Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why Good People Do Media Wrong

Somebody just sent me yet another little pro-life video to review.  They said they wanted my notes, but, if anybody wants notes, they should ask BEFORE the thing is done, not after.  Afterward, what you want is a review.  Except you really don't.  You want me to love it and send it around to everybody I know and then maybe a millionaire will send the producers a million dollars.

Don't get me wrong.  I am eighty gazillion times pro-life and completely down with any effort that might save a life.  But I am deeply frustrated with the repeated fruitless efforts of the movement -- and frankly the broader Christian community - in the area of media.

Here's the letter I sent back in response to the piece.  I post it here because it is generally instructive.

---------------------------

Thanks for sharing the trailer with me.  As you know, this kind of project is very close to my heart.

Having said that, I think this piece suffers from the ailment of most of this kind of overt pro-life media - and indeed most "evangelistic" media made in the Church.  That is, the people who are making it are NOT the audience of the piece, and they do not realize that.  If the audience for this is clean cut, morally responsible, clear-thinking Christian white kids, then this piece has the possibility of finding a hearing with them.  But, in truth, that is not the main group to whom we need to make an appeal in works of this kind.  

When I see projects like this coming from pro-lifers, I really want to tell them to go and stay at a crisis pregnancy center for a weekend and meet the women there who are in crisis.  These places are far from lily white and they are also frequented by young women who tend to be highly streetwise and sexually active.  I'm just telling it like it is here.  This piece plays like a PSA on the Hallmark Channel when it needs to play like a showstopper on MTV.

Here's a case in point.  This is a film promoted by Planned Parenthood about the same topic.  Just watch the first few minutes:   http://www.scenariosusa.org/films/film/today-i-found-out-2/

Did you notice how the piece from the demon servers at Planned Prenthood was rooted in the Latino community?   They even start in church, the bastards!  That would be like us starting a video in a strip club.   But they don't care because they are intent on connecting with their intended audience whereas we are intent on not offending our donors and pastors.  Did you see how the pace is very fast?  Did you notice the unique things they did with direct address and establishing rapport with the protagonist?  And I could go on as to how it is a better piece for the intended audience then the one made by the pro-lifers.  

My feeling is, what you have sent me is the kind of piece that will do well with people who are already well-disposed to give a Catholic/pro-life video a hearing.  It isn't provocative enough to get past the walls of anyone who isn't already well-disposed.  It isn't creative enough to intrigue.  It isn't anything it should be except, well, nice.

In terms of overall creative vision, the piece is full of the same stock photo type images that pepper all these kinds of things:  young women staring out at the horizon, nature shots, young families having a good time, blah blah blah.  There isn't anything interesting in the vision of the piece in terms of style of shooting, perspective or metaphor.

Having said that, from a production standpoint, the piece is shot well and edited well and the sound is even.  Just those three things does mark an improvement in pro-life/religious media in the last twenty years.

One last thought....  There is a reason Planned Parenthood media is peppered with the likes of Scarlet Johansen, Ashley Judd, Gwneth Paltrow, Katie Perry, Lady Gaga, etc.  We live in a celebrity driven culture.  "Ride the horse in the direction in which it is going."

They should have called Catharsis before they started shooting.  What can I say?....

Just one idiot's opinion.  God bless -

Barb

Thursday, June 12, 2014


"Fault Iin Our Stars" is a slow-moving, talky vision of Millenials without any spiritual or philosophical depth dealing with death. It is interesting at points because of the way it showcases young people today being totally cut off from all the wisdom of the ages. They are literally cast off into the cosmos completely disconnected from the hope they might have found if only they were better educated. Basically harmless for older teens. I found it strangely unaffecting considering it was a depiction of the death of young people in love.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sheep Without a Shepherd

There was a powerful reaction last night to my presentation at a local parish on the liturgy and beauty. At a certain point, I felt like I was living that scene in the Old Testament when the people are stung to the heart and cry out to the prophet, "What must we do?!" That was how the people were last night. There were several people who were almost crying out, "How can we fix this? Where do we start?" It occurred to me that one of the ironies of the post-Conciliar Church is that even amidst the relentless call for full participation, our laity have never felt so completely helpless in the face of the entrenched attitudes in the parish and diocesan bureaucracies.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mom was Right

[This is the introduction of the book on which I am working in between everything else....]


Introduction

We were raised by adage.  My mother and father came from a generation that saw itself as connected to the ones that had come before.  They had none of the modern kneejerk reaction against the argument from authority.  Pithy wisdom had been handed down to them and they handed it down to their four daughters. 

Sometimes the adages were simply an assent to some common truth that long ago had become a cliché. Clichés.  But, Mom even had an adage about clichés, namely, “Things get to be a cliché because they tend to be stubbornly true.”

My sisters and I used to make fun of the parental adages.  We used to fall on the floor laughing as we would act out Mom running through her, “Five Reasons Not to Get Married” talk.  (When the four of our took our time getting married well into our thirties, Mom noted with chagrin that she should have given us, “Five Reasons to Get Married” adages.)  Even as we laughed, the parental adages were a bonding thing among us as sisters.  It gave us a shared sense of knowing from whence we came. 

Once, in my mid-thirties, I was out shopping with Doris, an elderly woman from my apartment complex.  I had offered to be her companion when she needed to go out as she was unsteady on her feet and, like so many elderly, nervous in crowds of people.  Having me beside her made her feel safe.  I was there basically because as Mom’s adage goes, “It’s very nice to be needed.”

Doris was picking through red delicious apples in between sharing reminiscences of her years working at the old Fox Studios.  She looked up suddenly, “You are very well bred, Barbara.”

