Archive for the 'Movies' Category

A Pair of Jacks and a King: Reflections on LOST, 24, Failure and Friendship

Tonight is the Series Finale of LOST.  For six seasons, over 121 episodes, 87 hours, 5225 minutes, it’s come to tonight’s epic two-and-a-half hour finale.  Jack Shepard (the character the on whom women crush like they are tweens once again), has volunteered to be the candidate who will ultimately either save the island or die trying.  (Probably both, actually.  At least in one dimension of reality.)

In a couple of weeks, Jack Bauer (the character whom men crush on like boys over their first ballplayer’s autograph) will exit stage right as as well after eight seasons of 24.  I know the show has gotten formulaic – Jack is the president’s right hand man, tortures someone in the process, loses someone he loves deeply, but saves the world from World War 3.  We wonder how he could ever do another season.

I’m honestly sad.  I never really watched television regularly until I returned from Cairo nearly three years ago and needed some therapy from the horrific poverty in which I lived.  (How watching 24 is therapeutic is probably strange for most folks…but it is so addictive that I think I just needed a hit of sorts.)

I kinda hope both Jacks die tragically on screen, because they will basically die to me.  They will only be memories, but great companions in a difficult season of life that I sensed, like LOST and 24, has finally come to an end.  And they’ve reminded me about important things about failure.

For the last three years, probably the three most difficult of my life, I’ve actually come to trust these two Jacks in my hand as more than just a pair of cards waiting for the flop and river of life.  The flavors of their characters are so wonderful and complex.  I’d compare them to my favorite coffees, but that would be woefully inadequate.

Jack Bauer is the bad boy who does what’s right and never gives up…and waits for redemption.  In the beginning of this season, one of the sketchy informants comes to him and says, “You’re Jack Bauer – you’re the guy who always does the right thing.”  It’s why we love him.  Doing what was right has been very costly, but he did it anyway.

But Bauer is no angel – he’s really a bad boy. Does he do what is right? Do the ends justify the means? This is the dramatic tension of 24. For some reason, we have come not only to love a man who tortures his enemies, but implicitly trust him.  Why do we trust Jack Bauer? Because he’s experienced such epic losses, we want him to win in the end.  We want him to receive justice – that though he has done wrong, his rights outweigh his wrongs and have come at such selfless sacrifice that want him to know his job is done and he’s finished.

Jack Shepard is the good boy who does what’s wrong and finally falls short…and waits for redemption.  Of all the characters in LOST, he’s the one whose flaws are most clear to me.  He was always the good boy – the one who never really failed at anything.  Even when his marriage fell apart, it still wasn’t enough to break him.

It was when Shepard finally left the island, at the end of his rope with a god-awful bushy beard and brandy-breath that he hit rock bottom and said, “We have to go back to the island.”  This man of reason, who had been living by calculated reason his entire life, had no reason for explaining why going back to the island made any sense whatsoever.  Except that this man of science just “felt it” and was slowly becoming a man of faith.

Failure drove him to transformation.

I was recently captivated by JK Rowling’s commencement address at Harvard in 2008 where she spoke on failure. Kind of a downer of a topic for a commencement address, and something that most graduates of Harvard and other prestigious universities never really experience.  But the fringe benefits of failure placed Rowling in a place where she could truly write in a way that connected with the human experience in ways that few have achieved in our world.

Both Jack Bauer and Jack Shepard have had epic fails. The last three years, they’ve comforted me in the midst of my failures – and reminded me that failure is the crucible for transformation.  Jack Bauer lost his wife and one lover and yet another lover this season.  He has done awful things to people.  But he never, ever has given up doing what is right.  He shot and killed two of his partners and friends – because he chose to do what was right over what was popular.

Jack Shepard picked up the pieces after two bad decisions and hopes that the third time is the charm (as we will find out tonight.)  In an alternate reality, he realized he was becoming his father and has changed to reach out to his son to understand him as he was never understood by his own father.

But both of these Jacks remind me that redemption is something for which I long.  I want to make things right. As I’ve watched them, and reflected over time on these tragic heroes, I’ve realized redemption and making things right often comes counterintuitively.  It doesn’t come through what wrongs we make right. It comes when we finally let go of both our wrongs and how we’ve been wronged in order to receive and give grace.

