From Favorites to Former Favorites

In response to my series covering my favorite films made during my lifetime, Darwin Catholic lists his own favorites, movies that used to be his favorites, and a few guilty pleasures. He observes:
One of the things that struck me as making Kyle's list particularly interesting is that it's not simply a list of what he thinks are the best movies, but rather the movies which he enjoys watching most. However, thinking about this, it occurred to me that my list of favorite movies, in this sense, has changed a lot over the last 5-8 years. This is not generally because I've changed my mind about whether or not movies are good, but rather that what movies I feel like watching (and certainly which movies I feel like watching again) has undergone a shift.
Darwin attributes this shift to his presently feeling less venturesome to experience the “artistic brutality” and excesses of fear and pity that some of his former favorites displayed and elicited. I know what he means: there are some excellent films such as Babel that I have no desire to see again. On the other hand, I seem to have a particular craving for stories of misery and suffering. I can watch Paul Thomas Anderson movies repeatedly, for example. I sometimes find downers strangely uplifting, scenes of sadness strangely a cause for hopeful smiles. There are times that I actually like staring into the abyss, plunging heart-first into dark waters of despondency. I come out refreshed, hopeful, and ready for another round. Maybe there’s something to my favorites of these sorts that isn’t present in Babel or other emotionally-exhausting narratives that I appreciated but never thought to place among my favorites. I’ve changed my mind about what movies are among my favorites, but this has generally been a result of my not finding them as good as I once thought.

Anyhow, Darwin lists some quality films, some of which could easily have made my list had I written it on a different day.

Howard Zinn

The historian Howard Zinn has died. May he rest in peace with the poor, the oppressed, and the destitute, whose stories he passionately told. And may their stories and his be told, retold, and remembered.

A Note on Narrative Identity

Richard Kearney notes in his book On Stories that when someone asks you who you are, you tell your story, and in doing so, you narrate your identity, “you give a sense of yourself as a narrative identity that perdures and coheres over a lifetime.” We take the fragmentary moments of our life and put them into a plot, desiring to make sense of life’s events as a unity. “Every life is in search of a narrative,” Kearney says.

The narratives we create and recreate may tell of individuals or families, nations or peoples, cultures or humanity as a whole. They may be small tales of the oppressed or grand legends of the great. They may be mythical or historical, religious or scientific. Each and every narrative offers a particular and different answer to the question of who we are.

The stories we tell make our lives memorable. Sometimes we tell stories so as not to forget an event or to defy a campaign aimed at destroying the past. We remind ourselves of terrors and tragedies and those whose lives and stories were violently cut short by famine, sword, and fire. It is also vital that we remember that our identities are fundamentally narrative in character. We invent and can therefore reinvent them. We construct and should therefore reconstruct them. Being narratives, they are not the last word, closed to revision, or closed off to what the other has to say.

Kearney remarks that “the solution to many national conflicts may well reside in the willingness of both disputants – for example Arab and Israeli, Nationalist and Unionist, Serb and Croat, Tutsi and Hutu – to exchange narrative memories. For such mutual translation of competing stories might eventually enable the adversaries to see each other through alternative eyes. If warring nations were able to acknowledge their own and the other’s narrative identities they might then be able to reimagine themselves in new ways. Blocked and fixated memories, trapped in compulsive repetition and resentment, could then find the freedom to remember the past differently, historical enemies recognising themselves as mirror-images.” (VN)

On Reading

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur compared reading a text to the execution of a musical score, an analogy that highlights the plurality of possible readings while keeping those readings situated in the text. Just as each musical performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto differs from all others, even those others performed by the same musician, while still remaining true (or false) to the score, so too will each reading of Moby-Dick differ and realize new semantic possibilities of Melville’s novel. Each reading of a text and each execution of a score involves interpretation; each interpretation brings forth more than the intended and inherent meanings of the text and sheet. What the author and composer write functions more as a guide for interpretation than a dictator of meaning. Nevertheless, the reader has no more liberty to make the text mean anything he wants it to mean than the musician has the liberty to play impromptu melodies when performing Chopin. Reading is an exercise of pluralism, not relativism. It gives birth to a surplus of meaning, not its absence.

