A Day Late and [Several] Dollar(s) Short V: Catching Up Edition

From time to time, I [briefly] review movies. Not movies that are new, which the watching public may be eagerly awaiting information about, but usually movies that were new recently—and which I’ve finally gotten around to watching (most often on DVD, thanks to the local library). This time, a free month of Netflix, Prime, and a few weeks off from seminary studies helped expand the selections to some TV shows and documentaries as well. Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts.

Toy Story 4
Sequels are the worst. Unless, of course, they’re not. Toy Story 2 was arguably better than the original, and Toy Story 3 was excellent as well—if also a little dark and emotionally manipulative. Even with that track record, I didn’t hold out much hope for yet another installment. But, true to form, Woody, Buzz, & co. pulled out another improbable victory, sucking us back in and even giving new characters (Duke Kaboom!) room to come to life and shine for a moment. I guess we’re the ideal target audience for these films—Rachel & I were 11 (just like Andy) in 1995, and the movies have grown up with us, with themes (moving away from home in Toy Story 3; dealing with all our kids’ toys in Toy Story 4, etc.) that roughly parallel our life experience.

Shorter Toy Story 4: Maybe *I* am a sad, strange, little man.


The Rise of Skywalker
The one theater visit of this set of reviews, for good measure. The tradition of Star Wars on the big screen is almost as old as the tradition of Star Wars stringing along fans with a hope for an engaging storyline. If there’s a bright center to the universe of film, we’re on the planet that it’s farthest from. Even so, this final installment wasn’t unwatchably awful—some of it was actually quite good. If anything, the mistake here was J.J. Abrams trying to atone for all of the awful in the universe with a smorgasbord of fan service that doesn’t linger on anything long enough to let us savor it. There’s a nice enough bow on the ending that I think I can resist the temptation to ever spend money on this property again, no matter what Disney throws at us. Baby Yoda notwithstanding.

Shorter The Rise of Skywalker: Is it over?


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Any movie released back in summer that can still hold its own with nominations and wins during awards season is usually worth exploring. I got snookered into watching Pulp Fiction nearly 20 years ago, and haven’t had the stomach for Tarantino since, but I’d heard enough people talking about Once Upon a Time to give it a try. Brad Pitt is truly astonishing in this movie, the whole thing is very funny, and the revisionist history of the violent death of the golden age is a nice thought experiment, but there are points where it all still seems like an elaborate excuse to commit footage of some gratuitous carnage to the archives. Here is a good plot and great acting that almost drowns in its excesses.

Shorter Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: The least Tarantino Tarantino film, but he still can’t help himself.


Ad Astra
On the subject of Brad Pitt being truly astonishing, I submit to you this movie. It is just as understated (not a word, I’ll grant, that often gets bestowed on space dramas) as Hollywood is garish. This is science fiction at its most visceral, and the space-as-blank-canvas-for-revealing-character motif at near perfect pitch. James Gray manages to use the entire solar system as a backdrop for a story about two people, only one of whom we really see much of—and most of his lines are delivered as internal dialogue.

Shorter Ad Astra: Good science fiction always points you back toward reality.


Chernobyl
I was able to catch up on this HBO miniseries via a few Delta flights last fall, and the intensity of this story didn’t lose anything to the tiny screen—if anything the setting amplified it, leaving me at least a few times wandering around an airport gasping for breath afterward. Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, and the rest of the cast suck you into 1980s Soviet groupthink and sycophancy. Gut-wrenching visual effects make you feel their human and environmental costs. A parable for our time on the dark places truth-shading and lack of curiosity will lead us.

Shorter Chernobyl: Some of the best historical storytelling I’ve seen.


The Crown—Season 3
The first two seasons of this show are so well done, that I keep waiting for an inevitable letdown. The subject matter is just one bad script away from veering off into Downton Abbey banality—with the added soul-crushing value that these episodes are about real people and real politics. But Peter Morgan keeps pulling it off, bringing life and a real measure of relatability to one of the most recognizable and wealthy families on earth. Even the cast change this season wasn’t a net loss, with Tobias Menzies’ Prince Philip given many opportunities to steal the show (especially in “Moondust”).

Shorter The Crown: Fake people are people, too.


