Rightwing Film Geek

If I’m gonna dis Peter …

I’d better give him a hat tip for this New York Times article by Dennis Lim about SECRET SUNSHINE, based on an interview with Lee Chang-dong. When J. Robert Parks and I discussed the movie, we agreed that Lee wasn’t interested in the sort of easy caricature that comes as second nature to Hollywood and Sundance. Several other Christian critics besides myself have noted this film’s interest (thanks Jeffrey and Peter). But it wasn’t obvious what Lee’s personal religiosity was. Here’s the answer (though the Lim article does note this realism):

Asked about his own religious beliefs, Mr. Lee quoted Ludwig Wittgenstein — “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” — and added, “That’s my position on God and faith.”
“Secret Sunshine” ends on a note at once ambiguous and hopeful. Its limpid, humble approach to suffering and grace suggests something like “Breaking the Waves” stripped of mysticism, or a rationalist version of “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”
“Shin-ae is always looking up and never at the ground,” Mr. Lee said, pointing out a recurring motif. The film opens with a wide shot of the sky and concludes with the camera trained on a patch of earth. “I wanted to show that the meaning of life is not far from where we are,” he said. “It’s not up there. It’s here, in our actual life.”

I think what Robert and I were responding to, and this probably says something about the damage the Kulturkampf in the West has done to artists, was seeing a Korean skeptic/humanist able to suspend his disbelief, as it were, and produce a judicious, if critical, movie that Christians could engage with. I even said in my initial review that there is no way SECRET SUNSHINE can be compared to the Samstopher Dawkinses. But an environment where any manner of silliness, as long as it’s anti-Christian, can pass for deep thinking¹ is the cultural air that Western Christians must breathe. Where adolescent Christophobia is normal, films like SECRET SUNSHINE really really REALLY profit by comparison.

But to respond to something to a point Peter raised in that thread at Arts & Faith above (SPOILER warning henceforth):

How one reacts to the film — and its portrayal of Christians in particular — may depend to a great degree on a particular scene between a man and a woman, roughly halfway through the film (I think). … But what did you make of the fact that the “forgiven” man shows pretty much zero remorse or zero felt need to be reconciled with the woman? I really like that scene and the direction in which it spins the plot, on a number of levels, but there was something about that part of the scene that didn’t feel quite “right”, quite “real”, to me. It is scenes like this that people probably have in mind when they (or should I say, we) point to the “superficiality” of the film’s depiction of evangelical faith (or should I say, the evangelical faith depicted in this film).

I don’t agree that the child-killer shows little remorse or felt need to be reconciled. He’s calm and not playing up the sackcloth and self-flagellation angle, sure. I don’t recall his precise dialogue, beyond thanking her and welcoming her into the “Christian fold” and thanking the Holy Spirit for bringing them together, etc. For me at least, the entire energy of the scene was on her reaction, her shock. She (and I, quite frankly) expected some snarling brute and we didn’t get it; she can’t quite process that, so she takes out her disappointment on God. We have an easier time processing that surprise, and thus “judging her” … because … well, it wasn’t our child, so it’s easier for us to see the principle at stake beyond the personal (aside: this is why I oppose victim-impact statements during criminal sentencings).

That said, I’ve already noted that I see her subsequent reaction is evidence of a certain spiritual immaturity — not in her failure (she was doing something that would try the greatest saints) but in her very attempting it and being encouraged in that by her congregation (“fighting for the title right out of the Golden Gloves”). It is a true test of sainthood: can we be happy for the forgiveness received by those who have wronged us? To take it to the logical end: do we *want* Hitler to be in Hell. It’s hard to say “no” to that, but Christians must. The breadth and depth of God’s forgiveness is not a particularly interesting theological question; the answer is cut-and-dried obvious: “we must be happy for the killer” (and must not want Hitler in Hell). But it’s much more interesting as an existential dilemma: “can we be,” or “can she be.” In fact, the existential questions make for far more interesting drama, though it always has to dance at the edge of orthodoxy, precisely because the acting-out of something is neither the same thing as nor so easy as the affirmation of something (one reason I had no interest in people who dismissed BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN based on the sinfulness of homosexual sex). And this is a far broader and deeper point than the particular extremes of dealing with a child-murderer or of sodomy — in fact, it’s the one that all of us sinners face every day.
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¹ At the E Street Theater in downtown Washington at the weekend, I saw a “Coming Soon” poster for FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO, which looks like a veritable Summa of this sort of stuff. The film (which Peter has apparently seen) is playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival, which describes the film thusly: “The hermeneutics of hate are given a precise translation in director Daniel Karslake’s look at how a literal reading of the bible has been the justification for centuries of persecution, violence and hatred.” I’m almost tempted to see the film just to have the privilege of slamming it.

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October 2, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dour Scandinavians update (2)

ORDET (Carl-Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1955, 10)

I saw this film again, on TCM last week, for the first time in several years, and for the first time since seeing Dreyer’s later GERTRUD, which ORDET points toward in terms of the Great Dane taking his stylized-theater way of making movies to their very limit. It’s not that ORDET and GERTRUD are difficult exactly — they tell straightforward stories, with a beginning, middle, and end (this is even more true of ORDET — a classically-Christian fable about a miracle). It’s just that the two films are very slowly paced and acted out, “performed” in the most stylized way possibly, and have a rather minimalist “look.”

The actors¹ in ORDET usually do not talk to each other like human beings, instead in the fullest sense “reciting” their “lines” — this is obvious even to a man like me who does not speak Danish — and often as if projecting to a spot off in the distance, rather than at the other characters. The movements of the camera and of the characters are ultra-deliberate, almost (almost) to the point of mannered parody. The images and the camera movement also have little depth and minimal perspective cues, giving the film a flat two-dimensionality — I believe the camera never moves into or out of an image, but only across it or on a diagonal — and creating the effect of watching a medieval tableau or a tapestry come to life.

I shuddered at the thought of what the audience with whom I saw a different Dreyer masterpiece would make of ORDET — particularly the scenes where a “touched” Johannes walks onstage and offstage reciting parable-like lines usually having nothing to do with the immediate drama before the other characters — which is mostly a conflict between two extended families over a proposed inter-religious marriage. The Dreyer “look,” which that still above exemplifies, uses spare, starkly dressed sets and expressionist lighting schemes, with “pools” of light that have no natural source to produce what someone once called the “glowing wall” effect. It tends to isolate the characters, as if seen in their essence rather than their existence, and living out the conflicts inside a human soul. But the mannered lighting schemes almost always spotlight Johannes’s face, as if gracing him with a kind of aura, probably more and more-consistently than of any character in film history. The medium tends, after all, toward the realistic, making these sort of lighting schemes rarely practiced, and never with the level of rigor Dreyer uses in ORDET (they would be just this side of impossible in color).

But by this point in history, words from me can seem superfluous — ORDET is securely canonized (and I use that word deliberately). But seeing the film anew in the specific context I did opened my eyes to it, and to myself, in ways it hadn’t before.

In recent weeks and months, I’ve spilled a few billion 0s and 1s at various St. Blogs comboxes on matters related to the interrogation and treatment of terrorists and even began another site dedicated to it. To overstate, oversimplify and crudify, I’m about as pro-torture (I prefer “anti-anti-torture”) as it gets. I won’t rehearse the arguments here because they are not relevant in themselves, but seeing ORDET gave me the first doubts I’ve ever had because of how the film ends (suffice for this purpose² to say that it ends with a miracle).

Very early on, Johannes, as clear a Christ figure as a film director ever made, lights some candles and places them by a window. Another character comes along, smiles indulgently at the unpragmaticness of the act, and then snuffs the candles out and puts the candelabra away. What’s the point of placing candles by an open window on a Danish night? And this fairly obviously symbolic act is not done by the character whom you would think would represent Secular Worldliness (and not because there aren’t such characters in ORDET). The film, though fictional, is as straightforward a Biblical story as it gets. The source play was written by Kaj Munk, a Danish pastor who was killed by the Nazis in 1944 and who said, among other things, “it is better that Denmark’s relations with Germany should suffer than its relations with the Lord Jesus should suffer.” As clearly as anything, ORDET is about the miracles the Lord Jesus can produce for us when we have faith and hope.

Faith and hope are clearly constructed in ORDET as something if not outright irrational, at least something a little odd through, primarily, the eccentricness and secular off-puttingness of Johannes. “Man’s wisdom is God’s foolishness” (1 Corinthians 3:19) and all of that. Yet through Dreyer’s very strangenesses in style, ORDET made me realize that I may simply be lacking in hope. In fact, a priest once wrote to me the following about Gaudium et Spes, the principle proof-text on torture (though not in the specific context of that topic):

I’m not saying it has too much hope (how could there be such a thing) …

Well, perhaps I do think there’s such a thing. Johannes’ berates early on “Ye of little faith” and the final miracle only comes about when someone asks for it simply, and trusts in Johannes absolutely. A Christian must place his whole self at the Lord’s disposal and trust completely in Him, regardless of the apparent consequences, and anything less than that is a fraud that the film rebukes. Which makes the next paragraph not an easy one to type.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying ORDET has actually *persuaded* me I’m wrong about “torture.” I do think there are quite fundamental distinctions between a person and a polity. Unlike a person made imago dei, a polity is purely a conventional agreeement among men.³ I’m not sure that a secular non-consecrated polity *should* operate on the basis of Christian hope, that it *should* abandon man’s wisdom, and that perhaps it *is* better than America’s relations with the Lord Jesus should suffer than its security. Machiavelli put it with his customary directness when he said he loved his country more than his soul — and for the leader of a secular non-consecrated polity, I’m not sure he’s describing an inadmirable trait.

