Commentary on Culture | Midrash Blog

Midrash-Recommended Films

We’ve seen some terrific films in 2014. But let’s not neglect 2013, an incredibly rich year in film. I love top 10 lists because they make me think of what films are best and why; because they provoke discussion with others who agree or don’t; and because I can draw on the top 10 lists of film reviewers I respect and find they lead me to some brilliant films that I would not otherwise have found. For example, some of the best films in 203 I saw came from Michael Leary’s list of best films of 2012. Michael is a ethicist, a theology teacher and a film aficionado of the highest order (including a member of the Midrash STL Film Award jury, along with yours truly, Aditya Siram and Michele Oesch) and is a must-visit for serious lovers of film. 

A word on that, serious loving of film. People watch movies for all kinds of reasons, and most of them are surely valid. In this day and age of large number of really high qualify films (a happy result of the surge in independent film-making, growth in film studies in universities, and the advent of digital filming that makes it easier to make movies) it behooves us (sometimes the archaic terms are just the most appropriate) to give serious considerations to the film we see. A fine film deserves thought, discussion, some research or reviewing of reviews, to draw from it all there is. You can let yourself be washed in blue light for 90 minutes and emerge undchanged, with a simple, “that was good”; or you can delve deeper, draw more, benefit more, from the high state of film we enjoy these days. Try the latter.

All that being said, here’s my humble offering of the best films I happened to see in 2013. Most of these were released around 2013. All of them should be available (the depth of Netflix’s DVD catalog has amazed me). My top 10, in no particular order, all of which are highly recommended:

1. The Great Beauty: achingly beautiful, a parallel meditation on a city and life

2. The Past: exploring whether it’s ever completely behind us

3. Short Term 12: a window into a world of teenage scars and brokenness and just maybe, the possibility of redemption

4. 47 Views of Leslie Laskey : winner of Midrash STL Film Award; an artfully made documentary about an artist

5. Frances Ha: stumbling and dancing one’s way through the ups and downs of beginning adult life; has one of the most striking visuals of the year

6. Nebraska: pathos and comedy and the chasm of a father-son relationship

7. The Turin Horse: gorgeously filmed, heavy and the slowest film you’ll ever see; soak in its pace and reality and you’ll think on where to draw meaning for the life you have

8. The Loneliest Planet: exploring what a relationship should or shouldn’t reveal and recover from

9. Waiting Room: a window on a river of humanity for 90 minutes, you get pulled into story after story

10. Sound City: a celebration of music, artistry, originality and the redemption of an incredible historic sound board (if those knobs could talk . . .)

Watch one with a friend, if you can, then brew up a pot of java or pop a cap on a craft brew, and explore together. Isn’t a good film yet better when discussed and shared? 

Coming soon: our Top 10 list of most beautiful films ever.

Reflections on Privilege in America: Theology at the Bottleworks Followup

A week ago last Wednesday, I had the great pleasure of moderating a Theology at the Bottleworks discussion entitled “Privilege and Priority in America”. I started out the discussion by expressing my goal to learn more about peoples' various experiences with and without privilege. Very quickly, I realized that most had come to Theology at the Bottleworks because they had given a lot of thought to privilege and had a lot to say about it. So mission accomplished. I had the opportunity to learn an enormous amount about privilege in a very brief amount of time. The tap room was packed out and just about everyone piped up with something to say.

So what is privilege? I came away with more solid ideas about this. It seems to me that privilege is undeserved benefit. Why undeserved? We sometimes do use the word “privilege” to talk about something like a military discount (which we might think is earned or at least deserved). However, we mean something different when we talk about male privilege. Male privilege is a set of undeserved benefits that women do not receive because of their gender. Income inequalities between the genders are a symptom of those benefits. Why not unearned? Inheriting white privilege is not like inheriting my mother's estate. My mother's estate is unearned but not undeserved, whereas the white privilege I inherit from her is unearned and most certainly undeserved. Privilege walks hand in hand with inequality, and the existence of inequalities (e.g. gender inequalities and racial inequalities) is one of the main reasons we talk about privilege. Privilege is often accompanied by entitlement, but not always. I find it important to admit that I walk around with a good deal more privilege than most. (I am a white, straight, protestant man who lives in one of the wealthiest nations and in one of the most richly subsidized economies.) Nevertheless, when I become aware of my privilege, I do my best not to feel entitled to it.

