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October 2016

Pillars of the Church

Still reading The Seven Storey Mountain, and liking it a lot. This passage struck me. Merton is making a Holy Week retreat at Gethsemani, prior to entering the Trappist order. Observing the other guests, he notes these:

...and there were three or four pious men who turned out to be friends and benefactors of the monastery--quiet, rather solemn personages; they assumed a sort of command over the other guests. They had a right to. They practically lived here in this guest house. In fact, they had a kind of quasi-vocation all their own. They belonged to that special class of men raised up by God to support orphanages and convents and monasteries and build hospitals and feed the poor. On the whole it is a way to sanctity that is sometimes too much despised. It sometimes implies a more than ordinary humility in men who come to think that the monks and nuns they assist are creatures of another world. God will show us at the latter day that many of them were better men than the monks they supported!

My wife is the archivist for the local archdiocese, and has told me several stories of people like this she's come across in her researches: men and women who were prosperous in the world and who gave much or in a few cases all of their wealth to support orphanages, hospitals, and the like in the days before government agencies were the main providers of those services. It was interesting to me to see that it was a not-unusual pattern. 

52 Movies: Week 42 - Duel

Most likely this is going to be the only film discussed in this series which was originally an ABC Movie of the Week, i.e. made specifically for network TV. It was broadcast in 1971, and whereas most similar works are immediately forgotten, this one has lived on. I actually saw it on its original broadcast—a bit surprising because I didn’t see a whole lot of TV at that time—and never forgot it. So when we first subscribed to Netflix, and I spent some time searching for things that were too obscure to have been available in video rental stores, this was one of them. I found it and put it on my list, but it went into the “not currently available but one day it might be” category, and I more or less forgot about it until it surfaced at the top of the list a few weeks ago. At that point, and being, I suppose, a bit jaded by the sheer quantity of movies available now, I considered removing it, but decided to give it a shot anyway.

I’m glad I did. It is actually better than I thought in 1971, watching it on a tiny black-and-white screen. It is in fact quite good, not just good in comparison to other made-for-TV movies. And I’m sure that part of what sets it apart is that it was directed by a very young Steven Spielberg. At this point in his career he had only done television work, and it was Duel that opened the way for his first “real” movie, The Sugarland Express (which I have not seen).

In general I’m not much of a Spielberg fan. Sure, his films are well made and generally enjoyable, but to my taste—which I have to point out is based on limited acquaintance—they tend to strike me as entertaining, but not a great deal more. Glancing down the list of titles in his filmography, I don’t see anything that affected me deeply or lastingly, except for moments of intense cinematic thrill, like certain scenes in Jurassic Park (for instance: “Clever girl!”).

And you could write off Duel as an intense cinematic thrill. But there’s something to be said for that, and Duel does it extremely well. Moreover, I would argue that without any obvious explicit attempt to produce philosophical resonance, the film does have some.

It opens with a black screen. We hear the sound of a car starting, light comes in through what we realize is an opening garage door, and for the next five minutes we see things entirely from the point of view of the car’s driver, Dave Mann (Dennis Weaver), as he exits his driveway, makes his way through Los Angeles (I think), and out onto a two-lane highway in the dry hills of rural southern California. The camera shifts away from Mann’s viewpoint, and we see his car, a red Plymouth Valiant, and Mann himself, a pretty ordinary-looking fellow, listening to talk shows on AM radio. Some of the talk turns out to be pretty relevant to Mann, such as a guy complaining that he is not the head of his household.

He gets behind a dirty old tanker truck with “FLAMMABLE” in big letters across the tank. Impatiently, he passes the truck—when he shouldn’t, apparently, as there is a solid yellow line between the lanes. In a minute the truck comes roaring past him, but soon he finds himself stuck behind it again, breathing its dirty exhaust. So he passes again.

And now the battle begins. This truck is driven by a killer. At this point we’re only fifteen minutes or so into the film, and for the next hour and fifteen minutes we watch as the driver of the truck attempts to use it to kill Mann.