Now I must go off to Adoration …
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1 … including as the wife Inger, Birgitte Federspiel — who died last year but who decades after ORDET would go on to play one of the sisters in BABETTE’S FEAST, a St. Blogs favorite.
2 … and for minimal spoiler-avoidance. If you’re a Christian or (OR) a film buff and haven’t seen ORDET, you should. You really should. If you’re both and haven’t seen ORDET — shame on you.
3 There is a scene very early on in Luchino Visconti’s THE LEOPARD, between a priest and a nobleman. The movie is set in Sicily while Garibaldi was pushing through it. The priest says something like: “why is your class backing these republican rabble and their bourgeois backers against the Church. You’re only buying them off for a century.” The prince (played by Burt Lancaster) says something like: “a class and a country don’t have eternal guarantees that the gates of hell will not prevail. 100 years is a blink of an eye to the Church. It is eternity to a class.”

September 29, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

A planned, wanted child

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THE CHILD (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium, 2006, 10)

I made in one of the comboxes below the admittedly counterintuitive point that contraception causes abortion (the contrary relationship is taken as an uncontroversial fact among the Rutting Animals Death Cult). Basically, like any act, contraception presupposes a will willing to engage in it. In other words, it creates the contraceptive mentality, which teaches people that they can and should have sex as a form of recreation untied to marriage and reproduction. The uniting of bodies untied from the uniting of souls. Thus is created “the need for abortion” and the very category “unplanned pregnancy.” Griswold came before Roe, not after, and historically, every country that has accepted contraception as morally indifferent has gone on to do the same for abortion. Every one (even healthy Catholic cultures like Poland and Ireland). And since my problem is one of soulcraft, I am unimpressed by next-state-over or same-time-next-year social science studies. Sure, given the contraceptive mentality and modern sexual morality … higher rates of contraception use will produce fewer abortions. But the “givens” are the problems.

Now, what does that little excursion into Catholic morality have to do with THE CHILD, a small obscure Belgian art film which I think the best movie of the year so far (so, you HAVE to see it, Donna)? It’s not as though I have any reason to think it would win the agreement of the Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, who are among the world’s greatest filmmakers but from all appearances seem like secularized Catholic eurolefties (more on that below).

THE CHILD is now out on home video, so you can now see it even if you don’t live in one of the few US cities that saw the 2005 Palme D’Or winner and thus one of the most-important films in the world for that year (grrr). And hopefully you can see why, though home video hurts THE CHILD more than I might have thought. Like with their last film THE SON (a mere #3 on My Ten best list for that year), this film is spare and has few plot points, at least at the beginning, where the “plot” is mostly contained in minute details of behavior and gesture. Tread carefully.

The austere style of THE CHILD is the familiar Dardennes style. The seemingly hand-held camera constantly follows the protagonists Bruno (Jeremie Renier) and Sonia (Deborah Francois) as they rush through life heedlessly, like young lovers. There is no music score, rather a noisy-but-incredibly-precise natural sound mix — cars on the street, honking horns, passing voices, footsteps, even money being counted. It all produces the brothers’ usual mix of intimacy, immediacy, and (this last a little less so than THE SON) claustrophobia. It’s a mannered style, but it creates an intense, urgent realism — following two people you know. The sky seems constantly overcast, only natural light is used, and the outdoor sound mix emphasizes the wind, so THE CHILD always feels cold. I mean “cold” literally, not in the sense of “emotionally frigid.” You know you’re in the hands of geniuses when you remember what the weather was like in a movie and you felt that weather.

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Unlike the Dardennes’ three previous films, THE CHILD’s opening shot does not introduce us to the main protagonist. Instead, Les Freres Dardennes introduce us to Sonia, carrying Jimmy up an apartment block’s stairs — she’s apparently just out of the hospital. And she finds out that Bruno has sublet the apartment. He needs the money. For a hat. Bruno is a petty criminal who uses the somewhat-older neighborhood children to commit purse grabs, fence goods — whatever he can do to make money. Other than get a job. “Only fuckers work,” he says. And money goes through his fingers like water. When Sonia shows him their baby, he is hardly interested. When she first sees him, she has to call him several times to get his attention. He takes the baby Jimmy in his arms, but look (like in the still attached to this paragraph) where his eyes are pointing — never on his son, whom he holds like one of those baby-sized wrapped salamis, but usually on the latest scam, or playing lookout. Sonia has to remind him to kiss Jimmy goodnight — we’re talking the first day he’s seen his son, now. But in the scenes in the opening act with Bruno and Sonia together, they act like frisky puppies, wike two widdle kids in wuv. Like I noted with THE SON, it is amazing on repeat viewing how much the Dardennes tell you without seeming to tell you. All sorts of motifs are carefully set up — a jacket, a motorcycle ride, a pram, casually tossing away a will from a lockbox, then the lockbox once it’s empty.

Now the SPOILERS come …

But again, like with THE SON, at exactly the moment when the world has been established, the major plot point in THE CHILD happens. Bruno sells Jimmy to a black-market adoption agency. For a lot of money. And for some inexplicable reason, Sonia faints. “We can have another,” he assures her.

Then things get really hairy.

I can’t top Mike D’Angelo’s “at [this] point breathing becomes a luxury” line. That’s because THE CHILD grabs you like an expert wrestler’s choke hold and is about as likely to let you go. The scene of Bruno handing over Jimmy makes as eloquent a case for aesthetic minimalism as I’ve ever seen — the buyers are never seen except in offscreen sounds; the building is deliberately stripped bare; the only image we see in most of the shots is Bruno’s face — nervous, but more from impatience and fear than guilt. The closing hour of this movie is like a nightmare of making the worst mistake you ever made and then running around trying to right that wrong. Bruno is able to get Jimmy back, but now he’s in debt to the baby-smugglers. Sonia has told the cops, so he has to invent a story for them. And try to get back in Sonia’s good graces. While setting up some new crimes. The Dardennes and Renier have done such a great job of creating their world that we actually root for this thoughtless but-now-desperate cretin to get things straightened out. It all comes together in a cops-and-robbers chase scene that puts every Hollywood multimillion superproduction to shame in terms of sheer heart-in-the-throat urgency, and where the decisive protagonist turns out to be the temperature of the water (remember how I noted how “cold” THE CHILD felt? That was deliberate.)

What does all this have to do with contraception? On the surface, nothing at all. The c-word never comes up, any more than “God” does in THE SON. But consider the very simple fact of the film’s central act — selling a baby. Why does Bruno do it? From his perspective, why not? That is one what one does with things, after all — trade them in for cash or a commodity you’d rather have at that moment. I’m not alone in noting that the child is nothing more than a commodity for Bruno, and so he sells it more from diffidence than flambuoyant Snidely Whiplash “Evil.”

From Scott Foundas in Variety:

in the world of “The Child,” everything, even a human being, is potentially salable merchandise.

From Manohla Dargis in the New York Times:

For Bruno, Jimmy has no meaning beyond what he brings on the market.

From Mike D’Angelo in Las Vegas Weekly:

the ruthlessly pragmatic Bruno regards his son as little more than a novel form of currency.

Many others have noted that point — it is not difficult to get. But why is Jimmy a commodity to Bruno? Everything else is a commodity to him, sure, but commodity exchange is older than civilization and not a feature unique to capitalism or euro-socialism. And most people throughout history generally haven’t seen their children as commodities. I’d suggest that Bruno’s final reduction of even human life and the union that produces it to commodity terms is simply the logical end of combining consumerism and sex as just two forms of pleasure-seeking.

The Dardennes are post-Marxists. Though he isn’t well off, Bruno has no class-consciousness and does not reject consumer capitalism. He wants it, and on his own terms — hence his renting an expensive convertible for the day to tool around with Sonia after carefully wedging Jimmy’s child seat into the back (there’s metaphor packed in there). Similarly, Bruno views life not as something sacred and greater than our wills (hence his diffidence toward Sonia and Jimmy), but as one more experience at the same level as any other and thus only explicable and value-able in rationalistic (i.e., commodity) terms. Probably learned from the 60s Generation that we should live for today and don’t worry ’bout tomorrow (“what’s the point of holding onto money?” he says). When I saw THE CHILD for the second time, it was with a friend who had just had his first daughter, and I joked with Mark “so … this makes you wanna sell Fatima.”

In the world of today, parenthood (and thus sex) is no longer a calling, with the religious connotation of that term, but a self-conscious “choice” that, with the language of “lifestyle” and the notion of “planning” parenthood, which is the logic of rationalistic consumer capitalism (“choosy moms choose Jif” and all of that). When a child is a “choice,” then children logically will be treated as the consumer goods that we also choose. When a consumer good is defective, you get rid of it. When you don’t want a consumer good, and act against it, attempts to make you “buy” it are a threat (the high-pressure salesman, say). Value is money. And so when you can trade a good in for more money than it’s worth to you, you’d be a fool not to do it. Hell, “we can have another.”

Very simply, what is missing until the very end and the coda, is love, a true communion of persons (Father Martin Fox explains what this has to do with contraception) — the kind that can bring new life. Bruno can hardly be said to love either Sonia or Jimmy. The only time he says he does is during Sonia’s rage in the second act, when he’s pleading with her to let him back into her apartment. Sonia correctly tells him that “I love you” is just a plea (and in fact it immediately does become a plea that he’s hungry and broke). For Bruno, “love” becomes an action at a very particular later moment which doesn’t actually involve either Sonia or Jimmy — when he dies to self by hampering his chance to get away for the sake of another son, a pre-teen who steals for him. And then, when he gives himself up to the cops. Now, expiation and calvary can begin. As U2 put it “if you wanna kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel.” All of which is why the coda, of Sonia visiting Bruno in jail and a tearful and partial reconciliation, is not a mistake. Like an organist keeping his foot on the pedal, the Dardennes aren’t playing a “tacked-on” new note at all, just extending the last note for one more bar.

