Treasure in Jars of Clay…

So yeah – not into the whole American Idol thing. I think it’s just manufactured nonsense, creating a lot of halfway-talented new recording artists.

But this clip from the British version is about as cool as modern TV gets, and for a moment I withdraw my sneers. I actually get choked up watching this because something inherent in it speaks of a much deeper truth: that the world’s values, the things it esteems and holds high are revealed for what they are; that all the pop-culture lies are, at least for a short time, shown egregiously wanting.

Beyond that, you have to think: this is also how God works. For those of us reviled by the world and the influence of the enemy, we will someday shine unexpectedly when called out by name by the true Author of Life, by the original Great Voice, and displayed before all the world, to the Lord’s glory and the world’s shame.

Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid: The Dark Knight is just ‘okay’

Heath Ledger as the Joker

If you haven’t heard the news, we are under-cloud of a cinematic masterpiece. The Dark Knight is now the new standard of cinema classic – the greatest film ever made, by some accounts. Indeed, it appears we must rework the grading curve to assess the pantheon of film history. Consider, if you will, that Citizen Kane, Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Godfather, Schindler’s List (and a hundred other important movies) all rank noticeably lower than The Dark Knight on the Internet Movie Database. At least Rotten Tomatoes—the alleged bastion of professional film critique—still has a modicum of perspective on some of these other films, but The Dark Knight remains high atop the heap there as well. Okay, maybe internet sites aren’t exactly cinematic imperiums, but one can’t help but ponder the audacity.

So while the critical world unilaterally spits up on itself, and fan-boys across the world stampede each other with orgiastic glee to see who can proclaim the “awesomeness” the loudest, could the rest of us quietly, and thoughtfully, consider for a moment just what this film is… and isn’t?

What it is: Entertaining. Exhilarating. Dark. Well-acted. Complex. Impressive. Tedious. Overly long. Full of holes. Full of itself. Overwrought. Silly. (more or less in chronological order).

What it is not: For the timid. Easy to follow. Uplifting. For the kids. A masterpiece. Subtle. Well-written.

Maybe those are too easy: swipes which work better as buzzy sound-bites than clear and balanced critique. But is the film good? Well, it’s not bad. I mostly had fun watching it. Does it belong in the top 10 films of all time? Definitely not. Not even in the top one hundred, I dare say. And why not? Because the standards by which the greatest films of all time are measured have nothing to do with the elements by which The Dark Knight is esteemed: showy special effects, mood, and acting. Great films do share one thing in common however, regardless of genre, subject or year of release – they’re well-written opuses that reflect the universal character of humanity, however great, however flawed. And while The Dark Knight does dress itself like a film concerned with these matters, ultimately it would rather be a wham-bang amusement park sensation that enjoys chewing up the audience and crapping them onto the parking lot, thanks for the $10.50, next in line please.

Many are eager to proclaim the dark complexities, and complicities, of the film, as if to suggest we’ve never encountered the profound struggle of a superhero coming to terms with his crime-fighting persona, private and public. Superman? Spiderman? X-Men? Iron Man? Mr. Incredible? Bruce Willis?… any of these characters ring a bell? We’ve been there, and we’ve done that… repeatedly. Whatever hard themes The Dark Knight wants to challenge itself with are nothing new, and don’t really matter in the end anyway. It’s not as profound as it thinks it is. It doesn’t really “say” anything other than: “Evil is bad. Batman is good. Sometimes it’s confusing which is which, but that’s okay, ’cause Batman can still kick ass.”

I guess, for whatever it’s worth, that’s the sort of mantra that just feels sooo good to the modern moviegoer, awash in a miasma of crass, whiny, quirky and pointless post-modern movies. In the face of all that rot, the film does sweep onto the screen with an admirable confidence few films wear these days. I can appreciate that kind of cinematic punch to the face, but you’ve got to let the audience up once in a while. The non-stop intensity of The Dark Knight churns on relentlessly for so long that you simply wish the thing would end. Somewhere in the third hour I found myself studying the track lighting in the floor, sighing deeply, wanting to scream out “somebody please win and get this over with!”

And that’s really the most disheartening piece to this puzzle. Less really could have been more. And by that I mean intensity for substance. A simpler through-line with one villain (did we learn nothing from Spiderman 3?) a three-act structure and savvier instincts would have made for a smarter and better movie that might have cracked the top 100 in my humble opinion—maybe even the top 25. Instead we get “more is more”, as in intensity and mayhem for intensity and mayhem. You almost felt the director/studio croaking incessantly at the climax of every scene: “But wait! We’ve got something even cooler in the next scene!”, to which the film-going audience happily obliges with bug-eyed enthusiasm.

