Sunday, March 21, 2010

Life in the Twilight Zone

“Small message of reassurance.... Don't despair. Help is on route.” These words from Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone were exactly those I needed to hear several weeks ago. On the weekend I had planned a day off from caregiving for my aging parents—the first in many months. On the Saturday I was en route to meet a friend for a long overdue get-together. The minute my SUV made the jarring sounds of “RRR-clunk” outside the community hospital where I'd just had my blood drawn. When I suddenly saw all my carefully laid plans come to an abrupt halt. I felt as if I had just entered into ... The Twilight Zone.


“Cavender is Coming” on Vol 40
Episode 101 – May 25, 1962

Agnes Grep (Carol Burnett) lived on the edge of The Twilight Zone. Yet, it didn't seem to phase her. She rented a tiny, messy apartment, kept a half-finished art project on her coffee table, and went bowling on Thursdays. She chatted with her neighbors about “babysitting and potato pancakes” while hugging sticky-fingered kids in want of candy and cookies. And she'd just lost her job—again. She simply wasn't good with details—in theater concessions or anywhere else. Still, klutzy Agnes Grep kept a genuine smile on her face, for her landlord, the plumber, her boss; and she didn't go looking for an angel. The angel found her.

This winged messenger in a patterned tie tried everything to “improve her lot.” First, he performed a few miracles to prove his abilities. It didn't seem to impress her; maybe she'd seen it before. On the other hand, it sure did disturb the bus driver. Next, the heavenly being tried a few more upgrades. Still, down-to-earth Agnes knew large bank accounts, endless parties full of strangers, and high-end clothes weren't all they were said to be. “What'd you expect?” Her answer: “Friends, maybe.” In the end, isn't that what we all need? To know someone else feels the same, or thinks similarly, or has been through difficulties as we have?

I wish I was more like Agnes. Oh, yes, I'm learning to be content with my life, and I'm finding pleasure in simple things—like twist ice cream cones, reading a book with a friend, or movie extravaganzas at the local theater. Yet, Agnes accepted herself on her bad days, too—when she was discombobulated, her plans were disrupted, or yet another boss was displeased. She not only watched for the intervention of angels—though not expecting it—she offered them a gift of her own. In so doing, the mortal Agnes taught them: “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!” (Hebrews 13:2)

Me? I didn't ignore frustrations like Agnes Grep. When my SUV refused to start, I fretted. When the cell phone died—which my dad had assured me was freshly charged—I whined. When the sliding, glass doors of the community hospital wouldn't reopen, I was flustered. I didn't heed the immortal's familiar words: “Don't panic.” Yet, when I turned from the hospital doors, an angel found me, too. Her name? Gladys Amen. Fitting, I think. Her persistence in aiding a stranger (phone book in hand) and her willingness to be inconvenienced were angelic—saving me from self-pity and a towing-bill to the local garage!

Fortune Cookies

“Nick of Time” on Vol 9
Episode 43 – November 18, 1960

After switching vehicles, I journeyed onward. Unfortunately, when I couldn't locate the oft-visited Asian restaurant where my friend and I had determined to meet, I wondered if I was once again in “one of the darker corners of The Twilight Zone.” And I was reminded of another duo. These newlyweds were just passing through Ridgeville, Ohio—or so they thought—when their car broke down. The local mechanic was friendly enough, but assured them it would take around four hours to complete repairs. What to do except explore the little town? And visit the Busy Bee Cafe for a stale sandwich, a cold coffee, ... and a penny fortune-telling machine. After all, what's the harm in a bit of speculation?

Like the superstitious Don (William Shatner), I often ponder the path of life. “Who will get that promotion?” “When will I write the script for that documentary I've been conjuring?” “What would have happened if I'd have said 'yes'?” And as Don's wife (Patricia Breslin) did, I value inquisitiveness—and optimism. Cheer, positiveness, even kindness is easy when things are going well, or when problems are only temporary. Yet too often, when life becomes monotonous, I grow stressed. Or when circumstances remain arduous, I'm far from confident. And I don't mean that I'm necessarily negative or hopeless; I'm just not expectant. I'm not soothed or enthusiastic, I'm merely ... resolved.

When life is hard (or even when we're afraid it's too easy), we all tend to flee back to the comfort of our pat answers—where habit takes us again and again. We run away to where “every answer seems to fit.” Though we may not kiss a rabbit's foot or rub a silver shamrock, we each feed our pennies somewhere. Often, it's to our subconscious fears and insecurities. To where we call random answers, facts. This is, to co-opt a fitting phrase, the devil's playground. For, as Scripture reminds us, “The thief [Satan] comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I [Christ Jesus] have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)

How do we get this full life? And how does Satan steal it from us? Here are some words I find meaningful: freedom, joy and hope. As opposed to fear, guilt and self-consciousness. I think it hinges on Whom we go to with our questions, confusion and uncertainties. Throughout Scripture, the Lord uses prophets. Obviously, He's not against telling His people parts of the future. Yet, God is very clear that He wants people to come to Him for answers, clarity and comfort—even when His responses aren't explicit. Often, “Trust in My goodness” must be enough. For now. Still, we can trust the Lord to shape our life according to His promises, because He's good. He's life-giving. And He's enough.

Christies Previews Auction Of Rock And Pop Memorabilia

“A Passage for Trumpet” on Vol 4
Episode 32 – May 20, 1960

Befuddled, I turned from my jumbled thoughts—and where Little Bamboo used to be—only to run directly into my friend. While ushering me across the street into another favorite eating establishment, my cohort explained that the Asian restaurant had moved about five minutes away. “Do you want to go there?” No, for some reason I just wanted to get off the street—away from the clamor and busyness of bargain-hunters looking for “a steal” and police officers looking for a crime; men with cigarettes in need of illumination and women with compacts in need of secrets to conceal. Away from people to whom I seemed invisible. I was feeling rebuffed by the world, like my alter ego Joey Crown.

Joey (Jack Klugman) was used to hanging around backstage. A trumpet player with “a magic horn,” he was also a bedraggled alcoholic. Why, Joey? “Because I'm sad; because I'm nothin'.... I won't even have a girl.” Joey had cut off hope—he quit expecting good from himself and life. And when he pawned his silver trumpet for $8.50 and a sour swig, he just as well have been dead. Then, he stepped off the curb and in front of a truck ... into The Twilight Zone. It's there, one person—a fellow trumpet player—hears Joey. There, one person knows his name and enjoys his music. “That's a nice talent you got; don't waste it.” For the first time in what seemed an eternity, someone pauses to look and listen ... and Joey is known.

