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

Advertisements

Something Else Matters Most: Music for an Anxious Age

“Just do your best. It’s the only way to keep that last bit of sanity. Maybe I don’t have to be good, but I can try to be at least a little better than I’ve been so far.”
~ The Avett Brothers, “When I Drink”

I dearly love music.

The ability to create (good) music remains a bit beyond my grasp, and so I’ve always admired the creations of others—preferably at a volume suitable to parse nuances of vocals and instrumentation. This fact is to the frequent chagrin of family, co-workers, and fellow vehicle passengers. Thank the Lord for headphones. My tastes, such as they are, range all over, leaping genres and centuries from one hour to the next. I have affinity for particular bands or composers (and even interpretations thereof) more so than broad, industry-determined categories. I own plenty of albums/songs from years of gathering (more than I have time to listen to regularly), but even that collection doesn’t reflect the full spectrum of preference with access to of Pandora, Spotify, and the maddening diaspora of choice.

It is probably not surprising then that I could not name a single “favorite” song or musician. Taste is a horrible thing to quantify. Still, if there has been a soundtrack to life of late, though, it has been the Avett Brothers.

Perhaps there is some deep, rumbling affection toward them from my North Carolina expat heart. Maybe it is their legendary engagement with fans throughout an always-full tour schedule. It could be their relentless creativity, as they reinvent themselves from album to album without losing their core dynamic. At bottom, though, I engage with Scott, Seth, Bob, Joe, et al., as poets as much as musicians.

Avetts

Photo © James Nix, Independent Tribune

The success of their recent albums comes as no surprise to those of us who’ve been listening for a while (and if having Judd Apatow direct a documentary on your band isn’t the heights of popular culture, I’m not sure what is). Plenty of better critics than me have reviewed the Avett’s music and chronicled their rise to fame. I’ll even sidestep the question of taste. What interests me is not whether their music is good (though I’d fight anyone who says otherwise), but why it has risen to the heights of culture right now.

Why, in a culture obsessed with the new, do songs dealing with the pain and sorrow of the past chart right behind poseur pop stars and forgettable tween idols? Why, in a world where familial, social, and political bands have all but dissolved, does simple, honest music cut through the mess to draw people together? Something else matters most, and, try as we might, there is no escaping it. The Avetts are among a very few musicians who dive right into the spiritual/relational hunger of our anxious age.

The Avett Brothers’ style is hard to nail down. Ostensibly beginning as a bluegrass group, they simultaneously evoke Southern Rock, folk, emo, and even electronica. Somehow they manage to be both high-hipster and down-home country. They remind me most broadly, though, of 70s music.

I know that’s not a genre either, but the 1970s were a golden age of music. It was the mainstream glam pop of Elton John and David Bowie, but not just that. It was the arena rock of Boston, Kansas, or Journey, but not just that. It was the R&B, Funk, Disco, or Memphis Soul, but not just that. It wasn’t even just the zenith of soft-rock, with James Taylor, Billy Joel, Carole King, John Denver, Dan Fogelberg. The 1970s was all of this, humming in the background of a decade-long cultural trainwreck.

That trainwreck (Vietnam, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, the Cold War, coups & revolutions, stagflation, and general malaise) could’ve been precisely what made the music go. In a time of political, economic, and social dysfunction, we turn inward, searching for our lost stability in love, family, and faith. Enduring art always needs a little prodding from external discomfort—when the black hole yawns widest, the artist feels most alive.

Culturally, it seems that we are now living through a 70s redux (though 2016-17 has seemed a little more 1968 than any of us are comfortable with). Musically, then, it stands to reason that the explosion of soul-searching indie-folk (Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, Head and the Heart, etc.) would be a natural result. It is the Avetts, though, who emerge as the second coming of all your 70s favorites, because they manage evoke them all.

Though there is something reassuringly familiar about each of their songs, they do not subsist on nostalgia. Each album manages to be fresh and new. Rather than spending all their reserves on their debut project, they work and mature, genuinely getting better with age. They are even getting more overtly religious, boldly incorporating biblical language and flouting the increasing pop-culture taboos against Christianity.

The vapidity of much of what passes for “Christian music” these days may be driving the rise of thoughtful voices in the rest of the industry just as much as it has led to the decline and fall of the Christian Contemporary labels. When the Avetts can earnestly lament depression, alcoholism, pornography and rejoice in the promise of friendship and redemption (all in one song!) with musical excellence, why bother creating a counterculture? Moreover, they’ve recently announced that a new recording project (a joint effort with Scott & Seth’s dad, Jim Avett) will be a gospel album.

