Friday, November 30, 2007

Reflection: Remorse for Any Death

This morning my son Gunnar picked up one of our cordless phones and said, "Phone?" I affirmed his astute observation, and asked if he was wanting to call anyone. He replied, "Papa?", which means Grandpa. I asked which one he meant, and when he didn't respond, I grabbed the closest family photo and pointed to my dad. "This Grandpa?" I asked. "Yep," he replied without hesitation.

All of this is a little odd, because Gunnar generally requests phone calls to his Grandmothers, not to his Grandfathers. We rang my dad up, and Gunnar talked to him for a little while. I think he knew already my dad needed that phone call today.

Our family has had dogs since I can remember. Nuktuk, a Siberian husky sled-dog who spent the off-season with us; Chugga, a dachshund I can remember picking out of a litter; Smokey, the dog I grew up with, a Heinz-57 mutt who came into our lives when I was in grade four, and left when I was in college. I remember that day with stark clarity - I was working at a summer camp as the director, and my parents called to let me know they were planning to put Smokey down. She'd been sick with epilepsy for a long time, and it had become unmanageable. They drove out to the camp so I could say goodbye. I held her for a while, and then they drove away, Smokey looking out the window at me one last time. It's amazing how much dogs get into our lives.

A year later, my parents brought Patches home. I was living in Edmonton already, so I never really thought of Patches as my dog, but I spent enough time around her that she was definitely part of the family to me. Another mutt, with a goofy spirit. Not as small as Smokey, but not as big as her best friend, Nala. Nala was a German Shepherd my parents inherited when my sister and her family moved to Houston. Patches and Nala became close companions. In recent years, I referred to them as the two old ladies.

Last year, Nala was diagnosed with a defect in her hip common to purebred German Shepherds. Worried she'd die before Gunnar could meet the dogs, we took a trip down to Medicine Hat so he could see them. We were very fortunate in that this was not the last time he would see the two of them. There were a few more opportunities over the past year, but today the opportunities came to an end. Nala's condition had worsened, and Patches relied on Nala for guidance since she had become mostly blind and deaf. My parents decided that with winter approaching, it was the kindest thing to do.

Donna Haraway says this about dogs in her Companion Species Manifesto: "Dogs are about the inescapable, contradictory story of relationships--co-constitutive relationships in which none of the partners pre-exist the relating, and the relating is never done once and for all." We've seen that in our own household, a relationship between humans and dogs, over and over. We do not stop relating to these companions because of our grief. We carry on.

Still, the death remains. And in remembering these two good companions, who provided me with hugs and cold wet noses, who simultaneously fascinated, frightened, and befriended my son, I will close from a line of poetry from Jorge Luis Borges' "Remorse for Any Death":

The dead person, everywhere no one,
is nothing but the loss and absence of the world.
We rob it of everything,

we do not leave it one color, one syllable:

here is the yard which its eyes no longer take up
there is the sidewalk where it waylaid its hope.

Even what we are thinking
it might be thinking too;
we have shared out like thieves the amazing treasure of nights and days.

The images in this post are all of the dogs we've owned. Patches, Nala, and Smokey: these are images I worked on for a calendar of our dogs we gave to my dad a few Christmases back.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Beowulf: Movie Review - 9/10

I've got a lot to say about this film, given the paper I wrote on filmic adaptations of Beowulf, but I'm behind on my thesis, so I'll let a brief review suffice for the time being. Hopefully, time will allow for writing a conclusion to that original paper in the near future, to strike while the proverbial iron is still hot.

