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dotCommonweal Blog

New issue, new stories

On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:

Jo McGowan examines the effects violence against children has on society at large—effects so drastic it is being treated as an "any other epidemic," “says forensic psychologist Karen McCluckey:

Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.

Jerry Ryan reflects on his struggle to discover "what the person of Jesus means" to him, spiritually and theologically:

Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...

Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.

Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:

I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”

Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.

Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.

Also featured on the site now, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., who writes about a senator's sensible stance on faith and secularism. Read the whole thing here.

Selling the Bible in Cinéma Vérité

Flannery O'Connor said of her short story "Good Country People" that Hulga, the "lady Ph.D." whose wooden leg is stolen by a Bible salesman, is forced to face not just the physical affliction the object represents but also a spiritual one, namely "her own belief in nothing." Albert Maysles, who died earlier this month and who with his brother David made seminal and semi-notorious documentaries like Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter, depicts no loss of limb, literal or symbolic, in 1969's cinéma vérité landmark, Salesman. But the door-to-door peddler of Bibles who emerges as the central figure of the film confronts no less significant a crisis of the spirit.

Paul Brennan and the other salesmen of Salesman seem not to have grabbed viewers the way Big Edie and Little Edie Beale or Mick Jagger and the Stones at Altamont have over the years. But since Maysles's death Salesman has received a fair amount of mention and was even recently aired by Turner Classic Movies (it's also part of the Criterion Collection and can be streamed on Hulu). Pay no attention to synopses that make throwaway allusions to Willy Loman; consider Salesman an early prototype for David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. There's a similar adrenaline-and-anxiety-fueled mood, with manufactured optimism verging on self-delusion as the salesmen alternately hail and curse a system under which they're free to make money using nothing but their wits.

Of course, the big difference is that Salesman, shot with handheld cameras in black-and-white and ambient sound, isn't scripted drama. That the products being sold are the Bible, the Catholic Encyclopedia, the New Missal, and other Catholic publications adds a whole other component: The quartet documented by the Maysles seem obligated to place special faith in what they're peddling -- after all, these aren't vacuum cleaners.

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What's Changed Since Selma?

Saturday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. On hand for the jubilee celebration will be Barack Obama. Last November, on the night it was learned that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown, the president spoke briefly on the rule of law and the need for peaceful protest. He went on to say: "What is also true is that there are still problems, and communities of color aren't just making these problems up. Separating that from this particular decision, there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion. I don't think that's the norm. I don't think that's true for the majority of communities or the vast majority of law enforcement officials. But these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down." 

What would seem a blow against entrenched denialism was struck earlier this week when the Justice Department released its report detailing civil rights abuses by Ferguson's police force and municipal officials -- practices that Conor Friedersdorf likened to the kind of criminality favored by the Mafia. The repugnance of the behaviors documented (including taser attacks, canine attacks, physical and verbal intimidation, unlawful detainment, and implementation of an extortionate system of compounding fines for minor traffic violations, all targeting people of color) support the analogy. Not all municipalities resemble Ferguson; the problem is that any do. “What happened in Ferguson is not a complete aberration,” the president reiterated Friday. “It’s not just a one-time thing. It’s something that happens.” Meanwhile, criticism of the Justice Department's report from certain quarters as politically motivated isn't just off-base, or offensive; it also simultaneously reflects and reinforces what's illustrated by the findings.

Last year, which in addition to the police-related death of Michael Brown also saw those of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley, marked as well the twenty-fifth anniversary of Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing. The 1989 release was preceded by a stream of ugly commentary masquerading as criticism from nominally reputable pundits and reviewers who took issue with the movie's climactic depiction of a riot. David Denby: "If some audiences go wild, he's partly responsible." Joe Klein: "David Dinkins [then running for mayor of New York] will also have to pay the price for Spike Lee's reckless new movie about a summer race riot in Brooklyn, which opens June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes)."

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Accidental Armaggedon

“In the event of a nuclear attack, which of these items would be the most helpful? Rank them in order of importance.”

This was one of the first worksheets I remember from elementary school. There were about twenty illustrated items. My classmates and I were perplexed. Sure, we had probably watched a filmstrip that mentioned the Geiger Counter, but none of us could remember what it did. And why would we want a broom? Would we be that concerned with the tidiness of our fallout shelter?

