Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.
By this author
There’s a scene in director Luca Guadagnino’s current film A Bigger Splash where Harry, the manipulative music-producer houseguest played by Ralph Fiennes, guides his hosts through a Rolling Stones track from the Voodoo Lounge album, revealing the tricks he used to get certain sonic effects. It’s not a bad song, but only a few bars are heard before he puts on another record. What plays now is the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue"[*] which Harry can’t stop himself from dancing to. Is it a better song? Yes, but maybe it’s the context—the way Fiennes, shirt open, is shot under a hot Mediterranean sun; the funny-creepy irony of the lyrics in that moment; the cranking up of the soundtrack; a glimpse of the LP spinning on the turntable. Another character asks if he produced this one too. “Honey,” Harry shouts back, “I was only sixteen when they did this!” For Harry, clearly it’s not just a better song, but a great one.
And what makes a great song—we’ll stipulate rock songs here—is different from what makes a song representative of the genre, criteria for which Chuck Klosterman discusses in a New York Times Magazine piece headlined “Which Rock Star Will Historians of the Future Remember?” On the same day it was reported that Gus Wenner, son of Jann, would be harnessing the brand power of Rolling Stone magazine to launch a website on video-gaming—“It’s the new rock-and-roll,” he declared—Klosterman predicted that three hundred years from now, almost no one would even know what rock-and-roll was, and that maybe just a single artist, based on the staying power of a single composition (think Sousa and “The Stars and Stripes Forever”) would be the future’s only link to what he calls the “most important musical form of the 20th century.” And that artist and song are?
Questionable premise, annoying certainty, a unilateral pronouncement guaranteed to elicit complaints about overlooked nominees—well, that’s all part of writing about rock-and-roll (see Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Pitchfork’s best-ofs). Tower Records at its height not only anchored street corners and retail centers but also produced its own monthly magazine, Pulse, pages of which were given over to “desert island discs,” reader-submitted lists of can’t-live-without records—the ceaseless output of a subculture defined by its compulsion to collect, catalog, and rate. Klosterman’s piece, if not explicitly intended to generate similar response, has of course done just that. It got about thirteen-hundred comments in a little more than twenty-four hours, many no doubt from people who went straight to the end to learn Klosterman hadn’t anointed Mick or Bob or Paul or Jimi or Aretha, or James Taylor or Janis Joplin or the Beach Boys or Radiohead or REM or anyone else who hands-down, no-doubt, unquestionably deserves it over the ultimate choice: Chuck Berry and “Johnny B. Goode.”
The church of La Sagrada Familia in the Colonia Roma section of Mexico City is the de facto headquarters in the cause for the canonization of Miguel Pro, the Mexican Jesuit priest executed in 1927. The story of Padre Pro is recounted on a plaque beneath his portrait, which is mounted to a pillar behind the altar rail. Born in Guadalupe and dedicated to serving the poor, he is said to have been humorous, charming, and a master of disguises. The last was a necessity of his underground ministry; with the presidency of Plutarco Elías Calles, the government in the mid-’20s had commenced to enforce with brutal severity the anti-Catholic provisions of Mexico’s 1917 constitution. Pro, long under surveillance, was eventually arrested under the pretext of involvement in the attempted assassination of Calles’s predecessor, Álvaro Obregón, and convicted without trial. Still conscious after the initial barrage of the firing squad, he supposedly shouted “Viva Cristo Rey!” before taking a final, fatal shot at close range. The government publicized photographs of the execution as a warning to the people, but tens of thousands of Mexicans attended Pro’s funeral—a fact portrayed as a courageous and defiant rebuke to Calles.
Mexico City has the most museums of any city in the world, from collections of fine art and archaeological rarities to the personal effects and relics of notable figures—including Padre Pro, a museum in whose name adjoins Sagrada Familia. Within steps of one another in the Coyoacan neighborhood are Leon Trotsky’s preserved home—its walls not only adorned with photos and artifacts but also pocked with bullet holes from a firefight preceding his 1940 assassination—and the Frida Kahlo museum at Casa Azul, where the tourist crowds seemed unfazed by the artist’s 1954 Self Portrait with Stalin, in which the murderous Soviet leader assumes the role of watchful saint.
