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

 

A Day Late and [Several] Dollar[s] Short IV: Back to the Future

As is my wont 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).

For this go-’round, though, we’re hopping in the Wayback Machine to revisit a few movies that are not new at all, and others that, though new, focus on the past for their subject. The only thread holding these together is that I’ve watched them within the past few months. Those marked with an asterisk were re-watches. So, without further ado:

 

Gandhi-poster

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Ghandi
Often, movies that are universally acclaimed in a given awards season (or dare we say, deliberately crafted as “Oscar-bait”), do not age well. The 55th Academy awards (honoring films made in 1982) were all aglow with Richard Attenborough’s 3-hour, giant-budget, biopic of Mohandas K. Ghandi. It swept the major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography), winning 8 awards in all. I decided to dig this one up and watch it based on reading a few books about India (specifically the independence movement) this year.

It’s a long movie, to be sure, and hagiographic, and a trifle preachy, but it does still hit all the right notes. Ben Kingsley as Ghandi deserved every bit of his Oscar (even beating out Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie). The pacing is remarkably quick and lightfooted for such a ponderous subject, and feels attuned to the humor and wit with which the Mahatma went about his calling. Mostly it works in that it doesn’t feel dated. Much of what Ghandi (or Kingsley’s version, at least) spoke about and fought for has surprising relevance today. As long as there are powerful people who ignore the poor and downtrodden, this movie will have a shelf life.

Shorter Ghandi: Ben Kingsley 4 Prez.

 

Capote_Poster

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Capote*
A dark and stormy movie if there was one. This 2005 biopic centers on a few-year period of author Truman Capote’s life during his fascination with and investigation of the 1959 Clutter killings in rural Kansas and subsequent publishing of his “nonfiction novel”, In Cold Blood, in 1966.

Far from a procedural drama about the writing of a book, the film maintains an intense focus on Truman’s conflicted motives about forging an increasingly close relationship with one of the murderers, while juxtaposing the quiet grief of Holcomb, Kansas with the glib self-promotion of the Manhattan literati. Art and life intertwine and dissociating them becomes nearly impossible. Philip Seymour Hoffman is pitch perfect (and was rewarded with a well-deserved acting Oscar), but none of the rest of the cast Catherine Keener (as Harper Lee), Clifton Collins, Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, and others, are phoning it in either.

Shorter Capote: There’s a dark side to life that only gets darker if you ignore it. Also, Philip Seymour Hoffman, we hardly knew thee.

 

Chappaquiddick_(film)

Courtesy Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

Chappaquiddick
On the theme of biopics focused on a slice of a life as representative of the whole, it is hard to think of anyone more defined by the events of a few moments as Ted Kennedy—the only remaining son of a legendary family who had watched his older brothers die, young and violently, one by one, and followed in their footsteps in public life as much from compulsion as calling. He was expected to run for president, to complete the family legacy, when a car accident and a fear-driven response to shade the truth ultimately ended a dynasty.

In spite of a bit of slow pacing in spots, this film works well with a very capable ensemble cast, and focus on characters decisions as much as their actions. Remarkably, Kennedy here is revealed simultaneously as a cowardly lowlife and an oddly sympathetic character (in the face of his father’s roiling disappointment). For this achievement alone, this is worth a watch.

Shorter Chappaquiddick: Moments matter, and truth is often subject to power.

 

Thetreeoflifeposter

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Tree of Life
There are directors, there are auteurs, and then there is Terence Malick. His ambition is undeniable, but, for most audiences, a bridge too far for enjoyable cinema. His movies are so layered, so detailed, so allusive, that their meaning is elusive without lots of re-watching. Every frame is like a painting, every music choice (with a heavy emphasis on classics) carries a part of the story.

Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life is generally considered his magnum opus, and also one of his more financially successful ventures (#2 behind The Thin Red Line in terms of box office). Like a great novel by a Tolstoy or a Hugo, this film contains multitudes, taking a story that ostensibly takes place within a single family in a single neighborhood and expanding it to the universe itself. The family drama alone is luminous, unpacking so much mystery and beauty.

