Monthly Archives: December 2008

O Subversive Night

It’s Christmas Day.  Packages are unwrapped, my wife and baby are both dozing…and I’m listening to “O Holy Night” for about the 50th time this Christmas season.

I’m not sure why suddenly this song has grabbed me by the heart, throat, and anything else it can metaphorically grab.  I’ve always liked it–nice melody, complicated chord structure, good opportunities for harmony.  I probably have ten or so interpretations of it, my favorites this year tending to be Kendall Payne’s and Andy Zipf’s.  

But suddenly the lyrics are just…well, they’re wrecking me.  

This song has reminded me of the very subversive nature of what Jesus really came to do.  Too often Christianity in the late 20th/early 21st century West has mixed with commercialism and rigidity.  Whether or not the analysis is true, many outside the church think that it’s about rituals and behavior, trying to find hope in ancient stories, blocking the influence of the world while simultaneously trying to “Christian-ize” it.  

Missing from most people’s understanding is…well, is the whole point.

Listening to “O Holy Night”, I am struck that no human could have made up this Savior, this Story.  Had he been made up by humans, He would come in a blaze of glory, weapons at the ready, prepared to topple the system.  He would put people in line or kick them out of the kingdom.  He would pick followers based on their abilities, potential, behavior.  

He did none of this.

He came in humility, lived in humility, loved all people but especially those who were forced into poor and humble circumstances.  He taught His followers to live humbly, to serve, and to give up everything.  Then He gave up everything, suffering an excruciating (the very word has at its root crucify) death that He didn’t deserve.  I did.  You did.  Everyone He loved deserved it, but He loved them–us–so much that He took it for them.

Even when He resurrected, He showed humility.  He didn’t go to the leaders of Rome and say, “Aha!  What now?”  He didn’t fly around glowing.  He knew something that I have since discovered–even when presented with clear evidence to the Truth of Christ, if a person doesn’t want to believe it, he won’t.  I remember seeing a powerful and inarguable miracle on a mission trip, and coming back to Vermont to tell my best friend from high school, a friend I love very much even though we don’t always know what to say to each other, and his only response was, “Hmm.  Sure wish you had documented it.”  He doesn’t (yet) want to believe.

There are three verses to the song, but most people skip the middle verse.  But all this truth is right there in the song.

In the first verse: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining/’Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth/A thrill of hope–the weary world rejoices!”  A hopeless world, a world stuck without a path of redemption, is given a second chance.  Falling on your knees is a natural response if you grasp this.  It takes me about 30 seconds of television–any station–to be reminded of how hurting, lost, misguided, broken, empty, deceived, and shallow this world is.  People are living for nothing but poison because they don’t know something better is exist.  They’ve been taught it’s naive and ridiculous to think so.

And then the third verse: “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother/and in His name all oppression shall cease.”  What a claim.  But a claim I whole heartedly believe.

I am a person He has freed from chains.  Chains of lust, selfishness.  I am not the person I once was, and I was changed not by my own efforts, but by the love of Christ, who was both God and man, carrying Mary and the Holy Spirit’s DNA.  

But I think this claim is even more subversive than that.  I think it speaks to those in literal chains.  

There are more slaves in the world today than there have ever been in the history of humanity–the number is in the 10s of millions.  There are even slaves in America–locked in sweatshops in New York City and L.A., forced into sexual slavery in Chicago, held in compounds in Florida, picking fruit for nearly no wages.  

It is safe to say that without the efforts of Christians like William Wilberforce, men and women who truly believed the gospel was meant to give hope to every human, that every human was equal because they were image bearers of God, slavery would at least have lasted longer in England and the rest of the West than it actually did.  And that is just one example.  I amazed at the ignorance or vindictiveness of those who claim that Christianity has been responsible for most of the world’s ills, as they conveniently overlook the good real Christians have done, confuse the work of greedy men working in the name of the church, and ignore the horrors of the 20th century that can be directly pinned on the turning away from Christianity.

And we are meant to be setting captives free today.  We have been set free.  How can we stand by while others are crushed by injustice.  How can we drink bottled water out of plastic bottles that suck the world’s resources, when we have the cleanest drinking supply in history, and the money used yearly could provide wells with clean water to every village in Africa, where people die daily from a lack of clean drinking water?

Christ came to turn the world upside-down.  A baby is born in a feeding trough in a small town in Palestine, and the ripples are still felt today.  And His followers are meant to turn the world upside-down today.  Let’s do it in 2009.  Let’s live by the law of love and gospel of peace.  Let’s break chains, knowing every slave–whether they be a literal slave or a slave to consumerism or whatever–is our brother.  Let’s stop oppression.

Let’s not waste what we’ve been given.

Christ is the Lord.  Praise His name forever.  His power and glory evermore proclaim.

Advertisements

The (Relatively) Unsung Classics of (the first half of the) 90s “Christian” Music

Look, I don’t want to get it into it.

I know that the fact that there is a category of music labeled “Christian” is somewhat egregious.  I know music can’t be saved from sin, and I know that this is the only label given to music based on its content and not on its style.  

I also know that the most of the music labeled “Christian” tends to be over (or under) produced, syrupy, derivative, and often without depth.  

So I guess I have gotten into it.  I feel like it’s okay to say “Christian music” because that’s the way it is, and it takes too long to say “Rock (or punk or rap) music that is made by someone who considers themselves a Christian.”  But that is what I mean by it, and that definition broadens both the number of bands (Thrice, anyone?) and the possible subject matter, as it cancels out illegitimate requirements like “they have to say Jesus six times for it to be a Christian song.”

