Arts & Faith Top 100

March 31, 2010 § 1 Comment

I’ve recently begun to read the blog of Image Journal, a quarterly journal which concerns itself with faith and art. Updated almost daily, it contains powerful personal anecdotes and insightful reviews into the relationship of faith to everyday life. It was there that I stumbled upon their selection of the top 100 spiritual films.

I highly encourage anyone interested in faith or the representation of in art to check this out. I have only seen 10 films on the list, something which I am beginning to remedy whenever I can. Most of the films are in another language than English and quite a few of them are in black and white, but they are all true art. There is no Transformers 2 or Avatar among them.

Each of the ten films I’ve seen on the list have made me think and have wowed me at times with their beauty. Here’s the list.


District 9

March 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

(Caution: minor spoilers ahead.)

2009 saw the science fiction film make a triumphant return to the public spotlight with the critically acclaimed releases of Star Trek (Abrams, 2009), District 9 (Blomkamp, 2009) and Avatar (Cameron, 2009). Star Trek and Avatar reveled in stunning special effects and wove larger than life intergalactic plots. They dazzled and entertained like the science fiction films of old, creating vast new worlds for our imaginations to explore. We left the theater full of wonder and awe after being immersed in a world that was wholly other. But when the shiny veneer of the computer-created beauty fades away, the only thing left for the films to stand upon are their stories and what they say.

Of the two, Star Trek’s story was far more entertaining than Avatar’s, but still rather shallow. District 9, however, is a harrowing tale of segregation and the implications of corporate power and greed. Wait, doesn’t the plot of Avatar concern itself with these things as well? Yes, but it does it through a heavy-handed, highly politicized script that concerns itself more with advancing a pantheistic agenda than actually letting the narrative live and breathe realistically. District 9 on the other hand, in numerous ways, strives to make its world as real as possible and it helps the movie make a more convincing statement and tell a better story.

District 9 immediately roots itself in the world we know and inhabit. Set in Johannesburg, South Africa the film operates within the framework of a documentary, immediately lending validity to its tale. It centers on a fenced-in slum, District 9, wherein aliens (Prawns) are segregated from the populous of Johannesburg. This segregation occurred due to a growing hatred and ignorance of the Prawn culture. Wikus van de Merme (Sharlto Copley) is called upon by his corporation MNU (Multi-National United) to evict the Prawns from downtown Johannesburg to a new site outside of the city.

We follow Wikus as he begins to evict Prawns, occasionally through violence, but mainly through preying on their ignorance of the evictions laws. In one particularly disturbing scene, Wikus orders a shack with Prawn eggs to be torched by a flamethrower. As the fire engulfs the shanty we hear the screams of the eggs as they are incinerated and the laughter of Wikus and the other humans around him. In fact, as we learn later, the only reason the Prawns haven’t been slaughtered is that MNU still needs to run experiments on them in order to figure out how to work their advanced weaponry.

Wikus finds a silver cylinder and while examining it sprays himself with a black fluid. All appears well for a little while, until he begins to vomit blood and lose fingernails. When he goes to the hospital to get checked out, they cut off a cast on his arm and find a Prawn hand. Wikus has been infected and is turning into a Prawn. Because of this he can work their weapons and is suddenly a valuable commodity to MNU, who wants to harvest his DNA to be able to equip others with the ability to operate Prawn weaponry. There’s one catch; they have to kill him to harvest him.

This sets up the rest of the film, as Wikus becomes a fugitive from MNU, stuck between the humans and Prawns, fitting in with neither. With this in place the film begins to delve into the deeper issues racism and exploitation. There are a few specific examples that flesh this out a little bit more.

I’ve already mentioned the torching of the Prawn eggs early on in the film as a prime example of the injustice being done to the Prawns. At this point in time Wikus is laughing as the Prawn eggs wail and scream. Later in the film, there is a distinct turning point as infected Wikus is being forced to operate Prawn weaponry. He has been shooting dead pigs, but for one final test a living Prawn is put in front of him, and he is forced to shoot the Prawn, who explodes into a gory mess. At this point Wikus breaks into tears and perhaps he finally understands the evil being done to the Prawns by his own corporation.

But why all this persecution? The only reason the Prawns are being persecuted is because they have high tech weapons which mankind wants to use. These weapons are very powerful and whoever controls them will have power. This is the real reason why MNU is trying to evict the Prawns from downtown Johannesburg. It has nothing to do with helping them; it’s all about finding their technology and figuring out a way to use it. It’s yet another example in the long history of film that attempts to uncover the corruption that drives so many “humanitarian” efforts.

The racism in District 9 isn’t just human to Prawn discrimination, but there is also a very real sense of racism between the largely white/upper class workers of MNU and the Nigerians who live in District 9 and use the Prawn’s ignorance against them to procure their weapons for themselves. The Nigerians are the antithesis of the MNU workers; they believe in the supernatural and think that if they eat Prawn flesh they will eventually be able to operate the weapons.

