Macdonald and Giles: Suite in C
Caelum et Terra Is Back On the Air

Two Books and Three Movies

Sunday Night Journal —February 6, 2011

A Few Seconds of Panic, by Stefan Fatsis. Football season is over, so it’s a bit late for me to be mentioning this book, but maybe anyone who’s interested will be as dilatory as I am and won’t get around to reading it till late next summer. It’s one of two books about football given to me by Jesse Canterbury after several email conversations on the subject. (The other was The Blind Side, which is excellent, and is pretty well known thanks to the movie made from it.) A Few Seconds is the story of Fatsis’s attempt to emulate the feat of George Plimpton, who in the mid-‘60s convinced the Detroit Lions to let him train with them and play a few downs in an exhibition game, and then wrote a book about the experience, the famous Paper Lion, which I haven’t read but would like to.

Plimpton attempted to play quarterback, a pretty bold move. Fatsis, having been a decent soccer player, and at 43 years old, 5’8’’ and 160lb, too old and small to do anything else, decided he might have a shot at place-kicking, and talked the Denver Broncos into giving him a chance. In this age of highly specialized players, a place-kicker is in a strange, isolated, and isolating position. Apart from the occasional trick play or odd situation, he doesn’t do the things that other players do—blocking, tackling, carrying the ball—and his time on the field hardly adds up to a minute in the average game. But when he is needed, all eyes are on him, and a field-goal kicker sooner or later finds himself in the position of having the outcome of a game depend solely on him. He may achieve lasting fame (Van Tiffin, Alabama vs. Auburn, 1985, 52-yard field goal to win the game as time expired) or humiliation (the New Orleans Saints kicker who was fired last fall after missing in a similar situation).

The book does an excellent job of capturing the struggles Fatsis wages with himself (physical and mental), with the other players, and with the coaches and management of the Broncos. As one might suspect, the stress and isolation of being a kicker are reflected and reinforced in the culture of the team, in practice and in pretty much everything the team does. It’s also a vivid portrait of several other players, some of whom have names a fan will recognize (e.g. Jay Cutler, now quarterback of the Chicago Bears) and of the life of a professional player. I don’t suppose it will come as a surprise to anyone that it’s not a bed of roses. Recommended to anyone who has the least interest in the subject.

No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. This is an outstanding novel, but one of the grimmest you’ll ever read. It combines the skillful suspense of Elmore Leonard with great philosophical depth. The story, set in 1980 (a significant fact which you can easily miss, or at least I did) along the Texas-Mexico border, begins with the aftermath of a drug-related shootout in a remote desert area. A hunter, a Vietnam veteran named Llewellyn Moss, comes across the scene and finds a lot of dead men and a suitcase full of money. He decides that the money might just as well be his, takes it, and goes on the run, pursued by some very bad people. This may sound like the beginning of an ordinary thriller, and it is a thriller, but it’s also much more.

Among the bad people is a very cold-blooded killer named Anton Chigurh, who seems to see himself as a sort of incarnation of fate or nemesis, an impersonal force which is only doing the inevitable when it encounters another person who could in any way inconvenience or impede it. “I have no enemies,” he says, in one of his more chilling lines, to one of his victims before shooting him. “I don’t permit such a thing.”

Trailing along behind the bloodshed, trying to figure out what’s going on and stop it, is a wise and kind old sheriff, Ed Tom Bell. A significant part of the book is taken up with his meditations on a long life in a rough country, and it is these, and in particular their revelation of the effect upon him of his growing knowledge of what Chigurh is, that give it much of its depth.

It’s a life’s work to see yourself for what you are, and even then you might be wrong.

I’ve known for years that McCarthy is a highly regarded novelist, but never really considered reading him because of my generally low opinion of contemporary fiction. Well, that was a mistake.

A relatively minor thing worth mentioning is the startling accuracy of McCarthy’s ear for a certain sort of southern and apparently Texan turn of speech. I don’t think I’ve encountered in any other writing the use of “kindly” as a synonym for (or mispronounciation of?) “kind of,” e.g. “it’s kindly warm today.” I would think that would be confusing to those who aren’t familiar with it.

