Debating the 1990s

There's a bit of a back-and-forth going on at Bleeding Fool over the worth of the 1990s.

I think the perception of any period is heavily colored by one's personal experience of it - either having lived through it, or its art, politics, and entertainment.

It's hard to separate a time of personal misery from the larger zeitgeist.  Still, I think my take is an objective one.  The pre-9/11 world was a better one, and while I found myself frustrated and depressed during that period, I still had a lot of fun.  Indeed, I recognize that with better judgement, I'd have had a better decade.

The other issue with sitting in judgement is that culture and life don't simply flip with the page of a calendar.  The decades bleed into each other, and what one thinks of as the epitome of a particular era may have happened before or after the actual dates in question.

For example, the decay of Protestantism didn't start in the 1990s, it was merely revealed then.

One can't look at the cultural tides in music, art, entertainment and politics in isolation.

At the same time, it is easy to fall into the trap of overdeterminism - the notion that the out come of a recent event was inexorably set in motion by a distant one.  I see a lot of otherwise reasonable people insist that the Union victory in the Civil War is the direct, inevitable cause of all our contemporary problems.  Apparently the people living and ruling in intervening decades were denied any form of agency.  It's very much a Calvinist approach to history.

It is true that historical writers often were able to predict the future by examining contemporary trends.  C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and even J.R.R. Tolkien did this.  But as Tolkien in particular might admit, nothing was fixed - no one was forced to follow that path.  It's also true that many dangers fail to materialize, or that their impact is mitigated.

There are many currents in the stream of history, and some of them are hard to see.  It's also the case that there are other powers at work, the Unseen who most analysts completely ignore.

Combine a purely secular materialist frame with overdeterminism and the result will likely be devoid of any useful analysis.

Why aren't there many Protestant-themed horror movies?

I'm not a fan of horror films, but being something of a movie nerd, I'm well aware of the genre, especially its standout entries.

I've seen The Exorcist a couple of times and it's unnerving.  Exorcists, demons, possessed people - all of these are staple of horror cinema, but there isn't much in the way of Protestant-centered films.

Why is that?

The obvious first take is that it's simply a matter of optics.  An ancient church filled with icons, gargoyles and all the trappings of the Catholic faith is simply more visually interesting than the traditional stripped-down Protestant aesthetic, let along a megachurch.  

Indeed, the only Protestant locales I recall tend to be decrepit Baptist churches or - even scarier! - Pentecostal ones.  In that case, though, the actual faith is secondary to the traditional urban fear of the wilderness.  The notion that those backwoods simpletons are actually holding Black Masses and summoning demons goes back to H.P. Lovecraft at least.

Catholic horror, by contrast, seems rooted in antipathy towards the faith itself, and Hollywood has long has both traditional Protestant and of course Jewish influences in its content creation.

At the same time, there seems to be an unspoken assumption even among Protestants that when it comes to the supernatural, the Catholics are the experts.

Indeed, much of modern Protestantism denies ghosts, demons, spirits and even to a certain extent angels.  Anything that reeks of polytheism or questions the singularity of God is suspect and likely satanic.  Some Protestants are so zealous in this regard that they flirt with heresy in regards to the Holy Trinity.

Catholics, on the other hand, are right at home with this sort of thing, and have rites and even relics to aid in the struggle against the Unseen.  Some readers may recall the visit of the relic of St Jude, which is styled to look like a forearm with fingers extended in a permanent blessing.

Such numinous objects naturally lend themselves to visual storytelling.

One area where Protestantism has historically accepted the supernatural is witches, and there are films in this line, but - at least in the United States - the existence of functional witchcraft is officially disavowed by most mainstream Protestants.  This is partly the legacy of the infamous Salem Witch Trials and partly the softening of mainline Protestant faith, which is more likely to ordain clergy that practice witchcraft than to condemn it.

The Baptists and Pentecostals will denounce it, but in practical terms, I'm unaware of any protocols to solve it on a purely spiritual level.

And, as mentioned above, zealous ministers of those faiths are more likely to be portrayed as villains than heroes.

This was not lost on me when I was younger.  In fact as well as fiction, everyone seems to turn to the Catholic Church when things get truly otherworldly. 

As they should.


Movie anti-review: Dune

It's been a while since I did an anti-review, and many readers may not know what that is.  An anti-review is where I take a movie I might have wanted to see and explain why I'm not going to see it.  A lot of the new Star Wars films got anti-reviews.

Dune is getting an anti-review for several reasons.  The biggest is that this is the third film adaptation of the books and I'm just not that interested in the topic.  As far as I am concerned, the Sci-Fi Channel's miniseries was pretty definitive.  Yes, it had poor special effects and some of the action was sub-par, but it did a good job of conveying the content of the books and the general weirdness of Frank Herbert's landmark novels. 

