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November 2016

52 Movies: Week 48 - Diên Biên Phú

Diên Biên Phú is a two-hour war film by the French director Pierre Schoendoerffer, released in 1992. It tells the story of the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the decisive defeat of French forces in Vietnam that led to the French abandonment of its client state and former colony, and indirectly to American involvement in the ensuing civil war between Communists and nationalists. There’s a contemporary newsreel regarding the battle at this link. In Schoendoerffer’s film, three plotlines intertwine: the course of the battle itself, a famous violinist rehearsing and performing her farewell concert in the opera house in Hanoi (the capital of French Indochina), and vignettes of an American reporter trying to gain not just the latest information but also an understanding of the background to events. Exposition of context is provided in the scenes in which the American interviews or interacts with a range of figures — soldiers and nationalists, smugglers and opium dealers. He’s the outsider whose need to learn about the situation justifies explanations that for the other characters would be redundant.

The scenes of the battle are unlike any others I have seen. It is in one respect a very unusual sort of war film, quite possibly unique: the director had himself been present at the battle, as a cameraman for the French army’s film service. He saw it as his duty to document the event, but when defeat came he destroyed his cameras and his reels of film, so that nothing he had shot might be of use to the enemy. Almost forty years later he directed a film that would, in a sense, recreate his lost recordings from memory. One of the characters, played by his own son, is even a cameraman for the army film service. Battlefield scenes, whether of combat, or care of the wounded, or of an army chaplain’s field mass, bear witness to his memory of events. If the American journalist is a pretext for exposition, the battlefield scenes are essentially documentary reconstructions. Diên Biên Phú doesn’t fall readily into either of the two typical types of war drama, the glorifying and the anti-militarist, as it shows the anguish and suffering of the soldiers in the firing line quite bluntly and at some length, while also showing astonishing and admirable acts of courage.

Finally, there is the music. If the camera seeks accurately to recreate what Schoendoerffer saw on the battlefield, the haunting score adds an entirely different emotional layer to the experience. The first time I saw the film was on television – it happened to be on, and although I had never heard of the film before I had vaguely heard of the battle. As soon as possible after seeing it, for the first time in my life, I sought out and acquired the soundtrack. I have done the same for two other films since: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Searching for Sugar Man (2012). The composer, Georges Delerue, is apparently very famous, although I had to Google him. Apparently he scored another war film set in Vietnam, Platoon, but I haven’t seen that.

The clip below, from about an hour in, combines all three strands, cutting between the opera house in Hanoi, where the American journalist is in the audience, and the battlefield, where an artillery lieutenant defies an order to spike his guns, instead using them to cover the retreat of his comrades. Although rather low resolution (perhaps best watched on a mobile phone?), it captures many of the beauties of the film. The cinematography is far more stunning than it might suggest. The clip also contains the only explicit cinematic reference I have ever noticed to Newton’s laws of motion (the artilleryman’s “la loi du vieil Isaac”).

It is not a film to be watched for plot, although it does have one, but for the camerawork, the composition of the shots, the music, the vignettes of the sights and sounds of French Indochina in the 1950s, and above all the testimony to the hard-fought defeat in which three quarters of those who surrendered died in captivity.

Dien Bien Phu (Schoendoerffer) par henrisalvador

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.

David Bentley Hart: The Experience of God

I've had this book on my shelf for a couple of years or so but only recently got around to reading it. That was partly in response to replies to the question I posed a couple of months (?) ago asking for recommendations for excellent contemporary prose stylists. Hart's name was mentioned, and I'd been wanting to read this book for a while, so I dug in.

It's excellent. And it is indeed very well written. It's in part an attempt to counter the shallow arguments of the so-called "New Atheists" (Richard Dawkins on what they call "religion," and their mistaken notion of the nature of God as understood in classical monotheism. They think that Christians (their main target) believe in a God who is a discrete and specific being within the universe, not in that respect different from the tooth fairy, whose existence could in principle be demonstrated by empirical methods, and who, since no such demonstrations are available, "almost certainly" (to quote Dawkins) does not exist. This results in some very muddy controversial waters indeed. The fact that some Christians do apparently have this inadequate conception of God is okay--we aren't saved by the precision of our theology--but it does muddy the waters further, especially if they engage in public argument. (And especially especially if they argue from scripture.)

The atheists don't seem to realize that they've vanquished a straw man (at most). It's as if an attacking army has mistaken an outlying village for the enemy's capitol city, conquered the village, and declared victory, while life goes on as usual in the capitol. Hart's rejoinders are sharp and often amusing, but quite serious. 

