Let it Burn Higher

January 23, 2011 § 3 Comments

Fire. The word evokes long tongues of flame, yellow, orange and red, flicking back and forth through the night air. It follows no discernible pattern, untamed as it is, beckoning and threatening with its selfsame light and heat. Perhaps it is the mysterious quality of fire, its burning and comfort, that has so endeared it to the artist in his search for the perfect metaphor or simile to express the necessary emotion.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road.


I recently watched The Road which tells the story of a Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young Son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in post-apocalyptic America as they journey southward in search of a better place to survive.  Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title by Cormac McCarthy, The Road is bleak, as grays, brown and blacks dominate the landscape, with the only respite being flashbacks to the time before the war started. In both the film and book, however, there is a ray of light that bursts through the clouds from time to time as the Man interacts with his Son, spurring him on throughout the many difficult times they have.  Refusing to let hope die, the Man tells his Son to keep carrying the fire, the fire within his soul. Often it seems as if this fire, this hope, is the only thing that sustains our main characters.

Fire is such a potent metaphor for this internal hope, this endless struggle between perseverance and defeat. If one fails to keep stoking their fire, it will inevitably go out, weakly smoldering until it ceases to give off warmth or light, a pile of forgotten black ash that returns to the soil. Such is the human life, and without doubt all our fires will encounter this final dampening. But what is so horrific and disappointing is those, like the bandits in The Road, who have put out their fire before their deaths. They have squelched their flames and given in to the ceaseless drudgery and overwhelming brokenness of life, their ashes only awaiting the final scattering to the wind. I sense in The Road a fierce rebellion to this way of looking at life, even though the characters inhabit an America filled with even more reasons to abandon hope.

It is this fire that hip hop group The Roots sing of in The Fire on their latest album How I Got Over. Like The Road, How I Got Over is an album filled with tales of hardships and problems that refuses to forsake hope. Black Thought raps, sounding like he’s read The Road, “I’m an icon when I let my light shine, shine bright as an example of a champion…Burn like a chariot, learn how to carry it…Fuel to the flame that I train with and travel with…I realize I’m supposed to reach for the skies, never let somebody try and tell you otherwise.” It’s a fantastic song that urges us to never give up, even amidst struggles and difficulties, which will surely come in this life.

If you permit me to speak metaphorically, we all have this fire inside of us, burning to varying degrees. Hope is hard to find sometimes in this world, but it exists, and it is this hope that can sustain us in the darkest of times. Don’t let your fire be put out by the cares of this world, keep blazing. After all if we’re carrying this fire, let’s carry it well.


Top 5 Films of 2010

January 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

2010 was not an altogether bad year for film, and while the summer had its constant supply of dreck, the rest of the year saw some great films. Unfortunately, as per usual I wasn’t able to see a number of critically acclaimed films (i.e. The Social Network, 127 Hours), both foreign and American, so this is a somewhat truncated list of the best films from 2010 that I saw. Enjoy.

1. The Fighter

The Fighter is the best kind of sports movie: one that focuses more on its characters and how they respond than on its climatic sporting bout. Boasting powerhouse performances from Christian Bale as Dickie Eklund and Mark Wahlberg as his younger half-brother Micky Ward, The Fighter uses its sports backdrop to focus on the complex dynamics of Dickie and Micky’s family and of Dickie’s drug addiction. Throughout the film, the authenticity and emotions of the characters are readily apparent and they make for a thoroughly enjoyable movie experience. To top it all off, the movie is shot and directed beautifully, and it lends a certain grace to a film that is populated with ungraceful characters. The Fighter is a fantastic film and deserves to be counted among Hollywood’s finest boxing films.

2. True Grit

I’ll admit it, when I first heard the Coen Brothers were making a remake of True Grit I was a little skeptical. While I’ve enjoyed certain Coen Brothers’ films, I’m not overwhelmed by all of them, so at first I approached True Grit with some trepidation. Then some good reviews started to roll in, so I went and saw it. I was blown away by how much I enjoyed the film. Riding the performances of young Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross and Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, True Grit is typical Coen Bros from start to finish packed with witty dialogue and superb visuals. But unlike some Coen Brothers films (Burn After Reading) True Grit has a heart that is not lost amidst the Coen’s typical pastiche and dark humor. Sparkling with insight and questions into grace and justice, True Grit is an excellent contribution from the ever prolific Coen Brothers.

3. Exit Through the Gift Shop

Is Exit Through the Gift Shop a documentary or not? This is the question that looms large throughout this extremely entertaining documentary by British street-artist Banksy. As Banksy explores street-art and the life of Thierry Guetta, a self-proclaimed documentarian of street-art turned street-artist himself, we are exposed to the world of street art and its artistic evolution. The finale of this movie, when Guetta creates an art exhibit based solely off hype is either a devastatingly real view of today’s art community, a bristling indictment of street-artists “selling out” or a wicked satire of both street-art and the art community. These are the questions Banksy raises, and yet he provides no answers. A stirring look at art, hype and the art community, Exit Through the Gift Shop is sure to keep provoking discussion for a long time.

