Friday, April 14, 2017

When it feels bad to be right

“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” the president told the [Wall StreetJournal. “I felt pretty strongly that [China] had a tremendous power [over] North Korea. ... But it’s not what you would think.”

I thought very little of Great Leader before coming across the above quote. As this Vox article observes, the manner in which he learns and makes decisions about foreign policy confirms that I was correct in my assessment. 

Now I am even more depressed.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Batman vs. Emma Stone

I've been hearing the movie musical is making a comeback, especially after the recent success of La La Land. I suppose it's possible, but I have my doubts.

Stage theatre and film are both constructed on "the suspension of disbelief," the convention whereby the audience pretends it doesn't know the people they are watching are pretending to be people who don't know they're being watched. Said suspension is more easily done at the movies, where the projected image necessarily alienates the viewer from the persons viewed. It's a tad more complicated at the theatre, where the physical, embodied presence of actual persons makes the "play" part of play-acting all the more obvious.

Over the last century, this epistemological fact has resulted in popular spectacle, once a staple of the stage, moving over almost entirely into the cinema. Because we nearly automatically surrender our disbelief in front of the screen, we are willing to believe almost anything, up to and including spectacle the like of which simply cannot exist in real life. Take, for example, the truly wondrous moment in Captain America: Civil War when the Winter Soldier grabs hold of a moving motorcycle, reverses its direction in midair, mounts it and speeds back in the direction whence he came. Now, I haven't take a physics class since high school, but I'm pretty sure that scene violates all three of Newton's laws of motion. Nonetheless, I stood up and cheered because it was SPECTACULAR.

A generation ago, the spectacle of choice was the movie musical. No, ordinary people in mid-twentieth century America were no more likely to break into song and dance than those of our day, but that's not the point. The emotional experiences of film characters were such that singing and dancing were the only available means by which to express themselves. This seemed so commonsensical that every major Hollywood actor had to appear in a movie musical. (Exhibit A: Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. Oh, the humanity.)

Times have changed, and not for the better. Instead of a street crowd breaking out into a synchronized dance number, we think it far more plausible that cars chase each other through crowded Los Angeles streets and freeways at dizzying speeds while their drivers make accurate shots, one-handed, with PISTOLS. Talk about suspension of disbelief. This genre has evolved, thanks largely to Marvel Studios, into the superhero picture. Now genuinely respectable Marlon Brando-caliber actors (looking at you, Robert Downey Jr. and Anthony Hopkins) are all flying into the air and doing battle with villainy and nefarious conspirators who have secretly riddled the state's security apparatus.

In other words, the niche once occupied by the movie musical now belongs to the superhero/action film. Emma Stone and Damien Chazelle don't have to win over skeptical audiences. They have to take on Batman.

The sun & the moon & the stars

And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.
There's something about Deuteronomy 4:19; I just can't get it out of my head. It puts me in mind of what Paul said at the Areopagus in Acts 17:26-28.
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
 ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Israel's particularity as God's chosen people (one of the major points of Deuteronomy 4, by the way) is sometimes taken as a sign of God's rejection of all other peoples. However, the Lord of Israel is simultaneously the Lord of Creation, and he has written signs in his creation, signs which we are unaccustomed to reading as such. We think time is a malleable social construct (Exhibit A: Daylight Savings Time) and national borders are arbitrary political constructs. But Paul, in his Acts 17 meditation on the aftermath of the Babel debacle (Genesis 11), argues that time and borders were made by God in order to channel our social relationships back into a search for him.

The sun and the moon and the stars, Genesis 1:14-19 tells us, tell us the days and hours and years are passing in ordered succession, and so the moment is arriving when we must reckon with their Creator. But instead of feeling our way toward him and finding him, we are drawn away and bow down to them. We turn our governors into idols, failing to recognize that theirs is merely a designated authority.

The particularity of God's chosen people isn't a sign he has rejected all other peoples. He has left us all allotted periods and boundaries so that we should seek him. In our sin, we are too readily and quickly satisfied instead with the sun and the moon and the stars. Because we cannot and will not find him, then, he came to be not far from each one of us.

For in him we live and move and have our being.

The Flintstones

I didn't see it coming, but apparently no one else did, either, if the interwebs are a reliable indicator for this sort of thing. It was recommended during a segment on the Slate's Political Gabfest podcast. I found it on the Hoopla digital library site (thanks, Aurora Public Library!), and figured I had nothing to lose by checking it out. Boy, howdy, am I ever glad I did.

I speak, of course, of DC Comics' reboot of The Flintstones.

It's more than a little shocking, especially for those of us with no particular fondness or animus toward the original Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Steve Pugh's artwork is in the classic modern "realistic" comic-book style, and he does a competent job of rendering the visual complexity of the town of Bedrock. However, the real genius behind the project is writer Mark Russell, who uses this page right out of history to examine our moment in history. I've been trying to remember when last I came across a biting social satire of this caliber with such an intensely human heart, and the closest I can come is somewhere between the British and American versions of The Office.

A bit of dialogue from Slate's Quarry, as a new Cro-Magnon employee queries Fred Flintstone.

"Can I ask you a question?"
"How come you wear a tie?"
"I read an article once that said you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have."
"So how long have you been wearing that tie?"
"Fifteen years."

