contrasting view on Katniss Everdeen

Some are frustrated with how Katniss seems to remain a pawn of others throughout, never making any true decisions of her own, not even the decision of whom to love. Moreover, some would argue, she never really rises above the selfishness of a survival mentality. While I would agree that Katniss largely responds to the circumstances around her, I don’t see a problem with that: there’s no way in this life to completely escape complicity with the games of others. The best Katniss can do is to choose what kind of game to play, and who to play it with.

— from “Mockingjay’s Hermeneutics of Suffering“, Christ and Pop Culture

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In Praise of T.I.

I’m going to assume that I don’t need to first convince you of the value and artistry of rap music. Not every example of it, obviously, but of the genre itself. It prizes verbal wordplay, which rewards a quick wit, an elastic mind that can transition between disparate things, and a large vocabulary.

I am by no means a connoisseur of rap. I like to contemplate the lyrics and appreciate the cleverness when it comes on the radio, though. For a while now I have been impressed with the maturity and wisdom demonstrated by several of the hits off of T.I.’s sixth studio album, Paper Trail.

This post is a stub. Short notes for a more complete, more detailed post I hope to one day write.

In “Live Your Life”, T.I. opens by talking about how the haters show him less respect that he feels that he deserves, saying:

Never mind what haters say, ignore them ’til they fade away.

I never been a hater still I love them, In a crazy way.

I brought back to the hood and all you ever did was take away.
I pray for patience but they make me wanna melt their face away.

How many rappers talk about praying for patience while admitting that the haters get to them? How many rappers admit to loving the haters, albeit in “a crazy way”?

T.I’s next, and final, verse is:

I got love for the game but -hey- I’m not in love with all of it.
I do without the fame and the rappers nowadays are comedy.
The hootin’ and the hollerin’, back and forth with the arguing.
Where you from, who you know, what you make and what kind of car you in.
Seems as though you lost sight of what’s important with the positive.
And checks into your bank account and you up out of poverty.
Your values are in disarray, prioritizing horribly.
Unhappy with the riches cause you’re piss poor morally.
Ignoring all prior advice and forewarning.
And we mighty full of ourselves all of a sudden aren’t we?

It’s one thing to reject the stereotypical rap life of arguing over whether you’re from or your friends, or bragging about how much money you have and what kind of car you drive — not enough rappers show that sort of self-examination, but several do. What is more unique is that T.I. chastises other rappers for forgetting about how good they have it to have escaped poverty, for concentrating on “beefs” rather than all of the positive things in their lives. And what is, as far as I know, entirely unique to T.I., is his pinpointing of the problem: that their values are in disarray and their unhappiness, despite their success, is not due to their failure to appreciate those positives so much as due to their poor morals. When he talks about “the positive” and “prioritizing”, he’s not calling them to have more appreciation for their money and their cars, but to prioritize the moral above the material.

What is peculiar is that the song features Rihanna, and that her chorus is completely at odds with T.I.’s versus. Rihanna opens the song, singing:

You’re gonna be a shining star, with fancy clothes, fancy car-ars.

You steady chasing that paper.
Just live your life (Oh!), ay ay ay.
Ain’t got no time for no haters.

Cause I’m a paper chaser.

So Rihanna sings about having fancy clothes and fancy cars and making money, while T.I. sings that those things are not important. T.I. sings about loving his haters and being affected by them, while Rihanna has “no time for no haters”.

Rihanna continues in this vein to close out the song:

I got my mind on my money and I not goin’ away, ay.
So keep on gettin’ your paper keep on climbin’.
Lookin in the mirror and keep on shinin’.
Til’ the game ends, til’ the clock stops.
We gonna post up on the top spot.

So live your life.

I don’t understand what this chorus is doing in T.I.’s song. Is it ironic? Is it an intentional contrast? Is T.I. trying to have it both way?

(T.I.’s last official single on that album, “Dead and Gone”, has a great message too, but IMHO requires less exploration.)

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Barbara Nicolosi on “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

Barbara Nicolosi, and her blog, Church of the Masses, is one of the reasons why I started the current iteration of this site. Her writings on pointing to God by creating art in pop culture are amazing, and her reviews of shows and movies often give me deeper insights and/or help me to better put into words nagging feelings that I already had.

