Monday, October 17, 2016

John the Baptist Continues to Endorse King Herod

JERUSALEM – In a move that surprised some of his followers today, local religious leader John the Baptist issued a statement reinforcing his support for King Herod Antipas. Herod’s rule has come under harsh criticism in recent weeks, due to reports that he had been overheard saying he likes to “grab women by the honeypot” whenever he finds them attractive. Since the story broke, several women in the queen’s household have come forward accusing Herod of forcing himself on them in hallways of the palace. Herod has dismissed their claims, insisting that his statement was just “bathhouse talk.”

John the Baptist acknowledged that such language and behavior are abhorrent to Israel’s traditional moral values, but he called for devout Jews to forgive Herod and continue to support him. “In trying times like these, Herod is exactly the kind of strong leadership we need. Horrible things are happening out there – Tiberius is crucifying people all over the place, the fishermen aren’t catching enough, and the Samaritans are taking our jobs. Herod’s going to make Israel great again! Who are you going to trust instead, a career politician like Pontius Pilate? Herod is a local boy who made good with just a little help from his dad. You can’t deny that his palace is really shiny.

"Who am I to judge this guy?"
Sermon of John the Baptist Before Herod by Guilia Cheli Capella
 “Our religious freedom is currently under attack. Leaked scrolls from Roman tribunes show that they don’t respect or even understand our beliefs. But Herod is willing to pay lip service to the temple rites! He has said he likes having ‘my little wine, my little cracker’ at Passover meals. Maybe he’s no scholar of the law and the prophets, but at least he’s not a baby killer like his predecessor.” Some of John’s followers were still troubled, noting that Herod has a long history of sexual licentiousness. Herod’s current consort, Herodias, is actually the wife of his brother Philip. Not to be deterred, Herod “moved on her heavily, even though she was married.” He is also on record agreeing that his stepdaughter Salome is “a hot piece of ass,” and observing that “If she weren’t my stepdaughter, I’d be dating her”

“Look folks,” John responded, “If there’s anything scripture teaches us, it’s that powerful men can use their authority to get any woman they want. Abraham knew this – he had Sarah pretend to be his sister to save his own skin because he knew Pharaoh would go for her. Obviously Sarah had to be reduced to a pawn in a power play. “King David was the same way; he was automatically attracted to beauty. He peeked in Bathsheba’s bathroom and liked what he saw. He ran the country, shouldn’t he get to inspect the goods? David couldn’t wait, he just had to kiss her, even if she was married. It’s not like God issued condemnation or consequences for David’s actions. Besides, what man hasn’t bragged about raping and pillaging? It’s just how guys bond.

“Women who claim they were sexually assaulted are probably just looking for attention. Remember the case of Susanna, who accused two elders of propositioning her in a locked garden? She must have loved all the publicity of being blackmailed and called a lying harlot. Daniel proved her innocence, so she should just get over being betrayed by men who were supposed to be trusted leaders. It’s not like she died or anything. “Some of you were moved by the emotional speech Pilate’s wife Claudia gave, where she said Herod’s comments make her feel threatened as a woman and how she always held her male relatives to a higher standard, blah, blah, blah. Don’t fall for her hypocrisy. You know she’s a fan of Catullus’ poems, and his lyrics are really smutty, so she has no right to object to sexual violence. Men should be given the benefit of the doubt, but every aspect of a woman’s life must be sifted like grain before we can take her opinions seriously.

“Herod might not be perfect, but who is? The Lord has worked through flawed leaders before and we should trust that He can do it again. I’m confident that Herod will keep devout people’s best interests at heart, and make wise decisions to protect our national sovereignty. I’m willing to stick my neck out for Herod because I trust that his private tendencies for greed, lust, and anger won’t lead to bad political deals."

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Junipero Serra, Alexander Hamilton, and Presidency Obsession

Fr. Junipero Serra in Statuary Hall
Image via Architect of the Capitol 
Today is the feast of Blessed Junipero Serra, the 18th century Spanish Franciscan priest who established the California missions. Fr. Serra will have another big day this fall, when Pope Francis canonizes him while visiting Washington, DC. This honor has sparked new interest in his story, including some protests decrying the negative medical and social effects missionaries had on native peoples. The story of Serra's missionary work is indeed complicated, as he both imposed harsh physical discipline but also advocated for native people against abuse by Spanish soldiers. Even if his evangelization techniques were heavy-handed, it’s undeniable that Serra began the legacy of Hispanic peoples in California that continues to this day.

Despite all this publicity, a memorial of Serra is now at risk. California’s legislature is considering a motion to remove Fr. Serra's statue in the US Capitol and replace it with one of astronaut Sally Ride. While the first woman in space deserves recognition too, the statue swap proposal comes at an unfortunate time, particularly since Serra's canonization will coincide with the first trip to America by a Latino pope, and the first time a pope will address Congress. 

The Serra statue situation is not unlike the recent news about Alexander Hamilton’s place on the ten dollar bill. Hamilton is enjoying a surge of recognition too, as the star of a smash hit musical opening on Broadway later this month. Thanks to new biographers, he’s moving out of the obscure historical shadows. As the first Secretary of the Treasury and architect of the US financial system, his face on money seems like an obvious choice. But now he is being removed to make room for the first female figure on American paper currency.