I think artists often feel as though we are unseen, misunderstood. And Evangelical artists, moreso. Unlike our Catholic and Orthodox brethren, many Protestant traditions have long ago done away with spiritual embellishments like emotion and sacrament, deeming them unnecessary—and favoring both stark reason and naked symbolism. Art undone by rhetoric; senses dulled by wit. In so doing, the rich historical tapestry made by all followers of the Triune God is being worn threadbare, and Christ-followers' cultural nuances are unraveling. This harsh kind of Evangelicalism has betrayed all believers; we are neglected, forgotten, and cold. Yet, maybe, it is artists who have lost the most.

The artist's calling—despite the media in which we each work—is to remember. Or rather, to remind. “ʽYou have eyes—can’t you see? You have ears—can’t you hear?ʼ Don’t you remember anything at all?” (Mark 8:18) We have lamented the Church's pulling away from art and mystery; we've expressed anger at Her departure from story, culture and life. And we've revived awareness where we do it best—on canvases and in manuscripts, through scores and choreography. Yet, many artists, like me, have wandered through basements and coffee houses ... and away from a local church's vestibule and pews. Thus, we've lost our best community; we've forgotten that for our art to be a reminder, we must have an audience. Art is enriching and experiential; art is wonder-inducing. Art is meant to be shared.

Not Released Fishing

“A Stop at Willoughby” on Vol 34
Episode 30 – May 6, 1960

Settled into the cushions of the restaurant's corner booth, I took a moment to study my friend. Long brown hair, kind twinkling eyes—she's beautiful in a way that causes strangers to pause. Still, her greatest allure is in being ... a reminder. We all need someone who enhances our strengths. Another to know us well and recall our history. A person who alludes to our weaknesses without embarrassment, and our failures without shame. Most of all, we need someone who reminds us of God's work in our life. And in theirs. That's part of the reason I cherish time with my friends—and why I defend it so intently. Still, when she presented me with an ethereal Holy Bible: Mosaic, I was stunned.

She mentioned how this Bible had full-color artwork, both contemporary and classical; writings from a variety of Christian authors; and space for my responses to God. An orange cardboard slipcover described it's pages as containing “A living mosaic of believers, spanning the centuries and crossing the globe.” At that moment, beaming, I felt like a ray of sun was breaking through a stained-glass window; I was known. As we ate our hot, heaping plates of Mexican food—and my friend mumbled something about a train—I fell again into The Twilight Zone. I wondered if advertising exec Gart Williams (James Daly) was once pleasantly surprised by a gift from his wife or associates. If he was ever really known.

Gart's boss, Mr. Misrell, didn't seem to understand him—and didn't care to. Instead, his employer was determined to excel in a “push, push, push business.... Push, push, push all the way—all the time.” When Gart is betrayed by a younger coworker who steals his account, Misrell suspects Gart is being dishonest. This leader's lexicon didn't include words like compassion, sensitivity or rest. And Misrell was training his employees to be just like him. When Gart retreats home to his wife, Jaine, she asks only if he's wrecked his career. Her vocabulary is comprised of such words as competition, pretentiousness and appetite. Gart stammers bits of an explanation: “I'm tired. And sick.”

Each of us grow weary at times, and we all glimpse our brokenness; all of us long, at some point, to “slow down to a walk, live [our] life full measure.” For Gart, this means dreaming of a Huck Finn summer afternoon where bare-footed kids hoist fishing poles, and bicycles stand by vine-covered bandstands. For others, it translates into visions of desert sand where serene pools of water and stacks of flat skimming-stones reflect the changing light. For me and other Christ-followers, this yearning is a harbinger of Heaven. And I don't know that it couldn't look like either of the above—and endless variations—depending on the sublime aspect we're then enjoying.

Returning to my parents' home, otherworldly thoughts still flitted around my mind. After a refreshing few hours with my believing friend, I pondered why much of the day had been so difficult—why I had felt so fragmented. I questioned whether malevolent forces had been trying to kill my spirit, to keep me from joining my companion—and why that separation would be significant. One answer? My friends are a wonderful part of my society; they are my confidants, allies and “kindred spirits.” My friends draw me to God—those who follow Christ Jesus, intentionally so. Believing friends pull me into the Body of Christ and signify my role in it; they allow me a fuller vision of Heaven, where Scripture says those who follow Christ Jesus will live together for eternity.

As an orange slipcover asserts: “On our own we are little more than bits of stone and glass.... Together we are the Body of Christ.” It takes community to recall life—to engage us, encourage us, and resurrect our potential. The Church is our best community—those to be reminded of the Lord who can remind us in return. The Body of Christ is more than a symbol; it is meant to draw us in, provide a place for healing and rest, and urge us on to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24-25). The Kingdom of God is both coming and here (Luke 17:20-21). We don't have to jump from a train or step in front of a truck to discover it; we needn't find a fortune-telling machine or quibble with an angel. We simply need to be aware—to see, hear and be reminded—of the transcendent all around and within us.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Two favorites of 2009: "Away We Go" and "Where the Wild Things Are"

Think for a moment of your favorite movies about love. Pick four or five that jump to mind the most easily. Now, how many of them are about the beginnings of a relationship, the process of falling in love? Chances are, most if not all of them — right? That's what love stories are so often about, the initial moments of connection and the working out of how two people might fit together. So rarely does a love story start with the couple already together, already fitting well, and explore the growth of love upon that solid foundation. That's exactly what we have on our hands with "Away We Go."

Verona and Burt (Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski) are an established couple in their early thirties, living a more or less oddball life, working in unconventional freelance jobs and enjoying one another's company more than a pursuit of stability and nice things. They've developed a repartee I haven't seen often on screen, something that feels less like comedy playing to the audience and more like comedy playing to one another — it's a glimpse at their inside jokes, and feels more like real life and real relationship. The movie begins with the discovery that the couple is pregnant, and follows their transition from two into three, most specifically asking the questions: How do we be a family? How do we make a home?

The degree to which Verona and Burt's relationship feels real and unforced is matched by the degree to which all of their family, friends, and acquaintances are outlandish caricatures. As they seek a home and a permanent place in the world, bouncing from city to city and family to family testing the waters, we see them exposed to every stereotype out there — this disinterested parents, the earth-mother parents, the bitter and spiteful parents, the adoptive p
arents, the split parents. At first this bothered me. When you get big stars to come in a do a cameo of a broad stereotype, you end up with something intensely funny but not exactly ... real. It seemed to me like it was spoiling the movie I wanted. But by the end, I felt like it could be no other way. What we are seeing are Verona and Burt's perception of other people's parenting styles and life choices. Anything that doesn't feel right to them, that doesn't seem like the life they want, has a tinge of repulsiveness to it. This feels completely right to me, completely real. For me at least, once I've made a decision as to where I want to live, what I want to read and watch, where or how I want to worship, how I want to be a husband and father, every other choice out there just feels weird somehow. (Until, of course, I change my mind.) I don't hold different choices against people, and neither do Verona and Burt, but the process of finding yourself is a lot of trial and error, a lot of pushing away and stripping away alternate options by process of one's gut reactions. Their journey is one of these gut reactions.