I held open the plastic bag for her, “Am I?  I guess it is my parents.”  Her nod left no room for doubt, “Of course, it is.”

My parents’ adages basically came down to formulas of good breeding.  They gave us all a confidence about stepping out and taking on the world because we had our inner store of truths assuring us that everything that might happen has already happened before.   Coming from a French family, Mom called it savoir faire, which literally means, “knowing what to do.”

My sense of so many of my students today is that they are ill-bred in this sense.  Nobody seems to have shared adages with them and the weird convictions they hold often have been cobbled together from somebody’s tattoo or a passing T-shirt.  It’s a terribly unstable way to live.

I think that the Boomers didn’t raise their kids with adages because that generation was famously intent on not trusting anyone over thirty.  That’s fine, except that only leaves you with wisdom from a stoned Woodstock refugee to live by.  And Woodstock was a very ridiculous and slimy thing.  I’ve seen the documentary.  Most of the music wasn’t even that good. 

Bad breeding means you either don’t know what to do or how to do what you know you ought to do.  It’s a crippling thing that I often see passing like a shadow over my undergrad’s faces.  “Should I step up or stay in my seat?”  “Should I laugh or sneer?”  “Should I trust you or fight you?”  “Should I be as hurt as I feel or should I get some therapy?”

What we have is a couple of unmoored generations, flitting about in the sea of modern chaos, unable to help themselves, and unable to pass on to their own children some words of authority about how to live.

It needs to be noted that heeding adages doesn’t mean that a person surrenders their reasoning faculty.  As my father, the Naval historian, said to us many times, “A principle applies when it applies, and it doesn’t apply when it doesn’t apply.”  Admirals and generals are the ones who know the difference. 

I have had many assistants over the years, and it quickly struck me that the primary virtue of a good assistant was in knowing the exception to the rule.  You can’t really teach someone that.

Adages don’t replace the need to think, but they help a person to identify and heed patterns in life.  Experience is the certainty that comes from being able to say, “I have seen this before.”  Adages are valuable as other people’s experience.  In this case, the experience whom I loved and trusted and who I knew had my best interests at heart.

This book is me sharing what I received from my father born in 1930, and my mother born in 1939.  It’s good stuff, and the older I get, the better it gets.  I share it for my students and their generation.  And for my parents, so they can know we heard.
  



Some of Mom's Adages....

“People will always forgive you for what you do to them.  But they can almost never forgive you for what they do to you.”

"Trust your guts."

“There’s no fool like an old fool.”

“If you want your friendships to last, never talk to your friends about who they marry and how they raise their children.”

“Religion works.”

“There’s no innate virtue in poverty.”

“Money doesn’t mean class.”

“In a family, someone has to be the one to make the peace.”

“Family is the place that when you have to go, they have to take you in.”

“If you want to know how a man is going to treat you, see how he treats his mother.”

“Reasons not to get married:  1)  Because you are bored; 2) Because you want to get out of the house; 3) Because you think you can save him; 4) Because you are curious about sex; 5) Because you are pregnant.”

“Charity begins at home.”

“People wait to get married until one day they look around and whoever is standing there, that’s the one they take.”

“Babies haven’t changed.  It’s mommies who have changed.”


The Arrogance of the Banal

So, after three weeks of no Easter songs being sung at our Church on Sunday, and an extreme level of horribleness in the banal songs that were being sung, I finally had to say something, so I went up to our, um, fabulous, non-Catholic music ministry guy who never studied music but came to us from the world of local musical theater, after Mass... 

Barb: May I make a request?
Jazz Hands Guy: Um, sure.
Barb: Could we please sing some Easter songs during the Easter season?
Jazz Hands Guy: These are Easter songs! Everything we used this morning was Easter songs.
[Note from Barb: The opening hymn was "Come to the Table of Plenty" then there was "Shelter Me O God" and "Come and Drink" and something else equally non-seasonal]
Barb: Um, No. There are about 25 hymns in the hymnal for Easter --
Jazz Hands Guy: I get everthing from the Archdiocesan guidelines, so if you have a problem you should call the Pope!
Barb: Also, a recent Vatican guideline stipulated that we should not use songs at the liturgy in which the people take on the voice of God.
Jazz Hands Guy: What are you some kind of expert?!
Barb: Yes, actually.
Jazz Hands Guy: (sneering tone) You are? Well, you need to tell the Archdiocese then because --
Barb: I'm telling you. But I guess I should just speak to the pastor.
Jazz Hands Guy: (banging away on the piano with a sneer) Good luck!

Friday, May 09, 2014

Coming January 2015!

It's been about eight months in the writing although probably forty years in the brooding.  Stay tuned for more updates....


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

ATTN: NYC Area Artists


The Catholic Artists Society invites artists, patrons, friends of the arts and their families to its annual Solemn Mass for Artists. This year's Mass will mark the 15th anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II's influential Letter to Artists. A professional choir led by organist Jared Lamenzo and director Joshua South will sing Arvo Part's Berliner Messe, written in 1990. The Mass, according to the Missal of Pope St. John XXIII, will also feature music by Perotin, Hassler, Szamotul and Alain. A reception will follow outdoors, weather permitting. RSVP for the reception by May 2nd to catholicartistssociety@gmail.com

Sunday, May 4th, 3pm-6pm
The Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, Mott Street (between Houston & Prince), New York, NY 10012

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Why Should Christianity Be “Patron of the Arts”?



