Thursday, August 8, 2019

Relaunching The AX: Back to school and a Look at Tarantino's Latest

Relaunching The AX 

As you may have noticed, I've been silent since the end of 2018. I know there's a post dated in March, but that was a re-post. Long story short, earlier this year Google went through some updating in response to new EU cookie rules, after which I saw that most of my past posts were rendered inaccessible, though still existing as drafts. I put that one back up as sort of a test. I really don't understand the technicalities of all this - I'm pretty tech not so savvy. Any way, I don't have the time or the patience to go back and check out each post (there's over 800 of them at this point), so what's there is there, and what's not - well you'll just have to take my word that they will stand with the missing reels of the Magnificent Ambersons and Aristotle's "Comedy" as among the greatest lost works in Western culture. 

This technical difficulty beyond my control is not the reason I fell silent; it just served as one more excuse to stay off the grid. Most of my time between about November, 2018 and July 1st of this year was spent transitioning from being pastor of St. John Bosco Parish in Chicago and applying to Catholic University's Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) program. The last nine months have been a long, bittersweet farewell to pastoral ministry (at least for now) and getting ready for a trip back to school after all these years. There were also many things happening in the parish that kept me from focusing on writing. It was an eventful last six months in the parish, beyond the normal busy pace of life at Bosco. Now that I'm relocated here in the D.C. area I've been getting my schedule together and am making the blog once again a part of my routine. 

In recognition of this change of life, I've changed the format, but the content will remain the same. I also hope to get back to doing some videos. 

Going Back to School: What is a Licentiate, Anyway?

As for the studies, when I tell people I'm pursuing an STL I get quizzical looks. In the United States we are use to speaking of masters and doctoral degrees, but the licentiate is of European origin and so follows a different track we're not familiar with. In Europe the licentiate comes after the baccalaureate and before a doctorate. Many assume that masters degrees and licentiates are the same, but that's not the case. I don't know about Old World universities in general, but the baccalaureate in theology from Pontifical schools is equal to the Master of Divinity issued by U.S. seminaries. The licentiate, the "second cycle," involving a specialization comes next, after the "first cycle" of general theology study: I'll be concentrating in Sacraments and Liturgy. The STL is meant to lead to a doctorate, but doesn't have to - the degree stands on its own. The licentiate then exists in this ill-defined space (at least to the American mind) between the masters and doctoral degree. 

On a practical level the STL is quite literally a license to teach theology at Catholic universities and seminaries anywhere in the world. That's why I'm pursuing it; so I can eventually join a Salesian formation staff, preparing young men for Salesian religious and priestly life. I'm concentrating on the STL right now, mainly because that's as far as my mandate goes. If my provincial decides its advantageous to go on after I finish the STL, so be it. For right now, I'm just taking it one day at a time. 

Please pray for me as I begin this new leg of my journey. 

A Fairy Tale Alternate History of Hollywood, 1969

SPOILERS*SPOILERS*SPOILERS*SPOILERS*SPOILERS



SPOILERS*SPOILERS*SPOILERS*SPOILERS*SPOILERS

I've always been ambivalent about Quentin Tarantino: I admire his writing (in spite of his excessive use of profanity), visual style and non linear story telling style. On the other hand I've always had an aversion to buckets of blood style violence, no matter who the director is. I've only seen a hand full of his films, and admire them, while acknowledging my reservations, for all the stylistic reasons mentioned. I'm not sure there's any deeper meaning to it all and, on further examination, maybe in this case the style is indeed the substance. In an age where art is judged by its social relevance more than by its craft or originality, it's refreshing to see someone so uninterested appeasing pressure groups and simply makes movies his way, ankle bitters be blessed.

His latest film, Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood, is more an actor's movie punctuated by violent outbursts, presented in Tarantino's signature style that induces the audience laugh at the most sadistic acts of cruelty in spite of themselves. Out side of these three bracketed scenes, what we see is Tarantino the pure film maker, who's skills in writing and directing could allow him to make movies in almost any genre he wanted. Not content with being consistent in tone, he usually incorporates several genres one film alone. As for language, this go around is actually mild compared to your average Martin Scorsese film, let's say, and whatever use of racial or ethnic slurs seem purposefully designed to cheese off the politically correct thought police.

Tarantino performs a difficult task in Once Upon a Time, beyond his usual struggle to shock while keeping within the bounds of good taste. The movie acts as a tribute of sorts to the Hollywood of the 1960's, while at the same time cursing the forces that brought that era to an end. In doing so Tarantino appropriates the infamous Manson Family murders, changing history to create a modern fairytale cum vengeance fantasy (similar to what he did in Inglorious Basterds - which I didn't not see). 

But the history he appropriates here, much like what he did in Basterds, happened within living memory. Films play with history and historical figures all the time. When the events or people involved being fictionalized are centuries old, the only ones to complain are usually historians and scholars. To the contemporary popular mind the passengers of the Titanic or soldiers fighting with William Wallace against Edward Longshanks are abstractions, as are the two historical figures themselves. When so much time has elapsed even historians can't always agree on what exactly happened and the nature of the personalities involved, and no one on this side of the veil can really know the truth for sure.

In the case of the Tate-LaBianca murders, many of the victims' family members, as well as most of the perpetrators, are still alive. Will the former be offended at how their brothers or sisters are being portrayed? While I really don't care about how the former Manson Family members feel, does their presentation here as pseudo-sinister buffoons trivialize the true evil of the actual historical events, and thus denigrate the memory of the victims? Does using these real life people as metaphors obscure the truth instead of deepening our understanding of it? I'm not going to proffer an answer right now. I know I wasn't "offended" (how I hate that word), but I did leave the theater feeling a bit uneasy. More on that later.

While Leonardo DiCaprio (as semi washed up western star Rick Dalton) is technically the leading man here, he really shares the spotlight with Brad Pitt, who plays DiCaprio's side kick. Both men's fates are intertwined, and in many ways it's Pitt's stunt double character Cliff Booth who pushes the plot (or what there is of one) forward. Both men are struggling for relevance in the New Hollywood emerging from the ruins of the old studio system. Rick is neurotic and edgy. Cliff, who has far less to lose, doesn't seem to be aware that there is a struggle going on at all.

Tarantino dosen't offer his audience much in terms of context, but by the late '60's westerns were waning in popularity, the studio system was collapsing - and by '69 was pretty much dead. New auteur directors, like Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols and Roman Polanski were breathing fresh life into cinema - making films that were personal statements as opposed to corporate products (the aforementioned Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), along with his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) just so happen to move into the house next to Rick as our story unfolds). It's also the age of the antihero - where bank robbers were the good guys and the police who chase them were the villains. 

In contrast, Rick and Cliff are as straight forward as their names; they understand white hats and black hats, and are baffled by ambiguity. In some ways they are men of the 1950's who were able to skate through most of the '60's performing their old tricks. They are caught off guard when the zeitgeist shifts suddenly on them. Again, it's DiCaprio's character who's flummoxed. Pitt's Cliff just keeps plugging away, unaffected because he never possessed celebrity status, and so he doesn't worry about losing what he never had. 

When Rick goes to film a pilot episode for a new western, the director wants him to put on a shoulder length wig, a bushy mustache and a fringe lined suede jacket, similar to Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. Dalton goes along with it, but is still indignant that he's being asked to look like a hippie. While waiting for his scene he strikes up a conversation with an eight year old girl who introduces herself as a method actor, not actress, stays in character at all times and is offended by pet names. She lectures Rick on the importance of being completely dedicated to his craft. Dalton, who is a star, not an actor, is in a new world, and this precocious little girl's sermon compounds his emotional disorientation. His insecurity only grows when he flubs lines repeatedly during his take. He redeems himself in the afternoon session, even receiving a heartfelt compliment from the eight year old. All the same, Dalton sees the writing on the wall and accepts an offer to go to Italy to make spaghetti westerns. 