Today, she reviewed “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”. The book on which the film is based was very popular among one circle of my friends a decade ago. I have read it several times, and liked it less each time. The choices of the main characters seem foolish. The namechecking of books, bands, and movies feels like a forced attempt to seem cool. And the ending is ultimately …ugly. Eventually I swore off re-reading it for fear that I might come to hate it.

The delightful Barb Nicolosi has similar feelings about the movie, which was written and directed by the book’s author. From her review:

Rated PG-13 for drug use, homosexuality, sexual abuse, bullying, suicide, and every other depressing thing you could throw in a movie about teenagers.

Somebody has to say – for the record – while certainly well-intentioned, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is fundamentally perverse in the premise of the main character’s arc of transformation.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower proposes that the way to find healing from one kind of childhood sexual abuse, is to experience another kind of childhood sexual abuse. There it is. A lie. Particularly twisted because the second act of sexual abuse is couched as a loving self-donation of the older, more sexually experienced character for a young boy.

As one of my students protested to me, “When Sam takes Charlie to bed, she is doing it as an act of love! It wasn’t rape!” To which I replied, “Charlie was just fifteen, still mostly inexperienced and a freshman. Sam was a sexually experienced Senior. And if there is anything we all have learned this past Fall it’s that ‘rape is rape.’ Right?” I went on to say that in the movie, that Sam was a victim herself doesn’t change the nature of her actions. She’s a young victim who, in failing to make a more heroic choice, victimizes another child.

The whole review is great, and the ending is great — I won’t spoil it. Read the rest of her review at her site!

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Wreck-It Ralph Overcomes Being Born That Way

I just got back from seeing Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph”. It was excellent; not just fun but moving and meaningful. I think that Disney buying Pixar and putting John Lasseter in charge of all animation may have been the best thing to happen to it in a long time; it has brought increased levels of heart and sincerity to Disney’s animated films, and none more so thus far than “Wreck-It Ralph”.

I’m sure that I’ll have more, and more specific, thoughts on “Wreck-It Ralph” as I continue to mull it over, and after re-watching it on DVD a few times, but even at this early stage I have a (spoiler-free!) observation that I would like to raise:

In addition to the film’s positive themes of self-sacrifice, forgiveness, warning against envy, and making the best of your lot in life, one of the best, and more subversive, messages of the film is that just because you were “born that way” does not mean that you have to embrace your innate nature, that instead you do have agency and the ability to master yourself.

Ralph is the “bad guy” of the game “Fix-It Felix Jr.” He smashes the building, Felix fixes it, Ralph gets thrown off of the building into the mud, and Felix gets a medal and pie. While Felix gets to live in the high-rise apartment with the other game characters, Ralph sleeps in a dump alone. Ralph watches the other game characters having fun together and feels lonely and envious. As he tells his Bad Guy Anonymous support group, he wishes that he could stop being a “bad guy”. They react in horror to this thought and explain to him that a “bad guy” is what he is, that he cannot change that, but that it does not make him a bad person.

The first two parts of this is repeated several times through the film; the last third is what Ralph will finally take to heart in the end. Ralph is told that he is a “bad guy”, that he has no choice but to be a “bad guy” because that is the way he is coded. In short, that he is and will always be a “bad guy” because he was born that way.

It is currently in vogue in our culture, as epitomized in Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”, to assert that we are each born a certain way and that we cannot change ourselves, but rather must embrace that innate nature in order to be fabulous and happy. While I am all for the message that we should love ourselves and embrace diversity, I think that it is very dangerous and damaging to preclude the possibility that we might try to improve ourselves or use our reason to master our baser instincts in order to turn away from disordered behaviors. After all, taken to its extremes, isn’t a narcissist “born that way”? Isn’t a psychopath “born that way”? If we exalt the way we were born, why should any of us strive for self-improvement?

Ralph was “born that way”, in that he was coded to be the villain. Ralph wishes to change himself and his lot and, ultimately, does so. Ralph comes to realize that he has a responsibility to his game, that he has a job to do, and that he can find joy in doing that job, but that his job (the role he was “born” to fill) does not define him, that who he is exists separately. He does not need to be a bad person in life; he can choose to control himself, to reign in his baser instincts, in order to be the better person he longs to be.

