Commentary on Culture | Midrash Blog

Midrash Film Award — And the winner is....

The jury for the Midrash St. Louis Film Award is pleased to announce its selection of the film Four-Way Stop as the winner of the 2015 Award at the St. Louis International Film Festival (“SLIFF”).  We give this award each year to a film which has a St. Louis connection, and which portrays, with artistry and honesty, the hope or the need for reconciliation and redemption. The Award comes with a cash prize of $500, the largest cash prize at SLIFF. The film was recognized at the SLIFF Award Ceremony on November 22, and Midrash Director Bob Oesch granted the award and met actors in the film.  

Our jury praised this film for its bold exploration of the crossroads and obstacles involved during a young African American male’s attempt to find a job in the City of St. Louis. The local context was authentically realized. Whether you drive around in North City or South City, you’ll see lots of brick, and endless stop signs. Virtually every intersection is a four way stop. Every time you start to get some momentum you have to stop again; the obstacles to get anywhere seem endless. So too are the obstacles in the way of Allen, our protagonist, getting a job.  Some obstacles are from without — racism, poverty, pressure to sell drugs, a severely broken family, a drug-addicted dad, and some obstacles are from within, such as immaturity and lack of punctuality. But, while Allen is surrounded by brokenness, he’s not permeated by it — his “wanter” is not broken.  He wants good, noble and worthy things — to help his mom, to love his dad, to make a living without crime to respect his parents, to persevere. His wanter is unbroken, while everything around him is very messy and broken indeed. The film makes these tensions and challenges real, and relatable.  

The film’s St. Louis connection is pervasive.  Director Efi Di Silva was born in St. Louis and all actors were St. Louisans. The film was shot along Cherokee Street, the Central West End and South City neighborhoods.  The local setting made the themes of the film real, and hard-felt.

A good script, a well-shot film exploring timely and difficult subjects makes Four-Way Stop a film worthy of time and discussion. 


Double Beauty

At last month’s Theology at the Bottleworks (TATB) we contemplated “The Power and Problem of Human Beauty”. As I was discussing the topic with a friend, she commented,

“It’s not that people aren’t beautiful, but I think we’re losing the skill to see it.”

Her comment highlighted our culture’s blurred vision when it comes to recognizing beauty in all its forms.My friend’s comment reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Shallow Hal. In this movie, Jack Black plays a guy (Hal) who only cares about a girls’ outward appearance.  Then, he is hypnotized and no longer sees people’s typical appearances, but rather an outward manifestation of how they are inside. While Hal thinks he’s dating a woman who looks like Gwenyth Paltrow, everyone else sees that he’s dating someone lacking in outward beauty but radiating inner beauty. I love this idea of being able to see an outward expression of a person’s character and soul.  There is a connection between inner and outer beauty, although not as direct as in the movie, but the two beauties are inexplicably intertwined.  

At TATB, we discussed how we have a subconscious expectation that outwardly beautiful people are perfect and charming all the way through. Equally, we want for people who are kind, generous and sacrificing to be “appealing to the senses”. We noted that the more you get to know a person who is kind, patient, accepting, the more beautiful he or she becomes. As one character in Shallow Hal remarks “Inner beauty's the easiest thing in the world to see when you're looking for it...”  

What makes humans uniquely beautiful is that we have “double beauty”. We can have aesthetic beauty, and we can have inner beauty. The sunrise is physically lovely, but it does not show kindness. The Eiffel Tower at night is gorgeous, but it will never be generous or giving. But humans, we have the capability of delighting the senses and the soul; we have double beauty. Take time to recognize and appreciate the doubly beautiful people in your life and community.

Kristin Guilliams

Midrash-Recommended Films

We endured the cinematic desert of the summer of 2015 and are moving into the season of good film again.  Why are the studios convinced that everyone turns off their brains all summer and are content with non-stop explosions, CGI and rom-coms?  

With every rule there is an exception, and the exceptional film this summer was Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. Charming, poignant nws every possible chance to turn maudlin.  Midrash gives it a 7 out of 10.

