Archive for April, 2010

2010 Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing, Post 2

April 20, 2010

1st post is here.

More highlights:

Eugene Peterson spoke about the vocational fusion of pastors and writers, the “badlands,” and Labrador puppies. He prefaced his talk by saying that he has been thinking over his life a lot recently because he is in the process of writing a memoir about his life as a pastor and a writer, two pursuits he sees as linked by their shared focus on the lived qualities of theology and the sacred qualities of language, which have drawn him into new ways of living. While he was a young pastor, Peterson entered a time of his life that he called “The Badlands,” after the arid region in South Dakota. During this time of dryness, he begin writing more seriously, and to see himself as a contemplative, rather than competitive pastor; disillusioned with the “business model” philosophy of church growth, he learned to listen and see the world around him. This led him to a new understanding of his calling as a pastor, which was now to lead his followers in “making a home in the gospel.” Earlier in life, Peterson had been an “intently haphazard” Labrador puppy, running after whatever caught his attention. But after his time of dryness and searching, he concluded, “In the Badlands, I learned to sit. Amen.”

Some of my favorite sessions at the festival were focused not so much on writing, but on films. Barbara Nicolosi, director of the Act One program (training Christians to work in Hollywood with excellence and professionalism), spoke about the importance of good imagery, both in writing and in filmmaking, using the wooden leg in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People” as an example of an image that has a concrete meaning within the story, as well as larger metaphorical implications. Much of the power of this image, Nicolosi said, comes from the fact that the story never spells out exactly what the wooden leg “means”; instead, O’Connor leaves it to the reader to ruminate on what this “puzzle for the soul” might imply.

Joe Kickasola began his session with the provocative (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) proclamation that “words don’t matter. They’re just hood-ornaments for images.” His point was that we often become bogged down by words and explanations, when we should instead allow ourselves to be dazzled by images we cannot necessarily explain. Kickasola illustrated his points with clips from several films–including The Son and The Decalogue–that showed how the wordless language of film can leave a lasting and mysterious impression.

I also attended a panel discussion by Nicolosi, Kickasola, and Calvin professor Roy Anker titled “Faith, Film, and Fidelity,” which billed itself as a discussion of why many of the most spiritually profound and significant recent films were not made by Christians. Nicolosi explained that Christian filmmakers often make the “bad imagery” mistakes she cautioned against in her earlier session, but went on to talk about the generational shift she is seeing in Hollywood right now. The new generation of filmmakers she (and Kickasola as well) are seeing are reacting against the mantras of their Baby Boomer parents (including those of the sexual revolution) and are instead seeking commitment and lasting relationships, as illustrated in the film Up in the Air. What we are perhaps seeing, the panel agreed, is the end of cynicism, giving way to a more hopeful era.

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In Praise of Love (2001)

April 20, 2010
Edgar wants to make a movie about love, showing it from the perspectives of three different couples–one young, one adult, and one old. No matter how he approaches the project, though, he runs into the same problem: He cannot figure out how to convincingly depict adult love, or even come to a clear understanding of what it is.
Edgar’s struggle with this project is shown in the meandering, strikingly-composed, black-and-white first half of In Praise of Love. He runs lines with a prospective leading couple, but the words sound wrong; he wanders past homeless men on the street; he debates the nature of memory; and he is haunted by a woman.
Throughout In Praise of Love, the camera goes dark in the middle of a scene, as if it is blinking, and words occasionally appear in the darkness. The most frequent phrase is “De Quelque Chose De L’Amour” (roughly, the “trifles and trinkets of love”).
The second half of In Praise of Love shifts abruptly, moving from 35-mm black-and-white film to color digital video. It shifts in time, as well, to two years in the past–Godard uses the change in cinematography to suggest that the past can be brighter and more vibrant than the present.
The “two years ago” story centers on American film developers from “Spielberg Associates and Incorporated” who have come to buy the rights to the story of two French resistance fighters, now an aged couple struggling to pay their bills. ”The Americans have no real past,” one character says, criticizing the Americans’ interference. ”They have no memory of their own. They buy the pasts of other people, and sell images.”
Godard’s motivation for showing this flashback is not just to denigrate ugly Americans (a charge leveled by A.O. Scott in his New York Times review of the film), however; the resistance fighters’ granddaughter meets Edgar during these scenes, as well, and their meeting seems to leave a lasting impression on him.

