Review: Skyfaring

Posted in Books, Reviews, Travel by cleithart on November 27, 2015

41zp1v63vjl-_sx347_bo1204203200_I don’t like to sleep on planes. I don’t even like closing the window shade. I’d much rather watch the world go by and imagine what kinds of things people are up to down on the surface of the earth while I fly quietly above their heads. Flying has always felt otherwordly, fantastic in the old sense of the word. So when I picked up Mark Vanhoenacker’s book, Skyfaring, and read the first few pages, I knew I was in the company of a kindred spirit.

Vanhoenacker is a long-haul airline pilot who flies from London to the uttermost parts of the earth. Skyfaring is his poetic meditation on the wonders and oddities of flying. Listen to what he says in the first chapter (titled “Lift”).

Three questions come up most often, in language that hardly varies. Is flying something I have always wanted to do? Have I ever seen anything ‘up there’ that I cannot explain? And do I remember my first flight? I like these questions. They seem to have arrived, entirely intact, from a time before flying became ordinary and routine. They suggest that even now, when many of us so regularly leave one place on the earth and cross the high blue to another, we are not nearly as accustomed to flying as we think.”

From that starting point, Vanhoenacker explores miraculous facets of flying from a variety of perspectives. Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of airplanes and air travel, covering everything from the mysterious to the mechanical. He tells us about weather, water systems, continents, cardinal directions, time, space, language, and what it feels like to steer an aircraft with hundreds of passengers (or “souls”) on board. If you’re ever tempted to think that technology and spirituality are at odds, this book will fix that once and for all.

For me, reading this book was like re-opening a journal I had written in but never read. The sensations he describes (mostly, the excitement of flying) are sensations I know well. The feeling of the air lifting the plane as it barrels down the runway. Looking down at your hometown from thousands of feet in the air. The paradox of knowing that there is nothing below the floor but clouds and miles of empty space. GK Chesterton describes the man who leaves his country only to return and find that everything that used to be rote and familiar is new and exciting once again. That’s the experience of air travel. Skyfaring captures that feeling all too well.

Flight is the cartographic, planetary equivalent of hearing a song covered by a singer you love, or meeting for the first time a relative whose features or mannerisms are already familiar. We know the song but not like this; we have never met this person and yet we have never in our lives been strangers. Airplanes raise us above the patterns of streets, forests, suburbs, schools, and rivers. The ordinary things we thought we knew become new or more beautiful, and the visible relationships between them on the land, particularly at night, hint at the circuitry of more or less everything.”

If there’s one thing I didn’t like about Skyfaring, it was that I read it too quickly. The middle chapters are full of fascinating descriptions of how planes and air travel work. Sometimes, the level of detail (all very poetically written) was too much to digest at once. Take breaks between chapters, or you might come away feeling overstuffed.

If you ever suffer from wanderlust, or if you’ve ever entertained thoughts of becoming a pilot, you probably shouldn’t read this book. But if you decide to risk it, you’re in for a thrilling ride. And you may end up lying in your bed at night with the lights out, eyes closed, skimming over the surface of the world in your sleep.

The Perfumed Butler

Posted in Bible, Education by cleithart on November 12, 2015

In our day and age (especially for young people like me, I think), it’s tempting to believe that Christians should have nothing to do with the government. After all, the people who preside over these fruited plains do not fear God. They pretend they have the right to reorder what God has ordered. They celebrate doctors and businessmen who dissect and sell dead babies and they do cartwheels while sinners careen toward hell. The amount of systemic corruption in our government is truly frightening. Does it really make sense to trust those who work in Washington to control the law of the land without trusting them to determine right and wrong? Or to put it another way, if the president isn’t a Christian, or doesn’t act like one, can Christians still proudly call themselves Americans?

Few Christians, I think, are tempted to anarchy, but there are many who lean heavily libertarian, and even more who view everything with a government label on it with suspicion. Public schools, public healthcare, social services, building codes, food service requirements, the TSA. At best, so annoying. At worst, dangerous. Can’t we just do away with all of them and get on with our Christian lives?

On the other hand, there are Christians who see the corruption in the government and want to shake the president out of the White House so they can replace him with someone who’s really born-again, a true Jesus-follower. Then, and only then, will God tabernacle among His American people.

The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah speak to both of these impulses.

Read the rest of the article at the Theopolis Institute.

The new literacy, coding isn’t

Posted in Education, Language by cleithart on October 28, 2015

Jeff Atwood, a programmer and entrepreneur, is skeptical of anyone who claims that programming is “the new literacy.” (In case you’ve never heard anyone make this claim, google this phrase.)