Shorter The Tree of Life: There is glory in the everyday, and a person doesn’t have to be spectacularly (or predictably?) broken to create tremendous trauma in others.

 

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Courtesy Miramax Films

Cry, the Beloved Country*
I’m not generally fond of adaptations of literature into film. Novels and movies are just different media and each suited to different types of storytelling that don’t often overlap.  Sometimes they’re not half bad, and can get enough of a story across to spark viewers to go find the book, but even a good adaptation can take the timeless themes of a good novel and anchor them in a specific time due to the filmmaking styles that (consciously or unconsciously) mirror the zeitgeist.

This is the case with 1995’s Cry, the Beloved Country, based on Alan Paton’s 1946 novel of the same name about sorrow and injustice in a South Africa then on the verge of apartheid. The film earns a certain pathos simply from being one of the first major movies made in the country under the “new management” of Nelson Mandela. A strong cast of both Western (James Earl Jones, Richard Harris) and African (Tsholofelo Wechoemang) actors turn in powerful performances, and the story generally hues to the book’s narrative, though its contours are less nuanced and the production decisions (pacing, music, shot-shaping) do feel very 90s at this remove.

Shorter Cry, the Beloved Country: Faithful adaptation, but the book has aged better.

 

The_Social_Network_film_poster

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

The Social Network
Hype is a dangerous thing for a filmmaker. It can build up movies that aren’t worth the attention, and suck attention away from good ones. In 2010, all they hype as awards-season approached was around David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network, about the building of Facebook by then Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg. The hue and cry when this new-school drama lost best picture to a very old school film (The King’s Speech) was a sight to behold.

Well, The King’s Speech is still endearing (if saccharine), but this movie seems a mess to me. Perhaps it is because none of the main characters are likable (not necessarily a problem) or remotely relatable (trust-fund kids suing other trust fund kids for IP and breach of contract isn’t exactly broad American culture). Perhaps it is because, in the intervening years, Facebook has managed to practically destroy civil discourse and undermine trust in society (well, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but). Either way, it falls flat as a story for me.

Shorter The Social Network: Why did people rave about this movie?

 

Won't_You_Be_My_Neighbor_

Courtesy Focus Features

Won’t You Be My Neighbor
When I was a kid, television consisted of two pillars—Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and Sesame Street. One of these is still running and has spawned a multi-million dollar product licensing and merchandising empire that is, at best, a distraction from the ideals of childhood learning the show set out to deliver. The other feels today like it’s from another planet, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood notwithstanding.

The Fred Rogers that Morgan Neville displays in Won’t You Be My Neighbor is no quaint throwback, though, but a clear-eyed warrior for a better world—in particular, one in which children, no matter how young, are taken seriously as persons and given the courtesy of wrestling with hard realities and big ideas rather than being sentenced to second-class status and kept at bay with endless cartoons and video games. There is real educational and parenting meat here, but perhaps the biggest takeaway is that Fred Rogers really was Mr. Rogers. His on screen and off screen life weren’t so different as is too common in television, and his widow, children, and staff appear in the documentary to attest to this.

Shorter Won’t You Be My Neighbor: Mr. Rogers might have been an honest-to-goodness angel, or at least a humble saint.

 

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Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Solo: A Star Wars Story
At this point, it’s remarkable that any Star Wars fans remain. We’ve been bludgeoned by George Lucas with three ridiculous and unnecessary prequels and watched as Disney has cranked out new movies with lightning speed. We used to have to wait three years to be cruelly disappointed; now it happens annually. The most die-hard devotees can be forgiven for fatigue (though 2016’s Rogue One was worthwhile).

Even at all that, I had high hopes for Solo, based on three solid theses: 1) Ron Howard had ridden in on a white horse to rescue the troubled production, 2) Alden Ehrenreich (of Hail, Caesar! fame), Donald Glover, and Woody Harrelson, and 3) the fact that Han Solo was always the only truly human character in the original trilogy. Those hopes were, I’m sad to say, dashed by a glommed-together story that spends ridiculous amounts of time on forgettable side characters and “Mos Eisley Cantina” vibes (world-building based on gross-out CGI and costuming, vaguely sexualized aliens, and loud music) producers of recent Star Wars installments seem to think constitute the only fan draws. I’d watch another heist flick with Ehrenreich, Glover, and Harrelson any day, but they are drowned out by the clutter, never given a chance to shine.

