Thankful for Trump

I rarely see eye-to-eye with Michael Novak, but m(mmmmeeeeEEE)y reaction to the election was similar to his in the sense that I dreaded four more years of progressivism at that center of American life and felt a sense of relief when news came that Hillary Clinton did not win.

But a better expression of my thoughts comes from Damon Linker who recognizes, as few do inside the bubble of progressivism, that the United States includes more than elite institutions and their unofficial establishment:

The urge toward exclusion is a perennial possibility of politics. That’s because politics takes place on two levels. On one level is the back and forth of partisan conflict, involving persuasion, argument, electoral battles, triumphs, and defeats. On this level, pretty much anything goes as long as it abides by the rules of the political game. But there’s also a second, more fundamental level of politics that involves a competition over who gets to set the rules, the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable, in the first place — and precisely where those boundaries will be positioned.

The most obvious example of second-order politics in the American system is the judiciary, and especially the Supreme Court. Until the Obergefell decision in 2015, for example, the American people were engaging in a free-flowing debate about same-sex marriage, with some people in favor of allowing it and others opposed, and public opinion shifting rapidly in the “pro” direction. That was politics conducted on the first level. But then the Supreme Court stepped in to declare gay marriage a constitutional right. That was second-order politics in action: Suddenly the rules were changed, with the “pro” side summarily declared the winner throughout the nation and the “anti” side driven — and permanently excluded — from the political battlefield going forward.

But second-order politics isn’t only found in the formal strictures of a Supreme Court ruling. It comes into play when prominent institutions in civil society (such as mainstream media outlets, universities, corporations, movie studios, and other arms of the entertainment industry) informally unite in deciding that an issue, or a specific position on an issue, is simply unacceptable because it crosses a moral line that leading members of these institutions consider inviolable. Over the past several decades, a range of positions on immigration, crime, gender, and the costs and benefits of some forms of diversity have been relegated to the categories of “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” “white supremacy,” or “white nationalism,” and therefore excluded from first-order political debate.

I’m not going to cry for progressives. They still have elite journalism, Hollywood, the most exclusive colleges and universities, and lots of agencies related directly and indirectly to the federal government. They just don’t have the White House for the next four years. Let’s see Aaron Sorkin make a television show about that.

Giving A Whole New Meaning to Celebrity Pastor

The first Bishop of Rome with his own page at IMDB?

Pope Francis is set to become the first pope in history to play himself in a movie. He will star in the forthcoming film ‘Beyond the Sun,’ which will feature children around the world emulating the apostles, while searching for Jesus Christ.

The idea for the film actually came from Pope Francis himself, who pitched the story to filmmakers at the Hollywood-based AMBI Pictures, which was founded by Andrea Iervolino and Monika Bacardi in 2013. The company released the movie ‘Septembers of Shiraz’ in 2015, which starred Salma Hayek.

The Holy Father wanted to create a movie which would be able to reach out to children in order to spread the Catholic faith. His idea was to effectively portray Gospel passages and fables to youngsters.

Hollywood Is No Respecter of Culture

Word from the local radio station that today in 1966 was the last airing of Rawhide sent me on a goose chase that reveals (to me anyway) how remarkable and idiotic Hollywood can be.

First, I have never understood the appeal of Westerns. Sure, I watched Gunsmoke and I guess I got caught up in the recurring plot twist of whether Sheriff Dillon would rescue Kitty (a woman whom I always thought a little loose). But I couldn’t imagine life on the frontier (and public school history courses gave me no reference). How could any baby boomer living in the suburbs relate to one-sheriff towns with one saloon and perhaps a brothel, populated by ranchers? The only ranchers I knew were the ones designed by William Levitt.

Second, what’s up with Rawhide’s theme song’s lyrics:

Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’

Keep movin’, movin’, movin’,
Though they’re disapprovin’,
Keep them doggies movin’ Rawhide!
Don’t try to understand ’em,
Just rope and throw and grab ’em,
Soon we’ll be living high and wide.
Boy my heart’s calculatin’
My true love will be waitin’, be waiting at the end of my ride.

Move ’em on, head ’em up,
Head ’em up, move ’em out,
Move ’em on, head ’em out Rawhide!
Set ’em out, ride ’em in
Ride ’em in, let ’em out,
Cut ’em out, ride ’em in Rawhide.

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
Though the streams are swollen
Keep them dogies rollin’
Rain and wind and weather
Hell-bent for leather
Wishin’ my gal was by my side.
All the things I’m missin’,
Good vittles, love, and kissin’,
Are waiting at the end of my ride

Move ’em on, head ’em up
Head ’em up, move ’em on
Move ’em on, head ’em up
Count ’em out, ride ’em in,
Ride ’em in, count ’em out,
Count ’em out, ride ’em in

Keep movin’, movin’, movin’
Though they’re disapprovin’
Keep them dogies movin’
Don’t try to understand ’em
Just rope, throw, and brand ’em
Soon we’ll be living high and wide.
My hearts calculatin’
My true love will be waitin’,
Be waitin’ at the end of my ride.