IT WAS ABOUT 1983. That same year, the Russians shot down a Korean civilian airliner over the Sea of Japan; the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a lengthy warning about the buildup of nuclear weapons; and on September 26, a Soviet Lieutenant Colonel secretly saved the world from accidental Armaggedon. But more about Stanislav Petrov later.

Growing up in the early 1980’s, not far from North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) and the Air Force Academy, the Cold War was a hot topic – even for kids. Popular videos on the burgeoning MTV network, such as Genesis’ “Land of Confusion,” satirized and lamented the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Dads took their sons to see “Top Gun” in theaters, and we cheered when Russian MIGs were splashed in the ocean. “Red Dawn” was always checked out of the video store. One of my favorite books, still there in my parents’ house, was titled “Great Warplanes of the 1980’s.”

KIDS TODAY don't have the same fears. They don’t know that the broom is to sweep nuclear fallout off your friends.

The globally-aware college students that I teach don’t think about nuclear annihilation. Environmental degradation? Yes. Terrorism? Yes. Economic inequality? Yes. Racial injustice? Absolutely. But if they think about nuclear weapons at all, it’s in the context of who might acquire them – namely, North Korea or Iran. The notion that the arsenals of the already nuclear-armed states should be at the center of moral concern seems outdated, like referring to music videos being shown on MTV.

The fact is, the nuclear capabilities that already exist have grown in power beyond human comprehension, and there have been enough “close calls” regarding their deployment to warrant the gravest of fears. In recent years, many influential voices have made the case that – regardless of whether nuclear weapons ever made us more safe – they certainly no longer do so.

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Buffoonery Security Threat UPDATE

The nation's hairs on fire. Sony Pictures cancelled the release of "The Interview" after every movie chain in the country cancelled its opening on Christmas Day (talk about "for chrissake"!).

Hackers said to be North Korean apparatchaks invaded Sony computers and released gossipy e-mails, future movies, new songs, and lunch orders from famous people. They then threatened to blow up any theater showing the movie. The two buffoons who made the movie seem amazed that the assassination of NK's Kim-Jong Un, by blowing off his head, should cause such a stir (it's only a joke); so too are movie critics, pundits, and the president of the United States. Those North Koreans have no sense of humor! Guess not.

I have been waiting for someone to write, "And while I am all for bold creative choices, was it really important that the head being blown up in a comedy about bungling assassins be that of an actual sitting ruler of a sovereign state?" David Carr (NYTimes) finally did along with a long analysis that brings me to conclude that these buffoons along with many other Hollywoodites are as much a national security threat as North Korea. North Korea scares us but the buffoons make us stupid.

UPDATE: "CloudFlare, an Internet company based in San Francisco, confirmed Monday that North Korea’s Internet access was “toast.”  Retaliation? More buffoonery? Battery shortage? Toaster overheated? Story here.

Teaching, by the book (and movie)

It was only after finishing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie this fall that I realized it was the third straight work of fiction I'd read in which teachers and teaching figured prominently. (There was a similarly themed documentary film in there too -- see below.) I didn't consciously set out to sample the offerings; maybe headlines around that time like "Why Is American Teaching So Bad?" and "Rotten Apples: It's Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher" drove me to spend some hours with the profession's beleaguered practitioners, or maybe I wanted new insights into my own experiences at the front of a classroom. Never mind that none of the three books is about American teachers, or that none was published in 2014. What all reconfirmed is that there's inherently more (sometimes much more) to the teacher-student relationship than pedagogy, even if those doing the teaching are sometimes not inclined to act only in the interests of their students.
 
That's certainly true of in the case of Muriel Spark's best known work, with which Commonweal readers are probably familiar, and which doesn't necessarily do the teaching vocation any special favors--even if the title character's students learn a thing or two.
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Citizen Snowden, the movie

Citizenfour is the new documentary about Edward Snowden, who in 2013 disclosed the existence of a secret NSA mass surveillance program. In its subject and production it looks and feels a bit like those conspiracy movies from the 1970s—Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, or All the President’s Men. There’s the unwitting protagonist, the chance at heroism not sought but thrust upon him; the outsized, amorphous antagonist, the extent of its reach and capacity for treachery heretofore unimaginable; and the paranoia informing and infusing the story, heightened by ominous music and weirdly ominous shots of ordinary buildings, streets, and rooms. I say “a bit,” because Citizenfour is a documentary and not a dramatization—but also because that even as a documentary, it seems second-hand and overdone in comparison to fictional treatments.

