Vide Bellum: A Vietnam Reflection

Earlier this month, Rachel and I carved out ten evenings to watch The Vietnam War, the new film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, as it aired on PBS. Burns is the master documentarian, but this is a new high even for him—a peripatetic funeral march for the death of America’s virtue, such as it ever was. I hope every American invests the 17+ hours to watch this, particularly those of us who did not live through the period.

We were born less than nine years after the fall of Saigon, but it’s only been in recent years that we’ve even begun to hear people talk about the war. Growing up, no one I knew well had served, except for a distant cousin—the cousin who thought it was a good idea to bring a loaded service sidearm (Colt .45) to a family reunion and let 9-year-old me and another 10-year-old cousin shoot it into the creek behind the family homeplace.

Vietnam always felt like a shameful family secret; a box buried in the attic we knew existed but had been trained never to open. What remembrance and restoration there has been has been muted and not publicly embraced. It’s a sore spot we still don’t like touched. The war left us nothing to celebrate. No Yorktown. No Gettysburg. No Armistice. No D-Day. Only the dead, wounded, and a million might-have-beens.

None of this American angst begins to touch the devastation the war brought to Vietnam and her people, for whom every victory was also a defeat, and whose land bears scars still. This aspect comes through well in Burns and Novick’s work, with Vietnamese veterans (from both north and south) speaking their piece and helping fill this complex story with rich context. The war did not come about or escalate in a vacuum, and the pains that flowed into and out of it (from colonialism to civil rights) are given their fair shake.

Moreover, the personal tragedy of young lives snuffed out and veterans wracked with physical or emotional disabilities is brought front and center, with a wide cast of interviewees from every corner of the country and every branch of the military. The same young men who were sent off to die under the aegis of patriotism and honor impressed on them by their families and communities returned home as outcasts. The cause they served no longer seen as just, their sacrifice was turned into a stain on their conscience. No forgiveness. No lament. Only forgetting.

The full film is an impressive study in human nature, hubris, and groupthink, and none of the parties involved (on any side) come away unscathed. Yet I can’t help but notice that the United States has learned so little from that experience in how we conduct ourselves in the world. We persist in meddling beyond our expertise, using ethnic tensions or economic attachments as pawns in geopolitical chess. The specter of another Vietnam is always lurking in every pot we stir, every airstrike casually called in for political show. Now, as then, it is the young, the poor, the minority, and the “enemy” who pay the price for such games.

A movie, however good (and Burns & Novick have put everything they could into this one), is no truth & reconciliation commission, but my prayer is that it can be a spark to remind us of what lies at the end of the way of ignorance, callousness, and unconfessed pride.

Watch the movie. Talk to a veteran. Talk to someone who didn’t fight. Never vote for military force on a whim or to make a point.

Of course, the larger, unspoken target for this movie at this moment in time may be the political discord currently animating our national mood. We may not be at the gates of 1968 again quite yet, but The Vietnam War is a not-so-subtle reminder that it only takes a few well-placed sparks in a room full of gasoline to do a lot of damage.

As Walker Percy put it, describing his comic dystopia Love in the Ruins (which he wrote during 1968-1970), “What I really wanted to do, I guess, was call a bluff. For it has seemed to me that much of the violence and alienation of today can be traced to a secret and paradoxical conviction that America is immovable and indestructible.” During the latter stages of the war, that conviction was stretched to breaking. It’s hardly seemed as shaky since, but I fear we’re getting close.

Image: Movie poster, courtesy of PBS

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A Day Late and [Several] Dollar(s) Short II: Awards Edition

It’s become a tradition around our house to wait until long after awards season to actually watch any of the films up for Golden Globes or Academy Awards. By “tradition”, of course, I mean that a busy life with three kids and our general cheapskatiness dictates that we seldom go to the movies and are willing to politely wait until the library will share a DVD with us.

A parallel tradition (if, by “tradition”, I’m allowed to mean “I did it once”) is to briefly review these films once the haze of homemade popcorn (coconut oil will set you free) has settled. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and there’s more movies we haven’t yet managed to wheedle from the library stacks. With that in mind (and in no particular order) here goes nothing.