Finally, as odd as Westerns are and as little as Rawhide’s lyrics have to say, the singer who sang for the series, Frankie Laine, made the song one that you not only can’t get out of your head (in a good way) but also tempted you to emulate the song’s object and herd your cat. Here’s a little background on Mr. Laine (that may engage our Roman Catholic readers):

Singer, composer and author Frankie Laine was born March 30, 1913 in Chicago. His real name was Francesco Paulo LoVecchio and he lived in Chicago’s Little Italy. Frankie was the oldest of eight children born to Sicilian immigrants John and Anna Lo Vecchio, who had come from Monreale, Sicily near Palermo. His father first worked as a water-boy for the Chicago Railroad and he was eventually promoted to laying rails. His father subsequently went to a Trade School and became a barber. One of his most famous clients was gangster Al Capone. Frankie made his first appearance in a choir at the Immaculate Conception Church where he was an altar boy. At 15, he performed at the Merry Garden Ballroom in Chicago while attending Lane Technical School. He supported himself by working as a car salesman, bouncer in a beer parlor and as a machinist. He also sang at a weekly radio station (wins) for $5.00 per week. The program director for wins convinced him to change his name to Frankie Laine after he auditioned for the radio. His name was stretched out to Frankie because opera singer Frances Lane (Dorothy Kirsten) and Fanny Rose (Dinah Shore) were singing at nearby radio station WNEW. At 18, he went to Baltimore and participated in a marathon dance contest after coming off the heels of winning ones in Stamford, CT. and Chicago. Laine set an all-time marathon dance record of 3501 hours in 145 consecutive days in 1932 at Wilson’s Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey and his competition was an Olympic miler named Joey Ray and included 101 other contestants. Altogether, he participated in 14 marathons, winning three, second once and fifth twice. His last contest was back in Chicago at the Arcadia where a 14-year-old girl was disqualified because the judges found out her age. She later became successful singer, Anita O’Day.

Laine’s nicknames were Mr. Rhythm, America’s Number One Song Stylist, Old Man Jazz, and Old Leather Lungs. Those are not names that come to mind with the song, Rawhide. Maybe Gene Autry?

As tempting as it is to kvetch about Hollywood’s artificiality and its materialist cultural appropriations, the buck actually stops with (all about) us, the people glued to our television sets as 8-year olds, the grad school student watching a romantic comedy for a distraction from dissertation writing, or the middle-aged small town dweller who continues to be fascinated by the comings and goings of Daniel Day Lewis. Whether the big screen at the local movie house or the small one at home, that shining screen beckons as enticingly as Jay Gatsby’s green light.

Synod of Bishops?

Roman Catholic websites keep talking about the upcoming Synod of Bishops, a body about which I had not heard much (after all, Jason and the Callers never point to this Synod as a slam dunk of Roman Catholicism’s superiority). So I wonder what kind of standing it has in the church and how much lay Roman Catholics actually know about it. It appears to be a kind of board of trustees that has an advisory role with the pope — one of the institutional manifestations of a collegial ecclesiology if Wikipedia is to be believed. But it is clearly a body in subjection to the Bishop of Rome:

It is for the Pope to

convoke the Synod of the Bishops

ratify the election of participants in the assembly

determine the topic of discussion, if possible at least six months before the assembly

distribute the material for discussion to those who should participate

to set the agenda

to preside either personally or through delegates over the assembly.

In addition, the Pope may appoint further participants in any assembly of the Synod of Bishops, in number up to 15% of those who participate either ex officio (the heads of Eastern Catholic Churches and the cardinals at the helm of departments of the Roman Curia) or because elected by episcopal conferences or the Union of Superiors General.

The Synod appears to have met formally 13 times since its institution in 1967, with a period during the 1990s when it convened in a “special” capacity. (The upcoming Synod will be the 14th meeting.)

After the 13th Synod in 2012, Pope Benedict issued an apostolic exhortation devoted to the theology of the Word of God (Verbum Domini). One paragraph caught my eye:

The Synod Fathers greatly stressed the importance of promoting a suitable knowledge of the Bible among those engaged in the area of culture, also in secularized contexts and among non-believers. Sacred Scripture contains anthropological and philosophical values that have had a positive influence on humanity as a whole. A sense of the Bible as a great code for cultures needs to be fully recovered.

