October and November tends to be a strong movie season almost any year, but this one has been especially entertaining. I’m not keen on most summer blockbusters, and I hadn’t been to the theatre since May before I went to “Gravity” on opening weekend, but since then I’ve seen more than I had the rest of the year combined. Here are my takes in case you care.
Gravity: One of the most visually stunning experiences I have ever enjoyed, and a technical masterpiece. I watched the whole thing with my mouth opened, stunned. Alfonso Cuaron, the director, performs more of his trademark long-take tracking-shots to great effect, this time as Sandra Bullock and George Clooney wheel and tumble through space. But notice that I didn’t say anything about it being a “movie,” because as a complete package, it falls short. The characters, despite great performances, feel like cardboard cut-outs with needless and distracting back stories. This film doesn’t need to be melodrama, and it’s a bit irritating when it is. But these annoyances barely distract from one of the most thrilling films I can remember. This movie must be seen on the big screen. Also, it was my first 3-D movie, and it was used to great effect, but the 3-D previews convinced me never to attend another 3-D movie unless it’s absolutely essential.
Captain Phillips: Sadly dwarfed by the cosmic “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips” is an excellent Tom Hanks joint about Somali pirates taking over a cargo barge and then trying to win a hopeless standoff with the U.S. Navy. “Captain Phillips” is my favorite type of thriller: a story grounded in reality that builds tension around the suspense of watching regular human beings respond erratically to extreme situations. There are no evil masterminds with endless resources, no shootouts that are predetermined to leave the main character unscathed. In fact, it’s not even a real competition: underlying the tension in the second half is the absurd imbalance between four Somalis in a lifeboat trying to negotiate with four Navy warships hard on their wake. Tom Hanks, as you would expect, is great as the clear-headed captain, but his unknown Somali-American co-stars never seem overshadowed. The movie situates itself amid the politics of global capitalism and inequality without ever feeling preachy. The pirates’ motivation is explained without being justified. Like “Zero Dark Thirty,” the impeccable precision of the Navy SEALs steals the show.
Ender’s Game: Knowing the endless problems that had to be surmounted just to bring this movie about, I came in with very low expectations, which made my disappointment that much more surprising and discouraging. At some point in the movie’s production, there must have been something that motivated the director, writer, and producers to put this novel on the big screen, but there’s no way of knowing what that inspiration was based on the film itself. Was it the battle school? You barely get two scenes out of it. The troubles of being a child genus? Ender is taken to being smarter than everyone else, but you never really understand why. The ethics of turning war into a video-game? This topic is given a dutiful nod, but briefly and without any verve. You never would imagine that the film was produced during a period of drone warfare. The film is at such pains to check-off all the events from the movie that it stretches itself thin. In one divergence from the book, a group of adults watching the final, climactic battle react not with cheers but with silence, confusion, and ambivalence. I know how they feel.
Twelve Years a Slave: One of the best movies I’ve seen in years, one of the most difficult to watch, but one of the most important, too. Based on a mid-nineteenth-century slave narrative, “Twelve Years a Slave” has been rightly called the best movie on American slavery ever. This is a landmark, but one not terribly difficult to achieve: all it has to do is actually focus on, you know, slavery. Most movies on this topic are more interested in how whites think, talk, or respond to institutional slavery than what African-Americans actually endured (last year’s “Lincoln” is a prime, and excellent, example). Here, gone are the Atticus Finches and other noble whites; all we’re left with is the dignified but defiant Solomon Northrup, and the host of white characters that betray and abuse him. Like “Lincoln,” this film is hyper-conscious about its role as public history, and Northrup can occasionally feel less like a central character and more like a guide through the entire spectrum of American slave experience. He encounters a range of different masters and overseers, some conflicted about their role in the slave system, others wholly convinced of their absolute rightness. But this spectrum is deeply affecting: we see slavery from its most banal to its most pathological. One moment, a slave auction is held in a charming home accompanied by violin music to sooth the sentiments of buyers splitting up slave families; the next, a planter is forcing Northrup to whip a slave women who briefly escaped to a nearby plantation for some soap. Make no mistake: the camera does not shrink from the brutal violence of these scenes, and I think some viewers will find the lashes too much to stomach. Still, it puts to shame previous attempts to screen slave experience and sets a new benchmark for tackling America’s original sin.
I watched “League of Denial” on Sunday, the Frontline documentary about the concussion/CTE crisis in football and how the NFL has either downplayed the issue or tried to undermine the credibility of the science. Unsurprisingly, the NFL comes across looking pretty bad: rather than tackling (pun intended) the issue early on, they hired unqualified doctors from their camp to consider the issue, and these doctors published half-baked pseudo-science that made concussions seem like no problem at all. Even today, while the league has done much more to acknowledge the problem, commissioner Roger Goodell can’t find enough ways to hem and haw when a question is raised about the connection between football concussions and CTE. It’s depressing to watch a business who thrives on the bodies of its workers act so callously towards real problems with their sport, but the documentary is also a sobering reflection on what role football has in American society–and what its future role looks like.