What's great and unusual about this movie
is about how much Verona and Burt are on each other's side. So often a love story is about two romantic leads playing opposite one another, with the relationship between each other at stake. This is movie about two romantic leads united in opposition to a world that threatens to make them conform to something they don't want. I can't stress enough how refreshing and beautiful this is to see. I often thought that if I were ever to become a marriage counselor, my piece of advice to everyone would be this: Find something that you both agree on and believe in and then fight for it together. Be on each other's side. Believe that the roots of your life's troubles go deeper than the failures of your spouse and fight the bigger enemy, not one another. (But since that's literally the only piece of advice I have on marriage, it would be a pretty short session.) This is a movie about two people in each other's corner, and what's more — even many of the outrageous caricatures are couples who are completely on each other's side. As off-putting as they may be to Verona and Burt, they make sense to each other. We should each have an anchor, a confidante, a compatriot like that.

I discovered during the end credits that "Away We Go" was written by Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida, which surprised me considering that my other favorite movie of 2009 (so far ... I'm about halfway through the list of films I want to watch) was the Eggers-co-penned "Where the Wild Things Are." I'd heard Eggers' named mentioned with reverence before this, but had never read any of his work, so I didn't realize that we apparently think on the same wavelength. "Where the Wild Things Are" is an transposition of the Maurice Sendak children's book, which is slight and simple, into a fully fleshed out and yet faithful movie. It shares with "Away We Go" the same honesty and reality about life and relationships, in this case giving us a look at childhood that feels like nothing I've ever
seen on screen before.

The premise isn't exactly new: stories from "Alice in Wonderland" to "The Wizard of Oz" to "Spirited Away" have a child transition from a life of mundane events into a fantastical world filled with strange creatures and no parents around to guide the child with advice. And yet what's unusual here is that "Where the Wild Things Are" isn't a coming of age tale. Max does not exit through the other side, having made his first adult decisions, as more of a man. Rather, it's a coming-to-grips-with-his-age tale. Max doesn't really grow as much as he does try to grow and find himself facing his failures. He learns humility. He learns of his own limitations.

Every kid (actually, every adult probably, too) thinks that if only he or she were put in charge of the world, everything would be done better. It's only the pesky parents (or pesky authorities, or politicians, or church leadership, or familial expectations, or the rich, or the masses) that stand in the way of making things the way they ought to be. When Max comes into the mystical land of the Wild Things, he declares himself to be the king and the creatures agree to live by his rule. But Max, like all of us, is flawed. Max, like all of us (but especially as a child who is still struggling with his raw emotion), doesn't know how to make everything all right. He learns that being in charge is not the life of satisfaction and peace. From this, Max is able to place himself in his mother's shoes for the first time, the mother who he expects to make everything all right but who is simply doing the best she can. I suppose he sees her as a person for the first time, and she, to her credit, views him as more than an unruly burden, but also as a full person in his own right. We see a mutual love born of mutual humility.

This movie capture so viscerally and tangibly the sense of powerlessness that it is to be a child. This isn't a children's movie in an escapist sense, where the kids are smart and cool and talented and in control, the kind of kids we wish we could all be in our dreams, going on adventure after adventure. It is rather a children's movie in the sense of a great, resonant song of longing, one that puts into words everything that you actually feel and experience — the kind of song that makes you feel that you are not alone in the world. I don't personally know any children at the age of the film's protagonist to know if this is something that that can be appreciated
as a child, but it certainly takes me back. It puts me in a frame of mind of what my much younger son surely experiences, having to be dragged from store to home to school to church at our convenience rather than his. Is there a way to honor and acknowledge that frustration in him rather than simply thinking of it as my right as the parent to make the schedule? How can I learn to see his outbursts not as an attack on or commentary about me but as his experiencing these raw emotions about his own lack of being in charge? I suppose "Where the Wild Things Are" is as much a parents' film as it is a children's film. It very well might have invented its own genre.

How daring of Eggers to present both of these visions of parents, children, families, and spouses in ways that defy the shorthand stereotypes of what the movies usually present. He didn't exactly get much in the way of reward, whether through the box office or through industry awards, to acknowledge his work. I certainly hope that doesn't deter him or temper him in the future from bringing forth such unique, rich, and satisfying screenplays, and hope that visionary directors like Sam Mendes and Spike Jonze will continue to fight to make his films untampered by studio execs. I find myself shrugging my shoulders in response to so many of the films I see these days, almost numb to their effects; Eggers' first two movies are exactly the sort of antidote I crave.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Caregiving—On the Edge of Myself

On the brink of forty, I've had a career spanning over twenty years. Whatever the job title—Retail Clerk, Waitress, Filing Clerk, Executive Assistant, Director's Assistant—I've found I excel at being a team player and doing things well for others. Be it hosting a catered lunch, creating a marketing spreadsheet or HR presentation, or rearranging a travel itinerary, I enjoy using my skills to meet others' needs, to simplify their lives, or to make them look their best.

These same skills come in handy in the home, too. Now, as a caregiver for my aging parents, I make out the weekly grocery list, confirm doctors' appointments, and—along with other, daily concerns—make sure the laundry and dishes are done. Like many stay-at-home moms and single dads, I'm chauffeur, “go-fer” and chef, as well as pharmacist, nurse and housekeeper. It's a long list, proving that caregivers are very good at doing things well for others; still, it's made me question something.

Are those who make a life caring for others equally adept at doing good things for themselves? On the face of it, this may sound selfish. But, when I barely have the energy to do the basics for my parents, how can I meet my own needs—spiritual, physical, emotional? And if my own needs go unmet, how long will it be before I can no longer help others? There have been days when I've skipped a shower to get more sleep. Or, when the seventh load of dirty laundry or dishes has me staring at the soap suds. Or, when my dad's repeated query (duly answered, yet again) has me biting my tongue.

Sadly, this is often true even when I've spent time contemplating God's word or after several moments in prayer. Despite my best intentions, I find myself on the edge of my nerves and the brink of my spiritual reserves. I struggle to simplify my life, making room for what's truly important—loving others and myself. In this light, two passages of Scripture come to mind: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23). And, “Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good” (Romans 12:9). These excerpts, and two movies.


Hancock (2008)
“There are heroes. There are superheroes. And then there's ... Hancock.”

I recorded this film because, after being “on call” 24/7, I wanted to be entertained. Nothing more, nothing less. After the first fifteen minutes, I wanted to delete it. After all, John Hancock (Will Smith) has neglected to guard his heart. He's a miserable moral example; a lonely, crude drunk who lacks social skills; a walking, and flying, PR nightmare who personifies collateral damage. But, he's also a fallible being in need of a friend. Whether or not consultant Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) can enhance this superhero's image, can Ray be his friend? This is the question that kept me from turning off the DVR.

