Emergency is not what it looks like

Full disclosure: The credits for the Sundance-award-winning Emergency include the name of a dear friend of mine. Her good work is earning her opportunities to work on many impressive films and television series, so I've been looking forward to this one. I don't believe that the involvement of friends of mine in film productions has ever swayed my opinion of the films themselves; my reviews of those films have sometimes made things... awkward between us. But that's the cost of integrity. So here we go.


If you were anything like me when you were a kid, you probably loved to read and re-read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I suspect that's where my love for what I'll call calamity comedy (calamedy?) began — movies like Martin Scorsese's After Hours or the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski, films that begin with something unfortunate or unfair happening to the protagonist, and then one problem on top of another takes everything from bad to so much worse. We laugh because we know the feeling. We've had days like that. It's likely we've had years like that. That's what makes the book's refrain "I think I'll move to Australia" funny. Who among us hasn't wanted to pack up and move out of our own troubles?

But in America right now, it seems we're trapped in a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad decade, and the troubles keep coming. It's hard to laugh about them without feeling cynical or, worse, hard-hearted.

Emergency has all the makings of a great calamity comedy. I mean, what would you do if you and your best friend were college students who found an unconscious girl on your living room floor, limp as a noodle, reeking of booze, and face-down in a pool of her own vomit? Would you call 9-1-1? Would you carry her to your car and get her to a hospital?

In Emergency, Madde Nichols plays Emma. She is the emergency. [Image from the Prime Video trailer.]

The answer might seem easy for you, reader... if you're white. But our two panicking protagonists are black. It's the unconscious girl, who might in fact be dying, who is white. See the problem? Calling the cops doesn't sound like such a good idea. Taking her to the hospital — that sounds risky too. Anywhere cameras can catch them will make things look bad for everybody. And driving her to one of that night's big parties and laying her down on the lawn? Absolutely not.

Perhaps you're thinking that this doesn't sound like a very comical situation. You're right. It isn't.

The last time we followed a bunch of guys from drinking party to drinking party, it was Edgar Wright's The World's End, and their mishaps increased until they found themselves trying to survive in a dystopian world after aliens blew up civilization. This time, the stakes are so much more believable and, thus, more sobering. Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) is a wiz-kid biology student with a bright future, and we don't want him to stumble onto the wrong side of the law and blow his big opportunities. But Kunle's mischievous friend Sean (RJ Cyler) wants him to gamble it all to complete something known as "The Legendary Tour," hitting a marathon of parties in one night. And then there's the perpetually stoned Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), a buffoon who they hope to avoid — and so, of course, against their best efforts, he ends up tagging along.

Sean (RJ Cyler), Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) ponder their options from bad to worse. [Image from the Prime Video trailer.]

So, at first glance, no — this doesn't sound funny. The stakes are too high.

And yet, while the crisis is so plausible and the stakes so high that we feel meaningful suspense, the filmmakers find plausible humor within these volatile friendships as they careen from mishaps that range from "terrible" to "horrible" to "no good" to "very bad." We aren't laughing at the gravity of the situation; we're laughing in recognition at the absurdity of how hard it is to — yes, in honor of Spike Lee, whose influence on the filmmakers is obvious, I'll say it — do the right thing. As these three amigos try to figure out who the unconscious Emma (Maddie Nichols) really is, how to save her life, and how to get her back where she belongs, they are prone to making the worst decisions with the best intentions, and their goofy camaraderie inspires laughs that break up the tension without ever minimizing the seriousness of the crisis. 

As if that isn't enough for us to track, the filmmakers skillfully braid the young mens' adventures with another storyline about Emma's sister Maddy (Sabrina Carpenter) trying to track her down with help from her more level-headed friend Alice (Madison Thompson), Alice's new flame Rafael (Diego Abraham), and the power of Apple's phone-tracker. These three are almost as funny and endearing together as Emma's anxious would-be rescuers.

Who you gonna call? Carlos, Kunle, and Sean find their friendships tested. [Image from the Prime Video trailer.]

Perhaps the sense that there's something new, fresh, and authentic about Emergency comes from the rare combination of an African American director — Carey Williams, impressive with his debut feature — directing a screenplay by a Mexican-American woman: K.D. Dávila. That shouldn't be a big deal in 2022, but it is. And I hope they work together again. Williams and Dávila cook up engaging chemistry between colorful characters, zigzagging between plot threads efficiently; every character matters, every twist makes pretty good sense

Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com is right on when he highlights one of the movie's strong points:

The best thing about Emergency is its willingness to let a scene breathe and play out at length—a rare quality in an era in which entire movies are edited like trailers for themselves, as if terrified that if they take the foot off the gas for even an instant, stimulus-craving audiences will announce that they're bored and quit watching. There are a solid half-dozen scenes built around characters talking to each other that could be self-contained, perfectly shaped short films if you lifted them out of their context.

Sean watches, amused, as star student Kunle fails a test of impressing a young woman. [Image from the Prime Video trailer.]

It works until it doesn't. There is so much caper potential here. But as it has become daily news to hear about racism rampant in police departments and the shoot-to-kill/ask-no-questions habits across America, the film cannot help but struggle to balance all that it has on its mind. And the more the storylines spiral downward toward an inevitable convergence that we know is probably going to involve law enforcement, the more we can feel the genre needle tipping toward Timely & Relevant Drama (think The Hate U Give, which also featured Carpenter) and away from either Calamity Comedy (like Booksmart) or Horror (like Get Out). That's not a failure — these open wounds of injustice deserve close attention. The high-tension crescendo works pretty well, thanks to some predictably presumptuous cops. But as the film's fun-house mirror stabilizes and confronts us with a soberingly familiar reflection of America in 2022, it becomes heavy-handed. And it never really successfully recovers. Comedy is a declaration of hope for order in the face of disorder. And the disorder we see in extreme close-up here, well... who among us see much hope for repairing it?

After that, the film stumbles in search of a resonant way to wrap things up. The multi-stage epilogue tries several ways to make us laugh and several ways to make us cry. But it's trying too hard. Even Cyler, good as he is, can't wring any genuine pathos out of these scenes.

Kunle makes a plea for help at one of the local parties. That does not go well. [Image from the Prime Video trailer.]

The actors are all strong, but it's a problem that Cyler (who also starred in The Harder They Fall) is such a born movie star — he owns the scene whenever he's onscreen, and shines so bright next to Watkins' Kunle that the imbalance is distracting. Similarly, Sabrina Carpenter who plays Maddy really sells us on her substance-amplified panic as she tries to track down her missing sister. The rest of the cast don't have the charisma to keep up.

But these are quibbles. There's a remarkable cleverness to the writing throughout. I'm particularly fond of how Kunle, terrified that he might have spoiled his research project back at the lab by leaving a fridge door open, says over and over again "I just wanna check my cultures.” That ongoing refrain might be hinting at any of the film's myriad levels of social commentary.

Though this feels like a "first film" for almost everyone involved, there's a current of truth and sincerity running through it — the pulse of a heavy heart. In its best moments, Emergency makes us think about the dilemmas that young black men in America must frequently face. What do you do if you need to call the cops but you know that the cops might end up being an even greater danger than whatever is driving you to call them? The movie doesn't claim to know the answer. I don't know either.

And somehow, I don't think moving to Australia is the answer.


Cronenberg's performance-art surgery

Film studios have repurposed so many old toys, old video games, old amusement park rides — so many products in hopes of capitalizing on moviegoer nostalgia. They've even gone to the board game closet. (Remember Battleship?) I'm surprised we haven't had to suffer Operation: The Movie yet. (I'm sure that screenplays for this must exist!)

Don't get me wrong: I don't mean to be cynical. I scoffed at the idea of The LEGO Movie once, and when it finally arrived, it turned out to be an instant animated classic.

But Operation? Could something so ridiculous actually work? It would take a steady hand.

I nominate director David Cronenberg.

In fact, if you re-introduced Cronenberg's latest sci-fi shenanigans — a film called Crimes of the Future — and slapped the title Operation on it, that would work! Most of the tension in Crimes of the Future comes from watching futuristic surgeons poke and probe a patient's innards, pull particular organs out into the light, and try to avoid errors.

Caprice (Lea Seydoux) gets intimate with Saul (Viggo Mortenson) between performance-art surgery gigs. [Image from the Neon trailer.]

Think about it: This is right in Cronenberg's greasy wheelhouse, right? He's made a career of drawing attention to our bodies — how fragile they are, how uncontrollable, how troubled and troubling. And in doing so, he's investigated the troubled and troubling impulses that compel those bodies. Think of The Brood, The Fly, and Crash. Consider my two personal favorites: eXistenz and A History of Violence. He's a composer who plays variations on themes, but only after he's opened up his organic pianos and experimented with their architecture. He shakes up our certainties, blurring the definitions of things we'd hope are fixed. And in doing so, he holds up a troubling funhouse mirror to misdeeds human beings already commit.

Let's carefully withdraw some of the internal treasures of Crimes of the Future and see if they enlighten us.


Moviegoers know how normal it has become to share the personal in public — selfies, pictures of food we're about to eat, and other social media exhibitionism are as common as commercials now. So it's easy to assume that we will take this openness to new and unforeseen extremes.

That's the premise here: In a future not far out of reach or the realm of possibility, it turns out human beings, having found ways to make pain and infection a thing of the past, are now literally baring their hearts and spilling their guts onstage, surrounded by cameras. They've turned surgical procedures between consenting surgeons and patients into public performance art.

The show must grow on: Caprice approaches the sarcophagus-like surgery bed within which Saul is "working" on something new. [Image from the Neon trailer.]

And then, in a twist that could only have come from Cronenberg himself, the patients are conscious during surgery. It is on one of these celebrity surgery tours that we meet our main characters. Patient Zero is Saul Tenser — played with conviction by Viggo Mortensen. Tenser might make audiences tenser, but he seems surprisingly zen himself when it comes to being dismembered in the spotlight. You might even say it's his purpose in life, as he suffers a disease called Accelerated Evolution Syndrome, which busies him with the work of birthing new organs into existence. His surgeon isn't trying to cure him; she's more like a celebrity of archaeology or geology, digging up natural wonders on camera.

These surgeries on Saul's morphing form are performed by his partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux, at her gentle best). There are a lot of close-ups of incisions, of Caprice (and others) rooting around in Saul's insides as if looking for a toy in a Cracker Jack box, or a lost LEGO at the bottom of a ball pit. This is done with a mix of reverence and whimsy, which makes Caprice's name seem all the more apt. (The term caprice can refer to impulsive action. It's also a form of the term cappricio, which refers to artwork that represents a mix of real and imagined aspects.)

And there are "treasures" inside of him, at least according to Caprice and the attentive audiences as these performances: That’s the biggest idea of all in this challenge to our suspension of disbelief. In the future, Saul's Accelerated Evolution Syndrome isn't viewed as a disorder but as innovation. He's growing new organs that might adapt, expand, and evolve what a human being can be.

