On Developing a New Style of Leadership

Photo by Mike Deerkowski

Photo by Mike Deerkowski. Accessed via Flikr.

On June 2nd, Apple hosted its annual Worldwide Developers Conference Keynote address. This event is always preceded by a steady accumulation of prognosticating articles (if you’re any sort of techie, you know how they go: “4 New Reveals Expected from Apple at WWDC!”), followed by a wave of New Tech Fever (“12 Biggest Life-Changing WWDC Surprises!”). This keynote has hosted some of Apple’s largest product announcements over the last ten years. They were usually announced during Steve Jobs’ signature “One More Thing…” segments: the Power Mac, Mac Pro, iPhone 3G, iPhone 4, and so on. What would be next?

It’s hard for the media––always willing to latch onto hype––to mask its disappointment when news is lacking. This year’s WWDC was no exception. You can feel a collective sense of expectation slowly waning. “Apple Plays Catch-Up With Competitors,” announced NBC; “iOS 8 Was Unveiled Today, Does Android Have Anything to Be Envious Of?”; “Apple’s Maps Are Still Lost.” These weren’t the ecstatic, drooling responses of WWDCs gone by. Nothing shocked us. Nothing seemed to change the world.

The days of Jobs are over.

Steve Jobs was a towering example of brilliant leadership. When he took the stage at WWDC, he was a dynamic, creative-meets-technophile rock star. He was the ultimate Apple televangelist. Jobs had non-developers, like myself, tuning in to 90-minute developer conference keynotes and kept them there with the electricity of his pure, enthusiastic showmanship. After he died, this was one of the first things my dad and I mentioned: “He was just so excited to share his products. He loved his work.”

And he did love it, surely. But these sorts of post-mortem accolades were somewhat curtailed after the release of Jobs’ highly anticipated biography. Carefully researched by Walter Isaacson, it revealed a side of Jobs that (although bits and pieces had been gossiped around Silicon Valley for decades) never really figured into his public image. You’ve probably heard about them by now. Jobs could be short or cruel to his coworkers; he’d build you up to gain your support, but tear you down if he perceived your work to be inadequate. He had unrealistic expectations, but he was uncompromisingly stubborn (a term for this even has its own Wikipedia page: Jobs’s “Reality Distortion Field”). Designers were working because they wanted to please Steve. His pleasure was a high, his displeasure like the harshest withdrawals.

I have a hard time knowing how to react to this. Selfishly, I miss the days of the Old Apple Razzle-Dazzle. I liked seeing new, creative inventions shimmer at every WWDC. I liked Steve’s bravado; the “Reality Distortion Field” completely reshaped reality. But at the same time, I wonder if a less-productive Apple is a happier, healthier Apple. I hope that the employees are treated with more respect. If they are, if they no longer find themselvess in a Cult of Personality, isn’t that development worth a world with less Jobsian technology?

I have no idea what’s actually going on inside the Cupertino offices, but I do like what I see. This Macworld article is particularly revealing. WWDC 2014 wasn’t about us, the common consumers. It wasn’t about wowing us with the Next Big Hardware Thing. It was for developers. As far as they were concerned, it was “a big, exuberant, sloppy love letter from Apple.” This article makes it apparent that what seemed like an anti-climactic show was, actually, a show tailored for the needs and concerns of developers. It concludes: “every step the company takes in this direction can only make developers happier and more productive—and for each and every one of us, that means that the apps we use every day will simply get better and better.”

In the old days of the WWDC keynote, it was all about Apple and all about Steve. This year, it seemed to be about developers, which, for a developer’s conference, seems just about right. CEO Tim Cook shared the stage with many other leaders. He’s not trying to become some sort of “Surrogate Jobs.” He seems to be trying out a totally different style of interpersonal leadership. Ironically, in doing this, he seems to be taking Jobs’ own maxim to heart.

He’s thinking differently.

Posted in Uncategorized

How Do We Respond to the 190K Night?

party sparkler

Photo by Gavin Cragie
https://www.flickr.com/photos/gavincraigie/

The man is a “club scene legend,” my roommate tells me. He’s a real-life Batman: a mysterious, wealthy benefactor. You’ll be minding your own business at an exclusive nightclub when––surprise!––he swoops onto the scene, showering you with charitable gifts.

YouTube clips show this charity in action. They depict the sorts of scenes that inspire rappers to wax poetic. Hundreds of champagne bottles are carried into a darkened club, radiant sparklers rubber-banded to their necks. The shimmering display screams as loudly as the clip’s title: “A 190K Night!”

I turn away from the video, staring at my roommate, wide-eyed: “You mean this mysterious guy bought one-hundred and ninety-thousand dollars worth of champagne in one night… all at once?”

He shrugs. “Yeah, that’s just what some people like to do.”

My stomach turns over. One hundred and ninety thousand dollars funneled into a brief night’s shallow pleasures, thumping away in the next day’s hangovers. My mind flips through a variety of social justice clichés: pouting, bony children; large families crammed into rickety favelas; the group of men huddled under donated blankets in front of my apartment. How much more could these people use this man’s charity? What could they have gotten with 190K?

Videos like these make me a little ashamed to call myself a Manhattanite. Many New Yorkers have the resources to radically change the world, but use them to bolster their own cultural capital instead. Of course, I can’t totally blame my neighbors. I, too, have learned how frighteningly easy it is to spend a lot of money in a single night. And as a scholarship-dependent, good-food-and-drink-loving college student, I’m no paragon of philanthropy either.

Still, it’s hard to live in a culture that could spark so much social justice but seems so reticent to do so. 190K nights may keep the economy rolling, but they won’t help the orphans, the widows, the “least of these.”

Generally, I just let these issues depress me. I unconsciously assume that the days of Zacchaeus are long past. But, in my better moments, I remember the story of someone who was once a NYU student like me: Scott Harrison. Scott was once a major club promoter. At the height of his career, Budweiser would pay him two thousand dollars to drink its beer in public––per night!

Then, at age 28, it hit him. As he put it: “I realized I was the worst person I knew. I was emotionally bankrupt. I was spiritually bankrupt, morally bankrupt…” So he began reading theology and asked himself: What if I actually served others? What would the exact opposite of my life look like?

Scott founded charity:water, an organization created to bring clean water into every area in the world. Since 2006, charity:water has funded 11,771 water projects and provided clean drinking water for over four million people.

What’s striking about Scott is that he isn’t just an example of a “life turned around.” He’s an example of how radical, selfish extravagance paved the way for radical, selfless commitment to social justice. Like Paul, his life is an example of how God works through opposing extremes–transforming hate into love, utter selfishness into selflessness. Would Scott have created such a radically charitable company if he hadn’t lived such a radically uncharitable lifestyle first? I’m not sure. Maybe not.

Scott reminds me how I shouldn’t just be depressed by 190K nights. Instead, I should imagine what these benefactors will look like when their lives are transformed by God. I should remind myself what Tim Keller says about God’s redemption: “Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.”

Some careers may not seem social justice oriented at all. They may seem hedonistic and wasteful. But we shouldn’t grow cynical. We have a just and merciful God who wants to take the worst of human nature and make it far better than we can imagine.