No Country for Old Men, film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It was in large part the recommendation of this movie by people on this blog that caused me to read the book, as I generally don’t like to see movies made from books before reading the book (unless it’s something I know is pretty lightweight). The movie is excellent. I really can’t find fault with it as a movie; it is very skillfully done and extremely well-acted. Tommy Lee Jones is absolutely perfect as Sheriff Bell. I personally didn’t find the portrayal of Chigurh as chilling as it might have been, but I think that’s just my idiosyncracy, and not any fault of the actor, because I had formed a somewhat different mental image of him. (If you’ve seen the movie: I imagined Chigurh looking more like a somewhat younger version of Carson Wells.) And the movie is as faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the book as one could expect a movie to be. Its limitation in comparison to the book is the fact that it is a movie: only a small amount of Sheriff Bell’s monologue, which in the book appears to be voiced well after the events, can be fitted into the movie, and without that the bloody action takes over almost completely. But it’s worth seeing, if you can stand a fair amount of violence and the challenge of the pure evil which Bell knows he is confronting. I might mention that the violence in the book is not so viscerally disturbing, because most of it isn’t described in great detail.

District 9, film directed by Neill Blomkamp. I’m always on the lookout for good sci-fi movies, and had heard this was one, but I found it pretty disappointing. The premise has a lot of potential: a large number of aliens have been stranded on earth (some sort of problem with their spacecraft, not clearly explained) and become semi-prisoners in a sort of ghetto, subject to a full system of apartheid. The movie was in fact both produced and set in South Africa and was apparently intended to suggest a parallel between the situation of the aliens and that of black Africans under apartheid.

This is much like the basic situation of an older movie, Alien Nation, but is worked out very differently. It gets off to a very interesting start, because the filmmakers took the unusual step of making the aliens pretty repulsive in both appearance and behavior, so that you have some sympathy for the earthlings who want nothing to do with them. (I mean that it’s unusual when you’re supposed to sympathize with the aliens; usually when the aliens are repulsive they’re also evil.) A further unusual step is the portrayal of the former victims of apartheid as being just as willing as everyone else to engage in bigotry toward the aliens and to exploit them ruthlessly.

But it doesn’t hold up. It soon turns into a rather ordinary sermon-ish portrayal of the evils of being hostile to people who are different, unless they’re businessmen or soldiers, and then into an even more ordinary action movie. It’s not terrible, and it’s well-made, with a particularly excellent performance by the actor in the lead role, a corporate employee who undergoes a conversion which is more than usually thorough for this kind of story (if you’ve seen it, you’re supposed to chuckle at that). But it’s very violent and very, very disgusting. The last scene is very sweet, though, and helps ameliorate the rest.

Summertime, film directed by David Lean and starring Katherine Hepburn. I think my wife and I only watched this because it happened to be on tv. It’s a slight, simple 1955 romance which I might have liked if the leading lady had been someone other than Katherine Hepburn. I know she’s one of our great stars, but I’ve never much liked her. She reminds me of a certain type of upper-class WASP woman with progressive ideas and puritan, if not prudish, instincts—the kind of woman who advocates free love while expecting that it be exercised in a cool, controlled, hygienic way, with no violent emotions and no diseases and absolutely no unplanned babies, and doesn’t understand the havoc her ideas wreak when set loose among more impulsive people. These words may be unfair to Hepburn as a person, though there is plenty of evidence in her biography that they are not—she was in fact an upper class WASP and a supporter of Planned Parenthood, of which her mother was a founder. What’s relevant here, though, is that she comes across that way in her films: she is too chilly and brittle to be appealing to me as a romantic lead. She’s better as the prickly straitlaced missionary in The African Queen, a role that gives expression to what is admirable in the type.


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The end of District 9 had me in tears, but sentimental scenes in films do that to me. And there's something about the idea of alien muti killings that strikes me as both entirely original, and once presented utterly inevitable.


Apparently wikipedia prefers "medicine murder" to "muti killing".