4. The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech is one of the best period films I have seen in a long time. Everything about it is spot-on. Terrific acting, beautiful costumes, fantastic cinematography and a superb script all combine to tell the story of King George VI and how he overcame a speech impediment to give the speech that brought Britain into World War 2. I can’t say enough about Colin Firth (King George) and Geoffrey Rush (Lionel Logue, the speech therapist), who both steal the show with tremendous ability. The King’s Speech is dramatic, but also humorous, a combination that has unfortunately been lacking in recent films. Beautifully executed, The King’s Speech is one you don’t want to miss.

5. Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone is a chilling portrayal of a young woman’s search for her father, grounded in the harsh reality of a drab and dark existence in the rural Ozarks. Director Debra Granik takes a chance exploring this subculture, but manages to mostly avoid making any of the people in her film into caricatures, instead telling a moving story focused on the wonderful performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Darling. The film really comes into its own as it starts to examine the role of women in the culture it portrays, but with implications that spill over into broader society. Winter’s Bone is an excellent film, beautifully ordinary while also filled with suspense and intrigue.

Honorable Mentions:
Toy Story 3
The Secret of Kells

Top 5 Albums of 2010

January 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Well, it’s that time again, although judging by the hundreds of year-end lists that have already appeared, I seem to be a little late. I don’t understand the preoccupation with forming year-end lists in early December. I mean the year isn’t even over by that point, I’d rather wait until January, which I have done. Anyway, if you read my Top Ten Pieces of Impacting Culture over at Mockingbird Blog you’ll notice a lot of overlap from that list to this one, as to be expected. I’ll be writing about five albums in particular, because I felt like picking ten was a bit of a stretch as I wasn’t able to listen to as much new music this year as I would have liked. So here’s the list, complete with Youtube videos galore.

1. The Age of Adz-Sufjan Stevens

I’m not sure what more I can say about The Age of Adz that I haven’t already said, but it continues to remain a revelation to me. By reinventing himself, Sufjan has created a masterful album full of strange noises and at times even stranger lyrics. But underneath all the alienating electronic buzz and depressing musings on life, runs a pulsing current of vitality, the same current that has always run through Sufjan’s music. This is Sufjan at his most personal, albeit slightly disguised behind the seemingly impersonal musical landscape, but I think this musical approach allows Sufjan to truly explore some of the darker corners of his personality without it become overbearing. Regardless, The Age of Adz is an amazing album, its joy tempered and then exalted through the very reality of life.

2. High Violet- The National

The National’s music is so beautiful, in part due to its understatement. Everything about The National seems relaxed, from their laid back music to their abstract lyrics. On closer listen, however, it becomes evident that The National is exploring deep emotions of the soul, often doing so through the mood created by their music and lyrics. High Violet does this exceedingly well, weaving tales of love, loss, fear, addiction and more together into an album that forces you to confront the insecurities and depressions of your own life. It’s an intense look into the soul and mind of the postmodern individual, revealing the struggles of most twenty-somethings that populate America right now, yet High Violet does manage to carry a sense of weathered hope, especially in its closing triad of songs.

3. Sigh No More-Mumford and Sons

If High Violet is beautiful in its understatement, then Sigh No More is beautiful in its zealousness. The neo-folk of Mumford and Sons is brash, hopeful and full of excitement. Blasting through its twelve songs, only stopping for breath briefly, Sigh No More is full of grand statements about life, love and God which is part of its charm. The British quartet is not afraid of wearing their collective heart on their sleeve, a refreshing change from some of the more emotionally guarded bands that exist. What I love about Mumford and Sons is that their optimism is grounded in reality. Sigh No More is relentlessly optimistic and hopeful, but it never sugarcoats the realities and problems of life, but points to a hope that these problems will eventually be made right. A beautiful album measured with grace and humility.

4. How I Got Over-The Roots

How I Got Over is an album that has continued to grow on me since I first heard it in the late summer. The Roots are one of those groups that consistently release albums that are thoughtful both musically and lyrically which is something that I greatly respect. How I Got Over is a dark album that by its end has risen above the darkness in triumph, celebrating life for both its peaks and its valleys. There is a definite shift in the album toward hope as its approaches its midpoint, and this hope comes to fruition in the album’s climatic song The Fire. It is made all the more celebratory because of what came before it, a beautiful realization that sometimes life’s best moments are found after going through the storm.

5. The Suburbs-Arcade Fire

In my opinion, The Suburbs is the Arcade Fire’s best album. It manages to combine their unique musical approach with lyrics that are able to evoke strong emotions, while avoiding many of the problems people have had with their lyrics in the past. The Suburbs is an honest album, delving into the experience of growing up in the suburbs and what suburbia has done to America. It is both nostalgic and critical at the same time, a difficult balance to strike. Full of the bold instrumentation and soaring vocals we’ve come to expect from the Arcade Fire, The Suburbs continues in the same steps as its predecessors, but is better than those albums ever were.

