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June 2011

Why We Aren't Going to the Art House

I wanted to see "The Tree of Life," but the movie is only playing at art houses.  My son said he would not go if it was at an art house, that the movie sounded weird and, besides, strange things can happen to people at art houses.  I told him that the worst that might happen is that we would be accosted by some Democrats, that it would do us good to get out in the world and mingle.  He said it was a place of low life intelligentsia, academics in argyle sweaters, aging hippies, bad popcorn and health drinks.  He prefers movies with car chases and women, like Angelina Jolie, said that he doesn't go to movies to think but to be entertained, said he did all his thinking in college and won't take that up again until a new school year.

I did not raise him this way. I tried to inculcate good values.

Oh, "Tree of Life."  I'll get there.  I feel intelligent just thinking about seeing it.  I don't really need to go.  Maybe I could read a couple of reviews, see the trailer online, memorize a few pithy comments, and be done with it.  Just enough to comment intelligently about a movie the masses will not see.  I guess I don't need to see it.

[Son: I don't either.  I have no desire to see a mundane plot about family suffering interwoven with a surrealistic depiction of the supposed origins of life on earth.]

Actually, I don't recall that I have ever been to an art house.  

[Son: .... and we don't need to start now.  I have a reputation to uphold.  Let's go see "Bad Teacher."  No, no car chase.  What's happened to film these days?]

Maybe "Midnight in Paris?"  A little Woody Allen nihilism?  The last thing I saw by him was "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)."   I saw it in high school with four guys at a drive-in movie in a Volkswagen Beetle.

[Son: I don't even want to discuss that.  That's just sick.]

You had to be there.

[Son: I told you I do not want to discuss it.  I mean I really do not want to even think about it.]

Well, we did see that art movie (was that an art movie) about astronauts or something at an art house didn't we?

[Son: Yes, no one came besides us --- well, not many.]

Well, there you go.  Only the elite go to art houses.  It wouldn't do for one to be crowded.  It would kill the film.  Only a select few can appreciate these celluloid masterpieces.  So what'll we see tonight?

[Son: Transformers. . . there's a film.  You don't have to think to see that one.]

Sad, isn't it? 

A Proper Laughing

"There was something that He hid from all men when He went up on the mountain to pray.  There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation.  There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth."  (G.K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy)

We need not go far to discover evidence that God has a sense of humor.  Have you looked at yourself lately?  I have. Besides the comical physical imperfections, there is the comedy of my life --- the good that comes my way in spite of me.  Behind the tragedy that is our life, there is a comedy, and that is grace, a gift from a God of mirth.

And yet it's difficult to see, buried as it is in irony. For His part, God won't break out laughing but holds it close, keeps it in, wanting to surprise us with this great gift of laughter in the world to come.  Irony is His hint at the great laughter to come.  Frederick Buechner says it well when he talks about how "the parables  can be read as jokes about God in the sense that what they are essentially about is the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people."  The Gospel is, Buechner says, "the coming together of God in His unending greatness and glory and man in his unending littleness, prepared for the worst but rarely for the best, prepared for the possible but rarely for the impossible."  

Many of us have read the humor out of the Gospel, have forgotten how outlandish it is to believe that a Supreme Being, the Maker of Universes, would condescend to become like us, among a little people in a backwater land, a petty, humorless people mired in tradition and rules of their own making, a people who had a sorry history of lapse, of unfaithfulness.  And yet He came in that earth-bending moment of irony.

I think the best reaction to the Gospel is deep laughter.  Like when Sarah heard she would bear a child, old Sarah of creaking bones and wrinkled skin. A baby, really?  So when we consider the Gospel, reflect on our own feeble attempts to gain our salvation, we too have to laugh at the gift we've been given.  Eternal life, me?

When Chesterton said God's mirth was hidden, I think He meant to tease us, to provoke us.  Maybe he prompting us to look beneath the tragic for the comic.  Drill down and see grace.  Look up and consider the great laughter of Heaven that awaits.  Laugh and say with the Psalmist, "what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?" (Ps. 8:4).  Are you laughing now?

