Wednesday, February 25

Lent 2009

It's Ash Wednesday today, the beginning of Lent. We now have forty days of joy and repentance to prepare for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I think this may be my favorite Church season. (Not that it has much competition. I can only recall three others at the moment.) I feel as though this is a time when my Catholic faith finally begins to make demands of me and intrudes on my daily life, makes itself known. There is fasting. Stations of the Cross become a weekly event. There are a pile of Holy Days which require trips to church beside Sunday morning. Receiving the cross of ashes on your forehead today is a significant marker of faith. There is a sense of urgency about my religious practices. This is a time to really claim my faith.

For my fast this year I've opted not for self-denial but a new practice. I'm going for daily prayer. I've been interested in it for a while and have even tried to make it a habit, but those, obviously, haven't panned out well. I'm still a little fuzzy on the details, though. The general plan for now is a few minutes of prayer after waking up and a few minutes before going to bed. Maybe some stock "Our Fathers" and "Haily Marys." Maybe some original stuff in the sense that prayer is a conversation with God. I might go online and check out different methods of prayer, too. Try a different style every week. Some Taizé, maybe? We'll see. I'm excited to see how this turns out and will make every effort to record my experiences and practices here.

Saturday, February 21

Considering "Revanche"

I readily admit that the first thing about Revanche which captured my attention was its Austrian origin. Not that I have any particular love for the nation, having only visited Salzburg, but because that means the language will be German. Since I began taking German language classes four years ago and spent five months studying in Munich, that alone has been enough to peak my interest in a movie.

The fact that this movie received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and is, quite honestly, a mind-blowing movie is only the kicker.

The plot, ultimately, is quite simple, and ancient. It's the same principle that finally motivates Achilles to end his hissy fit and get back onto the battlefield. It's a story of revenge. Man's girlfriend is shot. Man wants to make the one who did it feel the pain he feels. Wants to kill the one who did it. But it's really not that simple. Revenge and the vigilantism which so often springs from it are clichés of American entertainment, popular clichés if the resounding success of The Dark Knight this past year is any indication. In these popular cases the sides and intentions are clear. The victim is wholly innocent, entirely blameless. The killers are vile murderers, most likely drug dealers or rapists or spoiled rich kids of some sort. The avenger has never acted in hatred before but are forced into it by a legal system which cannot give them the justice they seek. But what happens when the killing takes place in the course of a bank robbery? When happens when the killer is a good cop who is crippled by remorse? When the shooting is an accident? When the avenger already has a violent streak? Revenge is not that simple. Perhaps more difficult than it, though, is forgiveness. How does Alex move beyond his girlfriend's death? How does Robert move beyond his first kill, a terrible accident? A crucifix appears in nearly every scene of Revanche, and all of the characters are searching for redemption in some way.

The director, Götz Spielmann, aims for naturalism. There is no background score. All music which appears in this film is courtesy of Hausner, the grandfather of the main character, as he plays his accordion. There are no musical cues to indicate how a scene might turn or what our feelings should be. There are no desperately rising strings when Alex pulls a gun on Robert as he runs by. When Alex has violent sex with Susanne, Robert's wife, there is only silence beside their sharp breathing. The lack of a score emphasizes, too, the difference between the ambient noises of red-light Vienna and the forest surounding Hausner's home.

Without a score the full emotional weight of a scene must be carried by the actors, so it's fortunate that the performances across the board are outstanding. The greatest, though, may also be the most understated. There was no acting apparent in Johannes Thanheiser's performance as Hausner he inhabitated the role so completely.

In any case, though Revanche is very deserving of the Oscar, my vote goes out to Der Baader Meinhof Komplex. The AMC Theater in Spokane has done a decent job of brining in the winner of this category of the past two years, and I would very much enjoy the chance to see another German film this year. I suppose Vals Im Bashir is the front runner since its victory at the Golden Globes, but I'm assuming Israel's invasion of the Gaza Strip earlier this year will put the Academy members off a little bit.

Update: At the Spokane International Film Festival, Revanche tied with Let the Right One In for Best Feature Film.

Thursday, February 12

Another one for the senior bucket list

Though this opinion I submitted to The Gonzaga Bulletin last week is rather specifically bounded to the past four years at this particular Jesuit university, I feel the message is a solid one and applicable to all those who ever plan on graduating from higher education. American colleges suffer from a four-year memory and so much is lost among students every time another class graduates. Seniors should make a deliberate effort to share their experiences and memories. Ironically, it's not something I'm likely to put into practice as I hate meeting new people so much.

