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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best of Arts & Entertainment 2011


My personal best, that is. I claim no comprehensive knowledge of all that went on in the world of the arts and entertainment in 2011 (I didn’t even make it to London or New York!). I fact, my list doesn’t have to do exclusively with works that appeared in 2011. This is simply my own list of works of art that I especially enjoyed this past year.

Regular readers of High Concepts will find many items on the list familiar, as I tend to blog on things I really enjoy. But there’s one or two items I haven’t mentioned yet.

So here goes: my personal favorites for 2011! Let me know some of yours when you're done reading...


Most Enjoyable Day in the Presence of Awesome Beauty

Every day with my wife…and our family’s tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica last January

Most Interesting Archaeological Phenomenon

The Church of San Clemente in Rome, with its layers of churches underground, including, at the very bottom, a pagan shrine to Mithras. That’s Christianity 1, Mithraism 0.

Most Compelling Reads

Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset…if you haven’t read Trollope’s Barchester series, pour yourself a glass of port, throw another log on the fire, and get comfortable.

Graham Greene, Brighton Rock…a chilling portrait of a damned soul wrestling with God and with himself.

Flannery O’Connor, “The Enduring Chill” (short story)…another story of a damned soul wrestling with God and with himself, only funnier.

Evelyn Waugh, “Love in the Slump” (short story), among other stories in Charles Ryder’s Schooldays and Other Stories, damned souls going out of their way not to wrestle with much of anything at all, even funnier

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (audio book read by Frank Muller)… listened to while driving through Pennsylvania on a brilliant October day

David Mamet, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture…I am not a libertarian, but I found much to be sympathetic with in Mamet’s cranky critique of liberalism

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs…reading now, will blog on it soon

Favorite Movies

True Grit (Cohen Brothers version)
No Country For Old Men
Of Gods and Men
Hugo

Movies, Honorable Mention:

The Dark Knight (a superhero movie explicitly taking up the specter of nihilism)
The Dish (extremely funny Australians)
The Efficiency Expert (a sleeper Anthony Hopkins film from 1992...even more extremely funny Australians)
Tree of Life
Tintin
I enjoyed Harry Potter 7, Part 1 much more than Part 2

Favorite Documentary

Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism (the excerpts I’ve seen have sold me!)

New Favorite Comedian

Brian Regan

Favorite Television Shows

Foyle’s War
Lark Rise to Candleford

Favorite Live Theater

The productions of Henry V and The Tempest put on by the company of the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia.

Most Sublime Athletic Performance


Barcelona's dismantling of Manchester United in last May's Champions' League Final at Wembley. 


Favorite “Football” Team

Tottenham Hotspur

Favorite Music

Any number of “early music” (Renaissance) songs I downloaded from iTunes

John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers’ Christmas Album is a winner


Happy New Year 2012!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Great Snakes! Spielberg's Tintin


I first encountered the Tintin comic books in the little library of the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome, the American parish that my family attended throughout the 1969-70 academic year. After Sunday Mass my brother and sisters and I would eagerly stomp up the rectory stairs to the upper floor where the library was located (according to my impressionistic memory). There we would gorge on sugar donuts and check out our weekly bushel of books. Hergé’s lovely images in Explorers on the Moon were blazed into my memory at that time, aided no doubt by the fact that as a five year-old boy I was already afire with moon landings, given that on the black-and-white television in our apartment we had watched Neil Armstrong touch down on the moon that past July.

I still own a tattered copy of Red Rackham’s Treasure, which in time sparked the flames of my own children’s love affair with the Tintin books. Thus it was a real treat last night for us all to begin the Christmas break by going to the opening night of Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. It’s an absolutely cracking film for the whole family. “Unadulterated adventure,” as I heard Spielberg say in one interview. Sheer fun from start to finish.

We whet our appetites for the movie by watching on YouTube some behind-the-scenes footage of Spielberg working with actors Jamie Bell (Tintin) and Andy Serkis (Captain Haddock) using motion-capture, a technique which Spielberg and his team—which included Peter Jackson as an executive producer, if not co-director—have brought to a high art. Here’s a sample—
The motion-capture technique is perfectly suited to bringing the Tintin comics to life, in that it retains Hergé’s ligne claire cartoon line while at the same time making two-dimensional characters three-dimensional. Captain Haddock, for example, is portrayed with his comically exaggerated bulbous nose, familiar from the books, while in other respects he is depicted with breathtaking realism—the limpid nature of the eyes, the blinks, the nose hair! This strange combination of cartoon and realism is very engaging, and makes the film a feast to behold.
Interestingly, the Tintin comics first appeared in a Belgian Catholic newspaper for youth, Le Petite Vingtième, and Hergé himself was a Catholic.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sneak Preview--Stoop of Mastodon Meadow


The next installment in my Patria series of humorous adventure novels for middle grade readers, Stoop of Mastodon Meadow, will be released this coming January 2012. Above is the cover design by Theodore Schluenderfritz. I hope you like it as much as I do! Here’s the synopsis of the story:

That sound you hear of whining and the stamping of feet is the joyful noise (to Patrian parents, at least) of the beginning of the new school year. And for Oliver Stoop it’s going to be an especially exciting one, as he’s been allowed to join his friend Prince Farnsworth at Mastodon Meadow, the institution that’s been shaping the formless goo of male Patrian minds for over 2,000 years.
        