And, in the last fifteen minutes of this film, I found that director Peter Berg had created much more than an irreverent action flick. (I even watched those final fifteen minutes again.) Ray takes on Hancock as a PR project—albeit an altruistic one; after all, those with super-powers are meant to “save the world.” But, as Ray opens his life to this poor excuse for a superhero, he discovers secrets and truths that threaten to unravel him. Still, despite his confusion, Ray doesn't let go—either of his belief that life is good, or his own sense of right and wrong. Ray, glimpsing behind Hancock's bravado, is unfailingly loyal.

In a strange way, his wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), exhibits this same loyalty. And yet, to be true to herself and to her husband, she has to do the opposite of Ray; she must let go. For Mary has hidden things about herself; as Ray exhorts, “That's something you might want to bring up on the first date, Mary. I don't like to travel, I'm allergic to cats....” One could say, Mary has guarded her heart to the neglect of the truth. It's not easy to admit that someone I care about is bad for me (or vice versa)—attracting me to my own destruction. Further, how often do I willingly recognize when someone I love repels what I would choose?

Last Chance Harvey (2008)
“It's about first loves, last chances and everything in between.”

I put this film in my Netflix queue to see two actors in top form—and this not in spite of their age and experience, but because of it. I couldn't get enough, watching it multiple times. I'm always a sucker for story, and these artists from different sides of the Atlantic consistently bring deep honesty and genuineness to their characters. For Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), as for me, her friends are her lifejacket and her sounding-board; they advise her and know her well. Further, like me, the desires of Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) to both be creative and make a living are in constant tension.

Director Joel Hopkins makes it clear that American jingle-writer Harvey is no stranger to feeling bad about his disharmonious life. Harvey confesses to Kate that his daughter, Susan (Liane Balaban)—whose wedding he is in London to attend—is embarrassed by him. And he admits to his ex-wife (Kathy Baker) that she can make him feel poorly about himself quicker than anyone else. But, will Harvey allow Kate into his off-key world of job loss, step-families, and social awkwardness—at least, for more than one day? Will he let Kate ask questions and challenge him to make good choices?

And, for her part, will Heathrow Airport survey-worker Kate let Harvey listen to her ponderings and invest his time in her? After all, one day is simple—even exhilarating: the view from Waterloo Bridge, a piano serenade, a wedding dance at Somerset House, a conversation to the rising sun; a long-term romance is more complicated. Will she let Harvey see all of who she is—harried daughter and caregiver, stiff-upper-lip Londoner, committed Paddington writer's group member—and bring out her best? As Kate relates: “I think I'm more comfortable with being disappointed.” Still, can't old regrets pave the way to new beginnings?

As I strive to simplify, one step at a time, I'll hold onto good things: sugar-free chai, writing more, stressing less, breathing deeply. Of course, chocolate biscotti. I'll cling to time away from caregiving—to catch HGTV on the DVR that was my mom's Christmas gift, or to visit my friend at Frankie's Coffee House. I'll learn to guard my heart by surrounding myself with people who're creative, expressive and kind. And letting go of those who cause me to feel bad about life or my part in it. I want to be someone who invests in relationships—with God, friends, parents and family, peers.

Simply ... I'll trust (more and more) that with God as my Source, I can bring out the best in others—and in myself. And that movies will continue to show me how.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The decade in television

While I was writing my decade-end movie list, three thoughts occurred to me: First, I was seriously considering adding the Emma Thompson film "Wit" to the list, but then I remembered it was actually an HBO special, not a theatrical release, and I waffled. Second, I made a comment in the article about the lack of outright comedies in my top faves, and that most of my laughter came from television over the past ten years. Third: I never really write about television out of force of habit, because back when I started writing about art, once a television program had aired, your chances of seeing an exact episode again were slim. This past decade has seen an explosion of TV shows available on DVD, so most of the stuff below I value from this decade is easily accessible. So, without further ado, 17 projects from TV and/or short-length entertainment I loved (and 4 runners-up):

Best HBO specials:
"Wit" — An adaptation of an off-Broadway play, this film follows the conversations and inner monologues of a professor of literature as battles ovarian cancer in a hospital ward. The typical sympathies aroused by this scenario are turned on their head, as the suffering patient refuses pity or kindness, but approaches death with the same level of rigor and scrutiny as she does her favorite texts. She prepares for a fight, not just with death, but with hospital staff and caregivers who well-meaningly want her to quake and blubber at death, by sharpening her skills of wit. Even as we come to see the cantankerous woman eventually as a full person who does have an emotional side, she has asked us to face the questions of death ourselves, and has shown us that fear in the face of death is hardly the only appropriate response.

"Naked States" — Artist Spencer Tunick was a nobody when this documentary was being filmed, but he had a germ of an idea for what he wanted to create with his art. His interest in photographing the human shape was hardly novel, but he added a new element of daring to it: nude photography outdoors. He decided to take nudity out of the art museum, where it was perfectly acceptable, and combine it with nudity in public, which was decidedly not acceptable, and let the sparks fly. Today he is best known for assembling thousands of people in cities across the world for nude photo shoots, where the colors and shapes of bodies filling streets and parks and waterways make for extraordinary landscapes. In this film, he mostly starts small, photographing one or two or twelve people at a time, running from cops, trying to convince people on the street one at a time to take their clothes off. What's most amazing about the film is not Tunick's story necessarily, but the comments of the models who agree to pose. It is such an act of liberation, restoration, and healing to a great number of them, especially to several women who had been through painful or humiliating experiences and become ready to accept their bodies and their selves again as valuable, worthy, beautiful beings. It ends up a portaiture of courage.

Best BBC series:
"Coupling" — I've written before about my love for this sitcom, which is so much more than just a sitcom. It's a clever foray into the use of narrative structure to sell a point. The series employs a set of gimmicks to great effect: split-screen stories, stories told backward, re-translated conversations, flashbacks and dream sequences, which seem random and confusing until it all ties together at the end in a perfect bow. The series also employs one of my favorite comedy bits: the run-on-talking-because-you're-nervous monologue, leading to a great number of unbelievably over-the-top lies or confessions, including the keeping of ears in a bucket. On top of all that it's a sweet love story of two people (and then another two people) finding out they belong together. I never get tired of re-watching it.

"The Office" — This is a comedy of embarrassments, both embarrassments on behalf of those who have no shame reflex, on behalf of those who are picked on, and on behalf of those who take a risk and get shot down. It should be extraordinarily uncomfortable to watch, and the laughs should be nothing more than mere schadenfreude, and yet the show has a big heart, big enough to bless all the characters with small moments of breaking through and moving on.

Best explore-the-world documentary shows:
"Mythbusters" — I never tire of watching Adam, Jamie, Kari, Tory, and Grant ask questions about how the world works, challenge everyday assumptions, and discover surprising results. Even more than the fun of watching stuff blow up is the training of the mind toward curiosity.