How can that be? Shouldn’t access to the figure at the center of the story make for riveting work? In fact, the issue might be Snowden himself, whose presence dominates the long middle section of the movie, filmed over eight days in the Hong Kong hotel room he absconded to. The fear accompanying the growing awareness of what their characters have stumbled into—and the growing danger it puts them in—seems less manufactured in the acting of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman than in the actual speech and behavior of Snowden, hiding out from U.S. authorities. True, the key revelations and developments aren’t coming in the “real time” of the narrative, but it’s precisely that Snowden’s actions were undertaken prior to this moment that the tension should be higher. It’s understood he’s in danger, so when and how it will it arrive? He professes to feel anxiety, and he exhibits the classic tendencies of the paranoiac—convinced that he’s being watched because, of course, everyone is after him. But he’s also aware of being watched being watched: It’s a virtual performance in the role he may have been destined to play.

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August 1968

Spent five hours yesterday at the Film Forum, NY's great retrospective movie theater, watching "Burning Bush." It seems the FF is the only venue now showing the film but it is available for streaming on Fandor (about which I know nothing).

Czecheslovakia after the Soviet invasion in '68 is the background to the story of Jan Paluch who immolated himself in protest and the people who tried to preserve the meaning and purpose of his act. Here is the link to Fandor. Here is a brief description of this remarkable film.

Agnieszka Holland is an extraordinarily gifted and versatile filmmaker and although the events depicted in BURNING BUSH occurred forty-five years ago, the issues it explores are entirely relevant today. Acclaimed director Agnieszka Holland returns to a pivotal time in modern Czech history: the shocking act of a student of the Charles University's Faculty of Arts, who in protest of the Soviet occupation, set himself on fire in Prague's Wenceslas Square on the 16th of January in 1969 and died four days later. Through the story of the brave defense attorney Dagmar Buresova, who defended Jan Palach's legacy in a doomed lawsuit, the film examines the transformations taking place in Czechoslovak society after the invasion of the armies of the Warsaw Pact in August of 1968. It depicts the beginnings of Czech and Slovak resistance against the occupation, which reached its apex with the mass protests during Palach's funeral. It also shows the nation's gradual resignation under the pressure of fear and harsher persecution.

A tale of two cities, seventies-style

You don’t need to be a New Yorker to appreciate the 1981 documentary Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet, which chronicles the near default of the city in 1975, or to be from Cleveland, which the film also features and which took a much different approach in confronting its own insolvency three years later. You could be from Detroit or Stockton or San Bernardino or Camden, or any municipality in bankruptcy, on the brink, or simply operating within a set of ever-tightening creditor constraints. Thirty-three years after its release, the documentary’s take on how private business interests exert a controlling hand in the financing of public services makes it perhaps even more timely now than it was then.

I saw it at the Queens Museum a couple of weeks ago, and readers in the New York area will have a second chance to catch up with it Monday, May 12, when it’s screened at the Bronx Documentary Center. The film mixes interviews from the period with archival footage to help viewers understand the scope and severity of the financial crisis New York faced in the 1970s, now too often recalled via the reflexive shorthand of the infamous Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Intercut with stories from the frontlines of de-staffed hospitals, daycare centers, and firehouses are clips of a black-tie gala at Lincoln Center celebrating the acclaimed saviors of the city, including Felix Rohatyn of the Municipal Assistance Corporation and members of the Emergency Financial Control Board, whose cuts to public funding are portrayed as having disproportionately affected the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. A tuxedoed attendee climbing from a limo tells an interviewer of the EFCB’s work: “It's great. It puts an intervening layer in there. It separates the politicians from the constituencies.”

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Get those children out of the muddy-muddy

I have no plans to see Noah, the new Darren Aronofsky biblical disaster movie, so I didn't get around to reading A. O. Scott's review in the New York Times until someone recommended it. That recommendation was related to the content-advisory bit at the bottom -- a form Scott has often had fun with. This, at the very end of his Noah review, is perhaps his greatest work:

“Noah” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). “And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and only Noah remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.”

The review itself is unexpectedly profound, as Scott (and, he says, Aronofsky) takes up some deep questions raised by the attempt to translate a biblical legend into screenplay material.

Noah's story, Scott writes, "is among the strangest and scariest in the Hebrew Bible. At its center is what appears to be an unnerving example of divine self-doubt." That's something we tend to leave out when we think about Noah and the Ark -- instead, we "emphasize the happy outcome: the rainbow, the dove, the cute paired-off beasts, the repopulation of the flood-cleansed earth." By contrast, says Scott, Aronofsky's film "dwells on the dark and troubling implications of Noah’s experience." He has many interesting thoughts about how that plays out.