A jarring work of art? The fruit of Saul's labor is put on display. Caprice gets intimate with Saul between performance-art surgery gigs. [Image from the Neon trailer.]

If you're not squirming yet, you probably should be. This movie will probably make you uncomfortable. You’ll see dripping bits of innards removed and held up to the light by awestruck scientists just the way David Attenborough might lift up a never-before-seen species of frog that can heal itself. If that makes you squeamish, steer clear.

But on the other hand, the film isn't gory in the sense of gushing blood or sudden violence. Fear not. Or, well... fear a little less, anyway. It’s all very clinical. This is no glorification of body alteration. Nor is it "torture porn" — not in the familiar sense, anyway. Cronenberg may take us to troubling places, but he always does so in order to explore important questions. In Cronenberg on Cronenberg, he says, "I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation. Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face."*

Images of Saul on the operating table, or having his body manipulated by the skeletal arms of a robotic chair so that he can successfully swallow and digest his food, are more challenging than gross. They confront us with questions about Saul's character: Is he a genius, a madman, a holy fool, a martyr for a good cause, an abomination, or all of the above? Cinematographer Douglas Koch (who filmed I've Heard the Mermaids Singing way back in 1987) often frames Mortensen in Falconetti-esque closeups, so we see him "suffering" in states of near-sexual ecstasy as his body goes to "work" on new inventions.

Behold the passion of Saul Tenser.

And for all of its biological curiosity, Cronenberg's film remains far more intently focused on philosophical inquiries.

Crimes opens with a horrifying vision that will set our minds on crimes of the recent past and present. We see a young boy named Breckan (Sozos Sotiris) picking at flotsam on the shore, with an overturned ship (a reminder, perhaps, of the Costa Concordia or other ocean-wrecking disasters) as a backdrop. Breckan isn't looking for fish. He has a sort of amplified case of pica — he doesn't just chew on plastic; he's ravenous to eat it. So we're immediately prompted to view how our technological advances have corrupted our environment, and how our environment is corrupting us.

What's even scarier is that this boy is unwittingly connected to a conspiracy that wants to embrace the corruption, wants human beings to hunger for what is toxic. Breckan's mother (Lihi Kornowski) condemns him as an abomination, knowing that his father (Scott Speedman) may have ties to extremists who are trying to turn the human body into a natural recycling plant for synthetic substances.

Breckan the boy who loves plastic sifts the sand for snacks.

But Cronenberg has more than pollution and the genetic disruption of our groceries on his mind. He's thinking about other kinds of appetites, including our hunger for entertainment and art.

Crimes of the Future investigates about the mysterious and personal nature of art: where it comes from, how it asks artists to expose themselves in costly ways, how commercial and corporate interests corrupt it, and how crowd-pleasing can run counter to an artist’s own visions. It dares to confront us with a messy, bodily manifestation of what artists are doing as they wrestle questions into art, as they fight with troubles to produce new pearls of wisdom. I can't help but wonder if Cronenberg wasn't thinking of Rumi, who wrote (in his three-volume work of mystical poetry Masnavi), "New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity. Therefore, O man, increase your necessity, so that you may increase your perception." In having his torso literally unzipped, Saul is making himself frightfully vulnerable, putting himself at the mercy of his muses. And, in such a state of necessity and "openness," he is able to receive new revelations and, in a sense, give birth to them and release them into the world for better or worse.

What some critics seem to be missing is that the film’s regular adoption and repurposing of common artist-speak to this context of exhibitionist surgeons and exhibitionist patients is not only clever — it’s often hilarious. I laughed out loud several times over the course of this moody, shadowy exploration, and the fact that nobody else was laughing made me wonder if artists aren't the movie’s intended audience — those who wrestle with questions common to these agents of dismemberment. "Be open with me," one lover pleads with another, referring to a very literal openness. "I want to know what we’re getting into," says another, not far from the operating table.

Timlin (Kristen Stewart), an agent of the National Organ Registry, is eager to catalogue new body parts swelling in Saul, the host body.[Image from the Neon trailer.]

Much of the film's comic cleverness comes from its outstanding ensemble cast. If you can stomach (I’m sorry) the onscreen entrails, you will be treated to one of Mortenson’s finest performances, Seydoux’s loveliest and gentlest work yet, and — perhaps best of all — Kristen Stewart’s inspired comic turn. Stewart plays Timlin, a surgery-geek fangirl. As the observant Sarah Welch-Larson has already noted, Stewart's performance DNA carries traces of Peter Lorre. Timlin whispers mischievously to Saul that "Surgery is the new sex," but when she later comes on to him the old-fashioned way, he responds, "I’m not very good at the old sex.”

Timlin's just one of a large cast of supporting characters, all of them messing with ethical boundaries. This doesn't bother me, as the film feels playful, almost improvisational, a jaunt through a Curiosity Shoppe of Cronenberg Horrors rather than a seamless tapestry of storylines.

I was particularly delighted to see indie filmmaker and actor Don McKellar show up in an important supporting role. There's something to this: McKellar starred in Atom Egoyan's 1994 film Exotica, another unpredictable film set in a strange underworld. In that film, he played Thomas, a secretive and eccentric entrepreneur who, under the cover of a legitimate pet store, was illegally importing and selling rare bird species. There's something intuitive about casting him here as Wippet, Timlin's partner at the National Organ Registry, a sort of startup branch of government that investigates and catalogues organs and their functions the way the Internet Movie Database catalogues movies.

Wippet's here to expose some of the ways in which capitalism can corrode artistic vision; to show how narrow-mindedness can prevent artists from new discoveries; and then to question just how "healthy" it is to incubate such perverse visions. These are matters that I, as a fantasy writer, find close to my heart. They inspire me to reexamine what I'm doing when I write, and — perhaps more importantly — why I'm doing it. So maybe I'm one of the few who will feel satisfied with what they're served here.


All of this is elevated by a rich score from the great Howard Shore (yes, that Howard Shore, who bears more responsibility for the gravitas of Peter Jackson's Middle-earth movies than he gets credit for).

Love doesn't hurt after all — not for Saul and Caprice.

Those who take Crimes of the Future too seriously will probably be frustrated with it. It's a whimsical meditation, not a culture-war argument. Its characters exist to cultivate questions, not to inspire fans and sequels. Those who expect a typical narrative arc that culminates in an adrenalin-rush finale will wonder if there’s been a mistake and the projectionist skipped the final reel. (Wow… there’s some film vocabulary that doesn’t make sense anymore!) But Cronenberg isn't here to play to expectations. He's always been comfortable with, even aggressively curious about, ambiguity. It's a fearless and unsettlingly honest investigation of the same question that drove the first Jurassic Park movie: What happens when human beings let ambitions get ahead of conscience?

And, almost as if there's something in the air, Crimes arrives at the same time as Kogonada's extraordinary (and extraordinarily soft-spoken) futuristic sci-fi vision After Yang, another film in which characters "break open" the "core" of an experimental human. Both films provide gentler, more thoughtful ways of confronting audiences with the implications of technological advances, avoiding the flagrant alarmism of so many dystopian visions. They just might make us more content with the flawed bodies we have, less eager to meddle with what we've been given.

I emerged from this film laughing about the possibility of a new Crimes of the Future edition of Operation. Imagine a version of that beloved childhood game in which you have no idea what your tweezers will withdraw from that poor clown's bodily cavities. You might find yourself wondering about the movie's final moments: whether they represent someone "winning" at the game, or if someone has bumped the electric boundary and set off an alarm. Typically, that's been seen as an error, a failure, a loss. But perhaps there's a scarier possibility: What if we make ourselves believe that transgression is a virtue?


*Note:
I failed to cite Cronenberg properly in my 2007 book Through a Screen Darkly, so I'm correcting that error here: Cronenberg's words come from Chapter 4 of Cronenberg on Cronenberg.


Maverick and Me: Part Two

[Before you read Part Two, which focuses on Top Gun: Maverick, you'll probably want to read Part One — a quick overview of my history with Top Gun.]


Comments on this review are closed. If you want to know why, read the note at the end of this post.


More than 30 years since his heroic 1986 hi-jinx, Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell hasn't matured much at all.

He lives in a man cave — scratch that: Mav cave — that is a museum to his own glory days: the motorcycle! The aviators! The jacket and its boy-scout badges! It's as if Mav is a Marvel superhero who has been waiting for an upgraded costume and upgraded accessories, waiting more than 30 years for a sequel.

The fact that Cruise still looks 20 years younger than he is helps to make this illusion convincing.

Anyway, Mav's still working for the U.S.A. — this time as a test pilot flying cutting edge stealth planes. And, surprise! He can't be bothered with things like restrictions. So he's working with a team that gets predictably nervous about his predictably boundary-pushing behavior. When Rear Admiral Chester "Hammer" Cain (played by Ed Harris, cast for gravitas that will make up for auto-generated lines) shows up (predictably) to shut down the hypersonic "Darkstar" program, declaring drones the way of the future, Mav (again, predictably) takes it personally.

So he reacts by living up to his name, testing Admiral Cain's temper and pushing himself to a point of calamity. He'll endanger the lives and cost the U.S. military extraordinary amounts of money, knowing that he has nothing to fear more than a lecture from a superior officer. (This sequence culminates with an amusing visual punchline that may remind you of the moments after Indiana Jones "nuked the fridge.")

Mav pushes the IMAX envelope — again — in the long-awaited sequel to Top Gun. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

During that shocking revelation of Mav's lasting immaturity and egomania, we see — and not for the last time — women and people of color standing around in wide-eyed adulation at the ascendant Ageless White Man, while other, lesser white guys look on in solemn envy.

As my friend Jack Jamieson quipped on Letterboxd, "Maybe Scientology works?" He's kidding, of course — but one can't help but wonder if Cruise and Company don't see this as a major marketing campaign. Even my friend Steven D. Greydanus, in his rave review at The Catholic World Report, says this of Cruise: "As hard as he’s worked over the last dozen years or so (oh, how hard he’s worked!) to win his way back into viewers’ good graces, the sense of weirdness around his personal life (including but not limited to his strong identification with Scientology and a series of media disasters) lingers."

After the necessary verbal rebuke, Mav's "misbehaviors" are all dismissed. It's clear that even the Admiral understands Mav's status as Man-God (Mav-God?), and thus he is beyond reproach. In fact, he is consequentially promoted, sent right back to the place he's been yearning for: Top Gun. (Shocker!) He's been summoned by Admiral Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (Val Kilmer), who is now the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and seems eager to use his power to glorify God (that is, Mav).

Mav in his man-cave motorcycle time capsule. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

When he arrives at NAS North Island, Mav's ego takes an initial hit when he realizes they aren't asking him to fly into enemy territory, but rather to be an instructor for top pilots who will fly the mission themselves. For a moment, I was really intrigued: Perhaps Top Gun: Maverick would take us in an unexpected and meaningful direction! Perhaps this would be a story about learning to accept one's age, and about humbling oneself to discover the rich rewards of teaching!