Grace gives us peace of heart and mind, because we realize we are in greater need of a gracious King to come and trump anything we could ever conjure up ourselves.  That peace allows us to experience joy and authentically love others – in ways that our need to be powerful (like Jack Bauer) and right (like Jack Shepard) could never fully meet.

I’m a Marvel, and I’m a DC

I cracked up when I saw last summer’s YouTube superhero promo series, but this one is just as funny.

So is this one

Slumdog & Oscar: The Danger of “Awareness”

When Slumdog Millionaire came out in theaters, at first I was very excited to see it.  Some of the students I took to Cairo to live among the poor organized a reunion around the film so they could see it together – I couldn’t make it, so I told them to enjoy it themselves without me.

Then things with my late-Grandma Lois became the priority in my life, and seeing a movie was pretty low on the list.  Finally, I just up and saw it a couple weeks back.  I was preparing myself for it, mainly because I thought the shock value would be something that would remind me of my experience living in the slums of Cairo and continue to remind me of my commitments I’ve made to live as an agent of God’s justice, his shalom, in a broken world.

And it did. The shots in India and the subtle exposing of the caste system is something that is important.  The scene where you see the children collecting garbage and the ones who are stolen by the villain – that location could easily have been shot in Mokattam with no one knowing the difference.  

I was brought back to Mokattam once again for glimpses. The way my memory works is that emotions and imagery tap thought trails that cause me to relive experiences again.  Slumdog did that for me – it was a rush of sensations back to living among the poor, seeing their smiles and saddness, laughter and tears, sights and smells, recalling stories and statistics.

Yet at the same time, I was incredibly bothered by the overriding premise of the film that interwove itself into the gameshow, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”  While it is an incredibly effective device to create a sense of anticipation and excitement with the question, “Will he win?” I was more concerned that it created a false hope that people get out of this through such fanciful ideas.

Hollywood does a good job of exposing people to just enough of the problems of the world to make us feel a little more informed s0 we care a little more about what happens. But then the lights go up and we leave the half-eaten jumbo popcorn and box of raisinettes on the ground for the kid paid minimum wage to pick up, who makes more than some families combined and would be glad to enjoy the popcorn and raisinettes we leave behind.

Here is what is interesting to me: Slumdog Millionaire had a production budget of $14 million.  It has a current worldwide box office gross at $153 million.  Now, I don’t know about you, but a profit of $139 million is pretty incredible in a down worldwide economy.  I know that Slumdog has likely brought to the attention to people around the world more about child slavery, forced prostitution, human trafficking, slum communities, and other problems of the world.

But awareness is not our issue anymore. We are aware. We need more than awareness these days – we need real, tangible efforts and dollars to make real change. People need to be aware that awareness isn’t enough, and awareness without action is worse than ignorance.

I don’t know if Slumdog Millionaire is giving of their profits to end the problems they filmed and made a bunch of money on.  I hope they have. But if they haven’t, then I think it would be exploitative to get rich off of filming poverty and making a whole bunch of people feel better about themselves for becoming “more aware.”  Again, I hope this isn’t the case and would be happy to be shown otherwise.

It’s hard for me to imagine my friends in Mokattam among a group of people dressed in the best clothes they’ll ever wear, walking on red carpet with the paparatzzi, enjoying fine dining and waiting for their names to be called, walking to the podium giving an acceptance speech about how thankful they are, and then getting cut off by the orchestra in mid-sentence. The talking heads celebrate and say, “Wow, what a great movie. Such an important work.”

Important work? But what about those whom you portrayed? They don’t get picked up for red carpets and game shows, and they need our help. Do we choose to or not?  

If not, then we should really consider that our Oscars belong with the grouch in the trash. At least the real “slumdogs” could have their just reward.

Realistic Idealism: Thoughts on The Dark Knight, Favre, and Tension

I’ve taken some time off lately, and I’ve enjoyed keeping up with two of my favorite activities – film and football. Like many Americans, I’ve been slightly caught up with the talking heads about The Dark Knight and the Brett Favre soap opera.

