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April 2016

Kitten: Fall On Me (A Four-Star Single)

I've been a subscriber to for a ridiculous length of time--close to 15 years. For much of that time the company has offered a free download every day. And for much of that time I downloaded every one without listening to the samples first, missing only the days that I happened not to be online for some reason. This quickly got out of control, as they accumulated much faster than I could listen to them and decide whether I liked them or not.

A few years ago I got more selective, and listened to the samples first, skipping those which didn't seem like my sort of thing. That reduced the influx greatly. At the same time, I made an effort to listen to them within a few weeks of acquiring them, and flagged the ones I really liked with four stars in the program I use for listening to music on the computer (JRiver's Media Center). Media Center's ratings actually go from one to five stars. Four stars mean I like it a lot. The five-star rating is reserved for the really great. I haven't used it very much.

I put these tracks in a playlist called Four-Star Singles. I call them singles because I acquired them as single tracks, and for the most part never bought the album from which they're taken, so they play the role of the 45rpm singles of old, and also because many of them are catchy in the way that singles were supposed to be. Others just happen to fit some quirk of my taste. I have hundreds of them. 

That song I posted last week, "Calvary" by Chris Bathgate, is a recent addition to the four-star list, and it occurred to me that I should pass along more of them. That bit of extra publicity is the least I can do in return for the enjoyment they've given me. I'll try to do this on the weekends, as I have something of a tradition of posting music on weekends. 

I'm sorry to say that in very few of these instances have I sought out more music by the artists. There's just too much of it. I often hear people, most often nostalgic baby-boomers, complain that there's no good pop music being made today. There's actually quite a lot, more than anyone except a music journalist can keep up with. You just don't hear it all over the place the way you used to (unless, I suppose, you live in some ultra-hip place like Austin). I was about to say you have to seek it out, but it's not that you have to work at it, really. Just keep an eye on publications where it's discussed, like, for instance, American Songwriter. Despite its name, it's really more of a music-fan magazine than a how-to for songwriters, but its emphasis is very much on artists who write good songs, not the garish pop stars who get the mainstream attention. 

I like the big Phil-Spector-ish sound of this one. 


I mean, doesn't that really deserve to be on the radio? Is there still radio? 


I saw a movie by that name last night. It's a series of interviews with a number of Catholic converts describing the process by which they arrived at the faith. You'll probably recognize some of the names--Mark Shea, for instance. (I was pleased to see that his segment was quite engaging, as I had given up reading his blog some time ago because it had gotten so bombastic.) Some came from a background of complete non-belief, some were Protestant. Of course every conversion story has a lot in common with others, and one might say "If you've heard one you've heard 'em all." But every one is distinctive, too, as distinctive as the individual involved. The movie is well done and I imagine most Catholics can think of people they wish would see it. 

You can see the trailer here. I tried embedding it but it's too wide for this column. And here's a link to the film's web site. It was produced by someone named Don Johnson, of whom I had not previously heard. 

52 Movies: Week 17 - Howards End


The effect art can have on one’s psyche is astounding. As I began to watch the Merchant/Ivory film Howards End last night, a film I have seen many times before, I found myself overwhelmed by memories and feelings. Don’t get me wrong, I was not sobbing my way through the opening scenes, but so many thoughts come to mind: the friend I went and saw the movie with in 1992, who I have not seen since probably the late 90s; how this film led me to read the E.M. Forster book and changed my reading life forever, sparking an interest in classics that continues unabated; and of course the inevitable feelings of years gone by. I was much younger in 1992, and Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson also were so young and beautiful in their English way. I fell in love with this movie and with the actors and actresses therein. No movie was better that year, to me.

Howards End tells the story of the Schlegel sisters, the Wilcox family, and Leonard Bast (and Mrs. Bast too, but not as deeply), during the Edwardian period in England. It is gloriously filmed, wonderfully scored, amazingly acted, and the screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is sublime (and won an Oscar that year). How does she come up with Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) saying to Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), “Mr. Wilcox, I am demented!” while giving Hopkins what I can only describe as being a coy, nervous, and sexy glance, as if to say that she is flirting but not entirely sure how to do so (Thompson won an Oscar too). I don’t think that line is found in the Forster book, but I could be wrong.

To begin with, Margaret’s younger sister Helen (Bonham Carter) is part of an embarrassing series of events involving the youngest Mr. Wilcox in which they briefly decide to be married. She sends word to her family, and Aunt Juley races to Howards End (the name of Mrs. Wilcox’s house in Shropshire) to represent the family. By the time she arrives the fancy has passed, and Helen must later flee to Germany to recover from the ordeal. Such is the life of the upper-crust British which is so familiar to readers of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, et al. Mrs. Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) later forms a friendship with Margaret, which is the pivot the remainder of the plot will revolve upon.

Leonard Bast, a clerk of meager circumstances, makes his way into the story after Helen unwittingly steals his umbrella on a rainy day when they have both attended a lecture on music and meaning. He trails along after her trying to get her attention and finally ends up standing sadly with a newspaper over his head waiting to be noticed outside the Schlegel’s fancy home in London. Leonard spends the rest of the movie acting as an outsider and in direct contrast to the wealthy Schlegels and Wilcoxes. This discrepancy between the upper and lower classes in Britain, along with social justice for the poor, are recurring themes in the book and movie.

