God Life Love

Why Wait?: The Adventure Of Marrying Young

Previously published in the North Central Chronicle on April 23, 2010. The PDF version of this article as it originally appeared in the Chronicle is at the end of the story.

Antonia and Brian bought a wedding planning book for $14. But sometime later Antonia’s maid of honor bought them a $4 wedding planning book as a gift.

They returned the $14 book.

Such is the way of things when college students are trying to get married.

Once commonplace, young marriage has now become the exception to the rule of waiting to get married until after college, when couples can achieve financial stability and emotional maturity before diving into a lifetime commitment. Data from the 2000 U.S. Census shows that the average age at first marriage for American women was 26, up from 21.5 in 1970. The average for men also jumped: from 23.5 in 1970 to 27.8 in 2000. Yet many of these Millennials – young adults reared by overprotective Baby Boomer parents in an increasingly “me first” culture – are still choosing to buck the trend of postponing marriage until their late 20s and take the very unselfish step of getting married during their already stressful college years.

So what’s the motivation? Most young people today don’t expect to get married during college, so the desire to get hitched and to hell with the statistics goes beyond finances or merely settling down earlier than usual. According to four students from North Central College in Naperville, Ill. – all at different points of the engagement-wedding-marriage path – it’s about what feels right.

Brian, a junior engaged to Antonia (Tone), a senior, said he didn’t expect to get married until after college. “But then Tone happened,” he said.

The thought of getting married didn’t weird to him at all. “I just couldn’t imagine being with anyone else. Why wait until later when I could just do it now?”

Angie, a junior married for seven months, felt the same way when she got engaged during her freshman year. “Ryan and I knew we were going to get married,” she said, “but I always thought we would have a longer engagement. Even right when we got engaged, the initial date of the wedding was after I was graduated from college. That lasted about two weeks. We thought, logistically, why wait?”

Aileen, also a junior, expected to follow the common path toward marriage. “I thought I was going to be mid-to-late 20s, established with whatever I was doing. I never thought I was going to get married young.” But she found herself engaged at 18 to a man 12 years older than her. The age difference, though, was never an issue. “We just wanted to get married. It was a natural thing, no questioning it or anything.”

Marriage to these college students was not something they took on with the same assumptions and concerns their parents had before getting married a generation ago. They’re getting married because they want to – and because they can do it relatively easily with the safety net their parents provide. This doesn’t mean they think a lifelong marriage will be easy; it simply shows that true love and its aroma were too great for them to ignore.

“I think that for us you can’t take faith out of the equation because we knew that God wanted us to be together,” Antonia said. “Obviously we were a little apprehensive as to when, but after praying and being with each other, we know we want to do this after I graduate.”

Angie echoed the reliance on faith. “It definitely played a part in our relationship from the start,” she said. “I think because of the faith we share, as a couple we were years beyond most couples at our age. Maturity-wise I think we grew up a lot. It really grounded us in the things that really matter.”

But getting engaged, it seems, is the simplest part of the whole ordeal. The reaction from friends and family is where the sparks start to fly.

Angie’s parents had also married young, so the news to them was surprising but still exciting. They did, however, want to make sure she didn’t drop out of school. “That was a priority because they knew it was important to me and they didn’t want me to lose sight of that,” Angie said. The reaction from her classmates was considerably more mixed. Getting engaged as a freshman was unusual, making her nervous about what people would think. “Most people were nice about it,” she said. “But I did get some pretty rude responses. I had one student walk up to me and say, ‘So are you engaged?’ I said, yeah, I am. I was kind of nervous to tell him. But he was like, ‘Wow. Why? Are you serious? Why would you do that?’ And it just killed me.”

Aileen encountered similar apprehension. “My parents were a little apprehensive about it, only because I am young,” she said. “Other than that, the response was pretty nice. Everyone was excited.” Yet the age difference was always an issue, though not to her. “With the connection we had I never really though it necessary to care about that. My mom was OK with it because my grandparents were 11 years apart, so she was like, ‘Hell, what’s another two years? It really doesn’t matter.’”

Brian and Antonia received a lot of support, making them wonder about people’s true feelings about their engagement. “To be honest I wish we’d had more skepticism,” Brian said. “Everyone was just like, ‘Oh, awesome!’ and were super supportive. I would have appreciated more honesty because not everyone would have felt that way. I was shocked at how much support we got.”

Antonia said she’s gotten more pushback, almost a year after the engagement, from an unlikely source: her professors. “I’ve heard, ‘You’re going to be married forever. Do you know what you’re doing to yourself?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I realize that. That’s why we’re getting married.’”

