Monday, March 27, 2006

The Dreaded Day of Interviews

Today is a big day for Amy. She is in downtown Philly right now in interviews for Teach For America, a program that places college graduates in inner-city public schools. She is really excited about this opportunity, and I'm sure she would appreciate your prayers. We will find out the result on April 13, which is going to determine the rest of our year (and lives, for that matter). I'm really proud of her.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Some encouragment from the life of Jacques Derrida

Apparently, Derrida wasn't always the genius that people recognize now in his writings. In June 1947, Derrida failed his baccalaureat, which according to Wikipedia is both a high school diploma and an entrance exam for university education. Derrida passed the test the following year. A few years later, he twice failed the entrance exam to the Ecole Normal Superieure in Paris, before passing in 1952. Then in 1955, Derrida failed the oral portion of the philosophy agregation, which ensures that a candidate will receive life-long tenure as a university professor. He passed the exam the following year in 1956.

Derrida may still be a genius, but at least he stumbled along the way like us ordinary humans.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

SAT Scandal

It appears that over 5000 students from last October's SAT test had wrong scores -- up to 450 points off! As the dean of Admissions at Pomona College said, "It looks like they hired the people who used to do the books for Enron." Ouch. Maybe the University of California school system has the right idea by downplaying the test's importance. It's biased toward white, male America anyway. I say it's time for an educational revolution.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Verdict: V is for Very Good (and Visceral, Vibrant, Violent, Viewable, Vigorous, Visionary, Vivacious, Vivific, and especially Vizard)

All word games aside, the latest Wachowski brothers event is well worth watching. But it's not for everyone. V for Vendetta is not like The Matrix in most ways. Whereas The Matrix is an action film that happens to have some cool philosophical and cultural underpinings, V for Vendetta is an idea-film that happens to have some cool special effects at a few points. It's important to note this difference, because one might expect this movie to display the kind of state-of-the-art FX that boggled everyone's minds in The Matrix. With such an expectation, V for Vendetta would leave that person sadly disappointed. And at first, disappointment was my first reaction. I wanted the pre-summer extravaganza. I wanted the eye-popping visual effects. I wanted the gleeful abandon for a couple hours in a theater on a night before a Greek test.

What I got instead was an incredibly provocative film about concepts, ideas, possibilities, beliefs, prejudices, and society. What I got was a film that demands a second or third viewing just to soak up the richness of the narrative(s). What I got was well worth the money I paid and the time I spent to see it on a Sunday night.

I will not belabor this reflection with a pointless plot synopsis. Rather, I will give a hint of how this film connects to our present day Situation. Before I explain, the reviews have all noted the prominence of a plurality of allusions to historical events, works of literature, etc. This is all very true. The film most deeply evokes, in my opinion, the confluence of Orwell's 1984 and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. The film also recalls, quite intentionally, the era of Hitler's Third Reich and the centuries of various prejudices (regarding sex, race, sexual orientation, etc.).

That said, the theme this film brought to my attention most dramatically through these allusions and its own original elements is the tension between unity and difference. The characters in the film live in a totalitarian society in which the government controls media, lifestyle, thought, art, and culture in general. The government has imposed a false homogeneity and trained its citizens to believe that anything outside their bounds of "orthodoxy" is abnormal, and therefore dangerous. (The church does not escape the filmmakers' criticism; in fact, they get skewered rather harshly.) So from the start, the idea of unity is prominent -- and negative.

As the narrative progresses, "V" begins to enlighten the people of this future Great Britain about their actual diversity. The people are not happy with the imposed homogeneity of their government. Something inside them is waiting for physical expression and manifestation. "V"'s mission is to give the people the power to express themselves, the capacity to acknowledge their unique identities.

The theme of unity is brought back again by the end of the film when these people are, in their diversity, united together in a single cause. I will not spoil the final scenes here, but suffice it to say, the film offers a fascinating look at homogeneity and heterogeneity in their interrelations -- diversity and unity interconnected for the sake of a telos, a task that binds former strangers under the umbrella of a common mission. Even if the church is skewered, the concept of the church is not. In fact, this film lives and breathes on the possibility of instilling new life into outdated or corrupted models. If there is something wrong with the church as it is now, the film's perspective does not give up hope but rather views the initiative of the people as capable of giving it new life.

The film emphasizes aspects of diversity through mini-narratives or stories-within-stories which capture the history behind the present-day state of affairs. A central motif in the film's look at otherness is homosexuality, which plays a significant role in the movie. Regardless of one's political or religious views on the matter, one has to acknowledge the poignancy of the film's treatment of the matter. I, for one, find the use of this motif quite compelling and worthy of attention for reasons which others may not find so acceptable. Even so, homosexuality is undoubtedly the prejudice of our time, the issue which people cannot avoid. We are all confronted with this reality of otherness (from a heterosexual standpoint, of course). Even if someone disagrees with what is ostensibly the filmmaker's position, the film nevertheless portrays these matters with seriousness and care.