When you have kids, or when you start buying things for other people's newborns, you quickly discover the popularity of Noah's Ark as a nursery motif. Boats filled with animals appear all over bedding, gift wrap, and other baby items, especially unisex infant stuff -- wild animals seem to cross gender barriers in a way that fire trucks and butterflies do not, and in the case of the Ark they are conveniently organized in complementary pairs.

There's a Fisher Price Noah's Ark toy in the co-op playroom where I spend one morning a week with my sons. Watching my two-year-old stuffing the animal figurines into the boat, I started to point out the fact that they came in pairs, one male and one female -- but I stopped myself, thinking, How much of this story am I prepared to tell him? I didn't see how I could avoid starting at the beginning, and I certainly wasn't about to do that. Eventually, of course, I want him to hear the whole story, and to have it fire his imagination to think about God and God's relationship with us. But for now, "Noah was a guy who had a boat full of animals" is enough.

It's natural, even correct, for us to remember the story of Noah mainly through its happy ending, because that's the point of the story, the reason it's being told. But the rainbow and the boat and the animals do not make for a cute and simple story, and if we try to tell it that way we end up shortchanging its power to move and provoke us as imaginative, questioning, struggling adults. I like Scott's parental warning because it's clever, but also because it's a reminder that, however often religion may be considered in our culture a childish thing to be put away, the Bible, when you really look at it, isn't childish at all.

A career full of "first-rate performances": Mickey Rooney, RIP

a promising performer

There's something unsettling about successful child actors, even the best ones -- especially the best ones. Watching them perform, I can't help thinking about the fact that they are performing. And I am not convinced that it can be good for any child to be good at acting.

Mickey Rooney was certainly one of the best, a professional even before he could read a contract (or anything else). I've long been fascinated by the films of the 1930s and '40s, and the way they reflect Depression-era and wartime America, and I have always had a soft spot for Mickey Rooney. And I have always been impressed less by his talent than by his obvious hard work. Rooney was a performer who held nothing back; a vaudevillian who wanted made sure the people in the very back row got their money's worth. Or, perhaps, a child who just wanted to please. He was, after all, born in a trunk, and put on the stage by his parents as part of their act when he was not yet two. They got him a part anchoring a series of shorts when he was only six, and had his name legally changed to match the character so that he could profit even when he wasn't shooting.

All the studio stars worked harder, or at least faster, in those days, and the kids may have worked the hardest of all. I noted in a post here just after Shirley Temple's death that she made a staggering number of movies from 1934 to 1939. Rooney had a similiarly incredible output. I had thought it might be fun -- and quick -- to honor him with a quick look back at what Commonweal's film reviewers had said of his work. Little did I know how many reviews I'd have to read through -- back then the magazine was a weekly, and every issue included several movie reviews. Just searching our archives gives vivid evidence of how busy Rooney was in his heyday.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ‘terminal uncertainty’

The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has spawned a mix of feelings among fans and followers of his work: grief over the loss, sadness over the work never to be seen, bafflement over the senselessness of his death—or at least, what we who have the good fortune of being able to pronounce it senseless can experience as bafflement. Why would someone with such skill and so vast an array of good work already to his credit, not to mention three children of his own and the knowledge one acquires over the course of forty-six years, engage in activity so reckless? Because even though young enough to promise so much more, and old enough to know better, he was nonetheless troubled enough to continue to seek relief in something he’d struggled with for decades.

Aside from the ugly little lecture from Ben Shapiro at The National Review, the appreciations have mainly and generously focused on the breadth and consistently high quality of Hoffman’s work in movies and theater. And what’s remarkable is just how much of it there is—fifty films in twenty-five years, from the amazing stuff in Paul Thomas Anderson films dating from Hard Eight through Boogie Nights, Magnolia (clip below), Punch-Drunk Love and 2012’s The Master (reviewed in Commonweal by Richard Alleva); to his depictions of real figures like Art Howe (he played Art Howe!) in Moneyball (reviewed in Commonweal by Alleva), Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, and of course the eponymous author in Capote (reviewed in Commonweal by Rand Richards Cooper), for which he won an Academy Award. He appeared in indies like Next Stop Wonderland and Happiness and blockbusters like The Hunger Games and Mission Impossible III. For an entire still-thriving subculture he’ll forever be the obsequious Brandt from The Big Lebowski. And then there’s the stage work: his duet with John C. Reilly in the 2000 production of Sam Shepard’s True West, his performance as Jamie in 2003’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (reviewed here for Commonweal by Celia Wren), his directing and acting with the Labyrinth Theater Company.

