From Winnipeg To Nashville Part 1: A Picture of Failed Dreams and Growing Expectations

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I still remember the moment I decided to be a drummer.

As a young boy I had experimented with the piano and found it too rigid and rules based for my personality. And while I loved the guitar, everyone and their dog seemed to be a guitar player, and in an exercise of self awareness (or shameless self-concern) I have never been very good at standing out in a crowd. The drums seemed the perfect compliment to my introverted tendencies. It gave me opportunity to play (drummers still seem far and few between), and it gave me a voice that I felt I could actually hear above the noise of my own inadequacy.

Even though I was largely untrained and technically ignorant, the first time I played in public- for Grade 10 chapel, I was also awakened to this idea that I finally had a voice that others could hear and understand as well, and music to a large degree became my means of building meaningful relationships during those later adolescent and young adult years. .

And A Dream Is Formed…
Thus formed the seeds of a (late) childhood dream, a dream that solidified itself the day I walked through the doors of a Delirious concert (and yes, I know that dates me) and happened upon this small, unassuming outfit that went by the name of Switchfoot performing as the opening act. It was at that moment I knew, this is what I wanted to be doing. This is what I needed to be doing. And given all roads at the time seemed to go through Nashville, the once epicentre of the Christian industry and the very image at the time of “making it” and living the dream, I became equally determined to see that city one day.

And I nearly did.

After experimenting with a number of different groups over the years and failing at finding anything that would stick, I remember one day waking up and telling myself, this is it. I have one more go at it to try and make this happen. The older I was getting the harder it seemed to be to keep pressing the reset button.

So I wrote a plan out on a piece of paper, joined forces with a good friend whom had stuck with me through the years, and looking to make something happen went to work putting the plan into action. We brought in a front person, wrote a number of songs, cut a demo and started playing shows. And people responded, eventually even catching the eye of of a booking agent.

But it was at that point I realized something had changed for me. The glimpses I was getting of what this life would eventually be, for as exciting as it was in the moment (there is nothing like that first time playing on a big stage in font of thousands of people) wasn’t adding up to my expectations. Further and more importantly, here I was finally on the cusp of living my dream and the only thing I could think about was a group of students from my Church that my music was taking me away from. I was missing graduations, important moments, and at the time an entire year of investment at crucial times in some of their lives.

So I stepped away from the band. The same band I had put so much work in to foster and create. I stepped away from my dream. And, as it just so happens, I stepped away right before the band relocated to guess where?

Nashville.

The band would go on to sign to a label, go on tours and sell (and make) a number of albums. Me? I went back to school to become a Youth Pastor.

Where one dream fails a new one takes shape. And for as hard as it was to come to terms with leaving music behind, I was (eventually) equally excited for this new direction in my life.

Fast forward a number of years…

After graduating and serving for a number of years at a few different Churches, I found myself stepping out of Youth Ministry after an extremely brief but incredibly tough experience that nearly destroyed me (and I say that in seriousness). And to this day, which was around five years ago today, seeing my former band or other equally successful musician friends still living that dream reminds me of those failed dreams. And while I did eventually find another Church to call home I haven’t been able to bring myself to pursue music or Youth Pastor since that day.

Which is a long road to take to get to this point, but when the need and opportunity presented itself recently to drive a small group of students down to the Nashville area for a North American, Covenant Denomination wide youth conference, something interesting sparked in my spirit. I noticed the symbolic intersection of those two failed dreams coming together. Here I was, a stand in leader driving a group of students to Nashville, the place I had always dreamed of “making it” to as a musician.

 

Making Sense of Our Dreams
Dreams are funny things. They develop out of our expectations. They arise from our relationship with others. They are shaped by things that inspire us. They feed off the thrill of the unknown, the idea of discovering and accomplishing something new.

And from what I have learned in my years on this earth, they almost always tend to relate to two main things- the question of who we are and the question of how “we” can impact the lives of others.

For these students heading down to Nashville this trip was something they had been anticipating for a long time. Some of them had never been over the border before. For others they had never explored that part of the Country before. For most, if not all, a conference of five thousand plus students all worshipping in the same place carried an air of mysticism and excitement that they could only imagine.

For myself, living on the other side of two failed dreams, what this trip revealed for me was that my experiences had turned me into something of a cynic. Having the privilege of watching these students anticipate the conference and explore these new places, I was brought back to my own childhood spirit of expectation, expectations that were once full of the same hope, anticipation, wonder and appreciation of the unknown that I was seeing in them, all the stuff that cynicism tends to steal away as we get older.

I was also reminded that these expectations do come with a necessary degree of healthy fear and risk. God knows that for as much as he tried to hide it, our own son (who accompanied us on this trip) approached this conference with a sense of fear and trembling. It also ended up being a struggle for him after being sidelined for a good portion of the experience by a bad case of “swimmers ear”. It was a reminder that there is anxiousness and uncertainty is a natural part of what accompanies all of us as we step out into the thrill of the unknown, and also the risk that sometimes our experiences don’t necessarily match our expectation. And yet the reason we step out and embrace these sort of experiences and dreams with hope and expectation is because it is something we believe will and can be transformative and life changing.

37200300_420743831744485_7966826710995828736_nWhich is simply to say, dreams are made of both the highs and the lows. Dreams are made of both excitement and fear. And what I realized is that rather than make me cynical, this truth should give me reason to be grateful. Because if there is one constant in the high’s and low’s it is this- stepping out into our dreams helps build a foundation. It gives us a place to start from and a means of moving forward. It teaches us something important about the present moment while offering us something to invest in for whatever our future dreams might become. It shapes our voice and give us a way to speak above (and through) the noise of the everyday. It allows us to embrace and not miss the joy and deal with the disappointment.

And above all, the idea of this confluence of both the highs and the lows gives us a way to make sense of and learn from the stuff of the everyday, the battleground of life where we face the highs and the lows on an even more consistent basis.

It is fitting then that a big take away for the kids I talked to on the other side of the conference was the idea of carrying this question with them- what will we do when we head home, back to the everyday? For as much as this experience, this dream, was thrilling for most of these kids, the hardest part was knowing how to carry the lessons of that experience on the other side of the Appalachian mountains. How to carry the lessons of this conference experience into the everyday in a practical way.

Thinking back on my own dreams (and I had a long, looooooong drive for which to ponder through this all multiple times over), I wondered if those dreams were essentially about two things for me. The desire to find my voice and the need to create and play music that might speak to others who felt they didn’t have a voice. And this is the foundation that music and ministry gave me over the years. I can remember playing shows where the front person for our band would have a lineup going out the door waiting to get an autograph. My line would be about 3 people long. And yet I remember feeling in those moments, this is exactly where I want to be, having the opportunity to speak to those who feel they don’t belong or don’t want to be in the larger line. As my dream shifted towards ministry it became about a passion to give voice to those who felt disenfranchised either by the world or by the Church itself. To reach the kids on the fringes who didn’t belong in the “popular” crowd. A large part of went wrong (from outside perception) in my last job was my inability to connect with the popular kids. And yet I remember thinking in the dying moments of my time at that Church, I am exactly where I would want to be, hanging out and talking with the kids on the fringes.

And here’s the biggest thing. The decision that stepping out and living those dreams “in the moment” could make a difference in my life and the life of others only became clear years later. In the moment I expected that it could and it would. On the other side of the mountains I found myself questioning whether it did anything at all. In both cases for me I felt more lost and more useless on the other side than I ever had before. It is only after all these years later that I can say with even a small degree of manufactured confidence, I was exactly where I needed to be and that there was a reward for stepping out and taking that risk.

As I pondered these things, the hope and prayer that I had for these students on what turned out to be a fairly quiet ride home was that the dream of attending this conference, the anticipation of experiencing and seeing something new would give them a foundation, a fresh place to start from and live out their faith in the everyday. That they would not simply feel stuck on the long, endless expanse of the prairies, but know that hope and optimism and expectation for what God can teach them about themselves and their ability to invest into the lives of others is theirs for the taking right where God has them. The present moment, the week of highs that a conference tends to bring, would form a memory of “God with them” that could give them the words they need in the lows they will likely face in the years ahead, and hopefully that can give them the strength to continue to resist the cynicism and embrace the hopefulness long into their maturity.

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A (Half) Year At the Movies: a working list of films I see in 2018

Given that we’ve reached the halfway point, I figured I would check in on what I’ve been watching,

Here is a link to my official working list and tally:
https://letterboxd.com/davetcourt/list/a-working-ranked-list-of-the-films-i-see/

In total this is a list of 37 films that I have seen that have an official release date listed as 2018.

My Top 10:
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10. Game Night

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9. Black Panther

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8. Peter Rabbit

 

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7. A Quiet Place

 

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6. Isle of Dogs

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5. First Reformed

 

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4. Ready Player One

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3. Tully

 

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2. Paddington 2

 

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1. Infinity War

Some Points of interest from my top 10 list:

  • I was genuinely shocked to see Tully eventually overtake Ready Player One. Ready Player One had been my most anticipated film of 2018 for a long time and I haven’t been shy about sharing how much I loved seeing it on the big screen. But the emotional force of Tully, which played on an extremely personal level, spoke louder than my fandom.
  • The two films that have shuffled the least are my number 1 and my number 2 (Infinity War and Paddington 2 respectively). I fully expect them to stay where they are, but there is a whole half a year waiting to challenge them.
  • The single film that has shuffled the most? Peter Rabbit. It has teetered at a few points with getting bumped out of my top 10, but it just keeps persisting and fighting its way back up.
  • The most intriguing match up for me to watch? A Quiet Place and Isle of Dogs. Both are films that highlight the Director. Isle of Dogs cemented itself as my favourite Wes Anderson film, while A Quiet Place showed such a strength behind the camera it was impossible to ignore. I resonated with the narrative of A Quiet Place on a deeper level than I did with Isle of Dogs, but I anticipate Isle of Dogs having more layers to peel back and explore on subsequent viewings.
  • The film I anticipate moving up over time? First Reformed. I saw it. I can’t stop thinking about it. And the more I think about it the more it keeps breaking me over, and over and over again. I also won’t be surprised if Hereditary ends up cracking the top 10. I need more time to digest it. Definitely the scariest movie I’ve seen in 2018.

Some points of interest from my full working list of 37 films:

Most Underrated Film(s) of 2018
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Paul, The Apostle of Christ
An above average faith based film, and even though that doesn’t necessarily sound like high praise, I really did appreciate what this film did both narratively and with some of the cinematography. It deserves to be seen for sure.

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Hotel
Artemis
I had heard middling reviews of this one and I almost passed it up. I’m glad I didn’t. What drew me in to want to see it was the premise. What caught me off guard was the social commentary, a film about having the strength to not only enter into the worlds brokenness but to participate in the worlds brokenness, and the complimenting performances of Brown and Foster.

Biggest Surprise(s) of 2018
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Upgrade
A film I knew nothing about, had been quietly earning some fans where it was screening (in larger cities south of the border), but that I had to wait what felt like eons to even have a chance to see (and even then I almost missed it sneaking onto a single screen locally). Now that I’ve seen it, totally worth it. Nothing flashy, but it has a unique story, engages some compelling themes, and plays like The Matrix on a modest budget.

Peter Rabbit
I believe there is a surprising narrative strength to this children’s film even if you know nothing of the source material, but it is in relationship to the source material this film reaches another level, especially as a children’s story. I had zero expectations going into this one. I left experiencing every emotion on the spectrum. And yes that means I cried.

Most Intriguing Match Up

Tomb Raider and Wrinkle In Time (Sitting at 20 and 21 respectively) have been the two films that have probably shuffled around the most over the last 6 months. Although I could (and can) admit that it had its flaws, A Wrinkle In Time was such an important book for my childhood that I was willing to forgive a lot to embrace the film. In a couple movie discussion groups I participate in I found myself a lone voice attempting to champion the film. Tomb Raider earned the same rating from me but was much easier to find champions for in those same groups.

Given that these two films sat side by side on my working list, I spent a lot of time wrestling with which one should come out on top. I fully expected A Wrinkle In Time to personally (and honestly) work its way up over time, while I thought Tomb Raider might trend the other way. At this point in time it is the other way around, but I haven’t given up on the possibility that A Wrinkle In Time might muscle its way back in the running on subsequent viewings.

Top 3 Best Performances (lead or supporting) of 2018 So Far (in no particular order):
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1. Claire Foy in Unsane
2. Ethan Hawke in First Reformed
3. Charlize Theron in Tully

Most Fun I’ve Had in the Theatre in 2018 So Far:
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1. Game Night
2. Ready Player One
3. Rampage

Most Emotional Experience of 2018 So Far:
Tully 

Scariest Film of 2018 So Far:
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Hereditary 

Funniest Film of 2018 So Far:
Game Night

Overall Thoughts at the half way point:
While 2017 was solid all around, 2018 feels like one of the stronger years for film that I can remember in a while. But aside from the fact that there have been some really stand out films so far, there are two things I have noticed to be particularly true this year:

1. The number of films that have seen extremely limited release
It’s been hugely frustrating to see films sparking tons of dialogue and gaining a ton of buzz but being unable to see them without driving at minimum six and a half hours to the closest, big American city. And what makes this even more frustrating is that these are films that could have likely been very successful given even a single screen beside the more recognizable blockbusters (Isle of Dogs, Upgrade, Won’t You Be My Neighbour, First Reformed, just to name a few). As has been documented (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/box-office-revenue-hits-a-record-33-billion-2q-2018-1124371) theatres are still breaking records in terms of box office revenue, but the trend towards giving smaller films less time and less access feels like a lost opportunity.

