...but I'm just back today from gallavanting on the East coast for a few days. I took a 6am flight out of DC which meant me getting up at 1am L.A. time. I am just typing here to keep myself awake for the 5pm Mass at St. Charles and then I am going to slither home and collapse. No Alias tonight for sure. A few tid-bits from my trip...
- I had the honor again on Friday of being in the presence of the man whom I will hereafter refer to as Our Chairman, Dana Gioia. Dana is the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and is doing amazing things there for the whole country. Again, the man has one of those brains that you might encounter two or three times in a lifetime. He has amazing things to say about the role of the arts in a free society, and specifically how the Nat'l Endowment should serve the broad population of Americans. He actually remembered Act One and asked me for an update about the program and what the program is currently working on. Amazing man. I'm not a joiner, but I would feel pretty comfortable following Mr. Gioia's lead in pretty much any direction. Anyway, in addition to giving us a quick run-down of the agency's impressive list of projects for the coming year, he recited some of his poetry for us, and in honor of the Endowment's new Shakespeare project, also recited the great speech "Sweet are the Uses of Adversity" from As You Like It. You gotta love a fellow who can spontaneously reel off 60 lines of Shakespeare. I know I do.
- The Healing the Sexual Revolution seminar day was fascinating and exhausting. So much information for one day. Being in L.A. for seven years now, I am a bit out of practice as far as spending fourteen hours in intense theorizing and the digestion of the multiplicity of statistics. Artists tend to spend one hour on theory and then thirteen hours on the emotions that a particular theory has stirred in them.... I always come away from these meetings with the Christians who work on Capital Hill feeling really good about the Church which is in Washington. The day was a very, very smart and prayerful consideration on how the culture got where it is in terms of becoming sex-centered, and how it might be led back to a more authentically human emphasis.
- My friend Laura and her group ARS in DC, organized a "little speech" opportunity for me and Fr. Jack Riley on The Passion of the Christ on Saturday at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center. (Thanks to everyone who brought it off so fast! Yeoman's labor!) I thought maybe ten or fifteen people would show up. Astoundingly, somewhere around 160 showed up! Maybe more, it was hard to tell. Clearly, the sheep are not done with this film. They want to talk about it -- why it moved them, what it has done for them spiritually. So impressive to have people tell their stories of the film. EARTH TO CATHOLIC CLERGY. COME IN CATHOLIC CLERGY. There is still time to be late on this one....
- After the Passion event, a group of us sat at a Thai restaurant for three hours, talking strategy about how to serve artists so they can better fulfill their role as mediators of God's ongoing creativity. Everybody is on board with the idea of a center for the arts (I insist on it being here in Hollywood) that would have a Chapel that would be a place of pilgrimage for artists and families of artists. We can decorate with all the great artists and saints of faith - Gregory the Great Chant Guy! Hildegarde the Composer nun! Bernard the Honeysweet Poet! Canvas Man, Fra Angelico! Dante the Comedian! Francis the Canticleer! Cecilia the Martyr Musician! Flannery the Great! (Anybody I left out?)
The center would also offer religious instruction, spiritual direction, family and career counseling, ethical formation and practical mentorships and training.
Oh, and a huge, cool theater to host and premiere films -- and, I think, to house the next generation Actors Co-op productions.
This place will be at the center of what God is doing in Hollywood.
Face it, He's doing something with or without us. If we get on board, we can save some years off His new thing, and maybe find some more salvation for ourselves too....
I swear I only took this quiz once. What can I say?
You are Emily Dickinson! Not all that much is known about Emily Dickinson, probably because she holed herself up in her room and wrote poetry. She didn't have very many connections with the world outside her house, and her poetry is very introspective and compartmentalized. You need to get out more.
THE WORDS OF THE DAY FROM THE CHURCH WHICH IS IN HOLLYWOOD...
Back to back quotes in today's Hollywood Reporter:
"Christian is the new gay. Maybe for the first time since Billy Graham started his Crusades, Christians are involved in something significant in pop culture." -- Jonathan Bock, Christian and PR guy to the studios
"I don't know where it's going to fall. And quite frankly... you want to hear something? I don't give a flying f**k!" -- Mel Gibson, on Passion's "place in history"
This event comes from the US Bishops Office for Film and Broadcasting in NYC. They (Gerri Pare, Anne Navarro and David DiCerto) collectively consistently offer one of the most thoughtful and reliable perspectives on cinema. They had invited me to be at this event but I will be in DC instead this weekend. Too bad - it will certainly be a great weekend. Check it out...
Thanks to Jeff over at The Revealer for his extravagant praise for my little Ice Storm-Sexual Revolution musing below. In recognition of Jeff's great work making The Revealer an exhaustive site on religion and culture, Church of the Masses hereby bestows our blogostolic blessing, and adds The Revealer to the blog roll. Check it out.
"Waves of freezing rain amassed layer upon layer of crystal chaos -- as destructive as it was beautiful. Ottawa was a city of ice. Tens of thousands of homes were cast into darkness and left without heat as hydro poles snapped like toothpicks. It was the storm of the century. Damage topped $1 billion. Crippled communities shivered in sub-zero temperatures that numbed even the hardiest." (Katthleen Harris, The Ottawa Sun, January 1998)
As I noted below, I'm getting together notes for a talk I am giving Friday in DC about the Sexual Revolution. We are using Ang Lee's film The Ice Storm as a jumping off point for our discussions. Here's me gathering my thoughts....
Great art is found in the combination of mastery of craft and lyrical/poetic imagery. A piece "works" in so far as its imagery speaks "thousands of words" to the receiver, by combining with their past experience to lead them to new or deeper truths.
Unraveling the meaning of art can often be as simple as taking its central images at face value. People struggling with what a painting or a poem or a film mean, too quickly abandon the literal meaning of the images to start struggling with the meanings to whcih they might be pointing.
A sign of a great work of art is that its central metaphors are so carefully chosen, that the more a viewer plumbs the literal meaning of the metaphor, the more the lyrical meaning is manifest.