There are those of us out there who both love quality, original music and appreciate music addressing the worldview we think is capital T True.  We love passion and edge in our music, but we loathe the content of most popular music, with its unrelenting focus on sex, romantic love as the answer to all things, boastfulness, and, in other genres, depression and hopelessness.

And those of us who fit that description see signs of life in the music world–we know that there are excellent musicians out there, producing some really great stuff, who also call Jesus Lord.  They tend to shy away from the “Christian music world.”  Sometimes they operate in it, sometimes they don’t.  We are encouraged by the presences of Sufjan Stevens, mewithoutYou, Mute Math, Pigeon John, P.O.D. (sometimes), Jon Foreman and Switchfoot, and numerous others who are shattering the imaginary barrier people have set up as “Christian” and “secular” music.

What many of us may not realize, though, is that there have been groundbreaking and talented bands since the beginning of “Christian” music (I will relentlessly use quotes here) in the late 60s/early 70s.  You just had to look harder for them.  They got less attention, and were less successful.

My car has only a tape deck.  For awhile we had an iPod adapter in the car and I could play my latest downloads of Lecrae, Radiohead, or Bon Iver.  But it broke.  And we decided not to buy a new one.  So guess what?  I’ve been listening through my cassette collection.  And guess what?  Some of the old albums stand the test of time.

I present to you some of the relatively unsung classics of the 90s underground Christian music world.  If you’re in the mood for something new, get something slightly old!  Many of these albums are hard to find or out of print, but some are still available.  Here we go, in no particular order.

scaterd-few_sindiseaseScaterd Few–Sin Disease (1990)–This is the first CD I ever owned.  Scaterd Few was punk band from Los Angeles.  The lead singer, Allan Aguirre (who went by the name Omar Romkus), was friends with HR of a somewhat similar band, Bad Brains. But Scaterd Few brings their own style and sound to the punk genre–think of this as punk with hints of reggae and complex musical arrangements.  Think of this as punk with talent.  And Sin Disease is an amazing, blistering record.  16 tracks, many of them under two minutes long, fly by with no skip tracks (except maybe the bizarre seven minute finale.)  Allan sounds like Peter Murphy with a greater range, and he covers topics ranging from drug use and gang violence (Glass God, Lights Out) to the theology of sin (Kill the Sarx) with weird poetics.  There’s a reggae track and one or two haunting acoustic moments, but for the most part this album flies by with a fierce intensity and a sound all its own.  The band would never top this record.  Stand-Outs: “Kill the Sarx” “Self” “Lights Out”

77s-sticks-and-stonesThe 77s–Sticks & Stones: The 77s, fronted by guitar impresario Mike Roe, have existed in one form or another since the late 70s, and are still putting out albums today. At one point, they were labelmates with U2, and The 77s debut album on Island Records had the unfortunate luck to be released at the same time as The Joshua Tree, whose success distracted the label from promoting The 77s at all.   

The 77s talent is broad.  They can do aggressive blues rock (including a cover of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” that I believe tops Led Zeppelin’s version), moody and mournful alternative, and gospel jams.  

For a long time, their drummer was the legendary Aaron Smith, who recorded with Ray Charles and was the drummer for the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”  A pair of his drumsticks are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame right next to Ringo Starr’s.  

They have many strong moments, but for me, nothing tops Sticks and Stones.   This is an album that shouldn’t work.  It is basically a collection of tracks that never got finished, got thrown off of albums, B-sides, and that sort of thing.  And it is brilliant.  You hear the band’s whole range, from straight soulful rock songs like “MT” to Jerry Lee Lewis-tinged blues (“Perfect Blues”) to experimental alternative songs like “God Sends Quail” (which opens with a 2 1/2 minute guitar solo that is my favorite guitar solo of all time).  Lyrically the album is strong, covering themes of loss, failure, redemption, and love.  In fact, the only misstep is an instrumental called “The Loop” that never really hooked me.  Overall, this is a great collection of songs from a great band.  Stand-Outs: “This is The Way Love Is,” “God Sends Quail.”  For Further Listening: Try their 1992 album, which they were forced the self-title but is really called “Pray Naked.”  There is an even broader range of style here; the album is a bit bleaker than Stick and Stones.

adamagain_classicsAdam Again–Dig (1992): Fronted by the late Gene Eugene, a child actor whose credits included Bewitched, Adam Again was one of those bands that seemed to change styles from album to album.  Some consider their last album, Perfecta, to be their best, but I find it boring with the exception of two songs, one being the opener, “Stone,” which might be the best song the band ever recorded.

No, I consider Dig to be their masterpiece.  Imagine, if you will, REM’s Michael Stipe fronting a guitar-driven jam band that sings only esoteric Dylan-esque lyrics with an edge of sarcasm, and that’s what you get here.  The songs flow, and the lyrics demand attention and thought.  They also must have been a pain to memorize, as they are complicated, full of strange imagery, and vital to the rhythms of the songs.

