Tag: synchronicity

Siskel & Ebert, Mark Driscoll, and the Power of Popularity

Among the podcasts in my regular rotation, there are two others I’m listening to that are both limited series, airing concurrently, and happen to share a surprising thematic overlap.

One is Gene and Roger, an eight-part Spotify-exclusive series from The Ringer that serves as an oral history of Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and their movie criticism legacy. The other is The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill from Christianity Today, which charts the story of Mars Hill Church and its controversial pastor Mark Driscoll.

What’s the connection between these two disparate stories? The epiphany came after listening to recent episodes of both shows, released on the same day.

For the brand

“Top Guns” finds Siskel and Ebert reaching new heights of exposure, popularity, and power through their TV show and “two thumbs up” brand. Meanwhile, “The Brand” follows Driscoll as he and Mars Hill’s burgeoning marketing team harness technology and internet to build his personal brand and rocket the church’s growth.

Both subjects became celebrities within their domains despite their unlikely origins, unorthodox approaches, and often prickly demeanor. Whatever criticism that came their way—like for the reductive sloganeering of Siskel and Ebert’s “two thumbs up” and for Driscoll’s macho masculinity and objectification of women—was overshadowed by their surprising success and cultural ubiquity.

Movies and machismo

Though I was too young to watch Siskel and Ebert together on TV at the time, I was a regular viewer of the post-Siskel iteration with Richard Roeper and even the post-Ebert version with Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott. Before podcasts and social media, this was the only time I could see intelligent people arguing about movies. You also couldn’t be a film lover and understand what it means to write and think about movies without Ebert’s influence specifically. (His Great Movies anthologies are an essential resource, and the documentary Life Itself is a great primer on his life and work.)

Driscoll had a similar influence within American Christianity. I listened to his sermon podcasts through iTunes in the early 2010s, back when they were usually topping the Religion charts (and back when I was still listening to sermons). Driscoll’s tough-guy personality and the reported toxic culture of Mars Hill eventually turned me off, but his cultural cache lived on—probably peaking with his infamous trolling of Obama for his second Inauguration—until Mars Hill’s demise less than two years later on account of Driscoll’s bullying and “patterns of persistent sinful behavior”.

The beauty of synchronicity

The comparisons do fade at some point. The end of Siskel and Ebert—as a show and as individuals—was caused by untimely illness, while it was Driscoll’s behavior that led to his disgrace.

Still, it was a synchronistic delight to catch both of these excellent podcasts at the right moment to hear how seemingly unrelated stories can inform each other. One of the benefits of subscribing to (probably) too many podcasts…

Are You Paying Attention? On ‘The Social Dilemma’ and ‘My Octopus Teacher’

I don’t have to go looking for synchronicity because it always finds me. This time it was on Netflix.

The other day I watched Netflix’s new docu-drama The Social Dilemma (trailer) based on the recommendation from a friend and a lively text thread about its implications.

The film’s thesis is that social networks are engineered to hack human psychology and prey upon our attention as a means to serve advertisers, which is detrimental to humans specifically and society generally. We learn this from the talking heads of former Silicon Valley executives, whose firsthand experience with the dark side of social media have motivated them to speak out against their former employers and advocate for reform.

Interwoven with the talking heads is the drama part of the film, which depict a family wrestling with the many ways technology can negatively affect our lives: the son slowly being radicalized by extremist propaganda, the tween daughter tormented by insecurity and social media bullying, the mother witnessing the fraying of family cohesion.

Though the dramatized storyline sometimes felt a little “anti-smoking PSA” to me, as a morality tale it was an effective companion to the talking heads. (This interview with Tristan Harris, one of the subjects and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, gives some needed context to his contributions.)

The documentary stimulated a valuable discussion between my wife and I about social media’s role in our family. But it wasn’t until later that night when its lessons sank into my consciousness in a tangible way.

Diving into the divine milieu

Later that same night, I decided to watch My Octopus Teacher, another new Netflix documentary featuring freediver and filmmaker Craig Foster. The banal description (“A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world”) belies the transcendent richness of what we see develop on screen—both between Foster and the octopus and between Foster and the underwater environment.

He describes how diving in the cold seawater makes you “come alive to the world” and focuses your mind intently on your surroundings. I’ve written about freediving before, and how the “divine milieu” of the sea—or any uncivilized landscape—can open us to transformation.

Foster’s own transformation happens over the course of a year as he encounters and befriends a common octopus. And thanks to his abundant underwater footage, we get to witness a series of moments—surprises, scares, sorrows, and simplicities—that teach so much about a reclusive and otherworldly creature. Due to Foster’s soothing narration, the gentle piano score, and the meditative quality of being immersed underwater, it’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer.