So, the central metaphor in The Ice Storm, is an ice storm. The film is about two families, basically being ravaged by the Sexual Revolution. I am going to build my talk around the image of an ice storm, drawing heavily from a fabulous three-part account of Canada's "Great Ice Storm of 1997" written by Kathleen Harris, that appeared in the Ottawa Sun - love that it was the Sun here! - in January of 1998.
"First drizzle, then rain fell from the sky. Chilly temperatures quickly transformed the liquid to a glass-like ice which coated everything it touched.
A day earlier, people were pre-occupied about how the weather forecast would affect skating conditions on the Rideau Canal. Soon, roads became slippery and treacherous, killing a 36-year-old Toronto man and his 61-year-old mother. Both were driving to a local funeral service. Yet people stood transfixed at the beauty of crystallized trees and growing layers of icicles pointing down from rooftops like silvery daggers.
Few realized then what price we would pay for that glorious, dazzling beauty. "
Do I even need to comment here? The parallels to the causes, experience of and the effects of the Sexual Revolution become so amazingly clear when you substitute it for the disaster being described in Harris' piece. I'm afraid to ruin the effect of the metaphor by saying too much....Really too fun and fascinating...
On the impact of sexual activity without a moral context. How, contrary to the Gospel of contemporary culture, sexual license doesn't free, but ends up sapping energy....
"As ice layers continued to thicken, tree branches began to weaken under the weight.
Within days, they began to snap off like toothpicks, bringing down anything in their path.
Power lines and poles followed, leaving more and more people in a blackout."
Where did the Sexual Revolution come from?....
"Was it El Nino? Global warming? Or a freakish event that signals the dawn of a new millenium. Paul Delannoy, manager of Environment Canada's regional weather centre in Ottawa, isn't willing to dabble in theories of the dawn of a new millennium; he quickly dismisses those thoughts as 'quack science.' Delannoy prefers the simple explanation to what caused the ice storm: Mother Nature. 'I don't believe any man-made measure of time has anything to do with it," said Delannoy. "How does Mother Nature know it isn't 2010 or 2020?' "
All of the government officials and bureaucrats in the Canada ice storm story stand in for all the culture makers and social pundits who for forty years have been telling us what a good thing the Sexual Revolution is. They keep offering strategies, adjustments and excuses to deal with the storm. It's like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic...
As temperatures plunged, some tempers rose in rural areas still without power.
And much of the frustration was directed at Ontario Hydro. As power outages dragged on, the provincial utility faced growing criticism that it had done a poor job of informing people about progress. People were left in the dark in more ways than one.
Earl Davison, a design engineer for Ontario Hydro, admits there were flaws in response procedures. "We did lots of things right, but we did some things wrong," he said.
Workers were more sharply focused on the immediate task of restoring power than on updating customers on progress. Ontario Hydro responded to criticism by launching a public relations program, which included visits to shelters to give reports to storm victims and placing full-page advertisements in newspapers and on radios.
Yes, what we need is more explicit sex education in schools...oh, and an abundance of colorful free condoms! And then we need stars from ABC television shows to tell us to talk to our kids about how to have sex without getting AIDS! That will fix everything!
How living through the Sexual Revolution has felt to most of the good, simple people who have been flung around in the last forty years, like sheep without shepherds...
Most storm victims did an admirable job of keeping chins up, but fatigue and frustration took their toll on some. Physical signs of weariness became evident as one day without power tortuously followed another. People walked around shelters with bags under eyes and sallow complexions. Some were brought to tears by fatigue.
But most tried to keep at least the appearance of staying upbeat. One woman at a Kemptville shelter said she went into the bathroom and wept alone.
Another resourceful resident managed to keep a positive attitude even though she was forced to move her family to an emergency shelter. But she cracked once, and all it took was a cut lip to trigger it. "Do you ever watch a movie while something is really bothering you and it doesn't take much for tears to come?" Diane Bartlett asked. "That's what happened. It wasn't one feeling. It was overwhelming."
Dr. Robert Cushman, Ottawa Carleton's medical officer of health, said stress levels rise each day for those without power and normal routine. "Either way, they're stressed," he said. "They don't want to stay at home and they don't want to leave."
Some storm victims suffered sleeplessness, anxiety and mood fluctuations. Disruption was particularly hard on the frail, the fiesty and the elderly. Many became fearful and teary.
While some storm victims began to feel a sense of despair, volunteers and emergency workers drew on an amazing source of adrenalin which allowed them to work long hours to help people.
"In some ways, it's a case of the strong getting stronger and the weak getting weaker," Cushman said.
But even the most strong-willed can only work full tilt for so long before they become weary and worn down, he said.
On how people of classical virtue who have authentic spirituality to sustain them weather the Sexual Revolution, and naturally become a beacon in the darkness...
Ken Grahame probably never dreamed his century-old oven would help get Kemptville's 2,500 people through a week-long power outage. But that's exactly what happened when the baker and his family opened up their business to anyone wanting to use their 113-year-old wood-burning brick oven.
"It's the last commercial wood fire brick oven operating in Ontario that we know of," explained Grahame, whose family has been involved with the bakery for nearly 60 years.
For eight days, Grahame, 63, his wife Rose, his mother Lila, and their daughters Debbie Wilson and Cindy Colfe, were putting in 16- to 18-hour days at the bakery, cooking hundreds of pounds of ham, beef, pork and turkey that had been donated and then delivered to area emergency shelters.
In one day alone, Grahame estimates the 18x18-ft. stove -- built in 1885 when the bakery was erected -- cooked about 200 lbs. of turkey, 100 lbs. of beef, 80 lbs. of pork and 50 dozen muffins.
Over the course of the week, the family also whipped up about 80 dozen cookies and heated about 150 frozen dinners.
Besides broiling up goods for other people -- with the help of countless volunteers -- the Grahames also made the oven available to up to 20 people a day who cooked their own hot meals to take home to their families.
