Previous month:
August 2016
Next month:
October 2016

September 2016

Voting Republican as Rebellion?

Interesting commentary by Ross Douthat on the effects of liberalism's increasingly tight grip on pop culture.

...outside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion — which may be one reason the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp G.O.P. gains at every level of the country’s government.

 


52 Movies: Week 38 - Ushpizin

Week38-ushpizin-haushpizin-2004-dvd-israeli-movie

When the Children of Israel left Egypt, the Lord had them stay in Succoth – temporary dwellings. As a reminder of the miracles that happened to them in the desert, during the Exodus, The Children of Israel are commanded, each year, to leave their homes and dwell in Succoth for seven days. They are also commanded to make blessings on the Four Species: date-palm branches, myrtle, willow, and citron.

Ushpizin: Aramaic word for guests. During the Festival of Succoth, it is customary to host guests in the Succah.

This is the opening screen from the Israeli movie, Ushpizin. I had watched it several years ago, and remembered that I had really liked it, and thought it might be a good movie to write about. I remembered it as a pleasant, mostly lighthearted comedy—a movie for relaxing, not especially for thinking. When I watched it again last night, I was really surprised. Ushpizin does fit the definition of comedy in which a comedy is a drama with a happy ending, and it does contain its share of comedic moments, but it also deals with profound spiritual truth.

Early in the movie, we hear a scholar in the yeshiva reading this :

When the evil urge provokes one to anger, at the moment, good wants to descend from above. The evil urge wants to ruin that. Thus, one should always guard himself against anger, not to ruin the good that Heaven wants to bestow.

When he finishes reading, he lifts his head and says in an awed voice, “Oh man, you have to keep your eyes wide open. We're all being constantly tested.” The rest of this film serves to illustrate this truth.

As the film begins, Moshe Bellanga is in the marketplace where men are shopping for the Four Species used for the feast. Moshe enters a room where men are evaluating citrons. They dismiss Moshe to a table where he can find cheap citrons, because they are busy admiring the diamond, a perfect citron which can be sold for 1,000 shekels. Moshe walks to the table and examines the wonder, but in the end, he cannot even afford a 25 shekel citron.

Meanwhile, Moshe's wife, Malli is at home, hiding from the rent-collector and hoping that Moshe will be home soon with some money, but she is going to be disappointed. The men who dole out money at the yeshiva have decided that Moshe will get nothing. I'm not too clear about why they would give him money, or why they chose not to, but at any rate, Malli attributes part of this decision to the fact that he is too good, too accepting. Moshe and Malli are very much in love with one another, but their marriage is under a great strain. They have no money for the rent, no money to buy the Four Species, no succah, and worst of all, no child.

At this point, Moshe leaves and Malli stays at home. They both begin to pray, and their prayer is deep, and very personal. Their prayer is the very heart of this movie because it is the prayer of every believer. “Father I love you, I just want to do Your Will. Everything is falling apart. I don't understand. What am I doing wrong? What do You want me to do? I can't bear this any longer.” Moshe's prayer is reminiscent of that of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, but while we are aware that Tevye is speaking to us as well as to God, we know that Moshe's attention is all for God, every bit of his being is concentrated in it. It is like the prayer of Job. Malli's prayer, on the other hand, is the prayer of a beloved daughter talking with her Father.

They pray for a miracle, and lo and behold the miracle happens. As soon as Moshe finishes his prayers, a friend approaches him and tells him where he can get a beautiful succah that has been abandoned by its owner who has bought a new one. And Malli, fearful to answer a knock on the door, finds an envelope pushed under the door from an anonymous benefactor containing $1000. When Moshe returns, there is great rejoicing and dancing and singing in the kitchen.

Now the stage is set for the celebration of the Feast of Booths. They have everything they need including the diamond, which Moshe has bought because a perfect citron is said to bring a male child. There is only one thing lacking to make the feast perfect and that is ushpizin, holy guests to share the feast. Needless to say, the guests arrive—two escaped prisoners, one of whom is a friend of Moshe's from the old days.

Week38-ushpizinchiz

And all this is just the beginning of the movie.

From this point on, although there are ups and downs in the story, everything gradually falls apart, and throughout Moshe prays and seeks the will of God. He approaches his relationship with God as a sort of bargaining. “You ask me to do this-I do it-You bless me.” In the end he finds that what God wants from him is the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart.

Shuli Rand and Michal Batsheva Rand, who play Moshe and Malli in the film are both wonderful. Michal is especially good whether she is singing contemporary Jewish praise songs (which sound exactly like contemporary Christian praise songs) in the kitchen, serving dinner to her unconventional ushpizin, or praying that her Father will make the rent-collector go away. She had never acted before making this film, and only took the role because her husband, a Hasidic Jew and author of the screenplay, insisted for modesty's sake that she play his wife.

