Radiant City: Viewer’s Response

This strange Canadian film combines a couple of documentary styles into a single amalgamation critiquing suburban living in the couple of years just prior to the 2008 economic downturn.  Here’s a preview:

And here’s a warning that much of this post deals with the big reveal at the end.

Are you still with me? OK.

Here’s the big reveal:  It’s not a documentary.  I didn’t see it coming, and was relived when this reveal came.  Here’s why: the daughter gets shot.

  • I did, however, wonder about the documentary documentariness at a few points.  Right at the beginning is that scene you see in the preview when the boy is at the top of the cell phone tower, and I thought: how did the documentarian get clearance for that?
  • Also, as we near the end, there’s a scene where the mother is driving around a parking lot, by herself, while the rest of her family is at the community center (dad is in a musical about the suburbs–very meta–and the kids are watching), and I thought: they had a second unit just to drive around with her?  OK.
  • Then, at the end, I thought: who’s running the camera and letting this kids actually load a rifle and shoot out the window?  I mean, sure, documentarian, document, don’t get involved and all, but still–these are young people, early teens at the latest, be the grown-up, man.
  • Then the daughter got shot (there’s a very brief clip of her on the ground in the preview), and before I could really formulate a response to this, they broke the scene, and the actress popped up, and they spend a few minutes talking about why the film-makers went this way.

But I allowed these clues, and probably others, to wash over me with little effect, and didn’t seriously question the documentary premise of the film.  I’m with the young actor who played the brother, and I don’t fully understand why they chose to do it this way.  It has something to do with the belief that actors would portray the tensions and uncertainty they wanted to show better than actual people might?

Anyway.  The kids are, without a doubt, the best part of the movie.  Without a doubt.  While I still thought it was a documentary, I asked myself why they chose to edit it to make the mother the villain.  She was the person who insisted on the move into the subdivision, and she was the person coping least well with the move–though this was largely from the fact that she was the one most shouldering the logistical burdens of living out there.

But the other reason I didn’t realize the thing wasn’t really a documentary was because of the documentary part of it.  That’s the part where every few minutes they’d drop in interview clips with real-life actual urbanists.  People who I’ve heard of, read books by, and seen at real-live actual conferences saying things about suburbs, urbanism and the relative costs of each that are exactly the sorts of things you’d actually hear in an actual documentary about that stuff.

And there were also these bumps every once in a while, short animated segments showing some unnerving statistic about weight gain in the suburbs, or the dangers of cars to teenagers in the suburbs vs. in urban areas.  It’s really good.  Particularly since they did two things, first, they had a guy who not only wouldn’t live in the suburbs if you paid him but who can articulate the reasons why there are incentives to do so, and doesn’t think the people who do have done something wrong, wrong, wrong.  The other is letting one of the urbanists describe the things that can be done with what’s already been built in the suburbs to allow them to improve over time.

Anyway, it’s pretty good.  You would watch it.  The kids are really good.  And now we’ll close with…

The Scandalous and The Little World

Mostly the little world.  The Little World of Don Camillo, to be specific.  I’m working my way through this book again, after not having read it in something like twenty-odd years or more.  The Little World was written by Giovannino Guareschi in 1948, and follows the titular Italian country priest in his on-going battles with the local Communist mayor Peppone.

But first, a bit more on The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus by Gomes.  It appears he is some sort of universalist.

As I understand it, there are lots (and lots) of flavors of universalist.  The essential claim is that everyone, all of creation, will be reconciled to God.  Yet even that formulation is probably problematic.  “Reconciled”?  What if all of creation isn’t estranged from God?  And it’s the piling on of “what ifs” that lead to all the flavors of universalism.  In fact, it’s probably the piling on of what ifs that make for all the flavors of Christianity.

But back to Gomes for a moment.  He presents a hard Christianity.  Not one of fire and brimstone, sin and redemption.  No.  It’s a much more difficult path he shows that Christians must follow.  The question is not “What would Jesus do?” but rather “What would Jesus have me do?”  The answers involve the love of God being greater than we can comfortably stand, expanding our humanity to all of humanity, and reconciliation of all of creation (I’ll stick with “reconciliation” since I’m too lazy to come up with another word).