Padre Pro’s remains are interred at Sagrada Familia. A steel box beneath his portrait has a slot wide enough for written testimonials of miracles. One sign asks politely that no flowers be left; another warns against touching the candles. It was a little after 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and perhaps two dozen people were in the church, some praying the rosary, others sitting quietly. A few days earlier, an international human rights team investigating Mexico’s handling of the September 2014 disappearance and presumed murders of forty-three students from the state of Guerrero had released its final report. In contending that evidence had been suppressed and torture used in extracting confessions from alleged suspects, it called into serious doubt the “historical account” of the matter that has been put forth by the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. As such it had given hope to the families of the missing as well as human rights advocates inside and outside Mexico that the real details of the case, and maybe even justice, would be forthcoming.
Yet the report seemed to generate little local reaction, adding to worries that indifference was setting in. Banners commemorating the missing may yet hang in various squares and markets across Mexico City, and cement sidewalks are etched with the command “never forget,” but two years later, the colors are fading and the edges are worn. Pope Francis had not met with the families of the missing during his February visit, as some had hoped he would, and a semi-permanent protest outside the National Palace has all but folded its tent.
"Perhaps it won’t be long before the many words spoken about women as deacons will be overtaken by actions." That was Phyllis Zagano, writing in Commonweal in 2012, when she made the case for ordaining women to the diaconate. Yesterday, commenting on Pope Francis's announcement of a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons, she told NCR: "It's very hopeful.
The husband and wife at the center of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise both flirt and despair over the question of who will predecease the other. Why do we have to die? is the existential plaint behind not only their pillow talk and estate planning but also the narrative itself, which proceeds less as conventionally plotted drama than as darkly comic, special ongoing coverage of the ever-approaching encounter with life’s end.
Somewhere in a shoebox holding the detritus of my youth there may still rest a signed, black-and-white photograph of Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, who lent his name to legislation related to military engagement in Vietnam and Roe v. Wade and who in 1975 led the committee investigating intelligence-gathering abuses by the CIA and FBI. But none of these had led to me ask for the portrait that would arrive in the mail, tucked snugly into an official-looking envelope emblazoned with an official-looking seal. I was only following instructions: For a middle-school social-studies class, I had to do a report on a U.S. senator, and I was randomly assigned Church. I can’t remember anything about what I might have turned in; what I can remember was that in the months and years to follow, when encountering references to Church amendments or the Church Committee, I had a clue of what was being talked about. And that, as I triumphantly remind my children, is why you do your schoolwork.
Classes in history and government may acquaint young people with history and government, but what sparks the romance with politics? My seventh-grade daughter has shown flickering signs of interest in the current presidential election, and last Wednesday attended with a friend and her parents the rally for Bernie Sanders in New York’s Washington Square Park. She came home tired and bleary-eyed, excited and talkative, with stickers and buttons and a Bernie (first name only, please) poster in the style of a Grateful Dead album cover—bought with the money she was supposed to use for food. She had gripes about the crowds and the clouds of marijuana smoke, but these were minor next to the views firmly expressed well before the event on why women shouldn’t be expected to vote for a presidential candidate just because the candidate is a woman.
From poorer soil plants can also grow. Around the time of my Church report, I remember watching (as apparently do others) an episode of the TV series Happy Days, set if you recall in an idealized version of the 1950s, in which main character Richie Cunningham defies his father to campaign for Adlai Stevenson. When Dwight Eisenhower wins, Richie and the kids—and by extension a generation—are distraught. Was it really like that? I asked my mother. The wistful solemnity with which she answered “yes” made a lasting impression. But so did watching with her, one year before, the resignation of Richard Nixon on a nine-inch black-and-white TV, and, one year after, listening to my father bemoan the failure of Republicans in Kansas City to nominate Ronald Reagan. It was up to me to make sense of it all.
The death on Easter Sunday of Mother Angelica, founder of Eternal Word Television Network, has received coverage both in the United States and abroad, with obituaries both brief and lengthy, along with remembrances, accounts of her
I knew little of Kent Haruf until hearing him interviewed on publication of his 2004 novel Eventide. It was a sequel to 1999’s National Book Award-winning Plainsong, both written the way Haruf wrote all his novels: blindly, with a cap pulled over his eyes, as a way to block out the analytical impulses he feared would undermine his artistic aims.