Since the Telegraph recently ran a story about upcoming Hollywood productions on biblical narratives, I wonder if the Synod of Bishops deserves much more attention and credit than it has received:

Phil Cooke, a film-maker and media consultant to Christian organisations, said Hollywood’s epiphany had financial, not spiritual, origins. “What’s happened is they’ve understood it’s very good business to take Christians seriously, and this is a real serious market,” he said.

“For years Hollywood bent over backwards to reach special interest groups, be it feminists or environmentalists. It has finally realised that there are 91  million evangelical Christians in America.”
For their part, studio executives have taken something of a leap of faith that films in which religious figures save the world will bring big box office receipts.

That faith is based in no small part on the success of The Bible, a television mini-series shown on the History channel earlier this year, which averaged 11.4 million viewers and became America’s most watched cable show of 2013.

“It made the Bible cool to talk about again,” said Mr Cooke. “The separation of church and state in America is so strong that people had become afraid to talk about God, at work or at school. Suddenly, these Bible stories were water cooler conversation again.”

I’m still waiting for HBO to do a series on David. Talk about political intrigue, sexual scandal, and family foibles. It could rival The Sopranos.

Belief Suspended

I believe Chesterton said, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.” I suppose he wrote that before the advent of motion pictures. But after watching Sky Fall last night, I am thinking he had a point.

If chase scenes and narrow escapes make the resurrection look plausible, then why do more people (seemingly) love James Bond than Jesus Christ? I supposed a lot more is on the line with Christ, not merely the fortunes of a former world empire. And then there is that business of human nature and the need for the work of the Holy Spirit for someone to believe in the resurrection. But a guy who never dies, no matter how battered, shot, cut, submerged, or infected with STDs (okay, made that one up).

So I guess we chalk up the Bond series to escapism. It still seems odd that people find the Bible incredible when they’ll sit through two hours of one unbelievable scenario after another. How about some character development? How about witty or poignant dialogue? How about fighting evil empires?

My Week with Lucy

The start of the semester brought a tsunami of lectures by visiting faculty and other activities, aside from the full-time teaching load, that made watching any movie or television production impossible this week. But while reading a review of Richard Burton’s diaries in The New Republic, I had an idea for a screenplay that could rival My Week with Marilyn, which was a terrific movie in its own right, not simply because it is a behind-the-scenes production but also because we get to see Kenneth Brannaugh play Sir Laurence Oliviet Olivier.

It turns out that in 1970 Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor appeared as guest stars on “Here’s Lucy,” one of those sit-coms of whose appeal I could never really understand.

Here is what Burton wrote of the dreadful week with Lucille Ball:

Those who had told us that Lucille Ball was ‘very wearing’ were not exaggerating. She is a monster of staggering charmlessness and monumental lack of humour. She is not ‘wearing’ to us because I suppose we refuse to be worn. I am coldly sarcastic with her to the point of outright contempt but she hears only what she wants to hear. She is a tired old woman [Ball was fifty-eight at the time] and lives entirely on that weekly show which she has been doing and successfully doing for 19 years. Nineteen solid years of double-takes and pratfalls and desperate up-staging and cutting out other people’s laughs if she can, nervously watching the ‘ratings’ as she does so. A machine of enormous energy, which driven by a stupid driver who has forgotten that a machine runs on oil as well as gasoline and who has neglected the former, is creaking badly towards a final convulsive seize-up. I loathed her the first day. I loathed her the second day and the third. I loathe her today but I also pity her.

If we can have a movie about the making of Psycho, we need a movie about Burton and Liz Taylor encountering Lucy. To see the interaction of the egos involved, to consider the gulf between an actor doing Hamlet and getting laughs on a jejune American show — the possibilities are endless. It is a movie that would be worth the price of two admissions.

Breaking Implausibly Bad

The missus and I continue to persevere with the series but after last night’s two episodes (we are now late in Season Three) any comparison between Breaking Bad and The Wire is baffling. After what happens to Hank, for instance, in the parking lot with the slasher hit-men, do you think the writers would be pleased to know that my wife laughed when Netflix flipped (as it does) to the synopsis of the next episode and revealed that Hank survives? But that reaction is what the writers deserve since they seem to keep writing right up to the edge of having to conclude the series — a character’s death, discovery by the law, abandonment in the dessert — and then find a way to keep the characters in play and the production of meth active. It feels like a Warner Bros. cartoon where Wyle E. Coyote keeps falling off the cliff or blowing himself up, only to survive. What might have been really clever would have been to extend the chemistry theme throughout the story line so that Walt can (like Superman) disentangle himself from almost any dire situation by concocting some chemical combination. If he can do that by creating a battery to start the RV, why not also by creating some mist that will, while he and Jesse are hiding from Hank inside the RV, put Hank to sleep and allow them to escape and destroy the vehicle?