Shorter Solo: Dear Disney, please stop destroying Star Wars by majoring on minors.

 

Templegrandin

Courtesy HBO

Temple Grandin*
Films about disability typically come loaded with moral high-horses and themes of empowerment designed to deify the victims of disability and leave viewers feeling abashed for their unnamed prejudices. To be fair, the way that persons with disabilities are often treated in our communities justifies no small measure of this treatment in popular culture as a counterweight. Where both the daily reality and the film world fail is in treating the disabled as fully-formed human beings worthy of our attention because of their inherent dignity.

Mick Jackson manages to craft an intensely human portrait of neurological disability through the life of livestock scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin. Relying on faithful storytelling, and a stellar cast (Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, Catherine O’Hara, and David Strathairn), and some fun cinematic flourishes of his own design, Jackson paints a picture for the neuro-typical among us that makes autism, SPD, and the like seem less like curses and more like superpowers, if properly understood and channelled. Every time I re-watch this one, I find I learn something new about my own attitudes, habits, parenting, etc.

Shorter Temple Grandin: HBO (and television more generally) is doing the heavy lifting in the entertainment industry these days, pulling off what major studios won’t touch.

***UPDATE***

Mary_Poppins_Returns_(2018_film_poster)

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Mary Poppins Returns
We took the kids to see this one on Christmas, with hopeful nostalgia welling up in equal measure to contemporary “children’s” film dread. I’ll let you guess which won by what follows.

Measuring up to one of my all-time favorite movies (and, I think, the greatest film ever produced by Walt Disney studios) was not going to be easy, but director Rob Marshall and co. didn’t really seem to give it much of a try—the cast is decent (The biggest shoes to fill here are, obviously, Julie Andrews’, but Emily Blunt’s Poppins is the film’s strongest link), the production values are OK, even the bones of the story aren’t awful (to be fair, some of the elements shoehorned into this story that work least well came directly from P. L. Travers’ books). What’s missing here is the soul. This sequel almost deliberately works to undo all the most important elements of the 1964 film. Moral lessons are swapped for look-inside-yourself drivel; honest reckoning with the difficulties of life takes a back seat to a contrived problem and pointless villain; taking children seriously as persons devolves to another recycled children-as-savior message.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment for me was seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda given so little space to be, well, Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’d have rather seen the whole project handed over to him—a hip-hop Poppins’ set in East Ham with Idris Elba as Bert would’ve at least had some natural heart….

Shorter Mary Poppins Returns: Impractical and imperfect in so many ways. What postmodern dreck.

 

A Day Late and [Several] Dollar(s) Short III: Newborn Edition

As is our custom, my wife and I go in fits and starts when it comes to movies. Life gets busy with multiple kids, and free time to give to feature-length movies at the end of tiring days gets slim. In other seasons, time gets more flexible, but energy wanes—such as Rachel’s recent pregnancy and our present late nights (and early mornings) with our newborn fourth daughter—and grabbing a DVD from the library or taking a month-long spin with Netflix starts to seem like the most one can accomplish of an evening.

As is my custom, here, in no particular order, are brief reviews of some of the films we’ve watched in recent months. Most are from the batch of 2017 releases that made it into the annual crush of awards nominations. A few are from years past, and one is from 2018.

Phantom Thread

Phantom_Thread
Courtesy Focus Features

Daniel Day-Lewis’s last collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson, the tooth-grittingly intense There Will Be Blood, is among the most impressive displays of acting in modern film. The plot of that film is almost irrelevant, absorbed into the supermassive roles filled by Day-Lewis and Paul Dano. With that in the rear-view mirror (albeit 10 years ago), I had high hopes for this one.

The story Anderson crafts here is similarly sparse, but whereas Blood fills the world entire with its characters, Thread shrinks the world until the small, self-absorbed characters can stride their petty domain (set in the fawning high fashion scene of postwar London) with seeming omnipotence. The key plot twist opens a way out of that world through a cruel, nearly murderous caprice that becomes a strange ritual for the central characters.