A Good Ghost, A Proper Scaring

"The whole of our life inside and out is to be absolutely haunted by the presence of God.  A child's consciousness is so mother haunted that although the child is not consciously thinking of its mother, yet when calamity arises, the relationship that abides is that of the mother.  So we are to live and move and have our being in God, because the abiding consciousness of God pushes itself to the front all the time."  (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest)

Everyone is haunted by something or someone. There is no void, no absence of haunting.  I met a woman once, a plaintiff in a medical malpractice lawsuit, who was haunted by her injury, by what it had done to her.  Staring at me, the enemy, over a medical file so obviously dear to her, I could sense the meaning it gave her life even as bitterness disfigured her face and body.  In it she lived and moved and had her being, such as it was.

Other people are haunted by memories, by traumas large and small, by perceived injustices that grow over time.  They begin to shape their lives.  It can become the thing they hold on to, even as an abused spouse holds on to their abuser.

But to hear Chambers use the word "haunted" in a positive sense is new to me and refreshing.  It reminds me how we sometimes speak of the "Christ-Haunted South," particularly as given shape by Southern writers like Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy, the idea that everywhere we look in the South we see something of Christ, of Christianity --- Holy Ghost to some, just spook to others.  And yet even that is merely descriptive of our culture.  Chambers means far more. He means for us to embrace this haunting.

It's something like this: I am my parent's son.  When they are both gone, they are still with me.  They shape me. My actions and thoughts are stamped with their mark.  Every move I make refers back to them.  What Chambers is saying, however, is that our relationship with Christ is even more like that.  His desire for us is that we "live and move and have our being in him," to be so haunted by his presence that He becomes our primary reference point, however mediated by parent, spouse, or child, by employer, friend, or homeland --- so much so, in fact, that all the haunts of this world are overshadowed by His haunting.

There are many things that haunt us in the world, but Flannery O'Connor nailed one big one that imbues much literature, film, and music, a creeping nihilism that we sometimes catch out of the corner of our eye just outside the darkened window.  She named this pandemic haunting: "[I]f you live today you breathe in nihilism.  In or out of the Church it's the gas you breathe.  If I hadn't had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now."  We have better air to breathe, a finer thing to be haunted by, a faith and hope and love that lies behind everything, one that murmurs just below the roar of nihilism.

When Christ said "abide in me," maybe what He called us to is a better haunting, a proper scaring, informed by a Ghost story that is true in the deepest sense: the Gospel of Life.  I'm spooked by a God that is in the rose and in the thorn, in a sunrise and in a hurricane, in death as in life.  And yet I'm not afraid of this good Ghost, of His gracious inhabitation of this world and me. I look for Him everywhere, as much in the face of a bitter woman and out a darkened window as in a flower and a hymn. He's the One on the other side of the door, the face in the window, the creak in the floor, and the rattle in our lungs.  I'm spooked by Christ, haunted by His presence,and while I may be afraid at times and of some things, I'm not afraid of this haunting.  I want it.

Why "Things" Matter (Even Boats)

I am a boat owner.  Ten years ago I decided to buy a 19-foot Grady White Tournament for cruising and playing in the intracoastal waterway, sound, and ocean.  I envisioned day trips to coastal towns, kids skiing and being pulled on floats, and (though I do not fish) maybe even a little fishing.  Indeed there were such times, just not enough of them.  There is the old adage that the two best days in a boat owner's life are the day he buys the boat and the day he sells it.  I'm selling.

But this is not a thinly-veiled advertisement for my boat but a study of loss.  While both my wife and I agree that parting with this boat is a good, economically-wise move, we both had a sense of loss.  Dwelling on that emotion, I realize that the loss we sense is not so much that of the boat itself but the memories it carries.  The boat, in the end, became more obligation than joy, as in "I guess we need to run the boat a little," uttered with a dutiful sigh, one more possession to steward.  The boat is a cultural artifact; the culture, our family.  Borrowing from Andy Crouch's book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, we say that these artifacts have, over time, "become part of the framework of the world. . . .," my world, my family's world.  That money pit of a boat made possible shared experiences that were unique to it.  We ran aground together, puttered around the channel, and, on the best days, lit our for the ocean, a lake of dreams.

While it is certainly prudent to live life holding lightly to our possessions, pruning away the excess by selling or giving away that which threatens to weigh us down, it's also true that not all "things" need finally, in the end, be disposed of.  Some have iconic status --- not to be worshipped but to be seen through, as it were, to the memories that form part of who we are.