There's a reference to it in one of the Mma Ramotswe stories, but perhaps you aren't familiar with them. They might be described as "sweet", too, but I think them very good.

There are parallels between the aims and methods of the "men in white coats" and of the Nigerian gangsters that put me in mind of Waugh's Black Mischief, but perhaps that's just me.

Paul, Have you seen the TV series based on the Mma Ramotswe books? And, if so, do you like it?


I think the parallel is really there, even down to the "medicine murder," and not accidental.

Well, I mean, within the movie--I'm not sure about the connection to Black Mischief as I don't remember the book clearly enough, although I think some such thought crossed my mind, too, during the movie.

No, I'm not familiar with the Ramotswe stories--that's the Number One Ladies Detective series, right? If so I've heard good things about them. I didn't mean "sweet" as a putdown, btw. It was moving.

I've seen one episode of the TV adaptation, Janet, and I thought it was OK. I wouldn't mind seeing more, but I wasn't as taken with it as I was with the books. Have you seen it?

Mac, as good as 'No Country' is, I think you'll be even more floored by 'The Road.' I found it absolutely harrowing, but in another way quite hopeful. The movie is very good too, although not quite as good as the film of 'No Country.'

Paul, I've seen them all. You are right about them not being as good as the books, but we still enjoyed them.

Rob, I think The Road is McCarthy's best book, and probably the best recent novel I've read. We tried to watch the movie, but it was so dark that we couldn't see it on our miserable little screen. It was disappointing.


Funny you mention Katharine Hepburn and her “progressive ideas.” I recently had a back-and-forth with a friend of mine about Hepburn’s accent. My friend thought it was fake because she (who herself hails from an upper-crust WASP background) had never heard anyone talk quite like Hepburn. In the course of checking into this, I found an interview Hepburn did in 1979 with 60 Minutes; it’s on YouTube here: At about the 1:14 mark, they start talking about old age and its miseries. Hepburn especially bemoans the lot of old people in rest homes who are left to languish until they die. Her solution? “Shoot ’em.”

I read Katharine Hepburn's autobiography several years ago and disliked her very much.

I think that one of the worst remakes of a movie ever was Affair to Remember and the worst thing about it was the way they changed the wonderful grandmother from the original movie into the awful character that KH played in the remake.


So, my impression was correct. I'm not especially glad to hear it, but it *is* a pretty strong impression. "shoot 'em." She lived to be 90-something--I wonder if she changed her mind. But of course her life would have been more meaningful than theirs.

About the accent: in movies made before 1950 or so, the upper class characters (American) often have a crisp almost near-English accent that I have never heard in real life. I suppose it mostly disappeared some time ago, so your friend, Marianne, may never have heard it.

Rob, I definitely plan to read The Road (and probably see the movie).

I liked District 9 a lot just after seeing it; somewhat less so several days later. I still remember the art, though. Science fiction movies seem so antiseptic sometimes...I'm thinking of Star Trek where you never see any dirt anywhere, or perhaps the later Star Wars movies. District 9 was definitely NOT antiseptic. And the various spaceships, weapons, etc., looked and "felt" very substantive and heavy in a way that many sci-fi props don't, at least not very often.

I liked District 9 so much I saw it several times. I don't think it's just about racism or apartheid. I find the ending very moving, and I don't think it's just sentimental.

I agree with Jesse about the level of craft in the movie. I was about to say that the antiseptic sci-fi ambience really hasn't been the norm for a while, but then I realized I was thinking about books, going back to the '80s, when dystopias seemed to take over. But I guess most movies still favor the bright-n-shiny aesthetic. I was really almost overwhelmed by the sheer physical repulsiveness of much of it, to the point where I almost stopped watching.

As I mentioned, I did like the ending, especially that last image, though I wouldn't say I was deeply moved. But I lost my engagement with the story for most of the last half, which struck me as fairly standard action-movie stuff. I would have liked to have learned more about the aliens, and to have seen the cultural conflict developed and observed in a less sensational way.