(Notes from a talk I gave earlier this year which folks asked me to share.)
I. What We Have Lost and Why it Matters
The sad thing is, if you walked on the street and took a spot survey, asking people to name the Patron of the Arts, few people would say, the Christian Church. People would probably say The Sundance Institute or the National Endowment for the Arts or the Bravo Channel. And they would be right! Hollywood does MUCH more to keep alive the arts than does the Church.
In fact, the testimony of the arts at a typical parish on a Sunday morning, can only be that the arts do not matter a whit to the Church today. I would go so far as to say that the arts in many Christian churches have become a scourge to torment the People of God.
We stagger in to the Church on Sunday morning hoping to find a glimpse of heaven, and we receive the worst vestiges of badly performed pseudo-pop music from the largely stoned, self-important, anti-intellectual folk music era, now only kept alive in our churches. In most cases, what we are exposed to musically in our churches is bad compositions badly executed. Sometimes, it attains to bad composition well-executed, but as poor imitations of what is happening in secular music, generally, the stuff we are hearing in Church is inappropriate to the liturgy in style, excellence and lyricism.
Too many churches are not an ante-chamber of heaven in their interiors, but instead are ugly, drooping, often “in the round” spaces calculated to distract us not by the Divine, but by each other. Banal banners and signs, plastic or half-hearted flowers, filthy carpets, stained ceilings, and ugly oak pews with the varnish half gone. There is truly, nothing to look at, never mind by which to be inspired.
And then there is the sloppy liturgical performance in our churches – altar servers yawning in wrinkled albs and high tops with laces undone, the readings badly done by people who haven’t prepared or else don’t read well, “the liturgy of the bulletin” with endless banal announcements for the Girl Scouts and the youth group and the fundraiser of the month.
And finally there is the preaching, which in most parishes is so far from good oratory that it constitutes a major scandal of our time all on its own. Week after week we get served up nothing worth hearing in a lame style from the priest, as if he put his words together while he was sitting there picking his fingers during the Responsorial psalm. This is a terrible thing for catechesis and ongoing formation, but as art, it is a travesty.
How far we have fallen, from that natural part of our community which is supposed to be Patron of the Arts! But even though most Sunday liturgies are exercises in sensory torture, we have to keep alive in us the fact that despite the ugliness and banality with which we have terribly obscured Her, the Church remains as Cardinal Newman wrote,
“…the poet of her children, full of music to soothe the sad and control the wayward; wonderful in story, rich in symbol and imagery. So that gentle and delicate feelings, which will not bear words, may in silence intimate their presence. The liturgy’s very being is poetry; every psalm, every petition, every prayer; the cross, the mitre, the incensor; each a fulfillment of some dream of childhood, or aspiration of youth.”
It’s beyond my scope and intestinal fortitude to do an extensive history of how we in the Christian Church got from Handel’s “Messiah” to “Gather Us In,” but there is a clear path from the shocked reaction against the Sexual Revolution, to the expansion of the Christian sub-culture to the profusion of banal art. In Protestantism, the impulse to imitate pop-culture in the Church comes from the desire to be loved by the world. In Catholicism, it is a much darker thing, a cold rejection against the elitism of excellence. Art produced in and for the sub-culture tends to be ugly for a whole lot of reasons. For now, it’s enough to point out that the Church loses the beautiful when She does thing on the cheap, when She does things that are easy, and when She does thing that are principally trying to make a political statement instead of lavishly pouring out a grateful, creative response from the reverent brooding over Revelation.
1. Christianity is Patron of the Arts because our theology is fundamentally analogical. 
This is what sets us apart from the Islamic imagination, for example. Theology can never precisely define God. But the Christian imagination says, “God is like a mountain.” Islamic imagination says, “God is NOT the mountain.”
A work of art expresses a truth that can not be said in a sentence. It expresses a Truth through the journey of the work of art itself. As Flannery O’Connor says, “If I could say it in a sentence, I wouldn’t have needed the story.”
And we have to insist that the truths that the arts convey are just as important as those that come through on the pages of a catechism. Chesterton again, in The Everlasting Man:
“Imaginative does not mean imaginary. Every true artist does feel that he is touching transcendant truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. The natural mystic knows that there is something there behind the clouds and trees; and he believes that beauty is the way to find it; that the imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.”
2. The Church must be Patron of the Arts because – quoting Cardinal Ratzinger from his truly beautiful essay, “Beauty and the Truth of Christ,” “There is no surer proof that our faith is true than the works of beauty we make, starting in the lives of the saints.”
And, in so far as we put the lives of the saints in beautiful art, we accomplish a double proof that our faith is true.
For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true”. The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared. (Beauty and the truth of Christ, Razinger)
3. Patron of the Arts because beauty conveys two different kinds of key knowledge/revelation.
a) We move from delight to joy to wonder to humility. We become aware of our smallness. It makes us sad, and yet joyful. It teaches with certainty that heaven exists. Again, as Ratzinger notes, “The beautiful wounds, but this is exactly how it summons man to his final destiny.”
“The only way to enjoy even just a weed, is to feel yourself completely unworthy of the weed.” (Everlasting Man, Chesterton)
“At the back of our brains, there is a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life is to dig for this submerged sense of wonder.” (Autobiography, Chesterton)
b) Beauty gives us firsthand experience of spiritual realities. This is contrasted with book learning as we can note in the stunning assertion by Cardinal Ratzinger that the revelation that comes to us through the encounter with the beautiful is more powerful than that which comes through the study of theology precisely because it contains a real experience.
“Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.”
“The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.” (Orthodoxy, Chesterton)
4. Patron of the Arts because there is nothing that creates community more quickly and more powerfully than sharing something beautiful.
It is a sign that something is beautiful that people are moved to share it. This is why we like to watch movies together with other people. This is why, when you see a beautiful sunset, you go and get other people to see it too. This is why when there is a lovely song or short film on YouTube, you link to it on Facebook.
II. Things the Church Can Say to the Secular Culture That No One Else Will Say
1. There is a beauty that is good for us, and there is an imitation of beauty that is bad for us.
a) Spiritual Beauty – reveals that man has a spirit; leads to transcendant; leads to wonder; begs to be shared
b) Sensual Beauty – revels in man’s physical nature;
Falsehood however has another stratagem. A beauty that is deceptive and false, a dazzling beauty that does not bring human beings out of themselves to open them to the ecstasy of rising to the heights, but indeed locks them entirely into themselves. Such beauty does not reawaken a longing for the Ineffable, readiness for sacrifice, the abandonment of self, but instead stirs up the desire, the will for power, possession and pleasure. It is that type of experience of beauty of which Genesis speaks in the account of the Original Sin. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was “beautiful” to eat and was “delightful to the eyes”. The beautiful, as she experienced it, aroused in her a desire for possession, making her, as it were, turn in upon herself.
This sham, sensual attractiveness stimulates the desire to eat; to possess; to consume; to dominate; to collect; to have sex with; it is the opposite of the impulse to share that true beauty evokes. Ratzinger notes that to manipulate men through this kind of power is part of the “strategem of hell.”
2. To restore the Artist to His Essential Place in Human Society
The story of the 20th Century has been the story of the artist in proud isolation. He was told that in order to preserve his voice, he needed to stay on the fringes of the community. Too many other people would pollute his distinct message. This is all wrong. The artist gets his message from association with human society. Without society, the only thing an artist can talk about is the contents of his own navel. We have been looking at artistic guts for too long in the last half a century.
a) The artist is prophet – to reveal the mind of God; to reveal the groanings of the Spirit; to shake us up by reminding us who we are and who God is. The point of the liturgy is always to achieve this two-fold end: to make real the Awesome God, and to make real the desperate need of humanity;
The nature of the revelation proper to art is not confusion. Confusion paralyzes. Art should lead to compunction. (David to Nathan, “I have sinned…”
This is the primary reason non-representational modern art is not appropriate in churches, btw. It is inscrutable and confusing even when it is excellent, except to those who have studied it. Sacred art needs a mass accessibility.
b) The artist as priest – dedication to his vocation to beauty is the ongoing sacrifice offered by the artist. It disfigures him. But it makes him a worthy vessel of grace.
c) The artist as representative of the Creator – he is the arbiter of beauty; he tells us what is good and what is ugly; we listen to him. Especially we clerics who have no artistic training and who only know what we like, but not what we are talking about when it comes to art.