This is also the logic of the Dardennes’ other movies — all four of their fiction features widely seen outside Belgium are about people who in the last scene learn to love someone outside themselves (I am somewhat indebted to Father Bryce Sibley for this point apropos of THE SON and LA PROMESSE). In THE SON, it’s coming to forgive a tormentor. In LA PROMESSE, it’s expanding one’s circle of love beyond family to community. In ROSETTA, the look she gives is her first abandonment of total self-reliance. In THE CHILD … well, that’s what the rest of this bloviating has been about. Father Sibley asked me what I knew about the Dardennes’ religious background. “None, as far as I know,” I told him at the time. But here is something very suggestive from an interview the brothers gave Dennis Lim for the Village Voice:

Q: Your films are often parsed as spiritual allegories. Were you raised Christian?
JPD: Yes, a strong Catholic upbringing, until we were in our teens and rejected what our father had imposed on us. But despite the coercive, puritanical elements of religion, our education taught us to acknowledge other people as human beings. We were forbidden to watch TV or movies, though—our father thought they were the devil incarnate.

Jean-Pierre says they’ve fallen away, and I have no reason to disbelieve him per se. But as has been noted with such Anglo-American film-makers as Hitchcock, Capra and DePalma, the Catholic “AfterImage” remains in the Dardennes’ imaginations. One might expect the fallen-away brothers to be repulsed (if they understand English and ever read this) that someone like me loves their movies so much and sees them through the lens I do. But somehow, I think the afterimage in their work is so strong that they might be tickled at having it pointed out to them.

September 4, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

The more, the better

Let me see if I’ve got this straight:

  • A daily dose of from 0.05 to 0.15 mg of levonorgestrel requires a prescription.
  • Requiring that a 1.5 mg dose of levonorgestrel must have a prescription is patriarchal tyranny over women’s bodies, sexphobic anti-scientism and the precursor to a HANDMAID’S TALE-like theocracy.

That’s the unavoidable conclusion of this atrocious and politicized decision (courtesy of blackmail from “the mom in sneakers and the devil in Prada“) to make available Plan-B “emergency contraception” over the counter. From Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America:

Since birth control pills require a prescription and a doctor’s supervision during use, how can the FDA or the drug manufacturer condone providing Plan B (a mega-dose of the same drugs) over-the-counter? Widespread access to Plan B would expose women to the health risks that here-to-fore were acknowledged by doctors who screened women before prescribing birth control pills and then monitored them for the wide variety of contra-indicators for their use.

To be sure, in the first of the above-mentioned dosages, many forms of the Pill also have estrogen or something that mimics its effects. But it’s not as though progestins like Plan-B don’t pose real health risks quite on their own or that progestin-only oral contraceptives don’t also require prescriptions.

Today’s greatest winner — trial lawyers, who will soon receive a bountiful new field of cases, of people without medical training calibrating their use of drugs several times more powerful than what they need a prescription for when the stated purpose is something else (a fact that is chemically and biologically irrelevant). Mark my words — within the decade, Barr Laboratories will either be hiding behind immunity granted by a Democrat Congress, bankrupt/in receivership, or will have sold Plan-B to the government or some group like Planned Parenthood.

Let’s face it. If you’re not far-sighted enough to avoid an unwanted pregnancy (there are two known methods — one infallible; the other immoral but still mostly effective) … are you fit to be self-medicating? Prescriptions, and the health warnings that accompany them, are required for a reason. I mean, if you get aspirin or cough syrup and take three times the required dose because your headache is THIS BIG or whatever … nothing very terrible will happen. But is saying that messing with body chemistry like some female version of Barry Bonds should not be as easy as buying a pack of Marlboros really so awful?

But then, abortion poisons everything it touches. This is an old story, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusions that feminists want every abortion that could occur to occur. For example, whether it’s the killing of an unborn child or not, abortion is still unquestionably a major surgical procedure, especially later in pregnancy.¹ Yet it’s usually treated like an outpatient or on-demand service, done outside a hospital, with little recovery time, and exempt from a score of other state and local regulations. And most scandalously of all, on a minor without a parent’s consent or foreknowledge.²
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¹ As feminists will argue when it suits them — as when they want all OB/GYNs be certified to perform abortions as a licensing requirement. But not when not — as noted next.
² In case I’m not clear, this is not an argument per se against the morality of contraception or abortion. I’m simply noting that if they are mere medical procedures like any other, then the same regulatory regimes should surely be being applied. And this is not so. Which indicates bad faith.

August 24, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Apologia pro Ang Lee

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BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, Ang Lee, USA, 9

On Dave Kehr’s blog last week, a commentator named Joe Baltake noted that Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is a film that “will be both liked and disliked for the wrong reasons.”

The film stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall in the romantic tragedy of a couple of gay cowboys who eat beans rather than pudding. It’s already received seven Golden Globe nominations, won several critic circles’ “year’s best” nods, and nabbed the top prize at probably the world second-most-prestigious juried film festival (Venice). In the coming weeks, it will be garlanded with multiple Oscar nominations and will probably get some wins. But a mere perusal of Rotten Tomatoes (87 percent “Fresh”) and the right Google search terms tells you that at least part of the stated reason for some of this is seeing the film as a commercial for gay “marriage,” “tolerance” and all the rest of it. Quick examples from Newsweek

Brokeback feels like a landmark film. No American film before has portrayed love between two men as something this pure and sacred. As such, it has the potential to change the national conversation and to challenge people’s ideas about the value and validity of same-sex relationships.

… and from Entertainment Weekly:

In an age when the fight over gay marriage still rages, Brokeback Mountain, the tale of two men who are scarcely even allowed to imagine being together, asks, through the very purity with which it touches us: When it comes to love, what sort of world do we really want?

YEAH!! That’s the kind of praise I want to hear about a movie — “this is the blood of the lamb, which washes away the sins of the homophobes. Have mercy on them.”

And I like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. A lot. But I don’t say that because I’m a priori impressed with gay subject matter, though I admit to not being absolutely turned-off by it either. I really don’t want to hear that sort of praise for it, since it turns the movie into a Cause. With some predictable (and equally wrong-headed) response from the other side of The Cause (the side to which I very emphatically belong).

There was a kerfuffle last week over the review by Harry Forbes, head of the Office of Film and Broadcasting at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Such conservative Catholics as apologist Jimmy Akin, journalist and expectant father (and friend, at least for now) Dom Bettinelli and the LifeSiteNews (here and here) went to town on the review, calling it in various ways an amoral whitewash that downplayed the Church teaching on homosexuality. As the editor’s note explains, the film was initially rated “L” — for “limited adult audiences, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling” and is short of the “O” rating for “morally offensive.” That L-rating was quickly changed to “O,” but the review remained the same, to the chagrin of Dom, Mr. Akin and others, who began (or reiterated) calls for Mr. Forbes’s head.

Thing is, neither man nor the writers at LifeSite (ditto most of the people in their comment fields) have seen the film and so they are taking Mr. Forbes’s descriptions at face value. I agree that the review is lacking severely and that may account for the negative reaction (I’ll get back to that and some related issues after making my own case for the film as at least not O-offensive), but I have actually seen the movie.

akin.jpgLike THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST last year, I’d like a first-rate film to be seen as something other than a Kulturkampf football and a measurement of one’s bona fides therein, much less as their Judgment Day Sheepness or Goatness. And I’ll say the following: reducing BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN to “homosexual propaganda,” as Lifesite does, and saying that “It is BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS that this one is morally offensive,” as Mr. Akin does, is meaningless and ridiculously overstated coming from people who have not seen the movie.

Now … I’m not, not, NOT saying that one cannot say anything about a movie without having seen it, including (1) reasonable expectations about what it might be like, (2) judgments of the public discourse surrounding it, and (3) one’s decision whether to see it himself (which is, always and by definition, a decision made sight-unseen). But there are limits. And labeling something “propaganda” and insisting in ALL CAPS that something is “blindingly obvious” and calling others’ points “mere spin” are … to use Mr. Akin’s phrase … not borderline cases. Those are opinions to which the writers are not entitled, though in fairness Dom doesn’t “fisk” the review sight-unseen as Mr. Akin does (not to his credit) and is a bit more careful to say only what he can.

brokeback3.jpgI had dinner at David Morrison’s house earlier this fall. His roommate “Dan” had read the Annie Proulx short story, but not seen the film. I had done the reverse. So Dan and I have this odd conversation, trying to figure out between ourselves what the adaptation was like, while trying to be spoiler-vague in front of David, who had neither seen nor read it. Dan was fairly emphatic that the story didn’t make the affair attractive, but rather was portrayed as a destructive force of nature. David was listening to us and (metaphorically) threw up his hands in frustration, saying something like “you guys are kidding yourselves. You both know perfectly well how this film will be spun. ‘How awful is it that the homophobic society and the constraints of the nuclear family got in the way of the happiness of these two nice well-meaning gay men by repressing their natural desires to marry each other.’ It’ll be taken as a commercial for gay marriage and that’s what all the Oscar night speeches will be about.”

I had to admit that the film doesn’t exclude that “read,” though I insisted (and insist) that this reduces and flattens the film and rides roughshod over some of its psychology. But I think David’s reaction is typical of the general Catholic suspicion of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. The above-noted hosannahs (or as I put it elsewhere above, “the public discourse surrounding it”) — “I’m here. I’m queer, it was fabulous” — deserves suspicion. And they are indistinguishable from the outside from what would be said if BROKEBACK were in fact homosexual propaganda. But the film deserves better than to be reacted to, positively OR negatively, as an exercise in gay-lifestyle validation. It isn’t.

anglee.jpgOn the basis of his past work, I think Ang Lee is entitled to at least some consideration that he’s not making libertine propaganda. You’ll read very often, and sometimes from the horse’s mouth, that Lee’s movies are about “repression.” This is obviously true, but *how* are they about repression? As often as not, they’re about the destructive effects on the individual and society of willful characters and their destructive effects on the social and themselves — CROUCHING TIGER, where Zhang Ziyi’s adolescent pique and social-climbing bring ruin; the contrast between the two sisters in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (remember Kate Winslet sobbing on the bed); and THE ICE STORM, where the sex is about as unrepressed as it gets — and ugly and destructive and (frankly) joyless.