This revisionist cinematic version of the epic poem stays surprisingly true to the heart of the heroic ethos. While many seem to have missed the subtlety of the story amidst the spectacle of 3D CGI, puerile humor and over the top gore, Gaiman and Zemeckis have raised complex issues surrounding the idea of macho heroism, deconstructing without destroying it. My guess is the story is getting lost in the midst of the spectacle, which is unfortunate; this is the best Beowulf brought to screen yet, paying tribute not only to its original source text, but to the postmodern theories regarding Grendel and Beowulf as two sides of the same coin.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Ratatouille: DVD review - 10/10

A gourmet blend of solid storytelling, great voice acting, and some of the best computer animated visuals I've ever seen, which is as much a culinary delight for the eyes as the entrees made by Remy the rat are for the taste buds of Paris gourmands. Another hit from Brad Bird and his crew--this is why Pixar is top of the heap in animation these days, and why Dreamworks is just...dreaming.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Golden Compass: Reflections on the 'danger' of Pullman's trilogy

I received the following email from my sister asking for my 'expert opinion'.

You may already know about this, but I just learned about a kids movie coming out in December starring Nicole Kidman. I believe it's called The Golden Compass, and while it will be a watered down version, it is based on a series of children's books about killing God (it is anti-Narnia).

Please follow this link, and then pass it on. From what I understand, the hope is to get a lot of kids to see the movie - which won't seem too bad - and then get the parents to buy the books for their kids for Christmas. The quotes from the author sum it all up. I'm going to tell everyone about this movie. I hope it totally bombs because we were all paying attention!

It's a quote from the page on the Golden Compass, replying to the allegation that "The 2007 film Golden Compass is based on a series of books with anti-religious themes". Snopes has ascertained that this is true. Sheer genius, this post. "I hope it totally bombs because we're all paying attention." The battle cry of the sign waving Christian. And after years of creating media storms through their own self-inflicted controversy, these people still don't understand that "telling EVERYONE about ANYTHING" simply raises its profile. Ever since the release of the film version of The Last Temptation of Christ I've been aware that this sort of protest results in the very opposite of what these people are hoping to achieve.

Any cursory search for information on the Narnia films will produce a link or two to Golden Compass' author, Phillip Pullman giving his highly critical opinion of C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles. I wrote a paper about it in my undergraduate which I posted here. It doesn't take a deep search to find out Phillip Pullman's anti-Christian sentiments. The DaVinci code this ain't, and you don't need a website devoted to urban legends to find this out.

I'll let you all know right off, that unlike the complete waste-of-time I opted not to watch in its inglorious entirety (see my Zeitgeist post), I have read all of Pullman's trilogy of which Golden Compass is the first book. In truth, I've read them twice; once by myself, and then again to my wife. I then read Golden Compass a third time in a close reading for an English course on Children's literature. That was during the height of the Evangelical Christian backlash against Harry Potter, and all I could think was, "It's a clear indication that Pullman's books don't have near the success of Rowling's, or Harry's evils would be yesterday's news." The attitude towards the Christian church is clear in these books. And its not a positive one.

That said, I don't think the books are evil. I don't think they pose a threat to my faith. Or anyone else's faith for that matter, unless their faith is the glass house type, that shatters at the first challenge given it.

My approach to ministry when I was a pastor was to encourage my students to think for themselves; most of the students at Holyrood have read the His Dark Materials series, and we had some good discussions about elements in the books over coffee.

My literary background is in Comparative Literature. One of the ways we approached texts in my coursework was to ignore who the author was, or what the author had stated was supposed to be the point of the text. For example, Tolkien said he hated allegory, but many readers find allegorical elements in his works. Or, Lewis was a Christian writer, but his books contain a good deal of pagan elements. Or, to the point at hand, Pullman is an atheist who writes about the death of God. But which God?

The God of the secondary world(s) of His Dark Materials is the God of first century gnosticism. It is a God who is no god at all, but an angel with a superiority complex who has fooled angelic hosts into thinking he's God. So we're not dealing with the God of Christianity, or Judaism or Islam. We're dealing with the God of gnosticism, a false God, whether you be a believer or not. Further, Lyra, the heroine of the series effectively defeats (with the aid of many heroic companions) this God after a death and rebirth scenario. As Gotthammer visitor 'Sapience' commented in my earlier post on Pullman, "I think Pullman actually ends up self-defeating in his polemic. Lyra ends up as a Christ figure; the conspicuous absence of the Son in novels based on Paradise Lost makes us look for Christ in her (did you notice that Jesus is only mentioned once in more than a thousand pages?). She harrows hell, her end choice is one of self-sacrificial love, etc. She's not Christ, but Pullman makes us think of Christ when we see her--and I don't think it's intentional either." There's a Christ story in the final book, albeit a generically mythic death-and-rebirth one, overlapping with Christianity where it contains shared mythic elements. So whatever Pullman says off the page about Christianity and organized religion, there are some very worthwhile themes in His Dark Materials for Christians and atheists alike to engage with. It is, as Cathy McSporran suggests in her excellent article on both Lewis' and Pullman's works, " a space 'where two worldviews collide'."