I need to re-read the book some time soon. For one thing, I cannot remember how Forster portrays Henry Wilcox. Is he a sympathetic character in the book? I wonder because I believe that Anthony Hopkins makes him one despite so many things that he says and does. One of my favorite lines, which if I cock my head just slightly I believe I can hear Donald Trump say, is “The poor are the poor, and one’s sorry for them – but there it is.” It is probably the great vulnerability with which Hopkins portrays Henry during the latter part of the film that endears him so much to me. Hopkins is of course one of our great actors.

I apologize if this post seems to be rambling and only partially discussing the movie Howards End. I suppose for one thing I am trying not to give too many plot details in case any of you out there have not seen it and may want to (and have not read the book either). The blogosphere seems to be made for tangential discussions which began on a more specific subject. This leads me to the topic of: the merits of actors and actresses from the UK and Australia compared to their counterparts in the USA. It seemed to me for so long that if the Oscars for acting were to go to the best every year, an American would never win. However, there is a lot of sentiment amongst academy voting for celebrities to win these awards, so therefore we can rest assured that the Brits & Aussies will not hijack our ceremony too much, but only occasionally steal the spotlight.

Back to the movie. This is a beautiful scene.


Leonard and Helen in a boat on a lake or stream. If this scene is not portrayed exactly like this in the book, then James Ivory filmed it this way only because it was so stunning to watch the two young actors rowing away and then drifting off under some tree limbs while beautiful music is playing. Cinema can be so incomparable to other forms of media in so many ways. Looking at this photo brings me to the pastoral nature of the film. Mrs. Wilcox was in love with her house (Howards End), but she was just as infatuated with the meadows and the fields, and the tree with the pigs teeth stuck into it. She passes on that pastoral love to Margaret. Leonard has a recurring daydream in which he walks through fields of flowers; in stark contrast to his daily life living in one of the poorer sections of London. The Schlegels are having their own house torn down and must find another place to live. The message all of this sends is that the city is dirty, destructive, unsafe, and the country is clean, nurturing, and helps the characters to become better versions of themselves.

Perhaps not so much in the case of Charles Wilcox.

My mind keeps coming back to (at least) two distinct scenes that are filmed in an uncommon way. The first is the restaurant scene in which Margaret mentions her dementedness to Henry, and the second is the scene following Evie’s wedding where the two of them are alone discussing what has transpired at the reception. The first is a joyously flirtatious scene, and the second is upset, discussion, and forgiveness (a little heavier). Both show the principals making a statement, then the director will fade them out, then bring them back into the same scene but forwarded to new positions, and another mini scene within a scene occurs. In each case this is done to great effect until the scene ends. I’m not sure that I have been able to correctly explain the technique, but I found it to be unique enough to comment on. A way of making a scene move timewise more quickly than it would in real time.

E.M. Forster wrote the phrase Only Connect as an epigraph to his novel, and it of course applies to the movie as well. The story is all about people connecting, trying to, having trouble being able to, and showing the difficulties involved depending on personality and/or position in society. While the Schlegels and Wilcoxes might both be well off, they are very different in character and interaction. Margaret and Henry can both be seen as quite shy, but in different ways and with regard to situation. Margaret was a too-old-to-marry spinster and very unsure of herself when Henry romanced her, but she could nonetheless look him directly in the eye and respond. Henry runs a company with apparent force and determination, but in intimate moments he retreats into a pathetic shell of himself. Helen and Charles are forces of nature that their families try to control. Along with poor Leonard, all of these disparate personalities must in some way connect with each other, try as some might not to.

Howards End is to me the best of what I refer to as “English costume dramas”; period pieces which usually depict interpretations of 19th century novels. I am wary of new ones. Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are gone, and James Ivory is in his late 80s and probably retired at this point. I must rely on newer generations of filmmakers to revisit the magic of this type of movie for me, which is hard to reproduce.

—Stu Moore is a friend of the proprietor of this blog. If not lolling in his university office cavalierly responding to outside stimuli, he can often be found walking a dog, or reading a book.

What Is Actually Happening, April 23, 2016

Jim Geraghty of National Review observed yesterday in his "Morning Jolt" newsletter that "More and more of our public debates feel like we’re trying to reason with people who are simply insane." He was referring to a dispute between the city of Chicago and the teacher's union, in which the head of the latter referred to the governor of Illinois as "the new ISIS recruit." But that strikes me as only a step or two beyond what has become normal for political rhetoric. What really makes me feel like I'm dealing with simply insane people is the sudden demand that women's restrooms, locker rooms, etc., be open to men. That is what, in the end, the controversy over "transgender" access to these facilities amounts to.

Suddenly a notion that would just recently have struck almost everyone as at best questionable and at worst crazy and dangerous is being treated as the moral and political equivalent of the struggle against racial segregation. Suddenly Bruce Springsteen, that champion of working-class values, believes that as a matter of principle he cannot play a concert in North Carolina because North Carolinians are resisting the demand. Suddenly Curt Schilling, a former major-league baseball star working for ESPN, is not fit to be employed by them because he thinks the demand is crazy. The president himself condemns efforts at the state level to pass laws resisting it. Even the concern for the safety of children, and the worry expressed by women who have been victims of sexual abuse of various kinds, which would normally trump most other considerations, is suddenly treated as a form of bigotry.

You simply can't argue against this. It's not just that your argument will not be considered, but that the fact that you are making it marks you as bigot who shouldn't be talking in the first place. Even to point that out makes you pretty suspect; it's one of the things Curt Schilling is being criticized for. As with same-sex marriage, you may have a legal right to argue against this practice, but you have no moral right; you will be shunned and deservedly punished in whatever extra-legal ways are available. 