Practice Safe Storytelling


The truth is, the tragic note that should be given about many scripts that are on the floors, desks, chairs and trunks in Hollywood is, “This script should never have been written.” Scripts get written that shouldn’t, in the same way unplanned pregnancies happen. People who may or may not be writers have a one night stand with a cheap idea and then, a few weeks or months later, push out a draft. What should have happened is a hard conversation between the person and their story idea before they jumped into Final Draft together. “Are you really the one for me?” “Are you going to be able to support a whole screenplay?” “Is there any theme underneath your spectacle?” “Is it really you I love, or is it because you remind me of somebody else?” “Is this going to be something we both get sick of in a few months?” The only good news is, you never really get naked with a bad story, but you are rarely better for having let yourself get seduced by a sexy pitch.
Once the script exists, very few people have the obnoxiousness and intestinal fortitude to say to the hapless and half-had creator, “You made a big mistake in starting this.” I wish I had the courage to say it more often, because, if you don’t say it, then you end up spending a tremendous amount of time doing what I think of as, “Tweaking Crap Around the Edges.” It always reminds me of when I was a little girl and how I hated eating liver. My cousin told me to cut it up in really really small pieces and get it down that way. But I remember trying the experiment and concluding at about age six, that you could cut up and cover up crap, but it’s still gonna taste like crap.
Not long ago, I gave notes on a script that is, for reasons known only to the movie gods – whom I’m convinced more and more are dark, dark spirits – going ahead at a production company. Basically the company knows the project is in trouble but they have already spent too much money on it to abandon it so they are going to plunge ahead hoping against all probability that a wonder of a movie will come out of a script of chopped liver.
Still, it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good, and so I thought I could share some of the reasons why the project is failing for folks out there struggling with their own difficult screenplay relationships. Here are notes to help you not get used.
A) First Note: This Script Was Not Written By a Writer 
Writing is a talent. Talent means you are naturally, weirdly good at something that other people can not do. You know you have writing talent if your writing elicits an emotional response from people. You know you have talent if you know what you write is good. You KNOW it.
And then, even natural born writers need some degree of training. You can no more sit down and spew out a screenplay without having studied the craft, than a brain surgeon could just crack open a skull and start scalping. Training gives a writer appreciation for the complexity of good writing. As Thomas Mann so wonderfully noted, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
This is the kind of note that gets written on scripts that are not written by people with writing talent or training (examples are all from real scripts):
– The language in this script is clunky and the word choices awkward. (i.e. “Mary straddled a phone on her shoulder.”
– The scenes are over-written (ie. John stands nervously looking at his face in the bathroom mirror over the sink near the shower two feet from the window.”).
– There doesn’t seem to be any theme or subtext underlying this piece. The writer doesn’t seem to have any burning thing she wants to say. She has done a job, but never taken ownership.
– There is no charm here. No fun. No magic. Nothing that feels fresh or creative.
– There is nothing to learn here. The writer has nothing to teach or share.
B) Second Note: Not a Story but Lots of Chit-Chat in Different Places
Aristotle says that human beings are driven to story by two powerful instincts: for imitation and for beauty. It’s the imitation thing we are interested in here. The kind of imitation that we are driven to stare at in stories is what Aristotle calls, “Men in action.” Movement. Choices. Change. And real change that can’t just be reversed or taken back. We say “Show don’t tell,” when we are working with writers but, it’s amazing how so few people can apply this when it comes to their own work. So, I’m not going to just tell you, show don’t tell. Here’s me showing you the notes you get when a story is all talky no chantey.
– Time and time again, the writers fail dramatically in that they have characters say who they are, what they want, what the problems are and what the point of everything is, instead of showing it through visual, high stakes choices.
– Because so much of this comes down to conversations, most of the story feels unmotivated. It lacks the compelling quality that comes from “seeing is believing.”
– No one is building anything in this script. No one is climbing a mountain or slaying a dragon or doing anything enviable or, frankly, anything filmic.
– Apparently, the writer wants us to believe that these characters resolved their huge problems offscreen and without losing any limbs or jobs or jobs or even just a smashed brandy glass.
C) Third Note: Not Cross-Genre, Really Just a Mess
When I talk about genre with my students, it always turns into a discussion of their First Amendment freedoms. Many wannabe writers feel constrained by the idea of genre as if it is something outside being imposed on them. But genre isn’t something that you fit your story into. Genre is the essence that flows out of your stuff. It’s the soul in your project that pushes it to fulfillment the way Aristotle says the soul of a zebra pushes it to have black and white stripes and so that the zebra never wakes up one day with the mane of a lion. Signs you are unclear in the soul of your story are notes like this:
– What kind of movie is this? Is it a family film? Is it a comedy? A romantic comedy? A drama? A drama with romantic comedy elements? A murder mystery? This script is trying to be all things to all but isn’t attaining to any of them.
– The story never really gets us to tears, and it never really gets us to laughs. It never gets us to fear and suspense, and it never gets us to inspiration.
– This script feels like two different movies. It started feeling like “The Insider,” but then devolved into “Hang Over.”
– The writer seems to be going for black comedy here. But the thing about comedy is, it’s funny. Even when it’s black.
– This movie has a twelve year old protagonist, but then there are scenes full of R-rated language. Who is the audience for this piece?