With respect to another big summer movie on the horizon... Nope.

Mav will, of course, end up flying the mission himself, with his students as his wingmen: the best pilots of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets pilots who are overseen by Vice Admiral Beau "Cyclone" Simpson and Rear Admiral Solomon "Warlock" Bates.

Oh, I'm sorry — I meant wing-people. There's a female pilot here — which shouldn't even merit a mention in 2022, but I bring her up because the film is still so far behind the times that she's subjected to being the punchline of a joke about being, yes, "a wingman." (Sigh.) Okay. I guess the film's target audience might still think that's funny.

This team's task is urgent and incredibly dangerous. A foreign country (we can't know who it is or, you know, we'd actually have to think about the situation and consider America's rapidly deteriorating role on the global stage) is enriching uranium in a depression surrounded by steep mountains. Pilots will have to sneak in by flying just a few feet above the ground to escape radar detection, and then they'll have to fly out by veering up and over a high ridge, moving at high speed to elevations unfit for human life. And, of course, there are missiles and even more advanced aircraft ready to take them out — that's how video games work.

Mav gets a new team, who make jokes that highlight the presence of (gasp!) women and people of color! How progressive! [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

But here's the sticking point: During their desperate run through the crater, the American pilots have to bomb a specific target. The approach will not be easy. The target area is only two meters wide. It's a small thermal exhaust port, right below the main port. The shaft leads directly to the reactor system. A precise hit will start a chain reaction which should destroy the station. Only a precise hit will set off a chain reaction. The shaft is ray-shielded, so they'll have to use photon torpedoes.*

Wait — forgive me! I lost my mind for a moment there. Those last several lines are actually drawn directly from 1977's Star Wars. The mission just seems so familiar, I guess my brain switched tracks mid-review! Bear with me.

The training is rushed, tense, and complicated by two of the pilots: one, Lieutenant Jake "Hangman" Seresin (Glen Powell) and Lieutenant Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw (Miles Teller), who look poised to take over if Cruise doesn't return to the franchise. Hangman has that devil-may-care smirk that is mandatory for a cocky hero, and Rooster... well, he's capable of resembling Anthony Edwards's Goose from the first film, which is appropriate since he is, of course, Goose's son. One of the film's central tensions flares up when Maverick and Rooster clash — but Rooster isn't holding a grudge over Goose's death in the first film, as you might expect; it's over something much more bureaucratic and uninteresting than that. Never mind.

Hey, fans — remember Mav's wingman Goose? If not, the film will provide plenty of flashbacks to remind you. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

You can pretty much guess where it goes from here: Mav aggravates the Powers That Be. The deadline gets moved up. The mission is run when the crew doesn't seem ready. And, yes, Mav will have to be heroic.

That leads to one of the film's true highlights: a venture into unexplored narrative territory, as a rescue mission requires characters to take actions that have no parallel in the first film. I won't spoil them for you. But for the first time, in its final 40 minutes, the movie surprised me. It surprised me with a tangential adventure I hadn't seen coming.

Still, one of the two most promising opportunities that Top Gun: Maverick has to demonstrate wisdom comes in the development of Mav's new love interest, Penny Benjamin. Penny's played by Jennifer Connelly, another icon of '80s fantasy films — Labyrinth most notably. (When Connelly first appears onscreen as a bartender, there's a David Bowie song playing in the background, and I had to applaud the cleverness of that. It's my favorite moment in the whole movie.) If anybody has a good chance to teach Mav something about growing up, it's Penny. She has history with Mav and should be able to speak to him about his weaknesses in ways that he will hear. By devoting more attention to her character, background, and context than anyone else in either movie, they surprised me by making her interesting. So, does she matter much in the end? Does she stand alone as an individual, presenting us with another vision for what matters?

An awwwww-inspring moment from Top Gun: Maverick. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

Again... nope! Penny only ends up throwing fuel on the fires of Mav's ambitions, independence, and wish-fulfillment endeavors. She's there to give him a second chance, to invite him into her bedsheets, and to show up as a trophy at the end of the film in a supermodel pose — I am not making this up — leaning on a shiny Porsche as if he's won the grand prize on The Price is Right. I am not making this up. If the rest of the film had been crafted as satire, I would have laughed even harder than I did at this moment.

The second most promising aspect is a creative re-introduction of Mav's former rival: Iceman. If you were one of the few who watched the remarkable recent documentary Val, about the actor Val Kilmer, and the ruination of his film career by one misfortune after another, you might have wondered, like I did, if they would find a way to bring Iceman back for Top Gun: Maverick. And they did! The reunion of Maverick and Iceman provides what may be for most viewers the movie's most emotionally affecting exchange. For me, much of that emotion comes from the fact that they invited Kilmer to be a part of this at all! It's just so good to see him again, knowing the suffering he continues to endure.

But I can't help but feel they could have dignified Kilmer and his character by investing more imagination in his return. That's the thing about Top Gun: Maverick — the very few things it does with real imagination shine out as highlights, even though I can still imagine more meaningful choices they might have made even there.

Live without a net: This time, the crew plays beach football. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

It isn't my aim or my duty to recount the rest of the narrative: Moviegoers are having fun with this one, so, by all means, go have fun! I'm just here to give you some thoughtful first impressions of the film without spoiling it for those who haven't seen it yet.

And it isn't my intention to take cheap shots or merely complain about the movie. [UPDATE: I'm going to say something now in bold print for those who keep firing f-bombs at me for my opinion of this movie, because they seem to be so upset by my Rotten Tomatoes blurb on this movie that they're not able to read the whole review clearly.] I had fun watching Top Gun: Maverick. The flight training scenes and aerial combat are exciting and often exhilarating due to the fact that they aren't animated — they're actual footage of some impressive stunt flying. It's fun to see familiar faces, although I'm not feeling compelled to highlight any particular performance — Cruise is doing things we've seen him do a million times. (As I said in Part One of this essay, He's always best when he's playing a self-doubting villain or a hot-tempered man-child who needs to grow up.) The whole operation has been carefully calibrated as one of the most powerful fan-service productions of all time, giving those who have the first film almost memorized so many dopamine hits — flashbacks, nostalgia hits, variations on familiar scenes — that they'll be grinning as brightly as Tom Cruise himself when it's over. As entertainment that rewards your senses without challenging us to consider anything of real substance, it's great! Director Joseph Kosinski, who made an entertaining but unfulfilling sequel to Tron more than a decade ago, and whose 2013 sci-fi adventure Oblivion surprised me with its extravagant visuals and its playful genre references, is likely to have the biggest hit of his career with this film by delivering everything the studio could have hoped for, everything Tom Cruise could have hoped for, and everything they might have anticipated moviegoers could want.

But I'm not one of the moviegoers they were thinking about. I love a great action movie. This year, I've enjoyed Everything Everywhere All at Once multiple times. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, and Mad Max: Fury Road are among my all-time favorite films. And I've seen films about the American military that rank as favorites: The Thin Red Line, for example, is a work of transcendent beauty and wisdom. But I'm afraid that Top Gun: Maverick is a shiny, well-executed barrage of clichés. And it ends up reinforcing archetypes and values that I see as root causes of destructive afflictions in our culture. As much fun as it is when a familiar formula is well-executed, this movie is also an altar to America's obsession with youthfulness, its exaltation of white super-men (showing people of color as inferior), its worship of heavy artillery, its insistence that we not think much about the consequences of violence, its permissiveness toward what we now wisely call "toxic masculinity," its adoration for recklessness rather than integrity, and (sigh) its objectification of women as trophies.

[UPDATE: That last line statement has triggered a bunch of white males to send me profane "comments" full of name-calling and rage — all kinds of ugliness that actually underline my point: This is a movie that amplifies a harmful ideal and caters to those who subscribe to it. Be careful, friends. If you dare to question the glory of an arrogant white male with a weapon, or challenge the perceived superiority of those men, you will suddenly become a target for the worst examples of that sort. They will try to tell you that you owe them, because all of the good things you enjoy came about because of them. I'm tempted to recommend they take some history classes, but I don't think education — or criticism — on these matters is interesting to them. They are showing us — even in their reactions to film reviews — who they are... and how insecure.]

"What's that? Do I do my own stunts? I'm glad you asked." [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

So I wasn't surprised when, as the end credits rolled, some young athletic white guys who had been cheering raucously throughout the film stood up, turned, and tried to get the rest of us in the theater to join a standing ovation. "Come on!" they roared. They had seen a worship service for the kind of guy they want to be, the kind of world they want to live in.

If you feel the need for speed, Top Gun: Maverick might be enough for some thrills and laughs in air-conditioning this summer. And it's not imaginative enough in its storytelling, or as wise i what it celebrates, for me to give it a glowing recommendation. And it's certainly not my religion. it shouldn't be anyone else's either.


In the interest of encouraging meaningful dialogue, and with great respect for alternate takes that are written with civility and thoughtfulness, I recommend the review by Steven D. Greydanus, who gives the film an "A-minus," at Decent Films. (Of course, those who are sending me angry retaliatory rants full of juvenile locker-room insults won't respect this gesture.)

If I were giving it a letter grade, I'd give it a generous "C" for the joys of the aerial stunt flying, which really is exhilarating.

Lost somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle, an aircraft carrier and its fighter planes seem to be stuck in time. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

*The lines in blue are from Star Wars (1977).


Due to the number of people violating the Comment Policy here here, I am closing down Comments on this post. If you enjoyed the movie, I'm delighted! I enjoyed it too — I said so in the review. If you're angry about my opinion or my vote on Rotten Tomatoes — live with it. I respect your opinion of the movie; I expect respectful responses to mine. But, due to a bunch of bullies who think verbal violence is better than thoughtful dialogue, the Comments are closed on this review. Hey, thank you to everyone who gave me great examples of reactionary, uncritical thinking to share in my film criticism class! It's always good to encourage students toward civil criticism and strong arguments by getting them to laugh and roll their eyes at the uselessness of profanity and bullying.


Maverick and Me: Part One

Tom Cruise is eight years older than me. When director Tony Scott's Top Gun roared into theaters in May of 1986 and conquered the box office, Cruise was the hot commodity that a lot of 16-year-old boys wished we would be when we reached college. He was cool, cocky, disarmingly charismatic, and athletic. We were shocked to learn that he was only 5' 7". But nevertheless, he commanded any scene he stepped into and loomed over our generation as an ideal — or, better, an idol.

At that time — we're talking more than three decades ago — I disliked him.

It wasn't just envy. But envy was a big part of it: I saw what girls around me responded to, and it wasn't my tall, gawky, awkward body type. Cruise was like a computer-generated ideal, an image printed on a movie poster that was then transformed into a 3D-model for casting plastic action figure based on that image. It worked: In his blue jeans and leather jacket, he commanded girls' attention almost as much as the blue-jeaned and leather jacketed pop star George Michael. And even though I was a high-school basketball starter and decent volleyball player in gym class, I knew I'd never have Cruise's assured athleticism or his confidence. So, yeah — I wanted some of that seemingly effortless magnetism.