"30 Days" — Morgan Spurlock's follow-up to his documentary "Super-Size Me" is this show, which has Spurlock or a suitable substitute taking a walk in someone else's shoes for a full month. Spurlock goes to jail for a month, lives on minimum wage for a month, lives on a Native American reservation for a month and more in his quest to understand the lives of people so dissimilar to him. Other shows find a devout Christian living among Muslims for a month, a couple lives in an electricity-free commune for a month, a pro-choice advocate lives with pro-life activits, and an outsourced American worker goes to India to work his old job. The guinea pig nearly always comes through the experience with a better understanding of other people, and with more compassion, even if their personal opinions and beliefs remain the same. The show points to how insular we have a society has become in only talking and relating to people who make us comfortable in their similarity, and how much we miss out on.

Best short films (that I've seen, which is admittedly not many, but of the 30 or 40 these are ones I could watch forever in a loop):
"Rent-a-Person" — The conceit of this film is a young entrepreneur who starts a business renting out homeless people to drivers who want to travel in the HOV lanes. It's also a musical. And a love story about two bathroom attendants who finally meet and fall in love. And it's about picture-frame models. All in just 12 minutes — twelve funny, sweet, twisted, lyrical, and perfect minutes.

"Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death" — This one I actually have watched forever on a loop: I rented it from the library and Corin loves it to death, literally playing it 20 times in a week. And I find I'm still not bored of it. The Wallace and Gromit shorts of the '90s were some of my favorite comedy, and while I was a little disappointed with the feature film "Curse of the Were-Rabbit," in that it went on too long, and the mini-shorts "Cracking Contraptions," which went on too short, finally the two inventors are back at their proper 30-minute length after ten years. The structure, plotting, animation, jokes, whimsy, pauses, absurdity, liveliness and tenderness have never been better.

Best American sitcoms:
"My Name is Earl" — In the history of art, stories of forgiveness and reconciliation have been in short supply. It is much easier to write grittily or cynically or observationally than to write aspirationally — in particular because noble aspirations are always so sweet and treacly. "My Name is Earl" is not a sweet show by any means, amping up the bad-boy outrageousness to balance out the central tenet of the show: a ne'er-do-well visiting the people he harmed in his life to ask for their forgiveness and try to make up for the wrongs he did. It's simply stunning to me that this show made it on TV at all, let alone for four years. I wrote in more detail about my favorite episode, which centers on the theme of grace, here.

"30 Rock" — When I saw the first episode of this show, I had an impression of Tina Fey as being smart, strong, sexy, and devastatingly funny, and to see her play Liz Lemon, the exact opposite of that (mild, mothering, awkward, and unintentionally funny) initially turned me off the show. Then I began to see clips, and commercials, and a few episodes here and there, and began to get the show: absurdism at its finest. The humor builds layer upon layer, starting out merely absurd, then becomes self-referentially absurd, and then is popped by a cold dose of sensibility. This isn't setup-setup-gag of old-school comedy, it's gag-gag-did-you-see-that-gag modus operandi of the 2000s.

Runners up (only by a hair, and probably mostly because they're on everyone else's best lists): "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Arrested Development"

Best American dramas:
"House" — This show has gone through so many different phases: a procedural drama about disease and medicine, a character study about the poor social life of a genius, a reality-show-style competition between doctors to land a dream job, a buddy comedy about best friends razzing each other with pranks, stories of love and broken love, meditations of faith and lack thereof — what could have been a repetitive formula (and occasionally, I'll admit, it has dragged for a few episodes until they've switched gears) has found new life over and over again, in large part thanks to Hugh Laurie's impeccable comic timing, with covers a multitude of errors. This current season, the sixth, started with a feature-length episode titled "Broken" that just might have made my top list of the decade for movies had it been theatrical, it was that good.

"Joan of Arcadia" — This one kind of surprised me by ending up on my list, but the story of a teenage girl who hears instructions from God through a series of seeming strangers was always so full of hope and enthusiasm that it has remained strong in my mind. It's kind of "Quantum Leap"-ish (another favorite) in its approach, in that Joan will have to try to help somebody out in each episode, only she doesn't know who or how; she can only follow seemingly odd instructions from God that puts her in the right time or place or frame of mind in order to help when it's needed. It also reminds me a lot of that "wax on, wax off" stuff from "The Karate Kid," in which mundane and repetitive motions are used to train for a larger purpose. The show was just so full of the message that there is a purpose behind things that you can't understand, even if the show was a little gimmicky and not exactly reflective of ordinary religious experience, that I miss it quite a bit.

Runners up: "Nero Wolfe," "Firefly" (which partly includes the potential of what "Firefly" should have become with two or three extra seasons)

Best animated show:
"Futurama" — (This actually premiered in 1999, but 3/4 of the episodes were in this decade, plus 4 DVD full-length films, so I'm counting it.) Set in the year 3000, this show had license to comment on any trend, issue, subculture, or dramatic staple by magnifying it to the nth degree. In a world where bureaucracy, callousness, adventure, invention, and hedonism have all multiplied to complete excess, the show finds laugh after laugh in the extremism but is nevertheless grounded by the familial affections that the rag-tag spaceship crew/package delivery service has for one another. It's as if "The Twilight Zone" (another "what if" science fiction show tackling the zeitgeist of the day) had a recurring cast that you grew to know and love.

Best fake shows:
"Da Ali G Show" — Before Borat hit the big screen, he was one of three characters on "Da Ali G Show," which Sasha Baron Cohen used to prank unsuspecting authority figures. He's slightly less offensive, though, on TV, and that's the version I enjoy rewatching most, interspersed with faux-rapper Ali G and faux-fashionista Bruno in equal measures. You get a sense of just how talented Cohen is, using every angle and trick in the book to try to point out follies of the self-styled gatekeepers of propriety. It's my favorite of many of the Candid-Camera-style shows this decade, the one with the most intelligence and subversiveness.

"The Daily Show" — A show with a similar purpose, but pulling it off in real time on a day-to-day basis: pointing out all the contradictions, posturing, disingenuousness, and bravado of the country's politicians (yes, both right and left, although the right gave them a lot to work with this decade). This is such a necessary part of political discourse, the ability to call out professional liars on their lies, and the mainstream media only rarely does it, treating all spouting by politicians to be opinion to be debated even when the facts are wrong. It's been reported that watchers of "The Daily Show" are better informed about actual policy, issues, and the content of bills than watchers of most any other news show, which is kind of sad.

Best online exclusive:
"Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" — Not every short-form entertainment has to hit the tube or the festival circuit anymore: it goes straight to the masses via the internet. This 43-minute wonder hit the internet for free in three installments, was then taken down, then made its way to Hulu, and now can be purchased on DVD-on-demand via Amazon. A stunningly well-executed musical about superheroes and supervillains (with virtually no effects budget) that takes the rare tack of making the hero a blowhard and the villain a lovelorn loser, it is alternately sad, funny, heartfelt and heartbreaking.