And now back to Don Camillo.  This novel is a collection of short chapters, like short stories loosely connected.  The stories are full of good humor.

Don Camillo is typically in the wrong, though local communist leader (and town mayor) Peppone is usually just as wrong.  The two characters need each other, and know they need each other to keep the town running smoothly.  So they suffer each other, and allow their relationship to carry many of the small grievances which need to vent so they don’t fester and tear the town apart.  Peppone has his band of fellow travellers, being Communists.  But Don Camillo has Christ.

Don Camillo talks with the crucified Christ in his church in order to find the perspective he needs in his dealings with Peppone.  Just because he needs the Mayor doesn’t mean he’s fully aware of the fact all the time.  Christ talks with Don Camillo, gives him guidance, and gently reminds him that His concerns don’t always coincide with Don Camillo’s or with what Don Camillo thinks are those of the Church, or even himself.

Christ’s advice is generally along the lines of, “stay calm.”  And, “don’t punch Peppone.”  And, “don’t shoot Peppone.”  And, “don’t embarrass Peppone.”  (However, Peppone gets punched pretty regularly, as does Don Camillo.)  And the tone seems to be one of, “these are all my children, and they are already saved–don’t mess it up for them, OK?”

Torchwood: Not so good.

Clearly I’m in a minority here with this opinion, since there are, what? four seasons now?  We’ve recently been watching season 1 of Torchwood, and it has pretty much lost me at, about, the mid-point.
I don’t care, especially, for the soap-opera-y nature of the character stories. Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, sex with co-workers because “I just can’t talk to anyone else.” And so on.  
It’s possible that could have been overcome, though, if I found the characters likable.  But I don’t. Captain Jack is no fun, and the argument presented in the opening voice-over, “the 21st Century is when everything changes, and you have to be ready,” is–on its own–trite and doesn’t explain why Captain Jack is a jerk-ass with a big goofy grin, and–within the context of the Doctor Who continuity within which it’s embedded–simply misunderstands how things work, all timey-wimey and stuff.
And none of the rest of the characters are all that appealing, either. Not even Gwen, the audience’s POV. She is, to be sure, the least unappealing, but sometimes she brings a competent cop vibe to the scene, and sometimes she’s just one more emotional hot-head suckered by the demands of the plot.
And there’s the point where Torchwood actually lost me as a viewer with anything greater than a mild curiosity about how things turn out. Wikipedia is probably good enough, but actually, this place is even better. Torchwood is constantly leaving us viewers suckered by the demands of plot–so the unappealing characters are stuck into plots that just don’t hold up.

For instance: The plot of “They Keep Killing Suzie” is this monstrosity of… Look, I’m totally OK with unlikely and convoluted plots. See most of Doctor Who, for instance. But this episode presented not just a convoluted plot, but the antagonist’s plan was of such convoluted scheming and anticipating the actions of second- and third-tier characters that even Moriarty would be double-checking the figures and asking, “are you sure blowing your brains out is the best way to accomplish your goals, here?”