The Irishman
I’ve always liked Scorsese, but never his mob movies. This is, for film buffs everywhere, a heresy. Even so, this one rather insisted on being seen, perhaps a swan song of one of the great artists of our time. There were shortcomings—the incorporation of so many historical events in the backdrop made it feel a bit like Forrest Gump, but with a lot more blood—but most of the bold moves paid off. The 3.5 hour running time and much-vaunted de-aging technology are hardly noticeable as the story of men with too much money and too few outlets for healthy friendship and competition unrolls to its inevitably disastrous conclusions.

Shorter The Irishman: Death comes for us all, why not reflect on your life before then?


Marriage Story
Movies about divorce aren’t supposed to be cute and enjoyable, but this one had lots of quiet humor in the midst of a rolling disaster. The acting is superb top to bottom (and as a lifelong M*A*S*H fan, I’m always a sucker for Alan Alda bit parts), and the script is tight, never letting you lose sight of what a tragedy divorce and custody battles are, whatever the circumstances. The two leads are so well developed that it avoids simply retreading Kramer v. Kramer for a new generation. They’re so well developed in that their personalities hit me a little close to home. I nearly lost it when Charlie (Adam Driver’s character) breaks into “Being Alive” from Company at the end, not because it’s inherently moving, but because belting out show tunes at karaoke seems about how I might process personal devestation.

Shorter Marriage Story: People are complex, broken, and all your feelings run together and come out at odd times. Also: this.


The Report
If you like to believe settled patterns of political life fall into neat ideological buckets, or worse, that there are more or less “good” guys and “bad” guys sorted tidily into partisan camps, don’t watch this movie. It takes an unblinking stare at the bowels of the CIA and U.S. foreign policy, and how people from other countries (even people with evil intentions and associations) are dehumanized by both parties (in this case, the Bush and Obama administrations) when it suits political needs at home. Easily the best political thriller since All the President’s Men, miraculously turning a 6,700 government document into 2 hours of taut intrigue.

Shorter The Report: America is doomed. Also, does Adam Driver sleep?


American Factory
The flow of many familiar narratives is a journey from stasis to crisis to resolution. Sometimes, however, the bell curve inverts, and a story goes from despair to joy and back to despair. This is the case with American Factory—a multi-year tale of the shuttering of a GM plant in Dayton, Ohio, and its re-opening as an auto glass manufacturing site for a Chinese corporation. The nature of work, family, just wages, unions, safety, intercultural cooperation, and hope are all explored in depth. The filmmakers capture candid conversation so well, you almost forget that it’s a documentary.

Shorter American Factory: America is doomed


Edge of Democracy
There are few things Americans are less well-versed in than political occurrences in other countries. For that reason alone, this fine documentary chronicling the rise and fall of the Brazilian Workers Party through the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff and speciously legal arrest and imprisonment of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is worth your time. The lessons for a politically divided U.S. (and, more to the point, its sharpening class divide) are there for those with eyes to see. The film is that much more remarkable for director Petra Costa’s ability to see her own family’s entanglement in both sides of the conflict, giving its incisive political observations a personal edge.

Shorter Edge of Democracy: America is doomed


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen Brothers are definitely part of the “love-’em-or-hate-’em” school—you can’t ignore their work if your like movies, but they’re not to everyone’s taste. In Buster Scruggs, this is on full display, not just once, but six times. The movie is really 6 narratively disconnected shorts in a classic Western style held together by themes of death, fear, greed, and pride with trademark Coen dark humor. If you like this (which I do), it works quite well as an allegory for many aspects of American life and culture. If you don’t (which my wife does not), it really just turns the stomach to no greater purpose.

Shorter The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: America is doomed, but probably in a piecemeal, individual-demises-pooling-into-disaster sort of way.


The Two Popes
The retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and ascension of Pope Francis in 2013 remains one of the most remarkable (and controversial) papal transitions in Roman Catholic history. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles explores this time in a fictionalized account of a visit between then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) and Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) at the papal estate, using this conversation to explore the church’s past and its future. The result is a dialogue between the need for openness, love, and evangelism and the need for structure, stability, and courage that shows the vitality and grace of Christianity, whatever tradition you examine.

Shorter The Two Popes: Tension is actually the key to hope.