Cruise's Mug of Smugness. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

But no, it wasn't just envy. I found Cruise's whole demeanor off-putting. He was so cocky, so contentious, so brusque. And, more importantly, he was a little too aggressive, a little too determined to charm everyone, and that made him seem insecure to me. He seemed a salesman afraid of losing his job. He was a sports car on the showroom floor that might not have anything at all under the hood. He seemed like a commercial for a false ideal.

So I resented his popularity.

When Top Gun arrived, Cruise was already popular an attraction for some moviegoers. Not for me. I hadn't seen The Outsiders. I hadn't been allowed to watch Risky Business (too sexy for conservative Christian moviegoers), although I knew its reputation among the cool kids. I knew him only from Ridley Scott's Legend: A big fan of any fantasy movie, I had slipped into the Village Theater — a 99-cents-a-ticket double-feature movie theater in my neighborhood — to see it. But Cruise, in that film, seemed like a miscast male model who never came close to stealing the show from his surroundings (or, for that matter, Tim Curry's fantastic villain).

A thrilling big-screen blast off in Top Gun. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

And yet, when Top Gun opened, I loved the movie in spite of Cruise. My friends and I — the unpopular kids, the uncool, the kids with good grades — watched it repeatedly (I'd guess seven or eight times) in that double-feature theater. Over and over again. And then, when it was released on VHS, we watched it at more than one slumber party, turning it up as loud as parents would allow to try to replicate the theatrical experience.

We endured Cruise's egomaniacal action-figure avatar, and we made fun of him relentlessly. We mocked the clunky screenwriting mechanics that set him up to be an underdog who would obviously humiliate and own his supervisors. We groaned at how the film rewards his relentless rule-breaking. We scoffed at the homoerotic volleyball game, not so much intimidated by the male model six-packs as we were troubled by the camera's unabashed, worshipful lust for muscular masculinity. Even though were were discomforted by just how much steamier the "Take My Breath Away" sex scene between Cruise and Kelly McGillis was than anything we'd seen in PG movies before, we howled at it, scoffing at its hilarious self-seriousness. It seemed one of the dumbest love stories we'd seen in any movie.

Taking PG-moviegoers' breath away. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

Some of us were more enthusiastic about its nationalistic propaganda than others. And one of my closest friends in those moviegoing adventures would go on to a career in the military, perhaps inspired by the glorification of that hardware. Me — I was already skeptical of anything that made gods of soldiers, of anything that made America seem righteous and justified in its self-appointed role as trigger-happy global policemen. So I couldn't have been less interested in the American flags or the international conflict giving the action its context.

But when that theme by Harold Faltermeyer and Steve Stevens kicked in, when the heat radiated from the fighter planes on the deck of the aircraft carrier, and when, with the shrieking and roaring of dragons, they took flight, I was captivated. I too felt the need for that kind of speed. It was the magic of how a fusion of imagery and music could make me feel like I was defying gravity. It was a vicarious escape from my complicated world, my complicated high school, my complicated body — and from aggravations and uncertainties that the rest of the movie amplified. To fly with Top Gun pilots was more liberating and exciting than the Star Wars dogfights we knew by heart.

Maverick and Goose "feel the need." [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

Most importantly, it was real. Those weren't cartoons on the screen. They weren't the intricate model X-Wings on strings creating an illusion of flight. This had really happened in front of cameras in the sky. It was hard to believe. It was a kind of big-screen joy that no animated aircraft have ever inspired before or since. It was real daylight reflected off of real aircraft wings. Those were real contrails scrawling signatures in the sky.

And I was feeling the same kind of awe that I had felt as a small child when my parents had parked our family car at the edge of the Portland International Airport runway after dark so I could watch a 747 take off at close range, feel the heat of it as it soared overheard, feel the earth tremble with the power of its engines. It's an incredible thing to witness what human beings can do when they aspire to excellence in any art, and this aerial adventure was my kind of dancing.

A moment of real feeling, matched meaningfully by a rare moment of aesthetic, painterly beauty. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

Since then, my respect for Cruise as a very specific kind of actor has grown. I never believe him as an action hero because I still feel suspicious of him. I don't sense intelligence behind those eyes; I still sense a certain salesmanship. (The Mission: Impossible movies remain, for me, a derivative genre that lacks a compelling lead hero, even though those movies often overcome that problem and become wildly entertaining.)

But if Cruise's character is someone fearful and insecure behind a facade of courage and charisma? Wow, I believe that. So I love him in Rain Man. I love him (and find his character genuinely horrifying) in Magnolia. He's absolutely perfect in Michale Mann's Collateral. If I see Cruise playing characters like this, I'm standing in line right away.

Funny — never once did I find myself hoping for a Top Gun sequel. That's because I had no desire to revisit those characters. Beyond its cloud-busting ballet of multi-million-dollar aircraft, the movie hadn't given me anything in particular to care about. Sure, we all feel something when a soldier's partner is struck down in action. And we all like to see a rookie rise above his superiors' expectations to be "the best that they can be." But if you'd told me a sequel was coming, I would have guessed that it would be a predictable case of bigger instead of better, louder instead of more melodic, more extreme and less capable of suspending disbelief.

So, over the last several years as the plans for Top Gun 2 became public and the pop-culture anticipation began to rise (among moviegoers of a certain age, at least), I've felt a strange mix of indifference and dread. Moviegoers' appetite for it seemed worrying. The brashness and bravado of those bare-chested Top Gun egomaniacs doesn't play now as it once did. It shouldn't, anyway. It looks to me now like a symptom of deep cultural diseases. Nationalistic propaganda is the worst thing for America right now, as the courts are in session exposing the corruption and criminality that hides behind such flagrant arrogance. We have betrayed our best ideals. We have shown the world that our dedication to democracy is feeble and fickle. We have shown the world that our historic stands against cruel tyrants didn't really mean much, and that we would sell our soul for the first con man to tell us what we wanted to hear. We've shown the world that many of us are striving to re-imagine American for a game of "Might Makes Right" instead of "Liberty and Justice for All." We have given anyone good reason to call our bluff when we sing our National Anthem or salute a ceremonial fly-over. The empty-headed arrogance of Top Gun's contentious characters can now be plainly seen and heard in the campaigns of narcissistic authoritarians who can win the support of half of the nation.

The brash braggart Iceman sounds today like nothing less than a Republican candidate for office. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

The kind of heroes that Tom Cruise tended to play in the '80s and '90s seem like prime suspects in any reasonable interrogation of what we now call "toxic masculinity" in American pop culture, with only Mel Gibson seeming more culpable in the big-screen glorification of a destructive archetype. And those rare moments when his character really stood for something, as he did in Rob Reiner's A Few Good Men, now seem quaint and sentimental, a fantasy of a principled military man from an America that is long gone if it ever existed at all.

And now, Top Gun: Maverick is here. I've heard the revival of those Kenny Loggins guitars, felt my ribs tremble in the roar of cineplex sub-woofers, and gripped the arms of my chair as fighter plans blast audiences into vertiginous climbs and dizzying dives.

One thing hasn't changed: Tom Cruise is still eight years older than me. But almost everything else has changed. I hope I've outgrown some of the arrogance of adolescence. I'd like to think I'm aging well, without being sentimental or idolatrous about my youth. Has the character of Maverick grown matured into wisdom? Having had so long to dream up a second chapter, will these filmmakers surprise us with deepening discernment? Or will this be just another pageant of adulation for American military strenght? Will this just be another adrenalin rush for bro-culture?

What to make of Maverick?

I'll tell you what I thought of it in my next post. Here's Part Two.


Weekender: New Twitter. Doctor Strange's Multiverse. Faith in musicals. SDG on The Northman.

Ladies and gentlemen... the Weekender!

Here's a miscellany of notes from the past week that I find post-worthy here at Looking Closer.


A new Twitter account for Looking Closer readers?

It's true! Follow @jeffoverstweet.


First Impressions of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

I enjoyed being called "Doctor Strange" by my colleagues and students while my admiration for the character brought to the big screen by director Scott Derrickson lasted.

But that admiration has come to an end with the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, in which his decision-making and ethical resolve collapse spectacularly, and in which his own narrative becomes just another stitch hyper-connected in the endless tapestry of the MCU rather than establishing Doctor Strange films as significant standalone stories.

A candid photo of me trying to make sense of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

At this point, I care so little for Marvel movies now that I can't be bothered to write a proper review of this one, which turns up to "11" all of the things that bore me most about the MCU. I mean, I loved Raimi's Spider-Man 2 at the time, and I get the joke that within moments of his return he's unleashed yet another hyper-violent "octopus" on a screaming metropolis, even though there's no Spidey in sight. But as he directs everything toward a frenzied tribute to his own past films (particularly the Evil Dead series) — featuring a Benedict Zombiebatch of Doctor Stranges — I can't be bothered to try to track the many-tentacled narrative.

If you want to read something substantial and insightful about the film, read Steven D. Greydanus's review. He's, um,"different than all of the other Stevens." Has he really given Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness a grade of... D+?! Yes. Yes he has.

He writes, "This is becoming a running theme in the MCU: The powers that be are at best incompetent, if not frauds or something worse." Damn straight.

And he's right again in his conclusion: "A closing title tells us 'Doctor Strange Will Return.' Having gotten to know him better than I wanted, I can’t help feeling that’s less a promise than a threat."

Still, these problems are not the main cause of my fatigue. I'm weary because the endless encyclopedia of powers unleashed across these universes make a suspenseful storyline all but impossible. Why worry about the fate of any of these characters — or any of these universes, for that matter — when a solution always presents itself by the arrival of any of these avatars of limitless magic? Thus, the seemingly endless battle scenes tend to be just sound and fury signifying nothing but more money in the Disney account. And the constant Marvel theme about "great power" coming with "great responsibility" is constantly undermined by these storytellers, who always let their heroes off the hook for transgressing their own moral boundaries (always "for the greater good!")

Anyway... never mind. Talking about the problems with MCU movies to a moviegoing majority that has embraced it all with an insatiable appetite for more is like... well, it's pointless and depressing. Over on Letterboxd, I'm giving this two stars, both earned entirely by the great Elizabeth Olsen. I really want to revisit Martha Marcy May Marlene again, now that the world is finally appreciating this remarkable actress properly.

As MCU movies go, I liked the unconventionally creative resolution of the first Doctor Strange film quite a bit. I will always wonder what screenwriter and director Scott Derrickson would've done if they'd let him direct the Multiverse of Madness film that he was cooking up before "creative differences" led Marvel to hand the reins to Raimi. I suspect we would've ended up with a far more interesting story, and something more Strange-focused than this, which is basically Wandavision: The Epilogue.


The Most Spiritually Significant Musicals of All Time?

Once upon a time, Image hosted the Arts & Faith group, where we would curate, write about, and publish amazing lists of essential films in various categories: "Road Movies," "Divine Comedies," "Memory," "Marriage." Much to my dismay, that fruitful partnership came to a sudden end.