Atwood writes:

If someone tells you “coding is the new literacy” because “computers are everywhere today,” ask them how fuel injection works. By teaching low-level coding, I worry that we are effectively teaching our children the art of automobile repair. A valuable skill — but if automobile manufacturers and engineers are doing their jobs correctly, one that shouldn’t be much concern for average people, who happily use their cars as tools to get things done without ever needing to worry about rebuilding the transmission or even change the oil.

There’s nothing wrong with basic exposure to computer science. But it should not come at the expense of fundamental skills such as reading, writing and mathematics — and unfortunately today our schools, with limited time, have tons of pressure on them to convey those basics better.

Atwood’s main point is that we are always using tools and machines that work magically, as far as we’re concerned. More people fly on airplanes than they used to — 80% of the US population, or so I’ve heard — but no one is clamoring for flight training to be part of an elementary education. (Though that would be very cool.)

Coding is a mechanical skill, not a linguistic one. Think about where languages come from. They arise naturally from the need people have to communicate with each other. Verbal languages come with all kinds of cultural and historical associations, and they are always changing.

Programming languages, on the other hand, are invented. They don’t evolve naturally the way spoken languages do. They are designed to tell a computer to do certain things and only those things. Teaching kids to code will make them fluent in one or two forms of programming that could easily become obsolete in a few decades. Better to teach them logic and critical thinking — both of which are important skills for a programmer.

Atwood continues:

Learning to talk to the computer is the easiest part. Computers, for better or worse, do exactly what you tell them to do, every time, in exactly the same way. The people — well . . . you’ll spend the rest of your life figuring that out. And from my perspective, the sooner you start, the better.

What do great artists have in common?

Posted in Uncategorized by cleithart on October 22, 2015

I personally think that what the big ones have in common is a fierce moral sensibility, which is unquenchable. And they are all burning with some anger at the way the world is. The littler ones have made a peace with it. The bigger ones can’t make any peace.

Arthur Miller interviewed by Charlie Rose

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Posted in Movies by cleithart on May 6, 2015

avengers-age-of-ultron-posterIn many ways, Ultron is not exactly a movie. It’s the most recent entry in a franchise, a two-and-a-half-hour teaser for what’s coming next year and the year after and the year after. Mark Harris of Grantland dwelt on this aspect of cinema last year, pointing out that the studios that produce movies like Ultron are not in the business of creativity and originality – even if some of the movies they produce end up being creative and original. Marvel, Disney, and whoever owns the rights to the DC Comic universe are in the business of good business, where the future looks like more of what’s worked in the past.

I don’t want to be overly dramatic. As Harris points out, sequels and franchises have always existed in Hollywood. But the fact remains, for the average moviegoer to continue enjoying the stories of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he or she will have to be there each time a Marvel movie releases. The studios know this, and so they know they must tease the next thing. They must point the viewer to the future, or risk losing them altogether.

You can read the rest of the review over at Film Fisher.

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Charlie Chaplin on humor

Posted in Autumnus by cleithart on August 14, 2014

A screenwriter once asked Charlie Chaplin for advice on how to design a gag in which a fat lady is walking down the street, slipping on a banana peel and falling down. Should he first show the banana peel, then the lady approaching, and then the fall? Or, to show the fat lady first, and then the banana peel on which she slips?

Charlie Chaplin immediately replied: ‘You show the fat lady approaching; then you show the banana peel; then you show the fat lady and the banana peel together; then she steps OVER the banana peel and disappears down a manhole.’

via QI

Five shots: Inside Llewyn Davis & Nebraska

Posted in Aestas, Autumnus, Five Shots, Movies by cleithart on July 29, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

For their latest movie, the Coen brothers (Ethan and Joel) weren’t able to work with their cinematographer of choice (Roger Deakins) because he was working on another film, so they had to settle for French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. I say, “Settle for,” but Delbonnel has an extensive history in French cinema and his contribution the Harry Potter films (shooting The Half Blood Prince) was the only one in the series to be nominated for the Academy award for Cinematography.

Inside Llewyn Davis follows a young folk singer as he tries to survive a week in New York city in the dead of winter. He has no coat, no money, and his few friends are starting to be unimpressed by his constant bellyaching and freeloading. To say the movie has a plot would be generous: Llewyn meanders here and there, and the world never gives him sufficient reason to pursue anything. If anything, it conspires against him, although we wonder if there’s a chance he would succeed as a musician (and if not as a musician, at least as a friend) if he would just try, even a little bit.