Those voices of doubt were not unreasonable. Statistics on the fate of young marriages tell a dreary tale: the New York Times reported on studies that show teenage marriages today are two to three times more likely to end in divorce than marriages between people 25 years of age and older. Another study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 48 percent of those who marry before 18 are “likely to divorce within 10 years, compared with 24 percent of those who marry after age 25.”

Knowing the odds against young marriages turning out successfully yet still diving in anyway shows a confidence in the institution of marriage and in each other these young betrothed have that previous generations did not. These students were worried for other reasons, like how to pay for a wedding and start a life together without having yet established a career. “Weddings are expensive,” Aileen said. “Plus, I have to pay my own way through college – that’s all on my shoulders. Financial stability is going to be an issue for both of us, but I really never think of problems. If they come up, they come up.”

Angie was less worried about the money than her fate as a college student. In the months leading up to the wedding, she worried she would become disconnected from school and have to drop all the things she loved doing. “ButRyan and I sat down and talked about it andwe decided that if I wasn’t doing all these things that I’m doing, I wouldn’t be myself,” she said. “I wouldn’t be the woman that he married.” Still, she did wonder. “‘Should we wait? Maybe we should have held off for another two years. Is it really that big of a deal?’ I definitely had those questions.”

Even with the doubts swirling, they still need to plan a wedding. How do they do it as full-time students with jobs and class and extra-curriculars filling their days?

“It got really stressful,” Angie said. She was getting married a month and fifteen days after classes ended, but was also the female lead in the school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. “I just didn’t have time to focus on the wedding. I didn’t even touch my invitations; I picked them out and my parents did it all for me. They were saints.”

But is the marriage worth it? Is getting married before you’re even allowed to rent a car worth the late nights and doubting loved ones and the chance you’ll end up another divorce statistic?

Angie was unequivocal. “The last seven months have proved all my worries false,” she said. “Since we’ve been married I’ve never questioned it. We definitely made the right decision.”

Click here for a PDF of this story as it originally appeared in the Campus section of the North Central Chronicle.

America Politics Presidents

Sarah Palin Is Not A Serious Person

If Sarah Palin plans to run for president in 2012 (which I’m not yet sure if she’ll do), many people will vote for her. But count me as one of those Americans who will not check the box for Sarah Palin if that day comes.

There are a few reasons why I won’t vote for Palin for president. The biggest one, though, believe it or not, does not involve her politics. As a political moderate I agree with Palin on some issues and disagree strongly on others, which is also the case with the President.

The biggest reason, then, why I will not vote for Sarah Palin is that Sarah Palin is not a serious person.

In times like these as well as in times of prosperity, the President of the United States must be a serious person. This doesn’t mean they can’t be fun or funny; it means they have to understand the seriousness of the job and have the natural capacity to perform that job well.

Barack Obama is a serious person. I knew that when I voted for him. His politics aside, when he ran for president he understood the seriousness of the job. Sarah Palin, I think, does not.

If she were a serious person, she would not have quit the governorship of Alaska halfway through her term to become a TV star and write a book.

If she were a serious person, she would not use Facebook notes (which are probably written by a publicist anyway) to spread misinformation about health care reform and other serious issues I think deep down she knows to be false.

If she were a serious person, she would not tote her Down syndrome baby under her arm at every stop on her book tour to show off her “pro-life credentials” to her fans.

If she were a serious person, she would prepare for being president not by throwing firebombs on FOX News but by supporting bipartisan compromise and studying up on foreign and domestic affairs.

If she were a serious person, she would not be instigating so much anti-government hatred from the Tea Partiers when she has no intention of doing anything to solve the problems they decry except for make another stump speech rife with tired talking points.

Of course, all of this presidential-run talk is still speculative. And the fact that so many people care so much about Palin’s political future that they’re talking about it so early and frequently simply plays into Palin’s hand. But if she does run, she will have the Tea Party movement and its acolytes behind her. If she were a serious person, she would know she needs more than pissed off conservatives to win a presidential election.

But she is not a serious person. And it doesn’t look like she intends to become one any time soon. If that’s the case, and she does in fact run for the Republican nomination in 2012 and wins it, consider this my formal un-endorsement.


Film Review

The Cove

Save the Whales is so last century. Dolphins, according to the new Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, are what really need saving now.

The film profiles Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer who captured and trained the dolphins for the 1960s show Flipper. It was during that time when O’Barry realized the inherent cruelty of his job and what the dolphins went through as domesticated animals, so he set out on a lifelong crusade against dolphin hunting and keeping them in captivity.