V for Vendetta is a good film; maybe, on some levels, even a great film. But what it does best is to instill a sense of purpose, a sense of mission, into the minds and hearts of its viewers. This film portrays a fictional, quasi-apocalyptic dystopia, and yet unlike the hopeless relinquishment of any mission at the end of Brave New World and 1984, this film manages to evoke a strong sense of possibility for the future. Perhaps it is a Bolshevistic perspective, an overly utopian answer to a dystopia -- some Christians might say overly postmillenialist. While that may be true, it is to the film's credit that they are able to portray a revolution without falling into mediocre sentimentality (except at the very end, unfortunately). The film does not give the impression that all will be well in the post-revolutionary era; its purpose is to instill hope, while refusing to confirm whether those hopes are ever realized. One assumes they are, but one can never be sure.

Regardless of the outcome this hope remains, and it is a living hope, one that sustains itself after the credits have rolled and the lights are back on. Some could call it naive, too youthful in its intensity, too inspired by a simple piece of Hollywood superficiality. But the poignant themes of the film are treated too well and too sympathetically for them to be written off so carelessly. There are moments of beauty in this film that surpass its flaws. In some ways, this movie is great in spite of itself and its creators. Go see it for its allusions and well crafted narrative. See it again for its thematic beauty and lyrical power.

Congrats to Dan

My brother Dan has been waitlisted for Duke Divinity School, which means he has a definite shot at getting in this fall. But for now he'll have to wait and see what happens. I wish you the best, Dan!

Do we really need another rap star-turned-movie star?

Kanye West is at it again. After two massive chart-topping albums, he wants to be like Eminem and 50 Cent and get into the whole Hollywood thing. Of course, his project is not autobiographical. As should be expected, West wants to do some even grander. The currently untitled project is supposedly a "multiperspective portrait of the United States." Of course, West will executive produce, star, and provide all of the music. His megalomania is getting out of hand.

As one astute commentator on Rotten Tomatoes noted: "If Tupac was still around, you know he would put Kanye West in his place. Rappers today are scared of West for some reason. 50 Cent needs to come out with a diss song on Kanye."

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Our new baby

Amy and I have a little boy -- a boy hamster that is. His name is Aquilla (after the NT name), and he's a baby long-haired "Teddy Bear" hamster. He is very cute, and very friendly. Soon I'll have some pictures up on the blog.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

An update on the state of the art (i.e., the movies)

As everyone knows (or should know) by now, 2005 was a dismal year at the box office, at least that's what Hollywood and its commentators are saying. Of course, by "slump" they mean a six percent drop in sales, though that still amounts to $9 billion. Even so, 2005 was not a good year in terms of business.

Why is that?

Well, two reasons, in my opinion. First, all the best (almost without exception) movies were low-budget, controversial, or independent. Credit to Hollywood needs to be given for their recognition of some of these films in the Oscar nominations. In my opinion, the unqualified best movie of last year was "Good Night, and Good Luck" which everyone needs to see. My sincerest thanks to Clooney and co. for making this cinematic work of art. "A History of Violence" and "The Constant Gardener" were also great, and conspicuously snubbed by Hollywood. (By the way, "Crash" for Best Picture? Puh-leeze. It simply did not deserve the award. I wouldn't have even nominated it, though the film is not bad by any means. Just not good enough.)

The second reason is that most of the films just plain outright sucked. So many bad films come out nowadays that it's no wonder people just stay home. I know it's 2006 and early in the year (when all the "leftover" films get released), but let's take a look at the current top 10 box office films and their percentage ratings as recorded by Rotten Tomatoes. You'll notice that only one of the top 10 has a positive score from critics. Only one! And this was not unusual throughout much of 2005. Hollywood should be ashamed.

All of this in mind, the latest news from theater owners is hilarious, and misguided. According to John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, theater owners may petition the U.S. government to give them permission to jam cell phones in theaters nationwide, because the assumption is that cell phone use in theaters is a central cause of low theater turnout.

Listen, NATO (interesting acronym!), I don't avoid theaters because of the hypothetical idiot who may use his or her cell phone during a film. If the film is good enough, I will go regardless. And if said person does use a cell phone, my wrath will be expressed in words that should not be repeated publicly. But I won't have the opportunity to express myself if the films suck. I'm going to stick with my Netflix, and quite frankly, I am more than happy to.

I only see a film for three reasons: (1) Friends want to hang out by going to see a movie; (2) the film is a special effects blockbuster that is good enough to warrant a viewing; or (3) the film is so damn good that to wait for its DVD release is out of the question. This year, the second reason will be the basis for my (expected) attendance at "V for Vendetta," "MI:3," "The Da Vinci Code" (yes!), and "X-Men 3" (if the reviews are solid). NATO, notice that option (4) -- people being banned from cell phone use -- is NOT one of the reasons I will see a movie.

Should the ban pass, I may conceivably see a film just to use my cell phone to check if it works.

In other news, Annie Proulx (author of the story that became "Brokeback Mountain") has written a bitter and funny commentary about Oscar night.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Crazy seminary life

I guess I've been busy this past month. And lazy. To pick things up, I recommend this hilarious (and thought provoking) editorial from the London Times.