It really seems as if some sort of mania has seized most of the country's progressives. Although I never like bringing the demonic into a discussion of human folly or wickedness, because human nature itself generally seems a more than adequate explanation,  I can't help thinking about the Gadarene swine. Or maybe just lemmings. I also can't help thinking about the Objective Room described in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength: a place specifically designed to break down any sense of right order. 

Part of the psychology behind the mania is no doubt what someone cleverly called Selma Envy: a desire--no, a deep need--to appropriate to oneself the imagined pure righteousness of the struggle against racial segregation. It may be irrational to say that a man who wants you to say that he is a woman is in the same moral position as a man who wants you to treat him like a man. But if you can get people to accept that equivalence you have an invincible weapon. All you have to say to your opponent is "You're just like the segregationists," and the most prestigious and powerful elements of our society will join you in denouncing him and possibly attempting to marshal the legal system against him.

But I don't think even Selma Envy entirely explains the phenomenon. There is some sort of sexual mania at work in our culture, and its origins are mysterious. Where is it leading? Will this particular controversy about restrooms burn out and subside, or will it become established, like so many other elements of the culture wars, as a permanent source of rancor? At the moment the latter seems likely. It certainly is bringing out, again, the growing authoritarianism of the left. For someone who was a leftist during the late '60s there's a great deal of irony, amusing only at first glance, in the fact it's now the left demanding Law and order! I had a conversation recently with a liberal who was passionately against the idea that the law could or should provide any sort of conscientious objection for bakeries, florists, and the like who do not want to provide their services for same-sex weddings. As with same-sex marriage, so with male access to places heretofore considered private to women: it's not enough that the new practice should be established in New York and San Francisco and anywhere else where most people favor it, while other parts of the country may do as they like. Only total uniformity will suffice.

52 Movies: Week 16 - A Night at the Opera

I don’t see many contemporary comedies, and the reason is that when I do I usually don’t care much for them. I’ve occasionally wondered if this indicates some deficiency in me, or a development in the direction of Humorless Old Man. A great deal of contemporary humor seems to be more or less on the level of boys laughing at dirty words. And even when it’s more intelligent, there’s often a meanness about it that I tire of very quickly, even if it’s funny—mean in both senses of the word. There’s little joy in it. It makes light of serious things, but it’s rarely lighthearted. The Simpsons, for instance, is very funny sometimes (in my limited experience), but I’ve never watched it regularly because its cynicism is so thorough that it begins to feel oppressive.

The opening moments of a Marx Brothers movie, however, prove that even if my sense of humor is limited, it is certainly very much alive. The Marx Brothers represent for me something close to a Platonic form of comedy. They have everything, from verbal wit to pure physical comedy (truly pure in the case of Harpo, who never says a word). By no means does all of it work, but enough of it does that just thinking of it is bringing a smile to my face as I write this.

I had decided when we first talked of this 52 Movies project that I would work in a Marx Brothers movie, and that it didn’t really matter which one. I hadn’t seen any of them for ten or fifteen years, and although some are definitely better than others I really just wanted to salute the Marx Brothers, so any of them would do. At one time I would have said that Duck Soup is my favorite, and perhaps I still would if I watched them all again. I picked A Night at the Opera only because it happened to be handy—I had recorded it a while back from a Turner Classic Movies broadcast. I think it’s one of the better ones overall. But there are some specific scenes from others which are among the very funniest (the passport scene in Monkey Business, for instance). And of course it’s the specific scenes that matter; the plots are negligible and usually more or less absurd.

It was less than a minute into A Night at the Opera that I laughed out loud for the first time. The movie opens with the standard Groucho character, Otis B. Driftwood here, engaged in one of his scams with the standard Margaret Dumont character, Mrs. Claypool here. Dumont appears in most of the films playing a wealthy woman from whom Groucho is trying to extract money, pretending to romance her while making fun of her in ways that she doesn’t always get. She is so important to so much of the humor that Groucho once called her “practically the fifth Marx brother.” (And by the way, the fourth Marx brother, Zeppo, who was in some of the films but had no real role in the comedy, does not appear in this one. And the actual fifth brother, Gummo, left the family act before any of the movies were made.)


Otis B. Driftwood and Mrs. Claypool observing the impresario Gottlieb. Their acquaintance is premised on the absurdity that he is going to get her into society. 

The Dumont character is a type who doesn’t exist anymore: a grande dame, grande in every sense, towering over Groucho, a rich, snobbish, and stuffy WASP type, who speaks in that antique English-y accent that apparently used to be typical of upper-class Americans in the northeast. The Groucho-Dumont humor could not exist today. The rich snobbish lady still exists, of course, but now she wears jeans—though very expensive jeans—denounces the rich, takes off her clothes for photographers (if she’s beautiful), and has written a book about her extensive sex life. You can’t mock the dignity of someone who has none (though you can certainly mock her pretensions).

Harpo’s first appearance also got a laugh from me. I spent ten or fifteen minutes looking for an image from that scene—he’s dressed in a Pagliacci clown suit and making extravagant singing motions, but no sound comes out—but couldn’t find one. And then I looked for any image at all that would serve as an example of the beatific-mischievous-crazy look he wears much of the time, and, interestingly, couldn’t find one that seemed to capture it. I think this may be because the mobility of his face is so important to that look. Even when it seems to be frozen on his face for a few moments, just prior to his committing some act of anarchy, it’s probably still moving, the grin slowly spreading before his whole body bursts into wild motion.