If not entitlement, how should I feel about my privilege? Many people seem to think that admitting to their privilege is akin to admitting to a crime. They think that privilege is something to feel guilty about. Personally, I do not feel guilty about my privilege any more than I feel proud or possessive of it. It is not as if I did something deplorable just by being born into privilege. Some people fear that admitting to privilege would undermine their personal accomplishments. This is not so. There are many men of equal privilege who have achieved less than me at this stage of their life (and many who have achieved more). It's important to notice here that someone can be highly accomplished or wealthy and yet lack important privileges. There are many black men who get stopped by the police far more frequently than I do. Some of those black men make more money than me; some are better educated and more accomplished. Nevertheless, because I am white, I don't get pulled over as frequently as they do, and I usually get the benefit of the doubt when I do. That difference in treatment is unfair. I don't deserve to be treated better by the police, just because of my appearance. It's a symptom of privilege that others lack, even though they might be wealthier or more accomplished than me. This is not something that I feel guilty about (as if I did anything to make police stop black people more often), but it is something that I mourn. It moves me to compassion for those who can't move about as freely as I can without “drawing the heat”.

While we talked a great deal about how someone should respond to privilege, we didn't get to talk much about how one should respond to disadvantage. I think this was a symptom of the crowd's composition. The vast majority of people in the room were white. While it was refreshing to see that so many people of privilege were thinking carefully about their privilege, I wonder what we might have learned had there been more people of color in the room, people from the LGBTQIA community, people of different nationalities, and people with different native tongues. (Btw, I'd love to hear some comments on this. How do you respond when you realize that you lack a privilege? How should you respond?)


This brings me to the next thing I learned from our discussion. While the most salient examples of privilege accrue to white people and men, privilege comes in many other forms. There are privileges that accrue to Asian people and ones that accrue to attractive people. The able-bodied are privileged, as are the young. Immigrants lack many privileges as do those who speak with a foreign accent. Some privileges depend less on identity and more on relationships. Two dear friends of mine are a biracial married couple. They recently told me that when they finish eating at restaurants, frequently the waiter will ask if they need separate checks. Because my wife's racial identity is not notably different from my own (she is Hispanic), we have never been asked this question. Neither have we felt the stinging sensation that our relationship was overlooked or implicitly disavowed.

Final question, what should we do with our privilege? Simple answers: notice it, abdicate it, spread it around, lend your voice to those who can't be heard, use the megaphone of your privilege to amplify the voices of the disadvantaged. Some more complex imperatives: be sensitive to privilege, struggle with it, explore it, search out the symptoms of your privilege, listen to the experiences of the disadvantaged. My personal challenge: 1) remaining aware that there is much I don't fully understand about how people experience the world from their different identities and appearances while (2) expecting there to be many similarities but (3) not assuming that I know what similarities there will be.

Final thoughts: there isn’t an infinite regress of things that I earned or deserve. At some point in explaining my earnings, I’m going to have to mention something that I received without earning or deserving it. The vast extent of these privileges has slowly dawned on me, along with the fact that not everyone has them (or at least the same set of them). As a result I’ve learned that there is a lot that I don’t know about how other people experience the world. Realizing that I occupy a privileged position makes me realize that other people experience the world in a very different way. So I hope that others learned a similar lesson during the discussion and, like me, took the opportunity to fill in some gaps in our knowledge about how people experience the world. I believe that becoming lifetime learners about those experiences slowly makes us all better people. Think about it. Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world where everyone was aware of their undeserved advantages; if people of privilege made it their business to divest it; and if, out of gratitude, more and more people made their life story about dispersing society's favor to the depths of disadvantage and to the breadth of human habitation?

Thanks to those who came to the discussion and shared their thoughts. I gained a lot from the exchange. I hope to learn more in the comments.

Midrash ArtTalks: The Great Rivers Biennial at the Contemporary Art Museum

ArtTalks, ArtTalks ...and more ArtTalks. They just keep coming and they just keep getting better! More and more folks are joining us for our First-Friday-of-the-Month art excursions, to take in some art and participate in engaging discussions about what we’ve viewed and the deeper issues and bigger ideas the artworks communicate. And it is gooood! We hope you can join us next time.