That's not all the book is about, though. I think any believer who is not already immersed in the ideas Hart advances would find his understanding stretched and strengthened. It's not concerned with specifically Christian ideas about God, but with the conception of one absolute God which is common not only to the Abrahamic religions but, Hart argues, present behind the pantheon of Hinduism. It does require some familiarity with basic philosophical and theological terminology, but I think it's within reach of those who, like me, have only a little. 

The title seems just a bit misleading to me. I would expect it to refer to personal mystical experiences, but I think rather it's meant to suggest that the foundation of our conception of God lies in the direct experiences of reality and of our own consciousness, as implied in this sentence from the introduction:

God is not only the ultimate reality that the intellect and the will seek but is also the primordial reality with which all of us are always engaged in every moment of existence and consciousness, apart from which we have no experience of anything whatever.

And with that I'm going to turn the floor over to Craig Burrell, who has a lengthy and excellent discussion of the book at All Manner of Thing.


Wonder If We'll Ever See This Kind of Thing Again


The sign says "Not my choice, but now my president." I posted this picture in 2008 with this explanation:

There’s a guy up the road in Spanish Fort, a veteran who’s very active in veterans’ affairs, who had a series of “Veterans for McCain” signs on this building (which I think he owns) during the campaign. This appeared the day after the election and I stopped and took a picture of it.

This kind of sentiment was not unusual at the time. It seems to be forgotten (if it was ever acknowledged) that Obama actually entered office with a fair amount of good will from those who had opposed him. "If nothing else, maybe he'll be good for race relations" was a fairly common sentiment. But his presidency proved to be so divisive that all that was gone by 2012. Well, we're certainly not seeing anything like this now, and I wonder if we ever will again. 

52 Movies: Week 47 - I Know Where I'm Going


Originally, I had meant to write about another movie, but after talking about Wendy Hiller on the My Fair Lady post, I decided to write about my favorite Wendy Hiller movie, I Know Where I'm Going. The movie was filmed in black and white during the last months of World War II. The writers/directors/producers of the movie were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were also responsible for two other films in this series, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and One of Our Aircraft is Missing; and for the film based on Rumer Godden's novel, Black Narcissus.

Joan Webster is a young woman who from her earliest days has known what she wants from life. When she was five, she asked Father Christmas for silk stockings. She didn't get them, but that didn't stop her from keeping her eyes on her goal, and that goal was to have all the finer things in life. Now at 25, Joan is about to achieve her dreams.

I know 1

Joan invites her father to an upscale restaurant to tell him that she is engaged to an older man, Robert Bellinger, the owner of Consolidated Chemical Industries. She explains that she is leaving on a train that evening to go to the Hebrides, where she will marry Bellinger on his island, Kiloran. When Joan arrives at the train, we see that Bellinger has arranged everything for her: a private coach, an elaborate itinerary, and a lovely wedding dress. Asleep in her berth, Joan dreams of her wedding—her wedding to Consolidated Chemical Industries. You can see this rather amusing wedding beginning at 3:13 on this video.

Arriving on the Isle of Mull, she finds for the first time in her life that she has met an obstacle that she can't overcome by force of will. The fog will not permit her to get to Kiloran. At the dock, she meets Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), a young naval office with eight days of leave which he wants to spend on the Isle of Kiloran. Since they can't cross that day, and it's too late to go anywhere else, he takes her with him to the home of a friend, Mrs. Catriona (pronounced Catrina) Potts, who arrives dripping wet from hunting on the moor with a brace of rabbits, and a warm welcome for Torquil; and happy to have some female company because she, “hasn't heard any intelligent female nonsense for months.” Catriona is pretty much an image of the spirit of the islands. Life is difficult and they don't have much, but they would rather live the way they do than move elsewhere and give up the things that are really important to them.


Before they go to bed, Torquil tells Joan that if she counts the beams in her room, she will get her wish. He says it will only work on the first night in the house, and only if she believes. So Joan does count the beams and makes her wish in the form of a little prayer, “Please, Lord, don't let the wind drop, and let it blow away the fog.” And her prayer is answered, but in the way of so many fables, it isn't answered in the way she intended. Not only does the wind not drop, it strengthens into a gale.

For the next several days as the weather continues to be a problem, we are immersed in the culture of the Hebrides. We meet the people who live on the Isle of Mull and visit the ruins of an old castle, go to dinner at a grand house in Achnacroish and hear the old woman who lives there describe their wonderful balls, and attend a ceilidh celebrating the diamond wedding anniversary of a local couple, where Joan and Torquil dance away the night.