There’s a brief but quintessential Harpo moment early in this film: everyone is about to embark on an ocean voyage (from Italy to New York), and Chico and Harpo come rushing down a ladder to say goodbye to the sweet young woman who is also another frequent stock character. Chico embraces her. Harpo, from a running start, leaps up onto the pair of them, tumbles off, and runs manically through the crowd hugging and kissing everybody. In real life such a character would be a pathetic and maybe disturbing person, with no sense of appropriate behavior. But as created by Harpo he’s an exuberant and hilarious delight.

Chico is also his usual character, an Italian immigrant with a shaky grasp of the English language and a very pragmatic approach to the ethics of getting along in the world. It’s a gross stereotype which would be utterly unacceptable today, but is nevertheless funny. Here are Groucho and Chico working out the details of a contract which is fraudulent on Groucho’s side and questionable on Chico’s:

Groucho: You don’t need to read that one, it’s a duplicate.
Chico: Duplicate, sure. [continues to read]
Groucho: [after watching Chico for a few seconds] Don’t you know what a duplicate is?
Chico: Sure, it’s those five kids up in Canada.
Groucho: Well, I wouldn’t know about that, I haven’t been in Canada in years.

The “five kids” reference is no doubt to the Dionne quintuplets, born in 1934, the year before A Night at the Opera was released. The risqué touch at the end is pretty frequent in the movies, and is generally funny without being crude—in other words, risqué in the former sense of the word, before it started being used for anything sexual up to and including pornography. Reportedly the brothers were frequently forced to tone down their sexual humor, and their work is probably better for it.

(By the way, Al Pacino in the gangster movie Scarface, speaking with what is meant to be a Cuban accent, sounds exactly like Chico to me, which made watching Scarface slightly disconcerting. I kept expecting him to say something funny.)

I don’t think anyone ever writes about the Marx Brothers without using the word “anarchy” or “anarchic.” One might use the same word about much of the contemporary humor I was just complaining about, but there’s a very different spirit in the Brothers’ work. Today’s anarchic humor seems to spring from anger, the Marx Brothers’ from sheer high spirits. You can mock conventions and pretensions because you take them seriously and they make you angry, or because you can’t take them seriously at all. The anarchy of the Marx Brothers is of the latter type, and it’s joyful. Its essential lightheartedness reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse’s work. And while there is nothing of religion in either the Marx Brothers' or Wodehouse's work, the sheer levity of it, its suggestion that much of what we take seriously is actually ridiculous, sometimes seems to hint at something cosmic.

A Night at the Opera does in fact revolve around the opera, and the money and personalities involved in it. The actual story involves a handsome tenor who languishes unsung (heh) in the chorus, and a pretty soprano who loves him but is being pursued by the pompous and egotistical (of course) star tenor. From several different angles the Marxes help to bring the sweet couple together and to confound pretty much everyone else. There are a couple of big 1930s-style musical productions that I could certainly do without. But there are also musical interludes with Chico and Harpo, which are always fun.

I know it’s hopeless to try to describe or explain humor, and anyway I don’t have a lot of time to spend on this. Objectively, I recognize that a fair amount of the Marx Brothers’ humor falls flat—some of it’s just corny, some of it’s dated—so if you don’t like them as much as I do, I will try not to judge you. But even if only every other joke is funny, that’s still a lot of laughter for me. Here’s a little taste of anarchy for you:


A bit of trivia for people my age: one of those game shows from the 1950s or early ‘60s, maybe What’s My Line? involved a panel of celebrities who to me were mostly just names. I had a vague idea that they must have been well-known before going on the show, but had no idea why. One of them, I recall, was Kitty Carlisle. Well, I don’t know what else she did to be famous, but she played the soprano in A Night At the Opera.

Ok, having read the Wikipedia entry, now I do know what she was known for prior to the TV show. And the show wasn’t What’s My Line?, it was To Tell the Truth. And it continued into the ‘70s.

And by the way: Groucho and T.S. Eliot corresponded, and even met. They apparently admired each other’s work. There is a certain amount of lore about this acquaintance available, but I haven’t yet investigated it.

—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Bruckner's Bad Night

I've started listening my way through the Bruckner symphonies, and am currently on number 3. Looking around for some information on it, I ran across this woeful story of the symphony's premiere

Wagner liked it, and I'm sure Bruckner valued his opinion more highly than those of the members of the Vienna Philharmonic, but it must be pretty tough when the orchestra performing your symphony hates it. Even worse if you are conducting, and they hate you, too. And very bad indeed if you don't really know how to conduct.

There was a discussion here about Bruckner back in 2011 in which I said I "know the 3rd fairly well." I must have been confused. I would prefer to think that than the other possibility, which is that I did know it then but on hearing it a few days ago did not recognize it or have any memory of having heard it before. Maybe I was thinking of Mahler's 3rd. 

I do like the 3rd, though, very well.



The Milk Carton Kids: Michigan

Some time back--months, I'm not sure how many--I recorded an Austin City Limits episode which included these guys and Sarah Jarosz. I didn't know anything about them, it was just idle curiosity. I finally watched it a week or two ago and was quite impressed. This would be a good item with which to counter the oft-heard opinion that contemporary pop music (using the term very broadly) is mostly trash. I think the people who say that are only going by what they happen to hear of whatever the current equivalent of Top 40 is, and they're probably right about it. Whatever you think of this, though, you can't say they aren't authentically gifted artists.


You wouldn't guess it to look at them, or from listening to this song, but they're also very funny, especially the one on the left. If you'd asked, I'd have figured that the other one was the extroverted showman, and the one with the glasses was the quiet one who rarely spoke on stage. Wrong. "Extroverted showman" isn't right, but he does most of the talking, and is hilarious.