Posted in Blog, Essays, Theology Tagged , , ,

Brief Vignettes of Spiritual Death

Brief Interviews Cover

I wrote this essay for class in April, 2014. Here was the prompt: “In what way is David Foster Wallace an ethical writer in ‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men’? What would that even mean in the context of these stories?” If you haven’t read the book, I’d firmly exhort you to check it out before reading this essay; it’s challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Otherwise you might find yourself a bit lost in my non-contextualized references. Or not. You decide. Either way, I like it enough to share it with you.

 

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men reminded me of one of my favorite segments in the New Testament, Chapter 7 of Paul’s letter to the Roman Church. In this portion of the text, I imagine Paul having a sort of mental breakdown. He writes:

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate…. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway… I have discovered this principle in life––that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong… Oh, what a miserable person I am! (7:14-25, New Living Translation, abridged).

Paul’s repetitions are striking here, especially considering the expense of ink and papyrus during this historical moment. It seems that cost-consciousness alone––not to mention common editorial sense and philosophical rules-of-thumb like Occam’s Razor––would have kept him from making the same point four consecutive times.

This portion of the letter isn’t a logical, didactic treatise. This is the textual imprint of a mental breakdown. Anxiety builds and builds until an eruption of self-loathing and self-pity gushes onto the page: “Oh, what a miserable person I am!” In verses 7 through 10, Paul explains how the command “You must not covet” led him to this place of self-loathing. Through a life of restricted living, Paul easily avoided breaking most of the Ten Commandments. But this particular command was a different beast. It dealt in the realm of internal motivation, not external action. Paul realized that, as a Jewish Pharisee determined to follow the Law at all times, he began to covet a lack of covetousness. He says: “Sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me!” Paul’s self-centeredness felt unbeatable and he admits that, until his Christian conversion, this realization caused “spiritual death.”

In Brief Interviews, one gets the sense that Wallace knows this “spiritual death” all too well. Similarities between the texts are obvious: volatile prose, self-awareness, and a despairing attitude toward the seemingly incurable problem of human self-centeredness. Wallace understands our all-too-automatic inclination to covet.

How should we go about solving this problem? Perhaps we should grow aware of our own self-centeredness. Maybe self-knowledge will better us? This seems to be the prototypical Freudian or faux-Shakespearian solution: “This above all—to thine own self be true.” We can ignore that this phrase is uttered by the Polonius, a character Hamlet calls a “tedious old fool.”

Wallace has no qualms trampling on the moral implications of this simplistic worldview. The titular men are hideous––not only for their self-serving misogyny, but because many of them are self-aware and, therefore, guiltless. They use their self-awareness like defensive armor, uttering phrases like: “I’m aware of how it might sound, believe me,” “men are just shit,” “Does that sound shallow? Or does the real truth about this sort of thing always sound shallow, you know everybody’s real reasons?” They are Late Night comedians scowling at their own mediocre jokes, grasping for easy ways to gain favor with the “audience.” One interviewee even uses an “accurate” assessment of his relationship––“I saw that she would forever go on playing victim to my villain”––to forgive himself for committing domestic violence. For these men, awareness is the key to absolution.

Wallace compares this approach to the attitude of “‘meta’-type writers” whom are “honest” about the artificiality of their work. He calls this sort of “honesty” cheap, “highly rhetorical sham-honesty that’s designed to get you to like him and approve of him (i.e., of the ‘meta’-type writer).” He (i.e. the ‘meta’-type writer) is like the Hideous Man “who tries to manipulate you into liking him by making a big deal of how… open and honest… he’s being all the time…. Constantly congratulating himself for not doing precisely what the self-congratulation itself ends up doing… [He’s] just performing in some highly self-conscious and manipulative way.”

Well, where do we go from here? Maybe we can override our self-centeredness by helping others. This notion inspired my favorite line in the short film collection Paris, Je T’aime: “By acting like a man in love, he became a man in love again.” Self-determination defines Sartre’s solution in “Existentialism As Humanism”: “Man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be…. Man is responsible for what he is…” If I act selflessly, perhaps I will become selfless.

Although Wallace is sympathetic toward self-determination––the raped Granola Cruncher transcends her situation through a demined, empathetic stare[1]––he is weary because acts of self-giving are often motivated by “pure selfishness.”  The Great Lover exemplifies this problem. The Great Lover is not “your basic pig.” He’s not the sort of thoughtless, hedonistic being that “wants whatever he can get, and as long as he gets it that’s all there is to it.” The pig doesn’t care about his partner’s pleasure because he’s “barely even semiconscious anyhow,” but the Great Lover tries to please his partner at all costs. He gives himself to her like a dedicated soldier laying his life on the line for his country: offering massages, “going down on her yingyang for hours on hours, holding off [his] own coming so [he] can keep at it for hours, knowing the G-spot and Ecstasy Posture and such.”

At first glance, the Great Lover seems like a charitable, honorable man––hence the title “Great.” Yet these sorts of men need to “think of themselves as Great.” The problem rears its ugly head with the three words “think of themselves,” but Wallace continues: “Seeing themselves as a Great Lover doesn’t mean they give any more of a shit about her than the pigs do, and deep down they aren’t one little bit less selfish in bed…. Their trip is different, but it’s still only just their own trip they’re on, in bed, and the little lady deep down’s going to feel like she’s just getting used just the same.”

What an awkward, insightful phrase: “it’s still only just their own trip they’re on.” They may be giving themselves, but they’re coveting power and status. They may be physically giving, but they’re emotionally using. It’s easier to pinpoint this in wannabe Great Lovers than in successful Great Lovers, which is why Andrew Crawford stands out in The Easter Parade. After an embarrassing display of sexual impotence, “he sat slumped on the edge of the bed as if on a prizefighter’s stool, his head hanging.” He may be trying to please Emily physically, but he looks like a prizefighter; he’s fighting for his own glory and self-worth. She is a conduit to his own accomplishment, “worked like a Porsche.”

Selfish self-giving isn’t an exclusively sexual phenomenon, of course. In “Octet,” Wallace refers to the sorts of people “everybody’s seen.” They will use you “as some piece of like moral gymnastics equipment on which they can demonstrate their virtuous character (as in people who are generous to other people only because they want to be seen as generous, and so actually secretly like it when people around them go broke or get into trouble, because it means they can rush generously in and act all helpful….” These people like when others are in trouble because it gives them opportunities to build up their self-worth. They want to call themselves good people.

They’re often blind to their own self-centeredness. In “The Devil Is A Busy Man,” the Charitable Giver condemns himself unintentionally. He says: “selfish motive would empty the nice gesture of any ultimate value, and cause me to once again fail in my efforts to be classifiable as a nice or ‘good’ person.” By trying so hard to be a good person, he’s still “on his own trip.”  Maybe we should call a sort of Sympathy Simulacrum, or, more specifically, a genuinely sympathetic impulse “turned inward on oneself.”

