The Election

Like a lot of people I hate election season. I hate the ads. I hate the rhetoric. The hate internet fighting over candidates. I hate the binary choice of two broken parties. I hate that people only see it as a binary choice. I hate that neither candidate will do anything to really fix or address the fundamental problems of the United States – even the ones they could effectively address as the country’s top executive.

This was the worst election yet for me. I had more debates with friends than I ever have before. Nasty ones at times. I hate how elections make people act. I hate the thinking it drives us to.

“If you aren’t for my candidate, you are a traitor.” “If you vote third party, you are voting for the ‘other’ guy.” “If you don’t vote, you’re voting for evil.”

I don’t even want to address that stuff at this point. I just don’t care about the debate over debate anymore.

At the end of it all I stand in front of the voting machine and stare blankly into the screen. It doesn’t ask me who I don’t want to elect. It asks me who I do. After all that build up it’s all over so quickly. I make my selections. I choose to the best of my ability and I walk out.

The rest is up to God. The results are his will. I have done what I can to affect temporal, earthly politics. Now, finally, I can go back to real life.

While I hate, hate, hate the conversation of modern American politics, I can’t really expect differently of most people. They are – most of them – unregenerate sinners who need Christ. I shouldn’t expect values like honesty and principle to govern their actions when they have so many incentives to forsake honesty and principle.

I’m really disappointed in my fellow Christians. Not all of them. But certainly some.

Romans 13:1-7 gives a succinct explanation of how Christians should relate to the government. We are commanded to submit to authority in scripture. We are commanded to show respect and honor where due. It is God who puts leaders in power.

Most scholars maintain that Romans was written sometime around 51 to 58 A.D. which would be during the reign of either Claudius or Nero. Neither of them were particularly nice guys and certainly didn’t have Christian values in their governance (especially Nero) and yet the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write Romans with that passage about submitting to authority.

There’s a lot that could be said about this topic. It has a lot application in our lives. But here are the two points I wanted to make to my fellow Christians given that context.

1. When you disrespect people who hold offices in our country; when you make fun of them; when you misrepresent them as something they are not; when you see them as an enemy to be thrown out of office even if it means abandoning some of your principles to do it, are you in accordance with what the Word of God has to say?

2. Your reaction to whomever wins the election should be consistent with a deeply-held belief that God is in control of everything and that we are citizens of an eternal kingdom foremost and not an earthly country. It should make no real different to your Christian walk who wins this election (though practical life changes might occur). Does the Bible change depending on the result? Does God change? No. I know you know this. Act like it.

And I am not innocent in these things either. I had to stop watching the Presidential debates this year because I couldn’t stop myself from getting angry and disrespectful toward the candidates (and indeed the whole system and culture). There is a point at which disagreement turns to disrespect and I’ve crossed that line more than a few times. We have to learn to see our leaders for what they are: God’s instruments.

Politics is far less important than my patriotic American upbringing has led me to believe. That’s not an excuse for not participating (I did participate) but it is a reason for not having my heart invested in this thing. It gets ugly when I do that. It gets ugly when you do it.

truth of expression

“If you are yourself and you don’t become successful, the happiness that you get from creating something that is that truthful to yourself should be enough to propel you forward in life.”

– Justin Vernon

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bon Iver lately. I stumbled upon that quote in an interview with frontman Justin Vernon. Well, calling him the frontman is a bit of an understatement. He basically is Bon Iver.

I started listening to their stuff last December. As the cold weather returns I find myself going back to the record. Fittingly, the music goes well with the colder half of the year. The name is derived from the French phrase “bon hiver” which means “good winter.”

For Emma, Forever Ago is this really sad, wistful album. You can tell it’s about loss and past pain. It’s the best kind of guy-with-a-guitar singer-songwriter stuff. “For Emma” is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s wonderful.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver is absolutely beautiful music from start to finish. I don’t know why. I think it’s freeing for some reason. It isn’t trying to be anything other than beautiful: not cool, not hip, not ironic. There’s way too much sarcasm and vitriol in society and in my own heart. I think that’s why it’s freeing. The final track is lead by this old style keyboard that sounds almost cheesy at first. But then you realize from the tone that it’s utterly sincere like the rest of the album. And like everything else it’s gorgeous too.

So, yeah, that’s my love letter to Bon Iver. Great stuff.

As for the quote, I’m finding myself more and more drawn to that philosophy and I think it must be the philosophy of the true artist.