For those who haven't seen it and are curious, here's a clip. The earthlings are in the process of evicting the aliens from this slum in order to move them somewhere else:


The guy with the mustache is the main character, and it's really an outstanding acting job.

This discussion is causing me to think that it had even more potential than I thought.

The only thing on your list that I have read or seen is the Coen brothers film. On first viewing I didn't much care for it, but I recently re-watched it (on a better screen) and I've amended my opinion upward. The weakest link, in my opinion, was Chigurh; his acting was too flat. I would very much like to read the book, and I want to read McCarthy's other books too. (I have read The Road, and it is as good as folks are saying.)

Speaking of understated acting, there is a recent Australian film called Animal Kingdom in which the lead role, played by a young actor, is a perfect illustration of how a part can be played in a very subdued, almost blank, manner and still be communicative and effective. It's an excellent film all around, about an Australian crime family.

I've been wondering about Animal Kingdom, Craig. I'll have to check that out.


I feel confident in recommending the book (No Country) to you, Craig. The film can be taken as being nihilistic, and so can the book, but I think there is much more in the book to justify a contrary view than in the film. There is a much stronger sense in the book that goodness is real.

I meant to comment also about the Fatsis book and the Coen bros' movie.

Fatsis. The two things I liked best about that book. (1) portraits of football players who earn ~$1500/month while struggling for a chance to make the cut stand in stark contrast to most people's visions of professional sports players. This can happen even to players who may have at one time been considered great but who were driven out by injury or competition. (2) This book contains the best description of performance anxiety I've ever encountered -- of great relevance to anyone out there who has trouble with, for example, public speaking or music performance.

Coen bros. I didn't even know it was a book until I saw the movie. :( But since then I've heard so many people rave about McCarthy, it's clear I need to try him out. I thought the movie was great (and I thought Chigurh was uniquely chilling and creepy). One thing I didn't completely get about the movie was the sheriff's role...sounds like the book spends more time on that, which makes me even more excited to read it.

Interestingly, I thought No Country was WAY more violent than District 9, so I was surprised to hear you call out District 9 specifically for the violence. After reflecting & remembering more clearly though, I guess I now recognize that District 9 has more actual blood/gore...but I think the violence in No Country is much more disturbing.

I agree that the violence in No Country is more disturbing. I would say that that is because violence in No Country is cold.


Well, y'all are right that the violence in NC should be more disturbing. I know one person (;-)) who got up to go do something else early on in the movie, at the scene where Chigurh is toying with the old man in the store, because she was already too creeped out to watch anymore. But I think it's more of a psychological thing than what I felt in D9. It really wasn't so much violence per se as just the general yuckiness of so much of what was happening.

Or, I don't know, maybe it was just my mood at the time...

The violence in the movie didn't get to me like the violence in the book, but now I just think of them as one whole instead of two different things.


Did you also read the book first, Janet? I'm sure I would have found the movie more disturbing if I hadn't read the book and therefore known pretty much exactly what was coming.

I agree that the No Country violence is cold. Cold, merciless, and inevitable -- no hope for the victims. Which I guess enhances the impact of Chigurh's role as fate.

Yes, I read the book first. I think I would have found the movie creepier if I hadn't.


I thought you did but I couldn't remember for sure. Yeah, Jesse, there's a lot in the book that is not much more than hinted at in the movie.

I have only watched the movie of NC. I found it so frightening I was afraid to read the book.

Hmm, I'm not sure whether to suggest that you read the book or not. I don't think it would be as disturbing but who knows? Certainly there's a lot more matter for reflection in the book.

If nothing comes up to stop me, I'm planning to watch Bergman's Hour of the Wolf tonight. I'm a little apprehensive about. I suppose it's not explicitly violent but it may be pretty creepy.

Francesca, That's kind of funny because I put off watching the movie because the book was so frightening. However, like I said, the movie didn't bother me so much, so maybe you would have the same experience only in the other direction.

Now, I just read about Hour of the Wolf on Netflix and I don't know if I would be brave enough to watch it--especially at night.