So it’s here I’ll take my stand, proclaiming an undying love for this band. Taste? Sure, but some things matter even more. While the mainstream continues rushing away from truth and beauty, we need more and more to be reassured that the simpler themes of life, death, love, loss, joy, and pain still carry the day. People are looking for other things to live by, and the mournful hope proffered by the Avetts is pointing the way for many.

I went on the search for something real.
Traded what I know for how I feel.
But the ceiling and the walls collapsed
Upon the darkness I was trapped
And as the last of breath was drawn from me
The light broke in and brought me to my feet.

There’s no fortune at the end of the road that has no end.
There’s no returning to the spoils
Once you’ve spoiled the thought of them.
There’s no falling back to sleep
Once you’ve wakened from the dream.
Now I’m rested and I’m ready,
I’m rested and I’m ready to begin.

~ The Avett Brothers, “February Seven”

Photo credit: James Nix, Independent Tribune

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.

 

Books of the Year that Was, 2016 ed.

‘Tis time again for the annual stroll down library lane. As always, what follows is not an exhaustive list, but a selection of some of my favorite reads of the year sorted by genre. Also as usual, most of these were not published within the year, but I encountered them for the first time in 2016. Since changing jobs in March, I’m no longer reviewing books professionally, so this year’s list is more stilted to my personal tastes (i.e. literature).

History/Biography/Cultural Observations

The Chip by T. R. Reid
Once in a great while, an invention comes along that upends the settled order of things. The cultural perception that such devices are the result of a “flash of genius,” striking from a clear blue sky, is misguided; often the discovery comes after years of questing to solve a particular problem. Such is the case with the integrated circuit, or microchip. Engineers from all over the world were working to figure out how to reduce the size of computer circuits, and two Americans, Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby came to the basic design almost simultaneously. Reid’s book engagingly narrates this discovery, the resulting patent disputes, and the legacy of rapid technological change that this tiny tool unleashed on the world.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Some biographies inspire by demonstrating the heights to which humanity can soar with the right mix of circumstances, talent, and grit. This is not one of those. Isaacson’s overlong, chatty, and occasionally vulgar portrait of Jobs is not a particularly good book, and tiptoes too close to hagiography even to be a truly good biography. Jobs led groups to accomplish amazing things, but at such a great cost in burned up relationships, one wonders if it was worth it. A role model he was not. Jobs was a Raskolnikov of industry: someone to whom rules did not apply, at least in his own mind. And yet, yet, I can’t help but be a little in awe, especially thinking of the way Apple products and Pixar movies have made my life a little brighter, more productive, and more fun for many years.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Hereitics by Ross Douthat
Despite the fact that he’s only a few years my senior, New York Times columnist Douthat has become one of the leading voices for conservatism, tradition, and common sense in the American public square. Bad Religion provides a fascinating take on the history of American Christianity, namely that the slide in religious adherence has less to do with outright rejection of faith than the accommodation of Christian orthodoxy to various cultural ideas, which in turn have lead to various heresies. It is a clearheaded approach to the (real and perceived) challenges to the Christian faith in America, recognizing that they come from within as much or more than from without.

Musing/Memoir

The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon
Capon’s masterpiece is delightfully uncategorizable. It is perhaps the world’s most circuitous cookbook or its most unorthodox work of theology. In either case, it is a must read for every one of us slightly pudgy and shameless lovers of all the tastes God built into His world. Food is necessary for life, but He made it fascinating and delicious on purpose. I’ve seldom come across a book that exudes such unvarnished joy.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Abbey, perhaps the atheist’s Annie Dillard, evokes with intimate detail the harsh moral clarity of the the wilderness while abandoning mankind to its condemning ravages all alone. Somehow, though, this paean to the vast inhospitality of the Colorado Plateau is more worshipful than Dillard’s glorying in the minutiae of a Virginia mountain stream. I read this (on a friend’s recommendation) before heading out West this fall, and Abbey’s portrait is richly accurate.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Snarky in that particular mien of the Northeastern sophisticate, but heartwarming all the same. I’ve long been a frequenter of the AT for day-hikes, and I always loved chatting with through-hikers on Roan Mountain, Mount Rogers, and the Smokies. Bryson elucidates the exhilaration and exhaustion of walking these mountains with a good mix of humor, disgust, and awe. His relationship with Katz keeps the narrative going, helping the book to rise above mere travelogue.