But the Arts & Faith collaboration of Christian film critics continues. And they've just published their latest film list.

For what it's worth, this is the first A&F list that I didn't participate in due to having an overcrowded calendar. But I am still delighted by these results and write-ups, all the same.

Here's the introduction by my friend Evan Cogswell (whom I interviewed about Leo Carax's Annette last year on the Looking Closer podcast).

And here's the list!


SDG on The Northman

Amleth on the rampage. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]
Now that you know what Steven Greydanus thinks of the new Doctor Strange film, you'll find he's far more positive in his review of Robert Eggers' hyperviolent epic The Northman:

Turning to the Scandinavian legend of Amleth—the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet—Eggers set out to create the most credible cinematic evocation of the Viking world ever committed to film, on an epic scale dwarfing his first two films. ... [It's] an arresting immersion in the medieval Scandinavian world, one that expands viewers’ cinematic horizons. Wherever Eggers’ historical curiosity leads him next, I’ll be there.


Arcade Fire's big noise is back, and so are the sermons

Are you up for a heavy insight?

That's what you'll get when you listen to Rowan Williams, the Welsh Anglican bishop and former Archbishop of Canterbury. Here's an example of Williams' wisdom as quoted by Jeremy Begbie in Sounding the Depths: Theology Through the Arts:

Art ... can’t properly begin with a message and then seek for a vehicle. Its roots lie, rather, in the single story or metaphor or configuration of sound or shape which requires attention and development from the artist. In the process of that development, we find meaning we had not suspected; but if we try to begin with the meanings, they will shrink to the scale of what we already understand: whereas the creative activity opens up what we did not understand and perhaps will not fully understand even when the actual work of creation is done.

In trying to scratch the itch of my dwindling enthusiasm for the music of Arcade Fire, I rediscovered this passage, which was once printed poster-sized on the wall of my office at Seattle Pacific University. Reading it again was illuminating in the context of my mixed feelings as WE, the latest album from the Canadian indie rock giants Arcade Fire, engulfed me in lush, layered currents of sound.

The early run of Arcade Fire albums — the seven-track, self-titled debut in 2003; the rough and rowdy rock breakthrough of 2005's Funeral; 2007's profound (and dare-I-say prophetic?) Neon Bible; and then the triumphant double-album The Suburbs in 2010 (that catapulted them to the dubious status of "Grammy-winning artists") — established this creative Montreal-based collective as the latest generation in a great and principled rock pantheon, blessed by gestures of admiration and approval by U2 and Bowie and Springsteen. Their Funeral anthem "Wake Up" became a rallying cry and a mission statement for a generation, and I remember singing my heart out along with the joyous audience at a U2 show when the band chose that  song as a prelude to their show, which proved to be as exciting as anything that would follow in the live performance when the boys from Dublin took the stage.

Since then, there have been definite highs that have kept the fires of my admiration alight, even though there have been almost as many head-scratcher tangents that have dialed down that heat and that glow. 2013's Reflektor had some true inspiration in its mythic sweep, but overall it came to seem bloated and uneven. 2017's Everything Now deserved some applause for the bright and sparkly sounds of its stylistic change-up and the band's evolution into a dance-band, but the explicitness of its earnest and grim social commentary felt a bit heavy-handed, and the severity of it started to become tiresome. It felt as if the spirit of adventure was alive in everything but the lyrics — and for this listener, lyrics are as important as any other element of a band's greatness. Unlike their colleagues in The Decemberists, who continue to explore new sounds, new subjects, and new stories, Arcade Fire was leaning into diagnosing and paraphrasing cultural afflictions. Just as U2 loses their edge (no pun intended) when they prioritize getting hooks and hit singles instead of leaning into the mystery of artistic inspiration, so Arcade Fire seemed to be losing that sense of unpredictability and excitement that comes from opening themselves to discovery instead of concerning themselves with messages.

So here we are in 2022. We seem to have arrived at the reality of anxiety, tech-saturation, and existential despair prophesied by Radiohead on OK Computer and Kid A. The world has changed dramatically in ways too numerous to count. And here comes that band that originally captured my imagination with an underdog's audacity, a reckless and dangerous new sound, and a flair for storytelling drawn from suburbia or ancient mythology. Have the last five years inspired them with new discoveries?

There's good new and bad news.

The answer is no — they haven't discovered a bold new sound. That's actually the good news.

Comprised of only seven tracks (like their first record), WE sounds like... well... a fusion of sounds from all of the previous albums. And it's produced in an array of dazzling colors and textures by the couple at the core of the band — Win Butler and Régine Chassagne — in collaboration with the great indie-rock genius Nigel Godrich (whose superpowers have been vital to the successes of Radiohead and Beck). Together, they move us gracefully from solitary piano in the vein of John Lennon to that familiar Funeral-style arena-rock roar. It's the kind of record that I'm sure will sound dizzying in Dolby Atmos. And some brief-but-faint backing vocals from Peter Gabriel are a nice surprise — even though they make me wonder why, if he was available for this, he wasn't featured more prominently. (And when-oh-when will Peter Gabriel give us new music of his own?) So, if you're tuning in to 2022's version of Arcade Fire because you love their sound, you probably won't be disappointed.

But the bad news is that WE delivers their shallowest, clunkiest, most on-the-nose writing, as if they're now signing their emails with the title Voices of a Generation. The needle is tilting away from Poetry and leaning into Preachy. It feels like an album that "the kids," if they are paying attention to it, will roll their eyes at in the same way that they roll their eyes at me when I say anything about the attention-fragmenting influence of smartphones.

Consider the inch-deep skepticism of the opening track, which sounds a bit too much like an old man grumbling about social media:

Fight the fever with TV
In the age where nobody sleeps
And the pills do nothing for me
In the age of anxiety

When I look at you, I see what you want me to
See what you want me to
When you look at me, you see what I want you to see
What I want you to see

By the measure of Rowan Williams's wisdom, this really sounds like a record that began with a list of themes, of "timely and relevant" cultural complaints, and then went looking for music that would support them. I winced when one of the album's most affecting anthems suddenly unleashed a refrain of "I unsubscribe." Such laments over the conformity and compromises of consumer culture (so heavily targeted already on Everything Now), and such yearnings to "get off the ride" of the collapse of Western civilization, seem so much more poignant in the poetry, the vivid and surreal imagery, and the specificity of storytelling on Elbow's recent album Giants of All Sizes (2019) than they do here. For decades, U2, R.E.M., and Radiohead have explored this present consumerist darkness with so much more imagination, painting such striking and compelling narratives and imagery. WE's track list reads like a table of contents in a collection of sermons: "Age of Anxiety," End of the Empire,' "Unconditional (Race and Religion)." When Butler sings for a disillusioned youth who "can’t stop crying" and who feel like "another lost alien," I just want to go back two decades and listen to OK Computer.

That's not to say that the music won't grow on me — their albums often have.

And there are moments here that have my number, flashing bright reflections of U2's gospel and R.E.M.'s sonic youth pep-talks like "Drive." Remember when Automatic for the People opened with Michael Stipe chanting "Hey, kids — rock and roll / Nobody tells you where to go"? Check out these instructions from Butler on "Unconditional 1":

Lookout kid, trust your soul
It ain't hard to rock n' roll
You know how to move your hips
And you know God is cool with it
Some people want the rock without the roll
But we all know, there’s no God without soul...

I mean, it's pretty cool to sing along with those lines. So I hope my friend and mentor David Dark will forgive me, considering he recently tweeted this:

I cannot deny that this album is born with the DNA of records that were formative for me. Maybe I'll fall for it little by little as I spend more time with it. After all, I ended up playing Everything Now a lot more than I anticipated I would after a first listen. (Here's a flashback to my review of that one.)

But there's something about sharing a sense of discovery along with the artists as an album unfolds. There's something about getting caught up in mysteries, images, and stories, and then arriving at the edges of insight together, that I find so much more engaging than having insights paraphrased and presented to me. Just as I became disenchanted with Christian rock in the late '80s for how obvious almost everything seemed, how unadventurous, how redundant, and how derivative, so I find myself thinking about Arcade Fire themselves when I get to that "unsubscribe" refrain. And when they say they're naming their kid "Sagittarius A,"  the not-so-subtle Radiohead reference seems less like a creative inspiration ad more like another cool-kid "Do you see what we did there?"

No, I won't unsubscribe on Arcade Fire. Or, to borrow another lyric, I won't quit on them — and I don't think they're quitting on us. Their music is still pretty compelling. It just so happens that I agree with their sentiments on culture, politics, the devolution of America, and the hope to be found in the power of unconditional love.

But I want to have the experience of wonder with their music, again. I want to feel I'm plunging into the mystery of artists caught up in a vision, not a commencement speech. Perhaps it's time they took a break and signed up for some poetry classes.


Catch the rare treasure Petite Maman on the big screen if you can

How can I inspire you to see Céline Sciamma's new film Petite Maman without spoiling it for you?

If you have children who can read subtitles, how can I convince you to spend the evening watching it as a family?

Chances are that if you've read anything about this quietly enchanting fantasy, or even seen a trailer, you already know its whimsical twist. But I hope not. I'm glad that I wandered into it without knowing anything except that it was an unusually short feature film and that it was by the director of the exquisitely tragic love story Portrait of a Lady on Fire (one of my ten favorite films of 2020). If you do know what's coming, well —  it won't ruin the movie for you. In fact, having seen the whole thing, I am eager to see it again, confident I will enjoy it even more. But it's a rare occasion that a movie's revelations will inspire smiles of joy and wonder like this one does.

[Image from the Madman Films trailer for Petite Maman.]

Petite Maman — which, if I have any reliable memories from my high-school French lessons, must mean "Little Mother" — follows young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) out into the woods to the house of the one they have recently lost: Nelly's grandmother, Marion's mother. In the haunted quiet of that house — one visited by gentle apparitions of reflected light that would have pleased Kieslowski — Nelly struggles to accept that she did not give her grandmother a proper goodbye. And Marion, who seems to be melancholy by nature and now must contend with deep grief, has things to work out as well.

What happens next is this enchanted forest, well — you will you will discover it all too easily from the movie's marketing if you're paying attention. (Try not to.) Suffice it to say that it's a rare kind of movie magic, achieved by very young actors without any digital animation or technical special effects. And their company is so delightful that you'll be likely to wish that movie was longer. Sciamma is a filmmaker who knows that less is more. No need to hit the two-hour mark unless it's absolutely necessary. This has all the weight of a full feature film, and it's a slight 72 minutes.

[Image from the Madman Films trailer for Petite Maman.]

But for Sciamma, it isn't a small movie. Talking to film critic Carlos Aguilar at The Los Angeles Times, she said, "I don’t see Petite Maman as a modest film. The impact I want it to have is to give us a new mythology to understand ourselves and heal. ... Rather than just looking back and realize our parents were also kids, it’s a form of future perception of them. It’s about connecting, but about being reunited. That’s why it’s my dream for the film to be watched in a theater filled with adults and kids, because the film respects them both equally.”

