Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Broken Link to the Past: James Franco on Tom Bissell and Zelda

James Franco rarely bothers me anymore, but last night I saw a few paragraphs he put up at VICE about a 25-minute screen test he did for Blood Meridian some four years ago, and it made me angry. Blood Meridian is a beautiful and brutal book. I don't know whether it can make the jump to film. Someone with a creative vision on a level with McCarthy's own could, maybe, use it as source material to create something similarly disturbing and awe-inspiring for the screen, but that person is not James Franco. He's gone and done it anyway, though. Because he's James Franco, and he's made of money, and he can go and do anything he wants and then put whatever that is in front of an audience and they will watch it, or eat it, or read it, or do something else with it. Because he's James Franco.

In light of this I decided to post a thing I wrote about him a while back. This piece is at least a year and a few months old, and I wrote it in anger about one of the first installments of Franco's column at VICE. I've lightly edited it for clarity and what-have-you. Have at it:


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Holy Relics: The Christian Flag, B-Side

Each week for Holy Relics, my column at Christ and Pop Culture, I analyze some bit of evangelical cultural ephemera. This week the Christian flag is on the docket. While my main piece is up at the site, I thought I'd use this space for this week's B-side: a series of surrealist vignettes. 

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to Jesus Christ, its only Son, one state and three governmental branches; I pledge that it was born of a virgin, suffered under the British Parliament, was taxed without representation, was crucified, died, and was subject to wanton quartering; on the fourth of July it was raised from its shackles and now lives at the right hand of God; it is coming again in glory to arm the living and burn the dead.

* * *


A bloodied Christ hops off the cross and punches a centurion in the face. He seizes a spear and then a white garment from the soldiers who were about to cast lots for it, and this garment he ties to the upper third of the spear. Waving this improvised banner over his bruised visage, he looks into the camera. “I want you,” Jesus says, “for the Lord’s Army.” Letting out a war cry, he leaps into the air and is immediately upon the soldiers, whose eyes are wide with terror at the Son of God in his strength.

The screen goes black as the VCR clicks and whirrs. “And that, kids,” the Sunday school teacher says, “is where the Christian flag comes from.” The children cheer and toss their chocolate Easter bunnies into the air before rushing the enlistment table to become missionaries.

In the sanctuary down the hall a half-asleep man is in the throes of a waking dream. The pastor’s rousing message has bypassed the level of conscious thoughts to sink directly into his lizard brain. Visual flotsam slides over his retinas and produces images of threatening shapes that loom behind the pulpit. “Christ calls us to take up the cross,” Pastor Mark says into his microphone, his helmet pushed back over his forehead, “and that the gates of hell shall not stand against his Church.” The roar of propellers drowns out his voice. Smoke rises from empty choir seats. The rafters shake and dust falls all around. 

Behind the pastor, two flags loom. The somnambulist in the pew has an eye on each and in the half-awake haze of his mind they combine into a single one. “…the upward call of CHRIST” cuts through the noise, and the dozing man jerks awake. Two flags stand again distinct.

“How would you design a Christian flag?” the youth pastor asks the youth in the youth room. Hands go up, suggestions are made. “Yes, that’s good. Fortunately, you guys, we already have one that suits us just fine.” He reveals the flag, which had been standing obscured behind a projector screen in front of a wall covered in brick wallpaper. “The white is for Christ’s purity, the blue for baptism, and the red for the blood shed on the cross, which is inside the blue box here. The white is also for surrender. It’s a pretty neat flag if you ask me.” The brass cross atop the flag pole gleams under the fluorescent tube lights.