The very best art in the world, I think, was done by artists being true to themselves. They aren’t gunning for fame and fortune. They’re just expressing whatever is on their heart. If it takes off, great. If not a soul responds to it at least they have created a true expression – something they can be happy with having done.

Athletic people work out. Analytic people analyse. Creative people create. We have to. It’s just this odd itch we need to scratch every once in awhile or else be unfulfilled.

For the redeemed person who is also a creative type, I would modify the quote a bit. We need to not only be truthful to ourselves in our expression but also to God and his truth. His ultimate truth. And you can do both.

To make expression true to your person is to indelibly stamp the work with your form – the form of a uniquely created individual. To make an expression true to God’s ultimate truth is to make it universal and pleasing to him. One without the other is not as good. It may even be bad.

Recently I finished a collection of lyrics which I am considering posting here soon. It took me years of work to create something I was happy with as a whole, complete collection. But I believe that it meets the two criteria listed above. Regardless of whether anyone else feels that it is of quality, I am happy with it.

If you are a creative type I’d highly suggest following these criteria as guidelines. If it’s true to yourself and true to God’s truth, then don’t listen to the critics or people that don’t get what you’ve done. But do yourself a favor and identify some trusted people who will keep you honest. It would be a grave error to express yourself in the voice of another, but it would be perhaps a bigger mistake to believe that you are the only one that matters in your art.

“We Accidentally Made a Film About Addiction”

If you saw that odd film I posted last week you might have wondered what the heck it was and how such a thing got made without quite a lot of illegal substances. Despite the title of this writing, I assure you there was no drug abuse going on.

In case you haven’t seen it yet you should probably watch it or this explanation won’t make any sense. Conversely, the movie won’t make much sense without this explanation. But watch it first anyway.

The Production

This whole thing started more than two years ago after I had finished a big project. I wanted to make something smaller, shorter and with easier production logistics. I hate logistics. That’s why I don’t aspire to be a producer.

The original idea was to make a mock “art” film even though I have never seen a real art movie. I seem to have a propensity toward spoofing things of which I have only the loosest grasp. Having said that, I think this probably is the truest to the thing I’ve tried to satirize before. But that’s largely because the term “art film” doesn’t mean very much. You can slap any old crap together and call it an “art film,” right? The less understandable, the better.

To that end, I followed the principles set out in the TV Tropes article “True Art is Incomprehensible.” (By the way, don’t click on that link unless you’ve got hours to waste – it’s TV Tropes for goodness sake!) Basically our idea was this: sad, depressing, and stuffed tiger shark.

The tiger shark was given to me for my birthday several years ago around the time this idea was coming together. Andrew, the lead actor, and I thought it would be a good prop. I mean, what’s more artsy than a depressed guy carrying a tiger shark? Ooh. I know! A depressed guy carrying a tiger shark in black and white with only the tiger shark in color.

That selective color effect is what took the longest time to achieve. Selective color, as it turns out, is an immense pain. There are, I’m sure, easier and better ways to go about it than I did. Even so, it’s a very time consuming process. It basically involved me having to cut out the orange bits of the shark frame-by-frame and then lay them back on top of the black and white footage. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in my cutting back on the number of shots using this effect quite dramatically.

Way, way back at the conception of this project, it was supposed to be a longer piece with more of an obvious plot. It involved the main character having memories of a girlfriend or wife or something who was gone or dead. I donno. Some depressing nonsense like that. We ended up scrapping this part of the plot partially because we didn’t think it would be prudent to strike so close to real life but also because I wasn’t brave enough to ask any girls to be involved. This thing is hard enough to explain now that it’s made. How would I have pitched it then?

It’s interesting to note that the tone of the film started out as complete mockery during the planning stages. Neither me, nor Andrew were feeling depressed in the slightest at the time. But by the time we got around to shooting last summer, we were identifying with the tone of the film far more than we had originally thought possible. A lot of the depressed staring into the distance is not acting. At least that’s what I maintain.

We ended up doing the whole thing in just three shoots in two locations. As I said before, God is the best lighting technician because we just used natural, available light for the entire shoot. Man, did we get some nice days for it.

This was the last project I shot on my old Canon Vixia HV30: a good camera for the money, but not professional by any stretch. I was rather impressed by the results. Still am, actually. From a cinematography standpoint, I was merely trying to get the prettiest images possible when shooting.

The original draft was a minute or two longer than the final version. I knew people wouldn’t want to put up with that kind of runtime. I wouldn’t. A few shots were cut. A lot were shortened. I like the pacing of the film myself, but I know it’ much slower than the average attention span is used to.