[MAY 13, 2022 UPDATE: Having now seen it twice, I must echo Sciamma's hope. The film is so much more beautiful on a big screen, its silences so much stronger. If I were seeking to inspire in children a love of cinema, this is one of the first films I would take them to see. And I would be fascinated to ask them what they thought of it afterwards.]

This modest, intimate, magical story may seem like quite a surprising turn for Sciamma, whose Lumière award-winning Girlhood was such a starkly realistic portrait of adolescence, and whose Cannes award-winning Portrait of a Lady on Fire was so wise and so meaningfully erotic. But one remarkable quality they all share is a patient and hopeful attentiveness to suffering.

[Image from the Madman Films trailer for Petite Maman.]

As I watched it, I was vividly reminded of two very special films: Jacques Doillon's Ponette and John Sayles's The Secret of Roan Inish. The films share some unusual strengths: In all three, we follow observant and intelligent children through territory scarred with loss and sadness. In all three, the film's delicate fairy-tale tone must be inspired and sustained by talented child actors. In all three those actors are convincing — they seem entirely unaware of the cameras and entirely convinced of their narrative circumstances. And in all three, we find a similar spirit of tenderness.

But — as more than one friend of mine has observed — there's more than a little My Neighbor Totoro in the mix here, too. (Sciamma herself agrees, according to that Los Angeles Times piece.) Don't get the wrong idea — this movie doesn't need big, fuzzy, huggable trolls or flying cats. It has all of the magic it needs in sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, who strike a powerfully authentic tone of playful kinship, saving the film from a high risk of sentimentality, and inspiring our suspension of disbelief. (Disbe-grief?)

[Image from the Madman Films trailer for Petite Maman.]

2022 has been a year full of movies about mothers and daughters: In both Everything Everywhere All at Once and Turning Red, the mothers need enlightenment and their daughters must become exasperated and dangerous in order to smack them out of their ignorance. Both films, though they have their strengths, seem compelled to reach a frantic pace, as if that's what it takes to entertain audiences. What that costs the audience is a chance to be drawn in, to have visual and aural space in which to contemplate. And watching Petite Maman, we have the opportunity to reflect, to ask questions, to imagine possibilities and implications. Above all, we have the chance to empathize. By Ebert's famous definition, "A movie is a machine that generates empathy." And that makes this, far more than either of the other major mother/daughter films of the year, a great movie.

And so, with great respect for the joy of discovering this film, I will let this be the extent of my review. I want your experience with this film to be full of surprises. It's so gentle, so full of admirable restraint, so radiant with childlike curiosity, I feel unusually motivated to preserve its subtle pleasures for you without any hints in advance.

I'll give the last words here to my friend and my favorite film critic: Steven D. Greydanus. He calls Petite Maman an "exquisite little film" and recommends it "for all ages." At Catholic World Report, he writes,

Not long ago ... I remarked on my abiding love of time travel for its power to speak to deep human longings to undo past wrongs and heal incurable wounds: to offer, in a word, an imaginative picture of redemption beyond anything we experience in the ordinary flow of time. There’s no place in a film like Petite Maman for world-bending sorcery or flux capacitors, but the elegant simplicity of what Sciamma does with an unexplained wrinkle in the fabric of reality speaks as eloquently to those longings as any film I’ve seen.


Conflicted about The Northman's conflict

[CAUTION: There are some very general, spoiler-ish observations in this review that concern its closing scenes and the relationship between those scenes and the endings of Robert Eggers' previous films The Witch and The Lighthouse.]


It's kind of amazing how many films I've seen built upon the Inigo Montoya mantra. (Let's say it together: "You killed my father. Prepare to die.") It's even more amazing how fundamental that storyline is, considering the fact that I have never met a single human being whose father has been murdered by a traitorous acquaintance. Nor have I ever met anyone who had an opportunity to go on a revenge quest.

And yet, just this morning, in conversation with a wise counselor, what was I wrestling with? I was tending to some wounds that I suffered as a young boy during a season of my father's unemployment. At the time, I believed — passionately — that teachers and school administrators had wickedly conspired against him top end his job as a teacher. I remember feelings of rage, helplessness, and humiliation over the idea that anyone could take power away from my parents in ways that would make them suffer hardship.

That was only the beginning. There was a lot that I know now that I did not understand then. I had a lot of growing up to do.

Young Amleth flees the scene of violence that will scar him for life. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

Thus, even though I am weary of revenge narratives, I feel some measure of understanding and sympathy for the deeply wounded young hero of Robert Eggers's new film The Northman. He too, as a young boy, witnesses his father "removal" from a place of power and influence. He too suffers emotional trauma and lets his fury harden into resentment that becomes a controlling factor in his life.

And he too has a lot to learn in the process of growing up.

But is he willing to learn?


Revenge is foolishness. But that doesn't mean that stories about it are worthless. Sure, there is an epidemic in American entertainment of stories that glorify revenge — and that's a toxic trend. But tales of vengeance can follow a righteously angry hero to so many possible conclusions: not only a violent reckoning or ruin, but also grace, forgiveness, reconciliation.

I love Lee Isaac Chung's film Munyurangabo, which I saw a whole decade before he made the Oscar-winning Minari. It's a powerful story of a revenge quest that leads its angry and heartbroken antihero to a surprising turn. It's a surprising story that finds hope at the end of a journey that began in trauma and wrath.

Such stories are very rare throughout human history. But even if revenge tales end in the achievement of violence, they can become meaningful tragedies. In choosing violence over long-suffering and love, an antihero can illustrate the wages of sin and provide us with a cautionary tale. Consider Hamlet: the choice to answer killing with killing leads to greater consequences for everyone.

I've always found the prevalence of such violence in mythology interesting — Celtic tales, Greek myths, whatever the origin — for how it illustrates the values and beliefs of particular peoples, places, and times. I first learned about the Norse god Vidar, also known as "The Silent God" and "the God of Revenge," while paying very little attention during a boring college class on mythology. You want Vidar on your side if you're on a revenge quest. After all, according to his origin story, Vidar knows the territory: Wreaking vengeance, he tore apart Fenrir, the wolf who had killed his own literal god-father: Odin.

But why is Vidar described as a god of silence and revenge? The combination struck me as curious. Was Vidar silent because silence is an essential talent for someone who is determined to sneak up on a dangerous tyrant and kill him? That makes sense — especially if the villain might be anticipating such retaliation. Could it also be that a god of revenge is violent precisely because he is silent about his anger?

Bottle up hard feelings and you'll end up with a volcanic eruption. That's some heavy wisdom — I've learned it from watching others in my family and community. I've learned it in my own experience.

Nevertheless, I have no doubt that contemporary revenge narratives influence a culture that has such a huge appetite for them. The increasing violence in American culture wars seems to me to be influenced by these stories. Make an audience angry enough, and they will cheer for all manner of violence. And that includes Christian audiences, as evidenced by the popularity of Braveheart among evangelical Christians, and their increasing support for violent uprisings against their culture-war enemies (even though such uprisings are obviously contrary to Jesus's own teachings).

"My name is Amleth. You killed my father. Prepare to die." [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

So, I had good reason to approach Eggers's new movie with skepticism. Reading about the basic narrative arc of The Northman, I became nervous that this might become just a fancier, more enthralling version of the kind of narrative that Quentin Tarantino consistently serves up: a lurid feast appealing to an audience's bloodlust.

And, even more worrying than that — a Nordic revenge story? Right now? A story about clans of white people warring like animals in an endless cycle of violence and retaliation... making speeches about defending their bloodlines? Doesn't that sound like the glorification of what's going on all around us in the world right now and threatening not only our hopes for peace and justice but even our hopes of an inhabitable planet for future generations?

On the other hand, my history with Robert Eggers's filmography so far gave me some measure of optimism.

I admire his two previous films The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2020). Both tell stories of characters who remove themselves from the "trouble" of society (as if that will help). The efforts of those characters fail — as they distance themselves from some sources of trouble, they learn the hard way that they have brought plenty of trouble with them into their isolation. Now, suffering in remote places, they have no community to rely on for help. Even more troubling, both films depict their doomed protagonists devolving into a kind of ecstatic madness, a victory that I don't believe audiences are meant to believe in or celebrate. I think we're supposed to recoil at their choices and at the frightful consequences. I interpret both as cautionary tales — or, better, cautionary nightmares — about how our impulses can lead us straight to hell. And I think we are shown that, just the Satan of Milton's Paradise Lost determines to "make a heaven of hell," so these characters fail to discern the gravity of their error, thinking they have somehow triumphed.

What's more, I think Eggers's filmmaking powers are formidable. While both stories strike me as meaningful and worth studying, The Witch and The Lighthouse also look and sound extraordinary, their exquisite aesthetics conjuring a powerful sense of spiritual darkness, their scripts composed with a richly literary complexity, the lines delivered by actors who have mastered difficult dialects.

So... which is it?

Is The Northman a cautionary tale? A corrective to vengeful impulses?

Or is it just another Braveheart, justifying vengeful violence in the name of some kind of god, throwing fuel on the fire of the violent fantasies of the "culture warriors" who threaten democracy?

Prediction: The Northman will inspire trendy new headgear. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

As it turns out, both my fears and my second-guessing of this film were well founded.

For many moviegoers — perhaps most — The Northman will play like a darker, bloodier version of Gladiator, in which the audience roots for a suffering hero. He never quite says it, but the mantra is there all the same. He might have said "My name is Prince Amleth. You, Fjölnir The Brotherless, killed my father, King Aruvandil War-Raven. Prepare to die." Instead, he says, "I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjolnir.

We watch Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) gird up his loins and sharpen his lances to carry out violent vengeance against a tyrant (Claes Bang) who took the throne of his father (Ethan Hawke) by treachery, and also made the queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) his own by force.

Action Amleth! [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

Sound awfully familiar? It should.

The Northman is basically the ur-Hamlet, a version of classic story that pre-dates any of Shakespeare's concerns about Ophelia or the role of the Players in "catching the conscience of the king." This is the most fundamental of revenge quests. This Amleth doesn't care about wordplay. He devotes his life to the long game of stealth and vengeance, his intent easy readable in the creases of his forehead and the scowl of his posture. Amleth gets a decade-long training in Viking masculinity, complete with fireside dances and chants, hand-to-hand combat, costumes of animal skins, communion with wolves and with witchcraft (including a Seeress played by none other than the great sorceress of pop music: Bjork!), and with a sort of Crossfit program that involves a lot of rowing. It's easy to root for him... at first.

But there is a strange contradiction at the movie's heart — manifested in the character of Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). Amleth and Olga form a tenuous bond of mutual support as they earn their way up the chain of slavery to Fjölnir The Brotherless, until they find themselves in Iceland — Fjölnir has been driven out of his own kingdom and forced to settle elsewhere — at the edge of Fjölnir's inner circle and family.

