November 30, 2006

The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of

Film noir (black film) is extremely difficult to categorize. People who know it and like it recognize it when they see it, but there is no single common element which is universal to all noir. A wide variety of sub-classifications exist based on time period, sub-genre and so forth. For instance, noir of the 1920s and '30s is often called "proto-noir" (movies like the chilling M). Everything between approximately 1940 and 1958 is designated "classic noir" (such as the brilliant Double Indemnity). Various films ranging from the 1970s to the present represent "neo-noir" (including throwbacks like The Man Who Wasn't There). There are also "psycho-noir" (Memento), "sci-fi noir" (Blade Runner), "teen noir" and "parody noir" (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid) floating around out there.

Whatever the sub-type, noir films are arguably most successful in their stark, cynical examinations of the human condition when they are at their most ambiguous regarding the integrity of their characters and the focus of their plots. Two examples of film noir (and, incidentally, cinematic masterpieces) that fit this bill exceptionally well are The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Chinatown (1974). The two films share a close, almost familial, thematic bond. Both are defining examples of the noir style and form during different periods.

The Maltese Falcon is probably not the first true example of film noir (although the question is of course debated by film scholars), but it is certainly the first important one. The movie is based on a 1929 novel of the same title by Dashiell Hammett (one of several important authors in the hard-boiled detective school that pre-dated and informed much of film noir). By 1940 it had already been adapted for the screen twice with little success, but screenwriter John Huston was convinced that he could do it better, and on a shoestring budget. The Maltese Falcon was his directorial debut, and it proved iconic in its popularity and influence on later films.

The story ostensibly centers around the frenzied pursuit of a priceless black statuette which numerous unsavory characters will do anything to get their hands on. The setting is San Francisco in the 1940s. Humphrey Bogart got himself typecast for the bulk of his career with his role as Sam Spade, Private Eye. Mary Astor plays the slippery femme fatale, Sydney Greenstreet (in his screen debut) is the formidable villain, and the great Peter Lorre plays his usual slimy, weasely sidekick-type. The Maltese Falcon was nominated for three Oscars, but won none. However, that same year, Mary Astor walked away with the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in another film (The Great Lie). Two of the three awards ultimately went to John Ford's sentimental heart-warmer How Green Was My Valley.

Chinatown was the first film Roman Polanski directed after his wife and unborn child were murdered by the Charles Manson in 1969, and this shows most strongly in the film's ending, which was originally a far happier one. The movie is a definite throwback to the noir efforts of a few decades before: in its setting, its characters, its themes, and in the twistings and turnings of its plot. The characters from The Maltese Falcon are mirrored in Chinatown by Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, Private Investigator, Faye Dunaway as his female counterpoint, and John Huston (yes, the director of The Maltese Falcon) as the dangerous character to watch out for. Peter Lorre, sadly, proves to be irreplaceable.

Chinatown's plot explores murder, corruption and worse surrounding a water-rights scandal in 1937 Los Angeles. Nicholson's character struggles to peel back layer after layer of deception and obfuscation to discover the shocking truth of the events surrounding him. Chinatown was nominated for 11 Oscars, but only received one (for its screenplay), chiefly due to stiff competition from Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Part II (certainly a far worthier opponent than John Ford's schtick three decades earlier).

Both films begin at the same point: A world-weary, wisecracking private eye is visited in his office by a weepy dame with a minor problem. In The Maltese Falcon the job is to follow a man who has eloped with the woman's sister so that she can be located and rescued. In Chinatown the woman suspects her husband of cheating and wants proof. Both women are liars and masqueraders, and their commissions lead to immediate problems for the PIs before descending into increasingly dark depths of mystery and human sinfulness.

Neither of the female leads is who she appears to be at first (or second or even third, actually). The remain ambiguous throughout the majority of the story, despite the usual romantic spark between them and their respective leading men. However, only in the closing moments of each film do we learn that final piece that completes the puzzle of each one's nature. The pictures that are revealed could not be more different from each other, but the processes by which they are constructed are almost identical.

Of the two detectives, Sam Spade seems to fare better than Jake Gittes in the difficult circumstances that surround each of them. However, Spade's apparent advantage both in worldly wisdom and in stoicism (or is it merely apathy?) may not exist. Spade holds his cards closer to his chest, offering no grand theories or speculations until his final (dead on) denoument when the case is solved. Gittes, on the other hand, continually announces a solution to the case only to realize there is yet another level he has not yet excavated. It is possible that Spade has to revise his own theories repeatedly throughout The Maltese Falcon, but we are not privvy to his inner thoughts as we are to Gittes'. Additionally, Spade emerges from his own labrynthine investigation more or less triumphant. Gittes is crushed by defeat.

