History

White Nights: Another amazing 80s movie I somehow overlooked

Last week I got out yet another of the Big Box O' DVDs and this time it was 1985's White Nights.  I remember when the movie came out because I was an avid radio listener.

Funny to think of how common it was for movies to include hit pop tunes in their soundtrack.  Say You, Say Me and Separate Lives both got heavy airplay, though I wasn't sure how they related to the movie.

Anyhow, White Nights is an incredible film, one that has aged very well.  The physicality of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines is amazing.

That's something we've lost.  Time was, the expectation of a movie with dancing in it was that it would be not just professional but exemplary.  It didn't matter who was dancing, the key was that it was original and authentic.

All that's gone away.  The current age uses special effects and camera tricks for all of his physicality and this is one reason why today's movies feel so hollow.  They look gorgeous, but they have no soul, no animating spirit.

When you watch one of the dance sequences in White Nights, you're seeing a level of dedication that simply isn't valued any more. 

Dancing aside, the storyline is also timely, a necessary reminder of a time when half of the world was locked down under the Communist heel.  The Soviet Union offered free health care and guaranteed income, but only in exchange for absolute obedience.  It was not surprising that so many free spirits like Baryshnikov were compelled to flee.

There are few movies that I watch once and immediately want to rewatch.  This is one of them, and I'm looking forward to gaining a deeper appreciation for it.

 

 


The spiritual desolation of The Big Chill

It's weird to say it, but I'm spending a lot of time these days catching up on movies that came out when I was younger that I never got around to seeing.  In large part this is because the cheapest way to buy movies that I did see - and want to see again - is as part of a DVD collection.

So it was that I finally got around to seeing The Big Chill, which came out when I was 10.  A slice-of-life ensemble cast film about the approach of middle age and the loss of youthful idealism would have made little impression on me, so it's just as well that I skipped it.  Besides, 1983 was the year Return of the Jedi came out and that pretty much held my attention.

This is the kind of movie Hollywood used to make fairly often but it is now beyond the movie industry's creative capacity.  For one thing, there aren't sufficient actors to carry the parts.  When the film came out, Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Meg Tilly still had their greatest work before them, but their talent was mature.

The plot line is pretty simple: a group of college friends stage an unplanned reunion when one of their number commits suicide.  It is now more than a decade since they were bright, young things living at a co-op at the University of Michigan and over the course of a long weekend they confront the challenges and disappointments the years have brought them.

It's basically a Boomer "coming of middle age" story, and as well all know, Boomers assumed that they were the first people in world history to have issues with getting older.

To some extent, however, that was true.  Previous generations valued maturity, responsibility and above all tradition.  The Boomers threw all of that away, instead mocking tradition, lauding youth over experience and placing personal freedom (by which they meant short-term pleasure) over responsibility.  The Big Chill is their first realization that things aren't working out the way they planned.

The story is based on events and characters writer/director Lawrence Kasdan encountered during his time at Michigan.  As a Michigan State grad, I have to admit I bristled a bit when I realized these were all Wolverine alumni, but as the film progressed I was entirely satisfied to see U-M grads portrayed as a bunch of self-centered, drug-using, adulterous whiners.

Kasdan of course had already written The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and would go on to pen a few more hit films in that decade, but he hasn't had much success since.  He put his name on both the disappointing Episode VII as well as the unwatchable Solo movie, so his best days are clearly behind him.

Still, there's no denying that The Big Chill is an excellent film.  The acting is first rate and the while the characters are less than admirable, they absolutely feel real.  I can personally attest that Ann Arbor produces vast numbers of people such as these.

That actually counts for a lot.  Today's writing emphasizes specialness if not perfection, and heroes (particularly women) are super-strong, super-smart and know neither doubt nor regret.  This makes personal stories impossible to tell.

Talking with some of my friends, I can't think of any comparable movie that has come out in the last 20 years.  For one thing, who would play the parts?  Hollywood is entirely populated by super-hero actors in skinny jeans leavened with overweight minority women who supply moral authority. 

