Favorite Films of My Lifetime: 20-16

My series on my favorite films that were made in my lifetime continues with #20: Alexander Payne’s Election, staring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. This is political satire at its finest. Broderick plays a high school civics teacher who interferes in the student council election. Witherspoon is the uber-ambitions Tracy Flick who won’t let anything prevent her from victory. Being a satire, it presents people as much worse than they actually are; there’s hardly a sympathetic character in the story. Some of them have no self-awareness or sense of just how vile they are. Great stuff. And near the end we are treated to a perfect example of what Sartre called “The Look.”

There’s only one movie my wife and I make a tradition of watching every year: #19, Love Actually. It’s a charming romantic comedy that intertwines a number of different love stories, some happy, some tragic. We watch it during Advent. Hugh Grant’s opening words set the tone for the tale:
"Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge - they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion love actually is all around."
Sideways, also by Alexander Payne, is my #18. I’ve recommended this movie to people who have hated it, and I understand why. Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church, is scumbag incarnate and so utterly representational of real sorry-excuses-for-men that he can be too close for comfort. Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, wants to take his buddy Jack on a tour of wine country a week before Jack’s wedding. Suffice it to say Jack is not faithful to his fiancĂ©e during their trip. Why do I like this movie? I think because its characters are very human. They are weak, pitiful, and in some cases undeserving of happiness. Sideways is an honest film about dishonest people. I found it beautiful.

A family member who despised Sideways recommended that I see Lost in Translation, the comedy by Sophia Coppola staring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. It’s another film I loved but that some people I know really disliked. It’s about a brief but intimate friendship between two people. Their relationship reminded me of being on a retreat where I’ve met people and gotten to know them and their sorrows quite deeply in the span of only a few days before we said goodbye and went are separate ways.

Madness in Terry Gilliam films must not unwatched go. My #16 is The Fisher King, a heartbreaking and heartwarming story about sanity and madness, reality and fantasy, hatred and love. And a quest to find the Holy Grail in New York City. With drama, comedy, and symbolism, and illusions, Gilliam explores who has a more accurate sense of the truth: the typical, socially acceptable people or the insane and deranged. Here’s the trailer:

The Big Fat Leo DiCaprio Contest

In an effort to clean up our language, a friend of mine has started a contest, and he's asked for my help. He writes to me:

I am introducing a new phrase. Sometimes, we all need to improve our language. Obscenity is childish and immature and profanity is sinful and scandalous. So I am introducing a new, multi-purpose phrase: Big Fat Leo DiCaprio.

It rolls trippingly off the tongue and serves in both exlamatory situations (hanging your thumb with a hammer) as well as adjectival scenarios ("Ain't that one Big Fat Leo DiCaprio?").

If we are going to get this into the lexicon (thereby simultaneously ending all profanity and obscenity from the English language), we must work at it. Remember you can also use the anagram BFLD, which sounds really BFLD-ing dirty.

One last thing, as language is evolutionary, and this phrase is long, some may discover that for the short curse, they start saying, "Oh Leo" or just "Caprio" (which approximates "crap" pretty well). You can send these examples in as well, but they need to be organic changes, not just cause you are too lazy to cuss properly. We thank you for your Big Fat Leo DiCaprio support.

Post submissions in the comments and I'll make sure my friend sees them. I'll give credit where credit is due, of course.

My Favorite Films Made in My Lifetime

This post begins a series on my favorite movies. I’m limiting the series to those films made in my lifetime that I found and continue to find especially meaningful. They may not be the best films I’ve seen, but they hold a special place in my heart and my head. Each in its own way does what good art should so: awaken my wonder and elicit my love.

I begin with #25, a film I loved as a child that hasn’t lost its magic: The Secret of NIMH. The story, about a mouse trying to save her sick child by enlisting the aid of scientifically modified rats, transforms a seemingly normal farm into an enchanting world where rational rodents live in an electrified city hidden below the ground. The movie does a good job of exploring how the rats, now capable of reason, grapple with the moral questions that come with that capability. Great characters and writing. It’s the kind of movie I want my son to watch.