While the current films are being lauded, I've read that corners were cut in order to fit the story into a cinematic format.  This kills what little curiosity I have left.  Dune works - and was successful despite terrible writing - because of how Herbert was able to (for the most part) bring everything together at the end.  That makes it very difficult to film.

I'm going to add another reason completely unrelated to the rest and that is that I'm sick of remakes and reboots.  As I said, there are already two other versions of the same material.  There are now three versions of Avatar: The Last Airbender.  The lack of creativity is absurd.

Godzilla: Minus One took a familiar franchise and gave it a new, unique and captivating twist.  One doesn't have to start from scratch to make something fresh and exciting.

More and more, I'm just going back to the originals.  I'm also continuing to explore films I've overlooked, of which there are many.  Life is too short to watch derivative trash.

A tale of two Toms: Becket and More

I'm binging on religious movies of late, stacking them up in my shopping cart for future purchase.   Last week I watched Becket because it was free and this week I managed to craw through A Man for All Seasons over the course of two nights.

(Yet, it's been busy around here, hence light posting.)

Both films are about how a king has a falling out with a loyal subject over a matter of faith, and rather than respect that difference and sustain their friendship, the tyrannical, ungrateful monarch has him killed.

Beckett stars Richard Burton as the titular Thomas Becket, a court flunky for Henry II (Peter O'Toole) who gets finagled into the position of Archbishop of Canterbury.  Once installed, Henry assumes he will do his bidding and bring the Church in England to heel.  Instead, Becket has a conversion experience, gives up his partying ways and throws himself into the life religious.  At first, everyone assumes its a game, but once Henry realizes he's sincere, he makes certain remarks indicating he wants his former friend dead, and four knights murder him right there in the cathedral (thus giving T.S. Eliott the name for his play about it: Murder in the Cathedral).

The Catholic Church at that time was in robust condition, and as a result, Henry was forced to do a humiliating public penance and the knights were ordered to take religious vows and join the Crusades. 

It's a good movie, and who would not enjoy watching to great actors battle it out.  There's a bit of (unintended?) irony in that the script plays up the Norman vs Saxon thing, claiming Becket is a Saxon while having him played by a Welshman.

The fate of St. Thomas Becket is something of a forerunner to Sir Thomas More's resistance and ultimate martyrdom by Henry VIII.  A Man for All Seasons is a remarkably quotable film, full of devastating rejoinders, and while Robert Shaw gets prominent mention as Henry VIII, his is really a bit part - Leo McKern's Thomas Cromwell is really the main antagonist.

A Man for All Seasons is something of a courtroom drama, and it's climactic scene is where Cromwell and More face off at trial.  To any honest observer, More wins the case, but it doesn't matter because Henry VIII was in fact a tyrant who cared nothing for the law.  His judicial murder of his friend and confidant was mirrored by his treatment of his wives.

Thus the two cases are the same, but different insofar as the later Henry had full knowledge of what he was doing, while his ancestor could claim that his ill-considered outburst was misinterpreted.

The Tudor king certainly believed it, because he had Becket's shrine utterly destroyed, including the saint's body.  Indeed, as much as he has been lionized by British historians as a forward-thinking herald of the modern age, a more balanced view sees him as utterly ruthless dictator who struck down much of his country's culture and heritage on a whim.

In his single-minded pursuit of a male heir, he fractured his realm and laid the basis for repeated rebellion and ultimately civil war and the abolition of the monarchy itself.

All that, and his line still ended.

Both films stress the important of fidelity to God, and that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us.  Too much modern entertainment treats death as the greatest tragedy, and one must do everything possible to escape from it.

This is likely because modern writers fear death so much, and have no concept of faith - what the know if Christianity they mock.

But there was a time when serious-minded people were fascinated by stories of faith and moral courage.  Both films are therefore well worth watching.

The blingiest guns ever: Romeo + Juliet

The other night I re-watched Baz Luhrmann's take on the Romeo and Juliet story, a mish-mash of the original dialogue put in a modern, spastic setting.

Like many of his offerings, the frenetic intro eventually fades into a deeper, more contemplative story, but Romeo + Juliet never really overcomes the jumpy pacing and need to make everything larger than life.

By that I mean that one can substitute guns for swords and still have the dueling angle work, but Luhrmann actually adds cartoon sound effects at various point, undermining the seriousness of the situation.  The "gas station" fight should have set a tone for how disruptive the two families are, but it becomes a total farce.

Thus, when we get to the love story, it's hard to sell it, even though it involves two of the prettiest of pretty people (the eerily young-looking Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio)

What the film does have in abundance are tricked-out, custom prop guns.  These things are sensational, from the engravings on the slide so that they match the text (when a character told to put up his sword, the camera zooms on the weapon, which has "Sword" written on it) to fobs hanging of the lanyard rings and magazine floor plates bearing the names of the clashing houses.