Two passages describing Hoffman’s work have jumped out at me in putting this post together; one appears in the headline, and it comes from Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of Hoffman’s last appearance on Broadway, as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman: “Mr. Hoffman does terminal uncertainty better than practically anyone, and he’s terrific in showing the doubt that crumples Willy just when he’s trying to sell his own brand of all-American optimism.” The other is from Richard Alleva’s review in Commonweal of the 2009 film Doubt: “When it comes to ambiguity, no actor is better than Philip Seymour Hoffman. He conveys … creepiness and possible saintliness not just by turns but simultaneously in a portrait that is downright cubistic.”

“Uncertainty” and “cubistic,” and for good measure throw in Lee Siegel’s “beautiful helplessness” from his New Yorker remembrance. All somehow fitting in tribute—but how unfortunate they have to be summoned this way at all.

What's on our website

Right now, two new pieces from the upcoming issue.

First, James L. Fredericks and Andrew J. Bacevich in an exchange on Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of History in the age of Obama:

Barack Obama has vigorously prosecuted the war against Al Qaeda even while ending U.S. military engagement in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan. These seeming paradoxes make Obama an ironic figure of the kind that interested Niebuhr most—the self-conscious, existential irony of a man who knows he must act in history while being unable either to control the outcome or to escape the moral ambiguity of his choices.

Read it all here. Also, Richard Alleva reviews Philomena and Saving Mr. Banks. On the performances of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in the former:

Critics speak about the autumnal grandeur of “lateness in art”—the tranquil power of Beethoven’s late quartets or the swan-song poignancy of Verdi’s Falstaff. Judi Dench has that quality as an actress nowadays, and it’s not just an inevitable feature of her old age. She’s in possession of a still center, and from that center she radiates. But the critical praise heaped on Dench shouldn’t keep us from noticing that Steve Coogan’s wry underplaying of Sixsmith makes Dench’s beatific comedy possible. With his boredom-glazed eyes desperately beseeching invisible gods for mercy as she blathers on and on, and his smooth baritone subtly inflected by covert sarcasm, Coogan is the Oxbridge Oliver Hardy to her female Stan Laurel. And would Stan be truly funny without Ollie?

Read it all here. And come back to the website Monday, when we'll be posting the rest of the new issue.

Commonweal at the movies

On our website we're now featuring two special posts on movies. First is our year-end roundup of movie reviews, essays, and blog posts that appeared in our pages and online from Richard Alleva, Rand Richards Cooper, Anthony Domestico, Cathleen Kaveny, and others, with the spotlight on such major releases as The Great Gatsby, Twelve Years a Slave, and Gravity, along with smaller features and documentaries like Philomena and The Central Park Five. You can find our Year in Movies feature here.

Also featured is a collection of pieces from our current issue that reassess the theology in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life; you can find that here.

Many of the films featured are now available on streaming or DVD, and some are still even in theaters, so if you're trying to decide on something to watch or see in the coming days, why not read what our authors have had to say? Or, let us know what you think about the movies you've seen in 2013.

Philomena and Notre Dame (Caveat Lector: Spoilers)

I saw the movie Philomena last weekend: It is a movie about an Irish woman who had a baby out of wedlock, and  was coereced into giving up her little son nearly half a century ago by the nuns who took her in. She ends up collaborating with a posh English journalist to find out what happened to him:  As it turns out, he was adopted by a well-to-do American family, grew up to be handsome and smart, and became a lawyer.  Actually, he became a key legal strategist for the Republican party, eventually rising  to the position of Chief Legal Counsel for the Republican Naitonal Committee. Yet Philomena does not get the resolution she hoped for: it turns out her son died several years ago, his meteoric career cut short by AIDS--he was not only a Republican, but a closeted gay Republican. His ashes were buried on the grounds of the convent where he and his biological mother lived together during the first few years of his life. 

 I thought the movie was good. In fact, Judi Dench was brilliant--she acts with her entire body, not merely by emoting her lines. IMHO, they made a huge mistake in killing her off in the Bond movies--she was wonderful as M, too. 