Yet almost as soon as he steps foot into the “Meadow,” Oliver’s life is thrown into turmoil. First, by those who challenge his right as an American foreigner to join the S.F.C. (Squire Formation Course). Then, by the discovery that his new Fifth Ledge teacher is none other than his old nemesis, Miching Malchio.  
        
But all this is nothing compared to what happens when an outrageous newspaper appears, claiming to be written by a secret society of students from both the Meadow and Princess Rose’s academy, Madame Mimi’s Well-Ordered School for Ill-Mannered Girls. Carrying shocking (and anonymous) articles about teachers, students, and even Madame Mimi’s adorable and intelligent dog, Phideaux, the paper creates pandemonium at both establishments, and an all-out investigation is launched to identify the fiends behind it.  
        
Could it be Malchio in the editor’s chair, seeking his revenge? Could it be the vile M’Snivelley Twins, confirmed stinkers whose one desire seems to be World Domination? Or could the publishers be the three students occupying Positions 1, 2 and 3 on the Chief Suspects List: Oliver, Farnsworth and Rose!

On the lookout for that perfect virtual stocking stuffer? Do you realize how easy it is to gift an eBook as a Christmas present? Perhaps you’ll consider buying someone on your list the hilarious first book in the Patria series, Stout Hearts & Whizzing BiscuitsNo frustration in the mall parking lot. No long lines at the post office. Just a few clicks of the mouse and you’re done. And you can even post-date the notification email so that your happy recipient receives the eBook on Christmas Day! It makes a great gift for the kids in your life--and the kid in you!


Just follow these simple instructions on how to gift an eBook via Amazon. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Poetic Cinema: An Instance



Treat yourself in this final week of Advent to a viewing of Xavier Beauvois’ film, Of Gods and Men (starring Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale), the true story of the 1996 martyrdom by Islamic terrorists of six French Trappist monks in Algeria, and winner of the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.

I had heard about this film for some while, but only in the past week did I get round to seeing it. I now rank it among the very best films I have ever seen. Next to great films that deal explicitly with the life of grace—A Man For All Seasons, The Passion of the Christ, Ushpizin, Into Great Silence, The Tree of Life—it stands without the least embarrassment. It may well be better than any of these.

I have had occasion before to quote the lines from Chekhov that Graham Greene so admires in his essay, “Subjects and Stories.” The best novelists, says Chekhov, “are realistic and paint life as it is, but because every line is permeated, as with a juice, by awareness of a purpose, you feel, besides life as it is, also life as it ought to be, and this captivates you.”

Greene goes to comment:

This description of an artist’s theme has never, I think, been bettered: we need not even confine it to the fictional form: it applies equally to the documentary film, to pictures in the class of Mr. Rotha’s Shipyard…or Mr. Wright’s Song of Ceylon: only in films to which Chekhov’s description applies shall we find the poetic cinema. And the poetic cinema—it is the only form worth considering.

Of Gods and Men must certainly be classed as poetic cinema. I think of the wonderful work done with the camera simply meditating upon the expressive faces of the monks as they exhibit fear, anger, or peace; the beautiful counterpoint achieved between the lines of the psalms chanted by the monks and the terrible ordeal they are going through; the unsentimental but deeply moving portrayals of their anguished prayer, their kinship with the Islamic denizens of the town in which their monastery is located, and ultimately, their heroic deaths. Of the many brilliant decisions made by Beauvois in this film, not least is the one to let the final act of martyrdom occur “off stage.”

There is one scene with a monk alone in his cell that I believe may give us the most truthful image in cinema history of a soul manifesting his love for God in prayer.

Poetic, too, are the reflections of the monks revealed sometimes in voice-over, such as the luminous paradox: “It is in poverty, failure and death that we advance towards [God].” Or in the hope divulged in the abbot’s final testament, in which he voices his desire to “immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them.”

For helping us, too, contemplate our brothers and sisters from this Divine perspective, we are all in Beauvois’ debt. He has made a beautiful work of art. 
   

Friday, December 16, 2011

Come Chat About Writing


I’m pleased to announce that I am today’s Friday Feature interview on Heather G. Kelly’s writer’s blog, editedtowithinaninchofmylife.

So come on over for a more-or-less "live" chat about writing, my new book, Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits, and the Kingdom of Patria.

I believe I’ll be able to reply to comments and questions over the course of the next few days.

See you there!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

On Writing Jane Austen Sequels


And what Jane Austen fan hasn’t written one, if only in his or her imagination?

I know I thought about it once, though like many I’m sure, I never scratched out even a single sentence. But in my imagined sequel, all of the central lovers from Austen’s novels, due to a wild collection of circumstances, would meet up to do—what? I’m not sure. I never got that far. It was fun enough simply to think of Elizabeth Darcy making friends with Anne Wentworth, and the Knightleys chatting with Mr. and Mrs. Ferrars after church.