Today's Hero, Tomorrow's Villain

Henry’s position on the advocacy of some pro-life groups for Scott Brown makes sense, and I tend to agree with it. For better or for worse, Brown is now a nationally known figure, and some pro-lifers and organizations participated in his ascension. Whether he decides some day to run for president is unknown, but it’s not out of the question. If he decides to run, he’ll need to appeal to the pro-lifers within the GOP, and he can now point to concrete endorsements from pro-life groups to establish his credentials. He may not even need to pull a Romney and switch his views. After all, during the previous Republican primary, Rudy Giuliani’s pro-choice views were much more accepted on the stage than Ron Paul’s anti-war views. Brown’s win enhances that acceptability. I’m not saying pro-lifers had no good reasons to support Brown over Coakley, but their victory today could undermine their cause down the road. Certain issues of the day may be black and white, but the act of voting surely isn’t.

Symphonic Fantasies: Secret of Mana Medley

Karlson on the Courage of Love

Henry Karlson ends his post on the courage of love with this gem:
"The martyrs proved successful, while the Crusaders failed."
His whole post is worth the read and pertains to this long but thought-provoking discussion that I initiated.

About Those Suicides

Scott Horton tells a disturbing tale challenging the official narrative that three deaths at Guantánamo in 2006 were suicides. Seems Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani may not have actually killed themselves. Horton writes:
Now four members of the Military Intelligence unit assigned to guard Camp Delta, including a decorated non-commissioned Army officer who was on duty as sergeant of the guard the night of June 9–10, have furnished an account dramatically at odds with the NCIS report—a report for which they were neither interviewed nor approached.

All four soldiers say they were ordered by their commanding officer not to speak out, and all four soldiers provide evidence that authorities initiated a cover-up within hours of the prisoners’ deaths. Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman and men under his supervision have disclosed evidence in interviews with Harper’s Magazine that strongly suggests that the three prisoners who died on June 9 had been transported to another location prior to their deaths. The guards’ accounts also reveal the existence of a previously unreported black site at Guantánamo where the deaths, or at least the events that led directly to the deaths, most likely occurred.
It’s long, but I recommend reading Horton’s whole article, and I hope his story receives adequate reporting and scrutiny and prompts further investigations so that we can know for sure what happened to these three men and why there looks to be a continuing cover-up.

The Human Factor

So I’m getting the sense that healthcare reform hinges on what happens on Tuesday when the voters of Massachusetts decide who will replace Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. All the efforts of healthcare reformists, tea partiers, bishops, legislators, lobbyists, and everyone else with a stake in the healthcare debate have come to a point where the decisive action may well result because the Democrats decided to run the downright awful candidate Martha Coakley.

A lesson I draw from this is that an issues-centered approach to politics will, on not a few occasions, come to a crashing halt upon arriving in the messy, human, chaos of political reality. You might find a candidate with the right positions on all the right issues who looks likely to team up with other like-minded politicians, vote and see the lot of them elected to office, watch as your dream legislation is crafted, only to then stare dumbstruck as your hopes for those issues come crashing down because events or situations having little or nothing to do with those issues undermine the whole operation.

Voter guides tend to uphold particular issues at the expense of others, sometimes telling us that one particular issue matters more than any others. Abstractly speaking, that may be true, but in the unpredictable and uncontrollable world of politics, seemingly unimportant contingencies can easily mean the most, practically speaking. Voting just isn’t always an act of prudential judgment. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, it’s a matter of blind speculation and high-risk gambling. (VN)

Ricoeur on Reading

"Reading is like the execution of a musical score; it marks the realization, the enactment, of the semantic possibilities of the text."

- Paul Ricoeur, From Text to Action

Coercion and Torture

Despite my disagreement with his position on interrogations, I have to give credit to Marc Thiessen for at times using the term “coercive interrogations” for those controversial methods he believes do not reach the level of torture. Unlike the adjectives “enhanced,” “aggressive,” or “harsh,” which tell us next to nothing definitive about the interrogation methods, the adjective “coercive” has a clear-cut meaning.

Coercing someone differs from motivating someone, even when painful possibilities or realities are used as instruments of motivation. Motivation works with a person’s will. Coercion works to undermine it. Coercion forces one to act involuntarily, without volition or will. It forces a one to act contrary to their nature as a person, as a free moral agent.

We can distinguish coercive interrogation techniques from torture not because torture doesn’t involve coercion – it does – but because not all coercive techniques involve the infliction of severe physical or mental pain. Torture is one type of coercion.

Contrary to Thiessen, I oppose all coercive interrogation techniques, whether or not those techniques fall into the category of torture. Why? Because coercion is a sin against the person; it reduces the one coerced into a mere means to an end, and does so by stripping him of his capacity to make free, moral decisions. To be sure, we may take away a person’s liberty by putting him in prison, but the prisoner is for that imprisonment no less of a free, moral agent, capable of making free, moral decisions. But to coerce a person is to render them less than a person.