That’s about as much as you need to know about the plot. Suffice to say that the rest of the film is intense, grueling, and brilliantly executed. I distinctly remember being totally captivated by it on TV, and at the end thinking “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that on TV before.” And in my opinion it still very much works, 45 years later, even more so on a bigger and sharper screen and in color, though this time I knew how it would turn out.

One of the things that really struck me is that it doesn’t seem at all dated cinematically. Sure, the quality of the cinematography is of its time, and the general milieu of characters and culture (the story does not all take place on the road) are in many ways far from the present day. (Watching older movies, especially of the thriller sort, makes one realize how many turns of plot involved the need to find a telephone, or could only happen because the mobile phone did not exist.) But the technique—angles, cutting, etc.--gives the chase a gripping realism that I don’t think could be much improved upon today.

Dennis Weaver may be remembered by people of a certain age (or nostalgists) as Chester in Gunsmoke, and I think people at the time (I was one) were surprised by the intensity and effectiveness of this performance. And if you’re wondering about the truck driver, well, I guess it’s not giving away too much to say that we never see his face. That’s part of what generates that resonance I mentioned: Mann’s enemy (get it?) seems to be the truck itself, an embodiment of death, attacking and pursuing without warning or much justification. As Mann says, “Well, you never know. You just never know.”


Not what you want to see in your rear-view mirror.

The script is by Richard Matheson, from one of his own short stories. You may recognize his name: he wrote a lot of sci-fi/fantasy books, short stories, and screenplays, including some Twilight Zone episodes and the novel I Am Legend. Spielberg was/is a great admirer of his.

The DVD includes a lengthy interview with Spielberg in which he describes how the film came to be made and goes into a lot of detail about how it was done, what he had to do to achieve those effects, and so forth, and although I don’t usually enjoy those how-it-was-made features I found this one fascinating

—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.

--Thomas Merton

I'm reading The Seven Storey Mountain for the first time, something I've been meaning to do for maybe thirty years. And it's really good. Sorry I didn't get to it sooner.

Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)

A few days ago, apropos of Dylan's receiving the Nobel, I asked my Facebook acquaintances to name a Dylan song that they considered neglected and/or underrated. Artur Sebastian Rosman (link is to his Patheos blog) nominated this song. I had only heard it a few times and not given it much attention, but I listened to it again and was very impressed. It's definitely a gem, and at least as far as I know merits the "neglected and/or underrated" classification. It seems especially appropriate to what's going on in this country now. 

Señor, señor, let’s disconnect these cables
Overturn these tables
This place don’t make sense to me no more
Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor? 

The full lyric can be read here. The song appears on the Street Legal album, which overall is definitely one of Dylan's lesser efforts, though it also has at least one other great song, "Changing of the Guard." Dylan's original did not show up when I looked on YouTube, but I like this version by Willie Nelson and Calexico better anyway. 

Calexico is a great band in its own right, by the way. 

Also by the way, regarding the question with which the song opens--"Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?"--it seems likely that Dylan intended an association with the Lincoln County War

Thirty Minutes of "Debate"

I hadn't intended to watch any of the so-called "debates" between the two grotesques running for president. But my wife was curious, so we watched it until she said she couldn't stand anymore, which was about thirty minutes.

If there is any justification for these weird performances, it's that the viewer may get some sense of what sort of person a candidate is. One is not going to learn anything substantive about their views and what they might do if elected. Anyone paying the least bit of attention already knows what they will say on those points, and what they will actually do is generally predictable within broad limits. Trump might be an exception to that last rule: who knows what he might do? 