That also makes it a fascinating contrast to The Social Dilemma, chiefly in how it offers an antidote to all the ails social media can create. If we feel distracted, we should seek focus. If we feel fragmented, we should seek embodiment. (Brené Brown: “We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands”—a lesson I have to constantly relearn.)

Being in nature, in silence, or at least away from screens allow for both of those things if you let it. And recently I did.

My toddler teacher

A few days after watching both of these films, for undetermined reasons Mr. 19 Months was refusing to fall asleep. I brought him out to his play area and he started tinkering with a wooden train set we recently put into toy circulation. He usually doesn’t focus on one activity for very long, yet for at least 15 minutes he sat there quietly exploring and experimenting with this new contraption.

Usually my phone is with me in our living room post-bedtime, but it wasn’t that night. I could have retrieved it, but I didn’t want to break this spell as I knew he’d either want to follow me or jump to another activity. I soon realized that if I did have my phone, I would have missed so much.

I would have missed his subtle gestures as he figured out how to put the cylindrical blocks into their corresponding holes in the train car.

I would have missed trying to decipher his thought process of how to slot the various discs onto their poles.

I would have missed out on pondering how toddlers can be ferocious one moment and beautifully serene the next—not unlike octopuses.

Similarly, Foster’s unique story wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t dedicate himself to visiting the kelp forest every day, and if he hadn’t noticed the octopus beneath its camouflaged hideout, and if he didn’t intentionally seek to cultivate trust with a marvelous and mysterious creature.

My own marvelous and mysterious creature has taught me a lot in his short time on Earth. (See the tag Baby Comello for the continuing journey.) Just by living out his full self—and toddlers can’t do anything else—he demonstrates the rewards of using your attention wisely, whether it’s for a glowing screen or a wooden train set or an inquisitive toddler or a reclusive cephalopod.

You don’t have to choose one, but you do have to choose.

When the past isn’t past

Alan Jacobs:

If you step back from the endless flow of social media and the internet more generally, and sit down with a book from the past that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the affairs of the moment, something curious and rather wonderful can happen. Unexpectedly and randomly — stochastically — you begin to perceive resonances with your own moment, with the concerns that you may have turned to the past in order to escape.

See also: synchronicity.

Reading serendipitously

In an interview, Sven Birkerts talks about how serendipity guides his reading:

Any good book will, in the manner of a pool-table bumper, send you angling off to another, and that to another, on and on. The trails are not predictable, they really are serendipitous, but not in the manner of Pandora (“If you liked …”). It’s much stranger than Pandora. Mention of a name in John Berger sends you to some art critic who sends you to the letters of so-and-so, who you find out was mesmerized by X. … You do this for years and it creates this referential network. …

And it never stops, because you really are never done with any worthy writer, you can’t cross him or her off the list. How many times has some writer sent me back to the same essay by, say, Emerson. Each time it’s like “I’ve never read this before.”

Discovery is half the fun of reading. So many books, movies, albums, apps, whatever, I’ve encountered because some other book or tweet or interview or review mentioned something that piqued my interest and sent me pinballing somewhere else.

See also serendipity’s cousin: synchronicity.

I heard them on the radio

How often do you listen to honest-to-goodness radio anymore? Usually I go to it only if I’m not in the mood for podcasts, audiobooks, or my own music collection. I’ll spin through my station presets to see if I get lucky, though most often I get bad songs and ads.

But not the other day. I was feeling especially jovial after work and wanted to stay in that high, and this lineup (between three different stations) was what started when I turned on the car and ended when I arrived at home:

“Jet Airliner” by Steve Miller Band

“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!

“Always Something There To Remind Me” by Naked Eyes

“China Grove” by The Doobie Brothers

“Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield

My speakers were cranked. I don’t think I’ve ever hit such a solid streak on the radio before. Not one of these songs are in my own collection, yet they perfectly matched the moment. I could generate a list of six completely different songs that would be just as great and fitting, but that’s the nice thing about radio: call in requests all you want, but you can’t engineer musical serendipity, especially across stations. You just have to get lucky.

Long live synchronicity!

Innocents & Wonder

theinnocents

Synchronicity strikes again.

I recently watched Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents, a new film set in post-WWII Poland focused on Mathilde, a young French Red Cross nurse compelled to help a convent of Polish nuns with a dark secret. I watched it while in the midst of Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Wonder, which is also told from the perspective of a nurse, Lib Wright, a Florence Nightingale apprentice in nineteenth-century rural Ireland who is sent to observe and care for a girl purported to have survived without food for months, only on “manna from heaven.”