Debates over Serra and Hamilton’s small monuments make it seem like gender recognition in history is a zero-sum game. If we honor significant women, particularly modern ones, that means we must demote the contributions of past centuries’ “great men”. I argue that there is room for both. Sally Ride and Harriet Tubman need not compete with Serra and Hamilton. The real rival here is the over-publicized presidency. Both men are being obscured because Americans like to go with the obvious and recognize presidents over and over again.

Take Serra’s spot in the National Statuary Hall Collection, for example. The collection was established in 1864 as a way to use to the vacant space of the old House of Representatives chamber. Each state could submit two statues of notable citizens. The early 1880s - 1920s roster consisted of Revolutionary War figures, settlers, Civil War soldiers, and now obscure 19th century politicians, plus the odd inventor or two. As the ranks have grown, statue displays have spread throughout the Capitol complex. When I worked the US Capitol Visitors Center, the different figures provided a fun scavenger hunt and conversation starter with visitors.

Since 2003, states may swap out existing statues for new honorees. Subjects must be deceased, and states are responsible for funding and commissioning new artwork. One reason for this new rule was to help diversify and update the collection a bit, swapping out the 19th century politicians no one remembered anymore.

Unfortunately, many states that have changed their statues have gone with the obvious option of, you guessed it, presidents. Dwight D. Eisenhower of Kansas and Gerald Ford of Michigan have joined Statuary Hall. California made a similar switch in 2009, swapping Unitarian abolitionist Thomas Starr King for President Ronald Reagan. That left Fr. Serra's 1931 statue as the only potentially free California spot. So instead of Ride joining Serra to complete California’s exploratory legacy, Statuary Hall will become more like the greatest hits of the 1980s.

Similarly, Alexander Hamilton is on the chopping block because the Treasury is too attached to President Andrew Jackson. A recent grassroots movement called to replace Jackson’s image on the twenty dollar bill with a notable historical women. There was even a poll that selected Harriet Tubman. Instead, the Treasury has decided that women are only worth half that, and offered us a bureaucratic accountant instead of a controversial chief executive.

It’s troubling that our national memory can trend toward simply the most famous, the most powerful. This implies that we’re only smart enough to read history as an “icons” roundup in People Magazine. One of my favorite confused tourist stories was the time I overheard a woman explaining the World War II Memorial while walking down the National Mall. She pointed to the group of columns symbolizing the sacrifices of soldiers from every state and said "Look! That's where all the presidents are buried!" Facepalm.

In my opinion, the Statuary Hall collection is best as a federal pantheon of "lay" citizens and the legislators who served them. The Capitol represents the legislative branch and is meant to be the "house of the people," not a shrine to unilateral power. Likewise, our money isn’t exclusively for presidents. Hundred dollar “Benjamins” celebrate an inventor, author, and diplomat who never lived in the White House.

Later this week we’ll celebrate America’s independence, a feat that was the work of many people. It would not have happened without the George Washingtons and Thomas Jeffersons, but neither would the Revolution have made it without the lesser-known men and women who supported their ideas and did the hard, daily work of fighting for freedom. We don’t have a king on our money, and there is room for all of us in America’s story. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Museums in Movies - Jurassic World

Claire with dinosaur
Summer blockbuster Jurassic World feels like the perfect choice to continue my Museums in Movies series. The park is a for-profit attraction “selling $7 sodas,” but in essence it’s just a flashy natural history museum. This franchise installment shows us an expanded version of  John Hammond’s original vision for prehistoric thrills. With a larger scale comes even more possibility for disaster, though. For me, the scariest scenes were when a flourishing tourist destination became a visitor services hellscape. A low-ranking ride operator facing an angry mob when he must close a ride for “technical difficulties;” and a waiting area packed with hot, tired people enduring transit delays are the type of things that haunt my nightmares.

The film’s dinosaur danger arises when Jurassic World’s leaders try to combat a problem familiar to many museums: how to stay relevant to the modern world when you keep retelling the same story. Visitors are no longer wowed by “an interactive CD-ROM,” like back in ’93, or even by seeing a live dinosaur. The park has made some admittedly cool upgrades, like adding hologram exhibits or replacing the static Jeep paths with gyroscope pods. Kids can now enjoy hands-on activities like digging for “fossils” or riding a baby triceratops.

The park also may have sold out a bit, relying on corporate sponsor naming rights to fund new “attractions.” This makes the film’s abundant product placement winkingly self-referential, like when main characters enter the Samsung Visitors’ Center. Gone are the days of jello and ice cream in a single dining room; now there’s a Starbucks, a Margaritaville and a … Brookstone? Maybe some 1990s wonders still impress.

The new-and-improved Jurassic World reminded me of my recent visit to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which has opened several shiny additional buildings in the past few years. Its impressive airplane display wing is funded by, and named for, Boeing. You can even buy coffee cups with the vintage Boeing logo in the gift shop.  The WWII Museum’s newest exhibit, The Road to Berlin, features interactive touch screen kiosks and several surround-sound battle simulation set pieces. The latter seem to be a trend in museums dealing with military history; even the modest museum at Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace in Staunton, VA invites visitors to walk through a trench amidst explosion sound effects. Similarly, one of the old guard of historic sites, Colonial Williamsburg, recently announced plans for a petting zoo and a flintlock shooting range, which I hope will operate on opposite ends of Duke of Gloucester Street.