You may have heard at least one of these songs.  Jars of Clay covered the title track on its “Furthermore” record.   But there are 10 tracks here, ranging in theme from broken relationships (which makes for a slightly awkward concert experience, as the backup singer is Gene Eugene’s ex-wife) to desparation to…a bunch of songs I don’t fully understand.  But there is much to chew on, and as you do, you’ll want to sing along.  Stand-Outs: “Hopeless, Etc., ” “Worldwide,” “River on Fire,” “Deep,” “So Long.”  Okay, that’s half the album.

violet-burning-the-strengthThe Violet Burning–Strength  (1992) The Violet Burning is a California band that still puts out albums today.  They’ve gone through several line-up changes, but really the Violet Burning is mostly the work of Michael Pritzl, a brilliant musician and songwriter.  The band has gone through several phases, some dark, some light, some worshipful, some moody, and mostly all of those combined.  

Strength was the last thing Pritzl did as part of the Vineyard Church and their music label.  I know they had a falling out at some point, and that may be one of the reasons why this disc is no longer available, though you can order a disc through the band’s website of the current band playing through it live.  The original album runs about $50 on CD.

And it would be worth it.  This is basically a musically original, emotionally thick worship album.  Don’t misunderstand that–this does not sound like “worship music”–it sounds like alternative music, whatever that means.  It is intense, soulful worship, with lyrics that are somehow both introspective and completely upward focused.  Pritzl’s voice is an original, sounding a bit like some holy union of Robert Smith and Thom Yorke.  

It starts with “There is No One Like You,” and doesn’t let up.  Towards the end, “Song of the Harlot” uses the story of the woman who anoints Christ’s feet as a metaphor for the human condition.  The singer confesses how “many times I’ve loved the world, so many times I’ve been the whore.”  The song climaxes with the line, “And if I could be anyone at all, then let me be the whore at Your feet.” 

The band on this record is my favorite incarnation of TVB, and includes Shawn Tubbs, a secret treasure in the guitar world whose solos are some of the best things on the record.  The only misstep is a cover of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” that feels a little out of place.

I’m not sure how to talk you into buying this record.  Hunt it down.  You will not be disappointed.  Stand-Outs: “There is No One Like You,” “Stay With Me,” “As I Am,” “Song of the Harlot”…and everything else.

thechoir_circleslide The Choir–Circle Slide (1990)–For a long while, the Choir was my favorite band of all time, largely because of this disc.  It is rare for Christian musicians to be ahead of their time, but there wasn’t anything happening in 1990 that sounded quite like this, with Derri Daughtery’s heavenly voice, Steve Hindalong’s amazing lyrics and even better drumming, and Dan Michael’s spacy lyricon and saxophone talents.  Even today, this album sounds, at least to me, new.  The Choir has other strong albums, and even their most recent, 2006’s “Oh How the Mighty Have Fallen,” is a good effort.  But some of the records sound dated, and others aren’t as cutting edge or original as Circle Slide.

The album is full of Hindalong’s poetic imagery that typically runs on three basic themes: a. his love for his wife (“Sentimental Song,” “Tear for Tear”), b. his love for his family/kids (“If I Had a Yard,” “Laugh Loop”) c. his desperate need for God, a God he’s not always sure is there (“Blue Skies,” “Restore My Soul.”)  

To me, the Choir’s biggest strength has always been melody, and they give it to you in droves here.  The title track opens the album, and while it’s good and sets the tone for the album, it’s not my favorite.  Starting with track 3, though, the record is perfect.  From the sparse “Blue Skies,” mostly made up of drums and vocals, to the jamming closer “Restore My Soul,” the album does not let up.  Stand-Outs: “Sentimental Song” “Blue Skies” “Restore My Soul”  For Further Listening: “Speckled Bird” “Free-Flying Soul” and “Wide-Eyed Wonder”

squint1Squint–Steve Taylor (1994)–Steve Taylor has been referred to as the clown prince of Christian music, and rightfully so, but more than that he is just a ridiculously talented guy.  This was his last record of new material, with most of his albums coming out in the 80s, (and, as classic as they are, sounding like they came from the 80s).  He is now focused on directing, currently working on a film version of Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz (yeah, I don’t know how that will work either.)  His previous directorial effort, The Second Chance, though not perfect, puts many other so-called Christian movies to shame in that Taylor seems to have a director’s eye, trying out different shots and angles and ways of communicating what he wants.  The direction seemed anything but rote.  Plus, I’ll never be able to hear “Come Now is the Time to Worship” in quite the same way.  (Before that, Taylor directed a ridiculously silly film for the Newsboys.)

But to me, the best thing he’s ever done artistically is 1994’s Squint.  I’ve said this before, but again, this album does not sound dated–it’s a modern rock spectacle with ten strong tracks…and the occasional prog-rock and reggae influences.  But what makes Taylor a cut above is his lyrics, at once satirical and confessional.  “Bannerman” takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the guy with the John 3:16 sign at football games.  “Smug” points the finger at celebrities both in Hollywood and in the church.  “Cash Cow”, called a rock opera in three parts, is a satire of the materialistic hunger prevalent in American culture.  (But to Taylor’s credit, he is always as quick to include himself in the things he is criticizing, confessing that he falls victim to that greedy spirit “every time I utter those three little words, ‘I deserve better’!”)

To fully understand all the lyrics, one needs to know a bit of Taylor history.  His previous project had been the band Chagall Guevera, whose eponymous record had been released by a major label and gotten strong reviews in Rolling Stone magazine only to get no advertising push and fall apart almost before it began.  This left Taylor reeling, and wondering if he had gone for major label success for the right reasons.  Knowing this brings clarity and poignancy to “Jesus is For Losers” and “Sock Heaven.”