Gravity Soars



Gravity – Directed by Alfonso Cuaron; Written by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron; Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney; PG-13 for intense situations
I don’t think I’ve ever been able to say this before, but I have never had a movie experience anything remotely like what Gravity provides. If only because it is the most purely cinematic non-animated movie ever made, Gravity deserves to go down in history. It is a thrilling piece in which the spectacle never stops, but because the spectacle is serving the story at every moment, the movie works. Visually gorgeous, packed with thrills and heart, Gravity is a thoroughly stunning achievement and ought to win Best Picture for the decade as far as I am concerned. If it doesn’t win for Sound Mixing and Editing, I will personally picket the Academy.
I say it is purely cinematic, because there aren’t a handful of minutes in the whole piece that could have been achieved in any other medium except cinema. This isn’t a story that could be told in any other way than on the screen, and that is a rare and wonderful thing.
I don’t want to say anything about the story because a huge part of the enjoyment of the piece is the non-stop reversals, and if I even start to tell you about the character’s wants and needs, I’ll have given away the inciting incident.Suffice it to say this is a brilliantly structured adventure story that allows the audience a thoroughly unique point of view. We saw it in IMAX 3D so that effect was rendered even more impressive.
The story does everything it’s supposed to in heaping greater and greater challenges on the main character played very effectively by an ever-aspirating Sandra Bullock. Once it launches, the beats never let up. It’s nothing if not a Triumph of the Human Spirit story, but it also surprises with a lovely little spiritual theme about the essential religious/immortal element of human beings.
Go see it and then write and tell me how much you enjoyed it. Probably not for small children as it is very intense in its thrills, but there is nothing problematic here at all in terms of sex or language. Super movie.