Shorter Phantom Thread: Beautiful to look at, and of interest for those trying  figure out how to love a prima donna, but overall somewhat forgettable.

Black Panther

Black_Panther_film_poster
Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

I don’t do superhero movies (except Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy), but Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther became such a phenomenon that I gave in. The hype was not a mistake, and I couldn’t contain my enjoyment. I saw it twice, but several friends saw it 3, 4, or 5 times.

The story is intriguing. The characters, their histories, and their motivations are well-rounded and believable keeping a pace that lingers over the tender and the poignant while barreling forward with the energy we expect from action flicks. The social justice messaging is all the more powerful for being central to the plot. Hollywood learned quite a lesson about the power of offering a dignifying, culturally mainstream vision of themselves to marginalized groups (as of this writing, it is the 9th highest grossing film of all time).

Shorter Black Panther: Easily the most thoughtful, creative blockbuster in decades.

Darkest Hour

Darkest_Hour_poster
Courtesy Focus Features

World War II movies are a staple of cinema in a way that other wars never have completely attained. A combination of the timing (arriving in the midst of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”), the fact that so many top-tier actors and directors served in the military, and, and the emergence of so many larger-than-life characters on the world stage through battle heroics and political machination. Even now, as veterans of that struggle are rapidly fading from the scene, the collective imagination sees that fight as a fountainhead of stories of virtue and valor.

Winston Churchill, more than any other figure, is the avatar of the free world’s resistance to tyranny during the war. When an acclaimed director and beloved actor (Gary Oldman) team up to paint a new picture of Churchill, there will by hype, and Oldman, at least lives up to it—growling and cigar-chomping his way to an Oscar. Still, the film as a whole succumbs to poor pacing, self-importance, and some foolish historical gaffes that undercut its strengths.

Shorter Darkest Hour: This year’s version of the “one-man-show-does-not-a-story-make” vehicle.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Roman_J._Israel,_Esq.
Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Denzel Washington has enjoyed tremendous acting success over the years, and, with 2016’s Fences seems to have come into his own as a director as well. In other words, at this point in his career, he can do whatever he wants.

In some ways Roman J. Israel, Esq. feels a bit like a vanity project, with Washington cast as a long-suffering defense attorney who dreams of overturning  unjust sentencing practices in a civil rights suit. Rather than succumbing to preaching, though, the movie takes a sharp turn when Israel loses hope and gives into a grave temptation (essentially trading the moral high ground for cold, hard cash). This move almost redeems it from the failures of uneven pacing and a weak supporting cast.

Shorter Roman J. Israel, Esq.: A scruffy, can-do civil rights story that falls a bit short of its aspirations.

Coco

Coco_(2017_film)_poster

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

It’s been a while since I’ve seen, let alone appreciated, a Pixar movie (Inside Out was good, the last great one was Toy Story 3). That said, I was prepared to be disappointed by Coco. Far from being the simplistic, culturally-appropriative fare that has made Walt Disney, Co., a multibillion dollar gorilla, this one represents a return to Pixar’s pre-acquisition form.

If ever so slightly derivative (astute viewers will notice parallels [a nicer way to put it would be “allusions”] to Finding NemoMonsters, Inc., and even a bit of Back to the Future), the heart of this story is a powerful rebuke to the standard sage-kid-dumb-parents trope of so many children’s movies.

Shorter Coco: Even when they get a little lazy with the story, Pixar still brings the emotional heft.

Dunkirk

Dunkirk_Film_poster

Courtesy Warner Bros.

As mentioned above, I brake for Christopher Nolan films. The guy’s got a great eye, bringing old-school Hollywood camera magic to an age drunk with CGI and other whizbangery. When I heard he was working on a piece about one of the least appreciated events of WWII (though, it should be noted, that the aforementioned Darkest Hour covers a similar time period from the political, rather than the military side), I was ready to go. Somehow, though, I missed the theater run and had to add it to the video hopper.

