Friday, September 29, 2006

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

As a nominal Beatles fan and dedicated Flower Power scoffer, I found that The U.S. vs. John Lennon provided an abundance of opportunities to gain insight not only into the life and purpose of John Lennon, but the equally mythologized and criticized era in which he made his voice heard. While exploring Lennon’s very public life and protests, filmmakers David Leaf and John Sheinfeld also invite the audience to see the context of Lennon’s political voice—a context which, for those of us born post-1960s, is only the romanticized period of the power of the people, or the disdained era of pot-smoking and sexual promiscuity, depending on who’s telling the story. Through innumerable clips of actual footage from the conflict-steeped era, Leaf and Scheinfeld provide the backdrop as well as the (extremely significant) scenery for the story of John Lennon’s life.

There were a few things which struck me as I was exiting the theater, all of which are directly attributable to the accurate and thorough work of Leaf and Scheinfeld. First, I realized how jaded and downright misaligned my opinion of the sixties had been. For me, an eighties-era yuppie, the sixties had always seemed silly to me—a time of deliberate rebellion and promiscuity that merely represented a generation that got stuck at age seventeen. My tie-and-jacket history teachers had effectively demonstrated that marijuana and free sex had screwed with an entire generation’s collective brain cells, and reduced them to mindless, vapid activists with no jobs, no education, and nothing better to do than smoke dope and bed the neighborhood. Mission accomplished. While my political views did change radically over the years, my general impression of the era remained relatively the same—an ineffective people protesting ineffectively about a war that was certainly unjust and downright wrong, but wasn’t necessarily worth all the silly falderal and mayhem surrounding it.

But, honestly, in my confessed ignorance, I am grateful to Leaf and Scheinfeld for the principled way in which they collected and arranged the actual footage from those years to paint an accurate and telling picture of the political and social climate that produced a John Lennon. The historical clips they chose to include clearly come from a wide variety of sources, thus representing a wide variety of original goals in their filming. As such, there can be no allegations of gleaning footage only from sources with a certain agenda—and this lends the film a solid credibility in advancing its own cause. Seeing and hearing about the events that didn’t make the nightly news (and therefore didn’t make the high school history textbooks) offered a better, and perhaps even more balanced, representation of the time than anything I ever learned in school or in my straight-laced home.

Secondly, the film cleared up my misperceptions regarding what part Yoko Ono played in Lennon’s life and art. As I discussed the film with my husband, I realized that many of my ideas had been shaped by two ruling opinions of the time: that Yoko broke up the Beatles (and was, therefore, to be despised), and that her relationship with Lennon was just for show—more a business partnership than a marriage. Leaf’s and Shienfeld’s work pretty much blew both of these misguided ideas out of the water. While it may have been true that John’s relationship with Yoko interfered with the Beatles’ progress, effectively “causing” the break-up of the group, the marriage of John and Yoko was definitely based on a true connection—socially, politically, and artistically, as well as personally. Again, the footage Leaf and Scheinfeld chose to include demonstrates the deep connection between the two lovers, pointing out the sincerity of their love and dedication to each other, as well as their intense philosophical and social connection. Yoko’s conceptual art very clearly affected Lennon’s music—there is a definite change in the style from “musical music” to a conceptual art style (think of the numerous repetitive lines in his later music)—and perhaps that change did contribute to the end of the Beatles as a musical group. But it was not an intentional or insidious scheme on Ono’s part—it was a natural progression as Lennon’s political and social views came more and more to bear on his public presence and purpose.

Finally, The U.S. vs. John Lennon offered me a much more comprehensive look at John Lennon himself. While I knew about his activism and the “interesting” music he recorded during the sixties, I had always seen him as one of those misguided and wishy-washy protesters. What I saw in this documentary was a man whose principles were rock-solid, and changed only as he matured, not as the climate changed or the public opinion wavered. His use of his public persona was responsible and sincere, not manipulative or dismissive—he certainly saw his notoriety as a gift and a tool that could be used effectively to communicate with people. His stability inspired me, and his humility surprised me. While he definitely took his music seriously, he never took himself too seriously, often taking moments in interviews to mock others who took single comments of his out of context or gave them too much weight.

Unfortunately, Leaf and Scheinfeld pushed the envelope an inch too far just at the close of the movie, over-dramatizing the untimely and violent death of Lennon, and trying to directly tie his assassination to the government and its previous attempts to deport him. This is unfortunate only because the film is very instructive and revealing and non-manipulative up to this point, and the last five minutes or so leave a decidedly Michael Mooreish bitter taste in one’s mouth. While Lennon’s death was, indeed, tragic and needless, the conspiracy theory turn at the close of the movie actually detracted from the impact, rather than strengthened it.