Alas, Jurassic World’s innovation efforts are foiled by not just the usual shady bioethics, but an incompetent organizational culture. The park has grown too big and too automated for staff to communicate and collaborate well. Despite sinking millions of dollars into a high-risk new genetically-engineered “asset,” the staff have raised it incompetently. They have failed to consult expert dinosaur handlers about its habitat, and don’t even know the creatures of which it has been composed. Is no one in this place capable of writing a professional email?

Different park authorities view its dinosaurs not as living creatures, but as products or weapons that will bring flashy results. Contrast this with the detailed knowledge and geeky wonder the original Jurassic Park characters display. At the beginning of that film, Dr. Alan Grant brings a grumpy teenage boy from skepticism to fearful awe with dramatic storytelling and just one velociraptor claw prop. That’s the kind of dynamic interpretation that really builds visitor loyalty.

Unfortunately, the screenwriters of Jurassic World show neither understanding nor good storytelling in their treatment of female characters. While Owen (Chris Pratt) gets to swagger around as a funny, brave and generally hunky specimen of red-blooded American manhood, the ladies are either nagging shrews or uptight workaholics. Re-enacting Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt’s infamous recent comments about women in science, they attract romantic overtures from colleagues and even cry in the computer lab. Diligent mission control tech Vivian sensibly pairs a cardigan, tights, and flats with her modest dress, but is still #distractinglysexy to her male colleague Lowery at his messy desk. Spoiler alert: the saucy minx ultimately rejects his advances.
“Uh, I have a boyfriend.”
“Oh! I didn’t know you guys were like, together together. You never mentioned it.”
“Well, I was at work.”

Even though women –including single mothers- are increasingly taking on museum leadership roles, Jurassic World subjects us to the tired Hollywood syllogism that female professionalism is a zero sum game. The more effort a woman movie character puts into her job, the more she will neglect her personal relationships. The Big Meeting must always conflict with boyfriends’ birthday parties and dinner with relatives, because apparently scheduling and vacation time don’t exist.

Sure enough, park operations director Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is so busy running things that she ignores her sister’s calls and doesn’t even remember her nephews’ ages, blowing off their visit. The film mocks her for studying prospective donor names and having visitor stats ready for her boss – both of which would be expected of someone in her position. We even get a reminder that Claire should really have kids someday, even though nothing is said about the male staff's family status.

I’ll admit, Claire’s John Hammond-esque white ensemble was lovely, but she couldn’t have ditched the skirt and heels for something more practical for sprinting through the forest?  Jurassic Park's Dr. Ellie Sattler and her khaki shorts would be appalled. That previous heroine also managed to keep her maternal instinct intact doing extensive fieldwork, and didn’t flinch from danger, quipping “We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back.” By the end Claire does channel a little of Dr. Sattler, becoming more protective and proactive, but she’s still a poor role model.

Despite its lame characterization, Jurassic World still manages to be a fun, exciting dinosaur thrill ride full of homages to its origin story. It’s a more logical continuation of the Jurassic Park world; let’s ignore the other two lame sequels and call this the reboot. If amidst the summer entertainment, a few kids get inspired to keep learning about paleontology, then the special effects haven’t been in vain. Really, that’s what all museums hope for each vacation season.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Empty Tabernacle Tour of Lower Manhattan

There are many different devotions for the Triduum that take you on a mini-pilgrimage. Some people walk the Stations of the Cross through neighborhood streets. Others spend Holy Thursday night driving around to visit the Eucharist at seven different churches before midnight.

The Southern Baron has introduced me to the New Orleans Good Friday Nine Church Walk custom. If you start early and have a plan you can visit nine empty tabernacles before the 3pm liturgy. Luckily the NYC skyline is crammed with church steeples, so we have plenty of nearby opportunities to make it happen.

This Holy Week we're planning a route through the Upper East Side. Last year we started near Battery Park and worked our way up to Midtown West, traveling from the early days of the American Church to the site of some recent archdiocesan controversy. Besides being an interesting walking tour (who knew there were zero churches in TriBeCa?), it was a beautiful experience of the universality of the Church. Witnessing the once-a-year bare emptiness of parishes is always a favorite of mine too.

You can see the entire itinerary after the jump! No selfie sticks were used or harmed in the making of this field trip.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Richard III Remembered With Embroidery

Yesterday the body of England's King Richard III was reburied in Leicester cathedral, over 500 years after his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Archaeologists found his makeshift first grave under a parking lot in 2012. (It's deliciously ironic how "found under a carpark" is now the phrase that must appear in all news coverage of a man who once wore a crown.) Although Shakespeare and history books have focused on Richard's bloody role in the War of the Roses, the proceedings this week were about his historical significance and also his vulnerable humanity.

Perhaps most poignantly, earlier this week Roman Catholic Cardinal Vincent Nichols said a special requiem mass for the dead king. A moment of remarkable Anglican-Catholic cooperation, it also symbolized how even the most powerful people on earth still need God's redemptive grace.