Anyway, looking at the debates only from that point of view--an appraisal of personality--Trump came across as he always does, as a fairly ignorant and unstable blowhard. Hillary...well, I certainly had a well-formed and very low opinion of her before the debate, and I have to keep that in mind. But she struck me as sinister. Certainly more clever than Trump, but creepy, especially at moments when Trump was saying something which played into her hands: like the witch welcoming Hansel and Gretel. Yes, I know it's a cliche, and I know I would be convicted of gross sexism for saying it, but that's what I thought (and I'm certainly not alone). It may not be fair. She was probably smiling to avoid looking grim and/or bitchy, which is what people often say about her. But: live by the image and sound bite, die by the image and sound bite.

And that, I guess, is pretty consistent with the view I've had all along, and that makes me glad I don't live in a swing state, so I won't feel responsible for helping to elect one or the other. Ignorant and crazy vs. clever and malicious. What a choice.

52 Movies: Week 41 - Deepwater Horizon

Here is something I do not think we have had heretofore in this series, a current movie review. So here goes.

Note: Deepwater Horizon was not filmed on the continent of Asia, and I did not have to read subtitles while watching.

We were on our way to the Eastern Shore Center where I intended to go see The Girl on the Train with my stepdaughter. It seemed like it would probably be dark and dreary, but I like Emily Blunt and have not read the book so thought that maybe it would be a suitable “thriller” for a Saturday afternoon. However, I decided to ask which movie she would like to see and the answer was interestingly Deepwater Horizon. It turns out that, a) she had written some sort of paper on the event recently in high school; and b) there is an actor named Dylan O’Brien in the movie whom she likes. I agreed this was an acceptable alternative.

My memory of this event in 2010 was that an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing a handful of people and causing a leak several miles underwater of oil, which spewed out into the gulf for over two months. Since I live in Mobile, Alabama it was considered local news, with oil washing up on the beaches of the northern Gulf of Mexico. Apparently there was too much pressure to cap it, and I do not even remember how it eventually stopped. The movie doesn’t go into that at all, it is about the people on board, the explosion, how that happened and how those who were able to save themselves did.

Just to let everyone know, it is pretty intense. Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, and I don’t know what he actually did on the Deepwater Horizon but apparently it was important. His boss is Kurt Russell, who goes by the name “Mister Jimmy”. Wahlberg’s wife is Kate Hudson (Felicia), who is Kurt Russell’s stepdaughter in real life, but in the movie she is only the wife of one of his men. At the end (spoiler alert) she does give Mister Jimmy a hug, which is fun since you know their real statuses. Dylan O’Brien has a pretty small part, but since he is a “name” for teen-age girls I got the impression that he was one of the young workers who had an occasional line of dialogue. I asked Sofie afterward and she stated that I was correct. At a point before the explosion he states, “I’m going to take a leak”. This never happens because all hell breaks loose shortly after his statement. At the end of the movie I was wondering about his bladder since I think he lived.

I’m being funny about it all but it’s a good movie and I enjoyed it. I don’t usually go for this type of heavy action, explosions, everyone running for safety kind of movie because it wears me out (and it did), and especially so knowing that this did really happen and it was quite horrific. What made it even more horrific for me was thinking back on when it happened and how 98% of the coverage and thus the concern by all of us watching the news was the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. While that was awful and outrageous and sad, it kept us away from the human tragedy of eleven people losing their lives because the BP administrators were too cheap to have a $125,000.00 “cement test” done near the beginning of the film. I don’t really know what this test is, but had it been administered as Mister Jimmy wanted it to be, then none of the rest would have happened and we would all be blissfully unaware of the existence of the Deepwater Horizon which would probably still be out in the gulf. If the events were anything as shown in the movie it is a miracle that only eleven people lost their lives.

I almost forgot to mention that one of those BP executive guys, the main one who makes the call to move forward when things appear to not be working as they should, is John Malkovich! He has a silly Cajun accent, and seems to be wearing front teeth prostheses of some kind, but there he is as usual the bad guy. That was fun, just like the Kurt Russell/Kate Hudson hug.