I can't keep the boat for that reason alone.  There are other compelling considerations.  A picture will have to do.  But seeing through it, I'm warmed by a vision of a family together, at play, leaving memories in our wake, wave upon wave of which will ripple through the years ahead and even, as far as I know, reach a new heaven and earth.  Nothing good is ever really lost but, rather, stored up in eternity.

I can't make my children young again, recreate those times when our lives focused almost entirely around each other.  They grow up.  We do too.  A family's culture, after all, matures, pulls up anchor and moves on.  Boats find new owners.

But I could buy another boat someday, make new memories.

Oh no, here we go again. . .

Lost in the Swamp: A Review of "Swamplandia!," by Karen Russell

67888821 At times reading author Karen Russell's first book-length work of fiction, Swamplandia!, is like a Stephen King inspired naturalist's guide to the flora and fauna of southwest Florida --- swampy, spooky, and full of shadowy demons both real and imagined.  Steeped as it is, however, in a sense of place, particularly a place so few of us have visited or even desire to visit, its strangeness becomes almost exotic and arresting.  We want to go there, if only in our mind.  Russell is our willing tour guide.

The Bigtree family is the owner-operator of Swamplandia!, a once popular gator wrestling theme park on an island off the gulf shore of southwest Florida.  I say once because we come on the scene when the star of the show, mother Hilola Bigtree, has died of cancer and the world of the Bigtrees is coming unhinged by both the external and internal fallout of her death.  The tourists stop coming, leaving the park on the brink of foreclosure.  The father, Samuel ("Chief") Bigtree, leaves the island for the mainland, for some mysterious "business."  The three children, Kiwi, Osceola (Ossie), and Ava, who are to remain together, spin off in different directions.  The oldest, Kiwi, a realist who seems to grasp their dire situation, leaves for the mainland, for a job and education, carrying with him unresolved anger at his father, at his mother's death, and at a place he has rejected.  Sixteen year-old Ossie, on the other hand, has left reality, imagining the existence of spirits and ultimately leaving to marry  a ghost.  Yes, a ghost.  And there's 13-year old Ava, our narrator, left alone, unsure whether to believe her sister or the internal voice of her mother.  Lacking a father at the moment, vulnerable, she takes up with the eccentric, mysterious, and ultimately sinister "Birdman" on a quest to rescue her sister from the Underworld, poling their way through the swamps and canals to find her.

The strangeness of the setting and circumstances notwithstanding, the reader still finds much to identify with here:  loss, misguided hope, and even family (albeit a dysfunctional one).  This is a traumatized family dealing with their loss in some well-known ways: anger, denial, and even dementia.  They lack faith, family, or friends from which to gain sustenance, no one to turn to except each other, lost but not alone, ultimately, in their lostness.    As such, it is an appropriate novel for the post-modern.  When their personal and family narrative collapses, when who they thought they were is no longer the case, they have no meta-narrative within which to anchor themselves, no story within which to find meaning.  It is a story played out in the more normal suburban setting of everyday life around us.  And yet by rooting this story in the unfamiliar and foreboding setting of the once wilderness of southwest Florida, in Swamplandia! Russell makes good if not great art, de-familiarizing the familiar and thereby bringing it home to us.

I do have quibbles.  First, while allowing 13 year-old Ava to narrate much of the story allows a more intimate, personal telling, the fact is that Ava's voice too often sounds more like a twenty or thirty year old woman. (Perhaps more like the voice of the author?)  Ava often provides helpful history or descriptions of place, helpful information but like nothing most 13 year-olds would come out with.  About one escape from danger, she says of her mother that "[s]he was the muscular current that rode me through the water away from the den, and she was the victory howl that at last opened my mouth and filled my lungs."  Winsome, metaphorical prose but not what I would expect a 13-year old barely teenage girl to say.  Other times Ava sounds very much like a teenager, and her actions evince that as well.  Admittedly, keeping an appropriate voice and telling a good story, particularly in the first-person, is a challenge.  As a reader you can adapt, but you have to be able to suspend disbelief or even treat the voice as that of a third-person narrator.  It doesn't quite work.

My other quibble isn't so much with Russell as it is with contemporary fiction in general.  Books about loss, books which major in the underbelly (if not Underworld) of life abound, many much darker than this one.  While such minor themes cannot and should not be ignored, it takes a gifted author to navigate the Swamplandias of life and write non-sentimentally about truth, goodness, and beauty, manifest even in the muck and mire of life's swamplands.  Where can I find those books? And yet I can't hold Karen Russell to account for this.  We are all guilty of a fascination with the dark, all too easily blow by the good.

