Booking a Room with a View

Join me as I shuttle and shoulder through the worlds of literature, cinema, and the awards seasons attending both.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

An Explanation for the Support of Third-Party Candidates

What with all the fracas out there about "if you're a liberal and you vote third party, it's really a vote for Trump" or "if you're a conservative and you vote third-party, it's really a vote for Hillary"... That view, while understandable to those who share it, is incomprehensible to those who don't. And here is why:

If Clinton loses, the blame shall lie at her doorstep -- because she is not entitled to the liberal vote by virtue of belonging to the Democratic Party. She has to earn those votes -- not on the fly, not with a wink and a smile, but over the course of a career. If there are liberals like myself who do not vote for her, it's because we neither trust nor believe in her. (Indeed, trusting and believing in her has proven more difficult than ever this last year by virtue of her proximity to Bernie Sanders, whose positions have been consistently ethical, decisive and stalwart his entire political career.) And we should always only ever vote for politicians whom we trust and in whom we believe. It is a politician's responsibility to grind through our skepticism and earn or win our trust and belief -- to inspire our trust in them with their courage, constancy and moral resolve. We owe politicians no unconditional allegiance. If Hillary loses, it will be because she has earned the votes of too few liberals. It will be her fault alone. My vote for Jill Stein or my write-in for Bernie Sanders will not be a vote for Trump because it will be a vote for either Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders.

An analogy:

If America were attacked and war were imminent, and we were told by the powers-that-be that to engage in said war would likely mean the averting of a larger scale, even nuclear, war -- I would still not support the war. I wouldn't because war has not earned my belief in it, has not demonstrated to me its viability as a solution to problems or as a vessel in which to move humanity forward. However "just" its proponents claim it to be in certain circumstances, it is not entitled to my support.

War has itself to blame for this.

Politicians have themselves to blame for failing to convince even those who share broad ideological views with them to believe in -- and hence vote for -- them. For all the talk of a vote for Bernie or Jill Stein being a vote for Trump, how can a vote for someone in whom we believe be even effectively a vote for someone in whom we don't? 1 = 1, not 2. As I see it, for me, a vote for Hillary is effectively a vote for Trump, because while I think him less intelligent than her, more unstable than her -- I believe in her as little as I believe in him. She has given me reason to. And I will never again vote for a candidate who has not given me reason enough to believe in him or her.

No one should. And the sooner we all realize that, the better.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Dumbing Down of IMDb

In the late 90s, I was an active member of the IMDb message boards, posting most often on the Film General and Classic Film boards. I still remember a number of the people posting there (per their usernames) with great fondness, respect and -- in some cases -- a begrudging, irked admiration for their antagonistic streaks: DFC, Ishallwearpurple, Addison de Witt, sprockets, prewitt, Antonius Block, others. (My own username was resurgence27.) I suspect some of these folks are still publishing on the boards. One poster (ivmeer) became a dear friend with whom I'm still in touch on Facebook (and lest you think she must be one of hundreds of faceless people with whom I'm connected on Facebook, I curate that friend list obsessively -- it never has more than 80 or 90 people on it). Another poster, benstevens, has been my closest friend for a long, long time now. He flew across an ocean to stand as a groomsman at my wedding. I flew across the country to see him married to his wife. These two friendships and the passing camaraderie (sympathetic and companionable, irascible and needling) with the other posters mentioned above were born in a kiln of rigorous, passionate debate about cinema. The IMDb boards in the late 90s and early 00s teemed with savvy, learned minds -- people who were not fanboys nearly so much as students of an art form, disciples of specific visionaries. We pushed each other to think more carefully, more critically of films. We pushed ourselves to do so, too.

These days, the IMDb boards -- and especially the boards assigned to individual films -- seem to have become a morass of arrogant, defensive fanboy obsession with little thought to punctuation and grammar, and even less thought to critical acumen and casting a wide net in terms of what one sees. Reading through threads, it becomes frightfully clear that the current generation of pop culture enthusiasts who care enough to leap into public discussions of films know so little about how to read films, most of them shouldn't be allowed near a screening room, let alone a forum for discussion.

