The great Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe once said, “Jesus teaches us two things. First, he teaches that in order to be a human being we must love fully and without condition. Second, he teaches us that if we do love this way, they’ll kill us.”* Strong words those, and words that often come to my mind on martyrs’ feast days. I’m remembering McCabe’s words today, as we celebrate the feast day of Perpetua and Felicity. I’m also thinking of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose works McCabe’s friend Elizabeth Anscombe did so much to bring to the world’s attention and whom McCabe and his fellow Dominicans studied so closely.
When I’ve taught my introduction to theology class, I’ve paired the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity with Jon Sobrino’s “Maura, Ita, Dorothy, and Jean” (the account of the four American women missionaries martyred in El Salvador in 1977). The reading comes near the end of the semester, just after we’ve finished our discussion of the Scriptures and just before we read Irenaeus’s Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. I offer these readings to the students as witnesses of witnesses. And I think the students are genuinely conflicted about Perpetua and Felicity’s story. What kind of mother, they wonder, chooses death instead of nursing her son? And what kind of mother decides when she’s eight months pregnant to choose Christ instead of her unborn child? (Indeed, what kind of god would want that?) How could these women possibly have sung psalms as they came to their death? Perpetua even wants to fix her hair before she dies, “for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with disheveled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory.”
These are difficult questions, and I don’t presume to give any answers to them. I do think, however, that the way of life and death that these women faced ought to be taken very seriously indeed. Martyrdom, of course, has nothing to do with death in the first place. It has to do with witness. We, all of us, witness and witness to all sorts of things in our daily actions. We witness to a particular economic system, to a particular political system, to a particular faith tradition, to particular families and friends. The list, as they say, goes on. And this witness can only make sense in the forms of life that we inhabit, but it can also show us the problems with those forms of life.
Which brings me to Wittgenstein.Read more
Last night, the poet Christian Wiman gave the 10th annual Commonweal Lecture at Fairfield University. The talk was entitled “Hammer Is the Faith: Radical Doubt, Realistic Faith.”
Among other things, Wiman exhorted his listeners to memorize poetry (“it can be a bulwark against all the cant that surrounds us,” he said); quoted from A . R. Ammons, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats ... the list goes on; and talked about the apparent--but ultimately illusory--pull between life and art: the sense, that is, that one can live happily and well OR create art but not both.
Most memorably, for me at least, he spoke of those Wordsworthian “spots of time” where we seem not just touched but called from something that exceeds us. We can feel these in our experience with nature (seeing a sublime waterfall) or in our experience with art (feeling wonder at the beauty of a line of poetry) or in our experience with people (being scoured and born anew in our love for another).
Religious faith, Wiman declared, is ultimately faith to these moments--a cherishing and honoring of the experiences when we felt, deep within our bones, an unexplained surplus of being.
If this all sounds intriguing, then you should buy Wiman's latest book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Here is a link.
And here is a link to Wiman reading from his poem “From a Window,” which describes the wonder the speaker felt after a flock of birds flew up from a tree and ends like this:
Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would
(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man's mind might endow
even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,
that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.
My students are very attached to these thematic collections — they think that’s what the publishers want. … But I never think of a collection as a form or a genre. I think of a collection as literally a collection — a temporal document. You put together what you’ve written over a decade, and there it is. I think each story should begin in a completely pure and independent way. Now, it will have things in common with other stories — it just will, because it’s coming from you. But stories have so much in common already, because they’re from one single writer, that there’s no reason to artificially make them talk to each other.
Roger Angell, long a staple at the New Yorker, appears in the anniversary issue under the title "This Old Man." Lightly noting the drawbacks of aging, he celebrates his happy existence:
"I've endured a few knocks but missed worse. I know how lucky i am, and secretly tap wood, greet the day, and grab a sneaky pleasure from my survival at long odds. The pains and insults are bearable. My conversation may be full of holes and pauses, but I've learned to dispatch a private Apache scout ahead into the next sentence, the one coming up, to see if there are any vacant names or verbs in the landscape up there. If he sends back a warning, I'll pause meaningfully, duh, and something else comes to mind."