Many authors have gleefully given in to the temptation to continue the stories of Austen’s characters—sequels to Pride and Prejudice being the most popular choice. No doubt many of these have been dreadful. Would Western Civilization been incomplete, after all, without Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Even the celebrated mystery writer and Austen afficionado, P.D. James, who has just come out with her own Pride and Prejudice sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley, has been the victim of tepid reviews on Amazon.

But I have come to praise Jane Austen sequel writers, not to blame them. For I think the impulse to write such a sequel is an admirable one. It comes from the noble desire of not wanting the party to end—especially when the party is comprised of the best of one’s friends. And this is a heavenly desire. Indeed, a desire that can only really be achieved in that ultimate sequel in Heaven.

The essence of comedy is culmination in timeless festivity. Thus all five of the great Austen novels end with a joyous marriage, and do not linger long to tell us much if anything about what happened next. The effect of which is to make the joy last forever. The taking up of Austen’s characters by sequel writers does nothing to undermine this sense of timeless festivity. Quite the contrary, it acknowledges it. For if Austen’s characters did not enjoy a semi-divine status in a fictional heaven, they would not be able to appear in countless other tales just as they are, and just as they will always be.

No one, in other words, writes a sequel to The Sun Also Rises.

This is a point Chesterton made about the characters of Dickens:

Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist; he was the last of the mythologists, and perhaps the greatest. He did not always manage to make his characters men, but he always managed, at least, to make them gods. They are creatures like Punch or Father Christmas. They live statically, in a perpetual summer of being themselves.

This is what the Austen sequel writers are after: the play of demigods in a perpetual summer. It is, as Chesterton further notes, a basically religious impulse:

Dickens is, in this matter, close to popular religion, which is the ultimate and reliable religion. He conceives an endless joy; he conceives creatures as permanent as Puck or Pan—creatures whose will to live, aeons and aeons cannot satisfy. He is not come, as a writer, that his creatures may copy life and copy its narrowness; he is come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.

So let us praise the efforts of Jane Austen sequel writers. Theirs is the will to live that cannot be satisfied by anything but a life that never ends. “Both popular religion, with its endless joys, and the old comic story, with its endless jokes, have in our time faded together,” writes Chesterton. “We are too weak to desire that undying vigor.”

Some may be. But not the author of Death Comes to Pemberley.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stout Hearts on Indie Snippets

Many thanks to Bryan Dennis at Indie Snippets for featuring today Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits. Check it out!

And if you haven’t yet visited the Kingdom of Patria, stop on by!



* The magnificent illustration of Patria above is by Theodore Schluenderfritz, who illustrates the Kingdom of Patria website and the Patria book covers. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Film Director and The Noble Savage


The Film Director is David Mamet, also the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author of many books of essays, most recently the crackling Conservative-Libertarian manifesto: The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture (Sentinel 2011).

The Noble Savage, so argues Mamet persuasively, is the mythological hero of the American Left, the peace-loving tribesman whose Eden it is the charge of the State to regain. And when it does—

There will be no more pollution, for we will vote to stop our polluting ways; there will be no more war, as all sovereign States will be subsumed into a large tribe of the mutually understanding (cf. the United Nations), there will be no more Poverty, because the Earth Holds Enough for All, and lacks only that Wise Leadership which will see to its Just Distribution (a dictator). And all that stands between this utopia and our present state of stupid error are the Conservatives, who believe only in Greed (Chapter 18).

Mamet’s trenchant critique of the Left, its religious devotion to the State, and its devolution (daily, before our very eyes) into dictatorship, makes for compulsive reading. If the argument is between Leftist Statism and the Conservative-Libertarianism of Mamet, a political philosophy that prizes individual responsibility and the free market above State control, then Mamet surely deserves to win it. But the question that compels me in thinking through Mamet’s argument is what the territory might look like after his argument is won. Let us say (per impossibile) that we are governed by a State that moderates its passions and adheres to the principles of the U.S. Constitution. Let us say that we live in a polity where individuals are now possessed of the character requisite to exercise virtuous choice. What should be done with all this freedom?

Mamet says that the essence of freedom is choice. This is false. The essence of freedom is choice formed in the truth. For if I can make all the choices I want, but all they do is pamper my appetites, then how can I be said to be truly free? I am not free. I am an adolescent out of control.

When it comes to the plying of trade in the market, the truth to which freedom most needs to conform is the fact that the economy needs to be directed to the home (our English word “economy” is derived from the Greek word for “household,” oikos). This means more than the garnering of wages (though that’s obviously a start). It also means ensuring that the work being done serves, rather than undermines, the common good of the family. This is the heart of the economic theory that G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc termed Distributism

Which is not (it needs always be said) “re-distribution” of wealth. Indeed, it needs to be said that (at least in my view) the circumscribing of the free market within the common good of the family is not a State concern at all. It is, rather, a cultural concern—which means an artifact of a certain sort of community.