Both Mathilde and Lib are reluctant recruits to their missions. Mathilde is beseeched by a desperate nun; Lib is in it for the paycheck and the desire to debunk the farce of the “miracle girl” with ruthless scientific empiricism. They allow their biases and prejudices—Mathilde’s annoyance with the sisters’ rigid piety and Lib’s anti-Irish condescension—to color their encounters with their patients, which creates tension initially but also allows for surprising connections.

I encourage you to seek both of these works out not only because they are worth the experience, but because both are stories about women, made by women. They each do have interesting male supporting characters (the journalist Bryne in The Wonder and the Jewish doctor Samuel in The Innocents have what could be considered a conflict of interest in helping Mathilde and Lib, respectively, which is what makes their involvement so compelling), but they are above all focused on the lives of women, without calling attention to this focus. They are simply great stories deftly told.

So Runs the Man Away or (The Unexpected Virtue of Synchronicity)

The theme that has defined my 2014, I only now realize, is synchronicity. That Jungian concept (“the occurrence of two or more events that appear to be meaningfully related but not causally related”) bubbled up several times this year, especially in what I was reading, watching, or listening to concurrently. For instance:

  • Seeing Interstellar as I worked my way through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein;
  • Nicolas Carr’s The Glass Cage manifesting itself in my library work;
  • The fascinating freedivers in James Nestor’s Deep swimming in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu;
  • Marilyn Manson lending some insight into John McDonaugh’s wonderful 2014 film Calvary;
  • Disparate writings from N.D. Wilson, Francis Spufford, and Wendell Berry saying pretty similar things;
  • and seeing the Dorothy Day in Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own pop up in the bombastic yet beautifully rendered Noah

To name only the ones I blogged about. But I’d like to add one last synchronous moment to this list, which arrived courtesy of John Wilkes Booth and an avalanche.

John Wilkes Booth Runs After Assassinating Lincoln, 1865 - Illustration

In Force Majeure, the new film from Ruben Östlund, a Swedish family vacationing at a French ski resort eats lunch in an outdoor restaurant flanking the majestic, snow-laden mountains. The resort performs routine controlled avalanches to regulate the snow’s movement and safeguard against a truly deadly avalanche, and the lunchgoers witness one while they eat. Except this one careens right toward them. The father, initially wowed by the view, suddenly senses danger and ditches his wife and two children for cover (after making sure to take his phone). Turns out it was just the snow-dust that crashed into them, not the avalanche itself, so everyone returns to their tables, including Tomas, the father who just abandoned his post—literally and figuratively. The rest of the film documents the unraveling from this moment, which each character remembers differently yet causes shared emotional upheaval and provokes a deep and unsettling reconsideration of masculinity, human nature, and the incumbent expectations of gender.

I watched this movie while in the midst of James Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. It’s a gripping if a bit overheated retelling of the Lincoln assassination and aftermath, which indeed is stranger than any fiction. The moment of synchronicity here occurred during the assassination itself, when Booth shot Lincoln in the Ford’s Theatre presidential box and leapt onto the stage. Harry Hawk was the lone actor on stage at that moment and got an up-close view of Booth’s famous cry “Sic semper tyrannis!” and “The South is avenged!” Then, the key moment, recounted by Hawk himself in a letter to his parents written soon after:

[Booth] ran toward me, and I, seeing the knife, thought I was the one he was after, ran off the stage and up a flight of stairs. He made his escape out of a door, directly in the rear of the theatre, mounted a horse and rode off. The above all occurred in the space of a quarter of a minute, and at the time I did not know that the President was shot; although, if I had tried to stop him, he would have stabbed me.

In Manhunt, Swanson subtly criticizes Hawk for turning and running, linking his supposed moment of cowardice to one at the end of the chase for Booth, when John Garrett, owner of the barn that housed an armed Booth in a standoff with the cavalry, fled from the barn after thinking Booth was going to shoot him.

All of these moments might provoke some knee-jerk judgments but beg the same question: What are you prepared to do? Harry Hawk was not prepared to fight an armed assassin after the shock of that moment. But should he have anyway? Other times in Manhunt, men show courage in moments of terror and some pay the price for it in blood. Tomas in Force Majeure had time to take his family to shelter or at least shield them. But why didn’t he? He pays the price later on: not in blood like the people in Manhunt, but in self-esteem and dignity.

It’s easy as a viewer or future observer to question the decisions these men made or didn’t make. It’s not so easy to make them ourselves in real life, man or woman. What are you prepared to do? What cost are you willing to pay?

Happy New Year!