Olga the Longsuffering and Wise. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

When they get there, Amleth is troubled to discover that the story he has told himself throughout his life has been a false narrative. Fake News. Those events that traumatized him in childhood, they weren't as simple as he'd imagined. It wasn't just a case of the Evil World committing sins against a Saint.

It's always more complicated than that. To learn such lessons is fundamental to the work of Growing Up.


Olga, the tender and beautiful slave who sees Amleth's hardship so clearly, becomes a beacon of wisdom and hope in his life. It's seems only right that she's played by Anya Taylor-Joy, the actress who has, in my opinion, eyes that seem to have been custom made for the camera's attention (yea, more than the eyes of any actor living or dead). Her tremendous, shining eyes give Olga a sense of seeing so much more than Amleth's narrow and bloodshot eyes ever could. She eventually comes to see a hope for the two of them to break away from the path of violence and find a more meaningful and rewarding life somewhere else.

She wants to set Amleth free from the dangers of clinging to the source of his wrath, that false narrative he has believed, that false narrative that he might now see clearly and overcome.

If you think that severed head looks familiar, trust yourself. You know that guy. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

Here is an opportunity to show audiences something so much more than — so much better than — the bloody revenge for which so many of them seem to have an insatiable appetite.

There is already plenty here to admire. Everything from the costumes to the sets — which often remind of me of Terrence Malick's work in The New World — are immersive and awe-inspiring. Eggers always knows where to put the camera. And the cast, as in every Eggers film, seems caught up in a fit of inspiration and chemistry, with one possible exception. I'm not sure I find Alexander Skarsgård to be the strongest choice for this role — he still seems more of a Movie Star than an immersive actor. He never surprises me here. Nicole Kidman, on the other hand, is terrifying and fearless in The Northman. I find the price of admission more than rewarded just for the spectacle of her fully committed performance. (I have to admit, though, that I half-expected her to break the fourth wall during a bloody battle scene and say, as she does in that awful AMC promo video, "Heartbreak feels good in a place like this.")


If I can trust my first experience with the film, I think Olga becomes the movie's conscience. We embrace Amleth's doubts, his momentary fear that he might not have any moral high ground to stand on here, as he waves his sword around and challenges his foe. Will Amleth choose to reject the wiser, more complicated understanding of what was really happening in his youth? Will he hold to his original emotional response, as reasonable as it might have been once upon a time, even though he now has a chance to see that it was childish, and that it will only lead to more bloodshed and folly?

He may not have six fingers on his left hand, but still — this guy is bad news. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

I think we are supposed to side with Olga in her appeal to dissuade Amleth from his quest. I have a hard time believing that Eggers us to side with Amleth in abandoning a future with his family in favor of the glory of a battle to the death. I think Eggers wants us to see that this is an old, old story, and that today we can be enlightened enough to glimpse a brighter path.

But I could be wrong about this.

So much depends upon how we interpret the film's closing moments — which I won't spoil here. They complicate matters significantly, and give those who disagree with me their best evidence.Several of the critics I trust the most are upset about this movie, making strong arguments that it is not only disappointing but dangerous. I completely respect these arguments.

So, rather than claim I have "the right reading" of this film, I'm inclined to borrow an expression from Winston Churchill (who was speaking about Russia, not Hamlet, when he said them): Eggers' film is "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." It's going to get people talking.

Bjork is back on the big screen! It's just really, really hard to see her clearly. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

But at this point, I do have a different interpretation of the film — particularly because I can't stop thinking about Eggers's two previous films. Both The Witch and The Lighthouse give us central characters who "turn to the Dark Side," so to speak. In their minds and by their chosen values, they triumph — sure. But they do so at the cost of their own souls. At the cost of their souls.

I am inclined to argue — only every so slightly, and I'm wide open to being persuaded otherwise — that The Northman is right in step with those films. I believe that Amleth is a tragic figure, one who is deluded into thinking he has triumphed, but from whom we must keep a skeptical distance, refusing to celebrate him as triumphant, horrified by what has become of him and what will probably likely become of his family. His self-affirming vision at the end is not unlike the ecstatic ascension of the young woman possessed at the conclusion of The Witch.

In the film's fiery volcano finale, I couldn't help but hear the distant echo of Young Obi-Wan's cry: "You were the chosen one!" Yeah, Amleth might've been, if he'd listened. The most heroic figure I know had a singular response to unfathomable evil, and in his response I find hope for an ultimate deliverance. After all, once you have started down the Dark Path, if you don't seize upon the moments of grace that are offered you, well... as the little green guru says, "forever will it dominate your destiny."

I prefer the Shakespeare version of this story, for the record. It gives us a clearer vision of wisdom and folly. And its truth can set us free.

The Northman on the rampage. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

But I think Eggers' version will stick with me. Amleth's dawning realizations about all that he misunderstood in childhood — these resonate with me. Some of the work I am doing now is learning to accept revelations about my childhood that were a long time coming. In a sense, it's yet another injury, another realization of betrayal. It wasn't a case of my family being "the Good Guys" and the world around us being "The Bad Guys." The impulse to draw lines in such a binary fashion is understandable when someone is hurt, but it's also childish, and it can cause us to take a bad situation and make it far, far worse. I look back at many years of speaking with contempt for those who I believed to be antagonistic toward my family. I look back at the stories I believed, the stories I told myself, and how they hardened into fury and resentment that have probably burned years away from the potential span of my life. The truth is setting me free — but not before the lies (some of which have been self-inflicted) have done a world of damage.

I'm grateful for storytellers who have helped me see the cost of vengeful impulses. I'm grateful for the Gospel's vision of a braver response that can lead to help and healing. Thus, I've broken away from the masses that cheer for the fulfillment of revenge quests. Stories of violent heroism always seem like tragedies to me. Violence is cyclical, after all: If you respond to violence with violence, all you're doing is perpetuating violence in a way that all but guarantees it will continue. Instead of going all Braveheart and raising a weapon in a roaring challenge, Christ receives his enemies' violence with open arms, suffers it, and refuses to let it remain in the world. In canceling violence, he saves us from sins. That is the kind of courage and character I find worth celebrating.

Amleth is too blinded by rage, and by a perverse cultural milieu of what we now call "toxic masculinity," to see the better path. And that is why his story is such a tragedy. Hopefully it will be received by audiences for what I believe it is: a memorable, harrowing, cautionary nightmare.


Weekender: Allison Russell, Philip Yancey, and Enchanted Journey II: Ex-vangelical Boogaloo

When I was in 6th grade, I played Evangelist the Narrator in a musical stage adaptation of Pilgrim's Progress. If I remember clearly what became a famous family story, I was sick in bed with a terrible fever, but I was determined that "the show must go on," so I went to school and survived the play, then collapsed in a sweat in the front row.

In 6th Grade, I played Evangelist alongside Karl Hutchinson's Pilgrim's Progress protagonist Christian at Portland Christian High School.

I haven't thought of that story for a long time.

But it came up in an unexpected place this week... on one of my favorite podcasts.

You'll find the evidence in this week's return to the Looking Closer ritual of "The Weekender" — a catch-all post of highlights from my past week.


 

Apparently, a lot of my closest friends are "Veterans of Culture Wars"

In one of the most surreal twists of my recent experience, one of my favorite podcasts — Veterans of Culture Wars, with Zach Malm and Dave Lester — posted back-to-back episodes featuring two of the friends who have influence and inspired me most:

  • Special guest Special guest Alissa Wilkinson.

I got to know Alissa online before we met in person. We were publishing film reviews in some of the same places and exchanged notes about films. We eventually met in-person for the first time (if I recall correctly) at the Glen Workshop — we've both led seminars there several times — and she's the one who (in a cruel irony) introduced me for a film-focused lecture at the International Arts Movement (when it really should have been the other way around).  She also stepped in to revise and revolutionize Christianity Today's film coverage after my long tenure there as the "Film Forum" columnist and a member of their review team. Today, she's showing everyone how it's done as the film critic for Vox.com, and her brand new book Salty is winning rave reviews. Alissa earned her master's in creative writing (creative nonfiction, with the same mentors who taught me in the program) at Seattle Pacific University.

  • Special guest Jon Smart. 

You've got to hear this conversation. It's a fascinating exploration of faith: the honest-to-goodness life of faith, which is an ongoing challenge of struggle and doubt and change as we wrestle with ongoing revelations, not the unimaginative, legalistic, judgmental charade of "certainty" that passes for cultural Christianity.

Jon is a fellow I’ve known since 6th Grade at Portland Christian Elementary School, studied with, played basketball with, and acted in plays with — including a spoof of "Cinderella" which I wrote and directed, and in which he played the Fairy Godfather, and a musical version of Pilgrim's Progress called Enchanted Journey, in which I was the narrator called Evangelist and Jon was Pilgrim's best friend — the aptly named Faithful. During our senior year of high school, Jon would became one of my closest friends and fellow enthusiast for the music of Bob Dylan and Bruce Cockburn. Jon was the Best Man when Anne and I were married in 1996. And, as I was glad to discover last year, he's still one of the best road-tripping companions I could ask for. (I was hiking with Anne and Jon back in 1995 when I first had the inspiration to write Auralia's Colors.) So, when the VCW podcast’s scheduled guest canceled, they decided to do "an experiment" and invited a listener to volunteer as their next guest. They gave the spot to Jon.

And I love this episode. It reminds me of the kinds of challenging and enlightening conversations I've had with Jon for decades.

Who’s next? Will the next VoCW visitor be a friend of mine too?


What I think about whenever I see "evangelicals" complaining about "CRT" (a concept they can rarely define with any accuracy)

The Gospel is good news for the oppressed and the enslaved.

The Gospel was the basis and inspiration of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King as he preached salvation and spoke out against America’s ongoing history of racism and violence, legacies of hate that directly contradict Jesus’s teachings.

Thus, when Republicans and "evangelicals" falsely label such truth-telling as “CRT” and campaign to criminalize it, they are actively opposing the redemptive advancement of God’s Truth in the world.

And God is paying attention.

The antiChrist agendas of so many Americans, including so many professing evangelicals, can sometimes drag me to the edge of despair. It's relentlessly discouraging to see so many of the professing Christians who taught me to love Jesus so flagrantly and consistently contradicting those teachings in the name of fear, white supremacy, and Christian nationalism.

But Easter reminds me that Christ is already victorious over these lies and liars. And in the Big Picture, those who suffer the harms of such campaigns will be lifted up and revealed as Christ’s beloved. No amount of political corruption or hate-driven propaganda can change that.


Philip Yancey's award-acceptance speech at Wheaton are well worth reading

It's harder and harder to find American Christians who identify as "evangelicals" advancing anything that resembles the Gospel.

But Philip Yancey has been a reliable voice of wisdom for me since high school.

He was just honored with Wheaton's Alumnus of the Year award, and his acceptance speech has some highlights worth reading.