A “Christian” Cinema? An interview with Av Venire



Here is an interview that just came out. It is me being interviewed by writer Andrea Galli for the Italian paper Av Venire. I don’t have an exact translation, but these are the answers to her questions that I sent by email.
Q: A straightforward question (that was the title of one of your recent lectures): Why do “heathens” seem to make the best Christian films? Why are there still so few good Christian movies?
BN: This is really a very loaded question because it touches on the nature of art, story and beauty, as well as many of the particular errors which have infected Christendom as a reactionary response to the Sexual Revolution and modernity itself.
The first thing to note is that there really isn’t such a thing as a Christian movie, any more than there is a Christian pizza or a Christian motorcycle. Christian is a noun. It was never meant to be an adjective. What we mean by Christian movie or book today is something that was produced in the Christian subculture for the Christian subculture. The religious subculture is a uniquely modern perversity, and I do mean perversity. As a response to the decay, and the harsh critique that we Christians were finding in mainstream modern secularism, Christians created our own “safe place” to talk to ourselves. Culturally it was meant to be a refuge, but practically it became a ghetto, and now it is a prison. The standards of the subculture quickly became an over-emphasis on innocence, that is sentimentality, and the absence of sex, crass language and violence. Sadly, other standards that got tossed in modern Christendom are aesthetics and the sense of taste. Art and music today produced by Christians tends to be among the ugliest art that modern man is producing. As proof, I would send you into any Catholic Church on Sunday morning to have your musical instincts flayed by what Pope Benedict called, “the cult of the banal” (ref. “The Spirit of the Liturgy”). The art form of oratory is also dead in the Church today as most sermons are meandering, boring and generally insulting.
A helpful distinction that we need to reclaim in Christendom is that of “sacred” art which should refer to any project that the Church is commissioning for explicitly liturgical or ecclesial purposes. Sacred art as a loving response of faith to God has the overt agenda of deepening the faith of the Church. It can still edify the masses of heathens outside, as in the way non-believers flock to the Pieta and the Sistine Chapel. Christian sub-culture product, with a more sneaky propagandistic agenda, is generally freakish to the masses and embarrassing to the faithful. Movies will rarely fall in the “sacred art” category as they are consitutionally unsuited to liturgical and ecclesial purposes. The notable exception is The Passion of Christ which was an experiment by Mel Gibson to do the Stations of the Cross through cinema.
A movie made by a Christian should work with Catholics on a theological level, and should work with non-believers on an artistic and/or narrative level. It will satisfy their story instincts and their desire for the beautiful, and maybe do something more for them spiritually through the project’s theme. As an example of this kind of cultural success, I would point to the stories of Flannery O’Connor, or the movies A Man for All Seasons or The Passion of Joan of Arc.
What has happened in the Church is that we have sacrificed the search for “new epiphanies of beauty” in the words of Bl. John Paul II, to egalitarianism, cheapness and politics. We don’t care anymore if a hymn is lovely and haunting, we just need it to be singable by the assembly without any musical training or practice. This means we have had to dumb down our music to the level of pre-school ditties. Our movies and television are not flowing out of the mysterious impulse to create and connect, which is the hallmark of art, but rather out of the desire to preach and distract. Secondly, in productions created by Christians for Christians, there is nothing so unappreciated – and I would argue, resented – as God-given talent. In the Church today, the emphasis on talent seems to people to be elitist, as if God has very bad form in giving one person the ability to do something that another can not. How dare God be so unequal in His favors?!
Ideally, a movie made by Christians should be a marriage of beauty plus one of our defining themes as a subtext. That is, first and foremost a movie made by believers ought to have all its parts present and executed with excellence, and then its meaning should reflect something that only we Christians can say with unique authority. So, some of our defining themes are, “Good and evil are not equal,” and “Joy and sorrow have a necessary and ironic juxtaposition,” and “Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person,” and “Everything we see is a sign of something we cannot see.” A sign that a movie is really, profoundly Christian, is that it will carry tremendous meaning for non-Christians. Of course, we never see this kind of project from Christian filmmakers today. Not yet any way.
In so far as talented pagan film makers are pursuing wholeness, harmony and radiance in their work – which are the elements of the beautiful – they will be producing stories that far outshine the efforts of Christians who are basically making propaganda and cheap resistance literature for the faithful. Secondly, pagans respect things like artistic principles. They tend to invest seriously in cultural endeavors, and they honor talent and training. In the Church, all that is necessary to get a job as a singer is to own a guitar and have a good heart. It is really very perverse. I think of the loss of the sense of the beautiful as one of the great heresies in the Church in the modern age. It has been devastating particularly because it undermines all of our efforts at evangelization. What good does it do to tell people that the Holy Spirit is Wisdom and Power in a hymn or movie that is lame and pedestrian?
Q: Money (rich production companies), expertise, self-confidence: what do we lack more as Christians?
BN: Christians who make sallies into the entertainment industry tend to be uninterested in the nature and potential of the visual story telling art forms. Cinema is perceived by most of the thought leaders in the Church as unserious or as a means of catechesis. We don’t have one Catholic university in the top twenty film programs in the world. Too many of our religious leaders never have a good word for any movie or television and would seem to prefer if we Christians all just lived in caves when they aren’t at church. We need to work with people who have artistic talent, regardless of where they are spiritually, because our working with them might be the way in which God will introduce Himself to the artist, and as a plus, the people of God will get beautiful work done. Too often, I have seen Christians hire bad actors or writers or directors just because they are believers. It always mean ugly movies.
Of course, it is true that most of the wealthy Christians today are pouring their money into the Church’s charities for the sick and for general education. It will take a whole rethinking to win them back to pouring their resources into works of art. We have lost the value of producing new art – of being “the Patron of the Arts” as the Church was once known. No one could seriously call the Church that today.
Q: Some say a Christian movie must not be explicitly Christian if it wants to be a good movie or go mainstream. On the other hand there are hundred millions of Christians worldwide and “The passion of the Christ” grossed more than 600 million dollars… what do you think about it?
BN: What we really need today are many wonderful parables for the people of our time, that do all the things that Aristotle notes a story should do in his seminal work “The Poetics.” Good parables don’t need to mention God. Jesus told many parables and none of them mention God. I say to my students all the time, “The story is enough.” That is, you shouldn’t need to deliver it with a copy of a homily attached.
There is a great opportunity for believers right now because the secular movie production entities in Hollywood all seemed to have forgotten how to tell a good story. (In Europe, of course, they have never understood this! Ha, ha….) We need beautiful, thoughtful parables from people whose hearts are full of love for the people of the world, and who want to lead people to inspiration and compunction. Or as Aristotle said it, human society needs stories to lead people to cathartic experiences of compassion and the fear of evil. The movie studios in Hollywood have largely been taken over by global corporations who only care about movies as products to sell. The bottom line is what matters to them, not whether the main character has an engaging transformational arc. We need a new generation of storytellers who are able to look back to classical principles and ancient wisdom, and yet to marry these inner gifts with an understanding of all the wonderful potential that the new media technology offers. Because Christians have a pastoral mandate to help and heal, storytelling should be a natural arena for us.
Q: Christians have much more “moral boundaries” than “heathens” (language, nudity/sexuality, approach to violence…): isn’t it a big disadvantage?
BN: You can’t have a good story without what we call “high stakes.” High stakes means that, in a story, death is always on the table. Stories are better than real life in that way. The most profound kinds of death that human beings experience come through sin – the death of the ability to love, the death of the instinct to care for others, the death of the ability to see and penetrate reality, for example. Hence, you can’t take sin out of storytelling. What Christians could demonstrate to the secular storytellers is how to talk about sin without it becoming an occasion of sin for the audience. The Bible shows us this. It has always high stakes stories of adultery, murder, deceit and betrayal, but never told in a ways that violate the reader.
Another modern heresy in the Church today is the impulse to be safe. There is no safety in this life and Christians least of all should be trying to live lives that are safe. We need to be prudent, but instead, too often, we Christians bring a presence of soggy toast to the world. We’re trying so hard to be nice and non-offensive that we never say anything worth hearing. There is a great line in CS Lewis’ class book “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” in which we are told about Aslan, the Christ figure, “Aslan is never safe. But He is good.” We need to toughen up a lot more in the Church today.