No one in The Big Chill is remotely like that.   One of the friends is a TV star, another a reporter for People magazine.  The rest are typical professionals -  doctor, lawyer, business owner.  The standout is William Hurt's character, who is a Vietnam veteran who (in a nod to Hemingway) was rendered impotent by a war wound and therefore cannot consummate a relationship.  Rounding out the cast is Meg Tilly's Chloe, the younger, sex kitten girlfriend of Alex, whose death brought them all together.

Alex is only briefly glimpsed, a corpse being prepared for the funeral service.  He was played by Kevin Costner in flashback, but these scenes were cut and have never since been released.  Kasdan decided it was better to leave Alex entirely to the cast's recollections, and he was right.

By universal acclaim, Alex was the most gifted of the lot, described as a brilliant physicist who nevertheless abandoned a career in science and worked menial jobs, hopping from place to place.  He finally landed with Kline and Close (the married couple of the group), who supported his latest endeavor up to the moment of his suicide.  Alex also carried on an affair with Close, but this was supposedly resolved and in the past, which of course it wasn't.

Thus, we have a complex web of relationships that need to be worked out as well as existential problems that are all played out over a weekend.  It's a fall weekend, and being Michigan grads, the movie takes time out for them to watch the Michigan-Michigan State game, which is a marvelous detail to include.

Another nice touch is to borrow from George Lucas in American Graffiti and use a soundtrack comprised entirely of vintage music.  By watching the characters' reactions, one gets a sense that they too are going back in time and recalling their fading youth.

It is an excellent film, but for all of the funny and tragic moments, there is a profound void in its structure, and that is its total lack of any kind of religious faith.  I do not think this was by design, rather it was simply a reflection of the world Kasdan experienced in college and subsequently lived in when he made the movie.

There are a couple of nods to faith, such as the funeral and a brief appearance of a crucifix, but it's otherwise absent, both in action and words.   Alex's funeral is at a local Baptist church, but no one goes to the Sunday service.  These are very much secular Hippies turned Yuppies.  They have their degrees, their jobs, marriages, children, houses and yet they feel hollow.  All that they thought they would do has vanished and what they have left is material comfort and spiritual desolation.

Just as Game of Thrones is an unintended apologetic for Christian culture, so The Big Chill is a cautionary tale for life without faith.  None of the marriages portrayed in this film are stable.  The great Boomer gift of no-fault divorce looms large, and adultery is explicitly described as a morally neutral act, to be condemned or condoned only by the conditions in which it takes place.

It would be interesting to extrapolate what happens to those families in the succeeding decades and the knowledge of the world we have now makes the film all the more poignant - and damning.

Normally, I'd condemn this movie as being something very similar to Carly Simon's early work, but there is something about it that transcends my moral outrage.  Instead, I feel nothing but sympathy for the broken, half-formed people portrayed in this story.

 

 

 

 

 


Our Lady of Victory

Today is the 450th anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto, one of the greatest sea battles in history.  Pope St. Pius V managed to cobble together an uneasy alliance of Catholic naval powers led by Spain and Venice to defeat the Ottoman fleet off the coast of Greece.

The battle was a decisive victory for the Catholic fleet, and Ottoman sea power never recovered.

At the start of the campaign, St. Pius requested all of Christendom pray the rosary and thereby obtain the personal intercession of the Virgin Mary on the outcome of the battle.  It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive fulfillment of this prayer.

Of course Protestants generally disdain Mary, and some show considerable contempt both for her and those who venerate her.  Some of the younger denominations even go so far as to claim that she did not remain a virgin after Christ's birth and that was of course what prompted Brant Pitre to write his book about her.

Setting aside Pitre's defense of Mary's place in scripture, it seems to me that if venerating Mary really is as offensive to God as some Protestants contend, one would think that the result would be a series of monumental disasters whenever she is invoked. 

It's one thing for atheists to claim that great events are utterly unaffected by prayer, but Protestants (particularly evangelicals) have to explain how God would crown such a misguided cult with so many victories.