There is one coastal town in Japan, we learn, that is notorious for herding dolphins into a secretive cove to capture them for use in the dolphin entertainment industry (SeaWorld, among other places) or simply to slaughter them to sell for meat. The fishermen who do this maintain a paranoid level of secrecy around the cove, making sure no one can see what actually goes on.

However, a team of divers and activists from the Oceanic Preservation Society teams up with O’Barry to sneak behind the iron curtain and expose the nefariousness once and for all. Using a kind of subterfuge the creators of Ocean’s Eleven would be proud of, they install small cameras in fake rocks and on the cliffs surrounding the cove to try to capture on film the merciless killing the small Japanese fishing town is so eager to disguise.

The Cove is a nail-biting thriller disguised as an environmental call-to-arms. The scenes of the team breaking into the cove, eluding guards and avoiding detection, are better than anything you’ve seen in any recent spy movie. The new information we learn, too, about how dolphin meat makes its way onto the market without consumers knowing it, and how Japan curries favor from other coastal nations in order to avoid controversy is fascinating.

The film is ultimately one-sided; you know who you’re supposed to root for. Yet once you’ve seen the footage of the actual slaughter, rooting for the dolphins becomes the easiest thing you can possibly do. It’s not for the faint of heart, but The Cove deserves to be seen.


Disney, Pixar, And The Golden Age of Animation

Published in the North Central Chronicle in  September 2009.

Everyone has a favorite animated movie. I’m a Toy Story man myself. But no matter which film you prefer, it’s clear that our generation—the Millennials, born between 1983 and 2000—has been the most spoiled in history in terms of the animated films we’ve grown up watching.

The first phase of the most recent golden age of animation began unofficially in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. The film was Disney’s reentry into relevance after decades of forgettable material. It was a box-office smash, spawning merchandise like nobody’s business and charming young girls worldwide, making them Disney customers for life.

After The Little Mermaid came Beauty and the Beast in 1991 and Aladdin the next year—two more cash cows and critical darlings. Beauty and the Beast even earned a nomination for Best Picture, the only animated film to date to do so. From there we were awed by The Lion King and Pocahontas. The former remains the Lord of the Rings of kids’ movies with its epic scope and affecting story.

Perhaps the most appealing part of these movies is the music. The composer Alan Menken created the music for all of those films and all of it is fantastic. I marvel every time I listen to “A Whole New World” at how perfect a pop song it is. “Part of Your World” and “Kiss the Girl” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”—each song is so flawlessly constructed in melody and tone.

These songs compose the soundtrack of our lives, whether you admit it or not. The stories and characters are fun, sure, but when you’re driving with your friends, only a Disney song will get the whole car singing. In 40 years we’ll be singing these songs along with our kids as they discover these films for the first time, just as we watched Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs six decades after they were made and were nevertheless enchanted.

The release of The Lion King in 1995 was the apex of Disney domination. But that year also became the springboard for the second phase of the golden age of animation: the Pixar era.

I often think about how lucky I am to be growing up in the age of Pixar. Their films are renowned for their universal appeal, but there’s nothing like having watched Toy Story as an eight-year-old boy and being fascinated by the notion that all your toys could actually come alive. On the other hand, as an adult I’m equally entertained by the complexity of The Incredibles and the pure joy of WALL-E and the surprising tenderness of Up.

I’m also struck by how Pixar’s most recent projects—the triple whammy of RatatouilleWall-E and Up—showed something important. All three were predicted to fail to earn as much money as their most successful predecessors. Yet all three dominated the box office and won over audiences and critics with equal admiration. This proves the staying power of Pixar’s pictures lies not in the breadth of their merchandising but in their smart and sophisticated storytelling.

I’m not sure how long this gilded age will last. After all, not all the animated films of the last two decades were good (anyone remember The Road to El Dorado? Didn’t think so). But looking forward a few years may give us a few clues. Next summer Pixar will release Toy Story 3 and Disney will release The Princess and the Frog, which will be a return to the classic 2-D animation style and feature Disney’s first African-American princess. Those two films alone make me confident that this current age of awe-inspiring animation will take us to infinity and beyond.

Film Love Review

Twilight Bites: How Dazzling Vampires Distort Masculinity

Published in the North Central Chronicle on April 24, 2009.

Let’s pretend I’m a teenage girl and that you’re my best friend. I’ve just told you about this guy I started dating. He’s perfect in every way, I say. He stares at me while I sleep, he alienates me from my friends and, among other things, he drives a wedge between me and my single dad.


Oh, you mean that those aren’t actually good things? Edward Cullen, the lead vampire from Twilight, does all of those things to Bella, the main character in the film, and yet women swoon over him. Why?