Q: Can you make some examples of recent interesting Christian movies?
BN: Few of the projects made by Christians end up being able to meet the industry standard that would allow them to be screened in mainstream theaters. I can’t think of any of these projects that have come out of the sub-culture that have really been good as movies. Where there is good intention, the story usually fails. Where the script is acceptable, the acting or the production design is embarrassing. The Passion of the Christ is the exception, but, of course, Mel did not make that movie for the Church. He made it as an act of penance to God for his own sins. Some fabulous, powerful movies made by pagans that carry Gospel themes include, “The VisitorLars and the Real GirlThe Lives of OthersJuno, and Of Gods and Men. I would include nearly everything made by Pixar as something that Christians could look to as a marriage of excellence and deep universal themes.
Q: Some read Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino as a subtle but powerful Christian movie (greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends). I personally agree with that. So, it’s not necessary to have a Christian director to have a good Christian movie.. or what?
BN: Again, a beautiful story works because it is beauty married to profound truth. You don’t have to be Christian to do this. Gran Torino was a solid film, and yes, Clint was clearly drawing a parallel to his main character as a Christ-figure. The Christ-figure archetype is well-established in Hollywood lore.
Q: How is the work of Act One in the movie industry? Do you encounter prejudices or hostility? Can you work with non-denominational production companies too? Is it hard to be Christian and work inside what was once called “Hollywood Babylonia”?
BN: Our experience at Act One has been that Hollywood is not really anti-Christian. It is much more anti-bad art. The way for Christians to get a hearing in mainstream culture is to be so good that they can’t ignore you. That is what we strive to imbue in our students. We have had some very good results. Tragically, we spend most of our time at Act One trying to pay the pills to keep the non-profit running. It is really a scandal how the Church has not stepped up to make the program grow and thrive. It really is part of the answer for redemption of culture.

The Rest of the Review: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Prayer Journal”


(Here is the full length piece I wrote about Flannery O’Connor’s recently published, “A Prayer Journal.” I wrote the piece for a copy of the book for this website here. They edited out a lot of it for space, but they told me I could reprint the whole thing here.)
I can’t imagine any scenario in which Mary Flannery O’Connor would be happy to know her youthful, private supplications and confessions to God would one day be fodder for the salacious eyes of the literary world. First and foremost, it would offend her writing sense. Where O’Connor was deliberate in the selection of every comma in her published work, A Prayer Journal is meandering and repetitive, without economy or precision. Where O’Connor’s stories masterfully use action and imagery to reveal her meanings, this work is devoid of subtext.
Secondly, this edition would certainly pique O’Connor’s sense of decorum. Where she was private, preferring her work to speak for her, in A Prayer Journal the person of the artist is stripped bare: insecurities, sins, and bad spelling.
I felt self-conscious while I was reading A Prayer Journal: “How could they have had the nerve to publish this thing?” The work is so intimate as to end with O’Connor confessing an erotic thought and making a prayer, and then noting with chagrin, “There is nothing left to say of me.”
In fact, the permission to breech O’Connor’s private conversation with God is in Prayer Journal itself. One persistent request to God is that her work as a writer be a thing of grace for the world. She was unsure how she was going to do as a writer, but she was determined that her work would be at the disposition of the Divine plan. As she notes early on in the journal, “Give me a strong will to be able to bend it to the Will of the Father.”
Reading this book was a grace for me as a writer and particularly as one who is a serious Catholic. It will be a grace to anyone who wants to put his or her talents to use to make a difference in the world. To non-writers, it gives everyone of us permission to speak frankly to God without proper prose and affectation. The Prayer Journal is not in itself a work of genius, but it is engrossing as the intimate, unpretentious thoughts of a budding genius. It is inspiring in its unconsciousness, because it shows that mastery of craft united to a pastoral care for the world don’t just happen, but are the fruit of fervent desire and humility.
I’m not proud of it (actually, I probably am), but the best word to describe my reading of Prayer Journal, was greedy. I’ve always craved more access to the person who has upended my world innumerable times through her weird stories. I’ve combed through her collected letters, The Habit of Being, with the same voyeuristic spirit. There is the same stalky compulsion in the fan base of my other literary idol, the poet Emily Dickinson. Both artists were stolidly adverse to talking about the power and meaning of their work that make us, their fans crazy for validation. Most often, when people would ask Emily Dickinson the meaning of one of her strange verses, she would answer them by dashing off two or three more, just as inscrutable. O’Connor once warded off a query about the meaning of a story with the snippy squelch, “If I could say it in a sentence, I wouldn’t have written the story.”
One of the things we are looking for in works like A Prayer Journal is to find out if the greatest writers knew, really knew what we think they were doing, even as my own efforts as a writer assure me that the kind of work these women did could never be an accident. Still, the question is pressing for those of us who sweat at what young O’Connor called “aesthetic craftsmanship.” Do brilliant artists know they are stretching an art form to a new and wonderful place? Does their kind of work come out of intention or instinct?
In A Prayer Journal, young Mary Flannery has no conviction at all of attaining to literary stardom. In a wonderful way, the woman who would become probably the greatest short story writer ever, begins her career by wrestling with the horror of being mediocre. In the too often, parched, banal contemporary culture which seems mainly concerned with championing the sensibilities of the unachieving, Flannery’s bold aspiration to be a great writer pours out like a long glass of delicious cool champagne.
Flannery also worries that her writing will lead people away from God instead of towards Him. It shows she knew that her themes were going to be very high stakes and, that meaning well doesn’t necessarily mean doing well. It also shows she had already figured out that she couldn’t show the power of the resurrection in her stories, without dragging her readers through the potentially scandalizing places of fetishistic Bible salesmen, and acne-scarred Yankee crazy women, and bitter old men clinging to the N-word. Her prayers for the impact of her writing make for some of the most charming and thought-provoking parts of the book: “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing, and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate.” Or again, after having acknowledged the mysterious way in which God “gave” her a story, she writes, “I can’t write a thing. But I’ll continue to try…I wonder if God will ever do any more writing for me.”