“But who’s surrendering here?” Tim asks. “Are we surrendering? Is God? Is the Church? If our flag is next to the American flag, is the Church surrendering to America? Shouldn’t it be a color like green instead? You know, for life and growth and living things? But like, what is a flag, anyway? A nationalistic totem? A military device with a very specific rallying function? A symbol of a nation-state? Is it okay for the Church to appropriate the visual language of nationalism, militarism, and battle for the church? What about how the pledge to the Christian flag echoes the pledge of allegiance? Also, why do they stand at the same height? What about the interposition of a symbol between us and another symbol, which is the cross itself? What’s wrong with that symbol? Why hasn’t someone nailed down the exact dimensions for that canton? Plus, like, why is it so dumb looking?” By the time Tim finishes asking his questions everyone else has left, and he is alone with the back half of a spray-painted Camaro and a Skillet poster.

“LOL what kind of idiot could believe that something comes from nothing??? I’ll tell you what kind a DAWKINS KIND LOL. Please remember to bring logic/reason to the logic/reason fight next time, Ath315t.” User COL.1.17 clicks “post” and waits. Christ will be victorious on the internet, he thinks. Minutes later his mouth forms a frown around a straw poking out of a Mountain Dew can as he reads the first three replies to his comment. “These NYT types,” he says to himself, spelling the acronym out loud, “they just don’t know when they’ve been more than conquered.”

Christus Victor marches across the world under a banner so large it unfurls across entire fronts in the war with the powers of the world. This is by design; the better for his soldiers to see his sign in the absence of himself. He holds a bright sword aloft and rides out upon his white horse. The world will be overcome once more under the shadow of the cross-spangled banner. The legions of the Lord are legion, and they are marching. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Liberal Arts in the Woods

A fresh crop of undergraduates has matriculated at my alma mater, and for the past two weeks I guided a group of eight of them through an intensive transitional program set in the beautiful northern woods of Wisconsin. Eight bright-eyed dudes, laden with books and rumors of books and myriad anxieties, scrambling up a 12-ft wall under the benevolent gaze of me, their bearded leader, silently cheering for them.

We ate meatball subs and debated the proper shape of Christian witness in politics under canoes lashed to the ceiling of the dining hall. We pondered the unfathomable depths of the love of God on a pontoon boat, which 20 minutes of effort helped to anchor in the shallows near the lake's bank under a patchwork cover of pine tree shade. We talked about community sitting cross-legged in cool dirt, stood up to brush off our behinds and hike back to camp. As campfire smoke filled our jackets and fleeces we talked Dostoevsky, transubstantiation, metaphysics, and dating. I commented on academic paper formats and the school's language requirements while picking marshmallow out of my beard.

I helped to build the cabin they slept in. We built it lincoln-log style from some kind of kit one year when I went north for spring break to read and work. During the long winters, the snow muffles everything but the sound of the wind across the frozen lake. It is possible to build a fire in the middle of the ice, a couple hundred feet from the nearest shore. Standing in its glow, looking at a darkening forest above the buried banks while the sun goes down, it can feel as though you've reached the edge of the world—where eternity clips time, as Annie Dillard says.

In late summer, the sounds never stop. Bugs and outboard motors, shouts, rifle retorts, backfires, fireworks, campfire crackles, leaves rattling like a cascade of rice across a counter, deer suddenly bounding through the woods in front of you, birdcalls. It all floats on a light wind, the organic counterpoint to the mechanical city hum I've become accustomed to.

We walked over acres of forest and grass, turning over ideas and perspectives in the workshops of our souls and burning off extra energy in a steady chatter. Hymns sung next to a sputtering Hobart lifted the dishwashing room into the celestial spheres. Our puckered hands slung food waste and scrubbed baking sheets. The damp that spread through aprons into t-shirts was holy water. We may as well have been wearing robes and tonsures. God smiled upon us, likely in amusement.

Of course, you have to come back to earth sometime. Those students are about to begin their freshman year; our wonderful faculty advisor is already busy advising his new advisees. The engine is about to turn, and within a few weeks, Wisconsin will likely seem distant in history. That doesn't matter, though. What happened will prove its relative value over time. I'm just glad to have been a part of it, whatever it will mean in the long term. Embodied, thinking creatures that we are, I don't know of a better place to start a liberal arts education than in the woods along the banks of Long Lake.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

EXTRA, EXTRA

Hi all.

