December 31, 2006
Happy New Year
May you enjoy a degree of blessings in 2007 in strict accordance with your ability to enjoy same without inordinate emotional effusions.
So here I sit . . . waiting for that stupid ball to drop. Ach. Better they should push a pelagian off a rooftop. Now that would be a way to ring in the new year!
December 30, 2006
December 29, 2006
I also find it interesting that no other denomination or religion will be represented. Obviously, as with the contest with the prophets of Baal, when the LCMS president contrasted the power of our hot air with that of others', LCMS was No. 1!
That was so MEAN. I hate it when I'm mean.
No, really. I mean that.
December 28, 2006
The Good Shepherd
And who knows Mob movies better than The Good Shepherd's director, Robert DeNiro? Unfortunately, there can only be one classic Mob film, and while he and writer Eric Roth tried to craft another Michael Corleone out of star Matt Damon's Edward Wilson, they wound up only with a feeble Amerigo Bonasera.
This long, meandering history/expose of the righteous roots and quick decline of America's intelligence office cross-cuts between the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s and the 1940s, when a young idealistic Wilson is initiated into both Skull & Bones and wartime espionage. He quickly learns that he can trust no one and that he must often choose between loyalty to country and loyalty to family.
DeNiro makes a cameo as Gen. Bill Sullivan, one of the few non-WASPs allowed into the hallowed halls of real political and military power. He is commissioned with starting up a postwar intelligence agency dedicated to foreign surveillance. He also forsees potential abuses of power that demand civilian oversight. Wilson quickly sees the contradiction: How does an agency run on secrecy open itself up to scrutiny by the outside world and still remain effective?
It doesn't, is the film's final answer.
The problem with the film, aside from its lackluster pacing, is Wilson. A man with no personality to speak of, he dances on the string of security demands—a passive, passionless nonce owned by superiors and driven only by "fate." As a consequence, he's a bore. A man with no will is a man who never really acts. Dramatically, this makes for deadly stuff.
I must also alert my readers to yet another example of politically correct revisionism: During the interrogation of a would-be Soviet defector, we are given to believe that the USSR of the 1960s was a hollow shell, a rusted tin can, of no real threat to America, and that the Cold War was a concoction of the military-industrial complex. Yes, President Eisenhower certainly warned your country of just such a baleful alliance, but the idea that the Soviet Union, which had defeated the mighty German army despite relying on an already bedraggled and beleagured and oppressed Soviet population, had tanks in several Eastern European countries, had nuclear weapons aimed at major American cities, and was a major exporter of armed revolution, was a mere chimera is utter nonsense. This lie of some on the hard Left (and, I see, some on the isolationist Right) is intended to deride your President Reagan and his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of the Cold War.
Joe Pesci makes a brief appearance as a Mob boss approached by Wilson (at the behest of the Kennedy White House) to help with removing Castro. This doesn't go much further dramatically than a few telling lines of dialogue: Pesci remarks on how Italians have Church and Family, Jews have their traditions, the Irish have their homeland, and blacks have their music. He then asks, "What do you people have?" to which Wilson reponds: "The United States of America. The rest of you are just visitors."
Angelina Jolie is miscast in my estimation. A scion of an old WASP family she is not. And there's not much to her character but the by-now familiar figure of the bitter housebound wife of an important man with little time for her. John Turturro plays the obedient bureaucrat/hit man with sufficient intensity, and William Hurt is always fun to watch. But despite a compelling close, in which Wilson makes his hat-in-hand plea to his Soviet don, then does the "necessary thing" to protect his family from outside infiltration, the film ultimately reveals little that we haven't already surmised about the conflicted nature of any intelligence agency's mission.
Which is to say, what Hollywood thinks of the CIA is no secret.
December 27, 2006
Children of Men
Then there are adaptations in which the filmmaker virtually co-opts the book, revisioning it and making it his own. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and The Shining stand out in this regard. (There’s a reason the titles are prefaced with “Stanley Kubrick’s” and not “Anthony Burgess’” and “Stephen King’s,” respectively.)
But writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s film version of P.D. James’ Children of Men—which opens this Friday—is in a category all its own: Call it an act of vandalism. The Christian fable, as James herself described her book, was originally published in 1992 and was a respite from her crime novels. A work of dystopian forecasting, Children of Men was about a time when women could no longer have babies, the world was dying, and Britain was under control of a dictator determined to maintain a semblance of order amid the chaos.
Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá Tambi én, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) uses the core of James’ scenario—a future without children, and therefore without hope—as a mere MacGuffin, that Hitchcockian device that in itself is meaningless but serves to move the action forward. Cuarón’s Children of Men is little more than high-tech agit-prop targeting the Bush administration, the war in Iraq, border policing, and Homeland Security. That it takes place in the England of 2027 is rather beside the point; the world’s desperate and despairing populations are at each other’s throats, and George W’s now decades-old policies are to blame. (I couldn’t help but think, not of Nineteen Eighty-four, but of 1984’s abominable 2010, in which the Reagan White House was retroactively blamed for HAL-9000’s breakdown in 2001.)
The film begins with the death of the youngest person on earth, an 18-year-old Latin American named Diego. Shortly thereafter, Theo (Clive Owen), an erstwhile activist and now a decidedly lethargic bureaucrat in the Ministry of Energy, is literally pulled off the streets and into the world of a clique of terrorists lead by his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore). Hidden among the group is a young black woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a “fugee” (refugee) who is amazingly, inexplicably pregnant. Julian wants Theo to use his influence with the government to pave the way (secretly, of course) for Kee to get safely to the Human Project, an offshore, shipboard collection of intellectuals from around the world who are going to jump-start civilization with fresh answers to old problems.