The real struggle here is not a struggle for equality, but a struggle for power. The Nigerians don’t want to be equal, they want to rule. The Prawns just want to live without being exploited like they have been for the past 20 years. In the current system this is impossible, and the Prawns continue to be exploited, predominantly by the Nigerians, who sell them basic necessities of life and cat food (which is like a narcotic to the Prawns) at extravagant costs. There’s the free market at its worst.

There are echoes of this in our own society. Often, large corporations oppress smaller people groups in order to keep the status quo.  They hold basic necessities of life back until they get people to give them what they want. They force people to live in awful conditions and work awful jobs because it keeps their bank accounts full. Avatar seems to hint at this too, but it doesn’t really put us in the place of an oppressed people. The Na’vi are only oppressed for a short time and then Nature comes to their rescue. Everything works out fine in the end. In District 9, things aren’t so simple, and by showing us the oppression of an alien species, maybe it can make us re-evaluate how we treat our own species.

So, if you choose to watch one of these three science fiction films and want something that will stick with you after the credits roll, pick District 9.

Film and the Present

March 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

I love film for a variety of reasons. It offers me a glimpse into other cultures that I may never visit, a portal into times long past and a window into experiences to be learned from that I never hope to personally be involved in. Film also gives me a way to escape from life sometimes, for better or for worse.

Recently, however, I was having a conversation with my roommate about how often I live in the future, always planning for what’s next. I miss out on the present and the wonderful life I could be living in the instant. And perhaps, for now, this is why I identify with film. It gives me a chance for two hours to sit still and be immersed in the present of the film world.

I just watched Bird (Eastwood, 1988) and for two hours and forty minutes I was immersed into the life of Charlie “Bird” Parker, famous jazz musician who died at age thirty-four after years of drug and alcohol addiction. I was there in some sense, living in those moments, taking in New York back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. No one was taking me out of the present, unlike right now, as even as I am writing I’m thinking about how this blog will finish and what I’ll be doing tomorrow.

It’s a vicious malady, always thinking about what’s to come. Movies help me reclaim the present and I am thankful for that.

Never looking back or too far in front of me, the present is a gift and I just wanna be.”-Common

Post-Rock and Transcendence?

March 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

In the most recent issue of Relevant Magazine (March/April 2010) there is an article on Jónsi Birgisson, the lead singer of Iceland’s Sigur Rós, which touches on the spiritual dimension that many ascribe to the music of Sigur Rós, although their music has no intelligible lyrics. The article says, “Perhaps it may best be thought of as ‘spiritual’ music—not explicitly religious, but art that tries to tap into something more than temporal reality.”[1] Along with the larger article focused on Birgisson and Sigur Rós, there is a small section that points out other instrumental (commonly termed post-rock) albums that are similar to Sigur Rós’ music in their quest to be transcendent. One of them was The Earth is not a Cold Dead Place by Explosions in the Sky, which is an album I happen to own. After seeing them in this article I begun to listen to the album again and have been blown away again by the capacity of music to pull us out of our present circumstances and elevate the simplest things to a higher status.

theearth2.jpg image by alximistis

Now, many of you may not think that post-rock can actually produce any kind of meaning other than a vague sense of spirituality. After all, there are no words to steer the direction of the music. Explosions in the Sky creates meaning and emotion in their music that could simply just be emotion for emotion’s sake, except that the titles of their songs often reflect what the song is attempting to depict. Think of the music as being symbolic for a larger idea, much like a simple souvenir that was given to you by a friend which constantly reminds you of their presence. The music provides, in its own language, a way of describing the title.

There are only five songs on The Earth is not a Cold Dead Place but each of them has an important role to play in unraveling the title of the album. Each of the tracks, in their own way, shows why the earth is alive and full of warmth. First track, First Breath After Coma, begins slowly before building into a glorious wall of sound as the patient takes his first breath and then slows down into a constant rhythm of breathing after the initial glory and joy of that first breath. Then comes The Only Moment We Were Alone, awash in joy and also nostalgia, capturing that feeling of being alone with someone you love and knowing that it won’t last. There are moments of exhilaration and also moments of sadness, which encapsulate both sides of that time of being all by yourself with the person you love.

It’s almost pointless to try to put into writing what is being heard. Explosions in the Sky doesn’t operate with neat little song times or neat little song structures. They are working with emotions. The final track, Your Hand in Mine, is a breathtaking exploration of what that feels like translated into music, but that’s really about all I can say. I could talk about how the guitars, bass and drums all work together, but that might make it lose some of its majesty. If you let them, Explosions in the Sky can take your breath away and also give you an appreciation for some things you may have overlooked.

So can post-rock really be more than glorified, over-emotionalized instrumental music? It can be if you let yourself be open to that possibility. Admittedly, the temptation often is to use post-rock as a kind of background music. I’ve done that and there’s nothing wrong with it, but using it in that way is in some regards disrespecting the artist. They meant it to be so much more and if we just all took a little more time and truly listened; I think we would be surprised at what we could hear.

[1] Misener, Jessica. “Sound of Sigur Ros’ Jonsi Birgisson.” Relevant Magazine. March/April 2010: 60-62.

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