The outcome of the movie is very predictable. From almost the first moment of the movie, we have an idea of what is going to happen, and from the moment Torquil appears, we know who it is going to happen with. I'm not too worried about spoilers because I know that you know where this movie is going.

I Know Where I'm Going is a romance, but it is the best kind of romance. While there is a definite physical attraction between Joan and Torquil, there is more than that. There is an attraction to each other as people, and the relationship is full of respect and courtesy. What is more, it's not a romance that concerns two individuals isolated in their own little world, but it takes place in a community where that relationship has a place.

I know 2

All the actors play their parts very well. Wendy Hiller gives a wonderful performance. I love her face. While she doesn't have a traditional kind of beauty, she has something more. I think it's character. Nancy Price, who plays Mrs. Crozier of Achnacroish, draws the viewer completely in with her description of the big local Highland dance. There's also an appearance by 12 year old Petula Clark.

While I was trying to find a way to watch the film without waiting for a DVD (It's available on DVD from Netflix, and streaming from Amazon), I found a half hour 1994 video called I Know Where I'm Going Revisited. It begins with Martin Scorsese saying that he had just seen this film for the first time and discovered a classic. It has a lot of interesting information, but the cinematography was designed by the demons in the eighth circle of hell. Some of it is pure torture to watch.

 While the Isle of Mull is a real place, Kiloran is not, or at least, the real island isn't named Kiloran, but Colonsay. The characters in the movie never actually reach Kiloran, so it's more or less a prop in the film. From the above video I learned that many visitors still (at least in 1994) go to the Isle of Mull to visit the places in the film. The Castle of Moy which plays a part in the film is still standing, and unless things have changed in the last 22 years, you can still visit a call box along the road which Torquil uses to make reservations at the hotel where Joan will have a big room, and he will have a small one. The hotel is under new management but people still go there because they want to stay in hotel where Joan and Torquil stayed. It makes me want to get a passport.

—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 Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes

I have been enjoying this book occasionally since the late 1970s, but have still not read it in its entirety. I pick it up, read a few bits here and there, then put it down again, sometimes for years. I was looking at it recently and it occurred to me that I should mention it here, as it would make an excellent Christmas gift for anyone who loves English literature.

Arranged in chronological order, the subjects of the stories begin with Caedmon and end with Dylan Thomas. There are a good many very minor figures whom I've never otherwise heard of, but it doesn't matter whether it's Johnson or Thomas Birch, if the story is good. Some are funny, some poignant, like the long account of Shelley's death and cremation, and some just odd and striking. 

There is a newer one, called The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, and it appears at the Oxford University Press web site that the old one is no longer in print. But I see used copies for sale on Amazon. I haven't seen the new one, though I cynically suspect it isn't as good. It does apparently broaden the field to include non-English writers and...Bob Dylan. I don't know whether it includes any of the material from the original or not.

Here's a sample. It appears in the section on Tennyson, but the worlds of science and literature meet in it: Charles Babbage, along with his patron Ada Lovelace, invented a calculating machine, the "difference engine," which would have been the world's first stored-program computer if it had ever been completed, which, because of its cost and complexity, it was not.


Every minute dies a man,
Every minute one is born.

drew from Babbage the remark that the world's population was in fact constantly increasing. 'I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows: "Every minute dies a man / And one and a sixteenth is born". This figure, he added, was a concession to metre, since the actual ratio was 1:167. Tennyson did eventually blur his assertion to the extent of changing "minute" to "moment."

Ok, one more. If my copy were not a forty-year-old mass-market paperback and could be laid flat for easier copying, and I had nothing more pressing to do, I could sit here all afternoon typing out one after another. About P.G. Wodehouse:

A nice old lady sat next to Wodehouse at dinner one night...raved about his work. She said that her sons had great masses of his books piled on their tables, and never missed reading each new one as it came out. 'And when I tell them,' she concluded, 'that I have actually been sitting at dinner with Edgar Wallace, I don't know what they will say.'

After the Election

What a surprise. Not an entirely unwelcome one for me. As my wife said, there was going to be trouble if somebody won the election. But I think I prefer this trouble to the alternative.

Some of those on the losing side have gone rather around the bend. I'm not sure whether they really believe that Trumpian storm troopers are going to drag them from their beds in the middle of the night, or it's just that odd thrill, similar to that of watching a horror movie, that some people seem to get out of imagining such things while in their hearts knowing that they aren't going to happen. I wonder about this person, for instance:

So I am in my reality and they are in theirs and still we live in the same world; and there are others, who have been legitimized and mobilized by Trump’s win, whose reality includes my extinction and my families’ extinction, and the extinction of anyone who is not white in America.

Extinction? Really?

