The Crow is a profoundly Catholic movie

I have to say that the Lord of Spirits podcast is fundamentally changing how I think about everything, not just religion.

I've got a post up at comparing Deadpool and The Crow.  Both in subject and structure the two are strikingly similar, but I want to dig a little deeper into the moral aspects of The Crow. 

Previously, I always thought of it as a spiritually-tinged revenge movie with proto-emo imagery and music.  That's still true, but the broadly Catholic-influenced themes and actions really stood out to me.

From a this perspective, Brandon Lee's character isn't a ghost bent on revenge so much as a soul in Purgatory who is cleansed of sin by carrying out divine judgement on unrepentant sinners while also helping those capable of redemption to find it.  The titular crow is his guardian angel, guiding him on the path to salvation and peace.

The late Brandon Lee did a great job in this film, and one can't help but see similarities in his fate and that of his character, Eric. 

On the face of it, Eric isn't a paragon of virtue.  He's a rock and roller who has a live-in girlfriend - not exactly a poster child for the Holy Family.

And yet, he intends to marry her, proposing in the proper way.  Even the wedding dress is modest and traditional.  The date - Halloween - seems like a hipster conceit, but that means their first morning as husband and wife will be All Saints Day.

Okay, maybe I'm reaching there, but it's interesting to look at how he approaches his task.  Each one of the guilty party he approaches has the opportunity to seek mercy.  Only the pawn broker asks for it, and so he is spared (though his continued sinful behavior inevitably catches up to him).

The bag guys aren't just bad, they are objectively evil.  The witch practicing blood magic?  Yeah, that's a big call for some divine retribution there.

Finally, there's the big confrontation between Lee's character and the arch-villain, Top Dollar.  As is customary, the villain gets the upper hand and seems sure to triumph but our hero suddenly turns that tables - in this case by summoning the memories of his fiancee's suffering and giving to the bad guy all at once.

What's interesting here is that Eric does the only after Top Dollar has admitted that yes, he was ultimately responsible for the double murder.  He may as well have said mea culpa, mea culpa mea maxima culpa.

In fact, the fact that Eric is able to obtain those memories at all is another Catholic 'tell.'  Officer Albrecht stayed with Shelly throughout her ordeal - a corporal act of mercy.  Albrecht also looks after Sarah, buying her dinner when they meet, which is of course an act of charity.

Throughout the film, these moments knit together a tapestry of religious symbolism that may appear purely spiritual, but all have a basis in Catholic theology.  Note how Eric purges the heroin from Sarah's mother and then tells her to go forth and sin no more.

When the mother then tries to be 'motherly' and her daughter gives her grief, the film could take a darker turn, but Sarah chooses the path of mercy, and accepts her mother's repentance.

The final scene where the again-dying Eric sees a vision of his fiancee approaching in a luminescent white light may appear to be simply traditional good vibes, a vague spiritualism, but a Catholic would note that her ordeal had already purified her, and that she was waiting for Eric to cleanse himself of sin as well.  Having done so - offering forgiveness to some, justice to others - Eric is now able to ascend with her.

Make no mistake, the film abounds with Christian symbolism, right down to the showdown in what appears to be an abandoned cathedral.   From my view, the entire film is permeated with not just religious themes, but ones that make the most sense if one views it from the Catholic perspective.


Music to write by

Last night I was bit by the writing bug, and cranked out 500 words on a new project, but I have no idea if it will go anywhere.

I seem to do a lot of that lately.  It isn't exactly writer's block, since I'm not under any obligation to write anything at the moment.

A big part of writing is mood.  With each book, I've had something of a soundtrack to facilitate creativity.

Battle Officer Wolf was written while listening to Enya's Amarantine album, over and over again.

For much of A Man of Destiny, I had a Star Wars mix of the darker ("imperial") pieces playing.

I had a special mix as well for Vampires of Michigan, which drew heavily from the Blood and Chocolate soundtrack.  (Yes, I know that movie was about werewolves, so sue me.)

Long Live Death didn't really have a soundtrack.  I just wrote it in a manic frenzy perhaps sensing the parallels between the faltering Second Spanish Republic and our own.

As for my other books, there was nothing specific, though Three Weeks with the Coasties sometimes caused me to look up the music that was popular at the time.

In any event, 2020 is winding down and so it will soon be time for me to start my 2021 book. 