The family, however, is not the only community within which free enterprise needs be circumscribed. There are also the communities generated by the practices of various crafts and professions. Mamet himself gives us a snapshot of one, from his own experience directing films:

…a director (I speak as one who has directed ten features, and quite a bit of television), is exposed to something of which the actors and writers may not have taken notice: the genius of America, and the American system of Free Enterprise.
The director sees, on the set, one or two hundred people of all walks of life, races, incomes, political persuasions and religions, and ages, men and women, involved, indeed dedicated to doing their jobs as well as possible (indeed the ethos of the film set could, without overstatement, be described as “doing it better than it’s ever been done), in aid of the mutual endeavor (the film). Each brings not only his or her particular expertise and craft, but an understanding of and dedication to the culture of filmmaking: work hard, pitch in, never complain, admire and reward accomplishment” (Chapter 19).

What Mamet describes here is something more than Free Enterprise. Free Enterprise can be exercised selling cheap toys Made in China. No, what Mamet describes here is Free Enterprise circumscribed by human devotion to a common good (making the film) that could never be realized apart from such cooperative activity. Such a common good is a very special kind of thing, requiring the very special type of community and culture that Mamet is so glad to find on movie sets.

But this kind of community and cultures does not come into being by Conservative-Libertarianism alone. Nor is it to be found in the shanty-town Social Justice of the “Occupy” movement.

A different, a deeper, philosophy of the human person, of what it means for human beings to flourish, is needed. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Christians and Aliens: Making Movies in a Culture of Death

Here is irony.

One of the most perceptive cinematic portrayals of what Blessed Pope John Paul II referred to as our “culture of death,” as well as a compelling exemplar of moviemaking which points us beyond such a culture, come from two apparently secular Jewish filmmakers: Joel and Ethan Cohen.

Meanwhile, far too many professedly Christian films fall woefully below the bar the Cohens have set.

Why is this?

Last month at a conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, I offered some reasons for this sadly ironic cultural situation. My rather impressionistic set of notes is just below. It will help a lot to have seen the Cohen Brothers’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and TRUE GRIT, as well as the Sherwood Baptist Church production of FIREPROOF.

To help matters some, at the end of the post I'm attaching Father Robert Barron’s excellent analysis of TRUE GRIT, an analysis I depended heavily upon in the third part of the lecture.

Comments and questions welcome.


CHRISTIANS AND ALIENS:
MAKING MOVIES IN A CULTURE OF DEATH

Daniel McInerny
Radical Emancipation: Confronting the Challenge of Secularism
12th Annual Fall Conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture
University of Notre Dame
November 11, 2011


Introduction
Our Souls At Hazard: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN


1. Play the opening of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2:45)
a. Landscape...barren...
b. Sheriff Bell comparing himself against the “old timers”
c.  A killer abroad, killing for killing’s sake: “I don’t know what to make of that,” says Sheriff Bell. Can’t take its measure...irrational...he doesn’t want to go and meet something he doesn’t understand
2. Brief plot summary: Sheriff Bell, his soul at hazard, grappling with the meaning of evil, against the passing of an older moral & religious order
3. Sheriff Bell: “A man would have to put his soul at hazard.” (why? because he’s facing the Devil);
4. Script of “That’s vanity” scene: the devil’s territory, p. 110
5. Play the closing scene of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (3:00)
a. trying to catch up with his father, symbol of moral & religious clarity...but he can’t catch up.
6. Flannery O’Connor: “...the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” NO COUNTRY shows us that territory, but not the action of grace...
7. Walker Percy: before life can be affirmed in our culture, “death-in-life must be named.”

Transition: so how would a filmmaker, trying to learn not only from the Coen Brothers but even more importantly from O’Connor and Percy, make a film that would show death-in-life, as Percy puts it, but also go on to affirm life; that would show us the devil’s territory, as O’Connor puts it, but also go on to show the action of grace?

In short, how is a Christian to sing his songs in this alien land?

I want to consider two strategies:
A. The “Faith-Based” Project
B. The Approach Through Paradox

Caveat: These are not the only strategies for filmmakers to take. Barbara Nicolosi, for example, has said that a comedy (e.g. a Pixar cartoon) can be a grace. Or sometimes a period piece can be very effective in showing us what we have lost culturally. 


I.            The “Faith-Based” Project: FIREPROOF

1. Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), made for 30m, worldwide gross to date is almost 612m, called Hollywood’s attention to the “faith-based” demographic. It also caught the attention of pastors: e.g. Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia.
2. FIREPROOF (2008): starring Kirk Cameron, was made for half a million dollars and has grossed over 33 million. The highest-grossing independent movie of 2008.
3. Barna poll showing that movies influenced Americans more than church: Alex Kendrick of Sherwood Baptist: “We read a study that said media is more influential in our culture than the church. We need to get Godly people involved in making good movies – that’s one way we can win wars and take ground back.”
4. Friends Church in Yorba Linda, California, a non-denominational evangelical megachurch, is now at work on its own film, NOT TODAY, about a spoiled young American on a trip to India who is drawn into a search for a little girl sold to human traffickers. In an interview with PBS, Pastor Matthew Cork had this to say about the purpose of NOT TODAY:

It wasn’t just to make a movie, because we’re not in the movie business. We’re a church. But as a church we do have an obligation and a responsibility to tell the message, and so we believe that this was the best way for us in what God had gifted us with.