In short, I found the film incredibly informative and worthwhile. I had little idea how much the U.S. government had been working against Lennon and his efforts, and while I felt truly ignorant in my lack of awareness, I was at least grateful that this film had enlightened me to the long-standing issues between politics and art, and where they “should” and “shouldn’t” meet. I imagine that there are many others out there who would find the film educational as well, whether they lived through the sixties as adults, participated in the protests, or were born well after the fact. The U.S. vs. John Lennon simply does an excellent job of telling the story of John Lennon in its social, political, philosophical, and artistic context, and as such reopens the era for its great potential to teach us today.

Friday, June 30, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

We all have hopes of landing the perfect job right out of college—after all, now we’re educated and fresh, and who wouldn’t want us? Andrea (Andy) Sachs (Anne Hathaway) is no exception. With dreams of high-class journalism, the new grad with a—shall we say—casual approach to fashion ironically lands a job as the second assistant to New York notoriously high-maintenance fashion editor of Runway magazine, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). In her mind, this is a one-year stint that will get her the contacts she needs to become a serious journalist, but when Miranda’s demands rapidly devour Andy’s life, she is forced to confront what it takes to get ahead in her career.

The “devil” in this movie rather clearly refers to the “Dragon Lady” editor—she is unrealistic, condescending, aloof, and generally rude. But, as my fellow critic pointed out afterwards, there is a definite reference to the fashion industry in general, and how insidiously it captivates us all, whether we know it or not. Particularly interesting to me was the flagrant mockery of the “number game.” While I was initially concerned by the jokes that Andy was “fat” (a whopping size 6), it soon became a running joke about how ridiculously thin models have to be, and the drastic measures they take to maintain a size 0 (which was the old size 2, by the way). As a woman who has felt the pressures of the number game, I appreciated the way Prada pokes fun at the emphasis on size and diet, making it evident that it’s all pretty much irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. After all, Miranda Priestly is no toothpick—in fact she has a very flattering womanly shape—and no one comments on her being “fat”!

Another prominent theme throughout the movie is that of choices—and what we do when we feel like we don’t have them. Several times when Andy has neglected her group of close friends, including her boyfriend, she bemoans the fact (or at least her perception) that she “didn’t have a choice.” After the third of fourth repetition of this rather pathetic whine, it’s pretty clear that we’re watching Andy learn that she’s making choices all the time, and they have consequences. She does have a choice, and her choices to proverbially kiss Miranda Priestly’s demanding hiney eventually cost her her closest friends. But what’s a career-minded girl to do?

Ultimately, the tension revolves around Andy’s choices—and how she reconciles these choices with who she is and who she wants to be. One of the strengths of the movie is that, until the end, the audience isn’t absolutely certain how she will choose—will she abandon the high-class fashion industry altogether? Or will she make choices that will allow her to continue in her career without sacrificing her relationships? It’s a choice Andy will make, and it may not be the one you expect.

Artistically speaking, Prada isn’t a blockbuster, but a truly ensemble cast (including Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt) makes for a (somewhat surprisingly) three-dimensional movie. Streep plays the invincible Priestly to a “T,” and when the façade cracks for just a moment, Streep captures the depth of character in a truly stunning and engaging manner.

Prada certainly made for an enjoyable evening, as well as numerous post-viewing discussions. While I imagine it will appeal more to the women in the audience, it shouldn’t be relegated to the “chick flick” bin—there’s plenty of meat to chew on for the men, too.

Because real women eat carbs.

Relentless (Novel)

Author: Robin Parrish
Bethany House, July 2006

Grant Borrows' life has just taken a drastic left turn. There's another man in the world wearing his face and living his life. What's more, the man he sees in the mirror is a stranger. Somehow, he's been Shifted—his whole life fundamentally altered, in the space of a single breath. But the changes don't stop at skin-level. Inexplicably, he's able to affect objects around him by simply thinking about them. And as he soon learns, he's become the central figure in a vast web of intrigue that stretches from an underground global conspiracy to a prophecy dating back over seven thousand years, that tells of his coming. Enemies and allies find him at every turn, but one thing they all learn very quickly is that you don't want to push Grant Borrows too far... Can destiny be undone?

The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that there’s nothing new under the sun, and with literature that is very often the case. Every story is a new take on an old theme, a theme first explored thousands of years ago and simply repackaged over the millennia.

Robin Parrish’s debut novel Relentless, however, has found a brilliant and tantalizing package for the often-overused theme of self-discovery.

In a somewhat sci-fi (sans pointy ears and unconvincing alien forms) setting, Parrish explores what he has termed the Shift—a sudden transformation in a person from one body to another. Our protagonist, Grant Borrows (known pre-Shift as Collin Boyd) is a lonely man, riding a lonely bus to a lonely job for a lonely eight hours of work before returning to his lonely apartment for a lonely evening before going to bed—alone. Suddenly he looks up and sees himself—really, himself—on his way to work. Same briefcase, same watch, same slightly overweight lumbering gait, same disobedient lock of hair continually dropping into his face. He gives chase, briefly, until a strange barefoot woman stops him, interrupts his identity crisis, and basically tells him to act now and ask questions later. His life is in danger, and many people are depending on him. No time to waste.

