Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

We moved from Vermont to Colorado in 1995. I was 13; I had just finished 8th grade. In Vermont, cable wasn't even available on our road, so we spent much of the time watching fuzzy television or the occasional VHS. When we got to Colorado, the pastor at our church had hooked up a projector to show movies on a seven foot wall. We take this sort of thing for granted now, but it was pretty revolutionary at the time. He also had four subwoofers and two floor-to-ceiling racks of speakers - full on 168 piece surround sound system, rivaling anything you'd get in a movie theater. This period 1995-1996, also happened to fall in the brief time when Laserdiscs were king. DVDs weren't available in the US until 1997 - so seeing these movies on this set up, with digital quality, was pretty earth-shattering.

There were pretty much only three movies on rotation when we spent time there - Jurassic Park (because your water would ripple, the same way as the water on screen, when the T-Rex was nearby), Twister (because the surround sound made it ridiculously real), and Independence Day. I still have overly emotional connections to all three movies, but Independence Day ended up ruling the roost. I bought it (albeit, still on VHS) and we watched it all the time. Will Smith was at the top of his game and I was a huge Jeff Goldblum fan (thanks to near constant showings of The Fly on cable, which I now devoured incessantly). Judd Hirsch, Brent Spiner, Harry Connick, Jr., Randy Quaid, Vivica A Fox(!), even Harvey Fierstein had pitch-perfect supporting roles, for the tone of the movie.

However, Bill Pullman steals the show. At this point, I had only seen him in Spaceballs, so that, combined with this - I had no idea he wasn't an A-list movie star on par with Tom Cruise. To me, he's clearly the star of the show. Whether it's the stilted delivery that makes you wonder if he's constipated, emotionally torn, or just trying really hard to remember his lines, or his rousing ability to imbue a scene with gravitas simply by being present, the guy nailed this role. It's not a traditional Presidential role, but you can totally buy him as a hero fighter pilot who rode the wave of early 90's fame to the White House (there might even be a functional alcoholic angle in there that got cut for time). He's the perfect serious, non-serious President (shoot, his Presidential abilities made that terrible Josh Gad sitcom remotely palatable for all 13 of its episodes).

You also have the Roland Emmerich effect. Say what you will about his standards, the guy knows how to shoot for tension. He's an emotional manipulator of the highest order; granted, he does it using shortcut camera tricks and takes advantage of the fact that his core audience is mostly 13 year old boys - but I was right in that wheelhouse, so who cares? Independence Day also represented some seriously advanced effects for its day. Blowing up the White House without it clearly looking like a model was revolutionary. Who doesn't like watching things blow up?

Although it's no longer my favorite movie, I think, if pressed to watch one that provides me with the most pure, unadulterated joy, I think I still might pick Independence Day.

So... when they announced a sequel, I was on board. I still do not understand those people who panned this idea and refused to be unbelievably excited. When Will Smith decided the script wasn't good enough for him, it almost made things better for me. I felt his contribution was more about driving box office than adding to the film itself. This was only going to mean more screen time for Jeff Goldblum (because, face it, that guy doesn't turn down anything) and, even better, the great Bill Pullman.

Then the reviews were terrible. What's more, some people didn't even seem to need to see the movie to pan it; just the idea of its existence was enough for an uncommon percentage of the viewing public to simply discard Independence Day: Resurgence out of hand. I never lost faith. I tried to watch a pirated version online (since I do usually avoid wasting real money on bad movies), but five second into the opening title sequence I realized the only redeeming part of this movie was likely to be the effects. Luckily my local cinema was still showing it and I caught an afternoon show for $5.50.

The plot and character difficulties of the sequel have been discussed ad nauseum - especially here, on cinemasins, with a brutality that doesn't even touch insulting; it just hurts. It's not that anything they say is untrue. Surely the cause of film has been set back thirty years simply by this movie existing, even if no one had seen it. It's truly terrible - and the worst kind of terrible: it completely rehashes the original without adding anything new. The science is even less believable, the characters are ten times more hollow, most of the plot makes no sense at all, plus the writing and acting are so phoned in you can see bars of service over top of everyone's head.