One of the oddest things about that piece is that she is a young (I assume) Chinese-American woman whose own family members were victims of Mao's Cultural Revolution. But she blames, not the communist government that actually perpetrated it, but "fascism." Well, that unfortunately is fairly indicative of the continuing unwillingness of the left to face the historical truth about communism. 

I guess there is no reason, other than a combination of bewilderment and alarm, to multiply examples of such sentiments. I'm sure everyone has seen plenty of them. There are a lot of hysterical predictions, and a lot of reports about various acts of bigotry. No doubt there have been some, but I think there is a lot of exaggeration and outright fabrication, as this piece at Reason (the libertarian site) shows.

I had hoped that having Donald Trump as president might make some on the left reconsider the wisdom of consolidating more and more power in the central government and in the presidency in particular. I'm not seeing any indication of that, though. The effect seems to be rather to inflame their desire to take control and keep it. Screams of hate and fear seem to be the predominant mode of expression. A few liberals have tried to make the point that the obvious contempt of their fellows for everyone who disagrees with them played a role in Hillary's defeat, but I don't get the feeling that very many are listening. 

The racial climate may have changed permanently for the worse. Whatever Trump's own views may be, it can't be denied that genuine racists have hitched themselves to his wagon. What seems more significant to me, though, is that he has catalyzed something that I've been predicting for a long time: that whites would decide that they should do what other groups are doing and openly look to their own interests as a group. As someone said the other day, identity politics for me but not for thee was never going to work as a permanent state of affairs. It seemed to be taken for granted by many on the left that the role of whites in our racial politics was to stand still and be beaten while apologizing. 

At The Federalist there's an excellent analysis, by a writer named David Marcus, of what's happened: "This Election Marks the End of America's Racial Détente". He describes the situation from the passage of the civil rights laws until quite recently as a period of détente in which

The rules of the deal were pretty straightforward. For whites, they stated that outright racist statements and explicit appeals to white racial identity were essentially banned. Along with this, whites accepted a double standard about the appropriateness of cultural and political tribalism. For obvious and reasonable historical and economic reasons, black and brown people explicitly pursuing their own interests was viewed differently than whites doing the same thing.

The other side of the deal was that so long as white people were sufficiently punished for acts of outright racism, minority leaders and communities would be cautious with accusations of racism....

Privilege theory and the concept of systemic racism dealt the death blow to the détente. In embracing these theories, minorities and progressives broke their essential rule, which was to not run around calling everyone a racist. As these theories took hold, every white person became a racist who must confess that racism and actively make amends...

Within the past few years, as privilege theory took hold, many whites began to think that no matter what they did they would be called racist, because, in fact, that was happening....

 The unfortunate place where we now find ourselves is one in which blatant attacks on white people, often from white people, are driving them further into a tribal cocoon. Samantha Bee’s awful and irresponsible berating of white women as the evil force behind Trump’s victory, while condescendingly describing magical people of color as the only ones who can save us, is a clear example of where white defensiveness and victimization are coming from.

Furthermore, the ever-present drumbeat from the Left that every conservative victory is the death throes of bad, old white people who are about to be swept away by waves of brown immigration is making many whites dig in. On a certain level, how can you blame them? They are explicitly being told that their values and way of life are under the sword. How do we expect them to react?

How indeed? As I've said more than once here: sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

(I think Samantha Bee is a comedian. Not sure. Maybe one of those "comedians" who are 50% jokes and 50% left-wing blather.)

52 Movies: Week 45 - My Fair Lady

It occurred to me that we're approaching the end of the year and we haven't had a musical in this series, so I decided to include one.

I'm not a big fan of musicals. There was a time when I would just have said flatly that I don't like them, or at very most that there were a few that I didn't mind. As a teenager dragged to see The Sound of Music with the family, I recall somewhat grudgingly admitting that I had enjoyed it. I remember a conversation from my 20s, in which I disparaged musicals to a female acquaintance, saying that I found it ridiculous to think of people walking down the street and suddenly starting to sing and dance. She replied that she thought it would be wonderful if people walking down the street suddenly started to sing and dance. Well, I could see the appeal of that, though it didn't give me much liking for the actual thing.

I didn't really change my mind until I saw My Fair Lady for the first time about fifteen years or so ago. I think I rented it as a family movie, expecting to be a little bored, but finding to my surprise that it was delightful. I was actually somewhat familiar with the songs, as my parents had an LP of songs from the Broadway show (I think this was before 1964 when the movie came out), and I liked them, but had not (as far as I can remember) heard them since my early teens. Hearing them in the context of the movie made me realize just how very good they are. That may have been the beginning of my learning to appreciate and love popular songs apart from the rock and folk traditions. 