The Shawshank Redemption comes in at #24, and it’s not one for my son because it’s much too long for his attention span. It’s also about prison life and the brutality and cruelty that goes with prison life. This is one of those movies after which I’m emotionally exhausted, but don’t feel emotionally manipulated.

Casino Royale, the recent re-envisioning of the James Bond mythology, presents us with a more brutal Bond and more realistic violence. A story about spiritual devastation—how Bond became Bond—underlies the terrific action sequences. I rank it at #23.

I suspect Dante and Flannery O’Connor would have appreciated the mystery, manners, and contrapasso of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, particularly its vile characters, its parody of Christian imagery, and its fascination with the soul-eating effects of sin and the moments of grace that arise from the macabre. I haven’t seen it again since the theater, but it’s stuck with me nonetheless.

The Big Lebowski, which I put at #21, is one of those films I like that I perhaps ought not to like, but it’s so weird and wonderful, and the Dude is so absolutely hilarious, that I can’t help myself. The Coen Brothers have made better films, perhaps, but this one is my favorite of theirs. When I finish this series, I plan to write a series on my ten favorite film characters. The Dude, no doubt, will make the list.

Orators of War

This quote could apply to leaders in both real wars and culture wars:
"A skilful orator, when he wishes to stimulate warlike feeling, produces in his audience two layers of belief: a superficial layer, in which the power of the enemy is magnified so as to make great courage seem necessary, and a deeper layer, in which there is a firm conviction of victory. Both are embodied in such a slogan as 'right will prevail over might'.

The kind of mob that the orator will desire is one more given to emotion than to reflection, one filled with fears and consequent hatreds, one impatient of slow and gradual methods, and at once exasperated and hopeful. The orator, if he is not a complete cynic, will acquire a set of beliefs that justify his activities. He will think that feeling is a better guide than reason, that our opinions should be formed with the blood rather than the brain, that the best elements in human life are collective rather than individual."
- Bertrand Russell, Power

And Still His Name Is Mud

Conor Clarke says RNC Chairman Michael Steele is like a latter day Jacques Derrida because of his evasive, ambiguous answer to whether “death panels” exist in the healthcare bill. Yeah, ‘cause Derrida’s philosophical project was all about asserting ambiguity and polysemy in order to score political points. That must have been what he meant by play!


Vagrant Thought

I will not allow the meaning of words stand in the way of my precious political fictions.

Divorced from Catholic Teaching?

Color me puzzled. Why is the American Life League demonizing Catholic Charities, the Catholic Health Association, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society?

A few weeks ago, ALL’s Katie Walker wrote a news release stating that Catholic Charities, the Catholic Health Association, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul had “divorced themselves from Catholic teaching.” How did this “divorce” happen? Walker charged that these Catholic organizations were guilty of “supporting the Obama health care plan, which would foster a culture of mandatory abortion coverage, contraceptive services, and permissive sex education, euthanasia and eugenics.”

In actual fact, these organizations had called for urgent healthcare reform; they had not issued support for any particular healthcare reform bill. Yes, they had asked members to call Congress urging urgent reform and they had shown a video in which Obama argues for immediate healthcare reform, but these do not rationally translate into support for any reform whatsoever or even the reform bills currently under congressional consideration. It would have been reasonable for the American Life League to express concern that these organizations’ campaign might be interpreted as supporting bills under consideration, but ALL didn’t just express such concern or call on these organizations to clarify what exactly they were supporting. It assumed their support for the current plan and asserted as fact that these organizations had divorced themselves from Catholic teaching. “Divorce” is a significant and strong metaphor. It expresses much more than a potential conflict, a spousal fight, or a separation into different rooms or even different homes. It denotes a final and complete separation.

Today I received a press release stating that American Life League president Judie Brown and Catholic Health Association president Sr. Carol Keehan would appear on EWTN’s The World Over with Raymond Arroyo. The release mentions how ALL exposed the scandal of these organizations’ support for Obama’s healthcare plan, as if their campaign was a secret in need of an exposĂ©. Even though Catholic Charities, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and the Catholic Health Association have clarified their position on healthcare reform, Brown refuses to back down. She wrote, “These Catholic organizations are contending that they are simply supporting health ‘reform,’ but that line is disingenuous at best when the only health reform on the table is Obama’s abortion and euthanasia mandate. These organizations are putting human lives at the mercy of misguided justice.”