No matter. It was still excellent (if less overwhelming on the small screen). Nolan uses silence, stoicism, and suspense to draw raw emotion from viewers, managing to convey the German attackers as more phantoms than men. The closing sequence alone is worth the whole movie.

 

Shorter Dunkirk: The most beautiful war film ever shot.

The Post

 

The_Post_(film)

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

The Washington Post as a publishing entity is a fine paper, and its reputation for in-depth investigative journalism in the nation’s capital is well-earned. It’s even been amply celebrated in film—1976’s All the President’s Men immortalized Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s exposé of the Watergate scandal. The Post, covering the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers and the legal/financial drama to which that exposed publisher Katharine Graham, promised a strong “Woodstein” vibe, a reminder of what American Journalism can do for the age of “Fake News.”

What we got instead was only OK. Hanks is Hanks, Streep is Streep, and Spielberg keeps trucking in his self-appointed “historian-in-chief” role, but the movie’s awareness of its importance cut its sense of narrative and pacing, making it fall rather flat. Not bad, but it should’ve been better.

 

Shorter The Post: Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep are phoning it in, but we all keep watching anyway. Also, Absence of Malice continues to be my favorite newspaper movie.

All the Money in the World

All_the_Money_in_the_World

Courtesy TriStar Pictures

In 1973, the grandson of oil magnate J. Paul Getty (at the time, the richest man in the world) was kidnapped in Italy and held for a colossal ransom. The trouble was that Getty had been somewhat distanced from that side of the family since his son & daughter-in-law divorced, and he refused to pay, much to the confusion and consternation of the small-time mafiosi responsible.

This high drama lends itself to a nail-biting thriller in the capable hands of Ridley Scott. The movie was subject to its own drama during production, when disgraced star Kevin Spacey was replaced at the last minute with the legendary Christopher Plummer (Plummer shot all his replacement scenes in just 9 days, and the film still released on its scheduled date). I expected this to be entertaining and exciting, I was surprised to find it also to be a profound meditation on the dangers of money.

Shorter All the Money in the World: Generational wealth is a curse; Christopher Plummer is amazing.

The Martian

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Courtesy 20th Century Fox

While on a Ridley Scott high after All the Money in the World, I finally picked up 2015’s The Martian (which, with Nolan’s 2014 Interstellar, could almost have started an entire “rescuing Matt Damon from other planets” genre). Set in the near future, this story attempts to take interplanetary travel from the realm of Science Fiction and bring it down to daring plausibility. It’s well acted, well paced, and quite enjoyable overall.

And yet…the past three years have not been kind to this movie. It feels already like a relic from another epoch, filled with the scientific hubris and international-relations optimism of the Obama presidency. In the world of Brexit, Trump, Xi, and the rise of national/populist strongmen across Europe and Asia, the “science” of The Martian feels much more like fiction. The glory days of NASA are long gone, and there’s no sign of their return anytime soon.

Shorter The Martian: Way, way, to high on “Science”, but still well done.

Cinema Paradiso

CinemaParadiso
Courtesy Miramax Films

I can’t remember the last time I cried watching a movie (not counting Les Misérables—since I cried at the theater when I saw it on stage first). 1989’s Italian masterpiece Cinema Paradiso will do it to you, though. It’s got family drama, friendship, tragedy, Ennio Morricone music, and a full-blown heartstring-tugging, memory-lane finale. Bonus: this is on Netflix currently.

Watching this one, though, what struck me most is how unlikely it is that an American director would come up with a story like this. It’s so small, bounded by its Sicilian village setting, and yet it swells to fill the world entire. Fittingly for a movie about movies, it reminds us that they can and should be an artist’s tools for beauty and contemplation, not simply vehicles for commercial escapism or social messaging.

Shorter Cinema Paradiso: Why don’t they make movies like this anymore?

2017 in Pages

‘Tis time again for the annual stroll down library lane. As always, what follows is not an exhaustive list, but a selection of some of my favorite reads of the year sorted by genre. Also as usual, most of these were not published within the year, but I encountered them for the first time in 2017.