He reports an active social and intellectual life as well as the ability to summon both the recent dead and those long gone--a testament to his good memory.
A remarkably cheerful and insightful essay by the man who used to write the New Yorker's annual Christmas letter (rhymed with perfect meter). Alas, they have become very stingy on that score as well as putting their on-line edition behind a series of check points--even for print subscribers. In case you can't get there, a visit to the dentist's office will certainly turn up the issue (February 17 and 24, 2014).
Shirley Temple and her movies received a lot more attention in Commonweal in the 1930s and ‘40s than I would have expected when I began a search for more information on Graham Greene’s notorious (and ultimately libelous) review of her 1937 vehicle Wee Willie Winkie – an incident that has merited mention in a number of the obituaries after her death this week. More on Greene’s transgression (and what followed) in a moment, but here’s some of what Commonweal was saying at the height of "Miss Temple's" fame.
Richard Dana Skinner in August 1934:
Certainly in Baby Take a Bow [Shirley Temple] manages to be vastly ingratiating, in spite of being pictured as one of the most absurdly spoiled imps of the American home. Being “cute” is not necessarily good acting, nor is playing the part of a little show-off a real test of straight dramatic ability. What little Miss Temple needs, in justice to herself, is a part far removed from musical comedy formulae, something comparable to Chaplin’s The Kid, in which the quality of downright sincerity can show through. My guess is that Shirley Temple has that quality, but that it is in imminent danger of being throttled by the overexploitation of cuteness. At her age, the more sensitive the good qualities, the more easily they can be misdirected and warped. One might add the hope, too, that as a star of films for children, she will not always be surrounded by enough gun-men and sentimentalized ex-convicts to conjure up a succession of nightmares.
And, a year later, Grenville Vernon:
[Curly Top] is only another of Miss Temple’s vehicles, and one of the most saccharine yet. It fairly drips sentimentality. Of course it gives Miss Temple the opportunity to be arch, and charming, to make people happy, to dance and sing, and even to impersonate an old lady. This is all to the good, when done by Miss Temple, but how much better it would be if we could feel that she was not just being made to show her talents like a sort of child on a flying trapeze! That she swings through her stunts in a perfectly marvelous manner is of course true. But then she couldn’t help it--she is Shirley Temple!
And from May 1940, the editors on Temple’s “retirement”:
Miss Temple gives every token of being a gifted screen artist and (what is not necessarily the same thing) a very nice little girl. In the first capacity, she has enlisted us among those innumerable beneficiaries who have to date paid twenty million dollars to see her perform. In the second, she leaves us rather glad that she is retiring (to grade school) at the ripe age of eleven, with all her garlands and honors about her. As far as one can judge from a strictly outside viewpoint, Shirley's parents and managers have guarded her from some of the worst effects of a movie career involving precocious stardom; she still seems simple and happy, and she is universally believed to be so. But no effort or care can annul the essential abnormality of such a life--the consciousness of being the center of a vast system of production, publicity, adulation; the killing hours before the camera, especially (as has latterly been the case) when pictures are multiplied to catch the vanishing graces of childhood. So we feel that the leading female box-office star of the world has won the right to retire.
Running through those excerpts is a note of concern for the well-being of the child who would appear in dozens of movies by the time she was a teenager. I’m not sure I’m prepared to say it’s the same kind of “concern” expressed by Greene, some of whose words, if you haven’t read them recently, were rather more direct:Read more
A typically beautiful piece by James Wood, this time a memoiristic essay on music, home, exile, and W. G. Sebald:
When I left this country 18 years ago, I didn’t know how strangely departure would obliterate return: how could I have done? It’s one of time’s lessons, and can only be learned temporally. What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life – is indeed how life is lived. Freud has a wonderful word, ‘afterwardness’, which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.
Mark Ford on the "daemonic" nature of T. S. Eliot's poetry:
From the outset, Eliot’s work fused satire and mysticism; his denunciations of society depend for their authority on his conviction that the religious vision of his great hero, Dante, offered a securer means of interpreting and judging culture and experience than the formulae and rituals of liberal democracy.