That we are all capable of mastering our base instincts should not be a subversive message, but in our current culture the idea that we have agency and can choose whether to embrace, or shun, our innate inclinations is radical. “Wreck-It Ralph” is wonderful, among other reasons, because it shows us that we can find joy and fulfillment through continuing to work within our lot in life while choosing to be the person we want to be in spite of the hand we were dealt.

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“30 Days of Night” and the Hopelessness of a Life Devoid of God

30 Days of Night teaser poster

30 Days of Night is a 2007 horror film. On one level it is the horrific story of an isolated Alaskan town besieged by vampires during a month-long darkness; on another level it is a sad story of a man, emotionally isolated from those around him, besieged by despair during a period of depression, and a testament to the hopelessness of life without God.

Vampire films are often ripe for religious interpretation. Vampirism is a twisted reflection, or cruel mockery, of salvation. Just as drinking the blood of Christ in the Eucharistic meal grants eternal life, so too does the vampire live immortal by consuming blood. Just as our eternal, heavenly bodies will be perfect, the vampire is often portrayed as stronger, faster, and more beautiful than mortals.

Vampirism is a flawed, deviant form, though, anti-salvation rather than salvation, a curse rather than a blessing. Its inferiority is evident in the vampires’ weaknesses. A vampire recoils at the sight of the crucifix, and may be burned by its touch. A vampire may be burned or killed by exposure to sunlight, sun symbolizing God’s love and sun rises symbolizing the resurrection. A vampire may be killed with a wooden stake to the heart which, and I acknowledge that this may seem a stretch, I have always thought called to mind the wood of the cross.

In “30 Days of Night”, Eben is a man who has lost hope and given up. He and his wife are splitting up, and, though he clearly still loves her, he is not making an attempt at winning her back. He cannot see a way through his despair. He has no faith and no hope for salvation.

The vampires who attack the town are likewise hopeless. The lead vampire is named Marlow, calling to mind famous English playwright Christopher Marlowe, atheist and author of “Doctor Faustus”, in which a man trades his soul to a devil in return for power and thereafter is oblivious to the possibility of salvation, offered him by the good angel. The vampires’ separation from God is plainly stated in an early scene, using in the trailer, in which Marlow attacks a young woman, Kirsten.

Kirsten Toomey: [crying] Please, God…
Marlow: [speaking in vampire language] God?
[Marlow looks around, and then after a long pause he stares into Kirsten’s eyes]
Marlow: [coldly, in English] No god.

Kirsten appeals to God, and Marlow shakes his head, almost sadly in my reading, and says that there is no God. In this film, vampirism is a metaphor for atheism.

Belying the emptiness of life without God, Marlow also announces to his victims:

Marlow: [speaking in vampire language] There is no escape. No hope. Only hunger and pain.

For Marlow, and for all of the vampires, there is no escape. They cannot die naturally, they can only trudge along in empty lives of hunger and pain. Marlow has no belief in God, no hope for salvation. The vampires demonstrate the ultimate end to which Eben’s current path leads.

In the climactic scene, Eben searches for a way to save the remaining townspeople. Like Dr. Faustus, Eben is presented with a choice, and like Dr. Faustus his despair blinds him to any possibility but damnation. Rather than save himself and the townspeople, Eben sacrifices himself, in a twisted reflection Christ’s sacrifice, embracing vampirism and becoming a vampire in order to use the vampiric strength to defeat Marlow. And, once he has done so and saved what is left of the town, Eben, still lacking hope and seeing no alternative, watches the sun rise with his estranged wife, committing suicide.

“30 days of Night” is a horrific, gory, tragic story of the hopelessness of life without God, a life in which “There is no escape. No hope. Only hunger and pain.

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I should interview Doug Jones…

I decided one day that the actor Doug Jones and I should be friends.  I have done this before, with success, first with the production studio that made my favorite TV show of my youth and then with my favorite author. Those took several years each; Doug followed me back on Twitter and we were DMing within 24 hours.