And worse (worse!, I can’t hardly believe it could be worse (worse!) than it is), there’s not even a particularly good explanation for the plan (that’s hedging on my part, I didn’t notice an explanation for the plan at all). Here goes: in the pilot Suzie went mad (mad! I tell you!) with the power of life and death, and especially life, and especially death, and used a device to bring people back from the dead, and also killed a lot of people. And then blew her own brains out.  
But, dig this, man, blowing her brains out was part of the plan. See, before she blew her brains out, she co-opted a low-tech sort of support group who only met because of some hand-drawn fliers, the better, you see, to stay under the radar. No electronic traces in case anyone came looking.  Until later, after she was dead, you see, and the Torchwood team went through her bunch of stuff, and found one of these fliers.
And what did she do to co-opt this support group? She took some Torchwood drugs, the kind that alter people’s memories. Torchwood uses them to wipe the minds of witnesses they don’t want to remember Torchwood activities, they’re called retcon. She took some (from the dispensary? don’t they lock this stuff down and keep and inventory?), kind of a lot, actually, and fed them to a big bruiser of a guy to program him as her own personal sleeper agent with the subconscious instructions that, at some point in the future, well after she was long dead, he would go on a killing spree. So that he could get caught. Specifically by Torchwood. His name is Max.  
But, despite being Torchwood, and Max’s killing spree being, essentially, the stuff of every police procedural ever produced, Our Heros are unable to simply investigate the crime, and feel like the only way to find out who killed the dead people is to temporarily resurrect them and ask them. Now, I’ll admit, that’s a pretty handy tool to have in the kit. If it works. But the Torchwood team knows that the bringing-people-back-from-the-dead method of closing cases is likely to end with a team member blowing her own brains out. Despite this, they try it anyway. And worse (worse!), the idea comes from, and is pressed by, the only person on the team with actual police experience, who should be up on the techniques for investigating a string of linked murders (Gwen, as if you didn’t know).
So. Where are we? Oh, yes. The Team has resurected a couple of victims, and gotten a lead on Max, but–as I say–rather than investigating Max, they decide the only way to get the information they need is to resurrect Suzie. Except, somehow, rather than resurrecting her for, like, oh, a minute and a half or maybe two minutes or something, they accidentally resurrect her for ever. And, as it turns out, this was part of the plan.
Then Our Heroes find Max and lock him up. Meanwhile Suzie is getting less dead all the time, which isn’t good for Gwen, who was wearing the glove which brought Suzie back, because now Gwen’s life energy, through the conduit of the glove, is sustaining and healing Suzie.  (“Glove?”  I hear you say.  “Glove?”  The glove is the thing that makes people come back from the dead. It doesn’t really matter.) Suzie is getting so much better that her brains and head are on the mend.  Bad news for Gwen, though. Her head is getting blown off in slow motion, painfully.
That’s when Max shuts down Torchwood, more-or-less. You see, in addition to programming Max to kill members of the support group, Suzie also programmed him to, once Torchwood had locked him up, chant a secret shut-down code she had programmed into the computers before she blew her brains out. It was part of the plan. You see, the plan was to trick Gwen into taking her to see her father who is dyng of cancer so she could rip his ventilator out and make him die. And also live for ever.
It doesn’t work because, at the very last possible second, after escaping from a cleverly reactivated Torchwood, and racing through the byways of west Wales for, presumably, hundreds of kilometers, and running to the Grey Havens, I mean Hedley Point, and shooting Suzie repeatedly and to no effect, the people still in Torchwood destroy the glove–which has been in Torchwood the whole time–and that breaks the life energy suck from Gwen to Suzie, killing Suzie for real, restoring Gwen–instantly!–to health, and, well, there you go.
To recap, the plan, in chronological order:
  • Suzie gets to use the glove
  • She loses her mind
  • She conceives the rest of the plan
  • She reprograms the computers in Torchwood to shutdown on her code word
  • She figures out that after Max kills a bunch of people, Torchwood will resurect a few people for a little while and learn just enough about Max to want to resurrect her for a little while
  • She figures out that, in the future, after she’s dead, Gwen will actually resurrect her for ever
  • She figures out that Torchwood will manage to lock up Max, rather than kill him like we’ve seen them do pretty regularly through the series so far with other bad guys
  • She reprograms Max to both kill a bunch of people and say the trigger phrase to shut down Torchwood’s computers
  • She blows her own brains out
  • She is resurrected some time later–somehow for ever, despite all evidence of how the glove works
  • She plays on Gwen’s sympathies, and gets Gwen to take her away from Torchwood right before Max shuts down the computers
  • Gwen takes her to see her father who she kills while Gwen’s head starts to fall open like a cheap paperback
  • She takes Gwen to the End of the World
  • Then, and only then, does Torchwood think to destroy the object at the heart of the problem–an object they had to hand at every single moment of the problem, including the whole time they were locked in, and trying to figure out how to escape from, their own offices
And here–at this point–is where the plan fails, and where Torchwood loses me as an engaged viewer.

Scandalous Gospel: Reader’s Response

I’m reading The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s so Good About the Good News? these days.  Peter J. Gomes died recently; I had never heard of him–not that I know of, anyway–but his passing was mentioned by a couple of bloggers I have come to take seriously.  I won’t bore you by pretending to know anything substantial about him, except to note what might be the most important fact about him in this context.  He was a believing Christian.