In this first shot, Llewyn is knocking on the door of the apartment where his friends, Jim and Jean, live. Each location in this film is distinct, but several of them press closely around Llewyn as he tries to figure out his life and where he’ll be sleeping next.


It’s not easy to make the outdoors look as small and manageable as a film set. And it’s probably rare that you want to. I’m not exactly sure what it is about this shot, but I remained riveted on the back of John Goodman’s character as he hobbled to the men’s room. The angle of the roof helps contain the shot and focus attention on the character.


Roger Deakins is well-known for his habit of putting the light sources within the shot as opposed to outside it. In this third shot, it appears Delbonnel may be paying homage to this habit. We see all of the light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. With the red chairs on the floor and the white globes above, the effect is kind of psychedelic, which fits the dreamlike journey Llewyn has with these two crazy characters.


This shot has already been discussed over on HitFix, where Kristopher Tapley chose it as one of the best shots of 2013. The camera slowly pushes in on Llewyn as he plays for Bud Grossman, the music manager who could change his life and set him on the green, green rocky road to success. Llewyn’s guitar is in the light, while his face is in shadow. Bud Grossman is lit harshly from one side, creating a huge black hole between him and Llewyn. Needless to say, the audition doesn’t end the way Llewyn wants it to.


While Inside Llewyn Davis is wonderfully shot, there weren’t that many single frames that leaped out to me. For the fifth shot, I picked a frame that says more in the story than it does by itself. In some ways, it’s a recap of the previous shot. Llewyn visits his father in a nursing home and plays him a beautiful ballad, one of his favorites. His father listens without a single glimmer of recognition. He stares out the window as if thinking about something he misplaced a long time ago.


Nebraska is shot in black and white, and Tapley at HitFix gives a brief explanation why, based on an interview with the director of photography: “The goal was to capture a stark landscape where seemingly nothing happens, providing a glimpse of a simple reality one would yearn to rise above.” The story concerns a man named David who travels with his father, Woody, from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim a Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize. Like Inside Llewyn Davis, a large part of the film concerns a road trip. It was interesting to see how differently the two films portrayed the experience of driving across America.

Nebraska is more concerned with watching people relate to one another from a respectable distance than direct the audience’s attention to specific places. That said, there are quite a few instances of photographic jokes, where the framing itself becomes funny.


The first time we see Woody Grant, he’s hobbling along next to a Montana freeway, looking about as disoriented as you can get. A policeman stops, picks him up, and takes him in. The shot above comes when Woody’s son David comes to get his father from the police station. It doesn’t really have the full effect without David’s resigned disappointment, but the shot effectively conveys Woody’s smallness and weariness. The five empty chairs around him emphasis his loneliness as well.


In this shot, David and his brother Ross discuss what to do with their father. Woody is just offscreen, working on the engine of the truck. Almost every line in the frame directs attention to the brothers’ conversation, and we get the sense that Woody might be listening in.


Once again, the frame emphasizes how small and inconsequential Woody is at the end of his own life. This scene takes place in a graveyard, where Woody’s wife Kate ruminates on all their buried friends and relatives. Incidentally, Nebraska was directed by Alexander Payne. You can see a gravestone displayed the last name Payne on the left side of the frame.


I love this shot. These are Woody’s living relatives, gathered to watch some kind of sporting event on TV – football, probably. The shot continues far longer than is comfortable, and no one but David fidgets. The placement of one of the relatives closer to the camera on the right side of the frame cuts David off from the rest of the group, which makes him stick out even more. Also, the old man on the far left should be in more movies.


After visiting a friend’s farm, Kate and Woody drive off without Ross and David. The sons appear in the rear windscreen, running as fast as they can. Woody’s complete oblivion is almost as funny as Kate’s surprised expression.

If your writing doesn’t matter

Posted in Autumnus, Writing by cleithart on July 29, 2014

I often find myself paralyzed when I try to write. I mean, when I try to Write. Not physically paralyzed, of course. It’s mental paralysis, an inability to connect one sentence to another. More than anything, this paralysis is due to wondering what the effect of my Writing will be on the world. (I never stop to ask who that “world” comprises.) Will it be read? If I’m weighing in on some topic, will my contribution be relevant? Will it be insightful? If I’m writing a short piece of fiction, I wonder if the story will be meaningful, if it will be entertaining, if it will capture the atmosphere that I set out to capture. Will it be any good? Everyone asks themselves this question sometimes, but those who try to create capital-A Art on a regular basis ask it all the time. Scratch that. We beg for the answer.

