with Carrey’s Riddler though. My view may be slightly tainted by the fact that when the movie was first released I – like most kids my age – practically worshiped ‘ol rubber-faced Jim.

The Gotham City in Forever is a fascinating nightmare of 90’s media overload. Everywhere there are signs in Japanese (even though there appear to be no Asians anywhere in Gotham City) and neon lights. Gangsters roam around the streets in blacklight makup and even the Batmobile has a slick neon disco ball for its motor (you’d think that might be less than useful when you’re trying to sneak up on thugs in dark alleys). It’s inspiration seems to be something of a combination between a mid-90’s U2 concert and a Saturday morning version of Blade Runner. All of this is topped off with a musical score that sounds like it belongs in a circus. Makes sense I suppose.

There are many other aspects of the movie that play well. Bruce Wayne is treated as a national celebrity which is much closer to his portrayal in the comics, even though Val Kilmer gives an unfortunately stiff performance. The batsuit looks pretty cool (except for the unnecessary nipples) and they did a pretty good job introducing Robin into the whole mix. The soundtrack is by far the most important contribution of this film. Movie soundtracks in the 90’s were nothing less than an art form, and Batman Forever’s is an absolute masterpiece.

This film is also the first to really imply that Bruce Wayne is fighting crime as an attempt to reconcile his angry feelings. While the first two films were never very clear on why Bruce Wayne got his kicks from crime fighting, Forever claims it’s all a form of therapy. Making a therapist be Batman’s love interest is a fascinating choice and Nicole Kidman’s portrayal ofDr. Chase Meridian works just fine. Unlike its successor Forever actually tries to address some questions about the nature of Batman’s journey. What would it take to give it all up? Could he use some help? While the first two simply assumed Batman was impossible to understand, Forever opens him up for examination. The answers may not be terribly insightful but at least this movie has questions.

If the Burton/Schumacher films were, as some critics suggest, nothing more than extravagant pop art then Batman Forever deservesto be remembered as a worthy effort. The problem is that while the Burton films certainly focused on style over substance there was still an element of desperation and melancholy that took the viewer to interesting places. While it is a shame that this less-than-terrible batfilck will forever be associated with its universally despised and epically absurd little brother, it still remains a difficult film to defend.

Bat Rating: C+

Movie Rating: C