History/Biography

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow
This is superb biography. Thorough and unflinching. Alexander Hamilton’s reputational resuscitation—from forgotten financial guru to Broadway inspiration—owes pretty much everything to Chernow. His mining of records from Hamilton’s childhood and deep familiarity with his personal correspondence yields a detailed, engaging story that presents the fullest picture of this founding father yet produced. His thought (on human nature, financial systems, geopolitics, etc.) is well-explored, and his failures are given full airing. Hamilton is unquestionably one of the most consequential figures in Western history, and it’s hard to imagine the United States becoming a global power without his influence at the beginning.

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
Hindsight is 20-20, so they say, and in American hindsight, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were the height of moral clarity, with waves of virtuous young athletes staring down the Nazi machine and beating the “master-race” on their own turf in nearly every event. Rose-colored memories notwithstanding (if everything was so cut-and-dried in 1936, one wonders why World War II had to wait three more years), there are plenty of inspiring stories from those games (e.g. Jesse Owens taking four golds). The U.S. victory in men’s eight-oared rowing is perhaps one of the most improbable, and Brown’s retelling dives deep into “why”, exploring the rocky upbringings and incredible efforts of Joe Rantz and the rest of the boys in the boat. A bit floridly written at times, but earnest and beautiful all the same.

Cultural Observations

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher
From my review: “Some of his observations and recommendations may strike readers as good common sense (such as deepening the way our lives are structured around the historic rhythms of church life or a call to support the businesses of our fellow believers). Others may be hard to swallow (as a fellow homeschooler, I am sympathetic to Rod’s call to pull our children out of both public and status-oriented private schools, but many will bristle at such a brusque suggestion). Dreher is at his finest in the two chapters on sex and technology, where the culture holds most sway within the church, often without our notice. You may react with shock, but you cannot deny the clear and dire warnings he lays out there.”

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Stevenson’s narrative of abuse of the death penalty and life imprisonment in the supposedly “post-racial” era shines a light on just how far the U.S. has to go in pursuit of civil rights for all her citizens. This is a powerful book on the merits of the subject matter alone, but Stevenson’s style and depth of personal experience take these hard truths and make them into urgent pleas for action. “Why must we kill all the broken people?” he asks. Simply devastating.

The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander
This should be required reading for every American. Alexander’s thorough research is compiled here in a relentless drumbeat of indictments against every level and branch of government (with equal shame heaped on both major political parties), popular culture, civil rights and community leaders, and the “colorblind” complacency of Americans of all races. The mass incarceration of non-white men, she argues, is a de facto caste system, trapping for life those caught in its web for even the most minor offenses. We are all complicit, and we must all work against it. Whereas Stevenson tugs at the heart through stories, Alexander presents an unrelenting barrage of facts that demand a verdict. Both are effective, and both are needed.

Fiction

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
“Grumpy Old Swedish Man” doesn’t do it justice. This is a story the West needs to hear right now. There is more to life than individuals and the administrative state, and that the people we do not want to “bother” us (neighbors, co-workers, and those in need) are precisely those whom God puts in our path to save us from despair. Backman weaves very modern tale with intense heart and a Wodehouseian love for the absurd metaphor. What a joy!

East of Eden
by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck is one of those authors (like Hemingway) considered to be near the pinnacle of greatness for a certain generation of American literati. I’ve read much of Steinbeck in the past, and none of his work ever “clicked” with me in the emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually satisfying way truly great books tend to. All of that probably explains why I missed reading this one until now. This is truly his magnum opus, one of the masterpieces of American story, an epic homage to home and the ways sin and hate co-mingle with love and redemption in the secret sauce of family. East of Eden redeemed Steinbeck for me.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
I picked this one up out of love for the man responsible for its publication, Walker Percy, who read the manuscript and championed its printing at the behest of Toole’s (reportedly obsessive) mother some years after her son’s suicide. This is one of the funniest novels I’ve read, with lots of of laugh-out-loud scenes. It’s also quite insightful into the brokenness of social systems and the seamier side of life in New Orleans. Despite the excellent writing and well-drawn characters, none of them ultimately rise to the level of care and concern for the reader…which, I suppose, is Toole’s point. Still, it’s grown on me as it marinates after reading.