Throughout the film, characters from the novel are reassigned roles and political positions as Cuarón and co-screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton see fit. In fact, the first thing Cuarón does when he arrives in the year 2027 is eliminate the Christians. In James’ book, Julian is a beautifully wrought Christian believer: the new Eve, the new Mary, the hope for the salvation of the world. But that Julian has been swapped out for Moore’s Julian, now Theo’s ex-wife and a revolutionary any Maoist could love. (As for the book’s Luke, the Christlike Anglican priest— Cuarón has rebirthed him as a duplicitous butcher.) In fact, the only bits of religion left in Cuarón’s version are cults of fanatical masochists and a midwife who engages clumsily in Tai Chi and chants the Buddhist Om mani padme hum.
That is, if you don’t count Jihadism as a religion. You see, an intifada is the answer to Bush’s—er, England’s—inhumane immigration policy, which consists in hauling illegals off to camps bearing a striking example to Abu Ghraib and mainstream-media images of Guantanamo Bay, and where the Nazi-era “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Make You Free) is sung (hint hint). What’s implausible about Cuarón’s conception is that no reasonable explanation is ever offered as to why so many people would risk their lives to get into an England that is suffering the same plague of childlessness, pollution, overcrowding, and oppression as everywhere else. In James’ novel, Theo is useful to the terrorists because his cousin is the dictator Xan—the Warden of England—who has created some semblance of order, some functioning economy, some hope (however illusory) that the government has things under control and is working to solve the infertility problem. In Cuarón’s film, chaos reigns and madness rules: Shots of Fleet Street show a garbage-ridden city covered with blankets of smog punctuated only by the smoke from errant bomb blasts, threatening life at every turn. In the film, Xan is gone, but there is Nigel, a minister of culture who ransacks art museums (who does that remind you of?). In fact, what we’re supposed to believe is the original Guernica adorns the minister’s dining-room wall—a bit of set design as overblown in its ideological pretensions as the photograph of General Nguyen shooting a Vietcong prisoner that appears as wallpaper in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories flat. (At least Allen’s film was supposed to be a comedy.)
Just in case you didn’t catch Cuarón’s “We’re living in a fascist state” message with every graceless swing of his cinematic axe handle, we’re introduced to Jasper (Michael Caine), another refashioning of a James character who is now a pot-smoking Methuselahian hippie. A quick survey of Jasper’s and his literally catatonic wife’s memorabilia shows a lifetime of political resistance, including posters and bumper stickers protesting Iraq and Bush (but, interestingly enough, not Tony Blair). Jasper’s political philosophy consists in tuning in, dropping out, and flipping the bird to the fascist pigs. (He also engages in what passes for theological reflection in these apocalyptic times: a meaningless juxtaposition of “faith” and “chance” that is supposed to be penetrating in its flippancy but only betrays the banality of both the character and the film.)
It is Jasper who informs us that “every time the government gets into trouble, a bomb goes off.” So we’re supposed to believe that the threat of terrorism that gave rise to a “Homeland Security” in the first place is a hoax. But then we learn that Julian’s cadre of terrorists/freedom fighters did, in fact, engage in terror bombings but gave it up for PR purposes. The novelty of nonviolent resistance gets old fast, though, as the terrorists/freedom fighters turn sinister again, with their own murderous agenda that entails sacrificing its own members to the cause. We’re never to assume, however, that the terrorists/freedom fighters are really responsible for their actions: What can you expect when Bush—er, the British government—reduces illegals to the status of animals and robs them of their proper dignity? Oh the moral ambiguity of it all!
Why is Kee never brought to the government authorities for protection, given her absolutely unique status, but instead is endangered at every turn in Theo’s desperate, bullet-dodging efforts to get her to the Human Project? It seems the government would never permit a fugee to be the mother of the reborn human race, and so presumably would kill her—and its own future, if you think about it (which is probably not wise). This “explanation” has no place in James’ novel.
In her novel, James never answers the question why women can no longer have babies, although the possibility of divine judgment skulks throughout. In Cuarón’s rendition, that was never really the question to begin with. In the novel, for example, we know who the father of Julian’s baby is, and we’re tempted to ask whether her faithfulness has been rewarded. In the film, Kee couldn’t tell you who the father was if her life depended on it: She admits that, once fertility was no longer an issue, what did it matter about getting names? At first I thought Cuarón might be contributing something countercultural here about the separation of sex from reproduction; instead, this admission is simply left to lie there, lest prolonged contemplation lead one to believe that The End may be related to just such a disconnect. In fact, the miracle of Kee’s pregnancy is never presented as more than just an accident—just another one of Jasper’s chance occurrences.
Were Cuarón’s Children of Men rooted in some larger moral vision it might be tolerable, but the director isn’t even on to the irony of his own incoherent propaganda: It is an increasingly nihilistic West that is the target of a militant, authoritarian, and vicious ideology from off our shores. P.D. James saw as one response to the rising tide of moral sterility the still, small voice of a Christianity that invests even the alien and the stranger with dignity, because it defends the preciousness of life from conception to natural death. It is just such a Christian worldview, however muted, that informs even James’ crime novels; in fact, as Ralph Wood has written, what makes the crimes in her mysteries especially thought-provoking is that they’re often committed by the “pitiable” who never intend to “wreak misery in sheer nihilistic perversity,” and who thereby evoke a human solidarity that makes blanket condemnations difficult and Christian forgiveness possible.