As with the manipulative, “honest” meta-writer, perhaps this sort of selfishness is more deadly than brazen greed because it pretends to be virtuous. When we interact with “good people,” we begin to play by their rules. If we wish to be regarded as a good people, too, then other “good people” demand our respect. They’ll use our approval to build up their sense of self-worth; we’ll use our own appreciation of their “goodness” to decide that we’re at least partially good, too.  Look at me. I “admire” this refugee worker––aren’t I a good person?

At this point, we can agree with Wallace: “there are literally a billion times more ways to ‘use’ somebody than there are to honestly just ‘be with’ them.” We will also admit, as Paul does: “when we want to do what is right, we inevitably do what is wrong.” Perhaps we’ll cry out in frustration: “Oh, what miserable people we are!” This cry describes the attitude of The Depressed Person in a nutshell. She understands how she exploits her Support System. She knows that these telephone-based relationships are unbalanced; she’s using her poor confidants. The Depressed Person realizes that she’s using her therapist, too, by paying for the “pathetic temporary illusion of a friend” “who[m] could fulfill her childishly narcissistic fantasies of getting her own emotional needs met by another without having to reciprocally… empathize with… the other’s own emotional needs.”

Yet she uses her “temporary illusion of a friend” to express these anxieties instead of finding a “real friend.” She uses her Support Group to express her Support Group anxieties, “bursting involuntarily into tears and telling them that she knew all too well that she was one of those dreaded types of people of everyone’s grim acquaintance who call at inconvenient times and just go on and on about themselves…” She lives out the relational equivalent of the joke-phrase “don’t fucking swear,” using people as she decries using them––even though she, like Paul in his insurmountable covetousness, despises her own hypocrisy.

Unlike the Hideous Men, the Depressed Person seems genuinely concerned by her lack of empathy. She’s not trying to use her Support Group members as pieces of “moral gymnastics equipment.” In the spirit of absolute honesty, she even “urged her terminally ill friend to go on, to not hold back, to let her have it: what words and terms might be applied to describe and assess such a solipsistic, self-consumed, endless emotional vacuum and sponge as she now appeared herself to be?”

In this exhausting and desperate ending, Wallace successfully utilizes what he calls exformation: “a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient.” This story evokes what it refuses to say: if the depressed person really wants escape from her selfish conundrum, she is asking the wrong question! She ought to ask the terminally ill person: How are you today? or What can I do for you? The ending pulls us in two directions simultaneously: we feel sorry for the depressed person––who has medical reasons for this endless self-obsession, after all––and compassion for the terminally ill person. Since our impressions of these confidantes are filtered through the untrustworthy mind of The Depressed Person, we desperately want to escape her mind. And we want to take her––or at least the sacred, ethically minded part of her[2]––with us on the way out.

The term “self-centeredness” is helpful here because it suggests that, like focused camera lens, the mind and heart are often centered on the self. Yet the term also implies that it is possible to shift this center away from the self. In other words, the locus of my attention may be internal or external. In an ideal world, the question “How are you?” suggests an external orientation; the center of my attention shifts onto you.[3] We can determine the location of a speaker’s “center” by attending to their personal pronouns. “I want to be a good, caring person. I want to do charity work in Africa.” is a very different statement than “They are dying of AIDS in Swaziland. We must assist by distributing contraceptives.”

How do you shift your center? As Wallace demonstrates, this is more easily said than done. He’d agree with Benjamin Franklin: “even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome [pride], I should probably be proud of my humility.” Similarly, after we learn about the Great Lovers, the speaker suggests that if you’re able to “put your picture of yourself on the goddamn back burner for once in your life,” you’ll “get” the woman you’ve been coveting: “Then you really and truly got her.” Once again, self-centeredness pokes its ugly head into the fray.

How does Paul center his mind? His solution is theistic and direct: “Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Therefore, he writes in Chapter 8: “The Law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (8:3-4, NLT).

After Paul found a god that kept all of the laws and died the death that he deserved––a god of “substitutionary atonement,” a Sydney Carton to his Charles Darnay––he found an external force worth centering his thoughts on. This discovery allowed him to center his thoughts on other people, too, since this god loved them all equally. In this vein, Benedictine Monks have developed what they call Centering Prayer. Modern Christian worship music speaks of putting “Jesus at the center of it all.”

When we don’t call this exuberant center-shifting process “falling in love,” we call it worship. Paul found something outside of himself worship-worthy. In what is perhaps Wallace’s most famous quote, he speaks of worship: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship––be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles –– is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” For Wallace, modern culture is particularly pernicious because it “hums merrily along in a pool of… worship of self,” encouraging us to believe that we are all “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.” Brief Interviews focuses on the toxic byproducts of self-worship: vanity, misogyny, disillusionment, anxiety, helplessness, and solipsism.

Yet Wallace’s characters are at their best when they chose to initiate a center-shifting process. Consider the protagonist in “Think.” As the “younger sister of his wife’s college roommate” seduces him, “her expression is from Page 18 of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.” She wants him to covet her body; she covets his approval. Her sexual vulnerability ought to flatter his ego; his willingness to fuck ought to compliment her seductive prowess. And yet, instead of leaning into his self-centered lust, he kneels to pray. “His gaze at the room’s ceiling is supplicatory. His lips are soundlessly moving… She’s not sure how to stand or look while he’s gazing so intently upward… His eyes never leave the middle distance between the ceiling and themselves.”

It doesn’t matter if he’s praying to JC or Allah or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, but his unfailing gaze is surprising and crucial. It demonstrates how he’s trying to re-center his focus in order to worship something more meaningful than her “media taught” body and his covetous lust. What is worth worshiping in this situation? He lands on a beautiful, fantastical possibility: “And what if she joined him on the floor, just like this, clasped in supplication.” Mutual regard for eternal value would be worth worshiping. Center shifting would be worth worshiping. Genuine intimacy––not a transactional sort of “mutual using”––would be worth worshiping.

Finally, consider the last Hideous Man. His story is all about center shifting. It’s like a falling domino line of center shifting experiences, actually. In chronological order: the Granola Cruncher centers her thoughts on her rapist. “She wills herself not to weep or plead but merely to use her penetrating focus to attempt to feel and empathize with the sex offender’s psychosis…” Just as the praying man intently stares at the ceiling, she stares at the sex offender. And in a similar manner, her dedicated focus changes what would have otherwise been a self-centered disaster for both parties involved.[4]

As she recounts this horrific event to the Hideous Man, the Granola Cruncher exemplifies this sort of focus with her storytelling. She “had an unexpected ability to recount it in such a way as to deflect attention from herself and displace maximum attention onto the anecdote itself.” She isn’t using this anecdote to prove how she’s a “good person.” Hence, the Hideous Man is the next domino to fall. He finds himself shifting his center of attention onto her. He is legitimately focused on the Granola Cruncher: “She had all my attention. I’d fallen in love with her.” And she continues to hold his attention as he recounts her recount to us. In another storytelling universe, this might not seem like a marvelous occasion. But in Wallace’s diegetic sphere, when a man uses the phrase “She had all my attention,” it feels like an ethical victory. Even the pronoun “she” seems to signify a seismic shift.

