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December 2010

Prince Caspian, the Movie

I had skipped this when it first came out, having been less than happy with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. But I'm half-planning to go see Voyage of the Dawn Treader, so I thought I ought to see PC, too. (Why? I don't know, exactly, it just seems that I should, but I guess that doesn't necessarily make sense.)

Depending on how generous I felt at the moment, my opinion of it could range from "not very good" to "really terrible." This Touchstone article by Steven D. Boyer covers a lot of the problems, focusing on the more abstract philosophical mistakes of the film.  But I think those problems are the result of a fundamental aesthetic error. At any rate, the two aspects are certainly very closely connected. 

Prince Caspian includes an attack on Miraz's castle, which as the Touchstone article points out does not exist in the book. It seems to have been invented partly for the purpose of showing what jerks Caspian and Peter are, and partly because the filmmakers believed they needed to have more big loud Hollywood action stuff than the book could justify. It was during this long scene that it occurred to me that the filmmakers were trying to turn The Chronicles of Narnia into The Lord of the Rings (movie version). 

Well, it's totally wrong. I didn't think the Lord of the Rings movies were really very good, overall, as adaptations of the book, despite many wonderful moments.  But apart from that, the Narnia books are vastly different from LotR. The world Lewis creates is utterly unlike Tolkien's. It contains little to none of the grand scale, the high and serious nobility, and the deep tragic sense of Tolkien's story. It's small and modest and homely.

Worse than that, though, is the intrusion of an immensely tiresome contemporary sensibility which has nothing in common with Lewis's vision. This is partly noted in the Touchstone article. My daughter Clare summed it up pretty well in an email exchange:

"Yes, injecting 'emotional realism' into a Narnia story is like putting giblet gravy on a cupcake. I can see what the director was trying to do, but it just doesn't work for Narnia. You can have either Narnia, where everyone (except a few select folks like Miraz and Eustace) is basically good and their actions are generally in good faith even if they're wrong, or you can have emotional realism, where everyone is deeply flawed and disagreements are often completely irrational. I mean, if it's all about the gritty realism, it's just not Narnia."

Perhaps the most telling example of the fundamental wrong-headedness of the film's approach is in the fact that it invents a romance between Susan and Caspian. Fortunately, they didn't go as far with this as they might have, but it was still a big mistake. Clare again:

"I thought they messed up Susan pretty thoroughly in the first movie. They were going for no-nonsense tough girl who can stand up for herself, I think, but the line between that and cranky troublemaker is very thin. On the other hand, I don't think book-Susan would put up with all the sighing and longing glances. She's always struck me a profoundly down-to-earth person - even if she did have some kind of relationship with Caspian, they wouldn't be all ostentatious and Epic Romance about it (more like the cab driver/king and housewife/queen from The Magician's Nephew if you remember them). It's almost like the director and screenwriters haven't read the books at all and are just working from a plot outline."

My emphasis above, because I think that sums it up pretty well. Susan is, in my opinion, as big an indicator of the fundamental problems as Peter and Caspian are in the eyes of the Touchstone writer. She's almost always sullen and irritable in what has become the pretty cliched Hollywood depiction of the Smart Woman Who Is Not Being Listened To By the Egotistical Males Even Though She Is Always Right.

I'm sure the filmmakers did read the books. The problem is that they decided to turn them into something they're not. 

The Heart of Christmas

Sunday Night Journal — December 26, 2010

When I was a child, Christmas was the most wonderful thing in the world to me. The only thing that even came close to matching its appeal was a trip to Florida, to the white sand and blue-green waters of the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. Not surprisingly, I was more interested in Santa Claus and the presents he brought me than in the Nativity of Christ. I learned fairly early that this was not really the correct way to think or feel about Christmas, but I couldn’t help it. Mary and Joseph and the baby and the stable and the manger and the shepherds and the angels and the Wise Men were all very sweet, but a little off to one side in the Christmas picture, not nearly as entrancing as the Christmas tree and the magical surprise of the presents that would appear around it on Christmas morning.

And yet I was conscious that without the Nativity the rest of it was meaningless and without real delight. When I say I was conscious of this, I don’t mean that I reasoned it out in a chain of logic—B is dependent on A, and therefore if I want A I must also have B—or put it into words for myself, but that I perceived, directly, that the things I loved about Christmas could not be separated from the event it commemorates. From the time I could read I felt that there was something amiss when “Season’s Greetings” was substituted for “Merry Christmas.” (Even in the 1950s, there was sometimes an impulse to make “the holidays” a generic secular winter festival; it would make an interesting subject of study to see just how far back that goes in popular culture and advertising, and how it developed.)