Lots of stainless or nickel finishes, and all of it is a gangster's dream brought to life.  I could do a heck of a Geek Guns article on it, but first I'd have to track down one of the Para Ordinance numbers or Taurus Beretta 92 clones.

Obviously, I think Shakespeare in modern dress can work, I just feel it needs to be more consistent in presentation.  Luhrmann has a whimsical side which can be very funny, but here I think it got away from him.

The guns are great, though.

Road House revisited

The news that Amazon has a new version of Road House has caused me to re-watch the film and I'm working on an article for Bleeding Fool.  It should run next week or perhaps the week after.

I don't want to tip my hand too much, but I think this kind of thing is becoming ubiquitous in Hollywood - and also embarrassing.

Time was, films only got remade if there was a clear upgrade to them - say the addition of sound or color.  Some stories were presented in a different cultural sensitivity - see the various movies centering on the mutiny on the Bounty.

Nowadays, though, it seems like nothing more than nostalgia bait.  "Hey middle-aged Gen X-er, check out this awesome new take on that movie you liked!"  The problem is it usually sucks.

The current generation of writers has no concept of joy or any willingness to take risks.  Original ideas are dangerous, so it's better to trash an existing property than create anything bold and new.  It's funny that Dune is getting a lot of attention because this is the third adaptation of it.

I guess the verdict of Sunset Boulevard is finally true - the movies are getting small.

Army of Darkness revisted - a yeoman effort with staying power

There were certain films in my youth that I watched more times than I can count.  Army of Darkness is one of them.  It was released when I was very active in medieval re-enactments and Dungeons & Dragons and everyone in my social set memorized the film.  In those days we did gaming get-togethers or hung out and inevitably a tape would go into the VCR to provide background noise.  Army of Darkness was the default choice because it has so many great, corny lines and requires so little effort to follow along.

It was the product of a different era, when Hollywood directors generally worked their way into the industry.  Start with short films, move onto TV or low-budget films (later including direct to video), and finally mid-grade films with a decent budget.

One of the reasons Hollywood is collapsing is that it has abandoned the system, instead plucking unqualified cast and crew based on diversity quota or political sentiment.  This is partly because the current generation takes its prosperity for granted, and so is careless with the wealth it inherited.

But in the 1980s, the old system was in place, and so you could get a guy like Sam Raimi, who cut his teeth on Super 8 cameras and slowly worked his way into the industry, all the while building a loyal production team, and honing his craft.  When Raimi was tapped for Spider-Man, it was the culmination of his work, and the resulting success of that film series shows it.

Raimi also has an interest in the subject matter of his films, and this also is readily apparent.  Like many writer/director/producers, he is a creature of various genres, and understands the conventions that the audience expects to be observed.  Again, this stands in stark contrast with the current "Fans will hate what we are doing with their favorite characters!" mentality.

I suspect part of that fidelity is the natural response of someone who has created characters of their own.  While Raimi's not hugely original, the Evil Dead franchise and Darkman films are legitimately his.  Thus, he knows what it is to have creative skin in the game.

As for the film, it's far more lavish than his other work, yet clearly filmed on a shoestring budget, and that's part of its charm.  It's not a serious work, but an exercise in fun, and the larger-than-life Ash - who combined hypermasculinity with working as a store clerk - is just fun to watch.

I should mention that Ash's shotgun was featured in my Geek Guns series.



The truth about Lilith

I saw the other day that Amazon has a new cartoon that does the typical inversion of the Bible's creation narrative, making Satan the good guy, God and His angels meanies, etc.

All boring old stuff, and it includes the very 90s twist of making Lilith Adam's estranged first wife.  This trope is supposedly why there are two creation narratives in Genesis, and it's based on the usual "bible scholar" conceit that the Jews were too stupid to edit books they copied over and over again.

One sees this quite a bit, usually just in time for Christmas or (especially) Easter.   When they are pushing fantastically heretical texts of comically dubious provenance, they fall back on trying to tease out contradictions and then declare that these are the results of "loose ends" created by earlier edits.  They then pronounce the "true" version, which of course they made up.

Anyway, it seemed like a good idea to revisit some of the good moments of the Lord of Spirits podcast, which for the record I left in sadness rather than anger.  Going back and looking at their take on Lilith and other monsters warmed my heart, because the podcast really was great during its first couple of years. 

There was a hint of anti-Catholic animus, but it was easy to overlook because of their fun, 1990s pop culture nerd references and sick burns of Calvinists.  Their problem was that they were running out of material and the podcast suffered as a result.