The director’s feint at human solidarity, on the other hand, in the form of unified, armed resistance, simultaneously dehumanizes swathes of people by simply dismissing them all as fascists, thereby exhibiting the same moral obtuseness as those he sees as the enemy.
The only hope offered in Cuarón’s film is the existence of the Human Project, which of course is exactly what the world needs in a time of inconceivable degradation—a committee. James’ novel knows of no such project; in fact, it’s too smart for such a contrivance. Let’s face it, the last group of intellectuals assembled from around the world to end a global crisis and usher in peace on earth was the Manhattan Project. I sincerely doubt their solution is quite what the filmmakers here had in mind.
Grant Cuarón the license to make a film about current events as he pleases, whether about the war in Iraq or immigration policy. What’s insufferable is his pressing into service someone else’s vision as a commercial vehicle for a personal political screed. Children of Men wants to be a grown-up Brazil but never transcends a student-film sensibility (“They’re all fascists, man!”), despite hat tips to the cinema-vérité street-fighting styles of Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket. Cuarón pulls off the battles between the terrorists and the government troops with deft and disquieting verisimilitude, obviously attempting to approximate American soldiers’ battling of insurgents in Baghdad, even leaving the splatter of the Kayo syrup that is Hollywood blood on the lens of his camera for a little extra grit. He’s learned much from Spielberg and Kubrick. It’s a shame he’s learned nothing from P.D. James.
December 23, 2006
A VERY BLESSED AND MERRY CHRISTMAS . . .
LUTHER AT THE MOVIES.
December 22, 2006
Silence, imaginary interlocutor! Am I to be ridiculed for having eclectic tastes! And a crush on Kate Winslet!
And so Iris (Kate Winslet) is a columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. Her specialty is advice on love and marriage, about which she seems to have learned what she knows the hard way. She has been pining for a colleague, Jasper (Rufus Sewell), for three years, even though she broke up with him when she learned he cheated on her with another Telegraph staffer. To make matters worse, she is informed at the office Christmas party that Jasper is wedding said staffer, and Iris is expected to announce this event to the world in her column.
Amanda (Cameron Diaz) is a very prosperous editor of movie trailers in L.A. Her relationship with her significant other (Ed Burns) finally comes to an end when she learns he has cheated on her. He attempts to explain his caddish behavior by reminding her of her workaholic ways and inability to emote.
So two women on opposite sides of the globe are alone and miserable for the holidays. What do they do? They decide a change of climate is in order and so switch homes. Iris moves into Amanda's palatial estate, and Amanda moves into Iris' cozy Surrey cottage with kidney-shaped bathtub.
While trying to acclimate herself to her confinement in a small, snowy town, Amanda meets up with Iris' brother Graham (Jude Law), with whom she falls in lust. It is mutual. But Amanda does not want to love again—if she were ever capable of loving in the first place. (She also lacks the capacity to cry, while Graham admits to weeping openly and often. I know . . . I know . . .)
Meanwhile, back in Beverly Hills, Iris is enjoying her pool, state-of-the-art entertainment center, electric window shades, and next-door neighbor, an elderly screenwriter from the heyday of Hollywood, Arthur (Eli Wallach). She also meets up with Amanda's composer friend, Miles, who is currently dating way above his tubby station.
So two women who wanted to get away from it all are now visited with all kinds of new relationship possibilities.
The initial stories of Iris and Amanda—both duped by sleezy boyfriends; one can't let go and the other can't love—are trite. What make the stories special, lifting The Holiday above the run-of-the-mill Hollywood romantic comedies, are the nuances of writer-director Nancy Myers' characters as they work through their inner conflicts, not to mention some thoroughly engaging performances by Ms. Winslet (who acts every scene from the depths of her bunions), Jude Law (a little squishy, but given the revelation of his true "status," forgiveably so), and Mr. Wallach.
Ah what a joy to see Eli Wallach onscreen again! His character tells stories of the way movies used to be, and you know that Wallach is speaking from personal experience. Although physically frail, he is mentally alert and brimming with ideas and commentary. Let's hope this is just one of many more performances this grand ole man of the cinema will treat us to.
If there is a weak link in The Holiday it is Ms. Diaz. Her character, while not unlikable, is self-absorbed to the point where she is constantly imaging every episode of her life as if it were a movie trailer—promising much more than it can deliver. We have seen the professional working gal who can't seem to hold on to a man but isn't it really the men who are the problem and not the fact that she's a load yadda yadda yadda . . . and Ms. Diaz simply does not have the acting chops to transcend the limits of what has become a genre type.
But Ms. Winslet's relationship with Arthur is a sweet one and worth the price of admission. She slowly pulls the old Hollywood warhorse out of his seclusion to receive the honors his industry wants to bestow on him, and he slowly educated her in the history of spunky screen woman—like Irene Dunne and Rosalind Russell. Then there's the quirky mutual-support-system that develops between Iris and Mr. Black, whom Ms. Myers has managed to de-Animal House, expanding his appeal immensely. Yes, it is Winslet & Co. who are the saving graces of a film that, sadly, has an unsatisfying ending that portends as many complications as the characters supposedly have just worked through.