There was a seasonal or holiday magazine of sorts that appeared in our house sometimes. It was called something Ideals: that is, Christmas Ideals, Easter Ideals, and so on. I mainly remember the Christmas one. It was something more than an ordinary magazine, much heavier and thicker, really a sort of book, and as far as I can remember it consisted mainly of pictures, stories, and poems associated with the holiday. The Christmas one of course relied heavily on snow and evergreens and all the other trappings of Christmas in the northern parts of the U.S. and Europe. I loved it and pored over it again and again in the weeks before Christmas for the pleasure of tasting that sense of magical expectation that anything connected with Christmas gave me. Some of the pieces were of the generic winter variety: a snowy landscape with no hint of red and green to suggest Christmas, a description of a holiday gathering which did not name the holiday. Living in a hot climate, I felt a romantic attraction toward snowy landscapes, but in this context I felt that something was missing if they were no more than that.

And the music: I always felt that “Winter Wonderland” had something missing, but I think I was twelve or fourteen before I realized that it is not in fact a Christmas song. I never even much cared for the Santa Claus songs which left everything but Santa out of the picture.

I knew instinctively that the story of the Nativity, with all its implications about the nature of the world and our place in it, was the heart of Christmas. Maybe I preferred to look at the face, but I knew, unconsciously, that it was dependent on the heart for its life.

And this was true whether or not I recognized it. Those who celebrate a Christmas without Christ don’t recognize it, and don’t believe the connection between the two is a necessary one. But I’m pretty sure they’re mistaken. We can still see Christ in the popular American commercial Christmas by his absence; it’s as if all the a-religious trappings outline his form. If you try to imagine a Christmas which had never been founded in the Bethlehem story at all, you get something very different.

The secularizers who for various purposes of their own—anti-Christian or merely commercial—wish to eliminate Christmas in favor of a featureless Holiday that commemorates nothing in particular may eventually succeed. But that Holiday will inevitably be dull in comparison with what it replaces, and probably increasingly squalid as well, given the general drift of our society. The particular festive spirit that animates Christmas is a product of hope, a hope that cannot be entirely defeated by the world, because it looks toward something beyond the world. But anything which does not look beyond the world will sooner or later be defeated by it.

As with the holiday, so with the culture at large. The increasingly post-Christian culture of America and Europe are nevertheless more deeply rooted in Christianity than is usually recognized by its opponents (and some of its adherents). It’s at least theoretically possible that this culture will eventually get Christianity out of its system, out of the roots of its consciousness, and negligible as a cultural force, reduced to the private practices of an eccentric few. This would take several generations, and I don’t think it will happen, but it certainly could. And if it did, the resulting culture would, like Christmas, lose the hope and the humanism which had been its legacy from Christianity. As with Christmas, if the heart were to stop beating, the body would die.

We have seen the prospects for that new culture already, in the totalitarian nightmares of communism and fascism, in the wasteland of pleasure-and-power-seeking which is offered as the good life by much of the entertainment and advertising produced by capitalism, in the drab materialist collectivism of “Imagine” and the absurd materialist egoism of Atlas Shrugged.

Perhaps it’s not even too much to say that if Christmas were to die, the remains of Christian culture would die, too, and with it that softness toward the individual human person—imperfect, of course, and slow to develop—that has characterized it. As long as the mad mixture of the very earthly and the very heavenly which is Christmas—the poor and vulnerable newborn baby among the animals on the one hand,  choirs of angels on the other—remains at the heart of the holiday, and the holiday remains very much alive in the culture, the natural coldness and brutality of the human race is always challenged from within the culture itself. Should that challenge be removed, no one would be more surprised by the result than those who worked to remove it. They might not live to see that result, but if their souls were not lost altogether, part of their purgatory might be the knowledge of what they had done to their descendants.

How wonderful, on the day after Christmas, to sit in a comfortable chair near the lighted tree, take up a volume of Wodehouse received as a gift from one's spouse, and find that the title of the first story is "The Custody of the Pumpkin."

It was as good as the title suggests. "Lord Emsworth could conceive of no way in which Freddie could be of value to a dog-biscuit firm, except possibly as a taster..."

Maddy Prior & The Carnival Band

Weekend Christmas Music

Pretty much my favorite Christmas album. 


And thanks to YouTube I learn that there is a DVD of them doing a Christmas show. Here's "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," performed very much as heard on the album. I love Maddy Prior--she's so unpretentious and engaging, while singing so wonderfully.


(Also, I find it somehow encouraging that she's slightly older than I am.)


If you use Wikipedia...

...please read this appeal and consider making a donation. I realized a while back that I have come to rely very heavily on it. The small donation I just made doesn't come close to paying for the use I get out of it, but it's something.