Meanwhile Cliff, driving around L.A. doing his boss' bidding in his boss' car, has a chance encounter with a young hippie (Margaret Qualley) who he's crossed paths with before. Unlike their previous encounters, Cliff lets the wayward teen in the car and brings her to her desired destination, Spahn Ranch. Cliff is not being polite, or lecherous. He worked at the Ranch years ago, when it was a movie set for westerns. He knows the owner, George Spahn and wants to make sure he's alright. 

Cliff make a good first impression on the group of hippie squatters he encounters at the Ranch, which dissolves quickly once the headstrong stuntman demands to see George. He makes his way, in the face of determined, if nonviolent, opposition to see his old acquaintance. After one of the most tense sequences I've seen in a movie in quite some time, he finds the 80 year old, blind, George (Bruce Dern) safe and sound, napping just as he was told he was. His instincts are nonetheless correct: George is indeed being taken advantage of, but doesn't seem to mind so much. 

Angry at being defied, the hippies drive Cliff off the ranch. Before he can actually do that - drive away that is - one of the ranch hands slashes the front tire of Rick Dalton's Cadillac. Cliff is not phased. He pulls out the spare, demands that the man who did it change the tire, and when the culprit refuses, Cliff inflicts a brutal if controlled beating on him. 

Unlike Rick, Cliff has no self doubt. He doesn't understand or like hippies, or what they represent any more than his friend does, but rather than be paralyzed with introspection, he cool and calmly knocks them on their keisters. That's his approach to life in general. He lives in a beat up camper behind a drive in movie theater - another motion picture institution on the way out by '69 - with his beloved pit bull. He knows that his options are limited because he's suspected of having killed his wife - an awkward detail that's kind of presented, dwelt upon briefly, and never mentioned again the rest of the movie. Life is simple and good, even if it isn't exactly what he would want it to be. He knows a phony when he sees one, giving very limited quarter. He has no image to protect, or career to worry about. He's not itching for a fight, but he's not going to shy away from one, especially with pretentious windbags.


The third act of the movie finds our heroes returned from Europe after six months of filming several low budget westerns and knock off James Bond movies. It's the night of the actual Tate murders, and it also happens to be the last night Rick and Cliff will be a team. Rick, having picked up an Italian wife (Lorenza Izzo), and with uncertain prospects now that he's back in the States, can't afford Cliff's services. So they go out for one last drunk, their night on the town paralleled with the real life last evening of Sharon Tate and her house guests. 

They return to Rick's house, when Cliff decides to smoke an LSD laced cigarette he'd been saving for a special occasion and walk his dog. Rick stays back to make more margaritas when the post midnight peace is broken by an idling car's broken muffler. It's the members of the Manson Family - the same hippies Cliff encountered at the Ranch, about go up the long driveway to where Sharon Tate and her friends unknowingly await their fate. Rick confronts them, margarita filled blender waiving in the air. He curses them, threatens them, telling "Dennis Hopper" to get his car out of there. 

Once away, the driver, Tex Watson (Austin Butler), realizes that the belligerent drunk they encountered was his childhood hero Rick Dalton. Susan "Sadie" Atkins (Mikey Madison), in what for me was the most chilling dialogue in the movie, talks about how it's Dalton's TV shows that taught violence to their generation, and now they need to bring that violence back to the homes of those who broadcasted it into theirs. Chilling, because our fictionalized "Sadie" Atkins sounds more like a contemporary "woke" social justice warrior than like a hippie. 

They change plans. Instead of hitting the house at the top of the hill, as Charlie had ordered them, they decide to hit Dalton's home instead. Even beyond questions of historical accuracy, things don't go as expected. Tarantino had set things up in such a way that the Manson gang should have known who they were running into. But because of a twist of intoxicated fate (the telltale Caddie was left at the restaurant), it is the perpetrators who are entering into a trap. They find Cliff in the kitchen in the midst of his ritualized feeding of the dog, not the drunken Rick. Recognizing them, he mocks the would-be killers with cool condescension before opening up his patented can of Zen infused whoop-butt. Even his pit bull gets in the act. By the time it's over the members of the Manson Family are beaten, bitten, stabbed and burnt beyond recognition. 

Obviously, this is not what really happened just after midnight on the real August 9, 1969. There was no Rick or Cliff who distracted the killers from their satanic mission. Their exploits didn't lead to a much hoped for encounter with Sharon Tate; a meeting that very well could signal a new beginning for Rick's career. The reality is that six people lost their lives, and later that evening two more were slaughtered. There was no happy ending.

I left the theater uneasy because Tarantino pushes all the right buttons here. He's mastered the art of R-rated Three Stooges violence; its extreme and graphic - though that criticism is sometimes exaggerated. He often makes the viewer think he's seeing more than he actually is by suggesting what's happening out of frame. It's violence that's so cartoonishly extreme that it provokes laughter as you cover your eyes. Often the targets of this mayhem are "getting what they deserve." Even though in the context of the movie the hapless hippies haven't actually harmed anyone yet, we know that in real life members of the Family were already responsible for previous killings, not to mention the murders that they're known for. We live vicariously through our heroes who, unknowingly, are saving the lives of the intended victims. We get to feel a certain sentimental pinch as we see Rick, Sharon and the others, blissfully ignorant of the fate they avoided, retire into the house on Cielo Drive for a drink. 

But underneath the sentimentality is an undercurrent of mild nausea: not because of the use of dogs and flamethrowers as lethal weapons, but because it's all a lie. And not in the normal way that in fiction tales are spun to reveal a deeper truth. There is no deeper truth revealed by manipulating history in this way here. The film does makes clever observations about the nature of the movie business and the disorientation caused by changing epochs. In the end, what was a stylish, well crafted and acted production is reduced to vengeance porn. But who is the recipient of the director's comeuppance?

I'd be surprised if Tarantino has any beef with hippies, and he can't have one with the New Hollywood movement. His career wouldn't have been possible with out it. It's that he's found himself caught in a time of change, and he knows it. The popular culture since the '60's used to celebrate the maverick who challenged rules and broke boundaries. The New Hollywood types railed against censorship and risked it all to realize a unique artistic vision. Now Hollywood has come full circle; more of a corporate town than it ever was during the Golden Age. It's getting harder and harder to get anything other than superhero movies or franchise sequels made. As the budgets get bigger, the box office receipts need to counted in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, to be sufficiently profitable for the beancounters. Rather than taking risks the studios, money people, writers, directors and actors are to one degree or another afraid of offending either the Chinese (since that's emerged as such a lucrative market) or running afoul of the PC-SJW crowd and the oversized influence they have via social media. 

In a particular way the hippies of Once Upon a Time represent these PC forces. Tarantino is exacting his cinematic revenge on all those contemporary puritans who criticize his use of violence and racial slurs. He's cursing those who would want him to bow to the latest group think, those who see art as propaganda for their cause. There's no doubt that he sees himself as a man of the left, but that means something different now than when he first burst on the scene in the '90's. The business and culture of Hollywood has changed, and the boy wonder is now the established star feeling the rug being pulled out from under him. 

Rick calls the driver of the Manson car Dennis Hopper, a reference to the '50's contract player who not only made the transition, but was a catalyst for it with with his independent hippie road movie Easy Rider, which took the movie industry by storm in, you guessed it, 1969. Hopper represents all that Rick despises and resents, especially that he was forced adopt his look to keep a part. Even though Tarantino has the stature to still do what he wants, he like the fictional Rick Dalton sees the handwriting on the wall. He's said that he only plans to make ten movies before retiring. This is number 9, and I wonder if it's not at once a love letter, as its being promoted, and a kiss off to the business he sees as, if not passing him by, at least moving in the wrong direction.