All I can say is: Ave Maria!


Dated history books

One of my little pleasures is going to estate sales.  I used to go to garage sales, but I generally find them disappointing.  Estate sales, on the other hand, are fascinating.  You get the run of someone's house and even if you don't buy anything, you learn a lot about how other people live.

Of course, you can get phenomenal deals on housewares - things people typically buy new at premium prices.  As my kids start looking at setting up on their own, estate sales are where I will go to get their cookware and minor appliances.

Books are also a great value, and last week I picked up a pair of history books with great illustrations and laughably dated information.  It's not just that the terminology changed, its that archeology has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last 40 years.  The ability to scan empty areas from space to identify otherwise impossible-to-find ruins is a game-changer.

Still they're enjoyable reads with pretty pictures.  I also enjoy the use of A.D. and B.C. in dating.  The stupid CE/BCE terminology is deeply dishonest.  It's an attempt to secularize the Christian reckoning, but all it does is declare all other systems "unscientific."  Just admit that you're using the Christian dating system.

Another advantage is the writing is better, less cluttered with jargon and important-sounding phrases.  The glut of credentialed-but-ignorant scholars was only just beginning, and the humanities still had rigorous standards.  It's worth noting that despite his incredible knowledge, J.R.R. Tolkien never actually completed a doctoral degree.  He didn't need to; his work spoke for itself.

Now any midwit can get one and fancy that they're his intellectual superior. 

Yet another sign of our culture's ongoing collapse, I suppose.


Ghost hunting, psychics and spiritual warfare

Years ago (back when we had cable/dish service), my wife loved to watch those "reality shows" on ghosts.

I use the scare quotes because the shows were heavily edited, using spooky music, jump cuts and emphasizing reaction shots over actual footage.  Essentially, they were Scooby Doo in reverse, trying to assure the innkeeper that yes, your property does have ghosts so they can including it in their promotional materials.

At the time, I considered it nothing more than a low-rent TV version of The Blair Witch Project, but now I wonder if they were onto something.

Monsignor Stephen Rossetti - the titular exorcise in Diary of an American Exorcist - notes that these shows may be bogus, but they are based on the uncomfortable truth that the spirit realm is real.  He does not discount the existence of ghosts but says that what the low-light cameras and thermal lenses are likely tracking are demons, not the restless dead.

Similarly, the shows about psychics who can put people in touch with dead relatives are also powered not by a benign connection, but an infernal one.

As Father Rossetti notes, demons lie whenever it suits them.  It's perfectly consistent with them to tell someone what they want to hear to undermine Christian faith.  After all, if you can communicate with the dead, why bother praying or going to church?

There's also the secular angle - the notion of using technology to pierce the veil between the seen and unseen worlds.  It acknowledges the spirit realm, but remains faithful to the "science is real" religion by pretending that tools and curiosity can explain the secrets of the universe.

Assuming the hunters are in fact uncovering real phenomena, one wonders if the "work" ever follows them home.


Reading Dom Lorenzo Scupoli's The Spiritual Combat

As part of my foray into mysticism and spiritual warfare, I picked up Dom Lorenzo Scupoli's Spiritual Combat (which in my edition is combined with A Treatise on the Peace of God).

The author's background is obscure, with the first four decades of his life being a blank slate.  It is only after he embraced a religious vocation that we hear of him, and this work (which was apparently modified several times after his death) was a favorite of St. Francis de Sales, the two having met between 1589 and 1591.

It consists of a series of short chapters, ranging from a paragraph to at most three pages in length on various topics, each mapping a path of victory in the spiritual combat against temptation and evil.

I think it reasonable to assume Scupoli was a soldier in his early life; his references to battle and soldierly life are unceasing - certainly not something a merchant or peaceful member of the landed gentry would be expected to know.  In a recent reading he remarks that when fighting against temptation, one might start to give way, which fine, but surrender is never acceptable.  He gives the graphic image of a warrior that is unable to bring the point of his blade to bear (crucial to penetrating the armor of the time) and so punches his foe with his hilt in order to force him back and regain his position.