I’m not far into it, but that’s what I do.  Read a bit, begin to respond, read a bit more and so on until I’m finished.  And then, when I’m not finished any more, come back and repeat the cycle.  So anyway, Gomes is a believer, and I’m the guy who talks so much.

Gomes’s belief, while certainly more complex than I’m going to get into, is that the good news is radical.  One is tempted to add superlatives, but they aren’t necessary.  The upheaval of the world proclaimed by the gospel of Jesus is total, as Gomes presents it.  In this Gomes sounds quite a lot like John Dominic Crossian.  Who knows how either of them might feel about that.  I like to think ‘probably ok’ since neither of them, in their writing, seems awfully concerned about stuff like that.

In any case the good news is a hard thing for for the conventional. Gomes quotes from Luke, Chapter Six:

How terrible for you who laugh now; you will mourn and weep!

How terrible when all men speak well of you, because their ancestors said the very same things to the false prophets.

Not much comfort there.

Three Hearts and Three Lions: Reader Response

I just finished Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson. I’m not totally sure how I came across this title, but Wikipedia claims that it influenced the first edition of D&D in its conception of alignment and trolls. Not that it’s an especially D&D-like novel. Not that I would really know; I don’t think I’ve ever read a D&D novel. Anyway.

Here’s what it is like. It’s like watching someone go from one place to another, dealing with various monsters from the menu of European fairy tales. Then, at the end of the journey, the hero discovers his strength and defeats the bad guys. And it’s great.

Our hero is a guy, Holger Carlsen, Dane who half-emigrated to the USA in the years before WWII. He’s a pretty smart guy, a pretty strong guy, who, when WWII breaks out, discovers that he didn’t really mean to emigrate. He returns to Denmark to fight Nazis in the underground. In the heat of a particularly important secret mission, he gets knocked out and wakes up in Ye Olde Europe.

From there the questing, and the romance, and the fighting, and the discovering his true identity takes place. He uses his modern knowledge in some circumstances, gets lucky in others, and in some his friends help him make it through. His friends are mainly a dwarf and a swan may.

Each chapter is, essentially, one encounter loosely connected to the next. About a third of the way through the book, things shift, and what appeared to be one type of fantasy story—the type where the unwitting hero moves rapidly into circles of power and through his native wisdom, strength, and grace wins the day—turns into a different type of story. This is the type of where the hero doesn’t really understand much of anything, accidentally does the right thing a few times, and finds he’s leading the good guys against the forces of Chaos, and it’s not going so well at pretty much every step.

Here’s what I mean by that. In each encounter, Holger prevails by and large unscathed. He comes out of each one with a tiny bit more knowledge about who he is, and how he fits into this world where he finds himself. However, though he defeats his opponents, his material position slowly weakens. This is of little consequence in the middle third of the story, when Holger and his friends are wandering in the wilderness. It begins to matter rapidly and increasingly rapidly through the final third, so that by the final encounter, he’s barely able to stand before he attains his goal.

And then he gets what he’s after, the veil falls, and… and the novel ends. There’s a coda, but we readers only get the final climactic battle retrospectively.

This is a very good book. It seems nothing much happens, but it’s very well written, and the pace of it makes more sense on review than perhaps it does at the time. The characters are clearly drawn, and fun to journey with.

Also great is to see how Anderson links this character to The Matter of France. It’s not just a name, or a character history; Anderson allows the Christianity of the source material to come through. While the novel isn’t Christian as such, the characters all assume the power of Christ and God, the good guys rely on the Holy Name to give them strength, and the bad guys are weakened by encounters with those how believe and use these talismans. Upon returning to the mundane world, Holger joins the Church in an effort to return to the heroic realm where The Matter is history and not just legendary literature. This is some literature which I didn’t know about before, and which I’m now looking forward to reading.

Rango and running on and on…

I wasn’t sure I was gong to have anything to say about Rango. Turns out I did, in a comment to this blog post (Note: broken link as of Jan. 7, 2018. -SM) discussing the (possibly) racist shading in the movie. I’m putting it here, too.