The darker emotions each character is feeling are probably similar, but Gittes has the added hardship of watching the bad guys come out on top and has a harder time maintaining his composure in consequence. The two characters have far more in common than not. They are both suave (when they want to be), cynical, skeptical, free of troublesome ideals and sentimentalities, and generally difficult to rattle. Sam Spade, however, is never really out of his depth in The Maltese Falcon. Jake Gittes, on the other hand, doesn't know what he is dealing with until the final shock (although he is repeatedly warned).

At the center (and yet strangely peripheral) to all this are the title elements of both films. The Maltese falcon is almost wholly unimportant in The Maltese Falcon. It exists to drive the plot, but plays no part in the most important elements of the story. It is not mentioned by name by the characters until at least halfway through the film, and it does not actually appear until perhaps the final 10-15 minutes. In short, it seems very much to be what Alfred Hitchcock would later dub a "McGuffin" in his own films (to signify a plot device with no independent purpose beyond advancing the action of the story).

Similarly, Chinatown has seemingly little to do with Chinatown (and vice-versa). Speculation during the movie as to what role Chinatown may play in the film that bears its name might almost lead one to conclude that the whole thing has been fantastically mis-named. It is very easy to forget, during the movie's leisurely-paced 131-minute length, what the title is at all. And then, once you are no longer thinking about Chinatown at all, it suddenly appears with perhaps 5 minutes of screentime remaining.

It would seem that the men whose visions created these movies had a very specific reason for naming their films as they did. Both earlier throw-away versions of The Maltese Falcon had deviated from the title of the original novel. One was called Dangerous Female, the other Satan Met a Lady. Yet John Huston, with his enthusiasm for seeing this movie remade, went with Hammett's title. He must have seen something his predecessors did not: Namely, that the Maltese falcon represented something more important than its role in the story indicates. The same can certainly be said of Chinatown's role in Chinatown. The final lines of both movies tellingly reference these title objects.

The Maltese falcon and Chinatown are both metaphors for an insidious, consuming evil whose central importance to the whole idea of these films might elude the audience entirely without a physical representation. If film noir can be said to have a single defining characteristic (which, by all scholarly accounts, it can't), it is that all noir contains at its heart an attempt to probe the darker side of human nature.

The Maltese falcon is cold, black statue of a predatory bird that incites everyone around it to avarice and deception. The bird itself suggests the blind, hungry nature of human greed with its blank stare and cruel beak and talons. Everyone who falls under its spell has its greed and callousness grafted onto their personality, and this is what drives the interactions between the characters and decides their every move and (ultimately) their fate. In the final moments of The Maltese Falcon Ward Bond's character, Police Sergeant Polhaus, asks Sam Spade about the heavy figure: "What is it?"

"The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of," Spade replies pensively, his hand on the bird. Polhaus has no idea what this means, but the audience knows; some people will do anything to achieve a dream.

Chinatown is a place where nothing is as it seems, nothing means what you think it means, and even actions motivated by good intentions can hurt the innocent. It is an island of that which is foreign and strange in the midst of the familiar. It stands for everything we (and particularly Jake Gittes) think we understand, but don't. Evil that can be identified can be opposed, but Chinatown is where Jake gets blindsided by the evil he never saw coming.

As everything comes crashing down in the films closing scene, Gittes' partner counsels him to walk away: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown!" The nature of evil in Chinatown makes fighting it not only futile, but detrimental. The petty greed surrounding the Maltese falcon seems almost comforting in its familiarity compared to the incomprehensible vileness Jake encounters.

The noir style, concentration of symbolism, and the involvment of John Huston bridge a 33-year gap between this distinctive films, both of which stand out as masterpieces of cinema and potent examinations of the dark heart of humankind.

Posted by Jared at 12:12 PM | TrackBack

November 27, 2006

The Wheelers Take a Short Holiday

My grandparents generously flew me and Rachel out to Lubbock for Thanksgiving this year for what definitely felt like much needed vacation time, hence my brief absence of the last week and change. The first part of last week was crazy, getting everything ready to go and generally sprinting towards four and a half days of blessed relief. I worked Sunday afternoon so that I could leave early Wednesday and get to Dallas in time to make our flight out of Love Field.

We left Longview at 3:00 (a hair later than I had hoped, but not too bad) to make a 6:50 flight, and listened to my current audiobook endeavor (The Last Juror by John Grisham) along the way. We got to Love Field at 5:30 with what I felt was a reasonably comfortable margin (I had already checked us in online). Venturing inside we discovered our flight was delayed until 7:30, which was far more than we needed. Neither of us was hungry, and I took a nap until it was almost time for our plane to depart. We were met at the airport by my granddad, who took us to get some food at Taco Bell. Brett and his girlfriend (Holly) arrived at my grandparents' house soon after we did to visit for a few minutes before bedtime.