Well, I just finished it, and...I don't's creepy but not really frightening, although I can imagine someone finding it so. More than anything else it's baffling. Well, no, more than *anything* else it's Alma (Liv Ullman)'s light against Johann (Max von Sydow)'s darkness. I mean, that's what I'm left with more than anything else. I couldn't say in any but the most superficial terms what it means. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who's not a pretty hard-core Bergman fan, like I am.

I put it in my cart. I don't like to be a complete coward.

I guess Hour of the Wolf had more effect on me than I realized. Something slightly spooky happened last night. I may write about it later, but, in brief, I had an experience similar to what the artist (Johann) in the film was having--although happily MUCH milder--only it was tailored specifically to me.

It's the brave thing to do, Francesca.



I don't think you'll regret it. But if you do, I deny responsibility.

Thinking about 'No Country' reminded of how good a year 2007 was for movies: 'Atonement,' 'Juno,' 'Lars and the Real Girl,' 'The Counterfeiters,' etc. Last night I rewatched 'Michael Clayton,' a fine legal thriller which was nominated for Best Pic that year, along with three noms for its cast. George Clooney gives his best dramatic performance (he got a nom, and fully deserved it). Tom Wilkinson, another nominee, is outstanding as a haunted, mentally unstable corporate lawyer, and Tilda Swinton won Best Supporting Actress for her turn as an attorney who makes some very bad decisions in hopes of protecting the corporation she works for.

The only one of those I've seen is Juno, and I liked it. Your recommendations have proven pretty solid in the past, so I'll definitely consider those. My Netflix queue has like 60 things in it now, though, and I'm watching maybe 2 or 3 a month, so it might be a while.

Last night my wife & I had what has become, since she went back to school, the rare experience of watching a movie together: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It's one of those multi-episode BBC dramatizations and is excellent, as they usually are, although of late they seem to be trying to turn all transgressive and stuff. I've never read the Ann Bronte novel and didn't know the story. It has some of the basic elements of the Austen/Bronte romantic plot, but with some interesting variations. I'm curious as to whether Ann may have been a bit more orthodox than her sisters--one can see some Christian implications in this and I wonder how they're developed, or not, in the book.

Jane Eyre is, of all the Bronte's novels, the most Christian. The movies either ignore this completely, or play up any negative Christianity while omitting the Christian virtues that carry Jane through the story.

Ann Bronte has another novel, Agnes Gray in which the heroine is so wonderfully full of Christian virtue as to make one want to regurgitate.

If I remember correctly (as always, this would be a miracle), Helen, after her folly in marrying a dissolute rake, is an exemplary Christian, but I don't think that they talk about it much.


Brontes', darn it, not Bronte's.

I was thinking of the possibility that Helen's fidelity to the rat had aspects of reparation and sacrifice for him. The movie sort of opens that possibility though not much more.

What always sticks in my mind from Jane Eyre is Jane's consumptive friend, soon to die, who speaks of finally being freed from the body to exist in a world of pure spirit, which smacks of 19th c transcendentalism/gnosticism. That one bit probably colors my sense of the book's Christianity more than it should.

Yes, that's what I meant about Helen. She just does it; she doesn't talk about it. You didn't watch the whole thing, did you?

The last time I read Jane Eyre, I was amazed at how shot full of Christianity it was.


This is making me want to read Jane Eyre and I must read The Betrothed.


Yes, I did watch the whole thing. I didn't see anything that I would call more than a suggestion--what did I miss? I mean, of course the suffering was there, to say the least, and of course it was sacrificial, but I didn't catch anything to indicate that either the author or Helen was conscious of its meaning and efficacy in the mystical sense. Arthur expressed a hope or rather a wish that she could intercede for him.

I think I am not communicating very well, because I meant just what you said. Isn't it about 6 hours?


If there is any difference in what we said, it's about the conscious intention. As Catholics we see it that way, but did Helen? and Bronte?

No, it's only three episodes, a bit under an hour each. The whole thing was listed as around 2:45 on the Netflix envelope. Still pretty long for an evening but we started early (for us).

I mean, specifically about the reparation aspect. I have no doubt Bronte saw her as being Christian.