Thiessen would call me a radical pacifist for holding this position, a label I wouldn’t be quick to shake off, but he would be more accurate to call me a personalist. Personally, I think a society that disrespects the person is not long for the world.

Distinguishing Two Gospels of Salvation

I have argued before that a materialistic and militaristic gospel of salvation pervades in our political discourse and that we find this gospel proclaimed even by those who also proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Of course, advocating the use of military force in defense of life and limb does not, in itself, mean the proclamation of this gospel. Rather, we find this “good news” witnessed to by those who uphold the instruments of war as the solution to the problem of evil, who treat the threat of evil in the world as essentially a material problem with a human solution, who seek salvation from evil by killing the evildoers.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that evil is fundamentally a spiritual problem with a divine solution: only through Christ can man be saved. This Gospel calls for conversion, atonement, redemption, and salvation of the evildoer – a category that includes us all. It does not divide the world into the evildoers (them) and the non-evildoers (us), the guilty and the innocent, and it does not seek salvation only for one group and not for another. It does not call for the death of some, but rather for the life of all.

Anyone who advocates the instruments of war as the fundamental response to terrorism or other threats to life follows a materialistic and militaristic gospel of salvation. To be sure, not everyone who defends the use of violence in response to evil is a believer, but if such defenders of saving violence do not also seek, by the means available to them, the salvation of those consumed by evil, their actions witness most to a faith in the human power to kill and destroy.

My Favorite Film Made in My Lifetime

Paul Thomas Anderson’s three-hour opus Magnolia isn’t as polished as his latest film and suffers from an overuse of profanity, but no other film I’ve seen reaches me as deeply on so many levels. I’m generally an overly abstract, crusty-hearted fellow with about as much empathy in my soul as fat cells in my body, and so I’m usually roused more by heavily intellectual tales than by heavily dramatic stories, but Magnolia appeals to my head and my heart in a way like no others. It’s not the most philosophically sophisticated or emotionally exhausting film I’ve seen, but it contains such a near-perfect walloping synthesis of theme and action that each viewing leaves me in an intense state of wonderment.

Magnolia follows the narrative structure of interweaving multiple stories that at first glance appear not to relate but, as the film progresses, touch one another in ways large and small. There is the story of a dying man and his caretaker, a lonely, good-natured cop given an opportunity to connect with someone in need, a misogynistic motivational speaker who trains men to abuse women, a young wife of an old man torn by guilt over her infidelities, a grown former quiz kid psychologically broken by his parents, a child protégé facing a similar fate, a game show host dying of cancer, and his adult daughter whom he may have abused years ago.

No one better captures the effects of sin than Paul Thomas Anderson, and contrapasso is certainly a theme here as it is in his most recent film, There Will Be Blood, but where Blood ends in hell on earth, Magnolia looks to the future with hope. Unlike the 2007 movie bearing the name, Magnolia really is about atonement. Anderson, I’ve read, described his movie as a confession in the religious sense of the word.

Stories dealing with religious themes run the risk of becoming religious propaganda. Magnolia deals with religious themes, and it even has a scene of divine intervention that well-deserves the adjective “biblical,” but it avoids the risk of losing its narrative function by keeping God a possibility and a mystery rather than a plot-proven or empirically-proven fact. Anderson keeps the door open to the possibility that the biblical scene has no religious significance, that it is, in the words of the child protégé, “just something that happens,” but he also peppers his movie with traces and hints that the scene in question should be interpreted as a religious event. The reoccurring weather forecast, particularly the final “Skies clearing” forecasted before Los Angeles is visited by an event straight out of Exodus, puts the natural explanation in doubt.

I don’t recommend Magnolia to everyone. It’s a hard film of horrid, miserable people enslaved to their vices who are trying desperately to free themselves from their misery. Anderson shows that sometimes there’s a reason for the misery, and though his characters may not find much freedom from it, misery isn’t the last word.

The Jazzy Dance of Writing for Television

We couldn’t stay away from Joss Whedon for long. No, we’re not stalking him, though I hear Whedon actor Alan Tudyk lived in nearby Plano. Does he still? Let me check IMDb. Nope. Crap. Moving on...

My wife and I are watching Angel after having recently finished the seven heart-pounding seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The early death of a major character we both liked a lot got me thinking. About me. It’s a narcissistic thing.

I have designs on writing fiction, and I fantasize about publishing novels, telling movie directors how they should interpret my perfect screenplay, and writing the scripts for epic videogames. And getting paid such sums of money that Flanner O’Connor would call me a poor writer. I haven’t really imagined myself writing for television, though. One reason might be the lack of control.