Hell or High Water

Hell_or_High_Water_film_poster

Courtesy Lionsgate Films

I’m a sucker for the bleak neo-Western (and the Western genre more generally). The grassy expanse of West Texas is a classic clean slate on which to draw the bright lines of a morality play. Even given the contemporary milieu of the story, the elements are all here: bank robbery, the conflicted anti-hero, the grizzled veteran lawman and his idealistic younger partner, the cold-eyed outlaw who can’t be trusted or reasoned with. Add to that a frustrating family drama and the backdrop of a crooked financial system and the mortgage crisis, and you should have a fine piece of work.

Like so many other Hollywood products, however, this movie falls prey to the temptation to be more “authentic” with excessive language and glorying a bit much in the violence and gore necessary to the narrative. At times, it felt like the director padded out the screenplay with these flourishes to fit the feature-length running time. Jeff Bridges earns his Oscar nod, but he doesn’t get enough screen time for us to know his character well. The last 15 minutes (essentially a lecture from Bridges’ character) almost make up for all this, but it seems overall a less than fully realized vision.

Shorter Hell or High Water: Lukewarm. Should’ve either been a tightly directed short or a longer, more complex study.

Fences

Fences_(film)

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play (for which he wrote a screenplay before his death in 2005) seems to have been tailor-made for Denzel Washington, but for Denzel in his 60s. He had to age into the role of Troy Maxson (who he portrayed in a 2010 broadway revival of the play), and he filled the director’s chair for this effort with just as much strength and nuance. Viola Davis’ embodiment of Troy’s wife, Rose, was rightly praised and certified by acting awards.

This emotionally charged story took so long to come to the screen because Wilson insisted that an African American direct it, and Washington’s touch was well worth the wait. Though emphatically a black story (with strong civil rights notes), the themes of family, sin, aspiration, frustration, love, and community lay claim to the universal human condition like all great literary works.

Shorter Fences: The true and better Death of a Salesman—more resonant with more of American life.

La La Land

La_La_Land_(film)

Courtesy Summit Entertainment

It had been conventional wisdom in Hollywood for quite some time that musical film as a genre was dead. And, aside, from the persistent presence of songs on screen in most animated flicks, the idea of people in a dramatic frame esoterically bursting into song was relegated back to Broadway. The success of 2012’s adaptation of Les Misérables and 2014’s Into the Woods (and the fact that a Broadway play—Hamilton—became 2015’s pop-culture sensation), it was perhaps inevitable that someone would come up with a good, original movie musical.

Damien Chazelle’s creative effort is lively, enjoyable, and (most importantly) the music sticks in your head. Though contemporary in setting, the pacing, framing, and set design feels like a more old-fashioned film. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone both do some good work, but overall, I found it did not quite live up to the hype. It falls flat, not because of the music or acting, but because the story falls prey to Hollywood’s love affair with itself. Still, it gets my recommendation because I want to see more in this vein getting produced.

Shorter La La Land: Good music, great ending, but impossible to take too seriously after Hail, Caesar!. Also, Loudon Wainwright III’s song, “Grey in LA“, provides a nice counterpoint.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence_Foster_Jenkins_(film)

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Now for the obligatory Meryl Streep vehicle of this year’s lot. This film is funny, and though tender and sad, mercifully does not take itself too seriously. Without spoiling too much of the plot, it involves the musical prowess of someone who cannot sing her way out of a paper sack, and some very sad marital issues.

Overall, it is a fun and finely produced piece, and the cast look like they had fun playing in it. Meryl Streep is always good. Hugh Grant plays, well, Hugh Grant (playboy-with-accent-and-charm), and Simon Helberg (of Big Bang Theory fame) has a wonderful turn as an aspiring classical pianist co-opted into Florence’s orbit. Not a great film, but a decent one.

Shorter Florence Foster Jenkins: Almost worth it just for Helberg’s facial expressions…

Silence

Silence_(2016_film)

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Portraying any form of Christianity on screen and avoiding ridicule or kitsch requires a directorial pirouette. Through his adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel, Martin Scorsese has pulled it off. Beyond that, he has crafted a beautiful, richly moving film, pitch perfect on nearly every front—acting, cinematography, pacing, etc. That it is loosely based on real people and real events in 17th century Japan gives it even more force.