This leaves me just as ambivalent about Quentin Tarantino as when I began. I still admire his unique style. I don't think his work is completely devoid of substance. But his flights of self indulgence obscure the deeper truth he could be mining in his work. I don't think appropriating the Sharon Tate story in this way was appropriate. He presents the late actress in the best possible light, and Margot Robbie brings joy and a sort of hip innocence to the portrayal, so it's not a case of disrespect that makes me uneasy. It's that I felt manipulated for no good reason. Of course films try to play the audience, and make us feel things when we should know better. That's why we go to the theater. In this case I know too much to be swept away by this cruel fantasy. I wanted to bask in the good feeling, and dream dreams, as the best of movies can lead us to do. I couldn't because it felt dishonest. The Manson Family wasn't the gang who couldn't shoot straight. Evil wasn't overcome that night, and everyone didn't live happily ever after. It's that these memories were used, at least in part, to satisfy some personal need of the film maker instead of shining light on the truth that leaves feeling queasy.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Do You Think They Were More Guilty?

Last time out I danced around the issue of divine chastisement. My conclusion was that we can't call the recent atrocity in Orlando an example of divine retribution, not that I've seen anyone overtly suggesting it. It seems like after tragedies of this nature someone comes out saying "this is God's wrath" against this group or another that's assumed to have run afoul of the moral law. So, I just wanted to head that one off at the pass.

I also affirmed that, contrary to common belief today, God does indeed chastise. It's that it's not for vigilantes, mobs or even governments to decide what needs to be punished and then take it upon themselves to exact the punishment. 

Beyond that God is patient. He doesn't want to punish us if he can avoid it. The Prophet Jonah was one of those fire and brim stone types, as well as being more than a tad xenophobic, who reluctantly delivered the Lord's message of repentance to Nineveh (a gentile city). He was actually upset when the city repented, therefore avoiding destruction. God had to sit him down and explain that He created all humanity (along with everything in nature, actually), and didn't want to see any of them lost. And those poor gentiles, who didn't know their right hand from their left (in other words didn't have the benefit of Divine Revelation) needed even more patience than the Israelites did.  

In Luke 9:51-56 we hear about a Samaritan village who wouldn't receive Jesus, then traveling on the way to Jerusalem. John and James asked if they should, "'call down fire from heaven to consume them?'" All it says is that "Jesus rebuked them," before moving on to another locale. While the description is rather curt - we don't know what form Jesus's rebuke took, the message is clear: a Sodom and Gomorrah redux wasn't a part of Jesus' mission. As with the example of Jonah, we have here a gentile community, and this time it's Jesus who has to correct His followers who thought their mission was about vengeance instead of mercy. Jesus came to gather in the lost sheep of the House of Israel first, and then make the invitation to the gentiles to repent and accept the Kingdom of God, not to destroy either one. 

In all this, we need to follow a very important principle of how to read Scripture, namely to always interpret Scripture in light of Scripture. In other words, read everything in context. If we stop here we could get the impression that Jesus did away with the whole chastisement thing. But the New Testament does speak of the Lord disciplining His children (Jn. 15:2, Heb. 12:5, 1 Cor. 11:32, among other passages we could site). The Book of Revelation is filled with descriptions of how humanity is and will be chastised, including stern warnings to the churches who don't fulfill their mission (Revelation chapters 2-3). Jesus isn't saying that chastisements are out, just that it's not for us to assume the motives, times and methods of God's judgement. I would go further, that taken together, along with the Old Testament, it's unfaithful and slack believers who are more likely to encounter a harsh judgment than others are (Lk. 12:41-48).

Jesus also makes it clear that just because bad things happening to you doesn't automatically mean that God's punishing you (John 9:1-3). 

We live in a fallen world. Earthquakes happen, madmen go on rampages (which doesn't mean we don't try to prevent such things, and yes that means looking at our gun laws). Suffering is a part of life on planet Earth, and there is no way we can be shielded completely from natural disasters or prevent every act of deliberate evil. And we can't judge people who die in disturbing ways, or somehow think we're favored by God because we didn't. 

Jesus was once asked his opinion about Pilate slaughtering Galileans during their worship ceremony. He stated that it was a mistake to believe that they were greater sinners than anyone else - the same with 18 victims of a tower collapse. So, while he affirms that bad things happening to you isn't necessarily an indication of divine judgment, he also tells his questioners that, unless "you repent you will perish as they did!" 

Sobering words. Bad things happen to good, bad and indifferent people, yet we must be on the watch that the end doesn't catch us unprepared, meaning unrepentant. 

Jesus never offers us the simple answer. If we really read the Scriptures with clear eyes, specifically the Gospels, we will never confuse the Word with opium. 

We see 49 people killed randomly in a night club and we are horrified. We should be. We are also outraged. Again, we should be. We think first of the temporal issues - gun control, bigotry, international and domestic terrorism. We need to. It's our world, and we will be held to account for our stewardship of it. 

We usually end there, though. If we do think of the eternal implications, our assumption is probably that everyone was saved, whatever concept we have of that reality. My experience is that the assumption of salvation is the default position at funerals - if people believe in a life after death at all, which misses the point of why we have funerals. More and more people are forsaking the traditional obsequies and Requiem Masses for memorial services, if that. A memorial is a remembrance of the dearly departed, of his or her human life and times. The implication is that it's over - a memory is of something that is passed. We salute someone who lived a full length of years, or else rue that someone was taken too young, tragically. But either way, it's over, and all we are left with is a memory that will die with all the mourners who in turn go to that long cold sleep from which there is no awaking. 

A Mass is a act of divine memory. We are asking God the Father to remember someone, in the context of His remembering the saving work of His Son on the Cross. When God remembers, the memory is real and eternal. He doesn't remember for a moment - but forever. The priest asks the Father to remember Jesus' dying and rising - to remember His sacrifice, and so, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the sacrifice becomes present to us in the form of the Eucharist. During the funeral Mass, when the priest asks the Father to remember the one we love, he or she becomes present to Him. God's memory is not of something that is passed - it is of something present, real, unfading, eternal.

The uncomfortable aspect of this is that all in the previous paragraph depends on that the person who passed on died in a state of grace. We really don't want to think about the alternative, or really don't believe that there is an alternative. Maybe more on the other possibility for another time.

I'll end here by saying that we don't judge because we don't know the heart. We pray though. We don't assume salvation or damnation. We pray though. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Reflection on Luke 3:1-6 - Second Sunday of Advent, Year C


In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, 
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Luke 3:1-6

When approaching the Advent readings what we have to remember is that the first roughly three weeks of this Holy Time isn’t about preparing for the celebration of Christmas. What we are asked to do is prepare for Jesus’ second coming at the end of the age, and with it the need to repent in preparation for the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the first week’s Gospel reading Jesus tells us of the great tribulations that will come before the End Times reach their completion. We are to be vigilant, reading the signs of the times, always ready to meet the Lord. Most of all, things will look bleak, but we are to maintain a spirt of faithfulness, vigilance and, joy. 

This week we jump back chronologically, to John the Baptist’s first appearance in the desert. Unlike in Mark’s or John’s account, in Luke’s we know where he comes from. We get his origin story. But in the wisdom of the Church’s liturgical rhythms we begin with his appearance in the desert, and will backtrack to hear his infancy narrative as we come closer to Christmas. For now we aren’t interested in choirs of angels singing to shepherds, that will come in all good time. We begin with John, in the dessert, preaching a baptism of repentance. 

Because Luke wants to give us an orderly account of what happened, he takes the time to mention who the important players on the religious and secular scenes were when the last Old Testament prophet appeared. For the most part these names mean little to us. Even less, the names of ordinary bystanders that he and the other evangelists often sprinkle into their accounts. But they are vital. They root Jesus and John both into history. The events and words that are being transmitted aren’t myth. We aren’t dealing with ancient gods born out of smoldering rocks or burst forth from the heads of other deities before the ages. We are not in a galaxy long ago and far away. We are at the moment in history, human history, the fullness of time as God saw it, when the Eternal One broke through the barriers separating the Creator from His creation, to complete the task of mending the breach cause by the original sin.