As it is, Breaking Bad does not reveal much about the layers of crystal meth production or even the characters themselves. In Traffic, for instance, what was happening on the Tijuanna border had reverberations in Mexico and in Washington D.C. And of course, what happened in The Wire with Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell wound up unwinding through the layers of Baltimore politics and society. And though some have faulted The Wire for not really developing its characters, Breaking Bad’s Walt and Schuyler seem to be persons who are whom they are mainly to fit what the cartoonish plot demands. Apologies to those who love the series. The wife and I will continue just to see what the writers concoct next. We are hooked in that sense and are glad to know something about the buzz the show has created. But a production akin to The Wire? Not!

Speaking of television series comparisons, over the holidays we watched the BBC production, The Hour (which features the star of The Wire, Dominic West). Some have compared it to Mad Men. It is so much better that it the comparison is actually damning. The Hour is a combination of Good Night and Good Luck and Broadcast News with a measure of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy thrown in. It makes Mad Men look like all style and no substance.

And while I’m in the mood of making recommendations, over the holidays we visited the theaters to see Anna Karenina, Hyde Park on Hudson, and Hitchcock. The latest was arguably the best of the lot, at least if you like behind the scenes portrayals of Hollywood. Performances by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren sure help. Hyde Park on the Hudson is worth seeing if only because of Bill Murray’s performance (which is good). But it’s also depressing to see (in a theme echoed in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) the formerly great British Empire having to depend on its political and cultural wayward son. Anna Karenina has its moments and anyone who enjoys the work of Tom Stoppard (I do, particularly his play, The Invention of Love) should see how his screenplay comes to life on the big screen. But the story itself, a case of marital and sexual infidelity, looks like just one more account of romantic love gone illegitimate — the Russian equivalent of Madame Bovary or An American Tragedy. Maybe Tolstoy deserves credit for writing about this theme before Dreiser (but after Flaubert). But on this side of 2012, Tolstoy’s narrative, even as rendered by Stoppard and company, does little to separate itself from the adulterous pack.

I'll Take Transformation over Redemption

If anyone wants evidence of the expanding meaning of redemption to the point of obscuring “the only redeemer of God’s elect,” take a look at Christianity Today’s list of 2012’s most redeeming movies:

Our annual Most Redeeming list . . . represents the year’s best movies that include stories of redemption. Several feature characters who are redeemers themselves; all have characters who experience redemption to some degree. Some are feel-good flicks; others, less so. Several are rated R and PG-13 and are not intended for young viewers, so please use discretion.

Of those on the list, I have only seen Argo, which is good and paradoxically a feel-good movie about the CIA (when does that happen? When the agency fights political Muslims, seems to be the answer.) But I would not call it a movie about redemption, a topic which has a much more definite meaning.

The lesson may be that when you begin to expand claims about Christianity’s comprehensiveness, break down distinctions between the holy and the common, regard all of life as “religious,” you wind up with a movie made by a Jewish-American about a predestinarian heterodox president turning out to be redemptive.

What the Cats Missed

Although the posts about movies have been less frequent, I continue to see a number of good movies. I won’t say much about two documentaries — Weather Underground and Arguing the World — since I wrote about them elsewhere. But the Mrs. and I did enjoy these a great deal and have continued to discuss them on different occasions.

In the theater a couple weeks ago — while in Chattanooga — I went out to a late night showing the The Master. I know McMark didn’t like this and I can understand why. P. T. Anderson has made another under-narrated movie that has the feel of There Will Be Blood — a story of unclear progression and ambiguous import — which is a reason to like Anderson’s defiance of Hollywood conventions. Plus, since I am a fan of both Anderson and one of the movie’s stars, Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master gets at least three stogies from Old Life.

This past weekend the Mrs. and I went to see Argo, Ben Afflick’s latest (in which he bears his chest to the female viewers’ delight). It is very good and works on a variety of levels. The inside Hollywood dimension, which features great performances by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, could carry the movie by itself. But the story about the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis is well handled and evokes for this middle-aged boomer some painful memories of a terrible period in U.S. history. And how often does Hollywood make a pro-CIA movie? (My wife and I thought Argo could be well paired with Three Days of the Condor and Burn After Reading.) An additional benefit is the way Argo movie indirectly highlights Turkey’s remarkable success as a Muslim society that embraced secularity and republican government and managed to hold on. Obviously, Iran did not follow a similar trajectory.

Finally, the Harts said a painful so-long to Dr. Paul Weston, the therapist featured in In Treatment. It looks like the series concludes with the third season. This is understandable in some ways because the pattern of weekly sessions with patients is hard to sustain as a recognizable narrative. The natural sequel would be a series that simply follows the life of Weston, played well by Gabriel Byrne. But to see Weston struggle through his vocation with another set of clients in a fourth season would have diminishing returns. Even so, it was a very good series and once again confirms the superiority of HBO in producing first-rate television.