Not Goldblum, of course, he only really ever plays the same guy and I think they've had him convinced for twenty years that these movies are documentary in nature and he's really being called upon to save the world - using an alias, you know, for security reasons. The guy always scores and he scores again in this movie. It's a Jeff Goldblum production, featuring Bill Pullman. That's all the original was (maybe with a shoutout to Harry Connick Jr) and that's all the sequel is.

If you loved the first movie, like I did, I don't understand how you could dislike this one. Maybe you were older than I was in 1996 and thus not as emotionally captured by the humor, explosions, and patriotism - the last one wasn't as present in the sequel, but I didn't miss it.

I knew it was a total farce from the beginning. It's laughably bad in some places and the plot holes are big enough to drive an Atlantic Ocean sized spaceship through*. But it has the same spirit as the original. It's similarly fun-loving with its cavalier snubbing of seriousness. People die and are mourned, but not in any way that will ruin our viewing experience. Buildings are destroyed, but with a wink at the camera (Judd Hirsch even mentions at one point that the aliens like to take out the landmarks).

It's feel good entertainment of the highest order. The effects are still great (although not groundbreaking, of course) and darn it if I didn't tear up when crazy old Bill Pullman shaved his beard and hopped back into the pilot's seat to once again save the world. The guy can deliver a spine-tingling presidential speech and, because it's a poorly made sequel, he gets to do it two or three times in this one. We've even found the perfect venue for Liam Hemmsworth, where the entire movie matches both his woodenness and physical beauty.

They added an African warlord, who takes down aliens with swords, futuristic new vehicles and weapons, and whatever character was necessary to make every scene individually spectacular, no matter what detrimental effect the existence of said character has on the movie as a whole. Plus, just when you think they've climaxed prematurely (surely a result of the reduced budget) there's ANOTHER "final" fight scene. They pull that glorious bait and switch like four times!

There are no oscars here - in fact it could sweep the Razzies easily - but if you're on a cinematic high horse about the original, you might need to re-examine your life choices. Did you really expect them to be working with gold here, people? Although they did find a way to alchemy the crap they had into serviceable iron pyrite.

Fool's Gold.** That's the best that can be said about Independence Day: Resurgence, but I will go down with this ship. And as the waters of a giant Mid-Atlantic sink hole finally pull me under, I'll use my last breath to proclaim: "I am that fool," and I'll do it proudly.

*Although, originally, it seemed like a mile wide hole, reaching 4,000 miles down into the center of the earth in the middle of the Atlantic, would literally drain the oceans, but I did the math and it's only about than 1/1000th of 1% of the total volume, so literally a drop in the bucket (shoot, it might even help mitigate some of the effects of climate change). Anyway, lesson: oceans are big!

**And, as bad as it is, Independence Day:Resurgence is better than Fool's Gold, starring Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson, which I also saw in theaters.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Game for Good Christians

I was invited, this week, to submit a guest post on the site for A Game for Good Christians. This is a Cards Against Humanity-style game made up entirely of scripture references (usually the ones we skip over in Sunday School). It's a cool concept, designed to get people thinking and talking about God and the Bible in deeper, more expansive ways than we're used to. Even cooler is this website they've built out to help people do just that. I highly recommend both the site and the game.

My Thursday post for this week is the one that's up on their site - please check it out.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Race in America

So, I'm the least capable person to talk about race in America, but I do have thoughts that need an outlet somewhere. I've been really shaken in recent weeks - a little different than I've been shaken in the past. I've found great sorrow and solidarity with people like Eric Garner, because I've witnessed, first hand, the kind of unfair, prejudicial treatment that often stems from police towards black men in America. Philando Castile was different - not because I can ever claim to "know" what it's like to be black at a traffic stop, but because I've got a four year old and I've been pulled over for having a tail light out. The disparity between what happened to him and what happened to me is just a chasm too broad for my mind to even attempt to bridge.