Gotta go to work...stay tuned for the long-term effects of the ice-storm, and how people recover from it.
Here is Cicero writing to his wife Terentia, stepping all over the point I made in my recent NCRegister article about parenting with the media. I hate when this happens. Makes Cicero look so pathetic, really...
"It is wrong to bring children up in an atmosphere solely of family and fraternal affection, without enlightening them that beyond the safe walls of home there lives a world of Godless, dishonorable, and amoral men, and that these men are the majority.
For when an innocent youth must inevitably encounter the world of men, he suffers a wound from which he will never recover, and a sickness of heart that will permanently sicken his soul.
Better at once, even from the cradle, to teach your son that manis intrinsically evil and that he is a destroyer and a liar and a latent murderer, and that your son must be armed against his brother lest he die in body or in spirit! Possessing this knowledge, your son can then say to himself, 'With the help of God, I shall me kinder than my brother, and shall strive for virtue. It is my duty to aspire above my human nature.' "
I am giving a talk next week in DC on Ang Lee's film The Ice Storm, in connection with a day-long conference on "Healing the Sexual Revolution."
I admit, I don't get it, myself. What is it that led the entire culture - arts, academia, medical and legal professions, the Church - to gradually reject every vestige of the Natural Law? To listen to cultural pundits, it sounds like the Natural Law was invented by the Christian Right somewhere during the 1980 Reagan campaign. Sorry. We're not even talking religion here. Just classical human virtue, baby.
What is it that happened somewhere between 1960 and 1968 that allowed our people to- borrowing from C.S. Lewis' Abolition of Man - see us all outside the Tao? Why didn't somebody say, "Sexual Revolution"? Who is the enemy here? Our own bodies? Our own nature? This is a losing battle.....
And what is it that will lead us back to the classical virtues? The human family WILL get back. It always does. Eventually, every human society looks back on the ones that came before and shivers with disgust.
At a certain point, people who love virtue in a dying society are ultimately reduced to crying out as a voice of warning for future societies. My sense of Cicero is that he was like that. His Rome was pretty much as far gone as ours - except of course for the commercialized harvesting of little humans at embryo farms, that one is a first in the annals of depravity. Anyway, Cicero knew Rome was too far gone to save. But still, he kept fighting for justice, piety, fortitude, prudence, moderation - throwing his voice up and out, hoping that some people far in the future would hear his warnings, and maybe avoid the same mistakes that had sickened the idealism and promise of Rome. Maybe that is what we are supposed to do....Honestly, it would give our current sufferings some meaning if we could pass on to whatever society is coming next, "And make sure you have term limits for Senators and Supreme Court Justices!!!!!"
So, the barbarians/terrorists are crashing in at the gates of what's left of our civilization. An interesting question is, how will technology change the requisite demolition of a society, upon whose errors, the next human experiment finds its justification in reclaiming the 'very old things' (thanks, Chersterton).
So, why "Sexual Revolution"? (And all of you baby boomers, please don't say the assassination of John Kennedy...Must fight the impulse...must fight it...) Where will it end? What's next?
So, I got the word yesterday that I have been officially accepted into a Fall 2004, doctoral program in theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena. For the record, I AM NOT LEAVING ACT ONE, I am going to do the doctoral studies concurrently with my work as Executive Director of the program.
Several of my Act One friends are grumbling at this development (you know who you are, Kale and Sean), because they see it as a diversion from my primary work to establish a beachhead - ie. A Christian Center for the Arts and Artists - in Hollywood.
There are a few things going on here that have much more to do with the personal than the professional, although that is involved as well.
1) Do you know nothing about being a Second Child?!! As soon as my older sister declared she was getting a PhD, it was a foregone conclusion for me as well. What else would I have to talk about when I go home, if I couldn't whine sentences on some variation of, "Well, when Cynthia got her PhD, you all made a big fuss, but when I did, nobody even noticed..."?
2) I'm really not done learning yet. The women in my family live forever, generally, and I am not prepared to spend another fifty to sixty years in my current state of relative ignorance about most things beyond movies, Emily Dickinson and the Boston Red Sox. Oh, and Brideshead Revisited. I do know a lot about Brideshead. [ahem]
3) I'm bored. People don't believe me when I say that because I spend so much time cavorting in airports, and can never seem to get ahead enough to return phone calls, and because I start every email with, "Please excuse my delay in getting back to you...", but, the fact it, it is very possible to be consumed with activity, and yet not really engaged on the part of you that most defines you.
4) It can't hurt.
5) I LOVE Pasadena. It's really my favorite place in Southern Cal - and that includes all those gorgeous coastal places between Long Beach and San Diego. I can't afford to live in Pasadena, so studying there is the next best thing.
6) On a professional level, it means something to a lot of people who hand out money to non-profits, to see a list of degrees after the name of the person taking the checks. Having a PhD will give my work in Hollywood a whole other level of credibility...especially if we continue ahead with plans to become a place which sponsors think-tanks and forums and holds conferences and offers counseling.
6) It will make me write a book. The promise of $$$ has never been half as compelling as the human respect about getting good grades in school. I'm hoping I am still vain and competitive enough to be motivated to actually produce something of worth.
On the downside...
A) Theology was always my least favorite thing to study. I never could escape the feeling that everything was being so over-complicated. I don't tend to have a complex approach to Jesus.
B) I am a little leery of studying theology at a non-Catholic school. Are they going to want me to study Calvin and Luther? Cause, for my mind right now, that would be, like, in the same mode as studying the thought of Nestorian and Arias... I'm not TOOOOO worried about this, as I have some very good friends at Fuller, but it might make the whole experience even that much more interesting.
The fact is, there is only one Catholic university in L.A., that being Loyola-Marymount, and my experience of their theology department is that Fuller is much more Catholic. Enough said.