That's the strength of the books. While there is an overtly corrupt organized Church in Lyra's world, there is also a clear storyline of spiritual growth, of a redeemer figure, and of concepts of the afterlife. The book handles both sides with complex characters (although as I've noted in my paper, Pullman is sadly one-sided in his handling of the Church - those characters are all bad, whereas the rest of his cast has multi-faceted depth), and allows for an ambiguity that permits the reader to continue to choose their path. It leaves us with the option to join and help build the "Republic of Heaven". And when you read what Jesus says about his "Kingdom" of servants and love, I'd say the Kingdom and the Republic are less at odds and more in common than the Evangelical watchdogs would give credit for.

We always tell people we want them to make a choice for Christ. Choices cannot be made if the other options are suppressed. That's the sort of authoritarian religious activity Pullman is railing against. All the protesting will do is confirm his belief about Christianity.

On a final note, I'm looking forward to seeing it. And if I had kids old enough to comprehend it, I'd be taking them. All this philosophical musing aside, I'm all about armored polar bears.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Pooh's Heffalump Movie: DVD review 7/10

A surprisingly good film, given that Disney's sequels tend towards the lowest common denominator to make the quickest buck. Unlike many of the Pooh spin offs, this one still resonates with A.A. Milne's sensibilities (and even a few passing dialogue references to the original stories), and Kyle Stanger is utterly charming as Lumpy the Heffalump's voice. The downside is Carly Simon's original songs, which sometimes feel out of place in the Hundred Acre Wood. Overall a great film for the young and young at heart.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Charlotte's Web: DVD Review 6.5/10

Long time visitors to Gotthammer are going to note a shift in the number of children's movies I'll be reviewing. We hardly ever find the time to watch grown up films anymore - they aren't the sort of thing we want to expose Gunnar to just yet, and we don't stay up late enough after he goes to bed to watch anything more than an episode of whichever television series we're watching on DVD. So, there's the caveat. I hope the reviews help those of you who are also parents.

The 2006 version of Charlotte's Web is a very able live-action reworking of E.B. White's tale of the deep relationship between a pig, destined to die as Christmas ham, and the spider who saves him, ironically resulting in the very fate she hoped to save the pig from. Julia Roberts' voice is well suited to Charlotte's demeanor, and most of the star studded voice casting is excellent. Comparisons to Babe are ridiculous, considering that Wilbur has seniority as the talking pig in children's literature. Refreshingly squeaky clean amidst all the sneaky innuendo I find in too many children's movies these days. A good family film, recommended.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Twin Peaks: A town I like to visit...though I wouldn't want to live there

I was a late bloomer to the Twin Peaks phenomenon. The show came out in a period of my life when I was so engrossed in my early theological studies and the development of the first musical project I was part of that I completely missed the media storm surrounding the show. My interest in it came as a result of three events Agent Cooper might have seen as synchronicity; I met a girl at college who was a big fan of the show, then read an article in the local paper about the possible connections between Old Testament theology and the symbolism of good and evil in the show, and then finally, a chance viewing of the last five minutes of the episode revealing who had killed Laura Palmer. I was shocked by the brutality of the scene, but riveted as well, unwilling to change the channel. As a result, I saw the final moments when the Giant appears to Agent Cooper in one of the show's many oneiric scenes, saying simply, "It is happening again." I didn't know what it was, but the words chilled me, connected as I suspected they were to the violence Laura's killer had just unleashed upon a new victim.