Better still, Cardinal Nichols wore an historic chasuble believed to be from Richard III's royal wardrobe. Dating to the late fifteenth century, the embroidered robe is now in the collection of former Catholic seminary Ushaw college. The UK Catholic Herald described its embroidery detail:

The Westminster Vestment is an example of Opus Anglicanum (English work), the rich, complex and beautiful works of ecclesiastical embroidery for which England was famous during the Middle Ages. It has been made from velvet cloths of tissue linked together with silver-gilt brocading thread, with the figures cut from coloured silks and attached to a golden background. The chasuble depicts the Crucified Christ with the Roman soldier Longinus expressing his belief that Jesus is the “Son of God”. It features depictions of St Nicholas, St Catherine and St Pancras, the teenage Roman martyr whose relics were brought to England by St Augustine of Canterbury.
Image via Catholic Herald

It's truly magnificent, and a great example of church vestments of its era. Velvet, metallic thread, and highly symbolic embroidered scenes are all hallmarks of opus anglicanum. The motif of angels collecting Christ's blood in chalices while He hangs on the cross is a particularly popular recurring image, emphasizing the Eucharist's connection to calvary.

Intricate chasubles and copes fell out of favor after the English Reformation. Centuries later, as I discovered in my master's thesis research, Anglicans and American Episcopalians would rediscover the beauty of medieval English needlework and try to replicate its prestige in their own churches. 

It's interesting how the black pall covering Richard's simple coffin while it was on view this week also featured embroidered figures, including a six-winged seraph. It appears that opus anglicanum has come full circle, once again an important element of royal religiosity in England. As Cardinal Nichols pointed out in his homily, Richard III lived and died as a Catholic, whatever his sins. While some of his successors would have cringed to see such liturgical ceremony, he would have acknowledged the symbolic significance of copes and chasubles.

Whether Richard and his Gilded Age imitators were using that liturgical beauty to pad their own egos is definitely possible. But in the end, everyone dies and ends up helpless under a liturgical cloth.    

Via Getty Images
Today opus anglicanum pieces are treasured artifacts in museums, including the V&A in London and from the same time period, like this elaborate velvet chasuble, at The Cloisters in New York City.If you ever visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art's castle on the upper West Side, be on the lookout for this velvet chasuble and other amazing vestments.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

What PBS Taught Me About Our Daily Bread

Baking has been on my mind a lot lately, thanks to several holidays. This month I've made Irish soda bread and Pi day apple pie on a whim. I've also been trying my hand at yeast bread. One of my Christmas gifts was Gluten Free Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes A Day, and I spent a couple snow days testing it out.

The good news is, you don't have to knead gluten free bread dough; assembly is like making brownies. The bad news is that title is a lie. It really means "In 5 minutes of active prep time, after you spent 2.5 hours the day before weighing flours and bringing the dough to a slow rise. And then you have to bake it for an hour. So yeah, carve out some time."

After all that weighing, mixing, and waiting, the results have been surprisingly delicious, although not practical for sandwiches. My loaves still aren't perfect, though. The dough is too dense, the rise too low, the crust too tough. I keep thinking about what I should do differently next time. Should I add less water? Does my pie crust need a higher fat content?

My first attempt at artisan bread. 
Still, I think all my experimenting has helped me understand the process better, even if that batch of bagels turned out flat and lumpy. While visiting my in-laws in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, I went back to the old puzzle of king cake. I attempted it several times the year we got engaged, but I never matched the Haydel's cakes the Southern Baron grew up on. This year, though, I took a long look and a light bulb went off. Eureka, it's a brioche! I just have to make a sweet bread dough enriched with eggs.

The same day as my king cake epiphany, we ended up watching the Great British Baking Show while we waited for Downton Abbey to air. I thought I was over baking competition shows - how much drama can you manufacture out of cupcake decoration anyway? But this show was different. The contestants were doing some serious, complicated stuff involving lots of rising time.

I ended up glued to the screen in suspense, hoping each person would have long enough to proof their dough AND bake it completely. Will the doughnuts puff up enough? Will the layered swirls of the Croatian coffeecake maintain their integrity? Will the fruit bread be raw in the center? (Spoiler alert: it was.) Even though the bakers had the luxury of a personal Kitchen Aid mixer plus a fancy proofing drawer (which I covet), their work was still a delicate balance of math and luck. If they didn't plan out everything perfectly, the results would be messy.

You have to assemble your flours before you make the dough.  
All this baked good suspense made me think about how we pray to God for "our daily bread." It sounds like the most basic, bland food. Sure, bread and milk are what everyone runs to get in a snow storm, but they aren't super exciting. But the actual process of making bread is a complicated scientific reaction.  If any factor goes wrong, it won't work. A round, fluffy loaf is actually kind of a miracle. It's appropriate that the Passover "bread of haste" is bread that doesn't bother to be leavened.

Daily life can feel like a maddening balance too. My routine is a pile of deadlines dependent on each other. I must leave the house no later than 7:32 am, or I'll miss the train. If I don't put my phone in airplane mode while I'm underground on the subway, the battery will drain to nothing. A letter template must be formatted perfectly, or the 250 letters I'm mailing will look terrible. 

Just as the Father wants to give us the food we need to live, we can also ask Him to give us success in our daily tasks so that life rises into a cohesive whole. The unleavened bread of Passover and the Eucharist symbolizes taking time away from the rat race demands of the everyday. We put aside complicated dough proofing so we can focus on heavenly things instead. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Imagining the Death of the Kim: In Defense of The Interview

Today I'm excited to bring you a guest post by my husband the Southern Baron, who shares my passion for snarky film reviews. He's currently finishing his dissertation about martyrdom, execution, and the media in 17th century England, and keeps finding ways current events aren't too different from that time. 