Theology & Practice

The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch
I heard Andy Crouch deliver a condensed version of the content in this book at a conference earlier this year, and made a point to buy a copy. Like most of Crouch’s work, this one is winsome, accessible, at times painful, but much needed. There is far more here than a stern warning about screen time for young children (though he makes a good case in that direction). The book is truly a meditation on Sabbath keeping, wherein we truly rest (not just take leisure) after pursuit of creative work (not just mindless toil or frittering). His is a prophetic call to resist the “easy-everywhere” idolatry to which our devices tempt us.

Practicing the King’s Economy by Michael Rhodes & Robby Holt with Brian Fikkert
Among the perks of working for and with authors is that you get to read, edit, and comment on books before everyone else sees them. This is the case with this volume, due out in April 2018 from Baker books. Rhodes & Holt make a compelling exegetical and practical case for a biblical reorientation of our economic lives around a vision of Christ’s already-but-not-yet kingdom. This is explored through six keys (worship, community, work, equity, creation care, and rest) each bolstered with thorough study of scripture and real-life, attainable examples. I read a lot, and this book makes me very excited, and I’m not just saying that because I love the three guys who wrote it!

Memoir

The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry
I think rather highly of Wendell Berry, but find his oeuvre somewhat uneven. When he is on to something, he is prophetic. When he is cranky about a hobby horse, it shows, and his prose suffers. This short book, which I only recently heard of, is among the finest of the former category. In traveling back through his childhood experience of America’s racial caste system, he cuts to the heart of the social and economic dislocation crushing the American soul. Jim Crow and slavery are only the half of it. Though this book is nearly 50 years old, it seems even more incisive now than I’m sure it must have been then.

The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key
I met Harrison and heard him speak at this year’s Walker Percy Weekend. When I stopped laughing, I bought a copy of his memoir of growing up as masculine misfit in Mississippi. Key is by turns crass, juvenile, and silly, while simultaneously managing to be spiritually insightful and deeply moving. It’s a neat trick if you can do it.

Re-reads

C.S. Lewis wrote in “On Stories” that “We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” Armed with that exhortation, I’ve made a habit of revisiting books that hit the mark to see if they stick. Here are a few that came back up this year.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
There’s not much one can say about O’Connor that hasn’t been said, but it’s all true. Her stories are always on my nightstand, ready to deflate any bubbles of self-importance and remind me that I only pursue righteousness through the benevolent violence of God’s grace. Overall, I prefer Everything that Rises Must Converge, but this volume contains plenty of gems as well.

The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy
It just gets better and better with age. All of Percy’s work feels more or less prophetic, as humanity has still not fully come to terms with the dislocation of the individualized, technological society birthed by WWII, but The Last Gentleman sums up his philosophy best of all his fiction. I read this for the fourth time this year, in preparation to lead our book club in a discussion of it. The “New South”, the old South, the sexual revolution, cultural Christianity, and so much more comes under his withering eye.

Everyday Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis
Like many American Christians, I confess to being overly comfortable with my culture and overly sensitive to perceived threats to religious liberty and biblical values. It is easy to see the Church’s influence waning in our society and be tempted to anger or despair, especially when so many of my fellow believers still seem intent on pursuing purely political solutions to fundamentally spiritual/cultural problems. Speaking into that frustration, Everyday Church is an excellent wake-up call, breathing Gospel life back into my understanding and expectations of the Church and its relation to culture. Chester and Timmis both serve as pastors in the United Kingdom, a country whose Christian heritage has all but disappeared, so their sound scriptural advice is also given the weight of experience.

Also-Reads

The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks
Howards End by E. M. Forster
The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out a Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
Twelve Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke
The Second Coming by Walker Percy
A Meal with Jesus by Tim Chester
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
At Home by Bill Bryson
The Age of Anxiety by W. H. Auden
A Legacy of Spies by John LeCarré
Silence by Shūsaku Endō
ReSet by David Murray
Onward by Russell Moore

If you wonder what I thought of these, find me on Goodreads.

Photo: Library, The Biltmore Estate, December 2017.