Sadly, this is the new populist art. No longer motivated by accessible and simple acts of humanity, we thirst for a salvo of pyrotechnic and FX-trumped madness—a thickly layered billion-dollar simulacra that points to nothing but itself.

Thanks, but I’ll save the hyperbole for the next truly great masterpiece, if one ever arrives.

The End of an Era

dayton

As I pack up the remaining bits of my office, and life, and house, I want to pause for some reflections that have been working themselves out in my head these past many weeks and months. I don’t commit to putting these kinds of thoughts down like I used to, and blogging is a pitiable excuse for journaling (another entry), but it’s still a document. In the minimum, I at least want to say “here… this… now.”

About two autumns ago, while feeling a bit nostalgic, I took a short trip through an old neighborhood, running back over memories of school and friends. I wasn’t surprised by the cascade of thoughts that followed (how I had arrived at my current stage and its companion: “did I get here the right way?”) but I did realize, rather startlingly, that I’d now lived in Dayton, OH longer than I had lived anywhere else my whole life (at the time, 18 years). No glance in the mirror or ginger body ache made me feel quite as aged as that tiny, wincing moment… because I swear I just moved here.

The eventful parade of joy and tears, learning, love, hopes, dreams and visions crystalized in a second and I became the strange figure of a man I wondered about at 16 while slouched in the back seat of my parent’s car: “who will I be in 20 years?” Whoever coined the term ‘bittersweet’ must have been living through a similar moment.

And here I am again, making a mental inventory of the whole mad affair as I get ready to leave it behind for another chapter in a new city. One score of a man’s life, checked, catalogued and filed away—just dramatic and exciting enough to be interesting, just blessed enough by the hand of God to be a witness to His providence.

I look forward to what awaits—new dreams, new hopes—but for now I drift back, considering with amazement what has been this speeding rush of two decades…

Here is a man as a kid, a new student, foolish and proud, ignorant and wise, a ghost of Holden Caulfield in his shadow.

Here he is as an artist—desperate and hopeful, hungry for knowledge, a stumbling tower of ego.

Here he is as a young man, his first true job spinning webs of promise and stagnancy, his first true friends planting stone and steel… his best friend all fur and obstinance.

Here he is at 30, meeting with God, grabbing hold of slippery and unrealistic dreams, still knowing, still believing.

Here he is as a husband, awkward and selfish, the stumbling tower of ego, torn down and rebuilt with new hands.

And all of it within this city, in just about every corner.

We look to another horizon, that will someday arrive with as much quiet surprise as this one has.

But for now, Farewell to you, good friend.

Don’t swallow up our empty space too quickly.

nice little surprises

tree
Having moved into this house in mid-August, we’re discovering certain unnoticed “features” of our home as we enter new seasons. Like how bloody cold the mud room is in the dead of winter. But this morning, I awoke to a rather surprising sight. Overnight, the trees in front of our house bloomed with new flowers, making what seemedtree too to be ordinary budding trees into something a little more spectacular. I’m sure in a few days the petals will drop onto the sidewalk and make for a nice slimy mess, but right now it adds some pause-inducing aesthetic (and fragrance) to our otherwise uninspiring front walk.

Babe, sorry you’re missing out… (she’s in Chicago this week)

The Great Indoors

snausage treat jar
We finally busted out our outdoor wedding gift (thanks Shawn and Maria!) and went for a spin. Okay, it was in the living room, but it’s always best to stumble through first-time assembly in private. Neither of us are rugged outdoor types who can pitch any tent with our eyes closed, in driving rain, at night. Still, we’re anxious to get out there and camp. The season is nigh.

Sorry I couldn’t get a smile out of the wife. She preferred to pose in the tent’s “natural use” state.

Snausages!

snausage treat jar
The other day we were out thrifting (actually I was sort of tagging along) and while Liz picked and poked through various assorted finds, I was drawn briefly to the wall of discarded toys. In all of its colorful glory, there’s still something a bit somber about a mass collection of mostly broken playthings, enjoyed for a time, but now dirty and forgotten, living out their last hopeful moments in thrift purgatory. But salvation awaited one item that I was shocked and delighted to see, smiling out in familiar joy: a Snausage treat jar. Yes, not exactly a toy, but to the eye of a thrift store employee, a rose by any other name, I guess.

One had to actually send away for this thing via so many UPCs and addtional cash, waiting so many weeks for it to be shipped. But with two properly installed AAs, a lift of the head issues forth a comical little expression of “snausages!”. Filled with the right doggie treat, the jar made for a nice pavlovian apparatus that would bring my dog Marty running and barking. Ben K. often enjoyed torturing Marty this way.