Let’s start with the superficial. The novel describes Edward as “impossibly beautiful,” his body as hard and cold as marble. He’s impossibly smart too: he plays and composes classical music and has two degrees from Harvard. And, like any good bad boy, he drives really, really nice cars really, really fast.

Bella goes on and on about how mysterious and seducing and perfect he is. But once they actually get together, she wholeheartedly submits herself to his every whim. The fact that Edward can read people’s minds (though not Bella’s for some reason-presumably because she doesn’t really have that much going on up there) shows that he is all about control. This becomes evident as the two grow closer;they become inseparable (though not in the cute way), and when a rival vampire clan jeopardizes Bella’s life, Edward tells her to abandon her sweet, thoughtful and lonely dad to skip town. Bella was indeed in danger, but Edward didn’t have to force her to blow off her dad.

What makes me cringe more than the film’s lessons is the viewer response to them. We talk so much about how pornography and advertising and television are giving young girls unrealistic expectations about body image and relationships, but what about crazes for a novel that promotes the suppression of self-confidence and identity and creates a steamy hero out of a cold and brooding vampire?

My sisters are obsessed with the series; one so much so that she read one of the books in church, hiding it in the hymnal she was supposed to be using. And she’s not alone. Fan groups and forums have sprung up all over the place with readers confessing their undying love and unhealthy addiction for Edward and the vampire saga. On one such site called “Twilight Moms,” a poster admitted: “I have no desires to be part of the real world right now. Nothing I was doing before holds any interest to me.”

Granted, it’s not just vampire romance novels that can pull people in so seductively. But the fact that some women may expect, if only secretly, that their boyfriend or husband will start acting like Edward is alarming and wholly unfair. It’s like when a man expects his girlfriend or wife to perform like a porn star in bed. Pornography is not real sex, and Edward is not a real man.

I don’t want to completely destroy what many women see as an ideal man. It’s good for men to look out for what is best for their significant other. But I still struggle with the thought of trying to become someone like Edward Cullen, because he’s really not someone any man should want to be, or any woman should want to love.

A blogger at summed up well the lesson being told to young men through the movie:

“Don’t be fun, thoughtful, quirky or smart if you want to get the girl. Be a d—. But be a d— who can stop cars with your bare hands.  And look depressed. But be good looking while you’re depressed. And express your desire to be with the girl of your dreams but be vague about why you can’t be with her. Confuse her, make her crazy, change your moods by the hour and make sure your hair looks like Johnny Depp in the mid-90s.”

I don’t have two Harvard degrees or chiseled, marble-like features. I don’t drive sports cars or live in a mansion. I don’t have immortal life or superhuman strength. What does that mean for me? If I want to be in a relationship with a girl but I know that when she thinks of the “perfect man” she thinks of Edward Cullen, I lose. Because I am impossibly imperfect.

But who isn’t? That’s why unrealistic expectations, even if they are gleaned from fiction, are so destructive: they don’t allow us to be real, to be human.

But then, Edward Cullen isn’t human. He’s a vampire. So, ladies, dream away, I guess. But when you wake up, don’t tell me what you dreamt about. I have a feeling I will be sorely disappointed.


Why I Love The Midwest

Originally printed in the North Central Chronicle on April 3, 2009.

A friend of mine grew up with the California itch. Her family was from San Francisco but she was stuck in Wisconsin for most of her life. She always complained about it and talk about wanting to be an actress and live the life in Hollywood, get out of the Midwest and all that.

She eventually went to college in Los Angeles. But after a few years there she became disillusioned with the West Coast life for some reason. I thought nothing but a family reunion every decade would bring her back to the Midwest, but now she says she is coming home after graduation.four_seasons

What brought her back? Maybe it was the bratwurst and quality beer. Midwesterners know how to eat and drink, that’s for sure. Maybe it was the sports teams. God knows the Packers are way cooler than the San Diego Chargers.

I don’t know exactly, but my point is we have a great thing going here in the Midwest. It’s hard to appreciate this when, if you’re like me, you have lived here your whole life. But we have seasons. Actual seasons. Californians don’t know the meaning of the word. All they get are sun and 70s. Some of you think that’s the perfect kind of weather. But when you get that all day, every day, it gets boring. You start thinking you’re entitled to perfect weather. Maybe that’s why West Coasters get that stereotype of entitlement.

Right now we are starting to enjoy the fruits of spring. There will be green grass and flowers and rebirth and sun. We get thunderstorms, baby rabbits, and puddles in which we can gleefully splash. Then summer will come with its freedom and fun and humidity and even more sun. Summer is a great season, sure, but our version doesn’t distinguish us from the rest of the world. Summer then leads us to autumn, the season that makes you think philosophically about life and death and bobbing for apples while you watch the colors fall from decaying trees.