The Good Place
I can’t remember the last time I felt like binge-watching a sitcom, but I got sucked into The Good Place last month, and decided to plow right through to the series finale (on Jan. 30). This is possible—because the whole series only has about 55 episodes—and probably a fine way to watch, since the story arc follows more of the pattern of a dramatic series even as it keeps the character-driven focus of a sitcom. While there are plenty of Hollywood tropes (primarily constant sexual references) that bog things down, the end result is a series that is incredibly funny, but also heartwarming and philosophical. The creators force viewers to think about morality, death, friendship, and the purpose of existence in the face of eternal ennui. In essence, the show provides a fine exploration of the unimaginative nature of many Americans’ vaguely Christian (or vaguely Buddhist) visions of heaven and hell. Mostly, I come away thankful for Jesus (as opposed to the show’s “point system” for determining one’s afterlife) and for a robust biblical vision of the new Jerusalem as a place of creative work in fellowship with God (as opposed to a “heaven” of eternal pleasure).

Shorter The Good Place: It’s telling that the only place this sort of conversation can break out in our culture is in a sitcom.

Header image: Rock in North Chickamauga Creek, March 2016.

How to Clean Up before Christmas

Start by observing the residue of childhood. Note the rotting oak leaves on last year’s toys, plastics long since dissuaded from their original color by ultraviolet rays. Recall how they emerged, shining hydrogenated petroleum, the last gasp of some grasping raptor. Marvel as casual conspiracy between a forgetful toddler and her neighborhood star undoes industrial complexity. Brace yourself as this year’s toys arrive in waves. Strategically maneuver around school crafts and children’s church presents. Have UPS kill off a few extra dinosaurs, for good measure, to ship the good intentions of far-flung relatives or even your own nagging guilt. Sweep up litter. Weep over glitter. Whisper a litany for global trade and the Pacific garbage patch. Tidy up as though it is a game of chicken with the universe. Be careful what you cast out—thoughts count, and twaddle is freighted with love. Try not to stuff souls past and present into stockings. Calculate the cycle of ashes and dust looping from eternity past to Christmas morning to landfill. Measure the relative proximity of Bethlehem to your living room. Factor in the arc of the great circle. Set a stopwatch for the distance in time, a route growing longer with each revolution. Feel the warping of the continuum as the accretion of candles and carols and traditions makes mangers manageable. When you have swept the last artificial fir needle and loaded the last dessert spoon into a groaning dishwasher, don’t rest. Embrace the life you’re tasked with living. Meditate on your insignificance and significance. Look, look in the mirror at your own demise and resurrection. Think dead men’s thoughts after them.

For the time being
Seven demons scour earth
For a spotless room.

Image: My backyard, October 2019.

Crisis

English-only version

Alexander is, I suppose, to blame
For anguish in Nogales, Laredo,
McAllen, Del Rio, and El Paso—
Towns baked crisp under an unflagging sun
Yet wobbly with unspeakable horror:
Rachel weeping, weeping for her children.
More doctrine, or gall, than guns, germs, or steel,
One stroke of Inter Cetera venting
Europe’s pride onto what you don’t own,
Discovering so many things long known.

Thousands of years of solitude crashed
By a half-millennium of conquest
Could not unmake a people tethered to
Black soil, maize, potatoes, and rainforests—
To the land that they delight to show you,
A country flowing with milk and honey.
From Aconcagua to Ixtaccíhuatl—
No less theirs in Spanish than Nahuatl,
Quechua, Itza’, or Ngäbere.
Empires egress, yet here they remain.

Cortés and Pizarro and Balboa
Gave way to filibustering yanquís,
Manifesting their destiny beyond
Borders, national or rational, yet
Scott nor Taylor, Villa nor Zapata,
United Fruit, Contras, coups, nor mosquito,
Canal zones, cartels, Marines, Chavismo,
The CIA, foil blankets, nor cages
Instead of asylum can wrest dignity.
But, if we still have our bread and onions….

We cannot go back to where we came from,
Mostly because we’ve been here all along,
Standing in faith, bad faith notwithstanding,
Standing in judgment, silent as the years—
For the desert where you leave us dying
Remains our old, our most beloved home.
It is only in your cold-tempered hearts
Where place shatters and bad weeds never die—
We are your children, prodigals returned.
Look in the eye what you’ve sown, reaped, and burned.

Original

Alexander is, I suppose, to blame
For anguish in Nogales, Laredo,
McAllen, Del Rio, and El Paso—
Pueblos horneados bajo el sol
Y frente al horror indecible,
Rosita que llora por sus hijos.
More doctrine, or gall, than guns, germs, or steel,
One stroke of Inter Cetera venting
Europe’s pride onto what you don’t own,
Discovering so many things long known.