I came into the documentary thinking that watching it would convince me that football is doomed in the long-run but I ended thinking almost the opposite: not only will the NFL weather this crisis (it pretty much has with its recent legal settlement) but that people will continue watching football devotedly for decades to come. While the concussion problem is real, it is neither so prevalent or immediate so as to strike significant concern in people’s hearts. The full effects of playing football on a person’s brain usually only becomes evident many years after their career is over, when they have long left the public eye. And that’s if they suffer from mental problems at all. Many people have played football for years and have lived long, healthy and productive lives without any obvious mental side effects. Because the effects are so delayed and so unpredictable, making the connection between a football game happening RIGHT NOW and the potential mental health of that game’s players two or three decades down the road requires more moral imagination than I think we’re usually capable of. In many respects, the science behind football-caused CTE is similar to man-made climate change: the basic science is convincing, but the effects are so removed from the actions that cause them, and the actual effects that will come are so difficult to predict, that the problem only inspires minor reform efforts. It is hard to rally ourselves to a problem that seems so distant and variable.
Near the end of June, I was teaching my final institute class on the New Testament. By that point, the class had dwindled to only a couple of people, and I probably should have ended things earlier. With only two people in the class on the final day, the discussion of the second half of the Book of Revelation was more than a little awkward. But I think I probably got more out of than they did, especially when I began to think about connections between Revelation 21-22 and the Tree of Life vision in the Book of Mormon.
Revelation 21-22, if you recall, is the “New Jerusalem” section where Christ comes to reign on the Earth, evil is finally banished, a great city with lots of stones is constructed, and general good times are to be had by all. The most obvious point of connection between this section and 1 Ne. 8 is the reference to the tree of life in Revelation 22:2 (there are two, actually, one on each side of the river). But as I noticed this connection, I began to see some more symbolic links between the two visions.
For instance, both involve visions of a city or large building in the air. In Revelation, the New Jerusalem descends from heaven, while the “large and spacious building” of Lehi’s vision hovers above the ground. Both also have a river running through their visionary landscapes: in Revelation, that river is salvific, while it is the fount of iniquity in 1 Ne. 8. Finally, light and darkness are inverted in these visions: the New Jerusalem needs no sun, moon, or stars, because God’s light illuminates everything all the time (21:23). Lehi’s vision, on the other hand, is filled with darkness, starting with his struggle to make sense of his surroundings and followed by the “mists of darkness” that envelop those searching for the tree of life.
About a week ago, the optical drive on my Macbook (mid-2007; 2,1) began making horrendous noises every time I awoke it from sleep mode. The optical drive had been toast for a couple of years now, and it had made so odd sounds before, but now it was unleashing a ra-ta-tat-tat sound like it was lighting firecrackers every time I booted it up. It was more than a bit embarrassing to open in the library, and since I’ll be headed to a grad-student seminar in about a week, I wanted to take care of it before welcoming everyone to each workshop session with a 21-gun salute.
The Apple Store Genuis Bar, who assured me the optical drive wasn’t harming anything else, suggested opening the computer up and disconnecting the drive–or, he proposted, removing it and adding a SSD drive to the computer, running a dual system that would give me speed and space. I’ve gone on something of a DIY fix ever since I put together some funky shelves in my bedroom, so I was intrigued with the idea of hacking a laptop, one that I have appreciated for many years but also wouldn’t mind if it died and forced me to finally upgrade. At best, I could renew my computer’s life and get some speed back into its blood. At worst, I’d be forced to buy a computer purcahse now that I’ll probably have to make in a couple of years anyways.
I bought a Samsung SSD 840 and this HDD optibay caddy. There’s a few guides out there for replacing the optical drive–this step-by-step video by OWC is the best, ignore the nerve-inducing music–but I never imagined how difficult the process would be. I’d replaced the RAM and the original hard drive before, and I felt comfortable popping the top off. But the optical drive is patched in with a labrythine series of contraptions that makes you feel like you’re disarming a time bomb (iFixit has a few good images). Two sets of tape, two brackets, and a tiny screw buried under important-looking cables that is a never-ending pain to remove (but much worse to put back). I began at 10:30 Friday night. On Saturday, at 4:30 am, I crawled into bed, the HDD in the optical drive bay, the SSD in the original drive spot, one screw missing from the outer frame, and another screw that, when fully tightened, juts about a centimeter in the air.