The Church, in arranging the liturgical times and the readings we hear during the Mass is trying to focus us on themes rather than historical events per se. Right now it’s joyful expectation at the coming of the Lord. While Advent isn’t a penitential season in the same way as Lent, there is a call to repentance. There is a need to prepare our hearts to receive the King, which involves a good confession and a time for fasting before the feasting at Christmas. As we will see, when Christmas does arrive, we are asked to meditate on the Incarnation, not just as an historical event, but in terms of what God taking on a human nature means for us now. 

This taking events out of order to give priority to the mysteries of the Faith shouldn’t distract us from the fact that Jesus really was born of the Virgin, grew up under the care of Mary and Joseph, His stepfather, walked our streets, experiencing a full human life, albeit free from sin. He really did suffer and die, rising on the last day. He is no myth like Zeus or Apollo, like Superman or Luke Skywalker. John was sent in a time and a place to prepare the way for the Savior. He was inviting people of a particular land, with their sins, their social dynamics, in their political climate, to repent so as to be prepared for the coming of the promised Messiah. 

Through the living Scriptures Jesus continues to call us. He continues to use John as His herald. The Church is the external sign, the sacrament of Christ’s salvation. He calls us now, when Rahm Emanuel is mayor of Chicago, Bruce Rauner is governor of Illinois and, Donald Trump is president of the United States, Blase is archbishop of Chicago and Francis pope of the Universal Church.  He calls us now in the difficulties of our lives, with our hardships and struggles. He calls us now, with our vices and addictions to repent and accept the Gospel. He calls us now to prepare our hearts to accept the Lord. He calls us to remove the clutter from our lives so that room may be prepared in our hearts for Christ.

There is no separation between the spiritual and the historical in the Christian faith. Jesus’ Gospel is authoritative because He really lived, really died and, really rose again. His seven Sacraments have power because Jesus the historical figure instituted them. These mysteries are saving because they are signs of what are to be rooted in what actually happened, when Pontus Pilate was procurator of Judea, Tiberius was princeps and Herod Antipas tetrarch of Galilee. He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, who will return again. May we be ready, prepared, and joyful at his coming.




Saturday, November 17, 2018

The White Album at 50 Part 1


November 22, besides being Thanksgiving in the United States, marks fifty years since the release of the Beatles self-titled double LP set, commonly known as the White Album. As with last year’s observance of Sgt. Pepper’s golden anniversary, a remix has been prepared by Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, presented for public sale in several deluxe additions. Again I went for the regular, ordinary, run of the mill deluxe as opposed to the super duper deluxe baby. Unlike Pepper’s, getting the obligatory extra tracks that come with the basic package is actually worth it, but more on that later. 

First, some background. 

1968 saw the Fab Four coming off their greatest triumph to date, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which spent a staggering 27 weeks at number 1 from the summer of ’67 through the beginning of February 1968. While Pepper’s was still reigning supreme over the charts, they dropped the sound track for their ill-fated TV special Magical Mystery Tour. The British EP, U.S. LP release was a success as well; the TV special, broadcast in the UK on Christmas Day 1967, not so much. The disjointed, heavily surrealistic trip on a tour bus through the English countryside was panned by critics, confused the British public and was never shown in the United States. 

On the personal side, 1968 began with the band still reeling from the death of their manager Brian Epstein the previous June. John Lennon’s marriage was falling apart and George Harrison was more interested in Eastern meditation than being a junior partner in the Beatles. They entered the studio in early February, recording the single Lady Madonna (which would go to number 1 a month later), before jetting off to Rishikesh, India to engage in a Transcendental Meditation course with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They were accompanied on their expedition by an entourage that included members of the Beach Boys and actress Mia Farrow with her sister Prudence. 

The purpose of the retreat was to clear their minds, achieve transcendence without the aide of chemicals, and gain some emotional stability. Though they were supposed to leave being Beatles behind, John and Paul would clandestinely get together to work on songs. All three songwriters in the group worked on material that would eventually end up on both the White Album and 1969’s Abbey Road

The trip to Rishikesh is shrouded in a bit of mystery, in so far as each member had a different response to it. Ringo Starr left about two weeks in because he couldn’t take the food. Though McCartney has spoken positively of the experience, he left after about a month. Lennon and Harrison lasted until April, with John leaving in anger over rumors that the Maharishi had tried to take liberties with some of the women guests – claims that were later disproved to the satisfaction of all, including Lennon’s then wife Cynthia. 

Once all four were back in Britain they began working on the new material begun in India. In early May the band gathered at Harrison’s house in Esher, Surrey to demo songs. From May 30 through October they recorded at odd hours and inconsistent intervals at EMI Studios (aka Abbey Road) and Trident Studios. Along with tracks for the White Album, they produced the singles Hey, Jude and Revolution during this time. 

The album itself is almost a photo negative image of its predecessor Sgt. Pepper's. In place of the colorful, elaborately staged portrait of the Beatles surrounded by cutout images of various celebrates, over looking a flower bed (grave?), we have a plain white cover. On early editions "The Beatles" was embossed on the front along with a serial number pressed near the lower right hand corner. Later, the numbering was dropped, with the name printed faintly in gray. The package included a poster collage with lyrics printed on the back, along with four individual color head shots of the band members. Sgt. Pepper's Band was supposed to be their alter ego, an escape from Mop Top Beatlemania, a mask to hid behind as they meandered in the studio. Here the album is simply called The Beatles. The January 1969 sessions that would become Let it Be were billed as an attempt at getting back to their rock and roll roots after a period of psychedelic experimentation. You could argue that this desire to get back to basics actually began here.  

In place of the heavily produced psychedelic music of the previous two projects, The Beatles offers an eclectic mix of good old fashioned rock and roll, stripped down acoustic folk, blues, hard rock, ska (a predecessor to reggae), dance hall songs and a lullaby. The penultimate track is an eight minute avant garde sound collage, Revolution 9, that is somewhat polarizing to this day. Unlike Pepper's or Mystery Tour, there is very little here that couldn't have been credibly reproduced on stage in some form with contemporary technology. 

When the sessions started getting tense is hard to say. The presence of Yoko Ono in the sessions is the default excuse given for the problems in the band. The Beatles rarely had visitors at recording sessions, and almost never had their wives or girlfriends around. Lennon insisted that his new found love be in the studio, and collaborate on material. In some studio chatter from from the Get Back sessions in early '69 McCartney tried to downplay the reports of friction, joking that in fifty years people would say they broke up because Yoko sat on his amplifier. In the Anthology documentary Harrison admitted that her presence did make the situation tense, and that he did feel Ono was a wedge separating John from the band. Looking back twenty-five years later in the same film, Paul felt that John and Yoko had to clear the decks of the rest of them if their relationship was going to work. Whether Ono was the cause of the tensions or a symptom of deeper problems we may never know. 

Even before Yoko Ono became a constant presence at sessions the Beatles had begun to record separately, sometimes working in different studios with different engineers at the same time. This has always been chalked up to the personal conflicts between the bandmates. Each was becoming protective of their material, wanting it done their way as opposed to presenting songs to the band for suggestions. McCartney, for instance, is said to have gone back and recorded his own drum parts when he wasn't happy with Ringo's take. He wouldn't let Harrison add a lead part to Hey, Jude, a sore point the guitarist had a hard time letting go of.  This might not have been so bad, but for that George was blooming as a song writer, and felt held back from presenting material by the other two writers. Lennon later said that the White Album was basically a four headed solo project, where each served as backing musicians for one another's songs.

Things got frustrating enough that various members walked out of the sessions at different times. Most famously Ringo ran off to Sardinia on holiday for ten days because he thought the others were freezing him out. He returned after some pleading to find his drum kit covered in flowers, a peace offering from George. Harrison, feeling the others weren't enthusiastic enough about his contribution, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, invited Eric Clapton in to play on the track. Other than supplying a killer lead part, Clapton's presence put the others on their best behavior, focusing them on the song. Things got so fractious that even producer George Martin took a vacation, leaving production work for a time to an engineer. Geoff Emerick, an engineer who had worked with the band since the Revolver sessions abruptly quit all together in July, he was so worn out by the bad vibes surrounding the band.