There are several reasons why I am a fan of Doug Jones. One of them is the way in which he is open about his Christianity and how his brings a Christian understanding to his work, including films which the fundamentalist Christians I grew up amidst would have decried as occult and to be eschewed.

He touches on this, in small part, in this interview, which he tweeted earlier today. It doesn’t follow that thread very far, though.

So now I’m thinking that I should ask Doug if I can interview him, and conduct an interview about finding God in film, even horror films and superhero films.

More to come, I hope.

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Somebody That I Used to Know

We humans are made for communion, for intimacy, for connection with God and others — and when we experience it, we know we’ve had a brush with the eternal. Even though I was an atheist in those years, I never would have denied that something special — sacred, even — transpired between us in those moments, however brief they were. I knew that the bond we felt in those moments was meant to last, that in a perfect world, it would remain forever. One afternoon when we were sitting outside during lunch at school, we were having such a great time, just chatting and laughing, that I was overwhelmed with a yearning for our friendship to last forever — I knew that that’s the way it should be. But I was enough of a realist to know that not all high school friendships last, and it broke my heart to accept the fact that there was a real chance that we would lose touch one day; that, to her, I would be somebody whom she used to know.

And so as I watched the woman walk away at Ikea the other day, I could hear Somebody That I Used to Know in my head like a movie soundtrack. Though Gotye is specifically singing about a failed romance (and Bonnie Engstrom covers that angle here), the kind of loss that drives his musical masterpiece can happen in every kind of human relationship. Other songs may do a better job of conveying the pain of rage, or sorrow, or disappointment; but through both the words and the melody of his haunting tune, Gotye nails a particular kind of pain, one that is tragically common in modern life: The pain of lost communion.

Somebody That I Used to Know by Jennifer Fulwiler

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Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus”

Prometheus is a brilliant, and largely misunderstood, film.

It is the story of an android, David, his anger towards his creators, and his curiosity about their creators. David is the protagonist and humanity is the antagonist.

We are meant to despise the stupid “scientists” just as David does.

A good 70% of the story is told, and carried, by Michael Fassbender’s body language and facial expressions as David. Another 28% is Noomi Rapace’s body language as Elizabeth Shaw. The rest is just scenery and mood. The actual lines of dialogue tell you almost nothing about the characters, their motives, or what is actually going on in the film.

It’s amazing.

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“On Beauty”, pages 18-29

pp. 18-19

Proust, for example, says we make a mistaken when we talk disparagingly or discouragingly about “life”, because by using this general term, “life,” we have already excluded before the fact all beauty and happiness, which take place only in the particular: “we believed we were taking happiness and beauty into account, whereas in fact we left them out and replaced them by syntheses in which there is not a single atom of either.”

pp19. further quoting Proust:

So it is that a well-read man will at once begin to yawn with boredom when one speaks to him of a new “good book,” because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read, whereas a good book is something special, something unforeseeable, and is made up not of the sum of all previous masterpieces but of something which the most thorough assimilation … would not enable him to discover.

pp. 19

When I used to say … “I hate palms” … it was a composite palm that I had somehow succeeded in making without even ever having seen, close up, many particular instances. Conversely, when I now say, “Palms are beautiful,” … it is really individual palms that I have in mind.

pp. 24-25

Homer is not alone in seeing beauty as lifesaving. Augustine described it as “a plank amid the waves of the sea.” Proust makes a version of this claim over and over again. Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living.

pp. 28-29

The experience of “being in error” so inevitably accompanies the perception of beauty that it begins to seem one of its abiding structural features.

pp. 29

Something beautiful fills the mind yet invites the search for something beyond itself, something larger or something of the same scale with which it needs to be brought into relation. Beauty, according to its critics, causes us to gape and suspend all thought. This complaint is manifestly true…

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Generation ISO singer in amber

I see them standing on the street corners sometimes, thirty-something and keening, deeply feeling the absence. These are the ones behind the craigslist posts that haunt me. In “lost+found” and “musicians” and “generation seeks singer-songwriter”, it’s always the same:

Early Tori Amos
Must have ability to move a divided, downtrodden, and alienated people whose previous muse evolved away. Good communication skills required. Pay commensurate with ability. No experience necessary.

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