2010 Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing, Post 1

April 18, 2010

First, a partial list of the writers and speakers I heard this weekend:

Sara Zarr

Scott Cairns

Barbara Nicolosi

Wally Lamb

Joe Kickasola

Eugene Peterson

Kate DiCamillo

Lawrence Dorr

Richard Rodriguez

James Schaap, Luci Shaw, and Robert Siegel

Gene Yuen Lang

Mary Karr

Next, a few highlights:

I went to two of Sara Zarr’s sessions–a reading on Thursday morning and a more structured presentation on Friday afternoon. The title for her Friday session was “Young Adult Fiction and the Stewardship of Pain,” a phrase she borrowed from a Frederick Buechner sermon. Zarr is often some asked questions such as, “Why are your books so depressing? Shouldn’t we protect children? Why do you let your characters make bad choices?” These, she argued, are the wrong questions, because pain is an inescapable part of life; a better approach is to ask what to do with the pain. And by dismissing or ignoring pain, adults miss a crucial opportunity to model for young people what a complete human being can be, which is possibly the most important influence adults can have on children. I appreciated the passion and severity with which Sara approaches YA fiction, and also the way she synthesized her writing with her real-world philosophy of what it means, and how important it is, to be an adolescent.

Scott Cairns delivered one of the festival’s best lines when he related the response of a well-meaning evangelical who questioned a Eastern Orthodox priest with whom Cairns was studying: The evangelical asked, “Is Jesus Christ your personal savior?” The priest replied, “No, I like to share him.” As humorous as this line is, it also served to illustrate Cairns’s topic, namely that “Embodied Faith” (that is, salvation as a living incarnational life) is as much a communal pursuit as an individual one, a deliverance from the death-in-life routine that results in the awareness of the Kingdom of God in the here and now.

*More highlights to come*

PS I took notes at most of the sessions I attended, so let me know if you specifically want to hear about any of the speakers I listed.

Pickpocket (1959)

April 5, 2010
At first glance, Robert Bresson seems like an incompetent director. In Pickpocket, his actors move stiffly, reciting their lines with hardly any emotion; he skips over what seem like important dramatic moments and lingers on seemingly trivial ones; background music is rarely used, and it shows up in unexpected places when it does; and his star speaks more lines in voiceover than through dialogue.
It was decisions like this that led filmmaker Paul Schrader, in an introduction to the Criterion Collection edition of Pickpocket, to call Bresson a “perverse” director. Schrader was not pointing some kind of moral aberration in the director, however. Instead, he meant that Bresson’s style works in ways that run counter to traditional filmmaking. That is, where most directors would add elements and flourishes to underscore their storytelling, Bresson takes things away, keeping the audience off-balance and stripping the story down to its most elemental components.
Pickpocket follows Michel, a rootless Parisian man whose life seemingly consists of two things: thieving and brooding in his room. He has a ill mother whom he rarely visits, even though he says he loves her more than he loves himself. His only other human connections are with his pickpocketing accomplices and with Jeanne, a woman who lives next to his mother.
In one scene, Michel espouses his philosophy: “Can we not admit that certain skilled men, gifted with intelligence, talent or even genius, and thus indispensible to society, rather than stagnate, should be free to disobey laws in certain cases?” When asked how these supermen should be selected, he replies that they will select themselves. He considers laws absurd and tells Jeanne, “I believed in God for three minutes.”
Bresson allows Michel to continue on his destructive path, presenting his crimes as matter-of-factly as possible. In the preface to the film, Bresson emphasizes that Pickpocket is not a thriller; instead, it expresses the nightmare of a man whose weakness leads him to theft, but that also leads two people to meet who might not have otherwise done so.
It is in this meeting, which comes only after Michel’s prodigality has finally run its course, that Pickpocket at last allows a glimpse of emotional release and spiritual connection. The moment is made all the more effective because of the restraint Bresson has imposed on the rest of the movie. He knew what he was doing all along.

The Mirror (1975)

April 4, 2010
A stuttering student is hypnotized to cure his impediment. A strong wind blows across a field. A ceiling collapses in a rainshower. A bird lands on a boy’s head. A sleeping woman levitates over her bed. A man clutches some feathers in his hand, and a bird flies out.
It is diffcult to imagine all of these images coexisting in a single story, and while they all occur in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film The Mirror, it would be a stretch to say they are all part of a single story. In fact, it’s hard to say if The Mirror is telling a story at all.
Along with these images, Tarkovsky incorporates wartime newsreel footage, elliptical references to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and voiceover audio of his father reciting his poems. The sections of the movie that most resemble a traditional narrative center on a boy named Ignat who is asked to choose if he wants to live with his mother or his father. Even these scenes, however, are not necessarily shown in a chronologically recognizable order and often feature dreamlike qualities.
Instead of navigating his film by means of traditional markers such as story and character, Tarkovsky instead invites his audience on an oneiric journey in which the emotional import of images are more important than their literal meanings.
If all of that makes The Mirror sound like a difficult viewing experience, it is. The tools with which we usually interpret and understand a movie are more of a hindrance than a help when watching The Mirror. Even with its considerable learning curve, though, it is often called Tarkovsky’s masterpiece.
The question that naturally arises, of course, is “Why?” One reason is that the sheer visual power of the images in The Mirror exert a strong, even spiritual impression, even if their meaning is not readily apparent. Additionally, when the viewer accepts Tarkovsky’s approach and interacts with the film on his terms, it can evolve into a profound meditation on memory, love, sacrifice, and rebirth.