In 1681, an English carpenter named Stephen College was executed for treason. He wrote a poem
that “imagined the death of the King,” which by law was just as bad as assassination, since “imagination” meant a lot more than make-believe. The poem suggested that he actually wanted Charles II dead, and that was beyond the pale, especially since “imagining” Charles I’s death had led to his beheading back in ‘49. And the poem said, specifically, “like father, like son.” It didn't take an English Lit PhD to know what that meant. So the carpenter was drawn and quartered publicly in London: not a good way to go.

College had bad luck—writers got off fairly often back in the 1680s because the publisher was the first guy the government went after. And this is a key link between that old case and the whole mess around the late 2014 film The Interview and the now-infamous hack of Sony Pictures by, presumably, North Korea. But this time one state went after a “publisher” in another state. This is like printing a poem imagining the death of the Pope, and having the Swiss Guard ransack your London shop. (Or that scene in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.) Charles II wouldn't have let that happen. Although Sony was hacked, our “king,” President Obama, rightly said that this couldn't intimidate theaters and moviegoers. And while The Interview is literally guilty of “imagining the death” of Kim Jong-un, it doesn't really encourage viewers to kill him. The film’s underlying message is that the pen beats the sword, though you should keep your sword ready in case they launch the nukes. The movie really just attempts to start a revolution “with nothing more than a camera, and some questions,” as James Franco’s character, Skylark, tells his TV audience, almost too self-referentially. But if it is possible to imagine Kim dead, we could also imagine his regime gone, period.

This is not a great film. But as my advisor told me in our very first meeting, there are a lot of bad poems in history that English majors ignore because they are, well, bad poems—even though they are absolutely important for understanding politics and culture. Bad poems destroy governments. And North Korea knows it.

One of the most important running jokes in the entire film is classic Seth Rogen bathroom humor: the purported belief among North Koreans that Kim Jong-un lacks an anus because, in his awesomeness, he has no need to use the bathroom. This is finally dispelled (spoiler!) when, in the climactic and titular scene of the film, the Supreme Leader literally “sharts” on camera. Ha. A bit childish. Overgrown boy that I am, I admit, I LOL’d. But allow me to defend this scene, and this plot point.

The discovery, as Skylark tells him onscreen, that Kim is “just a flawed man with a big old butthole,” who “has to pee and poo just like the rest of us,” is rather profound—it destroys the constructed majesty surrounding Kim. And since it appears on live state sponsored television, all the people have to see it. The joke is similar to a case I found in which a man was in trouble for saying “The King knows no more about salvation than my arse.” The King is as dumb as a butt. And Kim, to his people’s surprise, has a fully functioning one. They are struck with disbelief—it must be a joke, they think—there must be some mistake, they say—Kim is not like us, Kim does not go to the bathroom, Kim would never soil his trousers on television! But as they see Kim weep about a Katy Perry song, in the kind of news segment that would embarrass everybody involved (demonstrating some of the dangers of live TV), they realize that he is as capable of error as anyone else. Kim, of course, still does not believe it, and from here we work our way to the infamous uber-climax, the death by exploding head of Kim, as he attempts to destroy our heroes—escaping in a Soviet tank from Stallone, er, Stalin—by helicopter, while making obscene gestures and launching nukes at the United States. That primetime celebrity gossip show just got serious like 60 Minutes.

Other details silently comment on deeply valid points about how North Korea and the US see each other. The opening scene has a smiling child, adorably dressed, singing about how “arrogant and fat” Americans should “drown in their own blood and feces.” A guard in Kim’s palace watches the interview at a security desk with a mural of an exploding Statue of Liberty behind him. This shot appears within a broader montage of people watching the interview in the two countries. Skylark’s staff are in their sleek New York office, wearing expensive suits; the CIA agents are in theirs in D.C. These shots are interspersed with North Korean viewers, who are depicted in grim, dusty rooms, wearing dull clothing, and—horror of horrors!—watching on old CRT monitors, even one with a manual dial, instead of the flat screens that have been a mark of western progress since the early aughts. Clearly North Korea is impoverished because its people lack western goods!

And while this may be an overly materialistic view, it’s one that Americans get, and it continues a timeworn but valid tradition of contrasting communist and capitalist worlds by who has cars that run. (Notably, Kim’s collection, in the film and in reality, consists of Audis and other luxury imports—the only commie car is that Soviet tank, and Kim drives it for fun while listening to...Katy Perry’s “Firework.” The entire movie might be a riff on the song.) Kim, of course, loves western goods and western entertainment, which is why he brought Skylark to his country in the first place. Skylark even shows Aaron (Rogen) on his Wikipedia app that Kim likes his show. Seeing this on the encyclopedia that anyone can edit, and on a phone, is a clever contrast with the state-imposed knowledge that North Koreans receive.

But the most obvious example of this dichotomy is the very real shortage of food in North Korea. When Skylark discovers a false grocery with wax vegetables, just after a lavish dinner with the generals, and realizes he must have seen a “fake fat kid” outside it the day before, it drives our hero over the edge, convincing him that his newfound margarita-and-babe-enjoying buddy Kim is really just, well, the male version of “honeypotting” him and screwing over his country.