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The most important thing I have not seen noted elsewhere is what happens on the night of Jack and Ennis’s first sexual encounter. They were supposed to be keeping watch over a flock of sheep, protecting them from the wolves. When they wake up the morning after, they find out one of the sheep has been killed during the night. Their passion killed. You don’t have to be Harold Bloom to see the archetypes here — homosexuality as death force, as a passive destroyer of the soul, of innocence. In addition, the film certainly doesn’t portray the affair as viable as an alternative lifestyle, though each man thinks it might may be, for a time, after a fashion (Jack is the only one with the Massachusetts “marriage” dream). The relationship only “works” when it’s set apart from the social world — and this is the classic “homophobic” construction of homosexuality as outlawry.

Jack and Ennis’s not getting together has as much to do with the particulars of who they are as for social disapproval. Jack has a penchant for dangerous risk-taking; Ennis is a-romantic, period (if the second love had been a woman, the story would not have played out differently). As the movie went on, Jack and Ennis’s relationship became less sexual and more of an increasingly elusive “if only,” often tinged with jealousy and anger at each other. There’s even one scene where Ennis explicitly turns away Jack with the same “I gotta work” line that some woman hears from some overworked and unavailable man every second of every day of the year.

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Nor does the film, contrary to Mr. Akin’s sight-unseen assertions and dismissal of noting this as “mere spin,” skimp on the affair’s destructive effects on others, with neither cowboy being a good husband or father, at least in part because the other is always a possibility. Jack marries for money and lives unhappily castrated. Before his divorce, Ennis even turns his wife into a man in bed one night. He becomes estranged from his children and even turns down a chance for custody of his daughter. And, most obviously — the film ends tragically and unhappily.

Now … I’m not going to oversell BROKEBACK on these grounds. It’s definitely not a Christian work, and one should approach it with caution. But if this story were about an illegitimate lisison between a married man and a married woman, maybe it would be far easier to see how comfortably BROKEBACK fits into the traditions and templates of romantic tragedy, and so (and this is what I care about here) not leap to conclusions about what the film is supposedly “endorsing.” It’d be easier, in some quarters, to see that its low-key elegiac tone and its bittersweet ambivalence about an impossible love come straight out of BRIEF ENCOUNTER or THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. But the essence of tragedy is that every option be costly. Nobody seriously maintains that David Lean or Martin Scorsese have constructed screeds against marriage or the breeder lifestyle — merely acknowledging that marriage involves some dying to self. (The most underappreciated film of this topic, though it’s not a tragedy, was 2003’s THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS.) But all three of the tragic movies I’ve named are about people who choose family over eros, and from a mix of motives, not excluding shame and social disapproval. To acknowledge that such choices, even the right ones, have costs, and that some might not prefer those costs at certain moments or with a certain part of their soul, is simple truth-telling.

It’s also thoroughly Catholic apropos of homosexuality. Catechism 2358 says as follows:

(M)en and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies … are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Now what “difficulties” might the Church be talking about? And what could be united to the Cross other than suffering? And a suffering that, because it is based on something “deep-seated,” may not end or be “cured” on this side of paradise. Sure, the right path is clear (and 2359 does offer hope for homosexual persons, albeit of a kind they tend to hold in contempt), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or painless, or, to steal a line I’ve heard, that it’s the broadest path.

Thus, potentially and in principle at least, the pain of homosexual repression (whether from without or within) can be the stuff of romantic tragedy without implying that homosexual acting-out is a preferable option. Only an Americanist pragmatism, an insistence on moral happy endings, or a willful desire to draw unsubstantiated pro-gay conclusions could say otherwise. And the USCCB guide goes astray in stating that the film includes “tacit approval of same-sex relationships.” Or rather, that’s true only if every stance other than explicit condemnation constitutes “tacit approval.” Under that understanding, yes, since BROKEBACK isn’t interested in approval or disapproval, it does indeed give tacit approval to homosexual sex. But that’s a crabbed, unidimensional and ultimately boring understanding of art, thought and discourse in the first place, one that owes more to Puritanism and other forms of religious purism than Catholicism. Surely reason and secular plurality offer some space to representation other than the 60s totalitarian-radical stance: “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

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Now this “take” may very well not be Ang Lee’s or Annie Proulx’s. But there’s plenty in the film to support it and, more importantly, nothing in the film that excludes it. One of the things that needs to be made clearer about BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is its open-endedness and disinterestedness. Part of the reason the film’s widely-praised last image (a closet, a uniform, a window, a child walking away, and Heath Ledger’s face and body language all create a spine-tingling memento mori) is so brilliant is that it isn’t an overdetermined “moral” — it keeps open both BROKEBACK’s sources of loss. The film does nothing to “force” its audience into a conclusion about homosexuality, other than simply presupposing “homos is people too,” which is hardly heresy. The fact that secular film critics are cheerleading this film on (some of) the grounds they are is not surprising, but what is surprising is Christians taking their word for it. The film-critic community is one where theological illiteracy reigns (see 90 percent of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST criticism) and where opposition to gay marriage is understood only or primarily as “hate,” like when Scott Tobias at The Onion AV Club blog refers to “the recent glut of anti-gay marriage voter initiatives” as evidence of “homophobic sentiment.” (And believe me, Scott is a friend who wouldn’t even enter my mind if I were asked to name the Top 40 Leftist Wack-Jobs in the Field of Film Criticism.)

But Scott makes a much more important point at the end of the conversation:

The 9/11 echoes in War Of The Worlds are subtext. The commentary on race in Do The Right Thing is text. The “plea for tolerance” in Brokeback Mountain comes as a side effect of telling this story, not it’s raison d’être.

Even though I think (as Scott does not) that homosexual behavior is sinful and identifying oneself as “a homosexual” is dubious — in more than one sense of “dubious” — this is still a basic fact about how a work of art “works.” Scott distinguishes films that are propaganda, both implicitly and explicitly, from works that are not, but which may have effects that lead it to be understood in a certain way. But it is purely and simply not the case that people reacting to a text (by, say, calling it a great boon for gay marriage, yadda-yadda, etc.) has anything to do with the text. Though my meter is probably not St. Blogs’ most sensitive on such matters, I see a handful of “gay propaganda” movies every year and I can say definitely that BROKEBACK ain’t one, though it is certainly consumable (and is being consumed) as validation by gay-lifestyle propagandists, just as last year’s even better VERA DRAKE was equally bluntly and oversimplifiedly pushed into service as pro-abortion propaganda.

It is true that, like all movies, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN does require of the viewer at least some provisional acceptance of its terms of reference. No thing can be about everything. Homosexuality as a public issue doesn’t appear in the movie at all, and homosexuality as a moral issue hardly does, though adultery and infidelity as moral issues very definitely do. What you simply have to accept provisionally is that some people have an erotic desire for the same sex, and (and this is the hard part) that this might not be the most important thing to say about their sexual behavior or their moral character. This shouldn’t be too hard for Catholics, since Catechism 2359 above says homosexual persons are called, like all, to sainthood.

That these two men have, at least somewhat, released the homosexual genie to destructive ends does not (a priori, at least) answer the question of whether the genie should have been let out the bottle in the first place or whether we should encourage everyone to rub as many bottles as they find, and call it good. Indeed I think, in a strange way, the liberal lovers and the conservative haters of the film are arguing from the same template — that a movie that treats homosexual persons as persons first (with the particulars of their sinful weaknesses being a secondary detail) is somehow implying something about either about the morality of homosexuality or about the public issues surrounding it. It doesn’t. The Entertainment Weekly reviewer (Owen Glieberman) immediately before the passage cited above, writes explicitly:

It’s far from being a message movie, yet if you tear up in the magnificent final scene, with its haunting slow waltz of comfort and regret, it’s worth noting what, exactly, you’re reacting to: a love that has been made to knuckle under to society’s design.

Leaving aside the direction of the terms of approval and disapproval, this is essentially the same as Dom:

Is that all that the official reviewer for the US bishops can say about a movie that attempts to normalize homosexuality as just another lifestyle? From the beginning you detect an enthusiasm for the movie that seems a bit untoward.

As I’ve said, I think the Catholic reaction to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN has more to do with the Forbes review, which is freely available and appearing in the context of secular hosannahs, than to the film, which has not been widely released yet. And that review was, in fact, fairly pitiful and deserving of scorn.

As Mr. Akin points out, there are just a few sentences of “slight caveats thrown in as sops to those who would find the film objectionable.” Those sentences aside, the review was pretty indistinguishable from what one might read from a daily newspaper. Also, and take this from an editor, those sentences read like “afterthought” — that is, if an editor were of a mind to, they would have been cuttable instantly without making yourself as a result do any further rearranging or major editing. You wouldn’t get any sense from reading almost all of this review that the writer was writing for the US bishops office or for Catholic publications. When you look at what the USCCB did (eventually, and apparently after some kicking and screaming) and what Christianity Today’s movies page did, they look similar. That is, discuss and rate the film as a work of art, with a disclaimer about the subject matter.

But … CT’s review was much better and meatier, and had its moral concerns better integrated throughout. I don’t think Forbes did nearly enough of that, didn’t approach the film from a specifically and identifiably Catholic view from beginning to end, and the result was an oil-and-water effect.