C) It will mean an impossible schedule. I will have to cut out most of my travels...which will be devastating news for the people who run the SuperShuttle airport vans, as I have personally financed an entire fleet of new vehicles for them.. On the flipside, this will be happy news for my cat, Tibby, minimally.... Seriously, it's probably just as well. I am getting sick of hearing my own voice lately. Need a break from microphones....which will be happy news for God, I feel sure. I never yet give a speech without getting that image of what Annie Lamott described as "making Jesus want to lap gin out of the cat bowl."
Anyway, please do keep this latest new thing, in your prayers. I am actually close to being kind of excited. [Cue the end of the world.]
My father, a naval historian, is fond of repeating that one of the secrets of successful warfare is choosing your battles. In 2003, I enlisted in the Defensor Passionis cause - mainly because I thought it was criminal that Mel Gibson was being hung out to dry by most of the leadership in the Catholic Church, especially in light of the Pope's recent call for the "renewal of that fruitful dialogue beteen that has always existed between the Church and the arts."....
But anyway, in championing an offensive foray (which seems to be the word of the week), I haven't had time to mount the defensive bulwarks against the "it-really-doesn't-deserve-the- monniker-perfidious-because-it's-so-damn-laughable - but-people-aren't-laughing-so-perfidious-it-is" Da Vinci Code which has become the dogmatic lotus fruit of millions of people this past year, including many Catholics. Listening to people talk about this book reminds me of some of the characters at the Alice in Wonderland tea party repeating lies over and over, "The Da Vinci Code is good for you. The Da Vinci Code is good for you."
Fortunately, lay Brigadeer Amy "the Wise and Articulate" Welborn has our flank on this one. She has written a rebuttal book that ought to be piled in stacks in the high traffic areas of every Christian church, highschool and college campus. Order your case here.
Amy has a follow-up article currently in The American Spectator about the automatrons who have been seduced by The Code. Check it out here. And here's a snippet...
Now, in case you're not following this, let me explain. The Da Vinci Code posits an entirely alternative history of the Christian faith: Christ not only chose Mary Magdalene as the first of the apostles, he married her, and sired a child before his crucifixion. Peter was jealous, and sought to elevate his own role by suppressing Mary's story and the true gospel, which was focused on retrieving and celebrating the "Sacred Feminine."
I know, I know. It's all a mish-mash of some hoary esoteric hypothesizing, the kind found in the best-seller Holy Blood, Holy Grail, as well as some of the more recent ideologically-driven theories about Gnostic writings from the first four centuries of Christianity.
SO YOU CAN SEE where these correspondents are coming from: the Truth is out there, and it can't possibly be in orthodox Christianity. The odd assumption behind many of these letters is that pious Christians are working out of blind, unthinking faith -- that we've not worked through our own doubts, that we don't take history seriously, and that we're not really interested in truth.
My own experience talking to people who have accepted this book as an alternate redemption is the same. They start insisting, "It's all backed up by REAL historical research!" I was on an airplane last week, and I happened to be reading a book with the title, "The Founder of Opus Dei." (I'm doing some research for a screenplay.) This fellow reaches over, literally grabs my sleeve and says. "Oh! I know all about THEM." He pulls out a copy of Da Code and waves it at me. "This book tells you the WHOLE story about THEM!"
I told him that he was incorrect. That he had been duped. And that he should follow the warning of Tertullian, that in matters of dogmatic dilemma, "Whatever is oldest is true." He looked at me with blinking frenzied eyes. I shrugged and scribbled the name of Amy's book on a scrap of paper and told him to check it out as an appropriate sequel. I also gave him my contact info...but I wrote my name backwards "in code"...because, you know, that's what people who have true things to say do.
So, I recently met screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald, who co-wrote The Passion of the Christ with Mel Gibson. It was a funny encounter, because as cool as it was to congratulate him on his achievement in TPOTC, I was preoccupied for information about something EVEN MORE COOL AND EXCITING....
ME: So, I have heard that your mother is THE Sally Fitzgerald.
Benedict F. responds with a nod and a knowing chuckle that says "Oooh, you're one of them, are you?"
ME: Did you ever meet (reverential tone) Flannery O'Connor?
Benedict F: She was my babysitter. Her book Wise Blood was my first foray into screenwriting, you know. I wrote it for John Huston.
I tried not to get stuck on the humbling fact that MY first foray into screenwriting was a 12 miniute documentary on the Sorority System for Northwestern University.... actually, that does have a kind of grostesqueness to it, so maybe...?
Anyway, it occurred to me in talking with Mr. Fitzgerald that several people have found some things in TPOTC "grostesque", like, for example, the crow poking out the bad thief's eyeballs. Benedict Fitzgerald came by that monniker honestly, it seems to me, and thank God for that.
It wasn’t a proud moment. There I was in the Toys “R” Us checkout line clutching “the thing’s” face to my thigh, trying desperately to avoid eye contact with any of the other shoppers.
As I slid the object onto the checkout counter, I deftly obscured it with a box of dominoes, just so anyone watching would be confused as to my moral caliber. There I was, plunking down $14.95 to buy for my little nephew, John Thomas, the hideous, snake-headed villain Hydra, dastardly nemesis of action figure Max Steele.
The checkout lady picked up the toy and pronounced a guttural sentence on it: “Yehhhhck.”
I was ready with the 4-year-old wisdom that had prevailed on me to make the buy: “Auntie Barbara, you have to have a villain or there is nothing for Max Steele to do.”
You have to have a villain. Villains make heroism possible.
Later on — I admit it, after a beer — I asked John Thomas why Hydra is so ugly. Again, the thinking came back clear and unambiguous: “Because,” he said while practically rolling his eyes at me, “he’s bad.”
The afternoon will include two presentations and an hors d'oueves reception.
"The Passion of the Christ and the Gospels"
Fr. John J. Riley, is the pastor of St. Louis Catholic Church in ALexandria, VA, and former adjunct Professor of Scripture, Christendom College. He received a B.A. in film from the University of Notre Dame and then a Masters in Theology from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
"The Art of The Passion: Moment of Grace for Hollywood...and the Church"
Barbara R. Nicolosi is a screenwriter and the Executive Director of Act One, Inc. She is an adjunct professor of screenwriting at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, CA, and a doctoral candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary. Barbara has a B.A. from the Great Books program at Magdalen College in Warner, NH, and a Masters in film from Northwestern University.
