RE: All That Dark
Given the nature of art, I think reading things into excellent films is a forgivable sin. It’s hard to deny the presence of profound Christian symbolism in Muslim film-maker, Majid Majidi’s The Color of Paradise. But I think it’s a stretch to see belief in a transcendent good or in a victory of goodness over evil, in this world and the next, in the Coen brothers’ interpretation of McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men. More to the point, what struck me most about the dream Sheriff Bell recounts to his wife at the end of the film wasn’t the hopeful image of his father riding up ahead to build a fire against “all that dark and cold.” It was the contrast for which the dream set us up. After he recounts it he says, “And then I woke up.” And we cut suddenly to black. That’s the final word. Roll credits. Was there anything in the film that contradicted the likely meaning of this final image? Hope is the stuff of dreams. Wake up to reality and cut to black. And what about the scene when Carla Jean refuses to let Chigurh transfer his burden of freedom and responsibility to the arbitrary coin toss? Doesn’t this point to some sort of triumph of goodness over evil? Chigurh, who had fastidiously avoided getting his feet bloody after shooting Carson Wells, pauses to wipe the blood off his shoes after freely choosing to kill Carla Jean. Was this a triumph over evil, or did evil just get personal? I don’t think that nihilism necessarily gets the last word though. Sometimes an artist can shed light with shadows alone. Who or what is Chigurh? At the beginning of the film, Llewelyn Moss spies a mysterious black dog with a wounded limb limping away from the crime scene and disappearing into the desert brush. At the end of the film, Chigurh tells the boys: “I was never here,” and limps away with a wounded limb into the unknown. I think Sheriff Bell, despite his professed ignorance, gives us the key to this image. He says two thing about Chigurh, and he says them with some compassion: he must have a hard shell and … he is a ghost. This is the paradox of evil. On the surface, Chigurh personifies raw physical amoral destructive power, a human avalanche or tidal wave. But he’s still a human being. And as a human being, he hardly exists at all. For me, this is why Carla Jean’s words to Chigurh before he kills her are so powerful. She forces him to be human, to make a free choice, and in doing so, she reveals the light of their common humanity, a light that subverts the absolute rule of meaningless, arbitrary evil. Why? We don’t know. And it doesn’t mean that good ultimatley triumphs over evil. That’s a matter of free choice. But it does mean that we have a real choice to make, not just a coin toss to call.
RE: HBO's The Wire: Dignity or Despair?
I'm no Ivy league scholar with street cred, and I haven't even seen the fifth season, but as a close watcher and die-hard fan of the first four seasons, I can't help but defend Simon the angry man's realism. To take just the fourth season: instead of formulaic "God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people," Simon gives us, for example, Prez, Bunny, and Cutty. Who would argue that these characters aren't "decent people"? Seems to me, they're exactly the kind of folks you'd want to invite over for drinks on Friday night. I think angry man has the decency base covered here. But these characters aren't just "decent people" either; they're more than the sum of their good deeds. They're nuanced, fascinating, well-developed characters in their own right; and this is what makes The Wire not only "realistic" but deeply compelling TV. What makes any portrayal of human reality "realistic" anyway? It's definitely more than just giving an "objective" picture of what's there. It also has to include the whole mysterious drama of subjective experience. In other words, it has to be deeply personal. That's why it takes real insight and creative genius to make "realism" ring true.
RE: HBO's The Wire: Dignity or Despair?
To the question can a saint, i.e. holy, virtuous person create powerful The Wire-like TV and/or do so about a world occupied by holy, virtuous people: yes and no, in my opinion. First, no: because powerful drama never deals with abstractions, and real people can't be captured by any preconceived notions of holiness and virtue (which we all have to greater and lesser degrees). When you start with an abstraction, you get the sort of "saintly" non-characters that populate the plethora of bad Christian and Catholic films, in which they turn even the rare "sins" of the saints into nothing but opportunities to prove their virtue. Second, yes: as long as abstract ideas and concepts about holiness and virtue aren't smuggled in and/or allowed to filter reality (which is the opposite of seeing with the eyes of faith, of course). I'd love to see a drama, compelling in itself, that has characters who reveal what real holiness and virtue might look like with a realism that resonates with the same authenticity as The Wire's.
RE: None of the Above: The Only Vote Worth Casting in November?
Isn't avoiding hyperbole and ambiguity a matter of accurately and adequately describing the reality of a thing? To describe illegal immigrants as "gate crashers" is like describing the starving man who broke into a grocery store to steal food for his family a "window breaker". Not to justify theft or the breaking of windows. And maybe he could find another way to feed his family. But policies shouldn't be based on abstract reductionisms. "Window breaker", "gate crasher", even "illegal immigrant" just doesn't adequately describe the human reality of the thing. There is such a thing as moral and therefore legal culpability. (One man's first degree murder is another man's crime of passion.) As William Cavanaugh wrote: "If you think of globalization in terms of moving plants to Mexico, in that sense it depends upon the border which separates Mexico from the United States such that one mile south of the border you can pay someone fifty cents an hour and one mile north of the border you may have to pay them seven or eight dollars an hour. Globalization therefore really depends upon nation state borders in order for capital to have the ability to seek out the cheapest labor in any part of the globe while labor remains unable to be as mobile." Mexico just has the mis/fortune of sharing a border with us in this deliberately crafted globalized economy that is making a lot of people rich. I don't have any solutions to this huge problem, my point is simply that the satisfying black and white approach of legal reductionisms can be like convicting someone of first degree murder when in truth they're only guilty of a crime of passion.