2. Might there finally be an uptick in the spoiler adverse crowd?
I am not sure I have ever seen as much dialogue surrounding trailers and spoilers. A big part of this was no doubt the long awaited arrival of Infinity War and the dance between efforts to talk about the film without giving anything away. There also seems to be some carry over from the advertising debacle that was last years Mother, with people arguing over films like A Quiet Place and Hereditary and the idea of seeing the film that was advertised without giving away the twists and turns (with people feeling like they got more than they needed in advertisements for A Quiet Place and maybe not enough for Hereditary).

But what all this conversation seems to have sparked is a bit of welcome push back to the growing embrace and expectation of having our movies spoiled for us. It was only as far back as 2015/2016 that we saw a gluttony of articles being published declaring that spoilers abound because we want our movies spoiled (see: http://ew.com/article/2015/07/27/trailer-spoilers-southpaw/). It appears that the tide might finally be changing, and one of the methodologies I have seen some implementing is embracing the teaser trailer while shunning and avoiding the others. And thankfully teaser trailers are now being made more and more accessible and sparse.

Best Films I Caught Up With From 2017
1. Hostiles 
2. The Endless
3. Unfriended

Anticipated Films that have already seen limited release but that I have yet to see in 2018
1. Hearts Beat Loud
2. Won’t You Be My Neighbour
3. The Rider

Looking Ahead: Most Anticipated Films From the Second Half of 2018:
Blockbusters
1. Mission Impossible Fallout
2. Bumblebee
3. Aquaman
Honourable Mention: Spiderman Into the Spiderverse

Dramas:
1. First Man
2. BlacKKKlansman
3. Welcome to Marwen
Honourable Mention: Bohemian Rhapsody

Sequels
1. Ralph Breaks the Internet
2. Creed 2
3. Equalizer 2
Honourable Mention: Fantastic Beasts 2

Remakes or Reboots
1. Christopher Robin
2. Mowgli
3. The Nutcracker and The Four Realms
Honourable Mention: Robin Hood

Outliers
1. Mandy
2. Sorry to Bother You
3. The Sisters-Brothers
4. Splinters In Time
5. Widows
6. The House With the Clock In It’s Walls
7. The Captain
8. Down a Dark Hall
9. Kin
10. A Star is Born

Princesses, the “Florida Projects”, and North Enders: A Growing Perspective

Princesses
One of the tell tale signs of summer in our neck of the woods is the emergence of a particular young girl who loves to dress like a fairytale princess and make the street her playground every Saturday morning, dancing as if no one is watching.

And I mean full on princess garb with colourful flowing dress, tiara and wand.disney-baby-purple-rapunzel-disney-princess-dress-up-costume-147273-f408893743fdda0a6bdcca6d1b8d67d457c7f0fb

I typically meet this girl while I am out walking one of our dogs. And every time she sees me coming she immediately runs over to greet me. I always want to ask where she got her dress and why she enjoys wearing it. There is something about her childlike abandon that fascinates me. I want to but I never have. From time to time though I have allowed myself to imagine…
From Princesses To North End Neighbourhoods
When my wife and I decided a few years back to adopt internationally we also happened to be in the process of trying to move. Which meant at the time of our move we were faced with a necessary question.

Where did we want to raise our eventual son or daughter?

At the time the only sure thing was the Country our son or daughter would be coming from and the language they would most likely speak. And so we decided to make an immersion program one of our top priorities. As life sometimes goes, our search for an immersion program found us moving back to the same neighbourhood that we had moved from 10 years prior. This was the neighbourhood of our young married life, the beginning moments  of our building a life together. And so there was something special about beginning a family here as well. And in many ways it really did feel like “coming home”.

Fast-forward a few years.

Our adoption was as a success, our son has just completed middle school and is now leaving the immersion program behind for a new high school. At which point we find ourselves faced with another important question.

Where will our son attend high school?

The easiest answer would be to enrol him at the high school located across from the middle school. The harder path was to lobby for a school outside of our catchment area (neighbourhood), which meant the difficult process of applying, advocating for and eventually “maybe” getting accepted.

We chose the harder path.

Which brings up yet another question.

Why did we choose the harder path?

To be fair there were some practical reasons for our decision. But the one that sticks out for me is the one that I feel I did my best to ignore- no longer wanting him to attend school in our neighbourhood.

So what changed? What made me resistant to the idea of our son building further roots in the neighbourhood we had chosen to raise him in? To explore this question I think offering some brief context for our neighbourhood might be helpful:
From North Enders To The Suburbs
We live on a figurative but very real jurisdictional line. We could literally move across the other side of our street and find ourselves in a different jurisdiction. And what’s important to note about this fact is that this jurisdictional line is what essentially separates the “north end” from the sprawling “northern” suburbs. To say you are a north ender in the city in which we live is to qualify that you somehow live on the “wrong side of the tracks”, to borrow from a long running joke that we sometimes use ourselves. To live in the north end carries certain connotations and assumptions, ones that ironically would get erased had we chosen to simply live on the other side of the street.

And here’s the thing about this fact. We thought nothing of this when we first moved into the neighbourhood 10 years prior. This was our neighbourhood, our home. We took pride in our North End home. But when you suddenly have a kid your senses become that much more heightened. This is true not only of the sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle apprehension of others towards sending their kids to hang out with our son “in our neighbourhood”. Just the other day we witnessed a parent awkwardly caution their kid about not going outside of our home while he was here. And this is not the first time this has happened.

This is true not only of the familiar pause and questioning we get when we declare ourselves to live in the “north end”, as if it is hard to wrap ones head around why we choose to live where we do. We have gotten that one a lot to be sure.

But it is also true in the way I allowed those perceptions to influence my own thinking over the last 3 years of us being a family. Somewhere along the way I started to adopt the same attitude and “act” the same way myself.

And what’s sad to me is the message this has sent to my son. Watching him slowly begin to recognize that where we live is not like the other neighbourhood his friends and other families live in on the right side of the tracks, followed by effectively removing him from any opportunity to make friends in the place we have chosen to live ourselves. And what is perhaps most ironic, or most painful, about recognizing this way of thinking is the image we have of our sons orphanage. That for as run down and dirty as it was, it carried a sense of pride and home for our son. The same sense of pride and the same sense of home that he once had for the North End in our first few years as a family. Where our house was big. Where our neighbourhood was safe and exciting. Where everyone in this new Country was the same.

As I watch our son commuting every day out of our neighbourhood and slowly but surely losing all of the neighbourhood ties he had managed to build in his first two years of middle school, I feel sad that the message he has heard from me and from others is that our neighbourhood is not good enough for him, and that by living here he is not the same as others. That there is something inherently wrong with being “north enders”.

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From The Suburbs To The Florida Projects
On the surface the film The Florida Project tells the story of an existing community living just outside the grounds of the massive Disney World complex. But as we meet the families that make up this community, the story itself begins to form into a compelling and unexpected social commentary, a stark conversation about that invisible line that separates the affluent from the less than affluent in any given city or neighbourhood. Just in this case the Disney image exists and persists in a hyper-realized function of this reality, a fictionalized but very real demonstration of an “out of sight out of mind” attitude.

The film is most expressive in the smaller details, such as the use of space, allowing the camera to capture “kids in motion” by narrowing in on tight corners, rooms and slightly obscured views, allowing every turn, every new corner to carry with it an element of surprise and exploration.download-4 It captures the power of the unexpected, and it is the ability to wonder what lies behind the next bend or the next corner that awakens us to the joy of being a kid that the film wishes to express and celebrate.

At the same time it is the unexpected, the just obstructed view, that awakens us to the darker side of this social divide that the invisible line projects onto its characters, using the camera to hide the sight lines of the grand Disney complex just out of view of the reality of life in this forgotten and neglected community.

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Or details like the use of setting, allowing the faded exterior of a former castle like hotel to contrast against the castle that we don’t see, shedding further light on the lives that call this crumbling neighbourhood construct home.Those brief moments in the film of tourists accidentally showing up at a hotel they believed was something else, a hotel they perceived was on the right side of the tracks, function as an incredibly powerful witness to the social divide. Or the way the film gives us a picture of the kids contextualizing their own fairy tale experiences into their own situation and setting, turning even the most derelict portions of this community into something celebratory (imagining the destruction of an abandoned home set fire against those recognizable Disney fireworks).

 

The end result is this idea that there is a world for these kids to explore, but one that comes with a very real sense of boundaries, and that beyond these boundaries exists a world in which they do not belong and in which these kids are seen as intrusive, unsafe and unwelcome.download-5

The sense of two worlds existing so close together but remaining so far apart.

From the Florida Projects Back to North End Princesses
As I encountered this young princess dancing through our North End streets like no one was watching, I was reminded of The Florida Project. I considered the idea that our own invisible line was literally measured by the side of the street that we chose to live on. And I was hit with the realization that the answer to my question was two fold. Nothing has really changed from the days our son spent walking those 6 blocks to his school right down the street from where we lived. And yet something had changed- my own perception of those 6 blocks.

And then my mind began to create a picture of our neighbourhood streets, imagining a massive castle existing across the street from us that I somehow cannot see but yet I know it is there. And as I imagined this castle I felt shame and regret over thinking that merely living on the “wrong side of the tracks” would make me immune to measuring our neighbourhood against the image of that castle. Shame and regret that when push came to shove my actions did not speak louder than my words.

… And then I imagined this little girl. Who was she? What caused her to put on that dress and dance through the streets with such expressive joy? I imagined this little girl spinning and twirling in the shadow of Moonee, played with child like abandon by the wonderful Brooklyn Prince in The Florida Project.download-3 And I imagined her meeting a Bobby, played with an unrelenting compassion by the talented Willem Dafoe, someone who could tell her that no matter what the world told her that she had a place to belong. And I imagined her putting on her dress and running through the gates of Disney World to celebrate with the children on the other side of that divided line regardless of her slightly run down house, ethnicity or neighbourhood stereotype. And I turned from my imagination to offer up a prayer. A prayer that this little girl might never lose that sense of joy. That she would aspire to be a Moonee. A prayer that the next time my own actions needed to speak louder than my words that I would chose to do more than simply ignore it. That I would aspire to be a Bobby.

 

 

 

 

 

Infinity War: Storyboarding Life, Death, Hope and Redemption

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THIS BLOG CONTAINS SPOILERS

Set against the MCU’s long slate of great, immensely successful and largely adored comic book movies, Infinity War manages to set itself apart as something truly special.

Here are some of my more specific thoughts on what this film meant to me personally.

The Stories within a Story- Shaping and Reshaping our Expectations
Each individual film in the MCU has its own tone, its own style and its own arc. You don’t really need to be a comic book fan to necessarily enjoy them, and one can enjoy a single, particular film or series without needing to appreciate them all. For example, one might connect with the spy-thriller vibes of Winter Soldier but not dig the Star Wars type space adventure Guardians of the Galaxy.

But here is what is so brilliant about what the MCU has managed to pull off over all these films and all these years. While each film is different, they have also each been conditioned by a larger, creative vision which has slowly been pushing each story towards a collective, climatic finish.

This is what Infinity War represents.

Which essentially means there are multiple different entry points into the story that Infinity War is bringing to close and there are many different ways to experience this story depending on which character or characters we happen to have an infinity for. This also allows the film to be ripe for conversation amidst the potential for a variety of different reactions.

It’s risky. Never before have we had something like this on film. But it is a risk that I believe reaps a worthwhile reward.

Avengers 4 or a True Avengers sequel- Bringing the MCU together
The first two Avengers Films along with Captain America: Civil War (which many affectionately call “Civil War”) took the first steps in pulling together the MCU, and they did this from three working perspectives:

  • raising the stakes (Avengers)
  • foreshadowing the rise of a recognizable villain (Age of Ultron)
  • setting the relationships between the characters of each individual characters in the MCU in tension with one another (Captain America: Civil War)

Thus we arrive at Infinity War with real stakes, the rise of the most dangerous villain they have yet to face, and the individual narratives/character arcs that see our heroes now splintered and separated from one another.

And what is astounding to me is the way in which Infinity War uses these perspectives to pull each individual film with all its unique tones and styles and characteristics into what essentially becomes one large, continuous first act of a Lord of the Rings style epic trilogy. I have personally come to consider Infinity War as a sort of sequel to everything that has come before it, a middle film and the first of a two part grand finale all rolled up in one. It is a true marvel that the film allows the different tones and styles to be equally present and visible while also becoming something entirely unique and different.

 

download-1Harnessing and Setting the Tone – Creating a True True Mash-up of everything that is good and right about the MCU
There has been a ton of material released on the inter-web detailing the genius of how this team of directors, writers, artists, cinematographers managed to honour each individual flavour and tone. Here’s one of my favourites (and you can follow the link into the rabbit hole… well worth the time)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-luQokOiBw&feature=share

But the most essential ingredient for honouring each individual tone and identity is the way they structure the film. This film is an ode to comic book storytelling methods, capturing what many have come to love about reading comics. I would argue of all the films the MCU has done this is the first, truly great “comic book” movie. Creating multiple entry points into its narrative over time is precisely what comic book storytelling does, especially in its more modern form as the relationship between screen and page begins to get stronger and stronger and more relevant.

Here is a link to an interesting article about modern storyboarding techniques:
https://www.cbr.com/what-will-be-comics-next-big-storytelling-technique/

What allows all of these individual films to work in a mash-up film like Infinity War is precisely this- storyboards allow a single caption to “flow through the story”, a larger theme and purpose that defines the more defined narratives or each character.  And the larger a series becomes the larger and more purposed the storyboards can become. This is why a single film can carry so much nuance and information regarding a larger universe, even if you don’t realize it at the time. They structure Infinity War using 20-30 minute individual sequences (panels) set within a larger narrative arc (storyboard) in order to allow this larger narrative to unfold.