$5 donation requested; To make a reservation call 202-635-5434 or email email@example.com
"THAT'S ME IN THE BEST-BUY, LOO-ZIN' MY RELIGION --"
So, I am having to buy a new lap-top. A couple of my friends are encouraging me to, well, go MAC. It struck me immediately as a shocking suggestion. So, well, menacingly mad cap....or even treacherous. Like dating a Yankee fan. I've always been so absolutely PC....ask anyone who knows me. [coy cough]
Anyway, I keep trying to have conversations with people who can only be referred to as the Stepford MAC's, but no one can give me any good, clear reasons for switching my electronic allegiance. Here's how the investigation usually unfolds...
ME: So, tell me why I should become a MAC user.
STEPFORD MAC: Oh yeah! You really should.
STEPFORD MAC: Because it's soooooooooooooooooooooooooo much better. It's amazing.
ME: Really? How better?
STEPFORD MAC: (eyes glazing over) I remember when I switched. Man, I'll never go back.
STEPFORD MAC: Yeah.... What?
ME: Why is it better? What makes the MAC so great?
STEPFORD MAC: (burst of laughter; then, with emphasis) EV-REE-THING. No comparison.
ME: In what way?
STEPFORD MAC: (losing patience with my clueless idiocy) It can do everything.
ME: Like WHAT?! I don't need it to chew and spit!
STEPFORD MAC: Well, it like, never crashes.
ME: (hopeful; we're getting somewhere) So that's good, right. Although, my PC never really crashes... What else?
STEPFORD MAC: (eyes out of focus again) So much better. Every way.
There is an interesting piece witten by Sandy Starr over on Arts and Letters Daily about the dark side of sci-fi/fantasy entertainment. I wish it didn't feel so right on. But I admit to having a high degree of anti-sci-fi/fantasy bias due, no doubt, to the large number of screenplays and books I have read in the last few years that fall into the category of "too weird to live." I am always trying to figure out why so many young adult Christians today would so much rather spend hours imaging fake worlds, as opposed to reading literature about this world. Is it me, or is there something innately anti-pastoral in the steady diet of fantasy?
But enjoyable though it is, even an incorrigible geek such as myself has to confess that the mainstreaming of geekdom is far from a healthy phenomenon.
The criticism traditionally heaped upon science fiction and fantasy - that they are infantile and escapist genres - has always been fairly risible. There is no reason why science fiction, fantasy, and yes, even comic books, cannot be used in an ambitious way to explore the human condition, just as all fiction can. Science fiction and fantasy often provide a fascinating insight into the concerns of the times in which they are produced, from the progressive aspirations of the US science fiction writers of the 1950s, to JRR Tolkien's Catholic morality in The Lord of the Rings (1).
But the criticism of science fiction and fantasy fans - that we are infantile and escapist people, and socially inept to boot - sadly has a little more truth to it. Of course, there are many pastimes that people pursue obsessively, and it may seem a little unfair to stick the boot into sci-fi geeks rather than car fanatics, opera buffs or stamp collectors. But of all the hobbies and interests out there, being preoccupied with the details of otherworldly settings and characters, at the expense of being engaged with the world you actually inhabit, does bespeak a certain retreat from society into the safety of one's imagination.
Christianity Today goes right to the source to get to the bottom of the creepy baby moment in POTC.
"Again," said Gibson, "it's evil distorting what's good. What is more tender and beautiful than a mother and a child? So the Devil takes that and distorts it just a little bit. Instead of a normal mother and child you have an androgynous figure holding a 40-year-old 'baby' with hair on his back. It is weird, it is shocking, it's almost too much—just like turning Jesus over to continue scourging him on his chest is shocking and almost too much, which is the exact moment when this appearance of the Devil and the baby takes place."
At the roughcut screening I attended back in June, THIS was the scene that threw the Evangelical minister also in attendance into a hissy fit. (I went home that night and wrote the conversation down, but some of what follows is paraphrasing.) The minister kept pressing Mel to delete from the film, "Anything in the movie that isn't in the Bible."
Mel said, "Like what? What in my movie isn't in the Bible?"
Mel's confusion here comes from the fact that he, like any devout artist, doesn't see artistic license which is consonant with the spirit of the Scriptures to be "not in the Bible." I think he would say, "What I made is in the Bible - between the lines."
Anyway, the pastor guy said, "It isn't in the Bible that Satan talked to Jesus in the Garden."
Mel responded, "Don't you think Satan was there?"
Minister retorted, to the effect of, "It doesn't matter what I THINK. It matters what is written in the Word of God."
At this point, I burst in to the exchange. "Where in the Bible do God and Adam touch index fingers?" The pastor didn't say anything. I think Mel laughed. I stomped all over my point as usual, "The fact is, that image is one of the most enduring and powerful sacred images in human history." I turned to Mel. "Don't change your movie to please the sensibilities of any particular sect in Christendom. Change the movie if you think you are being somehow untrue to the Scriptures."
The minister was not happy with me. He waited a few cold seconds of silence and then talked past me to Mel. "And that scene with the ugly baby. What was that?"
Mel said, "I dunno. I just thought it was really creepy. Didn't you think it was creepy?"
Minister guy: "But what is it supposed to mean?"
Me: 'Satan brought a friend. He wanted to share it with a friend."
Mel laughed. "Yeah, he brought a friend!"
Minister guy persisted with exasperation, "But WHERE did you get that from?"
In other words, "You DIDN'T get it in the Bible, because I KNOW the Bible."
Mel, at this point was getting just as exasperated, "I dunno. I guess I just pulled it out of my ass."
FABULOUS! It still makes me laugh! The minister was appropriately horrified. I just thought it was perfectly appropriate.