In popular lore the White Album is usually seen as the beginning of the end for the Beatles. 1995's Anthology documentary presented the release of Hey, Jude, in August '68, as the band's high water mark as a functioning, cohesive unit: the implication being that it was all downhill from there. Last year I argued in my review of Pepper's that the band was already breaking up during those sessions: before Brian Epstein's passing, before Yoko hit the scene, before the squabbles over Apple Corp and who should manage their affairs in general. I contend that the decision to stop touring in 1966 put the process of disillusion in motion, and that the subsequent resistance to going back on the road by Lennon and Harrison made a split inevitable. All the White Album does is illustrate what a band falling apart sounds like, even though I'm not sure fans at the time understood what was happening before their ears.  

Giles Martin also disputes The Beatles as break up album narrative. He goes even further against the conventional wisdom to say that, all things considered, the band was actually humming along rather well. In reviewing hours upon hours of outtakes, filled with studio conversations, he heard very little in the way of fighting or disagreements. Ringo and Paul had a blow up over Starr's drumming, but other than that things sounded like any band putting an album together. 

The problem, from his point of view, was that his father wasn't happy about how the group was working in the studio this time around. They were recording at all hours of the day and night, working songs out in extended jam sessions as opposed to disciplined rehearsals. They also wanted to use as much of the material they had written in India as possible. The Beatles, and especially Lennon, were almost obsessed with recording every song they wrote, leaving nothing "in the can." George Martin wanted a single album, leaving the weaker material for B-sides or even the trash bin. As Harrison observed, there was a lot of ego in the room: no one wanted to see their own contribution sacrificed, even if it wasn't up to Martin's standards. Obviously, the band won that fight. Giles believes the White Album represented the Beatles taking back control in the studio, and it put his father off. Whatever the truth, The Beatles was released as a double LP in time for the Christmas shopping season to monster sales and critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, in spite of its troubled history.

The White Album came at the end of a turbulent year globally, not simply for the Beatles. 1968 is one of those watershed years, like 1848 or 1914 when the paradigm shifted. To get into that demands a second post. So next time I'll talk about the White Album's legacy, and go through the songs themselves, critiquing them in light of the new mix. I'll also get to why, unlike with most deluxe additions, I think giving the surplus material a listen is worth it.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Streaming Review: "The Romanoffs" (SPOILERS)


I was catching up on the latest season of the inter-dimensional alternate history sci-fi mash up The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime last week (I might get to that at some later point). In between episodes were ads for a new program called The Romanoffs. I didn't look that closely, so I missed that it was produced, written and, directed by Matthew Weiner, of Mad Men fame. It's hard to believe that that show has been off the air for over three years now, but so it has. Once I woke up the fact that The Romanoffs was a Matt Weiner production I  caught the first episode tout de suite. According to Wikipedia there was a bidding war between the various cable and streaming outlets for his next project, and Amazon came out the winner. Now there's only one question left: is this a prize Amazon wishes it had lost?

A new episode is dropping every Friday, and so far five out of the eight are available. I've only caught the first installment, as I've said, but since this is an anthology series it's not like there's a narrative, recurring characters or the highly addictive cliffhanger ending that's impelling me to binge watch like a serial might. The central conceit is that each story revolves around different ancestors, real or presumed, of the Russian royal family that was slaughtered in 1918 during the Russian Revolution. 

The first story, called The Violet Hour, features Aaron Eckhart as Greg Moffat, an American expatriate in Paris, running a small hotel and caring for his aging and ailing aunt (Marthe Keller), who happens to be a descendant of the Romanoffs. For someone who's dying, Aunt Anushka is incredibly vital, and feisty. She can't keep a caregiver because of her royal disdain for servants, never mind her acid tongue that scorches anyone within earshot irrespective of lineage. After rudely dismissing her latest domestic, she is mortified when the agency sends over Hajar, an Algerian Muslim in traditional headdress (Inès Melab), to serve as her maid. To be honest, I don't know any home caregiver who would put up with the insults that this young woman endures, but she stoically perseveres and eventually she wins the old lady over. Greg is a decent fellow, but is hanging on, along with his girlfriend (Louise Bourgoin), for the old lady to kick off so he (they) can inherit her palatial apartment. After a few missed phone calls at a crucial moment, the mercurial Anushka writes Greg out of the will, and leaves the apartment to Hajar. 

After trying to talk Hajar out of taking the apparent, she and Greg end up sharing a passionate embrace, as the kids these days would say. She leaves Anushka's employ, but shows back up two months later, with her own mother, to tell him that she's pregnant. In an unforeseen turn of events, Hajar reveals that she is in love with Greg; sleeping with him wasn't about gold digging. He reveals that he's actually happy that they're going to have a baby, and the aunt is ecstatic that her lone wish, that the family "line would continue," was being fulfilled. The only predictable thing was the girlfriend losing her stuff, again, kids say the darnedest things, finally walking out of the apartment while grabbing a (presumed) priceless Fabergé egg as her parting gift.

As Rotten Tomatoes noted, and I agree, this first episode of The Romanoffs anyway, is both self indulgent and trying on the viewer. In a way I can forgive Matthew Weiner both sins. As good as Mad Men was, and I was a big time fan, his hands were tied by AMC on a number of fronts, not the least of which was the strict running time, which varied, but was nonetheless a bone of contention. AMC wanted to fit the show into the hour time slot with space for commercials. So, scenes sometimes had the feel of being cut short, monologues or dialogues didn't always have the time to develop the way they could have if time allowed. He was also restricted by basic cable rules on language and sexual content (which isn't the worst thing from my stand point), but I can see Weiner's side, since he'd worked on The Sopranos where just about anything went, and it usually did, with pretty much as much time as they wanted to do it in. How can I blame him for spreading his creative wings bit?

In the case of The Violet Hour, the language problem has little to do with profanity (yes, there's some, but not a lot), but with French. The majority of the dialogue is delivered in the Gallic tongue, and it did get a little tedious to my anglophone ears. I'm no stranger to foreign language films, but because I wasn't prepared mentally to have to read subtitles three quarters of the time, I found myself getting impatient. As for pacing, the episode ran a little under an hour and a half. Weiner takes his time unfolding the story, but I'm not sure he needed all the time to do it. It's a pretty simple plot, so cutting it back ten minutes or so wouldn't have hurt things at all. 

The excess really isn't all that excessive, and in many ways The Violet Hour highlights some of Weiner's signature strengths. He's extremely literate, and constructs the story subtlety, yet deliberately. He's writing a novel, or in this case a short story, with themes, foreshadowing and symmetry. He's not simply telling a cute story, or trying titillate or shock. He may throw titillating or shocking elements in, but there's always a payoff down the line that points to something deeper. He doesn't use music, whether it's popular standards or classical, without a reason, either. Having the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers classic Refugee play over the title sequence that features the Czar and family being eliminated way back when, is on purpose. I'm not familiar with the popular French songs he chose, but the use of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade was particularly telling, and not just because the composer was Russian.

Scheherazade is the symphonic rendering of the "One Thousand and One Nights," in which the titular heroine staves off her own execution by the unreasonably jealous sultan by telling him stories each night, leaving them on a cliff hanger so that he wants to hear more the following evening.  Through these stories, a 1001 of them to be precise, she not only delays her own death, but wins the sultan's heart. In this way Anushka and Hajar win each other over by sharing their stories and histories. At first Anushka rubs the younger woman's face in past European victories over Muslim invaders, using history as a weapon. But soon a mutual appreciation develops. It's mainly Anushka who shares the stories of her family's ups and downs, and her personal tragedies. Later, when Greg tries to convince Hajar to give up her claim, he abandons his initial tough guy approach and opens up about his own background. He's estranged from his mother, his father is dead, and Anushka is the only family he has. It's Sophie who's obsessed with the apartment, for him his aunt is the only connection to where he came from and where he's going. 