Francine Prose on the salutary aspects of negative reviews:
For me, writing a negative review feels like being the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Few of us remember how the tale ends: The child cries out that the emperor is naked, which the emperor knows, but the procession continues anyway, “stiffer than ever.” This might cast some doubt on the efficacy — the point — of the negative review, but it also casts some light on the child in the story, who isn’t necessarily trying to expose the dishonest weavers or the hypocritical courtiers or oblige the emperor to get dressed. He just can’t help telling what he believes is the truth.
Just posted to the homepage, our February 21 interreligious issue. Anchoring it is a four-part exchange on Catholic-Jewish dialogue, “Getting Past Supersessionism,” with contributions from Steven Englund, Jon D. Levenson, Donald Senior, and John Connelly. From Englund’s opening piece (subscription):
I believe that to foster a more productive Catholic-Jewish dialogue we need to pose two further questions, one backward-looking and one forward-looking. The first is “What harm have we done to the Jews?” and in addressing it I shall take a longer view than the three admittedly crucial decades covered by Connelly in his book. My reflections will present us with a contemporary situation rather more problematic than we tend to acknowledge—one that calls for stronger medicine as we answer the second question: “What more can we do to undo that harm?”
To begin with: How do we portray the ur-conflict, the “impossible relationship” between an old immovable object and a new irresistible force as they collided in antiquity? What shockwaves still reverberate from that Big Bang that was, for so long, an intra-Jewish religious schism, turning on the refusal of most Jews to adopt their neighbors’ view of the messiahship of Jesus? At the start we should observe that while Christians were wrong to see the Jews as “willfully blind”—the refusal to accept a contested claim is not willful blindness—it was nonetheless true that most Jews did not acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
It would be hard to exaggerate the shock and distress this turn of events produced in the first Jesus-followers, as gradually but inevitably there developed a widening separation and deepening conflict between them and their fellow Jews. From the outset, the Jesus movement included talented apologists and evangelists who created a corpus of oral and written stories and myths about Jesus Christ—the basis of future dogma and doctrine—that inscribed the rejection of Christ as foreshadowed in the Jews’ earlier rejection of their covenant with God. In time the refusal to acknowledge the Messiah became equated with an outright denial of God and the forfeiture of all claims to address God as father. The viewpoint dispossessed the Jews as sole interpreters and guardians of their own sacred writings. Thus, Justin Martyr: “These words were laid up in your scriptures, or rather not in yours but in ours for we obey them, but you, when you read them, do not understand their sense.” Or as a modern Jewish theologian, Ben Zion Bokser, summed up the charge: “Authentic Judaism is really Christianity.”
See the entire exchange on Catholic-Jewish dialogue here (subscription).
Also in the new issue, Charles R. Morris on the paradoxes of income inequality; George M. Marsden on Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicism; Eve Tushnet on Kathryn Edin’s and Timothy J. Nelson’s Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City; and Rand Richards Cooper on Spike Jonze’s Her. Full table of contents right here.
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.
Band of Sisters, a new documentary film now showing at New York City's Cinema Village until January 30th, features sisters from eleven different congregations who all share the unique story of being American Catholic nuns who entered convents before Vatican II, and whose vocations were radically transformed by the council's documents.
American women religious are portrayed as themselves -- obedient risk-takers whose elevation from selfess servants to community leaders is natural and justified. The sisters narrate their story against a backdrop of juxtaposed images and stories: black-and-white footage of thousands of habits bending to pick lillies on convent grounds; today's sisters in overalls showcasing their organic farms; hundreds of pews full of heads bowed in prayer; nuns well into their eighties lobbying for access to immigrant detention centers; the letter from Pius XII urging U.S. congregations to create "a network" that would become the LCWR; Rome's investigation of the LCWR's "faithfulness to mission" under Benedict XVI; collared schoolmarms keeping order in classrooms; grey-haired women getting arrested at the School of the America's protest; and much more.
Pharrell Williams is arguably the most influential producer in the American music industry. He's also a talented and successful singer, rapper, songwriter and musician.