Is there a better synthesis of the experience of the devout artist who stands back and looks at the work of thier hands, very aware that what they have wrought has come from they don't know where. The Pope speaks about artists as being conduits of Divine revelation. I have experienced every so often getting into a zone with my writing - especially fiction writing - in which the words all of a sudden pour out of me, and I only know "afterwords" that I didn't start writing with anywhere close to the ideas/formulations that suddenly appeared on the page.
I will be participating in a panel discussion on The Passion of the Christ at USC's Annenberg School of Communications this evening. I have seven minutes to lay out some of my thoughts regarding the project. Excuse me while I collect my thoughts here...
I thought I would work off the question above, distinguishing between what does the project mean to Hollywood, to the masses who are flocking to it, and then what does it mean in itself?
A. WHAT DOES POTC mean to Hollywood?
The industry is shocked by the box-office numbers for the project. The day before POTC opened, I read one of the industry box-office pundits predicting that the film "might actually top $30 mil in its opening week." Talk about misreading the signs of the times...
A lot of people in town were prepared to dismiss the original spike in box-office to an orchestrated campaign by church groups. I don't think anyone can look at the $125 million in five days without the following thought process intruding:
- Either there are a hell of a lot more church groups out there than I knew, or else more likely,
- There are a lot more people interested in Jesus out there than I ever imagined.
There are many in Hollywood who will want to dismiss POTC as a fluke. And they would be right. The primary thing that has powered this film is the fact that it was written, produced, directed and bankrolled by a global movie superstar. We have grown so used to movie stars being preoccupied with saving whales, wearing ribbons and ridiculing religion, that the notion of one of "that tribe" producing a devout consideration of the redemptive Sacrifice of Jesus is truly inconceivable.
People all want to know what the success of this film will mean in terms of future projects. Who knows? It might mean some openness for Biblical epics, but the problem is you aren't going to see another POTC until you have a filmmaker who actually believes and loves the Biblical story. POTC is awesome ibecause of its theological sophistication. This kind of movie could only be produced by a filmmaker who is in awe of God. I don' know that there are too many other A-list directors who could meet that requirement.
B. WHAT DOES POTC MEAN TO VIEWERS?
This is another way of getting around to the two questions, "Does this film make viewers want to go beat up Jewish people"? AND "Is the violence in this film ultimately sickening to the viewer?" The question comes down to, "Is artistic license absolute?" or in other words, "How much responsibility does an artist/entertainer bear in the impact their work has on their audience?"
SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT ARTISTIC FREEDOM...
I belong to a school of thought that sees the arts as having a vital place in human society. Decorating stuff is more than just a private impulse for self-expression. But it is minimally that, and we have to leave room for the artist to make dark and crazy weird things in the privacy of their own studios. The ethical question comes in when the artist decides to take some of that stuff out and put it in the middle of the public square. Some of the stuff that bursts out of the artist is poisonous to human society. It's like vomit. Vomit is very real. But reality isn't virtue enough to allow someone to smear it all over the walls in a room. A lot of the art we have been subjected to for the last century has been tantamount to being smeared with vomit.
The artist can lead people to want to be good. The arts can stretch us to see and experience farther than our normal workaday worlds would take us. They arts can connect us to one another, to our deepest selves and to the transcendent.
The artist's ethical question comes down to, will this work of mine lead people toward the good or away from it? Will it fill them with hope or despair? Will it make them want to be more fully human, or will it validate them in settling for being more like a pig?
Now, the fact is, the artist's responsibility can only be measured according to the standard of a healthy human being. We can't limit the artist, for example, because some wacko out there has a pathological response to the color purple. This is what governments try to do, and it is always wrong. However, suppose MOST people have a pathological response to the color purple. Suppose it isn't aberrant to start frothing at the mouth when you see grape soda, but rather the norm for the kind of beings that we are? Then, the artist who uses purple is being irresponsible.
I don't think POTC leaves most people in a worse place than they were before. I think it leaves most people better off. The fact that it is not a happy film, doesn't say anything about this question at all. Sometime truth is firghtening and being disturbed is a positive, like being wakened from sleep.
Much of the criticism coming against POTC is hugely problematic in terms of the whole question of artistic freedom. Where are the people in the creative community for whom artistic freedom has been their clarion call?
SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT PROPOGANDA...
The anti-Semitism charges against The Passion of the Christ keep coming down to two notions:
--"The POTC is anti-Semitic."
--"The POTC is not in itself anti-Semitic, but some people might find their latent strands of anti-Semitism affirmed by the film."
Regarding the first notion, I think that to be effective, propaganda must in some sense be intentional. Now, if Mel Gibson was trying to make an anti-Semitic work, he did a very bad job of it. In fact, we could go through the film, and find ways in which hatred for Jewish people might have been heightened. There is just too much ambiguity in the film to claim that it has this agenda. So, if this was the agenda of the film, we would have to conclude that it was very sloppily done.
Regarding the second notion. See the argument above about making art for people who have apathological response to the color purple.
SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT ARTISTIC LICENSE...
Mel is getting criticism from theological circles for making a film that is historically inaccurate in its sensibilities. Other people have taken issue with the fact that there are things in the movie that are not in the Scriptures. Mel has been going around claiming that he made a film that was as historical as possible, and faithful to the Scriptures.
This dispute reflects a distance in terms between the scholar and the artist. Mel has made a film that is visually historical. He got the costumes right. He got the production design right. The characters are semitic looking. They don't speak with British accents and have blue eyes and perfect teeth. The scholars want to see a dissertation on the relationship between Rome and its occupied territories and specifically the situation in Palestine. That is the kind of complexity that belongs in books. That is why we have them.
There are three senses in which an artist can be inspired by the Scriptures.
The first sense would be in the attempt to be literal. (Enter Evangelical America.) People tell me the Gospel of John movie is like that. The Jesus film that Protestants love so much is probably also of this type. The second sense would be an artist who is anti-Scriptural. That is, the artist creates a work that is at odds with the fundamental spirit of the work. He is arguing with the hierarchy set up in the Scriptures. Such a project would be TheLast Temptation of Christ. Many people of faith find the character of Jesus in that film to be incompatible with the Jesus they know.