When I wrote about The All-of-a-Kind Family books for the 52 Authors series, I mentioned that after reading about the Feast of Booths, I always wanted my father to build us a succah. Well, that's not going to happen, but I was very glad to have a chance to peek into one and see how the holiday is celebrated—and in Jerusalem at that. The movie was filmed on location in Jerusalem and realizing that we are seeing the real life of this community adds to the enjoyment of the film.

Right before I watched Ushpizin last night, I had been reading what Dante had to say about interpreting the passage, “When from the land of Egypt Israel came,” in literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical ways, so it was a happy coincidence to see the film begin with that phrase, and think about the movie in the light of those kinds of interpretations.

I got a bit of this information here and here. These are two short Wikipedia articles about the film and Rand and have some additional information that might interest you.

—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.


The Gods of the Copybook Headings

For years I have been seeing this poem by Kipling described as having some sort of profound relevance. I read it, and it seemed interesting, but I didn't quite understand who these gods were supposed to be. It was only fairly recently that I learned the answer. A "copybook" in English schools of the time was for handwriting practice. At the head of each page was some sort of proverb or maxim, and the student was to copy it repeatedly down the page. The gods of the copybook headings, then, are those eternal truths of human life which we forget or ignore at our peril. It was written just after the end of World War I, in which Kipling lost his son. It begins like this:

AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

And ends rather chillingly. Please read the whole thing at the Kipling Society's site. (I'm not going to include it here because I'm pretty sure some of the lines are too long and wouldn't display properly.)

It does seem that our culture is determined to ignore every scrap of wisdom inherited from our ancestors. I thought of the poem a couple of days ago when I read this piece by Damon Linker in which he criticizes progressives for attempting to demonize and destroy perfectly natural and not necessarily unhealthy "particularist" impulses. Progressivism

displays outright contempt for particularistic instincts that are not and should not be considered morally and politically beyond the pale. On the contrary, a very good case can be made that these instincts are natural to human beings and even coeval with political life as such — and that it is the universalistic cosmopolitanism of humanitarian liberalism (or progressivism) that, as much as anything, has provoked the right-wing backlash in the first place.

Underlying liberal denigration of the new nationalism — the tendency of progressives to describe it as nothing but "racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia" — is the desire to delegitimize any particularistic attachment or form of solidarity, be it national, linguistic, religious, territorial, or ethnic.

As you might imagine, liberals reacted angrily, and called it, of course, racist. The inclusion of "ethnic" in that list pretty much guaranteed that reaction. But ethnic solidarity is not necessarily a bad thing. It is perfectly healthy and sane to prefer one's own place and people to others, and the fact that it can become pathological doesn't change that. It is generally not considered a bad thing by liberals when it involves, say, Jewish or Italian or Irish immigrants in early 20th century New York, or today when it takes forms that they can approve and enjoy: a Haitian enclave in a big city, for instance. Multiculturalism generally approves any presence here of a non-American culture. But how could that culture exist except as something particular, something which, by virtue of being what it is, is necessarily not something else?--and especially not a mere instance of interchangeable universal humanity.  

I do think the Trump phenomenon, which I mostly deplore, has been fed by the sort of backlash that Linker mentions. But appears that progressives will not learn from it. 


52 Movies: Week 37 - Six by The Three Stooges

Like many comedians of their era The Three Stooges got their start in vaudeville, and like their contemporaries The Marx Brothers and The Ritz Brothers they came from immigrant Jewish families. Moe and Shemp Howard (Moses and Samuel Horwitz) and Larry Fine (Louis Feinberg) were part of a popular act called Ted Healy and his Stooges, a vaudeville team that began doing film work in 1930. Fed up with Healy’s demanding ways Shemp broke off from the team to go solo, and was replaced by younger Horwitz brother Jerome, who showed up at his audition with long curly hair and a handlebar moustache. One commentator said that he looked like a chubby General Custer. He shaved his head, and eventually the moustache, and became “Curley.”

The Stooges appeared in several films with Healy through 1934, when their contract with MGM expired. Healy and the Stooges parted company, and the Stooges, now officially renamed “The Three Stooges,” signed with Columbia Pictures to do short films, and remained with Columbia for over 20 years.

Week37-stooges_primary

Unlike most of the other comedians of their day The Stooges never made the leap from shorts into feature films until near the end of their careers. Moe, the leader and manager of the group, always felt that their brand of comedy would not work as well in a longer form. It is probably for this reason, and also for the fact that their comedic style was more lowbrow than some of the other acts of the era, that despite their popularity they never got the critical appreciation that others got. This is unfortunate, as at their best, they could be as funny as anyone.