And then, winter, the most polarizing season. The lovers love the snow, the sledding, the snowballs, and Christmas, while the haters hate the cold, the cold, and the cold. I am a self-proclaimed winter-lover. Yes, even the cold. It toughens us. It doesn’t allow us to take for granted the warmth of the summer. It makes the spring all the more beautiful after months of cold and dreariness.

You can’t go 10 minutes without hearing someone complain about the weather here. Like the weather is the only thing stopping them from enjoying their life. When did that become the case? June and July don’t have a monopoly joy. January has a share of it too. We are just exiting winter, so I suspect the complaints will subside-for now. Another year and the yelping will come back again, just as annoying as ever.

That’s why, amongst those who bemoan the trappings of winter, I exalt its virtues. I say I love it for all the reasons they hate it. It’s too cold, they say. All the better the warmth will feel. It’s too dreary, they say. All the brighter the sun will shine. In spite of all the bad things that are happening around us, I’m just trying to look for the good. We’re supposed to be living in the age of hope, after all.

So come November, as the temperatures drop and your nose hairs begin to freeze, turn that frown upside down and remember that Californians will never know how it feels to walk on ice. Or how it feels to get a snowball in the face. That, my Midwest friends, is something that is reserved for us.


Oh, Oscars, How Do I Loathe Thee?

Published in the North Central Chronicle on January 30, 2009.

Let me count the ways…

1. You want normal people to like you, but you fail to acknowledge what people like.

In the past, you’ve been excused from this because most of the time the highest grossing film of year wasn’t worthy of awards. But this year is different. The Dark Knight and Wall-E dominated the box office and landed on many top 10 lists. What better combination can there be for awards season? The ratings for the awards ceremony have steadily decline to half the viewers since 1998; giving due props to the high quality popular films would have boosted viewership and proved that Hollywood isn’t always out of touch.

Instead, you’ve acknowledged films that barely anyone except film critics has seen. I know that most of the time, the smaller films are better than the box office winners so they deserve to win awards, but this was the year that broke that pattern. Instead of taking the chance to try something new, you stick with what works but isn’t very exciting.

2. Year after year the studios throw out mediocre Oscar bait like “The Reader” yet you still bite, hook, line, and sinker.

Ricky Gervais was right when told perennial nominee Kate Winslet at the Golden Globes, “I told you; do a Holocaust

In six months no one will remember this movie.

movie and the awards start coming.” Everybody knows which movies are being made simply because they have at least one ingredient in the magical formula guaranteed to clean up at the Oscars: angst, lots of yelling, Meryl Streep, or the Holocaust.

But I get it: it’s all about politics. The Reader got in because of the legendary influence of Hollywood heavyweight producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein (the same men who helped Shakespeare in Love upset Saving Private Ryan for best picture back in 1998). It’s not the quality of the film but the quality of the film’s PR that matters in the end. That is ultimately what is exacerbating the problem with how the Academy Awards are run, but I don’t foresee this changing any time soon.

3. You hate animated movies.

I don’t really know why. Maybe you’re afraid that nominating a film like Wall-E because you feel threatened by anything that doesn’t require overpaid humans to do the work. Or maybe you just don’t understand yet that animation is not a genre but simply another way to tell a story. Whatever the reason, you didn’t do animated films a favor by creating a separate category for them; you’re ghettoizing them. You’re saying animated movies do not equal real movies, even when the best reviewed film of the year is a great romantic science fiction adventure film that happens to be animated.

4. You never award people at the right time.

We’ve seen this countless times: an actor or actress or director winning for a film because it was viewed as more of a reward for their body of work rather than an award for that specific performance. Martin Scorsese winning in 2006 for The Departed is an example. Kate Winslet, the youngest actress to get six nominations, will probably win this year for The Reader because voters feel she is owed for having been snubbed before. This practice causes others who actually deserve to win, like Sally Hawkins for Happy-Go-Lucky, to get robbed.

5. For being such a politically liberal town, you get really conservative during award season.

This, too, has a storied history. The so-so Crash won over the heavily favored, gay themed and superior picture Brokeback Mountain in 2005 because it was the safer pick. This year, The Reader, Frost/Nixon, and Slumdog Millionaire — historical or quasi-historical film with obvious messages — are up for the big awards instead of The Dark Knight and Wall-E, two films with powerful political and social commentary that liberals would ordinarily embrace in real life. For being the year for change, Hollywood has failed to change any of their award season habits.

He's just perplexed by the Academy's puzzling logic.