For her part, Hajar has nothing to really gain by sticking with this assignment, and her boss knows it. She's reputed to be the best caregiver at the agency, so there's no doubt she could get another client easily. She perseveres, standing by Anushka through her tantrums and health issues (as the doctor says, even a hypochondriac gets sick). Of all the people in her life, Anushka believes that Hajar is the only one without an agenda. There's no doubt that the move is meant to be punitive: more to get Greg and Sophie to split than to really reward Hajar. But the affection she feels for the young woman is real.

The underlying tension nagging at both Anushka and Greg is that the world she knew is dying, if it's not dead already, and the world he is inheriting is one of dislocation and loneliness. Anushka holds on to vestiges of their Russian Orthodox faith, which he is totally divorced from. He's not an atheist, per se, but doesn't believe he's capable of knowing if there's a God or not. As for religion, he isn't against it, but sees it as keeping people apart. 

Hajar identifies as French, since she was born in Paris, and has never been to North Africa. It's not French as Anushka or Greg understand it. The old lady remembers the decorum, high life and glamor of an earlier age. Her roots are Russian, her bearing regal, with all that submerged into her perceived identity of what a Frenchwoman is supposed to be. That she scoffs at Hajar's claim to be French isn't just, or even primarily, about race. It's about a disconnection with the main stream of French history and culture, both high and pop, that causes the perceived rift. Anushka points to her drab cloths, head scarf and light makeup as proof that she's "not even trying" to assimilate. 

Greg, in spite of living there for four years, still has the idealism of a tourist gaping at the scenery. Hajar is the new reality: she wears a hijab, believes in her faith, but still questions. She agrees with Greg that we can't know with certainty that there is a God, but every so often she sees signs, such as his kindness, that points her in the affirmative direction. She has ambitions, and is putting off marriage while not openly rebelling against her parents' traditional ways. She sees her brother enjoying more freedom than she does, especially in the romance department, and silently ponders the inequity. An old world is dying, but the new world being born is uncertain, for both groups. 

Hajar's pregnancy is the coming together of the two worlds, to create something new as the old dies away. Earlier, Anushka reveals to Hajar that her son died tragically years before. She remembers the violet Paris dusk, and how she connects that unique phenomenon with his death. The final scene shows Hajar, heavy with child, sitting in a chair with Greg standing behind her. Her hair is flowing, and he, now bearded, is wearing one of his ancestor's smoking jackets (looking very Romanoff, if you will). As they gaze out the window at the sunset, Anushka admires them from the door. Holding a candle, she retreats to anther room, a look of contentment on her face. She places the candle down, blows it out, and moves out of frame, leaving us with an image of the leaded window, through which the sky turns a deep violet.

In typical Weiner style, he drops hints throughout the program that only make sense in hind sight (which makes a second viewing almost a must). We have these over arching themes of dislocation, existencial angst and, cultural shift coupled with quitter touches of personal longing. Sophie makes it very clear she wants no part of having children, they're too much of a buzz kill. Greg never protests, but through looks and glances we know he's not on board: he obviously loves children, isn't totally sold on the materialistic pleasure seeking life, but sticks with Sophie anyway. Anushka's vicious attack on Sophie's self imposed sterility isn't just meant to be hurtful for its own sake, but reflect her own disappointment that the family is dying off and there will be no one to carry on the name. She would give anything to have her son back, and along with him the hope of future progeny. Her attachment to Greg isn't some sort of quasi Oedipal perversion, as Sophie insinuates. They are blood. They are the last of a long line, of a dead and dying world, and until the end Anushka is bitter about it. 

That is until the final scene. The sky turning violet in this case signals a death (Anushka's off camera?) but also a birth. An old world is dying, but a new one is being born. There is still uncertainty. Will these two cultures be able to, not simply co-exist, but join together to form something new and stable? We don't know, but we have hope. As long as there is life, and openness to future generations, there will always be hope.

While the Romanoffs doesn't have the flash of Mad Men, it does have at least a bit of the sizzle. Weiner is one of the few out there asking real questions about the impact of culture, heritage and, religion on our individual and collective identity. My guess is that this is going to have a limited viewership, but my hope is that it's enough to keep getting him offers to make more of these explorations. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Last Remake (Hopefully) of A Star is Born (Spoilers)

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star is Born
In 2015 pop diva Lady Gaga (a.k.a. Stefani Gernanotta) showed she could sing with the big kids by performing an irony free, refreshingly straight forward medley of songs from the Sound of Music at the Academy Awards ceremony to commemorate that film's 50th anniversary. She further demonstrated her range a year later with her folk and rock influenced album Joanne. This latter day queen of the dance floor "subverts expectations" again in '18, mixing standards, rock, country, and, of course her usual genre, danceable pop, while also showing she can act, in her latest project, A Star is Born

Lady Gaga, though, is a symbol of what's right about this third official remake of the 1937 classic movie, but also what's wrong with it. By herself, she's great. Along with music you'd expect, you also get her channeling Edith Piaf, while throwing in a sly tribute to Judy Garland, who stared in the most successful version of this story back in 1954. I don't what to over sell her acting, but she is certainly up to the task here. Bradly Cooper shows some range of his own. He not only stars, but also sings, quite well, and directs for the first time. Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Eliot and Dave Chappelle offer solid supporting work. The concert scenes were filmed in front of live audiences between sets at actual music festivals, adding to movie's authentic feel. Each of these elements work well, and individually everyone involved deserves praise, especially Lady Gaga, who earns her top billing.

All this should be enough for me to make a positive recommendation, but it isn't. I found something lacking. By the middle of the movie I was bored, quite frankly, checking the time, wondering how exactly the movie was going to dispose of it's tragic hero. So far, the previous cinematic iterations have offered us two ocean drownings and a drunken dune buggy accident. Here we get diversionary foreshadowings, meant to keep us guessing how he will end it all, but end it all he does, as he must, I guess. 

Jackson Maine (Cooper) is an established countrified rock star (the music is tough to label, since the loud numbers are certainly rock and the ballads, definitely country). He's haunted by a troubled childhood, suffering from alcohol and drug addiction. Added to his difficulties is a severer case of tinnitus which is robbing him if his hearing. On the way back from a gig, out of liquor, he has his driver stop at the first open bar they pass. It ends up being a transgender establishment, but since booze is booze, what the heck. While there he catches a performance by the lone cisgender woman on the bill, Ally (Ms Germanotta) and is blown away by her performance of La Vie en Rose. By the end of a night of running around, getting into minor scrapes, Jack is completely smitten. After hearing a fragment of a tune she's been working on he encourages Ally to write songs. He insists she travel with him to his next gig, and after some serious persuading, that borders on stalking, she hops on the private jet. Once at the show, Jack draws her on stage to sing the number she demoed for him the night before, complete with harmony parts, chord changes and a bridge (I know, it's a movie). 

From there film pretty much follows the story that the others do. Ally gets an agent, she and Jack marry, and along the way she's introduced to the dark side of the cut throat music industry. Jack becomes jealous at his discovery's rise. He descends further into addiction as she continues to ascend up the pop music ladder. He embarrasses her publicly at what should have been her triumphant moment. When they reconcile Ally decides to put her still fledgling career on hold to help him recover. Her agent tells Jack what a useless drag on Ally he is, which prompts him to finish what he first attempted when he was 13 years old. 

Knowing how this was going to end the only suspense was over what method of suicide would be employed. At a certain point watching this movie was like playing the board game "Clue." All I could think of was "will it be drunk on a motor cycle over a cliff, or prescription pain killer coma in the swimming pool?" It was neither of those two options, but if you're paying attention you'll figure it out before the end. I was holding out hope that they would really subvert expectations and let the poor slob live, which is strange for me because I'm always complaining about unearned happy endings. While it's probably better they didn't go that rout, it's the only thing that would have really gotten my attention.  