But it touched something deeper inside of me - real grieving - something beyond just sympathy or sorrow or regret. It hurt. Deep down. It's why I wanted my daughter to be a part of our local rally for peace on Thursday. We couldn't stay the whole time and I doubt she'll even remember what happened, but she saw and heard perhaps the most racially diverse religious gathering in the history of this town. She was there and that's important to me.

Now I'm scared this will sound callous, but, amazingly, the events of the last two weeks have given me some measure of hope. Obviously a lot of people have lost lives - far too many - but the reality is that terrible violence has been done to black people in this country since even before it was a country. We can lament over the loss of life - any life; and we can lament over the slow pace of progress. No but - we can and should lament. Things look really bad.

I have some hope, though, because from my perspective, this time is different. TIME magazine reports that 61% of white people think racial equality is a real issue - a sadly low number, but the highest it's ever been. Further, white people, especially young white people, have been the majority of those engaged in protest following the most recent spate of events. So long as white people remain the majority in this country and control the levers of power and influence, white people need to be on board with solving racial inequality. It's been the indifference of me and people like me over the past 400 years that have left us at this point.

Maybe the perspective of black Americans in black neighborhoods is far from optimistic, but from my perspective, I've never seen so many white people engaged, willing to listen, and seeking to understand. I haven't felt my speaking up about my experiences, witnessing racially disparate treatment by police against black people, as being rejected or unwelcome. That's a first.

I've felt slightly emboldened, but mostly challenged by Rembert Browne in this piece from the New York Times - he calls on white people to speak up to other white people - to come out as sympathetic towards the plight of African-Americans. As much as I hate to admit it, he nails white culture pretty well (and, having gone to Dartmouth, the guy is in a pretty good position to really understand white culture from the outside). The strange thing, though, is that it doesn't feel difficult or unwelcome anymore. Yes, there were a few of the typical retorts, trying to explain away these police killings by impugning the victim, but those faded pretty quickly (at least more quickly than they have in the past). Shoot, freaking Newt Gingrich came out with a strong statement:

It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years to get a sense of this. If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.

Newt Gingrich! There's some hope when an issue like this has moved from a partisan issue, to one infecting the "other" side in profound ways, it has to be seen as progress. The progress is embarrassingly slow. It's unacceptable that we've gotten to this point, but gotten to this point we have, and wringing our hands over it will not solve anything.

We have to avoid saying, "yeah, us; we care now," as that's beyond patronizing; it's insulting. I can't be the white guy saying, "hold on, we'll get there." That might be the only thing we can say, but it's as helpful as saying "All Lives Matter" at this point. Frankly, I'm not sure we have the right to claim any life matters until we can show that literally any life matters.

I'm particularly broken by the claim, oft repeated this week, that we've left too many problems for the police to solve. I hear the same complaint from school teachers, literally almost every day. The problems of our society are our problems, even if we've segregated ourselves in communities where we're insulated and isolated from those issues we rue. It's not somebody else's problem and it's not somebody else's fault. I can clearly say no one's done as much as they can to make the world a better place - save for those who've literally given their lives on the altar of our societal shortcomings.

Yes, do something rather than nothing, but do more than some thing, commit. Be a difference in your community - and that might just mean getting out of your community and into one you wish were better, not telling "them" how to be, but becoming "us" in the midst of the mess. We won't overcome our fear and obsession with safety until we have a world that's fear-free and safe for all. We can't look at a gash on our arm and say, "that's my arm's problem." My arm's problem is my problem; black America's problem is America's problem. I think more white people are starting to see this. I think that's a droplet of good news in a flood of bad, but it's enough for me to keep going and I pray its enough for others, for those really hurting in the midst of this outrageous reality, to keep going too.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Law and Order

I was away this weekend at some meetings. On Sunday I was checking through Facebook and saw my daughter tagged in some pictures from church. Apparently, after the service, some people went next door, to the police station, and chalked messages on the sidewalk and parking lot. If I'm being honest, I had real mixed feelings about my daughter being part of this. It's not that I don't appreciate the role of police in society and I certainly don't think they deserve the assaults and murders that have been rained upon them over the last ten days or so. At the same time, I do think the position of police in our society - the role they've assumed and the role we give to them - needs some rethinking.