It could be that I was part of the IMDb boards when they were still new enough that the only people thinking to seek them out were serious film buffs with encyclopedic knowledge or budding film buffs, like myself, who were watching everything they could, reading criticism and film history voraciously, etc. (I once persuaded Elly Petrides, the subtitles translator for the legendary Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, to send me PAL copies of The Beekeeper, The Suspended Step of the Stork and Voyage to Cythera on loan from Athens. These films had never been released theatrically in America. I then persuaded my old German professor at the University of Wyoming to let me have private use of the Foreign Language Department's NTSC/PAL screening room one Saturday so that I might watch the three films. Two of them are on my top 100 of all-time.) It could be that the boards, once upon a time, were an untrammeled wilderness comprised of thinkers. Now it seems the boards have become a place where graffiti is the acceptable form of discourse, where Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino fans are less interested in talking film than in reaffirming the brilliance of their coterie (they would do well to keep in mind Pulp Fiction: "let's not start sucking each others' dicks just yet..."), where most posters are people who've seen very little and who have convinced themselves that if a film is worth seeing, they'd have seen it.

I still use IMDb on a daily basis, for watching trailers, keeping myself up-to-speed on projects in development, etc. But sometimes I find myself missing what it used to be -- and feeling sad that such a huge number of current posters have no idea what they're missing, in terms of viewing pleasures or exchanges.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Passing the Book

A few weeks back, I was struck with what I thought at the time to be a brilliant idea: I would dispel the anxiety I feel in settling on a book when my turn to choose comes round in my book club by passing the buck. Instead of me wringing myself in knots over what to choose, I'd settle on a list of possibilities and put the choice to a vote, leaving the decision, then, to my friends, family and even random bookish strangers out there in the world. So I set up a list on the List Challenges website, asking people to choose just a single one of the books. And then, come February 1st, I'd name that book as my selection. I was hoping to see hundreds of people casting votes (as has happened with every other list challenge I've set up), setting up a real horse-race between two or three titles. But it hasn't happened. The votes have stalled at 63. Part of me suspects that people are clicking on their book of choice...and forgetting to click the button at the bottom that reads "Show Me My Results." Clicking that button, unless I'm mistaken, is the step that casts the vote.

Anyway, I'd love to have your help in deciding what The Eclectic Shade Tree should read come February 1st. So check out the list -- linked to above -- and vote for one of the books. Open a new tab, if you're so inclined, and read about each one beforehand on Amazon or Good Reads or wherever -- or vote for the one with your favorite cover. However you choose to do it, let your voice be heard!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

What Religion Is and Is Not

A dear friend of mine -- an atheist -- asked me recently: if certain passages in the Bible are contentious, are used as platforms to substantiate bigoted worldviews or even acts of violence, might Christians not treat the Bible, then, as a living document, open to revision, excision, the paring away of behavioral codes incompatible with life as it is in 2016? It’s a good question, and it arose from a brief, itself contentious exchange we had on Facebook about a post from atheist philosopher and scientist Sam Harris, in which Harris attempted to explain what atheism is and what it is not. My friend’s question led me to the conclusion that his question cannot be addressed, let alone answered, without considering what Christianity is and what it is not -- at least, as I see it. (That qualifying phrase -- “as I see it” -- might be where a number of atheists get tripped up in considering or defining religion. Their philosophical position is, by nature, fixed: an absence of belief in a god. Whereas the religion to which I belong is malleably defined at best: it resists being pinned down, which is, on one hand, a virtue, placing it less on a footing with the cold, glassy symmetries of mathematics than with the roiling, whispered sleights of poetry; and on the other hand, a pointed disadvantage, because we rightly privilege logic, answers, progress forward built on the scaffolding of certainties.) So, then, in as concise a way as I know how to put it: Christianity is, to me, the life and example of Christ. And the life and example of Christ is an answer, or utterance in response, to the world (and its attendant codes and cruelties) that preceded it. And we should not strike from the Bible those contentious passages because those passages represent what the world was prior to Christ and what it will persist in being and becoming in lieu of Christ. The books of the Old Testament are, first and foremost, an embroidered history of a people -- and we take, and should take, such histories with their blights intact. Just as we would whitewash the Western historical record of recent centuries to our detriment -- how much easier would it be to repeat the sins of the past (be it industrial genocide or the commerce of slavery) without insisting on, and learning from, their having transpired? We cannot strike passages condoning the stoning of people to death from the Bible, because to do so robs the teachings of Christ in Matthew 5:38-39 and the example of Christ in John 8:1-11 of their revolutionary vision. We cannot strike passages that seem to indict homosexuality because to do so would discourage the discipline of close reading for meaning and the discipline of looking beyond the Bible itself for cultural context: the account in Genesis 19 of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is not a judgment on homosexuality, but on rape (countless people get this wrong, true, but without the text before them, those people will never have a chance to get it right); and what seem to be Paul’s judgments on homosexuality (as we understand it in the 21st century) are revealed to be judgments on the sexual enslavement of adolescent and prepubescent boys when one takes the time to follow in the footsteps of the scholars (e.g. Sarah Ruden) who’ve done the legwork. We need the contentious passages to remind us of whom our ancestors were and to -- in some cases -- remind us who we must never again be. That some people don’t understand this is unfortunate; but the people who use religious texts as blunt instruments to persecute and abuse others (the Kim Davises of the world) are never going to have the epiphanies waiting for them (on homosexuality, on capital punishment, et cetera) if atheists and thoughtful Christians continue to let those people position themselves as the faces and voices of modern Christianity. I’d wager that most contemporary pharisaical believers have met Christ -- but still do not see Christ. And in failing to recognize Christ as the final, radical, liberating word on how human beings must conduct themselves, fail to see the Church and their own lives as manifestations and extensions of His. And that is tragic. Because when we do recognize Christ, our lives and the communities we build and the relationships we nurture become those very edits my friend was wondering why we, as believers, don’t make to the actual biblical text itself. In short, Christians whose sense of their religion is rich with contextual awareness, intellectual rigor and deep focus on Christ as the cornerstone of the whole enterprise -- these Christians do, indeed, regard and present the Bible as a living, changing, growing document. It is not static; it is not calcified; it is not a command that we conceive of our modern world along premodern lines. The Bible is an historical portrait in which Christ sits, from which Christ emerges. It is both a long shadow cast and a transfiguring light revealing not answers so much as the value in asking questions. And perhaps this is part of the rub, too, for atheists: that religion doesn’t provide answers in the way that science does or in the way that misguided believers assert that it does. Christianity, at its best and most vibrant, understands that conclusions take a back seat to wonder, possibility and the ceaseless crafting of self, climate and culture. And when the world (including the atheists whose hackles go up over the Christians out there pounding the drum against LGBT rights, citing what they imagine to be scriptural precedent) finally sees that people like poet Christian Wiman, novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, activist John Dear and preacher Frederick Buechner are the contemporary faces and voices of actual Christianity -- not spotlight-addicts like Kim Davis, not bigots like the late Fred Phelps, not people whose faith hinges on Creationism -- the better off we’ll all be.        