(lightly edited) I don’t agree that the movie is racist. That’s a pretty heavy charge to lay on a movie. Comedy deals in types, and in the dissonance between what’s expected and what happens. My perspective on this is informed by my time founding a student humor magazine. When I first saw Wounded Bird, I thought something along the lines of, “eesh, another Magical Native American.” But with dialog like this:

Rango: (as Wounded Bird scatters feathers into the wind) I see you’re communicating with the great spirits.
Wounded Bird: No. I’m molting. It means I’m ready to mate.

…it’s difficult for me to see the character as a stereotype. The other characters, particularly Rango (who’s pretty unaware about most things, except after the fact), tend to see Wounded Bird in terms of the stereotype, but the movie itself presents him as something more. At least as much as such a thing is possible for a second- or third-tier character.

The Mayor, as a tortoise, is presented as the only one who was there before there was even a town. He’s older than Dirt, you see. (Of course you do.) He’s both very old, and he’s in a wheel chair. It’s unclear to me why these facts about the character have to be an –ism of any stripe. Neither his age nor the fact he’s in a wheel chair prevent him from pursuing (and nearly attaining) his goals. Why is he in a wheel chair? We don’t know, since there’s no in-story explanation. My suspicion is the movie put him in a wheel chair, at least in part, to short circuit any easy jokes about slow-moving tortoises. (And I think Tom in a comment above makes a good point about Mr. Potter.)

It’s a movie that takes place in the American southwest, right? There’s a mariachi band and an armadillo, and they speak with Mexican accents. Is there more to the stereotype in the presentation than the way they speak? Is the failing that these characters aren’t major players in the story? The owls are a chorus, and the armadillo is an animal guide/wisdom elder ala Campbell. But you know these things. In this case, you’re seeing stereotypes where I see archetypes.

Throughout the movie, the owls are telling us that it’s Rango’s story. When Rango leaves town and finds the Man With No Name, er… The Sprit of the West, he learns the lesson: nobody can leave his (her) own story. As you point out, it takes heroism on the part of lots of characters, and no less from the women in the story than from the men. But it’s Rango’s story, and his journey—an incomplete one as he’s still pretty much as unaware at the end as he his at the beginning—is the story we’re dealing with. This is a parody of the Man With No Name movies (perhaps most directly High Plains Drifter, with overtones of Chinatown), not a parody of The Magnificent Seven (or of The Seven Samurai).

Rango ends the story pretty self-absorbed, but he also ends the story with a dawning understanding that if you put yourself out there and people come to rely on you, then you have to be willing to see it through. Again we viewers are confronted with a situation where Rango has one view of things and we viewers have the rest of the movie telling us that there’s more going on. Indeed, Wounded Bird actually has the line: after the plan of the moment goes wrong, Wounded Bird says something along the lines of what a bad idea it was. Of course he’s the one who actually gets shot, so that actually plays into the stereotype…

Could the movie done better with its types, or challenged its premise or the viewer more? Probably. But I’m not arguing that it’s not as good as it could be, I’m arguing that it’s not racist. Of course you could have been saying that the character Rango (rather than the movie with that title) is racist. In which case, I’ll just say he’s stupid.

(Update 3/9/2011) See also this post from Big Media Vandalism.

When the Tar Baby sequence started, I got nervous. But when I saw what the Tar Baby looked like, I said “OH COME ON, PEOPLE!” Here I was, expecting it to look like Wesley or Miles Davis, and the damn thing doesn’t even look like a person, let alone a Black person. The Disney animators make it react as if it were actually made out of tar. Its movement, and subsequent destruction, become a surreal image that, at least for me, did not evoke anything human.

That’s probably enough.

Unitarian Universalism. What the hey? pt 1

We’ve been attending a small Unitarian Universalist congregation off-and-on (increasingly on) for the last year or so. One of the strange parts about UU is that it’s non-creedal. It’s like a habitat for spiritual discovery. Or something.

There are principles, and there are sources. I think I’ll post additional entries on these. But for the moment, this is about the most succinct statement of the religion aspect of UUism. (Note, the link originally here, to a UU congregation’s site, no longer connected as of Jan. 7, 2018. Here’s a link to the UUA’s site instead. -SM) https://www.uua.org/beliefs

To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity. –Douglas Adams