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Stories We Tell

February 24, 2014 — 3 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I watched the highly acclaimed documentary Stories We Tell.

It is directed by Sarah Polley and tells the story of her family, asking the question of what Sarah’s mom was really like and who Sarah’s biological dad is.

What is interesting about the documentary is that it ties nicely into trends of memory studies in gospels scholarship.

The storyline of the documentary is simple, but as the title suggests, it is about memory, and the way we tell stories about our life. Polley says at one point about the documentary:

One of the main focuses is the discrepancies in the story. All of us, have similar stories with large and small details that vary. I am interested in the way we tell stories about our lives, about how the fact that the truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down.

It is through the multiple interviews that the mystery of memory and story-telling is unfolded before the viewers eyes. Not all of the children or family friends remember everything the same ways, sometimes the account of the same event is told in radically different ways. It is magical to see the different ways these memories are told and re-told from different perspectives.

Polley says that “everyone’s point of view, no matter how contradictory, must be considered.”

But this does not sit well with everyone in the documentary. Polley asks Harry at one point, “What do you think of the concept of me making this documentary and giving equal weight to everyone version of the story?”

Harry responds:

I don’t like it, I think that it takes us into very…like you can’t ever touch bottom with anything then. We are all over the place. I think they can all be heard, but it is giving them equal weight, particularly those who are not players.

First of all, there are the parties of the incident, those who are there and are directly effected by it. Then there is a circle around that, of people who are effected tangentially because of their relationship to the principle parties. Then there is another concentric further out there which is basically has heard or been told from one of the principles players about it. Alll of these may have different narratives. These narratives are shaped in part by their relationship to the person who told it to them and by the events. One does not get the truth simply by hearing what their reactions are….The same set of circumstances effect different people in different ways, not that they are different truths, they are different reactions to particular events.

The crucial function of art is to tell the truth.

Can one get at the truth? I guess one can get very close to it. But you have to limit it to the ones who are involved in the events. The reality is essentially that the story of Diane is only mine to tell. I think that is a fact. My recollections may be faulty at times, but I am not going to lie.

Sarah’s sister reflects that you can never really know what happened. I don’t think she means that she does not know who her “mum” is, but rather that to know exactly what happened is not feasible, for everything is interpreted.

There are a lot of questions about who was she, and there is a lot of disagreement about what kind of a person she was. There is this misconception that she was something, but I think this is another misconception, that there is a state of affairs, or things that actually happened, and we have to kind of reconstruct exactly what happened in the past.

And I don’t think there was a “what actually happened,” I think there was lots of perspectives from the very beginning. You don’t ever get to an answer, you don’t ever get to “okay now we have figured it out, we know exactly what happened, we know exactly what kind of person she was.” I think those kind of things are illusory.

Gospels Scholarship

I point out this documentary partially because it is just a good documentary, but also because it ties quite nicely to some of the more recent developments in gospels scholarship.

The nature of historical Jesus research is taking a turn and scholars are beginning to reflect more deeply on what happened between the “event” of Jesus, and the “writing” of the gospels. There was a gap between the two and we don’t know exactly how this tradition was conveyed or passed down. Scholars are investigating the intersection of orality studies, social memory theories, and the way we tell stories.

Memory studies show that memory is not a photographic record of what actually took place, but a construction based on the original encoding of experience, the relating of that experience to oneself and others according to narrative frameworks and conventions supplied by one’s cultural context, and the need to make sense of the past in light of the present, and the present in light of the past.

This does not mean memory is unreliable but that what is remembered cannot be straightforwardly be equated with what actually happened.

The nature of memory is supported by everyday experiences of telling stories where a story will hold onto basic elements of what happened, but begin to develop over time into exaggerations, dichotomies, and dramatization that was not originally present in order to make the retelling of the story interesting and memorable.

This does not mean historical Jesus research is forever lost, but that the only viewpoint we get of him is through a lens. The project of trying to separate authentic from inauthentic material is fundamentally misconceived. A neat separation is not possible.

In Stories We Tell there is this same quest to find out who “mum” really was, but Polley realizes in the process that the truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down.

This does not mean the reconstructions are not helpful, or that they are not true. What it does mean is history is always mediated through the memories of people with different perspectives.




December 23, 2013 — 2 Comments

her-trailer-spike-jonzeBrett McCracken has a fascinating review of the new Spike Jonze movie Her. He says it is ultimately about the incarnation, embodiment and our complex relationship with technology. If you have not seen the trailer here is a summary.