Honorable Mentions:

Here’s a few albums that I couldn’t put on my top five list, but deserve to be listened to as they are a bit out of the ordinary.


Juanes is not incredibly well known by English speaking people, but is one of Latin America’s hottest recording artists, for a good reason. He makes great music, pop-rock infused with a Latin sensibility, and sings more than generic love songs. His latest album is another great piece of music and is well worth checking out.

All Day- Girl Talk

I mentioned this album in my blog about the mashup, and I’m still digging it. All Day is extremely fun and creative, combining various pop hits from the past four decades into a new creation that gives these old songs new life. It can be downloaded for free here.

Feedback- Derek Webb

I love Derek Webb and his new album is an instrumental exploration of the Lord’s Prayer. The album is a multimedia affair, coming with abstract art and photographs that complement the music. Webb is always one to try new things, and Feedback is a stunning piece of art that needs to be experienced through the ears and eyes.


January 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

“The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?”-Picasso

I’ve recently taken up painting. For those who know me that may come as a surprise, due to my overall lack of ability when it comes to drawing or the visual arts. For me, however, it is merely another step forward in exploring and encouraging my creative and artistic spirit. I know I can’t draw, but having been recently inspired by abstract work from artists like Makoto Fujimura and Scott Erickson (painted paintings for Derek Webb’s recent instrumental work Feedback), I decided to try my hand at some abstract art.


Yes, I painted this.

Needless to say, I have learned a few things about myself and art already. Painting is difficult. Especially if you are trying to create something that is more than just slapping some colors on a canvas. Art, even abstract art, is not something done recklessly. You have to have a plan, and even if you deviate from that plan, if you sit down to paint without a plan, it doesn’t work well. It’s so important to know what you are doing and do it.

Being a perfectionist, painting can be deadly. Every line I paint that isn’t straight or that blends with the wrong color makes me wince inwardly. It’s been good for me to have to let go and realize that if everything had to be perfect I would never get it done. I just have to do the best that I can and be satisfied. Painting with acrylic is fairly unforgiving, especially when using a darker color. I can’t go back like I can with writing and fix my mistakes; I have to accept what I did. Painting forces you to take your time and make your decisions deliberately, something that is refreshing in this fast-paced world.

However, what I love the most is the peace that comes from sitting down and painting. There I sit, jamming to Girl Talk or Derek Webb’s Feedback and I let the colors cascade from the brush to the canvas. I juxtapose red and blue, I mix red and yellow, I create something new. And even if my paintings never touch anyone but me, I am confident that in exercising the creativity that comes from being made in the image of God I am constantly growing in a better understanding of the world and myself.

Away We Go

January 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

As far as I remember, Away We Go didn’t make a huge splash when it was released. This strikes me as kind of odd, due to the fame of both director Sam Mendes and co-writer Dave Eggers. You would have thought that this combination would have, at the very least, inspired the numerous indie/ postmodern twenty-somethings to come and check it out. Add to this the fact that John Krasinski (The Office) and Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live) are our protagonists and you would imagine the hipster cred of this film to be off the charts. Needless to say, when I sat down to watch Away We Go I expected a witty, ironic ride through the lives of a couple trying to find a place to raise their expected child. What I didn’t expect was a film filled with a tenderness and respect for the ups and downs of the human condition, but this is exactly what Away We Go delivered.

Krasinski and Rudolph play a thirty-something couple (Bert and Verona) who find themselves pregnant and, looking at their current residence, decide it’s time for them to find a better place to raise their child. The first half of the movie is largely played for comedy as they visit Arizona and Wisconsin, meeting some truly outlandish friends and acquaintances along the way. This changes with the second half of the movie, as they travel to Montreal to visit some old college friends and them to Miami where  Bert’s brother has just been left by his wife. Suddenly, the film cuts right to the heart in a way that reveals the deepest struggles that we all have. Bert and Verona lay on a trampoline in his brother’s backyard and share some of their greatest fears and deepest struggles, and there I sit, seeing my own life and my fears reflected right back at me. I connected with them, in a way I haven’t connected with a character in a film in a long time.

This moment was so powerful because it revealed that not just Bert and Verona, but all these characters, like all of us, had baggage. Their lives were tossed and turned by life’s waves and they all had things that had influenced and changed their lives for good and bad. This is a profound truth about life, that no matter how much love our parents, friends and significant others give us we will have baggage. Our minds will have been messed with, our lives twisted around, sometimes by people with the best of intentions. Some people try to repress this, or offer up reasons for why their lives are so screwed up, like some of the characters at the beginning of the film. But others, like Bert and Verona, own their faults and move ahead, aware and unashamed of the people they are.

Every day we are faced with the choice to be authentic or fake. So often I opt for fake because it is easier to admit I have no problems, instead of picking up my baggage and carrying it with me. It’s been my experience that the only ways to begin to correct your problems and find peace in your messed up life is to admit that you do, indeed, have problems. Just like everyone else.

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