On first listen, his latest hit song, "Happy", is four minutes of pure pop confection---one written for the soundtrack of Universal Pictures' billion-dollar hit movie Despicable Me 2.
The video is a sweet confection too: shots of Pharrell and seemingly random Angelenos lip-synching and dancing around their city to the song. (Because this is Los Angeles, it also includes celebrities like Kelly Osborne, Magic Johnson and Steve Carell. Because there's a movie tie-in, it includes characters from Despicable Me 2.)
But "Happy" is much more than that, because there's "24 Hours of Happy".Read more
Robert Stone’s latest novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, is a bleak academic story centered on what can—and no doubt often does—go wrong in a student-professor affair, and the consequences for everyone in their worlds. Set in a fictitious, tony New England college, perhaps Wesleyan or Bowdoin transferred to Massachusetts, it tells the story of Maud Stack and Steven Brookman. Stack is a brilliant but erratic student, Brookman a self-satisfied professor with a wife and child. When Brookman wants out and Stack doesn’t want to let go a public confrontation ends in her death. This is not a spoiler because (a) you saw the book’s title and (b) this is really only the beginning of the story. Stone, like Stone, is much more interested in the life and death of the spirit in the many characters he places around Maud and Brookman. Strangely, neither of them seems to concern him much at all. Maud is intensely secular and strangely unfeeling, Brookman is about as spiritually empty as anyone could be, and neither seems to have any time for religion. But Brookman’s wife Ellie is a deeply pious Mennonite, Maud’s father Eddie is a “lapsed” Catholic with more than a little holy water still in his blood, Jo Carr is an ex-nun working as a therapist at the college, and the Dean’s wife, Mary Pick, has the casual upper-class English anti-clericalism of a conservative Catholic who goes out of her way to find a Latin mass once a week but has very little time for the clergy. They all give Stone the chance to explore the tensions of his own religious dialectic.
The somber tone of the story and the human misery of most of the characters do make one wonder if the current fashion for dystopia isn’t a kind of escapism. When we read Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy, even Orwell or Aldous Huxley, are we dreading the future they depict or refusing to face what Stone would probably call the sin-saturated world we actually live in? Stone’s unnamed college is the site of duplicity and cowardice while the Catholic church in which Eddie wants to place his daughter’s ashes by the side of those of her mother is callous and legalistic. Alcoholism, insanity and religious fanaticism abound and against that background the casual lechery of Brookman would have seemed of little consequence had it not led to the unraveling of a young woman who thought she was in love. We read detective fiction for the ordered world we crave in which the miscreant is always punished. But perhaps we sometimes want to distract ourselves in the opposite way, calling up images of a world so much worse than our own. Stone would not let us have this luxury and paints an unflinchingly realistic picture of our contemporary grey everydayness.
At the same time, Stone doesn’t seem to want to give up on faith entirely. Towards the end there is what is surely a kind of private joke as the newly-introduced psychiatrist Victor Lerner tells Jo that “people always want their suffering to mean something” (Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning really did believe that suffering could have meaning). The rest of Lerner’s remarks are drowned out by the sound of the train on which he is traveling, says Stone, so we will never know the full story. But if Stone really thinks suffering cannot have meaning, that “history is poisoned by claims on underlying truth,” why is Mary Pick the most vigorous and sane character in the book? Certainly she seems to represent the hope that eludes most if not all of the others.
Just posted to the website, our January 24 issue. Among the highlights: The first part of an exclusive excerpt from Elizabeth A. Johnson’s forthcoming book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God Love (subscription required). An excerpt from the excerpt:
“Ask the beasts and they will teach you,” we read in Job (12:7). My new book takes its title from that verse, placing the natural world as envisioned by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in conversation with Christian belief in a loving God who creates, redeems, and promises a blessed future for our world. When we ask the animals and plants about their origin and relationship with God, a picture emerges of how they are cherished by divine love prior to, and apart from, the emergence of humanity. The evolution of the human species introduces sin into the world, seen today in our destruction of habitats and the resulting extinction of species. In this context, listening to the beasts fosters a deep ecological ethic as humans aim to replace their domination over nature with mutual regard and responsible care in the community of creation. The goal of this dialogue is to discover how love of the natural world is an intrinsic part of believers’ passion for the living God—to practical and critical effect. In this essay, the first of a two-part series, I hope to make clear how Darwin’s work changed our understanding of nature and humankind’s place in creation.