In the second shoot we did “the Destroyers” sequence. My intention was to deliberately create a “Big Lipped Alligator Moment” (warning: it’s another TV Tropes link!) and stick it right in the middle of an otherwise totally serene film. So we gathered all the assorted stuffed animals we could get and went to the park. I think the scene turned out to be very Kubrick-esque in that it makes no sense at all but you might think that there was some sense to be made of it if you were really deranged.

After wrapping the final shoot I sat on the footage for a year. I edited and re-edited it. I was never quite happy with any of the edits and I wanted to do that color effect that was so time consuming.

At the beginning of the summer I decided I was finally going to finish the film. My last idea was to record some terrible voice over for the film. Something really faux-poetic that didn’t mean anything and only sort of corresponded with what was happening onscreen. That idea came from the narration that was added to the original theatrical version of Blade Runner. The story goes that Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford didn’t want to put it in the movie. The studio forced them to anyway so Harrison Ford purposefully did a poor job on the recording. Narration obviously isn’t necessary in la possession du requin tigre either. That’s the joke. I mean, there was nothing to understand in the first place.

Or is there? Might have been wrong. Maybe.

A Possible Meaning

After I inserted Andrew’s voice over into the film I realized something surprising. I texted him: “I think we accidentally made a film about addiction.”

That was never intentional. But it seemed really obvious to me as I watched what I’d put together. With the narration it all seemed to become clear. It came to me like the interpretation of a song or poem.

The tiger shark was addiction of some kind. The main character thinks the tiger shark is his only friend when in reality it is keeping him from the outside world. He exists in this bubble of depression. When someone comes along to break him out of it – perhaps a friend, perhaps a random passerby – i.e. “The Destroyer” his array of animals banishes him to another realm of existence. In the end, he realizes he has to give it up. He fears being without it. What will fill the void of his addiction? Will he be alone instead? But he leaves it behind and ascends into the sunset and a brighter day.

Or something like that.

Is this a crazy interpretation? I don’t know. Maybe.

Like I said, it certainly wasn’t intentional. Honestly.

I had Andrew pick a leaf and drop it because it seemed like a pathetically artsy thing to shoot. I had him walk into the sunset because it was cliche and looked pretty. I think if anything the original intent (besides humor) was about depression and recovery. But addiction seemed to bubble to the surface when I finished the film for whatever reason. And I think it fits better. Seeing the tiger shark as a recovery from depression doesn’t exactly explain the Destroyer scene in my mind.

Is it the height of pretension and arrogance that I’m discussing possible meanings of my own work? I hope not. I have nothing to be prideful about here and it was always my intention to make fun of pretension.

Still I think the fact that the meaning of this film got away from me and took on a bit of its own life is interesting.

I had an discussion with a friend some years ago about art interpretation. I was of the opinion that the viewer’s interpretation of a work is just as valid as the creator’s intent while he was arguing that, no, the author’s view is of the work is the most valid.

While I still generally hold to that opinion (although it is more nuanced than that brief explanation) I now find myself in the odd position of having created a work where my own authorial intent is no longer my primary interpretation. I guess that means I’m in disagreement with my past self which, given the process of making this film and the natural way in which time changes our perspectives, isn’t all that unusual. But it is an unusual phenomenon to live out in this way.

Of course the easiest thing to do is take this whole thing as a joke. Maybe it’s an unfunny highbrow joke; maybe it’s only funny if you know the people involved, but it’s a joke nonetheless. That’s how it was “supposed to be”.

Assorted Thoughts on Suffering, Mortality, and Heaven

Last night my thoughts drifted toward a terribly serious and scary subject. That’s right: the future.

If my perspective is right, the future shouldn’t be scary. Death should be least frightening of all. It is our passageway out of this fallen existence. For the Christian that is a wonderful thing. But that isn’t the first thought in my mind when people talk about the dismal possibilities of the future. I am too bound by things of this Earth in my thinking for that kind of right thinking.

The thing that set me off was a couple of headlines. I didn’t even read the articles – just the headlines. I don’t remember them exactly now. Something about Israel, Iran, and war. I honestly don’t read too much news and I read even less about geopolitical conflicts and maneuverings. But I know enough for the stuff I read to be a little disconcerting.

What I don’t want to talk about here is the specifics of world politics or the validity of the idea that war might be on the horizon. What I want to talk about is where those thoughts took my mind and what that says.