RE: Well-Springs of Belief: An undiscovered contemporary classic
I remember coming across a similar idea about silence last year - i.e. that our post-modern obsessive avoidance of it has devastating consequences for even the possibility of an authentic spiritual life - in Catherine Doherty's "Poustinia". I recognized the affects of its absence in my own life and resolved to spend my hour plus commute to work in silence. (Well, relative silence anyhow, since I was commuting from NYC. Let's call it "radio silence".) This great opportunity to bring good out of evil disappeared when I moved to within five minutes of the office. The days passed, I forgot, and my life has become "noisy" again, and as always otherwise superficial doubts and difficulties seem to be getting fatter, healthier, and increasingly obnoxious... All this to say: I've recently experienced the difference (even imperfect) silence, or its absence makes, so thanks for the excellent reminder and reference. My next stop is the used book shelves of Amazon ...
RE: Politics and Words
As every woman who buys Viagra for her husband to rekindle the passion and intimacy in her marriage knows, marketing has everything to do with the market, and very little to do with the product. In this presidential race, as in many previous ones, "change" means exactly what you want and/or need it to mean at the moment. It's abstract, malleable, evocative, and therefore, useful, like "choice". Since the invention of TV-based "image politics" in 1956, politicians (and the "Mad Men" they hire) have been using words primarily - and now almost exclusively - in association with images: to interpret, spin, and sell them to the consumer/voter. The average presidential candidate sound bite has shrunk from 45 to 7 seconds since 1975. In "debates", well-timed delivery of "zingers" is all-important, not their meaning. Words work best as captions or punchy voice-overs when Americans spend over six hours a day consuming some form of visual media. Any visual medium is of the moment: it resists context, historical or otherwise. Clarification and obfuscation both belong more to the realm of rational discourse, a realm with which images need not - and cannot - concern themselves. You can like or dislike the associations of a TV ad: you can't refute them. Words in politics are more akin to brand names: the most successful become synonymous with the product itself. (Kleenex, Xerox, Google...) The projected price tag on TV ads in this campaign alone is $3 billion - double that of 2004, and quadruple that of 2000. It works. (If your definition of political success is measured in votes and nothing more.) Worrying about the abuse of language seems very 20th century. Our brave new century is quickly slipping under the shadow of a high-tech image-based eclipse of rationality itself.
RE: The Archbishop of Canterbury Reads Dostoevsky
As St. Augustine gave witness by writing The City of God even as the Visigoths were crashing the gates of Hippo and invading and sacking Rome, which at the time was pretty much synonymous with the end of the world, one of the advantages of being a Catholic Christian is that your horizon is not only historical but eternal: you are free to give yourself to what is important, not only what is urgent. It's sad how this attitude has now even become a cause for scandal. And it's yet another symptom of our post-Christian consciousness and growing enslavement to good old (and I mean old) Chronos. Ironically, doing what is important usually has a much more direct, practical, lasting, and beneficial effect on the course of history, but unfortunately as a rule this can only be seen in hindsight. I for one think the Archbishop is setting a great example and look forward to reading his book.
RE: Sarah Palin Meets Woody Allen, Across the Great Divide
I must admit that the more I read blog posts from the people who enjoy the fullness of truth, the more I sympathize with an old friend's yearbook quotation: I prefer heaven for the climate and hell for the company. Anyhow, I think Woody and Sarah make a perfect couple. The Radar people must have been inspired by the SNL bit where Baldwin, having come suddenly face to face with her, moves instantly from "that horrible woman" to "you're much hotter in real life" and takes her on a tour of the studios... On a slightly more serious note, if we let our time be defined by an evil - abortion - a privation by definition - we will become narrow, ideological reactionaries, condemning and alienating those who need the Church the most. Only when You-Know-Who defines the time do we have any hope of avoiding the visual impairment of our inner Pharisee. "The primacy of individual human dignity and the absolute right to life" is universal - it is not only what makes abortion an evil, it's what makes many other things evil as well - murder, war, famine, poverty, etc. I for one have faith that we are able to walk and chew gum at the same time. For example, I'm sure if we wanted to we could see and affirm the dignity and value of the human person made in the image of God in our "pro-abort" brother or sister, to say nothing of the human persons unfortunate enough to live and die in Iraq, with just as much sympathy and charity as we do in the unborn innocent child. St. Augustine said in The City of God that the most important thing for Christians to have in a Christian emperor would not be perfect orthodoxy in faith and morals, but that he knew himself to be a weak and fallible sinner in need of forgiveness and grace, in solidarity with all other sinners. "This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost." (1 Timothy 15)