Nevertheless, if you have a soft spot for modern attempts at old-fashioned romantic comedy, see The Holiday.
December 20, 2006
I am serious. (one, two, three) And don't call me Shirley.
Do you think the president likes gladiator movies?
And thanks to Dawn Eden for the tip.
Rocky Balboa 6.5
I will wreak my awful revenge! Just wait till Rambo IV opens! Then we'll see! THEN WE'LL SEE!
December 19, 2006
A Belated Happy Birthday to Steven Spielberg
Is there anyone on planet Earth who can't count at least one of Mr. Spielberg's pictures as a personal favorite?
For me: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade!
December 17, 2006
Doubt is the well-crafted and compelling story of a priest, Fr. Flynn, suspected of abusing an African-American child at a Roman Catholic school in the 1960s. Sister Aloysius, the tough-as-nails nun who runs the school, is convinced of Fr. Flynn's guilt but must negotiate the labyrinthine hierarchical system, even within the elementary school she oversees, to make sure he is immobilized at the very least.
But is he, in fact, guilty? Is the structure of the Roman Catholic Church, writ small in the structure of this school, as guilty of abusing these children as the priest himself? Or has Sister Aloysius misread the signals and judged without sufficient evidence? Does she have "power" issues of her own?
I had the occasion to ask the playwright via email whether there wasn't a distinction to be made between "faith" and "certainty"—Sister Aloysius is so "certain" of a lot of things, but she does not seem to have faith. Mr. Shanley disagreed.
In any event, I look forward to the screen version. You may already know Mr. Shanley's work: He was awarded the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Moonstruck and was writer-director of the cult fave Joe vs. the Volcano (which contains among the funniest and most charming first half-hours ever filmed).
Among Mr. Shanley's other theater work: Italian-American Reconciliation, The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, Savage in Limbo, and Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. If a production of any of the above is done locally, you should avail yourself of the opportunity to see it.
December 16, 2006
What's more, these rebel forces virtually enslave male villagers strong enough to dig for diamonds—diamonds that will be handed over to generally white "brokers" in exchange for more sophisticated weaponry to use against the government and the government's mercenary allies. Those diamonds will make their way into Europe—London and Antwerp—and wind up on the fourth finger of young ladies' left hands.
In the middle of this nightmare of human exploitation rides Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a native of Rhodesia, veteran of the war in Angola against the communists, and now a diamond smuggler. Archer's activities land him in jail for attempted smuggling, and while there he meets Solomon, played with dignity and passion by Djimon Hounsou, one of the unfortunates who had been pressed into service by the rebels and forced to dig for diamonds. Solomon escaped a government raid on the rebel camp, but not before burying a "pink " diamond the size of a bird's egg and probably worth a fat seven figures near the diamond mines.
Archer gets himself sprung through some connections in high places and does the same for Solomon, with the intention of being "repaid" for his generosity by getting his hands on that diamond, which Archer plans to use to get himself out of Africa once and for all.
Solomon has another agenda, namely, to find his family. With the help of an American journalist named Maddy (Jennifer Connelly), Solomon meets up with his wife and two daughters in a refugee camp in Guinea. His son, however, is now part of the rebel children's army.
Archer wants the diamond, Solomon wants his son, and Maddy wants a story so rich in detail in will end the trafficking in "blood diamonds" once and for all.
As the story unfolds, director Edward Zwick takes us on an action-packed trip through the hell that is civil war in Africa. All the while he does his level best never to dehumanize the Africans or blame their behavior on some innate inability to govern themselves or organize civilly. We are told of a long history of barbarities that began with the Belgian colonizers. If the Africans act like devils, they are merely modeling erstwhile European overlords.
The filmmakers' hearts are in the right place: They want to bring to the attention of the West both the horrors of civil strife and corrupt government, as well as this trafficking in blood diamonds which fuels the conflict. Although these diamonds make up only a small percentage of those sold on the open market, nevertheless, we are asked to be vigilant regarding the source of the diamonds we buy. How the average Western European or American is to determine whether a piece of diamond jewelry purchased at Tiffany's or Bulgari's or the Diamond District here in New York is a "blood diamond"—other than taking the merchant's word for it (ha ha)—is never addressed.
What is addressed is white guilt. White guilt over colonialism. White guilt over an inability to make right all that is now wrong in war-torn Africa. White guilt over white guilt as a substitute for white action. The film wants to show that it is conscious of its own inadequacy, of its own pretensions, how everyone making the film is, to some degree, exploiting the suffering of millions of people for mere entertainment and a fat profit. It is almost as if admitting to exploitation is itself atonement for it.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives a second sterling performance this year. He is slowly building an impressive resume of compelling performances that will soon reduce his roll in Titanic to a minor and least-memorable effort.
Here he is the driving force of what is basically a well-crafted action yarn. DiCaprio attempts—and to a certain degree succeeds—in building a complex and conflicted character much richer than those found in traditional examples of the "foreign-location action" genre. But despite the film's good intentions, and how the search for a mighty diamond becomes superceded by the search for Solomon's son—the future of Africa, an Africa of peace, God willing—Blood Diamond's own aesthetic will not let it be anything more than a thrill ride.
And as much as my heart went out to these people who, somewhere out there really endured and still endure lives of unthinkable hardship and pain, in the end I could not shake the feeling that they were just fodder for my ten dollars' worth of entertainment.