In spite of my complaining, I still appreciate it when the Oscars showcase the art house pictures that don’t make hundreds of millions at the box office. There are a lot of well made films out there that wouldn’t be seen without the buzz that starts at the film festivals and carries them through awards season.

Still, the Academy needs to do a better job of rewarding art when it deserves it. The Reader doesn’t deserve it. In 10 years no one will remember it. Wall-E, however, will live on for a long time. It’s just a matter of whether the Academy wanted to live on with it. Apparently, they didn’t care that much.

Film Review

Stranger Than Fiction

Originally published in the North Central Chronicle on January 18, 2009, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

An artist may not set out to create something that changes the world, but he just might do it by mistake. Marc Forster’s 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction is a movie about fate—or “the continuity of life and the inevitability of death” as one of its character puts it—and also the consequences of breaking continuity and challenging inevitability. Stranger Than Fiction subversively wrestles with these complicated ideas while maintaining the guise of a quirky Will Ferrell vehicle. That’s why I think it’s a modern classic.

There are really two stories going on in this movie that are hugely dependent upon each other. The core story is about author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) writing another in a series of acclaimed tragedies, but due to writer’s block she can’t figure out how to kill her main character, Harold Crick.

She has most of the story down though: Harold (Will Ferrell) is an IRS auditor living a painfully rigid and boring life. Everything in Harold’s world is simple, angular, and calculated. He can quickly compute complicated math problems in his head and count everything from the number of strokes he makes while brushing his teeth to the exact distance he is from his apartment. He has one friend that we know of, Dave, and his life is probably just as uninteresting as Harold’s. He follows this path with steadfast discipline until he meets Anna Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a beautiful bakery owner with a revolutionary’s bent, some unpaid back taxes, and a healthy scorn for the IRS and for Harold.

This is where a glitch in the universe adds a second dimension to the story: Once he meets Anna, Harold begins to hear Eiffel’s omniscient voice narrating his thoughts and actions as she writes them in her novel. First he is confused, then annoyed, and then scared after she says Harold awaits his “imminent death.” These two stories collide in Harold’s world, jarring him out of whack for the first time.

He tries to make sense of the voice in his head, visiting first a psychiatrist who brands him a schizophrenic, then a professor of literature (Dustin Hoffman) who decides that Harold is in fact a character in his own life story, and that he needs to figure out whether he is in a tragedy or a comedy. “In a tragedy, you die,” the professor says. “In a comedy, you get hitched.” Harold then sets off to discover this much, tallying in a notebook moments with Anna that constitute a “tragedy” or a “comedy.”

From there it’s an unlikely courtship where the auditor falls for the audited. The story is not meant to be realistic; rather, it is a fable set in a heightened reality. Filmed in Chicago, the director created that reality by discovering angles and perceptions a skilled photographer would see, rather than a tourist hitting the hot spots. The IRS office, Harold’s apartment, and even the streets themselves are white-washed, sterile, and modern.

Harold’s world is plain and starkly angular, whereas Anna’s is full of curves and colors. Harold gradually starts to stray from his straight and narrow path and finds liberation—this aided by his continuing quest to discover the source of the voice in his head and why he is on a path towards his death.

The screenwriter Zach Helm says the film is ultimately about saving lives. A bold statement, to be sure, but it’s nonetheless true. The story illustrates the need for saving people from the cold grip of uniformity by giving them something to live for. After their first very unpleasant encounter, Harold falls for Anna and she unintentionally saves his life by finally giving him something to live for. Inspired by his new emancipation, he goes to the movies, he buys a guitar, and he wears jeans for probably the first time in his life. He adds color to his life.

However, the angst created by Eiffel’s incessant voice in his head never really goes away, even after his liberation, and so his quest for understanding and peace continues until he discovers Eiffel and meets her face to face. It’s quite the moment.

Watching this movie again reminded me of two other modern classics: Adaptation and The Truman Show. Both are stories set in a heightened reality, with men who are stuck in a groove and have the desire to get out of it but can’t. In the case of Adaptation, it is Nicolas Cage’s character’s self-loathing that prevents his personal liberation; in The Truman Show it is Truman’s own fears of the unknown and also the powerful external forces around him that try to keep him in the status quo.

I realized having watched it many times that Stranger Than Fiction is my favorite kind of movie. It’s funny, it’s touching, but it also makes you think. It’s uplifting and philosophical, artistic and quick-witted. The cast is oddly perfect: Will Ferrell plays Harold with beautiful restraint, and Maggie Gyllenhaal provides power and tenderness when needed. Marc Forster, the director, injects the same unique flair he did in his wonderful 2004 picture Finding Neverland.