Set in Los Angeles of the near future (perhaps 50 years from now), Her follows lonely Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, typically pitch perfect) as he purchases the world’s first artificially intelligent smart phone. It’s called OS1, and it’s billed as “not just an operating system; a consciousness.” Created to learn and evolve, Theodore’s “OS,” named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), quickly calculates the precise personality, affectation, and sense of humor that will best meet Theodore’s needs. She “reads” entire books in less than a second, composes piano sonatas on the fly, and devours information, ideas, literature, and art with the voracious energy of a curious child. Yet Spike Jonze’s creepy/sweet/profound film about a romance between a man and his (extremely) smart phone is Christmasy in spite of itself, for one main reason: it’s a film about incarnation.

McCracken goes onto write:

Which brings us back to Her as a film about incarnation (if not the Incarnation). In a sense, Samantha is a “god” who takes up tiny form: a pocket sized phone with a red camera “eye” (nodding to Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey). She assumes some qualities of humanity. Some, but not all: limitation, for example, and flesh—breakable, huggable, crucifiable flesh.

There’s something important here for Christians to note: whereas Samantha is pure knowledge, pure data, pure word, Christ is the Word made flesh (John 1:14). God could have chosen to reveal himself to us solely through cerebral means, offering concepts and knowledge to help us along (perhaps through an OS?). But instead he took on flesh to dwell with us relationally and incarnationally, breathing and eating and dying like we do. Immanuel. God-with-us. Does that make a difference?

It makes all the difference.

Samantha is with Theodore in a relational sense, to be sure. In whatever sense she is “real,” she is really relational (Johansson’s performance is remarkable). And yet her inability to be real in the flesh is finally too significant a barrier. We are incarnational beings, physical bodies within a physical world. By the end of Her, Theodore knows it and Jonze hammers it home: We were made for bodily, not digital, presence.

Her cautions against the Gnostic trajectory of humanity’s digitization, but the film isn’t a clarion critique or Jeremiad against technology. Her recognizes, as does this recent Apple Christmas commercial, that our relationship to technology is complex. The Her vision of artificial intelligence is less ominous than Kubrick’s “Hal” and less tragic than Spielberg’s A.I., but perhaps more instructive. Though Her hints at the ominous singularity (as in The Terminator‘s SkyNet), it is less about why we should fear thinking machines as it is what we can learn from observing them think.

Samantha’s posture toward the world, awestruck and amazed by all that there is to take in and learn—is ultimately the greatest gift she gives Theodore. In a world where thinking and exploring are increasingly dispensable (computers do it for you!) and everyone seems satisfied to play video games and move, zombielike, from one “Asian fusion” restaurant to the next, the wide-eyed OS re-enchants Theodore to the tangible beauty around him.

Inside Llewyn Davis Reviewed

December 9, 2013 — 1 Comment

Inside-Llewyn-Davis1Alissa Wilkinson has an early review of the new Coen brother’s movie Inside Llewyn Davis.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a darkly funny film that recreates the texture of the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961, and for those of us who love the Coens’ meandering storytelling style, it’s a masterpiece. It features some truly outstanding performances, both musical and thespian—particularly from Isaac, who performed the music live, as well as Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, who play Llewyn’s sweet-natured best friend Jim and his vitriolic wife Jean (who calls him “King Midas’s idiot brother,” alongside other choice terms). The Coens collaborated closely with T Bone Burnett, the music producer with whom they worked on O Brother, Where Art Thou (the film’s soundtrack also features Marcus Mumford and Punch Brothers). And it looks good, too, thanks to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnell, whose other work includes the visually sumptuous Amelie.

It’s also rich with narrative and symbolic layers and allusions, so many that I can’t write about all of them because this essay would be at least three thousand words longer than it is. (Believe me, it was hard to refrain.) But like pretty much every movie the brothers have made, Inside Llewyn Davis improves if you put on some moviegoing spectacles and watch it with care (and it rewards a re-watch, too).

This is important to remember: the Coens are modern-day myth-weavers, contemporary legend-builders. Their characters and plots are often drawn from archetypes that already exist in our collective imagination. No matter what their movies are about—incompetent CIA agents, cheating wives, baby thieves, Midwestern cops—there’s also invariably some kind of Big Story underneath, too, which is why a number of their movies are populated by zany larger-than-life characters who function as types as much as people.