Thanksgiving Day was very nice . . . sleeping in, lots of yummy food, lots of family, some games, a movie or two, etc. Brett had to work that evening (he is a manager at Hollywood Video) so we went by to visit him during his break, stopping to buy some candy and soda along the way (I needed caffeine . . . always conspicuously absent from my grandmother's house). Brett apprised us of a sale on previously-viewed movies, and sweetened the deal by throwing in his employee discount, so we browsed the collection and came away with 7 titles:

A Mighty Wind (VHS, $1)
Hoodwinked
Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Rent
Everything Is Illuminated
Good Night, and Good Luck
Junebug

I was particularly pleased to add that last to my collection, having resolved several months ago that I would buy it. To this shiny pile I later added Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief from the bargain shelf at Hasting's (thus bringing my Hitch collection up to an even two dozen, with a mere 6 titles left to acquire).

My grandma picked us up on Friday morning and we spent a very enjoyable day with her, with delicious Mexican food for dinner (lest turkey grow tiresome). Brett and Holly were present once again, and I watched a movie with Brett while Holly and Rachel gabbed in another room. We returned to Lubbock on Saturday after lunch just in time for me to meet Brett, Holly and one of Brett's apartment-mates for the matinee showing of Borat.

On the subject of that movie I have a great deal to say, but I shall confine my remarks to this: In setting out to ostensibly lampoon, parody, satirize, and otherwise ridicule American bigotry and intolerance for the amusement (presumably) of a more enlightened public, Sacha Baron Cohen has succeeded in three things.

First, he has created a character and dragged him through situations that only an audience which is either bigoted or is callously unaffected by racism and discrimination will find consistently funny.

Second, in his search for wanton bigots (of which I'm sure there are still more than a few left in our country) he has somehow managed to find almost exclusively tolerant, hospitable, genuinely nice people who go far farther out of their way than I would to tolerate "Borat's" belligerent, cruel attempts to offend them.

Third, of the few outrageous reactions that Cohen manages to wrench forcefully from his victims (because, racists or not, everyone who has scenes with Cohen are victims themselves), almost all are the result of repeated actions by "Borat" which are far past the lines sanity and good taste. In short, he has proved that, if pushed hard enough and long enough, most people do have a breaking point. Fascinating.

This is not to say that every moment of this film is a failure. I can think of one scene (really only one) that succeeded rather well. It got me to laugh from time to time. But then, some of the situations are staged and some are not (with no differentiating between them), so it's hardly playing fair at any point. By and large, a cataclysmic effort. I don't understand what is wrong with the critics on this one, except that perhaps they are afraid to criticize what is ostensibly satire for fear of appearing to "not get it."

Anyway, enough about that. I had a fun evening back at my grandparents' house and we ate lunch at IHOP (much to Rachel's delight) before dashing to the airport to make our 2:00 flight back to Dallas. The drive back to Longview was (of course) even more peaceful than the drive to Dallas, and I felt rested and ready for the short haul to Christmas. Rachel, well . . . She still has lots of major projects and whatnot. But I'm sure she'll manage.

Posted by Jared at 12:49 PM | TrackBack

November 18, 2006

The Troubling Redemption of Wise Blood

Reading Flannery O'Connor's stories is exhilarating. Writing about the experience is intimidating. Wise Blood was O'Connor's first novel. It took her five years to write (and me five months to read, although it is rather short). With any luck, I'll have finished a post on it in less than five weeks. O'Connor wrote slowly and with an eye to perfection. She edited and rewrote obsessively. When Wise Blood was almost complete, she suffered her first attack of lupus. This was 10 years after the same condition had killed her father, and 13 years before it killed her.

Wise Blood is the story of Hazel Motes, O'Connor's original "Christ-haunted" Southern man. Haze is a veteran returning home to Georgia after serving in World War II. We meet him on the train to Taulkinham, where he is travelling after discovering his old home abandoned and his family gone. People continually mistake him for a preacher, dressed as he is in a distinctive blue suit and black hat.

This infuriates him. His grandfather was a travelling preacher and Motes has come to the conclusion that the only way to escape from Christ (who he sees as a sort of bogey man) is to escape from sin, and the only way to escape from sin is to have no soul. This is his goal. Nevertheless, he still finds himself pursued in dreams by a "ragged figure who moves from tree to tree" through the back of his mind. He still carries his Bible with him, hidden beneath all of his other belongings where he won't have to see or touch it.

Arriving in Taulkinham, Haze embarks on a rather peculiar spiritual journey. He doesn't need a job (he lives quite well off the government), so at first he wanders aimlessly. Eventually he meets Asa Hawks, a blind street preacher, and his virginal daughter, Sabbath Lily, neither of whom are what they seem to be. He also meets (and cannot rid himself of) Enoch Emory, a stupid, lonely lump of a teenage boy, abandoned by his father, who supports himself by working as a guard at the local zoo.