Funnily enough, I've received more personal responses to this piece than any I've written before, news or opinion.

Saturday, February 7

Considering "Låt den rätte komma in"

The Spokane International Film Festival is celebrating its 11th year this month. I am celebrating my first year of attendance, which really is a pity. I like to consider myself something of movie connoisseur who has some standards for his celluloid-based entertainment and who also likes to see what stories people outside of Hollywood are telling on the big screen. Forgoing an event like this, one which promises films from across continents and pieces which would never otherwise play on a screen in Spokane, is really quite unforgivable. As penance and as celebration of this opportunity finally seized, I offer this blog up to my thoughts on all those feature-length films I manage to fit in over this wonderful, wonderful week.

Seeing as how this was not only my first Spokane festival but first film festival ever, I could hardly have hoped for a better film to break into it all than the Swedish Let the Right One In. For months, it had been steadily gathering exceedingly positive reviews and excellent press coverage in the States. It currently stands at 82% on Metacritic and a freaking 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. When I first checked the screening schedule, it was the first to catch my eye, and the only one I was absolutely determined to see.

All of which made finally seeing it something of a let down. Good thing Australia and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button had already gone a long way toward inuring me against this possibility earlier in the winter.

Twelve-year-old Oskar, even paler and blonder than the young Macauly Caulkin, is tormented by bullies. He wants to be strong. He wants to cut them and make them squeal like pigs. Instead he meets Eli, the odd dark-haired girl who doesn't wear shoes in the snow because she's forgotten how to feel cold. If you managed to miss it before coming to the theater, Eli's a vampire. She announces her more feral nature to the audience by latching on to the neck of some unfortunate, lonely souse early on. It's a nice switch up, with such an emphasis on predators and prey throughout the film, to see the little girl, typically the weakest and most vulnerable of the characters, become the most powerful and terrifying. Anyway, despite Eli's warnings against such a relationship, they become friends. They give one another advice. They help one another grow. They make mistakes. They do stupid things for the sake of the other. Then they go and do something brave. They even use Morse code to communicate between their apartments. All of this is great. These are the fundamentals of any great love story. The problem is the emotional connection necessary to make it fantastic never appeared for me. To be sure, the Rubik's Cube scene and Oskar's first hug with Eli have more tenderness and sweetness in them then anything that goes on between Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett for the first two hours of Curious Case, but then Tomas Alfredson has to go and weird it all up by having Eli dive into Oskar's dripping blood and scream at him to get out, presumably before she goes after the fresher stuff.

So we come to the crux of the situation. Right One is a vampire movie. Right One also is a coming-of-age and love story. It takes both of all of these premises seriously, but that doesn't work. If vampires are at all played as something less than cool, calm, collected versions of evil incarnate, they lose their menace to the point of becoming ridiculous. Requiring an invitation to enter any building is kind of a glaring weakness. Just consider any book in the Twilight series. Totally lame vampires. When Eli unwillingly shoves her face into the pool of Oskar's blood, it has about the same level of terror as when the afflicted in The Shaggy Dog runs after cats while still human.

Make no mistake, I found Right One to be an absolutely beautiful movie. The Stockholm suburbs in the 1980's may be a joyless place in the dead of winter, but the director captured something beautiful in that stark, desolate environment. I could have watched that drifting snow for hours. It's just too bad that couldn't be translated into any sort of enduring emotional connection for me. I really wanted to love this movie.

Update: At the Spokane International Film Festival, Let the Right One In tied Revanche with for Best Feature Film.

Friday, February 6

Learning Argentine Tango: Another perspective

This video is part of an irregular series for The Spokesman-Review detailing community love stories. The couple dances at the same venues as I do, so I've seen them a few times. This is the first time I ever heard of their meeting, though. I like their descriptions of Tango at the end. They closely mirror my own thoughts on the dance and those of other people I've spoken with.

From a journalism standpoint, I honestly enjoyed the presentation of this piece, still photos matched with dialogue from interviews and minimal narration. It's a limited style and probably of not much use to any harder news, but for telling this love story, it is very nice, simply allowing the subjects' voices to weave the story and mood.