Oh, and Sarah Jarosz was very good, too, though I wasn't as taken with her as with these two.

Sowing the Wind

We're told regularly, usually with ill-concealed pleasure, that white people will soon be a minority in this country. As the legal oppression of blacks fades further into the past, younger white people will less and less agree to accept their stigmatized position as historical oppressor...

That was me, writing in 2012 (can it really be four years ago?). It may seem otherwise, but I'm actually not very happy when my pessimistic predictions come true. But it has seemed inevitable to me that white people, especially young ones, would begin to push back against the idea that they are now and forever historically guilty, and that other ethnic groups are to be encouraged to band together to advance the interests of their group as such, while they are forbidden to do so.

This was obviously not going to hold up indefinitely, and I've long thought that the reaction might include an element of open racism. It's a predictable reaction to being blamed, denounced, and ridiculed for one's race. Well, here comes the "alt-right":

Known collectively as the “alternative right,” this amalgam includes neo-reactionaries, monarchists, nativists, populists, and even a few self-declared fascists.

The above description comes from The Weekly Standard, quoted by Neo-neocon in a post called, "Who Are the Alt-Right and What Do They Want?"

And here is Victor Davis Hanson analyzing the white-versus-white dynamic: affluent whites treating poor and lower-middle-class whites with contempt, precisely as poor and lower-middle-class whites. He postulates a connection between this and the success of Trump, and I think he's right:

In sum, the white lower and middle classes are angry, and they are tired of being blamed for the unhappiness of other tribes. In our world, in which uncouth tribal leaders can say almost anything, these whites wanted their own Sharpton or Ramos, and finally got him with Donald J. Trump. 

 They have sown the wind, and they will reap the whirlwind.

52 Movies: Week 15, Porco Rosso (Red Pig)

Several months ago on the suggestion of a friend, I began to watch movies from Studio Ghibli. He recommended that I watch them in the order they were produced, and since that is my nature anyway, I have done so when I could even though it has become evident that there seems to be no real reason to do so.

So, when I got to Porco Rosso, I watched it—even though it was about a man who was a pig who flew a plane. I had absolutely no desire to watch this movie, but, as you will have guessed since I am writing this post, before very long, I was very engaged in the movie. It was surprisingly easy to get used to the main character being an anthropomorphic pig. He's taken very seriously as a character, so the viewer accepts him.

Week15-porco rosso

Porco Rosso entered World War I as Marco Pagot, an ace fighter pilot, and having been cursed along the way, returned home as a pig. As the movie opens we find him relaxing in a reclining lawn chair on a deserted island in the Adriatic. He is now a bounty hunter. He hunts “air pirates” who prey on ocean liners, kidnapping children and stealing whatever valuables the boats are carrying. His first job is to capture a group of pirates who have robbed an ocean liner of gold, and kidnapped 15 little school girls. Now, usually a story about pirates kidnapping school girls would be horrifying, but these pirates are softies where little girls are concerned and the girls ride roughshod over them. In general, for pirates these guys aren't a bad bunch. In apposition to Porco's seriousness, the pirates are always comedic. The head pirate bears a distinct resemblance to Popeye's Bluto.

When Porco wants to have a good meal, he heads for the Hotel Adriano. The proprietress of the hotel is the beautiful Gina, four-time widow of fighter pilots. Gina's voice is as beautiful as she is, and all the pirates who frequent her restaurant are in love with her including the new guy on the block, American Donald Curtis. She is in love with Porco, and waiting for his curse to be broken, but knowing that he is a pig, he doesn't encourage her.


Porco's plane is in really bad condition, so he takes it to Milan (where he is wanted for desertion) to his mechanic, Piccolo. Under protest from Porco, his airplane is re-designed and re-built under the direction of Piccolo's young granddaughter, Fio, aided by a bevy of old grandmothers. Porco is not happy with all this female help, but all the men have moved on. When the work is done, Fio goes along with Porco to help keep the plane running. It is from their conversation that we learn (sort of) of how Porco became a pig.

He tells Fio about a mystical experience that he had during a battle in which all the other pilots are killed. He sees them all ascending to another place, and we somehow come to understand that he turned into a pig because, well, he is a pig. All the other pilots from both sides gave their lives for the cause, and yet he survives. He is a selfish pig, which, looking back on the story up to this point, we can clearly see.

Two things surprised me about this scene. One was that the movie was not just an entertaining story, but that it was about something serious. The other was the complete western-ness of this scene. His vision of the pilots ascending into the heavens has an almost Christian feel to it. And this is true not just of one scene in one movie, but of many of the Studio Ghibli films. All the characters in this film are western. At one point in the movie they say an almost Christian grace over their meal—of course, they are Italian. But I just wonder why the Japanese creators of the Studio Ghibli films have chosen this western milieu so often. I wish I had time to do some reading about them.

The American versions of the Ghibli films are produced by Disney, and so the voice-actors are very good, and frequently well-known. In this movie, Porco is voice by Michael Keaton, Donald Curtis by Cary Elwes, and Piccolo by David Ogden Steirs. In Howl's Moving Castle, which we watched yesterday, one of the actors was Lauren Bacall!

As I have indicated before, the mood in Porco Rosso is sometimes very serious, and sometimes almost slapstick, the slapstick being more comic relief than the center of the film. In the end, it seemed to me that Porco Rosso was a kind of combination between Casablanca and Beauty and the Beast, with glimpses of some other movies, too—The Quiet Man comes to mind.