Best comedy special:
"Jim Gaffigan: King Baby" — I have to admit that I'm not all that plugged into the comedy scene anymore, so my pickings are slim, but Jim Gaffigan's stuff ranks among my favorite stand-up of all time, so it's worth mentioning. (I also first encountered Eddie Izzard this decade, but in looking up YouTube clips of some of my favorite bits I discovered they were almost all from his '90s specials.) Gaffigan celebrates the slovenly American persona with such relish and pride that you almost feel noble to be a white-bread, bacon-eating, terminally lazy, ketchup-hoarding everyman. But his real brilliance is in his high-pitched audience-member critic voice with which he comments on the stupidity of his own observations, making you laugh at yourself for ever considering his idea for a split second that all food should be wrapped in bacon. Gaffigan sums up the modern sensibility so well: He's not just a lazy slob, he's a self-aware lazy slob.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The decade in movies

This was just going to be a short post, with links to a few of the film articles about what turned out to be some of my favorite movies this decade. But nothing can be that simple when it comes to movie lists, can it? Chronological listing seemed a bit dry, alphabetical listing seemed like a cop-out, and an attempt to put them in some sort of ranking just drove me batty. So, after much shuffling, rearranging, adding commentary and taking away commentary, I have ended up with a set of awards to hand out to 14 films (and 7 runners-up), along with links to full reviews:

Funniest movie of the decade:
"Kung Pow: Enter the Fist" — it didn't occur to me until I had compiled my favorites that this was the only movie that was a flat-out comedy that leaves me gasping for air after fits of laughter. I love those films! I actually have a lot of reliably gut-busting comedy in my DVD collection but most of the recent stuff turned out to be TV shows instead. Kung Pow claims the crown for inventing an entirely new form of comedy: inserting some new actors into an old cheesy stock film and dubbing over everyone else. I desperately want to see more like this.

Lightning in a bottle award:
"Rivers & Tides" — Artist Andy Goldsworthy has been making one-of-a-kind temporary art works out of found materials in nature, and documenting them with photographs for some stunning coffee table books. But the process of making those works of art is, to me, even more interesting that the final pictures. I believe he shot some video of the process before this movie was made, but this was the first time a professional-level film team had put its lens to his creations. The result is one of the best films about art, about nature, and about seeing through new eyes, and one that can never be copied.

Best adventure film, best animated film, and just maybe the best outright what-the-movies-were-made-for film on my list:
"Spirited Away" — I can't tell you how much I loved this movie. No, seriously. I haven't written boo about this movie in the seven years since it came out because the movie seems to be just perfect without my adding two cents. Eventually I will write a review, but here's my first words written on it: This is an amazing film about transitions. The heroine, young Chihiro, is being torn away from her old school and old village as her parents are making a move. On the drive, they get lost, and Chihiro ends up stranded in a world of spirits, with its own rules, customs, hierarchies, backstory, and impositions on her. Whether or not her adventures are real or merely imaginings almost doesn't matter: She is learning how to cope with being in a new situation. And the amazing thing is that she does not accept the ground rules laid down for her. She doesn't believe everything she is told about who is good and who is evil, about her place in this world or what she must be resigned to. She approaches this new world filled with unending hope, kindness, wonder, compassion, strength, and love that conquers her instincts for fear and anger. She believes in the possibility of dignity for each creature she meets, from the highest to the low, from the scariest to the cutest, and through her belief transforms her surroundings rather than let her new world define her.

Best movie about finding a person you connect with deeply, and seizing whatever time you have together:
(tie) "Once" & "Lost in Translation" — Both of these films are moody, calm, beautiful little pieces about the human soul's longing for connection, to be heard and be known, and how rare and precious it is when a person gives you that kind of attention, if only for a brief moment in time.

Best movie about a community coming together quietly to support an oddball and find connection in the process:
(tie) "Pieces of April" & "Lars and the Real Girl" — Both of these films feel more or less like fables, in that complete strangers help out the protagonist when asked, for no good reason that they are kind souls. But they both remind me, too, how little most of us self-sufficient Westerners do that asking that might result in such connectedness.

Best gimmick:
"Memento" — It's a movie told backwards! The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end! The thing is, it works. Not only that, it works on repeat viewings. What should have just been an interesting exercise in story structure is a heartbreaking story of humankind's need for time and memory to heal old wounds.

Best blend of humor, whimsy, and heart award:
"A Mighty Wind" — One of only two outright comedies that made my list, what makes this one special is that its improv-ed laughs and cynical eye are infused with and balanced by a real warmth and affection for the genre of folk music, for the aging and past-their-prime artists who push forward, and for all those who love art, the stage, show business, passion, and tenderness.

Best Paul Thomas Anderson movie that isn't "Magnolia":
"Punch-Drunk Love" — With 1999's "Magnolia" cemented firmly in my top five films ever, it was hard to see any subsequent PTA film as in the same league. While I greatly admired "Punch-Drunk Love" on my first viewing, I was hesitant to let it in with the same emotional acceptance. As time has cleared the fog, I see it for its intriguing, singular, beautiful self, the kindest possible take on the intense rawness of life just below the surface of polite formality.

Best blockbuster:
"The Dark Knight" — In a decade where comic book movies hit the mainstream, thanks to improved and cheaper special effects, this one raised the bar for the artistic integrity one can achieve, becoming not just the best comic film and best action film, but the best crime drama of the decade.

Most daring film:
"Moulin Rouge" — Outlandish and outrageous on so many levels, liberally borrowing from pop music, Bollywood, and Bohemian culture to create a perfect elixir of exhilaration, this movie could have ended up distasteful to just about everyone on the planet all at once. Instead it makes for a heightened alternate reality that extols the beauty of unmeasured and unrestrained love. It tells of a tragedy, but is the ultimate pick-me-up for a sedated psyche I know, and has enduring power unlike most of the other resurgent musicals of the decade.

Most sumptuous movie:
"Pride and Prejudice" — If you could fall into and drown inside the mood of a single movie, I would have to choose this one. It has the usual trappings of an Oscar-bait movie: gorgeous dresses, stunning cinematography, lyrical music, British accents, and classic source material, but it somehow has a soul beyond the elements of its construction. I want to visit, and often.

Worst documentary (insomuch as the filmmaker did not stay distant from her subjects, as one is supposed to, but in the process created something more indelible than she could have otherwise):
"Born Into Brothels" — The 2000s saw the popularization of the documentary, on riveting subjects ranging from "Murderball" to "Man on Wire" to "Stevie" to "My Architect" to "Spellbound" and "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," all of which I loved. But I never felt I needed to own any of them, because much of what I got out of them was informational or emotional in a way that had to do with the subject being brand new to me. "Born into Brothels," which is about the young children of prostitutes working in the slums of Calcutta, wasn't just about their plight, full of sadness; it was about the kids being given still cameras to document life from their own perspective, and in doing so creating a bond with the filmmakers. It was about the power of art to imbue dignity and worth to not only the children but to their surroundings, destitute as they are. It is about photography as more than images, but as process of re-learning how to see.