I will give a fuller account when I've finished the whole thing, but this passage resonates with me because I've just had one such episode, and the temptation to go nuclear was almost unendurable.  So easy to burn a relationship in an reckless show of wrath!  Satisfying, too - in the short run.

But as Scupoli said, having felt myself losing, I decided to try to hang on, to let the storm pass and instead of turning to curses, utter some prayers instead.

And the wrath faded.  It was uncanny, but as the seconds ticked by, I could feel the anger dissipating.  It's now entirely gone, replaced instead by a desire to understand.  Freakish.

One might even call it miraculous.


Norm Macdonald and the humorless evangelical atheists

While I enjoyed some of Norm Macdonald's work, I could never be described as "a fan."  That is to say, I never sought him out or purchased anything related to him.

Still, I found him quite amusing and very surprised that he had been quietly battling cancer for years and never said anything about it publicly.  Celebrities typically shout their illness and hardships in their desperate and unending search for attention.  Macdonald was a noted exception.

He was also a man of faith.  He did not market himself as such, but when the topic came up, he was blunt and open about his beliefs - and not afraid to take on atheists.

Indeed, his passing seems to have caused the evangelical atheists to get rather worked up.  G.K. Chesterton has lots of things to say about them, and apparently strident annoying atheists date back to his time, the chief difference being that now they are more prevalent and powerful.

The crusader within me wants to smite these unwitting allies of the devil, but the thinking Christian mourns their despair.  They have no faith and it drives them mad to see other people with it living happy lives.  Note, that the lives need not be prosperous - in fact, nothing seems to set them off like seeing a devout person happily praying their way through a terminal disease.

As I've noted before, the fanatical devotion to healing rituals (masks, lockdowns, vaccines) is because these people have a deep fear of death.  It is the worst thing that can happen to them and so the rage at anyone who they think might steal a single second from them.

Macdonald not only kept his faith, he kept other people laughing.  Rest in peace.


More mysticism: Brant Pitre's Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

Over the weekend I completed my second Brant Pitre book: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.

This was the template for his book on the Jewish roots of Mary which I read earlier.  They are therefore very similar.

The tone if this book is less confrontational than the book on Mary and it focuses less on discrediting critics than it does on simply explaining the Catholic position.  That seems appropriate, particularly because the topic of the Eucharist goes pretty deep.

I suspect that another reason is that while Protestants generally disdain the Eucharist, they don't speak of it with the vitriol and contempt that the topic of Mary seems to bring forth.

To a "bible-believing Christian," the Catholic veneration of the Host is merely taking the scriptural bread and wine thing a bit far.  Mary, on the other hand, is considered to be a pagan goddess and her worship evidence of Catholic paganism.

I found both books useful, but the one on Mary was more polished, more conversational and had an edge to it that I enjoyed.


Abortion, AIDS, Covid and shifting views on divine judgement

While American society is heavily secularized, it retains a lot of the theoretical framework that has its origins in Christianity.  One of the strongest (and paradoxically most overlooked) is that of Calvinism.

Calvinism (or Reformed Christianity as it's sometimes styled) holds that God's favor can be known in this life by visible, tangible signs.  The Elect or Anointed are there for everyone to see - their prosperity, good looks, life advantages - are proof of God's blessing.  This religious view has been secularized into a "meritocracy" where the people born into wealth and privilege are owed it through their own merit.

There are several heresies involved in this worldview and it is in direct conflict with the traditional (that is Catholic/Orthodox) view that the mortal life is but preparation for what comes after.  Devout, believing and beloved children of God may suffer terribly in mortal life, but that is part of their purification.  To the meritocrats and the Calvinists, there is no benefit to suffering in the here and now.  Bad things happening are instead a call for immediate purification so that blessings can return.

This view permeates our language and our discourse, and right now it is at a fever pitch.