Enoch is a creature of impulse and an archetypal innocent. Left to his own devices, he behaves as the mood takes him. But every now and then his daddy's "wise blood" takes over, directing Enoch's actions toward some greater purpose that Enoch can seldom see the end of. He is strangely drawn to an assortment of the city's attractions, visiting many of them daily in between stops motivated by his carnal and easily distracted nature. The daily rounds might include visits to the gorilla cage at the zoo, the women who frequent the public pool, a man hawking potato peelers on a street corner, and especially a mysterious building in an isolated section of the park with the enigmatic word "MVSEVM" carved into it.

Enoch is fascinated and disturbed by this building, and especially by the weird, shrivelled figure displayed inside. The card near the figure informs him that this was once a man very much like Enoch himself before some "A-rabs" did this to him. Enoch knows this figure is somehow terribly important, and he is burdened with the need to show it to someone else. He simply doesn't know who.

Enoch latches onto Hazel Motes from the moment he meets him, seeking him out at every opportunity despite the other man's obvious attempts to avoid Enoch. He takes him to see the mummy in the museum, and convinces Haze to visit the local whorehouse with him. Haze, meanwhile, has taken to trailing Asa Hawks. He has decided to seduce Sabbath Lily, but unbeknownst to him, Hawks is encouraging Lily to seduce Haze in an effort to rid himself of her. Hawks is not really blind at all, and he is certainly not a Christian. He is a petty charlatan who ekes out a living off of his false persona.

Haze's suspicions of this, his desire to somehow compete with Hawks, and his desperate efforts to rid himself of the haunting feeling of being pursued by Jesus Christ, lead him to buy a car and set up the "Church Without Christ" where "the blind donít see and the lame donít walk and whatís dead stays that way." He begins passionately preaching his new doctrine of non-salvation outside movie theaters (where he can draw the largest crowds after a show lets out).

After several weeks, the only disciple he manages to attract is Hoover Shoats (or Onnie Jay Holy, as he calls himself at first). Shoats is nothing but a common shyster who wants to manipulate Haze's message in order to turn a profit. Motes, of course, is deadly serious about his message, and turns Shoats away. But soon, Shoats has found a Hazel Motes lookalike, Solace Layfield, (who even wears blue suits and a black hat), a "false prophet." Shoats sets up shop nearby under the label "The Holy Church of Jesus Christ Without Christ," where you can believe whatever you want according to your own interpretation of the Bible.

Meanwhile, Enoch can't stop thinking about Haze's statement the his church needs "a new jesus." Eventually he sneaks into the museum, steals the mummy, and delivers it to Haze and Sabbath Lily (who has moved in after Hawks left town). Enoch then proceeds (in an intensely comical sequence) to follow a man in a gorilla suit around town as he makes appearances in front of movie theaters, shaking hands as part of a film promotion. Enoch finally slips into the back of the truck and beats up the actor in the suit on the way out of town, donning the gorilla outfit himself. He approaches a young couple in the woods, hand extended, and they flee in terror. We leave Enoch alone and dejected, head bowed, in a gorilla suit.

Haze, when he sees the "new jesus," grabs it, dashes it against a wall, and throws it violently out the window as it crumbles into dust. That night, he follows Layfield home from his preaching endeavors and runs his car off the road. He commands Layfield to take off the blue suit, but before he can finish, Haze runs him over. The next day he sets out in his car for another town. Before long, though, he is pulled over by a policeman, who instructs him to step out of his vehicle before pushing it off a cliff where it is dashed to smithereens. Hazel has no choice but to return to town.

Before long, he blinds himself with lime and spends his days walking around with rocks in his shoes and his nights trying to sleep with barbed wire wrapped around his chest. When his landlady eventually tries to marry him some months later (unable to shake the feeling that he knows something important that she doesn't), he takes off and is discovered in a ditch by the police. They return him to his home and he dies on the way. No one notices. His final words are, "I want to go on where I'm going." The novel ends as the landlady converses with his corpse as it lies on the bed, trying with all her power to discover what has been put over on her. What is it that Hazel Motes has that she doesn't?

This is an extremely difficult novel, widely misunderstood upon its initial release in 1952. Stories of redemption in the O'Connor style (see The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) tend to shock and distance the audiences that should find their message most appealing, and to be misinterpreted by everyone else. Ultimately it boils down to Hazel Motes' inability to escape from God's grace. As O'Connor herself said of those who had come at the book the wrong way:

"For them Hazel Motesí integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazelís integrity lies in his not being able to."

There are some definite and obvious parallels between Haze's journey of faith and the Apostle Paul's. Haze begins by actively persecuting Christ and his Church. He sets off for another town to continue his work and has an important experience before ending up blind but spiritually enlightened. The most troubling part for me was in his actions after he blinds himself: the penance. Haze still feels himself indebted to Christ and he is determined to pay that debt (as if he could). I found it difficult to pinpoint what level his spiritual renewal had reached by the time he died.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is the difference between the novel and O'Connor's short stories. Most of the short stories lead their characters along in sin or stubborness until a (usually violent) event strips away the scales from their eyes and they experience an epiphany which is usually very painful for them. The story generally ends immediately thereafter, with the character bathed (either joyously or despairingly) in the light of their redemption.