5. Results: on the official site of FIREPROOF one finds a page with the title: “7,000+ Marriages Have Been Ignited by FIREPROOF,” followed by a long list of fan comments thanking the filmmakers for helping them with their marriages or with some other aspect of their lives.
6. BELLA statistics: March 2010, Eduardo Versategui’s website: BELLA has saved over 300 babies.
7. Why isn’t it churlish to criticize such films?

a.O’Connor: the fact that grace can work through a poorly-made church is God’s business, not ours. It’s not an argument for bad church architecture...analogy to poorly-made movies;
        
b. Christ told parables, but he did not “entertain”: movies are entertainment, and they have their own integrity as such
        
c. Even from an evangelical viewpoint: who knows what better impact might be had?

9. A big part of the issue here is the question of audience. Who is the movie for? A demographic that already has the eyes to see, or a demographic O’Connor describes in speaking of the “modern man who [like Sheriff Bell] can neither believe nor contain himself in unbelief and who searches desperately, feeling about in all experience for the loss of God” (“Novelist and Believer,” p. 159).
10.       Criticism of FIREPROOF: Play scene with father (Chapter 8) (3 minutes)


  Didacticism not conflict: the opposing value is not given sufficient play; the territory of the devil is never surveyed; (such as the value we place on Mattie’s quest for revenge); thus the conflict comes off as two-dimensional & sentimental; as pure good vs. pure evil. For this reason there is no irony, no lack of fit between what is said and what is intended (what screenwriters call subtext--it’s all text)
   
     Caleb’s vision of a good man (evil) with God’s vision (good)
 There is a wrestling with the devil, but our hands never get dirty; we are not      compelled by the evil in any way--either by seeing it as good, or seeing its horror, or  even facing significant obstacles (cost) to flee it.


Lack of a sacramental imagination. The “heart-to-heart talk” and “music video” over action, image, symbolic representation (the sacramental aspect of art); rooting us not so much in things but in words. The “kickback” of a gun vs. the Cross in the park that the character reads for us.


The moment of grace is ineffective because there is a lack of the significant, paradoxical action through which grace flows. The moment in which that which is mistaken for “life” must die--often violently. “The music video.” In FIREPROOF the death-in-life is simply not very compelling. Because we have not identified with Caleb’s misguided wish, we are not shocked when it brings him low. We know he has been wrong from the very beginning. The sense of paradox is missing, MYSTERY, that shakes us out of complacency. 


III.      The Kickback of Grace: TRUE GRIT

1. Play opening scene: “nothing is free, but the grace of God”
2. Brief synopsis
3. As Father Robert Barron has pointed out in his insightful analysis of the film, Mattie is driven by a single-minded desire for justice. The film opens with a quotation, white letters over black, from Proverbs 28:1: “The wicked man flees, when none pursueth.” The verse continues: “but the just, bold as a lion, shall be without dread.” Mattie is the lion who pursues Tom Chaney without dread. At the beginning, when she asks a sheriff for advice on where to find a man with “true grit” to help her pursue Chaney, the sheriff offers several possibilities.
4. Script of Mattie’s choice of Rooster Cogburn. Mattie opts for the “pitiless man,” not the man “straight as a string” who “believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake.” Mattie’s sense of justice is that of an eye for an eye. It is the justice of the Furies in Aeschylus’ The Eumenides. It is a justice driven more by blood-thirst than by respect for an impersonal order. Mattie’s father was killed, Chaney must die, and no pity or legal niceties must enter into it.
5. But as Father Barron points out, Mattie’s sense of justice leads to a string of brutal killings. Between Mattie, Cogburn and Leboeuf, eight corpses are on the ground by the time Mattie completes her quest. That is not to say that these killings are unjust—not, at least, in the moral territory in which these characters move. But the film has something to say about this brand of justice.
6. Until the end: Play the climactic scene: the Kickback of Grace...the pit, snakes, images of Hell, the devil. Mattie’s desire for a very severe form of justice leads her into the very “valley of death” that she tells her mother, in a letter, the Lord will lead her through.
7. The action of grace in the form of a paradox: in achieving her aim of revenge against Tom Chanay, Mattie is “kick-backed” into death. Pure revenge leads to death, but it is in that dying that grace is made possible.
8. We have to undergo the paradoxical realization, the epiphany, that what we thought was “life” was really death, and in dying to that “life” we come to realize what life really means. But we have to see the attraction in that former “life,” or else there is no conflict. It cannot be a straw man.
9. Cogburn’s mercy in racing her to her rescue: Cogburn cuts her hand and tries to suck out the poison. Then he takes Mattie on horseback to a doctor, many miles away. Cogburn runs the horse ragged until it collapses and he has to shoot it. He then carries Mattie the rest of the way, showing us, as Father Barron observes, that he is now moved by something other than cruel justice. He is moved by pity and affection for Mattie.
10.       Play: final envelope scene. True Grit’s structure takes the form of an envelope. We begin with a voiceover narrated by Mattie in 1908, twenty-five years after her pursuit of Chaney with Cogburn and LeBoeuf. At the end of the film, we again hear the older Mattie, and see her too, and learn that she has only one arm, the other cut off, in order to save her life, by the doctor Cogburn brought her to. As Father Barron astutely perceives, Mattie’s one arm images the lack of symmetry in the justice that drove her to pursue Tom Chaney. A justice without mercy, that disregards the claims of even the worst of men to a fair shake, is not the justice God intends for human beings. It is a justice, rather, for “misfits.”
11.       Song: Iris DeMent: “The Everlasting Arms”: The film closes beautifully with images of mercy: in Cogburn’s transformative act of devotion in getting Mattie to the doctor; but also in the lovely spiritual with which the film ends, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a song in which Mattie’s single armed justice is perfectly balanced by the two loving arms of the Father (imaged by Rooster Cogburn).