A snarling and disproportionately vocal segment of the populace will exult when Barack Obama leaves the White House in January 2017. Whether they will be correspondingly welcoming toward the new inhabitant is not known. Columnist David Brooks pre-emptively declared his nostalgic fondness for the Obama presidency in a February column (“I’ll miss Barack Obama”), and I wonder if more such admissions will be forthcoming; can you see it in the anxious faces, hear it in the nervous comments, of some of the opposition—a creeping “we didn’t know what we had it until we saw what might rise in its place” sense of impending remorse (if not doom)? Starting around 1986 and through the end of his time in office, Ronald Reagan talked about lifting the restriction on presidential term limits, even countenancing an effort to repeal the Twenty-Second Amendment. Obama has offered no such proposal, though last summer some outlets misrepresented comments he made about his hypothetical re-electability to suggest that he had. Still, with relatively comfortable victories in consecutive popular and electoral college campaigns, he’d be in strong position to run and win—especially given, well, the competition. But the people have already twice had their say, and thus in accordance with the Constitution, he will leave, after eight years of petulant Republican obstructionism culminating in the refusal to let him fully exercise the Constitutionally accorded responsibility to appoint a Supreme Court nominee.
Where does he go next? Obama will be young for a former president, so those who’ve supported him anticipate a vigorous and presumably lengthy engagement with issues that have shaped his political philosophy over time. Or shaped their own: Save maybe for the dawn of a new presidency, there’s little that offers so enticing a slate on which to project hopes than a youthful post-presidency. Per custom, Obama will pen a post-presidential memoir, and being a natural and compelling writer—as anyone who read Dreams from My Father knows—he’ll probably do it better than most, even assuming he doesn’t dish on his opposition. He may find himself spoken of as a potential Supreme Court justice, though he’s hinted he doesn’t want that. What’s probably a safe bet is that he won’t go into a quiet retirement spent exploring heretofore unguessed-at artistic urges. What’s hoped is that neither will he single-mindedly devote his talents to growing a foundation in his and his family’s name.
Obama has said he’d like to get back in front of a classroom, and recently the New Yorker’s Cinque Henderson took this possibility to its logical extreme by imagining three touching-down points.
'Prophecy Without Contempt': Watch Cathleen Kaveny, Peter Steinfels & Bishop Robert McElroy in Conversation
On Monday night in New York, Commonweal hosted “Prophecy Without Contempt,” a panel on religious discourse in the public square. Commonweal columnist Cathleen Kaveny, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, and former Commonweal editor and longtime contributor Peter Steinfels took up the question: Can religious speech bring dialogue and reconciliation, instead of division and resentment? Many people joined us in person for the lively and informative discussion that unfolded, and many more streamed the event live.
Readers of a certain age may remember the original airing in 1977 of Franco Zeffirelli's miniseries Jesus of Nazareth on NBC. It immediately became reliable, parent-approved Easter-season fare, running several times up and into the 1980s -- appointment viewing, which was the only choice in those pre-on-demand days.
It was also familiar viewing, with its magisterial theme music and earnestly emoting players, its sandals and robes and desert settings. Some predictable casting -- Ernest Borgnine as The Centurion! Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate! -- provided another sturdy bridge from Hollywood's then-still-not-so-distant past. While the presence of Anne (The Graduate’s Mrs. Robinson) Bancroft as Mary Magdalene, Claudia (Fellini’s 8 1/2) Cardinale as The Adulteress, and Olivia (Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet) Hussey as Mary, the Mother of Jesus, lent a little cinephilic cred, make no mistake: this was safe, straightforward entertainment all the way. Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman were considered for the title role, but it went to the lesser known Robert Powell, whose penetrating blue eyes, Zeffirelli and others involved in the production believed, would better match the perception of Jesus held by the American public. In fact, he looked like Eric Clapton. Our family tuned in for every episode, every year, the way you might expect: religiously.
Jesus of Nazareth still shows up now and then on cable, and it's also available on YouTube. If you’re looking for something on the big screen, there currently are two feature films dramatizing the life of Jesus. In one, you can "experience your faith through the eyes of the child" (The Young Messiah, whose moppish title character speaks in a delightful British accent); in the other, you can "experience the event that changed the world through the eyes of a nonbeliever" (Risen, whose brooding, stubbled protagonist wields a sword). Stubbornly making do with my my own middle-aged eyes, I chose to experience things through two films that come at faith in less familiarly broad fashion: The Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar!, and the period horror movie The Witch.
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