What if conflict does happen in the Middle East or anywhere? What if it escalated? What if it comes here? What if we experience another World War?

I live a very comfortable life. I’m not “rich” by American standards, but I’m not going to starve or go homeless. I don’t have to work nonstop to make ends meet. I get to spend a fair amount of my time doing whatever I like. For those reasons I should count myself very blessed. Something like a war could threaten all of that.

People of past living peaceful lives weren’t planning on dropping everything and going to war but it happened time and time again. Why shouldn’t that happen now? The world is only superficially different. Some people think the world is ripe for such a conflict and they are not without evidence for a case.

The immediate thought is: what if I die? Well, that’s easy. I’m going straight to Heaven, right? That’s what I believe, isn’t it? If death is nothing then what do I have to be afraid of?

Though I have never stared it in the face, I don’t fear death. That is to say, I don’t fear the thought of it.

I don’t fear death. Theoretically.

What I do fear theoretically is suffering.

One of the most horrifying parts of The Lord of the Rings didn’t make it into the movies. Toward the end of The Return of the King, the Hobbits return to their home in the Shire to find it in ruins. All the trees have been cut down. The hobbits living there are enslaved. And Saruman is running the show.

That’s what I don’t want. I don’t want war to find my home. I don’t want to go through the ruins of my town, my neighborhood, my house and see the destruction. I don’t want everything I’ve ever known to be uprooted.

Is this natural? Absolutely. Is it okay? I’m not sure.

On the one hand, I don’t think scripture prescribes the sort of detachment Yoda recommends to Anakin in Episode III: “Learn to let go of everything you fear to lose.” On the other hand, scripture says to be “in the world, but not of it” along with many other such admonishments.

We have to be in the world. We are. To deny that fact and act in ignorance – or worse – in opposition to everything the physical world presents us is wrong. This the mistake of the Gnostics who believed that, in a nutshell, all things spiritual are good and all things physical or material are evil.

Paul addresses that belief in Colossians by emphasizing that Christ was both fully God (spirit) and fully man (physical). Jesus certainly enjoyed some small physical comforts now and then. He enjoyed the pleasure of food and wine. He expressed gratitude toward Mary sister of Martha when she anointed his feet with some expensive perfume.

So I have a problem with the thought that enjoying life for its physical comforts and pleasures is a bad thing. Yet that is the extreme I jump to when presented with the idea that it might all go up in flames. Indeed, in the end it will all go up in flames if only to be replaced with something better.

Through this thought process I have identified two great problems in me. One: I love my present comforts far too much. I would rather die than lose them through suffering. Two: perhaps even more fundamentally, my mind fails to grasp the future blessings which will come in spite of whatever suffering might occur in this life. If we could only truly and fully understand the depth of our depravity, the goodness of God, and the blessings to come, it would be much easier to live the life we are called to now.

I like C.S. Lewis’s concept of “shadowlands” – that the Earth we are living in is but a shadow of the true Earth to come. This idea is well presented in The Last Battle.

Two-thirds of the book detail the destruction of everything I’d come to love of the world of Narnia as described in the previous six books. Basically Narnia gets wrecked. The last Narnian king fights a losing battle as the bad guys of the series take over. All the while there’s this weird syncretic cult which combines Aslan with the false god of the series. It’s basically Lewis’s take on Revelation and I hated it as a kid. It gave me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach to see beloved places and characters suffer and seemingly lose. I reread all the other books, but never this one.

But the last couple of chapters talk about Aslan’s return and explore Lewis’s ideas about Heaven and the afterlife. They’re really great.

After the characters have come into Aslan’s Country (i.e. “heaven”) they look below and see England and this exchange takes place:

“Why!” exclaimed Peter. “It’s England. And that’s the house itself – Professor Kirk’s old home in the country where all our adventures began!”

“I thought that house had been destroyed,” said Edmund.

“So it was,” said the Faun. “But you are now looking at the England within England, the real inner England just as this is the real Narnia. And in that inner England no good thing is destroyed.”

I always liked that sentiment. I kind of suspect it has a lot of truth to it. Revelation speaks of a New Heaven and a New Earth – not completely new and different places. The implication is that they’ll have some relation to the lesser Heaven and Earth.

Whatever the case I am sure of this: all our speculation is missing the mark. We lack the capacity to properly understand eternity in any intimate way. Nevertheless there is one more wonderful quote from The Last Battle which I’d like to share.