Now I’m not a control freak. That’s my son. But given all that can happen during the running length of a television series, e.g., the uncertainty of their cancelation, actors leaving for better or worse things, I’m not sure how I’d feel about having to write in perpetual response to such fragile and changing contingencies. You’d think my interest in pomo philosophy and linguistic theory would incline me towards the uncertainty of writing for television, that I’d enjoy the jazzy dance with factors beyond my power, but nope.

None of this is to say that I would refuse to write under these constantly changing circumstances. Heck, I’d write a remake of Poochie if it’d help pay the bills.

There Goes My Hope for Higher Office

Friends at work once tried unsuccessfully to convince me that I should jump out of a friend's birthday cake at a fairly well-attended party. Though not one easily embarrassed, I refused and summarized my refusal with two syllables: YouTube. Well, there's no keeping oneself off the popular video site in this day and age. Some of the videos taken on tiny recorders or even tinier phones will, at the end of the day, find their way on to the Internet. So, like a sly, guilty politician rushing to break the news himself in an effort to control damage, I direct you to my philosophically-charged nerdiness briefly but powerfully displayed. Now where's my bottle of Bushmills?

Death, Eternal Life, and Final Fantasy Villains

A series of recent events has returned my thoughts toward the literary significance of the Final Fantasy videogames. My nieces and nephew received a Playstation 2 for Christmas, routine and repetitive duties at work called for some soul-lifting melodies courtesy of Nobuo Uematsu, and three weeks without home Internet access, while giving me an opportunity to get some book reading done, did invite the temptation to break out Final Fantasy XII and complete a few still awaiting side quests. I did spend more time reading than playing. Really.

Each game in the series, with an exception or two, has its own world, cast of characters, themes and plot. Each presents an anachronistic blend of futuristic technology, magic, monsters, medieval weapons and armor, and names referencing myriad mythologies from East and West. In pretty much all the games, though, the villain is marked by the desire to become a god, usually by means of some dark magic that involves mass murder and mass destruction. Chaos, the clownish and mad Kefka, the consummate soldier Sephiroth, Exdeath, the sorceress Ultimecia, the summoner Yu Yevon, Vayne Solidor: each, in his or her own devilish way, threatens the world in a murderous pursuit of false divinity. They seek eternal life through the death of others. The heroes, on the other hand, show real grace by their sacrifices of love and loving willingness to give their own lives. Aeris comes immediately to mind, of course, but I’m thinking also of Zidane, Balthier, Terra and others.

While organized religion plays into some Final Fantasy stories more than others, religiosity is a theme central to them all due to the aims and methods of the villains and the responses of the heroes. Indeed, the religion of Final Fantasy is not foreign to the story of Christianity. Where I hear the villains shouting, “We will be like gods,” I hear the song of sacred self-giving love in the struggled breaths of our heroes. (EC)

Next Stop: Subversiveland

I returned home from Half Price Books yesterday holding Rorty’s Truth and Progress, several titles by Nietzsche, and a work by Michel Foucault. If the next few weeks leave me confused, antagonistic and playfully subversive, you’ll know why.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye, Hear Ye

What Gandalf, Aragorn, Galadriel and Faramir all knew when facing their temptation to take the Ring and wield it against the enemy was that using evil, even against evil, makes one evil. Slowly, perhaps, but surely. Evil corrupts and possesses; it destroys the conscience, the will, the soul. An act of evil begins the habit of evil until we become enslaved to it. We all know that the more we sin the easier we fall to sin. Tolkien’s heroes knew using the Ring, even for good, would destroy them: that they would not long have the power over themselves to keep the Ring only as a last resort or a hidden-away, rarely used necessity. I have often heard Tolkien’s tale used this past decade to direct people’s attention to the reality of evil and the necessity of facing it, but such is not the only lesson we might draw from The Lord of the Rings.

Alas, we have Marc Thiessen in National Review, like some panic-inducing town crier in Minas Tirith, urging we use the Weapon of the Enemy – torture, in this case – on terrorist Abdulmutallab and on any active (or suspected to be active, really) enemy combatant. His proclamation isn’t the dangerous advice of Denethor that the Ring should be used only as a last resort: no, he, and apparently many of our fellow citizens, wants torture used as a matter of routine policy, whether it’s thought to be necessary or not. In his words, “You make him tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks.” You make him. You break his will; you offend against his dignity as a matter of course. How quickly and easily we are becoming like Mordor.

These defenders of freedom and material salvation will have us enslaved to sin, a country of confused Gollums, conniving Sarumans, wicked Ring-wraiths, and doomed men. Who will free us from this spiritual prison they're building?

H/T: Andrew Sullivan