But it wasn't great. I do not agree with this reviewer, who lavishly praised the movie's storyline.  You may say that the plot I recounted above is too incredible to make a plausible movie; but in fact, all that stuff actually did happen.  Philomena's  son Anthony became Michael Hess--"a man of two countries and many talents." Truth is stranger than fiction, and it's no crime for a storyteller to take advantage of strange truths.

At the same time, I did have  three basic problems with the film's framing of the story.

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Throwback Thursday (Halloween Edition): The scariest film of all time?

The Exorcist is a movie that could perhaps count as many viewers as people who have refused to see it. It's a movie you’d watch only if dared, on Halloween night. It has been famously called “the scariest movie of all time.” It makes visceral a very old question: Does The Devil exist?

The film was of course based on William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel, and for this Halloween Throwback Thursday we're linking to our archived writing on both the book and the 1973 film that came of it (and that made Linda Blair infamous). Reviewing the movie, Colin L. Westerbeck found director William Friedkin successful in “possessing” his audience:

The keystone of the film is not in any of those scenes where Regan (Linda Blair) is being exorcised, spewing bile and howling blasphemies, but much earlier when doctors think her fits result from a brain lesion. In scenes where her brain is being X-rayed, Friedkin depicts with documentary explicitness the injection and insertion into her neck of probes for a spinal tap. As she cringes with pain, enormous machine lurch and clank with a mechanical vengeance more horrific than anything unseen spirits have done to her so far.

When indeed the X-rays do not turn up any brain damage,“Life becomes unbearable,” Westerbeck wrote. “It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the Devil.”

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., an associate editor of Commonweal in the ‘70s, and William O’Malley, S.J., the actor who played Father Dryer in the movie, both wrote articles in Commonweal’s pages either trying to redeem or to exorcise the aim of Blatty’s novel. Schroth argued that, regardless of what Blatty set out to write, what he ended up bringing forth was a “piece of Catholic nostalgia of more service to the cause of supersititon than to true religion.” O’Malley (admitting first his role-in-the-movie bias) contended:

Even Father Schroth can't deny that this novel has drawn many readers at least to consider the possiblity of a personal reality transcending our senses. If one can make an audience, jaded by immensity, do that, he deserves better treatment -- and deeper study -- than Ray Schroth gave Bill Blatty.

To which Schroth responded:

The sense of "awe" brought on by the sight of human suffering is a poor gimmick to inspire faith...Blatty's "devil" in Regan did not increase the faith of any character in the novel. It killed two priests and got Regan's mother to believe in Satan, not in God. Nor has it increased Father O'Malley's already strong belief in God nor helped him make up his mind on whether there are devils. That's not religion. That's not awe. That's Show Biz."

New issue, now live

Our September 13 issue is now live on the website. 

Some of the highlights:

Leslie Woodcock Tentler writes on Detroit:

Those of us who have watched Detroit’s long dying tend to think in terms of the physical city—the abandonment of buildings, their subsequent decay and finally, if the city does its job of demolition, the rubble-strewn lot. For a very long time, I found love in the ruins (to borrow from Walker Percy). Life has hung on stubbornly in Detroit, in such unexpected forms as the flourishing Hungarian bakery, now gone, that I stumbled upon in a decaying working-class enclave close to the city’s western border. (The proprietor had provided each of the often-married Gabor sisters with wedding cakes, which presumably helped his bottom line.) St. Cecilia’s Church, with its apse mural of a black Christ, provided refuge to the Tentler family when it seemed that nearly every Catholic in our nominal home parish worshipped at the shrine of Ronald Reagan. Those memorable Cecilia’s Sundays, suffused with incense and gospel music, probably kept my children in the fold. The Detroit Institute of Arts, a refuge of another sort since my adolescence, still delights with its dazzling collection and especially its famed Rivera murals, paid for with a second generation of Ford money. Flower Day at the city’s sprawling Eastern Market, a plant-buying orgy for gardeners throughout the region, provided—and indeed continues to provide—a pageant of interracial good fellowship.

One can still find love in the ruins of Detroit, but it’s harder now. So much of the city has disappeared that recent visits have left me disoriented. (I tend to navigate by landmarks, an astonishing number of which are gone.) A new generation of urban pioneers now hoists the banner of optimism—“say nice things about Detroit!”—while I alternate between rage and despair. Yes, there are signs of life there, some of them new, like the city’s flourishing arts scene. But the decay is so vast and the human suffering so appalling that optimism seems not just delusional—an old Detroit problem—but almost obscene.