The entire film is a gut punch, reminiscent of The Power and the Glory (and Endō’s work is often compared to Graham Greene’s), but without the antiheroic angst of the Whiskey Priest. The clerics of Silence are earnest and faithful, and the suffering they endure (and, perhaps, cause) is sustained and painful. Like the source material, it raises many questions that Christians living under persecution have faced since the first century. What is apostasy? Can the church be the church in secret? The highly visible nature of Catholicism accentuates these tensions, but there are lessons here for believers of all stripes. An incredible work of art.

Shorter Silence: Wow. Just Wow.

A Man Called Ove

A_Man_Called_Ove

Courtesy Nordisk Film

Foreign language films can be a bit daunting, but the effort to follow along is just as often rewarding. I read Fredrik Backman’s superb novel earlier this year, and was prepared (as most readers always are) to be let down by the film version.

Hannes Holm’s deft rendering was a pleasant surprise, keeping the tenor of the story just right, and managing to tell it in such a way that even those who haven’t read the book should be able to appreciate it. Rolf Lassgård as Ove and Bahar Pars as Parvaneh shine. Just like the novel, I found myself laughing and crying almost simultaneously. This is a story for our time. There is more to life than simply individuals and an administrative state, and the people we do not want to “bother” us (neighbors, co-workers, and those in need) are precisely the ones put in our path to save us from despair. Well done!

Shorter A Man Called Ove: Grumpy old men may not always be what they seem.

***UPDATE***

Arrival

Arrival,_Movie_Poster

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Science Fiction is, for most, an acquired taste. Were there more films made like Arrival, combining artistry and compelling stories with the mind-bending concepts of the genre, more moviegoers would likely acquire the taste. So much of recent sci-fi tends toward the grotesque, relying more on horror-film tropes than intelligent writing, or the outlandishly comedic. The transcendent themes of a movie like Arrival (based on “Story of Your Life”, a short story by Ted Chiang), remind us what a treasure the best of sci-fi can be.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner deliver top-shelf performances as a linguist and physicist tasked by the U.S. government with deciphering the purpose of alien visitors to earth who have come to in peace (or have they?). Along the ride we are treated to a plethora of questions about language, cognition, time, and human agency. This is well worth any serious movie-lover’s time.

Shorter Arrival: People will be talking about this film for a long time.

 

Goin’ Coen: Film Reviews

N.B. These are reviews, not recaps. If you want plot summaries, hit up Wikipedia or IMDB. Still, a *minor* spoiler or two follows.

Movies make me happy. Not for the sake of entertainment, but in the particular punch of storytelling that only feature-length Hollywood can deliver. I have no patience with bad films (which are legion), and cannot tire of re-watching a good one.

As previously stated, time to spend on movies, particularly new movies, is a rare commodity, and movies worthy of that precious investment are few and far between. Even so, Rachel and I managed to sneak in a date night recently to watch a new film at the theater, and managed to snag another new release at home. These two features don’t have much connection beyond that fact that we just saw them both and that both involve the input of Joel & Ethan Coen.

Hail, Caesar!

Writing a genuinely funny film that keeps all the humor on key for two hours is an accomplishment. Doing that these days without swiping at the low-hanging fruit of crude or sexual exhibitionism is even more impressive. Pulling it all off while weaving deeper emotional heft into the film is a triumph.

Hail, Caesar! marks the first time in a very, very long time that I’ve left the theater after a comedy without the least cringing or regret. That’s not to say there is nothing off-color here, but that most of it is tasteful and all of it works to advance the plot.

This is a tongue-in-cheek-in-cheek work, marrying the Coen brothers’ carefully crafted sense of absurdity with their wide-ranging fascination with Hollywood history. Inside jokes layered upon inside jokes abound. For me, a classic film junkie, nearly all the winks hit home—I am fairly certain I was smiling or laughing for every second of the running time.

The beauty of this work, however, is that it is so well timed and acted that it would be almost as funny to someone who missed all the layered meanings, who knew absolutely nothing about the old studio system, all the hushed-up scandals of yesteryear, or the plots of the many great movies parodied in this sprawling sendup. It is that rarest of animals, the “highbrow-lowbrow” comedy. Who, afteCaesarr all, can hold back a snigger when a director tells his star in a biblical epic to “squint into the grandeur”, or when a man confesses that he “struck a movie star in anger” to his baffled priest?