If you are a person of faith, it is worth noting that this is also a great way of seeing the relationship between God and the world. As we live our lives we are constantly being made aware of the larger story in which God has been unfolding since the beginning of time. In our limited perspective we live our lives so as to gain glimpses of this story and our place in it, and then to allow that story to infuse our life with a greater purpose, a grander vision for the world in which we live. And the beauty of this is that each of us are given an entry point into that story from the perspective individual narrative, just as each character in the MCU plays a larger role in Infinity War.

Defining Expectations
To begin with, I think for many fans who have been following the MCU with eagerness and anticipation it is fair to say while there are many different entry points for this film, there also exists a silent and shared expectation:
a) a chance to see all of the characters coming together in one film
b) The story of Thanos as a truly great villain to trump them all.

I don’t think anyone truly knew how or if they might actually pull this off, but if we can narrow this film down these two expectations there is little question they pull it off in a pretty incredible and awe inducing fashion. My jaw was on the floor by the end of this film. But it is what the film does with bringing all of these characters together and with developing Thanos that also circumvented these expectations.

 


First, the film uses its structure to establish the place of each individual narrative in the pre-determined story they are now starting to reveal, bringing each standing character arc to its own final points of tension.

  • The now rogue hero’s of Cap and Widow
  • The isolation and growing PTSD of Hulk
  • The aging and fractured Stark and the burgeoning mentor-student relationship with Parker
  • The devastating loss of Thor’s family and world
  • The longing of Rocket to belong in the midst of his own past and hurt and his desire to just be a captain (this was so brilliant)
  • Star Lord’s own journey as a captain and the family dynamics and loss he has faced
  • Establishing the relationship between Gomorah and Thanos
  • The spiritual journey of Dr. Strange in finding humility in light of his ego and service in the midst of power
  • The relationship between Vision and the Scarlett Witch

And then it fuses these points of tension together to expose a larger, and in many ways unexpected story about a fractured group all needing to find a way to work towards a unifying goal- defeating Thanos.

What is really interesting about this larger story is the ways it uses the old guard as windows to see the new. We know these old characters. We are invested in their stories. The film reminds us that no matter how often the stuff of life tends to separate us from one another, that we all face tough stuff in this world and that we are all fighting toward the same end is what shapes our common humanity and brings us together.

imagesTake the opening scene for example. We are thrown into the harsh reality of genocide. This flows straight out of the story of Ragnarok and connects us to the world of the Guardians, the old and the new being brought together through a single picture of desolation. And it is out of this that the film is able to dig into the personal stories of Star Lord, Stark, Thor and Rocket revealing a shared experience on an even deeper and more personal level even though these characters have just met for the first time.

Or take the growing Stark- Parker relationship. download-3The film uses this as a entry point into the relationship between Stark and Dr. Strange, bridging the mysticism of Strange with the concrete, scientific methods of Stark and connecting it to their need to control (or their inability to control) what is happening and their burgeoning desire to each make a difference and be a difference maker in their own way, or in the case of Stark to leave a legacy that will last beyond his aging presence in these films.

 

downloadThe True Story of the Greatest Villain
As was mentioned above in regards to defining expectations, if Infinity War becomes anything in the midst of all these inter-personal dynamics and fractured relationships, it is telling the story of Thanos. This is ultimately his movie, and I am willing to posit that Thanos is likely the great villain of our time. If everything has been building up to seeing this character fleshed out in full form. here he is given depth, motivation, ambiguity, moral-tension and immense power that is all captured in a performance by Brolin that should not be understated.images-5

And did I mention he looks incredible on the big screen!
While all of our heroes are an entry point into their shared arcs in Infinity War, they also become the entry for developing and understanding Thanos as the central villain they must each unite to defeat. Thanos has lost everything, and so the opening picture of genocide not only ties us into the story of Thor and the Guardians, but it stands as a contrast to Thanos’ own moral dilemma. Because over population caused his own planet to self destruct, his only means of redeeming this tragic reality is to extend mercy to the world by gaining the Infinity Stones and wiping out half the population with the snap of his fingers.

There is a part of Thanos that perceives his actions to be right and necessary and just, and there is another part that seems to be blindly moving towards something he feels he simply needs to do for the sake of alleviating his own hurt and loneliness and despair. It provides a stunning level of emotional complexity, and it is this opening picture told with tragic proportions and mass death that keeps this moral tension in view moving forward, especially in that crucial scene between Gomorah and Thanos where he is revealed to have the love Gomorah assumed wasn’t there.
Defining the Heroes and the Villain
And here is ultimately what is so neat to me about the way these old stories meet up and pair off with the new. We begin to see each of these fractured and broken stories slowly uncovering a subtle (and not so subtle) question about what defines a hero and what defines a villain. And this question comes through the idea of sacrifice, a theme that is also familiar to the Christian story.

download-2
Take Vision and the Scarlett Witch. Yes, even though killing Vision so that Thanos can’t get the stone would have been for the greater good of the world, doing this would have made it difficult for Scarlett Witch to distinguish her own actions from Thanos’ motivating purposes. Thus she remains driven to find another way to defeat him, if only to know she is on the right side of the line in this battle between good and evil. The fact that she does it in the end is set against Star Lord’s willingness to kill Gomorah for the greater good as well. I think the way these two scenes pair together tell us that this theme of sacrifice is the thing that separates them from Thanos, even when it is not entirely clear.

Contrast this with Thanos’ decision to sacrifice Gomorah for the sake of extending mercy to the world. download-4For Thanos, the only way he saves the world is by sacrificing Gomorah, through which we are given a striking picture of this moral ambiguity. Where Thanos stands on the right or wrong side of this line isn’t always clear and throughout the movie we are left to struggle with where his motivation lies, for self or for others. All we really know is that all of this death, all of this loss, all of this destruction is painful and not the way things are supposed to be.

And this moral tension comes to full fruition in the moment Strange, having seen every possible scenario and knowing there is only one way forward, sacrifices his stone and saves Stark’s life for the sake of world, a moment that stands as the most definite picture of hope in this film, the idea that even in the questions there is a way forward, a way to redeem the mess and to find the promise of a better future. And somehow, this notion of sacrifice, of the hero’s constant resistance towards exchanging one life for another, feels like it is going to be a central part of how they move forward together.

Leaving Us With the Questions
Which is precisely where we find the film making its boldest move of all. In this story, in this moment, the heroes lose and the villain wins. It’s something we can see coming in the opening five minutes of the film. We know that Thor is the most powerful hero and we see him left with one eye and powerless against Thanos. We know The Hulk is the next most powerful hero and we see him being tossed around like a rag doll and suffering with some form of PTSD that keeps him from turning green and saving the day.

And the faint hope we have that Thor might be able to forge another hammer arrives at last with a striking and forceful sense of depletion in the final sequence.

Bold. Gutsy. Heartbreaking. Challenging. The last shot of Thanos staring off into the sunset might be one of the most chilling scenes I have experienced in recent memory, a scene that is willing to leave us wrestling with all the unanswered questions of this collective journey. How can this be redeemed and at what cost will this redemption eventually come?images-4

The Stakes of Life and Death: Redemption
The question of stakes in this closing moment of the film has been hotly debated. Some loved it. Some hated it. Some feel they have been cheated, others found it raised the stakes beyond what they imagined.

Suffice to say at least everyone seems to be talking about it.
First, it is worth pointing out that this is what comic book stories do. They all have their own version of the Infinity Gauntlet. No death is ever necessarily final. They introduce kids to important adult themes. They allow us to taste death and darkness and despair and all those unanswered questions of life- our common humanity- while also giving us hope that anything is possible and nothing is final and that we can trust that we are heading towards something better than the present reality.

Second, when it comes to comic book storytelling, these storylines are less about the death itself and more about ways in which these deaths can and will impact the characters in the story moving forward. It is about the ways in which the stuff of life forges us and allows us to grow. It evokes necessary emotion in the moment while leaving us with the question of endless possibilities moving forward. We know heroes come back to life. We know things can be changed and corrected. This is why we can trust these stories. The real question is how will this unfold? How are they going to tell this story of loss and redemption in a way that teach us something about life and where these lines between hero and villain ultimately get drawn. How are all of these characters, already fractured, already broken, going to deal with this loss moving forward.

This is the stone out of which heroes and villains are forged in the comic book world.

Thus the stakes are to be understood and experienced in the moment. The stakes are in the sacrifices that have been made and the ones that will likely have to be made to find hope in the tragedy. The stakes are in this universal sense of defeat and the pictures of mass death that linger through each of these sequences. The stakes are in how we choose to find a way to rise above the current reality.

Faith. Hope. Love. This is the stuff of trusting that we are also a part of a larger story, one that is moving us towards the promise of redemption and a better world.

We don’t know how this story ends, and that is what forces us to sit in the moment. We don’t want our heroes to die, and that is what forces us to sit in the moment. We don’t want to be left in such a stark picture of loss and devastation, and that is what forces us to sit in the moment, to hope and trust that where this story ends is where it promises to end- with a world that can be redeemed.

Dr. Strange saw an immense number of possibilities, and only one resulted in victory. That is where the hope lies, but man does it seem like this is going to involve sacrifice. In the stakes of life and death and finality, redemption only works if there is a way forward, the promise of something better. And that is what Infinity War stakes the entire story of the MCU on.

Again, this is what comic book stories do. You don’t truly know how all of this is going to play out in the final act, but in this moment man does this all suck big time. Watching Parker die? Watching Scarlett Witch holding Vision in his final moment? Watching Gomorah being thrown off a cliff? Watching Thor lose everything in that opening scene? Hugely emotional.

Which brings me to where this all of this seems to be leading.

images-2Disassembled Hero’s Assemble
The new hero’s have disappeared and the old guard is left standing. I wouldn’t have wanted them to write this story in any other way. It’s perfect. The Cap and Stark relationship is left intentionally unresolved, which means working through the stuff that pulled them apart is likely going to play into how they respond to what has just happened. And we know there must be a reason for saving Stark at the expense of that final ring.images-3

I’ll wager this. I actually think if you strip away Thanos this is Stark’s story at its heart. His bookend.

And there is the question of why Rocket is the one who remains of the Guardians. Or why Banner becomes the only one to interact with each different group over the course of the film.

Any way this shakes up the final film is going to be one emotional ride through both the reality of the hell that Infinity War leaves us with and the promise of a new earth that lies somewhere on the horizon. Infinity War has set the stage for the MCU to be reborn. It has set the stage for the old to give way to the new in dramatic fashion, and calling out to Captain Marvel in the end was goose bump inducing. Using the setting of Black Panther and Wakanda, incorporating a dominant Guardians vibe, the increased role of Dr. Strange, the idea of the student taking the place of the mentor.
Yes, this is a tragic ending, but hope still remains. The real question is, what is it going to cost and how will the hero’s be able to redeem this notion of sacrifice that seems so central to the story Infinity War is telling.
landscape-1522924460-avengers-infinity-war-poster

Isle of Dogs: Where Community meets Individuality

downloadFollowing the fantastic “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, Director Wes Anderson returns to the art of stop motion animation with the recent release of “Isle of Dogs”, a beautifully crafted, lusciously detailed, heartfelt technical marvel.

It didn’t take long to find myself being swept up into this adventure about a boy going on a search for his dog spot, and there is little question the film builds on much of Anderson’s more recognizable stylistic and idiosynchretic tendencies:

  • His deadpan style humour and dialogue
  • His attention to symmetry and shape and precision
  • Using cultural and artistic references to anchor his film in a particular time and (imagined) place and influence.
  • Playing with messy family dynamics

Along with these familiar stylings, Isle of Dogs also sees Anderson continuing to experiment with new ideas and demonstrating personal growth, most notably in his use of a lower frame rate which accents the animation with some rougher edges and doing some neat things with moving us in and out of panned shots and an almost fearless willingness to do close up shots. This has a way of taking a confined area and making it feel a lot larger and more expansive than it actually is. We also see Anderson, someone who has a tendency to depict muted emotion, growing in his embrace of more obviously optimistic, joyous and sentimental tones. True to form, Isle of Dogs might be his most sentimental and most accessible film to date narratively speaking, and technically I think this film, which we find echos of in The Life Aquatic, Moonrise Kingdom and, of course, Fantastic Mr. Fox, could be considered one of his most ambitious and impressive visual accomplishments to date.

Coming back to “craft”, this is the perfect word to describe Isle of Dogs, and also the perfect way to describe a Director who I believe represents a true Auteurs. With that said, it is also worth pointing out that even a cursory and surface look at the story behind the making of Isle of Dogs showcases this film as a true collective process as well, developed through a writers room, an expansive team of talented artists and, at least when it comes to its inspiration, a shared passion for Japanese animation.

All of which brings me to the elephant in the room- the lingering and much publicized accusation of cultural appropriation.

images-3The film takes place in a futuristic, fictionalized city that represents a conceptualized version of Japan. Anderson’s choice to create a fictionalized city and landscape out of a recognizable and very real culture, people and history is connected to his desire to pay homage to the things that have inspired him from that culture, namely the work of Kurosawa and Miyazaki. But there are some (or many) who feel that Isle of Dogs crossed a line between homage and, at the very least, borderline cultural appropriation, not necessarily with intention but rather as an error of judgement. Some feel that the reason for using Japan as a setting is not entirely clear in the context of the film, which means the way Anderson is using representation in this film becomes even less clear. As a couple of writers have surmised, Anderson positions himself as a tourist rather than truly immersing himself in the culture, thus relegating Japan as an objectifying plot device rather than a homage or love letter to a culture.