On Arroyo’s show, Sr. Carol Keehan explained once again her organization’s dedication to the dignity of the human person, its opposition to abortion, even its opposition to particular segments in the current legislation. She talked about how her organization was working with the bishops, not at cross-purpose with them, and that it might compromise its preferences, but never its principles. Arroyo kept returning to the notion that it might seem from the video that Keehan’s organization supported the current bills. Hardly sufficient evidence for asserting that Keehan and her organization have divorced themselves from Catholic teaching!

Both Brown and Arroyo were very clear that they don’t trust the government involvement in healthcare. Trusting it is unthinkable, Brown remarked. Okay, fine, they disagree with healthcare reform that involves greater government intervention. Let’s talk about that. Why in the world over does ALL try to make enemies out of these well-respected Catholic organizations that do so much to promote? The pro-life movement has enough on its plate trying to convince the opposing side; what good does alienating its own people do? The members of Catholic Charities, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the Catholic Health Association are living out justice and charity to the poor, the oppressed, and the forgotten. They are ministers who give life to the pro-life ideals. Why demonize them? Surely doing so doesn’t advance the agenda of the American Life League. (EC)

And There Was Much Rejoicing

Terry Teachout informs us that Whit Stillman's brilliant and darkly funny film, The Last Days of Disco, has finally been released on DVD. Yay! As Teachout says, this release is cause for rejoicing. I have a VHS copy of the movie that I found at a flea market in Steubenville, Ohio. Finding it made my month. It plays fine, although I had to replace the back cover. I think I took the a non-broken cover off of an extra copy of Gladiator that I had for some reason. Strange. Anyhow, I'm thrilled that Stillman's last film is now much more available. The writer/director has made three major films, and all three rank on my list of favorites. They're what I'd call dialogue-driven stories. Perfectly appealing to the English/philosophy major in me.

Here's the Criterion Collection trailer:

An Expression Antithetical to Conservatism

I continue to hear the expression “9/11 changed everything” used by some self-described conservatives as the basis for new thinking about foreign policy and national defense. As far as I know, the expression originated with Vice President Dick Cheney; its usage became popular thanks to Sean Hannity’s predictable repetitions and variations of it. The expression has served as a slogan aimed at justifying new wars and changes in what we consider acceptable interrogation methods.

The expression is hyperbolic and, if taken in a literal sense, relativistic. But even if we don’t take the word “everything” to mean everything, the expression isn’t conservative. Indeed, it is antithetical to conservatism. The idea of “9/11 changed everything” is that the old way of thinking about foreign policy and national defense no longer adequately serves us. A pre-9/11 mentality, which would be the conservative mentality, must be cast aside. A new mentality must be embraced. “9/11 changed everything” is a slogan proclaiming radical change.

Conservatives are not, as a rule, opposed to change, but they tend to look upon proposed changes with caution. They trust the old ways and old ideas that have survived the tests of time. They’re not opposed to new ideas, but they are opposed to implementing new ideas on a wide scale before those ideas have been tested by experience. So it’s not a little weird and ironic to hear people who call themselves conservatives favorably repeating an expression whose significance throws time-tested ideas to the wind and catches and runs with the new ideas and new policies of a new “post-9/11 world.”

A Reasonable Explanation

Sorry for the dearth of posts. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has taken over our lives here at the Cupp abode. I suppose I could learn from Buffy's example. If she can make time for friends, family, school, herself, and still fulfil her vocation to save the world, I should be able to follow her adventures and compose an occasional blog post. I'll do better in the future. Besides, we're almost half way through the mega-uber-awesome series.

Would You Ever Support an Atheist for President?

President Obama made headlines a few months ago after stating that the United States is not a Christian nation, but is also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, and, among other things, a nation of non-believers. Much discussion and debate ensued about our national identity. In light of the president’s statements and the response to them, I’d like to ask readers the question: would you ever support an atheist for president? Why or why not? (VN)