Everything in our culture gets skewered, but I can forgive all the jabs at religion since Unitarianism ends up taking the hardest hits. So, so good.

Monday, April 10, 2017


At the end of John 10, Jesus flees from a homicidal mob to Bethany across the Jordan (John 10:40-42 & 1:28). At the beginning of John 11, he is summoned by Mary and Martha to Bethany near Jerusalem. In John 11:16, the Evangelist identifies Thomas as "called the Twin."

In John 10-11, we have twin mentions of twins: the villages Bethany and Thomas the disciple. I have no idea what this means.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Very reasonable packaging

Yup. This was all for a few pairs of girly socks. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Devil and Hilary Mantel

First Things
35 East 21st Street
Sixth Floor
New York  NY  10010

Friday, March 3, 2017

To the Editor: 

As I expect thoughtful engagement from First Things, I was surprised and confused to read what Patricia Snow herself called “psychoanalytic criticism” (perhaps the least thoughtful style of literary analysis) in “The Devil and Hilary Mantel” (February 2017). Surprised, that is, until I read Snow’s description of William Tyndale’s protestant doctrines, all of which have found a home in historic presbyterianism’s Westminster Confession of Faith: “Rarely has blasphemy or heresy been so gently proclaimed.”

Protestant readers of First Things expect and accept uncritical endorsement of Roman Catholic conciliar doctrine as the price of admission. I will be gravely disappointed if that price is increased to include shallow insults of protestant conciliar doctrine (especially when packaged in psychoanalytic criticism).

grace and peace,
The Presbyterian Curmudgeon

Monday, February 27, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro

Mrs. Curmudgeon and I took in an early matinee showing of I Am Not Your Negro this morning, filmmaker Raoul Peck's presentation of the thought of James Baldwin. 

Content aside, it's a masterpiece the intensity of which drew me in, as a viewer, in a way which I don't remember experiencing since the much and well-deservedly praised Whiplash. For me, however, the nearest point of cinematic comparison is 2003's American Splendor. Neither film can be neatly categorized, and both, while not entirely new in style, present a model which we can only hope other filmmakers will imitate. American Splendor used actors and the real people they portrayed, along with elements of cartooning, to present something (entirely moving) between a biography and an autobiography of Harvey Pekar. I Am Not Your Negro is only nominally a documentary; in fact, it's an essay in film form.

That it comes off as a unified and incisive essay on race relations in these United States is Raoul Peck's personal triumph, since he edited it together from a number of Baldwin's published works, notes towards a never-completed book, and footage of James Baldwin in debate, lectures, and even an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. That last, in particular, made me wonder how anyone could not fall in love with Baldwin's mind. Completely off the cuff, in rejoinder to a white academic, he improvises a speech marked by symmetry and repetition of key phrases, and which crescendoes to a shattering climax. It's a feat of rhetorical jazz which I've rarely had the privilege to encounter.

James Baldwin wanted to use Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. to tell the story of the Negro in America (and I wish I could figure out a way to mention his brilliant analysis of the role of Sidney Poitier in 1960s American cinema), but his true central thesis emerges most clearly in the film's final moments. To Baldwin, the Negro is a concept constructed by whites who sought to deny the reality that America is not composed of black and white people, but of one people with a literally shared and commingled blood. He posited that the challenge for whites, and implicitly for blacks as well, is to recognize that truth, that we are not other to one another, but rather are one. As Baldwin says, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced."

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A word to the historically ignorant

Perhaps you, like I, have heard it asserted that yesterday was the first time ever a Vice-President broke a tie vote in the U.S. Senate to confirm a Cabinet nominee.

To which I can only say, balderdash and folderol! First time ever, my foot!

That is precisely the determinative plot point in Advise and Consent! (The film version, at least. I think the book had somewhat different conclusion.) What are they teaching in high school civics classes these days?

Oh, wait. There are no high school civics classes these days.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

One reason we got where we are

I heard a pristine example of everything that is wrong with our federal government today on NPR's Morning Edition. Host David Greene interviewed former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright concerning an amicus brief she and other former officials have filed with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to continue the restraining order against Great Leader's ban on entry by travelers from seven nations. 

Greene noted that Albright's objections were political, not legal: that is, while Albright concedes the argument that a President of these United States can take the action Great Leader has, she and her amicus friends think it profoundly unwise. Fair enough, so far as that goes. In a free country, a citizen has every right to think his or her leaders profoundly unwise. (I make a hobby of doing so.) In the interview, Greene made the obvious point that courts are empowered to rule on points of law, not on the wisdom of policy choices. That's when things took a truly appalling turn.

In response, Albright asserted that she is not a lawyer, but hopes that the Court will continue the restraining order because the ban makes for bad policy. Now, I'm not a lawyer either, but having a high-school education, I know that courts ought not and must not make political decisions.

In a little more than six minutes, Albright opens a window into the mindset of our nation's ruling elites. To them, we are governed not by laws, but by men. The simplest way government by men can be executed is by seizing the executive branch and the unconstitutionally dictatorial powers now routinely conceded to the President. But if one is displeased by the policies pursued by that autocrat, one can call upon the courts to act in a similarly autocratic, lawless manner.

For Albright and her ilk, it would seem the problem is not that Great Leader is an autocratic thug: it's that he's not their thug.