Even with these reservations, I can recommend Swamplandia! for adult readers.  In the end, Russell serves as a good tour guide both to a wild place of crocodiles and saw grass as well as the personal anguish of loss.  To a greater or lesser degree, most of us will find ourselves in these wild places at one time or the other.  Reading of it is a whole lot more enjoyable.

Who Left the Artist in Control?

Mccart 1 "Blimey, he's Paul McCartney.  He can bloody well record whatever he wants.  He can record an album of screaming if he wants.  Oh, right, John Lennon did that.  Well, he's a Beatle for goodness sakes.  He can do whatever he wants"

I can well imagine having some such retort from a British cabbie or the like, hearing me complain about the self-indulgent dithering of Paul McCartney on his McCartney and McCartney II, both reissued this week in single, deluxe, and super-deluxe editions, a part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection.  I allowed my completest compulsion to take hold, buying both.  It was not a good use of money.

Both suffer from the self-indulgence allowed a superstar artist.  They clock in at under 35 minutes, not much music by any standard.  Both represent McCartney's complete and total control over the recording process, meaning he can issue half-baked, incomplete songs, songs with innocuous lyrics, and record his meandering pre-song experimentions.  (The bonus disc is more of the same.)  A good producer (George Martin?) and a record company (Capital) would have insisted on real songs --- crackling pop masterpieces, of which he is quite capable.  But, he's a Beatle.  He has enough money to be writer, singer, only instrumentalist, producer, and record company.  It's not nearly as ridiculous as John and Yoko's album of primal screaming, but both could have been much, much better.  There's just no one to hold him accountable, no one to say no.

Still, I would have bought McCartney, issued in 1970, for nostalgia alone as well as for the song, "Maybe I'm Amazed."  I first bought the album in vinyl when I was 14, a Beatles fanatic.  I took it home, put it on the turntable in my bedroom, and pored over the cover and photos.  Perhaps these "songs" which, if issued by a lesser artist, would likely never see the light of day, are so impressed in my memory because they are laden with all the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions of those teenage years, the sounds part of the soundtrack of my life.  As such, I have completely lost any objectivity about the record.  The bits and pieces of songs that exist there live in my thoughts; I can summon them to mind anytime.  And the fact is they have an innocence that endears them, filled as there are with images of domesticity --- of a Beatle, his wife, and young children at home.  The six instrumentals are interspersed with eight songs, some little more than ditties, like the brief opener, "The Lovely Linda, or "That Would Be Something," a song which amounts to one thought: it'd be really something to meet you in the falling rain.  Profundity it lacks.  "Junk" is endearing, and yet it's difficult to say why.  Perhaps its the simplicity of its melody.  "Teddy Boy" is a "Rocky Raccoon" like acoustic number.  But the piano ballad, "Maybe I'm Amazed," is the only pop classic here.  Still, I would buy this album again, and again, and again, as it summons up a time we (I) can't get back again.

Mccart2 McCartney II, on the other hand, is mostly a lot of electronic experimentation.  There is "Coming Up," a radio hit from the record, but it's just not my style.  While "Waterfalls" is a nice ballad, the lyrics are cliche and trite, like "I need love/ like a second needs an hour/ like a raindrop needs a shower."  I'll probably never listen to the bonus disc again.  McCartney's excess is vividly demonstrated by the over 10 minute instrumental experimentation of "Secret Friend."  This, in other words, is a largely forgettable album that might have been rejected or reworked but for McCartney's star power.  Teh cover shot seems to say it all: "What have I done here?," Paul seems to be saying.

The lesson in all this is that artists do not need to be in complete control.  They need good producers to challenge them and ask them for their best.  They need record labels that insist on products that are well-made and marketable.  And they need a public that refuses to buy because of a name but insists on quality.  None of these checks on artistic divas is perfect.  Far from it.  The public is often fickle and will settle for too little.  Producers can apply a certain sound they are comfortable with to every artist, making them all sound the same (think Daniel Lanai or Charlie Peacock), and record companies can insist on the always safe and predictable, the same record over and over again.  But truly great records are born in the tension that exists in this community dedicated to the one thing they all profess to love: the music.

As for me, if there's a McCartney III, I'll think carefully before paying any hard cash for it.