Thousands of years of solitude crashed
By a half-millennium of conquest
Could not unmake a people tethered to
Black soil, maize, potatoes, and rainforests—
La tierra que les ha mostrado,
El país fluye leche y miel,
De Aconcagua a Ixtaccíhuatl—
No less theirs in Spanish than Nahuatl,
Quechua, Itza’, or Ngäbere.
Empires egress, yet here they remain.

Cortés and Pizarro and Balboa
Gave way to filibustering yanquís,
Manifesting their destiny beyond
Borders, national or rational, yet
Scott nor Taylor, Villa nor Zapata,
United Fruit, Contras, coups, nor mosquito,
Canal zones, cartels, Marines, Chavismo,
The CIA, foil blankets, nor cages
Instead of asylum can wrest dignity.
Si ya tenemos pan y cebollas….

We cannot go back to where we came from,
Mostly because we’ve been here all along,
Standing in faith, bad faith notwithstanding,
Standing in judgment, silent as the years—
El desierto donde morimos
Es nuestro hogar más querido.
Solo está en sus corazones
Donde yerba mala nunca muere.
We are your children, prodigals returned.
Look in the eye what you’ve sown, reaped, and burned.

Image: Palo Duro Canyon, Texas. February 2018.

A View from The End of the World

Seeking “the meaning of life” is as human an activity as breathing, and wrestling with why things aren’t as good as they could (should?) be follows close behind. For better or for worse, I can’t stop reading books that propose to answer the pervasive sense of foreboding about the status quo that so many of us feel.

As someone who stands up in church every Sunday to confess that I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting, this habit of watching for the end of a certain world seems a bit incongruous. I’d like to think I’m in good company with prophets (like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Micah) and apostles (like Peter and John) in looking for the Day of the Lord. They remind us that it is possible to raise up a Jeremiad with joy and to temper handwringing with hope.

So I keep reading and listening. This is true whether these works come from a political science perspective (like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed), a sociological perspective (like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart), a religious perspective (like Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option), a personal memoir (like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me), the agrarian (all of Wendell Berry’s work), the poetic (like W.H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety), the dystopian (like P.D. James’ Children of Men), and even the historical (like Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning). Look in any direction and it’s existential crises for days, but there’s always something to learn.

One thing all of these books have in common is an explanatory posture—they attempt to make sense of the loss and the dread and offer some semblance of a way to the good (looking back for some, forward for others, and grasping at things not yet seen for a few). Most start from a place of reminding the reader what society stands to lose if we’re not careful, a warning to the privileged that their inheritance is spending down faster than it is accruing value. Others point out that what we’ve inherited was never what we thought to begin with.

Of all the “here’s what’s gone wrong w/America” takes, however, Chris Arnade’s recent book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is one of the most honest I’ve seen. Though the author (a former Wall-Street banker who also holds a Ph. D. in physics from Johns Hopkins) possesses greater privilege than many others in this group of writers, Dignity takes pains to  center with humility and humanness those for whom America has gone most wrong. Those who are being ground up get the focus and the voice here; those who’ve lost already, not those who merely fear what they may lose.

Some of this comes from the book’s format. It’s not an academic or even a narrative work, but rather a travelogue weaving episodes and itinerant thoughts with personal stories from all over the U.S. It’s also a sort of coffee-table book: Arnade is an accomplished photographer, and the faces and places he encounters feature prominently throughout the book, giving the words flesh and feeling.

At first, Arnade appears to be launching into memoir as he recounts the beginnings of this project in his long walks in New York, farther and farther afield from his Manhattan office. At some level, he never leaves this mode, stickA1UfDx8SR9L copying around to narrate, to tie together disparate interviews, and to offer an epilogue of his visit back to his hometown.

His voice, though, isn’t the thing you take with you. It’s the words of Takeesha, Imani, Luther, Jeanette, Beauty, Fowisa, Jo-Jo (all street names or pseudonyms to protect their identities), and the others you meet in these pages. It’s the drugs, chemicals of every kind that can be swallowed, snorted, smoked, or shot up. It’s the emptiness of homes, factories, cities, and towns that once held a fuller life. It’s the inexplicable persistence of community in McDonald’s, churches, bars, abandoned buildings, and parks. It’s the clear-eyed pictures of racial injustice that still pervade America and the ways its evil seeps into and drives other class and culture issues.