Again, this is not a great film; as one review noted, Dr. Strangelove it ain’t. There are more F-bombs than nukes. It is easy to forget the prescient butt jokes because there are so many others that exist solely for the purpose of being butt jokes. Some scenes are pure filler. It is heavy on classic American male “yellow fever,” objectifying Asian women. It reinforces the idea that happiness is determined by having lots of stuff. Skylark’s excessive interest in partying is not questioned (besides his belief that the CIA’s plan to “take out” Kim must mean dinner and drinks), only the North Koreans’ limited access to the New York club scene. But culture doesn’t consist only of great art. Most people don’t see that every day, but they do see stupid shows like Skylark’s, thinking a lot more about which celebrity slept with whom than which foreign leader is oppressing his country. The film effectively challenges that preoccupation, since first Aaron and then Skylark realize they have to convey something more significant, which they are doing by the epilogue.

So, to have a Rogen-Franco flick take juvenile humor and apply it, in a surprisingly intelligent way, to the serious subject of human rights failings in North Korea, is impressive, and important. The possibility that the movie might make its way via bootleg into the North is also important—indeed, that nauseatingly self-aware implication that a revolution had started with a camera could come true in time, as Pyongyang’s control over the minds of its subjects is constantly undercut by cross-border DVD smuggling (depicted well in the 2014 Frontline episode “Secret State of North Korea,” by the way). When all you have is state-controlled television, The Interview can have some impact; and when leaders are portrayed as gods, the first step is to demonstrate that they aren’t. The subtext to all this is that propaganda is still crucial—Kim’s own propaganda minister, Aaron’s love interest, has to support them, or the plan won’t work. The TV—and not the original CIA assassination plot—is still the medium through which minds are shaped.

Back in 1681, that carpenter died for “bad art,” and in December North Korea threatened that people might die for “bad art” again. The unrelated Charlie Hebdo murders demonstrate that it remains a possibility. The Interview is guilty of imagining the death of the Kim, but Rogen and Franco don’t deserve drawing and quartering in the public square (even if they really don’t deserve an Oscar, either). That the North Korean government and its cyber-allies think Sony should suffer is all the more reason that we should watch the movie, and keep making ones that undermine injustice, even if the methods are a bit juvenile. Thoughtcrime is doubleplusungood. Be sure to try some today.

Monday, February 2, 2015

How About a Shot of Reality with That Juice Box?

Let no one have contempt for your youth, but set an example for those who believe, in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. - 1 Timothy 4:12
Earlier this month congressional Republicans cancelled a bill restricting abortions after 20 weeks, a law that would have been a huge victory for the pro-life movement. The recent fallout has seen Catholics assessing their loyalty to the GOP and pondering strategies for the future. Recently Crisis published the latest installment of this, a long rant by Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) leader Austin Ruse entitled "Abortion, Torture, and the Juice Box Theologians."

Ruse treads familiar ground, worrying that Catholic disenchantment with the GOP will dilute what little political clout we have. He raises a fair point, about torture debates creating "single issue voters." Mostly, though, he channels his political disappointment into personal internet feuds, bringing up 2010 debates about the morality of waterboarding. Although some Catholics are increasingly disenchanted at how neither political party fully represents their values, he denounces those who put too much emphasis on the death penalty or a living wage over the pro-life cause.

Sadly, Ruse talks about abortion like it exists in a vacuum. It's a comic book villain holding America in a tractor beam, and if pro-lifers can finally deal it a death-blow with their unreliable laser guns, everyone will shake off the hypnosis and society will live happily ever after. His personal solution to America's moral woes is the repeal of various taxes coupled with "a national campaign out of the White House encouraging people to finish high school, get married, go to church, and have babies."

How exactly would a nation of high school graduates working low minimum wage jobs afford to feed their babies or pay for child care while they work multiple jobs? That version of the Culture of Life doesn't sound very flourishing, let alone sustainable. Such a short-sighted approach ignores the multitude of social and economic factors that make women think abortion is their best option, none of which will magically disappear if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Unless we address the challenges that make parenthood seem impossible, legal pro-life victory will be superficial and fleeting. As one Catholic mom wisely put it, "Want to save the babies? Save their mothers."

Ruse puts his faith in procreation propaganda rather than a nuanced sense of morality and ethics. Instead of taking a holistic outlook that considers respect for any human life beneficial, whether prisoners or laborers or babies, he insists Catholics should only have a one-track mind. If he had been alive in the 1830s, would he have told people to shut up about the Trail of Tears or working conditions at the Lowell mills because Slavery? Would he have considered a White House campaign saying “Be nice to black people” sufficient for post-Civil War reconstruction?

If Ruse wants an intelligent debate about political loyalties, that's fine, But he doesn't offer that here, just an ad hominem screed. Dredging up an obscure beef with group blog Vox Nova, he calls them "Juice-box theologians, that is, mostly young newly minted but largely unemployed PhDs." Apparently these whipper-snappers too incompetent to handle full-time jobs or adult beverages are somehow also at the heart of a vast and dangerous conspiracy to lure Catholics away from their GOP alliances.