Honorable mentions:
"Finding Nemo," "High Fidelity," "Waking Life," "The Station Agent," "Before Sunset," "Casino Royale," "Away We Go," "Where the Wild Things Are."

(I should note for the record that I haven't seen a great number of 2009's films, and the one that I tucked in there at the end may or may not stand the test of time in my imagination. As with any list such as this, my feelings about and interactions with films are always changing as life presses on. This is just a snapshot in time of my frame of mind as the decade closes.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Movies I own: "Batman" and "The Dark Knight"

Ever since I was a kid, I loved one superhero and one superhero only: the Batman. Sure, I dabbled with reading Spider-man and Superman, and I appreciated what they were, but the Batman was the only one that reached out and grabbed me, that pulled me alongside him in his travails. He felt to me more real, not only in his not having true superpowers, but in the simplicity of his mission, summed up in 1989's "Batman" by a single line: "Because I'm the only one who can."

Batman is a hero of sacrifice. Clark Kent is nigh invulnerable, and often in the movies consumed by his own perception and acceptance as an alien among men. Peter Parker is more down on his luck, but he has MJ, and friends, and a life. The Batman is a zealot, wholly devoted to the cause. Stories of the Batman, at least the pure ones, are not about a tension between what Bruce Wayne wants and what Batman wants; they want the same thing. The Batman is a creature of single-mindedness, of devotion -- maybe an over-the-edge devotion, a borderline-crazy obsessive, but he is undeniably passionate. I usually relate more to the characters of Peter Parker and Clark Kent (especially in his "Smallville" incarnation), who are more like me in their vacillating and indecision, but the Batman is who I admire. Batman is sheer will (something I find I lack in spades).

When I first saw Burton's "Batman," I thought it would never be topped. It had all the iconic lines, the beautiful imagery, and in particular the brilliant interpretation of Keaton's Bruce Wayne, who didn't play the typical playboy role to the hilt but instead made him an absentminded cypher, his head so clearly in Batman mode that he could barely remember to play the debonaire role for more than twenty minutes. It nailed the central Batman tenet: here was a man who was going to bring every resource to bear in combating evil; every dollar, every hour, every muscle, every emotion. As the old sports adage goes, he was going to win because he wanted it more.

As a Christian, it is so easy to opt out of responsibility. Our churches are designed to make sure that all the bases are still covered even if you step away, as long as we consider the bases in question to be largely regarding a functioning church service and functioning church ministries. I have left and joined enough churches, and seen people leave and come in, to understand that we have a plug-and-play mentality: the responsibilities of one person can be filled by another. But that's not true. Each of us has a unique opportunity and responsibility to speak into the lives of the people around us, and that's not duplicatable by anyone else. The pastor and the church leaders have their part to play, but the work of Christ is the task of all of us who follow him, and we cannot assume that someone else will (or could) do our job. God has placed us in our particular context for a reason, and we must embrace its possibilities for unyielding love.

So when the Batman says he does what he does "Because I'm the only one who can," he's not asserting that his wealth or strength or knowledge makes him better than anyone else, but that he has a unique contribution to make given his opportunities. That's Batman to me.

Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" was an entertaining story I thought, exploring the previous untold story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman. It still didn't overshadow the 1989 version in my mind, but it was intriguing in its own right. It stuck with the mythos of Batman that I loved so much, the idea that he more or less has to die to self to become what he needs to become. There is nothing half-measure about this Batman, no attempt to balance a "normal" life with a devoted one. He goes into the transformation whole-heartedly, holding nothing back, risking obscurity and failure and death. Still, it didn't feel like a definitive Batman because Bruce Wayne spent barely any of the movie as the final-product Batman. I would have to wait for the sequel to see how it panned out.

Dark Knight
"The Dark Knight" upped the ante on what constitutes a good Batman story beyond my wildest expectations. In particular, it was the vision of the Joker by Nolan and Heath Ledger that raised the bar. Unlike virtually every movie villain in history, Ledger's Joker doesn't have a revenge plot, a world-domination plot, an attention-seeking plot. or any plot at all. "Some people just want to watch the world burn," as the butler Alfred says. The steadfastness, drive, and relentlessness of Batman meets the capriciousness, chaos, and uncertainty of the Joker. The Joker is, simply put, the personification of uncertainty. And that is a foe that we all face, every day. What do we do in the face of the unknown?

The movie, wisely, makes this more than just showdown between Batman and the Joker, but between the Joker and Gotham City. The citizens of Gotham are the one on the hook to react and respond to a chaotic whirlwind of fear and uncertainty; Batman still has his zeal and tenacity, as required, but his existence does not absolve anyone else from making up their own might of how to react. Toward the beginning of the movie he says he wants to serve as an example to the citizenry, not in tactics but in spirit: in not giving up. He does not imagine he can do it all, only his part. We are each to do our own part. There are more heroes in "The Dark Knight" than just the Batman; the cast list is virtually replete with them. It's the ultimate "pick up a shovel and do your part" movie.

The Joker, in his twistedness, continually offers people the opportunity to be safe, or to make a loved one safe, if only by giving in a little to his madness. Some succumb, others don't. Safety is supposed to make the fear go away, in theory, but the illusion of safety is really just a way for fear to get a foothold. It's a psychologically astute way of addressing the frustrations that we all feel in a post-9/11 world where we of course have so little real assurance of safety (not that we ever did), but we would still rather seek illusions of safety than come to grips with raw facts. "The Dark Knight" is in that way a gut check, and I have no trouble believing that the movie was so enormously popular, beyond any other comic-book movie, for precisely that reason. It asks you to test your mettle, to question how fully you desire safety and assurances over sacrifice and right. To me, that is what the character of Batman has always been about: never an escapism, never an adventure, but a challenge to face life with a sense of deep conviction.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Yes Man" vs. "Yes Man"

Yes Man DVD
SIX MONTHS AGO I saw the Jim Carrey movie "Yes Man," in which he plays a man who has to say Yes to everything that comes his way. It sounded like an intriguing premise, a great "What if" scenario. "What ifs" are some of my favorite comedies: "Groundhog Day," "It's a Wonderful Life," "Mr. Destiny," and "Liar Liar" (a remarkably similarly themed Carrey movie in which he has to always tell the truth). There is something I love about bending life inside out and taking a look at who a person becomes when given different parameters than normal. How does changing the parameters or situations of one's life change the person you are becoming?