I find it fascinating that abortion proponents constantly speak of women being "punished" with a child as a consequence of having sex.  There is genuine outrage that men don't give birth and have to bear the same burden.  Despite many different and effective ways to prevent pregnancy, there is a fanatical devotion to this secular sacrament, which is seen as the last line of defense for ultimate individual autonomy.

Of course, no one gets pregnant alone, and not too long ago, there was a reason sex was supposed to take place after marriage (or at least after betrothal).  A "ruined woman" was seen as fitting punishment for immorality.

The legalization of abortion was therefore a welcome liberation from the "oppression" of biology.   Women could now be as immoral as the wanted.

Similarly, when the AIDS epidemic swept through the homosexual community, the same people insisted that one could not even think it was divine judgement.  A sexually transmitted disease that was most easily spread through religiously proscribed sexual behavior was simply a thing that happened and enormous resources would have to be expended not only to cure it, but in the interim, the risk-taking behavior could not be curbed.

It's interesting to note that the State of California has decriminalized passing the disease to a sexual partner without their consent.  No harm, no foul.

In both these cases, cause and effect are irrelevant, and all right-thinking people" know that to draw lines indicating how immoral behavior can beget negative consequences is hateful nonsense.

Thus it is interesting to see how one's Covid vaccination status has become a great exception to this belief.  Unvaccinated (or maskless) people who die of the disease are widely mocked as getting what they deserve.

It's divine judgement, and cause and effect are now operative.

My point by the way is not to highlight hypocrisy, but to note that in all three instances, the underlying framework remains Calvinist.  In the first two examples, the goal is to escape punishment, which is presumably not from God but rather from the Devil.  Women not being able to abort children is evil, an infringement on their God-given freedom to have absolute control over their bodies.

Similarly the AIDS epidemic could not be permitted to change the homosexual lifestyle because freedom is the highest value, even above stopping a once-incurably fatal disease.

Yet now the righteousness is on the other side, with anti-vaxxers being justly struck down for their impiety.

While the examples are contemporary, the issue is not new.

G.K. Chesterton's writing reveals that this mentality has been around for a while, chiefly being a function of unprecedented prosperity.  People can draw various philosophical lines on how thought progressed, but the key ingredient was leisure time and increased material comfort.

Evelyn Waugh's dark satires of the Smart Set illustrated the moral bankruptcy, and it was not until his later work that he began to look at how religious people can co-exist in this environment.

I plan on incorporating this into my writing on the spirit world.  As others long before me have pointed out, unbelievers don't necessary lack faith, they simply place it before something besides God. 


The surprise ending

Arguably the greatest challenge to contemporary writers is coming up with a way to make an ending both surprising and plausible.

Game of Thrones failed spectacularly in this respect, and Star Wars did the same.  I think the first big whiff was The Matrix, but plenty of shows start with a bang and end with a whimper.

Of course, sometimes life imitates art, and while this blog generally avoids the pointless churn of political commentary, certainly the last chapter of American involvement in Afghanistan was entirely unexpected.

On the other hand, historians tend to look at wars as wholly contained narratives.  War was declared on this date and ended on the other date, and anything beyond those bookends is beyond the scope of most conventional books.

Sometimes one has to look outside those confines, because in real life, the end of one story necessarily leads to another.  The characters change, the plot lines switch around, but the tale never ends.

J.R.R. Tolkien brought this up in Lord of the Rings, at one point having Sam Gamgee reflect that the stories told of the Elder Days in the Last Homely House had continued down to the present day and that he and Frodo were part of the same plot line that ran back to Beren and Luthien.

And so it is.  As Tolkien also noted in his timeless work, victories and defeats are at best transitory.   Time passes and new challenges emerge.

What is surprising to people at the time will likely seem a foregone conclusion to future generations.

All one can do in such circumstances is do what any solid character would do: muddle through and carry on as best as possible.  It may not be satisfying drama, but then again the story isn't finished and in real life, the actors rarely get to see the final result of their effort.