Someone hold my earrings because I need to throw. Down. This kind of name-calling is uncalled for, and I can’t believe the editors of  Crisis were willing to print it. I don't know the terms of Ruse's dispute with Vox Nova, but even if the site is in the wrong, this is a terrible rebuttal on many levels. Saying "my opponent is young and underemployed, and therefore incorrect" is just campaign spin. Such smug self-importance supports the old liberal saw that pro-lifers only care about people until they are born; after that you’re on your own. But that's the thing with babies - after their mothers choose life, they learn to talk, read, and write.

Here’s a group of people who have done exactly what Ruse thinks Americans should do: they finished school, and cared enough about churchgoing to spend years studying theology. But that’s not good enough, because they dared to be born decades after him and enter the workforce during a broken economy and academic system.

My husband and I are among many young Catholic couples who fit this category. We’re church-going, contraception-eschewing people who thought pondering the Good, the True, and the Beautiful was our vocation – and now low-paying adjunct gigs are among our only options. Through blood, sweat, and tears, we’re working hard to build fulfilling lives for our little families. If middle class financial security is the barometer of spiritual legitimacy, please let us know and we can call ourselves radical Calvinists to save time.

This is the dilemma facing my Millennial generation: even if we followed all the rules, we've run into unexpected economic challenges and then are told it’s our own fault and we should know our place. People bemoan how the Kids Today aren't devoted to the Church, but then don't fully engage with those of us who have stuck around. If some of us don't share his political ideas, Ruse would rather we just disappeared into the wilderness. "Let’s have a modern day land-rush for all those Distributists out there who are just itching to fish, farm or make cheese—though one suspects they’ll stay exactly where they are, blogging and adjunct teaching."

While he retains his own career as an online journalist, I presume? Apparently Ruse thinks the generations after him don't deserve to aspire to his urban intellectual life. Considering that he once proclaimed that liberal academics "should be taken out and shot," he’s letting us off pretty easy. Still, his pompous attitude makes me question his moral judgement and frankly, feel a little betrayed.

Once upon a time, when I was just a juice box historian in high school, I wrote a report on the Holy See's permanent observer status at the United Nations. Ruse's articles were a major source for the project, and I looked up to him as a Catholic intellectual. I dreamed that one day I would be like him and get my words published on the internet. Now I realize he'd probably mock me for the 18 months I spent working temp gigs while I endlessly searched for a job in my MA field. Since he doesn't even want me here unless I’m drinking his Kool-Aid, I’ll stick to whiskey. Every grad student knows it's an important tool for surviving a PhD program.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Can We Talk About White Christmas?

"We're gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny F*%*ing Kaye!" - Clark Griswold in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Happy New Year! I hope you are having a very merry Christmas season. (It's not over until Epiphany so this post isn't too late.) While there are plenty of great movies for this time of year, the one I can't miss is 1954's White Christmas. Maybe it's because it was one of the first movies I ever saw; it was one of the few VHS tapes my parents owned back in the 80s when you could rent a VCR. It just hasn't been a real holiday season until I've heard the "Sisters" song and gotten choked up at the ending's surprise reunion.

"Judy, we need to discuss your turtleneck addiction."
Over the years I've noticed and enjoyed different aspects of the movie. As a little girl, I loved Vera Ellen's style as Judy: girlish puffy sleeves, twirly skirts, and blonde ponytails. Now, I much prefer Rosemary Clooney's Betty and her womanly evening gowns. That black mermaid one at the Carousel Club would look amazing on any red carpet.

During my most recent viewing, I realized that General Waverley's backstory doesn't really make sense. His retirement from active duty in the middle of a campaign hardly seems practical at a time when the United States was waging war on two continents. Did he just age out or had he run afoul of someone at the Pentagon? Maybe his supervisors didn't approve of his performing arts sponsorship that inspired many of his troops to sing, tap dance, and later dominate show business on Broadway and in television.

I also realized how the movie's 1954 setting hints at an American culture in transition. Characters are feeling their age with declining eyesight and pants that don't fit. One song jokes about wishing for the simpler times of just following army orders. The "Mandy" number expresses nostalgia for the jokes and songs of minstrel shows, trying to adapt America's favorite racist entertainment into a technicolor cartoon of reds, purples, and greens. Bob Wallace and Phil Davis' production even throws shade on Vera Ellen's former co-star Gene Kelly, griping about all the modern "Choreography" supplanting traditional hoofers. They're following the old "Let's put on a show to save the day!" trope, but they're not kids anymore and post-war life still has challenges.

In First Things last month, Peter Leithart suggested that White Christmas also captures America's spiritual decline.
"In place of Jesus, we get a mash of mid-century Americanism ... There are good, altruistic deeds, done out of loyalty to an old friend, and from beginning to end the film glows with the warmth of post-World War II patriotism. If there’s a faith here, it’s a gospel of small-town American and faith in the decency of the American military ... Whatever one thinks of those sentiments, they don’t constitute a gospel." 
Well, sure it's not a gospel. The title song is just the results of generic sentiment + celebrity vocalist = hit single. If you base your life priorities off a Danny Kaye movie you'll go as nuts as Clark Griswold did. But there are plenty of prior Christmas songs and movies about revelry rather than baby Jesus, including White Christmas' prequel, Holiday Inn. There's no reason to single out this one movie.