Reviews for "Yes Man" weren't great, but I pushed myself past my reluctance mostly on goodwill from "Liar Liar." (As much as I like "What if" movies, I am crushingly disappointed by ones that don't take full advantage of their scenario, because they ruin any future movie from tackling the same question.) As it turns out, it did fall short, at least for me. I didn't very much like the movie. But then at the end of the credits (and I have no idea why I was still watching the credits to the end) I saw that the film was based on a book. That struck me as odd, because the movie was such an overwhelmingly Hollywood cliche that I couldn't imagine that someone had written a book anything like the movie I had just seen. This week I finished reading Danny Wallace's "Yes Man," and am happy to report that I was right: it's nothing like the movie — it is infinitely better.

Yes Man book
Most importantly, the "Yes Man" book is a true story. Danny Wallace wasn't sitting around trying to think of a good wacky scenario around which to write a comedy; he actually started living his life by saying Yes to every question, opportunity, and offer that came his way, and the comedy came on its own. Meaning, too, came on its own. The book is a rare feat of being devilishly comic and soul-expandingly thoughtful. And it's all true, including the too-perfect-for-words ending. I am still astonished at how something so funny, so well structured, and so unbelievably serendipitous gets turns into a mediocre gruel by Hollywood screenwriters. (I don't know why this still astonishes me, frankly; I suppose I'm an optimist at heart.) This highly original material really should have been filmed as is for a 14-episode run on the BBC if they wanted to do it properly.

So what are the differences? For starters, the Jim Carrey movie first lost me early on when his character, Carl, helps out an older lady in his building with some housework and she wants to reward him with some ... um ... afternoon delight. And he has to say yes. He has sex with a total stranger and thinks nothing of it. If the genders were reversed, and a woman agreed to sex with a person she'd just met, people would be up in arms about the scene, talking about sending the wrong message. With a guy it's just a nudge and a wink for some reason. Whereas in the book "Yes Man," an enormous plot point hinges on the question of whether or not he is going to sleep with a woman he fancies but is still in the beginning stages of a relationship with. Danny opens the book by wondering what he would have done had he been asked to murder someone, or something equally repulsive to him: would he pull the plug on the experiment? Did he really have to say yes to everything, or were there limits? Sex is one of those boundary-testing areas for him, as it would be for most people, so I became doubly mad at the movie for that scene when I found it cut against the very nature of much of what the book is saying.

Another enormous difference is the spirituality of the two pieces. In the movie, Carl is invited to attend a seminar by a spiritualist guru who tells people to say Yes to everything. This being a Hollywood movie, it eventually has to be revealed that the spiritual leader has something of a false front and in the end it doesn't really matter what path you take as long as you try hard at it. Typical mushiness. In the book, Danny is talking to a stranger on a bus about what's going on with his weekend, a party or event that he's been invited to but he thinks he'll decline, and the stranger tells him that maybe he should "say yes more." Just this simple phrase changes Danny's life. As he meets various people, including some conspiracy-theory types, a few Buddhist monks, a hypnotist, war protesters, and a fellow "Yes Man," he tries to figure out whether the words on the bus were just a happy accident or if there is a higher being taking human form who speaks into people's lives when they need it most. He wonders where wisdom comes from, whether there are really coincidences or if fate is at work, and if all we have in life is this moment or whether it is building toward something. He doesn't necessarily come to any conclusions except to admire everything amazing that life has to offer, but it's honest spiritual exploration nonetheless.

Then there is the love story. The Carrey movie has Zooey Deschanel as Allison, a woman he meets early on who pursues a Yes-centered free-spiritedness, just not in the regimented way that Carl does. He's attracted to her and pursues her, to the point that the movie is more or less about how to get the girl by saying yes. (And of course, it has the requisite: "Oh, my goodness, you've been pursuing me under false pretense, how dare you, I'll never speak to you again, no, wait, it's not that big of a deal, I guess it's OK after all" arc of every single high school movie about the cool guy taking a bet to win over the girl.) The book "Yes Man" also has a love story, but it is hidden away, tucked underneath his other adventures, and slowly gets teased out. The woman isn't even a main character in the book per se — it's more about Danny preparing himself to enter a relationship that isn't necessarily going to be easy and simple. In a way the book is like a working out his risk-taking muscles and working off his inhibition factor so that he's free to say Yes at the right time. The movie has an attitude of: Women are a puzzle to be figured out and if you find the right combination to open her heart then you can do it at will and she's yours. The book is more of a: Focus more on the person you want to be rather than on getting the person you want to have. Unlike every romantic comedy in the history of the world, Danny doesn't sit around thinking how he can get the girl to like him more and weasel his way into her affections, but just takes the opportunities as they come. It's a less manipulative and more collaborative statement on relationships.

There are a fair number of scenes that overlap: going out to a bar and having to say yes to the intimidating guy asking "Are you eyeballing my girlfriend?", saying yes to more and more projects at work and having that turn into respect and notice in the office, going to a party of someone who seems like a dweeb but then having a really good time. The movie, to its credit, does show a number of scenarios that makes you understand that saying yes only to the things that you forsee a good outcome to and saying no to the stuff you think you want to avoid is a kind of closed-off living that prevents you from opportunities to further good outcomes down the line. The movie at least doesn't kill off the main idea that saying Yes more (maybe not exclusively, like in the story) but more, is usually a good thing in living the one life you have to live. But the book has the advantage of being true. The weird coincidences that happen in the movie feel like someone just wrote them in that way so the story would come out right, but the book has just as many fortuitous meetings and odd happenstances that move Danny forward without the benefit of screenwriters. The book pushes you farther to consider the "What if" question more personally, more seriously.

The last difference I see is that in the movie, the seminar-based movement of people saying "Yes" is supposed to last into infinity. The people are just supposed to put that persona on and carry it out religiously with no end. In the book, it is clearly not a sustainable lifestyle. Danny makes himself a bet that he will continue to say "Yes" only through the end of the year. In that short time, largely thanks to pre-approved credit card applications that come in the mail that ask him if he would like to try a new kind of credit card (Yes!), Danny racks up enormous debt by buying a car, traveling the world, buying rounds of drinks, attending shows and festivals, etc. His money situation is helped by an upcoming promotion at work due to him taking on every project asked of him, but the new job starting in the new year also means that he won't be free to work on his own schedule, which is something that was essential to saying Yes to so many things. What the movie sets up as a mass movement, a permanent way of life for most participants, Danny is promoting as an experiment, a trial run of saying Yes to everything for a short time so that he won't be so scared about saying Yes more often in the future, when he gives himself back some discernment. The book is essentially saying: Your own sense discernment is very likely hamstrung by fear; what if you shook it up a little by going against your timid judgment every so often by agreeing to more opportunities, meeting people you wouldn't normally associate with, going places you wouldn't normally go, learning about subjects you assume aren't for you, to participate more? It's not Yes as a belief system, but Yes as an exercise in giving yourself more chances to exercise your belief system in greater extension in the world.