Perhaps instead of thinking about topics, I need to think about music?

A very snowy Veterans Day

Today I will continue my tradition of playing "Taps" out at Veterans Memorial Park (that's the big monument in front of the Hall of Justice).

It's never a good performance because playing a brass instrument in the COLD is tough.  Doing it with snow flying only adds to the degree of difficulty.

Still, the forms must be observed, and I'm honored to do it.  In fact, I started playing "Taps" while a student at MSU and it never occurred to me when I was doing it back then that I'd be a career military guy.  Strange are the fates.

I encourage my fellow vets to avail themselves of some excellent deals today, and of course - thank you!

Mark Hamill and the death of fandom

My latest column is up over at Bleeding Fool.  The response has been sharply divided, which is not unexpected, but discouraging.

It seems everything in political now.  I try to keep this blog away from such things, but unless people are willing to stand up on principle - even for people they might disagree with politically - things are only going to get worse.

A new year and a new review: North and South miniseries

Happy New Year!  Hopefully you didn't over-indulge last night.  We passed the evening quietly, which suited my mood after watching Michigan State's toothless offense give away yet another winnable game.

But let us move to happier topics.

One of my Christmas gifts was the complete North and South miniseries trilogy on DVD.  This sprawling epic can't be contained in a single review, and besides, I haven't finished re-watching all of them.  So today we will concentrate on the first entry, North and South (sometimes called North and South Book I).

Before digging in, it's worth recalling that this film is very much a creature of its time, when the "big three" networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) dominated the popular culture.  It's strange to read about shows "dominating" ratings these days with only a couple of million or so viewers out of a global audience, but the marketplace has gotten a lot more fragmented.  Back in the 1980s, however, you could have 60 million people watching a given show each week.

The advertising revenue generated by reaching such a vast population was considerable, and thus the networks would pull out all the stops to generate what they called "a major television event."

North and South was such an event.  Running over six consecutive nights, it had a cast of - well, if not thousands - dozens at least.  It was a hodge-podge of emerging talent (notably Patrick Swayze), contemporary network television stars (such as Inga Swenson and Robert Guillaume from "Benson") as well as tons of cameos from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mitchum, Johnny Cash and Gene Kelly, to name but a few.

It's based on the book of the same name by John Jakes which I never bothered to read.  The plot has numerous twists and turns but we can summarize simply by saying it is a sprawling drama about the fates of two families - one from the north, one the south - in the two decades before the Civil War. 

At the heart of the tale are two men, Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) and George Hazard (James Read) who meet as cadets at West Point.  They will forge their lifelong friendship through the harsh hazing and discipline of the U.S. Military Academy and later on the battlefields of the Mexican War.

The families are set up as mirrors of each other, with the Mains being aristocratic planters in South Carolina while the Hazards are foundry owners in bustling Pennsylvania.  Each character is an archetype from the era. 

George's older brother, Stanley (Jonathan Frakes before he became Will Riker of Star Trek fame), is an unscrupulous businessman run by his ambitious wife.  George's younger sister, Virgilia (Kirstie Alley before the weight gain) is a fanatical abolitionist.  Rounding out the brood is youngest brother Billy, (John Stockwell), who will follow George to West Point when he's old enough.  Inga Swenson plays the matriarch who tries to keep everyone from turning on each other.

Meanwhile, south of the Mason-Dixon line there is Orry's father Tillett (Mitchell Ryan) and his wife Clarissa (Jean Simmons) plus their children: the afore-mentioned Orry and two daughters, Brett and Ashton

Brett is the baby of the brood, and the "good" sister, played by none other than Genie Francis, who was a household name when soap operas were still a culture touchstone (her character's wedding on General Hospital still holds the record for daytime viewership).  Brett's older sister Ashton (Terri Garber) is the wild child of the family, consumed by malice, lust and ambition.

The interactions of these two tumultuous families will keep things moving for 12 hours of serious melodrama.

And I do mean drama.  Everything about the show is dramatic, much of it due to the classic television tropes that were at their zenith.  Some might say they date the show, but everything is a product of its time and it's best to savor the closeup-before-cutaway transitions that drive the pacing.

Who could forget David Carradine's utterly over-the-top portrayal of a sadistic southern plantation owner whose chief delights are whipping slaves and beating his wife?  Kirstie Alley throws caution to the wind as her character literally turns into a raving lunatic.