Here are some examples I have encountered of possible cultural appropriation:

  • Representing Japan’s history of family centred monopolies in an over sighted and slightly fashion (The Kobayashi family)
  • Swapping the important cultural image of the Komainu with “cat” shrines
  • The decision to set it in Japan while also making the hero of the story a white, American exchange student
  • Naming the central Japanese character “Atari”
  • Including the scene of making Sushi as a stereotype
  • The creative decision to have most of the characters speak in an often broken and sometimes tongue and cheek version of Japanese while having the dogs speak in English

I do think this last point is probably the most poignant one. In the film the dogs speak english while the Japanese characters speak in their own language without subtitles. Instead Anderson chooses to use an on screen english interpreter and a white, American exchange student as a means of engaging across linguistic lines. This has the affect of distancing us from the Japanese characters to a degree, and although it is clear Anderson is playing around with the idea of communication and language thematically, some felt this recognizable device actually ends up working against this end goal by not allowing the Japanese characters to have a voice of their own.

Critic Nina Coomes fleshes out the role of language in the film in her review, saying:

“At one point, before allowing his opponents to make a counter-speech, Mayor Kobayashi inexplicably barks out “Risupekto!,” a Japanized pronunciation of respect that isn’t used in colloquial Japanese. While there are many English words that are commonly used in Japan, Isle of Dogs opts to invent its own. For instance, instead of having his characters say osuwari (sit), Anderson has them parody English by shouting “Sitto!,” another word Japanese speakers don’t use.”

Coomes further adds,

“Taken alongside the movie’s cultural oversights and reinterpretations, this conclusion is just another instance of Isle of Dogs using Japan as a way to normalize outlandishness, thus creating the illusion of a cohesive story.”

This last point is worth highlighting. More than one critic has pointed out that what really crosses the line is the way the film seems primed to use an unfamiliar culture (to American audiences) to elevate and accent the strangeness of his methods as a Director. At this point the lack of intention almost veers towards intentional.

Now, this might be a good place to pause and offer an obvious caveat to all of this. I am not Japanese, nor am I overtly familiar with the culture myself, and so I cannot speak to the way someone from this culture or familiar with this culture might interpret or contextualize this film differently than me. I can only speak from own limited experience with the film and from an observant understanding of the issue as best as I am able.

Worth posting is this review by Justin Chang (critic for the Los Angeles Times), who argues the film as appropriation but does so with a sympathetic voice to what he believes are the films many strengths. Whether you agree with him or not, I think he has written one of the better pieces regarding the films cultural voice.

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-isle-of-dogs-review-20180321-story.html

With that caveat, here is where I land on the issue of cultural appropriation in Isle of Dogs. I think it does tow a line, perhaps mostly because Anderson has yet to speak publicly about some of these artistic choices, but I do not think it is intentional or purposed, and I do not think it should or must take away from an individuals experience of the film as emotionally resonant. And I think this central point is important, even as I have personally learned much about the cultural appropriation in this film from other voices over these last few weeks.

I should also point out that the film resonated with me emotionally on a number of levels, which I hope to explore further here, which makes this whole conversation a delicate process that must be done with understanding and grace (on my part and on the part of others who might disagree), especially when it comes to trying to make sense of someone as unique as Anderson.

So as a way of getting into my more detailed thoughts on why this film resonated with me on a strong and positive level, here are some of the more important points that stood out for me when it comes to my personal experience of Isle of Dogs and the issue at hand:

1. Anderson himself has described this film as the culmination of one big idea (the desire to create a story about a boy and a group of alpha dogs in a garbage dump) and a passion (for Japanese animation and culture). Every indication that we can glean from his public interviews tells us that cultural appropriation was far from intentional, and that Anderson actually wanted to endear us to the nuances of Japanese culture through this fictionalized setting. Now, this does not mean it isn’t fair to speak to the issue if it is present, but I do think it awakens us to the idea that maybe there is more going on here than it first appears.download-1

2. As was stated above, this project was the culmination of many different voices, including representation from Japanese culture. The fact that it had a writers room, a rarity in film and even a greater rarity outside of franchise films, speaks to what was hopefully an environment conducive to fleshing out the necessary intricacies and respect and grace to make this work. All of which is simply to say that while Anderson might have directed certain decision and creative choices intentionally, the creative process here actually mirrors a more recent (and less controversial) film dealing with cultural representation- Coco. Obviously Isle of Dogs hasn’t resulted in the same universal embrace of that previous film’s cultural representation, but again, I think this fact can awaken us to the possibility that what Anderson was trying to achieve might be far more sensitive to the culture than some felt it was.

3. The attention Anderson and team give to particular scenes is just one of the many impressive things about Isle of Dogs. This is true in a specific sense, but also in a larger cultural sense. The way it uses the music and captures the beauty of Japan and Japanese culture seems to me to be genuine and adoring, even if it is a bit touristy.

Just to speak to the sushi-making scene in particular, I know some saw it as an unfortunate inclusion (and depiction) of a common Japanese tradition used simply to heighten the setting as a strange and unfamiliar backdrop through which we can embrace Anderson’s own creative process. But I think the sheer detail given to this scene is telling. The way the camera narrows in on the process of this individual partaking in what is clearly more than a mundane, every day activity, along with the way it uses this scene as a break or pause in the larger narrative, showed incredible care and intention for a moment it wants us as an audience to resonate with and appreciate and revel in. This, I believe, is actually a window into the culture rather than appropriation. It is also worth pointing out that I have read a few interviews from Japanese individuals which suggested the way this scene captures the reality and precision and detail of this process was admirable and faithful. I have heard that this scene alone took 8 months to film, and these sort of facts, I think (and I felt) help to reveal Anderson’s creative purpose in this film in a more celebrated way.

4. Many critics have pointed out that there seems to be an intention to use see this story as a way of satirizing the current state of the American landscape. download-2Knowing that this films creation spans Presidencies might suggest this is more timely than pointed, but there is room to consider, as movie critic Richard Brody (New York Times) writes, “For Anderson, Japan is a sort of mirror-America,” offering a reflection on “the xenophobic, racist, and demagogic strains of contemporary American politics.” Thus one of the questions this brings us back to is, does the use of Japan as a backdrop for this film become a means to gain a laugh, colour a film, and ultimately help us better understand ourselves, or does it allow us the opportunity to see ourselves through a fair representation of another culture.

For me, given the attention to language as a thematic force in this film I honestly felt Anderson was trying to speak across cultural lines. And as I wrestled with where to land on this issue I came across this link which I found somewhat compelling.

https://www.cinemaescapist.com/2018/04/isle-dogs-metaphor-japanese-politics/

Shang, writing for The Cinema Escapist, essentially argues that, although this is a film (at least partially) written for American audiences and by an American Director, the mistake people seem to be making is viewing it from the wrong perspective. As Shang writes, “The confusion over Anderson’s political message (is) rooted in the same Americentrism which assumes that all of our movies must, at their base, be about ourselves.”

images-2It is fascinating to consider his ensuring point that “if Isle of Dogs is viewed against the backdrop of contemporary Japanese politics rather than our own, the film suddenly transforms from an impenetrably weird Wes Anderson flight of fancy, into a powerfully encoded piece of political propaganda.”

Now, I am still wrestling with this interpretation in its entirety, and to be honest, seeing it from this lens, as a direct reflection of the future of Japanese-American relations, is made even more poignant and compelling when considering it survived the transition into the Trump era of politics. But if I was to simply take the idea that this was written “from” a Japanese perspective, it definitely does change the way I view many things in this film. And so while it could be right and appropriate to, as Brody writes, recognize that “from its basic setup, “Isle of Dogs” is a fantasy that reflects no aspect of Japanese current events but, rather, the xenophobic, racist, and demagogic strains of contemporary American politics”, that doesn’t necessarily mean this a film that elevates “us” at the expense of “them”. This is simply the way Anderson invites us, from the perspective of an American audience, to see a film set in Japan in the light of our own current socio-political reality. If Shang is even partially right, Anderson is indeed trying to speak across cultural lines without appropriating either, which becomes especially relevant as we try to resist the assumption that this is a film made primarily for American audiences, the basis on which the cultural appropriation I think is given the weight some people have given it. In this sense, even though I don’t agree that she is presented as the hero of the story in any way, the exchange student really could have been from any culture.

5. A further note on the inspiration of Kurosawa and Miyazaki is also necessary. Anderson gives Isle of Dogs a certain ascetic that anchors its futuristic setting in a recreation of these past works, using colour and visual to give the film an almost strange amalgamation of futuristic imagining mixed with an older, recognizable and almost nostalgic nuance. Also worth noting, as film critic Richard Brody does, is that this is not entirely unfamiliar to Anderson’s style:

“The movie’s future-Japan (a future that is decoratively imbued, Anderson-style, with industrial styles and technological devices of the fifties and sixties) is akin to the fictitious Central European country of Zubrowka in “Grand Budapest,” which is as much a movie creation—a reference to films by Ernst Lubitsch and other nineteen-thirties filmmakers—as is the futuristic-dystopian Japan of “Isle of Dogs.”
– Richard Brody

Further, we see him doing this with his other well publicized inspirations (Roald Dahl and the French New Wave films and directors come to mind) along with playing with other forms of cultural expression (The Darjeeling Limited, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Royal Tenenbaums). This is just to say, this is what Anderson tends to do as a director, is to come up with a story and then find the best setting through which to tell it and then to play around with that setting creatively. This is not Japan. As critic Justin Chang puts it, this is Wes Anderson’s world.

6. I have also heard that “Isle of Dogs” is considered “the third film in a virtual trilogy, following Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel”—which uses these homages and cultural settings to write “a trilogy of revolt.” according to Brody. And this is, when it comes down to it, what I think Isle of Dogs is really all about. images-4It is about the ways in which we respond to issues of legalism, tyranny and political corruption, and the ways we find ourselves as individuals in “community” wrestling with the desire for independence but also this longing to hold on to and find worth and acceptance and belonging in the affection and appreciation that comes from others.

We see this in the group of outcast dogs and the different characteristics Anderson affords each dog. This idea for a story about a boy looking for his dog opens up conversation about the tension that exists between tame and wild, individuality and community and Anderson uses this tension to explore some of the central tenants of human nature, that individual struggle between instinct (we do what we do not want to do and do not feel in control) and free will (the desire to know we are striving to do good and the need to be in control). The moment this is most realized is the point in which Chief, voiced by Bryan Cranston makes this momentary confession that he bites, but he does not want to bite and he does not know why he does. It’s a powerful moment that exposes the true force of this narrative trajectory. imagesIts a theme that resurfaces when Chief, trying to woo one of the female dogs, is told that this female does not like tame dogs. This becomes a commentary on the ways we struggle through the biological make up of our world to find something innately human and humane and to fight through some of the tenants of a sort of dominant Darwinian environment. And all of these dogs stories essentially feed back into this growing relationship between Chief and the boy Atari as an examination of how this humanity is expressed in our individual stories of hurt and brokenness.  Which brings me to this last point…

7. As Brody points out, “the centre of the movie is neither the Japanese characters nor the American one; it’s the canine ones.” I agree with this to a point, but where I disagree is that I think the dogs stories are what open us up to Atari’s own upbringing and family relationship. And far from humanizing the dogs while dehumanizing the Japanese, as critic Angie Han believes it does, I think the film sets these characters in relationship to one another as a means of bringing out Atari’s own inward journey as a commentary on society at large. And I don’t think Anderson is making any single political point here. He is simply presenting the struggle of our socio-political realities regardless of culture. Both democracy and dictatorship is held up as a messy construct. Both individualism and collectivism is held up as a messy and broken construct. Things are broken and flawed on all sides because this is what humanity is, a means of working through our brokenness together.

images-5But the brilliance of what Anderson does is the way he brings us towards these macro and micro narratives of messiness and brokenness through a rather simple construct of a boys relationship with his dog. As we gain a window into Atari’s own heartbreaking story, each of the dogs he encounters on his search for spot provides a mirror for his story to reflect back on his personal struggle and his growth. And what Anderson taps into is the way this bond between dog and human has a way of doing this in many of our lives. Its one of the most expressive and real and honest dog movies I have seen in a long time, and one that pulls this emotion out in subtle ways (akin to the slow welling up of tears we see in those animated eyes). And because I was so invested in this emotional element, the movie allowed me to consider that the reason Anderson was keying in on this was to open me up to the question of our socio-political environments. He uses this dog-human relationship to bring out the films ultimate and unifying message, this idea that even when we need to fight for our independence in the face of oppression, thankfully the (human) need for affection and acceptance and belonging looms larger and stronger. We cannot exercise ourselves out of community, even when our image of community is broken, just as it is in a world where dogs have been outcast to Trash Island. Because without community we cease to understand what it means to be human(e), which is precisely what is happening when the only relationship Atari is afforded by his politically powerful father is between him and his guard dog, a relationship he holds onto as his only true community even when they also try to steal that relationship from him as well.