The first problem with Wise Blood was my attempt to pinpoint the epiphany. Was it the murder of Solace Layfield? The destruction of the new jesus? The wrecking of the car? Any of these seem like good candidates, but in the end I think I am wrong by attempting to pick just one. Furthermore, the novel carries on much longer past the arrival at grace and redemption than a short story would (or could).

When a short story ends, it is easy to assume that the main character is a new person whose spiritual struggles are more or less over (particularly if they are dead, which they often are). In Wise Blood, Haze is still working things out right up until the moment he dies, and we no longer have the benefit even of watching from his perspective, as this entire section of the novel is told from the point of view of the landlady.

The power of O'Connor's vision of modern man's struggle against his own salvation in Wise Blood has continued to grow on me in the days since I finished it. It's no wonder people immediately realized upon the novel's release that this was something entirely new and noteworthy. Now, over 50 years later, it continues to baffle, challenge, and convict its readers . . . at least, it did this reader.

Posted by Jared at 11:23 AM | TrackBack

November 15, 2006

Purgation

DESCENDING THEOLOGY: THE RESURRECTION

From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in--black ice and blood ink--
till the hung flesh was empty. Lonely in that void
even for pain, he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse's core, the stone fist of his heart

began to bang on the stiff chest's door,
and breath spilled back into that battered shape. Now
it's your limbs he longs to flow into
from the sunflower center in your chest
outward--as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.

--Mary Karr, Sinners Welcome

Posted by Jared at 11:11 AM | TrackBack

November 13, 2006

Edification

"Ode to LeTourneau University" by Patty Starnes Healey (as printed in the latest issue of NOW magazine)

LeTourneau has for 60 years sent its Christian students out
into the world armed with godly knowledge to turn the world about.

Integrity, wisdom and fortitude are in short supply today,
LeTourneau has taught thousands to live their lives that way.

Discovering purpose, broadening knowledge and deepening professional skills,
These traits are taught at LeTourneau to strengthen its students' wills.

Students learn there's a mighty God who leads a willing soul,
they put on God's armor as He shows them where to go.

Grounded in godly values, students show others that they care
as they volunteer thousands of hours in communities everywhere.

If one person can make a difference, how much more will thousands do?
Alumni are spread throughout the world to help God's will come true.

God has blessed LeTourneau University as its successes can attest,
it has sent godly leaders into the world, it has sent its very best.

May other universities follow the path that LeTourneau has defined,
education and excellence in all one does, following God's Word divine.

Posted by Jared at 02:18 PM | TrackBack

November 11, 2006

One Character in Search of an Author

"I decided if I was going to make the world a better place, I'd do it with cookies." --Ana Pascal, Stranger Than Fiction

I decided I was going to go see Stranger Than Fiction as soon as I saw the trailer a few months back. It was the latest from the director of Finding Neverland (who, irrelevantly, is directing the movie version of The Kite Runner, due out next year), it had a more-than-competent-looking cast, and (most importantly) it seemed like a great idea for a movie.

The story, as the opening voice-over informs us, is about Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). Harold works for the IRS, and there is really very little else to say about him. He gets up. He goes to work. He comes home. He goes to bed. His only hobby is counting (or, more precisely, calculating). He counts the strokes of the toothbrush on each tooth. He counts the number of steps to the bus. His coffee breaks are precisely timed. He is constantly aware of the concrete values and amounts of his environment, but he has no appreciation for cool breezes or warm cookies . . . the pleasures that cannot be measured. Harold's unique perspective is communicated visually by a clever graphical overlay which is vaguely reminscent of a cross between the mathematical epiphany scenes from A Beautiful Mind and an Excel spreadsheet.

At some point while all of this is being explained to us, the narrator breaks off abruptly and Harold glances around suspiciously. He has suddenly become aware of the narration the audience has been listening to, and he is confused. Is the voice coming from his toothbrush? Who is it? Why is it narrating (and sometimes almost controlling) his every action? Is he insane, or might there be some other explanation (since the voice keeps getting everything right)? Why does it sound so much like Emma Thompson? Okay, maybe not that last one.

At first, Harold just tries to go on as though it isn't there, even as it distracts him from his work and his change in behavior begins to be noticed by co-workers. Soon, though, it starts to affect him in other ways. For one thing, he finds himself paying more attention to Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the baker he is auditing, than he is comfortable with. And then there is the bombshell: "Little did he know that a chain of events had been set in motion which would lead to his imminent death." Harold needs help.

He gets it from Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a professor of literature at the local university who agrees to help Harold analyze the ongoing story of his life. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Meanwhile, we finally meet Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson, in top form), an eccentric British author suffering from writer's block (she can't figure out how to knock off her main character). She's taken so long to finish her latest book that her publisher has sent her an assistant (Queen Latifah) to move things along. And there's the set-up.