The Martian. A film that makes smart cool, and science relevant and fascinating, is good.  This one could have been so much better if there was some meditation by our favorite martian on mortality and the meaning of his life; and if the “world is rooting for you” theme had actually been prepared and dramatized.  The concept of the whole world rooting for one guy left behind on Mars is compelling; what would and should we do or sacrifice for a mere life – or is any life “mere”?  Midrash gives it 6 out of 10.

Ever seen a good movie made in Spain?  Nor had I until I came across Living is Easy With Eyes Closed.   Interesting for its very Spanish setting, and its idiosyncratic and highly likable protagonist who is dead-set on fulfilling his dream of meeting John Lennon.  Mission accomplished?  We’re not saying.  This was Spain’s offering for last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and it’s worthy of your attention.

Last tip:  See A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.  The look, the feel, the incredible soundtrack; this is a film-lover’s film, and far from “just a vampire movie”.  Boasts one of the most romantic and ironic scenes in recent years.  If you missed it – and apparently most people did – see it.  You’re welcome.  

The St. Louis International Film Festival is coming soon, and you really need to look into that. Midrash believes in good film, and local film – enough to give the largest cash prize at SLIFF with our own jury of excellent film critics. This year go to some SLIFF films; take a chance on a film you’ve never heard of with actors and actresses you don’t recognize.  Think on plot and theme and feel and significance.  Go with some friends and discuss over a drink afterwards.  Movies are best, when shared. 

Bob Oesch

Justice — The Song We Can't Get Out Of Our Head (Bob Oesch)

At Theology at the Bottleworks (“TATB”) we strive for conversations that matter.  We talk about topics that are large, fiery, timely and important.  In that vein, the September Theology at the Bottleworks took up the topic of “With Liberty and Justice for — Whom? Where is Justice in America?”

Sometimes hot-button topics draw huge crowds — we have 100 people stuffed in the Crown Room at Schlafly Bottleworks from time to time.  Sometimes hot-button topics seem to scare people off.  That was apparently the case in September as our crowd was below average in number.  But we dove deep into the topic anyway:

What is justice?  Why do we want it?  Where do we get it?  

What’s behind the strong tensions today between law enforcement and members of communities?  Are the Black Lives Matter and similar movements of the moment leading toward justice?  Are you hopeful or not about justice prevailing in your community?

Giving a good recapitulation of an event like Theology at the Bottleworks is about as difficult an assignment as they come:  dozens of people think and speak and interact and the moderator asks and directs and pushes back in a dialogue that is as gloriously organic and spontaneous.  Interestingly the crowd this night was really pre-occupied with the “social justice” aspects of justice far more than the “law and order” aspects, and so we talked much about equality and opportunity and fairness in society, education and careers.

Want more details on the discussion?  Well, each TATB is a bit like a fireworks display  — is it to be enjoyed in real time, once and irrevocably.  If you missed this one, you missed a good one.  

When I conclude a TATB discussion I try to drill down into the foundational values which form our views on these deep topics, like “is there justice in America?”.  Here are my concluding comments from the evening, that I hope lead you to some good introspection and conversation:

Is your view of justice hopeful or pessimistic?

Does your spirituality, or your irreligiosity, influence your hope here?  

People of faith and completely irreligious people have some important things in common.  As Jennifer Hecht says in her fascinating book, Doubt: A History,   

"Great doubters, like great believers, have been trying to figure out whether people would be better weaning themselves from their sense of narrative, justice and love — because the ideals seem so far removed from reality.”

Hecht says we’re in a “meaning-rupture,” where what we want in our heads and hearts is truly divergent from the reality of the universe we live in. In other words, we may not be able to explain why we persist in dreaming of an ideal of justice when the role of the world seems to be to stamp out justice wherever possible.  

How can we believe in something that seems so rare or even unachievable? The ugly truth is that justice as the concept we discussed at TATB is often flawed or weak or completely absent in our world.  Tragedies happen all the time; crimes are committed;  wrongs are done — all at a pace that is dizzying.  It’s almost as if the default mode of the universe is actually INjustice.  As Metallica put it, in their popular late 80’s song, “And Justice for All”:

Justice is lost

Justice is raped

Justice is gone

Pulling your strings

Justice is done

Seeking no truth

Winning is all

Find it so grim

So true, So real

Ugh. The true state of justice is enough to make you curl up in bed and pull the covers over your head.