According to Wikipedia, and this is the sort of thing I think you might be able to trust Wikipedia for, Porco Rosso was the highest grossing film in Japan in 1992. And, of the 15 highest grossing films in Japan, 8 are Studio Ghibli. This seemed rather strange to me, but then I remembered looking at a list of the highest grossing films in the United States a few years ago, and more than half of them were just this kind of film, the kind that you can take your children to, but which also have another layer that adults can enjoy. Looking at the top ten list for 2015, two are cartoons, and four others are the sort of adventure films that appeal to both children and adults. It makes one wonder why movie studios seem so bent on producing sex-filled movies about people with vacuous lives.

Not only did I surprise myself by enjoying Porco Rosso the first time around, I found it just as good on the second viewing. It's not going to become a movie that I watch every year, but I might get it from Netflix again so that my grandchildren can watch it. And if I do, I'm sure I'll sit down and watch it with them.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

Not A Post About Amoris Laetitia

Over the past couple of years when Pope Francis has published major documents I forced myself to sit out the wrangling that began--I started to say "the moment they were released," but really it started well before that. So I waited a few weeks or more before reading them and commenting on them. I think I'm going to go a step further this time and not even read the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, at least not anytime soon. The few comments that have come, unsought, into my field of vision seem agreed, whether approaching it from the conservative or progressive theological side, that it affirms the Church's teachings, but that there are a few ambiguous passages that can be interpreted as undermining certain teachings.

So apparently the controversialists are at each others' throats again, and if I read the document, I'll only be able to read it with that in mind. I'm deeply sick of hearing Catholics snarl at each other. And I doubt it will add anything to my understanding of marriage, or appreciation of the Church's teaching, though I'm sure there are some memorable passages in it. So I ask myself "Why bother?" I've been married for almost forty years, and I think I have a fairly good grasp of the thing, so I don't feel much need for instruction. And I'm not in the position of counseling or educating anyone else on the subject. Just now I saw a headline describing the exhortation as "Beautiful, Moving, and Divisive." And it's 256 pages long, or so I read somewhere.  I'm just going to let this one slide.

Black Mirror: Informing, not Recommending

I recently watched the six available episodes, plus a sort of holiday special, of a British TV series called Black Mirror. It's a sort of sci-fi production, with each episode being a complete story, and no connection other than a thematic one among the episodes. The theme is the extent and effect of our immersion in electronic media and other technology, and the uses to which more advanced developments might be put. I didn't make the connection till I read it somewhere after I'd already seen the show, but the title refers to the glossy black screen of a smart phone, and is the sort of brilliant stroke that any writer would hope to come up with for a title, combining a direct and specific reference with symbolic import.

The reason I'm telling you about it is that it's very well done, very insightful about its theme, and very effective in drawing out its darker possibilities. The reason I'm only informing you about it, not actively recommending it, is that it's all too successful in that effort, and is very disturbing. Just to give you one example: the first episode involves the prime minister of Great Britain being placed in the position of having to perform a truly disgusting act on live television in order to prevent an assassination. 

I was somewhat shaken by that episode, and you will naturally wonder why I watched any more. Well, part of the reason is that I thought surely the other episodes wouldn't be so disturbing. (Why did I think that? I don't know). And part of the reason is that it did present important insights in a clever and powerful way. None of the other episodes involved anything as disgusting as the first, but every one was disturbing in one way or another. There is little physical violence, but there is a lot of psychological violence, even torture.

So: watch at your own risk. In fact, having written this post, I'm thinking of discarding it. A compromise with my better judgment: I'll post this, but warn you that the episode called "White Bear" and the 90-minute "holiday" special (some holiday!), "White Christmas," involve what seemed to me the most extreme, almost unbearable, psychological torture. (Interesting that they both have the word "white" in the title.) "White Bear" is the 5th episode. Had it been the first, I definitely would not have continued.

There is another series in the works. I think I'll definitely skip it.

52 Movies: Week 14 - Winter Light

Winter Light is one of my favorite films from my favorite director, Ingmar Bergman. Here’s what I said about it in a blog post back in 2007:

I was startled to learn that the Swedish title is The Communicants, which is probably better, although “winter light” certainly has its applicability and resonance. I saw this back in the ‘70s without really understanding it. I just finished watching our Netflix copy for the second time, and it’s magnificent. From the Christian point of view there is obviously a great deal to be said about this portrait of a Lutheran clergyman admitting to himself that he has lost his faith—far, far too much for me to try to go into here. So I’ll just say that almost every image and every line of dialog is pregnant with meaning. And that while Bergman was not a believer he understands what faith is about, what the implications of having or not having it are. The film seems to me very ambivalent on the subject, and certainly gives no comfort to atheists.

But then it doesn’t give much comfort to Christians, either, or to anybody else. It is decidedly not a comforting film. Before Craig submitted his beautiful account of Tree of Life, I had been thinking that I might say something along the lines of “greatest film about Christian faith.” But I’d better amend that, and claim instead that it’s the greatest film about faith and doubt. I can’t actually be sure of that, of course, as there are probably many films treating those questions that I’ve never seen. I’ll be surprised if I ever discover a better one, though.

What I said in that earlier post about there being more to say about Winter Light than I can go into here still applies. To say everything I’d like to say about it would take a longer essay than is really suitable for a blog post (and perhaps I’ll try writing it, and see if some magazine would be interested in it), so I’ll just hit a few major points.