But the stand-out cut is far and away “The Finish Line.”  The song is basically tells the story of a modern-day prodigal son using the metaphor of a marathon runner.  It is musically complicated, going through multiple key changes and many, many chords, lyrically evocative, and probably one of my 10 favorite songs of all time by any artist.  (If you don’t believe me when I say this song is amazing, ask Chris Mann.)

Stand-Outs: “The Lament of Desmond R.G. Underwood Frederick IV,” “Jesus is For Losers,” “The Finish Line,” “Cash Cow”.

Well, that’s it for this entry.  I’m sure there are other records from the first half of the 1990s that belong on this list.  In fact, I’ll give an honorable mention to “The Grape Prophet” by LSU.  Make suggestions!  Maybe I’ll do a part 2.  But for now, hunt down any of these CDs.  You won’t be disappointed.

Grotesques on the Cathedral: Satire, MST3K, and the Simpsons

 

 

Godzilla flying kicks another monster.  Really.

Godzilla flying kicks another monster. Really.

Most of Europe’s cathedrals both gargoyles and grotesques adorning their exterior.  (Gargoyles are decorative rain spouts–hence the “gargle” in “gargoyle”–whereas grotesques are statues without practical function.)  Many of them are hideous or scary creatures–the National Cathedral in Washington even features a grotesque of Darth Vader.  

 

Did you ever ask yourself why?  Why do these buildings, structures designed to point your eyes heavenward and turn your heart to God, place ugly, creepy, or comical figures all around the outside?  What could possibly be the point?  

I heard a lecture at Cornerstone Music Festival about ten years ago, a lecture that borrowed some from a Chesterton essay called “On Gargoyles”, that suggested that one of the main reasons for the grotesque was contrast.

That is, sometimes we might forget the beauty, holiness, and power that we find in such a building, and by implication in God, and when we do forget, it might help us to remind ourselves of all that is ugly and false (tricksy!) in the world, and to see how ugly and false it really is, thus making that much more powerful the beauty and truth found in God.

We sometimes take God for granted, because we forget how horrible everything else can be.  And it pays to have someone remind us, “No!  There’s nothing good here!  Paying attention to this is only foolishness!”

I truly believe that satire is one of the great underutilized tools of the church.  I think God likes satire when it is appropriately used.  

Now, just to clarify, I’m not talking about base parody–something that directly imitates a specific person or work of art or media in order to mock it.  Parody is low, and parody is too easy.  And we have too much of it–Scary Movie, Date Movie, Epic Movie, etc.

(On a tangent, it was recently announced that–this is true–they are making a parody of parody movies.  It will be called Not Another Not Another Movie, and I can’t for the life of me imagine what it could possibly be.  Perhaps Hollywood will collapse in on itself when this opens.)

I’m talking about satire–where a particular belief or value is held up to the light, exaggerated, twisted, with an overall message of, “You thought this was something good, right, important, or worth your time, but look at how wrong it is.”  We in America take far many things too seriously, things that aren’t serious at all, and we don’t take seriously enough the things that are matters of life and death.  We are a backwards country in many ways, and satire, properly wielded, turns us back around.

Improperly wielded, satire can make a mockery of things that should be taken seriously, and it has often been abused to that end.  Things that are holy, pure, and true should not be mocked.  That’s not to say that the church shouldn’t laugh at itself–there is much to laugh at–but, the things that matter should never be mocked.

But I believe that there is a way for the church to use satire evangelically–to use it in such a way that it wakes people up to the emptiness of false values.  We don’t want to mock people–we want to wake people up by mocking the lies they’ve lived by.  We want to throw a cup of cold water in their face, not drown them in it.

I first started to appreciate satire in the mid 1990s when I caught my first episodes of The Simpsons, several years late.  I noticed that God was using it to speak truth to me.  This took me off guard.

I hadn’t seen the Simpsons before that.  Central Vermont had no Fox affiliate, and you had to have a satellite dish to pick up the network.  For some reason, it was never very popular during my time at Baylor, and so it was only afterwards, when I was first teaching, that it came to my attention.

The first time it happened was Episode 5.7, “Bart’s Inner Child.”  A self-help guru comes to Springfield and, during his lecture, holds up Bart as the most healthy and balanced individual in town, mostly because Bart doesn’t repress urges but “does what he feels.” Inspired, the town decides to cancel their annual “Do As We Say” day and instead hold “Do As You Feel” day.  But instead of being a joyous occasion, the day breaks down into utter chaos as everyone’s feelings clash against each other.

That happened to be a lesson God was trying to teach me at the time–just because I feel something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing.  Sometimes your emotions lead you astray.  After seeing the episode, I thought, “Huh.  That’s actually Truth.  Following your emotions is a value in this culture, but it’s not always wise.”

The second occurrence was more profound.  In an episode entitled, “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Bluefish,” Homer consumes some Japanese blowfish, and is later given reason to believe that it is poisonous and that he has only 24 hours to live.

Homer decides to use his last day of life to do things that matter: reconcile with his father, teach his son to shave, leave last words for his youngest daughter, spend quality time with Marge.  And his final act, after all of that, is to sit and listen to the Bible on tape (as read by Larry King.)  At the end of the episode, he is seen with his headphones on, soaking in the Old Testament.  When Larry King gets to the end,”And God will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers…”, Homer collapses.  This very scripture has been fulfilled in his last 24 hours.