Meanwhile, he’s caught his reflection in a window—now a svelte, broad-shouldered, well-postured, GQ-type man, he’s more than a little uncomfortable with his new form. Women are looking. But inside he’s still the lonely, overweight, dead-end job “loser” he’s convinced himself to be. Inside the fine leather wallet he finds in his finely-tailored coat pocket, there is a load of money (another novelty), a driver’s license with his new name, and the key to a bachelor-pad-furnished penthouse apartment is a flashy neighborhood.

This was going to take some getting used to.

So begins the journey of a new man—a man given a new life of responsibility and adventure—the life he once dreamed of, and now he’s not sure he likes it. Intense, sometimes eerie, and always engaging, Borrows’ plight to understand his role in saving a special group of people (of which he has become one) explores the ups and downs of becoming a savior. Parrish draws us in with finely-tuned dialogue, surprising but not completely implausible plot twists, numerous interesting and well-developed characters, and yes, a relentless pace.

While I wouldn’t have chosen this book off the library shelf, the combination of an incredibly original narrative of a man striving to reach his potential and brilliant storytelling captivated even my stuffy literary attention. The title page indicates this is the first of a trilogy; if so, I am eagerly awaiting the sequels.

This is one fine debut novel. While Christian themes (particularly regeneration and redemption) are present and very worthy of discussion, there is absolutely no heavy-handed, overtly Christian reference, making it a great read for all audiences, and a superb conversation-starter for those interested in following spiritual themes.

Rather than being a great “Christian novel,” Relentless is a great novel by a very talented Christian writer.

Waking Lazarus (Novel)

Author: T. L. Hines
Bethany House, July 2006

Jude Allman is no ordinary man: he has been clinically dead three times—and yet he lives. The subsequent celebrity of his “accomplishments” has left him paranoid and more than a little unbalanced. He has changed his name and fled to the quiet anonymity of Montana, where he desperately attempts to hide from the press, his past, and his future. But when a string of crimes against children pervades his relatively quiet life, Jude is called out of his fear and into a new kind of living.

Writer T. L Hines has crafted an amazing work for his debut as a novelist. Unlike many “Christian thrillers,” Waking Lazarus is a good story, well-told, without apology for its underlying faith motif, yet certainly without preaching. Despite being published by a Christian publisher, and having evidently Christian overtones (the opening page bears a quote from the gospel of John), the novel could easily become a “crossover” hit, simply because both the spirituality and the humanity are realistic and absorbing, without ever becoming overbearing. A distinct lack of “Christianese” truly keeps the book well within the range of interest for anyone interested in near-death (or full death and resuscitation) experiences and any flavor of spirituality.

The unlikely marriage of crime thriller and self-examination creates a unique yet intense storyline that Hines has not only deeply contemplated, but made real and tangible for the proverbial Everyman. Jude Allman, the modern-day Lazarus, is beset by paranoia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a host of personality quirks that would make a millionaire of any decent psychiatrist. He is scared spitless by his death experiences, by the publicity, and by the potential meaning lurking behind them. In short, Jude Allman is as human as we get—an unequivocally sympathetic character caught in a life the reader might eschew just as thoroughly as Jude. But Hines’ story doesn’t stop there…

To put it rather simplistically, Waking Lazarus is about purpose: fearing it, avoiding it, circumventing it, and finally embracing it. Jude Allman resents his resurrections—to the point of taking on a new identity in order that no one (including himself) will connect him with those three fateful and frightful times when he died—and then didn’t. The constant hiding takes its natural toll, though, in his paranoid window-boarding and home alarm systems and reticence to form any meaningful relationships. But when, after being pulled into the realm of deliberately risking his life for the sake of someone else, he sees some purpose in having thrice been to the Other Side, he is able to welcome his purpose, and begin living.

Yet while purpose is the underlying theme, it does not at all detract from the page-turning crime thriller status that Hines gratifyingly achieves. While not creepy or overtly violent, there are many spine-tingling moments, psychological twists, dangling carrots, and extremely subtle references (i.e., Kristina) that keep the reader engaged with all aspects of the story. The crimes, Jude’s mental torment, and the final twist that brings Jude to his psychological and spiritual sense carry the reader all the way through until the (rather satisfying) end.

In short, Hines has truly succeeded in writing a book with Christian content that can (and I project will) be enjoyed by people of other faiths as well. The universality of accepting both one’s past and one’s future ensures that any spiritually inquisitive reader will find both an engaging crime novel and some spiritual food for thought.

A peculiar recipe, perhaps, but one that will satiate many a reader’s appetite for drama with a backbone.