And yet…

Justice — real justice, true justice — is like the song we can’t get out of our mind; it’s like the scent of a flower we haven’t seen but is there, somewhere.

Where DOES this seemingly irrational and futile gesture of a hope for justice come from?   Could there be a real and rational basis for our hope? And where does it call us?

I'd call these some of the most important questions of our time.

Bob Oesch


The October Theology at the Bottleworks will be held on October 21 at Schlafly Bottleworks | 7:30 pm | The Power, and the Problems, of Human Beauty

Remarks on July’s Theology at the Bottleworks

Espionage. Secrets. Privacy. Security. Spies have been around for a long time indeed, dating back to as early as the Old Testament. They are heroes or traitors, depending on which side you are on, or how the story is being told. Tales of espionage are the fodder for countless films, including the ever-popular James Bond series. Recently there have been numerous news reports on espionage or spy-related stories, including but far from limited to:

• Edward Snowden’s disclosure of US data and secrets

• The US charging China with corporate spying

• Germans charging US via the CIA with spying on Angela Merkel

• The US’s National Safety Administration admitting is has been collecting data on numerous private US citizen conversations. 

We spent considerable time talking about what spying is, whether it is wrong or unethical, and whether it is illegal. Definitions are trickier than you may initially think, and can depend remarkably on the perspective of the parties involved. Surveillance, spying, investigation, self-protection, active intelligence, counter-intelligence, security monitoring – all of these are or are not spying. It’s not quite so clear as in the latest James Bond flick, methinks.

Is spying illegal? One answer to that is that the US does have the Espionage Act on the books, so it is basically against US law to spy to the detriment of the US. Other countries have similar laws. Yet few people would think that the major countries of the world do not have active “intelligence”, or spying programs, looking into the affairs of other countries. 

Is spying wrong? Unethical? Immoral? Says who, and based on what? This is where he discussion flourished, with multiple perspectives being contributed from people of myriad backgrounds and political perspectives. At TATB we glory in the diversity of views contributed at a typical discussion, and hope that we can learn to speak, and listen, with respect to the views of everyone there who wants to talk. Respectful and thoughtful engagement of issues and concepts is a novel concept to many people in our culture, and TATB provides a place that is both safe and dangerous for exploring the important ideas of our day. It’s a safe place, because anyone can say anything and think anything. It’s dangerous, though, because no one has to agree with you and it’s very possible someone might. However, when opinions are given and disagreements arise, it’s actually a good thing – it means the ideas are out there to be examined instead of people superficially, and even disingenuously, pretending to get along and agree. Which is to the benefit of no one.

So is spying ethical or not? Moral or not? These were the fun questions. The answers? I hate to say it, but – you had to be there. It was too much, and too interesting, to encapsulate in a short summary. Suffice it to say that we covered good ground and people had fresh food for thought when they left the room for the evening. 

Sometimes at Theology at the Bottleworks, we talk about the good side of life: hope, redemption, restoration. While we had some glimmers of that sprinkled throughout the conversation, this topic focused more on the darker side of humanity: secrets, lies, fears, betrayals. It seems that everyone has secrets they don’t want shared. We all seem to share the recognition that even the people we know and love, even the country we live in and love, tries to keep its own secrets and gain insights into others, for a whole lot of reasons that run the gamut from meritorious to felonious. 

Events over the past year, triggered largely by Snowden, have raised concerns and conversations about who are we can really trust. Can we trust our government? The NSA? Our allies? What privacy would you sacrifice for the greater good of security against criminal acts of others? Is that in fact a greater good, and how do you quantify the “goodness” of privacy, and security, and compare them? 

Our moderator for the evening concluded that when it’s overseas, romanticized in history, or glorified in movies, surveillance and spying can be alluring and exciting; but its glamour fades quickly when the secrets in question are own own. While we may not all understand of agree exactly with Edward Snowden’s actions or motives in releasing US government secrets on the internet, perhaps we can agree that there is a higher authority, code or justice, that supersedes our own government. These thoughts hopefully will provide you some framework for evaluating the next news report you hear of Snowden or China or Germany or the spying scandal du jour. There is definitely more to come — 007 ain’t dead yet.