When the decade ends, we’ll look back and whatever we call the decade of the years 2000-2009 (what will VH1 call it when reviewing the decade- I love the…the oughts? The naughts? Ooh, how ’bout the naughties?) and say that it was the decade of superhero flicks. Spiderman, Batman, Ironman, Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Elektra, Superman – all of them have made their splash in the last decade.

Warning – spoilers for Dark Knight ahead…

But what Nolan does in the Dark Knight was disturbing for many of my idealistic friends who love superheroes. I asked a few of them what they thought of the film, and many of them thought it was great…and then the “but” came in. And all of them typically centered around this big “but.”

“But why does Batman have to be sold out as the bad guy at the end? He’s the good guy – but why does he have to be sold out as the bad guy? It’s not right.”

The Dark Knight is a twisted tragedy that follows a superb script of chaos that, in a sense, is narrated through Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance of The Joker. The late Ledger plays the villain in a triangulation of characters between himself, District Attorney Harvey Dent, and Batman. The hero that Gotham needed, the White Knight Dent, the hero that Batman couldn’t be – a hero with a face, is exposed through tragic circumstances as “Two Face” and dies a tragic death at the hands of Batman.

But only Batman and trustworthy Commissioner Gordon know this. Thus to preserve the ideal that Gotham has a need for a heroic face, Batman follows the advice of his confidant Alfred and becomes the scapegoat for Dent’s death and while still secretly serving as the hero, thus becoming the enemy not just of villains, but of all.

The tragedy for Dent is that his love, Rachel Dawes, dies and exposes that the Bright White Light of Gotham is tainted as well – and the reasons for Rachel’s choice of him over Bruce Wayne were ultimately flawed as well. The tragedy for Batman is not only that the love of his life, Rachel, is dead, not only that she rejected him wrongly for the two-faced Dent, but that the film ends with his rejection by those whom he sought to save and thus by necessity he must become the Dark Knight – the faceless hero who is pursued not only by the villains, but ironically also by those who consider themselves agents of justice.

Even Ledger’s Joker is tragic in a way that Nolan didn’t script through Ledger’s premature death.

The film is a tragedy – which is why my idealistic friends feel this sense of lacking at the end. Something isn’t right as you watch the film…because there is this looming sense that there’s no happy ending coming soon. Dent says, “The night is darkest just before the dawn,” but the dawn doesn’t come. The Joker is more right than not in his analysis of humanity. It’s a tragedy; and we Americans don’t like tragedies. We are waiting for “happily ever after” and you know that simply doesn’t happen in this film.

Personally, I love tragedies. It’s what I’m wired to undo – I love to expose wrong and bring right. I love Batman as a hero; he’s working out his pain that he’s experienced to bring justice because he knows he’s flawed and he’s trying desperately to replace himself so he can go back to being “normal.” But at the end of this film, Bruce Wayne has to become something he never intended to be, which is tragic.

I love tragedies – but I just don’t want to live one. Which is exactly what most Green Bay Packer fans are doing right now.

Rewind five months ago to my blog entry on Brett Favre’s retirement, and now we are in a saga of Brett wanting to return to football. If you reread it now, in light of what has happened in this soap opera of his return, and you can’t help but be slightly disillusioned if you resonated at all with what I wrote. (Yes, even Bear fans, you can sympathize if you try hard enough.) The idea of Brett riding off into the sunset was thought to be…ideal. All the commemorative editions of various magazines sold through multiple printings agreed as well. I watched the press conference with a friend on either side of me on this laptop, and all of us teared up as Brett broke down. It was the ideal end to an ideal player.

But apparently the ideal wasn’t real. Now Brett says he was pushed into retirement by the Packers organization, and has given the dirt through interviews on national television. But Brett himself went back on the tearful testimony he gave that he just wasn’t able to give 100% anymore.

What’s it going to be, Brett?

The Packers borrowed language from a bad break-up and said that they had “moved-on” and that Brett could even come back as a back-up if he wanted. When Brett called their bluff that the Packers would be willing to sideline him holding a clipboard for Aaron Rodgers, the Packers management is now dancing the classic management-CYA-scoot and politically posturing saying they were trying to “preserve Favre’s legacy” so as to not to be “burned in effigy” through the court of public opinion.