It's more than just that the film's themes and ending are predictable for anyone familiar with the previous versions that left me yawning.  The fatal flaws with A Star is Born 2018 revolve around motivation and pacing. Jack is portrayed as being sweet, sensitive and, almost ego free. He's incredibly open and supportive of Ally’s growth as a singer songwriter it’s hard to believe that he would turn on her simply out of jealousy, especially since his career is humming along just fine. We never really see him preoccupied by the young turks coming up behind him, as we do Kris Kristofferson in the 1976 film. There's a scene late in the second act that hints at sweating the competition, but it seems forced. The turn of events comes out of nowhere, and seems like it happened because the script needed him to have a melt down right then. In general, he's a happy, if depressed, drunk so his eventual flashes of belligerence, as mild as they are, still don't make a lot of sense. 

There were other things that didn't make sense to me. When he ridicules Ally for her stylistic turn to dance music, it’s dismissed as a cover for his envy. I don’t have a hard time at all believing that a “serious” rocker would look down on his prized discovery for turning herself into a pop tart. On the other hand, I also can see him going along with it because their styles appeal to two different audiences, so in a way there’s no real competition at all. Think about it. In the real world does Jack White really compete for the same entertainment dollars as Ariana Grande? Plus, professional musicians tend to have a broader appreciation for the wide world of pop and classical styles than the fans do. So anything is possible there, but the way the character is established I don't see him turning into a jerk since it's never established that he was capable of that before. I also questioned why she had to wait for the agent to pick her up in the first place. I find it hard to believe that Jack’s people wouldn't have signed her up once she started singing at his shows. If he wanted her for himself I’m sure Jack could have set her up with representation and a record deal pretty quick.

While the movie goes against the current Hollywood trend of concocting a contrived happy ending, it still makes Jack's character too nice. We have to love this man, and by extension the actor playing him, so the choices made may render him pathetic, but still completely sympathetic to the audience. The late Burt Reynolds once said that what separates the B list actors from the Stars is that a Star is dangerous. He gives off at least a small dose of menace, to go along with the requisite charm and good looks. To paraphrase the old cliché, the danger is why men wanted to be someone like Reynolds, Robert Mitchum or Sean Connery, and women want to be with them. Cooper never hints that he's dangerous to anyone but himself. While Lady Gaga and Cooper have real chemistry, I see Jackson Maine as too much of a self pitying sad sack for the relationship to leave the friend zone. Unless, that is, Ally's just a user taking advantage of her new friend to get ahead, which again would go against the character as established from the beginning. 

So, every body does their jobs really well. The acting is great and I really liked the music, even the pop stuff, which usually isn't my bag. But because the Jackson Maine character seemed off, and thus motivations questionable, it never felt right as a whole package.

Which brings me to Bradly Cooper's direction, which again points to what works and what doesn't. I liked his visual style a lot. I had the feeling he was doing more than a little experimentation with lighting and angles, which I think is a good thing. On the down side the movie stalls at times in the second act, but seems to creep to a stop in the last third. The musical finale, when the star is finally born, paying tribute to her dead husband while stepping out into the spotlight on her own, is the crowning moment of the story. In this case, it's Lady Gaga's moment to shine. Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand were established stars of stage and screen already when they made their movies (Janet Gaynor plays an actress, so the '37 original didn't end with a musical number). But Stefani Germanotta is truly birthing her movie career here, if you will. She deserved the stage to herself, so I was put off by the ill-timed flashback. It was supposed to make me cry, instead all I thought was, "there's that jealous, selfish, Jack again, ruining Ally's big spot."

So, a mixed reaction. Good acting, good music, signs that Bradly Cooper could develop into a fine director and that Lady Gaga can make it in the movies. But fuzzy characterizations, muddled motivations and erratic pacing keeps A Star is Born from really taking off. There are other reasons I'm not sure the movie works, that have more to do with if the story itself even makes sense in 2018. But I've written enough for now. Maybe I'll get into that further on down the line. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Paganism and the Dictatorship of the Narrative

One of the oldest tropes going is comparing the Twentieth and Twenty-first century United States to the ancient Roman Empire. Post Republican Rome was in reality a monarchy that went to great pains not to self identify as such. For instance they didn't call their emperors emperors, this is a title applied by later historians. They called them princeps, or First Citizen, among other non monarchical titles they held. It's hard to argue that the US isn't an empire, what with manifest destiny, extraterritorial possessions and military bases in foreign countries, but no president or presidential hopeful would ever cop to something like that. And the average citizen would recoil at such a claim, as well. The reason for the dissonance between perception and reality is linked to the founding "myths" of both Rome and the US. In fairness I, think myth is too strong a word, in both cases, but at the very least the founding ideals of both places got perverted somewhere long the way. 

The comparisons go on. Football is compared to the gladiator fights. The entertainment industry and industrial news complex is often said to be nothing more than purveyors of bread and circuses, mindless diversions meant to keep the masses distracted from what is really going on. More recently some have observed that with the decline of Christianity and traditional religions pagan practice has begun to reemerge. The anything goes sexual mores of the Sexual Revolution also echo antiquity. The acceptance of abortion, euthanasia, the contraceptive mentality are a part of the re-paganizing of Western society. Each of these examples doesn't offer a perfect match between then and now, but as is said, history doesn't repeat, but it sure does rhyme. 

My purpose here isn't to compare and contrast the sexual mores of the ancient and contemporary worlds, or even to compare both civilizations more broadly. All I'm suggesting is that as Christian and Jewish values, rooted in Scripture and Tradition, exert less influence over the culture something else needs to come in and fill the gap, and what seeps in may not necessarily be pagan, but in our case, it is. What I've been thinking about lately is the concept of due process and the burden of proof. We don't appreciate how Biblical these concepts are, and as we put our traditional notions of innocent until proven guilty aside we are reverting back to the days of Rome, and this isn't a good thing.

The Romans believed in guilty until proven innocent. That a charge was made was sufficient for a person't life to be ruined. It was the accused's responsibility to prove that they didn't do something, and as is often said, proving a negative is practically impossible. Many were imprisoned, exiled and executed because of unsubstantiated accusations. Because the accuser only had to lay the claim, but not prove it, the system was often abused, with courts sometimes used to settle personal or political scores. 

The Old Testament says that an accusation needs to be attested to by at least two or three witnesses before a person could be condemned (Dt. 19:15), with harsh a punishment exacted if the testimony is proven to be false (v.16). Was justice perverted at times? Of course. Just look to the case of Ahab stealing Naboth's vineyard through "legal" treachery (I Kings 21). Jesus' own trial before the Sanhedrin was a miscarriage of justice (Matt. 27:1-31; Mark 15:1-20; Luke 23:1-25; John 18:28-19:16). No system of jurisprudence is perfect. But the Bible lays down a solid basis for judging guilt or innocence that at least makes people think twice before bringing false or frivolous charges.

Guilty before proven innocent often rules the day in the court of public opinion. It's always been the case. But the criminal justice system functions so that the passions of the moment don't determine the final judgment. Guilt or innocence is meant to be decided in an systematized, organized, dispassionate setting where just the facts determine the outcome. Do judges and juries get it wrong at times? Yes. As I wrote before no system is perfect, and none on this earth ever will be. But what we have is a solid system that shouldn't be scrapped so quickly or thoughtlessly. And make no mistake, there are those who would, in the name of social justice, tear asunder the very foundations of the justice system itself to arrive more speedily at the outcome they want. This isn't justice at all, but the will to power exercised in a most grotesque way. 