Wallace surely agreed with C.S. Lewis’s aphorism: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” But Brief Interviews is valuable precisely because it demonstrates how difficult it can be to think of yourself less. Self-worship is not just tempting; it’s our “default setting.” However, if we consciously shift our centers of attention, we may just find something outside of ourselves worth worshiping.

Actually, Wallace doesn’t equivocate with these sorts of “may just find” statements. He has a desperate, urgent need to say that if don’t worship something outside of ourselves, we will worship ourselves and we will drown in the mire of our own imperfections and insecurities. Here is Lewis again, at the end of “The Weight of Glory,” a sermon that he wrote in the middle of World War II: “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be inside some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.”

Wallace knew this door.

 


[1] In his 2005 Kenyon College Address, Wallace acknowledges how self-determined focus takes work: “Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” (emphasis mine).

[2] The Depressed Person’s “soul,” maybe?

[3]In everyday Western existence, there is perhaps no question robbed of its altruistic power quite like “How are you?”. In Czech culture, for example, if you ask someone how she is, she will respond with excessive details: “Not too well, I’m going through a divorce right now. My husband wants custody of Jan…” and so on. They assume that the question actually arises from an externally oriented place.

[4] There is something Christ-like going on here, actually. She exudes empathy that the Sex Offender cannot exude, giving him the sort of intimacy that he could never imagine.

Posted in Essays, Life, Philosophy, Theology Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 Sorts of Women You Shouldn’t Be Hooking Up With In A Gas Station Bathroom

Godly Man

[Please note: This is morally motivated satirical fiction, through and through. Hence the fictional author, and so on. It deserves pretty hard PG-13 rating. You have been warned.]

by Michael Labeline

Ok, guys. We all know how difficult it is to be a Godly man in the age when every single internet link leads to porn and every woman in your life just wants your toned abs and rockin bod. But the truth is that sexual purity was never easy… Heck, even Jesus had to scribble in the dirt to keep his eyes off of a curvilicious ho. So that’s why we all need to realize that there are just some ladies that you shouldn’t be hooking up with in the ever-so-tempting gas station bathrooms. With a little accountability and a lot of prayer, we can be intentionally pursuing the shiny, long hair; sharp, elegant nose; and white, gleaming skin of Jesus instead of what I believe the apostle Paul called the forbidden-fruit-eating-woman’s “Rump of Repulsion.” So here are some of Lucifer’s Luscious Ladies that we need to say “Hell no” to, in more ways than one. Avoiding the temptation may feel like squeezing your Johnson through the eye of the needle, but isn’t that the point?

 

1.  Definitely-Cracked-Out Lady

And no, I’m not talking about the B-crack, although that may be out too. No, I’m talking about the little lady who is probably rapidly repeating Kelly Clarkson lyrics while combing her hair with your baseball bat in the trunk of your Volvo. You know who I’m talking about. She may say, “Oooh, that Valero sign makes me want to—Wait, where’d the eagle go? Where’s Tito?” but you STAY AWAY from that Valero, boy. The STD Doctor waiting for you is just the servant of the real doctor, Doctor Sin Consequence Man.

 

2.    Your Worship Team’s Two-Sundays-A-Month Drummer

So it’s after worship practice and you’re still trying to master that A-D-A-C chord progression of this month’s really popular worship song. The cross-tattooed drummer with short hair asks if you want to check out a set her cousin is playing down at the Raging Lion. You’re really supposed to meet with your small group to bench press and talk about Chapter 2 of “Finding God in Braveheart,” but she seems chill and maybe secretly lesbian, so…. hot, right?

Well:

  1. Lesbians: no, no, no. Even that Juno chick’s a lesbian now, and you see what happened when she did it with a straight guy. Disaster and, as Netflix calls it, “quirky indie comedy.” No way.
  2. This lady might even ask you about stuff like “Keekeguard” or “Ackwynus” (whatever that is?). Come on, girl.
  3. Let’s just say that Chevron’s family bathrooms are NOT up to any other company’s “Quality Standards”. And she might lock you in them for being a “presumptive jerk” and take your car and leave until you call her and apologize over and over again #ugh.

 

3. Bartender from The Rusty Buzzard

Yeah, so you’re a hotshot regular now. You don’t even need to show your slowly crumbling fake Arizona ID anymore. They KNOW you. You can drink a glass of whisky and only choke on the shit every third or forth sip. So you show up for the Cowboys game…. and let’s just say that they’re not the only Cowboys scoring one touchdown that night, am I right? Smilie: ;)

Anyway, bad idea. It might be hot, it might be sweaty, it might rock your world, but it also might make the threat of Hell keep you up at night, putting you into cold sweats and keep you crying out for forgiveness endlessly in the dark to God who won’t answer.

 

4.    Teenage Summer Camp Girl

You’re in tenth grade. Everybody’s having that “How Camp Rocked My World” meeting on the last night, acoustic worship music is being played, people are crying, and all she wants to do is have you come to her cabin and spoon her while she talks about her life and stuff. This girl doesn’t even want any action. She’s just an emotional wreck who doesn’t want to go home to her kindof meh upper-middle-class life after having her hair braided by pretty college girls for two weeks.

So when she sees you three years later, she’s gonna jump onto you like you’re her long lost puppy or something, all teary eyed and sentimental like you bought her a Bouqet on valentines day or something. This girl is just a hot mess. She might want to yank your wang, but she’s gonna get all attached and bleh about it. (Also, P.S., BP might spill their gas in the gulf or w/e, but she might help you learn that their restrooms are TIGHT. Not that this really matters, though. Don’t do anything in them. Period. Yeah, never.)

 

5. The “Feminist”

K, this grl seems CRAZY. Like, she spits fire in your face that you’re never seen. She’s like Grandma before the Vicodin kicks in. She keeps you on your toes, rolling her eyes, acting like she owns the place.

Well here’s the twist: she actually thinks she does own the place. Yeah, you heard me right. She thinks girls can call the shots, that chivalry is so old-school, that your Johnny Manziel wall-calendar emphasizes male domination as if that’s a bad thing. She makes up words like “male gaze” and “misojenny” and pretty much hates your guts. She doesn’t want to do it unless it’s on her terms, on her time. She acts as if girls don’t evenreally want the D! Puhleeeasssee.

Guys, this girl is trouble. This is not what the Bible is about, ever. No, no sir. Consider this verse from Romans (paraphrasing, don’t have a bible b/c my iPhone’s out of battery): “Let the man be in control and the woman be subservient to her husband. She has to keep stuff on her head in church because men are better.”

Stay away, bros, stay away.

 

6. Your half-sister, New Years Eve, Johnny’s “14 Shots For 2014” Party

Nuff said. We’ve all been there.

 

 

Bro Jesus

So man nuggets, let’s keep our eyes on the prize like the medal waiting at the end of the 800 meter dash. Some day we’re going to get married and have our wives do us like 200 times on the first night of the honeymoon and it’s going to be hot and awesome. Crazy positions up the wazoo, you know the drill.

But until then, we gotta keep focused on God and he said don’t do any of this stuff until we’re married. We gotta let Jesus give us boundaries and stuff because who knows when he’s coming back? When you hear that knock on the Citgo restroom door mid-smash, how do you really know that it’s the manager or a cop and not the Big Man Upstairs himself?