When I take a photo and plan to post it on Instagram, I don’t suffer from paralysis. I blithely shoot and post away, happy to even approach taking something that resembles a good photo. I’m not a photographer, so I don’t care to compare myself with other photographers, which means that they are irrelevant to me except as sources of inspiration. I don’t worry whether my photos matter, because I don’t care what the world thinks of them. If I think a photo is passable, and if it resembles the photos of professional photographers, and if I like it, I’m happy.

Let’s take these two scenarios and cross the wires. What if my writing didn’t matter? I’d be free from the pressure of writing something insightful and interesting, something that would make a person stop and think. If the writing doesn’t matter, there’s no need to worry about what people think of it. In fact, there’s no reason to even show them. With that pressure off, I’d have an easier time putting words on paper. And well, once the words are there, I might as well show them around.

Problem is, words do matter. Unlike an Instagram photo, a paragraph carries meaning, argument, attitude, personality. A poorly written paragraph reflects on the writer in a way that a bad photograph does not reflect on the photographer. At least, that’s what I tell myself. I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

Five Shots: Shun Li and the Poet

Posted in Aestas, Autumnus, Five Shots, Movies by cleithart on June 25, 2014

The other day I watched Shun Li and the Poet, a film about a Chinese woman working in northern Italy who befriends a fisherman who emigrated there from Yugoslavia thirty years ago. Neither of these characters are given much explicit backstory. We know that Shun Li’s father was a fisherman and we know that Bepi, the fisherman, has a son and two grandchildren. The setting itself features prominently in the film, as you can see from the screenshots below.

Shun Li_1

The wide lenses used for the film allow us to see the setting provided for the characters. This, combined with the haze that always permeates the island-town of Chioggia, gives us some striking backgrounds.

Shun Li_2

This is the shot that appears on the poster for the film. Shun Li is walking to work, wearing the high green wellies that every inhabitant of the island owns and carrying her bright red umbrella. Usually, Shun Li is somber and reserved. Not in this scene. She splashes around happily, taking delight in all the little idiosyncrasies of the town.

Shun Li_3

There are many great shots of the sea in the film, or rather, of the lagoon. Especially when the mist presses right up against the water, the lagoon has a extraterrestrial look to it. I chose this shot because Coppe’s red sweater provides a nice contrast to the smooth, grey water around him.

Shun Li_4

This shot is one of my favorites in the film, even though it’s not as pretty as the others. Shun Li is warned by her supervisors that she must stop spending time with Bepi, because the locals are beginning to gossip and it will reflect badly on the Chinese. The camera moves forward and around the table until it faces Shun Li as she sits bracketed by the two men. Mirrors appear in a lot of the scenes in the movie. In this one, the mirror on the back wall shows Shun Li small and inconsequential while the two men loom in the shadows.

Shun Li_5

The haze in the atmosphere gives all the outdoor scenes a certain tactility or three-dimensionality. There are other shots in this scene that give a better angle of the beautiful buildings in the background, but this close-up gives us a look into Shun Li’s eyes as she receives some bad news and then pulls up the hood of her coat around her face. It is an understated reaction in an understated film.

Moving upon the face of the deep

Posted in Autumnus, Movies by cleithart on June 9, 2014

I watched All Is Lost on Saturday night. As I explained in my post on the movie’s cinematography, the story is about a man sailing alone across the Indian Ocean who runs into a jettisoned (accidentally, we assume) shipping container. The collision breaks a hole in the side of his boat and the rest of the movie shows his increasingly frustrated efforts to survive.

All Is Lost is one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. Robert Redford, who plays the only character, has almost no lines, but his silence brings attention to everything he does, including what he looks at or doesn’t. The film never explains why Redford’s character is floating alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean. A short voiceover at the beginning of the film hints that he strongly regrets something, but we’re not sure what. We find out towards the end of the movie that those regrets are only voiced after his boat has been damaged and he’s completely helpless. It constitutes a confession of some kind, and only after this repentance is Redford “consumed” by fire and the story ends.

All Is Lost is a deceptively simple story. I suspect that it may be more theologically rich than many reviewers seemed to think – how can the story of a man alone on the ocean not be theological? Below are several quotations from Scripture that occurred to me while I was watching the movie. They roughly correspond to the narrative arc of the story.

Jonah 1:3
But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.

John 19:34
But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.

Joshua 2:18
“…Bind this line of scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down…”

Jonah 1:17
Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Psalm 139:7-12
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.

Psalm 38:4
For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.

Psalm 130:1
Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord…

Lev 1:9
And the priest shall burn all on the altar as a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord.

Zechariah 2:5
“For I,” says the Lord, “will be a wall of fire all around her, and I will be the glory in her midst.”


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