The third sense of the artist inspired by Scripture is the one who is functioning super-Scripturally. This involves the distortion of some details, to achieve a new emphasis. The emphasis, however, is fully in concert with the fundmental spirit of the Scriptures. So, for example, the image of God's finger touching Adam's finger is nowhere in the Bible. However, it is absolutely consonant with the sense of the creation narrative. And, borrowing from JPII, it's very distortion itself becomes a source of theology.
The Passion of the Christ is most like this.
On another level, a lot of theologian types are angry at the story that POTC tells. They want to movie to be more about Jesus' preaching, or about the resurrection. The only response to these people is a shrug. That isn't the movie that this artist wanted to make. He has the right to make whatever movie he wants to make as long as it ultimately leaves the viewers better off than they were before. To ask the sacred artist to create a work that encompasses the entire panoply of salvation history and theology is to bind up an impossible burden and to lay it on the artist's palatte.
FOR WHOM DOES POTC TOLL?
Clearly, the film is much more for people who know the story than for those who do not. Were it not, there would be a lot more attempts to give backstory and develop characters. The fact is the film picks up like the Stations of the Cross on the wall of any church. And then it just goes. Some people could stroll in to a church without knowing anything about Christianity and admire the craft of the sculptor or painter who created the Stations of the Cross. Some others might be provoked to learn more about the sotry that the Stations signify. "Why is this man being done to death? Where are his friends? Why doesn't he fight back?" Finally, some will see something in one of the Stations that will strike them at the bone. They will be stopped by one of the images and it will be a moment of grace for them. Mel Gibson's Passion will probably work like that with different groups of non-Christians.
WHAT ABOUT THE VIOLENCE?
The passion of the Christ is not a great film INSPITE of its violence. It is a great film THROUGH its violence. The violence is the principle symbolic device of the piece. Personally, I thought he could have cut some of it out. But maybe, for him, the violence wasn't quite enough to express the horror of sin that he was getting at. The Pope says that the artist will always look at his work and find it insufficient in light of the creative inspiration that has been given to him.
They didn't make me sick. That's not something to take for granted because most years the Academy Awards broadcast reduces me to ritualistic flailing and the screaming of epithets at the television.
This year, however, only a few ridiculous actors and one producer tried to tell us what to think about politics while waving their golden statues like scepters. "I'm not just talented - I'm IMPORTANT!" The paucity of "Moore-ishness" this year made for a happily mostly unoffensive evening with only the overuse of the word "AMAZING!" (as in, "Thank you to the most AMAZING cast and crew!" OR "Peter, you are an AMAZING director!") to make my sisters and I sneer. We stopped counting AMAZINGS after eleven in the first hour. ("I don't think you know what that word means.")
The nominations for Oscar should have made this a much more exciting show. They were wide-reaching, in embracing a lot of small movies over the studio projects and big stars. But, unfortunately, the awards were all a 'fait accompli' because at least in the major categories, the Academy voters vote not for the projects in question, but for those individuals whose turn it seems to be. To the amazement of my sisters, who don't live in Hollywood and pore over the trades every day, I predicted every single award all night -- well, except for the doc and shorts but who really cares about them anyway?
Everybody knew going in that this was the year to reward the meandering Rings trilogy. (There was actually a movement in town to award the project an honorary "Thank God It's Over Oscar" in the event the sprawling thing didn't get enough votes to take Best Picture....have to have something for the fans, after all.) Despite the fact that not a single one of the actors was even nominated for best performance, the film had to win Best Picture. Has that ever happened before? To make up for the dearth of strong acting, the film HAD to win every other possible award to justify the foregone conclusion of it winning Best Picture....(yawn...)
I have no problem with this project being rewarded for its scope. I also thought it was a nice touch of Jackson to further celebrate his film by not bothering to wash and comb his hair for Oscar night.
Awarding Penn and Robbins Oscars for Mystic River was disappointingly predictable. The film had won the cherished "important" moniker early on from the industry pundits, so recognizing these two over-the-top performances was fated to be.
Zellwegger was the only somewhat standout thing about the lumbering and expensive Cold Mountain, and the Weinsteins have to get something every year don't they? And besides, everybody likes Renee, so what the heck?
The best part of the night for me was seeing the Coppollas together on stage, and then seeing Sophia get the nod for Best Screenplay. And it's not just because they are Italian. Lost in Translation was the most satisfying and intelligent movie experience of 2003. She deserved a statue.
Welcome to the Blog-o-sphere friend and colleague, Jan Batchler! Jan and her husband Lee are real live studio screenwriters. Along with being two of the core members of the Act One Board and faculty, they have written features for Disney, Miramax, Paramount, Warner Bros. They were two of the writers behind Batman Forever which grossed a mere $784 million at the box-office.
Check out her blog Quoth the Maven (A title taken oh so cleverly from Edgar Allen Poe and The Tipping Point....rats!)
Jan's a Presbyterian, but she absolutely deserves a pew as "honorary Catholic" in St. Blog's Parish....And, oh, all you beginning writers who want to know how to get a agent, Jan is really the best person to send that genre of question..... (heh heh heh!)
I'm back in CT with my family for a few days. They all saw The Passion on Ash Wednesday, and are still recovering from it. Nobody is ready to talk about the movie yet. They don't want to hear me opine about the film's cinematography and its use of imagery and its editing. They are still in a place of profound sadness.
When I pressed my sister Alison for her experience of the film, she just looked at me and said, "I sat here and cried quietly for two hours." It reminded me of the characters of Mary, John and Magdalen in the film. No screaming, no demonstrating, no spinning, no gesticulating. Just grief without remorse.