In my opinion, the key to their humor is the natural comedic talent of Curley (later ‘Curly). Moe was funny as a pseudo-tough guy, and Larry, who basically went along and got in the way, sticking up for Curly from time to time, generally got the worst of things for his efforts. But Curly, the vacuous child-man, with his faces, mannerisms and odd noises, was the one who really held the thing together; I think he deserves to go down as one of the great film comics. His timing and ability to improvise were both top notch, as was his talent for physical comedy. He’s always doing something in character even when the camera’s focused elsewhere.

The Stooges often get an undeserved bad rap for the raucousness of their comedy, as if it were all face slapping, eye poking, and pie throwing. But such really isn’t the case. While they were never exactly subtle, there is a fair amount of wit, both verbal and physical in their best films.

I’ve watched the Three Stooges since I was little, and I can remember my Dad (who was a big fan) and I watching them together in the mornings before school – kindergarten and first grade even! I’ve seen some of their films literally dozens of times, and they still make me laugh. I probably have ten or so favorites, with another larger group as a second tier, but I’ve limited my picks here to six that I consider among the best. They run from 15 to 18 minutes each, about the length of a feature film, which seems appropriate, and I’m listing them in chronological order.

Men in Black (1934) – A spoof of a popular Clark Gable film of the era called Men in White, the boys play a trio of doctors who wreak havoc at a hospital. Only their third release, it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Film. This early film of theirs approaches the anarchic style of comedy that the Marx Brothers were famous for, and also includes a relatively high quotient of verbal jokes

Disorder in the Court (1936) – The Stooges play witnesses at a murder trial, the defendant being a dancer at the club where they are musicians. Featured is a very funny musical number, a classic scene, bits of which have appeared in various commercials over the years. Curly is especially good in this one, especially in his turn in the witness box.

A Plumbing We Will Go (1940) – Fleeing the police, the boys escape in a plumbers’ truck, and are taken for the real thing by a society matron. They, of course, wreck the house. Some good sight gags here (Curly trapping himself in a cage of pipes is a famous one), but the show is almost stolen by what is the best non-Stooge performance in all of their films: the big-eyed black comedian Dudley Dickerson plays the cook, who experiences the Stooges’ plumbing expertise first hand when water begins appearing in his kitchen in unusual places, uttering the famous line, “This house has sho’ gone crazy!”

Week37-Plumbing

An Ache in Every Stake (1941) – The Stooges play ice men, who have to deliver a block of ice up a long flight of stairs (it melts on the way up). In the process, they ruin a businessman’s birthday cake, but inadvertently end up as the cooks at his dinner party. Highlights include Curly stuffing a turkey and “shaving the ice.”

Dizzy Pilots (1943) – The Stooges play the Wrong Brothers, airplane inventors who’ve been given a draft extension to complete their waterproof plane. If it fails, they have to join the army. Their attempts to get the plane done in time don’t work out quite right. And neither does boot camp. This one features one of my all-time favorite short Curly routines – his attempt to do the manual of arms in boot camp.

Micro-Phonies (1945) – Curly is mistaken for an opera singer at a radio station, and the Stooges, seeing a quick buck, agree to have him sing at a matron’s musical party (with the help of an opera record). Curly had had a stroke early that year, and the effects caused him to slow down both his speech and his physical gestures, and he retired soon after this short was made. He’s very good in this one though, and it remains one of their most memorable efforts.

I imagine that all of these are available online at various places, including You Tube. Enjoy!

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.


About My Book: Sunday Light

[This post is going to stay at the top for a week or two. Scroll down for newer posts.]

As regular readers of this blog know, I've published a book that contains what I consider to be the best of the Sunday Night Journal, a weekly feature that ran for most of a decade here. Click here for more information. 

 P.S. At the moment (Sept. 20, 2016) Amazon has it priced at $10 for the paperback and $6 for the Kindle, vs. the list prices of $16/$8. Hurry!

 


What Is Actually Happening, September 15, 2016

For a long time I've been saying that it was only a matter of time before white people began to band together openly precisely as white people. Only someone who is ignorant either of recent American cultural and political life, or of human nature, or both, should be surprised at this. The writer who calls himself Vox Day (cf. "vox populi, vox dei", I assume), who is apparently a prominent figure of the Alt-Right, makes it explicit. See #14 in this list:

The Alt Right believes we must secure the existence of white people and a future for white children.

Mr. Day is not some anonymous Internet ranter. He has had a successful career as a science fiction writer, among other things.