So Deepwater Horizon is a well-made and serviceable real life action film which does its double duty of entertaining the audience while humanizing the people aboard the vessel, teaching those of us watching who knew little about the event except that it was the largest oil spill in United States history.

Now if only Dylan O’Brien had had more of a role in the plot, and not been covered with mud and oil the entire movie!

[My favorite cheesy Hollywood line: Mark Wahlberg is getting ready to do something heroic and shouts out, “My wife is Felicia and my daughter is Sydney and I WILL see them again!”]

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 —Stu Moore was pretty sure he met Lee Harvey Oswald during the famous visit to Spring Hill College, until he realized he had not yet been born.

A Note on the Circus

A month or so ago, in this post, I said of the election campaign that I had begun to feel as if everyone else had gone to see a movie and I had decided to stay home. In the comments, Art Deco objected to the analogy, saying that unlike a movie the election will have serious consequences. Art was misconstruing me, but I'm not sure I really explained what I meant. What I meant was not that the election is just a form of entertainment, but that the campaign itself had become little more than a spectacle, having little to do with the very serious matter involved. Even the pretense of reasoned discussion and persuasion has been abandoned; it's all just furious slashing with dull blades.

That's even more true now. If the campaign was a movie before, it has now devolved into a demented circus of rage. Trump does not seem to be entirely sane, and I mean that quite literally, and is getting crazier as a Hillary win seems more likely. And the evidence of Hillary's dishonesty, and the corruption involved in the entire Democratic apparatus, continues to pile up, only to be ignored and dismissed by the news and opinion shapers outside the right. Jim Geraghty of National Review summed up the situation: "This year requires partisans to defend the indefensible, day after day." And they're working hard at it.

One of these people will be president next year, and will come into office bearing the bitter hatred of millions of opponents, as well as the desire of many of his or her supporters to suppress the losers. I can't imagine what that's going to be like. 

I keep reminding myself that I'm naturally pessimistic and things may not be as bad as they seem, but it seems that the country just keeps getting crazier. I posted this on Facebook a week or so ago, right after the frenzy produced by Trump's remarks about groping women had erupted:

I regret to inform you that in the struggle between American political culture and sanity, the latter has clearly lost. 

Many Democrats who circled the wagons around Bill Clinton, against whom there were multiple credible allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and possibly rape (not to mention obstruction of justice and perjury), and now want us to choose as president the wife who publicly lied for him and helped him intimidate the women involved, expect everyone to be deeply shocked by Trump's words.

Many Republicans who supported Trump in spite of being warned over and over again that he is exactly who he has always appeared to be, and would most likely not only lose the election but drag the whole party down with him, want to "distance themselves" now that they sense the ominous tug of the millstone to which they willing chained themselves and which is, as stones will do, sinking.

Many Christians who justifiably considered Clinton to be despicable shrug off Trump's loutishness and immorality, which has been perfectly obvious for years and was advertised by him long before this latest scoop, and desperately ignore his equally obvious lack of interest in the things they care about.

All this is taking place in a media and entertainment culture which has been praising and encouraging formerly outrageous sexual talk and behaviour for, literally, decades, but is now lying, faint with shock, on its couch, with a wet towel on its forehead, calling weakly for a restorative brandy-and-water.

I only wish Ambrose Bierce were alive to do verbal justice to the situation.

"...a republic, if they can keep it." Well....

On the other hand...

...this guy at the Weekly Standard discussing Dylan's Nobel just doesn't have much idea of what he's talking about. I feel a little embarrassed for him. 

On yet another hand, though, all is not darkness at The Weekly Standard: Andrew Ferguson has a sensible assessment, which happens to be pretty similar to my own. Some people over-rate Dylan to the point of insanity. "Desolation Row" is Dylan's "King Lear"? It's difficult not to react to such hyperbole by going in the other direction. The official reason given by the Swedish Academy is that Dylan was given the Nobel ""for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition". Setting aside the question of whether such an achievement ought to get one an award for literature, that's fair enough.