I was marveling this morning at the horrific vitriol that some secularists are spewing towards Mel and his film - which is now really "our film" in the way that the Sistine Chapel and the Pieta are ours. I really have to take the Maureen Dowds and the Dominic Crossans, and the Christopher Kellys at their word that this bloodied, tortured Jesus in The Passion of the Christ is no one that they know. Their rage seems to be coming from a sense that their Jesus is one whom we associate with being gentle, curing sick people and admonishing hypocrites. Oh, and yes, the only thing He said that really matters to them is, "Judge not."
My family are of the stock for whom this movie is most meaningful. We are people who have spent thousands of hours brooding over the Sorrowful Mysteries. We are rosary people. We are people who really really DO Lent, and for whom Passion week is the center of the year. We think of the mass as being an unbloody Sacrifice that only has power because it recreates the bloody one of Calvary. We make the stations and holy hours and read the Scriptures and go on retreats and honor the Sacred Heart and offer things up and go to confession pretty much monthly.
The images in The Passion of the Christ are not shocking or new to us. They are pictures we have seen in our minds-eye millions of times. Yeah, we get that this is one artist's interpretation, but it is still incredible to see something you have spent your life trying to "believe without seeing."
Sorry, I just don't believe the protesters. I don't believe the journalistic outrage, the cultural pundits spewing warnings and liberal scholars tearing their theological garments. I don't buy any of it. They are missing the one thing that would validate their claims to authority: quiet tears.
I don't have any idea what the non-Christian world is going to do with The Passion of the Christ. From the day I saw it back in June, I have been brooding over how much the film could do in the Church. In my most disconcerted moments of watching the unfolding cultural discourse, the film seems to me to be a preparation for persecution. It's like Joan of Arc asking for someone to hold up a crucifix so she could watch it as she was burning at the stake. In other moments, it seems to me that the film is primarily a moment of grace for those of us who believe, to be disturbed back into who we are: People who speak of "nothing else but Christ and Him crucified."
Face it. We are a People who have grown lukewarm and distracted. We are the pathetic People of the Gospel warning who, ignoring the Signs of the Times - or maybe crestfallen, they both result in the same pastoral paralysis - are "busy about many things; eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage..." In the end, we should be defined by the conviction that "only One Thing is necessary." The Passion of the Christ reconnects us to that essential thread of our identity: We are a People of suffering, who follow the Man of Sorrows through this current 'Valley of Tears.' The Church is supposed to be "The Fellowship" that gets us through this sojourn, but our Sign is inescapably the Cross. The Cross is foolishness to the Diane Sawyers of human history and fury to the Dominic Crossan's. And so are we who claim it as our standard.
I remember shaking my head in wonder that The Passion could have come out of this particular moment in history. Beyond even the film's fundamental message of "Behold the Wood of the Cross - Come Let us Worship," the film doesn't seem to have any artistic context. It's like it just plopped out of nowhere. After forty years in the Catholic Church (and, Lord knows, four hundred years in Protestantism) of focussed iconoclasm and the exaltation of sterility and even ugliness, from where does this lush imaging of our most defining story come? It's like, imagine if, after all these years of architectural weirdness, some Bishop showed up in your local diocese and then, well, built Notre Dame. It doesn't seem possible. I remember walking through the towering monstrousness of the $200 million new L.A. Cathedral thinking, "Well, it is large. That sense of 'largeness' is probably the best we can do these days in building churches. We have lost the ability to make something that would convey 'fear of the Lord' (ie. awe/reverence/wonder/sense of the sacred/conviction that this religion must be real if it can make a thing like this). "
So, sidestepping the debate of whether kids should see this film (probably not any real young ones - it's case by case with teenagers...), and whether it will cause a rash of pogroms (give me a frickin' break), and whether it is historically accurate (It ain't. It's ART. ART is the selection and distortion of details....Give me another frickin' break already!), I want to suggest a few ways, that the adult members of the People of God, can approach this film so as to receive the maximum spiritual benefit.
1) Get out your Bible. Read the Passion narratives in the four Gospels. Read through the Suffering Servant prophecies in Isaiah. Spend time praying over some texts like:
- "But I was a worm and no man."
- "Let us beset the Just One...he is obnoxious to us."
- "So disfigured was he that we turned our faces from him."
- "He was despised and rejected among men."
And from the Good Friday liturgy:
- "My people, my people! What have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!"
2) About the brutality of the film... Keep in mind going in that the film is basically told from two points of view: Jesus' and Mary's. How long would a scourging seem to you if you were the one under the lash? How long would the way of the cross seem to a mother watching her child travel it? The violence in the film is a VISUAL SYMBOL of the following:
A)....how horrible sin is, in that we see its effects on Jesus. All those hidden little sins we think we have gotten away with - that no one else knows...Well, here they are, wreaking horrific suffering on the Innocent One. The truth is, there is no such thing as a sin without consequences.
B)...the Divinity of Christ makes any little flick of disdain against Him an act of immeasurably evil proportions. To scourge God, is an act that has no comparable visual metaphor. How horrible is it to do violence on the One? Go ahead, you try and show the weight of that in art. I dare you...
C) ...the immensity of Christ's love. What makes him get off the ground time and time again? Any of us would have just stayed down there at a certain point and said, "Go ahead. Kill me." How would you show the power of Christ's love?
Read some supplementary literature that will prepare you for the brutality of the film. A Doctor At Calvary or The Day Christ Died might be good.
3) Read a book on the Stations of the Cross. My favorite is the one by Caryl Houselander. Get one of those little pamphlets on the stations that are so ubiquitous in Catholic churches during Lent. Go to your Church on Ash Wednesday, get your ashes and then stay a few minutes and pray through the stations. The Passion of the Christ is much more a living stations of the cross than it is a movie. (By that I mean the film has none of the usual narrative hooks and arcs. )
4) Make an examination of conscience. Have your wounds fresh in your mind. What is it that you are attracted to that also disgusts and repels you? Get your helplessness and your need for a Savior in your frontal lobe.
Then, go buy a ticket. Walk past the popcorn and soda. Plop down in a seat and forget all the controversy. Encounter the film as an act of worship and prayer.