But I think what really won me over in My Fair Lady was the script (called the "book" in theater, right?). It's brilliant and witty, and I remember thinking as I watched it that this was awfully good writing for Hollywood. Well, of course, it wasn't Hollywood's work at all. The musical is an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and most of the dialog in the movie is Shaw's. 

You probably know the basic story. Come to that, there's a good chance you know the movie better than I do. But in case you don't: Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) is a student of dialects, claiming that he can place a Londoner's birthplace within a few blocks (or something like that) by listening to him or her talk. He meets a cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), and makes a bet with a Colonel Pickering that he can enable her to pass for a duchess by training her to speak like one. And so the project begins. Eliza moves in, and Higgins goes to work on her. Much frustration ensues, until finally one day...By George, I think she's got it.

Hepburn's singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon.

Of course you really need to hear the way the way she was saying it before to get the full effect. (There are other clips on YouTube, but you get the idea.)

And then it's one thing to have the right voice, and another to know what to say with it, and the gap between the two produces what is to me not only the funniest bit in this film, but a truly classic moment of comedy, on a par with, say, Groucho Marx's mirror scene.

I don't think it will be a big shock to anyone, or a big spoiler, if I tell you that (Crusty Old Bachelor) Higgins and (Lovely Young Woman) Eliza begin to fall for each other in a very reluctant way. Hearing the songs years ago without knowing how they fit into the story, I made some assumptions based on a rough idea of the story, and  was surprised to discover that several of them are not what I thought. Specifically, I assumed "On the Street Where You Live" and "Get Me to the Church" on time were by Higgins and about Eliza. But they aren't. There are a couple of amusing subplots which involve those songs and some ancillary characters such as Eliza's disreputable father, Alfred P. Doolittle, who describes himself as one of the undeserving poor ("and I means to go on being undeserving") and a young man (played by future Sherlock, Jeremy Brett) who falls in love with Eliza. And then there's Higgins's aristocratic mother, both shrewd and kind.

A charming story, brilliant dialog, great music, and Audrey Hepburn: how could anyone fail to like it? 

About A Blog

Rob G asked the other day whether there would be another 52 Somethings feature in 2017. The answer is "I don't know. Maybe." 

For the past couple of months I've been giving a lot of thought to the future of this blog, asking myself whether I should continue it or not. Here follows the internal debate. Scroll down past the bullet points if you just want the conclusion, which is helpfully labeled "Conclusion."

Arguments against continuing:

  1. It does not have a lot of readers. Never has had, and I think there has been a decline over the past couple of years. I don't have very good statistics, just an average number of page views per day. Over the life of the blog (on Typepad), which began in 2010, that number, as of right now, is 168.43. I don't have any way of knowing how many people that represents. If I assume that every person visiting the blog views at least two pages per visit, that's roughly 85 people per day. It could be many fewer, if the average visit involves more than two page views. And I don't have any way of knowing how many of those people are the same person visiting multiple times per day. Of that number of visitors, some not insignificant percentage is people who got here by searching for something that isn't very typical of the blog's content (Getting Started With Kierkegaard gets a lot of hits), and so are probably not going to return. And anywhere from maybe five to fifteen every day are me, checking in, making comments, and so forth.
  2. Conversation has lagged over the past couple of years: less of it, fewer participants. I think Facebook probably has something to do with that. Maybe a lot. A few years ago I read something in the tech press claiming that Facebook was replacing the web for a lot of people. I think there's something to that. Facebook is weirdly addictive and captivating and there are always conversations going on, though in my experience not usually very satisfying and often unpleasant ones.
  3. And actually sometimes it's more interesting to throw things out on Facebook where they'll be seen by people who don't read the blog and are likely to disagree. I have an unfortunate urge to correct anything I read that seems totally incorrect or unfair. If I preach here, I'm mostly preaching to the choir, but others need the benefit of my wisdom, too. And sometimes I find myself posting the same thing here and on Facebook.
  4. I'm not posting as much, and what I do post is usually fairly brief and relatively lightweight. The main reason for this is that my writing energy and attention are going elsewhere, mainly into the book I'm writing. Related:
  5. It's a distraction from the book. I have a lot of difficulty concentrating--sometimes I think I have ADD--and the need to keep up a reasonably steady stream of posts distracts me, yet frequently does so without actually resulting in anything appearing on the blog. "I should post about that. No, it's not that important. Well, maybe I should. No, it was a current event and now it's too far in the past." Or: "I should post about that. Ok, here's a start...never mind, it's too big a topic for a blog post." Or maybe just "I should post about that...never mind, it would take too long." And the 52 Things series adds to that: I'm often not sure whether I'm going to have anything, which is distracting in itself and also means I have to think about what I can write about in a hurry, and how to make time for it.
  6. I have too much to do. Not supposed to, now that I'm mostly retired. But I'm still doing some work for my old employer. I spend most of the morning working on the book, and in the afternoon usually have an hour or two of their work, and I'm trying to take care of most of the meals (only fair as my wife still has a full-time job), and there's a lot to do around the house, most of which doesn't get done. All that pretty well eats up the time. My difficulty focusing on one thing at a time means that if I have five ten-minute tasks to do, it will take me not 5 x 10 = 50 minutes to do them but at least a hundred, while I start one, then switch because another suddenly seems more urgent, and on and on.