Puh-lease.

It’s a big ol’ hot mess, because public heroes are in short supply. It’s why we love superhero flicks – we want heroes in an age where we see so few. We want Brett to stay beyond the horizon in the sunset where he rode in March, we want Batman to be unmasked for his innocence and given his due as true shining hero, not the Dark Knight. But Nolan in fantasy and the Packers in reality are telling us that this just isn’t the way the world really works.

These stories, while seeming to be superficial, talking-head-type conversation at first, resonate with most of us who have seen the darker side of life. Sadly, most of us can identify where our hopes and dreams were stripped of their luster and the shine wore off through ever-increasing experience. It’s why we love children – because they often remind us of innocence and hope. Chesterton hit it right on:

“God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but he has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Sin and brokenness do lots of things – but I never thought they make us old. As we age, people we once held in high esteem, relationships we thought were perfect, organizations that we once thought were driven to do good – our experience tempers our hot idealism and we wonder how we should reevaluate our expectations and redefine our dreams.

We drove our dreams to be reality, but the reality was dirtier than in our dreams and we end up getting it on us on the drive. We look at ourselves and say, “what have we become?”

I know I’ve experienced this – growing up in a ministry family, an education family, a corporate America insider, an insider in the church, I’ve seen the dark side of what many see as bright lights shining in the darkness.

Which begs the question – what is realistic idealism? How does one live in the tension of the real and the ideal, or in theological terms, the now-but-not-yet? My favorite author Eugene Peterson says it this way, “How do I do it? How do I shed the fantasies of boyhood and simultaneously increase my hold on the realities of life? How do I leave the childish yet keep the deeply accurate perceptions of the child – that life is an adventure, that life is a contest?”

These questions seem rhetorical and ideal at first – but they are really real and do demand answers. The best questions seem to do both.

Normally I’d try to answer these type of questions, but I feel tempted today just to sit in the tension. Questions that are easily answered aren’t good questions. Feel free to offer answers as you like. No answers today – only questions.

Bruce Wayne & Batman: Conversion & Calling

I loved Spiderman when I was a kid. Luke Skywalker and Spider-Man both had hugely formative influences on my childhood. Geeky science kid turned superhero and dreaming blond-haired blue-eyed young man staring off into twin sunsets were the twin poles that held the line of my idealism in tension. When Episode II and Spider-Man came out in 2002, it was like I was 8 years old all over again. It was wonderful – as if I could be a kid all over again that summer.

As I got older, however, I switched my allegiance to Batman. I remember when Tim Burton’s Batman in 1990 – I actually watched it on the family Sony Beta-Max (it was better than VHS) after it came out on video. Then the film series got progressively worse over the years. Moving from gaudier to cheesier, and finally just plain bad with Schwarzenegger-puns-and-bat-suit-nipples to boot, I was so glad that the Dark Knight got revamped under Christopher Nolan. He thankfully disregarded the previous series and got back to basics with Batman Begins.

I still remember leaving the theater when I first watched Batman Begins three years ago. Loved it. When I had cable and Comcast’s “on demand” it was one of my absolute favorites to watch multiple times. The training montages, flashbacks, a tightly-woven plot, character development – all brilliant.

I’ve asked myself why I still liked it so much. What is it about this Dark Knight that I love?

Ask any comic book novice (I’m not even that good), and they’ll tell you what sets Batman apart: he has no superpowers. He’s the most human of all the superheroes, and most easy to identify with for most of us (if you are able to identify with billionaires.) He grew up under the shadow of wealth and yet was never really satisfied. He’s a man who has an unsettled and disturbing past, one filled with hurt and pain.

Nolan made Bruce Wayne elementally human in that he never really is fully able to bury the past and is working it out in the process of trying to bring healing to Gotham. The process of his healing, his redemption, his transformation, is linked to his journey to save Gotham. Even though Batman isn’t able to help everyone, he is able to save many. He’s doing what no one was able to do for him that fateful night in the alley where his parents were shot in cold blood right in front of him. Bruce Wayne’s calling is what makes him Batman; his conversion is chronicled in Batman Begins.