In short, how many people had to die just so I could watch the do-good movie of the year?
December 14, 2006
Little Miss Sunshine was nominated for Most Unfunny Comedy of the Year.
Here's hoping for The Departed, Ms. Mirren, and Mr. Whitaker. (I would not be unpleased to see Mr. Eckhart win in his category, as well.)
December 13, 2006
Joe (1970), in which he is the troglodytish working stiff and threat to his own flesh and blood
The Candidate (1972), in which he is candidate Robert Redford's crafty campaign manager
Young Frankenstein (1975), in which he is the monster, who, when he learned he could not be loved, decided he would be feared
Taxi Driver (1976), in which he played "Wizard," the clueless guru
Then came a bunch of mostly forgettable roles in some good films (Malcom X), some amusing films (While You Were Sleeping, Johnny Dangerously), and some forgettable films (which I have already forgotten).
Then came Raymond.
Peter Boyle: R.I.P.
December 12, 2006
I hear Mr. Osteen was actually beaten out by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but that the Iranian president thought he was going to speak with Barbra Streisand, star of his favorite film of all time. When his mistake was pointed out to him by one of his minions, Ahmadinejad had the interview killed, along with the unfortunate who clarified the situation.
December 11, 2006
Yes, but You're Still a Condescending Shmuck
I understand how off-putting some (emphasis on some) Born Againers and evangelicals can be—all smug, self-satisifed, and self-advertising—but I do not believe, once again, that changing one's "brand" is an antidote.
I have also heard other possibilities being bandied about: "Red-Letter Christians" (as in red-letter-edition Bibles—get it?) and Reverse Self-Righteous Self-Hating Fatheads.
But I will let thee judge for thineselves:
December 10, 2006
Yes, let's remove ourselves from intra-denominational controversies, let's distance ourselves from non-Christians' negative perceptions of my denomination.
Let's distance ourselves from history, theology, and confessional allegiance.
One point that is not made in this article, but which I believe plays a role in this trend, is the license it gives to senior clergy to bend the church's doctrinal commitments to his will (in some cases, to her will). And so adherence to confessions and a through-line of serious theology is now reduced to the burden of promoting and protecting a "brand."
This turn of events is quite ironic, given how many of these anabaptists "sell" the Christian faith and discipleship as just another commodity to be thrown into life's grocery cart—a kind of fire and theft insurance.
Let me clarify: By "anabaptists" I mean anyone who rejects the apostle's declaration that there is "one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism."
One baptism. Not an infant baptism that then must be supplemented by confirmation, or by a decision for Christ that leads to true regeneration. Or, as is the case in many denominations, a decision for Christ that is believed to be true Spirit baptism but that is then followed up by a second, water baptism, but only as a testimony of obedience, not because the sacrament does anything, as if Our Lord had an interest in empty public displays of religiosity.
Sola scriptura means that we cull from Scripture alone doctrines that are binding on believers' consciences. It does not mean that everyone's interpretation of Scripture is equally valid or that conclusions reached by the Church fathers — affirmed in the Apostle's and Nicene Creed — are now up for grabs or that the Reverend Climacticus Hoo-Hah (author of the bestselling God Told Me to Tell You) now is free to lead his congregation according to the dictates of his eccentric exegesis and the movement of "the spirit" on any given Sunday.
This is why we are a confessional church. This is why confessions matter.
December 08, 2006
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception
"It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary's soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God's gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin" (1527).
"Mother Mary, like us, was born in sin of sinful parents, but the Holy Spirit covered her, sanctified and purified her so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood. The Holy Spirit permitted the Virgin Mary to remain a true, natural human being of flesh and blood, just as we. However, he warded off sin from her flesh and blood so that she became the mother of a pure child, not poisoned by sin as we are. . . . For in that moment when she conceived, she was a holy mother filled with the Holy Spirit and her fruit is a holy pure fruit, at once God and truly man, in one person" (1532).
Allow the Holy Spirit, my Lutherans, to guide you into the truth of the matter. But let it remain an issue of pious speculation and not dogmatic definition, lest we say more than do the Scriptures, the Confessions, and the early Church.
December 07, 2006
Cautionary tales typically are set in some dystopian future: From Brazil and Gattaca to Gibson’s own Mad Max trilogy. Whether because of nuclear fallout or a technocracy that has reduces men to machines, the future is ours to fear. Apocalypto takes us back so we may contemplate the future—and cautions us that fear itself is the new Bomb.
The story begins with a gross-out of a boar hunt, as Maya forest dwellers kill then dismember their prey and play frat-boy pranks on one unfortunate, whose lack of fertility is the village joke. The center of this group and chief instigator is Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), son of the wise village elder, who will bequeath to J.P. a moral imperative that will prove the young man’s salvation: “Do not be afraid.”
Life for these villagers is soon overturned when Holcane warriors on a mission from the king come storm-trooping through the forest, raping, pillaging, and packaging up what’s left. Jaguar Paw hides his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and young son in a well, beyond the scope of the invaders. Unfortunately, they are left there—as Jaguar Paw and his surviving confreres are taken as booty to the capital to be paraded before the king and queen, then offered as sacrifices to the sun god in the hope of reversing a kingdom-wide plague.