When the worst of ourselves has come to surface, we need to dig deep to rediscover what it is that makes us good and what it is that expresses the good regardless of our hard socio-political lines. And this same message then flows out into our individualistic tendencies, pushing back against our narrow vision of the “revolt” theme. The scene at the slide set against the scene with the stick arrives with a certain power, providing us with a key transitionary moment in the film when it comes to understanding this relationship between community and individual and our struggle against our nature and our humanity. And it is one that I found profound in both the weight it carries and the commentary it provides for speaking across linguistic lines and experience. Even though we speak different languages and look different from one another, the things that pull us apart and bring us back together are very much the same. We fight to be heard, but we need others to hear us. We push back against the control of others, but we need relationship. And the most important thing that comes out of these two things is that true freedom only comes from one place- relationship with one another. And thus it becomes far more important to know how to listen in the midst of the films rather timely demonstrations of dominating politics and fake news (the Oracle) than it is to simply revolt, even if that sometimes becomes necessary.

The fact that over the course of the film each choice and each decision in this group of dogs is being appropriated to the majority vote speaks to this idea of being heard regardless of the language we speak, regardless of whether that democratic process actually even works, and it is this same message that speaks into this choice to have them speak Japanese without subtitles. I think it is meant as a contrast to the sort of relationships we build with our dogs. We have to truly listen in order to understand, not to language but more importantly to emotional and visual cues, to who we are underneath the brokenness. Because words only go so far. I think as an American audience we are being invited to consider what this might be like in a cross cultural context. And this, I think, is a really important message of us to hear regardless of whether we are a dog, a translator, an exchange student, a young boy, American, Canadian or Japanese.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Quiet Place And Writing Hope Into the Trope-ful Detail of Living.

“Is there anything quieter—or scarier—than silence?”

download(WARNING: THIS BLOG CONTAINS SPOILERS)
Memorable performances, impressive pacing and one of the most effective uses of sound in recent memory would all be notable for me when it comes to discussing A Quiet Place, but it is the films attention to detail that might be its most stunning accomplishment.
When it comes to the films attention to detail here are three things that stood out for me:

  1. Using trope to stretch the boundaries of a familiar genre

John Krasinski of The Office fame doesn’t have an extensive or memorable filmography attached to his name (The Hollars hardly made much in the way of noise), but A Quiet Place is certainly proof of his potential as a director in demonstrating restraint and building tension behind the camera.

We can see this restraint and recognize his ability to build tension in the decision to take what is at its heart a story driven film and re-imagine it through the lens of the horror genre, a decision that allowed him to tell this story in a very particular way.

And yes, it is a film that that includes plenty of horror tropes, but the most noted thing to me was that it could easily do away with these elements and still exist as a compelling film.

Further, because this film is not dependent on these tropes to do what it sets out to do, Krasinksi is free to play around with these horror aspects in way that is refreshingly self-aware and intentional. He takes a simple concept, the idea that if you make a sound monsters will eat you, a concept one could argue is not entirely original to a genre prone to these sort of elements and jump scares (last years It Comes at Night and the previous years Don’t Breathe come to mind as fair comparisons) and breathes into it complex themes and heartfelt drama.

Take the nail scene for example.

When we first see the nail we know exactly why its being introduced into the scene. We know that eventually someone is going to step on it. And yes, in one of the films more memorable moments Emily Blunt’s character (Evelyn) eventually does step on this nail in a very convincing fashion (I am still recoiling from the image). But here is where Krasinksi demonstrates a unique skill as a director and deviates from the trope itself. Rather than simply move on to the next scare he makes the decision to leave the nail in play. The brilliance of this decision is while the nail never really ends up impacting the story again in a purely physical manner, simply being in play lends a measured emotional weight which adds an invited sense of urgency. As we move up and down this stairwell with different characters leaving and entering the basement and passing vicariously by this protruding nail, as viewers we are left at a heightened state of awareness, and Krasinksi uses this heightened awareness to key us in on the narrative movement that the nail sets in play, namely the separation and growing chaos that is threatening to tear this family apart.

It is also worth noting that what adds to the brilliance of this decision, and Krasinski does this a lot over the course of the film, is that he is able to use a single trope (like the nail) to set in motion an elevating and intensifying state of sound, tension and chaos. As she steps on the nail we see Blunt’s character spiralling towards an intensifying climax all predicated on her ability to stay silent in such a circumstance (the woman has just gone into labour for crying out loud… which is what I would likely be doing in that same circumstance, not going in to labour but crying out loud). And it leads us towards one of the craziest birthing scenes I have ever seen delivered (pun intended) on film followed by her subsequently being trapped in the basement with one of the monsters, her life and the life of her family literally in her hands. download-3

And all of this happens while outside of the home each of the other characters are spiralling into an equal sense of chaos at the same time.

This move from controlled and predicated normalcy and towards uncontrolled chaos is what Krasinski is looking to evoke and portray in A Quiet Place, and he does this by using the tropes of a genre to achieve it. This is where the sound and silence becomes more than a singular concept and grows into a compelling metaphor and an active player in the story.

 

  1. Using sound and silence as a storytelling device

images-2Again, conceptually the story revolves around a family forced to live in silence in order to avoid being hunted by these mysterious creatures which are extremely sensitive to sound. Silence, then, becomes the means by which Krasinski is able to use this surface horror element, one predicated on an element of horror or fear, and infuse this into a narrative that on a deeper and more complex level is ultimately about family and responsibility to one another. A narrative that begins as a simple premise based on the methodical control of ones environment and circumstance which gets thrown further and further into a sense of uncontrolled chaos for fear of these unnamed monsters, is able to allow that chaos to bring these thematic moments to the surface in a meaningful way, and it all happens through the art of sound and silence.

For Krasinski, sound and silence in A Quiet Place is expressed on three levels:
Conceptual– the means by which the film is able to achieve its jump scares
Technical– the way the film uses silence and sound as a cinematic device
Thematic– both contextualized into the post-apocalyptic setting and an acting metaphor for the characters themselves.

On a conceptual level, the silence easily could have become a gimmick, a way to earn a few scares and represent itself as another genre film. A good one albeit, but nothing necessarily original. It is on a technical and thematic level that the film stretches these boundaries and turns the art of sound and silence into a storytelling device that feels wholly original.

Take the score for example. Set in minor keys that feel just slightly off of centre, we are able to note the way that the score moves in and out along with the films specific narrative movement. In most cases, when considering horror tropes, the music is what awakens us to the danger lurking around the corner. It predicts the jump scares and readies us for an emotional response. In A Quiet Place we begin with silence… eerie silence. Unsettling silence.download-1 It offers us this sense that nothing has survived in this environment through a complete absence of background noise and nature. The jump scares are so effective in A Quiet Place because they breathe out of this silence. And if you pay close attention to the score you can recognize that the music and sound responds rather than predicts these tonal and emotional shifts, narrowing us in on the characters themselves rather than the scares.

In this sense, each sound in the film arrives with a sense of immediacy, urgency, purpose and context. From small, sudden accidental noises to massive sonic explosions, each noise arrives as a deterrent, a response or a distraction that tells us something about the characters and the larger metaphor of the story. Take for example the old man grieving the loss of his loved one. The scream that pierces this scene evokes a sense of desperation, pain, futility and remorse that is rather stunning when we consider we only just met this individual a few seconds ago. This momentary sound also becomes the image through which we are able to interpret Krasinki’s own break of the silence through his character later on in the film.

imagesOr take the story of the daughter (played by the absolutely wonderful Millicent Simmonds). Pay attention to the way the sound and the direction moves with the shifting perspective of her deafness. When she puts on the hearing aid her father made for her and takes it off it, the act is felt through the noise and the silence that captures this moment on screen. In one particularly frightening scene we are allowed to see the threat standing behind her while her on-screen character and perspective remains completely deaf to it. It plays to chilling effect.

The silence also plays a role in dictating the family’s means of survival. The effort and attention Krasinski gives to imagining every day activities in the light of silence is incredible. The silence then becomes expressed through the most innate details and background visuals- eating on Kale leaves for example, or marking off the floor so they know which boards creek and which don’t. And I love that we don’t spend any time watching them actually create these ways of living, they simply exist in the world we are being asked to inhabit with them, a function of their perceived and assumed adaptability. In fact, it is the way Krasinski is able to consistently answer possible questions of what it might look like to actually live in a world of silence that allows us to relocate any questions we might have about how this world might or could work as a marvellous feat of creative cinematic accomplishment. The effort and attention to detail works to draw us in rather than leaving room for us to question it.

And finally, as I move into a discussion of the films narrative, on a thematic level the silence plays a significant role in determining the films hopeful resolution and redemptive arc. Krasinski made this film to express the fears of parenthood that he experienced himself, and to discuss the ways in which family can help us learn to live with purpose in the midst of these fears, and the way family can help us see beyond our fears by giving us the opportunity to invest into the lives of others without condition. He simply uses the silence and the apocalyptic environment as a way to imagine the every day reality of this experience, this relationship, in an imaginative way.

  1. Family, Fear and the Fight to Live Beyond the Tropes

images-1The opening scene perfectly captures the desolation of the landscape contrasted with the picture of a family, whom we are first introduced to through images of unnamed feet shuffling through the isles of an abandoned grocery story. What this opening scene does is establish the hopeless reality of their world along with a calculated and determined decision not to simply just survive in this world, but to actually live.

This is also what we see in the picture of the rocket that the youngest boy so desperately wants to hold and to play with. A simple desire for the chance to be a kid. The chance to play with a toy like any normal child would have in the world that once was. This is followed by the pain of a father who realizes he has to take this opportunity away from his kid, and then lastly by the love of a sister who desperately wants to give that chance back to her baby brother.

See it through this lens and this whole sequence becomes a tear inducing moment of humanity.

The opening scene also stands as a picture of longing and of hope in a larger sense. This rocket is a symbol of what lies outside those doors, the unnamed monsters that threaten the worlds existence, unknown monsters that seemingly came from somewhere and whom we only get to know through posters and writings in the background. It is also a symbol of the families survival, and the survival of every other family that might be out there, the idea that wherever the monsters who destroyed their world came from, there is a way to freedom and the promise of new life.

While the opening scene evokes these very clear pictures, it also reveals the way this family has decided not simply to escape this world but to make it their home. For whatever the monsters have taken away, they cannot take away their sense of family and the opportunity to redeem the here and the now.

Which is precisely the moment Krasinski chooses to pull us into the films main source of terror and tension. As we see the younger boy’s life suddenly taken by the monsters in a horrifying but spectacularly rendered sequence, the certainty and safety of this family unit is thrown into question. The system the parents had built to protect their children can no longer be trusted, and thus the idea that the world is unsafe but that they are stronger together is thrown into a slow progression of disarray and chaos. The single decisions of this moment are destined to haunt them and hold them each personally responsibility for what happened, a reality that essentially begins to pull them silently and slowly apart.

– The daughters choice to give her brother a little bit of happiness.
– The mothers choice not to carry her son
– A fathers inability to know what was happening in time to save him.

And so the daughter feels responsible for the death of her brother, believing that her father will forever hate her because of it. The mother feels lost in her inward turmoil and haunted by what she perceives to be her failures as a mother to protect her child. The father feels like he can no longer protect his family and thus becomes consumed with trying to consumed with trying to fix the problem on a superficial level.

All of which leads to the decision to have another baby.download-2

This has been decisively one of the more divisive moments in the film for general audiences. Why would they decide to do this? Is this not irresponsible? Stupid? Unbelievable? Unforgivable even?

I have read some comments of those who loathed this film because of this singular decision.

And yet this single decision is what breaks the silence of their isolated grief.

This single decision symbolizes the truth of who they are together and the reality of the life they are living apart from one another.

This single decision moves them out of a place of mere survival and back towards living as a family again.

The fires they light every night. The routines, methods and means of making it through the day, the pictures still hanging on the wall, the ways of bringing back to their life every day, normal functions like eating together and playing games together. The picture of them sitting around the table in silent prayer. They are desperately trying to find a way to be a family, to hold onto their sense of family, and all of these things become beacons of hope in a film filled with not just with silence, but with darkness. With the new birth this hope becomes realized. It becomes an expressive statement of resistance to the ruins of their world, an insistence that the monsters will not defeat them and that their family will find a way to move forward together. And it all flows out of one of the most intimate and beautiful moments in the film, a moment between husband and wife in which touch and dance and closeness says more than words ever could (also one of the more beautiful uses of music and sound in the film).

The birth speaks to the one thing that looms larger than the monsters in the story- the way loss and grief can rob us of hope. The scene is not arbitrary or a cheap trick, it carries a deep sense of purpose and meaning. It is the way they settle, rebuild and move forward in the face of the monsters. It uncovers why they are still around all these months later. It uncovers the real determination of the father’s time spent in the basement, in isolation. And it is what ends up bringing the family back together, most notably and importantly binding back together the father-daughter relationship that has been lost under the physical and emotional silence.

The birth then is not just a symbol of hope, but a reminder of their brokenness. This is a film being held hostage not to monsters but to their pain.

There is a crucial moment by the waterfall where the silence is finally broken in an audible way, if only temporarily. And it becomes a moment of clarity about where this family is at. Each drowning in unspoken pain. And it directly connects us to later in the film where the mother and their new baby are caught behind the “waterfall” in their home while separated from the rest of her family.

One moment defined by sound and the freedom to finally be able to speak. The other defined by the threat of silence and the inability of the mother or child to be able to speak in light of this new birth. In both cases this is a symbol of the divide that the silence creates and the freedom they have in breaking the silence by coming back together as a family.

And eventually it is this unspoken relationship between the father and the daughter that does pull the family back together. Whereas the death of their son pulled them apart, the death of the father does the opposite. Where the daughter holds herself responsible and worthy of her fathers hate and rejection, the father demonstrates his love in a true moment of sacrifice, one which stands in stark contrast to the old mans sense of futility and hopelessness earlier in the film.