Conclusion

1. Films need to depict the gesture that make contact with mystery and the invitation to grace
2. Such is a gesture we find in Mattie’s killing of Tom Chanay
3. Much like O’Connor in her fiction, the Coen brothers in TRUE GRIT have used dark comedy, violence, and a stark refusal of sentimentality to picture a territory held largely by the devil, but one still capable of surprising its inhabitants with the kickback of grace. Ironically, it is from these (apparently) secular Jewish filmmakers that we have films that show us one of the most compelling paths toward the future in Christian filmmaking.  


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hugo--Redeeming the Time


Martin Scorsese’s new film, Hugo, is a remarkable, deeply satisfying work of art. With a screenplay by John Logan based upon Brian Selznick’s 2007 Caldecott award-winning children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo is a family film that transcends the genre, reminding us of how wondrous and entrancing filmmaking can be at its very best.

The eponymous Hugo is an orphan living alone in a train station (the Gare Montparnasse) in Paris. Hugo lives by his wits and light thievery, creating cover for himself by continuing to run the enormous station clocks that his wayward uncle has abandoned. Hugo’s father was a watchmaker and taught Hugo many skills. Together they worked on repairing an ingenious automaton (with the ability, when in good working order, to write) salvaged by Hugo’s father from a museum. Even after his father’s death, Hugo continues to try and repair the automaton, believing that when he has it up and running again it will bring him a message from his father. Hugo does succeed in repairing the automaton, and the message it brings him leads him on a grand adventure involving friendship, family, and the magic of the movies themselves.

Saying only this, however, might lead one to believe, as I believed before seeing it, that the tone of this story is one with that of the Harry Potter films, or any other fantasy children’s film. But this is not the case. Hugo is not high fantasy, though it has certain whimsical elements and plenty of excitement. Its tone is rather more meditative, at times even melancholy (should I say more French?), and generally takes a more dramatic slant on its central theme of time and how to redeem it.

Coming to grips with loss, with the pain of being unable to recapture or undo the past, is certainly one concern of Hugo. But at its core the film presents a quest for redemption, a search for the key to fixing the brokenness of human beings. The analogy at the heart of the film is between the broken automaton and the brokenness of the human beings associated with it. It may not seem on the surface a felicitous comparison, considering human beings as machine-like. But Hugo makes good use of the analogy insofar as to indicate, as Hugo himself remarks, that like machines the world, and every human being within it, has a purpose, and that nothing happens that doesn’t have some point.

On the way toward finding his purpose Hugo encounters friendship in a girl named Isabelle, and the unsentimental portrayal of their friendship is lovely, and happily never even entertains the temptation to introduce the sexual element into their tween affection. Hugo also encounters a mystery involving the early history of the movies, and some of the most charming parts of the film are the scenes in which Scorsese presents a cinematic valentine to the work of the early French filmmaker, George Méliès.

Hugo offers a fairy tale view of Paris in the Twenties, with superb costuming, set design and acting. Ben Kingsley gives a memorable turn as George Méliès, and the young and richly- talented Asa Butterfield and Cloë Grace Moretz deserve special kudos for their performances as Hugo and Isabelle. The impressionistic performances by Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer, Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, all characters in the train station, are also charming. Helen McCrory deserves congratulation for her role as the wife of George Méliès.

Sacha Baron Cohen, finally, does very well in the role of the Station Inspector, but the only quibble I have with Hugo is the two coarse comments his character utters, not funny to begin with, but also completely out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the film. They clunk as alarmingly as the spanner with which Hugo just misses hitting his character.

Go see Hugo. Though not officially a Christmas movie, it offers family entertainment of the highest order that resonates beautifully with the themes of the coming Season.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Social Impact of Going Indie


Here is a compelling blog post by independent author David Gaughran, who apart from his fiction writes probably the best blog out there on independent publishing. Gaughran makes the case that the future of publishing belongs to those going indie:

The problem for large publishers…is that they are transitioning from a marketplace where they controlled distribution to one where they don’t. The digital playing field is wide open and, for the first time, the publishing conglomerates are facing real competition from a horde of hungry self-publishers, savvy small publishers, as well as, of course, Amazon.