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels on the Catholic church as a "lazy monopoly" (subscription required):

Some would argue that the Catholic Church, claiming a monopoly on truth as well as salvation, has no course correction to make. That has been the stand of recent popes and their episcopal appointees, who have rescinded or tinkered with Vatican II reforms and ruled out further change. Complaints have gone unheard, while conforming members have been embraced. And many have left.

Parents and friends of former Catholics now singing in a Baptist choir, serving on the vestry of an Episcopal parish, or meditating in a Buddhist monastery may be relieved that they’re still praying, still believing in something. Perhaps even the “lazy monopolists” consider that these sheep are not lost, simply misplaced. But what of the “nones,” those who abandon religion altogether or just drift away from it. We seem strangely indifferent to their exit. If 12 million people stopped brushing their teeth, we’d all take notice.

Also, Gabriel Said Reynolds on why Syrian Christians continue to support Assad and Richard Alleva on the film Fruitvale Station. See the full table of contents here

Love & death in the time of Pinochet

Alfredo Castro is the actor linking the components of what Chilean film director Pablo Larrain calls his “unintentional trilogy,” while it’s the persistence of the Pinochet dictatorship’s effect on the country’s psyche that’s the true unifying subject. But in the process, Larrain has come in for criticism for his insufficiently unflattering depiction of a regime responsible for thousands of deaths—yet which certain elements of the population still warmly insist brought tranquility and prosperity. 

That tension is on creative display in each of the three films comprising the trilogy. And though Larrain says he didn’t necessarily set out to build a body of work chronicling the Pinochet years when he made his breakout feature Tony Manero in 2008, he has also acknowledged his intent in setting this particular story against the backdrop of the dictatorship. Castro plays Raul, a fifty-two-year-old ballroom performer obsessed with the John Travolta character in Saturday Night Fever and relentlessly pursuing his goal to appear in a televised celebrity impersonation contest as the dancing Tony. He acquires the white suit and even practices, joylessly, on a dance floor built partially of lighted glass bricks. He also proves to be a serial killer, though not a scheming or meticulous one; his attacks are unpredictable and savage and carried out with no apparent fear of being caught. Raul’s violence is meant to reflect the violence meted out by the regime, although the film also includes brief scenes of Pinochet henchmen doing their work too—and one especially darkly funny moment when a would-be victim (and member of the opposition) decides it’s better to take his chances with the secret police than let himself be caught by the relentless Raul.

Tony Manero isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and its follow-up—2010’s Post Mortem—might be even less of an entertainment.

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In “Beyond the Stalemate” (subscription), Peter Steinfels looks at where we are forty years after Roe:

That Americans and American Catholics remain divided over abortion is, in important ways, to our credit. But some divisions are more necessary, compelling, or expedient than others. Some are well considered and executed, others are not. Some are paralyzing and self-destructive, others point toward fruitful resolution. Forty years after Roe, it is incumbent on Catholics to reexamine their stance toward abortion and its legalization.

There is natural resistance to any such reexamination. This is a topic associated with too much pain—and often hidden pain—along with too much hypocrisy, illusion, and male betrayal. Many Catholics who are angry at church leaders or prolife activists for their harsh rhetoric, political absolutism, moral righteousness, or general attitudes toward women and sexuality simply refuse to think about the topic further. Prolife leaders, on the other hand, boost morale by seizing on any uptick in public opinion, any success in a state legislature, and every fresh summons from religious authorities as confirmation that their present course, no matter how inadequate or counterproductive, is unassailable. …

My own reexamination of the Catholic stance on abortion begins with two simple statements and then attempts to determine what conclusions and practical proposals might flow from them.

First statement: From the very earliest stages of its life, the unborn offspring of human beings constitutes an individual member of the human species deserving the same protections from harm and destruction owed to born humans.

Second statement: This conviction, taught by the Catholic Church and shared by many people, religious and non-religious, is nowhere near as obvious as many of us who hold it suppose.