Flannery O’Connor, self-portrait, 1953 
(I LOVE that she painted a halo on herself!)
For those worshipful fans of Flannery who just want to uncover a few more searing Southerny sayings to haunt your comings and goings, there are several here. They aren’t as polished as those we are used to from her stories, but the fact that she wasn’t writing for anybody but herself and God makes them that much more impressive. I am always amazed how really great writers actually think quotable. The rest of us have to labor for days to get five or six words to work. Young Flannery effortlessly importunes God, “Please help me to get down under things and find You where You are.” As regards the Kingdom of God, she creates the perfect parallel formulation, “I don’t want to fear to be out. I want to love to be in.” Has anybody ever rejected sentimentality with better imagery than, “[We] have lost our power to vomit”? I thought several times reading these kind of instinctively artful marriages of style and substance, “Talent is a thing. And wondrous.”
For those who want to pour over young Flannery’s private thoughts to find insight into the recurrent theme that would go on to make her fiction a miraculous singularity particularly in the Church, there is an unassembled symphony of patterns and tropes here. In only thirty-seven short and often partial pages, A Prayer Journal references grace twenty times.
A Prayer Journal shows that she already understood at twenty the need for a ponderous and unifying “big idea” in a story noting, “To maintain any thread in a novel, there must be a view of the world behind it.” O’Connor’s “view of the world” was that good things were only possible through the direct, conscious and gratuitous action of God in human life. In the compilation of O’Connor’s speeches and essays on writing, Mystery and Manners, the taciturn one tosses off in a speech that “my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.” It is the story she can’t get over, that she tells over and over and over. Also, evident in A Prayer Journal, is that O’Connor has already figured out that grace and suffering are inextricably linked. Again later in Mystery and Manners she confirms her youthful theories with the note, “I find that suffering uniquely prepares my characters for their moments of grace.”
The stunning quality that makes Flannery O’Connor who she is as a storyteller concerned with the Christian thing, was in pushing the notion of how terrible grace might need to be to save us. She wants her readers to come to grips with their own aversion at the idea that the worst thing that could happen to us, might be just what our soul needs. She tips her hand as to writing hauntingly provocative stories in Mystery and Manners by saying, “To make a story work, I have found that what is required is a violent act in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace.”
When young Flannery O’Connor prays to God in A Prayer Journal, “Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, O Lord,” she is Hulga in Good Country People, the wooden-souled seducer of Bible salesmen, about to be humiliated and perhaps left to die alone, so she might live eternally. Will respectable Christian woman (“Thank you, Jesus!”) Ruby Turpin embrace a saving “Revelation” through the horror of being cursed like a warthog to hell by a zit-faced Yankee co-ed? Can we bring ourselves to agree that “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in us because it might take somebody to put a gun in our face every day of our life? In A Prayer Journal, O’Connor notes that sin “leads a good many people to God who wouldn’t get there otherwise.” But can we really be grateful for the little lie that leads a child-saint to drown in “The River,” and be spared a probable life of sin? Could it ever really be a good thing for a decrepit, bitter old man to fall down the stairs like a dried out old “Geranium” falling off a shelf?
O’Connor’s challenge to all of us, to find the saving action of God in whatever damn thing afflicts us, is the outrageous and irresistible key to her fiction. “A Prayer Journal” assures us that before she sentenced her characters to suffer on their way to salvation, she gave God permission to first and foremost have its way with her as, “Supernatural grace that does whatever it does.” Of course, it is impossible to read this offer from the young writer without being mindful of how lupus would in a few short years begin to have its way with her, culminating in a terribly premature death at thirty-nine. Like the unconscious acts of so many of her future characters, A Prayer Journal was the divinely inspired preparation for O’Connor to embrace the purification of her suffering. May it be the same for all of us who pick it up greedily or just to satisfy our curiosity. Grace can work with that.