You can read Gaughran’s post to check out the numbers that back up this claim. Among those statistics:

For the last few months, indies were responsible for between a third and a quarter of the top-selling e-books on Amazon.

That’s a significant loss in market share for traditional publishers, to put it mildly.

As I mentioned yesterday on the Facebook page of my company, Trojan Tub Entertainment, last I week I called into the Kojo Nnamdi Show, a local Washington D.C. radio talk show, which was featuring a panel discussion on the rise of e-books. I wanted to respond to one of the panelist’s observations that the rise of e-books (even apart from independent publishing) threatens traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores and the culture they foster and sustain. As I told the panel, I am in no way eager for the loss of traditional bookstores. As long as they’re selling coffee, they provide something rapidly disappearing from our culture: shared public space in which to relax, talk, read, learn. Yet at the same time, I don’t want to be romantic about contemporary bookstores. Most of them don’t really provide a rich “café culture,” however good the lattes may be. But the panelist did raise an issue worth thinking about:

What’s the social impact of the rise of the e-book, and of the scores of independent authors and publishers, like myself, who are capitalizing on the technology? As more and more of the reading experience goes, as it were, “underground” to the Internet, is it a net loss or net gain when it comes to creating communities? In my call to the Kojo Nnamdi Show I claimed that the independent authors and their readers are forming vibrant virtual communities. The website on which Gaughran piece appears, IndieReader.com, is just one of many sites and blogs where such communities are being formed. But is this an exaggeration? Can we really call these communities? Or are they simply marketplaces?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile, a final note from Gaughran’s piece:

As more business shifts online and to digital (and this Christmas will be huge in that regard), large publishers are going to suffer even more as, for the first time, a significant portion of their business is going to be subjected to the kind of competition they were shielded from through their control of the print distribution network.

If true, this is a powerful point about tectonic shifts in the field of book distribution. But even if it's true, what’s the social impact?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Moral Absolutes and Foyle's War


Last weekend, in a keynote delivered before the annual conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued that one of the primary features of theism is a belief in moral absolutes, the view that certain sorts of action ought never to be done no matter what the circumstances.

What does this mean?

A moral absolute is, first of all, a moral precept. A moral precept commands human beings either to do or to refrain from doing something. Where do moral precepts come from? The first part of the answer is that they come from the demands of our human nature in pursuit of its fulfillment. If, in other words, we as human beings are going to be happy as human beings are meant to be, then there are certain actions that we must take, just as there are certain actions that we must avoid.

Analogy: if the flowers in the garden are going to flourish as flowers do, then there are necessary requirements that must be met. They need adequate soil, sunlight, water. So too, if we human beings are going to flourish as human beings do, then there are certain requirements that must be met.

The analogy limps insofar as we, as rational beings, have the ability to reflect upon the meaning of our flourishing, and freely decide what course of action best conduces to it. But even so, our human nature, like that of the flower, has requirements, and if our decisions fail to meet them, then moral harm is the result.

An absolute moral precept, however, is not just any old precept. I may discern that it is prudent for me, in the present circumstances of my health, to refrain from eating red meat. This discernment of prudence binds me in the circs (as Bertie Wooster would say), but it does not bind even me, much less others, absolutely. In six months’ time it may be perfectly prudent for me to go back to eating red meat again.

But an absolute moral precept binds me and all other human beings always and everywhere, without reference to circumstances. It is, for example, always and everywhere wrong to murder. It doesn’t matter if one was provoked, if the murdered person “deserved” it, whether the murderer acted in a fit of passion, whether something very good resulted from it, etc. The circumstances of the crime may mitigate judgment, but they never change the intrinsically evil nature of the act itself. In the Catholic tradition, an action prohibited by an absolute precept is referred to as a malum in se, an action that is evil in itself.

Moral precepts have a second, and more important, source than human nature’s demands. For nature itself is something that has been made by God and directed toward God as its end. Absolute moral precepts help make up what in the Catholic tradition is called the natural law. But the natural law just is God’s eternal law, as seen from the perspective of human beings.

One of the things that makes absolute moral precepts so hard to swallow is that sometimes very good things result from breaking them. This is a great temptation. But as St. Paul stresses, we may never do evil so that good may come. However attractive the result may be of a murder—and the resulting consequence of an action is one of its circumstances—the  murder itself can never be morally licit.

That means never.

In any circumstances.

Whatsoever.

As examples of failures to abide by the absolute moral precept forbidding the intentional taking of innocent life, MacIntyre mentioned the Dresden bombings by the Allies during World War II and the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians killed in Iraq since 2003. I cannot recall if he also mentioned the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, but he well might have. Granted, there is a distinction to be made in warfare between actions that, despite one’s honest military intentions, result in the deaths of innocent civilians, and actions that are expressly intended to take their lives. But it is this latter action that MacIntyre follows Catholic Church teaching in always and everywhere condemning. (For particular statements, see here. Also see the pamphlet, "Mr. Truman's Degree," by the late Roman Catholic philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe.)