Though Caesar! has been only a modest financial success, critics have found it endearing, particularly within conservative (here, here, and here) and Christian media. The film seems to take certain aspects of its story (the value of work, the role of entertainment in society, and yes, religion) fairly seriously, while still being able to crack wise about them.

What those reviews intuit is that this is not just a good comedy (though it is not less than that) but that the Coens have tapped into something deeper. Caesar! is Hollywood’s soul-searching, born of deep doubts about the growing irrelevance of movies in an instant culture, wondering if the wealth and power they enjoy is fading and, ultimately, wasted. This paean to the “golden age” of movies is stirring precisely because people miss it. We miss when “pictures” were important, not merely checked-out entertainment but enjoyable and poignant shared experiences of our culture.

Many of the so-called culture makers are content to live on as Baird Whitlock (George Clooney’s character in the film), making money hand over fist while caring not a whit for the craft and gladly babbling regurgitated pseudopolitical talking points to feel good about themselves. Others are, no doubt, like Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) and his co-conspirators, using the pull of entertainment to subliminally indoctrinate the masses. Viewers are left to wonder, however, if “good guys” like Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, who is outstanding as the core of this story) and Hobie Doyle (an impressive Alden Ehrenreich) still exist, or ever did. Even that is one of the Coens’ best jokes—the real Eddie Mannix was an utter scoundrel, an exact doppelgänger of the man Brolin brings to life here.

Seeing this movie just prior to (an attempt at) watching the Oscars, brought these themes immediately to mind. The self-absorption that has always more or less characterized the industry is on humorous full display in Caesar!, but there are still adults in the room keeping things together and making the system work. Today’s Hollywood has so completely swallowed itself that the “scandal” of #OscarsSoWhite consumed the entire ceremony, overshadowing the honorees of the night (which included several accomplished films that actually tackled issues of substance with artistic merit).

Bridge of Spies

The second Coen-spun film we watched recently was Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (for which the brothers, along with Matt Charman, wrote the screenplay). Though not as remarkable an achievement overall as Hail, Caesar!, this was nevertheless a solid, enjoyable movie. It certainly further cements Spielberg’s status as America’s “Slightly Fictionalized Historian-in-Chief” in the tradition of Schindler’s ListAmistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Lincoln, etc., belting out the ballad of the unsung hero.

Tom Hanks, playing his usual highly-capable everyman, guaranteed some level of success, and endearing (now Oscar-winning) Mark Rylance gives heart to a tale of espionage, treason, Cold War brinksmanship, and good old American dealmaking. Somehow though, it manages to rise above even those stalwart expectations, unabashedly praising the inherent goodness of republican democracy and rule of law in an era when we have all but lost faith in all our institutions.

Spielberg and the Coens mined an era (the late 50s and early 60s) and events (the U2 incident and East German prisoner swap) not well plumbed by popular history, to show how the truly key players in world-shaping are often inconsequential middlemen. That, in itself, is a testimony to the American experiment—living proof of man’s equality with man.

Though I am of two minds (at best) of most of the Coens’ oeuvre, both of these fine films strike needed notes in an increasingly troubled time. With all the bluster of uninformed political rhapsodizing from the centers of culture, is it any wonder that a nation of moviegoers is staring into the void of a very real political crisis dominated by vapid celebrity? In the age of Trump, perhaps Hollywood should fully weigh what it lost when it gave up trying to lift up and inspire America with stories that cut across the lines that so define us now. When the powerbrokers are asleep at the switch, we desperately need to recover the tenacity, decency, and trustworthiness these pictures hold up for acclaim.

Reflected Reality: Art in the Mirror

It has become commonplace for American Christians talk about the power of story and the need for art to shape the cultural conversation. On many levels this is commendable, and I’ve been a more than willing participant in the exercise. Stories are important (whether in words or on the screen), and those that captivate us shape our thinking both directly and subtly. What we enjoy, we embody; our entertainments become our axioms.