When I wrote my reviews of IRREVERSIBLE and THE ARISTOCRATS, I knew I was writing about two movies I loved, but which had subject matter guaranteed to turn off most religious viewers.¹ I made damn sure that I communicated my knowledge of that fact from the start, leading with a volley of vulgarities in one case and some graphic descriptions in the other. I would do the same if I were to write about EYES WIDE SHUT and LAST TANGO IN PARIS — the questionable moral status of the film’s images and surface content would suffuse and be central to my claims about the films (i.e., that they’re masterpieces, and highly moral to boot). This is, in my opinion, the only legitimate way to do real film criticism — according to a sensibility from a specific POV.

But then, this blog is the product of one man and wholly about what interests him. Nobody would (I hope) take anything I say as “The Church” in an official or even semi-official capacity. One reason I did not include “Catholic” in my site name was never even to hint at such, and so leave me freer to write according to my sensibility, which you either share (at least somewhat) or don’t. But surely, the only reason the US bishops, as opposed to one layman in Washington, should be writing about film is because they speak from *their* specific perspective (for those of you in Rio Linda, that would be “being successors to the Apostles,” not “adding a sentence of reservation to the NY Times’ stance”). Despite the Vatican list of “Some (45) Significant Films” (which is as good a “canon list” as any of its length), film criticism is simply not in the episcopal charism.

Which also speaks somewhat, if via a very different route, to part of what Dom and Mr. Akin wonder aloud about the value of this USCCB office. In Dom’s words: “Methinks that there is a corruption in the film office of the USCCBureaucracy and in the USCCBureaucracy itself.” Mr. Akin says “the quality of the reviews and ratings has declined — to the point that I no longer consult them as they are of little use.” I agree with them wholeheartedly. Frankly, I have rarely consulted the bishops’ reviews (and never for critical input per se), as I’m confident enough in my own judgment on this matter. I did and do occasionally look up reviews from curiosity over the ratings. When I read in a diocesan paper that they rated PULP FICTION “O” and KIDS “A-IV” (the predecessor to “L”), I wrote a letter that I couldn’t bring myself to send. But my esteem could not be won back.²
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¹ To be fair, compared to those two movies, BROKEBACK is much tamer in style and actual content. It has one fairly graphic sex scene; but only its being between two men makes it particularly noteworthy in this day and age. And a couple of other nude or half-nude bits and pieces. Granted, my subject-matter Sensit-O-Meter is perhaps St. Blogs’ least acute, but considering the subject matter and contemporary standards, BROKEBACK is a pretty restrained film (one cause for complaint by the “insufficiently radical” crowd, BTW). And thanks, Ryan and Scott, for noting that David Ehrenstein is … well, follow the link and to the comment field.
² Can it be any more obvious that Larry Clark is a nihilist perv getting off on drooling through the camera at half-naked teens, while Quentin Tarantino is telling a tale of a providential religious conversion, albeit one heavily salted with surroundings of rough language, violence, and pomo irony?

December 19, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2003 TOP 10 — Number 3

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THE SON (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium)

“Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words.”
— St. Francis of Assisi

THE SON is a European art movie that almost nobody saw (it never played commercially in Washington; I saw it twice at festivals) and it’s still not on video unless your player can read European-coded discs or tapes. This joker compared it to Robert Bresson; when I saw it a second time, with a professor at Howard University, she thought it excruciatingly slow and boring (though she warmed up to it once we started discussing it); the other day, I got a note from a film-buff pal who wondered to me “I’ve watched the first 20 minutes or so of this and I’ve yet to see anything of interest … what should I be looking for?” So I well realize that THE SON, much as I love it, is not a crowd-pleaser.

Still, I can’t get the suspicion out of the back of mind that THE SON could be a crackerjack success among the people at St. Blogs (Barbara? Father Sibley? Mark? Others?) if more people could see it and get the word out on it, because this little Belgian masterpiece speaks to the workings of God’s grace more than any other film I saw last year. In addition, it centers around divine grace and one of Christ’s admonitions to virtue more thoroughly than any film I can think of where the word “God” never appears, the central character never goes to church, and priests or religious figures are absent. Or rather, THE SON preaches grace without ever using words. Oh, there are indications that we’re supposed to understand the film allegorically and theologically all right, the film’s title and the fact that the central character, Olivier, is a carpenter. And he is faced with a moral dilemma of Christ-like proportions. But even if God is present everywhere in the film, He is visible nowhere.

Brother writer-directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne spend the first 25 or 30 minutes of the film just following a mousy, pasty-faced character actor named Olivier Gourmet (who won a deserved best-actor prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival) as his character goes about his job teaching carpentry to teenage boys at what looks like some sort of apprentice program. We learn the nuts-and-bolts of a profession in THE SON like in few films I recall. For a long time, in fact, the film hardly seems to be more than IF I WERE A CARPENTER and the Dardennes show Olivier’s taciturn, stern, fatherly manner with his charges — a perfectionist teaching and exuding a work ethic and job skills.

And he goes on living alone. And merely existing. And looking. At something. Or someone. For some reason.

thesonavuncular.jpgWhen I say “following Olivier,” I mean that about as literally as one can. The Dardennes use the same close-up-heavy, seemingly hand-held style as they did in ROSETTA — the camera is constantly moving and seemingly permanently perched about a foot behind Gourmet’s head, creating a kind of intimate claustrophobia for us within Olivier’s skin. Some wags complained that the Cannes jury should have give the prize to the back of Gourmet’s neck or his earlobes, and other sane (but wrongheaded) people found the style offputting and/or said it wrecked the film. But I found the camerawork a breathtaking virtuoso act and, although the plot doesn’t obviously kick in until a big revelation at about the 30-minute mark, the Dardennes hide more story-exposition than you’d ever guess until after THE SON is over (the Dardennes’ focus-puller does more story-telling than most Hollywoof scriptwriters). We get a general sense that Olivier is haunted by something he’s been able to put in the past. But he has that … inexplicable interest in one of his students? I usually cannot abide films that go nowhere for long periods, but right when I mentally said to myself “OK, I think they’ve milked this for all it’s worth, something needs to happen soon” — something did. And then I said “thanks dardennebuds.” That plot point constitutes a major spoiler for one of the great pleasures of THE SON (for me at any rate) — the intimate mysteriousness of the opening half-hour. You have been warned

“Then came Peter unto him and said: ‘Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?’ Jesus saith to him: ‘I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times’.”
— Matthew 18:21-22

We find out the reason for Olivier’s interest in one of the pupils — a teenager named Francis just released from reformatory. Francis had served five years in juvenile hall for killing Olivier’s son in a car robbery gone awry. Olivier knows this; Francis does not know who his boss is. And the rest of the film concerns the VERTIGO question — what happens when Scotty/Francis finds out who Judy/Olivier is? And what is Olivier’s agenda?

One of the many reasons this film is so great and the last hour so tension-filled is that we never quite know (from the uncertain way Gourmet carries his body and his taciturnity) what Olivier is doing. Is he an ironic criminal out of Poe planning the perfect crime? Is he trying to exercise Jesus’ command to perfect forgiveness, despite its obvious impossibility and the nature of the wrong done him. Not until the very last shot of the film can we be certain. THE SON is a series of temptations put before a Christ-figure on the road to exercising perfect forgiveness, the last of which, perversely, is his own righteousness.

thesonwife.jpgMost of the time, when people “forgive” their tormentors (and I’m speaking of much more than parents of murdered children, which is at the extremities of torment), they generally say a few easy words, and then they leave the sinner at a distance and move on. But THE SON is about a man who has “forgiven” (in that easier sense) his son’s killer at the start of the movie. But then the world, as if guided by an invisible providential hand, conspires to push the limits of forgiveness … by putting the killer in his apprenticeship program, by a scene in which Olivier has to save the boy from a ladder-climbing accident, by Francis’s starting to like Olivier, treat him as a friend and finally asks him to be his guardian. Olivier’s ex-wife (their marriage broke up over the death of their son) finds out and goes batshit — “how can you do this,” she screams. “I don’t know,” he (honestly) answers.

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In the climactic scene, Olivier makes a date with Francis go out to a lumber yard alone. The drive out there makes up most of the film’s third act and it keeps tantalizing us with doubts and hints until I was thinking of the third act of IN THE BEDROOM and of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado,” with Olivier as Montresor luring a young Fortunato to his crypt for an ironic death. There’s a universe in the smallest snubs and changes in tone of voice. They stop at a pastry shop, and each gets a turnover. Olivier pays for his, leaving a surprised Francis to pay for his. No explicit explanation is offered or sought, but look at the faces. We’ve seen Olivier’s fatherly or avuncular manner with his pupils, but when your father or favorite uncle took you out somewhere, you didn’t go Dutch — and these are Belgians (couldn’t resist). It seemed like such a calculated and particularized snub that I thought it was paving the way for something more. There’s also an element of shame in Francis’ behavior throughout the drive (his evasive answers to Olivier’s asking “why were you in jail?”) and that makes his fleeing a perversely moral reaction to being made to face your wrongdoing.

Martin Luther once said: “Love God, often I hate him,” and Isaiah was terrified by seeing the face of God, and that’s sort of the dynamic here. And then, in a final perverse twist at the end, when Olivier tells him who he is, Francis flees him precisely BECAUSE the boy (quite rationally, I add, since he has seen IN THE BEDROOM) assumes he has been lured out to a murder site.

Has he? See the movie.

February 10, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 5

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IRREVERSIBLE (Gaspar Noe, France)

Now, to the capsule I’ve been dreading having to write since I started this blog. Where to begin? With the 9-minute unblinking, unbroken shot of the anal rape of Monica Bellucci, with her face in closeup before the rapist smashes it into the concrete? With the homosexual S&M club called The Rectum (and don’t think for one second there aren’t 100 references to anal sodomy and worse in the dialogue)? With the early sensual attack on your ears by the music — a loud hum cycling up and down monotously like a sine curve? With a camera that, for the first 50 minutes, never stops moving, and spends much of that time spinning, like the strobe lights at a disco? Or with an overall narrative trajectory that actually gets more depressing as the subject matters becomes more palatable?