The next morning Marge comes out to his body, only to find that she can wake him and that the fugu wasn’t bad after all.  Homer awakes, rejoicing, and pledges that he will live, from that day on, as if every day is his last, embracing his family and living life to the fullest. 

The closing shot is of Homer, a few days later, sitting in his underwear watching bowling and eating pork rinds.

I saw that, and laughed.  And then as clear as just about anything, I felt the Holy Spirit speaking to me: “No.  Don’t laugh.  That’s you.  How many times have you had a mountain top experience, made big promises, and then gone back to your old ways a day later?”  

I literally ended up on my face.

Now, to clarify, I don’t fully endorse everything Simpsons.  The writing staff has a handful of believers on it, and their work does come through.  But I feel that over the past several seasons there has been some serious decline.  First, it’s just not as funny as it used to be (although a recent episode parodying Sundance was absolutely brilliant). Secondly, the early days of The Simpsons held a very solid moral core, a center of belief in family and even in God, though it loved to gently tease the flaws of the church.  But lately, it feels like the show has become much more postmodern, where literally nothing is sacred, nothing holds any value, and everything becomes mocked and meaningless.  I just can’t in good conscience support that.

But, oh, forget it–the only reason I started this post to begin with is so that I could talk about Mystery Science Theater 3000.  This has all been my excuse.

It’s the 20th anniversary of MST3K, and if you’re not familiar with the show, the main thing you need to know is that it’s basically some guys sitting around watching really bad movies and making fun of them.  The premise that holds that concept together is that some mad scientists have trapped a guy in space and are forcing him to watch really horrible movies to observe the effects of that on his brain, and to cope he builds some robots, and two of them sit in the theater with him to laugh at the movies.

I doubt there is an individual alive who understands every joke in an episode of MST3K. A very broad knowledge of culture, especially but not limited to popular culture, is necessary to follow the quipping.  A given episode might reference Bergman films, British sitcoms, obscure stand-up comics from the midwest, Charles Dickens, cheesy kids shows from the 50s, and the Pina Colada song.  That’s not to say that this is high culture comedy–the jokes come fast and usually rely on mocking the bad visuals, direction, or acting in the film being watched.  

The show went through several incarnations in its 10 years on the air.  It was started at a small public access station in the Minneapolis area by a comedian named Joel Hodgson, who played the guy trapped up on the ship for the first half of the show’s run. It ran for one season on public access, as Joel and his crew operated on what looks like about a $5 budget, running through bad B-movies the station had in its vault–non-classics like Japanese Planet of the Apes rip-offs and…Japanese monster movies starring Gamera, who for all intents and purposes is a giant flying spiked turtle.  

After a year, it moved to Comedy Central, the budget increased, and one of the two mad scientists was replaced, creating a classic duo in Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank.  That lasted about four years, and then Joel basically got tired of doing the show and was replaced by Mike Nelson, who had been head writer for awhile and had played different characters on the show’s skits.  

Later, Comedy Central cancelled the show and it moved to the Sci-Fi Network.  TV’s Frank left, then Dr. Forrester left and was replaced by his mad scientist mother and her companions, which is where the premise stood when the show finally ended.

(It is, by the way, considered inappropriate to bring up the “Who is better–Mike or Joel?” debate with other MSTies, as the fans are called.  That debate got a little intense during Mike’s first year, and it has since become uncouth to try and argue it.  Both have their strengths, but personally I far prefer Mike to Joel.  It’s a style question, and I’m probably in the minority.  Joel’s just a little too droopy for me.)

Most of the movies watched are of the bad sci-fi or horror variety; the show refused to attack sacred cows, instead going for films that were obviously shoddy.  They did occasionally try new things–once they did a German version of Hamlet, and there are the forays into bad teen comedy/dramas, adventure films, psychological dramas, etc.  There is also the odd film that defies classification–I’m still not sure what The Wild, Wild World of Batwoman is supposed to be.

An interesting thing I’ve noticed–the bad  movies of the 50s and 60s seem a lot more earnest–like the filmmakers really believed they were making something good, not realizing how cheesy a production they’d come up with.  Films from the 80s and 90s seem pretty aware how bad they are, and revel in it.  I’m not really sure what that says.

If a movie ran too short, they opened the show by showing part of a serial adventure or a short documentary, usually from the 50s.  These are the kinds of shorts they might show on a projector in elementary school, or as a training video at work, or before a feature in the movie theaters back then.  In my opinion, the shorts are some of MST3K’s funniest work.

It’s the 20th anniversary of MST3K, and I thought I’d just list some of my favorite things they’ve ever done:

1.) The 20th anniversary set features four fan-favorite movies.  Two of them are must-sees: A. Werewolf, a film from 1996 that features a bunch of apparently ESL actors, a villain whose hairstyle changes in every scene, and Joe Estevez, Martin Sheen’s lookalike B-movie star brother.  A favorite line: at one point, two of the characters are at a party and start to argue to the point of fighting, but the shot being used is from very far away, and the actors have their backs to the camera as the argument escalates, therefore rendering the dialogue becomes muffled and incomprehensible.  Mike says, “Um, movie…is there something you’d like to share with the rest of us?”

B. Laserblast: This is a hilarious episode because the movie is so painfully inept, and so it’s pretty shocking to discover that Leonard Maltin rated it 2 1/2 stars in his book.  Mike and the ‘bots spend a lot of time over the closing credits marveling at other, really good movies that get equal ratings in Maltin’s book.  