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”

This Earth is not home. I fear pain, suffering, and loss because they are personally difficult. But I also know deep down (as I think we all do) that suffering is not meant to be. It is the result of evil and we must all suffer its consequences.

I believe suffering is coming in some form. Things are fairly ugly on the world stage right now. Something’s got to give. It’s simple cause-and-effect.

The truth is a lot of the time I enjoy my possessions, relationships, abilities, and comforts because they allow me to believe I have control of my life independent from God. I can do what I want. I can be happy in the way I want. That is a truly damaging and false line of thinking.

To enjoy the blessings of prosperity and cherish them to a degree is not bad so long as I am not kept from the task at hand; so long as I recognize and give thanks to the Creator of the gifts and not fall into the trap of thinking I had something to do with it.

I must give thanks more diligently for God’s blessings. I must be prepared to lose some of those temporal blessings. It is time I stopped holding on so dearly to the shadow of things to come.

I think the Apostle Paul sums this whole thing up best.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Romans 8:18, NASB

That’s pretty well put, Paul. Were you divinely inspired to write that or something?

Minecraft? More like Mindcraft!

I’m late to the party on this one. No, I haven’t started playing Minecraft nor will I. The game, if you can call it that, seems like a gigantic time suck. It’s the sort of thing I could get into if I had unlimited time on this earth and didn’t feel guilty about such things.

I found this video while poking around Shamus Young’s website. Shamus is a interesting commentator on gaming, game design, programming, and nerdy stuff like that. His community has their own Minecraft server which is featured in this quite impressive video.

Minecraft, for the uninitiated, is a strange open world game focused on building. The graphics are kept very basic. It looks like it could have come out in the early days of 3D gaming.

See what I mean?

The focus is obviously not photorealism. Rather, the focus is on the core gameplay mechanics. This simple graphical style allows for vast procedurally (automatically) generated worlds to be created which means there’s a vast amount of space for players to build in. There are two main modes: a free build mode focused on creative building and a survival mode featuring enemies, health, and resources more like a traditional game.

The server featured in the video, I believe, is running in the free build mode. And the creations of the players are absolutely stunning. Watching the video (and I watched all 11 minutes which is rare as I tend to get bored of these sorts of videos) I was impressed in the same way I get impressed by large, intricate Lego creations. Man, I love Legos… I could go play with them right now…

Woah. No. Back on subject. The minifigs will have to wait. Like until I have a kid or something.

Here are the points I wanted to make in all this. First, building stuff is awesome. I love it. Legos. K’nex. SimCity. RollerCoaster Tycoon. Minecraft. There are tons of awesome building toys out there and they’re wonderful outlets for creativity and expression. Again, I refer you to the video above. Video games are not all about shooting zombies. Okay, survival mode does feature zombies, but… hey! Look at this picture of Lego Chicago!

Second point: “primitive” graphics are not only perfectly acceptable, they can actually be a benefit. More basic graphics emphasize the player’s imagination. They also allow for system resources to be allocated to generating that huge world map and allowing for vast construction projects which would be impossible in, say, CryEngine 3 or the latest Unreal Engine unless you’ve got one monsterous computer.

I’m not saying anything new here. There have been lots of people arguing this for years. Gaming has, in many ways, lost some of the soul and imagination it used to possess. Partially that’s because the people who say this have gotten older and lost some of the wonder with which children look at the world. Part of this is the natural maturation of the gaming industry. But a lot of it is the relentless pursuit of presentation and the neglect of substance because that’s apparently what sells. Sad, really.

Watching that Minecraft video brought back memories of exploring more primitive, but more imaginative gaming worlds. It also reminded me of my days messing around with RPG Maker 2000 trying to create a game of my own and never really finishing but having a lot of fun in the process anyway.

RPG Maker 2000 – an awesome tool from back in the day for making basic games without knowing any real programming

I don’t want to be unfair. I love me some pretty graphics. But I love this too. We could use more of this kind of thing in gaming. More of this kind of thing in general. People wouldn’t complain about kids playing video games so much if more games inspired this kind of creative interaction. Games need to be about more than “shoot dude, repeat, repeat, repeat.”

While watching I got to wondering if someone could or would make a Bethesda-style open world adventure/RPG game with the Minecraft engine. I would love to explore worlds like that provided there was a story attached. At some point in the future the developer has said he will open-source the engine. Perhaps then?

Anyhow. Now I get the big deal about Minecraft. It’s quite a cool thing. I myself won’t be playing it although I wish I had the time for it or something like it.