Just sitting through this film is in some way an act of masochism, as its existential “success” depends on getting your mental ass kicked and feeling drained and wiped out by the film’s sensual assault (CQ) in its first 15 minutes. People with any capacity to be turned off a priori by the subject matter of fictional images will HATE this movie. And they should. And you know who you are … why are you still reading?

So … why did my friend Scott Tobias link to my site by calling me the only Catholic moralist who loved IRREVERSIBLE, which 95 out of 100 sane people will find morally indefensible? Precisely *because* it is morally indefensible. Or rather, because it depicts a universe that has turned to shit (CQ), because it depicts both sin and its wages unblinkingly, because it ruthlessly removes and/or undermines every bit of hope. In short, because IRREVERSIBLE is an 97-minute taste of Hell. And in Hell, there is nothing but hell.

I first saw both IRREVERSIBLE and THE SON at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, a couple of days apart. These two very dissimilar French-language films were my two favorites among the movies I saw there that year, and it was as though they commented on each other and were providentially intended to be seen together. They both present a world of sin, La Cinema De Boue, but in the latter film’s world, there is grace (see upcoming capsule at #3) and in the former’s there is not. An irredeemable vision of an irreversible Hell is not the greatest achievement one can discharge, but I have never seen a film discharge it better than this one.

irreversibleknife.jpgThere is no question that IRREVERSIBLE is nihilistic, but it is not a nihilism of the Western-preferred variety — what Allan Bloom called “nihilism with a happy ending.” This is the real, nauseating thing. The fact that so many people hate this film and that its notorious rape scene has prompted mass walkouts since its premiere at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival almost validates the film to me. Or maybe you should dismiss me on the grounds that my single all-time favorite film is A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

IRREVERSIBLE moves backward in time, basically from a brawl and a murder in the bowels of the homosexual S&M club to how the murder came about to the motivation for it (the rape scene) and then the previous relationship between the three principals — basically girlfriend (Bellucci), boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) and best buddy (Albert Dupontel). In MEMENTO, the backwards-chronology story structure, and the way it constantly recoded what we had earlier seen, was used to put us sympathetically inside the head of a man with no memory. But in IRREVERSIBLE that same recoding is used for almost the opposite — and completely pitiless — purpose. It makes a story that, told in chronological order would be just a straight downward spiral, absolutely heart-breaking, because even when the three principals have happy or normal moments, we know they’re doomed, see the mistakes they’re making, are powerless to stop them.

irreversibleparty.jpg The true kick-in-the-gut scenes are actually not the notorious ones in the film’s first half, but the sedate ones in IRREVERSIBLE’s second half. Seeing a woman as beautiful as Bellucci all aglow in the final moments retroactively raised the stakes on what we had seen — any decent man would want things to come out differently. When Cassel acts like a drug-toking teenager at a party, we share Bellucci’s frustration with him — and on 2nd viewing, even more so because of the revelation at the film’s end, which makes the portrayal of the Peter Pan Syndrome in Cassel bite harder. So you get frustrated at him, and cheer her as she walks out of the party. Then you remember what you’ve just seen happen “next.”

In one of George Will’s greatest columns, he printed some of 2 Live Crew’s lyrics (though he had to use print-euphemisms like “p–sy” to satisfy Newsweek) to make the point that one of the ways that cultural extremity advances is that people, in interest of maintaining decorum, will talk about it in vague euphemism and thus be false about it. Catherine MacKinnon once made more-or-less the same point on an ABC News special, that engaging pornography required her to engage in it herself in some sense, using words like “ass” (she noted the immediate snicker from the audience) and thus reinforce pornography’s effects. And to bring this back to IRREVERSIBLE, the film’s structure effectively torpedoes this problem of extreme subject matter. But IRREVERSIBLE goes beyond not being pornography, rather it’s the very opposite. Noe systematically denies the audience even the pleasures, however morally dubious, of pornography.

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Consider the start of the final dramatic scene, a nude Bellucci and a nude Cassel are curled together asleep in bed. It is the closest thing the film has to a turn-on scene (it’s bathed in a warm, golden light, and the two actors, lovers in real life, have an easy rapport and affection). But before it can do anything for you, Bellucci says she had a dream of a long red corridor (we wince) and there are several lines referring to revenge and some playful slaps between the two (wince again). In fact throughout, the film has 100 foreshadowings and allusions throughout to the events of future past.

Then look at the two most notorious scenes in IRREVERSIBLE. Our first view of the beautiful Bellucci is of her battered body, and while our second view is more conventionally tittilating (she’s walking away from the camera in a skimpy dress), we know better than she does the fate we’re helplessly following her toward. The rape scene itself, people walked out on it because they sensed its unredeemed sadism. But making sadism unredeemed is far more moral than aestheticizing it in the name of Good Taste, making it like the rape scene in the film of TESS, which, in the name of Good Taste, made the act look like having a wart removed. IRREVERSIBLE’s rape scene has to, in conventional dramatic-arc terms, go on for far FAR too long, in order to make its point — which is to take the logic of extremity past the point of any possible pornographic pleasure. Good.

In the same way, consider the descent into The Rectum, where dozens of men are committing every conceivable manner of sexual degradation. But between the dark lighting schemes, the redness of the little light that is there, and the camera twirling upon itself as it darts through the club, so we never even have a sense of which way is up — between all these things, we can never get a good look at any of the nudity or sex. Oh, we get a fleeting glimpse of this and that, but almost as soon as we figure out that, e.g., “this guy’s masturbating,” we lose sight of him, lose any ability to be turned on by what we’re seeing, and thus get more frustrated. The lighting only becomes dimly adequate for when the action becomes as unerotic as imaginable and for one glimpse of a character that turns the movie inside out (though you might not realize that on first viewing). From the Rectum sequence, we remember clearly only the mind-bending camera work, the monotonous hum of the music, and images that even if we’re of a mind to remember with a smile, we can’t. By giving us too much of the rape and not enough of the S&M club, Noe gives us a major achievement — a film with outre subject matter that cannot be consumed as tittilation.

irreversiblerectum.jpg

So relentless is Noe in denying his audience and characters any hope or grace that he even undermines the logic of revenge and self-defense that motivates Cassel and Dupontel in their hunt for Bellucci’s rapist in The Rectum. The man they kill is not the guilty party — a fact that it’s tough to see without a second viewing (mull over what you think *that* might mean). But … he *is* a rapist, and the men surrounding him egg him on in his threat to sodomize Cassel. Until Dupontel saves him. And then goes too far in what is one of the most blood-curdling images I’ve ever seen that, like the rape of Bellucci, goes on for far FAR too long — about three fire extinguisher plunges into the face too long. Yes, it’s a fake face, but still, it’s one of the few things in The Rectum we see very clearly at all. Dupontel’s murder is committed basically as an innocent bystander stopping a rape, which makes problematic a minor detail in the rhyming scene of the rape of Bellucci. Other than the two principals, it’s the only thing in the earlier scene for the entire nine minutes.

But is there a point to it all? Absolutely. The pattern of the scenes basically follow a slide of basically increasing degeneracy. The film’s credo, stated at the beginning and (unfortunately and redundantly) the end, is “Time destroys all things,” which isn’t very profound as a moral but does tell us that the film’s end-to-beginning events represent a decline. And what is time destroying? In chronological order (thus the reverse of IRREVERSIBLE’s presentation): children and family, affectionate (if unmarried) sex, adolescent sex talk, party animal promiscuity, rape, prostitution, revenge, consensual gay sex, homosexual rape, and (finally) sexualized murder.

irreversiblegarden.jpg

Or in Catholic terms, from the natural to the unnatural. From the co-creation of life to anonymous fist-fucking. And Noe draws this comparison in many other ways between the first and last scene — the music degenerates from Beethoven’s Seventh to that siren-like hum; the lighting scheme goes from full and bright to dark and dank; we see the pinwheel shape that, embodied in the camera, made the Rectum scene so punishing, only now in the form of a water sprinkler on a verdant lawn. From life to death. Before going to absolute white, the film even spins and looks straight up for the only time. And so, in the beginning there was light. But at IRREVERSIBLE’s beginning, the camera is doing so much spinning that we can hardly know which way is up, as though even the structure of the universe is disintegrating. I’m not just referring to The Rectum, but also the apartment block next to it where the film’s first scene takes place — the spinning camera is seemingly free of even gravity and so a coherent cinematic space never emerges. But it all ends with two ugly people we don’t know¹ musing about how there are no bad deeds, just deeds. Beyond good and evil.
———————————————-
¹ They’re actually characters from Noe’s earlier film I STAND ALONE, but unless you know that, there’s no way to tell or figure it out.

February 8, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

Victor agrees with Ted Kennedy

jackiefuneral2.jpgTo my knowledge and surprise, nobody in St. Blog’s Parish has picked up on this item, which ran on the national news wires Thursday evening, about the release of a priest’s papers, some of which detail Jackie Kennedy’s conversations in the wake of JFK’s assassination.

The material is inherently interesting for those fascinated with All Things Kennedy, and it’s also a blessed reminder of a pre-therapeutic world, when it was considered vulgar to emote in public. But there’s about 6 or 7 grafs in the middle of the story about the propriety of a Catholic priest (Father Richard McSorley) keeping notes about his conversations with Mrs. Kennedy, some of which were clearly religious in nature (Mrs. Kennedy’s suicidal thoughts, and questions about the afterlife).

I well realize that not everything a priest says or learns in any context is bound by the sacramental seal. But there’s still something creepy about a priest keeping notes on someone. I know I wouldn’t want my confessor to say anything about me to any third party. And something, well, jesuitical, about the searching for loopholes and saying McSorley wouldn’t want to hurt Jackie and was doing it with an eye to history, etc.

… and expeditions have been sent out to measure the temperature in Hades.