I’m no classics scholar, but as a rule of thumb, I think about myths, legends, fables, and folktales as the stories a group of people tells each other about themselves in order to understand who they are. Scholars argue over whether and to what degree these stories originate in allegories or actual events, but as someone recently said to me, they are in a sense “more true” than the facts: they shape our imaginations about our identities as individuals, families, and communities. A creation story, for instance, tells a society where it came from, where it’s headed, and what it can expect to encounter along the way. And so even if the events didn’t “happen” exactly the way the story has it, it’s still very true.

MV5BMjg2MjI1OTU2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODc3MzM5OQ@@._V1_The dark of the uneven tree line contrasts the soft light of sky. So begins David Lowery’s western “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (trailer).

Whether this light is the hope of the day or the dusk of night Lowery does not reveal.

Most every scene in the movie is in the “magic hours” of the day, either the wee hours of the morning, the late hours of the day, or in the night with barely enough light to see. But it is not only the way Lowery plays with light that makes this western unique, it is the information Lowery withholds.

The plot is simple, an outlaw in Texas in the 70’s trying to get back to his beloved family. But it is far from the typical movie. There is little dialogue and Lowery feels no pressure to let viewers know the background on any of the characters. Rather the focus is on the present and the possible future.

The first scene begins with Bob (Casey Affleck) chasing Ruth (Rooney Mara) through an open field trying to resolve an argument, while she is threatening to leave. She is truly upset, but the viewer is not exactly sure why.

Lowery then has them flirting in an old truck and Bob speaking to their unborn daughter about their future. This scene becomes very important for the entire movie, for Bob romanticizes the future imagining what could be, a repeated theme in the movie. Then Bob leaves with a gun to rob some sort of store with a partner. It then quickly moves to a shootout, but Lowery has no interest in the robbery, the chase, or even the shootout.

Bob ends up in prison and Ruth gives birth to their daughter. Escaping from prison, Bob then tries to reunite with his beloved family.

Lowery never tells viewers how or why Bob and Ruth got into the robbing business, who exactly Bob’s deceased partner is, and what exactly the relationship is between Bob, Ruth and the older man who probably raised Bob. A friend from long ago helps Bob after he escapes from prison, but not surprisingly, viewers get no background on him either except a line or two about their past. Patrick (Ben Foster) the cop who begins to pursue Ruth while Bob is in prison is given plenty of screen time, but rarely speaks.

The narrative gaps, the lack of information on each character cause viewers to conceptualize things for themselves. It makes them use their imagination and create a future and past for Bob and Ruth. Lowery repeatedly has Bob speaking about their future together which is never realized.

As Bob describes it a letter to Ruth, “I am so close to you I can almost reach out and touch your cheek” but their reunion is not the picture he painted. Bob is an emotive idealist, with a huge heart, but he does not think through things logically. This idealism and romanticism revealed most clearly when he tells his friend how he escaped prison. He makes up some elaborate story, and then his friend says, “I heard you jumped out of a work truck,” and Bob shrugs.

At the end of the movie Lowery has the scene is the truck recur again, something he never does with their past. Bob says to their future daughter.

Well let me tell you about something. I am gonna to tell you about the future. In the future I am a very old man. I am standing in the door. We are in a house, it’s our house, somewhere far away from here, where everything is green and the sun is setting. And the way I see it, we are waving to somebody. And maybe that somebody is you, come to see us after a long time. If it is you, we are very happy to see you.

The gaps in the background push the viewer forward to consider what “could” be. Bob is always describing what it will be like when he sees her again, what it will be like to meet his daughter, and how Ruth and him will die in each others arms.

The magic of the movie comes in the sounds and Rooney Mara’s superb acting. Daniel Hart puts together a masterful soundtrack that includes bluegrass, clapping, and strings. Additionally, Casey Affleck’s voice is perfect for reading his letters out loud. The raspiness of his chords go in and out, and coincides with the light moving on and off him. Lowery presents him as a character with dark and light, with sympathy and with a guilty shadow. Rooney Mara like most of the characters speaks little, but her eyes and body language tell what words cannot.

Because of the nature of the film, people have compared it to the Terrance Malick style. And although there are similarities, with a focus on the visual, it is something different. For Lowery does have a straightforward plot structure and also includes more dialogue.

There are flaws to the movie. Lowery spent too much time on Bob’s friend, and the assassins that are hired to kill Bob also seemed out of place. But in the end the movie is still a success and closes with one of the more powerful scenes I have watched in a movie for a long time.