The world of this Mayan kingdom is a catalogue of modern maladies: from decadent overconsumption, to warfare as pride-pumping and scape-goating chaos, to mindless assaults on the environment. Those sick with plague, even children, are isolated and marginalized. The elderly are thought worthless because “useless.” Even the king and queen’s kid is an obese little creep. And the symbol of religious authority is a high-priest precursor to the TV evangelist—master manipulator and personal friend of the deity who, in this case, uses an anticipated solar eclipse to shock and awe the crowds with how well he has satisfied the blood lust of their god. An unholy alliance between throne and altar, indeed.
Speaking of blood—there’s gore galore. As usual, Gibson does not spare his audience the viscera of war and sacrifice. The Mayas’ is a brutal way of life that makes severe demands on men, women, even children—all are called to steel themselves against pain and privation as a routine of life. Yet they are never reduced to the status of animals, despite every attempt by raw nature and imperial depravity to make it so. The Maya here are always human—are always us—and it is their struggle to retain their humanity that provides much of the pathos of this tale. (A great deal of credit must be given for this achievement to the extraordinary performances of the indigenous cast.)
But there are also light and sly moments in Apocalypto, such as the multiple movie references Gibson and his cowriter, Farhad Safinia, sneak in. There’s the soldier who has his swollen eye slit open—Rocky-like—so he can see, and the Holcane warrior-leader Zero Wolf’s Ratso Rizzo “I’m walking here!” as a massive felled tree just misses squishing him. Finally, there’s a climactic moment of true unveiling that is rivaled only by that in the original Planet of the Apes.
As for the film genres Gibson plays to: Imagine Wes Craven teaming up with Akira Kurosawa. Horror-film conventions are employed to heighten the tension, and there are moments when I couldn’t help but think of the Seven Samurai. And, as we’re introduced to the ritual slaying of the captives in the capital, I expected to hear a mass singsong, “Two men enter. One man leave.” That’s no accident, as Apocalypto’s cinematographer, Dean Semler, also worked on Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
But at its core, Apocalypto is a story of Bicycle Thief simplicity. Jaguar Paw refuses to be enslaved—not by the empire, not by fate. He will get back home. He will reclaim his wife, his children, and his place in the world. In short, he will not be afraid. Images of baptism and rebirth punctuate this adventure, including one in which Jaguar Paw literally emerges from the earth as a kind of First Adam Reborn, empowered to become what he already is, a man of nature, of the forest. He is not a new creation but a revitalization of the old. His final confrontation with Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) is a classic example of how mountain, desert, and jungle peoples defeat a more powerful enemy: by pulling him deep into their own, familiar territory. It is, after all, Jaguar Paw’s forest.
Much attention has been paid to Gibson’s allusions to contemporary events as the controlling referent for Apocalypto. Here he is in a Time article back in March: "The fearmongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys." Oh-kay. In any event, the film works on its own terms, regardless. So whatever you think of Mel Gibson, his beliefs, or his drunken rant, give Apocalypto a chance. It’s not a question of whether Gibson deserves it; if you love cinema, then you deserve it.
December 05, 2006
If I find out that he intends to review the film for that magazine he works for, and not give me the opportunity to review it here, for you, at LUTHER AT THE MOVIES, I will be forced to take drastic measures! Yes, I mean nothing less than the deployment of the Kaleidescopic Wand of Pain!
Where—where is my Kaleidescopic Wand of Pain? Where—what do you mean I don't have a Kaleidoscopic Wand of Pain? Everyone has a Kaleidescopic Wand of Pain! I just ordered a brand new Kaleidescopic Wand of Pain at Sam's Club—10% off with coupon! Where is that doorman?! Hello—you down there! Wake up for the love of God! I have been expecting a package! Have you seen it? Have you seen my Kaleidescopic Wand of Pain? No, I'm not making rude suggestions! Ehh! Go back to sleep, you good-for-nothing!
I SHALL GO MAD!
December 04, 2006
Piepkorn on Services in the Service of Evangelism
"In October 1951 a pastor wrote to Piepkorn for help with a paper on the use of the Liturgy for evangelistic purposes that the pastor was preparing for delivery at a pastoral conference. Piepkorn replied:
The subject is interesting and you should be able to do quite a lot with the evangelistic emphasis in the Confession of Sins, the Nicene Creed, the Common Offertories, the General Prayer, the Preface for Advent, Lent and Easter, the Agnus Dei, the Words of Institution and the Aaronic Blessing. At the same time, you ought to give due consideration to the fact that the Liturgy is part of the Church’s private culture and was never designed or intended for evangelistic purposes. The propaganda service of the early Church was the synaxis [the Service of the Word], not the Eucharist. The synaxis consisted almost wholly of lections and instructions—no prayers. In this connection let me commend to your reading Dom Gregory Dix’ The Shape of the Liturgy. My own feeling is that we should not try to make the Liturgy do too much. We should probably do better if we held special services (weekly or monthly, or daily for short periods) for the evangelization of the unchurched. . . ."At the same time, Piepkorn was 'profoundly skeptical of "informal"' worship services. In November of 1952, he wrote in reply to another pastor:
I have observed that parishes which scaled the Liturgy down in the interest of evangelization (abbreviating it, miscegnating it with "popular" hymns, and eliminating the traditional ceremonial) have never been able to return to a really more adequate worship level. My own experience is that my people and I can do more with pagan and Protestant inquirers in a service designed especially for their needs—strongly educational and evangelistic, as informal as possible without vulgarizing the subject matter, and with plenty of give-and-take (achieved through such means as discussion, panel presentations, audiovisual aids, pulpit dialogue, and a question box). After they have been adequately instructed, then they can be brought into a normal Lutheran service and participate in it with spiritual profit.(Letter of October 16, 1951 to the Rev. D.)