Also featured in the new issue: Jo McGowan with a personal reflection on moving her aging father into assisted living, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels on the peril of letting an ally determine our foreign policy, and Nick Ripatrazone on a new book of poems from Averill Curdy.
And we’ve also posted E. J. Dionne’s latest column, on the problems New Jersey governor Chris Christie could face with conservatives in the still unfolding “Bridgegate” scandal.
A friend reminded me of the artistry of Middlemarch when he mentioned how much he enjoyed listening to an audio book of the novel on his way to work. I had to reflect that I had read Eliot first fifty years ago, under a magnolia tree in Fordham’s Rose Hill in the Bronx, caught up in Dorothea’s story but equally aware that I had yet another novel to read that week for Dr. Santaniello’s English Fiction course. So taking up the book again, I was surprised and humbled by the number of times I had to read the following passage, Edward Casaubon’s proposal of marriage (in letter form) to Dorothea.
I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you. For in the first hour of meeting you, I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need (connected, I may say, with such activity of the affections as even the preoccupations of a work too special to be abdicated could not uninterruptedly dissimulate); and each succeeding opportunity for observation has given the impression an added depth by convincing me more emphatically of that fitness which I had preconceived, and thus evoking more decisively those affections to which I have but now referred.
The knottiness of this passage, reminiscent of the frustrating Latin of Cicero, whose periods made me weep in the frustration of incomprehension, works in veritable counterpoint to the fluency of composition – and the ease of the prose rhythms. Casaubon’s self-regard, rendered in the subordination of the clauses and in the parenthetical notes to his own assertions are all too great warnings against the very proposal that Dorothea accepts. The weight of the words simply and ironically crushes any hope of realizing the “affections” that he mentions but are somehow buried in the qualifications that he has laid out earlier.
Perhaps it is too easy to comment that novelists do not write like this anymore. But I have to ask if that also means that our contemporaries do not make the demands upon us that the great Victorian writers did?Read more
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.
We probably don't highlight the poetry that appears on our site enough, but we do want to bring to your attention a new poem from Michael Robbins that was just posted (and that will appear in the upcoming print edition of the magazine). Robbins is the author of the collection Alien vs. Predator, about which John Wilson had this to say in our pages in December 2012:
Every once in a while, a book appears as if out of nowhere, uncanny in its authority, combining the shock of the new with the shock of recognition. Michael Robbins’s Alien vs. Predator has given me a sense of what early readers of The Waste Land must have felt in 1922, what it must have been like to pick up a copy of Wise Blood at the bookstore in 1952.
For such works, the usual terms don’t apply. You don’t necessarily “like” or “dislike” them; rather, you circle them warily, marveling, curious, seeking to understand.
Read Robbins’s “Springtime in Chicago in November” here.
"Dream Baby Dream" is a 1977 song by the more-influential-than-successful punk band, Suicide. This new version by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band meets what I've come to think of as the First Rule of Cover Songs: You've got to bring something new to it.
Musically, Springsteen and his band fill out the empty spaces in "Dream Baby Dream" and smooth off its rough edges, beginning with just an old pump organ, slowly building to a climax and then receding back to silence. It's no longer a young man's nervous, edgy song. It's an old man's prayer, infused by the hard-earned wisdom of his life's ups and downs.
Visually, editor Thom Zimny captures the quasi-religious nature of Springsteen's live performances with the E Street Band: the ecstatic peaks of mass communion, the quiet, interior moments of contemplation reflected on individual faces, the call-and-response exchanges---both among the musicians and between them and the audience.
Towards the end there is---as there was each night throughout the last tour---a brief "communion with the saints" as images of deceased longtime bandmates Danny Federici (organist) and Clarence Clemons (saxophonist) flash on the screen.