The most recent ArtTalks was held on Friday, June 6, 2014. We took a walk through the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM), which is currently hosting an exhibit featuring three local artists who were each awarded a $20,000 grant as part of the Great Rivers Biennial. We met at CAM’s front door, and all 20 of us spent an hour or so taking in the exhibits. After viewing the exhibits and having some on-the-spot micro discussions among several of us, the whole group headed over to the outdoor beer garden at Urban Chestnut Brewery on Washington Ave. for our discussion. The conversation there was as lively as the exhibits were interesting, as we broke open what we saw, thought, felt, liked, hated, wanted more of, and could have done less with.

A particular favorite artist of our discussion leader for the evening, David Chappell, was Cayce Zavaglia. Her works involved friends and family portraits done in embroidery, and in many cases the work featured both sides of the pieces. On one side is a perfectly executed portrait, and on the other, a frenetic semi-jumbled, loose-threaded working end that still loosely resembles a portrait. The back side has the simultaneous presence of realism and abstract expressionism. It seemingly reveals the chaotic mental undercurrents that we all have beneath our finished, calm surface. Visually, it reminded David of the work of artist, Willem DeKooning.

The CAM website notes that Zavaglia “ in embroidery, blending colors and establishing tonalities that resemble the techniques of classical oil painting. Recto Verso, her project at CAM, features hand-embroidered portraits alongside a related series of small gouache and large-scale acrylic paintings. The paintings portray the verso, or reverse, side of the embroidery, revealing a portrait of loose ends, knots, and chaos corresponding to—but psychologically different from—the meticulously sewn front image. In the rich history of tapestry, the verso has traditionally been hidden from the viewer; Zavaglia exposes this concealed otherness, addressing the divergence between our presented and private selves."

We recommend that you take time for the Great Rivers Biennial exhibit for Zavaglia's work alone. Consider the others bonus!

Thanks to all who showed up for the June ArtTalk. We do NOT meet for ArtTalks in July, due to the July 4 holiday, and we hope to see a good crowd once again in August =when we host our next ArtTalks at an exhibit to be announced. Check out the Midrash St. Louis events calendar for updated info, and/or join our email list for event updates, and/or follow us on Twitter for micro-commentary on culture and event announcements.

Our latest Art Discussion: The Impressionism Exhibit at SLAM

Midrash has hosted monthly art viewings and discussions for several years, but recently 

these have really gained popularity. We call these “ArtTalks” and they are for people 

who love art and don’t, for people who want to discuss art and don’t, for people who 

enjoy classic art but not modern, and vice versa. In general, we pick an exhibit at one of 

the galleries or museums around town, spend some time with the art, and either discuss 

while we’re strolling and viewing, or gather after the exhibit to discuss it. ArtTalks are 

led by a team of talented practicing artists from drastically different perspectives who 

love to dialogue over art of all kinds.

We generally want to open up the art just for itself… to enhance the experience of what 

we have seen. We also want to gain a better vocabulary to discuss the impressions the art 

has made on us. Finally, we often get into deeper dialogue by talking about the themes 

involved in the work and what the artist is communicating, directly or indirectly.

The latest ArtTalk was a special event created for a special exhibit. We gained a few 

dozen tickets to the St Louis Art Museum’s “Impressionist France” show, viewed 

the exhibit and gathered at a nearby home for French wine and cheese and a spirited 

discussion. Here’s a micro-summary of that discussion.

The ‘Impressionist France’ show was a great opportunity for a wonderful night out to 

soak in some beautiful works of art and take a deeper look into what that art represented. 

France and Paris of the mid-1800’s continues to be an intriguing time and place to 

many of us, even 150 years after the fact. The show and our discussion proved to be a 

great opportunity to — in true Midrash style — engage the art on show, and engage those 

around us in meaningful ways for the purpose of building bridges of communication 

about things that matter.

Here are some of the questions or discussion points from the recent discussion:

1.) 1800’s France/ Paris remains exciting even today… Eifel Tower, Hunchback of Notre 

Dame, Impressionism, Les Miserables… Why do you suppose this era-place-subject 

is and remains so intriguing to so many? The historical context is fascinating to us, as 

is the creation of new styles of painting that arose for interesting reasons and lead to 

experiences of great beauty.

2.) Midrash touts that it has ‘conversations that matter’, especially in regards 

to ‘commentary on culture’. What conversations that matter did these artist’s have with 

you? What was your favorite piece and why? What artwork or artist touched you? It’s 

fun, and educational, to put into words the reasons why we enjoy a particular piece, and 

to hear how others agree, or disagree, with our views. 