I am no foe of experimentation; I have done my share in my time, and please God, I shall keep on doing so. I am profoundly grateful for every valuable insight that I have been able to obtain from the experimentation of other people. After eleven years in the military service, during most of which I occupied a supervisory position where I was compelled to be present at literally hundreds of religious services of all denominations, I am profoundly skeptical of "informal” worship. . . .Now, Rev. Piepkorn's struggles with the LCMS, the LCMS's struggles with Rev. Piepkorn, charges of rigorism on the one hand and of heresy on the other, notwithstanding—what say you to his suggestion regarding alternate services in the aid of outreach and evangelism, rather than transforming the Lord's Day primary service into a squishy "seeker-sensitive" hybrid? Is this realistic given the small sizes of many parishes, and would this mean straining resources to the breaking point?
I have repeatedly insisted that one service a week in our churches is inadequate and that we ought to have a considerable variety of services to meet a variety of needs and, what is ultimately probably more important to accomplish, a variety of functions. Part of the problem, of course, is the size of our parishes. This is only one of many areas where we are paying what seems to me to be too high a price for uneconomically small parochial organizations. At the same time, I believe that each ought as a minimum to offer its membership at least one service a Sunday and other major Holy Days in which the Blessed Sacrament is celebrated according to the order of service prescribed by our Church. If this were done, it would seem to me to be quite within the province of the pastor and the parish to engage in as much legitimate experimentation at other hours as the facilities of the parish permit.(November 6, 1952 Letter to the Rev. S)
December 03, 2006
To be fair, I should not judge the thing until I have seen it. Then I will probably tear it to little pieces and sprinkle them on my breakfast cereal, along with my Sugar Babies and Zours.
Then again, perhaps not. Mr. Carrell is a hoot and Tom Shadyac, Evan's director, has some intentional howlers to his credit, including the supernaturally goofy Ace Ventura Pet Detective; The Nutty Professor (in which he culled from Mr. Murphy an Oscar-worthy performance); and Patch Adams (although the "intentionally" part of the equation is debatable here).
Moreover, Shadyac is a Christian and deserves our support. (See an interview with him here. You must scroll down. No more. MORE . . . I said scroll down! SCROLL, DAMN YOU, SCROLL!)
These are just some of the questions you will be asking if you see The Fountain. And I do suggest you see it. I'm certain the film makes sense in writer/director Darren Aronofsky's mind. Perhaps you will meet Mr. Aronofsky one day, or his lovely wife, the star of the film, Rachel Weisz. Then you can ask him, or her: What did it mean when the vegetation consumed the previously bald man who became the Conquistador? (Or was it vice versa?)
Hugh Jackman plays a medical researcher trying desperately to find a cure for his wife's (Weisz) disease, whatever that may be. It involves a tumor in the brain. He would rather experiment on a monkey than spend precious moments with her playing in the snow, because he will not accept that she is going to die, and every moment away from the lab is a moment she draws closer to what she and we know is the inevitable.
For Jackman, death is merely a disease for which there will one day be a cure.
Weisz has made her peace with her approaching demise. She is busy trying to finish up a work of fiction rooted in sixteenth-century Spain, actually an alternate history of the Spain of that era. In her book, called The Fountain, the beautiful queen and a handsome conquistador (Weisz and Jackman) believe they have found among the Mayans of New Spain the location of the Tree of Life previously seen in Genesis 3. If they can crack the code of Mayan myth and find the tree, they will have made the discovery of the ages: immortality—the fountain of youth!
But then again . . . nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
The self-flagellating, flesh-hating, life-denying Grand Inquisitor wants to ensure that the Tree of Life remains buried deep in the depths of world mythology. If people lived forever, there would be no chance to send them to hell. And what is the fun of being Grand Inquisitor if you can't send people to hell?
And so our gallant conquistador and his queen must first evade the Holy Office, then do battle with a mighty Mayan army, in their quest to reverse the Fall and eat of the Tree of Life—much as modern-day Jackman must do battle with bureaucrats and the NIH in his quest for a cure to reverse his wife's condition and save her life.
At some point—actually at several points—the conquistador is transported to what looks like another planet, perhaps that spoken of in the Mayan myth, where the souls of the dead reside. There he sits in a lotus position and flies around, then talks to the big tree.
Is Aronofsky saying that we must all finally accept death as a part of life, which finally releases us to the great All that is Life, so that we become part of the ground which gives life to the tree which buds into fruit which is eaten by birds which are sold at Pet World? (I added that last part.)
If so, sounds like New Age ka-ka to me.
But then he seems to negate this imagery, this message. Is Aronofsky then saying that life sucks then you die—get over it? Who the heck knows. Weisz, even in death, continues to spur Jackman on to finish the story she has begun, the story of the quest for immortality. I hope this doesn't spell sequel . . .
Aronofsky's first film, the lowest-of-low budgets Pi, was another film about the search for the sacred, the absolute, about solving an ancient riddle—and getting nowhere. Even his syncopatically salacious Requiem for a Dream had something to say—or ask—about the Meaning of It All. That Aronofsky asks big questions is to his credit. That his answers, or lack thereof, often leave the audience scratching its collective pate is not necessarily bad. (At least we have something to chew on at Sizzler besides the Onion Steak Stack.) That The Fountain may in fact amount to nothing more than extraordinarily pretty images is . . . disappointing.