As marketing ramps up for the release next week of Bruce Springsteen's new album, High Hopes, it would be a shame if this lovely song and video---released in October at the end of his last tour as a kind of thank-you card to his fans---got overlooked.
If, like me, you are counting down the hours to Masterpiece Mystery!’s “Sherlock” Season 3 (launching later this month), you may appreciate the whodunit quotient in “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” a very interesting documentary airing tonight, Jan. 7, 8:00-10:00 pm ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the American Experience series. A tale of the birth and maturing of forensic chemistry in New York City beginning in 1918, “The Poisoner’s Handbook” chronicles a series of murders and suspicious deaths that were solved by two scientists of Holmesian genius and rationality: Charles Norris, a groundbreaking New York City medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, the pioneering toxicologist who was Norris’s colleague.
Over several decades, starting around World War I, the two men worked on cases that had to do not only with cold, calculating homicide, but with Prohibition, Standard Oil and leaded gasoline, poverty during the Great Depression, and a notorious case of radium poisoning at a watch factory. According to the documentary, directed by Rob Rapley, the two men built forensic science into a respected institution—without them, there would have been no “CSI,” no Patricia Cornwell novels.
It’s a suspenseful yet educational documentary, packed with old film footage and shots of sensational early 20th-century newspaper headlines. It does use reenactments—a technique I usually find annoyingly cheesy. But these reenactments are atmospheric, and appear carefully done (lots of glimpses of early 20th-century laboratories and primitive-looking morgues). When I interviewed Rapley about a year ago about his fascinating documentary series “The Abolitionists,” he told me that he had initially hesitated to use reenactments, but ultimately had decided that they added a needed visual dynamism, and that an abundance of reliable written records allowed for scripting the reenactments with great accuracy. I haven’t spoken to him this time round, but after watching “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” I would assume that the rationale for reenactments in this case was the same.
The perennial popularity of police, detective and hospital story programs on television demonstrates that audiences love to get behind-the-scenes glimpse of professional procedure—the kind of detail that abounds in “The Poisoner’s Handbook.” The attraction is partly voyeuristic thrill, but I think procedure-heavy stories also give us the comforting illusion of being part of a team or select professional circle. In an era that often seems increasingly impersonal, when people telecommute, and text instead of talk, and work in specialized fields that others can barely comprehend, enthusiasm for behind-the-scenes police lab and medical diagnostic stories—stories that provide an illusion of professional companionship and inner-circle reassurance—will surely only increase. (Mystery fans will be interested to note that Dr. Marcella Fierro, a forensic expert interviewed in “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” is the former chief medical examiner for Virginia who inspired the figure of Kay Scarpetta in Patricia Cornwell’s novels.)
After tonight’s airing, “The Poisoner’s Handbook” will be available on DVD or for online viewing on pbs.org, according to the press release. There is also a related “interactive online graphic novel.”
I have remarked in years past of my Christmastide ritual of listening to Bach's Christmas Oratorio.The Oratorio comprises six cantatas for the various days of the season, culminating in tomorrow's Feast of the Epiphany.
More and more I find listening attentively, with text in hand, a form of lectio. And it makes me appreciate more Bach's own careful lectio of the text.
Thus, in the Cantata for the Epiphany, in the simple recitative of the Evangelist, intoning Herod's words to the Magi, "bring me word that I may come and worship him also," Bach adds a slight trill to the final syllable of "worship," hinting at Herod's hypocrisy. And in the answering recitative by the soprano, Bach provides a striking dissonance on "falsches Herz," – "deceitful heart."
But, most impressive for me, is the concluding Chorale of the cantata. Here, joyful trumpets herald the salvation Christ has gained us: "humankind has been raised to the side of God." Our celebration of our salvation, however, is tempered by the recognition of its cost. The melody of the joyous outburst is that of the Passion hymn, "O Sacred Head, pierced by crown of thorns." Bach is both musical genius and profound theologian.
John Eliot Gardiner's new book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven," makes for excellent lectio during long Winter nights.
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.
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