Arguments for:

  1. Yeah, there's less conversation, but it's still good and I still enjoy it, and would really miss it if I didn't have it. And it's way less likely to turn unpleasant here than on Facebook.
  2. The 52 Things series, in spite of what I just said, has been very enjoyable. And I've learned a lot. And very consistently the day the 52 entry appears gets significantly more traffic than others, frequently getting close to 300 views or even a little over.
  3. I still want to comment on politics and other passing things, and really more often than not I'd rather it not be on Facebook, where it's likely to offend some people. On Facebook things hit you in the face (if you're not familiar with it, the normal setup is that you get a steady stream of updates from all your Facebook friends: so-and-so "likes" this, so-and-so posted a link to a news story, etc.). If someone posts something that really irritates you, you see it, unless you block that person altogether. So it's sort of obnoxious to post things that you know are going to offend or anger some of your friends. Whereas no one sees my blog posts unless they come here deliberately.
  4. I want and need some feedback on the book. I need an editor, actually. But for that you need a publisher, and I can't pursue that unlikely possibility and still get the book written. So I've been planning to post some excerpts here and solicit your opinions and advice.

Conclusion: Ok, that's four arguments for continuing and six against, therefore...I'll continue. The decisive argument is simply that I want to, never mind all the reasons against. So, that's settled.

However, I'm going to change things. I'm restarting the Sunday Night Journal. That may seem a little crazy in light of what I've just said. But it's going to be pretty much all I post, unless we continue the 52s, which I'll get to in a moment. And it's going to be different from its earlier incarnation. I tried to, and frequently did, make each of those entries a coherent and carefully written mini-essay. I'm putting that kind of work into the next book now. The new SNJ will be less formal, and more of an actual journal: comments on current events, books I've been reading, music I've been listening to, and that sort of thing. I won't be doing the substantial reviews that, for instance, Craig Burrell does so wonderfully. (There are about half a dozen books right now that I've wanted to discuss, but haven't because I didn't have time for that kind of review.) My hope is that this weekly feature will be a catalyst and focus for conversation. 

Since I was thinking of posting only the SNJ, I considered not posting anymore on this blog and creating a new one called the Sunday Night Journal. But I think I'll just stick with this. I may want to do other posts occasionally. (I would like to revamp the design for this one, but probably won't get to that for a while.)

So, about the 52 Things. I sort of thought there might be little or no interest in doing another one. But if people are interested, sure, let's. I'd like to do it a little differently, to keep it from being a problem for me. Whatever item we pick needs to be one for which I can rustle up something quick in the event that no one else does. I won't bother trying to set up a schedule, for instance, since so far it's started falling apart by halfway through the year or so. You can just send me things, and I'll post them. If I have multiples available on hand at any time, I'll post them in order received. If I don't have anything, I'll write something. Simple. Here are some possibilities that I've thought of:

52 Classical Music Works

52 Pop Songs

52 Albums (Pop or Classical? Or separate them?)

52 Poems

52 Books (Novels?)

I have enough of any of these stored in my head that I could easily write a few paragraphs about a couple of dozen of them over the course of a year, though of course I would hope I wouldn't need to. My contributions would tend to be brief, but that doesn't mean others' need be. 52 Poems would be a bit of a problem because it can be time-consuming to format a poem for web reading, so let's don't do that one this year, if at all.

So, what do y'all think?

By the way, about the book: if you were reading here several years ago (2011?) you would have seen bits of it posted as SNJ items. It's sort of half-spiritual-autobiography a la Surprised by Joy, and half cultural history-criticism. The working title was--well, still is, I guess--War In the Closed World. But that may change. I'm considering Weak and Afraid, after the eccentric (to say the least) musician Ross Johnson:

I'm weak and afraid--and it's a lifestyle that's working for me.