2) Monster-a-Go-Go: Yeah.  This is the worst movie I’ve ever seen.  (The staff and stars of MST3K usually cite the horrid and dark Manos, The Hands of Fate as both the worst movie they watched and their best work, but Monster-a-Go-Go usually gets a mention, too.  I’m not that partial to Manos.) I’ve heard different stories behind its creation, but the best sources say that one director started it in 1961, ran out of money, and sold the footage to someone else, who hired a new cast and crew in 1965 and finished it out.  Therefore, halfway through the movie, all the characters leave and are replaced by new ones.  

The original explanation I heard was that three movies–a monster movie, a scientific documentary, and a teen beach movie–were all abandoned, and the studio took the footage and spliced it together into one new movie.  While this probably isn’t true, it certainly feels true.  No ending was ever filmed, and so the narrator explains what happens (the monster disappears for no reason, and the missing astronaut mysteriously appears thousands of miles away.  The End.)  

3) Creeping Terror–A monster movie about a giant walking alien carpet that “eats” people.  This holds a place in my heart for Mike’s scene with his sound system and the line scene where we watch a housewife, just introduced, take her baby’s temperature, inspiring one of the robots to say, “The first director to realize the dramatic potential of a rectal thermometer.”

4.) Space Mutiny–An 80s film that tries to combine Star Wars with…everything bad about 80s movies.  At one point, the villain murders one of the crew, and the next scene has that crew member back at her post as an extra in the background.  The villain is unfortunately named Kalgan, and numerous “Take me away!” jokes abound.

5.) My favorite shorts–There are so many great ones, two that get definite mentions here.  The first is “Are You Ready for Marriage?” where two high school sweethearts plan to get married only to realize they may be a bit young and naive.  The second is the very famous “Mr. B. Natural” about…well….this sort of Peter Pan-ish androgynous spirit of music that tries to talk this kid into joining band.  How they ever thought this would do anything but terrify kids is beyond me.  It is the only time I can recollect Joel and the ‘bots ever apologizing for what they were watching.  Watch part of it below. 

There is not really any value that I get out of MST3K.  All that I said about satire I really mean, but…I just wanted to talk about MST3K on its 20th anniversary.  Thanks for making me laugh.

By the way, if you like Mike Nelson, he’s written several books, and one of them, Mind Over Matters, is very good and very funny.  Both he and Joel have gone on to create new ways of mocking movies–both have online projects dedicated to this and have even moved on to blockbusters and films you’ve actually heard of.  In addition, Kevin Murphy, who voiced the robot Tom Servo, wrote a very insightful book called A Year At the Movies: One Man’s Filmgoing Odyssey which is about the entire moviegoing experience.  If you’re a film lover, and are frustrated by most theatrical experiences today, you will love this book.

And for those of you who like this blog, I’ve got entries coming up on The Office and on The Great Underground Christian Records of the 1990s.

I leave you with Mr. B Natural.  Enjoy:

Pixar: The Art of Story and the Best Studio Out There

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” –G.K. Chesterton

“The shortest distance between truth and a human being is story.”–Anthony De Mello

1725817092_63a881000b

 

 

In my previous entry about Sports Night, I talked about how the most important draw in a film, television, or novel is story.  These quotes sum up to me the importance of story in our lives.  I fully believe that Jesus was very intentional when used stories (parables) as one of His main ways of getting His point across.  You can tell me a moral or message in simple words, and I may agree and not be changed, but teach me that moral or message through a well-told story, connect with my emotions, and it has a much greater chance of becoming part of me.

Unfortunately, the “Dream Factory” of Hollywood is, for the most part, I believe, ruining the Story.  

There are several ways this is happening.  The same old stories are recycled over and over again.  Stories are told with more flash and less substance, and since the early 90s, Hollywood has been all about the opening weekend, while most films that tell a strong original story tend to be indies without big names or big opening weekend dollars, films that therefore fall by the wayside.  (It didn’t used to be this way.  I remember in 1985 when “Back to the Future” played for an entire year at my town’s movie theater.)

Everything is geared towards the quick result, the quick dollar, the easy laugh.  What will a 14 year old boy enjoy?  

The biggest issue to me is that Hollywood, for the most part, seems stuck on a small handful of themes, themes that get retold and repackaged again and again, though they are not in any way the only themes out there (nor are they all necessarily true.)

Some examples: There’s a million movies along the lines of “it’s okay to be different/don’t judge a book by his cover/accept yourself as you are/sometimes the most unlikely, uncool person turns out to be a hero”.  Closely related to that is the “unlikely person/group overcomes great odds to defeat something that appears much more powerful” story.  This is a very American theme–the loner individualist that overcomes and triumphs.  (And the loner can sometimes be a group–as in “Remember the Titans”, when the whole town is racist except for the newly enlightened football team.)  

Here’s another that makes me especially nauseous: “Romantic love is the only thing that brings real happiness, and can in fact overcome anything.”  Excuse me while I go spill my lunch.

Or another: “White/rich people are hopeless and pathetic, and need to be saved by encounters by wisened/mystical/more lively ethnic people (see The Green Mile, The Visitor, and many others.)  This was has always struck me as slightly racist–notice that white people are always the center of these stories, and the usually-black-but-sometimes-other-ethnicity person that “saves” the white hero usually ends up dead or something.