It didn’t appear on many top 10 lists in 2006 (though I did name it as one of my favorite films of the 2000s), but I think Stranger Than Fiction will age well because of its timelessness and emotional appeal — that is, if Will Ferrell would stop phoning in such mindless ballyhoo like Semi-Pro. One can only hope.


Carpe 2009: My Resolutions For The New Year

Published in the North Central Chronicle on January 9, 2009.

New Year’s Resolutions are like Airborne pills: they don’t really work, but we use them anyway because they make us feel better about the bumpy ride ahead. I’ve never taken Airborne pills, but every January I still resolve to do something different in the New Year-exercise more, eat less fast food, be more loving towards the unlovables like Paris Hilton fans and people who wear Crocs. (I’ve gotten better at the first two, but the last one…ain’t gonna happen.)

This year, for the sake of accountability, I’m making public each resolution I have for 2009, because you can tell your diary everything you plan on doing, but your diary won’t tell you all those Krispy Kremes have made you fall off the fat wagon again. That’s what friends and casual acquaintances are for.

Resolution #1: Stop complaining about Kaufman. I know, I know. Kaufman’s food tends to…well, underperform. I’d love for the marinara sauce to not taste like lemon juice, or for the eggs to be in solid form, but it does, and they aren’t. Big deal. I don’t want to drop the whole “There are starving children in Africa” argument, but there are starving children in Africa.

We all know exactly how good or how bad the food in Kaufman is, so we don’t need to keep telling each other. It’s like inmates telling each other they’re in prison. What’s the point?

Resolution #2: Stop complaining about the campus bikes. While there is never a %$^&!@& campus bike when it’s $@^#$!& needed, there is no use in complaining incessantly about something I have no control over. I’ll just have to make do walking the three blocks to class. I’m sure it will be fine.

Resolution #3: Listen to Will Smith more. While on the promotional tour for his film “Seven Pounds,” Will Smith doled out some really good life advice: read and run every day. Doing so will stimulate the mind and the body and make you feel like you’ve accomplished something, even on a cruel, dreary, why-do-I-live-in-the-Midwest January day.

It’s easy to get the reading part out of the way when classes are in session, but the running part will take some motivation. Check out the treadmills in the Merner workout room or join a pack of cross country runners on a winding trek through the neighborhood. I’m sure they won’t mind.

Resolution #4: Criticize the new president. Now that he’s elected, it’s okay to admit: Obama got a pass from the media. It helped that he was telegenic and not a Republican, but he snuck in without being bullied as much as Clinton or Palin were. But now that he’s going to be the guy in charge, we can’t let up on him just because he’s inexperienced or because of his skin color.

There will be scandals and missteps and flat-out lies, so don’t be surprised if Mr. Cool is not the savior of the world as your Obamanic friends would have you believe. He is officially The Man now, and we ought to stick it to him as we have faithfully to Bush over the last eight years.

Resolution #5: Never trust the economy. Sure, it will bounce back eventually, but this Armageddon of ’08 has shown me that my mattress is just about the safest place I can put money these days. My brain has about a 10-second threshold for economic matters, so when people say that the sub-prime mortgage whosey-whatsey and the dividends on the market investments yadda yadda yadda will recover, I could care less. From now on, my money will be in two places: my checking account and Noodles & Co. That’s an investment I can rely upon.

Resolution #6: Never trust governors. 2008 gave us the double whammy of Eliot “Emperors Club VIP” Spitzer and Rod “I Don’t Understand What A Wiretap Is” Blagojevich. Both men have sexual pun-worthy last names, they both have hair issues, and they both are really, really stupid. I mean really stupid. But while Blagojevich’s dealings were dirty, at least he didn’t drag his wife to the press conference like Spitzer did.

So far, Jim Doyle, the governor of my home state of Wisconsin, has been in the clear, but I’m just waiting for the day when we learn he’s one-upped both Spitzer and Blagojevich by giving an open Senate seat to a prostitute named Cherry he slept with in the capitol building. That, my friends, would make my year.

Resolution #7: Stop saying “awesome.” I don’t know who started this, but it needs to stop. “Awesome” has become the word people will associate with this decade, like “rad” of the ’90s, “groovy” of the ’70s, and “flapper” of the ’20s. I’m not saying this decade was awesome-after all, the ’90s were anything but radical-I’m just saying the word needs to stay in this decade. There are plenty of great synonyms, like “stupendous” and “fantabulous.” That last one isn’t really a word, but it’s better than awesome.