52 Movies

We need eight more to get to 52. I have four that I want to write about (three of which I've seen in the last three days at the Fairhope Film Festival). Stu and Rob have said they would do one more each. That leaves us needing two. I can fill those in if needed from my vast store of experience, but if there was a film you really wanted to write about but haven't gotten around to, here's your chance.

Leonard Cohen, RIP

If I were to pick one artist among the singer-songwriters of the 1960s whom I would bet would still be listened to a hundred years from now, it would be Leonard Cohen. I think there will be others, but like I said, if I were to pick only one....

This song, from 1969's Songs From A Room, strikes me now as a profound commentary on sex and the sexual revolution. Well, it did at the time, actually.


As it happens, I have recently been getting re-acquainted with this album and this song, in connection with the book I'm writing. And in doing so I ran across this story about the real Nancy. It's as sad as the song suggests. Say a prayer for him, and for her.

52 Movies: Week 44 - Stations of the Cross


The opening scene of Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross) sets the stage: a group of teenagers sit around a long table, books open before them, and a young priest speaks to them about their upcoming reception of the sacrament of Confirmation. He is articulate and winsome as he encourages them to stand firm in their faith, to embrace their identities as "soldiers of brotherly love" and ambassadors for Christ in the world. He proposes that during this final week before Confirmation they each should choose something to sacrifice to the Lord, offering it willingly and with stout hearts for the good of others.

Well and good, you might say, but his exhortation strikes several ominous notes as well. It becomes evident that he, and these young people, belong to a schismatic Catholic group -- called the Society of St Paul in the film, but clearly based on the Society of St Pius X inasmuch as it rejects Vatican II and the authority of the reigning pontiff. It is also clear that the priest strongly disapproves of contemporary popular culture, especially the "satanic rhythms" of popular music, which he believes will corrupt the souls of his students. In other words, this is a group of Catholics that sees itself as the last faithful remnant, surrounded by perils on every side.

The film unfolds over the course of the week preceding Confirmation, and as it progresses we follow one of the young students in particular: Maria (played wonderfully by Lea van Acken). She is devout, taking her priest's instruction very much to heart. But she is troubled as well, shy and lonely, and her family situation is difficult: she has an angry and dominating mother, a sullen and mute father (whom one infers has been slowly beaten into submission by his wife), and an ill younger brother. The sole light in her life is her family's au pair, Bernadette, a young woman a few years older than Maria who lives with them and helps with the younger children.


Over the course of the week, for a variety of reasons, tensions within the family escalate, and, at the same time, Maria begins to decline. We see her, step by step, in a series of carefully conceived scenes, falling prey to self-doubt, loneliness, sin, and sickness, and the film, step by step, turns from a sensitive character study into a tragedy.

But we knew that it would. The film's title announces its structure: it is divided into fourteen sections, each preceded by a title-card naming one of the Stations of the Cross: "Jesus Carries His Cross", "Jesus Meets His Mother", and so on. In each "station" the connection between what happens to Maria and what happened to Christ is sometimes clear and sometimes less so, but the overall arc is clear enough. We know how this story goes.

Structuring the action of the film in parallel to Christ's Passion is a compelling enough formal idea, but the director, Dietrich Brüggemann, has greatly enhanced his film by investing the individual "stations" with a strong formal element as well. To wit: each of the fourteen parts of the film is filmed in a single, unbroken shot, and all but a few of these shots are static. The camera does not move, pan, or zoom. One might think this would be dull, but in fact the effect is electric: every detail on screen, every entrance and departure, becomes something to notice. The filmmaking is stripped down to its most basic elements, and we become more, not less, aware of the filmmaker's craft. I cannot emphasize too strongly how effective I found this technique. This was especially so on those few occasions on which the camera did move. There are three. I'll not reveal the details, but only say that simply by breaking the film's established rules they become moments of high drama.


How to interpret the film? Is it a critique of religion? Of Catholicism in particular? A portrait of a saint? Or is it exploring a more general set of problems to which the religious setting is merely incidental? I'd answer a tentative 'yes' to each, with the caveat that whatever interpretation I try seems to be complicated by some detail or other.

I can imagine, for instance, a Catholic watching the film and concluding that it's anti-religious in general, or at least anti-Catholic in particular. After all, Maria's unwavering faith is a necessary part of her decline and crisis, entering both as motive and means. But there are other factors at work too, such as her volatile relationship with her mother, and the family's self-isolation from the surrounding society. And the plausibility of an anti-Catholic reading is strongly undermined by the filmmaker's apparent affirmation, at the film's climax, that their beliefs are in fact true.

But neither do I think that the opposite interpretation -- that the religious setting is incidental -- is plausible. It's simply too deeply woven into every detail for that to work.