And what becomes revealed in this act of love is that the fathers love has been persisting over all this time, undying and unbroken, simply unspoken and disguised by the silence and fear of the world around them. All of his work he was doing was for the sake of his daughter, his family, and it ends up being the very thing that not only brings them back together but allows them to move forward and rebuild in his physical absence.

It’s a heart wrenching realization and powerful thematic development for a film that could be measured merely against its tropes. And it is a moment that invites each of us, parent or not, to wonder about the choices we might make in the face of such circumstance. The power of silence as metaphor is that the anxiety and fear of bringing a child into the world is a direct reflection of the lives each of us live in the every day. And the questions it evokes is, does hope loom larger than fear? Does freedom loom larger than anxiety? Does love loom larger than words? And how, when we measure the ways this fear and anxiety builds walls and divides our sense of family and our decisions and ability to move forward (also in the larger sense of community), might we respond to opportunities to break this silence and fight back against fear and anxiety?

One of the sound designers (Erik Aadahl) said about A Quiet Place, “For a film where humans must be silent to survive, the goal was to make an audience lean in and become afraid themselves to make a sound.”

In a truly redemptive sense, the film also invites us to learn to live again as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compassion: What it is, Why I resist it, and How I Can Embrace It More

2018 Reading Challenge: Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life co-authored by Henri J. M. Nouwen, Donal P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison

(The book) “Compassion” is the result of three different authors coming together to discuss the problem of suffering and work through what it means to respond to suffering in light of their Christian faith. For these three individuals this discussion essentially came down to one word, compassion, thus setting the template for this book.

For m the book came down to three central questions:
What is compassion?
What causes us to resist compassion?
How do we live compassionate lives in the face of this resistance.

What is Compassion?
Compassion is the means by which we discover a Christian responsibility towards attending to the suffering of others.

Compassion is also where we discover our resistance to this responsibility. More so, it is through compassion that a proper understanding of our human nature and the nature of God become central to our understanding of this resistance.

Compassion is rooted in this idea of “suffering with”. It is relational. It is the expectation that we are intended to do life together rather than apart.

And as we are willing to suffer with, compassion grows into the process of “emptying ourselves” so that others can be raised up.

Above all, compassion is the means by which we come to know God by allowing us to see God at work in the lives of others.
What Causes Me To Resist Compassion?
This book left me unsettled. It feels offensive to hear that I might not be a compassionate person, or at least not as compassionate as I assumed I was. To say or admit I lack compassion feels like saying “I don’t care about the suffering of others.” But there is a real difference between caring about something or someone and actually living a compassionate life.

The more I read of this book the more it became clear that compassion is most certainly not my natural response. It is something I have to fight for and protect against and work at. The book uncovered the inconsistencies in my own story, between who I believed myself to be and how I live in the day to day. If compassion is rooted in this idea of “suffering with”, the thing that directly opposes this way of understanding compassion is competition, or the competitive spirit. At which point I needed to remind myself, it is not my desire for compassion that is lacking, the real issue is my inability to overcome that spirit of competition that seems to rule more of my life than I care to admit.

The interesting thing about competition is that it tends to be seen primarily in linear or progressive terms. It is about earning our way up the ladder. It is about challenging ourselves to achieve the goals we set in order to get a step ahead. It follows an incessant upwards trajectory. What I failed to recognize is that competition can also be seen in a downward trajectory. Competition is my personal struggle with self worth. It is my inability to see my own self worth when I look at the lives of others. Competition is thinking I am not quite good enough to actually make a difference in this world because so many are doing it far better than I ever could.

In both cases there is a common trait- the focus is on me and where I stand (or sit, or lie stagnant) in relationship to the world around me. In contrast,  if compassion is the process of “emptying ourselves” so that others can be raised up, the book insists this can only happen without regard or concern for where I stand in relationship to the world around me. And for the authors this is what lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel. It is Christ who compels us to empty ourselves. It is Christ who models for us what it means to “suffer with”, and in doing so shows us the true heart of a compassionate God. Thus to live the Christian life is to follow God in the way of Christ’s compassion.

There is an interesting point in the book that suggests how we see and understand Jesus goes a long way in determining the freedom we have as Christians to live into our responsibility to attend to the suffering of others. When we see Jesus wrongly our Christian lives tend to devolve into a spirit of competition, a spirit that fights back against our ability to see others above ourselves. When we see Jesus rightly it opens up our eyes to see others before ourselves, precisely because this is what Jesus has modelled for us.

And even if you are not religious, this same idea can be applied to the ways in which we view the world, others and yes, even ourselves. Which reveals a paradox of sorts, as it is actually compassion itself that opens us up to right perspective and thus frees us up to live compassionately.

To this end the book then moves to establish compassion as an act of “obedience”. The nature of our responsibility is that each of us has an obligation towards the compassionate life. The problem is that the idea of obedience is easily corrupted. As the authors suggest, “There is always the creeping danger that even our servant hood is a subtle form of manipulation (p33).” I think one of the primary ways servant hood becomes corrupted (or co-opted) is when we see obedience as a duty rather than a necessary response to a right relationship with God, the world and others. Duty only forms when we feel we must do something in order achieve, appease or prove something to someone or something, which sets our relationship to God, the world and others in direct competition, which is our human nature. Recognizing this can awaken us to ways we can fight back against this nature by protecting against wrong ways of thinking about God, others and the world, which sees God as compassionate rather than hateful. which sees God has loving rather than angry, which sees the world as grace filled rather than evil, which sees others as our neighbours rather than our enemies.

But this is not easy to do, especially when the competitive spirit that lives in me is not so easily recognizable in its downward trajectory. And if I am completely honest this is where much of my struggle with this book really came bubbling to the surface. For every new point this book was making, I found myself loading up with more and more questions:

What is it that obligates me to live the compassionate life?
How do I know I am living a compassionate life?
How do I know I have done enough to be considered compassionate?
Where do I even begin to live a compassionate life when the world around me feels so competitive and where I am continually under the shadow of someone or something else?
How can I be compassionate when there are so many others doing it far better than I ever could?
How can I show compassion when it is so hard to find places to give to?
How do I know I am truly making a difference?

The biggest reason I have these questions is because when I strive after compassion I end up feeling defeated, rejected, isolated, useless, not good enough, and more less like giving up rather than fighting a losing battle. There are days when I honestly have the best intentions, but the world around me is far too competitive to even begin to find a place to serve in a way that proves meaningful or important.

Here’s the thing about all of these questions though. They all cater to the competitive spirit. The reason I feel so defeated when it comes to living the compassionate life, even on my best days, is because all of my questions have to do with where I fit in relationship to the world around me, which is the very definition of what competition is. And perhaps the toughest part of all of this was realizing just how much of this way of thinking has followed me for most of my life, at Church, in school, in my jobs, in my relationships.  I continue to believe that my worth comes from what I have to give, and that what I have to give is not nearly good enough when I compare it to the work I see others doing every single day.

How Do We Live Compassionate Lives in the Face of This Resistance.
And yet I have a responsibility, an obligation. And by God’s grace I also have the desire. So where does one begin with living the compassionate life, and how can compassion ultimately be measured differently?

The book suggests that it begins here.

“The movement toward compassion always starts by gaining distance from the world that wants to make us objects of interest.”

As I mentioned, all of my questions had to do with me and what I need to do to know that I am being compassionate. It was a checklist based on this false idea that I am the object of interest. It was about my need to know I am valuable in this world. And so I needed to begin by gaining distance from this way of thinking, and one way to do this was to get rid of the checklist. I threw it in the figurative garbage.

If you have ever forced yourself to do something of this nature you know how unsettling it feels. It’s disconcerting. It makes me feel out of control. It makes me feel useless. It makes you feel naked and directionless. And I have to fight with myself not to immediately go and retrieve it out of the figurative garbage.

It is no mistake then that what follows in the book is the authors call to practice patience. The art of learning what it means to wait and to listen by filling that space once occupied by my checklist with the discipline of prayer. The authors choose prayer because prayer is primarily an act of listening, and listening changes our perspective of God, others and the world. The word discipline connotes an act of revealing rather than conquering (or the competitive spirit), and thus it needs to time to reform our hearts.

And what is really interesting about this process is just how immediately aware one becomes of these wrong ways of thinking about God, the world, others and ourselves. And given that as Christians we begin with our understanding of who God is, this can be one of the more difficult thoughts to dispose of.

“We are poor listeners because we are afraid that there is something other than love in God. This is not so strange (because) often we see love surrounded by limitations and conditions.”

This is also why the Christian life is referred to as discipleship. Discipleship as “discipline” is the idea of “unveiling what has been covered.” And what has been covered in our relationship to God is the “gift” of compassion (p88). Compassion is not something we earn or accomplish, rather it is a heart that is given to us as a result of this patient waiting. A gift that comes from God’s compassionate response to us. As I pray and listen, I look for opportunities to express gratitude and joy for the ways this gift has been revealed in my own life, and as I find these places of gratitude and joy it is given the chance to break down the skeptical and cynical nature of my many questions. The power of gratitude and joy is that it pushes me to consider what others do not have and what I have to give from my own abundance regardless of where I stand in relationship to the world. When I know where I stand in relationship to God, it frees me from the needing to measure up to anything else.

Which brings me to community. Because compassion only happens when we are in relationship with others. As the writers remind us, lest we forget, “Compassion is not an individual character trait, a personal attitude, or a special talent, but a way of living together.” P47 But the truth is, community is risky. In fact, it might be the most risky part of all. This where we becomes revealed to others. This is where we become exposed for who we really are. This is where the competitive spirit has the greatest opportunity to rear its ugly head.

But this is also where we have the chance to both love and be loved. It pulls us out of our isolated way of being and thinking and pushes us out into the places in which compassion can be seen and lived and cherished. And as Christians we do this because in Jesus we have communion with God. This is what allows us to move out of our isolated lives and into communion with others.

Which brings me to the final idea in the book, this idea of voluntary displacement. Displacement speaks to the presence of God in our lives and the ways in which God’s presence is calling us to follow Jesus out into the world. It carries with it a sense of movement, but it is also cyclical in nature. We are called out of the world so that we can practice patience and prayer. We are called back into the world in order to live the compassionate life. It forms us and then reforms us over and over again, all for the same intention- the compassionate life.

One of the problems the book points out though is that far too often we tend to romanticize this idea of displacement. In our desire to want to know we are being compassionate and the need to see we are actually making a difference there is this tendency that exists to want to control or dictate exactly where and how displacement should happen. I know I have a tendency to see it in go big or go home kind of terms, because what good are my feeble attempts at compassion if I am left comparing myself to others who are travelling over seas to Africa, donating thousands and thousands of dollars to great causes or building dynamic neighbourhood outreaches or being involved in changing and forming socio-political systems on a larger government level? If I can’t do those things why bother trying, right?

The book cautions us to “guard ourselves” against romanticizing voluntary displacement, because then we miss what God is actually doing both in our life and in the world around us. The authors challenge us instead to see the displacement that is already happening in the context of our lives. The call is to “identify in our lives where displacement (God’s presence) is already occurring,” as this is where God is giving us the opportunity to be compassionate. Look and listen to those gentle nudges that seem to fit with what we are already doing,  with where we are right now. When we do this it protects us from the trap of needing to measure up to what others are doing. It provides us with an opportunity to respond to whatever is right in front of us, however small or big that might seem. And what follows then is the necessary question of where we might be both accepting and/or rejecting this call that is already present in our daily lives? And the answer might surprise you. I know it did for me.

 

CONCLUSION

“When we have discovered that our sense of self does not depend on our differences and that our self-esteem is based on a love much deeper than the praise that can be acquired by unusual performances, we can see our unique talents as gifts for others.” P77

To borrow an overused term, compassion deconstructs us and then gives us the tools by which to measure ourselves differently. And this is where the authors find the real value of their Christian faith speaking into their conversation about suffering and response. In seeing God more clearly we are able to do away with everything else that is lobbying for our attention. In Christ we recognize we are no longer left to measure up to anyone else but God, the same God who says we beloved sons and daughters of the one who made us and called us beautiful. And in knowing this we can then recognize that “the sharing of our gifts”, the compassion God has extended to us, “does not diminish our own values as persons but enhances it.” Further, “when we unmask the illusion that a person is the difference she or he makes, we can come together on the basis of our common human brokenness and our common need for healing.”

This is what allows us to be measured differently. This is what allows us to give of ourselves so that others can be raised up. Just as it does not diminish our own value as a person to give in the midst of our inadequacies, extending the compassion God has afforded us increases its value by seeing it free up others to live in the compassion God has for them. And this is something that happens not by way of a checklist, but rather a willing heart that remains open to where ever God calls us to live the compassionate heart

“We often think that service means to give something to others, to tell them how to speak, act, or behave, but now it appears that above all else, real, humble service is helping our neighbours discover that they possess great but often hidden talents that can enable them to do even more for us than we can do for them.” P79

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ready Player One: Retelling the Story of the Oasis From The Perspective of Its Creator

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Ready Player One.

To say I have been looking forward to this film would be an understatement. As a big fan of the book, hearing that Spielberg would be the one directing this big screen adaptation was a dream come true.

Looking back on my experience with the book the following things stood out for me in my review:

  • It brought me back to my childhood
  • It evoked that same sense of wonder I had as a child
  • It reminded me of what I had grown to love about story and storytelling in novel form

I found myself actually giddy with excitement the day the film finally hit theatres, and it did not disappoint. Without even thinking about my love of the book I wrote down some of my immediate reactions which essentially resonated with a similar refrain.

  • It reminded me of what I had grown to love about story and storytelling in movie form
  • It brought me back to my childhood
  • It evoked that same sense of wonder I had as a child

At the very least this experience told me that the film had successfully managed to capture the spirit of the book even if it did change a lot of the book in the process.