I was proud to see a picture of my daughter smiling next to a message that said, "You are loved;" there's never a time or place when that message isn't important and appropriate. I feel less excited about the message that says, "Hero Parking" in the lot. There are certainly heroic police officers, but there are also heroic teachers, parents, doctors, and janitors. A hero, at least in my understanding of the term, is anyone who puts another before themselves. Maybe it's a low bar, but, I suspect, it's the only bar you need.

At the same time, I don't want to teach my daughter that anyone's profession or education automatically defines them as a hero (or a villain). I want her to know she should treat everyone with equal respect, even if they don't deserve it. There aren't people worth more than anyone else. We shouldn't have people in our society who hold higher positions of respect or honor. While I'm certainly all for celebrating heroes, I just don't believe putting on a uniform automatically makes you one.

That leads me, of course, to the really difficult situation we've been dealing with this week in the US. I know my emotions were a bit fried even before watching the fourth season of Orange is the New Black this week, the main storyline of which involved the increasingly inhumane treatment the inmates suffered at their hands of their guards and society's tacit approval of such. You can call it heavy-handed for sure, but there was a lot of separation - "us" and "them" -ing - using someone's status or behavior to justify your own behavior.

It's the larger problem in our society. We like to label "good" and "bad." I struggled with my daughter playing on the sidewalk with the neighborhood kids tonight because they were dividing up into "good guys" and "bad guys." I don't want her to play like that. I know it's very common. Certainly I did the same thing as a child. Most people call it harmless. I think there's more to it. There are no "good guys" and "bad guys." There are just "guys." We're all human beings, equal. Human beings can do good things and we can do bad things, but those actions don't make a person good or bad.

It's an important distinction because of the effects down the line. When you have bad guys the solution to that "problem" is getting rid of the guys. We throw out bad things, after all. But if they're just regular people doing bad things, the solution is to change the action - these are people who can be redeemed.

This is the way I want my daughter looking at the world.

A world that is, right now, more divided than ever - with people picking "sides" in some perceived war between black people and the police. This only serves to reinforce the root causes of tragic killings and perpetuate more of the same, often in the name of justice. Nothing just ends in death. That's just not how it works. As I've written before, sometimes killing is the best of many bad options - but it is never just.

Violence is not the answer. Neither is fear. I heard an interesting interview with the former Chief of Police in Seattle about his new book, purporting to have good advice for "fixing the police." He talks about how power and fear dictate many of the actions leading to these awful headline shootings. He chalks much of it up to police training and culture - both things that need to change.

Listen, we've got a police system that is unequivocally biased against African-Americans. There's no way to argue with the numbers. Now, having a racist system doesn't mean every police officer is a racist - it doesn't mean any of them are (although, just by sheer demographics, some police offers will be racist). What it means is that we have a system of policing that produces results that work out worse the darker your skin gets. You can look at history - many of our laws were created for racial control. You can look at demographics - crime tends to be easier to spot in poor communities, which also tend to be disproportionately black, but you can also show, through time, how these statistics are perpetuated by the way laws are enforced and these neighborhoods are policed.

Police are supposed to serve and protect, and the police officers I know personally are committed to doing just that. At the same time, my interactions with police on the job have mostly been the opposite. I can attest to the ways in which serve and protect becomes harass and hinder. This is the story many people, especially people of color, tell. My only conclusions is simply that the ways in which police are trained to serve and protect keeps them from doing the things they want and are committed to doing.