Anyhow, Lilith was not a nice person and had a very nasty reputation throughout Near Eastern cultures.  The Greeks and then Romans incorporated her into their pantheon as Lamia, who was likewise a woman done wrong with an endless thirst for revenge.

Like all angry pagan goddesses, she like killing kids.  A lot.  Between that and her fondness for having sex with lonely, isolated men and then killing them, she wasn't so much worshiped as paid off.  A lot of pagan gods were like that - assumed to be angry and vengeful and the best one could hope for was to convince them to ruin someone else's day.

The feminist recasting of her as a justifiably angry first wife is (like all neo-paganism) utter nonsense, but I'm very much open to the idea of that particular spirit trimming her sails to the times.  The pagan gods were real, and people flirt with them at their great peril.  Yes, the packaging is slicker, but demons are still demons.  Fallen angels are not the good guys, folks!

Indeed, it's interesting to note that within the Catholic calendar of saints, there are lots of strong, empowered and virtuous women.  Weird that feminists reject that and celebrate a desert-based sex/death cult.

As for Hazbin Hotel, it looks like a trite piece of trash.  It did, however, inspire me to dig deeper into Lilith, so it's not a total loss.


The King of New York: another disappointment

I seem to be in a bit of a slump, movie-wise.  Both of my last selections looked good on paper, but ultimately amounted to far less than the sum of their parts.

The King of New York had a lot of potential.  Christopher Walken is always fun to watch, and a crime drama with him and Larry Fishburne (that's what he went by in the credits), Wesley Snipes, and with a cameo by Steve Buscemi, should have been quality entertainment.

It wasn't.

Walken was wasted, indeed the whole cast was wasted in a bad, dull plot, flat dialog and a film that was tedious to sit through.

This is probably why I didn't remember hearing about it.  I figured that it might have been good and just slipped by me because in the year it came out (1990) I had a lot going.  Moreover, crime drama/gangster movies weren't my thing.  Turns out, it was simply mediocre.

I often rip on modern movies for being less than the sum of their parts, but every era has its share of clunkers, the issue is generally just how bad they are.

Not quite a year ago I watched Castle Keep, which was terrible.  How could a World War II movie be so bad when the memory was so fresh?  I'm not sure, but it's awful.

As a sidebar, looking at Amazon's current offerings, they seem uniformly slick, designed to appeal to modern aesthetics but utterly lacking in anything remotely interesting.  If the movie has an "adult" premise, one can be sure it will lack any actual depth or nuance.  Everything today has been broken down to an intellectual level that would embarrass Warner Brothers cartoons.

It's strong, square-jawed girlbosses as far as the eye can see and all protagonists are effectively Yard Sign Calvinists, people whose essential goodness justifies them being awful human beings.

Such is the spirit of our age.

Bye, Bye, Barry - Amazon's take on why Sanders quit football

For many years I've used the same response whenever people around me are discussing professional football:

"I'm a Detroit Lions fan.  I don't watch professional football."

It never fails to get a chuckle because the Lions have been a terrible team for decades.

However, in the early 1990s, there was hope that things would turn around.  Detroit drafted Oklahoma State University running back Barry Sanders, and his arrival electrified the team.

Yet despite a promising start, the Lions regressed, and the only bright spot was Sanders' performance.  Devoid of playoff hopes the fan base instead focused on Sanders becoming the greatest running back in pro football history. 

It was not to be.  On the eve of what would have been his record-breaking season Sanders quit, faxing his retirement to a hometown newspaper before going on vacation in London.

Bye, Bye, Barry is a well-done documentary that outlines Sanders' career, the critical part his father played in his life, and why he quit the way he did.

The film is peppered with highlights demonstrating what a phenomenal athlete Sanders was.  Even now, having watched many of those games, my wife and I were amazed with his evasiveness and skill.  Trying to describe his feline grace and reflexes is all but impossible.

Perhaps even more remarkable is Sanders' personality.  He was - and is - a deeply humble man, the antithesis of a typical NFL superstar.  He famously did not show up in person to accept the Heisman Award, college football's greatest honor.  He refused to take extra carries when games were decided in order to boost his statistics because he had no interest in personal glory.

In an age when touchdown celebrations became obligatory, Sanders simply tossed the to the referee after crossing the goal line.  "Act like you've been there before," was how it was described, though Sanders apparently never said it.

When he quit, Detroit and the sports world in general was thrown into turmoil.  How could the preeminent athlete in America's most popular sport just quit?  If he must quit, could he not hold a press conference?

Bye, Bye Barry answers these questions and I took a bit of pleasure in reading the situation correctly.  At the time, I figured he was tired of losing, tired of the spotlight, and wanted to do something else.

And when he quit, so did I.  I haven't watched an NFL game since.

I greatly enjoyed the film, which evoked the time period and used Motown-style music to conjure up the Spirit of Detroit.