Okay, enough rambling.  Here’s my point: the original idea in Hollywood is something we just don’t see very often anymore.  Even indie studios have mixed bags.  But there is one studio, I believe, that is forging the way in telling new stories that can be used to teach, stories that will be classics for decades to come: Pixar.

Pixar.  Yup, a cartoon studio.  I have friends who dismiss Pixar films for that very reason; they don’t like cartoons.  They don’t like talking animals or anthropomorphic anythings, and they therefore miss the heart and meaning behind the stories Pixar is telling us.  

But Pixar films are not like other modern-day studio cartoons.  Their main competitor in the computer-animated movie department would be Dreamworks Animation–the studio behind Shrek.  And Shrek 2.  And Shrek 3.  And Madagascar.  And Madagascar 2…you get the idea.  These are films full of movie star voiceovers, pop culture references (Shrek, with its Matrix and Riverdance jokes, is already looking a little dated), and satirical-yet-formulaic storylines.  

Pixar, however, is different.  For Pixar, story comes first–if a movie star’s voice isn’t necessary, it isn’t used.  You won’t find pop culture jokes in Pixar films.  But you will find original ideas.  You will find themes that usually only get explored in small budget indie films.  You will find truth.  You will find beauty.

(The other thing you will find, I might add, is what is apparently the best place to work in Hollywood.  Watch any of the numerous docs on life at Pixar and you’ll see a vibrant place of community and creativity.  At the risk of sounding like I’m idolizing Pixar, it looks a bit like how a church office should be.)

Let me illustrate.  Pixar started off making short computer-animated films as experiments in the mid-80s, their first short released in 1984.  The little independent theater in central Vermont used to show these “animation festivals” every year, and one year in high school I attended and saw not only the first very Simpsons cartoons ever made, but also Pixar’s fourth work, Tin Toy.  It is the first of the bunch that I feel is truly successful, with the climax of the movie–what happens when the toy finally escapes the slobbering baby by hiding under the couch–packing a really big laugh.

In 1995, they released the first ever full-length computer-animated film, Toy Story, followed three years later by A Bug’s Life, which is a children’s version of The Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa.  (No, it really is.  Think about it.)  Toy Story 2 followed, and was a vast improvement on the 1st.  Monsters, Inc. came next, and was a truly clever idea executed mostly pretty well.  

But it’s after this film that Pixar truly hits its stride, and they haven’t released anything short of a classic since then.  These five films that I’d like to discuss (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E) are works of heart, tackling such heavy and diverse themes as parental abandonment, the temptation of marital infidelity when the routine of life becomes too much, the need to slow down in life and not let modernity crush what truly matters, and the question of what makes an artist an artist.  They both celebrate what is good in modern society, and heavily criticize that which really needs criticism.

Nemo is the last Pixar film that is truly a children’s movie.  That’s not to say kids won’t like any of the others; I just don’t believe any of the others are primarily geared towards children.  Most of you have probably seen it, so I won’t say much here, except to say three things:

1. The animators rose to the challenge of animating when most of the film takes place underwater.  They resisted the temptation to over animate the water, and created an environment that seems very real.  The use of color is also remarkable.

2. While the story is a strong one–the beginning haunting, and the central themes of letting your children grow up, not raising kids fearfully, and the separation theme–the thing I walked away with is how funny this movie is.  I think it is Pixar’s funniest movie, largely because of the character of Dory.  But every actor carries their weight, and who could forget the seagulls?

3. It is here that Pixar begins its somewhat odd tradition of releasing trailers for their movies that show a scene that is not actually in the movie, and a scene that doesn’t really work or make you want to see the movie.  It’s a bit strange.

Next came The Incredibles.  For this, Pixar brought in Brad Bird to direct.  Bird, a former Simpsons writer, had previously directed the animated film The Iron Giant, a minor classic, and it was clear that he was able to tell a story that had appeal for children and adult sensibilities.  And he knocks this one out of the park.

Most of you are familiar with this movie as well–it is a story of a nuclear family of superheroes who live in a time when superhero–ing has been outlawed.  It borrows from The Watchmen, Fantastic Four, and other superhero lore.  But this is the only PG-rated Pixar movie and it carries with it some truly adult themes that become clearer on multiple viewings.

The center of The Incredibles is one idea: Mid-life crisis.

Mr. Incredible specifically is facing a life stuck in a job he does not believe in, with two kids who struggle in life, and a wife who struggles in her own ways.  The superpowers that brought them together–the sense of adventure and power–is something they have to hide, and so the fun is gone from marriage.  Mr. Incredible sneaks out nights to meet and old friend and listen to police blotters in hopes of finding some adventure.  He lives in the past.  Then, with the arrival of Mirage comes the temptation to escape his dull life and be involved in something that seems exciting to him–but at the cost of his family.  Mirage represents the temptations of both escape and adultery, and her name is well-chosen.  

 Mr. Incredible gives in to the former temptation but never the latter.  However, it all turns out to be a trap, one his family ultimately must rescue him from.  In the end, Mr. Incredible is able to fulfill the dreams of his youth not by escaping his family, but by modifying the dreams and drawing his family into them.

Next came Cars, a film I think is highly underrated, possibly because it seems too simple a premise and slow a movie upon one viewing.  But there is great beauty in this movie, and since part of its message involves slowing down in life, it is ironic that the beauty is often missed by people who find the film too slow. (And when was the last time you saw a movie that told you to slow down and embrace older, simpler values?)