The Seattle Police Chief talked about how often police are trained to control every interaction from beginning to end, which leads to abuse of power. It leads to seeing the people they're supposed to protect as "other." The "us" and "them" becomes the police and the community. This is certainly no one's intention (or the intention of very few), but the numbers and the stories and the deaths prove that reality is different.

I keep going back to "hero parking." I would love for that to be a true label for every police officer. Maybe that is indeed the solution - training our police to put others before themselves, even those who don't deserve it. It's not just training that would benefit police, but every person in every situation. If a police office who's concerned for their own safety encounters a person similarly concerned, we end with two people who suspect the other of ill intention and it's a recipe for disaster.

In the end, the struggle between #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter is a microcosm of the larger, actual, human interaction. No one who says #blacklivesmatter disagrees with the notion that All Lives Matter, what they're trying to communicate is that while all lives are supposed to matter, black lives, by the numbers, matter less to our society. That needs to change. What we have, then, is a clash of the ideal and the real. #alllivesmatter is an ideal we'd like to uphold - maybe an ideal some people have convinced themselves is reality; #blacklivesmatter is a recognition of the reality of inequality that must be rectified.

Ideally, a police office would treat everyone with respect, be willing to show grace and mercy in the face of difficulty, and be free to do their work with the support of the people they're charged with protecting. This is the story we want - and maybe the story some people have convinced themselves is real. What we're seeing now is a recognition of the reality that things just don't work out this way.

We need change. Change in the way we train our police officers, but also a change in the way we interact with each other as people. We need to be heroic to each other; and we need to hold each other to the same standard.

I've been encouraged by those police officers who've finally begun to break ranks and condemn inappropriate conduct from their peers. This is a step towards improving the standards of law and order in society. We must be careful, though, not to fall into the trap of demonization - in which we make those police officers who've failed to live up to the obligations of their office something other than equal victims of an unjust system. If that happens, we've gotten nowhere, but just turned the tables.

Things need to change. Lots of things need to change, but let's work together to change them with the kind of respect and dignity both police and the people they interact with so often feel deprived of.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

The Science of Theology

I like being scientific about everything. Not that I'm much of a scientist, but I do like working hard to make everything fit a theory - even in my theology. I'll experiment and test things out and try to come up with an idea that explains everything. Even as much as I try to say, "I don't know," I think, deep down, I'm assuming that if I work hard enough, I will know - or at least that someone could know (I guess that's another benefit of eternity: more time).

I think this scientific approach to scripture is pretty typical of evangelicals (even those who don't much like science), because we really need scripture to fit into our explanation of the world and how God works. We don't like having these random bible stories out there that call into question the nice, systematic, theological explanation we just provided. It's difficult for us to take a perspective on the world and then also admit that scripture doesn't always line up with our perspective. We like to write out demons or miracles or the unwarranted death of innocents, because it fits the theory so much better.

I think of the story of Uzzah - he's the guy who died, reaching out to steady the Ark of the Covenant as David tried to move it on a cart (as opposed to the priests with poles method God prescribed). He had all the best intentions in the world - to keep the most sacred object they had from falling in the mud - but he still died, almost entirely to teach David a lesson. The big problem with this story is that it leaves us with some uncomfortable options: either the Ark really did possess such supernatural power in itself that it could kill anyone who touched it, or God was so devoid of grace as to kill a guy for doing his job, with all the best intentions.

There are theologies that explain away the problems here, but none of them really satisfy me very much - nor do they fit well with the overall revelation of God in Christ and our subsequent understanding of it. My natural inclination is to explain it away - which is a fancy way of saying "ignore it." That would help me be scientific, to have a theology that answers all the questions. But maybe the point is that some questions don't have answers and our searching for them is really, sometimes, the problem.

That's not to say we shouldn't work hard to understand God and ourselves and the world in which we live, but maybe we should work less hard on parring that down to an easily digestible theological version of the unified field theory.