Theology/Christian Life

Knowing God  by J. I. Packer
From my review: “Though this work has been driving home deep truths about our Triune Lord since well before I was born, it was to my great detriment that I only just recently picked it up for myself. Every accolade Knowing God has received through the years was just praise—I have seldom read such a clear, emphatic presentation of so much Christian doctrine. To ears ready to hear and hearts ready to obey, Packer’s masterpiece is sort of a devotional ‘jet fuel’ to feed the fire of spiritual maturity….This pastoral heart most characterizes Packer’s work. It is a systematic theology (and a good one), but it is a systematic theology for pilgrims. Other books have more academic depth, but few achieve the devotional concern for the holiness, peace, and joy of the Christian.”

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith
It takes a while to get going (unpacking a philosophy of formation), but eventually Smith gets up a good head of steam and makes some very punchy, helpful suggestions on how to recover and retain the faith in the midst of our self-absorbed consumer society. In brief, he teases out at a more popular level what he has been writing about for years: that culture is liturgy, and the Church cannot combat secularism with knowledge alone. His earnestness comes across rather condescendingly at times, especially when he seems to downplay the intellectual pursuit of God, which can be just as formative as other more “embodied” acts of worship.

Fiction

Laurus by Evgheny Vodolazkin
Hands-down my favorite read of the year. From my review: “What shines in both the words and the story is a voice eerily absent from the world of modern literature—sincere faith. The Orthodoxy of Laurus isn’t merely attached to a character or added for ‘color’, but suffuses the entire work because it is real. The people of this book are, like the rest of us, sinners, but through God’s mercy, many are saints. Most are earthy, some insufferably pious, and a few are wicked, but they all live under the shadow of the Almighty. In this world, the glow of icons by candlelight is meant to inspire, and a Holy Fool throwing rocks at invisible demons is to be expected.”

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
My first foray into McCarthy did not disappoint. Horses has doses of his trademark depravity, but the story is tempered with enough tenderness to make it go down. The interweaving of characters into the turbulent political history of Mexico gives a literary and cultural ballast to what is already a fine (if bleak) bildungsroman. As a marginal hispanohablante, I also enjoyed McCarthy’s frequent use of untranslated Spanish dialogue.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
A masterpiece in every way. Why, oh why, do we persist in thinking the classics are somehow less accessible? Human drama explodes from every page, and spiritual significance crackles throughout. “Hurrah for Karamazov!”

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Powerful, affecting assault on the American soul. Being “colorblind” is not the opposite of racism, but often the same beast in another cloak. Ellison refuses to let any region (South or North), class (establishment, radicals, workingmen, etc.), or race off the hook for our mutual culpability in dehumanizing one another.

Honorable Mention: Re-reads

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

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Much as I want to find fault with this book (Atticus’ stoicism being an unsustainable ground for real social change is about as close as I can get briefly), it is justly enshrined in the American literary canon. Lee manages to be endearing, but not cloying; profound, but not preachy; childlike, but not childish.

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
As an habitual re-reader of Percy, this deceptively deep comedy has wormed its way into my list of favorites. It even inspired an effort at scholarly analysis this summer. From that paper: “This then, is the solution to which Percy points the beleaguered reader. Life, to be genuine and grounded, must find its roots in the reality of Christ, but also in the reality of creation—even in the realistic parameters of the Fall. To attempt salvation by any other means only brings disaster. By God’s grace, change comes to sick men and sick systems through the ordinary faithfulness of doing the next right thing.”

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
In the morass of 2016, I reached again for the mother of all political novels for understanding, if not consolation. Warren’s magnum opus is so good, and ranges so much farther than politics, or the South, into the very depths of humanity. Truly, everything worth knowing is covered in blood, and we cannot escape the awful responsibility of time.

*UPDATE
It was suggested that I list the other books I read this year which didn’t make this “hits list” but are still worth a read. Here they are, without comment:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie
Godric by Frederick Buechner
The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser
Hillbilly Elegy 
by J. D. Vance
Intellectuals and Race by Thomas Sowell
The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie
The Sympathizer by Viet Than Ngyuen
Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre

Photo: Stacks, Chattanooga Public Library, Eastgate Branch, February 2015.