November 16, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Culture vs. religion

Mark Shea has a bee in his bonnet about an article in the City Journal. I suppose I might agree with him if the article he was responding to ever claimed that American conservatism *is* eternal. But the article is entirely about the culture we live in, not theology or soteriology, so necessarily it’s about temporal things, the things of the age, Augustine’s city of man, where virtues (albeit imperfect ones) can be found even from the Romans. We judge temporal things primarily by temporal standards, under prudence — not eternal ones, under judgment.

So considered *as cultural-political criticism,* Mr. Shea doesn’t lay a glove on the article. When he says “Try, seriously, to square the worldview of contempt which informs South Park with Catholic teaching,” he’s missing the point. The article makes it clear that South Park’s virtues are negative ones — it’s the enemy of the enemy. This is not exactly a friend, but in the world of politics, that’s close enough. In addition, you can only engage a culture (either politically or religiously) where it is, otherwise it tunes you out. Nostalgia-based condemnation of the age is not a serious stance, certainly culturally-speaking. In this ironic day and age, THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S ain’t gonna cut it. I remember as a boy hating Mickey Mouse because I thought it was too much like education and moral uplift, and there was something about Bugs Bunny’s insouciant poise that was more attractive. Mickey could have had imprimaturs out the wazoo, but it wouldn’t have mattered to me because I didn’t like him. Flannery O’Connor talked about saving your work first. One of John Paul’s greatest virtues is being the first mass-media pope, understanding that you engage people where they are, and if the world has a comic-book culture, then make a comic book out of your biography.

I’ve already written some of my own thoughts about South Park, and wish only to add that a new season of 8 episodes began last week and that there has to be good in any show where all the Gay Guys Who Dress Up The Breeder, or whatever it’s called, get killed. It’d be impossible to deny that the show has a tone of contempt, but there’s a gleeful quality to it that is equally impossible to miss and which makes the show a valuable satirical weapon for these times. I’d compare South Park to Camille Paglia — not orthodox, but friendly because it has all the right enemies to have in this day and age. I frankly wonder whether Mr. Shea, who repeatedly rails against TV as such, has seen very much of the show, of which he does not cite a single moment.

I’m also massively unconvinced by Mr. Shea’s implicit “a pox on both your houses” moral-equivalence stance toward politics. It strikes me as imprudent and makes the perfect the enemy of the good. American conservatism is definitely imperfect sub specie aeternitis, but Catholics and Christians can find much common ground and get a serious hearing without contempt for our very existence and the belief that we are the enemy as such — the “keep your rosaries off my ovaries” attitude. With conservatism, the spirit is willing, even if the flesh is sometimes weak; with liberalism, the spirit is in total league with the Enemy. *That* is what the culture war (on which Mr. Shea does brilliant service on the side of the angels) is all about; whether Christianity can inhabit the public space or whether progress is measured by how thoroughly it can be repudiated. There is an absolute difference here between the two dominant ideologies and parties, and Christians should not kid themselves about who their friends and enemies are.

If Tolkien really, truly intends “The Lord of the Rings” as some sort of global indictment of “Power,” then I feel vindicated in my aesthetic resistance to him — I was pretty tepid on the two movies and cannot comment on them as novels because I found them unreadable. It’d be good therefore to know, if that account is accurate, that they’re also pretty silly. A serious politics cannot begin with the notion that power is some evil Ring. It is all fine and good to say render unto Caesar, and that the regime doesn’t matter because the gates of hell shall not prevail, etc. But the Catholic Church has never taught political quietism, and frankly I’d rather see the Body in a friendly culture and polity than an unfriendly one, if I can affect the matter at all (and again, *that I can* is the unstated assumption of all political and cultural engagement). But maybe that’s just me. The question is not whether there shall be worldly power, but who shall wield it and for what ends — relatively good ones or relatively bad ones. Ones hostile to Christ or friendly to Him.

October 28, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Twas always thus

If I’m gonna this much space and energy slagging Mark Shea, I should note that he has made a stunning archaeological find.

Apparently, the New York Times or the Associated Press or USA Today (they’re not sure yet; still working on the translation from Old Church Aramaic) were in business 2,000 years ago and producing masterpieces of journalism like this one, which Mark has very kindly translated.

October 28, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Our Wednesday Visitor continues

david-jp2.jpgMy friend David Morrison describes his meeting Pope John Paul II at a 1996 Vatican audience. There are three photos all told in this section. I find the photos kinda amusing, cause David is so clearly overwhelmed and humbled. It’s like a low-key version of Wayne and Garth saying “we’re not worthy” before Aerosmith or Alice Cooper. (Like I’d’ve acted any differently.)

That WAYNE’S WORLD comparison might strike some as irreverant, and obviously I *am* making a joke … somewhat. One of the amazing things about John Paul’s pontificate is that he wasn’t just (*just*) the greatest man of my lifetime, the man who brought down Communism and forcefully identified the Culture of Death in the West. He was also a *star* of the first magnitude, and by both exhortation and example made the Church fully comfortable with modern communication. He toured the world; he toured the States. He toured the world and elsewhere. And was greeted like a rock star everywhere he went, filling stadiums with chanting fans lapping up the souvenirs (some of them obviously silly; anyone else remember “Pope on a Rope” soap?).

I’ll almost certainly never talk to John Paul personally like David did, but I got some of that “rock star” charisma in my closest encounter with him. In January 1999, on a whim and a couple of days off, I drove all the previous day from South Carolina to St. Louis, where John Paul would have a one-day stopover on his way back to Rome from a visit to Mexico. I wasn’t able to get inside the TWA Dome for his morning Mass and settled for watching it on some temporary Jumbotrons outside (I might have been able to get a ticket from a scalper, but illegally buying a ticket to get into a Papal Mass is … just … no.) But he would be going to St. Louis Cathedral for an ecumenical service and would come out to speak to the crowd afterward.

So I got to the Cathedral as soon as I could and was able to grab the best spot to stand, right on the edge of the street (simonofthedesert.jpgthe curb was blocked off), front row center before the Cathedral steps. About 40 or 50 feet from the top of the steps. And there I stood, in one spot, not moving more than a few inches, for five hours. Or risk losing the best look at John Paul I’d ever get. It’s not exactly St. Antony of Egypt or the film SIMON OF THE DESERT, but it’s as close to flesh-mortifying monkdom as I’ve ever done. When John Paul came a few steps out of the cathedral to bestow a brief blessing on the crowd (no words), the whole crowd (now jam-packed for two blocks) starting chanting “John Paul Two/We love you.” It was really like a rock concert, how everyone just loved the man with a frenzy.

Those days are gone though, as his body is starting to give out (truth be told, he was already showing signs of age in 1999). But still he beatified Mother Teresa and installed another 30 cardinals. Maybe that’s his last witness to the world, refusing to give in to frail flesh — and witness against the kind of treatment of the frail and weak we see in places like Florida.

October 22, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Oh happy day, Blessed Mother Teresa

Yesterday was not a good day for the Culture of Death, losing on two fronts.

First, the Florida Legislature and governor intervened to stop Michael Schiavo’s bid to kill his brain-damaged wife Terri by removing her feeding and hydration tubes and starving her to death. This in spite of the wishes of her parents and their offer to turn over all of Terri’s assets to her husband, despite the lack of a living will or any other form of contemporaneous evidence about Terri’s wishes other than her husband’s present-day say-so, despite disputes over her precise medical diagnosis (there were doctors testifying both that she could be rehabilitated and that she couldn’t), and despite the fact that by any standard that would be applied if Terri were fully ambulatory, her husband had abandoned her (his live-in girlfriend is expecting their second child).

Last Wednesday, the “husband” had finally prevailed in court and removed Terri’s food and water tubes, but on Monday and Tuesday, the Florida legislature passed and Gov. Jeb Bush signed, a bill essentially giving the governor the power to intervene in this case and order the tubes put back in. At least the husband’s <s>ambulance …</s> er, lawyer George Felos has a sense of humor: “It is simply inhumane and barbaric to interrupt her death process. Just because Terri Schiavo is not conscious doesn’t mean she doesn’t have dignity.” (It would take a heart of stone not to laugh here.) The “husband,” hellbent on killing his wife, launched another court challenge late last night, but lost. Now those of us who’d been praying and calling and e-mailing Florida officials just hope that the five days of forced starvation haven’t wrecked Terri’s organs and made a recovery impossible, thus potentially vindicating the Death Cult through their self-fulfilling prophecy about her prospects.

motherteresa.jpgThis was beautiful news to happen on the same day that Congress again passed a ban on partial-birth abortion but this time was finally able to send it to a president who will sign it. And what a gift to Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to serving the inconvenient and the helpless and who denounced abortion and euthanasia at every opportunity, to have these events happen just two days after her beatification.

It might not be a miracle attributable to Mother Teresa in the fullest sense, but state legislatures just don’t ordinarily do in 1 1/2 days what the Florida lawmakers did. Susan Carr, Terri’s sister, called the vote: “a miracle, an absolute miracle.” Others in the Catholic blogosphere like Mark Shea, Amy Welborn and Father Rob Johansen (see his Sunday homily here) kicked up holy hell for weeks, much more than I did publicly. Other Catholic sites, to which I don’t have permanent links, to do yeoman work were Times Against Humanity and Envoy magazine. Christian talk radio, briefly mentioned in this fine article, and the disability movement also participated in the efforts, both political and spiritual, to save Terri — although I’m more familiar with the first group than the other two. (I was a lowly foot soldier — a half-dozen e-mails, a couple of on-hold calls, and some financial support, but the Florida Legislature’s phones and mail system shut down on the crucial day). But there was Providence too. A reader at Mark’s blog said he saw Columba Bush, the Catholic wife of Jeb, in Rome as part of the U.S. delegation to the 25th anniversary celebration of John Paul II’s papacy, on her knees praying before St. Peter’s bones. “I’m betting Mrs. Jeb got on the phone to her husband and had a frank exchange of views,” the writer said.