That’s enough to keep you up at night, guys. Be strong.

 

Posted in Fiction, Humor Tagged , , ,

Ride Nemec’s New Wave

“Diamonds of the Night” begins with breathtaking swiftness. Sharp gunshots echo in the distance as two unidentified young men scramble, half-running, half-crawling, up a hillside. We hear nothing but gunshots and breathless panting as they head into the woods for shelter.

In this 1964 feature-length debut by 1960s Czech New Wave auteur Jan Nemec, the young men are never given names or significant dialogue. Their forest escape meshes with intercut surrealistic visions: walks through a concentration camp wearing cloaks labeled “KL,” a tram speeding through the streets of Prague, ants crawling into an eye socket, laughing children tobogganing down snowy slopes, grain bags, slinking cats, rising elevators. No framing devices contextualize these images, leaving us the weighty task of determining whether we’re witnessing flashbacks, hallucinations or merely images that Nemec fancies.

….keep reading here.

Posted in Blog, Essays, Filmmaking, Movie Reviews, Philosophy, Reviews Tagged , , , , ,

Review of Three Milos Forman Czech New Wave Classics

Cheswick, sporting an exaggerated frown like a stubborn toddler, stands and interrupts a group therapy session in a fleeting impulse of civil disobedience.

“May I have my cigarettes please, Nurse Ratched?”

Ratched juts out her jaw, widening her fiery eyes: “Mr. Cheswick, you sit down!”

Cheswick sits, arms crossed, anxiety practically dripping from his pores. McMurphy tries to appease the squirmy man by playing off of Harding’s better nature. Harding, ever the intellectual, refuses to let Cheswick have his last cigarette: “I’m not running a charity ward, see.” Martini, grinning impishly, snatches this “last cigarette” from Harding’s hand and gives it one puff before tossing it across the circle. A game of “cigarette catch” begins, tensions rise, and Cheswick stands again to bellow in pure, bloated agony: “I want MY cigarettes, Nurse Ratched! I want MINE, Nurse Ratched!”

….keep reading here.

Posted in Blog, Essays, Filmmaking, Movie Reviews, Reviews, Uncategorized Tagged , , , , , ,

Review of “Honeymoon” and “Beauty In Trouble”

Review of two films by director Jan Hrebejk and writer Petr Jarchovsky. Read here.

Posted in Blog, Filmmaking, Movie Reviews, Reviews Tagged , , , , ,

Great Enters The Little

Recently, thanks to Tim Keller, I discovered a C.S. Lewis quote that radically shook my complacency regarding the oft-mentioned “Miracle of Christmas.” This full quote is too long to post on Facebook, but the least I can do is share it here.

“What can be meant by ‘God becoming man’? In what sense is it conceivable that eternal self-existent Spirit, basic Fact-hood, should be so combined with a natural human organism as to make one person?…..  We cannot conceive how the Divine Spirit dwelled within the created and human spirit of Jesus: but neither can we conceive how His human spirit, or that of any man, dwells within his natural organism. What we can understand, if the Christian doctrine is true, is that our own composite existence is not the sheer anomaly it might seem to be, but a faint image of the Divine Incarnation itself—the same theme in a very minor key. We can understand that if God so descends into a human spirit, and human spirit so descends into Nature, and our thoughts into our senses and passions, and if adult minds (but only the best of them) can descend into sympathy with children, and men into sympathy with beasts, then everything hangs together and the total reality, both Natural and Supernatural, in which we are living is more multifariously and subtly harmonious than we had suspected. We catch sight of a new key principle—the power of the Higher, just in so far as it is truly Higher, to come down, the power of the greater to include the less. Thus solid bodies exemplify many truths of plane geometry, but plane figures no truths of solid geometry: many inorganic propositions are true of organisms but no organic propositions are true of minerals; Montaigne became kittenish with his kitten but she never talked philosophy to him. Everywhere the great enters the little—its power to do so is almost the test of its greatness.”

C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: MacMillan, 1947/1960), p. 111.

 

Posted in Blog, Philosophy, Theology Tagged , , , , , ,

Images, Experience Absorbers and Self-Definers

A Comparative Exploration of The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers

 

I.

I’m not exactly sure what a chance encounter between the young female protagonists of Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring would look like, but it’s hard to imagine that it would be a positive one.

Upon first glance (or first draft of a comparative essay) a total disassociation with conservative ethics would seem to link both groups together effortlessly––more than one person has told me: “I think The Bling Ring is like a better version of Spring Breakers”––yet I think that the respective cliques would stare at each other with catty wariness and quickly masked embarrassment. Like funhouse mirror reflections, they would find their doubles too similar to ignore yet too distasteful to embrace. This is because, like communism and fascism, their functional similarities stem from vastly different ideological aims. Together, they provide a multifaceted portrait of millennial hedonism.

To some, engaging in close analysis of these two groups may seem akin toexploring the motivational differences between serial killers and serial rapists; a taxonomy of evil cannot resolve the problem of evil. It can even create undo fascination with evil. Acknowledging this possibility, I hope that this essay can help illuminate how these sorts of individuals actually exist (in reality, of course, embodying complexity and contradiction that no overarching theoretical structure can provide) and what truths can be gleaned through their cinematic manifestations.

 II.

Prada 2The Bling Ring is about people who no longer wish to be multidimensional people. The Bling Ring is about people who wish to become images. They shun internal complexity as if they don’t even know of its existence. This is most perceptively embodied by Katie Chang’s Rebecca, who leads her gang of upper-middle class deviants on their destructive romp through Celebrityville, L.A. Although she leads the criminal charge, Rebecca embodies the dull passivity of an observer, assuming the countenance of a sullen supermodel with high cheek bones and skinny wrists who stares out from her Times Square poster with a vacuous expression of existential detachment, made complete by the wonders of makeup and Photoshop (©!). These sorts of models aren’t allowed the luxury of an interior life or personal characteristics; they are defined by the objects they wear. As their dully pigmented skin is poignantly contrasted the vibrancy of their advertised clothes (or bags, or whatever), they become materiality incarnate.

The Bling Ring 1Rebecca has no qualms relating her future to others: she will go to the Fashion Institute of Design (The Hills girls went there), she will intern at Teen Vogue, she will have her own line, and fragrance, and host a show… She will become an image. And with her blasé, clippy-meets-monotonous tone, even under pressure, she’s already doing the hard work necessary to become irreducibly external. Cheerfully joining in the devolution that early sociologist George Simmel called “the hypertrophy of objective culture,” Rebecca gladly sacrifices internal nuance for varied external outfits. While she picks and choses articles from celebrity homes with fastidious focus, she grabs works of art with disinterest. An image doesn’t see. It doesn’t have the capacity for aesthetic appreciation. It merely appears.

One could also mention that Rebecca is unwittingly situating herself within the oft-mentioned discourse of Warholian nihilism. Warhol famously said: “I want to be a machine” because “machines have less problems,” embracing the dehumanization available through image replication. If one were to take Warhol at his word (something that any true student of Warholian irony will tell you is perhaps a naïve idea), Warhol embraces the process of increased externalization and shallow replication.