That ray of light at the beginning of the movie is dark of night, for Bob’s dreams never come to be. For as he says at the end, “at the same time I feel like I am guilty, there is no telling, there is just no telling.”





Gravity and 3D Movies

October 6, 2013 — 3 Comments

gravity-teaser-1On Friday night Hannah and I had the opportunity to see the movie Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

I was upset that the theater only had a 3D showing of the movie at the applicable time because I usually avoid 3D like leprosy.

3D Rant

I can’t stand the fact that the movie looks less crisp, is darker, and in quick moving scenes make me dizzy. On top of all this I have to wear glasses and the theater charges me more.

After my initial grumbling about my dislike of 3D and describing to my ever patient wife the myriad of reasons why I hate 3D we swallowed the hit to our wallet and walked into the theater.

Surprisingly, I was pleased with how 3D enhanced this movie. Rather than the fast action quick camera shots, this movie utilized the 3D to make you feel more like you were in space. Things came floating by, or at you SLOWLY which made all the difference.

Additionally, having the person in the foreground in front of the background earth really worked. Usually the character in foreground is in front of buildings or landscape which looks less than realistic.

So let me reiterate, I usually don’t see movies in 3D, but I do think this one is worth it (this will not change how I feel overall about 3D movies).

The Movie

The movie was beautifully shot, not a typical space movie, and used the psychological state of mind of the astronauts to perfection. I could say more about the movie itself but I think Brett McCracken has already said it better than I could.

My own reflections as I watched Gravity centered on the dual notions of human capacity and limitation. The film’s jaw-dropping artistry (its 17-minute single take opening should itself win an Academy Award) and “how’d they do that?” technological wizardry testify to the former. So do the mechanics of human space travel: the shuttles, space stations, satellites and suits that humans concocted so that they could explore the harsh, unlivable environs of the final frontier. Five decades after the first humans traveled to space, it’s still mind-boggling to imagine that it’s possible (and that we have the minds to come up with stuff like this). Finally, the ingenuity and survival skills of the film’s heroine (Sandra Bullock) showcase not only humanity’s capacity to dream but also its capacity to improvise and adapt in the face of extinction.

And yet Gravity is also very much a film about limitations. From its foreboding opening text about how nothing can survive in space, through its 90 minutes of harrowing death and near-death, Gravity is on one level a cautionary tale about the limits of human power in the fact of the far-more-powerful forces of the natural world.

Sure, space opens up some capacities that we don’t have on earth. Zero gravity means that in space we can fly. We can’t do that on earth. And yet “life in space” (oxymoron?) introduces new limitations, all exploited to dramatic effect in Gravity: wild temperature fluctuations, no oxygen, debris/shrapnel flying at you at the speed of a bullet, etc. Humans, however brilliant they may be, are tiny, vulnerable blips on the radar of the universe. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki underscores this with stunning shots of tiny white dots (NASA astronauts) against the vast black nothing of space.

The film’s existential posture reflects a sobering sense of man’s smallness and vulnerability. At the end of the day, man’s ability to control his fate and ensure his safety is limited.

McCracken closes the post saying:

What, then, is it that helps humans survive? If the odds are so stacked against our survival, with even the environments of our home planet pushing the limits of our biological and existential resilience, how do any of us survive?

Perhaps it is grace. Perhaps it is a benevolent force from above the heavens that gives us a chance at survival. It’s either that or blind randomness; pure luck. Are we on our own in a thoroughly random universe, or is there a God who stands supreme over it all? Gravity forces us to contemplate this question, and the way we interpret the film’s final line (“thank you”) likely reflects how we would answer that question.



BBoy for Life

September 11, 2013 — 3 Comments

Hannah and I just returned from the Louisville premier of “BBoy for Life,” a film produced by Nadus Films.

Nadus Films vision is “to make films that make a difference.” The films wake people up to the injustices of this world and give them an opportunity to impact the communities who make the films possible.

Coury Deeb is the founder/director of Nadus Films who explains in the video below the founding of Nadus Films.

BBoy For Life is the story of a young break-dancing group in Guatemala who use dancing as a way to stay out of the violence of the gang life. Not only is the film well made, but it is clear that by the making of it Nadus Films is both raising awareness and directly helping the people in the film.

The movie has had high praises from film festivals. Here is the trailer.


I would encourage you to support young Christian filmmakers like this who are seeking to make a difference.

You can follow Coury and Nadus Films on Twitter.