David Rieff sees trouble in the calls for “humanitarian war” in Syria: 

If the conditions on the ground in Syria today, after two years of unbridled civil war, were more akin to those in Libya at the time French president Nicolas Sarkozy persuaded his NATO partners to act, or to those in Mali at the time of the recent French military intervention than they are to the conditions in Iraq or Afghanistan, then the ardor of the liberal hawks and the neoconservatives for intervention there would not seem so reckless. After all, the interventions in Libya and Mali both seemed to recapitulate the so-called humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, where the core of the debate was never whether a U.S. or NATO intervention would be successful—this, probably rightly, was taken for granted—but only whether there was really a will in Washington, Brussels, London, or Paris to intervene in a Bosnia, Rwanda, or Kosovo. But even most of those who think the United States must act in Syria concede that not only is an effective military intervention there likely to prove far more difficult than in Iraq, let alone in Mali or Kosovo; it is also by no means sure that any political result that is now imaginable will be much of an improvement over a continuation of the Assad dictatorship.

Also, Richard Alleva reviews The Great Gatsby, and E. J. Dionne Jr. remembers Fr. Andrew Greeley, the “loving pugilist.” 

The Burden of ‘Compliance’

Compliance is the second feature from director Craig Zobel, and when it was shown at Sundance earlier this year, audience members reportedly booed and walked out. The concession worker at the theater where I recently saw it told me she hadn't yet worked up the nerve to watch it, and, while no one at the showing I attended booed or walked out, there was a lot of nervous whispering and disbelieving laughter, which soon enough turned to grim silence. Sitting through Compliance is an ordeal, and its meant to be.

The movie forces the audience to watch what happens when people unquestioningly follow orders, even when it results in harm to others. That Compliance is a small film is what makes the subject matter even more powerful. The setting is familiar and intimate: a fast-food restaurant on a busy winter Friday, manned by a skeleton staff of teenagers overseen by a harried middle-aged manager (Sandy, amazingly played by Ann Dowd).

Routine is broken when a caller identifying himself as a police officer asserts that one of the workers (Becky, played by Dreama Walker) has stolen from a customer, then deputizes Sandy to detain Becky and initiate an interrogation in the restaurant office, out of the sight of other employees and diners. The accused girl responds with increasing disbelief to the increasingly degrading demands of the unseen officer, relayed and carried out by the pliant Sandy: This is stupid, Becky says; there's no way it can keep going like this. But it does, and then it goes on some more, and then just when you think it has to stop, it goes even farther--with other employees dragooned into taking part while the late-afternoon rush kicks into gear on the other side of the door.

Unadorned writing and tight direction keep the main questions prominent: Why would ordinary people let themselves be talked into taking things to such lengths? Why wouldnt they rise up and say stop? The answer is that ordinary people are often only too willing to comply. Psychological studies like the infamous Milgrim obedience experiment, in which test subjects readily inflicted pain on innocents if the instructions came from an authority figure, demonstrate it. We like to think wed be brave enough, or aware enough, or smart enough to do the right thing in such instances, but maybe were not.

Few in Compliance are, least of all the hapless Sandy. Unsure, indistinctly middle-aged, clad in the color-coordinated scarf and blouse mandated by corporate for its female store managers, she's a ready mark for the smoothly manipulative presence on the phone. She's already having a crappy day--unruly staff, ungrateful regional supervisor, no pickles or bacon in the freezer. So she's eager to help, hungry for praise and validation, and blind not only to Becky's degradation but her own.

Amid the many unsettling moments is a low-key, single-shot scene outside the restaurant. Instructed by the voice on the phone to move important evidence to her car, Sandy sets out over the cracked parking lot, skirting piles of dirt-encrusted snow to reach her salt-grimed Subaru (model year 2001, the film makes sure to note). A discarded Styrofoam cup skitters across her path, but she's oblivious--she needs to hurry back to monitor the prisoner. Yet after depositing the evidence in the front seat as instructed, she stops to remove papers and cups littering the passenger side, lest she leave a bad impression for the officer arriving to retrieve it. It's an arresting segment, providing a momentary respite from the misery unfolding inside but also a sadly revealing glimpse of the neediness that makes Sandy so willing to help, so eager to please, so easy a mark. People who are hurting may prove more capable of hurting other people, especially if their actions are met with approval every step of the way. This is what gives Compliance such relevance and so much more immediacy than a psychological study, and what makes it work as art. 

Unquestioning compliance leads inexorably to complicity, and the locked office of a generic fast-food restaurant will spur thoughts of Abu Ghraib, concentration camps, and other arenas of atrocity. Sandy doesn't make these associations; in the end, explaining to another character that she was simply doing what she thought was expected of her, she blurts: It all seemed normal to me. Of course: She was only following orders. There's a beat, and then she switches to the topic of the weather--much less troubling to ponder since it involves no introspection.