Rebecca MirrorRebecca’s climax occurs when she stares into Lindsay Lohan’s mirror, illuminated by the soft, seductive light of a fashion shoot, slowly spraying herself with Lindsay’s perfume. Decontextualized, the shot seems straight out of a Dior ad. Rebecca has become the image that she desires; she is like Lohan without any of Lohan’s internal particularities (including her acting capacity). As Rosalind Krauss notes in her essay on the reflective quality of 1970s video art, pure reflection creates a narcissistic feeling of “self-encapsulation,” “spatial closure,” and “the presentation of a self understood to have no past and…  no connection to any objects that are external to it.” Krauss would say that at this moment of ecstasy, Rebecca is having “intercourse with her own [mirrored] image.”

By appropriating the dreamy glow of fashion photography, The Bling Ring’s cinematographer, the late Harris Savides, indulges the gang in their sensual ambitions. This sort of cinematography cannot be properly labeled expressionistic—externalizing the emotions of the characters photographed––because there is so little internal expression to be conveyed. The aesthetic is all surface gloss, the diffused orangey warmth of Southern California days and the gauzy simmer of LA nights, and we get the sense that The Bling Ring wouldn’t have it any other way. They want to be reduced to images that are equally seductive and empty and Sophia Coppola has no qualms humoring them with deadpan interest.

Coppola’s cinematographic technique doesn’t grab you with the pell-mell assertion of Martin Scorsese or the poetic juxtaposition of Terrence Malick. That would be all too human. No, Coppola watches these girls the way they watch themselves. Conveniently absent is her inclusion of over-the-shoulder shots, the bread and butter of cinematic two-way conversation, signifiers of engagement and interpersonal connection.

Alone Together

She usually sticks to off-center wide shots and slowly gliding medium shots, situating the teenagers in tableau-like scenes where they stand (or sit, or steal) alone together.In a central club scene, the camera glides from left to right as they lounge at a booth. They take selfies, laugh, text, look out, and take more selfies, but they never turn a full ninety degrees and engage with each other. Images can’t interact with other images… they can merely sit and enjoy their lonely existence, whether juxtaposed on the same leather couch or in a Facebook (©!) photo album.

Perhaps the most brilliant tableau occurs as Max Nelson describes in his critical roundup for Film Comment: “one gang member’s family [is] preparing breakfast smoothies in a spotless, gleaming kitchen, with a pair of snow-white corgis under one chair and a maid at work in the corner, as the LAPD’s incoming sirens get louder and louder.” As every character minds his or her own separate affairs within this wide space, even their dogs decry a sense of intimacy, barking shrilly before being quickly derided by their fruit-chopping owner.

The Bling Ring is less about a sense of longing than a sense of banal entitlement, spawning from an upper-middle class Southern California milieu that I know quite well (go Irvine!?). An image doesn’t long, it merely is. Rebecca knows this. When her compatriots voice the sort of cliché tension-baring signifiers that they’ve probably learned from movies: “I don’t know about this,” “Are you sure we should do this?” “Let’s fucking leave,” ect., Rebecca knows better, deriding their humanity with a sense of weary frustration and without any hint of true anger. Images don’t get angry.

Images also don’t take drugs or drink alcohol for reasons of heightened experience. The first line we hear from Nicki’s Mother: “Girls, time for your Adderall!” quickly zeroes in on the sorts of drugs the girls will prioritize: drugs that sedate existence, that numb experience, that turn (in a hypnotically frightening instance) a gun into a mere plaything. Marijuana, Adderall, Vicodin. Sure, these girls take cocaine and all of the typical drugs that are essential to the image they desire, but these are comparably rare occurrences.

The Bling Ring’s eventual punch stems from the fact that the gang succeeds in becoming widely popularized images. The final shot of Emma Watson’s Nicki taking control of her television interview, staring at the camera from the center of the frame, instructing the viewers to check out her story online, is a nearly Brechtian move by Coppola. This fourth-wall breaking indicates that, yes, the gang was quite successful indeed. They are now part of the simulacrum, staring at you in your theater seat through the filter of pretty actors, immortalized in a big budget Hollywood film, alone on the screen. We learn that Nicki shared a prison cell with Linday Lohan. In a society dominated by the hypertrophy of objective culture, they are both commodified images, merely separated by different screens and gossip reports.

The KissI was most vividly reminded of The Bling Ring while encountering Klimt’s “The Kiss” and “Judith and the Head of Holofernes” at the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna. Pictorial replications of these works don’t do them justice; these renderings equally emphasize the skin of the subjects and the material embellishments on them and surrounding them. The actual paintings appear quite differently. The subjects’ skin appears ghastly, grey, soft and hardly visible, while the embellishments glitter with the sharp gleam that only gold foil can provide. In “The Kiss,” the actual loving act seems rudimentary, even banal, whereas the square and circular patterns engage in vivid material intercourse.

Judith

In “Judith,” the Biblical subject appears at once in ecstasy yet nevertheless choked by her vivid neckpiece, crowded out and claustrophobically consumed by the gold surrounding her. Before the technological advances and democratization of “art” that allowed Warhol to play with individuals-turned-images, Klimt portrays individuals defined by externality, submerged in aesthetic vibrancy. None of these figures are Napoleon in David’s “Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass,” also in the Belvedere, a work that gives an “in vitro” royal heritage to a ruler by plunging him into a historical narrative through weighty associative symbolism.

No, these are individuals in the process of losing their very humanity to the objects on them and surrounding them. They are aestheticized unto corpselike decay, appearing like ghastly specters limply hanging on walls before us.

They are Rebecca and her Bling Ring.

 III.

American PopsicleThe opening credits of The Bling Ring slice and dice designer items in a still-life montage, informing us that external objectivity will be Copolla’s focal point as well as and her characters’ respective objet petit a (although maybe more attainable than Lacan would have us believe). Spring Breakers, by contrast, immediately propels us into a world of hypnotic, perpetual motion. There is a perverse aesthetic beauty to its hedonistic, misogynist beach partiers as they relish in beer poured down quavering, topless chests, liquor ejaculated into open mouths, Skrillex keeping the party pumping with the entrancing distortion of dubstep electronica. The sublime Florida sun still graces these gyrating bodies and the cool salt-water still licks their spray-tanned skin. But, as evidenced by a hilariously spot-on shot of girls sucking phallic red-white-and-blue popsicles, Harmony Korine’s American materialism is not primarily one of external display and internal decay, but one of orgasmic consumption, a rabid internalization of the external world. These girls want to become “experience incarnate,” continually absorbing and receiving with carefree, gluttonous abandon. They don’t consume to become internally bankrupt; they consume to become internally filled.

While this point is crucial, it can be countered by their exhibitionist tendencies and the voyeuristic nature of Korine’s camera. Isn’t exhibitionism the desire to immortalize the external? What is the true difference between a girl who shows off her Prada bag and a girl who shows off her… um… generous genetic endowment of upper-chest region?