All of the actors are very good and very comfortable in their roles. Emma Thompson, as I already hinted, is particularly fun to watch, but Gyllenhaal is excellent as well. Hoffman's character was entertaining, but not quite right. A chuckle-worthy parody of a lit professor who doesn't quite ring true all of the time. Plus, my eagle eyes spotted a copy of Left Behind in the midst of his wall of books, and I couldn't keep away from it every time there was a scene in his office. What was that doing there? Ferrell is pretty good as well, but his character never really advances beyond straight-man for the movie's premise and supporting cast.

The film is a great collection of elements which work very well together to produce something more. It is full of nice, memorable touches: the sentient wristwatch, Eiffel's various imagined death scenes, Harold's nerdy co-worker and his "Sleep Pod 2," a hilarious montage of nature documentaries which produce unexpected tension . . . I could go on, but I don't want to give too much away.

Stranger Than Fiction is a sort of reverse Big Fish: a quirky movie that is high on life, concerning a main character who is visibly controlled by the story someone else is writing about him (as opposed to visibly controlling the story he is writing about himself). It raises questions, both serious and frivolous, about free will vs. fate, the value of artistic integrity, the proper approach to literary analysis, and the power of the creative process. It is a movie that should perhaps have ended 10 minutes sooner, but knows it and, in a charmingly self-aware sort of way, doesn't care.

Posted by Jared at 04:30 PM | TrackBack

November 08, 2006

Early Christmas Present

This is the best news I've heard all season. Although, as of this writing, the defeat of Senator Macaca has not been confirmed.

Bye-bye, Rummy.

Posted by Jared at 03:30 PM | TrackBack

Seasoned on Impact

This was far too good not to share. Moore in particular should sit up and take note . . . shotgun shells loaded with tasty goodness. Comes in: Cajun, Lemon Pepper, Garlic, Teriyaki, Honey Mustard.

Posted by Jared at 11:37 AM | TrackBack

November 05, 2006

A Trip to the Bookstore

Books-a-Million had a one-day sale today, 20% off everything in the store. Naturally I was there. My only goal upon arrival was to be sure and leave with Lemony Snicket's 13th book in the Series of Unfortunate Events: The End. I wasn't sure what else I might wish to acquire. After browsing for quite some time, I decided it would be worth my while to beef up ye olde Southern literature library. I got:

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe - This is the novel that pretty much kicked off the Southern Literary Renaissance in 1929 (not counting the groundwork laid by the Fugitive Poets, of course).

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren - It has been called the greatest novel ever written about American politics, and its author has a list of credentials longer than my arm. He was our country's first Poet Laureate and won 3 Pulitzer Prizes. He was also one of the four central members of the Fugitive-Agrarians (mentioned above). Should be a good book, methinks.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy - This one is from a later period, a thin volume which one the National Book Award in 1961. Percy is a Christian Existentialist, and his books are supposed to be more than a little humorous.

Jubilee by Margaret Walker - Published in 1966, this is a historical novel by a black author. Its action takes place during the same period as Gone With the Wind and its heroine resembles Scarlett O'Hara . . . except that she is half black. The story is based on the author's own family history.

Collected Stories by William Faulkner - I thought about getting either Sanctuary or Light in August, but I had a brain freeze and couldn't remember which one I already own. Upon arriving home, I soon discovered that I own both. Sweet.

Now, if I could just sit down and finish Wise Blood and Pale Fire.

Posted by Jared at 12:09 PM | TrackBack

November 04, 2006

A Tribute to The Elfin Ethicist

I was both shocked and saddened today to learn that my good friend Jonathan Wilson has decided to discontinue his blog of some years, "The Elfin Ethicist." His gravitas, his humor and his many high-quality contributions to our little circle of blogs will be sorely missed for as long as he exiles himself from self-publication. I happened to be talking with him when I discovered this, so of course my first impulse was to tell him how I felt personally. My second was to leave a few words of my own on his final post. And my third was to "relive" Wilson's blogging years, as it were, and to compile a few memories and old favorites here as a sort of tribute.

This marks yet another transition in our slow departure from The College Years. I've wondered over the past few months if my residence on campus this year is prolonging the agony of parting, like tearing a band-aid slowly off of a wound. But I'm not ready to let go just yet, and there are too many good friends still here for me to even begin to regret. Meanwhile, Wilson's decision feels like just one more connection severed between us and those wonderful times.

I'm not actually certain when Wilson started blogging. I believe it was during the summer (perhaps spring) of 2003, months before he encouraged me to do the same. For a more precise date I would need to ask one of the older bloggers (one of the Scholls, or even Wilson himself). His blog began, as many of ours did, at a blogspot address, and that original content has since been taken down.