The photos-and-snippets motif Arnade chose invites comparisons to Depression-era narrative shapers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. He is justly in their company in terms of his photographic eye, but his artistic aims are more subdued. He paints people not as victims in need of assistance or pawns in a political game, but as they are—human beings, broken and beautiful, navigating the life they’ve got with the tools they have. This gives the book a strikingly agenda-less quality. Yes, he addresses globalization, crony capitalism, automation, family fragmentation, drug policy and other macro-level trends that have contributed to the plight of his subjects in some way, but he shies away from any prescriptive action steps. Some may find this (and the attendant lack of concrete “solutions” to “problems”) frustrating, but I think it is a critical posture for the observations Arnade makes to be taken seriously.

Throughout the book, he presents the key divide in American society as that between the “front row” (educated, workaholic, powerful, cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile, rootless) and the “back row” (underemployed, powerless, bound to place, loyal, struggling). Arnade uses these terms descriptively, but neither is intended derisively—front row and back row America both have values and vices, but their cultural currencies and drugs of choice differ widely. Both can provide meaning and community, but both battle despair and can be toxic to outsiders.

It is in the question of values—or rather value—where Arnade makes his most helpful contribution to our national conversation. The front row, he says, lives by “credentialed” value. A person is welcomed into that community based on their gifts and abilities, their degrees, their accomplishments, and their contributions to others’ well-being and success. This world is competitive and rewarding, but also insecure. In the back row, value is “non-credentialed.” Your identity and worth comes from things you are born with (family, ethnicity, work-ethic, local roots) or from belonging to groups that are accessible to almost anyone willing to join (a church, a drug community, a gang, becoming a parent).

At present, the high places of cultural influence and power are open only to the front row, and the non-credentialed bona fides of the back row aren’t likely to earn you a seat at the table or a steady job. If there is an ax to grind here, it is Arnade’s persistent message to his fellow front-row-ites that the meritocracy at the helm of American society today is a much, much more closed system than they’d like to believe. His forays into the back row—whether in Bakersfield, Calif., Johnson City, Tenn., Selma, Ala., Portsmouth, Ohio, or even neighborhoods of front-row cities like New York—demonstrate how the solutions of the front row (“get an education,” “move away,” “get clean,” “learn new skills,” etc.) are much higher mountains to climb from this different perspective. What seems like common sense to one group is to another group a command to turn one’s back on everything they’ve ever known. The repetition of this theme comes both from his desire to make this known, but also because his interviewees so frequently have been confronted by this stark divide.

Dignity matters, not as another explainer of “how we got Trump” or a push for better government and nonprofit programs for poverty alleviation (though it has implications for those discussions), but as a step toward helping us as a country see all of our neighbors as brothers and sisters. Arnade does not claim to be a Christian, but he is implicitly calling us to recover the imago dei as the final arbiter of one another’s value.

Arnade’s lack of professed faith also makes his assessment of the real value of congregational life and earnest beliefs in the churches (and mosques) of the back row that much more remarkable. In an excerpt from the book published in First Things, he writes: “My biases were limiting a deeper understanding: that perhaps religion was right, or at least as right as anything could be…. On the streets, few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know.”

His chapter on religion hit closest to home for me and the work that I do. The churches he visited in the back row certainly don’t check all the theological or cultural boxes front row Christians deem necessary, but they all reflect the person of Jesus Christ in loving their neighbors and being faithfully present with them. Too often, front-row Christianity (whether conservative or liberal in theology, whether high-church or low-church in polity) has trouble doing this—we’re not quite sure what we’d do if someone from the cultural back row walked in and wanted to join. We don’t often have a story of change that would work for them. Doctrine, expected behaviors, and appropriate political positions we can get our minds around; Jesus gives us heartburn.

So where do we go from here? How do we build up? As I said, Dignity is long on observation and short on solutions. Many others are starting to digest the realities on the ground and work toward tying some of these threads together in ways that can repair the breach and bring people back to the wholeness we were designed to experience together. I’ve highlighted some of these on Twitter (that paragon of civil discourse), and in other writings, and I’m sure it’s a theme I’ll take up again. Moreover, this is no small part of the mission of the ministry where I work.

For now, though, let Dignity soak in and open your heart to those you might otherwise be tempted to forget.

Image: Abandoned farm equipment, Channel Islands National Park, California, June 2019