Instead, I think that, despite its formal elegance, the film occupies a messy middle-ground in which a combination of personal, social, psychological, and spiritual elements combine to turn religion toxic. Exactly what those elements are, and in what proportion they matter to the outcome, is unclear. There is much to ponder.

The neat complexity of the film is summed up in the last of the fourteen stations, a wordless scene in which Maria's life seems to be regarded with a mixture of both affirmation and interrogation. It could hardly end any other way.

For what it is worth, the film played at the Berlin Film Festival in 2014, where it won the award for best screenplay. The film is in German, with some admixture of French.


This trailer for the film contains more cuts than the the film itself:



—Craig Burrell blogs now and then at All Manner of Thing and is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton. He lives near Toronto.

Bad Thoughts on Election Eve

From Damon Linker:

There's a small, irresponsible part of me that would like to see Trump win.

From Richard Brookhiser:

Neither candidate is fit to be president. There is no possible good result of their contest. Our only hopes are federalism, and that Bismarck was right.

I assume the Bismarck reference is to a remark attributed to him: that "God looks after fools, drunks, and the United States of America."

52 Movies: Week 43 - Grandma


In Grandma Lily Tomlin plays the title character Elle Reid. Elle is a lesbian, poet, academic, mother, grandmother, widow (of a wife), who was formerly married to a man and is enlisted by her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) to help her gather up $630 for an abortion. I am not callous enough to think, “This sounds like the perfect movie to review for Mac’s blog!” But after watching it I thought that it was; it was sort of wonderful in ways I will try to explain.

For starters Lily Tomlin is really just amazing. I looked her up on Wikipedia and she is currently 77 years old, which probably made her 75 or so when the movie was filmed. Other than looking older and a tad shrunken she is just the same as she has always been. Someone with the ability to make the audience consistently interested, no matter the genre. This is of course one of those quirky little independent films with dramatic themes, along with comedy. The comedy of being human, I suppose. As it was finishing up I thought that its themes could be: the brokenness of all humans, and how when we are at our best we are doing all we can to help others (and especially family members) through the toils of life. Feeling the need to get an abortion is not a laughing matter, and the movie does not treat it jokingly.

Grandma is less than 90 minutes, and is a film that takes place in one day, dealing with the quest described above. Although there is humor mainly in the crankiness and straightforwardness of the main character, the director uses these minutes wisely and you learn quite a bit about Elle and her life. Despite the nature of the plot, the subject matter is treated with sensitivity and compassion. I thought of my uncle who I used to spend a lot of time with when I lived in South Florida. I would go over to his house complaining about this person, or that person, some who were members of our own family. He would say to me, “He (or she) is doing the best that they can.” What do we do with people that we are inextricably tied to, but something about their personality, or something they have done which has made us feel wronged makes it so hard to be nice to them? In some cases to even speak to, or be around them? That is part of what Grandma is about.

Considering its slight length I cannot say too much about the actual plot without giving away most of it. If you really are considering watching, then stop reading now.

Elle has just broken up callously, with a much younger woman named Olivia (Judy Greer) when Sage comes calling with her sad little request. We immediately do not like Elle because of her dominant personality and the meanness with which she treats the sweeter Olivia. As the movie plays out we learn about: Elle’s wife Violet of 38 years who passed away less than two years ago; Sage’s mother, who both she and her grandmother are afraid of; Elle’s ex-husband Karl (Sam Elliott), and the grudge he still holds towards her. But Elle is doing everything she can to support and help her granddaughter, and in doing so she is also helping herself get through her own crisis. The scene with Sam Elliott was so good I almost skipped back to the beginning of it to watch a second time – another great actor! [Note: It is the next day and I just re-watched the scene. Just as good as the first time.]

Suddenly there was a scene featuring Elizabeth Pena and I thought, “Isn’t she dead?” Sadly, she is. This is how I backed up to at least 2014 as when the movie was filmed. Marcia Gay Harden plays Judy, Sage’s mother, and Elle’s daughter.

Well, I enjoyed the movie a lot, and felt quite moved at its conclusion. So there you go. I know that the subject matter is anathema to regular readers of Mac’s blog, but that’s okay. That’s life and we’re all a little uncomfortable about something. As humans we toil through our existence, looking for answers and for people who can help us to find them. I love movies that seem like real people in real situations. It’s nice to be reminded that Hollywood can occasionally reach this lofty goal. Grandma is a really good movie.


Lily Tomlin and Sam Elliott. May they make movies forever!

--Stu Moore is a friend of this blog’s proprietor, and hopes that everyone excuses his liberal leanings.