Oh, not the reparation, I think. I think she just saw it as her duty.


Yeah, that's the way I saw it.

About the accent: in movies made before 1950 or so, the upper class characters (American) often have a crisp almost near-English accent that I have never heard in real life.

I have heard its variants. I think it is a finishing school or boarding school accent. The youngest of the two or three women I can think of whom I knew well and who had it was born in Philadelphia in 1932, and grew up there.

Interesting. I wonder if anyone younger than that still has it, and if not, why it declined so abruptly, though a lot of distinctive accents have persisted, although I think they're declining, too. There's a particular old-fashioned upper-class southern accent that's really engaging--not the nasal twang that you tend to hear most often (and which I have)--and which I don't think I've ever heard in anyone much younger than my parents (born in the 1920s).

I should cultivate it.


I bought Michael Clayton from amazon and watched it on my laptop, following Rob G's suggestion. It is good. My DVD player has not yet arrived from England, and it was the 1st time I'd thought to try playing a DVD on the old laptop. As the first movie I'd seen in two months, it was highly enjoyable!

Glad you liked it, Francesca. I think it's one of the better legal thrillers in many a moon. It helps when you have a smart script and all the actors are in top form.

I recently watched the BBC mini-series 'State of Play,' which was very good -- again, smart and well-acted, and the other night I rewatched the very fine Michael Mann film 'Collateral,' with Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. In general I'm not a Cruise fan, but he's great in this one, as is Jamie Foxx.

I have seen both the TV and the Movie versions of State of Play, and it is brilliant.

I have not seen Collateral. I am not a Cruise fan, but who knows?

I have seen both the TV and movie versions of State of Play. It is brilliant.

I have not heard of Collateral, and I'm not a Cruise fan. But who knows?

I couldn't remember what State of Play is about, although I knew I'd seen it, so I had to look at my Netflix list. I keep getting it confused with In the Loop. They're utterly different apart from having to do with the British govt, but both are really good.

I noticed Kelly Macdonald is in State of Play. I only know her name because I wanted to know who did such an excellent job as Carla Jean, Moss's wife in No Country for Old Men, and was surprised to find out she's Scottish. Her voice was perfect. I had thought she looked familiar in No Country, and I guess State of Play is the reason.

"I have not heard of Collateral, and I'm not a Cruise fan. But who knows?"

Collateral was directed by Michael Mann, whose movies are almost always worth seeing (Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, Heat, etc.) This is the rare Cruise movie where you forget that it's Cruise you're watching. Mann was able to bring something out in his performance that's not usually there.

I'd never even heard of Collateral (or else had forgotten). Nor any of the other Michael Mann movies you mention. I'll have to take a look.

Mann's 'The Insider,' with Russell Crowe and Al Pacino, is very good also. Forgot to mention that one yesterday.

I haven't seen all of those Michael Mann films, but I've seen a few (Collateral, Heat, The Insider). I think The Insider is the best of them; it's a sleek and smart thriller about a corporate whistleblower. I've only seen it once, years ago, but certain scenes have stayed with me.

I enjoyed Last of the Mohicans. I will see Collateral, on my lap top.

My 'stuff' arrived from Scotland last night. I haven't tried using the DVD player yet. But an odd thing: the radio part of the music box works, but it won't play CDs. I don't see how it can be the adapter, since the radio draws electricity OK.

We watched Red last night. It was a lot of fun.

You must really be glad to see your stuff!


The CD part would have a lot more mechanical components, so maybe something got broken in shipment.

"We watched Red last night. It was a lot of fun"

Yeah, as pure 'popcorn' movies go, it's hard to beat.

Unbelievably glad, Janet! I was not made for the ascetic life. I mailed myself plenty of tea before I left the UK. I was told my cargo would take 3 weeks. It left Abdn on 22 Dec. So I was making tea in a jug. I cracked just over two weeks ago and bought a small teapot in one of the faux irish shops which flourish in these environs. But to make tea this morning in my own tea pot and pour it into my tea cup through A TEA STRAINER, now, that was unbeatable.

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