Moving from my experience of the film towards dialoging with others about the film, it became clear that while it has been getting a lot of well deserved praise, not everyone shared my exuberant and hard to contain sense of excitement. To be fair, the book had its fair share of critics as well, but unique to the film is/was its potential reach as a pop culture phenom- the book is about 80’s references and celebrating geek culture while the film’s pop culture references are much more diverse and inclusive- along with the fact of it being an adaptation. People were free to criticize the book based on what the book was trying to be, whereas people are free to criticize the film both based on what the film was trying to be and also for the ways it interprets or was different from the book.

Which is to say, while the film has the potential to reach a wider audience it also opens itself up to a greater potential for public criticism, some of which I have found myself grappling with on the level of my own personal conversations.

Even with the positive reaction overall, the criticism has compelled me mostly because it has been surfacing in circles that share my love for the book (and consequently don’t necessarily share my love for the film). Given my experience of the film and the fact that I have been discussing this book at length with anyone willing to listen, I found myself wanting and struggling to understand both of these contrasting views, not simply to justify my own experience, but as a means of bridging this dialogue and understanding their own experience.

I have heard some fans of the book complain that the movie changed the story to the point where it is no longer a fair representation of the book they love. Some who either didn’t read the book or were not a fan of the book found the films love affair with pop culture (which of course is fully present in the book to an even greater degree) along with the films half-hazard approach to character development and the reigning love story (also a problem I noted in the book when I read it) either weighed down the film or failed to fix the problems they had with the book.

On my journey to understanding these criticisms I happened across an interview with the main screenwriter Zak Penn where he was talking about the process of writing what he considered to be a difficult screenplay to adapt. He suggested that of all the liberties the film took in bringing Cline’s story to the big screen in a way that worked (and Cline is credited as a screenwriter as well), the most important choice was the decision to use the film to tell Holliday’s story rather than Wade’s.

So here is what I would like to suggest. Of all the changes the film makes the most noted are the pop culture references, the relationship between Wade and Artemis and the nature of the Oasis itself, and each of these changes were made to reveal something about Holliday’s personal story. And in my own experience, being able to see the film as Hollidays story helped me make more sense of the story the film was trying to tell and why they made the changes that they did, ultimately making it a more compelling viewing in my eyes and perhaps answering some of my own questions about how to approach some of the criticisms more appropriately and comprehensively.

 

Pop Culture References
The focus of the book was on Wade and his relationship to his crew. It tells a rags to riches story (to borrow a phrase from a friend of mine) that is marked by a governing moral question- if we were to suddenly find ourselves with money, power and control, would we use this to change the world or simply to change ourselves? And of course with the virtual-reality premise that moves the narrative forward, this notion of changing ourselves relates directly to the idea of becoming something we are not when we do not like who we are in the real world.

While a large component of this story is Wades relationship to H and his growing relationship with Artemis in the virtual world, his relationship to Halliday also plays an equally vital role in telling this rags to riches story in the book. Wade’s relationship to Halliday revolves around his fascination with 80’s culture which is put to good use when the contest comes into play. For Cline, Halliday is a technological and cultural god to Wade, but one whom he admires from a distance. Halliday does become demythologized over the course of the book but only to the degree that this demythologizing is able to shed light on Wade’s own rags to riches story. In the end the book suggests that Halliday remains immortal in Wade’s eyes, the image of a technological god whom ultimately presents Wade, the winner of his contest, with a governing question regarding his one big regret- “not being at home in the world” and creating the Oasis as a means of “escape”. The contest and all of it’s 80’s references were merely an expression of who Halliday was in the real world, and Hallidays invitation to Wade is to consider the technology that he created is now Wades to control and to consider it carries the potential, as everything does, for both good and for bad where our humanity is considered. The question then for Wade is will he leave the Oasis with the same regret as Halliday or will he grow from that mistake and learn to find his home in the real world by working to protect it against the corporate overlords that are holding it hostage using the technology Halliday created.

The movie on the other hand takes the idea of these pop culture references and relegates them more to the background rather than allowing them to be the driving force of the narrative itself. It feels slightly unsettling to consider we are looking at a futuristic world in which there appears to be little to no representation of an emerging culture or anything beyond the culture of our modern day. Have they simply stopped making new culture or art? But this unsettling feeling I think is a part of the world the film is trying to establish. Even more so, the references are integrated into the fabric of the film in a way that says something important about the people that inhabit the world of the Oasis. images-2For example, when we see the Iron Giant shooting a gun in a way that sits quite contrary to who the Iron Giant actually is, we are reminded that we aren’t seeing the Iron Giant, we are seeing one persons imagining of the Iron Giant in a virtual world of their own making. This is who they see themselves to be outside of the limitations and the labels the world places on them. And the film gives us glimpses of just how large and diverse these imaginings are, reaching into sub-groups and sub-cultures that seem to be endless and ongoing in Spielberg’s vivid and expressive imagination.

The landscape of the Oasis in the film is littered with so many faceless people that it seems to force the question, who are all these people hiding behind their avatars. We do get glimpses of the people behind the mask, moments in the real world seeing them at their jobs or in their homes, but for the most part this reality seems more of an illusion than the virtual world that surrounds them, and being exposed to this reality appears to bring more pain and hurt than freedom. And so what is clear is that people chose and prefer to stay in the virtual world, to remain faceless, and it is through the truth of this faceless universe that we come to know Hallidays own story as the creator of the Oasis, a person haunted by and defined by regret, missed opportunity and broken relationships.images-1 Halliday wants to be known, and once you figure out the key to solving the puzzle is retelling Holliday’s own tragic story, all of the pieces start to all into place.

Wade’s Relationship To Artemis
Wade’s rags to riches story in the book works as a larger social commentary. The stacks become pictures of poverty and economic divide, and winning the game considers how one can use their new found riches differently than the corporate overloads that currently rule society, not just to change ones life for the better but changing the very reality of the economic divide. And for Wade, most important to him are the faceless avatars that eventually help him to win the game.

In the book, Wade’s determination reminds us that we do not need to go through life alone, and that the relationships we build are a big part of what makes reality meaningful. It is about the ways in which our economic divide separates us from one another, and the ways in which a world like the Oasis allows us hide behind our insecurities and our problems rather than actually face them in the real world, whether that be poverty, status, sexual orientation, the colour of our skin or the way we look. And what happens when we simply ignore the problem is that the the Oasis simply begins to mirror this problem in a different and even more harmful way.

Also important to the book, and central to Wade’s story, is the relationships between Wade and his crew, primarily with his best friend H and then with Artemis. When Wade eventually meets H in the real world it’s a climatic moment in the book that helps establish the idea that we prefer to hide behind our masks rather than face our problems. It turns out that H is the opposite of what Wade expected, and yet in the world of the Oasis the two of them are best friends. The question is can they bridge their differences in the real world when everything about them and the world in which they live is out in the open. Will their relationship get stronger or will it fade away?

It is this encounter with H, and the relationship that then develops in the real world that sets the stage for Artemis and Wade to finally meet in the real world as well, which in the book literally does not happen until the final chapter and the final scene. Their entire relationship has been built on the virtual world that Halliday created, and so Hallidays one big regret is not only the thing that begins to informs Wades relationship to his home and the economic turmoil that persists around him, but it also connects to his relationship with Artemis. In the book it is Artemis who kisses Wade, which reminds us that Wade’s own story has been developing through these relationships, each with their own arc and storyline.

Turning back to the film, we find Wade’s journey from rags to riches is far less developed in Spielberg’s vision for the film, as are some of the side characters. One of the shortcomings of the film was the decision to avoid giving H and Wade any real life interaction. In fact, the entire world of the Oasis is streamlined so that it is represented more as a virtual version of a modern gaming system/social media than a governing social system. But even with these changes and shortcomings, I think these decisions do work to allow Spielberg to tell the story he wants to tell in a more effective manner, and I think he does this so that he can tell what is at its heart an adventure story that fits with some of Spielbergs older works and style, while also allowing The Wade-Artemis relationship to focus us more intently on Holliday’s own journey as a means of infusing this adventure story with a necessary human element.

In the film it is intentional that Artemis meets Wade far earlier in the story because Spielberg uses this relationship to mirror Halliday’s own journey in a symbolic fashion. We see Halliday as a god becoming more and more human over the course of the movie, and this happens in the context of the characters growing relationship to Halliday’s personal story. Where Halliday began his romance in the real world and ends up fleshing out this relationship imaginatively in the virtual world, Wade has imagined his relationship first in the virtual world before engaging it in the real world.
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As a side remark, there has been some criticism of the way in which Spielberg handles the romance between Wade and Artemis. They question how he can say I love you after only knowing her for a brief moment in the real world, and they scoff at what feels like an old fashioned romance where girl needs boy to affirm she looks pretty and the female characters are little more than sidekicks to the true white male hero. I really do feel some of the most incredible scenes in RPO are the virtual moments between Z (Wade) and Artemis. In the book their relationship in the real world develops over an equally short amount of time, and I think in both cases the intention is to recognize the way in which the virtual relationship, one that we are meant to perceive is not based in reality, is actually slowly uncovering who they are together and perhaps informing reality to a greater extent than we initially thought. The moment they meet in the real world we are being asked to consider that they have actually been getting to know each other for a long while in virtual terms. It’s plays into the virtual-reality dichotomy and for me it worked really well. And the entire scene where we see Wade choosing a virtual outfit to go and meet Artemis is about the ways in which relationship helps to uncover who we really are and give us space to reveal who we really are. Now, to be fair I have little context to speak to geek and gaming culture and some of the conversation surrounding gamergate, so I can only interpret it from my own limited perspective. But if I take it simply as a developing relationship in the story of the film, I think it actually has something important to say about the films larger themes.

Back to the movie though. The image at the end, with Halliday looking at his younger self, is supposed to be a key moment in which Halliday’s legacy, the Oasis, sheds light on a life of regret, past mistakes and crippling fear. And as Wade and Artemis embark on this adventure in the beginning of the film they discover more and more about these regrets, these past mistakes and what Halliday fears most of all, being known by someone for who he really is. As they uncover this truth, Wade and Artemis’ relationship sees the both of them facing these same fears for themselves in their own way.

In the end, recognizing this narrative shift from book to film had me more in tune with this idea of RPO as an adventure story first with a deeper human story underneath, only that this human story is not Wades, it’s actually Hallidays.

The Oasis
As was already mentioned briefly, the book also spends a lot of time (which would never work in the film because most of it is exposition) creating an entire system out of the Oasis. In the Oasis of the book the world works on levels or tiers which mimic society. imagesA virtual version of the public-private sector. They attend public school in the Oasis and they can generally engage in public services, but if you wanted to explore the Oasis itself, move to bigger worlds and neighbourhoods, go to better schools or climb further up the social and economic ladder (because basically everything in the Oasis basically comes down to having money), you have to be able to afford it. The Oasis mimics the worlds real life poverty.

In the film the Oasis is a way to escape and avoid the mundanity of reality (and the demoralizing condition of the existing world), but it is not a school or an economic system. Spielberg also decides to immerse us in this world through what I felt was a pretty impressive exposition that covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time. The decision to leave the world building to the details of the unfolding narrative rather than building it up as a complex system at the front of the film gives Spielberg the freedom to hit the game running, which he does at full speed. It also allows Spielberg to really narrow in on what the Oasis means to the story he is looking to tell. In telling Halliday’s story, the virtual world in the film becomes a way of trying to rewrite or atone for his past mistakes. It is a way of imagining what his life might have been like had he learned to embrace the world that he lived in rather than trying to escape or hide in the world he created. In this sense the film goes to much greater lengths to de-mythologize Halliday and to reveal him as a technological god who turns out to be much more fallible than Wade or others first thought. Much of what is going on in the real world appears to be, at least in part, Halliday’s responsibility. And to consider the way in which Halliday might come to terms with what is essentially his legacy leads to a rather brilliant moment in the end of the film where Wade’s final question of “who are you then” is left largely unanswered. It is a question the film leaves each of us to answer for ourselves. After all, the Oasis looks far too familiar to our modern world even in its most fantastical moments. In a world that just this week has been so taken by tragedy and war and loss of life, escaping into a virtual world that can mask our reality and our pain and our struggle feels inviting even on our best days. But the question the film looks to leave us with is, what will be our legacy, and will coming to terms with our own past mistakes, regrets and fears be a part of what that legacy becomes in the world we share and inhabit?

 

CONCLUSION
It appears that Spielberg wanted this film to be first and foremost Halliday’s story, the story of a man who finds himself weighing his legacy against his regrets. And so he uses Wade’s journey from the book to really try and explore Halliday’s character over the course of the film in more intentional depth. The film accentuates and highlights Halliday’s motivation for the contest and the Oasis as intensely relational in nature, and it plays with this idea of a man who lived much of his life in fear, so much so that he recreates this virtual story, this role playing game out of his deeply held regrets and allows these characters to play out the decisions of his life in the context of this game. The game becomes this means of living through his mistakes vicariously, and ultimately trying to imagine what it might have been like if it had all played out differently. images-3There’s a real irony to what Spielberg does here given his own legacy in film. But the truth we come to find in the end is that coming to terms with who we really are, mistakes and regrets and fears and all, is a part of what it means to build a legacy that lasts, because who we are is what feeds the relationships that give us value.