So in the interval since my last post, I got a new writing gig. I'll still be putting stuff up here whenever the mood strikes, but now you can also find stuff I write on a regular schedule over at Christ and Pop Culture, a repository of Christian cultural criticism.

The blog is a good one, and I'm pleased to be able to contribute content to it. So far, pieces of mine have gone up on Kanye's new album and Chabon's new novel. Check them out if you like! As always, thanks for reading.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Recent Media Intake in Review: Cloud Atlas, Telegraph Avenue, &c.

Cloud Atlas

An enjoyable weaving-together of stories across space and time, Cloud Atlas is at its best when it's at its least message-y. Rarely have I felt so bombarded by a movie's thesis. The prosthesis-heavy makeup, 172-minute running time, and an enormously unfortunate use of dialect also threaten to scupper the film, but for me there is a saving grace in a clutch of deeply human stories.

The message, though, clangs around like a bolt in a steel drum. Ultimately, its ubiquity is matched by its  simplicity: we are all connected, and our present actions will have consequences across future generations. In case you fail to hear it explicitly every few minutes in the dialogue, the Wachowskis decided to include a thorough exposition of the idea in a subversive broadcast late in the film. "From womb to tomb..." intones a central character into a microphone. As violence again bursts out in front of her, she delivers a speech to the world that sallies forth with all the rhetorical power of a few rejected Hallmark cards. The simple meagerness of the film's moral vision comes into a harsh light when this climactic piece of oratory is set alongside that of another film from a very different time.

From Cloud Atlas:


From The Great Dictator:



Sure, the comparison is unfair—The Great Dictator is unique in film history for the context of its creation, which is essential to its power and importance—but I also find it illuminating as far as it goes. The Wachowski's sentimental New Age-y spiritualism just doesn't fare too well next to Chaplin's urgent humanism. Make of it what you will. I enjoyed Cloud Atlas for its accomplishments with a complicated narrative, for several of its stories and its sheer ambition, but the transcendence it aims for seems to remain consistently out of reach.

Monday, November 12, 2012

"Upper Middle Brow" and Suspicious Hermeneutics

I'm frustrated with a series of short cultural analyses I've read today. It all starts with an essay by William Deresiewicz entitled "Upper Middle Brow," in which the author attempts to identify a strand of culture-production designed to "make consciousness safe for the upper middle class" by "approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices." A step above "midcult" (a term I hate and thought had fallen out of fashion), "upper middle brow" consists of cultural products that possess "excellence, intelligence, and integrity," but that "always let us off the hook" by failing to disrupt our assumptions and challenge us. The "us" in question refers to a nearly-new creative class of college- and postgraduate-educated professionals whose tastes verge on the downright literary.

Who is implicated in this sophisticated, stylish, post-ironic pat-on-the-back party? Apparently: Jonathan Lethem, The New Yorker, Wes Anderson, This American Life, Lost in Translation, and GIRLS. Also, "the films that should have won the Oscars." But not all of them—a handy list of midcult artifacts ("peddling uplift in the guise of big ideas") includes Malick's Tree of Life. Who else is on the midcult list? Franzen, Jonathan Safran-Foer, Middlesex. (Just separating Lethem from this company seems a microscopically fine exercise in hairsplitting, and attenuates the explanatory power of the typology.)

So what does Deresiewicz suggest as an antidote? Upper middle brow is, after all, a problem framed in a way that implies a particular solution. The suggestion he offers is that we need a return to an art that will "disturb [our] self-delight", because we are "engorged on our own virtue" and allowed, by our choices of aesthetic consumption, to remain complacent and untroubled.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hyperbole, in Good Faith


A friend of mine used to accuse me of falling into hyperbole when describing items of interest in my life. “No,” I swore, “I don’t mean to exaggerate, I’m giving you a true record of my experience—it was truly, superlatively [adjective]!” This little essay is an attempt to get at possible motivations for spending big words on little things, while also offering a hesitant typology.