This is a good observation, but easy amended when one notes how lucidly Korine situates these girls within a broader desire-fueled narrative. For them, engaging in this sort of exhibitionism is only part of their self-fulfillment process, only a means to a deeper end.[1] “Misogyny” and “exhibitionism” aren’t even words in their relative vocabulary. One could draw a connection to the old acting-lesson story of a man running from a bear up a tree. On first glance, one would assume that the man is thinking: “I have to get away from this bear!” But what is the man actually thinking? “I have to figure out how to climb this tree!” We are always thinking forward toward our ultimate goals and deepest desires.

MoneyAnd what are their deepest desires? They desire a life defined by absorptive experiences. Consider, for example, an early scene after they’ve stolen piles of cash. They push it into their chests, lay on it, bathe in it, one of them saying (and I apologize for the crudeness here, but it can’t be helped on my end) “This money is making my pussy wet.” For them, money doesn’t simply exist to be admired. It is immediately associated with the language of sexual consumption. The girls aren’t thinking: “How physically vulgar can I be?” They’re thinking: “How can I feel pleasure and physicality, intimacy and community?”

Spring Breakers KissThis defines their narrative trajectory. The drugs, the partying, the sex, and the eventual violence are all about experiences shared. In this way, their spring break is the hedonistic equivalent of a religious revival in which a large group of people gather to “take in” the spirit. The sense of absorbing the external, the transcendent, is a firmly religious idea. Korine explicitly sets up this connection with Faith, the Christian character, who is loyal to her youth group yet drawn into––and eventually repulsed by––this orgy of hedonism. During the film she says to her grandmother: “This place is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been.” And Korine’s hallucinatory, sublime camerawork does little to convince us otherwise. It seems far easier to take in booze, drugs, sex, and violence than The Holy Spirit, after all. The sense of physical immediacy and interpersonal presence Faith witnesses is as undeniable as it is assaultive.

The film’s later half allows the girls an opportunity to apply their learned hedonism in an environment where it was previously lacking. This is with Alien, James Franco’s now infamous white rapper and drug dealer. Growing up on the street, Alien has not had an easy life; he hasn’t had the financial recourses to “take it all in” like our girls. But he also finds himself more like The Bling Ring protagonists because he gets his sense of self-worth from his material possessions. He is on the stage during the Spring Break brouhaha, separate from the intimate crowd. While his exuberant show during the infamous “Look at my shit!” scene lacks Rebecca’s nihilistic poise (it is particularly hilarious to imagine the two of them interacting), it nevertheless demonstrates his desire to be defined by possessions that can be looked at. One could almost imagine Rebecca watching his enthusiastic display with detached amusement, smiling drolly, zoning in and out as she glances down at her iPhone.

Alien GunTherefore, a key scene in Spring Breakers occurs when the girls grab Alien’s gun and force it in his mouth, mimicking oral sex. This scene demonstrates the beginning of Alien’s transformation. Suddenly, his material possessions are not merely things to be looked at. They become things to interact with, to absorb, to pleasurably (if ridiculously) internalize. When he claims that these girls are “his soul mates,” he is obviously reveling in a level of connection and personal absorption (made disgustingly literal during a late swimming pool scene) previously unknown.

This emphasis on kinetic interaction and felt experience is vividly communicated through Benoit Debie’s hypnotic cinematography and Douglas Crise’s brilliant editing. The camera swings along, pushing here and pulling there, immersing the audience in a sea of color and stylistic excess. The editing feels, as many have pointed out, like a Terrence Malick movie. Just like his films, juxtapositions create a sense of life, motion, and an intensity of feeling. The camera is so enthusiastic to show all that is around, to immerse you in the world, that it takes your breath away with a peculiar mixture of delight and disgust. In a sense, Spring Breakers could be seen as the perversion of a Malick film. In one of my favorite explanations in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains how badness is merely perverted goodness. He points to the things that the girls in Spring Breakers most desire:

“Pleasure, money, power, and safety are all… good things. The badness consists in pursuing them by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much…. Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.”

Despite the fact that Malick explores this perversion himself, his camera is far more insistent on capturing goodness as “itself” than Korine, who is far more interested in its perversion. The sunset, the beach, and the natural world––all things that Malick would see as fundamental to his telling of this story––seem more incidental to Korine’s mise-en-scene. He shares Malik’s predilection for color juxtaposition, but his interests stay firmly attached to neon yellows, pinks, greens, and blues… all manmade amendments (some may say perversions) of natural color schemes. Korine bravely explores this perverted beauty and pleasure in a way that creates a sympathetic link with the shallowest of characters, yet, simultaneously, leads us to yearn for them to find pleasure, money, power, and safety through lifestyles that don’t––as we vividly witness––lead to eventual death, destruction, and internal desolation.

 IV.

Neither The Bling Ring nor Spring Breakers end in particularly happy places. As Emma Watson stares at the camera, we understand that the film concludes just as the process of simulacra is starting to escalate (and, at the same time, we are reminded how it has already escalated in the real world). She is already well on her way to becoming an image.

As Spring Breakers ends, our two remaining girls suggest vague longings to change their lifestyle. But these desires, even though they occur via voiceover (a commonly “all-revealing” level of diegetic discourse, molded into ambiguity with Korine’s light touch), are dubious because they occur in telephone conversations with their ignorant parents. Have these two been radically shocked by the violence that escalated as their reckless hedonism increased? Have they realized the emptiness of their experience? Have they grown, changed, or learned at all? Maybe. But they also––in a scene that also bares dubious veracity––violently destroyed all of their enemies. “Just pretend like it’s a videogame,” one of them says as they rob a restaurant near the film’s beginning. In the end, they seem to act inside a literal shoot-em-up videogame. And what is a videogame but an endless machine of continuous experience? Videogame characters don’t stop and think; they act. Violently, jerkily, instinctually, they act. Players absorb without any negative repercussions. Not unlike Watson, these girls seem to have accomplished their goals. We have no idea what they are going to do next.

Thus, the film artists turn to us. As these characters roll over into imaginary story-world-futures, they bleed off of the screen and into our collective conscience. We must either grapple with these unresolved conflicts in own lives or dismiss the films as mediocre (many have done so). Copolla and Korine have too much integrity to give us oversimplified solutions, but they’re too artistically provocative to let us off the hook. We cannot simply stare at these girls as they would stare at each other, with a mixture of catty repulsion and hidden embarrassment.

After all, the problems they present are relevant, postmodern problems. To an extent, both narratives explore the existential solution proposed by Sartre in “Existentialism as Humanism.” As an atheist, Sartre believes that existence precedes essence, and, therefore, “man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself… Man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be…. Man is responsible for what he is.” These girls, with their attempts to become images and experience absorbers, champion Sartre’s self-definition through personal action. They are brazen heroes of self-determination. Who cares if social norms, legal requirements, or older people look down on their actions? Following in the footsteps of their philosopher-leader Ke$ha, they shout (well, Rebecca wouldn’t shout, but you get the idea) from the rooftops: “Tonight we’re going hard! Just like the world is ours! We’re tearing it apart! We r who we r!”

So if you and I can define ourselves through our own moral actions, why do these poor girls frighten us, sicken us, disturb us? Sartre can help us understand these feelings, too, for as he explains the humanistic possibility of self-creation, he also illuminates the deep responsibility “inherent” to such a task:

“When we say that man chooses himself… we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be…. I am thus responsible for myself and all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.”

For Sartre, this overwhelming responsibility creates a sense of anguish. I ask: “Am I really a man who has the right to act in such a manner that humanity regulates itself by what I do?” Utter self-determinism is terrifying. Sartre does admit that not everybody thinks like this, but suggests that those who differ are merely “disguising their anguish or in flight from it.”

Perhaps the girls in The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers are merely fleeing from the sublimated anguish of existential responsibility? Or perhaps they truly believe that all people should behave as they do, which, although disturbing, actually bares the courage of a thought-out worldview?

Neither suggestion seems accurate. It seems, most frighteningly, that these girls simply don’t care, period. Copolla and Korine refuse to suggest that self-definition necessitates feelings and emotions of existential responsibility understood, sublimated, or “fled from.” Thus, we are left to cope with the sort of frightening nihilism that humanists have such trouble dealing with. Humanists are forced to hold the assumption that these girls must be good people deep inside, an assumption that neither Korine nor Coppola authenticate.

To these filmmakers, in world where choice is king, we can certainly choose to do away with the burden of responsibility and conscience, giddily diving into utter narcissism. And in a world without some sort of Heaven-decreed moral absolutes, who would dare claim the authority to criticize our choices? Who would dare to suggest that there is more to life than becoming an Image or an Experience Absorber?

We r who we r!

Emma Bling Ring


[1] By “deeper” I’m utilizing the metaphorical language for internality, not the metaphorical language for value. It’s more of an ontological placement than anything else. To suggest that these girls are “deep” in a “deep thought” sort of way would be ridiculous.

Posted in Blog, Essays, Filmmaking, Philosophy, Theology Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Fall Break European Tour 2013: En Route To Oxford

I am currently riding on a train up to Oxford. This alone is a treat; riding a train through the British countryside is romanticized for good reasons. Even in the early fall, trees are still a wonderful mix of green and yellow. The houses are as red brick as your heart could desire, the grassy lawns are rich and emerald, the rivers brown yet clear.

Thames from the Tate Modern

Thames from the Tate Modern

London has been a wonderful contrast to both Granada and Prague. It is a simple gift to be in a city so westernized yet a city with such strong particularities and cultural character. It many ways, as far as diversity of individuals and eateries are concerned, it feels like a sister city to New York. And yet, London feels cleaner, classier and more modern than New York, and certainly more vastly spread out. The distance between places can make London a little overwhelming, but also lends its neighborhoods a great deal of individual character and diversity. Unlike New York, it feels wholly lived in, and, if you’re a fan of classic red brick like myself, this is immensely comforting. Last night I visited “Ye Old Cheshire Cheese,” a pub that Charles Dickens apparently went to. Sitting on an ornate blue velvet couch in a burgundy room warmly lit by small wall-mounted lamps and a large (unlit, unfortunately) fireplace, drinking a classic bitter English pint, looking at ancient portraits and pictures on the walls,

IMG_3620I didn’t feel the weight of formality and precociousness that often leaves me disenchanted with stereotypically British things. Rather, I felt a reassuring sense of home.

Hawt N Dangerou$ n London

Hawt N Dangerou$ n London Town

Although London proudly continues its staunchly traditional double decker busses, red telephone booths, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, ect. ect., what impressed me most was its clean, modern feel. Even my hostel, which feels so large and corporate, is brightly and immaculately––if a bit cheesily––designed (posted rule plaques say, in a skinny handwriting-styled font: “Rule Number 1 is have fun!” The same font adorns hallways where token Britishisms mixed with American slang are stenciled on the bright blue walls. My personal favorite says: “You only live once. Live like Bond!”). The hostel harnesses an immediately appealing mixture of bright colors, light brown softwood,and sleek chrome, coming off like the Ikea or Whole Foods of hostels: large, impersonal and imposing yet impressively sleek nonetheless.

IMG_3611This modern-and-clean-yet-bright-and-welcoming feel carries over into restaurants, the National Theatre, The Tate Modern, The London Eye… ect. ect. Even crowded pubs feel clean and welcoming and smoking has been outlawed in all of them. London is an immaculate aesthetic combination of old and new, lacking the imposing vacuity of high modernism (and postmodernism, one could argue) and the red brick formality and conformity of classically industrialized cities. It has overcome architectural and aesthetic hurdles with class and brilliance, existing as a wonderful model of what a modern, multicultural, pluralistic city should look like… in all areas except expense. I am grateful to not live in London simply because of how quickly the city would drain my finances. I do note that expensiveness probably helps explain how the city can afford such aesthetic impressiveness; the two usually go hand in hand.

Laura n Me n r mutual Friend Ben

Laura n Me n r mutual Friend Ben

Some highlights from London: first, seeing my friend Laura and meeting her friends from Furman University. Something reinforced by this trip is how appealing it can be to see old friends in new contexts. Although I’ve known Laura for a couple years, I mostly know her from the context of Laity Lodge Youth Camp, a hermetically sealed community and cultural atmosphere. And in my experience, one of the best things about camp friendships is not engaging them at camp, but precipitating, deepening and enriching them within the contexts of the world at large.

Laura is involved in a very unique program through Furman, one where she gets to see a variety of plays and write about them. She was kind enough to get me a ticket for the play her group saw on Wednesday night, “nut,” at the National Theater’s “Shed,” a small black box with a striking red exterior. It was a peculiar play, the kind where its characters continually argue in a circular fashion for its entire running time. Sometimes this sort of writing is a bit unnerving for me, feeling a bit forced, a billboard screaming “NATURALISM.” I’m not sure about you, but the people I talk to tend to actually communicate in conversations that move, even when they’re arguing. Some admittedly do result in deadlock, but this sort of insistent circularity often rings a bit false for me as a viewer. However, considering the subject of the play––a woman with a mental illness who consistently argues with herself (or at least people who are most likely mental manifestation of herself)––this sort of dialogue seemed fairly necessary.

And “nut” was structurally interesting, only subtly, carefully revealing how its first act character were fantastical manifestations. The point wasn’t the reveal, the sort of self-impressed “ta da” that revels in writerly vanity while exploiting mental illness. The whole play was firmly rooted in compassion and, the more I think about it, the more insightful it becomes. It deals with relational tensions, how all external struggles actually stem from internal struggles in response to others, and how we consistently find our own identity through external comparison (“She’s/I’m not like you” are consistent refrains that most characters say in the show, anthems of internal isolation and longing for stable forms of self-definition”). Although little in the show is concrete, none of it was too abstract and, particularly through its wonderfully subtle, symbolic staging (various giant metal beams are imposingly fused, crisscrossing and jutting out forebodingly above characters, precariously and uncomfortably appearing to push down on them throughout the projection), the show is ultimately poetic and even a bit heartbreaking. The more I think about it the more I like it, and I’m sure if I were to see it again I would appreciate it even more.

(If you’re going to London and want a bit of avant-garde theatre instead of the typical big name shows, you can buy tickets here. It’s playing through December 5.)

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