What the film also carries over from the book is that where much of the film revolves around the heartbreak of a lost romance and the pain of divide passions (between what he loved and what he created), it is actually Halliday’s relationship with his creative partner and friend (Morrow) that is even more telling when it comes to the films concluding moments. Spielberg’s choice to write this character in as the virtual library was a brilliant move that gives him a greater and more prominent character arc than he had in the book. It is Morrow who is eventually able to embody Halliday’s journey in a more physical sense following his death, and it is through that relationship that we get a glimpse of hope in the midst of the failure, that for as far as Halliday has fallen, it is this relationship that remains his most defining legacy and this relationship that is now feeding this legacy into others in a meaningful way.

 

To See and To Hear The Cross in the Light of John’s Gospel

The last time I reflected on the Gospel of John I was entering what we know as the farewell discourse, a series of chapters (13-20:31) that prepare us for the passion narrative, a definite transition out of the festival cycle that defined chapters 5-10 and a movement towards a discussion of where Jesus is headed and what exactly He is doing as the light of the world.

To which John declares,

“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in the darkness.”
 John 12:44

And yet what soon becomes apparent is that there is an existing tension between the light that Jesus promises to be and the Cross that now looms tall on the horizon. The Cross is as difficult for us to understand today as it was a source of confusion and resistance in the life of the disciples and John’s original audience.

Which is why I think actually spending time with this farewell discourse is so important, because by understanding what it is that brings us to the cross we can also understand the ways in which we have misunderstand and misappropriated its meaning in the context of our lives.

For myself, in the season of Lent I have been intentionally trying to sit in the words of chapter 12:44-50, aptly titled “Jesus Came To Save The World” in the translation I am using (ESV), as an appropriated transition towards the farewell discourse. I have been trying to give attention to where Jesus is heading and what exactly He is doing over the course of this farewell discourse, both as a way to better understand what the Cross means in my own life, and to help unmask some of my own misunderstanding and misappropriations.

To which I have found Jesus saying to me,
“… I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.”
John 12:47

Rather, it is
“The words I have spoken will judge him (or me, as someone who misses what Jesus is looking to do in my own life far too often) on the last day.”
John 12:48

And what are these words by which I will be judged?

First, this passage tells us these words come from the Father,
“Whoever sees me sees him who sent me.”
John 12:45

and that they come in the form of a commandment given to Jesus as to “what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49)

And it is in Jesus’ willingness to adhere to this commandment, to speak these words, that we find the promise of “eternal life” (John12:50), the nature of the salvation that defines the working title of this passage.

For John this life is not merely about eternity, rather this life is described as the light of humankind (1:4), and this light, as John insists, is the person and ministry of Jesus.

And what are these words that Jesus says? It is the same words he has been repeating over and over again throughout the festival cycle. “I have come” and so “believe” that the light still shines in the darkness (12:46).

Thus eternal life for John is the idea that Jesus as the light gives us hope in the midst of the darkness, a way of seeing forward, a way of knowing “how” to live no matter the circumstance the darkness brings.

These words, which are to be our judgment, words that we tend to naturally resist, arrive not so much as a commandment to do this or be this in order to have life, but rather as a declaration that the light still shines. An invitation to believe there is hope in the midst of the darkness. A call to see a different way of life and then to respond by following Jesus in the way he his heading- to the cross:

1. The cross offers us hope not judgment.
2. The cross is something we both hear and see by learning to listen to the words of Jesus every day.
3. The cross is more than a momentary event, it is a way of life.
4. The cross is a call to enter a new way of life.

A new way of life that we live in the light of the cross.

The same light that sees Jesus tying that towel around his waste and washing his disciples feet (13:1-20).

The same light that sees Jesus giving us the Spirit that does “not leave us as orphans” in the midst of our struggle (14:18).

The same light that sees Jesus prays for us and still prays for us to know the love that the cross represents (John 17).

The same light that sees Jesus given over and arrested, judged and delivered to be crucified so that we may have the promise of new life (John 18-19).

And Now To Love As We Have Been Loved
We don’t have to dig far into any of these textual references to find the primary commandment that Jesus then offers to us is to do likewise. The reason we turn our attention to the cross on Good Friday is to listen and then to respond.

“Now is the Son of Man glorifed, and God is glorified in him… so now I also say to you… a “new commandment” I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
John 13:34

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
John 15:12

The Cross is a reminder that “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends”, and so I have come to recognize over these past few months that the call to take up my own cross is primarily about embracing this new way of living, a life not given towards judgment but towards love, a life lived not in selfishness but in selfless abandonment, a life not spent hiding in the darkness but a willingness to allow the cross to teach me how to be a light to the world in Jesus’ physical absence.

And we do this because at the Cross we can trust there is light not judgment. And in the light we find the commandment God gave to Jesus- the word of love. And in the words of Jesus we find the truth that we are loved and the call to love one another. This is a truth that arrives in a momentary expression on a Cross that intends to breathe light and life into the whole of our lives, a way of transforming the way we see, the way we hear, the way we live.

 

 

 

A Wrinkle In Time: A Voice of Reason in an An Age of Intolerance

“It seems people are willing to damn the book without reading it. Nonsense about witchcraft and fantasy. First I felt horror, then anger, and finally I said, ‘Ah, the hell with it.’ It’s great publicity, really.”
– Madeline L’Engle


I was around 10 years old when I first read Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. The book played a big role in shaping my love of reading. I can still remember, rather vividly too, the joy I of entering an unexpected and uncharted world so full of wonder and imagination. I was struck by her ability to take simple constructs and characters (with names like Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit) and weave it into such elegant prose and powerful symbols of light and dark.

It taught me about the joy of discovering new worlds and new ideas. It also taught me about the ways in which these new worlds and new ideas can challenge our old ways of thinking. The more we see and experience of the world the more we see of the darkness, but there is also greater opportunity for the light to shine in the darkness. As circumstance begins to steal Meg’s sense of innocence and optimism, this unassuming heroine modelled for my young mind what it looked like to embrace the challenge of discovering new worlds and ideas even as the darkness looms, a darkness that L’Engle allowed me to interpret through the lens of my own struggle and my own experience helping me to make sense of the world I happened to live in as well. It taught me to embrace the idea there is more to this world and this life than what I can see from my limited perspective and to trust in a greater purpose for my life.

So suffice to say I was genuinely surprised to read in my later years that this book which had such a great impact on my life has also managed to evoke a strong current of criticism, especially when it comes to rejecting the novel’s religious undertones.

Go on any discussion group, chat page or review site and it won’t take you long to find comments like these:

“I understand what the book is saying about conformity, and that we must all think for ourselves if we must prevent the encroachment of pure evil. A world where we all thought alike would be a world without suffering or alienation, love or hate, etc. Being different is important for us all. I’ll grant L’Engle that the message about feeling out-of-place is helpful to kids, and helpful for adults, too.

Sadly, that message gets quickly swept aside so that L’Engle can use Christianity to paint a vastly broad good-versus-evil picture that is horrendous. Too horrendous. Ironically horrendous, given how A Wrinkle In Time exemplifies a faux-Christian value system into which all of our students must be indoctrinated.”

 

“L’Engle kills the tone of this story by peppering the narrative with strange, out-of-place declarations of Christian belief. For a story that seems largely secular, the odd Bible quotes and religious one-sidedness felt out of place. In a world where an unseen God can murder all of humanity with a flood and wind up on the “good” list, while an egalitarian dictator who asserts its will without killing anyone is on the “evil” list, sign me up for the latter.”

 

“The whole *point* of the book doesn’t feel necessarily Christian in the same traditional sense in which “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” feels Christian, but I could forgive it much less for all the references.”

 

“The question is, after The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, what excuse does an author have for writing YET ANOTHER fantasy-land novel that corresponds to a Christian world-view? What Madeleine L’Engle brings to the table is a cursory knowledge of astronomy, the imagination of a brown paper sack, and half-assed characters designed only to demonstrate her personal beliefs.”

 

Or my personal favourite…

“Brain vs faith? Not only was I was rooting for the brain, I henceforth propose that sneaky Christian literature hiding amongst sci-fi be labelled with a big ole Tipper Gore style warning sticker.”

Criticism From the Other Side…
The irony of course is that a book that managed to be rejected umpteen times before finding a publisher and that went on to secure a spot on the “Most Banned Books of All Time” list was not only rejected because of its religious flavour, but subsequently rejected by the religious community as well for its liberal interpretation of the Christian faith, noting among other things its perceived embrace of witchcraft and demonic imagery.

Lucy Tang says this in her article titled “We Will Wrinkle Again”:

“To be reductive, L’Engle’s life philosophy is the kind of happy religious pluralism in which Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even scientists can live together in peace. Needless to say, conservative Christians were not thrilled about the easy conflation.”
– Lucy Tang in article We Will Wrinkle Again

It’s no wonder L’Engle thought “to hell with this”. If readers weren’t looking to condemn her to a figurative hell, there were plenty willing to do this literally.

Reading It Again For the First Time
It has actually been over 25 years since I last picked up the book, so in light of the upcoming movie release I decided to revisit it. I was curious then to see how my growing awareness of the book’s criticism might fit with my experience as a child.

What I understood this time around, or what I discovered, is an author who decisively, and rather brilliantly if you ask me, lays claim to an unforgiving but richly fertile middle ground, refusing to give in to categorization and embracing the opportunity to really challenge readers of all shapes and sizes to truly discover what the story means for them.

Kelly Beaty in her wonderful analysis of a Wrinkle in Time on Study.com puts it this way:

“She rejected being forced to adapt her work to specific genre or expectation. The result? Well it would seem she managed to tick people on all sides. But those who came to embrace the story were genuinely affected by it.”

As with all great children’s literature, the joy of reading it again as an adult is the ability to recognize my childhood experience through a more informed perspective. As a child Meg liberated me to face my own monsters, monsters which represented a struggle with chronic nightmares, school bullies, fear of the faceless unknown, and a struggle to belong. As an adult I found the book to be a powerful commentary on on the world I have since come to know. She sheds light on the idea that the ways in which I struggle to see and accept myself and the ways in which I struggle to see and accept others plays a big part in how I am able to live in the world I have since come to know. And these interconnected themes of acceptance and belonging are explored through recognziable symbols that imagine the sort of socio-political ideologies that tend to push back against our ability to live into this given responsibility, to ourselves and to others, in adequate and helpful ways.

I also found a new and surprising depth in the ways L’Engle imagines Meg’s loss of innocence. The way the perception of her father as invincible is shattered digs deep into our own tendency to idolize and even romanticize our isolated and narrow perceptions of the world, ultimately revealing this paradigm shifting heroine (the first truly strong female figure to represent science fiction/fantasy in such an effective fashion) to be a deeply conflicted and struggling soul. And in shaping her this way it helped remind me that it is okay to struggle and to feel sorrow and grief over the ways  in which discovery and awareness can challenge the world we once understood to be true. When we give ourselves over to this kind of discovery, the truth that A Wrinkle In Time considers is that where our understanding is challenged, a new and much larger understanding awaits. And as we watch Meg slowly transform over the course of the story, the way she responds to these changing perceptions, not just of her father but of the world she encounters in its place, reveals not just a common human struggle but the kind of strength necessary to navigate this struggle. The kind of strength that sees her grow in her ability to forgive, to accept and to love, and also to wonder once again.

A New Found Appreciation 
Rereading the book I found I loved it every bit as much as I did when I was younger. The way it unmasks our tendency towards fear feels like a timely message in an age where fear seems to be prevailing. And far too often it feels like we, as a collective society, allow this fear to perpetuate a hate for that which we don’t truly understand. When the darkness looms it is easy to feel hopeless, this hopelessness feeds into our fear, and this fear leads to hate. L’Engle’s memorable tale reminds us that the light we need to overcome the darkness is in fact love, and that love is more powerful than fear.

So where criticism has come down on this book for referencing Jesus and quoting scripture, citing it as a betrayal of their trust and shameless indoctrination, I found, both as a child and as an adult, a necessary spiritual voice who was far ahead of her time. Her ability to bridge the conversation between religion in science at a time when these things seemed hopelessly opposed is impressive, and her ability to push ahead and contribute both to the fields of science and of faith is inspiring. At the same time her ability to write from a position of religious conviction while adopting such an inclusive disposition (which she reflects on quite wonderfully in And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings) formed what is, as Professor Jim Burkio puts it in an article for the Huffington Post, “a sophisticated yet simple mediation on mystical, progressive Christianity.”

In so many ways She was a woman far ahead of her time, imagining a world where strong woman characters would have plenty of room to grow and develop and challenge and where young female readers could have someone to look up to. Imagining a world where science and religion did not need to stand opposed, and where faith itself might even stand taller than religion itself. Imagining a world where individual worth and God’s universal grace could inform our social responsibility.

She was a woman brave enough to tell her story in a world that didn’t want to hear it and brave enough to tell it in ways that defied genres and categorization. That the book went on to earn awards and be determined a classic is a testament to this sense of strength and determination, and it is because of this that readers like myself were able to be challenged by her stories.

From Book To Film
I am incredibly interested to see how the coming film reinterprets her vision. The last time it was adapted (to animated film) the religious and spiritual symbolism was essentially edited out. If the film takes after L’Engle and manages to be brave enough to include this symbolism, I think it could help breathe her vision anew for a generation that desperately needs to hear it and feel it in our present context. As a woman far ahead of her time, time seems to have caught up with us in a very real way, which is precisely why we we need to be reminded of what it looks like to truly wonder and love again in a world full of fear and darkness.

 

Sources:
https://study.com/academy/lesson/what-genre-is-a-wrinkle-in-time.html
https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/we-will-wrinkle-again
https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-burklo/a-wrinkle-in-religion_b_8118894.html
And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings by Madeline L’Engle