Tuesday, February 3

Marienplatz at noon

This is my first photo post since the beginning of the semester and since I enrolled in Philosophy of Art and History of Photography. Ostensibly, both these classes aim to improve my critical skills. Let's see how well those are working out.

We begin by observing, noting what is in the image. We see a crowd of tourists, digital cameras all aimed at the same spot. Some are smiling. Some are a little more intense, perhaps waiting for the exact right moment to preserve and share with their friends. Only one woman, the blonde with a white scarf in the midground, seems aware that the crowd has itself become the subject of a photo. The title reveals the location and time of the shot. By itself, this is of little help, but seeing as how I spent several months studying in Munich last year, I know that this is where and when one can observe the renowned Rathaus-Glockenspiel play and dance.

Considering all this, I believe the photographer is attempting to make a statement on the banality of photos taken while on tour. Everyone takes a picture of the same thing even when a static image on the thing lacks any interest whatsoever. The puppets on the Glockenspiel move on fixed tracks and, if they're feeling frisky, rotate. The pictures being taken in this photo even lack the personal touch one creates when they put a friend or family member into the frame alongside the primary subject. It is as though these people want to fill their digital albums with pictures they'll immediately skip over. If they appreciate the Glockenspiel that much, there are postcards readily available with images far superior to anything they could manage. It is not a bad message, but the photographer's technical incompetence distracts from it. Really, what amateur puts a street sign directly behind the head of a person?

Sunday, February 1

Public intellectuals

A November article in The Chronicle of Higher Education disputes the apparently popular claim that the public intellectual is dying out. For the curious, blogs are the alleged coup de grâce. Daniel Drezner challenges this idea and argues that blogs provide an alternative communications outlet, more accessible to those outside the ivory tower, and have thus increased the level of the conversation.

I can buy that. At their most fundamental, blogs are a communication medium and have their own unique set of attendant advantages and disadvantages. In this way, they are no different than television or magazines or any other mediums going all the way back to papyrus scrolls and stories around the fire.

The more interesting questions to me, however, are avoided by Drezner. What does it mean to be a public intellectual? What does the public intellectual do? Drezner takes the answers to these questions for granted. He makes several lists which enumerate over 30 "public intellectuals," and offers only the scantest of possible definitions. "[Those who] write serious-but-accessible essays on ideas, culture, and society." In all fairness to the following, the only two people whom Drezner lists and whom I am reasonably familiar with are Christopher Hitchens and Malcom Gladwell, and my thoughts on these two have been repeated plenty often.

Anyway, Drezner's definition. It's a good start but should only be taken as the bare minimum. I think we need to pay more attention here to the form and transmission of thoughts, ironic since Drezner spends this article defending the blog as a medium. It bothers me that Drezner makes a particular effort to include journalists and editors among his public intellectuals. It's another irony since my own major is journalism, and were I to one day be considered an intellectual, that would be a good day. However, I like to think this also makes clear to me more of our profession's collective weaknesses. We're not bad at writing, especially for mass audiences, but we tend to treat issues and ideas as finished products. We have to deliver something, and ambiguity does not fit nicely into a box. We often give some space to quotes by opponents of the idea, but that is all. We hardly ever go behind this, describe the competing arguments. Ultimately, the ideas and issues we write about end up positions to take based on anecdotes and soundbites rather than critical thought.

More important than "serious-but-accessible essays on ideas, culture, and society," public intellectuals should be framing the important debates of the day in such a way that the arguments come to the fore. They should not be giving Americans ideas but asking them to consider the ideas. We shouldn't be looking toward the quirkiness of the ideas, those most out-of-the-box, but the reasons which support them. The public intellectuals should be writing for and speaking to each other, not the masses, but making these debates open to the public. Yet another irony, I think televised debates may be the best medium for this, stained as they may be by cable news show shouting matches. In speech, jargon tends to fade. For all the thought in it, the Chomsky/Foucault debate is very accessible and demonstrates the possibilities for civil discourse. In the meantime, writing, though it permits deeper arguments, is meant for the crowd and not as often for one another. A final irony, blogs then become the worst form of public intellectualism. The opportunity for them to become insular "echo chambers," linking only to and read only by those who share their thoughts is incredible. Drezner's public intellectual may not be dead, but they could be so much more.