I was hooked, but this was a show already doomed for cancellation, and I only saw two or three more episodes before the now infamous shuffling of Twin Peaks' time slot on ABC. When the pilot was released to VHS, I watched it, unaware that the closed ending was not the one which had been shown on television originally. Still, the dreamlike, fantastic quality of that closed ending was the quality which most drew me to the show; the spiritual aspect, the idea that the real killer of Laura Palmer had been the demon BOB inhabiting the body of one of the townsfolk of Twin Peaks.

My next visit to the town was for the release of the prequel film, Fire Walk With Me, which I viewed in a theater which was virtually empty. The film haunted me the night I saw it, and I stayed up late into the early hours of the morning in reflection and prayer about the horror Lynch portrays in the final days of Laura Palmer's life. Something rang very true in his vision of domestic violence and the ambiguity of the connection between everyday horror and the veil of the supernatural. I told classmates at the theological school I was at by this time that I thought it was the most important film for people interested in Christian ministry, because I had never been so motivated to pray for girls in the same situation as Laura Palmer, victims of domestic abuse, victims of drug use and a sex trade which thrives upon the objectification of women. I continue to think of the film as simultaneously possessing some of the most repugnant visions ever committed to screen, as well as some of the most beautifully poignant. I was not aware of the concept of the literary sublime in those years, but it was certainly what most resonated with me from the secondary world of Twin Peaks.

I saw a few episodes when the show was picked up by Showcase, but my real immersion into the world David Lynch and Mark Frost created occurred in my first few months of marriage. Jenica and I started renting the series, but the store we rented from only carried the first seven episodes, so we purchased the full series on VHS and watched them all in the space of a few weeks, watching late into the night; Jenica, propelled by a need to know who had killed Laura Palmer, me in wanting to unravel the mysteries I had glimpsed in the few exposures I had been given to the town.

We watched it again in its entirety a year later, then again some years later with my brother-in-law and his financee. We loaned the tapes to friends, and I dabbled in the internet forums devoted to the show. Then came the DVD release of season one, which many friends banded together to gift me with for my birthday. It was wonderful to finally see the show without the muddy sound and fuzzy resolution of the VHS copies, and I hoped to see the second season on DVD within the year. Years passed, and it wasn't until the spring of 2007 that the second season was released.

By now I'd started thinking of Twin Peaks through a lens focused by the combined years of reflection on the show's elements, my theological studies, years spent as a pastor, my own shattered relationships and ruminations on the evil within myself, and finally the academic rigor of my Comparative Literature program at the University of Alberta. I wanted to enter the town again with these more mature tools, but without the pilot, it always felt incomplete.

And now, finally I have my copy of the Twin Peaks Definitive Gold Box Edition. I sold seasons one and two on Ebay to subsidize the purchase, which I know makes me a heretic in some serious Twin Peaks fans eyes; I ought to have kept the other two for the special features. But, being a comparativist, I don't really want to know what the directors thought they were doing with the show. What is clear from all the extras I've seen and web articles I've read is that no one really knew what they were doing when Twin Peaks was made. For all the accolades of genius laid at David Lynch's feet, I doubt even he had any idea what he was doing. I think it was one of those great creative acts of serendipity, a merging of many minds and hearts which resulted in something very special.

I've begun watching the series from the pilot onward, late nights on our laptop while Jenica sleeps. She's done with Twin Peaks; for some people one visit is enough. But I'm a regular visitor. I keep going back, not because I'm looking to unravel any mysteries anymore. I love the ambiguity of the show; it's ambivalence is what gives it its sense of wonder, of Todorov's definition of the fantastic where we all hesitate for a moment, wondering what to believe. And in that hesitation, that study of the fantastic, is a brilliant vision of the nature of good and evil. We all know who physically killed Laura Palmer, but the mystery doesn't end there. As the conversation between Cooper, Sheriff Truman, Major Briggs and Agent Rosenfield relates, in the wake of ostensibly solving the crime:

Truman: He was completely insane.

Cooper: Think so?