The current Wilson archives begin in the spring of 2004 . . . the historian in me is horrified by the gap. And speaking of horrifying gaps, as I trolled through said archives I quickly noticed definite gaps where further posts have been culled from the published ranks (I have vague memories of Wilson doing this, I had simply forgotten). In particular I felt rather keenly the loss of a comparative essay on Secondhand Lions, Big Fish and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which I have revisited and even shared numerous times since its original publication. Where is that essay, Mr. Wilson?

Ah, well.

The following anthology is not meant to be comprehensive, or to really capture "the essence of The Ethicist" in any particular form. They were simply entries that jumped out at me as I scanned the past few years. I hope they will be revisited and enjoyed as such.

Quotations I & II

These two entries really brought the memories flowing back. Our "Quotation Booklet" days were always so much fun, and Wilson's inclusion of some of our finest gems was one of the highlights of blogrolling in its time.

The Yiddish Project

Remember this? Anyone? Such a mechaieh. Halevai, such hulien, such fun. I could just plotz.

A day in the life of Stupid Penguin

Wilson's unique version of stress relief sometimes resulted in some really great creative efforts involving nothing more than some free time, a camera and a few friends (along with the occasional prop).

Whatever is excellent, part I

Whatever is excellent, part II

When it comes to being a "Culture Warrior," Bill O'Reilly hasn't got the first clue. This sort of thing is where it's at, and I've always appreciated Wilson's ability to articulate the positions we share.

A recent call to Dr. Laura

Speaking of great creative efforts, I'm still not sure what inspired this hilarious exercise. Sheer whimsy. A true classic.

Spring Break Open Thread 2005

I'm sure everyone remembers these little rule-breaking games. They always wiled away the breaks very nicely. I won one at some point. I don't really remember which. Anna and Ma Hoyt took the prizes on this one.

The first duty of a doctor

In the absence of that excellent essay I mentioned earlier, I present another excellent film journal . . . Wilson's mid-summer encounter with Ingmar Bergman.

Either/or

Another of Wilson's occasional recurring games (often cribbed from other sources, of course, but shared liberally nonetheless). I always liked this sort of thing.

In search of reform

Mmm. Such youthful idealism . . . ode to a Lost Cause.

First-person pronouns

A plea for growing up

Far be it from me to resurrect controversy, but I'm still rather attached to both of these posts, despite the firestorms of flaming they provoked. In addition to the fact that they gave me a chance to really think about and discuss something I felt strongly about (I always relish the opportunity), I think these discussions really taught all of us a lot about having a good discussion. I know they helped me a lot, at any rate. I credit these posts with the civil, productive nature of discussions on my own blog in recent months. Oh, be sure and jump to the bottom of the comments on that first post for good times . . .

Always greener

Ah, World. A consistent source of inspiration in the culture war. Posts like this were the reason I was pleased to discover that Wilson's mother has recently renewed his subscription to that publication.

History Carnival XXIV

Wilson was our reliable source for the History Carnival every time it rolled around with historical goodies for people of all persuasions. The one he presided over himself was particularly excellent, I must say. And I remember fondly the fun resources he brought in amidst his research and preparation, as well.

My quest for the Holy Grail

I recall trouble breathing when I first read over this journal for our Grail quest class last semester. Months later, it is still good for several chuckles and a few guffaws, and I doubt it will diminish any with age.

The Great Longview Marketing Tour

Another one of those creative bursts with good friends and a digital camera. We'd been planning this one for years, but the urgency of imminent parting finally made it happen.

Reading List

I wouldn't want to have a tribute without including a "Reading List:" Wilson's occasional submission of some of his best finds during his Daily Reading of the Internet.

How to write tendentious history

Wilson generates some pretty great lists when inspiration strikes. And they're didactic as well as entertaining.

Jonathan W. Wilson

Not from Wilson's blog at all, I thought it might be appropriate to conclude with Leatherwood's glowing commendation of Wilson himself.

Wilson, when you get the urge to start blogging again, be it tomorrow, next year, or even further down the road, don't hesitate just because I've thrown up a tribute for you. After over three years of running a top-notch blog that has enriched us all, you had one coming anyway.

Cheers.

Posted by Jared at 02:32 AM | TrackBack

November 02, 2006

On the Subject of American Warfare and Other Sundries

So many directions, so little time . . .

The "anomalous" (probably a poor choice of words) nature of World War II has nothing whatsoever to do with the genocide involved. I never said it did . . . that would be especially silly since it had nothing to do with the causes of the war, and nobody really knew about that until the war was all but over. What sets WWII apart, to my mind, is that it is the only war in history where the fate of pretty much the entire world seemed to hang in the balance, combined with the powerful element of self-defense after we were attacked.