This has been long understood, fleshed out for evangelicals of a certain stripe as a carefully curated distance from mainstream popular culture. The line has sometimes been drawn even farther back—in 7th grade, my small Christian school had a minor dustup over whether to include The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia in the library, what with the witches and all. It is easy enough to go off the rails with this approach, driven by fear as much as faith. Still, its appreciation of the catechetical role of literature and media is laudable, as is the sound desire to protect the Church and its institutions from secular influences.

More recently, sentiment has shifted to a warmer embrace of the popular and a desire to befriend and become culture-makers for the sake of mission. How can we, the new conventional wisdom goes, have real relationships with our unbelieving friends and neighbors if we can’t converse with their favorite shows, movies, music, or books? As in the other stream, there is a heart here to be praised, but the danger on this side lies in forgetting to “take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

This is in no wise a thorough discussion of the subject, but it should move the chains far enough for us to take a shot at thinking about art and theology. Whichever path is taken, we are often reluctant to make room for the best art, because to do so is to open doors of uncertainty.

Good stories well told stretch and strengthen our faith, and create space in the wider cultural imagination for the truth of the Gospel to thrive. They can also drive those already wrestling with doubt to walk deeper into it. The pull of art itself is powerful—there are more than a few stories of how the God-given drive to create can draw people away from the faith of their fathers (see Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, for example)—so the Church needs to be a place where those gifts find fulfillment rather than shame. There will always be real tension between robust doctrine (without which there is no Church) and the need for creative freedom (without which there is no art).

Trying to walk that line, we slog along, tepidly applauding a middling work of fiction here and a mediocre “Christian” film there. These are stereotypes to be sure, but they come from someplace. I can’t help but feel that if a manuscript for something like  To Kill a Mockingbird showed up on the desk of a mainstream Christian publisher, they would cut 2/3 of the book, add an emotional conversion scene at the courthouse, and then wrap it up with a newly-chipper Bob Ewell dropping all charges against Tom Robinson and throwing a town picnic.

IMG_2445The best of literature and visual art, of course, mirrors life as it is—filled with sin, darkness, and despair as surely as hope and joy. In Jesus’ parables, there were characters and scenes of the most unsavory nature (renters who murder the landlord’s son, a child who tells his father that he wished he was dead so he can have his inheritance now, etc.). The entirety of the Old Testament shows the depravity of nations, especially that of God’s own chosen people. The world is a horrible place and we are horrible people, but what a blinding light is God’s holy justice and mercy at the cross of Christ!

It is this juxtaposition that makes the best art in service of the Lord. All our creative work only really “works” insofar as it draws parallels to this story, likening the things we know all too well to the glory we see now through a glass darkly.

Lately, I can’t seem to stop talking about the new novel Laurus. I fell so hard for the writer’s vision there, because he came closer to crossing through that looking glass than anybody I’ve read in a while. Beyond that, his humility as a writer spoke volumes. My wife and I laughed to hear his story about how he told his wife that no one would read his book; we could see ourselves saying that if I ever finish the things I’m working on, and it is so easy to look at the mainstream and despair of finding a market for that kind of work. He said it touched a nerve because people are hungry for something more, that they “need other things to live by.” That hunger comes as the Holy Spirit is drawing men to Christ, and the right piece of art at the right time can indeed be another stepping stone on their journey to rest in Him.

I’ve spent much of my adult life studying theology, not for academics, but to write pieces for Disciple Magazine and my day job at a missions organization and teach Sunday school. I find that the deeper I go into Scripture, into staring at the face of God (so far as we can do in our fallenness), the more I have had to get used to saying “I don’t know.” You only ever have to have faith when you encounter the Living God—all the lesser pretenders to deity are quite explainable.That is why Christ’s call is “Follow Me.” Until glory comes, we are not equipped to understand. The best works of literature operate on that level. You have to give yourself to the author until he is finished working out what he has prepared for you.

Far from causing doubts, that apparent ambiguity serves to draw me closer to Him. He wants us to know Him; we can know Him. Our knowledge is never fully realized in this life, but sufficient to point ourselves to Him. As we create, we must remember that there is only one story that actually gets us to Him. Art will not save, but it can steer us to seek the One who will.