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

E.L. Doctorow: Appreciating the Appreciations

Ever since his passing last week, I've been wanting to write something about E.L. Doctorow. Not a commemoration of his life or appreciation of his career, but rather a commentary on how heartening I have found the depth of warmth and precision of memories in those tributes to him written by others. Great writers are rarely paid due attention, and while it's unfortunate that their deaths precede such attention more often than does their work, we should be grateful when we see writers of Doctorow's caliber trending on social media.

Ours is an impoverished culture -- enamored of buffoonery, accepting of chicanery -- and books like Ragtime (which I haven't read) and City of God (which I have) are beacons or compass points in line with which our culture might be righted. Novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson has written that "civilization can trivialize itself to death," and I believe she is correct. So much of the art we imbibe, the gossip we condone, the lip service we pay the ridiculous has a poisoning effect on who we are and what we expect of our lives in that it elbows the truly valuable to the margins, uses its bombast to make footnotes of discretion, wisdom and beauty. So to have seen the wealth of coverage on, the column inches devoted to Doctorow's legacy -- especially given how minor key the discussion of his work always seemed to be during his life, however many prizes he bagged -- has consumed me this last week. City of God (the one novel of his I've read) is a favorite of mine -- a lightning strike of a book, an engine roaring forward on intellect and risk -- and while I've long suspected that The Book of Daniel and The March, for example, must be at least as accomplished, I've never once had a discussion of his work with a friend, a professor, a book club member. So to read that Michael Chabon regards Doctorow's work as the quickening impetus behind his own oeuvre, that he still remembers the buzzing dinner conversations his parents had about Ragtime four decades ago -- leaves me a little awestruck at what awaits me in that book. And to read that Amy Bloom considers Doctorow the finest American novelist of the last century (remembering, of course, that that century also included the likes of Steinbeck and Faulkner, to say nothing of contemporaries like Cormac McCarthy and Philip Roth) -- this is praise that would seem like hyperbole if it didn't, instead, hum with sincerity and humility. Or to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates speak about reading Ragtime: "from the first page, you know, my head almost exploded." Or to read Doctorow's obituary in The New York Times and to then spend 30 minutes with the comments on it -- from his readers, his peers, his former students. I can't ever remember reading such a number of lucid, loving, indebted memories of encounters with a writer and/or his work on the occasion of his passing. And it is this abundance of treasuring up this masterful writer's life, gentleness and blazing body of work on which I wanted to comment.

We've lost a genius. But this loss seems also to have reminded us that complex art, rigorous thought and delicacy of carriage are more important to us than perhaps we'd realized. May we carry that epiphany forward and let it inform what we read, how we treat others, and how we treat ourselves.