Passion!  Violence!  Intrigue!  Betrayal!  It's all there, larger than life set on a historical stage that while not entirely accurate, helps elevate the show beyond the lurid plot lines of Dynasty and Dallas, it's contemporaries on the tube.

Some might wonder why a guy would watch this, given the soapyness, but there's tons of righteous action and made-for-tv violence.   All the chewing on scenery makes the inevitable fight sequences that much more satisfying when the time for talk is finally over.

Yeah, sometimes the historical situations or figures feel contrived, and there's something wonderfully awkward about how the characters try to work an American History lesson into their dialogue ("not all Southerners support slavery, you know"), but at least the costuming is great.

An undisputed strength is Bill Conti's theme and score, which rises to the occasion.  You may not know Bill Conti's name, but odds are you know his music. There is also excellent ambient music, much of it using instruments of the time.

Though it may seem a minor detail, I have to admit the title sequence to the show is outstanding, especially backed with Conti's soaring theme.  The line drawings of the characters and scenes have the look of actual sketches from the period.  Usually when binge-watching a show, I fast-forward over the credits, but not here.

In short North and South represents the television miniseries geared for a big audience at its zenith.   To bring relative unknowns onto the small screen with seasoned regulars and peppered with Hollywood legends playing bit parts just for fun and attention is something we simply don't see any more.

As to the story itself, it grows on you.  There is a level of cheesiness to the thing, but that only adds to its charm.  The fact is that there are some clunky moments but also great performances here, and it's easy to understand why so many careers took off after this series aired.

Movie Review: Air National Guardsman revisits Top Gun

Recently I got a hankering to watch Top Gun again.  Maybe it's part of the overall 80s nostalgia, but I thought it would be interesting to revisit the film after skipping it for decades.

I admit that I was expecting it to be both cheesy and awful, a schlocky collection of action-film tropes married with bad bad acting and improbably aerial displays.

I'm sure a large part of my antipathy towards the film stems from my great dislike of Tom Cruise and his participation in Scientology.  In an age where everything we do is supposed to be dictated by a political/ethical matrix of boycotts and moral exhibitionism, it's easy to fall into the trap of ruling whole classes of artistic endeavors as out-of-bounds.

Because I am reactionary by nature (that is, if you tell me I can't do something, I'll want to do it even more just to defy you), I decided to break the embargo and watch the film.  I was also curious how my decade-and-a-half of military service would influence my opinion of the film.

So I watched it.

And you know what?  I really liked it.  It's a solid film.  Some of the special effects are a bit dated, but the aerial sequences are more amazing than I remembered - partly because I now know more about how hard it would be to choreograph and film them.

As to the characters, they aren't the deepest people in the world, but it's a movie that takes place over a matter of weeks.  We really don't need flashbacks and a ton of expository scenes.  Too many modern films make that mistake, which is why I can't stand them.

In fact, I found the film did an excellent job of sketching out the characters and telling the audience all you need to know about them.  As a kid, I totally missed the whole "academy graduate" angle, which is very much a think in the military.  Iceman has a ring and flourishes it.  Maverick doesn't, and is acutely conscious of the fact.  The writers do us a courtesy of bringing it up later in dialog to help explain why Iceman is such a world-class jerk.

And yes, naval aviators are that arrogant.  I haven't known many, but they are a cut above Air Force fighter pilots when it comes to ego, and that's saying something. 

That may sound like a criticism, but it isn't.  The fact is one cannot function in that world without an almost super-human level of self-confidence.  The movie actually shows that without it, one can't do the job.

There are some sour notes, most notably Meg Ryan's hair.  Worst look ever.  However, the soundtrack is brilliant and far better than anything on the radio today.  The film is also unabashed in its support of the military, which is a refreshing change.

Basically, it is a movie that knows what it wants to do and does it very well.  That's increasingly rare these days. 

Even the super-hero movies bog themselves down in PC nonsense or lame character drama.  The other day I re-watched Darkest Hour on dvd and while Gary Oldman's performance remains brilliant (as the Academy recognized), the PC trope of having Churchill have to consult with the common people on the Underground to find his courage was even more jarring on the second viewing.

In fact, if we were to compare the two films on being true to the goal of staying within their genre and telling a good story, Top Gun unquestionably takes the trophy.

It is a strange thing for my military service to make me appreciate a Hollywood film more than I did as a civilian, but Top Gun managed to do it.