I should probably ask those who have mentioned specific wars to defend their approval of Christian involvment in the wars mentioned, but I'll try to streamline that by discussing them from my perspective first:

-The American Revolution resulted from a sequence of events beginning with a simple political disagreement that escalated into acts of terrorism by American colonists, prompting an understandable response from the British government and finally erupting in war. The fighting was ultimately caused by hot-blooded, impulsive acts of violence on our side rather than patiently seeking a peaceful resolution to our problems. What would you, as a Christian, be fighting for exactly? To defend yourself and your family? C'mon, the British weren't going to kill you. Fighting for your independence? Where does the Bible say you should do that? (Hint: It kind of says just the opposite)

-It is generally agreed that the War of 1812 happened only because of the slowness of communications at the time. It began after rogue British naval officers kept swiping American citizens (and British deserters) off of ships to help them in the war against the French. The British government actually put a definite stop to this, but by the time we heard about that we had already declared war. No going back. The war was bad for both sides (not uncommon, in war) . . . Britain was in no position to be distracted from its ongoing conflict with France, and America just generally suffered some severe humiliation, including the loss (and partial destruction) of our capital city. We also got kicked around a good bit by Canadians (if you can imagine . . . even at the time they were thought of as wusses on the battlefield). Finally, probably the most famous battle of the war took place after it was officially over. The Battle of New Orleans was fought a good month after the peace treaty was signed. Talk about your senseless violence.

-The American Civil War is a real classic. I probably don't need to ask this, but which side would you be on, and why? They were both right and they were both wrong. Families, neighbors and fellow citizens killing each other in the costliest war in our history. Which group of Christian Americans would you, as a Christian American, feel most comfortable shooting a gun at?

-I was pretty surprised to see the Spanish-American War make an appearance, considering that a large portion of its cause rested on exaggerated and outright fictitious news reports and war-mongering. Not to mention the fact that we pretty much turned around and immediately duplicated Spain's Cuban atrocities in the Philippines. Ugly stuff.

-We entered World War I after Germany (which had no interest whatsoever in getting us involved) began to disrupt our shipping to their enemies (which amounted to our supplying aid to their enemies) out of desperation to bring the conflict to a swift end. Evidence suggests that the most famous ship involved, the Lusitania, was carrying munitions . . . hardly the sort of thing that a country in a fight for its life could be expected to let slide. As for the infamous Zimmerman telegram, even if Mexico were both a genuine threat to our national security and willing to go along with Germany (neither was the case), the details of the "plot" were only to be carried out if the U.S. actually entered the war. If anything, Zimmerman's note seems more like a deterrent.

-If you're actually interested in an alternate perspective on WWII, or just some little-known history, read this (an essay about Gandhi's letters to Hitler). It is, at the very least, a fascinating read.

-The Korean War is, I believe, illustrative of the problems of occasional tolerance. However great and noble and necessary war may seem in a given instance, how justified is it in light of many of the ugly practices involved in carrying it forward? Shocking treatment of prisoners by our side and civilian massacres were all part of the Korean War. Also, what role do "necessary" and "just" wars play in the continuation of unnecessary and unjust warfare? A pretty big one. The Korean War set the stage for all sorts of American horrors involving the Third World: Vietnam, Guatemala, Iran and so forth. War may be undertaken for the right reason, but it's still generally the wrong thing.

-The Persian Gulf War is illustrative of the problems of perpetuation that I mentioned above. In 1953 we were responsible for overthrowing Iran's first democratically-elected government and replacing it with a despotic regime. In 1979, the people of Iran had had enough and they overthrew said regime. Naturally, there was more than a little hostility and suspicion aimed in our direction . . . Would we pull the same stunt again? As a result of this, relations were strained (to say the least) between our countries for the next decade and more. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein spent most of that decade at war with Iran, with military and economic support from us.

Just before Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, he met with the American ambassador, who declared that the U.S. has "no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts." Some believe that this was understood as American approval of an invasion (not much of a stretch). It is a severe oversimplification to call the war "simply a matter of assisting a friend in a war of self-defense," when we were fighting a country which had ostensibly been our friend. Out of this grew a new enemy that lasted for a little over a decade . . . and here we are today. We have blundered every step of this disastrous chain of events. What new enemies are we creating now that we'll find it "necessary and just" to deal with 10 years down the road? When and how will it end?

-Important point: Of course "most Christians who fight in wars have what they considered a moral imperative for doing so." Non-Christians operate more or less the same way. (Virtually) nobody walks into a war if they think they're in the wrong. Everyone thinks they have a good reason to fight. Maybe they do, maybe they don't . . . maybe they both do and don't at the same time. "I can find a moral imperative to join this war" simply cannot cut it as justification. I'm hearing a strong vibe of "the end justifies the means."

-Important point: I would suggest that the statement "Sometimes violence is the only answer" is akin to "Third parties are a waste of my vote." Well, of course, you twit. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people believe it, it will be true regardless of its validity. As Isaac Asimov said, "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."

Thanks to everyone for your well-thought out responses. I don't at all feel that I am unequivocally right in this discussion, but neither am I convinced that I am entirely wrong. There is much still to consider.

Posted by Jared at 04:00 PM | TrackBack