In fact, White Christmas's lack of gospel pretense is what makes me find it such a refreshing holiday staple. Too often, made-for-TV Christmas movies try offer some vague inspirational lesson, so most are a tired reworking of A Christmas Carol. This secular conversion template features a workaholic (shrewish single woman or neglectful family man) who undergoes some sort of supernatural upheaval and thus embraces kindness and sacramental turkey dinners. If you just "believe" and listen to that kindly senior citizen's advice, Santa will bring you true love and that greedy businessman will stop harassing your quirky neighbors. While certainly fun, this snow-covered fairy tale shtick is a poor substitute for the Incarnation. It attempts to offer meaning through the "spiritual but not religious" archetype.

White Christmas, on the other hand, is simply fun with a dash of reality. While Bob Wallace does eventually put aside his workaholic habits to pursue romance with Betty, a magical wish doesn't make it happen. He has a successful career, but he uses his business and connections to help an old friend. When he asks people to help him, he acknowledges that not everyone might be able to change their holiday plans. (Although how did he charter those special Christmas Eve trains? That's magic.) Nobody has to summon an angel or sing a special song to make it snow; it's just nice icing on the cake after the plan comes together.

At the risk of sounding too humanistic, that's honestly how most people spend their holidays. The weather doesn't always cooperate, your job might not be going great, you might have had a misunderstanding with your loved ones. Hector Elizondo is not going to show up and solve all your problems. But you can still come together and make the best of things. Dancing and songs bring joy.

If you watch one movie about saving a ski resort this winter, make it the one with tap-dancing.

(Images taken from GlamAmor's excellent post on Edith Head's costume design for the film.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Exodus: Dumb and Dumber

Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings rounds out this year's Bible movie offerings with the most inexplicable adaptation yet. Nobody was really clamoring for another Moses adaptation, let alone one released nowhere near Passover. Despite some pretty palaces, sweeping landcapes, and impressive plague special effects, this Exodus adaptation remains both entertaining and uninspiring.

Scott takes some interesting takes on supporting characters, like Miriam living as a servant in the palace, but then abandons them with no meaningful development. His research is equally thin. For every flashy monument there are other inaccuracies. Were there really that many beards among Egyptian nobility? Was hanging really the preferred method of public execution, if used at all? Is Ramses channeling Britney Spears in that scene with the cobras?

Most glaring is some very 19th century rhetoric about the nature of slavery. Moses literally argues that Israelites have "the same rights as other Egyptian citizens" and "should be paid for their labor." Ramses counters that freeing them would have "dramatic economical impact" and that he needs more time to phase out his peculiar institution.

Steven Lloyd Wilson at Pajiba put this scene in its place in his awesome review. "Forget the white privilege of casting only white dudes in a movie about ancient Africa, let’s consider a bit about the historical privilege of thinking that all of human history is populated by literate middle class Americans with rights and constitutions. Historical privilege means not having to believe in peasants."

Privilege is at the heart of Ridley Scott's entire story. The subtitle Gods and Kings is apt because he has created an old school "great men" historical narrative, where leaders and their dramatic conquests are the only things that matter. The "Let my people go!" second act dwells heavily on the horror of plagues, showcasing human and divine pyrotechnics while the collateral damage literally piles up. (Note to parents: don't take your kids to see this unless they are ok with watching people be hanged, lit on fire, or eaten by crocodiles.) In Darren Aronofsky's Noah this year, the wholesale destruction of human life was seen as a tragedy; in Exodus, it's just an excuse for more action sequences.

Despite the lip service to political rights yet unborn, ordinary people do not matter much except as scenery. There are no Israelites grumbling about Moses' leadership or insisting God will save them. Instead, they blindly follow Moses, I guess because he's a child of privilege and has flashier accessories than they do. I'm outraged on behalf of my ancestors that they are reduced to a beige mob, showing zero agency outside of wide-eyed gapes and a training montage.

The supposed climax of the film, the parting of the Red Sea, is where its impact really dissolves. Moses decides to throw off Pharaoh's approaching army by going through the Mines of Moria, but ends up taking some wrong turns and missing his exit to the straits of the Red Sea. Luckily, the mountain pass does slow down the chariots, as does the holy sharknado that appears at the edge of the sea. The sea parts as a seeping tide that rises into a tsunami. Lest we be too awed by God's power, however, Moses lingers behind so he can have one last vanity grudge match showdown with Ramses. That they both emerge alive is the bigger miracle in my book.

Every Moses adaptation takes on the ideas of its time. Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments portrayed the Exodus as a Cold War-esque showdown between constitutional law and autocratic tyranny, yet painted a rich tapestry of motivations and personalities in the children of Israel. Beautifully scored and animated, The Prince of Egypt focused on 1990s self esteem rhetoric: "Look at your life through heaven's eyes; there can be miracles when you believe." Now Exodus exhibits a Millennial ambivalence towards God not unlike its contemporary Noah. In the 21st century, the Creator seems elusive yet demanding, appearing only to cause destruction that defies humanist rationality. But Noah still marveled at the spiritual forces in the world bigger than ourselves. Christian Bale's Moses seems only to appreciate God because that creepy choir boy at the burning bush provided his best military general gig yet. Ultimately, Gladiator II: Egypt Edition is just a flashy, clumsy attempt to tell a story with centuries of significance.