Here's an excerpt:

President George W. Bush used to talk about an axis of evil. I grew up in an axis of fundamentalist insanity. But I found an axis of evangelical sanity—people like Wheaton, Intervarsity, Billy Graham ’43 Litt.D. ’56, John Stott, Fuller Seminary. And Wheaton, we need you in these divisive times. The word “evangelical” is increasingly becoming a bad word. But it’s one I still cling to. I was with Walter Kim, of Korean descent, who’s head of the National Association of Evangelicals. He had just returned from a conference. I think there were 70 countries involved and only one person was invited from each country, so only one American among the 70. They ganged up on Kim and said, “We understand ‘evangelical’ is a bad word in the United States. Well, it’s not where I live. When you say that word in so many countries, it brings to mind clinics and hospitals and people fighting sex trafficking and orphanages and educational institutions. You can trash the word if you want to, but we’re keeping it because it means good news.”

Here in the United States, we’re so media-driven. Mostly that word has a political connotation. It’s a lens. It’s an either-or: Which side are you on? The center in divisive times is so hard to hold. When you build a bridge, you get walked on from both sides, as people at Wheaton know.

We need not an either-or faith; we need a both-and faith. John said that Jesus came full of grace and truth. A lot of people work hard in the truth department. Some people work hard in the grace department. Few people I know work hard in both. We need people who combine unity and diversity, as Jesus taught us. Evangelicals haven’t done that very well, historically. We need someone to show us the importance of both action and contemplation, the importance of this life, and also the importance of the next life, in a floundering culture that keeps widening the gulf between them.


Linford Detweiler shares a prayer composed by Teilhard de Chardin

"Patient Trust," a poem by Teilhard de Chardin, is a prayer I should memorize.

It's included in an extraordinary collection of prayers called Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits. I have a copy that I carry with me everywhere. And yet, when I stumbled across it on Facebook this week, it stopped me in my tracks.

I'm so glad that Linford Detweiler brought it back into my life.


Allison Russell's TED Talk is here

Allison Russell recorded my favorite album of 2021 and put on my favorite concert of 2021.

Now, she's done a TED Talk.


Alas, it may be too late for you to see one of 2022's most enthralling cinematic experiences

Earlier this week, as I was walking across Seattle Pacific University's campus, another professor stepped away from a huddle of students and shouted my name. When I turned, he made a megaphone of his hands and roared, "Have you seen it yet?"

I know this professor well enough that I knew exactly what movie he meant. "Yes!" I shouted back.

"Isn't it great?" He opened his arms as if he were asking about the weather.

"It's...." I hesitated. I didn't want to disappoint him. "It's... something!"

"Not just my favorite movie of the year," he shouted for all the world to hear. "It's my favorite movie of all time!"

Don't you love that feeling — when you love something so much you cannot wait to celebrate it with the whole world? It's a rare experience for me. And no, I don't feel that way about Everything Everywhere All of the Time (although I enjoyed the movie). But I have felt that way three times in 2022 already, about three very different movies.

The good news for my colleague is that Everything Everywhere is playing, for the moment, at several theaters around Seattle. Moviegoers have a good chance of seeing it on a big screen. The bad news for me is that it's already too late for almost all of you to see any of the three films I'm excited about the way it was meant to be seen: in a dark theater, with a crowd of people, on a big screen.

As I reflect on my favorite films of 2022 so far, I longing for a retreat so I can write hundreds of pages about them. This spot, which shows up in Memoria, looks just right. [Image from the Madman Films trailer.]

Alexandre Koberidze's playful magical-realism romance with the Georgian town of Kutaisi, titled What Do We See When We Look At the Sky?, is a sprawling, meandering journey of discovery. It's a movie to live in and explore at a leisurely pace for several hours. But I've had no chance to see it on the big screen, and at this point you won't either. (At the moment, it's streaming on MUBI and it's rentable on Apple TV and Amazon.)

After Yang, Kogonada's much-anticipated sci-fi meditation on memory and grief, fulfills the promise of his first feature film Columbus, drawing out Colin Farrell's best performance since The New World. But After Yang never played on Seattle big screens — which is a great loss for Seattle moviegoers. (Thanks for nothing, A24.) I had to organize a big-screen experience of my own — and now its exquisite imagery will probably be discovered by most audiences on screens far too small to do Kogonada's beautiful work any justice.

But the most frustrating situation of all is this one:

The latest film from writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who has made some of the most exquisitely enchanting and unsettling films I've ever seen — Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, for example is quite unlike any theatrical experience I've had before. Memoria is meant to surround you with shifting soundscapes of weather, radio signals, far more mysterious noises, and silences that seem more like living presences than quiet.

Since you're unlikely to get to see Memoria anytime soon, be cautioned: I'm going to go into detail describing the story, and that may spoil some of the surprise factor. But I'll keep the film's best secrets to myself, as I sincerely hope you'll get to experience it someday.

Tilda Swinton plays Jessica, a woman investigating mysteries — archaeological, psychological, spiritual, historical — in Memoria. [Image from the Madman Films trailer.]

By immersing you in its otherworldliness, Memoria draws you into the experience of its troubled protagonist: Jessica, an orchidologist living in Medellín, Columbia, who, like Julie in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors: Blue, is being haunted by, stalked by, and even pummeled by jarring eruptions of sound.

The first Boom! startles her from sleep. And there are more to come as she visits her hospitalized sister (Agnes Brekke) in Bogotá. After a long silence in the hospital room, Jessica's sister wakes to describe how she is racked with guilt for having rescued a dog and then abandoned it. This only troubles Jessica further, as she soon finds a mysterious dog following her around. Is it possible that she might be haunted by the consequences of others' failings?

I like the surprising line of connection that Mike D'Angelo of The AV Club draws for us: "Not since Todd Haynes’ Safe has a murkily understood, possibly psychosomatic ailment been reconceived in so haunting and unforgettable a fashion." I might agree with that: There is an unsettling horror beneath the surface — literally, underground — in this film that reminds me of the nameless curse that fractured and isolated Carol (Julianne Moore) in Haynes's classic. But I also thought of moments in David Lynch's films in which we sense a spiritual force of darkness simmering around the edges of our understanding.

A great deal of credit for that effect goes to the sound-design team of Raúl Locatelli (sound director), Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr (sound designer), Javier Umpiérrez (sound designer). And, as if to draw attention to their work, Weerasethakul follows Jessica to a sound studio, where she engages a sound designer named Hernán, describing the sound that afflicts her. He happily strives to recreate it for her, intrigued and challenged. Perhaps by recreating it, Jessica will come to understand her curse a little better.

And she does get something out of it — a song in which Hernán has incorporated the sound. The film leaves us to decide if this is just a self-serving, self-promotional effort by an enterprising young recording artist, or if Hernán has blessed Jessica with the gift of his attention. Maybe he has redeemed her suffering, to some extent, by making something meaningful of her madness. It's hard to say.

Jessica touches an historical mystery — a hole drilled in a skull unearthed in Columbia. [Image from the Madman Films trailer.]

An archaeologist (Jeanne Balibar) invites Jessica into a restricted lab to show her bones unearthed during a deep-earth tunneling project, bones that include a skull with a mysterious puncture — a remnant of a ritual that was carried out to "release bad spirits." This gives us another thread to track through the film: the opening of cavities in people, in the earth, and in the spirit world in ways that might be unleashing transformative forces.

But then things start getting stranger. Jessica begins to doubt her sanity. People she thought dead turn out to be alive and well, and some she spends time with vanish without a trace. Sound effects and surreality begin to resemble the confounding multi-dimensional sensations of David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return. Has Jessica stepped through into some alternate dimension? Is she a pawn in some kind of spiritual warfare?

Jessica angles her head like a satellite dish, receiving strange signals in Memoria. [Image from the Madman Films trailer.]

The film's final act, which takes us out of the city and into the wilderness (where Weerasethakul always seems most at home), is its most enthralling — a series of long-take scenes between Jessica and an aging fisherman named (brace yourself!) Hernán who tells her he has never left this place. What follows is one of the quietest, strangest, and most entrancing scenes I've witnessed in years (and that will soon be followed by another that's even stranger). Together, Jessica and the second Hernán (played with rough, real-world authority by Elkin Díaz) begin to put the pieces of their separate mysteries together to discover that they are both a part of a larger puzzle, one that stretches across time and space.

And it is here that the film veers into Tree of Life territory, with a long and wordless shot that rivals the dinosaur scene in Malick's film with its "What did I just see?" quality. "Is this part of the same movie?"

I won't explain further, as I would hope that others have similar opportunities to be surprised. Suffice it to say that I think Weerasethakul sees Jessica as a sort of avatar for all artists — someone who serves as a human satellite dish, receiving (unwillingly at first, but eventually with a cautious intent) the ongoing echoes of past injustices, gathering and focusing them as a witness to the truths that are still relevant no matter how long ago they took place, or how deeply buried they lie in the strata of the earth. At least, that's how I'm reading it on this first — and, perhaps, last — experience of the film. It's as if Jessica can touch the curve of a violin and hear the music it has absorbed over time, the sound that goes on resonating.

Hernán (Elkin Díaz) ponders his supernatural burdens in Memoria. [Image from the Madman Films trailer.]

So, why is it so unlikely that I will get to share this movie with you?

Justin Chang at The Los Angeles Times explains:

... “Memoria” is the beneficiary of an appropriately experimental release strategy devised by its distributor, Neon. ... The idea is for the movie to play exclusively and eternally on the big screen, one theater and one city at a time; it will never be made available on DVD or home-streaming platforms. When this plan was announced months ago, some dismissed it as elitist — hardly the first time that word has been hurled in Weerasethakul’s direction. Others, myself included, couldn’t help but applaud Neon for treating “Memoria” as not just another chunk of streamable content, but rather as a work of art that demands to be approached on its own terms and experienced under the best possible conditions.

To put it another way: Weerasethakul doesn’t make convenient movies, and our culture of instant cinematic gratification could scarcely be more antithetical to the way he perceives the world. And so there is something to be said for allowing his movie to reach its audience at a pace commensurate with its own serene, meditative rhythms. When you go to see “Memoria” — and I urge you to make time to see it — you may feel an instinctive kinship with Jessica from that jolt of an opener: Here you are, just like her, having left home to find yourself sitting in darkness, watching and listening and trying to figure out what the hell’s going on. There’s pleasure in this discombobulation, and within a few moments, you find yourself warming to Jessica’s company — and marveling at Swinton’s ability to both harness and downplay her natural magnetism.

I couldn't say it any better than Chang has.

I'm grateful I had that experience with a small audience of strangers at Seattle's Egyptian Theater. I wish you a similar opportunity. Just as Jessica seeks out massive refrigerators to preserve the "testimony" of her orchids, Weerasethakul is crafting cinematic time capsules, vessels made of image and sound that will go on bearing witness of the signals he receives. And I am grateful for such an opportunity to receive his witness. It expands and enriches my sense of all that is going on beyond the reach of my senses in the world.

Every age and every culture has its prophets. Weerasethakul is one of those visionaries alive and well and working among us. We should pay attention and pursue opportunities to do so.