Film Review

Best Films of 2008



By far the boldest movie of the year. The wordless first half-hour is delectably good and a bit subversive too. The plot sags once the robots leave Earth, but it remains a beauty to behold. I was surprised at how emotionally invested I was in those cute little robots. It’s certainly a better love story than anything I’ve seen humans try to pull off in a long time.

2. Happy-Go-Lucky

Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, an indelibly optimistic teacher who finds the good in everything around her-her stolen bicycle, her siblings’ rivalry, and even her racist driving instructor. She talks a mile a minute but it’s never overbearing and she’s always funny. This purely happy indie makes the perfect antidote for the depressing year we’ve had.

3. Man on Wire

What a thrill it was to watch this movie. A documentary about French acrobat Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center, Man on Wire shows through dramatic reenactments how Petit and his crew snuck to the top of the towers and accomplished a daring feat unlike any other. It gave me something good to think about whenever I see pictures of the Twin Towers.

4. In Bruges

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play two hit men sent to the scenic Belgian city of Bruges to hide out after a murder. Farrell’s character hates Bruges, while Gleeson’s loves it. They’re the funniest hit men since Pulp Fiction. The movie blends humor, action, and tragedy perfectly. No one saw this February release when it came out, but you have to see it now.

5. Rachel Getting Married

A good ol’ dysfunctional family flick. Anne Hathaway plays Kym, a narcissistic addict who leaves rehab for the weekend to attend her sister’s wedding. Tensions rise to the surface as old wounds within the family are ripped open. The film honestly and perfectly shows the love/hate dynamic that binds every family together, for better or for worse.

6. Shotgun Stories

Roger Ebert recommended this unknown indie about two sets of half-brothers engage in a deadly civil war in rural Arkansas after their common father dies. The father’s first family, the one he abandoned, takes their hate for their father out on his other sons, and vice versa. It’s a quietly menacing yet ultimately uplifting story that rings true.

7. The Dark Knight ­­

A blockbuster that actually earned its acclaim. Heath Ledger certainly deserves at least an Oscar nod for his role-the best villain in a long time. Repeated viewings revealed the film’s biggest flaw; without the Joker, The Dark Knight would be pretty standard superhero movie fare. Nevertheless, it’s a thrill to watch.

8. Tell No One

A great French thriller about a man who goes on the run after being wrongly accused of his wife’s murder. Simply yet beautifully shot, it seems like any other standard spy movie until the twist-fest of an ending, when things unfold little by little with new reveals one after another. But what won me was the incredible amount of heart and love underneath it all.

9. Encounters at the End of the World

A religious experience. The famed enigmatic German director Werner Herzog tops his last documentary (2005’s Grizzly Man) with this meditative look at Antarctica and the stories of those who brave the elements down South, from the iceberg geologists to the pinniped seals. It’s a beautiful and haunting ode to the great unknown.

10. Milk

Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to office in America in 1970s San Francisco. While it follows similar guidelines for the standard biopic, Milk is enthralling, educational, and very moving. It’s also very topical, with California having recently passed a ban on gay marriage. Sean Penn is deservedly bound for another Oscar nod.

Worst of the Year: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Remember when Indiana Jones and his crew were on the quest for the skulls and they were balancing on that gigantic plate in an underground cave? That scene was ripped-off from National Treasure: Book of Secrets. When you’re stealing from a movie that stole its entire style from the original Indiana Jones movies, you’ve got a problem. Add that to the laughable jungle chase scene and ridiculous “it was aliens!” ending and you’re left with a hideous shell of a movie.

Most Underrated Film: W.

While it didn’t make the impact Oliver Stone wish it had, W. manages to make some sense out of our soon-to-be-ex-President; his Oedipal complex, conversion to Christianity, and rational for going to war are all treated fairly and make Dubya a sympathetic character. The political junkie in me loved the parts about his presidency, but I also liked seeing an idea of what it was like growing up beneath the daunting shadow of his father. Here’s hoping for a sequel.

Most Overrated Film: Slumdog Millionaire

In Mumbai, India, a boy from the slums grows up and goes on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The film tells his life story through each of the questions he answers. I grew tired of that stagey and predictable framing device early on, and the film’s inexcusable glamorization of the Mumbai slums just wrecked this one for me. Speaking of predictable: guy chases childhood sweetheart? Please.

Guilty Pleasure: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

A pleasant early-in-the-year surprise. I loved the 1930s sets, costumes, and music. Amy Adams shines in any role she takes. The first 20 minutes-a rapid-fire slapstick comedy scenario-were highly engaging. The rest of the movie slows down and falls into a Great Gatsby groove, but it ends up with great depth and heart. Hopefully it will at least pick up a few nominations for costumes and set design, though it definitely deserves more.