The church

The story, which apart from one major incident is pretty slight and inconclusive, takes place entirely on a Sunday afternoon in winter, between roughly noon and 3 p.m. It opens with a Lutheran communion service performed by the pastor, Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand). The scene begins with the consecration and ends with the dismissal, and it comprises something over twelve minutes of this 81-minute film. The congregation is very small, only eight or ten people. Among them are Tomas’s dowdy lover Märta (Ingrid Thulin), a fisherman named Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow), and Persson’s wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom).


Tomas and crucifix. That crucifix plays a significant role, as does the altarpiece, of which I was unable to find a good photo.

After the service, Tomas is approached by the Perssons. Jonas is terribly anxious and depressed, obsessed by fear of nuclear war. Karin wants the pastor to help him. They agree that Jonas will return later for a longer talk.

The pastor is responsible for two small churches, and is due at the second one at 3 p.m. In the interval, he waits in the first church for Jonas to return, and reads a letter from Märta, a task which he seems to be reluctant to take up. The reading of this letter is a marvelous scene: it begins with Tomas reading, then switches into a full-screen shot of Märta’s face as she speaks the words of the letter to him. He doesn’t love her, and she knows it. She is an atheist, but she desperately wants her life to have a purpose, and she wants Tomas to allow her to make him her purpose, to be for her what God is for him. Or rather what God ought to be: it is apparent that she recognizes the hollowness of his professed belief.



This monologue seems to me to be the heart of the film. I find it very moving, and it has rich theological implications beyond what I’ve already suggested, and that I will leave you to discover on your own, if you haven’t already.

Jonas returns. Tomas attempts to give him words of comfort, or at least starts out that way, but does the opposite, confessing his own loss of faith. Jonas leaves, entirely uncomforted, indeed much worse off than when he arrived. After Jonas leaves, there is a mostly silent moment in which the English title of the film becomes deeply significant. Märta appears, seeming to have heard at least part of the conversation with Jonas. “Now I am free,” Tomas says. He weeps, and Märta comforts him.


Tomas and Jonas

For the benefit of those who haven't seen the film, I think I’ll end my synopsis here. What is so striking about Tomas’s loss of faith is that it does neither him nor anyone around him any good whatever, except in the sense that if you believe he’s right you might congratulate him on accepting the brutal truth. That, I think, was what struck me so forcefully when I saw the movie in 2007, and is one of the things I have in mind in saying that it gives no comfort to atheists. This is no triumphant emergence from superstition of the sort lesser artists have given us way too many of.

There are two souls in this story who have a kind of purity. Their roles are small but significant. There is the organist, whose name, if it’s mentioned, I can’t remember, and a man named Algot (Allan Edwall), who seems to be something like a sacristan, or perhaps sexton. The organist is a guiltless cynic who shows no interest in all this heavy religious stuff. He just shows up to do his job and then hurries off to enjoy himself. Algot, on the other hand, is a sincere and humble Christian, the only one in the group as far as we know. His back is misshapen as a result of an accident, and this seems to have given him, or enhanced, a deep sympathy for suffering. His one short speech is an important one, and its effect is partly due to the way it seems suffused with that sympathy.



And there are two souls who are tormented by the collision of faith and doubt: Tomas and Märta (Jonas is more tormented, but not precisely in that way). I think of something C.S. Lewis says about the direction in which a soul is moving being more important than where it is at the moment. Tomas, the clergyman, is moving away from belief. Märta, the atheist, seems to me to be moving toward it, not necessarily intellectually but in her heart. There is no facile conversion, but there is a difference between the easy dismissal of faith with which she begins her letter to Tomas and the cry which eventually emerges from her heart. I can’t think of many other filmic characters of whom I would more like to know what the future beyond the film has in store for them. She might or might not become a Christian, but if she does she'll be a good one, perhaps a saint.


Accept no substitutes.

—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Donald Trump Is Not Right in the Head

It's not just that he has a long history of being a jerk, continues to be a jerk, and often seems proud to be a jerk. After all, we've had a number of presidents who were jerks.  It's not just that he is not now and never has been any sort of conservative, and that he is sabotaging what a year ago looked like a promising opportunity for a conservative swing back from the Obama years, and is very likely to complete the destruction of conservatism as a force in American politics. It's not just that he dealt a body blow to the pro-life movement yesterday. 

It's not even, God help us, that he seems to have little or no idea how the government works, and apparently thinks that he is running for monarch (well, he wouldn't be that unusual there). 

It's that his mental processes appear to be utterly incoherent, except insofar as megalomania imparts a certain overall thematic unity. I thought so when I listened to the speech he made here back last summer, and I was only incorrect in that I didn't realize just how bad it is. And, again, as with every other defect in his qualifications, he appears not to care, and to trust that he will always be able to beat down any opposition by any means he can muster. At the level of rhetoric, that means he doesn't really much care what comes out of his mouth as long as it asserts his will and his delusions of grandeur. At the level of practice--well, who knows what he might do with the power of the presidency in his hands? 

I guess you already know all this. And I'm certainly not going to try to muster all the available evidence. But I want to point out just one example: this transcript of a CNN "town hall meeting" hosted by Anderson Cooper

The first topic is the accusation by a journalist named Michelle Fields who claimed to have been physically jerked around by Trump's campaign manager. Notice the way Trump denies what Cooper says about Fields's statement and demands that Cooper read the transcript, then denies that the words say what they say. Then suggests that the reporter's pen could have been a bomb or a knife.