Interesting detail (to me, anyway): Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, is from Huntsville, Alabama, near where I grew up and where I lived 1984-1990.  Disheartening detail: he's an objectivist. But Wikipedia is still a good thing.

Waiting for Joy

Sunday Night Journal — December 20, 2010

One of the more irritating ways of dismissing the major Christian holidays is to declare that they “celebrate the turning of the seasons” or something of that sort. You know: Christmas marks the winter solstice by placing light and music at the darkest time of year; Easter is about the renewal of life in spring; etc. It’s not that these are wrong, and it is very fitting that these celebrations are placed where they are in the calendar (for the northern hemisphere, and especially for northern latitudes). But they are only a part of the truth, and when put forward as explanations they distort the truth by putting the lesser above the greater.

To treat these holidays as if their purpose is to mark the passage of the seasons is to deny their real meaning. It is a more accurate view of the matter to say that the seasons are used to emphasize the events commemorated by Christmas and Easter than the other way around. The traditional European Christian calendar, with Advent beginning in late autumn, Christmas near the winter solstice, Lent in deep winter, Easter beginning near the spring equinox, and the rest of the year designated as “ordinary time” is a way of organizing the time marked by the passage of the earth around the sun. It sanctifies the seasons but does not make them objects of worship or near-worship. It is not drawn down into them but draws them up into itself. It uses the cycle of seasons to point toward the end of all cycles. Both Christmas and Easter commemorate events that happened once and only once in all of history. And their appearance in history constitutes the beginning of the end of the cycles in which we live.

There are people who are naturally disposed to look on the brighter and warmer side of the earthly cycle, and those who are naturally disposed to look on the darker and colder side: optimists and pessimists, the sanguine and the melancholic. The sanguine can always say, at the winter solstice: the days will now begin to get longer, and summer is coming; things will get better. The melancholic can always say, at the summer solstice: the days will now begin to get shorter, and winter is coming; things will get worse. Each appears to have more or less the same degree of justification for his views. It’s the nature of life in this world that things change, that the very worst situation will either get better or come to an end, and that the very best situation will either get worse or come to an end.

But in the long run the melancholy view of this earthly life is the true one. Yes, in the day-to-day and year-to-year course of life, the results may be about even: day follows night, night follows day. Summer follows winter, winter follows summer. But life and death do not join that dance. Death follows life, and that’s the end of it. In the long run time is the destroyer. Every pleasure, every good thing, will disappear into the past of the one who experiences it, never to be retrieved. New joys may come, but they won’t last, and the time will come when those that are passing will not be replaced by new ones. Eventually the one who experienced them will also pass away into time, and all his experiences disappear with him.

Man is in love, and loves what vanishes:
what more is there to say?

The melancholic is one who cannot ever entirely forget that time and death are waiting for everything. It is this that make even the sweetest of earthly joys bittersweet to him—this, and the yearning for a joy that neither disappoints nor passes away.

The joy of the melancholic is always in the shadow of his knowledge that it can never be complete or permanent. “I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will,” says the country singer Mac Sledge in that wonderful movie Tender Mercies. And who would be so foolish as to tell him he should? Even a life miraculously fortunate and untroubled will come to an end. A young man wins the heart of the beautiful woman for whom he yearns, and promises to love her forever. But even if they live long and happily together, the end will come. They will lose the glow of youth and fade together, growing weak and wrinkled and slow. And no matter how much grace and devotion they bring to those years, time is bearing down on them, and will bring his scythe down to separate them.

The melancholic doesn’t celebrate the seasons so much as accept them, knowing that each brings its pleasures but that none of those will last. He prepares himself to let each one go even as it arrives. And he does this with everything in life.

But if Christianity is true then the melancholic is wrong in the longest run of all, and the sanguine are right. The significance of Christianity is not that it celebrates the cycles but that it ends them, and not by extinction, but by fulfillment. It promises joy that does not disappoint or fade away, and a life that is not closed by death.

It may appear to the sanguine that the melancholic lacks the capacity for joy. I suppose this is sometimes the case, and it’s a frightening thought, because for anyone to lose that capacity truly and completely would be to lose his soul. But I think more often the melancholic is wounded: he will no longer give his heart to a lover who has betrayed him more than once and will certainly do so again. Fault him for being weak or timid, too easily defeated, if you like, but you can’t say he’s unreasonable.

But he ought to celebrate Christmas without any such reservation, because it points toward an eternal Christmas. The lover will return, forever faithful and forever beautiful. And if the melancholic seemed in this life to lack the capacity for joy, well, just wait until you meet him in the new creation.