Can you tell I’m excited to watch The Dark Knight tonight with friends? It’s like being an 8-year-old boy all over again.

Here’s another reason why I feel 8-years-old: I’m writing this blog entry as a means to procrastinate a project on how Christians should see their callings as the working out of their conversion. Two years ago I had a conversation with author and spiritual director Gordon Smith, and he said something that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. “The contours of our conversion are filled in with the call of God on our lives. In a sense, our calling, our vocation is essentially working out our conversion with fear and trembling.”

The capstone of the class I took with Smith on conversion had a project: write your own “conversion narrative.” No more than 25 pages, but basically it was a project where we wrote about all our spiritual experiences and tried to make some sense of them.

I was shocked as I wrote and wrote and wrote. The words kept coming, and it was so clear as I wrote how God had divinely implanted things I care about that I never really saw clearly until I sat and wrote. I uncovered why I cared so much about authenticity, friendship, justice, race & culture & inclusiveness, leadership, joy, etc. My calling in large part has been the working out of these clear threads of God’s intervention in my life.

My project is trying to develop training for students on how to ask the right kinds of questions that are open-ended that allow for folks to express what they see as wrong – in the world we dwell in, in the relationships we live in, in the way we see ourselves, and ultimately in the way we relate to our Creator. The answers to these questions are inextricably linked to each other. We live in a messed up world, and the single universal human experience is pain – we have all experienced wrong and we call it pain. And while the answer to these questions are complex, our answers shed insight as to how we view the world and explain why we need news that is good.

Bruce Wayne’s response to the pain in his life was to become Batman – to be “converted” to a new way of living, to usher in news that is good wherever he could. His response is a breath of fresh air and inspires 8-year-olds and adults alike to fight for what is right in this world (and entertaining too – just check the box office numbers after this weekend).

Most of us will leave the theater after the film and go back to reality. As a follower of Jesus, however, I look at Batman as a work of fantasy that reminds me of the reality of needing to work out my salvation in the mission of healing the planet – and sometimes that requires fear and trembling, particularly when faced with the world we live in.

But what story would be good unless there wasn’t a point where you thought the hero might fail? But, I’ll admit it, I love watching tragedies, but I sure don’t want to live one.

Why should I blog when I’ll probably stink at it?

Yes, I am now online as a blogger. Those of you who know me can rejoice. OK, stop rejoicing – cause I’m probably going to stink at this.  And probably no one will really check it either.

Why would I suck at blogging? It’s not that I don’t enjoy writing – four years of repression of creative expression in engineering school and three years of writing proposals for laboratory renovation projects didn’t squeeze it out of me.

But I’m concerned because blogging is one of those things that I must do regularly and often in order to do well, and I’m not doing so well at those lately. Exercising, entering my MS Money, sitting down at my desk at home to pay the bills, going through my non-handwritten mail, dusting the furniture, eating vegetables, dating (I can’t believe I put dating and eating vegetables next to each other in the same sentence) – even spending extended times with God haven’t been my strong suit as of late.

This last weekend I just enjoyed taking all that stuff and scratching it off my list (except the dating part…I watched The Last Kiss with Zach Braff instead and saw a difficult-yet-realistic picture of relationships – still, an insightful film). But then I asked myself, “why does this stuff pile up?” When a Saturday seems productive because all of the stuff has been scratched off the list, what does that say about my life?

Or is blogging just something I’m doing in order to further procrastinate from those things? Musing for the sake of avoiding that is important isn’t exactly the best way to instill discipline.

Perhaps the regular discipline of sitting, remembering, writing, reflecting, and planning will further give me the desire to become what I’m meant to be. Or to even figure out what I’m meant to be. Or figure out why I’m confused about that sometimes.

All in all, I guess this is an invitation to an opportunity to express the thoughts in my head and the feelings in my heart and how the two are converging (or diverging) to form the life I live while preserving freedom from approval addiction. The discipline of reflection offers me the opportunity; the blog gives me a chance to allow for my friends (and stalkers…you know who you are) to share in what God reveals in my attempt to listen to my life. And for y’all to see how crazy I am.

More to come.


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