Rosenfield: But people saw Bob...People saw him in visions. Laura, Maddy, Sarah Palmer.

Briggs: Gentlemen, there's more in heaven and earth than is dreamed up in our philosophy.

Cooper: Amen.

Truman: Well I've lived in these old woods most of my life, I've seen some strange things but this is way off the map. I'm having a hard time believing.

Cooper: Is it easier to believe a man would rape and murder his own daughter? Any more comforting?

Truman: No.

Briggs: An evil that great in this beautiful world, finally, does it matter what the cause?

Cooper: Yes, because it's our job to stop it.

Rosenfield: Maybe that's all Bob is...the evil that men do. Maybe it doesn't matter what we call it.

Truman: Maybe not. But if he was real, and he was here, and we had him trapped...and he got away, where is Bob now?

It's that last question that haunts me. It's the one that keeps me going back to Twin Peaks, to look inside the fractured fairy tale of a Sleeping Beauty who will never awake because of the evil done to her, and to not point the finger, but to hold up a magic mirror, and ask the question Truman asks of us all...and to hopefully respond as Cooper does, with the unswerving goal to stop it; in myself first, but also in the world around me.

And if nothing else, to remind myself why I really got into drinking coffee.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Tithe - Book Review - 7.5/10

Holly Black's first "Spiderwick" readers aren't little children any more, and it would seem that she intends to grow up her writing in tandem. "Tithe" explores the same world "Spiderwick" did, but with a much darker, sexual, and transformational vision. Typical of the contemporary fairy tale for teens, it follows the standard "edgy" young adult protagonist who skips school, drinks, smokes, and is sexually aware (if not active). However, while Black starts out following in the footsteps of Francesca Lia Block with her rock and roll urban fantasy world, she deviates about mid-way through from her psychadelic predecessor's path, straying more into the world Charles De Lint has been perfecting for the bulk of his writing career. It's not brilliant, but it is fun, and lives up to the press of being a modern "faerie" not fairy tale. The world Black takes us into is definitely the perilous realm, where not everyone necessarily lives happily ever after.

Monday, November 12, 2007

World Trade Center - DVD review - 8/10

A powerful film which grants the viewer a little picture of this big picture event. The poster which shows the silhouettes of two men between the Twin Towers sums up the narrative ethos. If you're expecting to see a classic disaster film, this will disappoint. Oliver Stone isn't interested in showing us grand scale mayhem; he's just telling us the story of two men who lived through a terrible ordeal, and lived to tell about it.

Some will think me tacky or misguided for posting my review of this film on Remembrance Day, but it was how I chose to observe my remembrance this year, and I think World Trade Center is an excellent example of the difference between War, which is a national policy, and the people who fight, live and die in wars, which is something entirely different, and it is the second of these two which I believe Remembrance Day is for.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Wizard and Glass: Book Review 8.5/10

The fourth installment of Stephen King's Dark Tower series more than makes up for the sloppy mess of the third book, as well as the ridiculously long wait inflicted on fans of the series when it was first released. In keeping with the format of the series to date, the book is played out in multiple vignettes. The first concludes the cliffhanger ending from book three with Blaine the Monorail and the riddle contest. The second is a lengthy flashback to Roland's beginnings as a gunslinger and the genesis of his quest for the Dark Tower. The third feels tacked on and parts of it nearly superfluous (you'll find out what happens to Tick Tock...and likely be disappointed), but acts as a bridge back into the journey along the Beam. The middle section concerning Roland's teenage years is the meat and potatoes of the book, and contains some of King's best writing. If I had reviewed that section alone, I would give it 5 stars. While I have yet to finish the series, I am presently of the opinion that King would have done better to have written solely within the secondary world the Gunslinger inhabits, rather than bouncing between realities. The blend of Old West and High Fantasy is a fascinating one, which would be well worth further exploration. Readers who enjoyed the flashbacks best (fans of the series are divided on this - they either loved or hated this particular installment) will be excited to learn of Marvel's Graphic Novel adaptation, The Gunslinger Born, which will be released in November of 2007.