Cars’ initial trailer was awful–nothing in it explains the story or makes you want to know anything more.  A strange advertising strategy if it is one–lower expectations for your movie and then surprise everyone.  

Anyway, Cars takes place in a world where everything is a vehicle.  A famous race car on his way to a title-clinching race gets lost and ends up in a run-down, nearly-dead town on the old Route 66.  He gets stuck there and learns lessons about friendship and loyalty, but also about the parts of America that are dying, parts that are beautiful and unique and are being passed over as we more and more embrace the homogenized interstate lifestyle, where everything’s a strip mall and all the towns look the same and feature the same things.  

This is a message that resonates with me.  I grew up in a state that prides itself on its small town ethos and locally run businesses, with frequent angry battles against the Wal-Marts and McDonalds of this world (seriously–we have the only state capital without a McDonalds in the city limits.)  And while I don’t agree with everything about the line of thinking here, I appreciate the value and beauty that has gone unspoiled because people resisted.

The town in Cars is based on real towns and buildings along the old Route 66–a highway that spanned much of the south and the west but has become rundown and in some places dead because of bypasses interstates built, like I-40.  (The movie mentions this one specifically.)  The writers and creators of the film traveled Route 66 and met with people who live there, scraping by, and listened to their stories.  (My wife and I got to drive a bit of Route 66 last year while on vacation, and found it fascinating.)

I appreciate this movie and find it entertaining and inspiring, and the animation of the landscapes are just gorgeous–they look real.  It makes me a little nervous, however, that Pixar is working on a sequel for 2011, as I don’t think it necessarily warrants more story. 

Cars was accompanied by another wordless short entitled “One-Man Band”, which may be one of my favorite things ever.

Next came Ratatouille, another entry in the Pixar canon that convinces me that they’re not aiming at making children’s movies.  There’s nothing that loud or flashy here, and the movie is longer than the average cartoon.  As you know, it tells the tale of a rat who loves to cook fine cuisine, and his adventures in a Parisian restaurant as he guides an untalented chef into a career as a head cook.  

This may be my favorite Pixar film.  The animation, though not as groundbreaking as the previous three, is gorgeous–the streets of Paris look amazing.  The story, to me, resonates as it explores the questions of what makes an artist, and what is the artist’s responsibility to his own calling versus his responsibility to his audience.  Art vs. commerce.

The animators took a risk, and one that I believe pays off–instead of making the rats cute or overly cartoonish, they stuck pretty close to real rats.  There are scenes of hoards of rats running around restaurants and food, and they make you squirm.  The foley artist definitely did his job on that end as well.  But it pays off because it makes everything seem a little more realistic, which causes the tensions of the story to be heightened.  

One thing I have to point out: Peter O’Toole’s voice performance as the critic is brilliant, and the monologue he delivers of the review he has written almost makes me cry.  I also have this special affection in my heart to movies whose climax boils down not to a chase or large revelation, but the question of what will happen at a very simple or commonplace moment.  (About Schmidt is an example–the climax is “What will Schmidt say when he finally gets the microphone at his daughter’s wedding?”  “A Mighty Wind” is another–the climax being “What will happen at the break at the end of this song?”)  The climax here comes at the moment when the critic finally gets his first bite of the dinner prepared for him.  A climax boiled down to a single bite.  And what happens when he does is one of my favorite moments in any movie ever–an image that always makes me smile.

In 2008, Pixar released a very bold movie, Wall-E.  It is bold for several reasons.  First, it is the first Pixar film that could be construed as directly political or “preachy.”  I find it to be neither, but since one of its subject matters is our treatment of the environment, and specifically a large corporation’s treatment of the environment, people can read things into it.  

It is also bold because there is virtually no dialogue.  The first third of the movie is almost wordless, and there are later stretches without anything but robot noises.  It is also, I believe, the first Pixar full-length film to mix in live-action footage, in both the videos from Fred Willard’s BnL President and scenes from the old version of Hello, Dolly.

It is their first science-fiction film, and it fits in nicely with much “prophetic” style 70s sci-fi, films that addressed specific current social ills.  It presents a pretty bleak view of humanity.  The human race lives entirely on one large space ship and devolved to the point that they don’t use their legs anymore, not to mention the rest of their bodies or even their brains, spending all their time in chairs with video screens, not even noticing the ship around them.  The film hones in on two of those humans, who encounter Wall-E upon his arrival on their ship, and we see their gradual awakening.

This prophetic warning about humanity is, to me, entirely plausible, especially the laziness/obesity warning.  It’s a bit scary, and one we could all do well to pay attention to. Don’t become too addicted to entertainment and comfort.  Get out there.  Open your eyes. Do something.  Don’t allow yourself to become so de-humanized that robots seem more human than you do.

Pixar’s next film looks like it may continue this streak–the movie “Up” about an old man and a young boy who travel in the old man’s balloon-carried house to South America.  That will be followed by Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, a fact which makes me a bit nervous.  In addition, Brad Bird, who directed both The Incredibles and Ratatouille, is working on Pixar’s first ever live-action film, 1906, about the San Francisco earthquake.

Thank you, Pixar, for making movies that make me think and that I will have no qualms about showing my children.  Thank you for putting story above financial consideration and star power.  Thank you for your originality, for not falling into the traps of Hollywood and keeping your child-like joy as you work.  I hope your streak will continue!