Now you might also think, given all this, that the bishop in whose diocese this is occurring would be out there picketing trying to impose his rosaries on her ovaries, or something like that. Uh-uh. This is the diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida, you understand, which is led by Bishop Robert Lynch, who outlawed regular Eucharistic exposition and adoration (4th item here). For the first several days of the meltdown period (when it looked like the die had been cast and Terri would be starved, and the first few days of her being starved), he was supposedly out at a staff retreat, maybe doing stuff like this, leaving a phone message and no way for people to even leave a message to tell him that … y’know … one of his daughters was being murdered. Then, after it looked like the “husband” would win the right to starve Terri to death, the “bishop” issued this statement here. The text is as follows:

“With the news that the feeding tube has now been removed from Terri Schiavo, my own prayers and those of thousands of other people go out for Terri and for her family. May the author of all life look kindly on Terri and provide consolation and hope for those who love her.
“I continue to believe that such decisions should not be made in the court system but must be made on a case-by-case basis by families and/or other responsible parties at the clear direction of each one of us well in advance of a crisis.”

Excuse my French, but what the samhell is a bishop for if he’s just gonna issue a tepid press release indistinguishable from something that might have put out by the offices of Olympia Snowe or Blanche Lincoln. I’m not crazy about public showboating and planned arrests and whatnot, but if ever there was a time for fire and brimstone, for Jeremiah, for prophetic judgment, someone being starved to death because she’s handicapped and inconvenient is it. Why would Jesus even trouble Himself to get nailed up to some wood and rise from the dead if *this* is the kind of leadership we get in defense of the least of us from those who represent Him, and therefore them? It’s wishy-washy and bureaucratic in its language; it’s just an after-the-fact “what are you gonna do” acceptance of a fait accompli; and it’s dubious on church teaching to boot (we DON’T have a right to starve the inconvenient “on a case-by-case basis” in the privacy of our own abode, any more than we have the right to kill the unborn or ourselves). It’s the classic case of offering stones and snakes instead of loaves and fishes. Even my own bishop, Paul Loverde of far away Arlington, Va., said something far closer to what needed to be said: “The inherent worth of the life of Theresa Schiavo obligates all concerned to provide her with care and support and to reject any omission of nutrition or hydration intended to cause her death. May God continue to bless you in your work in defense of life.”

Further, a couple of people at Amy’s site surmised (not unreasonably in my view) that “bishop” Lynch had ordered his priests not to be there. Amy said she was “exceedingly puzzled by the absence of any priests beside this Monsignor in this situation.” Did no local priests show up simply from outrage or plain frickin’ curiosity? “I’m beginning to suspect that the word has come down privately from Lynch to priests and religious in his diocese to stay away,” she said. Indeed, many in the Catholic blogosphere had to plead to find a champion in Father Rob at Thrownback, who said he would go down there to Florida from Michigan (yes … Michigan) to be with the Schindlers, to help out the one priest they already had, to minister to the protesters, and to participate in civil disobedience if need be. (The oh-so-loving husband had denied Terri Communion at this point.) He immediately was inundated with offers of financial help from literally across the world. To come down from … Michigan. And to think, I actually once spent some intellectual energy and capital defending this Florida bishop in a private e-mail exchange with Rod Dreher over these blogs of his at National Review.

And consider the relative silence of Lynch and the bishops as a body, when you look at their actions on another “life issue” — capital punishment. Every time some *guilty* killer meets his reward, part of the ritual is the call for clemency from the Pope, the bishops, the local bishop. Don’t get me wrong, I’m opposed to the death penalty too and I know how slow things can go. But wasn’t *something* in order?? A search for the word “Schiavo” on the Bishops Conference Web site as I write produces no hits. About this case, the nation’s Catholic bishops have collectively seen fit to utter not Word One (much less the Word from the One). Terri might have gotten better treatment from the leaders of her Church, my Church, if she’d just shot a few liquor store owners.

But the best comment was made by blogger Peggy Rettle at Amy’s site, to the effect that the Culture of Death is now so far advanced that we seek every justification we can to make the irreversible decision to kill people, rather than giving every presumption to preserving life.

“What I find most evil, however, is the husband’s unwillingness to show mercy on his wife and her family as well as the courts unwillingness to show similar mercy and err on the side of life when there is a family dispute or uncertainty as to the true medical condition … especially one where the motives and actions of one family member are quite questionable. This is what is so frightening for our society, I think.”

October 22, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Mel ruled as not kosher

Well, one day after I advise Mel Gibson not to let the Anti-Defamation League see THE PASSION, the ADL weighs in and the secular media picks it up, both the Associated Press and Reuters. Someone should send Mel a link to my site, though I should inform him that there is a Consulting Fee For Fabulously Wealthy Film Stars.

I obviously haven’t seen the film, so maybe I should hold my fire, but I can’t say I’m impressed with the ADL’s arguments, as presented in its press release. Any reasonably faithful adaptation of the Gospels will show Jesus’s blood being sought by the Jewish authorities and the Jerusalem mob. Whatever the subtle details of what body did what at what hour, where the accounts do differ in minor ways, all four Gospels are united in proclaiming what the ADL is clearly constructing in its first, second and fifth bullets as anti-Semitism. If the argument is that any portrayal of any Jew demanding Jesus’ blood is anti-Semitic, then Christianity as such is anti-Semitic. At this point, I throw up my hands and go home, concluding that ADL wants Christians to apologize ourselves out of existence.

I can understand the historical discomfort of the ADL and reasonable Jews with the deicide charge and its link to passion plays, given what it has “justified” in the past. But the execution of Jesus of Nazareth, whatever its theological meanings, is a historical event, as much a historical event as the execution of, say, Socrates. And the peoples and certain leaders in 1st century Jerusalem and 5th century Athens played significant roles, according to the primary historical documents we have of those events. Blaming contemporary Jews for deicide is absurd and makes no more sense than blaming the execution of Socrates on contemporary Greeks. It is also, in the light of eternity, bad theology — the execution of Jesus, whatever the role certain historical personages played, was required in the economy of salvation by the sins of all men (a point Gibson has made, along with some people who have seen the film). Catholic congregations are reminded of this every year by playing the part of the crowd demanding Jesus’ death. I would definitely agree that Christians, especially Catholics, have an obligation not to repeat past crimes against God’s people. But truth is truth, and at some point, Judaism and Christianity have to part ways on who Jesus of Nazareth was, and that has moral and historical implications that I don’t think the ADL is grasping, and which explains Gibson’s stubbornness and (at least my) skepticism about the ADL’s charges.

As a strictly theological matter, why shouldn’t those Jews of 1st-century Jerusalem not taken in by this new heresy led by this Nazarene nobody (is it necessary to emphasize that Christians generally realize Jesus and all his disciples were Jews), those “Jews who adhere to their Jewish faith” in the ADL’s words, have wanted Jesus’ death? Is ADL speaking from the perspective of Judaism? Jesus was claiming to be the prophesied Messiah, the Son of God and all that. If these claims are not true, and every Jew has to believe they are not true (otherwise, he’s just become a Christian), then the mere man making them is the rankest blasphemer, surely worthy of death under the Law. In addition, God’s people turning away, rejecting Him for this or that false idol — the golden calf, the Egyptian and Babylonian deities during the exiles — is a constant theme throughout the Torah. Caiaphas bloody well should have been concerned about his people following for this latest heretic, and stamping it out as blasphemy. Speaking theologically, some amount of anti-Christianity is inherent in Judaism, and some amount of anti-Judaism is inherent in Christianity. We just have to live with that until God calls a halt to history, and calling any and every reminder of any of the bases for the latter a form of hate doesn’t change that.

August 12, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Religion of Tolerance Update

No, this is not about Islam (that’s The Religion of Peace, for future reference). These are some of the latest exploits of the pro-gay yobbos in their tireless efforts to battle homophobic hate.

  • Disagreement over the U.S. Episcopal Church’s ordination of a homosexual bishop inspired a couple of Anglican clerics to give a Kenyan bishop an example of the warmth and hospitality that the English are noted for exhibiting toward Italian soccer fans.
  • Canada’s reputation for Tolerance marches forward, with The Latest Word being that no teacher may, in any public space, express any disapproval of homosexuality (or “two-spirited people” even). If the teacher had been suspended merely for graduating illiterates and innumerates, the union would kick up holy hell. Here, it’s his chief persecutor.
  • At the bottom of the Canada link (and it’s a sign of the times that this is now considered worthy of a mere aside), there is this: “Meanwhile, a Commons committee is considering a bill that would make the reading of biblical injunctions against homosexuality in a church a ‘hate crime’ under the Criminal Code.” This is a spreading phenomenon in the countries that used to be Christendom. Even if everything in THE MAGDALENE SISTERS were holy writ, it should have been long-ago obvious that Ireland is no longer your grandpa’s beloved Erin or the theocracy of Sinead O’Connor’s mind. Yes … the Catholic Church is being warned about the potential criminality of a Church document. We have seen the future.
  • This desecration of a conservative parish happened the night that the Episcopal church ratified Gene Robinson’s election as New Hampshire bishop. Perhaps it was just like ripping up a city block when your sports team wins the title. I should note that there’s no actual evidence that this was gay activists, but the details of the crime have to make that the default assumption for now.
  • At least these demonstrators were peaceful and stayed outside when ordered to (though some of the quotes in story are just sad … “this is my birthright as an Irish Catholic”). But I will never forget serving as a lay communion minister at a parish in Austin, Texas, during the heyday of ACT-UP and having a significant part of the training devoted to “this is what you do if demonstrators come to desecrate the Host.”

Does five in one week constitute something more than anecdotal evidence?

August 11, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment