January 2007


Lord of WarA trailer for Jarhead, about an American soldier in Desert Storm combat, preceded the matinée showing of Lord of War I saw two years ago. During the trailer, a U.S. marine passionately shouts, “We are the righteous hammer of God and that hammer is coming down!” A man behind me in the cinema responded, “Amen, brother!” I hope Niccol’s insinuating Lord of War helped him reconsider.

The film’s opening sequence takes us through the manufacture, shipment, and firing of an assault rifle cartridge from its own perspective. By placing us behind the bullet, from the factory to when it enters the skull of an African boy, Niccol implicates us in arms sales, genocide, and terrorism. And why not? The United States is the leading arms exporter and willfully ignores – if not supplies – most world terrorism.

Nicolas Cage’s performance as arms dealer Yuri Orlov also helps to reveal our complicity in worldwide violence. Niccol describes the process of selecting Cage for the role: “I thought, ‘Who can make the devil charming?’ It’s Nicolas Cage.” Yuri is an unsympathetic, heartless man who seeks from the start to profit from the greatest evils. But he is a pragmatic salesman, and Cage’s seductive performance soon finds the audience adopting Yuri’s blind-eye coldness. “It’s not our fight,” Yuri tells his brother. And somehow we believe him. When Yuri finally confronts his vain justifications, we are forced to confront our own.

But whatever Lord of War’s considerable moral and political implications, is it a good movie? Sadly, it isn’t; but screenwriting gurus Syd Field and Robert McKee would surely be impressed. Niccol has always written about strong concepts: a genetic totalitarianist future in Gattaca, a man who doesn’t know his life is a sitcom called The Truman Show, a digitally artificial movie star named S1m0ne, a trapped foreigner living in an airport Terminal, and now an arms trafficker “at war with himself” in Lord of War. Niccol’s characters are full-figured and memorable, his dialogue is sharp and ironic, his pacing is solid, his themes are significant, and he brings the audience plenty of fascinating behind-the-scenes how-to.

But Niccol’s trademark weaknesses accompany his “strengths” into Lord of War. He flaunts every nuance in the film, bringing them each to a painfully obvious forefront and leaving nothing for repeat viewings. When Yuri must convince his pilot to make a rough landing on a gravel highway, he yells, “You can do it, Aleksei! You’re the shit! You’re the shit! You’re the shit!” Then, in voice over: “Of course he wasn’t the shit…” And when Yuri removes a toy gun from his sleeping son’s bedroom because he doesn’t want young Nicolai to grow up into his father’s industry, we also see Yuri drop the gun in the waste basket, and later we see Interpol agent Jack Valentine retrieve it from Yuri’s trash. Niccol won’t take the chance that his audience won’t notice a writing tidbit he’s proud of conceiving.

He also relinquishes plausibility to squeeze superfluous “cool” or “intense” moments into the movie. When Yuri’s pilot makes that emergency landing on a highway, the jet’s front tires stop inches from a baby sitting in the road. And when Yuri must quickly switch flags on his ship to avoid Interpol’s suspicion, it so happens that it’s best for Yuri to look like a Dutch ship, and he has every flag but a Dutch one, but of course he can make a French flag look like a Dutch flag by hanging it sideways. And, on two occasions, Yuri happens to make a major arms sale only a few yards away from where murders are taking place at that very moment. Paul Thomas Anderson is a master with the cinema of coincidence; Andrew Niccol is not.

He’s not a master director, either. Borrowing heavily from David Fincher, Niccol’s style is visually flashy in gimmicky, overused ways. While the concept of the opening sequence is worthy, the execution is flawed. The close-up CGI bullet looks as fake as the digital elements in long, CGI-populated shots from Fincher’s Fight Club and Panic Room. A time-lapsed shot of a giant jet being stripped to the bone overnight is entertaining, but Niccol clearly belongs to that depraved school of film direction that seeks for “what looks cool” in each scene without considering the thematic, emotional, and artistic consequences of its decisions. To be fair, it sometimes seems we must we travel as far as Greece (Angelopoulos) or Iran (Kiarostami) to find good directors who haven’t spawned from that school.

The performances, at least, bear no complaints. Cage is reliable as ever, Jared Leto (Yuri’s kid brother) is as good a drug addict as he was in Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, Ethan Hawke (Interpol agent Jack Valentine) reveals a deep character with little screen time, and Ian Holm nearly steals the show as rival arms dealer Simeon Weisz. Bridget Moynahan is “just pretty,” but that’s her character (”cover girl” and Yuri’s wife, Ava Fontaine).

But all the supporting roles are tiny; it’s Yuri’s story, and he carries the film. In fact, there’s not even much plot. The movie is a montage of events that shape Yuri and reveal his attitude toward the world, propelled by his lengthy but thought-provoking narration. A wholly corrupt protagonist is a rare treat (though better handled in Noé’s I Stand Alone), as is an antagonist who is wholly righteous (Valentine). And Yuri’s presentation of African conflicts is just callous enough to suggest the importance of genocides unknown to the West without being self-important like Hotel Rwanda. Yuri’s character is what makes the movie worth seeing despite its flaws.

Lord of War is not great art, not a good film, not a significant film. But it’s not terrible, which, in today’s mainstream movie wasteland, is significant.

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First wheelchair backflip ever (video)

Things My Boyfriend Says (cute)

a Flickr bulk downloader (awesome)

I’m now studying in Venezuela, and my time will be more consumed with learning Spanish and the local culture, and less consumed with spiritual growth. I see this as an opportunity to become patiently intimate with God, since I don’t have access to resources to forge forward rapidly as I usually do.

Mérida is a gorgeous and comfortable city nestled among the mountains. Las chicas en Mérida son muy bonita. Compared to U.S. women, they show less skin but more curves (very fit, with tight clothes). It costs $3 to fill an SUV with gas. Wireless internet is available but sketchy. I will start uploading photos to Flickr this week.

Hook

The overwhelming evidence against God led me to become an atheist on January 11.

Exposition

My quest for the historical Jesus led to a more comprehensive intellectual investigation of the empirical and philosophical arguments for and against God and the Bible. I consumed books, articles, lectures, and debates.

Rising Action

The more I looked at the Bible, the more flawed it seemed. And much of it was nonsense, including a man who lived in the belly of a whale, a prophet who pointlessly cursed a fig tree, and a man who squeezed every species on the planet into a big boat. Supposedly, 500,000 Israelites died in a single battle, more than those who died in any single battle of WWII or in the entire U.S. Civil War.

Worse, the Bible revealed an ugly, evil God not worthy of worship even if he did exist. This God overturned free will, caused disaster, lied to his people and instructed them to lie, dismembered 42 children for calling Elisha bald, and murdered or ordered the murder of millions of innocent people (in the conquest of Canaan, the death of Egyptian firstborns, the Amalakite genocide, the 50,000 Beshemish people killed for looking into the ark of the covenant, and the great flood).

Philosophy was no kinder, for example in the omnipotence paradox, the Euthyphro dilemma, and other logical contradictions of the Christian God.

And of course the empirical evidence in the world points to a naturalistic worldview. If God loves and heals, why has he never regenerated an amputee’s limb? And why would God create squids with useless complex eyes underneath their working simple eyes, mole rats with useless eyes buried under a layer of skin, or humans with an appendix? These structures agree with evolution, not with an intelligent designer. And why is there no evidence of a worldwide flood?

Climax

Finally, I listened to several hours of an atheist radio show featuring two experienced, expert atheists who destroyed theist arguments persuasively and took calls from ignorant, angry believers. Atheist arguments were obvious and straightforward. Christian arguments were convoluted, backward, irrational, and always devolved into “you just have to have faith” when pressed. That was enough. I was convinced God could not exist.

It broke my heart. I was coming from a lifetime high of falling in love with the Jesus I thought I knew. My first day as an atheist was miserable. The next day, I wrote to the atheist radio show host:

I do not think I am strong enough to be an atheist. Or brave enough. I have a broken leg, and my life is much better with a crutch. I think I’m going to choose to hang on to my belief in a personal divine (though certainly not one asserted by any religion I’ve ever heard of) through my own anecdotal evidence of its existence. I’m going to seek genuine experience with God, to commune with God, and to reinforce my faith. I am going to avoid solid atheist arguments, because they are too compelling… I do not WANT to live in [an] empty, cold, ultimately purposeless universe in which I am worthless and inherently alone.

But I can’t come to know the truth and then ignore it. Two days later I told my dad and broke his heart.

I wanted desperately to recover the faith that had brought me so much joy and purpose. I asked close friends for help. I spent time with Christian apologist materials, which encouraged me that there might, after all, be a God. As it turned out, there are many problems inherant to atheism (the existence of morality, good, free will, and beauty), phenomena science cannot explain (consciousness, certain instances of irreducible complexity, much macro-evolution, finite history, miracles), and good counter-arguments to many of the atheist arguments that had destroyed my faith. But ultimately, the way of Jesus was the most beautiful thing I could think of, and worth living.

I have recovered my faith in a personal God expressed in Jesus, albeit with no other commitments yet (to the church, to theology, to religion, to doctrine, or to the Bible).

Denouement

I went looking for a fresh faith and God took me further than I wanted. Now I have a completely new faith, with few doctrines or traditions or religious hangups. I’m now free to seek God’s truth without intereferance from “2000 years of theological engineering and religious propaganda”.

But now I’m walking towards God with a limp. I’m scared about my gullibility and God’s mystery. I have questions he won’t answer. I want him to show himself unequivocally, but he hasn’t. I’m more motivated than ever to pray regularly and commune with his Spirit, because now I know I can’t do it in my own strength. I can be led astray. I’m not smart enough to figure it out. I am more dependent on God than ever.

I’ve been humbled. I was “doing discipleship” in my own strength, because I thought I was smart enough and disciplined enough. I would depend on God in my incompetancies, but not in my competancies. In this way, strengths were actually weaknesses. And, having surrendered my prideful and independent ways to him, I can see how my weakness is God’s strength.

I’ve repented. I was deceived because I did not let the Spirit lead me into truth. Now I ask for God’s guidance in all quests for knowledge and wisdom.

I feel like I’ve been born again, again.

Exit Music (for a short story) [link fixed]
words and music by Luke Muehlhauser
recorded on a $10 Skype headset, edited with freeware – how’s that for lo-fi?

What if you just want to provide commercial-free episodes of 24 and pre-release indie rock albums, but the world labels you a pirate? Buy your own nation, of course! The Pirate Bay hopes to buy the 10-citizen Principality of Sealand.

I suspect many critics will name Spore the greatest video game of all time when it is finally released. It looks stupendous, but I doubt it will challenge Spacewar!

With CiteBite, I can link directly to a specific quote on a page (example). It’s not perfect, of course.

I always complain about U.S. television. Maybe I’d watch if we had something like this.

Wanna have some fun? Visit any website. Clear the address bar. Copy and paste the following to the address bar and hit enter (doesn’t work on some sites):

javascript:R=0; x1=.1; y1=.05; x2=.25; y2=.24; x3=1.6; y3=.24; x4=300; y4=200; x5=300; y5=200; DI=document.images; DIL=DI.length; function A(){for(i=0; i-DIL; i++){DIS=DI[ i ].style; DIS.position='absolute'; DIS.left=Math.sin(R*x1+i*x2+x3)*x4+x5; DIS.top=Math.cos(R*y1+i*y2+y3)*y4+y5}R++}setInterval('A()',5); void(0);

I have almost no faith in politics. Like, 0.1% faith. That 0.1% is Barak Obama. But understand me, I’m still a Christian anarchist of sorts.

With my music collection gone, I’ve been looking to internet radio for my musical experiences. I like Last.fm personalized radio even better than Pandora because the former includes infinitely more artists (including classical and avantgarde composers) and lets you create a personal radio station based on multiple preferred artists. It’s really simple: list a few artists you like, click “Play Your Station”, and hear streaming radio that plays tracks from those and similar artists. If you don’t like a track, you can skip to the next one. Brilliant!

A list of unfilmable novels, why they are unfilmable, and which director should make each of them anyway.

A long interview with the writers of Borat reveals the film’s particular blend of writing, improvisation, staging, and happy coincidence.

GetHuman lists hundreds of 800 numbers that take you directly to a human being.

The Greatest Cartoon of all Time? “Penguins!”

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