As for the court of public opinion, it's not ruled by principles of jurisprudence. As individuals and as a community we make judgments based on the best information we have at our disposal. We follow our gut instincts most of the time, not rock hard evidence. While I’m a firm believer in the power of intuition, hunches aren’t infallible. They may be guided by common sense and experience, but they can also be influenced by prejudices. In a politically polarized age we can be quick to judge guilt or innocence based on our ideology rather than on an honest examination of the facts as we understand them. We can be ruled by the dictatorship of the narrative, that automatically reads discrete, complicated situations through the lens of an overarching archetype that may not even apply. Our judgments are deemed honest and true because they fit the narrative, not because they fit the particular facts. Decisions reached in the court of public opinion should always be held as suspect, but the dictatorship of the narrative renders a healthy self doubt impossible.


As we lose the sense of due process, and with it the principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, these snap judgments based on a narrative as opposed to the facts become more likely, not just in the court of public opinion, but in actual courts of law as well. Jurors are chosen from among the general public. As more and more people are educated to follow the prevailing narrative as opposed to following the facts, the actual discerning of evidence and reaching an impartial verdict becomes more and more difficult, with miscarriages of justice far more likely. 

Serious allegations against politicians seeking public office or nominees to cabinet positions or judgeships should be investigated. The vetting or nomination process isn't a court trial, but the same principles need to apply. The seriousness of the charge alone, or even the apparent sincerity of either the accused or accuser, shouldn't be what determines the outcome of the process. We have gone from looking at the facts to deciding with emotions, which are easily manipulated. Emotions are even more easily manipulated when people approach a case with an ideologically driven narrative already firmly planted in their heads.

When due process and the burden of proof are thrown aside, whether formally or informally, we all lose. Justice becomes a matter of power alone. The left witch hunts against the right, and then when the right takes power, the opposite is the case. Anyone can be denounced for any reason by anyone for an offense allegedly committed at anytime, or even at some indeterminate time in the past, in a place that no one can remember with people who can't recall being present. No one needs to prove what they are accusing, the accusation is enough to unleash a moral panic. All that matters is that people are turned into players who fit a narrative, and it's the narrative that makes it true. 

Jesus commanded us not to judge, lest we be judged (Mt. 71-3). Most moralists will tell you the our Lord was speaking of judging the heart, but that we can and at times should judge actions (Lk. 12:57, 1 Cor. 11:13). Courts of law are primarily concerned with actions, though judging motivations and intent are certainly a part of the process. When discernment of facts is replaced by appeals to emotion we become less rooted in our Jewish Christian values, and become more like the mob of ancient Rome. We all become potential targets of enemies, personal and political. We become suspicious of others and they in turn look side eyed at us. We are all potential felons, whether the evidence adds up or not. No one is safe in a world ruled by the dictatorship of the narrative.


Sunday, September 30, 2018

Scripture Reflection for September 30, 2018 (26th Sunday of Ordinary Time)

Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

At that time, John said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us."
Jesus replied, "Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.

"Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be letter for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'"

This is one of those scripture passages we are given that is compact, but rich with diverse messages. In it, Jesus offers us lessons on at least three of the great dangers we can encounter in the Christian life. One is jealousy of others' gifts. The second is being the cause of scandal that leads others astray. The third is near occasions of sin, and attachment to vices that run deep into our soul that that may or may not lead to sinful actions, but are nonetheless obstacles to our salvation. 

The first part of the Gospel passage is an echo of the first reading, when two of Israel’s chosen leaders, not present with the group, are gifted with the promised Spirit anyway, and begin to prophesy in the camp. Joshua, Moses assistant, wants them stopped, but Moses tells him to not be jealous on his account. The ideal situation, he explains, would be if all the people shared in the prophetic office. In this statement we see a foreshadowing of God’s plan to make a Kingdom of prophets (as well as kings and priests) through baptism in Jesus Christ. 

In the case of the Gospel passage, John is concerned about an exorcist expelling demons in Jesus’ name, but is not one of their group. Jesus instructs him to let the man be, since those who are not against Him, and indeed speak well of him, are “with” Him.

Jesus, like Moses, is warning us against jealousy. In a parish or school, it’d easy for a ministerial tribalism to take hold. Each group or department thinks it’s superior to the others, that it’s concerns are paramount. We need to see that we all work together, building up the Body of Christ, when was he uses their talents and abilities in the service of the whole. This tribalism is usually accompanied by territorialism, that is fearful of those on the outside of the tribe who may be doing the same work. Again, we are called to work together, and have the humility to accept help from others. In this way we are more effective witnesses to Christ.

This passage also has obvious ecumenical implication. Many non-Catholics make great contributions to the pro-life movement, and organizations like Lutheran Church Charities are a great service to the poor. The Quakers, through the American Friends Service Committee, work for justice for migrants and other marginalized people. When we can cooperate with them we should. Of course discernment is necessary. Not all Christian and non Christian groups are friendly with the Catholic Church. Some are down right hostile. While we should be open to dialogue, full on cooperation may not be possible at this time. At the same time Jesus is calling us to an openness to those not of our tribe.

Jesus segues into a discourse on not giving scandal to the little ones, whose faith is simple. We usually associate this passage with children, and while the example certainly applies, it can be read as referring to anyone of any age who’s faith is simple or fragile. Giving scandal is a sin, but taking scandal is a sin as well. The one who gives bad example leads another astray, but the one who takes scandal allows his faith to be weakened. I’m not speaking here of experiencing moral outrage or shock at the misdeeds of others (this is normal and usually appropriate), but of those who use these misdeeds as an excuse to go down the wrong path themselves. 

That a priest or bishop, for example, scandalizes the faithful by their public sins is particularly egregious. It’s a form of murder. They may not kill the body, taking the person’s natural life, but they are potentially killing the supernatural life of grace in those who take offense. In spite of this, the sins of bishops and priests is still no excuse for breaking the commandments ourselves, or abandoning Jesus and His Church. The cleric, or anyone who leads people astray is guilty of a double sin, for sure. But it’s for us to keep things in perspective. Our faith is in Jesus Christ, who is true and the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Our spiritual guides may be holy (please God) or they may be sinners, but it’s Jesus Christ who is our Rock.

In the last section Jesus speaks of occasions of sin, warning us that if our foot or hand I the cause of a sin, we should cut them off, and if it’s our eye it should be plucked out. Jesus is speaking quite clearly in hyperbole when he talks of cutting off limbs and plucking out eyes. He is speaking more directly about a spiritual amputation we need to endure. There may be things in our life that need to be eliminated if we are to cut sin out of our life and truly live the life of holiness Jesus intends. 

Before I begin let me be clear: I’m not anti technology or anti smart phone, but we know that so much filth can enter our lives through such tech if we aren’t vigilant. How much easier it is to give in to the temptation of pornography now that it’s available at anytime, practically anywhere and in the palm of our hands. How many people have secret, impure relationships with other people’s wives and husbands through text message. They may never actually commit a sexual act with the other person, but they communicate in a way that consents to adulatory in their hearts. This spiritual infidelity, if you will, that is still sinful while making actual sins against the flesh much more likely.

Facebook and other social media platforms can be great ways of keeping connected with family and friends. They can also be ways of spreading gossip and calumny. They can be platforms for bullying and social shaming. In the extreme, they can lead to violence and murder. This is not some wild hypothesis on my part. A young boy was shat and killed just steps from our parking lot a few years age, the result of a fight started on Facebook. The saddest part was that the boy wasn’t involved directly in the argument, but standing by to support his sister. 

If your smart phone causes you to sin, smash it on the ground. It’s better to go through life unconnected than into hell with the latest update. If your social media account causes you to sin, drop out. It’s better to go through life off line than to enter hell with 10,000 likes. If the “innocent” texting with with a colleague not your spouse turnes ambiguous, romantic, or sexually suggestive, never mind explicit, block the number. It’s better to go through life with one less contact than to risk your marriage in this life, and your immortal soul in the next. 

Jealousy, scandal and occasions of sin. These are the three dangers to our life in Christ our Lord is calling us to avoid today.