3.) If 1800’s Paris, the city, or France, the country, were metaphorically the physical 

body then the French people of this era were its soul… What did this exhibit say about 

the city? The country? It’s people? This was a fun part of the conversation, connecting 

the art we saw — paintings and illustrations and photographs — with a people, a culture 

and a place in time that all converged to result in the great things we saw hanging on the 

museum walls.

Hopefully this gives you a small taste of the fun we have with ArtTalks, and whets your 

appetite to try one out. Your next opportunity is the first Friday in May, when we head 

for an outing with art and nature at Laumeier Sculpture Park (12580 Rott Road). This 

unique ArtTalk goes outside of the museum and gallery walls to discuss topics specific to 

art outside. We will explore many works throughout the park, as well as the new works 

on display for Mound City, an exhibition that explores the traces of native culture in our 

contemporary world ranging in topics of disappearance and destruction, resurrection 

and monument. Our discussion will take place as we walk around, so wear your walking 

shoes and be prepared to walk through trails in the woods. We will meet at 6:45pm by the 

large "Eye" sculpture near the estate house (can be seen from the main parking lot off of 

Rott Road) and will be walking around until sunset. Free, and open to absolutely anyone.

March TATB Recap


At the March TATB we discussed, “The Role of Pets in Our Culture.” While different topics have different degrees of depth, and volatility, this topic was on the lighter end of the spectrum, which was fun.  It’s hard to recap a multi-dimensional discussion among 50+ people, but here are some of the interesting points from the evening. 

Our moderator opened the evening with some quotes: 

  • “More than 60 percent of U.S. households have pets, and America grows more pet-friendly every day.” 
  • 1.1% of an average American’s spending is on pets and their things. 
  • Americans spent $56 billion on their pets in 2013.  They spent only $10 billiion on movies.
  • “People are fascinated by pets. We act and spend on them as if they were our children.”

Those figures and quotes make it clear that pets are a major cultural phenomenon in America today.  What’s behind this force, what pros and cons are there, and what does the large and increasing role of pets in our culture say about us?  That’s the ground we covered, in 90 minutes of fun and spirited discussion.

Why do we have pets and place such importance on them?  Observations included that older people “replace” children with pets to have something to continue to care for, and many people have pets for companionship and to receive affection and attention in a world in which both are in scant supply.

What’s behind the trend of increased extravagance toward pets:  doggie spa, bakery, mouthwash, gourmet food and so on?  Some people noted that people find a way to spend money on what’s important to them. Some noted that we want to treat our pets as members of the family with the attendant increase in attention and spending.  Others said the large amounts spent on pets these days constitute a glorious example of the free enterprise system moving people to spend lots of money on what they value.  In a generally prosperous society, people are pampering their pets. 

At this point in the evening, things got rather sticky.  One person said that he is bothered by the attention and money lavished on pets in our culture, when there are humans in the world that get less care and support, and even basic needs met, than many dogs and cats in America. He posited that as ethically abhorrent and spiritually objectionable.  In a discussion full of, well, puppy love, this guy was definitely going against the flow — which is fine, TATB is all about engaging multiple, and provocative, opinions.

Comparing the attention given to pets today to the huge gaping needs of people in our city, and across the world, is one complicated matter.  People spoke to this issue from multiple perspectives, some being more sympathetic to pets and people, and some to the contrary.  This was the difficult, but most interesting, part of the evening, as we were forced to think about what we valued, and where those values come from, and whether we actually live out the values and priorities that we profess. This was heavy, weighty conversation.  But it was good.

It’s fascinating just how hugely popular pets have become in the last few decades in our culture.  They’re getting more attention and more resources, and more humanizing than ever.  In our world of difficult people, endless horrible crimes by humans,  isolating technology – we may be wanting warmth and affection and attention more than ever.  And pets may be one place we look for those things, those normal and natural longings.  I think this is worth thinking about deeply.

But as we heard in different ways at the March TATB, it seems clear that pets have their limits in serving these good purposes.  We havn’t – yet – heard a pet owner tell his/her pet, “You complete me.” We want to be loved, absolutely, and yet I don’t think any animal – or even any human – will ever really complete us. 

 And what if that was the point?  What if our desire for love and connection, and the fact that we can’t find them perfectly in the best pet, or even the best spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, are both on purpose?  What does that tell us, where does that lead us?