***

Every week or so seems to bring some new and weird twist to the progressive gender mania. I grow weary of reading about it, much less writing about it. One of the stranger things to me is the eagerness with which the sports establishment has leapt on the bandwagon. You undoubtedly have heard of the controversy surrounding pro football player Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the national anthem before a game (as is customary here, for you non-American readers). A protest against racism and stuff. Well, fine, I don't particularly care one way or the other about his gesture, and I have to admit that American patriotism often borders on idolatry, and sometimes crosses that border. 

But what I do find interesting is that, according to David French of National Review, ESPN, the big sports network, defended Kaepernick--as it probably should--but fired former major league pitcher Curt Schilling from his job as a baseball analyst because he posted something on Facebook objecting to the push to allow men into women's restrooms (and vice versa, but we all know that "transgender" men are the main issue).

The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association), governing body of college sports, has decided that North Carolina is not a fit place for championship games because it has passed legislation designed to thwart the federal mandate enforcing the "transgender" demand . You can read the NCAA's letter of self-congratulation here if you want to.

The NBA (National Basketball Association), governing body of professional basketball, has done something similar; I think it was their All-Star game that has been moved from North Carolina.

***

The United States Civil Rights Commission--an actual arm of the government--is signaling its intention to enforce the new gender regime on Catholic schools. More and more I see the phrase "religious liberty" in scare quotes in news stories. 

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), left-wing legal advocacy group, just lost another lawsuit demanding that Catholic hospitals perform abortions. You can be sure they won't stop trying, and Democrats in government will assist them. No wonder some otherwise rational people are supporting Donald Trump.

As I said to someone a few days ago in response to his advocating that doctors and hospitals be forced to provide euthanasia regardless of their conscientious objections, progressives are really getting into coercion these days.

Why-Tolerate-Religion-cov


52 Movies: Week 36 - A Simple Plan

What would you do if you found, way out in the woods, a wrecked airplane containing a dead drug runner and four million dollars? Who would you be hurting if you just took the money home? The dead man had no moral right to the money, nor, probably, did anyone else involved in acquiring it. No one else need ever know that you’d found it, and if anyone ever did come looking for the money there would be nothing to connect it to you. And you could surely put it to good use. Probably to better use than the police.

Well, should you ever find yourself faced with that temptation, and would benefit from a very effective cautionary tale to keep you from making a very big mistake, this movie is it. “Morality tale” is not usually much of a compliment, but this one is extremely effective. It’s a morality tale without preaching, an excellent instance of the show-don’t-tell approach to storytelling.

It’s not one person who finds the plane and the money, but three, and as you might guess that causes problems. Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and their friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) are out in the snowy Minnesota woods one winter afternoon when one of them throws a snowball at an odd snow-covered shape, which knocks off some of the snow, revealing the plane. When they find the money it doesn’t take Jacob and Lou very long to persuade Hank, the most seemingly responsible of the three, that the three of them should hold on to it rather than notify the police. They’ll hide it, hang on to it for a while, then split it up and spend it very slowly and carefully: a simple plan.

But of course things begin to go wrong almost immediately. They make mistakes. They panic. The relentless logic of evil operates, and they do bad things, then dig their hole deeper in trying to conceal those. Someone comes looking for the money. Worse things are done. The walls close in, and finally Hank can see only one way out.

I’ve only seen this movie once, and perhaps on a second viewing I might find something to quibble with. I suppose I could make the broad criticism that after all the course of events portrayed is really a little far-fetched. But apart from that it really seems pretty close to perfect, in that every element of it is precisely appropriate and effective as a part of the whole: acting, script, cinematography.

I’ll enlist Roger Ebert in support of my claims:

"A Simple Plan" is one of the year's [1998] best films for a lot of reasons, including its ability to involve the audience almost breathlessly...

The performances can be described only as flawless: I could not see a single error of tone or feeling. Paxton, Thornton, Fonda and Briscoe don't reach, don't strain and don't signal. They simply embody their characters, in performances based on a clear emotional logic that carries us along from the beginning to the end....

You can read Ebert’s entire review here, it’s a bit spoiler-ish, though it doesn’t give away anything essential. The Fonda he mentions, by the way, is Bridget, as Hank's wife, a very important part of the story.

A Simple Plan is also a thriller, and I found it a very intense one. That’s one reason I haven’t seen it again, though I plan to.

Here is a clip from the scene where the men have just discovered the money and Lou and Jacob are trying to talk Hank into keeping it. Jacob is the one with the glasses, Lou with the beard, Hank with the black jacket. Jacob, as you may gather from this scene, is a bit simple-minded, a trait which is very important to the story in several ways.

 

The production designer, Patrizia Von Brandenstein, said “We created a muted black-and-white color scheme to suggest a morality tale, the choices given between right and wrong.” Indeed.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.