I spent the rest of Saturday fine-tuning some hardware things (like more securely mounting the SSD) and figuring out the best way to manage the dual-drive set-up. There are a lot of methods out there people tout, but most are way too complicated (and I don’t trust symlinks–or rather, I don’t trust myself using symlinks). The best came from OWC again, with a few minor adjustments. They suggest installing OS X fresh on the SSD, transfer everything but the “User” information to the new drive, and then create a user profile identical to your original, and identifying the home directory as the home directory on the original hard drive. Follow the instructions, it’ll make more sense. That worked, except I believe the point of creating the identical profile is to allow you all the permissions to access the data on the original HDD. This did not work for me, but as long as your new profile is an admin account, you can go in and change the permission settings for the home directory folder (and all the items enclosed within it) manually. Doesn’t take that long.
It’s about a day since I completed everything, and all is (or appears to be) running smoothly. I’m nervous with every noise that comes from the newly-placed HDD, but I think it’s working fine. The SSD is really fast–almost better than my new Mac Mini 2012 desktop. The optical drive noise is completely drive, and the machine is nice and quiet. My only concern is that the computer seems to heat up quickly–I guess two drives will do that–but it hasn’t been too bothersome. Especially after I realized that an obscure process, “mdworker,” was sucking up a lot of CPU re-indexing the old drive (which also explains why the HDD drive was running constantly even if I wasn’t utilizing it). Once that process wound down, everything got much more normal.
All in all, the process is not impossible, but very arduous if you’re not totally comfortable under the hood of your Macbook. I’m a bit denser than most with these sorts of projects, so it took multiple attempts to stuff the caddy into the optical bay before I realized it would only fit if I removed the faceplate (a long plastic strip at the end). The caddy came with practically no instructions, so it also took me a while to realize how to make my old HDD fit (remove the mounting screws, save those for the new SSD, and use the large-head screws to attach the bottom plate) and what to do with the screws they gave me: after multiple attempts to reattach brackets from the original optical drives, I realized that I had to use the screws the caddy gave me to fit their model. If you’re looking to make this leap, but don’t feel terribly confident in your handy/computer skills, you’re probably better off just replacing the HDD drive with an SSD (which I wish I had done long ago, expensive as they are). But if you hold a lot of data, you can do a lot with this type of dual set-up.
Elders, by Ryan McIlvain: I intended to write a longer post reviewing this book, but I got distracted and never finished it. In short, this novel on LDS missionary experience is one of the best cultural depictions of a mission I’ve come across in terms of capturing the everyday experience while also being attuned to deeper, political issues that come with global missionary work (situating the church within different cultures, the politics of scriptural translations, etc.). The story focuses on Elder McLeod, a bright but searching American, and Elder Passos, his devout and ambitious Brazilian companion, who are searching for investigators during the lead-up to the Iraq War in Brazil. McLeod undergoes something of a crisis of faith, though this trope has become so typical of Mormon and religious fiction that it is hard for McIlevain to tread new ground. And while McLeod’s viewpoint dominates, his character is sometimes confusing and finally exhausting. For all his religious doubts and intellectual hunger, McLeod never seems to think so critically about his native country, and his sophomoric patriotism feels odd and more like a plot necessity. He’s impulsive in the worst ways. By the end, I’m just tired of him. Passos, on the other hand, is a fascinating figure who exhibits a mature but conflicted perspective on his faith. His spiritual devotion is constantly beset by his secular ambitions, his hopes to leverage excellent missionary service into a BYU scholarship, and his wariness towards an American-based church that at times feels so foreign to his native Brazil. If McLeod serves as a pseudo-autobiographical figure for the author (McIlvain left the church in his mid-twenties), Passos is a revelation about what Mormonism might look like for an non-American perspective. It’s a fast-paced read as well; I finished it over a weekend. Strong language and some mature content, FYI.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel: I got this book for Christmas, started it, but got sidetracked when the semester began. I’m glad I recommitted to read it. This novel is a delight, a demanding but rewarding read. Mantel chronicles the life of Thomas Cromwell, an integral figure in Henry VIII’s divorce of Queen Katherine and marriage to Anne Boleyn. I’ve never been one for historical fiction, but this is not your typical historical novel. Wolf Hall isn’t a mere romp through medieval castles, indulging in monarchial nostalgia, but a vivid portrait of courtly dynamics and human frailty. Rarely do characters feel so alive or palpable; historical figures are resurrected as actual people rather than plot figures in a political timeline. Mantel moves you briskly from one scene to the next, and the effect can be disorienting (she has chapters but relies more on intervals, so time and place can change almost instantly). But it also keeps the action moving across decades without feeling like you are getting bogged down in a bloated, pretentious epic. Her grasp of dialogue is deft, but she saves her best prose for the carnality of a world where death is always in the air and political stability relies so heavily on the inconstancy of royal reproduction. Torture, burnings at the stake, sickness, sexual exploitation: it’s all there in devastating form. One example, of King Francis recalling the body of one of former his mistresses (the initial “He” is Cromwell): “He would like to stop him but you can’t stop a king. His voice runs over naked Mary, chin to toes, and then flips her over like a griddle cake and does the other side, nape to heels. An attendant hands him a square of fine linen, and as he finishes he dabs the corner of his mouth: and hands the kerchief back.” A brilliantly disgusting metaphor.
Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology, by Adam Miller: I loved Miller’s Rube Goldberg Machines from last year, so I was curious to read some his academic writing. He continues to be a brilliant wordsmith, but he is also a very handy explicator of Bruno Latour, a difficult but increasingly relevant philosopher. Miller’s object-oriented philosophy is immensely profound for the way it tries to bring theology away from transcendance (metaphysical abstraction and speculation) and into the messy material world–bodily sensation, evolution, genetics, etc. I wrote a more complete review on the book’s Amazon page.
Hmmmm, I know I had more in mind, but they’re not coming to me, so maybe I’ll follow-up later.
Disclaimer: some thoughts on The Book of Mormon Musical, a topic I know that is woefully dated. So sue me. Also, further disclaimer: I haven’t seen the show, only read about it (a lot).
“The Book of Mormon” musical took the Broadway scene by storm a couple of years back, and is often credited with inaugurating the “Mormon moment” that lasted at least through Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy. Reactions to the musical have also become a barometer of contemporary views of Mormons, sparking a range of reactions: some find it demeaning of the church, while others feel it goes easy on one of America’s least trusted religions.
But these critiques cannot explain why such a bawdy farce has become so wildly popular, as the musical has found success in reprisals across the country. The reason for its popularity has very little to do with Mormonism per se, I suspect, and everything to do with American’s current anxieties about religious pluralism and toleration, anxieties that stem back to the attacks of 9/11 that occurred in the very city the musical was launched in. Since 9/11, Americans have found in radical sects of Islam a threat to the religious pluralism espoused in the First Amendment, and its response to those attacks, from the Iraq War to the “Ground Zero mosque” debate, have wrestled with whether it believes such anti-Western sentiments can ever be placated and whether the ideals of religious toleration are worth maintaining in the face of violent religion.
So where does The Book of Mormon musical fit into all of this? What the musical highlights is that Mormonism is not solely a success of American religion, but, ironically, a success of American secularization. Read more…
Easiest, quicket blog post? Uploading your sacrament talk. Given 11/25/2012, Notre Dame Ward.
Unifying Gifts of the Spirit (as PDF)
The Unifying Gifts of the Spirit
One of the great disappointments of my childhood was learning that the spiritual gifts I had read about in the scriptures were not the same as superpowers. “Gifts of the Spirit” sounded, to my boyhood ears, not unlike the power to fly faster than a speeding bullet that Superman enjoys. But despite dreams of becoming Captain of the Working of Miracles, I was forced to acknowledge that the blessings of the Spirit are many, but the power to perform daring deeds while wearing a dashing cape is not one of them. There’s simply no two ways about it: the interpretation of tongues is not the same as the Spider Sense.
If my adolescent misunderstandings were easily corrected, I continue to find it hard to define exactly what it is we mean by “spiritual gifts,” largely because it is hard to distinguish “spiritual gifts” from other worldly notions like talents, abilities, and privileges. In today’s parlance, we tend to use the word “gift” to refer to, first and foremost, a personal benefit, an object to satisfy our interests, or a tool for achieving wealth or fame. When we say someone is “gifted,” we generally mean that they have the right mixture of genetics and parenting that destines them for high achievement and worldly success. “Gifts” become synonymous with “superior abilities,” skills that distinguishes us from everyone else. We also expect gifts to conform to our desires, to satisfy a personal craving. When people want to know about our Christmas presents, they ask if we “got what we wanted,” or “got what we asked for.”
But when this selfish notion of “gifts” becomes mixed with our notion of “spiritual gifts,” we’re in deep trouble. This blurring between the selfish and the spiritual is the problem that Paul faced in his first epistle to the Corinthians, a community of saints divided by the gift of speaking in tongues. Those Corinthians who held that gift felt that it was the most important gift of all, and they believed that being able to speak in tongues elevated them over the rest of the saints. Naturally, this attitude left everyone else wondering bitterly: why am I not as blessed, or as special, as they are? The Corinthians had fallen into the trap of treating gifts as a benefit to the receiver above all else, a view of gifts that exalts the individual above the community. When we make gifts about the receiver, we not only lose sight of the giver, but we also forget the people around us whose gifts might be different or fewer than our own. We forget that gifts can be a means of blessing of other people, and we instead focus on how gifts can bless ourselves. Read more…