So you’re wondering, why would I want to now own two of these things, especially when I don’t currently have a dog? Who knows. It was a buck. And it’s still fun. I can only imagine though, setting them both off might have made Marty’s head explode.

The Church of Oprah

the big give
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4)

snowy satisfaction

backyard shot
Liz and I will admit to being a tad stranger than most folks in our communal love of winter. We love the cold, the snow, cozying up under blankets as heaters crank away. They way I see it, I enjoy staying warm in cold weather far more than I enjoy trying to cool off in the heat. But I secretly think this is much more cosmically sound, as cold is not a naturally positive state—it’s merely the absence of heat. Therefore, manufactured cold, while in some sense necessary and welcomed in our creature-comforted Western world, still seems… unnatural. And it pales to creating the natural state of warmth out of the cold. But I digress.

Why I’m mindful of this is we just received the last gasping pang of winter, perhaps not only for Ohio, but for us two in particular (er… more on that later). Over a foot of snow fell over the past two days, covering our little world in a frosty wrapping, halting many of the normal maddening activities while giving rise to more enjoyable ones, like sledding and yes, shoveling. Sure, gripe all you want, I enjoyed heaving snow yesterday, despite the sprained abdomen muscle I got from a crack-up on a sled run the night before. It’s all been fun. Even walking a mile to the video store has been a treat, snow blowing about us, faces tingling with chill. Whatever snowy deficit we had through the Christmas season has been more than made up for.

And you can’t help but love the way a huge serving of snow just stops things. Life still churns away, sure, but all the activity we seem to think is so vital to our day to day existence, suddenly becomes: “oh, well maybe not so critical after all.” I guess that even includes school, for a day anyway. And given the universal lot we and our neighbors find ourselves in, people seem generally more friendly. We dig each other out, help push stuck cars, shovel walks and commiserate our dilemmas. It doesn’t describe everyone, but it feels like a lot more genuine help and friendliness comes out when we all realize we’re hampered in the same way. Too bad it takes a blizzard to show us a tiny shadow of our true state.

I’ve always hated the bias the weather people around here have toward winter (“unfortunately, looks like we’re going to see some more white stuff today…”), as if we all share some universal hatred of what I think is as beautiful as any other account of nature. Hey, I love spring as much as the next guy, but until that equinox, I say bring on the snow.

A Mile “Stone”?


Liz and I watched Eli Stone last night, mostly for being too lazy to get up and do something else after Lost (which on most nights means slinking back to our computers). But there has been some good buzz about the show’s ability to integrate faith in God (shudder to think) with the show’s narrative. The main character (a trial lawyer) gets visions from God via a handy little brain aneurysm, but through them he’s attempting to migrate toward a more virtuous life. Given he’s a trial lawyer, this has built in conflict for years to come. But last night’s B plot narrative ended up being the more compelling twist in the episode. It concerned a custody fallout between two former lesbian lovers, one of whom was carrying the other’s child (the male donor was conveniently never mentioned). Problem was, the pregnant woman had become a Christian (or had renewed her faith) and no longer saw gay life as appropriate for her child, or something “she wanted.” Naturally, I was groaning in the first scene, because we generally know where this goes: crazy Christian has irrational judgmental delusions based on some confused dogma and ends up doing much harm (or murder, if you’re on CSI or Law and Order). Or: crazy Christian is really just putting on an act to get what he wants, but by episode’s end will see the “light” and revert to his previous lifestyle. Almost true to form, the turn that forces the pregnant woman to eventually lose the custody battle did feel like it was signaling the latter premise. But strangely, the show never landed there. In fact, the Christian woman tearfully decides in her closing scene to give up full custody to her former lover, thinking it best to simply leave her past behind her. Whoa.

It’s still too early to decide where this is all heading (with the show’s continuing narrative, the neo-Christian still has time to return later in the season to denounce her faith), but it feels like there might be some really smart work underway on this show. Think about it. How clever would it be to introduce a wildly popular “buzz” topic like lesbianism (to wit: one of the show’s characters even says “isn’t everyone a lesbian these days?”) but then drop a bomb at the end of the episode by having the Christian character do something so out of character with the world, but so in character with God; totally self-denying, totally self-humiliating. I can only picture the thousands of annoyed viewers who watched that scene with their mouths hanging open. Really, why on earth would anyone in their right mind do that?

Could it be that living for God as if He matters above all things might just trump any personal sense of entitlement, rights or wounded justice? Go figure… In the meantime, we’re keeping a curious eye on Eli Stone. (full episodes can be seen online at abc.com)