I rather like the fact that Jackman's scientist persona refuses to accept his wife's death. He shouldn't. Death is not a part of life. Death is the negation of life, the enemy of life, just as the Grand Inquisitor (Manichean comic-book figure that he is here) is the enemy of true faith in the Gospel of Life. That is why Jesus weeps at the grave of Lazarus. This is not how it was intended to be! We should not have to say goodbye to those we love.
And so the Word that created life out of nothing invades our world and conquers death. But to know that, one needs faith. And The Fountain is not really about faith, only bizarre—albeit vivid and engrossing—imagery and hints of pantheism, if not finally nihilism.
But go and see The Fountain yourself. It's only 95 minutes long. And perhaps the bald man will let you talk to the tree, too. And that couple will finally shut up. And I will learn what is really in this butter thing . . .
December 02, 2006
As opposed to the biblical Jesus, which is the only reliable history we have.
I was particularly taken with how taken Mr. Verhoeven is with himself: "[My Jesus story] really goes into the politics of the time and tries to show a lot of things that have been buried and eliminated by Christianity. My scriptwriter told me not to do the movie in the United States because they might shoot me. So I took his advice and decided to write a book about it first."
This dummkopf has obviously mistaken Christianity for another monotheistic religion that shall remain nameless. (But of course, The Historical Muhammad is a film we are unlikely to see anytime soon.)
One can only wonder what astonishing revelation about the historical Jesus Verhoeven intends? Christianity has undergone more historical-critical surgery, more deconstruction, more Enlightenment demythologizing than any religion on earth—and still, here we are.
And so what is left to be said about the “historically . . . defendable” Jesus that hasn’t already been said by many a scholar/nutcase before?
Here is a quick review of what other "authorities" have concluded about the Jesus who Paul, the early Church, the Vatican, and Fox News have kept hidden in a vault somewhere:
- Jesus was a woman.
- Jesus was a space alien and is buried in Japan.
- Jesus visited India and is buried in Kashmir.
- Jesus was a Buddhist.
- Jesus was a Muslim.
- Jesus was a Mormon.
- Jesus was a magician.
- Jesus was a Gnostic.
- Jesus was the son of Mary and a Roman soldier.
- Jesus never existed.
- Jesus was never executed.
- Jesus was married and had children.
- Jesus was a mere Mediterranean peasant.
- Jesus was insane.
Jesus was the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the messiah of Israel, the savior of the world.
Thinking About St. Joseph
As previously related, Joseph is a man of noble intentions, concerned with always doing the right thing, even as he makes his appearance in Mary’s life by encouraging a lie. A Roman tax collector has confiscated Mary’s father’s mule in lieu of payment. This mule is Joachim’s livelihood. Joseph buys the mule back from the Romans, but tells Mary to tell Joachim that it was simply left behind, so as to spare Joachim’s pride. Here Joseph shows more concern for preserving the dignity of his future father-in-law than he will with preserving his own.
In significant ways it is Joseph who prefigures the life of his adopted son: He does not insist on his rights when it comes to Mary and her pregnancy. He does not apply the penalties of the law. Instead, he walks alongside her, offering her “cover,” sharing in the calumnies heaped on her. She assumes her “guilt” (although she has done nothing wrong). Joseph adopts Jesus just as the Father adopts us though Jesus, his only begotten. And all in the name of doing the will of the Father for the sake of the salvation of the world.
It is Joseph who will also become another Moses, leading the Tabernacle and the Word from exile in Egypt to the land of prophetic promise ("He will be called a Nazarene"). Here he prefigures Jesus' own Mosaic role as the ultimate lawgiver (albeit one who incarnates and fulfills perfectly that law so that all we must do—can do—is respond lovingly and gratefully).
Joseph is a man of grace through and through.
December 01, 2006
Woody Allen Is 71
Who will forget those crazy pre-serious Woodman moments: playing the cello in the marching band in Take the Money and Run; training to do battle in the name of Mother Russia in Love and Death; attempting to seduce a nymphomaniac in Play It Again, Sam—and failing; the incomparably goofy dialogue in Bananas ("You are accused of killing over a thousand people in your term of office, of torturing hundreds of women and children. How do you plead?" "Guilty, with an explanation"); the "Yes, that's exactly what that was" reply to videotape of Howard Cosell, thought to be an ancient torture technique, in Sleeper.
And he is the only reason to watch Casino Royale:
Dahlia Lavi: You're crazy. You are absolutely crazy!And this is all before the Oscar for Annie Hall.
Allen: People called Einstein crazy.
Lavi: That's not true. No one ever called Einstein crazy.
Allen: Well, they would have if he'd carried on like this.
So here's to Allen Stewart Konigsberg and the hope that he has many more years of silliness left in him. (And here's also hoping that his to-date spiritual bereftness will find itself remedied by grace.)
And if you have never read his early New Yorker pieces, collected in such volumes as Without Feathers and Getting Even, then you have been deprived of an opportunity to laugh yourself into a hyperosmolar hyperglycemic nonketotic coma.
Which is more fun than it sounds.
P.S. Rumor has it that you may catch a glimpse of the Great Nebbish Himself working his clarinet at the Cafe Carlyle, Madison Ave at 76th St., New York City, on Monday nights. But you didn't hear it from me.