After MacIntyre’s talk, there was some chatter among the conferees about a failure on his part to account for the role of prudence in moral decision-making—especially in wartime. If by “prudence” is meant a regard for the good consequences that resulted from bombings such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then MacIntyre did well to discount it. For this is not prudence but rationalization. Prudence gets started from the respect for absolute moral precepts. These set the boundaries within which prudent choice is possible. Thus, to reject moral absolutes is to reject prudence, and to morally (and spiritually) damage oneself in the process.

“But what (it will be said) “about the x number of innocent lives that were saved by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Sometimes one has to do something awful in order to preserve a greater good.”

Generally, I believe that when someone starts using the phrase “the greater good,” something has gone dangerously wrong in his moral reasoning. For what the phrase usually appeals to is a good consequence (saving x number of innocent lives) so compelling that we should do whatever it takes in order to secure it.

But human nature, not to mention our Creator, forbids such reasoning. There are certain actions which in themselves destroy human dignity, and should never be taken no matter how much good accrues from doing so.

It is extremely rare to see in the artifacts of our popular culture a serious consideration of moral absolutes in times of war. That is why I was so glad to view recently the episode entitled “Plan of Attack” in the magnificent British mystery series, Foyle’s War, starring Michael Kitchen. “Plan of Attack” takes up the question of the morality of Allied bombings in 1944, when Germany was all but defeated, and the Allies were trying to force Germany into terms of unconditional surrender by indiscriminate bombing of public areas. The episode treats the issue of moral absolutes impressively through the vehicle of a conference of ecumenical churchmen and an important Roman Catholic character. In contrast to the way a television series such as The West Wing handled the question of moral absolutes in time of war, in which Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett was depicted as being “forced” to do evil so that good might come, the Foyle’s War episode shows deep respect for moral absolutes even in situations where it is most tempting to do otherwise. It is well worth a look if only for this, but the episode also sensitively handles questions having to do with faith, humility and forgiveness. Anthony Horowritz, the creator of Foyle’s War and screenwriter of this episode, is highly to be congratulated.

* In thinking through this episode of Foyle’s War I have learned much from “Faith Foretold is Faith Respected,” an unpublished paper by Nicholas Plants, professor at Prince George’s Community College, which he presented at the same Faith, Film & Philosophy conference at which I presented my paper, “On Mysteries and the Higher Mysteries,” the notes of which I provided in my three previous posts.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

On Mysteries and the Higher Mystery, Part 3


The third and final part of my notes on my talk on the philosophical and theological dimensions of mystery stories. In Parts 2 and 3 I distinguish two very different approaches to mystery stories, the one typified by Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the other by G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Don’t worry that these are only notes. The holes in the argument you find here were all part of the delivered address.

Part III. The Detective-Hero as Metaphysical Moralist

1.   GKC’s Father Brown. His origin story from GKC’s Autobiography (300-302): Chesterton, Father O’Connor, and the Cambridge undergraduates. Father Brown himself is a paradox, a featureless man, sheltered, innocent, not apparently very brilliant, knowing more about evil than anyone.

2.   Represents a very different kind of detective story, and thus a very different understanding of paradox.

3.   Holmes vs. Brown: GKC, “The Ideal Detective Story”: The side of the character that cannot be connected with the crime has to be presented first; the crime has to be presented next as something in complete contrast with it; and the psychological reconciliation of the two must come after that, in the place where the common or garden detective explains that he was led to the truth by the stump of a cigar left on the lawn or the spot of red ink on the blotting-pad in the boudoir. But there is nothing in the nature of things to prevent the explanation, when it does come, being as convincing to a psychologist as the other is to a policeman.

4.   What does the character of Father Brown imply about the world, the human person, and mystery?
(a)        the world is more than matter in motion
(b)        the human person is above all a spiritual creature: with intellect and will, with ends distinct from his purposes
(c)         the paradox of mystery illuminates the mystery of the heart…

5.   “Father Brown’s Secret”: not just imaginative, but a moral sympathy, with the criminal’s predicament as a sinner; giving insight into the full reality of human motivation.

6.   the Chestertonian sleuth is not about “clues” as much as he is a reader of the human heart. “the only thrill, even of a common thriller, is concerned somehow with the conscience and the will,” “In Defence of Detective Stories.” Investigating crime and evil in light of the higher mystery: our Fall and Redemption.

7.   The heirs of Father Brown?
(a)        Noir in general (Thomas Hibbs, Arts of Darkness: “Noir never delivers final redemption for its characters, but it does present characters in a quest for a lost code of redemption,” p. 22).
(b)        Foyle’s War
(c)         The Adjustment Bureau?

Conclusion

1.   The Paradox of Evil: Nos. 394-96 of CCC: Satan is a murderer from the beginning.
2.   Mystery itself only resolvable by the highest of mysteries: the God who Died.