A normally dishonest politician (think of Bill Clinton) would have evaded the whole question (which Trump also does, trying to change the subject to Ted Cruz). Trump's babbling is not normal dishonesty. It sounds more like the voice of a man who literally does not know what is true or false, or doesn't think it matters.

And the whole transcript goes on like that. In case you don't want to wade through the whole thing, I'll give you a couple of other examples. You may have heard about the bizarre claim that "I alone can solve" the problem of terrorism.Here's how he supports that claim:

COOPER: You talked about the death toll [of the Easter bombings in Lahore]. And then you said, I alone can solve. What do you mean by that?

TRUMP: I think I alone because I know my competition. Look, I know my competition.

COOPER: You, alone, among the Republican candidates.

TRUMP: I see Hillary with Benghazi, you know the famous ad, 3:00 in the morning, guess what, the phone rang, she wasn't there. Unless Sidney called, if Sidney called she was there.

COOPER: But you're the only one who can solve terror problems in Pakistan? I mean, Pakistan…

TRUMP: Yes, of the ones that are running, I'm the only one. I know what I'm running. I know the competition. And believe me, I know, I watched Ted Cruz.

COOPER: How though? I mean, what…

TRUMP: So phony. I mean, you know, I know you have couple people out there because he put them in the audience. But it's so false. You know, the whole thing with the five-second intermissions between sentences. No.

Yes, I think I am the one to be able to solve the problem.

COOPER: But, I mean, there's problems in a lot of different countries, problems in the United States. How can you solve the problems all the way over in Pakistan when the Pakistanis, themselves, are struggling with it?

TRUMP: Look, look, Pakistan is a very, very vital problem and really vital country for us because they have a thing called nuclear weapons. They have to get a hold of their situation.

When I see that and when I see it put in a park because it was mostly Christians, although many others were killed other than Christians, I think it's just absolutely a horrible story.

But I'm talking about radical Islamic terrorism. I will solve it far better than anybody else running.

I can't decide whether this next item is the most off-the-wall part of the discussion, or if that award should go to the part where he suggests that Japan and South Korea should obtain nuclear weapons while he insists that nuclear proliferation must be stopped, and refuses to acknowledge that he is contradicting himself--not contradicting something he said in the days of yore a week ago, but in that moment.  I'll go with this one, since it involves fundamental concepts. This is a question from the audience.

QUESTION:  Good evening, Mr. Trump.  In your opinion, what are the top three functions of the United States government?

TRUMP:  Say it again?

QUESTION:  In your opinion, what are the top three functions of the United States government?

TRUMP:  Well, the greatest function of all by far is security for our nation.  I would also say health care, I would also say education.  I mean, there are many, many things, but I would say the top three are security, security, security.

We have to have security for our country so that we can continue to exist as a country.  We are in danger.  Thousands and thousands of people are infiltrating our country.  We don't know who they are.

There's a very vicious world.  We're living in a very vicious world and we're doing something that is against a lot of very smart people's wishes.  I can tell you, it's totally against my wishes.

COOPER:  So top three, you're saying, security.

TRUMP:  Security.  I say all top three are security, but health care, education, would be probably three that would be top.  And then you can go on from there.

But the military and the secure country, so that we have a country.  Believe me, we've never been in a position, in my opinion, where our country is so vulnerable.  Our military is being eaten away.

When General Odierno left recently, a year ago, I was watching him on maybe your show, one of the shows, and he said that the United States Army, the United States military forces have never been so - and I think he used the word depleted.  But basically he said they're exhausted.

COOPER:  So just to follow-up, though…

TRUMP:  And that's a pretty - that's a pretty sad commentary.  And honestly, even though he was retiring at the time - and I had a lot of respect for him, good man, but even though he was leaving at the time, people shouldn't say that because you're giving the enemy ideas.

But if I get in, our military will be bigger, better, stronger than ever before.  It's the cheapest thing we can do.

COOPER:  So in terms of federal government role, you're saying security, but you also say health care and education should be provided by the federal government?

TRUMP:  Well, those are two of the things.  Yes, sure.  I mean, there are obviously many things, housing, providing great neighborhoods...


COOPER:  Aren't you against the federal government's involvement in education?  don't you want it to devolve to states?

TRUMP:  I want it to go to state, yes.  Absolutely.  I want - right now...

COOPER:  So that's not part of what the federal government's...


TRUMP:  The federal government, but the concept of the country is the concept that we have to have education within the country, and we have to get rid of common core and it should be brought to the state level.

COOPER:  And federal health care run by the federal government?

TRUMP:  Health care - we need health care for our people.  We need a good - Obamacare is a disaster.  It's proven to be...

COOPER:  But is that something the federal government should be doing?

TRUMP:  The government can lead it, but it should be privately done.  It should be privately done.  So that health care - in my opinion, we should probably have - we have to have private health care.  We don't have competition in health care.

The problem that we have in our country is we don't have competition.  It's made because the politicians - by the way, I'm self-funding.  I am self-funding.  So the health care companies aren't taking care of me.  But they're taking care of everyone else.

Wait one second.  We don't have - we don't have bidding.  We don't have competition in health care.  And it's a disaster.  Obamacare, if you take a look at your premiums, they're going up 35 percent, 45 percent, 55 percent, and the deductibles are so high, you'll never get to use it.

Granted, it's not a very good question: did the questioner really mean something like "current top three priorities"? But it's still an incoherent answer. And by the way, if you're a citizen of this country and are wondering what's wrong with listing education and health care as two of the top three functions of the constitutionally-defined government of the United States of America, I hope you'll consider renouncing your citizenship.